Feb 062016

Sean Riley Sean Riley in Morocco

One eye sees, the other feels. – Paul Klee

I first saw the work of artist Sean Riley at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY. His exhibition “Everyday Will Be Sunday” included paintings, sculptures and a series of quilts made solely from his father’s clothing (ordinary blue jeans and sweatshirts, etc.), which he inherited upon his father’s death. These garments were painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed into incredibly moving art objects, one quilt featuring hand-embroidered words from a traditional gospel hymn, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down, Everyday will be Sunday.” There are some mysteries about these works I would like to leave intact; others that have become obsessions, which have stayed with me since 2012.

Indeed, many poets have written about the clothing of the dead. There’s Anne Carson’s “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” and “The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos, but I have found no art with the impact of Riley’s. And so, I have repeatedly watched the few video interviews of him, one with artist Michael Oatman, one with Tracy Baker-Whiteand caught a few of the phrases, a few of the subjects that interest him, as if trying to find loose threads upon which to pull when engaging this thoughtful, sometimes reticent young man.

Exhibition View EDWBSEveryday Will Be Sunday, 2012
[Exhibition view, Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy, NY]

MKJ: You speak about collecting objects of utility and having an interest in simple objects that have an honesty or truth inherent in them. What do you think elevates ordinary things to the realm of “sacred” (if this is the correct word)?

SR: I certainly don’t find all utilitarian objects sacred, and that’s kind of why I like them, because they can be so ordinary. And I think their ordinariness comes from the fact that they are created to perform a specific task, and in that, their form becomes very unique in order to perform that task. I have a particular interest in kitchen objects, because they can be so strange. Sometimes I don’t even know what they are made for, but can tell they are very specific to a certain task.

I like to leave room in my own practice so that the function of the work or purpose of the work dictates the form. I try to allow any type of media to be possible or available to me when I’m working, so whether it be quilting, embroidery, painting, or sculpture, it’s all there to serve a greater purpose, whatever I’m following, or whatever I’m seeking.

MKJ: You also talk about the connection between “the eye, the hand, and the picture plane.” Is it the original investment of the maker’s eye, hand and time that elevates objects? Is the special quality inherent in the object?

SR: What makes something sacred is what I’m exploring in this body of work. To me, the fabric that I’m using, the fabric that I’ve inherited from my father has become sacred to me. It cannot be replaced. The denim I have of his, there’s a finite amount of it. It can’t be regenerated, and so, to me, that’s sacred. The challenge is in trying to make it into art and trying to do justice to the material without exploiting it.

No More Wednesday - detailNo More Wednesday (detail), 2012
[hand-embroidered inherited denim segment]

(de) Weave I - detail(de)Weave l, 2014
[inherited denim segment weft removed by hand, 12 x 36″]

So, if you were just to look at denim jeans and I told you that they were my father’s and that my father had passed away, they probably wouldn’t mean anything to you. But if I could do something to alter the fabric in a certain way, put something of myself into that fabric, then I think that it has the potential to be sacred (or appear sacred) to many more people than just myself.

I’m trying to figure out how to do that and I approached it in the quilts that you saw on exhibit at the Arts Center, and since then I’ve been trying other means to do it as well: like deconstructing the denim jeans into fragments. I am now taking the denim down to individual threads, removing the individual weft strands (all done by hand), in a very labor-intensive process.

MKJ: Your quilts are certainly of a different essence than many so-called “memory quilts” or craft quilts, in my view. This is not to devalue the work of others, but yours are certainly elevated to “high-art.” I’m trying to get at what made this happen. There was certainly the presence of your father in the clothes, his hard work, day in and day out, and your care in dismantling them, pressing them and re-working them, adding commitment, dedication, ritual, and devotion. But I think it could have to do with the way the quilts evolved from your paintings in some organic way as well. Certainly the quilts could not have happened without the paintings.

SR: Right. I think it’s important to remember that when I decided to make the quilts I had never sewn anything in my life. The idea of memory quilts has been around for a long time, but to use the inherited clothing to make quilts, to me was a radical idea, because it meant learning a whole new craft to carry this out. So I didn’t have the skill and/or the baggage of a quilter going into the project. All I could really offer was my knowledge as a painter.

Gearing up for the quilting project, before I started cutting the clothes or sewing the fabric, I started making paintings and collages that mimicked quilt-making procedures. I was researching how to do that and then doing it in my paintings, making strips on paintings or with collage and joining those strips together to make a full rectangular image. When I finally came to the quilts, I had a general idea of how to do it, at least in two-dimensions, and I brought to it my color sensibilities and my compositional sensibilities as a painter and the first couple of quilts were quite rudimentary, simple in their construction. But the visual experience with them is very rich, as I knew how to manipulate color, space and form.

HurricaneHurricane, 2009
[gouache on canvas, 20 x 16″]

Triangles CrazyTriangles Crazy, 2009
[gouache on unstretched canvas, 88 x 66″]

MKJ: And I understand that you sew on your grandmother’s sewing machine.

SR: Right, so there’s that connection to ancestry that I never really considered before.

When I think of what my goals were with the quilts, I knew I wanted to keep them anonymous, so that there are no real signs of my father in them. There are no logos, no images, and no “text” in the fabrics themselves. There’s nothing you could really point to and identify with my father. I did that intentionally because I wanted the viewer to approach the works and hopefully be moved by them just because of their visual qualities, and if it stopped there for the viewer, that was fine for me. But if they wanted to go further and read the text on the wall or read the exhibition label and find out that they were made entirely from my father’s clothing, that would add another layer of meaning to the quilts.

MKJ: I would argue that it had an additional effect (which I have also heard from other viewers): it tapped into a collective consciousness. I believe this relates to a narrative or memory embedded in the artworks, embedded in the body, in the fabric, which is what I was trying to get at earlier, a shared memory, or “collective loss.” And I think this generalization on your part facilitated that effect.

EulogyEulogy, 2011
[inherited clothing quilt, machine-pieced,
hand-tied, hand-embroidered, buttons, 94 x 72″]

Clearly we are not the lone authors of our narratives; rather, our self emerges from our interactions with others, (as George Herbert Mead and psychologist William James told us). Did you know that this narrative effect, this transference, and collective response would happen?

SR: I think so, simply because for some reason I was drawn to the quilt medium. Looking back, it just seemed to be the natural choice. Like I said, the memory quilt has been around for a long time. There’s an inherent property to fabric that we identify with other human beings, a tactile quality, a softness that relates to the human experience. So I think it was very fitting for me to deal with my experience of loss in an artistic sense by using fabric. It’s not something I would even try to approach in a painting or drawing. It never made sense to me in those mediums, but it does in fabric.

MKJ: It’s so interesting to me that even though those quilts don’t have the specificity you described, they do indeed seem very specific. It’s an enigma!

SR: That’s what I realized. They are very specific because they come from one person’s clothing, and that person had a palette, a style. My dad was a fairly simple person, at least stylistically, so that the clothing has uniformity in many ways, and that becomes very specific to him. And I have a specific visual language, which I’m imposing on the clothing as well. So even though I tried to keep it anonymous and broad, there is an underlying narrative to it.

Broken Dishes VariationBroken Dishes Variation, 2010
[inherited clothing quilt, machine-pieced, hand-tied, 94 x 75″]

MKJ: When I think about our selves emerging from our interactions with others, and the possibility of your work being an exploration of the self, and certainly an exploration of your relationship with your father, as well as a tapping into the collective, I’m also reminded of a performance piece by Marina Abramović , documented on video by the PBS NewsHour in one of their “Brief but Spectacular” moments. She describes how she invited gallery guests to sit across from her in silent presence as she stared into their eyes for an extended period of time. There were some people she knew, some that were strangers.

Your work somehow reminds me of hers, in its meditative quality. Like Abramović, I find you to be fully “present” in your work, and in “Everyday Will Be Sunday,” I found that you did in fact invite someone (your father? the viewer? yourself? all of these individually?) to metaphorically sit across from you in silent presence. Your work and hers, in my view, require the viewer to be fully present as well. Can you elaborate on how your work is an exploration of the self?

SR: I like the idea of a viewer being silently present in front of my work. I hope that they can experience the same joy and wonder that I did when creating the work. My practice is certainly a quest for understanding myself. That is certainly at the root of it, an understanding what I am capable of, what I’m not capable of. I am constantly trying to push my own personal boundaries in an attempt to create something very unique.

I think that working with the inherited clothing has allowed me to explore that. I’ve begun a deeper exploration of myself, my place in the world, my own personal timeline on the planet, and of what objects we leave behind and where they can then go. Working with my father’s clothing has led me to look at my own personal art and artifacts differently and consider how they become evidence of time and our existence.

MKJ: You have also said to me, “And now after seven years, I can’t really make the paintings without the clothing/fabric. It is always in my mind – that what I am doing is ultimately a study for what will happen to the fabric. It has really changed the way I approach painting – I see it completely differently. My understanding of these works and the process is directly related to my other studio work – painting, drawing, collage.”

You are currently working on a series of shield images, which I find fascinating, because after all, isn’t the quilt a form of shield, both protecting us and encasing us? An art object with a protective property? I saw a video of the layered process involved in the making of one of these pieces and it does look very much like a quilt-making process. Is this true?

SR: Yes. I made my last quilts in 2013 and since that time I’ve been using fabric in a lot of other ways. I’ve really been exploring the fabric much more deeply, looking at how it was made, how the fabrics were dyed, and really getting into the process of weaving. At the same time, I’m also looking at the form of the shield throughout many different cultures. It’s a much more open form and can really take just about any shape, from full-body size to something that can easily be held in the hand. But it always has a relationship to the body.

