Nicholas Humphries and Meagan Hotz’s “Little Mermaid” takes Hans Christian Andersen’s already dark fairy tale and reimagines the “romance” as a swamp circus freak show about worn out and faded love. Since Andersen published the tale in 1836 there have been versions in almost every possible artistic form, his first incarnation written for ballet even. Something about this little inter-species romance compels storytellers to return to it again and again.
In their retelling, Humphries and Hotz take a turn to horror. Some of the film’s shock value is intertextual: the title probably has most people referencing the Disney animated film from 1989 more than the original Andersen tale.
Humphies and Hotz can play off of the Disneyfied, technicolour-happy-ending expectations of the audience and so then shock and cause them to shudder more when the tale takes surprisingly dark turns.
In the opening shots of the film, lights swing from trees, half fruit, half pendulums keeping time’s waltz in among the mists. There is a peculiar sepia tint to the colour scheme, a surprising nostalgic and warm hue to the stagnancy and decay of the swamp setting. Throughout this opening, too, there is the flutter of birds flying off, in a way underscoring how caught and imprisoned the mermaid is when we meet her inside the worn tent. The lighting, the boardwalks across the swamp, the signage, and the tent itself seem strangely permanent for something as itinerant as a circus and this metaphorically sets the stage for the inertia, the claustrophobia of the lost love between the circus master and his imprisoned mermaid.
Though Humphries and Hotz’s dark take on the fairy tale might seem a departure, these choices are in many ways a return to the darkness of Andersen’s original tale in which the sea witch’s pact with the little mermaid carries with it terrible costs. As the sea witch explains,
“I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.”
“Yes, I will,” said the little princess in a trembling voice, as she thought of the prince and the immortal soul.
Though I suppose we can forgive Disney for leaving out these terrible wounds and the awful price the mermaid is willing to pay, Andersen’s original, like Humphries and Hotz’s version, sees the pain and suffering as the point of the story.
For Andersen, this pain and suffering, the sacrifice was on a certain level a declaration of love and a tribute to the beloved. Brooke Allen in The New York Times argues that “In ‘’The Little Mermaid,’’ Hans Christian Andersen suggests that immortality can serve as a substitute, however unsatisfactory, for human love. The story is clearly an allegory for his own life, for the unloved Andersen.” What Allen is pointing to is what is present in the original tale and is missing in this most recent version: the love triangle aspect of the original fairy tale. In the Hans Christian Andersen version, despite all the little mermaid’s sacrifices, the prince marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom, an action which will doom the little mermaid to wake at dawn the next day and turn into sea foam.
This love triangle resembles another: the tale is considered by many to be a love letter, originally written from Andersen to Edvard Collin who would not return his affections and in the end married a woman. The themes around sacrifice then in that context become about unrequited love and the tale about trying to make sense and meaning out of the sometimes self-destructive sacrifices we make for it.
In the Disney version of the tale, too, there is sacrifice. But Ariel’s lack of pain and regret and its happily-ever-after ending morph the theme into one where sacrifice gets the man. Ariel still gives up her life under the sea but she gets the man in the end, so it was, Disney would have us believe, worth it.
Humphries and Hotz pick up the theme of sacrifice but in their tale it seems to be about how the lovers’ sacrifices have killed their love. Their mermaid never sacrificed her tail or her voice but she has been taken from the sea to live in a metal tub and be displayed by her lover and objectified by the curious who are willing to pay.
We can only imagine the series of bad choices (maybe his, maybe hers) that led them to this tent in the swamp. We know they are both weary. We know it’s not an equal relationship. We glimpse only shards of love’s remnants. The mermaid here begs for mercy, but the circus master can’t or won’t give it to her because he would lose this tragic-as-it-is circus. This little mermaid has to take her fairy tale’s ending into her own hands. In a nice rewrite, it is her voice’s siren call that brings him to her and makes him see her as human just before she, with a vengeful kiss, takes his tongue and voice.
This is the definition of a Pyrrhic victory: a mermaid in a tub in the swamp isn’t going to get far. Her choice is similar to Andersen’s mermaid’s, though, whose sisters appear to her and tell her that if she sheds the prince’s blood on her legs she will get her mermaid’s tail back. Kill the prince to get her old life back or uphold his happy marriage to the princess ensuring she, the mermaid, will turn to sea foam in the morning as prophesied. Though it is technically not the same choice in the Humphries and Hotz version, the mermaid does opt against her own further sacrifice and chooses to shed the circus master’s blood. She puts an end to the pathetic death of their romance and ultimately privileges mercy over sacrifice.
Robert Currie is a Saskatchewan poet with six collections out and a novel, Living With the Hawk, his first, about to be published this spring. He lives in Moose Jaw, which is substantial city, but his concerns are mostly rural (Saskatchewan is mostly prairie farmland and bush in the north). And if you have read your Farley Mowat (e.g. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be) you would know that growing up Saskatchewan in a certain era was all about the outdoors, the weather, the seasons, fishing, bird migration, shooting — this was near the Age of Innocence before hunting and fishing became signs of ecological imperialism. It was also a time when your parents would let you bounce around in the back of a pickup truck (without fear of arrest for child endangerment) and teachers used the strap — all of which are things I remember. “Under the Blanket” is a charming, sweet depiction of youthful sexual exploration (while bouncing around in the bed of a pickup truck) and “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills” is a gorgeous poetic welding of winter and wild horses (beautiful galloping lines). “He Visits His Ex-Wife” is a looney, ever so touchingly comic poem about the poet visiting his demented ex in a home (you don’t know it’s a home till the end) where she tells him an unsettling and inscrutable tale about an elderly couple eaten by bears. These are poems from another world in both time and geography and it’s a great pleasure to introduce them here.
UNDER THE BLANKET
Our fathers were singing in the front seat,
driving back to town for a block of ice,
our mothers in the shack at the lake,
frying chicken on the wood stove,
patting the sweat from their faces,
cotton aprons raised from the waist.
The two of us rode in the back seat,
an Indian blanket over our heads,
you a year older than I, both of us
giggling, waiting for the next bump
to bounce us together. You leaned
toward me, breath stroking my right ear,
and whispered, “Now’s your chance.
Do you want to see?” I did
and I didn’t. Unable to speak,
I nodded my head and waited
in the snug world of the blanket,
my mind anxious, wheeling with wonder.
I saw your lips twist into kind of a smile
before we lowered our heads and looked down:
your brown thighs tanned from days at the beach,
your hands tugged at your shorts, your panties,
sliding them down, a mound untouched by sunlight,
and in the smooth white flesh directly below
an improbable groove that stopped my breath
and altered forever the gait of my heart.
We must have reached the ice-house then.
When I came up from under the blanket
the first thing I saw was my father
handing me a chip of ice in a cracked cup.
I remember the slippery feel of it,
cold and hard on my tongue,
and how quickly it melted away.
THE DAYS RUN AWAY LIKE WILD HORSES OVER THE HILLS
(from a title by Charles Bukowski)
The weeks gallop from summer into September,
gallop away from the lake, a sheen of ice by the shore.
Hoofbeats hammer the gulch where deer hide from the hunter,
echo across a dry slough; a last goose cries in the empty sky.
The weeks snort at a sliver of moon, shiver in the night
of the coyote, its chill call stretching across the land.
Snow obscures the moon, now frost-bitten, withered,
and piles into gullies and hollows deep in the hills.
The nights grow long; the weeks grow shaggy and lean.
They lunge and plough through drifts that plug the valley.
Where the wind whips the hillside almost bare,
they paw at the snow, their jaws tearing the grass.
Winter lodges among them, the frozen carcass of winter,
and spring, next spring, will it ever come?
Bunched together in the lee of a thicket,
the wild horses neigh and neigh and neigh.
HE VISITS HIS EX-WIFE
When I entered the room, she smiled and said,
“Their cabin was nearly as dark as that,”
and she pointed to the wall by her bed,
an echo of sunshine from the open window.
“Uncle Henry liked to fly-fish in the mornings
and Aunt Lil always baked bread in the kitchen.
I suppose it was the smell that brought them around.
The bears, I mean. I love the smell of bread myself.
When it’s golden brown and fresh from the oven
you can’t wait to tear off a piece of the crust.
People said they were both eaten by bears,
but I never believed a word of it.
Uncle Henry was big as a bear himself
and Aunt Lil never cared to go fishing.”
She nodded at the TV set, which was off.
“You can see how dark the room is.
Looks kind of spooky, doesn’t it?” She laughed.
“Maybe the bears got in after all.
You know, you can just make them out, there
in the breakfast nook, across from each other,
Uncle Henry and Aunt Lil sharing a meal.
As much in love as the day they were married.”
She reached out then and took my hand.
“I think I’ll write the papers, tell them the truth.”
She gave my fingers a squeeze. “Thanks for coming.
It was really nice to meet you” And later,
driving away from the home, I thought,
somehow she’s still as pleasant as ever,
and I was glad again that I’d come.
Chick showed me once exactly
how to set a snare on a rabbit trail.
I took five feet of copper wire
from my father’s basement workbench,
folded it into my loose-leaf binder,
took it to school. No branches here
to pin to the ground, I wrapped the wire
around the steel leg of my desk,
looped it into a noose, twisted a slip-knot,
set the noose upright in the aisle.
Mrs. Dornan checking arithmetic books,
moved ever closer down the row,
paused at Kenny’s desk in front of me,
side-stepped slowly backward, the noose
slipping over her shoe, tightening,
the twist of wire tearing her stocking.
When, hands shaking, I finally got her free,
she pointed to the cloak-room door,
drew from the centre drawer of her desk
the strap, thick black leather. “For you,”
she said and followed me out of sight.
Oh man, that strap, I must’ve been crazy.
At last I lifted my hand. Strove to hold it still.
“You like to play games so much, try this.”
She raised the strap, slammed it hard
four times against the far wall. Frowned.
“You behave yourself,” she said, “or else
the class will learn what happened here.”
BEYOND THE OPEN WINDOW
It’s true, just the other afternoon,
when I’m at rest in my easy chair,
a glass of whiskey handy as my elbow,
a good novel propped upon my knee,
my right arm disengages from my shoulder, the hand
flips me the finger and goes with it, sailing out the window,
its flight erratic as a wing stripped from an erring angel.
Unable to attain heights remotely close to heaven,
the arm wavers near the ground, rising for a few seconds,
then brought down by gravity, dipping so low it terrifies
a cocker spaniel peeing on a pole, sends the dog
howling home before it strikes a garbage bin,
bounces to the curb, ricochets away, off-kilter,
tumbling end over end down the street
where people work, men with blistered hands
wheeling cement across a concrete pad
to other men with shovels, trowels and floats.
Beyond them a guy who drives a backhoe
rubs away the sweat that runs toward his eyes.
Shuffling along the sidewalk a street person
wonders if anyone is hiring labourers today
and asks to see the foreman. He doesn’t notice
the arm clip a girder where a wall will go,
doesn’t see it skid across a gravel pile, pausing
to shake off dust that covers scratches at the elbow.
The arm shudders and hoists itself upright, the hand
raising a thumb as if it might want
to hitchhike home to me.
Robert Currie is a poet and ﬁction writer who lives in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is the author of six books of poetry, including YARROW (Oberon, 1980) and WITNESS (Hagios, 2009). He served two terms as Saskatchewan Poet Laureate (2007 – 2010). In 2012 he delivered the Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture at the conference of the League of Canadian Poets. His tenth book, a novel, LIVING WITH THE HAWK, will be published by Thistledown Press in the spring of 2013. In 2009 he received the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.
Every writer/artist knows that you throw away more than you finish, that the material thrown away is often very good but only a step along the way to a larger vision, or it doesn’t quite fit in the organic structure of the finished product. Gina Occhiogrosso has turned her steps along the way into a larger proliferating work called, with charming irony, the Someday Project. The steps along the way thus become art and the immense collection of drawings, sketches, cartoons and paintings has become a protean mega-project that, on exhibit, covers walls and rooms with a kind of madcap informality. Lovely the way the pictures in the photo below climb up the wall and slop over onto the ceiling. No frames, no hanging self-important masterworks, just paper tacked to the wall, filling the wall, creating a meta-image, a mirror of, yes, the artist’s mind.
The above image is from a complete installation of a project titled Someday. The whole project began in 2007, and is now at around 500 drawings. Each drawing is 8.5 x 11 inches. The drawings began on cheap copy paper paper, but as people visited my studio, they convinced me to treat the drawings with a little more importance and use better paper such as watercolor paper, bristol, or Yupo (polyurethane). Someday is only part of what I do as an artist, but this project helps me work things out when I simply need to move the larger work forward, or when I need to work something out, personally. Themes include, but are not limited to, feminism, the economy, the fragile landscape, and relationships. Some works are cartoony, some are pure experiments in abstraction. This particular slide shows a specific exhibition at The Arts Center of the Capital Region, where I sat in the gallery and worked a few hours each week for the run of the show.
Gina Occhiogrosso’s national exhibition experience includes group shows at Brenda Taylor Gallery and Lana Santorelli Gallery in NYC, MIA Miami International Airport Gallery, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, NY. She was recently featured in a three-person show titled Flux at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY. She has had several one-person shows at such places as Nicole Fiacco Gallery, Hudson, NY, Saratoga Arts Council Art Gallery, Saratoga Springs, NY, Amrose Sable Gallery, Albany, NY, Lake George Project for the Arts, and Yates Gallery at Siena College. Her work may be viewed in the Pierogi Flat Files, in Brooklyn, NY, and through registries such as The Drawing Center and Nurture Art. In 2010 she was included in the project, The Other End of the Line, a project developed by artist Francis Cape and created for The High Line in Chelsea, NY. Her video was included in a mobile home trailer (stationed at the beginning of the High Line at Gansevoort Plaza), which contained an exhibition of work by numerous artists and was curated by Ian Berry, curator for The Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College.
Herewith, poems from Peter Mishler, introduced to me by Emily Pulfer-Terino. Very cunning, deft and graceful poems. In “Demolition” a chance detour (on his way to work) leads the poet by an Econo Lodge which becomes a screen for his imagination and the stage for a dark, alienated story (words like “gurney” and “wrist” implicate the scene with dread). A week later, the detour signs disappear and the poet metaphorically wakes, sort of, from the dream of his imagination. It’s an ancient, haunting plot. Some tiny change in the humdrum routine of the world thrusts the dreamer into another world of darkness and disorder. Then he returns, not himself any longer, but changed. (Think: Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” for example.) He finds the humdrum now inflected with dream (“I walk the darkened, sea-foam hallways”). The poem ends with a lovely whispering repetition (morning, morning), the owl-like assonance (who, whom), and a shade of doubt.
I walk the darkened, sea-foam hallways
to my desk—and when the people
that I pass say, Morning, I say,
Morning, too, so that I can’t
be certain who is waking whom.
For a week a detour takes me
past the windows of an Econo Lodge.
I invent what’s on the other side
each morning, beginning
with what I know is there:
an absent clerk, an empty lobby
some dark green carpet
joined in places with duct tape.
I add a chair for myself to sit
and make the smaller arrangements:
a door to a bedroom closed
just enough to hide a figure inside;
open enough to reveal a bed
that looks like a gurney,
a wrist laying face up
on the sterile and steamed
white sheets. What am I
intending to have happen here?
Hard to tell if it’s my wrist
or someone else’s that’s meant
to emerge from that room.
I’m getting a feel for the lobby, though:
within days I learn to fix
a sugar drink from sweetener
packets and sink-water.
I place a styrofoam cupful
in front of the bedroom door
and watch for movement.
But by the end of the week,
the detour signs are pulled
and my car is directed
back to the highway,
granting me another view:
the demolished building
the city was shielding me from.
A crane now sifts through fragments
and debris, sorting them into one pile
or another. As it holds
each piece of metal to the air
to let it flicker for a moment,
for me it is lifting the door,
the bed, the sheets, the wrist,
and the cup that should now be filling
with an early sunlight on the floor
of the motel. I watch in the mirror
as each object hangs, then drops.
My car approaches my building, and work.
I walk the darkened, sea-foam hallways
to my desk—and when the people
that I pass say, Morning, I say,
Morning, too, so that I can’t
be certain who is waking whom.
You are evading me.
You are just beyond me.
You are the length
of the hood of a car
away from me—
than I remember,
dressed as if undressed
I reach until
I can meet your hand.
But you are in front of me
like the moon
on one week,
then behind me
like the moon on another.
You are trying
to move toward
the doors of a church
we both know,
and I won’t let you.
I step in front of you
and you step to the side
on the periphery
and we’ll be in touch
But what’s here
that won’t let me
speak to you—
that prevents me
from letting you
that makes you
want to go inside?
I tell myself, Yes,
I know I must
stay here and lie
whenever I try
to retell the story.
Once, two friends stood
on opposite banks
of a stream.
Then, they were men
and a river,
and then, two ghosts—
the story becoming
the more I fear
the person listening.
The office lights chose
to remain half-lit
for the rest of the fall.
I went whistling
the song of two crows
down a hall unknowingly.
Through my phone
an exam room
slipped into my ear
its expanses brightly.
How does one
get to sleep
in a city of snowfields?
My father sent me
an absentee ballot,
and asked did I think
my future was secure?
I day-dreamt throughout,
and my eyes flew doubly
over a man, on a raft,
his body, thin;
his liver, a white star
pressed against his skin.
It asked me to extract it
for its portents.
Back in the office,
my xeroxes spilled
through a seam of light.
They handed me
a memory of warmth
from distant fires.
You try again
to shut your eyes—
rejoin your head
afraid of being
called back to the house
and broken from
your little spell.
But no one is home
to call you home.
Nobody stops you
in the last days
like you do.
You’ve stepped outside
to get back in.
There were lists
to be made,
glasses of water
to shift from table
Stay and let yourself
from the vantage
of sky and window—
your body centered
in a sprawl of lawns
away from you
into a vanishing point
and smaller houses,
and younger children
sit behind glass
at play beneath them—
where you stand.
are passed above you
all a boy must do
is close his eyes
and you can disappear.
Peter Mishler’s poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, New Ohio Review, and Crazyhorse. He teaches Creative Writing and English at Liverpool High School in Central New York.
The minimalism of Absurdism is tautological, taking a perverse, morbidly dry pleasure in stories that, like much of life, go nowhere, a very literal practice of the idea that art, poetry “makes nothing happen” (of course not taken from Auden, but a product of a similar historical disenchantment). The artlessness of Daniil Kharms, in accord with his age (in the wake of Satie, and Duchamp and Ernst, Kokoschka and the German Expressionists, yet almost certainly unaware of them and without precedent other than say Gogol in Russian) is Anti-art. (The designation of the Russian Absurdists for themselves was Oberiu, short for Ob’edinenie real’novo iskusstva, the tongue-in-cheek “Association for REAL Art”.) Minimalism as insufficiency of the word qua communication was already in the air when Kharm’s came of age in the 1920s, during the end-stage of Russian Futurism (particularly notable are Vasilisk Gnedov, whose logical conclusion was his “Poem of the End” (a blank page), and the Constructivist poet Ilya Selvinsky; see my tribute to the centennial of Russian Futurism at www.em-review.com.)
Thumb-twiddling boredom, repetition, hoaxes, and other violations of expectations in evidence here are dissonant and discomfiting in themselves. Elsewhere, Kharms strikes a more distasteful, even offensive pose, an epatage that practically wallows in degradation and self-degradation. Explaining his “program” he wrote: “I am interested only in absolute nonsense, only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation. I find abhorrent heroics, pathos, moralizing, all that is hygienic and tasteful … both as words and as feelings.” In his other work we may find a precedent, for example, for The Theater of Cruelty, but also in its minutia of daily life for the post-modernist, documentary yet ironic and paradoxical approach of the Moscow Conceptualist artists and poets of the 1970s who acknowledged Kharms as an essential influence.
One of them, Ilya Kabakov, wrote: “…Contact with nothing, emptiness makes up, we feel, the basic peculiarity of Russian conceptualism….” Kharms was similarly central for the non-conformist poets of the 1950s and 60s (Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Jan Satunovsky, Igor Kholin, Genrikh Sapgir, Alexei Khvostenko) and the Minimalist poets of the 1970s and 80s. Just to enumerate some of the aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) values: plain speech, written as it is spoken, folksy simplicity, daily life or byt, but also the spiritual values of Absurdism: the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an Absurd age.
As I believe is true of all minimalist practice, the above not only doesn’t preclude a spiritual dimension, but makes it necessary. This particularly (also Kharms’s silly rhyming) is what is likely most incomprehensible to Anglophone readers of Kharms, and of the work of his colleague and friend, the proto-existentialist poet Alexander Vvedensky. How may their seeming nihilism (I would argue they were not) be made coherent with and even motivated by their conceptions of God? While the specifically Russian Orthodox context, particularly evident in Vvedensky’s writings (he was a genuinely religious person and writer,) but also in Kharms’s irreverence (he was the son of a religious mystical philosopher Ivan Yuvachev and seemingly an irrepressible person) is outside our scope, it may be fitting to end by noting that Kharms falls squarely within the Russian tradition of the yurodivy, the “holy fool,” even to the point of feigning insanity to avoid arrest. Daniil Kharms died in 1942, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.
King of the universe,
dearest king of nature,
king who is nameless,
who hasn’t even a definite frame,
come over to my house
and together we will down vodka,
stuff ourselves with some meat,
and then discuss acquaintances.
Perhaps your visit will bring me
the Lord’s on high autograph,
or perhaps your photograph,
that I may your portrait depict.
(27 March 1934)
How strange it is, how inexpressibly strange, that behind this wall, behind this very wall, a man is sitting on the floor, stretching out his long legs in orange boots, an expression of malice on his face.
We need only drill a hole in the wall and look through it and immediately we would see this mean-spirited man sitting there.
But we shouldn’t think of him. What is he anyway? Is he not after all a portion of death in life, materialized out of our conception of emptiness? Whoever he may be, God bless him.
Then Konstantin Fedin and Valentin Stenich ran out into the yard and began searching for an appropriate stone. They didn’t find a stone, but they did find a shovel. With this shovel, Konstantin Fedin smacked Olga Forsh across her mug.
Then Alexei Tolstoy stripped off all his clothes and completely naked walked out onto the Fontanka and began to neigh like a horse. Everybody was saying: “There neighing is a major contemporary writer.” And no one even lay a hand on Alexei Tolstoy.
At 2 o’clock past midday on Nevsky Prospect or, more precisely, on the Prospect of the 25th of October, nothing in particular happened. No no, that man standing by the Coliseum store stopped there purely by accident. Perhaps the shoelaces of his boots became untied, or maybe he stopped to light a cigarette. Or no, not that at all! He’s simply new in town and doesn’t know the way. But where then are his things? Well no, wait, now he is lifting up his head, as though wishing to look up at the third floor, or even the fourth floor, even the fifth. No, look again, he only sneezed and is now walking on. He is a bit hunched and holds his shoulders hiked up. His green greatcoat is blowing open in the wind. And now he just turned off onto Nadezhinskaya and disappeared behind a corner.