And that’s what I’ve been most interested in. Of course the quilts also have a relationship to the body, because they’re made to cover the body (or two bodies), so they have this certain scale and the shields have that same idea of scale or proportion, but they are much more malleable. And I’ve been really excited about that; I don’t feel as constrained to a rectilinear framework. I can do much more in the shield format.

I’ve also been using a lot of elements in my painting and collage work that I’ve learned from the quilting process: like the binding of the quilt, the tying of the quilt, the different types of marks you can get with thread. I’ve done things like sew on paper or use the sewing machine without thread to mark paper. I’ve embroidered into paper and made marks that resemble embroidery. So, at present in my studio I have fabric out, the sewing machine and embroidery, as well as painting, drawing and collage. And it’s exciting because they’re all speaking to each other.

Shield Study Yellow Blue StripesShield Study with Yellow & Blue Stripes, 2015
[acrylic, gouache, watercolor, colored pencil,
pencil & charcoal on Arches paper, 40 x 26″]

Shield Study lShield Study l, 2015
[gouache, acrylic & colored pencil on Arches paper, 40 x 26″]

When I’m approaching a painting, making marks for a painting, I’m thinking about how those marks would translate if they were done with thread or through embroidery or with the sewing machine. How would they translate in a real, tactile sense? But then, because it’s a painting, it has much more freedom in a sense than a fabric work could have. And from that freedom I also learn about how I can push the fabric work in different ways, ways that I might not have gotten to if I hadn’t learned them through the painting process.

MKJ: So they are all interconnected.

SR: Very much so. And when I come up against an obstacle in the painting I usually find the answer through the fabric and vice versa. Answers for the fabric can be found through painting. It’s a great relationship that I think has a lot to give.

Shield Painting lShield Painting I, 2012
[acrylic, gouache on canvas, 18 x 14″]

MKJ: It is so natural for humans to resist uncomfortable emotions that it is touching to find someone courageous enough to move toward grief, reminding us that a quilt is also something upon which we can lie down in surrender, and a shield can be something that empowers us. We reach another enigma, because it seemed you made your loss public, yet you did so in a very reserved, quiet way.

SR: I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear. I made the quilts out of a compulsion. I felt like I had to make them, without really knowing why, but it certainly felt like it had to be done, in retrospect. It was a way to allow myself to talk about my experience of losing my father, and doing it through art was really the only way that I could do it. Because, as you know, as most people know, it’s really a difficult thing to talk about, and many would prefer to avoid the subject. But it’s something you don’t want to forget. You know, I don’t want to forget him. And the experience of losing him was so profound that I think that it deserves the attention that I’m giving it.

Shield StudyShield Study, 2013
[acrylic on paper, collage, 16 x 12″]

—Sean Riley & Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Sean Riley was born 1977 in Wareham, MA. In 1999 he received BFA in Painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2004 he received an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon receiving his MFA, Riley was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation; given to only 10 graduating MFA students nationwide at that time. From UPenn he was also awarded the Charles Addams Memorial Scholarship given to one graduating MFA student per year. Since that time has held several solo exhibitions and been included in many group shows throughout the Northeast. He has been a resident at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in Providence, RI and works from a studio in Pawtucket, RI.

Sean Riley WEBSITE


A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Feb 052016



N THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south.

The Range

To me it was a magical place with rusty remains, like the single-furrow plough once pulled by heavy horses, my great-grandfather plodding behind. There were outbuildings of battered corrugated iron which included the wash-house. There were the old slab stables (part of the woolshed), housing the abandoned buggy and the sulky. Horse collars, harness and chains still hung from rusty nails and hooks. It was where my mother grew up.

1918In 1918 by the woolshed, mother second left.

There were saddles in the harness shed and a rusted iron bedstead where mum had met the fox. There was the anvil, dull from neglect, the bellows and the tools. Bridles hung in a row from the vertical slabs and a side-saddle, the leather blackened, dried out, cracked and dusty. ‘Grandma Ewbank’s saddle’, Mother had said. It belonged to my great-grandmother who’d left Bundella in offended silence in 1908 when she was sixty-five. She had no further use for such a thing as a side-saddle.

D. Caption 'My Great-grandmother c. 1874'My Great-grandmother c. 1874

Now there were no horses. At night by the light of the kerosene lamp, I studied the faded snapshot of the man sitting tall on the high horse – my grandfather who died before I was born – beside four of his five children on horseback – my mother the young girl in the wide-brimmed hat on The Creamy.

E. On horses (Caption 'In 1922')In 1922

Life at Bundella behind the village Store and Post Office was simple but tough – no electricity or gas, no town water supply (only the rain and it often didn’t rain very much), plus hard well water for the bath, heated on the fuel stove or in the copper, carted in a bucket to the bathroom. I’d sit with a cake of Pears soap in an inch of water at the bottom of the old white tub which had feet like a lion. And down the backyard I’d clutch the edge of the scrubbed pine seat in the lime-washed slab-walled dunny, holding my breath because of the smell as I balanced over the cesspit, hoping not to fall in. Then I’d open the crooked door with its leather hinges and run past the fowl house, scattering chooks and grey-and-white-spotted guinea fowl as they foraged in the yard. I’d detour through the wild garden, under the trees, round the shrubberies and scented flower beds, keeping an eye out for snakes.

The house

My grandmother sold up in 1950 at the age of seventy. She moved from Bundella to the city with Marjorie. We went out in the ute to clean up the sheds. My father couldn’t come because the mine was flooded, so Charlie from the pit was at the wheel in his greasy hat. We squeezed in beside him, my mother in her best hat and gloves. I, being the smallest, had to straddle the gear stick that rose from the floor. There had been flood rains and the black soil road was treacherous. No dust but plenty of mud. Charlie smoked incessantly, rolling his own as he drove.

When we arrived, Marjorie was sitting as usual, prim-faced at the switchboard, her thick black plait pinned firmly over the crown of her head. She waved us a greeting but said to a subscriber at the other end of the line, ‘Sorry, the number’s engaged. I’ll try again shortly…Number please?’ In the kitchen, the heavy blackened kettle was boiling on the fuel stove and my grandmother made tea. Charlie ladled in the sugar, then tipped the tea into his saucer. He blew on it and drained it down.

Family 1946

Marjorie & my grandmother 1950Marjorie & my grandmother 1950

My mother removed her hat, donned her overalls and went out to the shed. My grandmother temporarily took over the switchboard so Marjorie could lend a hand. She rushed up with a sack over her shoulder and dropped it with a clank on the ground. It contained rusting rabbit traps that were put to one side ready for the auction. A bonfire burned in the yard. Charlie hurled on everything my mother condemned to the flames. By evening the shed and other outbuildings were bare, the bonfire a heap of smouldering ashes.

The goods for the auction were piled high: saddles and pitch forks, axes and ploughs together with the mangle, the anvil and the galvanised iron wash tubs. At the centre of a heap of dusty objects I spotted the gleaming statue of Grace Darling.[1] She was about my height and I was seven. Jim and Fred from up the creek had carted her from the house. She’d always been in the dark hallway, peering out at the raging sea and that shipwreck. At least that’s what my mother said. She said Grace Darling was a heroine. Now she stood on her pedestal in the mud, holding the lantern high and gazing out across the sodden plain, her hair and gown, as always, blowing in the gale.

It was wet the day of the auction and a bleak wind scoured the paddocks. I peered out between the lopsided doors of the shed to watch old Johnny Ferguson playing the auctioneer. He stood on a battered crate, felt hat down to his eyebrows, pulling at his braces to adjust the sagging trousers. ‘Come on you lot,’ he admonished the bedraggled onlookers. ‘How about these rabbit traps or that there box of pony shoes.’ But times were tough; few people were bidding. Next day, after friends had been in to help themselves, Fred and Jim carted truckloads of junk a few miles down the track and dumped it in a gully.

‘What ever happened to Grace Darling?’ I asked my mother years later, but she couldn’t remember. Nowadays when I look back, I see Grace Darling lying somewhere across that black soil plain, still holding her lantern.

The Plains

Parts of this essay first appeared in the memoir ‘Vanished Land’, published in 2014.


I never knew what to expect when I picked up the heavy receiver of the antiquated telephone attached to the wall in our hallway. My mother took many of the coal orders, but from the time I was able to answer the phone, I relayed messages to her and later was able to write them in my childish hand in the untidy message book.

Small orders came from householders in town who needed coal for their fireplaces, their fuel stoves and their laundry coppers. Conversations went something like this:

‘That the coal mine?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Mrs. Mingay ‘ere. Tell yer dad I need quarter of a ton, an’ I don’t want none of them big boulders.’

‘Yes Mrs. Mingay. I’ll tell Dad when he gets in.’

Large orders came from Tamworth, twenty-eight miles away, from the Power Station, the hospital, the butter factory and Fielders Flour Mill where they made the bread. There were calls from mine inspectors and the NSW Government Railway’s head office, and the NSW Coal Board in Sydney. The Coal Board always wanted the coal production figures for the week. I’d say in my best seven-year-old voice (as my father had instructed): ‘The output was the same as last week.’

Sometimes there were calls from truck drivers – those hard-working, easy-going, likeable men who drove the fleet of battered and unreliable coal trucks: Bedfords, Whites, Internationals and Macs. Some were ex-army vehicles, for it was only a few years after World War II.

The Coal TrucksThe Coal Trucks

I had little knowledge of the workings of trucks, so I passed on messages, sometimes with little understanding, but often with some merriment. The calls varied:

‘Tell yer Dad me engine’s buggered, just outta Currabub.’

‘Got a punsher an’ me spare’s ‘ad it.’

‘Me muffler’s busted. Sounds like a flamin’ tank.’

‘Blew me gasget’, ‘Think it’s me pistons’, ‘Stripped me gears’ and one day ‘smashed me sump on a bloody tree stump’. I kept careful records in the message book.

There was one particularly memorable call:

‘’Ello. That the coal colliery?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘It’s Bill ‘ere. Tell yer dad I done me big end, out by the cemetery. I’ll sit ‘ere and wait for a tow.’

‘Right-o Bill. I’ll tell him as soon as he comes up from the pit. You’re not hurt?’

‘Strewth no! Jus’ blew up.’

I finished the call and carefully replaced the receiver. Before I could write anything in the book, the image of the overweight and balding Bill with his exploding big end got the better of me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.

Keep Out


Keep Out

Remember when we went to live in Tamworth, and you said we were going to explore that haunted house up the top of the road? Old Mr. Hill lived at the back there somewhere. We used to see him galloping his horse and sulky down the slope with all the kids hanging on, and Mrs. Hill petrified beside him. He’d be shouting, ‘Shut up you bastards!’ at the kids. But we hadn’t seen him for ages, had we. You thought they’d gone away, so we walked up the road after school. You read out the notice painted on the old piece of tin nailed to the front gate: ‘Private. Keep Out’ so we went round the back and scrambled through the thorny hedge. I got scratched on the arms and the face, but you said, ‘Come on, don’t be a baby.’

The wooden house was derelict. My father always said it had never seen a coat of paint in its life. I could see the grass and weeds growing up between the floorboards of the back veranda. The back door was chained with a padlock, but you kicked it, and the padlock just fell off, and the door flew open. You went in first, and the floor rocked up and down when you stepped on it. The place was empty and dark with cobwebs and dust. I remember those old portraits in curly gold frames still hanging on the wallpapered walls, all flowers, and the chair with the broken leg lying in the middle of the room and that old chamber pot full of soot in the fireplace.

‘Look in here!’ I said, but you said, ‘Shhhhhhhhh!’ and we heard someone crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down the back, then ‘Clear off out of there you bastards!’ from a distance. ‘Quick!’ you said, and I tried to open the front door. It was locked, but you managed to heave open the front window. I didn’t like cobwebs and spiders, but you said, ‘Come on, scaredy cat’. You gave me a leg up and pushed me over the splintery window sill. I fell out onto the veranda. ‘Run!’ you said as you climbed out too. We clattered down the front steps into the jungle and fought our way through the thorny hedge. Old Mr. Hill was shouting ‘Get the hell out of there!’ at the back door, but we were taking off for home down the gravel road.

Mother was in the front garden pruning roses. ‘Don’t stop,’ you said to me as we streaked by. We thought Mr. Hill was charging after us. ‘Don’t wave. Don’t let him know where we live!’ and we kept running – past Mrs. Chaffey’s and round the corner into the back lane, then into our garden through the back gate. ‘Now don’t you go tittle tattling to Mum’ you said when we’d stopped puffing.

‘I saw you girls tearing past this afternoon,’ Mother said later when we came in for tea. ‘What was all that about?’ ‘Nothing,’ you said as you spread the Vegemite on your toast. I just pushed the spoon right down inside my boiled egg . . . Remember?

With my sister & Buster

—Elizabeth Thomas


L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Grace Darling was an English heroine of Victorian times. As a young woman she rowed out through raging seas with her father to rescue survivors from a sailing ship wrecked on rocks in the storm.
Feb 042016

AineGreaneyPanelÁine Greaney


In an article for The Village Voice, John Berger, writing about European emigration to the United States stated that, “Originally home meant the centre of the world – not in a geographical but in an ontological sense.” It was a place where two lines intersect. “The vertical was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and the dead in the underworld.” The immigrant, meanwhile, “never finds another place where the two lines cross.”

For Berger’s emigrants, leaving home was often forced upon them and rarely chosen, but as Aine Greaney wrote in a recent article in The Irish Times, emigrants now have a “diversity of stories and joy and tears. One person’s economic displacement is another’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And furthermore, they at least have the “guts and the vocabulary” to talk about their loss of home. Indeed she counters this with, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living abroad, among Irish and other-nation expats, we might auto-cite the default reason (economics), but there’s nearly always a secondary driver, always another reason for leaving.”

In her memoir, What Brought You Here? (from which there are two chapters extracted below), Greaney bravely seeks to answer that near impossible question posed by the title. When told in America that she had “courage” to leave her home, she reminds herself that, “For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.””

“Home,” for Berger was “the starting point and, it was hoped, the returning point for all terrestrial journeys.” Fortunately, for us, Greaney’s writing has the courage to talk about that place where the two lines may never cross but where the language now exists to communicate (at a point of near return) with the gods above and the dead below.

—Gerard Beirne


Dublin Blood and Stateside Fables: Visa Day at the U.S. Embassy


The Americans said I had courage.

They said it just as I got to that part about the fries or salad or soup, and how our restaurant customers could choose one side dish with each selected lunch special.“Are you from Ireland?”

“Yes, I am.”

“How long have you been over here?”

“Three months.” Then, “Six months” Then, “Two years.”

“Oh! What brought you here?”

The wife asked these first questions. The husband had his own set of queries: “North or south?” “Catholic or Protestant? “Are your French fries hand cut or frozen?”

Dressed in my emerald green pub shirt, my black trousers and waitress’s apron, I raised my voice to answer their questions, to get heard over the Irish music on the bar stereo.

“Oh, my God!” The woman would say. “That must have taken such courage.”

The evening shift and the dinner hour were too busy for these tableside chats and my short-order immigration tale. But the lunch shift gave me all the time in the world. At age 24, at least in the eyes these chino-clad couples en route to the family cottage in the Adirondacks, I became that woman who strides through the airport in dusty hiking boots, with nothing between her and the big bad world but a Kindle full of Lonely Planet Guides.

No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”

Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. Did she mourn that job or that lover that her small-town mother had talked her out of? Had she spent a grown-up life, a marriage, wondering about that man whose cologne and touch she can still conjure? A man far sexier but riskier than the paunchy husband inquiring about his lunchtime French fries?

For others, I knew that I embodied this woman’s worst fear: That one day, her own 20- or 30-something daughter, the apple of their parental eyes, would buy an airline ticket to move 3,000 miles away.

In the end it was easy to diffuse the whole courage thing, to divert this nice couple back to their lunch order and choosing their accompany sides. It was extra easy if I laid on the Irish accent: “Oh, now, I don’t know would you call it courage or just a streak of daftness.”

Even now, almost three decades after landing at JFK Airport, New York, I’m at a dinner party or some evening fundraiser thing, and someone will ask and I will tell and it gets said again: That must’ve taken some courage. Nowadays I have the benefit of online articles on youthful impetuosity and how our under-25-year olds cannot foresee or care about the consequences of their actions. Standing there in my summer linens or corporate jackets, in my best expatriate patois I say: “Courage? Sure at that age none of us knows what the heck we’re doing. If we did, we’d have done nothing at all.”

It’s another diversion tactic, guaranteed to garner a counter story about a teenage son who texts while driving, or a daughter who won’t make school-night curfew.

How I loved that all-American makeover. It was so guileless and generous—at least until that day’s restaurant shift was over, when I shed my gussied-up Irish shtick and waitress’s getup to stand under the shower. As I scrubbed away the smell of French Fries, the whole courage thing felt (and still feels) like a private joke. I am that girl who gets crowned beauty queen when, in fact, it’s all been a secret Botox job.

My Lonely Planet odyssey started on that Friday, November 28, 1986. I had planned to spiff it up and look good for my visa interview at the American Embassy. But the Dublin morning was cold and drizzly, so I abandoned the interview dress-up for one of those padded winter jackets. I remember: it was cream-colored, machine washable, a high, zip-up collar but no hood. As I left the house to catch my city bus, I doubled back to grab a knitted hat from the overflowing coat pegs in the hallway.

When the double-decker bus creaked to a stop in Fairview, on Dublin’s north side, I clamored upstairs to sit with all the other smokers, and for a top-down view of the terraced houses, the school playgrounds, each city neighborhood with its butcher’s and newsagent’s and bookie’s shop.

I bit my nails. My right thumbnail had started bleeding. I stubbed out my Players Blue cigarette on the floor and, seconds later, lit up another. On my lap was my brown leather satchel that contained everything I would need to get to America: the Embassy appointment letter; my green passport with the gold harp on the cover; and an airmail letter from an expatriate friend, Mary, with her American phone number and her offer of a couch to crash on once I landed. If I was granted my visa, then I would telephone Mary at her shared house somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. If she meant what she said in the letter, then I would empty out my Bank of Ireland savings book to buy a transatlantic ticket from Shannon to San Francisco. I planned to leave immediately after Christmas. So the flight ticket had to be bought soon, with enough advance purchase time so that the money in my bank book would actually cover the cost of the flight.

Also in the letter was a snapshot of her sitting by an American swimming pool, wearing white shorts and a yellow T-shirt.

“Note the shades,” Mary had written and underlined on the back. Yes, of course I had noticed the shades. And I saw how much brighter and bolder she looked in her new life, working as a live-out nanny for a Bay Area family who let her drive their “extra” Volvo car.

If they saw me at all, I am certain that none of my fellow Dublin bus passengers nudged and whispered to a seat mate: “Jayzus, would you look at yer wan in the white bleedin’ coat. Now, there’s a little daisy that looks like she has loads of courage.”

That morning, I was another wanna-be, 1980s émigré joining the 200,000 others skedaddling from our small island with its runaway inflation and public debt and, in some regions, a 20% unemployment rate. I was fixing to become a small addendum to our three-centuries-long Irish emigration saga.

On that bus, this retrospective, historical stuff was too big and scary to consider. The immediate alternative was a 100 times scarier. If I flunked the interview and the Americans refused my visa? I would be a girl with no job and no place to live and barely enough money to see me past the upcoming Christmas holiday. Much worse, my family would have to witness and cringe over my looser-state, and, even worse, I would have to witness their cringing and shame. I knew this because I already had.