A man of Eastern extraction, a boot polisher, looked up in his wake and with his hand brushed smooth his luxurious black mustaches.
His coat is long, tight-fitting, and lilac in color, either checkered or, perhaps, stripped in pattern, or is it, the devil take it! all in polka dots.
A little old man was scratching himself with both hands. Where he could not reach with both hands, the old man scratched with one hand only, but quickly-quickly and then, the whole time, while rapidly blinking his eyes.
The window, shuttered with a curtain, was growing lighter and lighter, because the day had begun. The floors had began to creek, doors to sing, and chairs were being shuffled in the apartments. Ruzhetskii, climbing out his bed, fell on the floor and cracked open his face. He was in a hurry to get to work and therefore went out on the street having only covered his face with his hands. His hands were making it difficult for Ruzhetskii to see the way, and for this reason he twice collided with an advertising arcade and shoved some old man who was wearing a felt hat with fur ear flaps, which brought the geezer into such a state of rage, that a street sweeper who had just happened to be nearby and was attempting to catch a tomcat with a shovel, had to calm the old man down: “Aren’t you ashamed, grampa, at your age to be behaving like a teenage hooligan.”
Kulakov squeezed himself into a deep armchair and immediately fell asleep. He fell asleep sitting up and several hours later woke up lying in a coffin. Kulakov realized right away that he was lying in a coffin and was seized with a paralyzing terror. With his clouded eyes he looked around, and everywhere, in every direction he could cast his gaze, he saw only flowers: flowers in baskets, bouquets of flowers, wrapped in ribbons, wreaths of flowers, and flowers scattered separately about.
“I am being buried,” Kulakov thought to himself, filling with horror, and suddenly felt a sense of pride, that he, such an insignificant person, was being buried with such pomp, and with such a quantity of flowers.
I can’t imagine why but everyone thinks I’m a genius; but if you ask me, I’m no genius. Just yesterday I was telling them: Please hear me! What sort of a genius am I? And they tell me: What a genius! And I tell them: Well, what kind? But they don’t tell me what kind, they only repeat, genius this, genius that. But if you ask me, I’m no genius at all.
Wherever I go, they all immediately start whispering and pointing their fingers at me. “What is going on here?!” I say. But they don’t let me utter a word, and any minute now they will lift me up in the air and carry me off on their shoulders.
One man went to sleep with faith, and woke up faithless.
As luck would have it, in this man’s room stood very precise medical scales, and the man was in the habit of weighing himself daily, every morning and every night.
And so, before going to bed the previous evening, having weighed himself, the man determined that he weighed 4 stone and 21 pounds. And on the next morning, having woken up without faith, the man weighed himself again and determined that he now weighed only 4 stone and 13 pounds. “It may thus be determined,” the man concluded, “that my faith had weighed approximately eight pounds.”
Two men were talking animatedly. As they were speaking, one of them was stammering on the consonants, and the other one on the consonants and the vowels both.
When they stopped speaking, everything suddenly felt incredibly pleasant – as though the hissing of a gas stove had been shut off.
The Adventures of Mr. Caterpillar
Mishurin was a caterpillar. Because of this, or perhaps for another reason, he loved to wallow under the sofa or behind the dresser sucking in the dust. Because he was a somewhat slovenly person, sometimes for an entire day his mug would be covered in dust, as though with eider down.
Once upon a time he was invited as a guest to someone’s house, and Mishurin decided to give his countenance a light rinse. He filled a bowl with lukewarm water and added some vinegar to it and immersed his face in this water. As it turns out, this mixture contained too much vinegar, and for the rest of his long life Mishurin went blind. Into his deep old age, he walked around feeling his way about with his hands and for this reason, or perhaps another, he came to resemble a caterpillar even more.
(October 16, 1940)
The streets were becoming immersed in silence. At the intersections, people stood waiting for trolley buses. Some of them, having given up hope, set off on foot. And so at one of the intersections on the Petrograd side of town, only two people remained. One of them was particularly short in stature, with a round face and protruding ears. The other was slightly taller and, as was apparent, lame in his left foot. They were not acquainted with each other, but their common interest in the trolley bus forced them into conversing. The conversation was initiated by the lame one.
I don’t know what to do, he said, as though directing himself to no one. It’s probably not even worth waiting here.
The round-faced man turned toward the lame one and said:
I don’t think so, it might still come.
I’m sitting here on a stool. And the stool stands on the floor. And the floor is part of the house. And the house stands on the ground. And the ground extends in all directions, to the right, and to the left, forwards and backwards. Is there an end to it anywhere?
It isn’t possible, that it doesn’t end somewhere! It must end at some point or other! And then what? Water? And the ground floats on water? That’s what people used to think. And they thought, that there, where the water ends, there is where it and the sky meet.
And indeed, if you stand on a steamship at sea, where all around nothing interrupts your vision, then that is what it seems, that somewhere very far away the sky descends and unites with the water.
And the sky appeared to people as a big solid cupola, made of something transparent, like glass. But that was before anyone knew about glass and they said the sky is made of crystal. And they called the sky firmament. And people thought the sky or firmament is the most solid thing there is, the most consistent. Everything may change, but the firmament will never change. And to this day, when we wish to say of something, that it will not change, we say: this must be confirmed.
And people saw how upon the sky the sun and the moon move, but the stars stand immobile. People began to pay closer attention to the stars and they noticed that the stars are distributed in the sky in the shape of figures. Here are seven stars placed in the form of a pot with a handle, here are three stars one following right upon another as though on a ruler. People learned to distinguish one star from another and they determined that the stars are also in motion, only all together, as though they are fixed to the sky and they move together with the sky itself. And people decided that the sky circles around the earth.
The people then divided the entire sky into distinct figures consisting of stars and each figure they called a constellation and each constellation they gave its own name.
And then people saw that not all stars move together with the sky but that there are some which wander among the other stars. And people called these stars planets.
One man was chasing another, and the one running away was, in his turn, chasing a third one who, unaware he was being chased, was simply striding along on the pavement stones at a moderate pace.
A Northern Fable
An old man, for no particular reason, went off into the forest. Then he returned and said: Old woman, hey, old woman!
And the old woman dropped dead. Ever since then, all rabbits are white in winter.
Yes, I’m a poet forgotten by the sky.
Forgotten by the sky from days of old.
But once upon a time Phoebus and I
made a racket joined in a sweet choir.
Yes, there was a time when I and Phoebus
joined in a sweet choir and made a squall.
And there were days when I and Geb were
tight as drops of water and in clouds above
the thunder in its youth rang with laugher.
The thunder rolled flying after Geb and I
pouring from the heavens a golden light.
—Daniil Kharms translated by Alex Cigale
Alex Cigale has had his poems appear in Colorado, Green Mountains, North American, Tampa, and The Literary Reviews, and online in Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Ancora Imparo, Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, The Manhattan, St. Ann‘s, and Washington Square Reviews. Other Kharms translations by Alex Cigale have appeared in PEN America and Gargoyle, and online in Eleven Eleven(California College of the Arts), Offcourse (SUNY Albany) and Mayday Magazine. He is currently Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
What I thought when I read this poem: My God we have stopped writing about sex as sex, the joy of flesh and play and excitement. In my cultural stupor, I had not noticed. But Jane Eaton Hamilton has reminded me, cracking open the great epic theme of the body once again. We need more like this.
Jane is an old friend, closing in on 20 years now since we met in Saratoga Springs one summer. I put one of her stories in 1991 edition of Best Canadian Stories, back when I still edited that estimable volume. She earlier contributed a short story called “Bird Nights” to these pages. She is a prolific artist, a poet, fiction writer, essayist, painter (the female nude above is a Jane Eaton Hamilton painting). “Sleepless” is an extraordinary love poem, a frank and passionate poem about sex between women. You need not look here for titillation. Rather what Jane Eaton Hamilton offers is wonder, and a raw, real, rhythmic, sensual, earthy paean to physical love, love incarnate in the act. It’s a deeply honest and observant poem, and sometimes even funny. “…what I call Exorcist sex where I struggled back to reality and my head/was on backwards…”
You also get Jane reading the poem (click the sound player and listen while you read the poem) which is a delight (and she has always wanted to be a voice-over artist). I listened again this morning to the reading of the poem and it’s lovely, eerie, and very beautiful, Jane’s voice coming out of the ether, the language and rhythms of the poem, the returns, the little jokes in the midst of passion and sex — so intimate, Jane’s voice not straining to project, almost whispering.
We did not sleep and were made insane by it, and loved the stupidity
after years of girdled hearts—gads, it was just the thing
all that rutting, our senses electrified wires
honeyed bee stings, sparks, slow sinking mudslicks—sex
meted out in silken slaps on a slow summer landscape of skin
Skin the most extraordinary vehicle—more to us than Lamborghinis or
Ecosse cycles; more than soaring through cerulean skies. Skin was
licked, bitten, scorched, smoothed, twisted, puckered, rubbed raw
hickeyed, blown on, finger-tipped, surprised, heated, cooled, exalted
Every time we fucked it was a brand new thing. Brand new, I say
like a cotelydon leaf through spring soil, like starlight each brimming night
that is as old as time but seems born
Every time we fucked it was a spank of newness, groundbreaking
Her voice rose in mewls and murmurs and mine was a hosanna
a liturgical worship— Did we hear a choir of lesbians?
Cries and exclamations and groans and caught breath and occasional
exhortations of pain as leg cramps or ovaries knocked or a
nipple tweaked past good pain. Let me talk about
my lover’s frankness, the way she opened me as an orange
stripping off bumpy rind, the way she peeled me and exposed me
so I came apart in sections juicy and dripping through her hands
encompassing everything, my head thrown back, my throat rippling
power, how she asked me show her fucking myself
I stopped time for that. Wouldn’t you? Fuck, wouldn’t you?
Masturbating naked on her deck in the sunshine
my skin sweated and hot and prickling with burn while she watched
hungry-eyed, slack-jawed, wanting, taking it in
Fuck, if you could, wouldn’t you stop everything
And besides that, the first thing—
(It wasn’t the first thing
but neither of us kept notes … the actual first thing was
the moon fingering shadows through arbutus leaves
while my lover lifted her Folk Fest t-shirt
and I moved like silk behind her, my breasts globular and firm and
ran my tongue up the bones of her spine, bump, valley,
bump, valley and so on. Before a kiss, I mean
[I seriously mean that—before a kiss], or even, the next night in another town
weeping against her, sobbing for the cruelties that are illness)
–her fist struggled to fit inside me, slow lubed penetration, agonizingly sweet
and harsh. My cunt which can at times become a balloon, a hollow, filling
with this woman’s richest tactility, her 27 bones, her 14 phalanges,
opisthenar, knuckles, and began to– She began
interphalangeal articulations. I mean she began to move
against my tissue, my red leaking bruised flesh, she began a
postural rotation, I mean her wrist turned and I reached to feel her there
fisting me, and I could see her move inside me by watching above my
pelvic bone outside me, the shape of her fingers almost visible
and I was gobsmacked, really gobsmacked, that a woman
was taking me like that, punching me, if you will, if you go where
bdsm goes (which we didn’t—we did not, that, quite). I arched my back and
began to ululate and roll my eyes back in my head as she
flung me over Saturn like an extra moon, like Titan. I was all head
and no head at the same time, blown like gunshot, blown like
an intellect erupting into space. Eventually everything ends, and when she
slipped out it was the closest thing to childbirth without a baby
and it felt endless and hard-edged and astonishing and I melted
I held her hand; it was soft, humid, hot, and I thought how it was, touching her wrist while it was inside me, I marveled at that–
We were doing everything—it’s not like it stopped there, I mean, would you?—
floral sweetness versus immutable rigidity
hot air huffed into our earlobes, kisses, teeth nipping
we moved our vulvas together, rubbing them fast like itches
laughing and giggling and turning over and over like rolling softballs-
and what I call Exorcist sex where I struggled back to reality and my head
was on backwards. She had a hickey on her cheek I swear I never put there
Wait. Pause here. That’s barely the start. Barely registering what it was like
on the couch, on the floor, on the beach, on the deck, in the lake with the dive-bombing
turquoise dragonflies and the lily pads and the reeds
All day long, no matter where I went, the bank, the beach
all I saw was her ass, her cunt, her clit, her rough nipples, her kneeling above me
her fingers moving in her own black bush, her palm moving up her ribs
to cradle her spatulate breast, her long thin fingers touching her own nipple
It was colour. I kept seeing her in blues and I painted her like that. I saw her in an explosion of oranges and reds and I painted that too. I kept hearing her as cello music
and I painted that too. I thought of the things that were stop-frame—I sucked my own nipple; I sucked her lavendar cock. Her tongue was everything
an artist could pray for—articulate. We went to films until our eyes bled and while I watched, I thought of the soft rounds of her tits moving over the twin globes of my ass. I thought of the time we fucked under a meteor shower, stars exploding over her head
But also—I spent a lot of time inside her, and the moment when I slipped in her drip
when I entered her elastic vagina, I always gave an ecstatic gasp, a cry of devotion
and then her sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves either gripped me or belled around me, her vagina a spongy muscle, strong, that sucked at me greedily–and I lowered my face to her cunt, that valley between such muscular thighs
the sharp, musky white-peach taste, that salty, tangy, lemony, acidic, musky flesh over hard bone. The sloppy sound of kissing. Unhooding her clit and finding that slippery smooth bead, and sucking it
jittering the flit of her clit—but, but–
everything, fuck. Everything we did soaked into my skin and heart
as if it had bleached me, as if it could reach down through the layers of my epidermis
and mark me and alter me and make me–
We didn’t sleep and we were made crazy by it, lunatical, fresh—every day
was stupidly sunny; even as summer passed and fall began, it wouldn’t rain
— Jane Eaton Hamilton
Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of Hunger, a 2002 collection of short fiction shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley award. She is also the author of Jessica’s Elevator, Body Rain, Steam-Cleaning Love, and July Nights and Other Stories. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, the MIND Book Award, The Pat Lowther Award, The VanCity Award and The Ethel Wilson Prize in the BC Book Prizes.
Short pieces, which have appeared in such places as the New York Times, Maclean’s, Canadian Gardening, Fine Gardening, The Globe and Mail and Seventeen magazine as well as in numerous anthologies, have won the CBC Literary Awards, the Yellow Silk fiction award, the Paragraph fiction award, the Event non-fiction award, the Prism International fiction award (twice), the Belles Lettres essay award, the Grain non-fiction award, the This Magazine fiction award and The Canadian Poetry Chapbook Contest. Stories have appeared in the Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Short Stories, Tarcher Putnam’s The Spirit of Writing: Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life, and The Writer’s Presence (Bedford/St.Martin’s USA). They have been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories.
In an eloquent, erudite and brilliant essay, Patrick J. Keane takes us straight into the heart of Nietzsche’s concept of perspectivism, his somewhat or so-called relativist riposte to Enlightenment rationalism and the God-backed objectivism of Descartes, which sounds daunting except that Pat is so damn entertaining and will insist on packing his essays with spectacular quotations, asides, and digressions so that you just want to stop and dwell. I stopped and thought when I got to the Nietzsche quotes on truth as a woman (and Pat’s excursus on feminism) and then the Nietzsche quotes on interpretation and text (yes, yes, while all fiction writers may have crawled out from under Gogol’s overcoat, all modern philosophy, literary criticism and politics seem to have crawled out from under Nietzsche). I also especially liked the asides on Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche (we have an image of Nietzsche’s copy of Emerson’s essays, scribbled over with notes) and Pat’s amazing appendix on The Tempest and (yes) his melancholy reference to Nietzsche’s sad last years (and we have sketches, photos and even film/video of Nietzsche a year before he died). I could go on but will stop. Read the essay.
This essay on Nietzsche’s legacy has nothing to do with that passé topic, “Nietzsche and the Nazis,” nor, other than peripherally, with his central concepts of the Űbermensch or Eternal Recurrence, nor the contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Even the Will to Power, his thoughts on Slave Morality and Master Morality, and Nietzsche’s assault on Christianity are here subsumed within a wider challenge: to the transcendence of God and to all scientific, philosophic, and moral claims to universality. In exploring his undermining of the Absolute, especially of the traditional philosophic and religious belief that truth is One and unchanging, I will focus on Nietzsche’s radical perspectivism, its relation to earlier “modern philosophy,” and, especially, its role in contemporary thought and “theory.” Though the poststructuralist floodtide may have receded somewhat, the diffused impact remains, and Nietzsche continues to be, in the phrase of Simon Blackburn, “the most influential of the great philosophers and the ‘patron saint of postmodernism’,” his thought—according to Jurgen Habermas, in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity—“the entry into post-modernity.” But my main point is that the patron and precursor adopted and adapted by postmodern theorists is not the only “Nietzsche.” After discussing René Descartes and the ambiguous legacy he bequeathed to subsequent thinkers, I’ll turn to Nietzsche’s even more ambiguous legacy. Navigating a course between the extremes of Cartesian objectivism and the utter relativism all-too-often associated with Nietzsche, I’ll explore his primary, if not exclusive, emphasis on the inevitability of “interpretation,” his alternating insistence on intrinsic as well as subjective (even creative) reading. In my conclusion, I stress Nietzsche’s dual legacy as at once our most influential perspectival thinker and as a passionate seeker, paradoxically enough, of the very truths he more than anyone else put in question.
To begin with a paradox: Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, is both an “objectivist” and a “subjectivist,” a radical skeptic who also emerges as an ultra-rationalist. In this case, the dualism can be easily clarified. The skepticism is essentially methodological, a provisional first stage. Descartes overcame his famous “systematic doubt” by “finally” arriving at an indisputable first principal: namely, that in order to doubt, he obviously had to think, and to think he necessarily had to exist: je pense, donc je suis, or cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. This takes him, and us, only so far. At this stage of the Cartesian argument, the only thing I can know with certainty is my own mind and its contents. Everything else—other minds, the physical universe, including my own body (separate, Descartes insists, from the mind)—can only be inferred from this single absolutely known entity. The result is a radical dualism between body and soul, between my mind (res cogitans) and all external entities (res extensa), between “I” and both the physical world of nature and the social world of other human beings. By emphasizing this chasm between his private consciousness and everything else, Descartes introduced subjectivism into modern philosophy: the famous Ich and Nicht-Ich of Fichte, turned into English by Carlyle and Emerson as the distinction between “Me and the NOT ME.”
Paradoxically, the cogito also introduces what Descartes claims is an absolutely true and certain proposition. For the single indisputably true belief (“I think, therefore I am”) meets Descartes’ requirements for any first principle: it is self-evident and irrefutable; to deny it is to affirm it since to doubt I must think and to think I must exist. The cogito is “true and certain” insofar as it is “clear and distinct” to the mind. Finally, since it is based on “I,” it is not inferred from any more ultimate truth. So what am I conscious of? All I can know, given the absolute distinction between mind and matter, are ideas. Ideas, at least “clear and distinct” ideas, have what Descartes calls “objective reality” to the extent that they refer to external objects. But how can I know whether they do or not, locked as I seem to be in my own private consciousness?
Echoing Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God, Descartes undertakes at this point a philosophic version of what Kierkegaard would later call a leap of faith. Having established the certitude of the cogito, Descartes “proves” to his own satisfaction that the preeminent “clear and distinct” idea—that of God—must have a cause as real as the idea. The perfect idea, in short, must have a perfect referent:an actual, existing, infinite, benevolent deity. Such a perfect Being would not maliciously plant in his creatures clear and distinct ideas intended to deceive us. Descartes is here engaged in a spectacular, and rather obvious, piece of circular reasoning. Even if the idea of God is “clear and distinct,” our clear and distinct ideas themselves derive from, and depend on, divine sanction. God must exist in order to guarantee the “proof” ofhis own existence. This is the famous “Cartesian Circle”: a logical absurdity exposed by Kant and others, including Nietzsche, most cogently in The Will to Power §436.
Having established God as the guarantor, Descartes—free of his methodological skepticism and residual doubt—proceeds to erect on this divine foundation the whole material world, a fixed and knowable universe. Descartes was a Christian, a Jesuit-trained Catholic. Nevertheless, his philosophy led historically to mechanistic determinism and to a purely rational Deism, in which God as Prime Mover is out of a job once creation gets rolling. The Cartesian universe emerges as a law-governed clockwork (even non-human animals, lacking rational souls, are mere automata) with God as the original stem-winder, and the human mind or soul (in Gilbert Ryle’s famous phrase) the “ghost in the machine”: the sole flicker of freedom in a determined cosmos. This “Mechanico-corpuscular Philosophy” was condemned as sheer “invention” by that Romantic philosopher of dynamic organicism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The “invention” was, he acknowledges in Aids to Reflection (1825), anticipating Nietzsche, an immensely valuable “fiction of science.” The problem was that Descartes propounded it “as truth of fact,” and so sacrificed the vital created world to a “lifeless Machine whirled about by the dust of its own Grinding”—an argument amplified precisely a century later by Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World (1925), an organicist text celebrating Coleridge and Wordsworth, who transformed Coleridgean philosophy into great poetry, re-enchanting the world of nature.
For Descartes, our understanding of that pre-Romantic mechanistic universe is purely rational, reason being the one human faculty able in principle to gain access to a world which is itself orderly and “rational.” In this scheme, the passions and bodily instincts are a hindrance rather than a help, a blood-dimmed tide clouding our clear and distinct ideas. Further, despite Descartes’ project-initiating subjectivism, our understanding of the universe is not only rational; it is objective and universal. Anticipating Kant and his Categories of the Human Understanding, Descartes argues that human faculties of reason and sensation are, at least potentially, the same for all, regardless of gender, race, historical contingencies, culture, class, and so on. Starting from the psychological privacy of his own mind, Descartes has reached out to embrace—with supposedly absolute understanding and full certitude—an external and re-divinized world as clear, distinct, and orderly as (it comes as no surprise) the nature-schematizing, mathematical mind from which it is inferred. The universe becomes, in effect, a macrocosmic projection of the cogito, Descartes’ own mind writ large. We may wonder just how far we have moved from subjectivism after all.