Whatever those online psychology articles say, the impetuous young brain is actually a blessing. Plus, young or not, fear and desperation will regress any of us to that myopic thinking in which we can only behold this city bus, this morning rain, this day’s errands.

I was afraid. And desperate. Though these, too, are retrospective.

Without that short-order mind-set, I would have clamored down those bus steps and walked out into Dublin traffic to find a piss-smelling alleyway where I would have curled up and wept.

In Dublin’s city center, I pulled on my knitted hat to walk in the rain up Talbot Street past the just-opened shops, turned left into O’Connell Street and across O’Connell Bridge that links Dublin’s north and south sides.

In winter the up-river whiff of the Guinness Brewery always made the River Liffey and that part of the city centre smell like stale coffee. This was before the construction cranes dotted the skyline, before city-centre apartments incited estate agents’ bidding wars. The Ha’penny Bridge, the houses and shops along Bachelor’s Walk, the Four Courts. It was and is the post-card view of our capital city, but it always looked in need of a good power wash.

I walked up D’Olier Street and along the walls of Trinity College, Europe’s oldest university and home to the Book of Kells. Outside Trinity, on the corner of Nassau and Grafton Streets, I waited for my second bus, a Number 7 or 7A or 6 or 6A that would take me south to Ballsbridge and the Embassy.

It’s a short bus ride from the city center to Ballsbridge. On a drier day, on a day when I wasn’t so petrified to be late, I would have walked it.

In those weeks before I left for America, I was sleeping on the floor of my younger sister Frances’s rented house that she shared with her college-student friends. I had moved across the country to stay in Dublin because I had enrolled in one of those commercial “business schools” and this crazy, new-fangled sounding class, “Introduction to Word Processing.” Every day, we students, all women, sat before a bank of computers the size of washing machines, squinting at our black screens as we cursed and muttered at that blinking cursor.

On the opposite side of the country, in my small-town convent school in County Mayo, we had never been offered typing classes (the Sisters of Mercy deemed typing classes to be far too working class). So the business school woman demanded that I enroll in an extra, add-on session, “Basic Typing,” where a few of us clanked away on black Royal manuals while the typing teacher strode between our desks shouting: “Left hand: A-S-D-F. Stop. Right? Everyone O.K.? Now, girls! Right hand: Semi-colon, L,K,J. Ready? Now, girls, type the following sentence, but without looking down at yer typewriter.”

Today, I was skipping both classes to do all my American errands.

Among the many then-rumors about America was that one about how the Yanks could hardly tie their own shoes without switching on a computer. So if you knew how to type some words on a keyboard, the American jobs were just there for the taking—especially in hospital administration.

Hospital administration. It had a lovely ring to it, but I doubt any of us had the slightest idea what it actually was. A hospital was a place full of antiseptic smells and old men in plaid robes and nurses in their stiff white hats, so why would you need a computer for any of that?

At night, cocooned in my sleeping bag on my sister’s bedroom floor, I dream-typed that day’s business-school exercises: A, S, D, F. Stop. Semi-colon, L, K, J.

I also pre-dreamed this day, this hour of reckoning that was waiting at the end of my second bus ride. In my dreams, I got on the wrong bus. Or, when the city bus got there, I begged the driver to stop, please stop, but he just sped on toward Dún Laoghaire. The Embassy was suddenly, permanently closed. Or it was open and everything was fine until, when I reached the top of that long emigration queue, an American man stood up to scream across his desk and to banish me from his country.

Heart thumping, I would wake up to lie there in the dark and wait for my younger sister’s breathing, where she lay in the single bed next to and above mine, to lull me back to sleep.

On that second bus, I lit one last cigarette and opened my leather satchel to check my paperwork one last time. And the knitted hat. According to the rumors, the emigration queue would extend, Soviet-style, down the Dublin footpath and I would need my knitted rain hat.

From the footpath, the American Embassy with its glassy, Lego-look frontage didn’t seem like the kind of place that could make or break your Friday or the rest of your life.

Inside, a woman with a Marcia Brady accent directed me to Consulate Services. The queue? Where was the reputed queue of doleful, desperate people waiting to flee our 32,599-mile country?

I crossed that room with its line of pale desks flanked by giant American flags, my footsteps clack-clack-ing. I stood behind a white line on the floor, a queue of one waiting for that 60-something man in the white uniform shirt to look up and beckon me forward.

Another American rumor: They all spoke loudly, whereas I had been told (and told) that I spoke way too softly, and if I wanted to seem like the kind of person suited for the land of the free, then I’d better project my voice.

Right. Well, here I was at last, sitting in the chair across from him, and here came the questions whose answers I had rehearsed and was ready to shout out like a quiz contestant.

Adequate financial means to travel and live in the United States?

YUP. OH YEAH. Through my satchel, I fingered my Bank of Ireland savings book and was ready to produce it.

Secure accommodation?


Valid passport?


Suddenly, he stopped leafing through my paperwork to give me a what-is-your-problem look. Hard of hearing? Tourettes? Some kind of anger issue?

Christ. I was certain that the Americans wouldn’t want or welcome any one of those infirmities. So here was my nightmare about to come true. He was going to scrape back his chair and point, Christ-like, to the glassy entrance behind me. I was about to be pre-banished from America.

He returned to the paperwork, his face impassive. Then, without meeting my eyes, he stamped my green passport and handed it back to me.

I whispered, “Thank you.”



America Had Big Blue Freckles


Why in the name of Christ was nobody hitting the call buttons? Or had I just imagined what I had just seen down there, dotted amid the buildings and roads and gardens of America?

I scooched back across the empty seat to my tiny airplane window. No. No joke. There were blue freckles, giant, azure-tinted mercury spills on Long Island, New York.

Eight months earlier, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded in the Ukraine. Now, the Americans had had a similar disaster and of course, this would all have to happen on the very day that I was flying here. While the Aer Lingus flight attendants were serving up tea and drinks and miniature meals, while all my fellow passenger in the smoking section seemed determined to drink out the in-flight bar, nobody had bothered to warn or divert us?

My hand-knit wool sweater was so hot that the sweat had pooled in my armpits.

The pilot made another announcement. Oh, would these drunken yahoos all around me just shush up to hell? What did he say exactly? I was terrified to ask. Our plane descended. My ears buzzed.

The blue freckles finally disappeared. Then, here they were back again, only bigger this time, some of them rectangular and bright green, not blue.

Swimming pools. Jesus! Bloody swimming pools. Down there, on that forked tongue of land surrounded by ocean, the Americans had installed their own backyard swimming pools.

We trooped down the skybridge, and my ears popped and my older sister Mary’s voice replayed in my head: JFK is the busiest, the loudest place in the world.

The wool sweater was even hotter, even wrong-er for that florescent-lit airport and the huge immigration processing room where a uniformed woman herded us down a corridor and around a corner toward a long bank of Plexiglas windows where another woman yelped at us, herded us into queues. Here, the heat-flushed Irish faces merged with the black and brown and taupe faces, and our immigration queues were a calico blend of pale and dark, of wanna-be, various hued immigrants lined up before each window and its corresponding INS man.

Jackets and sweaters got shed. Men rolled up shirt sleeves. People stepped out of the queue to check the delay, how many more people left to process? Except for the shuffle of clothes and bags and feet, everything was eerily silent.

The Caucasian guy in front of me had awful body odor. I probably did, too. But mine was only eight hours’ old.

Someone else just got stamped and admitted. Like spectators at Wimbledon, heads turned to watch that person’s jaunty walk toward the glassy airport doors.

The queue moved on. I tried not to stare too hard at the dark-skinned people, to gawp at how different they were, what a shock it was to be here with them—the same, but not.

Now the sweat had lodged between my breasts.

Just pull the damn geansai or sweater off. I stepped out of line for a distant glimpse of my INS man in his silent, glassed-in animation. Under the sweater I had a faded yellow T-shirt from a long-ago concert. Maybe that INS fellow didn’t like concerts or girls who went to concerts? Didn’t like music overall? Didn’t like musicians? Especially hated Irish musicians who secured American landing pads for their sisters in law?

Now, I was about to test the American factoid or rumor that really mattered. One false step, one type-o or misspelling of your name could set the INS computers flashing and auto-unleash the airport Alsatian dogs who would herd you to a holding room where you’d spend the night sleeping upright in a plastic chair until they deported you back to Shannon Airport and your father would have to apologize to the gaffer and forgo his overtime pay to drive down to get you.

No, no striptease acts here. Just sweat it out and practice your immigration quiz responses, the same information you gave to the Dublin Embassy over a month ago.

As the well as the body odor, the guy in front had a huge pimple sitting dead center above his shirt collar. I kept staring at it while begging and promising myself that I’d stop staring at it, stop breathing in his smell.

My sister’s voice: Remember to write the date backward. Month, then day, then year. That’s how they do it over there.

When I got to the beehive window, the INS questions were rapid-fire fast: Where to, how long, adequate financial means to live in the land of swimming pools?

I fingered the little wad of $200 cash in my jeans front pocket. At Shannon’s Bureau de Change desk, I had wrapped the wad of dollars in the lined notebook page with Bob, my sister’s American friend’s phone number.

“I’ll pay it all back,” I had assured my mother when she had lent me that money. “You have my word.”

“Yes,” I told the INS agent now. (Act confident. The Yanks like confident).

“Yes, I have adequate means.”

Thunk. I was in.

The Arrivals Hall was a mad mass of smiley, waiting families, lovers with their bunches of flowers, Indian families with their luggage trolleys piled high and the women in brightly colored saris. Here people spoke with their hands flailing, as if a dozen wasps swarmed around their heads. Lots more black people. Brown. Tawny. Old white women in colored sweat shirts and stone-washed jeans. Old white men with paunchy bellies. Wait! These people knew they were headed to America’s most important airport, but they couldn’t put on a pair of nylons or a decent sports coat?

Trainers. Young men, young women, even the hobbling elderly with their travel belts. The Indian men with overcoats over their kurtas and dhotis. Well over half of this airport was wearing trainers or sneakers.

Don’t gawk. Whatever you do don’t gawk.

But Jesus! How could I not gawk at this giant indoor souk? How could I not flinch at the shouting, the laughing, the tack-tack-tack of foreign, non-English words?

My rucksack bopping against my back, I sidestepped around each group. I checked my $200 again. No pickpockets. Yet.

Follow the signs for Ground Transportation. Ask about the bus to Albany, New York. My sister’s instructions were a bullet-pointed list in my head.

The woman at Ground Transportation jabbed her forefinger at a paper brochure on her desk. “The Holiday Inn, Wolf Road, Aww-lbany,” she said. “That’s the last stop, where the bus will take you. It’s about three hours; maybe more.”

Ha. Ha. Well, this was a bit of a joke. I grinned up at her. The Holiday Inn? When he bought his hotel, this Albany fella couldn’t come up with a less obvious name than the Holiday Inn?

No. No joke. There was, in fact, something about me that was obviously pissing this woman off. She nodded me toward another set of glassy doors. “Wait out there.”

The airport doors slid open to a giant, outdoor fridge. It was dark now, and the freezing air was fogged with car exhaust fumes. I watched the mad dodgem-car race of yellow cabs and courtesy vans and black livery cars. Everyone zipped up coats, pulled on hats and gloves. Not me. I lit up a Players Blue cigarette and stood there in my sweater, no jacket, letting my body heat rise and convect into the New York night.

Finally, when I could no longer feel my feet, I pulled on my jean jacket, but the denim seemed to attract, not insulate against the December cold.

After the airport exit, our bus nudged onto and along a stop-and-go motorway. The distant lit-up skyscrapers were straight out of the old King Kong movie, and I presumed I was looking at Manhattan (I wasn’t). Soon, a giant brown apartment building overflowed the edges of my bus window. I held my breath at the enormity of it. Just as that building slid out of sight, here came another, then another, each with its row upon row upon row of Christmas-lit windows. I was glimpsing and gliding past hundreds of American lives, hundreds of squabbles and fights and tears and hugs, a thousand breakfasts and suppers and bedtime stories. Yet, it was safe to assume that these lives were as unfathomable to each other as they were to a just-arrived Irish girl on a Trailways bus. I scrunched down and dipped my head to find a horizon, because somewhere, I thought, all that brown brick had to end, had to collide with an amber-lit night sky.

Another motorway. This one passed by old wooden houses with petrified back gardens and chain link fences. Suddenly, the amber city lights disappeared from the sky, and we were tunneling into endless darkness. In less than an hour, we had gone from a jungle of crammed-in lives to an abandoned place where no dog barked from a roadside gateway. Nobody maneuvered between the cars on his bicycle. Nobody stood by the side of the road with his thumb out hoping for a lift. Except for the car and the motorway lights slithering over our passenger faces, this place had no human life.

Over the motorway hung these giant green signs: Tarrytown. Newburgh. New Paltz. Kingston.

Albany. It was the last bullet point on my travel list. Albany and the Holiday Inn. If I nodded off asleep, if I didn’t pay attention, I could end up in Canada. So I sat with my rucksack propped on my lap, watching and reading the green motorway signs.

—Áine Greaney


Áine Greaney grew up on a remote farm in County Mayo. In 1986, after a brief career as a primary-school teacher in the Irish midlands, she moved to America, and she now lives and writes on Boston’s North Shore. As well as her four books (Simon & Schuster UK, Flume Press, Syracuse U.P. and Writers Digest Books), she has placed and broadcast personal essays and short stories in consumer and literary publications in the U.S., Ireland and the U.K. Her non-fiction essays and fiction have appeared in “Creative Nonfiction,” “The Feminist Wire,” “Salon.com,” “The Boston Globe Magazine,” “Forbes Women,” “Cyphers,” “National Public Radio Boston,” “Natural Bridge,” “Books Ireland,” “Sunday Tribune New Irish Writing,” “The Fish Anthology” and other publications. Her essay, “Green Card” (listen to Áine read her essay here) was selected as a “notable” in “Best American Essays 2013,” while her essay, “Sanctuary” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Áine Greaney holds a B.Ed in education and an M.A. in English. She is on the MFA Faculty at Baypath University where she has developed and teaches a writing course on narrative medicine. She has also led writing classes and workshops at various conferences and arts organizations in New England and presented at the National Writers Digest conference in New York City. www.ainegreaney.com

Feb 032016

Gregory Howard



He met Fuchs in Belem. It was during the Cirio de Nazare, the great procession of the Virgin and as they met the thousands sat in the trees, pulled at the rope, dragged the Virgin to her Cathedral home, waving giant totems above their heads, hands, legs, larger heads, mouths: parts of themselves to be healed. Fuchs was taller than my father expected. He had imagined, for some reason, a small man. A small man with large, owlish eyes. But Fuchs was slender and his face was “the face of a man who talked with people professionally.” They met in a café. My father talked of us and the brilliance of Niemeyer, while Fuchs mostly nodded and said things like “yes, of course” and “very interesting.” My father was tired. He felt at times that he was talking with Fuchs the way you talked to cat on a rug. Fuchs looked at the street while he talked, occasionally bringing his eyes back to meet my father’s and then looking at something else again. His cup, a spoon, the trash on the street. This was the correspondence of men. On the way back to his hotel he stopped to watch the procession. A young girl stumbled and was submerged into the mass, pressed and trampled for what seemed like hours — was he the only one that noticed? — around him people waved their totems and finally the girl emerged, pulled up bloody and crying, tears and blood running into each other all over her face. And she cried and cried and the crowd kept lurching forward towards the river and the cathedral, towards their ecstatic communion. That night my father couldn’t sleep. Fireworks intermittently lit the sky and the crowds of Belem rang bells and sang hymns. My father read passages from a book. He masturbated without interest. The face of the girl came back to him. Bloody and distorted bearing a rictus of pain. In his mind her face was the face of the Virgin as she was pulled inexorably toward the river. The little girl had turned and looked pack in panic. Looking around for her mother and father. She had sought anchor and was still carried away. Yes, of course. Very interesting. Into the night the faithful sang hymns to their immaculate Virgin. All of seeing. All of hearing. Every fragrance we perceive, they sang.

The next day Fuchs took my father upriver into the jungle. On the boat he was quiet and polite just as he had been in the café but did not elaborate on their itinerary. What my father knew was this: the trip would last the day and into the night; once the boat was docked there was a long hike into the jungle to the construction site; there my father’s skills, such as they were, would be employed. What he also knew was this: every trip upriver into the jungle is the same trip. On the boat with Fuchs and my father were two other men. Young men. A native Paran and another German. They sunned themselves on the deck and argued about music. The German was saying that the function of music was inductive and that its primary goal was the creation of new psychological states. In the future, the German said, this would be accomplished through the construction of strange new instruments, the implementation of computers and the proper utilization of giant pipe organs. The Paran shook his head at everything the German said and repeated: “No, no, no.”

The hike to the site was treacherous and miserable though not very long. They used flashlights to find their way. The jittery beams strafing the jungle’s dark curtain reminded my father of a scene in an American science fiction movie he had seen years ago in which a group of mostly young and attractive archeologists hike into the jungle to prove the existence of an ancient civilization. After a series of misfortunes in which the leader of the group, an older man with wild eyes and a beard, dies by falling prey to a giant carnivorous plant, the group, lost and consumed with bickering and mourning, somehow happen upon the temple where they make a terrible discovery. The film was dubbed badly and at times the actors’ mouths moved silently while others voices spoke for spells after the mouths had shut and eyes gazed at each other with suspicion and longing or into the distance thoughtfully. In the theater with my father, down in the first row, was a couple, a skinny teenager and a woman with curled hair who kissed loudly and ignored the film. There was also an old man two seats down from him who watched the couple instead of the screen and massaged his thighs. The previous week, sitting in that same seat, my father had seen a movie in which a poor family—a mother and father and their sons—wander through the drought-choked northeast trying to find sustenance but find only misery, set-backs and rebuke. Their farm is taken; the father jailed; they must eat their beloved parrot; they almost eat their beloved dog. The film seemed to have no beginning and no end. What do you do, it seemed to ask, when everything has conspired to keep you in motion? How do you arrange a world? There was almost no dialogue and the lighting was washed out, over exposed, making the actors faces seem hollow, etched, like death masks, as if they were already dead, which they probably were, which everyone probably is, he thought suddenly, and the whole theater began to feel hot and dry like the drought-choked Northeast and being there felt to my father like a punishment for some sin he could not remember committing, the sin of ignoring sin (in one scene the father is painted in black face forced to wear a dunce cap and ride a donkey in a parade; in another, he cries alone in the desert), which was not why he came there in the first place, it was not, to the movies, to this small movie house, where on weekends different men came and let their mouths hang open and stared intently at the screen; he did not want to feel like this man, this imbecile father who goes where he is told because he is docile, because he does not understand his own worth, in other words, because he is a father; this man who, at times, he already felt like, vacant, drifting through a blunt landscape, his wife at home, pregnant, waiting for him, thinking he was working late, singing songs to her belly, the belly he used to run his hand along, the belly no longer his belly (he swallowed with difficulty) and the children on the screen seemed suddenly terrifying and also alluring, their thin, naked bodies inviting violence, something slow and pleasurable so that it was hard to look at them, he wouldn’t look at them and yet . . . The woman suddenly moaned; the boy was no longer visible; the old man startled awake, a gurgling sound crawling from his throat. (This was not a new world, this was not escape.) The four young and attractive archeologists were now inside the temple, and the hero, who is in love with leading lady, a third rate blond , who is in turn of course married to the temperamental, undeserving best friend, looks up, the camera framing his square and manicured head for a moment and says “I don’t think this is a temple at all.” And at the end of the film it is only three of them. They have discovered the temple was in fact a machine built by an alien race, a kind of terrible radio, that once triggered will emit a signal transforming those who hear it into aliens themselves, or at least facsimiles, intent on destroying humanity and the world. They have already seen it in action. One of their party began to twitch upon the signal’s activation. He swooned. Upon awaking he attacked and killed the radio operator and in turn had to be killed by the hero, who then looked with despair on the corpse of his former friend. The camera frames his handsome face. He has a cleft chin and haunted eyes. Now the temple is crumbling. The remaining three barely make it out. Their flashlights strafe the jungle’s dark backdrop. Soon one of them will transform. They pick their way through the underbrush, stumbling towards a changed world. A victim, a monster, a hero. Which one, he wondered, was he?