When, following Descartes’ lead, Hegel later declared the whole of reality accessible to human understanding, that “the initially hidden and precluded essence of the universe” cannot “resist the courage of knowledge,” he was accused of “Gothic heaven-storming.” The accuser was Nietzsche (Musarionausgabe, XVI, 82), whose Zarathustra mocks the vaunted “will to truth” of philosophical distorters who manhandle the utterly unformulatable world of flux and fluent becoming, attempting to comprehend and even dominate it through crude simplification. This “will to the thinkability of all being” by those who doubt “with well-founded suspicion” that it is thinkable, is not at all a “will to truth,” Zarathustra insists, but an exercise of the “will to power.” Such philosophers want the world to “yield and bend” to them, to “become smooth and serve the spirit as its mirror and reflection.” (Zarathustra II 12; The Will to Power §517, 520).
This may seem a variation on the Cartesian projection of the cogito; but in Beyond Good and Evil and in The Will to Power (see, in addition to §436, §484, 533, 577-78), Nietzsche was penetrating in his critique of Descartes. That “father of rationalism” is described as “superficial” since “reason is merely an instrument” (Beyond Good and Evil §191). In launching his assault on the Cartesian ideal of reason as a “pure” and “objective” faculty, Nietzsche characteristically struck through the mask, selecting as his primary target the very foundation –which, for Descartes, is God himself, the guarantor. Indeed, Descartes had initially separated mind and body, spirit and matter, in an attempt to reconcile his mechanistic science with his religious faith. The Judeo-Christian God was famously if prematurely given his last rites by Nietzsche. But his madman’s announcement in The Gay Science that “God is dead” was for Nietzsche himself as elegiac and terrifying as it was liberating—no Enlightenment witticism but a personally painful conclusion he compared to “tearing out the fibers of my own heart.” That madman who ran through the marketplace seeking God announces: “We have killed him—you and I.” As God’s murderers, we are left bewildered, reduced to a series of vertiginous and unanswerable questions:
What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers burying God?…God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. (The Gay Science §125)
With God “dead,” we are left with Descartes’ initial subjectivism and skepticism without his saving and sanctioning deity. The result has been the post-Nietzschean world of modernism and postmodernism: a contingent world torn from its divine mooring—“unsponsored, free,” as Wallace Stevens would put it in his notably Nietzschean poem, “Sunday Morning.” With the earth unchained from its sun, untethered from God and from Absolute Truth, we are condemned to be free, existentially and—by a crucial and influential extension—linguistically.
In his groundbreaking 1976 book, Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida acknowledged deconstruction’s debt to Nietzsche, who “contributed a great deal to the liberation of the signifier from its dependence or derivation with respect to the logos and the related concept of truth” (31-32). Derrida’s argument, with its radical metaphysical and linguistic skepticism, rests on the insistence that there is no logos, no ultimate referent or “transcendental signified” outside the linguistic system, and therefore nothing to anchor or “fix” the “undecidable,” infinite “freeplay” of language. The absence of a “transcendental signified” extends “the domain and the play of signification indefinitely.” Derrida’s terms derive from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics; but once we set them in the context of his absorption of the work of Descartes and Nietzsche, we see that at bottom they constitute God-talk—“in the beginning,” says the apostle John, “was the Word [Logos].” Following Nietzsche, but apparently with none of his metaphysical anguish, Derrida cancels Descartes’ “ultimate referent,” the “transcendental” Being “signified” by our “ideas” and language about “God.” All such subjective signifiers refer to—nothing: “an infinite nothing,” as Nietzsche’s madman says, in which we are plunging and straying without direction. There is no “transcendental signified.” God is dead, remains dead, and we are his murderers.
For Michel Foucault, Nietzsche’s Death of God also meant the disappearance of man, his murderer. Others stressed a re-centering on the human. The famous slogan, “Man is the measure of all things,” goes back to the Greek philosopher Protagoras, an ancient axiom revitalized by Renaissance humanism and enshrined in Romanticism, which transfers most of the attributes formerly designating the “divine” to the creative human imagination. But as we are told by Emerson—the American Romantic considered by Nietzsche the major thinker of the age—“nothing is got for nothing.” The apotheosis (or the disappearance) of the human inherent in the concept of the Űbermensch required—though Emerson never accepted the price—the death of God: the dark starting point of much of modern literature and philosophy. W. B. Yeats, who also resisted Nietzsche’s atheism while being deeply “excited” by him, caught in a single line the centrifugal imagery of the Nietzschean madman’s announcement: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Unsurprisingly “The Second Coming,” the most frequently-cited modern poem, is also one of Yeats’s most profoundly Nietzschean texts. The radical crisis initiated by the pronouncement of the Death of God has been addressed in a variety of ways by such modern and postmodern continental thinkers as Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida. Whatever their differences, they have one thing in common. Like the Irish poet, all have been influenced by the German philosopher Yeats called in 1902 “that strong enchanter” (Letters, 379).
Once the transcendent God who represented and sanctioned absolute and eternal Truth was pronounced dead, the ensuing vacuum was filled—by the mature Nietzsche who first fully emerges in the famous Preface to Beyond Good and Evil (1885)—by two wholly human-centered tasks, interpretation and evaluation, inescapable activities pursued by means of Nietzsche’s pervasive if problematic perspectivism. How does Nietzsche’s influence play out in terms of perspectivism and the need for interpretation? The latter is a particularly vexed issue since Nietzsche, a pioneer in brooding over these questions, has himself been notoriously subject to differing interpretations. Quite aside from the fact that he went through distinct phases (he was even, in his middle period, briefly a positivist), Nietzsche’s volatile and changing thought resists definitive characterization. Back in 1975, in an article in Salmagundi titled “On Truth and Lie in Nietzsche,” I struggled with the ambivalence and contradictions in this endlessly dialectical thinker. In that essay (which I stand by, though, like Nietzsche himself, it goes round in circles), I referred to John Wilcox’s then recently-published Truth and Value in Nietzsche, which made a case for Nietzsche as a cognitivist. A decade later, he was declared a radical relativist by, among others, Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, and Alan Megill, in Prophets of Extremity, though Megill praised Wilcox’s honesty in presenting passages from Nietzsche’s texts at odds with his conclusion. Megill’s own conclusion was that Nietzsche, whose dialectic exposed every contradiction in even his own argument, is a relativist for whom there is no such thing as a correct interpretation. This is not because any statement is as true as any other, but because there is no such thing “as a thing.” Everything is a “mask” for something else, ad infinitum: precisely what Derrida means by “dissemination” and the endless and undecidable play of signification.
There is, of course, much in Nietzsche to support the conclusion that he was, at bottom, a noncognitivist philosopher for whom values and truths are to be understood in solely in terms of the person who holds them; cannot be supported by bare “facts” or sound reasoning; and are created or constructed rather than discovered. This is in accord with the postmodernist position that “truth” and “value” are not universal, ontological concepts, but subjective, relative, variable. Nietzsche’s reputation as a great liberator—once based on his incendiary language, the audacity with which he punctured hypocrisy, supplied tonic correctives to plebian pieties, and sanctioned the return to heroic, aristocratic values—now derives primarily from his radical perspectivism and the characteristic brio of his formulations. Many of the most striking are to be found among fragments dating from 1885-87, posthumously published in The Will to Power. It is dangerous, as the example of Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche demonstrates, to rely on passages, many though not all of which the author himself chose not to publish. Nevertheless, let us have a representative half-dozen of these on the table, buttressed by a few other of Nietzsche’s most famous, or infamous, “perspectival” passages from texts he did publish.
Refuting the positivist position that “there are onlyfacts,” Nietzsche replies: “no, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations [Interpretationen]”; things exist only for human “optics,” and “all the laws of perspective must by their nature be errors.” We “cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’.” Perhaps, he adds, mocking Kant, “it is folly to want to do such a thing” (The Will to Power §481). “The criterion of truth lies in the intensification of power” (§534). For truth “is not something there, that might be found or discovered—but something that must be created” (§552). Nietzsche speaks of the “imposition” of “meaning” from one or another “viewpoint,” claiming that “the essence of a thing is only an opinion about the ‘thing’” (§556). That “things possess a constitution in themselves quite apart from interpretation and subjectivity” is, he says, an “idle hypothesis” that “presupposes that interpretation and subjectivity are not essential.” Could it not be, he asks rhetorically, that “the apparent objective character of things” is “only a false concept of a genus and an antithesis within the subjective?” (§560) Perspective is decisive. “As if,” he exclaims, shocked at the very thought, “a world would still remain over after one deducted the perspective!” (§567) “There are no facts, everything is in flux, incomprehensible, elusive; what is relatively most enduring is—our opinions” (§604).
Though these have become the familiar axioms of the poststructuralist world, even now, they retain much of their original shock value. That last formulation, wittily maneuvered into a paradox enhanced by the dash, is Nietzsche at his most ironic and audacious. Even the so-called laws of nature, he says in his 1873 essay “On Truth and Lie,” are “regulative fictions,” scientific vestigia of mythological dreaming, schematic impositions upon the chaos of the actual. Far from determining an interpretation, “facts” are shaped by our interpretive constructs. This may seem to resemble Kant; but, for Nietzsche, man’s “truths” are merely “his irrefutable errors,” for all of life is based on “semblance, art, deception, points of view, and the necessity of perspectives and error” (The Gay Science §265). Our appeals to “objectivity” are actually expressions of “subjective will”—inventions of our acts of interpretation, outside of which there is “nothing.” And yet, will includes the “will to truth,” which Nietzsche, an “immoralist” who is also one of modernity’s major moral philosophers, never quite abandons. We cannot simplify the multiplicity of Nietzsche, at once a mocker of, and a participant in, the quest for truth, enlisting in different contexts under one or the other of these seemingly incompatible banners.
We can agree that Nietzsche attacked the Cartesian concept of objectivity, the idealized notion of a “pure” reason, freed from the allegedly contaminating influences of the body, instinct, will, emotion. From Plato on, the Western philosophical tradition has exalted reason over emotion as the knowledge-acquiring faculty. This privileging of Logos over subversive Eros has been exposed by feminists as not only phallocentric but phallogocentric thinking: resulting in the cock-sure establishment of a masculine hierarchy in which “male” intellect and ratiocination are sharply distinguished from and elevated above emotion and intuition, reductively characterized as “female” and stigmatized as inferior. French feminism succeeded in recuperating the power of intuition and the role of the body; but the ultimate reversal, or transvaluation, of phallocentrism has recently been proposed, sweepingly if rather pseudo-mystically and reductively, by American feminist Naomi Wolf in a 2012 book whose one-word title says it all: Vagina. Nietzsche opened Beyond Good and Evil with his own cunning speculation: “Suppose that truth is a woman—what then?” In the Epilogue to Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he adds that philosophic “artists” (and “we have art lest we perish of the truth” [The Will to Power §822]) consider it “a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked…Perhaps truth is a woman who has reasons for not letting us see her reasons?” Sexist stereotype aside, Nietzsche is making a playfully subtle point: that truth, though never fully attainable, is best pursued, not by direct frontal assault, but, obliquely, perspectivally. This subtlety recalls the misread alternate title to Twilight of the Idols. How to Philosophize with a Hammer does not urge us to wield a brutal sledge hammer; we are to test for hollowness the “idols of the age,” as well as “eternal idols,” delicately tapping “with a hammer as with a tuning fork.”
While some of his prose approximates écriture féminine, Nietzsche is obviously no feminist. However, like Hume and the Romantic poets before him, and William James and others after him, feminists included, Nietzsche resisted, the valorization of Logos and of a supposedly disembodied “pure” reason disconnected from culture, history, gender, the passions—all those filters that get between us and the Kantian ding an sich, that “thing in itself” which Nietzsche dismissed in Twilight of the Idols as a “horrendum pudendum of the metaphysicians.” In the same text, he declares that “an attack on the roots of passion means an attack on the roots of life.” This insistence on the role of the passions crosses gender lines. Emphasizing sublimation rather than extirpation of the passions, condemned (again in Twilight of the Idols) as “castratism,” Nietzsche asserted, in one of the Blakean epigrams in Beyond Good and Evil, that “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit” (§175). Consequently, he celebrated, in the projected figure of the Űbermensch, the ideal of power and passion disciplined rather than denied. Emotion, will, instinct, and disciplined passion, far from clouding and contaminating “clear and distinct” ideas, were necessary ingredients in a total—integrated, holistic—human response to the world.
Here, in this case as part of his condemnation of Christianity’s assault on nature and life. Nietzsche once again proves his credentials as a central figure in the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment hyper-rationalism. Accordingly, his favorite targets, with the exception of Spinoza (whom he valued as, in some ways a “great precursor”), were the major idealist philosophers—Plato, Descartes, Kant—along with orthodox Christianity, loftily dismissed in the opening section of the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil as “Platonism for the ‘people’.” However, his earliest, most personal critique was mounted against Plato’s mentor, Socrates, with whom Nietzsche had a complex love-hate relationship. Though a questioner and a dialectician, Socrates was, Nietzsche charged, a dogmatist who presented his views and values, not merely as appropriate to himself, but, in the words of Alexander Nehamas (Nietzsche: Life as Literature , 4), “as views and values that should be accepted by everyone on account of their rational, objective, and unconditional authority.”
Given his reputation as the poster-child for deconstruction and a thoroughly relativistic perspectivism, it is important to point out that Nietzsche opposes, not a quest for truth, but, rather, precisely that dogmatism (whether philosophic, religious, scientific, or ideological) that conceals, from others and from itself, the fact that its particular interpretation is decidedly not the only possible or plausible one, and therefore should not be binding on others, let alone on everyone. So much for the Kantian Categorical Imperative, or any other form of universality. And yet, for all his skepticism, Nietzsche recasts rather than rejects philosophy, and he does not dismiss either science or the will to truth; indeed, he insists that the latter persists, even for those who question its value and ultimate legitimacy (The Gay Science §344, On the Genealogy of Morals III 25). Though, for Nietzsche, truth and values can no longer be considered absolute and timeless, it does not follow that no moral center can hold, nor that truth is not to be pursued or values asserted and assessed. I will return to this central thematic point.
In the meantime, as the preceding paragraph exemplifies, there is no avoiding the problem of vocabulary: the inconvenient fact that any attempt to elucidate Nietzsche’s argument requires the use of terms he himself has displaced, even parodied. It is well to remember (to quote Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce’s “Nietzsche,” a perceptive article posthumously published in 1917) that, “Like both Emerson and Walt Whitman, Nietzsche feels perfectly free to follow the dialectic of his own mental development, to contradict himself, or as Walt Whitman said, ‘to contain multitudes’.” Cognizant of Whitman’s well-known debt to Emerson, Royce was not aware of the extraordinary extent to which Nietzsche himself was indebted to Emerson, and not only for his dismissal, in “Self-Reliance,” of “mediocre minds,” capped by his grand assertion that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That, as Royce rightly implied, was the source of Whitman’s even more audacious question-and-answer monologue in Song of Myself §51: Out-Emersoning Emerson, cosmic Walt asks: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself./ (I am large, I contain multitudes).”
Nietzsche’s dialectical mind, anything but little or mediocre, was certainly “inconsistent” in the sense that it was capacious, volatile, and multitudinous enough to entertain apparently “contradictory” positions. That dialectic is nowhere more dramatic and deep-rooted than in his seemingly antithetical perspectives on “truth.” Nietzsche repeatedly expresses, despite his own more-than-occasional tone of vatic certitude, a deep antipathy toward those who claim any monopoly on truth. Indeed, his skepticism prevents him from presenting any of his own views, including perspectivism itself, in a dogmatic manner. If everything is a matter of “optics” and “will,” then perspectivism, too, is just one more way of seeing things, an “interpretation.” Nietzsche admits as much even in describing his own central doctrine, the Will to Power: “Supposing that it also is only interpretation—and you will be eager enough to make this objection?—well, so much the better” (Beyond Good and Evil §22).
Nietzsche is as chameleon-like as the Emerson he adored. The endless twists and turns, the playful subtleties and self-cancellations of his texts, may seem to anticipate the thoroughgoing relativism we associate with deconstruction. Nevertheless, Nietzschean perspectivism does not imply that any interpretation is as good as any other; the fact that many points of view are possible does not make them equally legitimate. Though he insists that even one’s most passionately-held convictions must remain provisional, Nietzsche also assumes that, in some sense, his own theories are valid, and he repeatedly posits a hierarchy of values. The activities of interpretation and evaluation may be limited to the humanly possible or conceivable, but, as Richard Schacht memorably put it in “Nietzsche’s Kind of Philosophy” (1996), “this does not doom all ways of making sense to perpetual parity, none of which may lay any stronger claim to the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ than any others, like the Hegelian ‘night in which all cows are black’.” Going further, Nehemas insists that Nietzsche’s perspectival emphases do not “imply that we can never reach correct results or that we can never be ‘objective.’”
Indeed, when it comes to the interpretation of texts rather than of “things,” Nietzsche can occasionally turn almost sternly objectivist, claiming that we can produce an account freed from subjective limitations and biases. Attacking theologians as bad philologists, Nietzsche describes philology (his own original “field,” his expertise in which won him a university chair at the unheard-of age of twenty-five) as “the art of reading well—of being able to read off a fact without falsifying it by interpretation” (The Antichrist §52). In his original note (The Will to Power §479), he had described this ability to “read off a text as a text without interposing an interpretation” as “the last-developed form of ‘inner experience’—perhaps one that is hardly possible.” It is “hardly possible” for his more skeptical heirs to follow the leader here. Nietzsche is, after all, the master perspectivist and linguistic skeptic to whom homage is paid by all anti-foundationalist modern thinkers: by Derrida and the deconstructionists; by Stanley Fish and other reader-response critics; by Foucault, Nietzsche’s heir as a genealogist of power; and by such neo-pragmatic philosophers as Richard Rorty. Is Nietzsche, of all people (they might ask), really claiming that texts—at least some texts—are in effect “transparent,” requiring only good reading without the intrusion of “interpretation”? If “there are no facts, only interpretations,” what can Nietzsche possibly mean in such “objectivist” passages? What he means, I think, is that, if we are “good” readers, we submit ourselves to the text, letting what is there come through without precipitously imposing on it a falsifying interpretation, distorting it to suit our particular purposes—whether to satisfy an arbitrary whim or to make it serve our vested interests. The text, one might say, has something resembling “rights” of its own, which ought not to be violated by readers abusing their interpretive freedom. On this point, Nietzsche would concur with John Milton’s famous distinction in Sonnet XII: “License they mean when they cry Liberty.”
Though postmodern philosophers and literary critics often blur that Miltonic distinction, confusing many with any, there is a difference between multiplicity and what Yeats called “mere anarchy.” In Of Grammatology, the founder of deconstruction himself calls authorial intention an “indispensable guardrail… protecting” readings from the wilder excesses associated with his term “freeplay” (158). Of course, Derrida adds that the problematics of figurative language itself, with its catachreses and aporias, subtly undermine an author’s intention. But then who among us believes, after absorbing Nietzsche, that complex texts inevitably say precisely what their authors intended? Our sophistication in these matters reflects part of the ambiguous legacy of Nietzsche, aware in his twenties of the pervasively figural nature of language. In a now-celebrated 1873 fragment, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (Musarianausgabe, X, 189-215), the most significant portion of which has been made conveniently accessible by Kaufmann (Portable Nietzsche, 42-47), Nietzsche argues that “the first laws of truth” were furnished by the invention of an arbitrarily “fixed” designation of things, a “linguistic legislation.” “What, then, is truth?” asks the young Nietzsche (repeating that question of Pilate he thought “the only saying that has value” in the New Testament ([The Antichrist §46]). “Truth,” he answers, in an often-quoted sentence, is “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are….”
While such illusions and “necessary fictions” are, as the noncognitist Nietzsche often insists, valuable, “life-promoting,” even necessary for our survival (Beyond Good and Evil §4), they leave little room for faith in the stability of language. Yet, in praising “the art of reading well,” Nietzsche does not advocate, as he so often does, creative ingenuity, but close attention to what is there, present in the text. But what—to employ the rhetorical question he raised about “things” in The Will to Power—is “there” once “interpretation” has been deducted? Even if language were more stable than it seems to be, our engagement with a text would still, necessarily, constitute an act of interpretation. What choice is there? Since Nietzsche resists any dogmatic claim to univocal truth, there will always be alternative readings, but interpretations, like perspectives themselves, are not egalitarian. Some will be better informed, more comprehensive, more insightful, more “elevated,” than others. Comprehension, never complete or absolute, can be enhanced. An “interpretation” may even turn out to be—accurate!
Let us return to the notion of “reading off” a text without imposing on it a falsifying interpretation. In such cases, Nietzsche is dealing, not with “natural” objects in the universe, but with human artifacts—whether a literary text or a theory about nature—that have been produced by human will and skill, and are thus accessible to human construal. This contrast between the physical world of nature and humanly-conceived and constructed artifacts recalls another poem by Wallace Stevens, his gnomic “Anecdote of the Jar”:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Like William Paley’s famous watch lying on the ground as a supposed demonstration of “intellectual design,” or the geometrically precise monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Stevens’s jar stands out—ordered and unlike anything else in the surrounding “natural” world. Nietzsche might say that an art critic could offer an expert, even “accurate,” account of that round, gray, bare aesthetic artifact, but not of the alien, “slovenly wilderness” sprawling around it. Reading this poem, as in contemplating its precursor, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” we are implicitly being asked to consider which of the two, Art or Nature, is to be judged “superior”—here, the human-made jar, or the wilderness in which it is delicately “placed” (momentarily reducing the whole of vast “Tennessee” to a table or shelf). Certainly, the artifact exerts power. The “slovenly wilderness,” which “rose up to it,” and “sprawled around, no longer wild,” seems tamed, almost civilized, by the imperial jar, which, being “tall and of a port in air,” unsurprisingly “made” the wilderness “surround” it, and “took dominion everywhere.” Yet, “gray and bare,” the jar is static, sterile, lifeless. Bereft of the animal procreant urge and vegetative vitality “of bird or bush,” it emerges, though still unique (“Like nothing else in Tennessee”), as singular in a negative as well as a positive sense. And yet, and yet, this diminutive, slightly comical artifact (“round upon the ground”) remains the imposing and orienting center, the still point, around which that otherwise inchoate nature is arranged. Stevens’s cryptic anecdote itself remains—deliberately—ambiguous, but the traditional issue raised—the interaction and tension between Art and Nature, Apollo and Dionysius, Imagination and Reality, Platonic form and chaotic but fecund flux—is both determinate and accessible to interpretation, however much interpretations will differ.