By the time they reached the site, everyone was covered in terrible, stinging bites. Unseen things kept biting them. The Paran, muddy and whimpering because had fallen and twisted his ankle, was being helped by the German who was lamenting the whole thing by, as far as my father could understand, muttering dialogue from a movie or tv show or play. Fuchs found the generator and turned it on. The four of them stood and in the rain and looked at the house, a glowing thing in the jungle’s wet mind. They looked at it without expression. In his field notes he wrote, “The house is a catalyst. It is also a dying whale.”

That night they stayed there, rolling their sleeping bags out on the wood floor. The rain tapped against the glass, the walls and windows, echoing an erratic, anxious pulse through the empty house. Without speaking they all separated. Fuchs took the master bedroom. The Paran and the German took the smaller bedroom. My father stayed in the great living area, which was mostly glass. Though he was tired, exhausted, he could not really sleep, which is to say he fell immediately into a deep sleep but woke soon after. He woke violently, in a panic, thinking, for a moment, he was in dark, violent water, giant swells rising all around him, his heavy legs treading, and he couldn’t see, water in his mouth, land anywhere and where was the, roar everywhere, where was the, no. He started awake. The house slowly came back into shape. The dark and empty house. It unnerved him. He felt as if he himself was the one that was empty, hollow. Him, not the house. Hollowed out and waiting. He got up and walked to the door. His arms and legs burned with swollen irritation and it was difficult to swallow. Outside, inside, there was a deep darkness. He could still feel the ocean all over him. The salt and panic. It was hot and humid. His arms and legs and face and neck itched and burned. The generators, he wondered. Were they out?

He stared into the darkness and felt for a moment that something was staring back. He could hear its movements, muted through the glass. There are unexpected dimensions to an animal’s face, he would later say, surrounded by scarred and limping dogs, that, if understood properly, can open for you, if only for a moment, certain windows. On the way in, as the dusk fell, hundreds of tiny lights began to dot the trees, flickering. Fireflies. In the jungle’s of southwest Asia—Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam—where now men cut off the feet of other men and hid in holes in order to kill quickly and unexpectedly and dumped poisonous chemicals on each other in large quantities, Fuchs stopped the party to say, groups of fireflies like these now had been witnessed slowly synchronizing their flashes. Their lights, once a kind of blinking babble, became like a pulse. No one knows yet what this communication is for. On. Off. On. Off. On.

Then suddenly Fuchs was next to him. He could feel the proximity. Something landed on his arm, sending a ripple of panic through his body. Something inside. Then it was gone.

He shuddered.

Fuchs held a bottle of scotch, almost empty, gently by the neck, in his left hand. He took a drink and handed the bottle to my father, who took a drink and shuddered again.

In the small bedroom the German was kissing the Paran, who was chilled and sweating, gently on the head.

He waited for Fuchs to say something. For Fuchs to explain and how it was that a glass box sunk in the muck of the jungle demonstrated the glory of his country and its embrace of the future. He scratched his arm. He wanted to scratch his leg, which stung and burned in too many places.

He heard Fuchs swallow. The sound of something emerging.

I was once asked to build a house in the Apennines for an Italian industrialist, Fuchs said finally, suddenly. A scion. A blue-bood. Presented as eccentric in the usual way.

His voice was soft and hoarse. He made a gesture in the dark my father could not apprehend to indicate what was usual.

The industrialist, he had about a twenty sons, said Fuchs. Indiscriminate sons. Sons from different mothers. Ex-wives and girlfriends. One night stands. This was a necessity, he told me. His family line was long and distinguished. A great house. A great house with a long history. But a great house now brought to the brink. Once there had been allegiances with powerful families. Once there had been noble actions in desperate conflicts. He mouthed a word I couldn’t understand and narrowed his eyes into a look of significance, as if there were people in the walls and cupboards who could hear him. Who could hear him and report to someone or something. His great grand uncle Fabrizio, for example, he said, who created a specific time-saving farming process without thought of patent protection and just gave it away to the farmers. Because of his love for his people. You have do what is necessary for the love of the people, the industrialist said.

We were sitting in his large but dingy Turin apartment, Fuchs said. The industrialist’s face was pock-marked and thin. Around him and throughout the apartment many small and shaky dogs slept and yapped and pissed on the floor. The apartment was dark and smelled of sweat and urine. Two of the dogs were resting on his lap. Greasy looking Pekinese with runny eyes. Intermittently, the industrialist put his face down towards the dogs and let them lick him on the face and mouth. First one, then the other.

Everything he did, the industrialist told me, was to preserve the bloodline. His degrees, his career, his life compacted into this travesty, he said waving a hand at the room and the rooms beyond it. They were in all in service to this one determining fact. This one precious thing. The bloodline, he told me, is all. What was now necessary, he said, for the family to secure once again its place again amongst the noble families of the province and, indeed the county, was an estate befitting their admittedly but still great station. A structure so radical and important it could not help but mark the reemergence of this once great provincial power. Look, he said to me. He did not much care for modern design. In point of fact he hated it. In certain art forms there were heights, apexes after which everything degraded, after which it was all merely pantomime and arrangement. Architecture was one such form. No offense, he said. But could anything top the majesty of the great hunting lodge of Stupigni? It’s cavernous vaults and twisting arabesques? Didn’t Petronius say: without decoration there is no life? He took several small oily fish from a bowl on the coffee table between us. It is often a mistake to think in terms of progression, he said and put the fish in his mouth and then licked his lips. But he understood full well that they must look to the future for their legacy, if they were to have a legacy, degraded as it was, the future. The past was a swamp of terrible decisions and poorly applied love, he said. The family’s past. It is unwise to build on a swamp. This much I know.

A swamp, a cemetery, a jungle, my father thought. Yes.

He was clearly insane, Fuchs continued. But I was young and eager to make my name and felt, perhaps intuitively, that this crazy, probably syphilitic, and certainly dying industrialist could be manipulated into letting me corrupt his ridiculous dreams into my own. Dreams, Fuchs said, handing the bottle back to my father, which are so often easily disfigured, transformed.

Outside it began to rain again in heavy sporadic drops.

So we began to work together, Fuchs said. I stayed in a hotel, paid for by the industrialist, near the train station. At the time I didn’t think about the location and its implications. From my window I could watch people arrive and depart. There was a park near the station. A small park with trees where people sometimes ate lunch and sometimes . . . made arrangements. In my hotel I could hear their sounds. Voices loud then soft. Muffled, distorted. During the day I sketched in two sessions. I met the industrialist for lunch and then again for dinner, which was taken late and lasted for hours with multiple courses. Head-cheese ravioli, fish stuffed with almonds, capon tart and candied pears. We met at the same restaurant every day, a large, dim and dirty place where the only other diners were an older couple who, during their incessant meal, would not talk to each other. Instead they communicated through the waiter, a tall thin, bored man with a stoop, who relayed their messages back and forth, leaning in to hear one and then walking to the other, crouching down to explain. During the dinner the industrialist would talk about his lonely, ridiculous childhood, about how, when, he was young he was not allowed to leave the estate walls but that his parents would bring in children from nearby villages for him to play with, to chase around the estate and bully with a wooden sword. If you think of that as playing. But without these children, he said, I would not have learned how to think about other people. One’s parents, such as they are, don’t become people until later, if ever. And besides they were too much in love with each other to care adequately about me. And so the children taught me. How other people are like energetic dogs that we must exercise. It was hard to understand him at times. We sat at table for four and he would use all the silverware, picking forks at random from different places. Behind him there were dusty carnival masks, dull, feathered things. My sketches would be spread out in front of him in between his many plates and bowls and tureens and he would glance down at them while he talked. At the end of the dinner he would tell me that these were no good. What he wanted, he would say, was something, with more force, more . . . discipline.

Force, discipline, excellence, Fuchs said. These were the words he used. He was rarely specific and when he was he quickly changed his mind. I had a photo of the place where he intended to build. One he’d given me. In the photograph I could see a rocky precipice and below a narrow valley with a stream. The photographs were overexposed and so everything looked both faded and scorched. There was also in them a man and a teenager, a boy or a girl. Their figures were dark and small, both there and not there, ghostly figures, against the hot dry sky.

For months we continued in this way, Fuchs said. Maybe three, maybe four. We continued our uneasy embrace. I brought him sketches; he told me stories. Sometimes I felt like I had never been anywhere else. Like I woke up on boat in the middle of the ocean with a crew that I didn’t recognize that kept calling me captain. My hands were cramped and my stomach sick. I was tired of eating rich, undigestible food, which settled into my stomach and stayed there alongside my doubt. I was tired of walking in the Turin heat and standing in the Turin rain. Bored of the girl I was sleeping with and sick of myself for sleeping with her. Our lovemaking became baroque, absurd—entangled and ridiculous. Pleasure always a horizon. Our mouths like the industrialist’s mouth, something to be licked over. Sleeping, lovemaking, the temerity of words, what crutches, when we find ourselves waist-deep in the life of our making, we use. And me? I had become part of the sounds of the hotel. Somewhere in one of the other rooms, someone was sitting and thinking as I had sat and thought, in the room with its rectangular bed and rectangular bedsides tables, its bed tightly made, its carpet dull, the smell that is the absence of smell, the place that could be anywhere. Somewhere in the hotel was me. So this one day, I didn’t go to lunch and I didn’t go to dinner. I stayed in my bed. I slept and didn’t sleep. I went to the movies, where a terrible horror movie was playing. The plot was familiar. Two men who were probably criminals escape some unseen terror only end up at a secluded chateau with a sinister dandy. From the first, you understood that this would not end well. The way the chateau was filmed it seemed endless, expansive. There were constant long scene of the camera wandering into room after room, each one looking basically the same. The creeping terror of similitude. One criminal and then the other wake up to find themselves in new wings of the chateau’s labyrinth. The dandy appears and talks to them as if they have been there for days or weeks. Women and men appear, lithe and young, and talk to the criminals as if they have been friends for a long time. The same conversation happens several times. There are constant shots of a large computer in some kind of chamber. Then people start dying. Hands begin grabbing people in the dark and slitting throats, cutting bodies and pulling them into the chamber. It’s always hands, a close-up on the hands, almost unattached to anything, hands and wrists. In the end the criminals escape, or seem to. But it’s not really clear what they’ve escaped from or to. It was crap but when I returned to the hotel I felt like the lithe young extras and Turin felt like those hands—cutting at me, grabbing me, again and again, mere bodies, a mere body, and I packed my suitcase with the few things I desired to keep and walked to the train and took the first one north.

A few months later I received a large brown envelope from an Italian law firm. Inside the envelope was a smaller envelope and a letter on heavy cream-colored paper with a water seal. The letter explained that it had the great misfortune to inform me that my “dear friend” and “employer” had passed away and that in keeping with the execution of his last will and testament, which had been amended to include the following only a month before his tragic and untimely death, the sealed envelope currently in my possession was to be delivered, without delay, into my hands. For a while I did not open the second envelope. I had taken work with an architectural firm in Cologne and was busy working on building museums and governmental offices. These were, at the time, all the rage. Everyone building a quarantine for memory, a conduit for appropriate action. (Fuchs made the sound with his throat again). The founder of the firm defied convention by working with brick and cement instead of glass and steel. He advocated a return to the right angle. The founded column. The classic forms. Moving backwards is the way to forward, he said. He had a slight lisp and a runny left eye. It was difficult to look at him without thinking of his disease. So I worked and thought of his disease and quarantined memory and each night I returned home to the envelope, which lay on my desk, a reminder, an invitation, a taunt, a rectangle like the rectangles I worked with every day. And it was a small room, where I lived. In some ways it was just another hotel. I knew this about rooms, how they mutate thoughts, limit action and finally, one night I drank enough brandy to open the letter. I held it in my hands. Outside my window, drunk students were singing songs. Everything was now a possibility again, at least for some people, and I imagined the industrialist, his dogs finding him on the couch, licking, hesitantly, his stiffened lips, his mouth and thought about how this is what it meant to be alive and young in this moment, a dog licking crumbs from the mouth of a corpse, and so I opened the envelope. I opened it with but not with expectation. Of course, I thought in that moment, of a large sum of money, I thought of our dinners and thought of money, of my hotel room and money, of the Turin streets and Marissa’s legs and arms bent into angles and the number rose and fell but what remained was the possibility congealing into certainty that in my hand was a large sum of money that would take from this room and my diseased employer with his runny eye to another place, some place I hadn’t even thought of, where I could begin to execute my vision, or what I thought of at that time as my vision. Fuchs emitted a sound that was like a chuckle. The rain had stopped. My father looked at Fuchs who looked through the window into the darkness outside. What to make of this intimacy? He wanted to put his arm around Fuchs. My hands trembled a little, Fuchs said, as I slid the knife into the envelope’s sticky seam. But inside there was nothing. Which is to say, inside was not a check but another envelope, this one smaller but in every other way a replica of the first. Understanding the perversity of the industrialist, his games, I thought how he would want to make of this a performance, to make me dance or beg for scraps at his table one more time and though I was angry I slide the knife in again and opened this second smaller envelope in which I found yet another even smaller envelope. Even smaller and equally smaller. I cut this second envelope with a knife. I cut again. Another envelope. And I cut and cut and each envelope revealed another envelope, the envelope’s paper thick and tactile like goose-bumped flesh and on each envelope there was a word typed over the so that to open the envelope properly you had to tear the word apart. The letter from his attorneys indicated that the last will and testament had been changed a month before I left, as if he knew I would leave, knew I would return, and I remembered the terrible film I had seen with the criminals and the endless chateau and I remembered too his story about the children his parents brought into their compound and it seemed like now I was both a criminal and a child in this scenario and I suddenly understood what the whole thing had been, that whole experience in Turin, the long lunches, the descriptions of his life, the calls at night, the dogs that licked and shit in equal measure, that all of this was in fact the house the industrialist had wanted to build all along, that there was never going to be an actual house, a structure, no glass, no steel, no cement, no marble, not even brick, that I had hoped to deform his dreams but had been swallowed entirely by them. The words, I remembered, the words on the envelopes comprised a line from a book the industrialist had shown me. What can you do with such things? Fuchs said. Things that happen and settle into your mind and stay there like mice. Quiet, patient, unhealthy. The mice in your mind. What do you do with them?

—Gregory Howard

Gregory Howard is the author of Hospice (FC2). His fiction and essays have appeared in Web ConjunctionsHarp & Altar, and Tarpaulin Sky, among other journals. He teaches creative writing, contemporary literature, and film studies at the University of Maine.


Feb 022016


Just back from my crash course in theatre at the premiere of Elle, the play, in Toronto. But a lot is happening. There is more. Canadian Notes & Queries, that redoubtable Canadian literary magazine that published my essay on Camus in its last issue, has just published a new essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig’s little masterpiece, the novella The Stand-In. I love that book. Many of you know who David is because he has published here often, beginning with his translation of a Chekhov short story in our second issue, March, 2010. This essay came about when Ingrid Ruthig (who has also appeared in NC) asked me to contribute to a book she was editing on Helwig’s work. Then CN&Q picked up the essay ahead of book publication. (I know, complicated.)

Here’s a photo of David Helwig and a few paragraphs of the essay:

David Helwig

The Arsonist’s Revenge

David Helwig’s novella The Stand-In came to hand first when I was asked to write a cover comment for the book, yea, these many years ago. I read it, was entranced and enchanted by its incendiary delights. It presents a man, a wounded lover, a long-suffering husband, a bird watcher, a university professor (that most careful and restrained of professions), in extremis, who explodes decorum, wreaks revenge (mayhem and insult), and becomes utterly and gloriously himself (apotheosis). This is what art is best at, giving us the moment we all wish for but can never achieve. To somewhat embellish what I wrote at the time: The Stand-In is a comic gem, by turns mordant, witty and wise. It’s a delicious novella of friendship, marriage, infidelity, plagiarism, and sly revenge. But it’s also a fascinating meditation on irony, biography, badminton, the great Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice, also Flemish painting, mirror imagery, Ernest Thompson Seton and animal painting (especially birds and horses), and the self. David Helwig is a master of thematic weaving. His timing is impeccable. One has the impression of a ferocious intelligence at play – the effect is gorgeous, seductive, compelling and liberating.

The Stand-In isn’t a long book (I am working from the 2002 Porcupine’s Quill edition), about 80 pyrotechnic pages after you subtract the blanks and section titles, separated into three chapters. It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.

The governing principle of composition is digression and recursion. One amongst the digressions that keep popping up is the story of the story, or the history of two mismatched academic couples whose marriages exploded one summer, “that summer,” the one of crucial memory. Denman Tarrington (DT, aka Delirium Tremens) was married to a tall, slightly awkward woman named Madeleine; the narrator’s wife was Anne, a quick, pink-skinned woman who kept her secrets and made a smashing doubles badminton partner (Anne and the narrator would invariably trounce the Tarringtons on the court). Tarrington pilfered the narrator’s ideas and wrote them into sensational essays that secured for him an academic career far beyond the local horizons. The last summer, the summer before Tarrington left for a big job in the States, he and the narrator met in Paris. Infidelities were revealed. On his return to Canada, the narrator finds his wife away on an extended trip (that she keeps extending, never to return); questioned by Madeleine, he tells her the truth about her husband. Madeleine disappears; Anne goes off with Tarrington: and the narrator lives on in the old house by the salt marshes until retirement, when, finally he too leaves town.

CN&Q is a print journal with a small online presentation. You’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest of “The Arsonist’s Revenge” by Douglas Glover at Canadian Notes & Queries.


Feb 022016

spiritualpilgrimwoodcutIn two places at once _ Spiritual Pilgrim, Woodcut, anonymous German artist, circa 1530. Jung, CW 10, plate VIIThe Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World (Woodcut) 17th Century


Athanasius Kircher: Harmonia Nascenti Mundi (1650)

“When one analyses the pre–conscious step to concepts, one always finds ideas which consist of ‘symbolic images.’ The first step to thinking is a painted vision of these inner pictures whose origin cannot be reduced only and firstly to the sensual perception but which are produced by an ‘instinct to imagining’ and which are re–produced by different individuals independently, i.e. collectively… But the archaic image is also the necessary predisposition and the source of a scientific attitude. To a total recognition belong also those images out of which have grown the rational concepts.” 