Here, and elsewhere, Stevens himself seems ambivalent on this crucial question. Nor, in the end, though it has to be taken into provisional account, should an author’s own interpretation be determinative. We who are “good” readers in the philological Nietzschean sense can submit ourselves to such a text as this poem by Stevens—or Keats’s originating Ode, also thematically re-enacted in Yeats’s Byzantium poems—without obsequiously prostrating ourselves before an author’s “authoritarian” power. D. H. Lawrence’s imperative remains valid: trust the tale and not the teller, since, to adapt Pascal in a way that would be approved by deconstructionists, a poem will sometimes have reasons the poet knows not of. Should we not, therefore, strive for the best intrinsic, text-centered reading we can achieve? As Nietzsche knew, indeed insisted, we all have our own worldviews, beliefs, feelings, and perspectives—everything that makes us living, breathing, human beings, and that necessarily affects how we read the texts we read. But, he argues in his philological mode, we should, at least temporarily, set aside narrowly subjective interests in order to submit ourselves to the poem, allowing it to do its aesthetic work before we do it the Procrustean injustice of imposingourselves on it. We should “interpret” without, for example, reducing a text to a mere springboard for our private speculations, or to a helpless specimen to be submitted to a litmus test of ethical or ideological correctness, or converting it to a Lockean tabula rasa (or an ever-changing etch-a-sketch pad) on which we do our own writing.
This will seem alien to the spirit of the Nietzsche with whom we are most familiar: the perspectival subjectivist who so often imposes, both on what he writes and on his readers, his own unique personality. Indeed, he claims that “every great philosophy so far,” no matter how “objective” its truth-seeking pretensions, is really only “the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (Beyond Good and Evil §6). In short, consciously or unconsciously, philosophers impose rather than discover, “reading into” nature what they want to find. (As Oscar Wilde once wittily remarked of the great poet of nature, “Wordsworth found under stones the sermons he had already placed there.”) If Nietzsche’s own philosophy is also a “personal confession and involuntary memoir,” what does that say about his occasional claims to “objective reading”?
Again, we are back to the problems of “truth” and “error,” “fact” and “interpretation,” and the pervasiveness of perspective. Whether we are reading or merely “reading into,” interpretation is inevitable. Yet the fate of Nietzsche’s own writings exemplifies the damage and distortion that can occur when a text is bent to the will of a reader, especially a strong reader with his or her own agenda. The “Nietzsche” many sophisticated postmodernists know is, to some degree, the construct of Martin Heidegger, laid out in a massive two-volume study (Nietzsche, 1961) based not on what Nietzsche himself chose to publish, nor even on the Nachlass on which Heidegger almost exclusively relies, but, finally, on Heidegger’s own “interpretation”: at once insightful, influential, and often profoundly arbitrary. The reductio ad absurdum comes with Nietzsche’s brilliant heir in analyzing “power”: Foucault, who claims both to understand Nietzsche’s thought and to honor it by knowingly distorting it: “The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s”—he writes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”—“is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest. And if commentators then say that I am being faithful or unfaithful to Nietzsche, that is of absolutely no interest” (in Power/Knowledge, 53-54). Of course, it is of interest to those who, while aware of the role of creative reception in a reader’s development of his own project, are disturbed by tortured readings handed down as legitimate “interpretations” of Nietzsche’s texts—texts having some determinate meaning even for Foucault, who, exercising his own will to power, admits to willfully “deforming” them.
Our response to things, or people, or “texts,” is neither totally objective nor totally subjective, but a mixture—in which the thing, person, or text may (or may not) have its own intrinsic value. Two Shakespearean passages come to mind. In the famous exchange as to whether or not “Denmark is a prison,” Hamlet says the answer depends on individual perception: “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking making it so” (II.ii): a claim echoed by Nietzsche in declaring, in a school essay he wrote at Pforta, that “nothing can be judged except from the viewpoint of the spirit involved in it.” In his most “modern,” cynically “relativistic” play, Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare presents, in the War Council scene (also II.ii), an exchange between Troilus and his older brother Hector—the Trojan champion and the one admirable character in this nearly nihilistic drama. Discussing Helen, the cause of the war and, in this play, little more than a pretty airhead, Hector declares her “not worth what she doth cost/ The keeping.” Troilus poses a rhetorical question: “What is aught, but as ’tis valued?” That draws from Hector a response relevant to the relationship between “objectivism” and “perspectivism,” a response at odds with that of Hamlet, but no less applicable to the relationship between a literary text and its readers. Rejecting Troilus’s position (here and elsewhere in the play) that value is exclusively conferred by external estimation unrelated to intrinsic merit, Hector replies:
But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ‘tis precious of itself
As in the prizer. ‘Tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god.
The prize and the prizer together comprise “value,” but to disregard the preciousness inherent in the thing itself, or to make the subjective “service” greater than the admired object, would be like making religious worship greater than the deity worshipped. The result—self-admiration or self-esteem rather than admiration of something “precious of itself”—is a subjectivist perversion. It is also a reversal relevant to a variety of postmodernist critics who have shifted authority, and even minimal control, away from authors and texts to—themselves, though even their autonomy is strictly limited given that readers, as most of these critics concede or claim elsewhere, are inevitably conditioned by those contexts Descartes tried to transcend but in which we are all embedded: gender, culture, history….
Hector speaks of the “mad idolatry” involved in making the service “greater than the god,” and it was Nietzsche’s “madman” who announced “the death of God.” In 1977, emulating the master, post-Nietzschean theorists Roland Barthes (“The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text) and Foucault (“What is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice), consciously echoing the Death of God, announced the “Death of the Author.” Freeing text and subtext of “authoritarian” control would be liberating, we were assured by these and other non-mourners at the authorial bier. An intrinsic reader, committed to the autonomy of the work of art itself, would agree. But the French theorists, stressing the subjectivist strand of Nietzschean thought, insisted that what we must come to see as truly autonomous was not the poems, plays, novels or essays we read, but, rather, ourselves, or the deconstructive play of language itself. With the artist removed as art’s enabling and shaping force, power was shifted to individual readers sophisticatedly engaging protean “texts.” The danger of anarchic individualism—anticipated by Descartes and resolved by the Kantian Categories, the shared mental apparatus by means of which all minds perceive external phenomena—was also anticipated by Nietzsche, who, as we shall see in a moment, expanded his optical perspective by calling for “more eyes, different eyes” (On the Genealogy of Morals III 12), just as Stanley Fish, in order to prevent the total anarchy potentially inherent in his reader-response theory, grouped readers in informed “interpretive communities”—linguistically-sophisticated schools of Fish.
There has been an even more inclusive and expansive move away from the individual reader as well as from the autonomous individual text. In the case of the New Historicists (often Marxists or critics adopting Marxian methodology), in whose work the center is often abandoned and the margins valorized, the governing authority has been shifted to history itself—though it is worth noting that this emphasis on history as the enabling factor was tempered by pioneering New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt, in the concluding essay of his 1990 collection Learning to Curse. In “Resonance and Wonder,” he himself wonders if attention to the former, the “resonance” of the temporal network in which a text is enmeshed, hasn’t detracted from attention to the linguistic “wonder” of the work of art itself, its own “internal resonances.” As suggested by the title of Greenblatt’s book, a phrase borrowed from Caliban, there is no better example than The Tempest, interpretations of which have been distorted by over-emphasizing either the romanticized relation of Prospero to Shakespeare himself or the imperial-colonial theme epitomized by the subjection of the “native,” Caliban. As the play’s finest editor, Frank Kermode, concluded in the nuanced final sentence of his chapter on The Tempest (Shakespeare’s Language, 2000): “Of course, it cannot be said that neither of these relationships exists, only that they are secondary to the beautiful object itself” (300). See Appendix for a discussion of modern re-envisionings of The Tempest, and a “Nietzschean” response to them by Harold Bloom.
What is primary or secondary depends on interpretation; a work of art “is like a bow,” said Stendhal, “and the violin that produces the sounds is the reader’s soul.” But what of authorial intention? With the author having joined God among the deceased, some egregious examples of interpretive license have been advanced under a Nietzschean banner. Once we realize that readers, not writers, “make meaning,” and that a text “really means whatever any reader seriously believes it to mean,” the “war of all against all” will be replaced by “tolerance” and the “easy equality of friends.” (Robert Crosman, “Do Readers Make Meaning?” in The Reader in the Text, 162). For all his own emphasis on subjectivist and “creative” reading, Nietzsche would be hard put to muster sufficient contempt for this I’m-OK, you’re OK version of what he called in Beyond Good and Evil §44 “the universal green pasture happiness of the herd.” Pending the dawn of this easy egalitarianism, little “tolerance” is extended to those who try to interpret texts, not as utterly dependent on language or history, or on the inventiveness of readers, but as signifying to some extent what a writer meant to communicate. Derrida did not cavalierly discount authorial intention (a guardrail protecting a reading from going completely over the cliff); but for many poststructuralists, the author, at the mercy of his or her own metaphors, has been completely displaced as an originating consciousness by the deconstructive play of language, with its own uncontrollable, autonomous logic. This can result in readings that are illogical, even silly. Everyone has favorite examples of critical excess—the titles of some MLA presentations often seemed self-parodies—committed by those who too uncritically embrace Nietzsche, Saussure, Derrida, and Foucault. As for uninformed readers who puzzle inordinately over what some poor writer might have “meant”: they were often portrayed as adherents of an intentionalist fallacy exposed almost three-quarters of a century ago by the then-New Critics, or as naive victims of an outdated objectivist delusion—and boring drudges to boot.
But, as we have seen, the “patron saint of postmodernism” himself is on both sides of this question—and, paradoxically, in service to some form of “truth.” The philologist in Nietzsche made him an astute close reader, committed to explicating the meaning of a text; in doing so, he was seeking, in some sense, the “truth” of that text. As a moral genealogist, he emphasized the personality of the authors he read, often disclosing, with uncanny psychological insight, the hidden forces motivating them. But, once again, he was seeking the truth, however camouflaged it may have been. Nietzsche would hardly have signed on to the postmodern idea of the Death of the Author, being himself the author of books he described as “written in my own blood”: a rather visceral validation of truth. Yet, this search for truth seems incompatible with Nietzsche’s skepticism about, and play with, language, along with that perspectivism and indeterminism that have been so immensely influential, for good and ill, in shaping postmodern debates over literary theory and the problem of interpretation. The Nietzsche invoked by poststructuralist literary critics and philosophers is the noncognitist thinker who took Socrates and Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, to task for their objectifying and universalizing of the troubled concept of “truth.” Yet, as my italicization of the word truth in this paragraph is meant to emphasize, dialectical Nietzsche was simultaneously committed to that concept, and to its pursuit.
The very first item in Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche, a letter from the twenty-year old student to his sister, celebrates the difficult loneliness of the explorer striking out on new paths in search of truth. Though Kaufmann doesn’t notice, young Nietzsche was in fact following a path paved by his mentor, Emerson, who posed, in his essay “Intellect,” a “choice,” given “to every mind,” between either “truth” or “repose.” Between the two, “as a pendulum, man oscillates.” He in whom the “love of repose dominates,” will accept the creed or philosophy nearest at hand; as a consequence, he gets rest and ease; “but he shuts the door to truth.” In contrast,
he in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.
We do not have to imagine the momentous impact of such a contrast on the formative mind of the young Nietzsche; that impact is seismically registered in the letter to his sister, which opens with a rhetorical question, and, despite his choice of a lonely quest, echoes Emerson:
Is it decisive after all that we arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Rather, is not the result of his inquiries something wholly indifferent to the true inquirer? Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth—even if it be the most abhorrent and ugly….Faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.
With this ardent proclamation of a philosophic knight errant, we are in the rarefied company of the most radically authentic, most severe and dedicated spirits: philalethes, friends of truth. For all his noncognitivist perspectivism and denial of “objective truth,” there is no dearth of passages, early and late, in which Nietzsche burns his candle at the altar of truth and expresses unmitigated contempt for the “lie,” a word which, in various forms, appears dozens of times in his work, especially in the late text, The Antichrist (see §8, 13, 26, 38, 42-44, 55, 62).
Theory, though it has become diffuse and often narrowly coterie, is still very much with us. So it is still the case that to so much as mention the “pursuit of truth” in post-Nietzschean, anti-foundationalist quarters is often to be dismissed as chimerical, or condemned as an insufficiently “problematized” hubristic objectivist or a hegemonic reactionary—or, worst of all, to be pitied as clinging to a tattered vestige from the past. Letting the word drop without a bemused smile may risk ridicule by progressive ideologues for whom “truth” is not merely disputed rather than a donnée, but just another lobby, a mask for bourgeois oppression. Like the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty and other anti-essentialists, I do not believe that one can attain pure objectivity, absolute truth, or any transcendental signified: quixotic ideals that evade the real issue. But neither do I believe that the impossibility of attaining the ideal releases the individual, especially the scholar, from what the distinguished classical historian Peter Green called in 1990, in the Preface to his monumental Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, “the harsh obligation of striving for it to the best of his or her ability. To do otherwise is as though (to draw a theological parallel) the concept of inherent human sinfulness and fallibility were taken as a self-evident reason neither to pursue virtue, nor to avoid error; or, worse, as indicating that the terms ‘virtue’ and ‘error’ had no significant meaning” ( xvi). It might seem obvious that Nietzsche, as atheist, would resist the “theological parallel,” and, as perspectivist, would respond that the pursuit of “virtue” and avoidance of “error” had (precisely) “no significant meaning,” since he himself had unmasked and transvalued those traditional terms. And yet, as we have already seen and will again, it is not at all that simple.
Green was alluding to the poststructuralist ethos then dominating some American universities, a climate in which scholarly research was (and sometimes still is) seldom or never a “disinterested” project; in which “facts” (a dubious concept to begin with) were sometimes concocted or altered to serve a political purpose; in which ethnicity, gender, and other collectively subjective factors were routinely “privileged” over scholarly “objectivity.” This skeptical perspectivism—much of it derived from some, though not all, of Nietzsche’s texts—has in many ways been beneficial. It has exposed the role of “power,” including the power of conscious and unconscious bias; punctured much essentialist afflatus; and provided a tonic corrective to disembodied Cartesian rationalism. Intellectual forces unleashed by Nietzsche have also given the lie to Kantian things in themselves, or “knowledge in itself,” including the futile attempt, in Leopold von Ranke’s phrase, to describe history “as it really was.” Still, as we have seen, this is not the whole of Nietzsche. In the very passage of On the Genealogy of Morals (a passage to which I have already alluded) in which he advised his fellow philosophers to “guard against” such “snares,” he insisted on not one, but two “optical” points:
There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be. (III.12)
The scare-quotes are still required; but in our aspiration toward elusive truth and knowledge, surely it is more fruitful to deploy a wide range of perspectives rather than restrict ourselves to a single viewpoint likely to reflect our most egocentric interests. This multi-perspectival approach (“more eyes, different eyes”) to greater plausibility by means of a convergence of viewpoints resembles what the physicist Niels Bohr called “complementarity.” To dismiss this cumulative, ever-more-complete attempt to approximate “objectivity” is to license and even validate any “subjective” position, no matter how narrowly limited. Even demonstrable error—at worst, dangerous nonsense (dinosaurs walking the earth with humans, preposterous conspiracy theories, Obama as non-citizen)—becomes someone’s unassailable “truth” when one’s perception is not only influenced or inflected but totally determined by a single perspective: one’s political ideology or religious belief, gender, class, culture, or ethnicity. For example, dead white males who long conflated “the way things are” with their own myopic but hegemonic perspective have spawned, as merely apparent opposites, more conscious though equally biased successors among extremists implementing a self-segregating doctrine according to which culture and scholarship are determined by gender, race, or ideology.
Speaking personally: shaped in part by Nietzsche, I am a perspectivist. I’ve also been influenced by a multiculturalism which, taking into account suppressed ethnic perspectives as well as the human experience we have in common, is sensitive to the racist sins of the past—and the present. At the same time, I have not enlisted among those who often seem eager to trash (in the name of broadening) the entire Western tradition via some current “ism”—whether it’s bourgeois-baiting Marxism, or certain strands of radical feminism, or a dogmatic intolerance and exclusionary tribalism that may masquerade as multiculturalism. Such militant and atomizing extremism threatens but cannot undo the positive aspects of any of these perspective-altering ways of envisioning the world. The collapse of the brutal and dehumanizing Soviet version of Communism did not invalidate crucial elements of the Marxian diagnosis of capitalism any more than genuine multiculturalism is discredited by Islamic extremism or by what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called a generation ago the “ethnic fundamentalism” of certain Afrocentrists who attempted to resurrect and reverse the racist pseudoscience of the past to prove black superiority. Above all, perhaps, the richest insights of feminism, transcending the necessary but transitional stage of monolithic sisterhood, have permanently changed the way we all see ourselves and our world, including much of the literature we thought we knew best.
Still speaking personally, as a literary critic influenced by Nietzsche, I recognize not only the inevitability of “interpretation” but the force of his radical linguistic skepticism, and do in part believe it. Whether accepting or resisting, I have, like every thoughtful reader, been affected by the impact of the perspectivism and skepticism Nietzsche expressed so strikingly more than a century ago. His very omnipresence indicates that few current theories, critical and political, are as novel as their more a-historical practitioners sometimes pretend; one quickly wearied, for example, of the repeated but false claim that what preceded them was a monolithic and dogmatic commitment to univocal, “correct” reading. The influence of Nietzsche has sometimes been baleful, and often deplored. Nevertheless, his most penetrating insights have introduced an exhilarating breath of fresh air. They have sharpened any number of analytical tools and made us all rethink certain facile and complacent assumptions—about power, race, and gender; about concepts and values less permanently fixed than historically and culturally contingent; about language, silence, and the problematic relation of rhetoric to reality; about the impossibility of Cartesian “objectivity” given the tendency to universalize personal or cultural biases. As a teacher of literature, I came to cast a colder eye on the belief, or pretense, that only feminist and minority-culture courses have “political” content. Though I still ardently believe in a canon of great works, a canon evolving rather than static, I have, after reading Nietzsche and those he influenced, become more skeptical of the criteria behind canon-formation—including, at times at least, even the intrinsic aesthetic value I once thought not only the principal but the exclusive determinant of admission into the pantheon of literary works that have “pleased many and pleased long.”
Yet Nietzsche’s legacy remains ambiguous. Which of the two is the more quintessential Nietzsche: the precursor of postmodernism who brought to bear the full force of his skepticism and perspectival optics? Or, however contradictorily, the dedicated seeker of “truths” that he knew could never be fully attained? The whole point of my essay is that the question cannot be definitively answered. Like Shakespeare’s Claudius, Nietzsche is a man “to double-business bound,” a noncognitist and a cognitivist, at once a destroyer and a creator, a transvaluer of values and a great liberator who was, in his own life and thought, not altogether liberated from tradition, and from the quest for “truth.” Nietzsche, who critiqued pity, is hardly one to seek it. Yet, impressed as we are by the insight, acumen and seductive “style” of Nietzsche as a genealogist of error, we cannot help but be moved by the nobility of the haunted and haunting truth-seeker.
After the “festive” opening of “The Free Spirit” section of Beyond Good and Evil, celebrating the “willing-unwilling” love of “error” as indistinguishable from the “love of life,” Nietzsche addressed a “serious word” to the “most serious”: “Beware, you philosophers and friends of knowledge, and guard against martyrdom! Against suffering ‘for the sake of truth’!” There “might be more laudable truthfulness in every little question mark you place after your favorite words and beloved doctrines.” Thus, to “sacrifice for the sake of truth” would be to “degenerate into ‘martyrs,’ crying out from their stages” in “an epilogue farce,” proving that philosophy’s “actual long tragedy has come to an end” (§24, 25). It is an irony worthy of Nietzsche that in contemplating the personal tragedy of his life, one is tempted, whatever the medical evidence, to envision him as a destroyer who, precisely, sacrificed himself on the altar of truth. In “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Recent History” (1947), Thomas Mann, himself a supreme ironist, described, as both a “heartbreaking spectacle” and a tragic “destiny,” Nietzsche’s suffering of a “martyr’s death on the cross of thought,” with his “immoralism” best understood as the “self-destruction of morality out of concern for truth.”
Agreeing, I would add that Nietzsche remained one of those who—as he movingly put it in The Gay Science—“still take our fire…from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine” (§344). Even as a “godless anti-metaphysician,” fearful that the only “divine” thing left was “error,” and that “God himself” would “prove to be our most enduring lie” (§344), Nietzsche, in some profound sense, remained committed, not to the “lies” and life-promoting “fictions” that might have preserved his sanity, but to the inconvenient truths he uncovered in the course of his longing for that lost divine Truth he had himself unmasked. In this same passage of The Gay Science, he notes that the “will to truth” means—and there “is no alternative”—that “I want not to deceive, not even myself; and with that we stand on moral ground.”
But not on dogmatic ground. Discussing “the intellectual conscience,” Nietzsche insisted that “Not to question, not to tremble with the craving and the joy of questioning: that is what I feel to be contemptible” (The Gay Science §2). Ambivalent to the core, Nietzsche objects to that “beautiful sentiment,” the “faith in truth,” retained by the last “idealists of knowledge,” those “in whom alone the intellectual conscience dwells and is incarnate today,” and who “constitute the honor of our age” (On the Genealogy of Morals III 24). But in a still later work, though he again objects to “beautiful sentiments,” Nietzsche insists that
At every step one has to wrestle for truth; one has had to surrender for it almost everything to which the heart, to which our love, our trust in life, cling otherwise. What does it mean, after all, to have integrity in matters of the spirit? That one is severe against one’s heart, that one despises ‘beautiful sentiments,’ that one makes of every Yes and No a matter of conscience. Faith makes blessed: consequently it lies. (The Antichrist §50)
As he had put it in that early “Emersonian” letter: “if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth” (no matter how “abhorrent and ugly” that truth), “then inquire.” Ironically, Nietzsche’s relentlessly inquiring spirit, an honesty exacerbating his illness, may have contributed to his final destruction, since it led to the discovery of dark truths he himself believed were “terrible” and of whose “impossibility” (as he plaintively remarked in a letter of July 2, 1885, to his friend Franz Overbeck) he wished in vain “someone would convince me.”
Charcoal sketch of the bedridden Nietzsche, made in 1899, one year before his death after a decade of mental illness. The photograph taken at the time by the artist, Hans Olde, reveals only a vacuous lassitude, the subject’s eyes half-closed and in shadow, a mind adrift. But in his drawing, which otherwise adheres very closely to his photo, Olde opens the patient’s eyes, creating a mesmerizing stare directed mostly inward. The duality of the penetrating gaze — at once half-mad and yet intensely meditative, even “prophetic” — seems evocative of what I have been calling Nietzsche’s ambiguous legacy.
Hans Olde film of Nietzsche
Liberty and License: Re-Reading and Re-Writing The Tempest
As noted in the body of my essay, The Tempest has become something of a critical and cultural battleground, a site for combat between aesthetic and historicist readers. Exercising the hermeneutics of suspicion, many New Historicists depict intrinsic readers who insist on giving priority to what is actually there in a text—say, the text of this Shakespeare play—as both knowing and sinister: “hegemonic” reactionaries conspiring to keep the text’s “real,” if unintended, political meaning from being uttered. That “real” meaning, usually conveyed inadvertently by a politics-effacing author, typically has to do with the dominant (Western) culture’s sexist, classist, and racist suppression of its victims. Along with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest has been a prime text: criticized, revised, and politically re-envisioned by creative writers, typically from former colonial states. Since such revisionary and creative reading seems notably Nietzschean or Emersonian, I want to register, with reservations, an assault mounted by an eminent contemporary critic powerfully influenced by, precisely, Emerson and Nietzsche.
In the case of The Tempest —its island set in the Mediterranean but reflecting Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” and of contemporary accounts of shipwreck and salvation in the Bermudas—Latin-American writers have been particularly active, beginning with Nicaraguan Rubén Dario’s 1898 essay “The Triumph of Caliban,” followed two years later by Ariel, by Uruguayan statesman José Enrique Rodó. French colonial civil servant Octave Mannoni’s influential Psychologie de la colonization (1950) was translated more pointedly into English as Prospero and Caliban. Perhaps most notably, Aimé Césaire of Martinique in 1969 rewrote The Tempest in his own play, Une Tempête, in which Caliban, declaring that “now it’s over,” rebels against the hated “image” imposed on him by Prospero, and finally threatens that “one day,” he will raise his “bare fist” against his Shakespearean master. In Césaire’s revision, master and slave end up staying on the island when the others have left. After many years together, Prospero comes to think of himself and Caliban as indistinguishable: “You-me. Me you.” This might seem to flesh out, even fulfill, those lines at the end of Shakespeare’s play (V.i.275-76) when Prospero reluctantly concedes, “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine.” But by the time Césaire’s Prospero finally claims identification, Caliban has disappeared, and the last word the audience hears—echoing and altering Caliban’s delusory and ignominious cry of “Freedom!” at the end of Act II of Shakespeare’s play—is the genuinely triumphant offstage cry, “LIBERTY!”
The factors informing such rewritings—ethnicity, economics, social class, colonial history—are among the historical and perspectival elements that condition our responses to the world, and to texts. In the debate with Cartesian and other a-historical conceptions of reason and response as pure, absolute, essentialist, universal, these contingent and conditioning factors will be weighed on Nietzsche’s side of the ledger. Indeed, they will be over-weighed by readers of Nietzsche interested only in the perspectival, noncognitivist aspect of his ambiguous legacy, and in his often brilliant exposure of an author’s hidden and subconscious motivations. My own ambivalence is reflected in Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), a book influenced by, and in part written in reaction to, the New Historicist emphasis on a “repressed” or “invisibilized” content under the surface or “manifest content” of a text: what the author, bound by his or her own limiting perspectives, did not, or could not, say. As the terminology indicates, these theorists have absorbed Freud on The Interpretation of Dreams. The no less overt influence is the Marxian doctrine that works of art are determined by the dominant ideology, and resistance to it. Thus we must read between and probe beneath the lines of a literary work to tease out its meaning. It is, as they say, “no accident” that contemporary Marxian critics repeatedly refer to a text’s “not saids,” its “absences,” and “significant silences.” Nor is it surprising that some readers—politically engaged readers of The Tempest, for example—will want to creatively fill in such absences and silences in ways that remold the text nearer to their own heart’s desires.
In the Age of Theory, a poststructuralist era largely shaped by Nietzsche, most of us will agree that literary texts are not verbal icons hermetically sealed off from the world. They reflect and are influenced by the social and historical contexts in which they are complexly anchored, and they require readers, similarly influenced, to “actualize” them in what Hans George Gadamer calls a hermeneutic or dialogic “fusion of horizons” (Truth and Method, 320). The danger is that in properly asking questions from our present socio-economic horizon, we will also impose answers on the past; or that, in “recontextualizing” works of art, we may temporally limit them to their own historical moment, inflicting aesthetic injury in the process. Often, New Historicist readings, whatever their many illuminations, are closed monoreadings that risk losing the palpable poem in the attempt to recover sociopolitical realities the original author supposedly tried to evade. Marxian theorists—for example, Pierre Macherey in A Theory of Literary Production—insist that these silences and absences are inevitable, ideologically predetermined. Deconstructionists invariably find text-unravelling aporias; what many New Historicists must look for, and invariably find, in “privatized” poems is the effaced “public” dimension, the vestigial politics still lurking in the unspoken but no longer quite inaudible subtext. The claim that often follows, whether explicit or implicit, is that, having ferreted out these buried meanings, we have succeeding in “decoding” the poem, revealing its “absent” and therefore primary level of meaning—the interpretation having the highest priority. Again, Frank Kermode’s admonition is pertinent. Even when, as in The Tempest, the political dimension is actually there, in Shakespeare’s text—however blind earlier readers seem to have been to the layer of meaning often emphasized in our own age—these relations, though they exist in the play, should be “secondary to the beautiful object itself.”
In concurring with Kermode that our actual “highest priority” should be aesthetic, I am not suggesting a simplistic return to the art-for-art’s-sake school of rarified, Paterian “Appreciation.” Certainly, in the specific case of The Tempest, I would not go as far as one of my own cherished mentors, Harold Bloom. Inveighing against the contemporary critical trends he dismisses (deliberately echoing Nietzsche’s famous condemnation of ressentiment) as “the School of Resentment,” Bloom declares: “Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies—A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest—these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed. Erotomania possesses the critics and directors of the Dream, while ideology drives the despoilers of The Tempest.” These characteristically emphatic, judgmental sentences open the chapter on The Tempest in Bloom’s 1998 study, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He goes on to make it clear that he is open to such creative re-visitings of the play as Robert Browning’s remarkable dramatic monologue, “Caliban upon Setebos,” and W. H. Auden’s prose address, from The Sea and the Mirror, titled “Caliban to the Audience,” which, though “more Auden than Shakespeare,” catches, as Bloom acknowledges, much of Caliban’s “dilemma” and his “pathos.” What stirs Bloom’s Nietzschean wrath are the political reconfigurings I’ve already mentioned, specifically the transformation of Caliban, “a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature,” into “an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter,” a move Bloom dismisses as “not even a weak misreading.”
This condemnation is less political (Bloom is on the permanent Left) than an allusion to his own long-held literary theory, which celebrates strong, but decidedly not weak, “misreading.” From The Anxiety of Influence on, Bloom has famously apotheosized the “strong reader,” one who brings to bear his own personality, and reads the work of others above all to stimulate his own creativity. Bloom has repeatedly acknowledged that his theory and practice derive primarily from two exemplars: Emerson and his disciple Nietzsche. Emerson insists, in “The American Scholar,” that there is “creative reading as well as creative writing,” and announces, in “Uses of Great Men” (in Representative Men), that “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.” At the very outset of Ecce Homo (in the chapter “Why I Write Such Good Books”), Nietzsche claims that, “Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows.” He then goes on, “inconsistently” if prophetically, to complain that anyone who claimed to understand his work “had made up something out of me after his own image.”
This Emersonian-Nietzschean line of revisionary reading Bloom labels “antithetical,” this time borrowing his term from Yeats, who called Nietzsche his “strong enchanter,” and declared in his 1930 diary, “We do not seek truth in argument or in books, but clarification of what we already believe” (Explorations, 310). Bloom champions “strong” misprision (misreading), repeatedly asserting, from The Anxiety of Influence on, that “really strong poets can read only themselves,” indeed, that for such readers “to be judicious is to be weak.” His dismissal is therefore all the more damning when Bloom insists that the post-colonial reinterpretation of Caliban “is not even a weak misreading; that anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists—the usual suspects—know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays” (Shakespeare, 622).
Nietzsche’s copy of an 1858 translation of Emerson’s Essays. His four Emerson volumes are the most heavily-annotated of all the books in Nietzsche’s personal library; in fact, his marginalia became so copious that eventually he recorded some forty passages separately in a black notebook. Though he often transcribed verbatim, at times he shifted to the first-person, almost becoming Emerson, his “Brother-Soul.” Since both Emerson and Nietzsche were adamant champions of utter self-reliance, this creative interaction with his American percursor not only illustrates the general paradox of originality, but incarnates a truth Emerson announced in Representative Men: providing they are kindred spirits, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own thoughts.”
Without rejecting it, I would qualify the indictment. Those “suspects” are reading the play, but reading it badly, allowing their political “causes,” which really are implicit in Shakespeare’s text, to become primary rather than remaining, in Kermode’s term, “secondary.” The stock of Prospero, that valorized magus and Shakespeare-surrogate of much of the earlier criticism, has fallen in the twentieth century. Though Prospero retains majority support, his (often justified) harshness, always there in the text, has become more evident, both to readers and, depending on the director, to theatergoers. Having become far more sensitive to the irascible, bullying aspects of Prospero, many have consequently become more sympathetic to the plight of the always fascinating Caliban. Bloom himself describes Caliban as “poignant” and applauds Auden for stressing his dilemma and pathos. What Bloom resists is the determinism, ideological and theoretical, of the political readers and re-writers of The Tempest. For them, Caliban, suppressed by Shakespeare as well as by Prospero, must be the play’s hero.
It is, in general, an intriguing poststructuralist phenomenon that so many who theoretically pronounce texts indeterminate—bereft of authorial meaning, with text and interpretation alike determined by the inevitable linguistic gap between signifier and signified, by temporal limitations, by political ideology, class or gender bias—also, in practice, repeatedly claim to have decoded, “unmasked” or “exposed,” what is “really” going on: what a play such as The Tempest “conceals” as well as what it “reveals,” even to “correct” what has been “distorted.” As Richard Levin asked in 1990—cocking a mischievous eye in his PMLA article “The Politics and Poetics of Bardicide”—who is more guilty of what the indeterminists dismiss as “hubristic objectivism.” Is it those who believe that literary works are written by actual authors whose meanings (intention having become achievement) are there in the text, to be interpreted? Or is it those for whom the “hermeneutic vacuum” left by the Death of the Author must be filled by “a universal law” that “dictates what one must look for, and must find, in every [text]?”
I would add, in the case of The Tempest, that while an Aimé Césaire has every right to recreate Shakespeare in forging his own work of art, for the most part we are dealing with revisionists who, having not found the political subtext of The Tempest adequately expressed, are compelled to “foreground” or “privilege” it in ways which, however creative and even illuminating, distort the original play. Not only as a philological “good reader” but as a moralist, Nietzsche would approve of Bloom’s enrollment of such revisionists in “The School of Resentment.” For the crucial Nietzschean concept of ressentiment—stemming from the contrast introduced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 between “master morality and slave morality,” and fully developed a year later in On the Genealogy of Morals—has to do precisely with frustration, psychological and political, arising from a sense of inferiority inseparable from subjugation. Finally, in terms of the revisionist act of creative reading performed by Césaire in Une Tempête, I have already suggested (section 5, above) that the philologist in Nietzsche, who praised the ability to “read off a text as a text” without “falsifying” it by “interposing an interpretation” would concur with Milton’s distinction, in contemplating the truth that shall make us free, between License and Liberty. “LIBERTY!” cries Césaire’s Caliban, but it means, as an act of interpretation, “License” in regard to The Tempest of Shakespeare—of whose authorial death rumors have been greatly exaggerated.
Taiaiake Alfred and his son Kai Aronhiente. In the distant background are his other two sons, Brandon Skanekohrákson and David Tiorhónko
Taiaiake Alfred is an old friend, a Kahnawake Mohawk from just outside Montreal, a former Marine, a scholar specializing in indigenous governance at the University of Victoria, a fierce and diligent advocate for native rights in Canada. He has published three scholarly books and any number of essays, polemics and columns, but lately he has turned to fiction to explore the world of his birth. It’s a wonderful opportunity and privilege for Numéro Cinq to offer the first preview of his work in progress which he calls “true” and a lament and which is sad and powerful and, yes, a keen for a lost land.
Some context: the simmering confrontation between natives and the Canadian government in Ottawa has recently boiled up again driven by a passionate hunger-striking native chief, Theresa Spence, and the Idle No More movement. One of the texts being handed out by native activists is a pamphlet written by Taiaiake and Tobold Rollo.
Some words on the whole book: It’s the story of a Mohawk man who struggles to stay Onkwehonwe (indigenous) even as his life and the culture of his community changes radically from his childhood growing up on the riverside, seeing that way of life destroyed by the St Lawrence Seaway and pollution of the river, to living in NYC as an ironworker, and the rise of the cigarette trade. Basically, if a lit scholar looked at it he’d probably see a fictionalized oral history of the Mohawk community in Kahnawake and Akwesasne, a meditation on our broken relation to the natural world, and not to sound too academic, an exploration of Indigenous masculinity and sexuality. I create the story, but I am committed to the book being “true” in the sense that everything in it actually happened and exists as my memories or other people’s stories or as traditional stories or legends – all interwoven. I see it as a remembrance or kind of lament, not for a way of life that doesn’t exist but for a collective spirit or soul that has been broken or corrupted – in parts I even attempt the second-person, though I may be pushing my luck with that!
I am standing on the shore looking out across the slate gray river at the mountain, my eyes tracing a path to St. Joseph’s oratory on Kawennote Tiohti:ake. An image from many years ago comes to me, that of Mohawk women walking across the black bridge to the city. They are walking across the freezing river to go sell their woven ash baskets and beadwork in Lachine or at the Bonsecours Market or in the Champs des Mars. So many of them had gone over and not come back because the winds in the middle of the river were strong and the steel frosted and slippery under their feet and they’d fallen onto the ice or into the water with their burdens on their backs. Every day is such a challenge when you’re living close to the land and the water. The river would take them and they wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute struggling against the weight of the packs on their backs and their heavy clothes and being pulled by the force of the current. They would be stunned by the cold of the ice studded water and then they would be gone under, joining the flow of the river and of time. Their bodies would be churned by the rapids and the rocks and they would be sent downstream to join with the sea and our memory. This ancestral pathway is the one I took myself as a young man on another cold December morning, and they still remember the day I crossed over from the other side but made my way back to the people again.
I was standing on the shore and I heard the sound of my name. I turned and to look over my shoulder through the skeletal winter bushes, towards the voice. I knew what was there but I was hoping I was wrong. Up on the road Raté was yelling at me and Jen was laughing. They want me to finish my business and get back in the van. I don’t want to leave the shore of the river, but I’m getting really cold standing there in the winter wind in just jeans and a t-shirt. The morning light is shining too bright for my hung over eye balls. So I break from the river and run up the gravel road, tripping on little stones frozen to the ground and jumping over slicks of black ice along the way. I hear my friends and their raunchy laughter above the blaring Back in Black. Standing on the road next to the van, if you hadn’t been there before you’d never be able to tell that the river was right there flowing by on the other side of the brown-fruit sumacs and thin, drooping, saplings of poplar.
Rateninos leaned out of the driver’s side window and said to me, “It’s about time, Cousin. What the hell were you doing over there for so long? You shake that little thing more than once and you’re playing with it!”
“It took me a while to find it, Raté, ‘cause it was hanging way down in my boot again,” I shot back, and we all laughed as I pulled the side door of the van open and climbed in the back where Jen was waiting for me.
I lay back on the bench seat and stretched my legs out. I closed my eyes and right away I was back on the bank. Then I felt Jen moving towards me. She draped her arms around my neck, pulled herself up closer and lifted her leg over mine until the soft inside of her thigh was resting on my lap just perfect. I still had my eyes closed but I knew she was smiling as her hands went under my shirt and she felt my stomach and chest and moved them around to my lower back and then down below my belt. She nuzzled her face into my neck and breathed in deeply and then looked up at me and with her eyes locked on mine she placed small, delicate kisses on my neck, on my mouth, and all over my face. When I felt the sweet sting of her bite on my ear, I breathed in sharply too and held it inside of me like the air perfumed with her scent was a gift, and only let it go when I had to part with it. I felt us together and noticed that we were driving now along the long, straight, gravel road back towards town. The world beyond the riverside just disappeared as I fell asleep with a picture of the river’s flowing water in my mind and the perfect sensation of that young girl’s warm breath and soft knowing hands on the skin under my clothes.
And then all the beauty vanished and I was tumbling down an ugly vortex of noise and pain. My ears were assaulted by ugly sounds of warping steel and snapping plastic, metal on metal scraped, shattered glass, high-pitched screams above and otherworldly groans below. I was upside down and weightless and it was all happening in slow motion, the time lag between what I was experiencing and the thought of it running through my mind making it all the more intense, like it was all happening to me doubly. Then suddenly everything was in real time and I was launched through the air by a huge and irresistible force and I felt the crushing pain of my face being smashed into a solid mass.
Darkness. Laying face down on the floor of the van, I wasn’t in the waking world. How real the sensation of being full of water seemed. Water bathed my eyes, water filled my ears, water rushing down my throat, water in my belly. I was outside of my body watching myself gag on water and I saw it gurgle out from my nose. I coughed up pieces of seaweed and tasted mud. I thought, weirdly, it’s not even unpleasant, it tastes like the river smells. I love that smell – cold fresh water, silky black mud, crawfish, cottonwood tree bark, rotting wood, seed pods, yellow perch, ice. Animal, plant, and fish life and the cold air comingling with moving water and old, old, rocks. This is the taste of the natural world, home, of my life. I dreamed about the river all the time, swimming across it, flying above it, standing in it feeling its swell as it rushed between my legs. But I could not remember ever feeling as if the whole expanse of the river was rushing into me.
I could not stop it. I was becoming the river.
Driving back toward the Saint Catherine locks a couple of miles to the east, where we knew we could cross over the dyke, Rateninos had passed out and we drove off the road at forty miles an hour. We went straight off the twenty-foot dyke and into the water, the van flipping over headlong and doing a barrel-roll in the air before landing right side up on its wheels. The thin December ice held the weight of the van just long enough for Raté and Jen to climb out of the shattered front door windows. They were standing outside of the van screaming and crying because I was still inside when the ice cracked and the van sunk up to its axels and started to take on water.
It was the taste of the river that pulled me back to a waking state and the realization that I was kneeling on a wet carpet floor and then two seconds later the carpet floor was that of a van floating in the water. By the time my mind had cleared from being smashed against the windshield at forty miles an hour the ice had given way and the van was bobbing in the water like a diving submarine with its sail still barely above the surface. I wish I could say that I recognized my predicament and that I acted with grim determination in the face of grave danger, that I knew it was do-or-die time and I took the action that needed to be done in the moment. But that’s not really the way it happened. I wasn’t even fully present in that moment and I can only tell the story because the flash of images, whiffs of smells and tastes and skin sensations of temperature and of bone pain have come back to me over many years of nightmares and willed remembering.
Two small tsunamis rushed through the van’s busted out side windows and seeing that worked up something inside of me. I became fully lucid and recovered my physical being again. Whatever animal, spirit or chemical it was that animates me took over completely. The power came on so strong that my arms and legs started shaking fiercely. I became a beast, screaming and battering the windshield with my bare fists. I felt the weight of a ton of dirty slush hitting me in the face as the windshield caved in from the pounding and the water pressure bearing down on the cracks in the glass. The river came on even stronger and poured into the vehicle. I started to kick wildly and scramble and squeeze my head and then the rest of my body through the broken windshield, desperately pushing and finally getting my body halfway out of the water, breathing in what air I could while trying to keep my hold on the surface ice. But I could not free myself from the sinking van because my jeans had snagged on glass shards that were sticking out from the frame of the broken windshield, and I lay there with my chest and arms and head on the ice for a tortuous minute, not able to free myself from the teeth of the heavy black hulk lurking just below the surface of the water.
The van filled up with water quickly and then it sank, dropping fast and I was drawn down with it, my dug in fingernails dragging across the ice as I dug in and tried desperately to halt my cold descent. The van sunk and I took the deepest breath I could manage before my neck, chin, mouth, nose, and eyes slipped below the surface and I was gone into the blackness.
Under water, I was able to move more freely, and with the strength of desperation I kicked myself out and away from the van as it was coming to rest at the bottom of the Seaway. I started swimming in the direction I figured was up, almost out of air, reaching out, pulling and with each stroke hoping to break the surface but being so disoriented in the utter blackness that I did not know if instead of heading up I was pushing myself further down towards the bottom and the last breath of my life.
I was still deep under water when I could not hold my breath any more. I thought I was dead, that my days on this earth had been all used up. I was just about dead and there was no light at the end of any tunnel, no ghosts walking around in the distance, no kindly father figure, no buckskinned ancestors, no Jesus, no life highlights flashing before my eyes, nothing but darkness and endless solitude. So this is how it feels to be a breath away from dying? It wasn’t what I expected. But it wasn’t painful and it wasn`t fearsome, so when my lungs felt like they were going to burst I just stilled myself. I stopped moving.
Floating with my arms above my head and my hands held open, resigned, peaceful, thoughts started coming into my head again. I don’t want to waste my life like this. I don’t want to do this to my family. I miss my grandmas. I’m hungry for cornbread and steak. I want to taste Jen and feel her belly pressed up against mine one more time. I felt anger rising. What a stupid way to die. Then I heard music. Maybe it was the song that was playing on the radio just before we crashed. The melody and the singer’s voice were clear and ringing in my head as I floated there in the murk. It was that song, Don’t Pay the Ferry Man. “I hate that song,” I said to myself, “There’s no goddamn way this is the soundtrack to my death, I’m not going out to a song about a fairy man!” And then I got pissed off too because my death was going to be cliché, a really unfunny parody of the glorious demise I’d fantasized about so many times, like taking a bullet in the chest on a battlefield. No white skeleton was going to lead this lost soul out of the water to the other side, Chris de goddamn Burgh. No way I was gonna pay that toll, fucking Frenchman. I was going over to the other side like everybody else sometime, but not this morning, not here, and not like this.
Just then I felt ice as first my hands and then my face bumped up against what felt like a rough slab of wet concrete. I’d risen to the surface and was looking up through grey water and I could see the feint overcast light of the new day through the nearly opaque frozen mass. The ice was thick, solid, and unbroken. I had come to the surface again but at a different place then at the hole I’d gone down through.
A scene from an old movie I’d seen about Harry Houdini, the famous magician, flashed in my mind. A trick had gone wrong and he was trapped in chains in some kind of iron lockbox filled with water, and he had survived by pressing his lips right up against the top of the box, breathing from the thin layer of air between the roof of the container and the surface of the water. That is what it was like for me in the Seaway; there were a couple of inches of space, a thin layer of life, between the surface of the water and the bottom of the ice. I was a Mohawk Houdini pressing my face up against the bottom of the ice and when the shifting swell of the water created a little gap, I grabbed air, which would be enough for some more life. I did that a few times, and I was able to crawl upside down along the underside of the ice until I felt my right hand push up and through to the feeling of cold morning.
I pulled myself out of the hole, laid my chest on the ice, and breathed, not quite sure if I was dead or alive. I saw the shore not too far away so I lowered myself back into the water and kicked and crawled and swam my way across the shattered ice and slushy water towards the shore, where I climbed out of the water and onto a piece of jagged shale where I sat down and started shivering fiercely.
Taiaiake is a Kahnawake Mohawk writer and professor of Indigenous governance, knowledge and history. He was born at Tiohtiake, Montreal, was educated by Jesuits, and served as a U.S. Marine Corps infantryman in the 1980s. He later studied history at Concordia University and earned a doctorate in political science at Cornell University. He’s now a Professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria and divides his time between Kahnawake and the territory of the Wsanec Nation on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his wife and three sons.
Taiaiake’s writings include three scholarly books and many research and policy documents produced for Indigenous organizations, five years as the leading opinion columnist in Canada’s national Aboriginal newspaper Windspeaker, and essays and humour published in numerous journals including Maisonneuve. He has recently shifted away from scholarly research and essays and has begun working on a book of stories/memoir of life in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake (from which this excerpt is drawn), as well as a work of creative nonfiction on Indigenous masculinity and hunting.
On the roof of Milan’s Duomo amidst the spires and gargoyles and saints and angels, it’s noon on a late fall day and I’m here shooting. The sun shines over the city that spreads out like a bristling blanket; new skyscrapers and old bell towers puncture the worn brick and stone fabric of the town. At the edges, the Alps gleam, snowy in the distance. Above, the cathedral glows white against the sky. And all around me, friendly Romanian tourists in black jackets and thigh-high boots jostle, vying for vantage points from which to take pictures. They elbow in, admiring, snapping and clicking. Another group—this time from China—bursts from the stairs. Chattering and hopping about like hungry little sparrows, they freeze the landscape and their trip with hundreds of shots.
I retreat from the crush, thinking of Shelley and Tennyson and Henry James and Mark Twain who traveled here, part of their century’s onslaught: the privileged class that toured Italy, its monuments and museums serving as a finishing school. They climbed here too. Equally ecstatic but without cameras, armed with pens. They wrote letters to friends and poems for periodicals and chapters in books praising the Duomo. And of a different opinion, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde came. They hated what they saw; their words were scathing.
On the rib of the roof, in the sun but with a brisk breeze stirring, I think of their descriptions and train my lens back on the cathedral, to see what they once saw.
At last, a forest of graceful needles, shimmering in the amber sunlight, rose slowly above the pygmy housetops, as one sometimes sees, in the far horizon, a gilded and pinnacled mass of cloud lift itself above the waste of waves, at sea—the Cathedral! We knew it in a moment.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, 1869
This cathedral is a most astonishing work of art. It is built of white marble, and cut into pinnacles of immense height, and the utmost delicacy of workmanship, and loaded with sculpture. The effect of it, piercing the solid blue with those groups of dazzling spires, relieved by the serene depth of this Italian heaven, or by moonlight when the stars seem gathered among those clustered shapes, is beyond any thing I had imagined architecture capable of producing.
PB Shelley, letter to TLP Esquire, 1818
We wished to go aloft. The sacristan showed us a marble stairway and told us to go up one hundred and eighty-two steps…. We were tired by the time we got there. This was the roof. Here, springing from its broad marble flagstones, were the long files of spires, looking very tall close at hand, but diminishing in the distance like the pipes of an organ. We could see now that the statue on the top of each was the size of a large man, though they all looked like dolls from the street. We could see, also, that from the inside of each and every one of these hollow spires, from sixteen to thirty-one beautiful marble statues looked out upon the world below.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, 1869
………………………………….I climb’d the roofs at break of day; ………………………………….Sun-smitten Alps before me lay. ………………………………….I stood among the silent statues, ………………………………….And statued pinnacles, mute as they.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Daisy,” 1851
Every face is eloquent with expression, and every attitude is full of grace. Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond. In their midst the central steeple towers proudly up like the mainmast of some great Indiaman among a fleet of coasters.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, 1869
The cathedral is a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant, the latter being peculiarly barbarous and angular, owing to its being engrafted, not on a pure, but a very early penetrative Gothic … The rest of the architecture among which this curious Flamboyant is set is a Perpendicular with horizontal bars across: and with the most detestable crocketing, utterly vile. Not a ray of invention in a single form… Finally the statues all over are of the worst possible common stonemasons’ yard species, and look pinned on for show. The only redeeming character about the whole being the frequent use of the sharp gable … which gives lightness, and the crowding of the spiry pinnacles into the sky.”
John Ruskin, Notebooks, October 17, 1849
The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.
Oscar Wilde, letter to his mother, 1875
While I study the roof, the Romanians finish taking pictures and sun themselves, propped against pinnacles. An hour or so later, they get up and file down the stairs, off perhaps to go Christmas shopping at Rinascente department store across the way. I follow them down but enter the cathedral to take pictures of the interior for this essay. Today’s strong sunlight blazing through the stained glass windows has set the somber interior burning.
The interior, though very sublime, is of a more earthly character, and with its stained glass and massy granite columns overloaded with antique figures, and the silver lamps, that burn forever under the canopy of black cloth beside the brazen altar and the marble fretwork of the dome, give it the aspect of some gorgeous sepulchre. There is one solitary spot among those aisles, behind the altar, where the light of day is dim and yellow under the storied window, which I have chosen to visit, and read Dante there.
PB Shelley, letter to TLP Esquire, 1869
The guide showed us a coffee-colored piece of sculpture…. The figure was that of a man without a skin; with every vein, artery, muscle, every fiber and tendon and tissue of the human frame represented in minute detail. It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it some where. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting its corded arms on the bed’s head and looking down on me with its dead eyes; I shall dream that it is stretched between the sheets with me and touching me with its exposed muscles and its stringy cold legs.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, 1869
St. Charles Borromeus lies at his eternal rest in a small but gorgeous sepulchral chapel…and for the modest sum of five francs you may have his shrivelled mortality unveiled and gaze at it with whatever reserves occur to you…. The black mummified corpse of the saint is stretched out in a glass coffin, clad in his mouldering canonicals, mitred, crosiered and gloved, glittering with votive jewels. It is an extraordinary mixture of death and life; the desiccated clay, the ashen rags, the hideous little black mask and skull, and the living, glowing, twinkling splendour of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires.
Henry James, “A European Summer, VI.” The Nation, Nov. 21, 1872.
They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, 1869
As I strolled beside its vast indented base one evening, and felt it, above me, rear its grey mysteries into the starlight while the restless human tide on which I floated rose no higher than the first few layers of street-soiled marble, I was tempted to believe that beauty in great architecture is almost a secondary merit, and that the main point is mass–such mass as may make it a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort. Viewed in this way a great building is the greatest conceivable work of art. More than any other it represents difficulties mastered, resources combined, labour, courage and patience.
Henry James, “A European Summer, VI.” The Nation, Nov. 21, 1872.
At the Duomo, I’ve lost track of time. When I finally squeeze onto the metro I realize I’m going to be late picking up my son to take him to the dentist, but strangely, down here in this dark tunnel, I don’t feel pressured. Words and images of the Duomo swirl in front of me and I’m uplifted.
Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.
A delicate trace of narrative runs through these three Ralph Angel poems, trace as in a whisper barely emerging from the silence of the white page. The narrative is romantic, the tone affectionate, erotic, connubial, ever so slightly comic (such an endearing mess the poet makes spilling his coffee, falling asleep in a bed of popcorn, cleaning up for his love who’s on her way). The poems are stripped down, reduced to essence, the words that remain are perfect embodiments of mood, character, relation. And they insist by rhythm and repetition. Note in the first poem “Willing” how
A kiss, a lick, “Miss me?” “Of course, yes,”
goes to (by the logic of parallels) “a nudge, a squeeze…” and then modulates back closer to the original
some bread?” A kiss, a lick,
“Miss me?” “Yes, yes.” “I put your book with the magazines.”
And how the word “perfect” in the third line
a perfect cloud shadow,
and the word “brilliant” in the middle of the poem
dear. “Hungry?” “Brilliant, yes,
fold together at the end (capped with a sly innuendo).
“Perfect, brilliant. Might I have another?” “Another what?”
And cows, one, and another, closer to heaven…
what’s up with that?
A kiss, a lick, “Miss me?”
“Of course, yes,”
you’re killing me here, my
dear. “Hungry?” “Brilliant, yes,
absolutely.” “And voila,” a nudge, a squeeze…
my stockinged foot curled
around your ankle, your shoulder
propped up on mine,
“we have grapes and brie, will you tear us
some bread?” A kiss, a lick,
“Miss me?” “Yes, yes.” “I put your book
with the magazines.”
“Perfect, brilliant. Might I have another?”
I erased the message. You were
already on your way. I barely heard you
pull the scent out of my ear
and put it in my
mouth again, where
I will kiss you.
Then I knocked over my café con leche.
What a mess. Papers, piles
of books, I had a book
in my hand.
I like it better now,
the table. The light cuts right
through. I think you’ll
like it too.
Last night I woke myself up
in a sea of popcorn. The movie
had long since
ended. It was disgusting.
So we’ve got clean
If only I had a little more
time. I take that back. I really
mean it. I wish
we hadn’t yelled goodbye
last time. I mean we
really screamed it.
No wonder there was a beautiful
fish in the market. The sky
dimmed the living room. And peonies
opened. No wonder
the cat’s lounging on the edge of the tub
while I’m making myself
makes it look
Five trucks are enough.
are home. We’re married
and covered. Nobody
for the first time.
You wait on me. I wait on
you. Your memory’s
Ralph Angel is the author of five books of poetry: Your Moon (2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize, New Issues Press, forthcoming); Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 (2007 PEN USA Poetry Award); Twice Removed; Neither World (James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets); and Anxious Latitudes; as well as a translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.
His poems have appeared in scores of magazines and anthologies, both here and abroad, and recent literary awards include a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association.
Mr. Angel is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA Program in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Seattle, he lives in Los Angeles.
Herewith a miraculous little story by Richard Farrell, a story I adore because it reaches beyond mere morality to what I think of as the higher calling of the heart. The hero is a deserter from the American Navy who is screwing his best friend’s wife. The friend dies, a dog dies, and yet the tone is sweet and sadly happy, infused with love, friendship and a deliciously amoral joie de vivre. The theme is captured beautifully in this wonderfully paradoxical sentence: “My friendship with Goethe—the evolution of it, the unraveling of betrayal and fear toward some grotesque, twisted loyalty—remains as strange a puzzle as anything I’ve ever encountered. And yet I would do anything for him, even stop fucking his wife, if only he’d ask me to.”
Goethe paces the cobby Pomeranian back and forth along a cement seawall overlooking the eastern Aegean until, after three or four passes, Charo settles on a perfect spot and squats. How I hate that dog. I am filled with shameful, violent thoughts toward it. My friend snaps the leash and the dog trots back toward us, leaving a steaming turd in the brown grass.
Goethe’s face appears heavy this morning. Our normally garrulous stroll has passed mostly without words. We scramble up mossy stairs from the seawall toward Isiodou Avenue in what’s become an increasingly awkward silence, as two-stroke mopeds crackle around corners like a hive of honeybees. It’s Tuesday, Port Day, and soon the cruise ships will arrive. A legion of sleepy young Greeks are zooming off to man their stalls for the onslaught of tourists.
The avenue snakes through hilly neighborhoods of the old city of Rhodes, then flattens out toward the park. We are headed for the ancient acropolis, which stands waiting in the shrinking shade of a tall cypress. The mopeds drone off into silence as we crest the hill. Endless sky tumbles toward a perfect blue horizon, a blueness broken only by myrtle shrubs and the Doric columns of the acropolis—half-a-dozen soot-stained columns with fluted shafts jutting into the sky like God’s craggy fingers. Goethe unhooks the dog and she darts off, running between ancient stones and red sage.
“They’ve discovered something in my lungs,” Goethe says. I know instantly it’s the worst news. He wouldn’t mention it if it weren’t.
“Jesus,” I say, uncertain about what follows.
“I’m going back to England,” he says. “I need to know you’ll stay and help Mary-Bell with the hotel.”
Mary-Bell is his wife and I’m fucking her.
Goethe knows about our affair. It’s one of his many charms—the fact that he doesn’t let this interfere with our friendship, our morning walks, our love of the ancient Greek island. I’ve been living with them a year, since abandoning my post as a division officer on the U.S.S. Austin P. Hall, leaving behind a locker full of khakis, half-a-suitcase of civilian clothes, two hundred bucks in cash, and a career of monotonous waves, gray hulls and loose discipline. Charmed by Mary-Bell. Charmed by Goethe. Charmed by Greece, by Rhodes, by the luminous sea. I walked away from that life and stayed.
“How long will you be gone?” I ask.
Goethe smiles. “I suspect I won’t be coming back. I suspect my departure from our island will be permanent.”
Goethe doesn’t look like he’s dying. Sixty-three and a few pounds overweight, he has only streaks of gray in his blond hair, and his skin remains taut and unwrinkled. There’s a sallowness about his face, a certain leathery hue. But then again, we all look a little yellow in the bright Greek sunshine. He walks three miles in the morning every day before coffee, and then walks again with the dog and me. He swims for an hour in the afternoon sea and runs around his hotel with the stamina and energy of a man half his age. It seems utterly absurd that he’s sick, beyond plausibility. But he’s not a joking man.
“When will you leave?” I ask.
“The day after tomorrow,” he says.
“I can’t stay here,” I say. I almost say “without you,” but choke this part back. “Maybe it’s time I faced certain things.”
“I don’t think so,” Goethe says. He lays his palm on my shoulder. “Let’s get a drink,” he says. “We need a drink. Sobriety is overrated at times like this.”
“Times like this,” I say. A beer is the last thing I need, but I won’t refuse his request. He whistles and the scruffy mutt trots back to us, its thin lips mocking me with a smile.
My friendship with Goethe—the evolution of it, the unraveling of betrayal and fear toward some grotesque, twisted loyalty—remains as strange a puzzle as anything I’ve ever encountered. And yet I would do anything for him, even stop fucking his wife, if only he’d ask me to.
Across the sea, a thin fog slowly parts, revealing the distant, purple shoulders of Turkish mountains. A massive cruise ship glides in toward Rhodes’ harbor. Two tugs churn out to meet the incoming ship. Wheezing plumes of sulfurous smoke rise from the tugs’ stacks and bend at right angles in the wind, forming parallel, black sevens against the cloudless sky as they mark time toward the luxury liner. I think about my father, the only man I ever loved the way I love Goethe. I’ve betrayed them both in different but profound ways.
We find an open bar and order beers on the patio. Charo snarls at me, then curls up at Goethe’s feet and falls asleep.
A year ago, when my ship arrived in Rhodes for some much needed liberty, Goethe walked in and found me doubled over his wife behind the reception desk of their hotel, her cigarette still burning in an ashtray next to the guest register. As I scrambled toward the exit, Goethe pumped shells into a shotgun chamber. I heard a crack, then a furnace blast of heat scorched my shoulder as buckshot penetrated my flesh. My skull smashed against the sliding half-door and I passed out.
I woke the next day at dinnertime with a throbbing headache and a flaming shoulder blade. Goethe turned away the shore patrol. He told them he had no idea where I’d gone. From my hotel bed, I watched as the Austin P. Hall weighed anchor and steamed out of port. I bid a silent but overdue farewell to my ship and its crew. The frigate cleared the seawall and disappeared. I was both set free and imprisoned.
While I healed, nibbling croissants and sipping ouzo beneath a sun porch, Mary-Bell delivered food and drinks to me on trays covered with pink hibiscus flowers. Twice a day, she changed the dressing on my shoulder. Twice a day, she nursed me back to health. Twice a day, she slid my boxers below my knees and gave me oral sex.
A week after the Austin P. Hall departed Rhodes—rendering me a fugitive, a deserter in a time of war—Goethe offered me a job at their hotel and I accepted. We were sitting on the patio, overlooking the sea. I was out of bed by then, stronger, though not yet healed. The sun baked against my bandaged shoulder.
He said the hotel needed repairs, and he spoke with humor of his ongoing battle against deleterious sea-air, a battle I was familiar with, a battle that every sailor knows must constantly be fought but can never be won. He said he couldn’t pay much but that I’d be a welcome guest.
“More than a guest,” he said.
I started to protest but he raised a hand.
“We will not speak of the unpleasantness between us,” he said. “A man comes to realize certain things about the ones he loves. There is a price to pay, but there is forgiveness on the other side.”
And though my shoulder burned, and the bruise on my skull had leeched from purple to yellow to green, I accepted his offer, the strangest one I’ve ever received. I had no other choice; going home meant facing disgrace, charges, shame, and quite likely prison. Staying meant something unfamiliar, something wild and new: sunshine, hibiscus flowers and the sound of Mary-Bell’s lips on me. I assumed, I believed deeply, that one day Goethe would kill me. But no one chooses the means, manner and moment of their death. So I shook his hand and accepted his offer. The rest, I told myself, was for the gods to sort out.
Back at the hotel, Mary-Bell lounges on a sofa and sips a fizzy orange drink through a straw. A small pink flower floats atop the slushy ice like a pink lily pad. Red hair hangs in long, ropy curls around her thin face. She is thirty-one but looks to be much older. The Mediterranean sun has raised dense freckles on her face and her breasts bulge from her shirt like whales breeching the sea’s surface. She takes in too much sun, drinks too much coffee and rarely has fewer than three drinks a day.
In a different century and climate, she might have been painted by Pissarro.
Pavlo, the hotel’s Croatian waiter, serves Goethe and me cappuccinos in tiny white mugs.
“She agrees with me,” Goethe says. “That it would be best if you stayed.”
Mary-Bell glances up.
“It’s impossible,” I say. “You’ve known since the beginning that I would eventually have to go.”
Mary-Bell sighs in an exasperated way.
“Nonsense,” Goethe says. “You have a home here. Go back and face what? Prison?”
She holds out a cigarette, which Pavlo lights, hovering over her like some colonial man-servant. I wonder, sometimes, if he’s sleeping with her, too. My own betrayals have made me vigilant for hidden signs: the length of their glances, the way Mary-Bell cups Pavlo’s wrist with her fingers as he leans in to light her cigarette. If she can cheat on Goethe with me, then why not cheat on me with Pavlo?
“I don’t understand why you can’t stay here for treatment,” I say. Mary-Bell is casting her fuck-me-now eyes in my general direction. It’s been over a day, a rare drought for us. She drives me wild, beyond the point of reason or logic.
“The Greeks stopped practicing medicine with Asclepius,” Goethe says. “Their doctors aren’t fit for goats. No, I’ll go home for this. Stewart will stay and help out. It is better all around. I won’t be gone long. A month, maybe two.”
His lies surprise me. But then again it’s all a web of thinly veiled deceit here. Everyone knows the truth but refuses to speak it.
He unscrews the top on a jar of nail polish and begins to paint the toes on Mary-Bell’s left foot. The paint color is tourmaline. I know this because the bottle sits on Mary-Bell’s night stand. I can see up her skirt—leopard print panties.
“I’m going with you, my love,” Mary-Bell says. “I’ve thought it over and I’ll not stay here alone. We’ll close the hotel. We are together in this.”
“You won’t be alone,” he says. “You two will stay and run things.” He nods to me and takes his wife’s other foot. “I’ll be back soon. We need the summer season.”
I object again, but Goethe silences me with a wave as if to say the matter is decided. Mary-Bell opens her legs wider, offering me a more expansive view.
In Goethe’s absence, everything will fly apart. I’m certain of this.
“You are a bad man,” Pavlo says as we walk into the kitchen. He wears a short white coat and a thin black tie. Were I to guess, I’d say he’s twenty-four, but he could be much older or younger. It’s impossible to say. “What will you do when Mr. Goethe is gone?”
“You just keep making the drinks,” I say. “Goethe will be back soon enough.”
“I must leave, too,” Pavlo says. “I need to return to my family.”
He’s never mentioned family before, and in two weeks it will be June. The hotel will be filled to capacity. I hope this is only a dramatic ploy, an attempt to grab my attention. Maybe he’s positioning himself for a raise in salary or an extra day off. Mary-Bell will need him here after Goethe leaves. She can’t run the place alone.
“Who will cover your shifts?” I say. “Don’t do this, Pavlo. Not now. Can’t it wait a month?”
He grins and shrugs his shoulders, and I realize again how much Goethe holds us all together.
That afternoon, when Goethe has gone to the market, Mary-Bell and I run off to their bedroom. She slaps my ass hard. She smells of gin and baby powder. I nibble the puckered blue dolphin tattoo on her ankle. The dolphin looks waterlogged, a time-stamped reminder that all of us, no matter how immortal we may feel on this island, are slipping away.
I kiss up her legs, one ear tuned for the sound of Goethe’s Citroen pulling back into the driveway, the other for the pitchy moans which mark her pleasure.
“You’re an ungrateful little shit,” she says. “You would leave me?”
“What choice do I have?” I ask.
“You’re so full of yourself,” she says.
“I’ve already stayed too long,” I say. “I have things to answer for. I have people who need to know that I’m alive.”
“What about me?” she asks. “Am I just a throwaway?”
I don’t answer, but kiss her harder, my tongue sliding up her leg. Her leopard panties are balled up on the floor.
Mary-Bell fucks like she’s on fire. I begin to understand why Goethe can’t die here. She’d mount his corpse. We collapse on top of each other listen for the sound of Goethe coming home. I won’t miss the fear, the sneaking around, the vigilance, but I will miss such burning passion.
Smitten. That was the word Goethe used to describe the moment he first saw Mary-Bell. She danced on the stages of a cruise ship. She glided on the waves for six months before coming to Rhodes. She must have seduced men by the dozen. Then one day she walked into the hotel and Goethe stood her a drink. The next morning, they married in town.
Goethe bought her one drink. That’s all it took. Me he had to shoot.
I rub my hand across her stomach and I swear she purrs, the heat from her body arousing me anew. Mary-Bell tells me often that she has only loved one man, Goethe, but could never be faithful to him. Goethe tells me he has loved many women but has only been faithful to Mary-Bell. I am their confessor, sinning and absolving in equal measure. I betray them both with every breath I take.
Goethe knows our affair didn’t end with the shotgun blast. He knows we fuck all the time, everywhere, every time he isn’t looking. When he goes for a swim, we do it in the bathroom. When he naps in the afternoon, she masturbates me on the couch. At night, when Goethe falls asleep watching the BBC, Mary-Bell and I sneak out to an empty room and do it again. I’ve never been with a more passionate woman, so constantly aroused. At the same time, I’ve never had a more honest trusting friend than Goethe. And he knows.
For reasons I may never understand, none of it matters to him.
I kiss her forehead and slip out of their bedroom. I need to leave this island. I need to go home and face my crimes. I need to hug my father and to apologize. I need to look him in the eye and tell him the truth.
I’m taking a shower when Goethe enters my cramped bathroom carrying a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. He sits on the toilet as I rinse soap from my eyes and the remnants of his wife from my scrotum.
“Limassol?” he asks. “Let’s hire a guide and go for one last partridge hunt on Cyprus?”
“I can’t stay here,” I say. “You have to know that.”
“A hunting trip will help you decide. Say yes. Don’t deny a dying man’s final wish.”
Goethe and I have hunted partridge many times together on Cyprus, and each time, I expect him to shoot me in the woods. The water runs down my body and into the drain. It’s my body that betrays me, not my heart. I wonder what my father tells his friends. “What’s become of Stewart,” they must ask. “Is he still in the Navy?” “Has he made Commander yet?” His son, a disgrace beyond words, except for the only word that remains: deserter.
“I can’t stay,” I say. “I won’t.”
“Nonsense,” Goethe says. “Where will you go?”
He passes a glass of vodka to me in the shower.
“The morning ferry to Limassol?” I say, rinsing the last drops of soap and sin from me. I sometimes secretly hope that he will shoot me again. “Grilled squab at sunset?”
“Smashing,” he says. “I was hoping you’d agree.”
My heart belongs to Goethe, my body belongs to his wife, and my shame belongs to my father. I drink the bitter vodka and shut off the water.
“I have something to tell you,” I say. From time to time, I’m overcome by a need to confess. I need to tell him why, why I can’t stay away from his wife, even if he already knows.
He hands me a towel and shakes his head.
“No death-bed confessions, Stewart,” Goethe says. “They’re so contrived.”
I grab the towel and he pours more vodka.
“You lied to her,” I say. “You told her you were coming back.”
Goethe grins. His white teeth glow beneath his tan skin.
“Truth should never hurt,” he says. “Not to the ones you love.”
The next morning, my shotgun packed and hunting clothes on, I come downstairs to a maelstrom. Three thousand euro is missing from the hotel safe and Pavlo, the Croatian waiter, has poured out the alcohol from every bottle into the bar sink. The empty bottles are scattered on the floor and counter like some ancient battlefield. Only half a bottle of limoncello remains, standing alone on the long, tile counter like a glowing, yellow joke. Goethe calmly rights the overturned bottles. The entire room smells of stale booze. Mary-Bell is enraged and stomps around the bar, cursing.
“Take the dog out, will you Stewart?” Goethe says to me over her rants.
When a man has no exits, the only way out is to go deeper in. I tell myself that falling in love with Mary-Bell remains the most viable option. Suicide stands a close second. Neither option is as crazy as they sound. At least with Pavlo gone, I no longer fear that Mary-Bell’s affection may be further divided.
I grab the leash but can’t find Charo. I call the dog’s name all around the hotel, but she’s nowhere. I search, in the gardens, in the hallways and in the alley behind the service entrance for the better part of fifteen minutes before giving up. I don’t need this right now.
I return to the lobby and tell them. Pavlo must have forgotten to latch the gate in the midst of his dramatic departure.
“The dog has slipped out,” I say.
Mary-Bell collapses into a sobbing lump. She moans, over and over, that surely she will die. She begs Goethe to call the police. At last he nods to me and I do it. I phone the station to report the theft, the vandalism and the missing dog.
“Looks like the morning ferry is off,” he says softly. “I never anticipated such a scene.”
“What will we do?” I say. “She won’t make it if that damned dog doesn’t return.”
But Goethe offers no solutions. We head out to search for the dog.
We cover the seawall, scanning the eastern shores. Children play in the sand. Waves crash and roll.
“I’ll miss you,” I say. The words tumble awkwardly from my mouth. I’ve never said such a thing to a man before.
He stares out to sea and places his purple-veined hand on my shoulder. I think of my own father, how confused he must be by what I’ve done. I haven’t spoken to him in fourteen months.
“You can be happy here, Stewart,” Goethe says to me. “It’s a good place to spend your days.”
“I’ve been gone too long,” I say. “I have to go back. Surely you understand that?”
“We’re all running from something,” he says. “We run and run until the race ends. In this case,” he points to his chest, “a tumor in the lungs.”
“My father deserves an explanation.”
“He’ll understand,” Goethe says. “Once I’ve gone, you’ll write to him. Invite him here. For a man to see his son living here, that will be enough.”
“He’ll never understand,” I say. “You don’t know him.”
“He’ll understand, Stewart. I know it seems impossible. But you have no reason to leave here.”
I shake my head. “I have even less reason to stay.”
We look through a dozen or more alleys before I finally spot the dog, curled up next to half-opened bags of garbage. Goethe bends down and lifts Charo off the cobblestones.
“Must have been a car,” he says. “Poor little thing.”
He places the dog onto a clean spot in the alley then disappears around the corner. I stand there, unsure where to look. The view is bad all around: trash, graffiti, dead dog. A few minutes later, he returns, carrying two plastic bags. He carefully slips Charo’s body inside the first, then places the first bag inside the second. There is such tenderness in the way he treats the dead animal. For the first time, I realize how his own mortality must weigh on his mind. I glimpse, in his handling of the dog, some gesture of what he must hope for. The act of dying is grotesque, but the handling of the dead is always an act of mercy.
He turns toward me and smiles.
“We will celebrate tonight,” he says. “We need one last night out before I go.”
“But Mary-Bell,” I say. “She’ll need us now.”
“Tut, tut,” Goethe says. “Our job is to live, not to dwell on death.”
We walk off toward a secluded spot on the cliffs. He places the bag on the ground and slips two large stones inside and ties it off. He points to the bag and then to me.
“Why me?” I say. “I want nothing to do with this subterfuge.”
He puts his hand on his back and makes a cranky face. “Bad back.”
So I lift the dog and the stones and heave it into the sea. It splashes below us and floats a moment on the surface, then sinks out of sight.
“One can only hope for a burial at sea,” he says. “She was a good dog, Stewart. A man should have a good dog.”
We don’t tell Mary-Bell about finding the dog. We let her believe that Charo is still missing, let her hope awhile longer. We let her do whatever she wants, just like always.
“I’m worried about Mary-Bell,” I say that night at a bar. I don’t know how we’ll get back to the hotel. We are already too drunk to walk much less drive.
“You have a lot to learn,” Goethe says. “Mary-Bell is tougher than both of us combined.”
“I think you’re wrong,” I say. “I think she puts on a brave face.”
“It’s been a good life,” he says, picking up his beer. “I have few regrets. It’s the goal, my friend. When you get to the end, one shouldn’t be filled with regrets.”
“I was engaged once,” I say. I’ve never told him this before. “She wanted four kids, a dog, a yard with a pool and a picket fence. A midnight blue Grand Cherokee in the driveway.”
“And you didn’t want those things?” Goethe asks.
“I thought I did,” I say. “Who knows what I really wanted.”
“It gets easier,” he says. “When you’re young, life seems endless, full of choices. Then those choices narrow. Things that matter come into focus. It becomes clearer.”
“Do you love her?” I ask him. “Do you love Mary-Bell?”
“With every breath I take,” he says without irony. “And I love you, too. It will be hard to leave you both.”
“She’ll destroy me,” I say.
Goethe smiles. “There are worse ways to go.”
Goethe slides a greasy sardine into his mouth and orders more beer. Though my head throbs already, I don’t object. When have I ever been able to object to him?
“My father flew Spitfires in the war,” he says. “Battle of Britain. ‘Never was so much owed by so many’ — all that good stuff. He shot down a dozen or so Nazi planes. Heroic chap, in his own way. One day, when I was about fourteen, I asked him if he ever felt bad about it. About killing another human being. The war had been over for years, but I wondered if it ever kept him up at night. I remember it quite vividly. We were in Hyde Park and it was raining. He seemed so old to me that day, though of course, he was much younger then than I am now. He looked at me quite seriously, in a way he never had before. A man to man way. He didn’t answer for a spell. Then he said, very simply, that he’d never thought of it before. Not once. He’d always just accepted it, the war, the killing. There was no guilt in it, no shame, no regret.”
“What are you telling me?” I say.
He shrugs. “It’s just a story about my father,” Goethe says. He hands me another beer which I don’t need. Then he adds, “We can never know people, Stewart. The soul is vast, an unknowable cave that opens unto other caves.”
“This is the wisdom you’re leaving me with?”
“No,” he says, smiling. “This is the wisdom I’ll leave with you. Every man needs three things: money enough not to suffer, someone to come home to at night, and a good dog. With those three things, you can lead a happy life. Don’t be greedy for more. Don’t look back so much. You’re smart, Stewart. You’re young and strong. Run the hotel. It might, in the end, be more than you need.”
“What will you tell Mary-Bell about the dog?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.
The next morning, a few hours before Goethe is set to fly off the island, I walk alone beneath the ramparts in Rhodes’ old city, where the Knights Hospitaller once defended the island against the Ottomans. Tourists stroll by, gawking as if these ancient walls were built only for their amusement. My head aches from last night’s booze and from all of this history. Rhodes is an ancient place. It’s been settled and conquered so many times. I sometimes wonder if the island has just grown tired. These days, it seems to yield its history and secrets up without a fight.
Back at the hotel, Goethe’s bags by the lobby door, I hear Mary-Bell on the phone. She’s talking to the police in Athens. They have arrested Pavlo trying to rob the cash register at another hotel. Inexplicably, Pavlo offered up Mary-Bell’s name as a reference and they called. Goethe whispers these details to me while Mary-Bell asks the detective if Pavlo knows about the dog. Pavlo must say, no. Nothing about the dog.
“In that case,” she says. “I’ve never heard of the little prick.”
She hangs up the phone and Goethe begins to laugh. Mary-Bell and I are soon laughing with him, all three of us in the kitchen laughing without restraint.
It is then that Goethe tells Mary-Bell that the dog is dead. He also tells her that there is no treatment for his condition. He delivers the bad news quickly, a one-two punch that I expect will knock her out.
But instead of coming apart, Mary-Bell takes the worst news with a stoic pride.
“I’m not dumb,” she says. “But you could’ve told me last night, before you two ran off to get drunk.”
I leave them together in the lobby. I watch Mary-Bell curl up close to her husband on a couch. He puts his arm around her shoulder and kisses her head. Goethe has refused my offer of a ride to the airport. We have already said our goodbyes and he will endure no further scene. I close the door behind me and leave them alone.
A cold and damp winter passes slowly until at last the rains let up. A crispness remains in the evenings but the days warm quickly now. I light a fire in the lobby and come back to our small apartment behind the front desk.
Mary-Bell wears a long robe and slippers. Her stomach pushes the robe out ever so roundly. The hotel is almost empty. We are still months away from the start of tourist season.
“Why didn’t he care?” I ask Mary-Bell again, for the thousandth time. “Why did he allow us to carry on as we did? Why didn’t he stop us?”
I ask her these questions over and over, but she never answers them. She holds to her secret knowledge the way she holds our child, as if caring for it is a woman’s work. I keep thinking that one time she’ll relent and tell me. But it’s equally possible that she doesn’t know the answers.
“Paint my toenails, Stewy,” she says, thrusting her foot towards my face. “Too many questions. You always ask too many questions.”
I reach for the jar of nail polish and unscrew the lid.
As I paint, Mary-Bell opens her robe and rubs palm oil over her stretched stomach. Her stomach is my favorite part of her body, that smooth shiny skin just below her navel. It never fails to arouse me, even more so since the child inside her has stretched the skin wider and made the surface smoother. The little boy she carries, my son, is due in a few weeks. She was pregnant then, when Goethe asked me to stay. He knew, but didn’t say anything. He wanted me to decide on my own. Mary-Bell said that he would never have told me about the child if I had chosen to leave.
Out in the hotel gardens blood-red anemone poppies have already bloomed over the spot where we buried a third of Goethe’s ashes. Another third stayed in Essex, buried with his mother and father, and the rest remain in a silver urn on the mantle. Mary-Bell has asked me to take the urn away before the baby comes. She says that it’s bad luck to leave the dead around when a baby arrives.
This morning, I wrote my father a letter and invited him to Rhodes to meet his grandson. I have no idea if he’ll accept my invitation, but I felt a great relief when I dropped that letter in the mail.
I finish painting Mary-Bell’s toes and reach for the other foot. I don’t believe her about Goethe’s remains. We both need Goethe close, and I know that when the time comes, she won’t ask me to move him. It would be impossible to erase his presence from our lives. It surrounds us like the sea air.
The puppy trots in from the other room and curls around its tail. We’ve named the dog Pavlo, at Mary-Bell’s insistence. I can only speculate on what secret pleasure this must give her. The dog yawns widely, wags its tail and looks up at me expectantly. It’s time for the dog’s nightly walk. Mary-Bell closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep as I finish painting her last toes. I rub her feet and I try to imagine what it will feel like to be a father. I try to picture my future son, what he will look like, what his interest and passions will be. I try to imagine what I will teach him about life, about love and desire and loyalty. I wonder what I will tell my son about Goethe and about all the many things that happened on this island before his birth. Is it even possible to explain? I pull a blanket over Mary-Bell’s round belly and turn off the light. The room falls quiet. In the distance, the slightest sound of breaking waves. I grab the leash and the dog jumps up, follows me to the door, wagging its tail with wonder at the many the adventures that wait on the other side.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has published at Hunger Mountain and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.
The first time I saw Ralph Angel lecture I was mesmerized and went away muttering to myself. He’d done something I’d never seen before. He had not only lectured about a poet and a form, but he had also ENACTED the form, the aboutness, in the PERFORMANCE of the lecture. In other words, to my mind he had invented a completely new way of lecturing, one which I have not yet been able to replicate myself (mutter, mutter). Although we do not have Ralph here to PERFORM this lecture, he does include an epigraph — the performance of the poem which is the poem — to remind us that this is his modus operandi and his way of conceptualizing both prose (lecture, essay) and poetry.
Ralph Angel is a dear and old friend and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a graceful human being whose inveterate coolness does not hide the fact that he wears his love of beauty and art on his sleeve where it is a constant challenge to us all to do the same.
It is the performance of the poem which is the poem. Without this, these rows of curiously assembled words are but inexplicable fabrications. –Paul Valéry
I was reading W. G. Sebald. I’d been reading his novels for a month or two. I was nearly finished with my fourth one, Austerlitz, the last of the four novels he published during his lifetime. And so I read the sentence:
When we took leave of each other outside the railway station, Austerlitz gave me an envelope which he had with him and which contained [a] photograph from the theatrical archives in Prague, as a memento, he said, for he told me that he was now about to go to Paris to search for traces of his father’s last movements, and to transport himself back to the time when he too had lived there, in one way feeling liberated from the false pretenses of his English life, but in another oppressed by the vague sense that he did not belong in this city either, or indeed anywhere else in the world.
And I stopped reading there, though it was early in the day, and I had no commitments or responsibilities to speak of. And the sentence itself was not of particular significance, I mean no more or less significant than any other deeply haunted, contextually complex, beautifully-composed ongoing sentence in this or any other Sebald novel. I mean there were only forty or fifty pages left in a book I was in love with, but I stopped there because I couldn’t bear to finish it. I mean, like I said, he only wrote four novels.
I thought back to Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer I read and read before I started reading Sebald. And as with Sebald, I’d read little else than Saramago novels for months, literally. I thought back to the sanctuary of his language. Luxurious and running on, each sentence composed of a number of sentences strung together, wave after wave of solace and connectedness. And I longed for the comfort of “the Iberian peninsula breaking off at the Pyrenees from the European continent and drifting off to sea” because the language of the novel could contain and make perfectly believable such fantastical reality.
I love the true and beautiful lie of the novel. The illusion of completeness it provokes. The way it makes everything whole. Like a great poem, of course, a world unto a world unto the world of itself. A sanctuary I can withdraw to. A language that can nurture and sustain me.
And so I thought of Nicanor Parra and Rimbaud and Dickinson, the poets I’d been reading obsessively and compulsively before bathing myself in Saramago and Sebald. And that was my morning, lost in thought and longing and the uncomfortable sense that reading the last few pages of Austerlitz would be my ruin.
But the damage was done, I suppose. I finished reading Austerlitz because I could not bear the very idea of reading anymore. I was sick of it, frankly. I took long walks in the city. I visited a favorite painting or two. I rummaged through many stores. For the first time in a long time, I felt at home again in neighborhood cafés.
And I felt horrible, too. For it had been a terrible time, those last months. A horrible, wretched, awful time. But not so much. I mean everyone was more or less okay, everyone I knew, I mean. And I’d been luxuriating in the sanctuary of poems and novels, hadn’t I? And in such completeness I’d felt whole. Or I think I did. Everything had changed. That sense of wholeness was breaking down, breaking apart, like a tulip, before my very eyes.
It was as if I had just finished making another poem. Compose a last line, and then what? Nothing, that’s what. And nothing is the reason that whatever else my experience has taught me, it has taught that no matter how I think a poem can be made, it will get made some other way, if it gets made at all, and then I’ll be struck by amnesia again for the how many-eth time in my life.
And the truth of the matter is that for all those months of reading novels and poems and collections of poems, books of history and science and everything under the sun, I’d made nothing. Call it what you will, a period of transition, a blank page, a kind of exile.
All a writer wants to do is put words upon a page. I mean I spent time in my study each day, each day I was in town. And I read and read and read. And some days I put down a few lines, and felt good, and that was that. And maybe the next day I put down a few more lines, or not, that’s the way things go. But sure as rain I’d make the same discovery. The lines were bad. It was all crap. For months I’d failed.
You see, if I allow myself to finish something I tend to trust it, trust it enough even to put it into the world. And if I don’t, well, I throw it away, literally, into the garbage can where it belongs. You see, if some orchestration of language or other is important it’s inside me somewhere, sometimes for a long time, and it’ll make itself heard again when it’s good and ready.
One morning. like most mornings, I was sitting out back having a cup of tea and listening to the birds and the leaves of the trees. There is a lovely Florentine birdbath in the yard. Tucked away somewhat, among a loquat, an avocado and two eucalyptus trees.
And while drinking my tea, the birds, as they visited the birdbath, reminded me of Joseph Cornell’s “Dovecot” (American Gothic), a favorite of mine. It’s quite abstract, as are all the boxes that were inspired by Emily Dickinson.
Cornell’s dovecot is very white, or sun bleached, or whitely weathered somehow. Many of the arched entrances are still in tact. Of course the wood is old, and the paint, too, is old, and some apartments have long gone derelict and vacant. A small white ball is perched just inside a few of the entrances, like the fluttering dove or pigeon that surely lives there, or will surely pass through someday. They are, of course, the little balls, implacably what they are. The don’t look at all like eggs.
I went inside, of course. I mean I thought of Saramago. After an hour or two of searching, I read this passage:
For several moments [the two men] remained silent, then José Anaiço rose to his feet, took a few steps in the direction of the fig tree as he drank the rest of his wine, the starlings kept on screeching and began to stir uneasily, some had awakened as the men spoke, others, perhaps, were dreaming aloud, that terrible nightmare of the species, in which they feel themselves to be flying alone, disoriented and separated from the flock, moving through an atmosphere that resists and hinders the flapping of their wings as if it were made of water, the same thing happens to men when they are dreaming and their will tells them to run and they cannot.
It was, of course, a familiar landscape, the way landscape is huge, and it gets bigger and bigger, what with travel and change and moving around in one’s life. I think, in fact, that I carry my sense of place inside me. And it gets altered over and over again, and so too, therefore, does my sense of who I am.
It was a piece of something, that Saramago passage. A fragment. Like a construction site or a cathedral, the undulating surface of a river I walked along somewhere, a face that stood out among a group of faces at a crosswalk. It’s what I wanted. A broken tile.
It took me I don’t know how long to find a paragraph in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel I hadn’t read in twenty years. It was only two sentences:
As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty six eggs to make bread.
A few days later I found another sentence in One Hundred Years of Solitude that I wanted to hear:
‘Open the windows and doors,’ [Úrsula] shouted. ‘Cook some meat and fish, buy the largest turtles around, let strangers come and spread their mats in the corners and urinate in the rose bushes and sit down to eat as many times as they want, and belch and rant and muddy everything with their boots, and let them do whatever they want to us, because that’s the only way to drive off ruin.’
I thought of “The Dead,” the James Joyce story. But not the story. Not the whole. Just the last paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon the living and the dead.
I went back to Stevens. To the last stanza of “Man On the Dump”:
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
And to a fragment from Sappho:
…………………and I on a pillow
will lay down my limbs
I could no longer bear the sanctuary of feeling whole. It didn’t feel right. Without thinking about it or knowing what I was doing I’d moved away from that. I walked in my own dark. Every novel is a fragment, I thought. Every poem.
Another favorite Cornell box is titled L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode: cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle. It is lined with marbled paper. It’s made up of rows of glass bottles with glass trays and compartments along the sides. Everything there, and everything here, is in his exotic desert apothecary. “A layer of red sand with a broken piece of comb, slivers of plain and frosted glass, and a porcelain doll’s hand and arm broken at the elbow.” “A plastic disk and three tiny metal spoons.” “Plastic rose petals.” Each bottle is labeled. “Each label refers to an aspect of Egyptian life: Sauterelles refers to grasshoppers and locusts: Nilomètre is an instrument used to measure the Nile’s waters, especially during floods. Another contains a photo, set in yellow sand, of a woman with hair parted in the middle and pulled back into a loose bun; she wears a choker and a dress with a revealingly low neckline and puffed sleeves. She is Cléo de Mérode herself, as captured by Nadar and preserved in this bottle for eternity.”
All this stuff. All these things. Joseph Cornell understood that it was his job to walk the city, and to rummage through the fragments that are there, and to collect them, and that it was his job, too, to go back home and, in his quiet, to do the work, time and time again, in his quiet, to get things done.
I often wonder how we would live our lives as they were lived forever and ever before time was standardized and we became so enslaved to it. And when was that? A hundred and fifty years or so ago. For as with my sense of place, I carry my past and my present and my future inside me, and all of it’s fair game. I mean my life comes to me like that, doesn’t it, as a kind of ongoing dialectic. My imagination doesn’t unfold in any linear way, for example. And memory, too, is a collage at best, fragments of experience in hairline fractures of time. The present can be as impressionistic and surreal as dream. And who doesn’t sense profoundly one’s connectedness to a vast, immeasurable continuum. It’s wacky out there, in the world, but it’s precisely how we experience our lives, I think. In fragments and moments, in glimpses and strange, delicate solitudes. It’s what presence and immediacy are made of.
I don’t believe there is any such thing as writer’s block. All I know is that there are periods of time, and, at times, protracted periods of time, when I have to throw everything away. And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.
I remembered a few lines from Henri Michaux:
Draw without anything particular in mind, scribble mechanically: almost always, ……….faces will appear on the paper…
And most of them are wild…
So much for memory, I thought.
And then the last page of Anne Frank’s diary:
A voice within me is sobbing, ‘You see, that’s what’s become of you. You’re surrounded by negative opinions, dismayed looks and mocking faces, people who dislike you, and all because you don’t listen to the advice of your own better half.’ Believe me, I’d like to listen, but it doesn’t work, because if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks I’m putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke, and then I’m not even talking about my own family, who assume I must be sick, stuff me with aspirins and sedatives, feel my neck and forehead to see if I have a temperature, ask about my bowel movements and berate me for being in a bad mood, until I just can’t keep it up anymore, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if…if only there were no other people in the world.
And that was that.
Just silence. I’d stepped into it again, before I heard it. Outside the sanctuary of books and things, I pace around. I don’t read anything. Outside the language of the worlds of others, and of their images, their chipped off fragments, their deadly shards and petals, I grow quiet. I don’t read anything. For days and days, sometimes, I don’t leave the house. I don’t read anything. I step out into the silence of my own darkness. And I can hear there. Just silence. And in silence, my own language returns to me. I feel euphoric. Mostly I’m just skittish. But I can hear myself, in my unknowing, word by word, line by line, and sometimes things get done.
Every novel is a fragment. Every poem. And every fallow period, too.
It’s what I do.
There is no staying here
except we who are set apart and different
observe ourselves and say “Thank you, a coffee,
yes, and toast, too.”
This is tomorrow. Scissors
and silverware, a pencil on the table,
we have to keep escaping
always into something like a courtyard
where the salt breeze trembles with branches
and nothing has changed
for decades. No one is lost again
on the surface of the pool.
Then all of a sudden
I am as much as sitting at the desk
of a man bewildered by my being here
and by the clouds behind me
the skyline, and maybe
somewhat shaken, too, it’s hard to say,
what with loneliness and
everything alive inside
into its metal frame.
You are the perfect distance
when I think of you
I can’t see down the road too far, thank God,
not all the time.
This late in the season
the promenade is nearly deserted,
its few words wandering aimlessly
here and there in the quiet
occurring just now.
Pigeons have battered
senseless the archways and the highest doors,
but my heart is not complaining.
That’s why, but never mind,
what I’m trying to say
makes faint scratching sounds
upon the paper,
and if the message is less than clear, tonight,
my love, please know
that I’m just a little
out of practice.
Ralph Angel is the author of five books of poetry: Your Moon (2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize, New Issues Press, forthcoming); Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 (2007 PEN USA Poetry Award); Twice Removed; Neither World (James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets); and Anxious Latitudes; as well as a translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.
His poems have appeared in scores of magazines and anthologies, both here and abroad, and recent literary awards include a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association.
Mr. Angel is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA Program in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Seattle, he lives in Los Angeles.
New Year’s Day, the beginning of Numéro Cinq‘s fourth year of publication — we have a lovely example of a set essay, a beautiful, poignant, shocking evocation of a Manhattan childhood from Tiara Winter-Schorr. NC publishes three set essays: Childhood, What It’s Like Living Here and My First Job. And by set essay, I mean an essay written to our guidelines, not exactly free form (though, of course, in the hands of a terrific writer the set essay always departs in imaginative ways from its guideline roots). We have had some wonderful results from this project. See the slider at the top of the page for more stellar examples of the Childhood series. And don’t forget that Melissa Fisher’s “My First Job” won the $1,000 3 Quark’s Daily Arts & Literature Prize in 2012. After you read Tiara’s latest contribution, take the time to browse the set essay archives and see what our contributors have accomplished.
Prologue: Exile in the City
My story begins when my grandfather slaps my pregnant 19-year-old mother to the ground in the backyard of his house on Smith Street in Glens Falls, NY. She is carrying my brother and engaged to a black man she met at college. My grandfather is a decorated World War II soldier who weds himself to German pride and American patriotism. He knocks my mother back into the muddy spring earth when she reminds him that her own mother is Filipina and his marriage is interracial. My grandmother sits on a swing, silent but crying. The child doesn’t deserve to live, he says. Get out, he says.
Days later she is in New York City, noticing that the sky here is never a uniform shade of black but rather a deep red shot through by light from yellow street lamps. She moves through the whole city in a span of nearly 40 years. My brother and I are both born in different corners of the city, but he dies in Glens Falls near Smith Street, on his first visit home, the first time the family has tried to remember itself since his birth. Almost a decade has passed. A day comes during this reunion when he is biking down a dead-end street with our cousins and is killed by a man named Ralph Midgette who is drunk behind the wheel of his vehicle. My grandfather uses his army training to run a heart pump, trying to keep my brother alive. My brother dies three days later. At Ralph’s trial, my mother asks the court for leniency because his wife will be left alone to support five children. The court grants her request.
My mother returns to the city under a red night sky to begin another period of exile, one of grief and searching. Four years later, I am a clump of cells stuck to her insides and her search is ended. She waits for me and walks through Times Square on nights when I do not stop kicking. She teaches me the city streets by the rhythm of her muffled footsteps.
I am born during an autumn storm, the kind that is composed of continuous rumbling thunder and spurts of lightening. My mother’s water breaks in bed and I am born in a flash, in less than an hour. I sleep in a bassinet next to her hospital bed instead of in the nursery down the hall with other babies. She lives only for her children but she is also an art teacher, a photographer, a runner, and a reluctant wife. My father is an art professor, a painter, a writer, and an asthmatic.
Love is always fresh between them, the kind of freshness that makes a tone of voice warm even in the coldest of times. Over the years, they pass me artifacts of their love: a gemstone belt buckle from my mother, a silver ring with the sign of Christ from my father, stacks of photographs that also seem to be memories.
My parents — Justin Schorr and Sharon Winter (holding me as a one-year-old) — 1982
Is he your real father?
People ask this rudely before I am old enough to understand. Yes, he is real from the time I am born, mopping his paint-splattered floor 17 times before my mother arrives home with me. He puts his name on me and my birth certificate so he will never be reduced to a step-father. At night he sings to me in a flat voice that is all gravel and we dance across the living room until I rub my eyes into his neck, fighting sleep. He has a sharp smell that hangs around him, a mix of turpentine for his work and peppermint candies for his indigestion. His canvasses cover the white walls, mazes of color, gobs of paint like gems and smears of nameless shades.
My mother straps me to her chest and we move from the darkroom to the bedroom to the kitchen, where steam from the pots and pans make me sweat. I remember straining my neck to watch her hands develop film in one room or chop vegetables in another. Eventually, always listening, she turns me facing outward so I can watch. I am probably a year old by now. I become fascinated with watching by the time I am two. She gives me my first camera, a black plastic Olympus with a sliding lens door, when I am two and a half. I take pictures of her from the ground up, so she is enormous like a towering religious statue.
Home is 106 Morningside Drive, a building sitting at the top of a long hill which rises above Harlem. Apartment 83 is half art studio, half home. The hallway is an endless passage that leads into a jungle. The jungle is actually a double living room with an archway that is entirely obscured by plants. Six-foot trees lean into wandering Jews that snake down into the wide leaves of a dumbcane. Then there is a green creature with leaves like giant four-leaf clovers that can cover me entirely when I am two. A palm tree bends against the ceiling, entangled with a wall of green leaves and reaching plants. The wall of deep and light green leaves separate the double living room and takes a space large enough that I can disappear in the greenery.
I learn to run like my mother. I use her white cowboy boots and round sunglasses to do it. The boots are stiff, too stiff to let my knees bend but I run anyway and I keep running the passage until I fall. I do it again. The hallway is also lined with my father’s paintings, gargantuan squares of pastel color and splashes of white and black. They are secure, like him, stuck down solidly and easy to use as a way to steady myself during a burst of running. My mother stands at the end of the hall every day, ready to help me put the boots back on or carry me away after a bad fall.
I do not hear my parents argue until I am at least ten years old, but my father moves out when I am three and does not return home until he is nearing the end of his life.
My mother and I walk relentlessly because we both have jumpy, energetic legs accustomed to sprinting. We start at Mondel’s Chocolates. The darkness under the awning is always deceptive, a bit scary but also enticing because of the window overstuffed with all three kinds of chocolates, the milky kind that slides easily to the back of my throat, the dark kind that puckers my mouth as if it is lemon, and the silky white kind that is too sweet and smells like vanilla. Rows of these multi-colored candies rise above my head so far that I can tilt my head back until I am dizzy and still see more rows of raspberry-drizzled chocolates and truffles decorated with tiny red flowers made of sugar frosting. To one side are the stacks of chocolate and to my other side is a tower of stuffed animals like jungle animals tied to a skyscraper. Gorillas at the top and tigers at the bottom are large enough to almost frighten me, but the smell of melting dark chocolate that hangs persistently is a constant reminder that this place traffics in magic and wonder. Kaleidoscopes hang at different angles from the ceiling, the paper kind that shoots simple patterns of color toward your eye and the glass kind with crystal that spins out the most intricate patterns your childish eye can detect. The world fragments into a million pieces and comes together again in shifting sequences of light and color. Look into a kaleidoscope and you are down the rabbit hole, the smell of liquid chocolate in your nose and the constantly shifting patterns of light and dark, candies and tigers and odd flashes of colored glass that tumble toward your eye like gemstones.
Mondel’s Homemade Chocolates, NYC 1985
Kevin is a homeless man who haunts the streets between Morningside Drive and the lower sections of Broadway around Columbia University. He sings. I am holding my mother’s hand, leaving Mondel’s, and I hear a deep sound like I only hear on the rare occasions we go to church. He is a tiny man in dark clothes that are torn in different places. I remember his shoulder being exposed to the cold sunlight. My mother drops my hand to search her pockets for money as he keeps singing. The tone is as soothing as the lingering smell of melted chocolate. I see Kevin again on these walks and eventually in front of the building where I live. One year, my mother brings him upstairs to give him a piece of my birthday cake and he sings again, this time happy birthday. Days before, he intervenes between her and a potential rapist as she arrives home late from work. I know unspoken rules are broken when she brings this man into our building but I am proud and his voice takes me back to Mondel’s that cold day and the warmth of my mother’s hands.
Sometimes we stop for wings and fries at The West End Gate, an expansive dive bar where William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg notoriously performed on a regularly drunken basis. The tables are etched by knife carvings that have dates I cannot fathom, like 1968 and 1977. I remember tracing my finger into the carvings and listening to stories of poets who used to spit lines of lyrical obscenity on a small raised platform in the back of the dive. It is a place of old poems and mysterious men and loaded nachos. It is a continuous fall down the rabbit hole and into wonderland. The world opens into a kaleidoscope of shadows, colors, banquets of candies, and long concrete streets dotted with homeless singers and lost poets.
My father teaches art and architecture at Columbia University, a sprawling red-brick and white limestone array of structures. My mother earns her doctorate here so the campus is a constant in my life, coloring more memories than I can count. The lawns and open plaza with two overwhelming fountains that spout water straight into the air and back into a surrounding pool are two places on campus that substitute for a backyard. All the faculty children play here, running the noisy and shaky ramp meant for wheelchairs and pulling brightly colored flowers from the manicured grounds. I find my place at the edge of the fountains because here ladybugs collect and frequently drown. I remember bursts of red flowers, so distant from my perch on the fountain’s edge. The red shells of the ladybugs are more compelling and my favorite pastime becomes rescuing the water-logged and semi-conscious creatures from the fountain.
Columbia University, circa 1987
One autumn I bring home a rescued ladybug even though my father tells me it is dead. I keep its tiny body in a box my mother gives me. The box has a tan seashell as a top, and it is lined with mirrors on the inside and mother-of-pearl on the outside. The motionless ladybug lay there on the windowsill through a blizzard and then a thaw. When the air is warm enough, I open the box. I blink, and the ladybug vanishes. Maybe it blew out the window, my father says. Ladybugs hibernate, says my mother. She has flown away with the spring air.
Columbia sits at the border of Harlem and also slightly above it, perched at a higher elevation. This means that Harlem is first a picture out of my living room window. The late 1980s in Harlem means rows and rows of burn-out buildings. Police sirens and the Mr. Softee ice cream truck jingle are sounds from below that slip in through open windows. The windowsill is a place to sit because at night there are fires burning in the park that separates our small area from Harlem. During the day, you can see into the park and it looks like a vast and desolate wilderness. In fact, in the 1980s, it is a kind of no-man’s land reserved for junkies and homeless people. Not many people cross this border but one day I am sitting on the windowsill and three shots ring out. Suddenly my mother is there and I am carried away. Later, I hear my mother and my father talk about the black Exeter student from Harlem who was killed by a police officer for no clear reason other than the fact that he had crossed the park and started walking up toward the university. The rationale behind his killing remains controversial, a symbol of the clash between an ivory tower and the forgotten ghetto beneath it.
View of Harlem in 1985, from the living room window of apt 83
Harlem is not just a place of fiery nights and distant gunshots. Harlem is also the manic bustle of 125th street, where motorized cars hang from toy store ceilings. My mother buys me one with whitewall tires, 1920s style. The smell of African incense and the roasting meat from street vendors is not the smell of melting chocolate like at Mondel’s. This is the smell of the street, food and religion and grease all rising from the pavement. There are men like Kevin who live in the street but none of them sing when we pass by.
The last time I remember seeing Kevin I am coming down a winding staircase of a building that belongs to Columbia. My mother is with me and when he sees her, he tell us both that the university guards arrested him for using the bathroom to pee and this is why he has been gone so long. I am ashamed when he says this even though my mother calls them pigs for taking him away. I am ashamed of the dangerous park and the clean white buildings and the guards in their blue suits that call me honey when I pass by to go to my father’s office.
The borderland that is Morningside Heights is a collision of poor and privileged during the mid to late 1980s, but apartment 83 with its jungle of plants and windows onto other worlds is still a place of quiet love.
Gems and Bones
The first time I see a six-foot amethyst geode I am standing in a darkened room surrounded by towering gems that have been carved out in the center like narrow caves. These gems are housed by The Museum of Natural History, a place my father brings me regularly so we can stare up at the gigantic stones. Above us in a room as bright as the gem room is dark, a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is encircled by a metal gate as if he might escape. I am four years old and easily able to imagine a time when monsters roamed the earth but the bones are bleached white and held together by shiny chrome screws, like the skeleton hanging in my mother’s darkroom. My father and I ride the escalator between the gems and the bones, going back and forth to examine each. The dark purple hues of the amethyst and the striped green malachite are like his paintings, except the colors to do not crash and collide like they do on canvas.
My mother’s darkroom, 1984
My father’s smell of turpentine and oil paint comes from his hours locked away in a painting studio at the university. I visit him there a few times, shocked and delighted by the way he splashes paint at the canvas and by the way his balding head and calloused hands are spattered with color specks when he is done. There are rows and rows of wooden easels, some cracked and repaired and others freshly varnished. This is his factory, a place where his smell becomes the smell of art and safety, where canvasses appear and are hung like smashed geodes mounted on the walls.
My mother’s darkroom doesn’t scare me, even though the light is pure red most the time and the skeleton hangs in the corner against a black velvet background. The jaw is loose so she lifts me up and I snap it open and closed, as if bones can come alive and speak. I name him “skellie” and soon my mother is teaching me to develop film, shaking canisters and watching images appear like magic as the chemicals seep into the paper. The darkroom makes me dream of gypsies because of tarot cards pinned to the walls and the clutter of religious items. Pictures of my late uncle and late brother are scattered about and here in the darkroom is where I begin to learn about my brother’s death. The red light colors everything. My mother’s hair looks almost black. Family stories sound like magic tales about long-lost people. She plays Stevie Wonder songs as we work, and when we leave the darkroom, the plain white light of the living room is like wandering out of Wonderland and into reality.
My grandmother goes by “nannie,” the name French children use for their grandmothers. She doesn’t want to be called grandma. The French excuse comes up when I am fifteen and I am bold enough to ask why I cannot call her grandma. I want something irrevocable, some variant of grandmother. It is late in her life and we have fallen in love over mixed drinks and shopping trips and manicures during her rebellious months-long trips to visit me and my mother. She tells me lifetimes of stories, the life she lived as a wife and the life as a violinist denied to her.
My grandmother, Virginia de Borse, circa 1921
The first time I try to learn to play the violin I am four and unhappy. I sit for a photo after the first lesson, scowling and frustrated by sore fingers. The teacher has forceful hands that pushed my fingers to reach the notes. That year my grandmother sends a miniature stuffed terrier with a note attached to his neck: “He is afraid of thunderstorms. He is lonely.” By this time my grandmother and I have met several times, but I never remember her afterwards. I remember the house on Smith Street. The attic. A violin she has refused to play since my uncle’s suicide and stories of lost chances to go study in New York City when she was young. The terrier sits near my violin at the top of my closet until the night of a storm that brightens the sky above Harlem with thick bolts of lightening like streaks of daylight breaking through. I watch from the living room window and then take the terrier out of the closet. I wonder if he is really lonely. You were born in a thunderstorm, my mother reminds me.
Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985
The house on Smith Street smells like Avon products from my grandmother’s cache of beauty products and vanilla tobacco from my grandfather’s pipe. I am about four the first time we meet. He lifts me on to his lap while I struggle to tie my shoe, frightened that he is even bigger than my own father. He tells dirty jokes and tells me stories from the Old Testament. The details of the jokes are gone but the story of Jacob’s struggle to reconcile with God in place of his own brother is with me. My grandmother is a woman who sits behind a wall of silence, even when she giggles or rises to vacuum.
I find the attic hidden behind a door with a short flight of steps that are too steep for me. The attic is a place of living ghosts. The beams of the ceiling are exposed and cobwebbed but the lighting is bright and the stacks of clutter seem to have their own logic. I look down from the beams and see a wooden bench. He sits on it, a white plaster shell of a former person. His face is unpainted and expressionless, a face made of places where bones might protrude. Night in Glens Falls is blacker than the city and the window behind him throws my reflection back at me with his and we are doubled and I am scared. But not scared enough to run and I watch him in his hunched-over position. This is the closest I have come to a likeness of my Uncle David other than in photographs, which usually show a dark-skinned man cooking or wrapped around congo drums. I have seen plaster casts before in my parents’ art studio but nothing like this, nothing that captures the hollowness of a man whose death was ruled a suicide.
After learning the smells and finding the attic, I remember leaving Smith Street for the first time. I am afraid of my grandmother. We are eating dinner and the crack of her palm against my cousin’s cheek is like the gunshots I hear back in the city, but this is closer and this is my cousin who can punch numbers into the phone pad and make it ring back like magic. I remember the sound and feeling sick in my stomach. My mother’s voice was louder than the slap and angrier. I don’t remember when we left, only standing in the street facing my godmother while my mother and grandfather talked on the porch. My grandmother and cousin did not come out of the house. The day was cold, the kind of barren cold that sets in after Christmas when nearly every day is the sky is grey or white. My grandmother goes silent, along with my grandfather, for four years.
When I meet my grandmother again I am ten years old and I think of this attic in a home where she raised seven children and gave her hands over from music to ushering her children and grandchildren in and out of life. I am 15 before she ever mentions death to me and then it is only to say, “I live with it every day.” My grandfather is at her side when she says it and he nods but neither look at me.
By the time I am ten, my grandmother is living in central Florida, a lush overgrown place where alligators wander onto highways and lizards dart across sun-scorched grass. I visit with my mother twice, once taking a road trip down the east coast on our way. The sun toasts my skin two shades of darker each time I am there. My grandmother is quiet in Florida, nearly silent, just as she had been in Glens Falls. My grandfather still tells Old Testament stories, although now his mornings begin with whiskey. The house is sprawling and modular this time instead of brick. The southern sun pushes through every curtain until even shadows disappear. My grandmother wears black boots, pointy and shiny like a witch. She stares at them so much in her silences that I start to stare with her. She stares at them especially when my grandfather speaks. Gook, he says to her, and she never talks back. He says it one day when we are sealed indoors, hiding from 103 degrees of spring heat. I am hot and angry about this place where people use racial slurs and the heat does not relent for even a day. Where’d you learn to hate? I ask my grandfather. Why am I even in your house, old man? I think to myself. He waits for my mother to chastise me but she doesn’t. When he answers, he does not tell me why he hates:
At the height of my military career, I am an intelligence officer over a battalion of men. I make decisions in a split fraction of a second because men’s lives depend on me. One day I am guarding my camp and an Asian woman is pushing her baby carriage, back and forth, back and forth, over a bridge. As she passes, explosions begin that carry through the camp. I wait long enough to lose at least one man. When she is within sight, I stand up and shoot her in the head at long-range. I make sure the baby dies with her. I had to do it.
Days later, a storm takes Florida that is mythic in its darkness and battering rain. Tiny frogs stick to the windows with suction cup feet. I am afraid to go outside. I sit on my grandmother’s bed with her, her white German Shepherd, and my mother. I listen to her tell my mother that the war still lives in my grandfather so vividly that he has slept every night with a gun under his pillow since he came home in the 1940s. The gun points toward her head and does every night, she says, but she is also pulling out her violin as she talks. The antique violin, casketed in a peeling case she has kept since tenth grade, is made of wood so old that I count the tiny cracks along the edges when she opens the case. The story of being forbidden to attend Juilliard by her mother stays with me. She would not be a mother or a wife if she had been allowed to pursue music, she says. She promises to give me the violin then, and silently I pledge to learn to play.
The second time I try to play the violin I am using my grandmother’s instrument and she is flying between New York City and Florida with uncharacteristic bursts of independence. I am 15 and for a moment her silences are punctuated by the roar of engine jets and the squeaking of her violin bow in my hands. My grandfather makes one trip with her and lays a shotgun across my mother’s kitchen table. I wander in and out to get a snack before I realize what he is saying. No one will break my family up or take my wife, he is saying to my mother. The violin is yours, she is saying to me as she packs.
I never learn to play my grandmother’s violin. But it stays with me, always with me, shrouded in its case from 1935, like a living memory. I am still exiled in New York City but also rooted here now, in this city where my grandmother was forbidden to go and where my mother was left to wander alone. When my grandmother leaves, passing her violin to me, I know I will never see her again. And here, in accepting what is given to me, my childhood draws to a close.
Tiara Winter-Schorr decided to become a writer 12 years ago in one of Douglas Glover’s classes at the University at Albany-SUNY. She received a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and is beginning an MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2013. She lives in Manhattan with her mother. See also her earlier essay “What It’s Like Living Here.”