  Wolfgang Pauli – ATOM & ARCHETYPE


Sea Time


n my twenties, as a merchant marine crossing both oceans and several seas, I spent hours at the rail watching the mysterious relationship between sea and sky. At times they existed peacefully, like sleeping lovers, fused, with no defining horizon. Afloat in seamless space, I glimpsed the plenitude of timelessness. More often, water and air colluded in creating spellbinding iterations of light. Most incredible were their sudden declarations of war. And with each shift of mood between them, I identified a corresponding one in myself so that concentrated thus, in this floating world, the only secure anchor was the observing eye that contained the image linking both worlds.

Crossing from San Francisco to Vietnam, by way of the Philippines, in late August, 1965, the first week out held the kinds of wonders one glimpses when the waters are calm and the sky responds with amplitudes of light at all hours dancing on its surface. Sea-spouts rose between mothering ocean and covering air, ladders for sunlit angels at mid-day, shadow columns supporting an invisible Parthenon at dusk. Following seabirds in our wake. Flying fish leaping into plain sight where our bow sliced the water. And then suddenly, in the middle of the Pacific, the mood changed. Wind driven clouds drawing strength from the water set up a fierce exchange of disorienting forces. We spent the next two weeks with hatches battened. The storm that raged around us was Shakespearean, the kind that battered ships and scattered sailors to unknown islands. It had the most startling effect on me, one I couldn’t explain. Only to observe that it drew me more powerfully than all the days, sights and moods that had come since we weighed anchor in Alameda, and passed under the Golden Gate.

Every day, at the height of turbulence, as the S.S.Esparta plunged and rolled, I made my way past the spinning cylinders of our twin screws to the end of the shaft alley.  Where the alley narrowed, and the shafts disappeared a narrow metal ladder bolted to the bulkhead extended straight up. I climbed from my engine room station five stories below deck to a small hatch at the top. It was the only one on the ship unsecured from the outside. I held its weight open slightly to gauge the strength and direction of the wind, then, when I judged it safe, climbed out. The hatch opened on the fantail, behind the paint locker, which afforded minimal protection. Holding the rails on the side of the paint locker, I made my way to the stern and held on for dear life. Twice a day, for ten or fifteen minutes, I stood there as sky-scraper swells lifted our twin-screw refrigerator ship like a bathtub toy. It rose so high on the swell I could see the top of mountain ranges, Appalachians, Ozarks, Adirondacks—shapes carved in stone—for an immutable instant, before we fell. The descent was as steep as it was sudden. At the bottom, nothing existed but the trough, and the black white-veined wall liquid marble that loomed like a canyon overhead.  

Those who spend time at sea, out of sight of land, can tell you that there is a quality  in which time and space, inner and outer, dissolve, and that the experience extends beyond becoming conscious of a particular moment to becoming consciousness itself. On the ship’s fantail, I did not so much witness the spectacle as participate in it. From that point of view, I apprehended the world through feeling and intuition, and the images they provided as guides, contained by the observing eye that links the individual psyche to the word soul. 


Je Suis Quelque Je Trouve

According to Aristotle, we gain knowledge not by talking about horses, but by direct contact with a particular horse; feeling its material qualities rooted in our sense-perception leads to an intuitive grasp of the universal in the particular, its horseness. Feeling and intuition as a way of knowing build on a degree of participation in what it is to be the other. Aristotle further observed that our souls shared a “nurturing” aspect with all living things.  This may speak most pointedly to the idea that as infants we learn to read the world through what we see mirrored back at us in those responsible for our nurture. This early “mirroring” experience may explain why intuition, the handmaiden of inductive reasoning, remains a relevant epistemological tool. Its feel for correspondences and probabilities has survived to the present day. On the other hand, early mirroring may not inoculate us against advances in technology; fractal geometry, spectroscopic measurements, nanophotonics, particles that exist for femtoseconds, three dimensional and holographic imaging—information systems that break down the object of knowledge into unrecognizable components. What happens to “knowing” when we deconstruct the mirroring face of nature, and it becomes possible to understand a horse, or a storm at sea most efficiently as a series of algorithms?

MIND+FUNCTIONS (1)Mind Map: The psychology of C.G. Jung Walter-Verlag (1972)

C.G. Jung posited that we get to know our world through four basic functions, two of which are primary and two supportive. On the (primary) vertical axis “thinking” and “feeling” are in opposition, while on the (supportive) horizontal axis “sensation” and “intuition” occupy opposite sides. Each of the four provides a specialized stream of intelligence. According to this paradigm, one function on each axis develops at the expense of the other; one becomes “dominant” and the other “inferior”. Extreme imbalance can create serious issues. If a culture elevates “thinking/sensation” and diminishes the importance of “feeling/intuition”, then the ability to incorporate value and connection as essential components of knowledge may diminish or even atrophy. One can’t underestimate the importance of nurture in the formation of empathy. Or empathy as the engine of cognitive development. When mirroring nurture is replaced by video games, and cognitive development, harnessed to unreflective information gathering, the ability to read each other deeply becomes grotesquely distorted or ceases to exist; the inner landscape gives birth to the outer landscape, and both will be a Waste Land.


Navigating the Numen

Quantum prophet Werner Heisenberg concluded in that we cannot observe phenomena without effecting them. His work on a sub-atomic level indicated that the movement of matter/energy responds to our consciousness. He also noted that we could calculate the speed or position of a particle, but not both. At least in that arena, it appeared that enthroned analytical intelligence had reached the limits of measurement and calculation. After his pronouncement in 1927, we were left with probability rather than certainty in our ability to predict the behavior of the fundamental elements of our world.

On the other hand, his observation suggested a backdoor to Aristotle’s theory of knowledge, since we were once again participants in the field of activity, not simply witnesses. But just how could we apply our elusive understanding of sub-atomic particles to knowing the horse? Certainly the situation that exists on such a basic level must affect us globally. How does one participate in what one can’t see? Or could we enlist the imagination to bridge these worlds?

Einstein employed “thought experiments” as an essential part of his process. In order to formulate the problem he’d been thinking about, Einstein created a way to explore it visually. Here is a train moving past a station. I am both inside the train and standing on the platform. If there is a flash of light at the center of the car inside the train, I will see it at the same time from both points of view, but experience the event differently.  From inside the car the flash will appear at the center. From the platform, it will appear to be moving to the rear of the car. This difference in perception of a simultaneous event, according to the relative position of the observer, though the speed of light remained constant, proved what Einstein called his special theory of relativity. As in a dream state, he’d had to see the event from both points of view at the same time. The exercise invites the imagination (which one might argue already operates according to the laws of special relativity) into a participatory experience.

Einstein’s waking reveries allowed him to use his complete sensorium to experience the operations of his imagination as in a lucid dream. We respond differently to dream images that arise autonomously in sleep as if from a separate intelligence. Often there’s no waking memory of what’s been seen under these conditions. Many dismiss what they remember as fragmentary or irrelevant. For others, the intelligence embedded in these autonomous images that flesh our dreams opens the doors of perception. Einstein spoke reverentially of intuition as a guide to this process.

Developing a relationship with the intelligence that creates dreams and reveries requires finesse. An attitude of trust deepens the connection. As in any relationship, this is usually based on past experience of the benefits, and our willingness to accept a degree of uncertainty. Fully grasping the content of a given dream may be like trying to know both the speed and position of an electron at the same time. A mathematical impossibility. On the other hand, we can evaluate the truthfulness or intention of the image- and symbol-forming function only when we recognize its psychological products as facts, demonstrable and undeniable.

Coll IMJ,  photo (c) IMJPaul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I encounter this repeatedly in a variety of ways. Recently, my twenty-five year old client, Nick, an artist of considerable talent, related that I appeared in his dream in a wheel chair. It was at the opening of a solo exhibition of his work. He welcomed me, told me how glad he was that I had come, then asked how I was feeling. I replied: “The world is dangerous. The world is thoughtful. I’m all right.”  The words resonated deeply for me. They summed up what, in fact, I hoped to model and convey to him in the course of our work. Understood in this way, the dream remains a concrete visual reference point and may be viewed as a psychological fact. A Memphite Tablet from pre-Dynastic Egypt, 5,100 years ago, tells us the creation of the world and everything in it issued from Ptah’s invisible heart-thoughts which materialized in his spoken word.  “Every divine word has come into existence through the heart’s thought and tongue’s command…”

Thought takes shape in the dark, becomes visible to the mind, before it incarnates in material form: so I read the message of Paul Klee’s Descending Angel. The same one I hear in my client’s dream: 

The world is dangerous

The world is thoughtful

I’m all right.

Problems arise when we find ourselves beyond the ability of the imagination to form a picture of thought. The Higgs-Bosom “God Particle” in quantum physics couldn’t be seen, but was intuited in 1960 as necessary to explain sub-atomic behavior. Forty years later its existence has been tentatively confirmed by the CERN accelerator. In 1930 Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli expressed the hope that he would live to see the invisible “thought” he named the neutrino.  It became visible in 1956 at a nuclear reactor on the Savannah River. Pauli died in 1958, two years later, without seeing his offspring. Today the neutrino is thought to be essential to the cohesion of particles, but is unconstrained by any of the laws that govern them; lacking an electrical charge, neutrinos pass through great distances in matter without being affected by it. They leave no footprint. Put another way, the neutrino remains unimaginable.


The Descending Angel

At twenty-four, Austrian-Swiss theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900 – 1958) had established “The Pauli Exclusion Principle” that revealed the structure of matter and predicted the death of stars. He went on to discover the fourth quantum number and the theory of “spin” which explained the way electrons behaved inside an atom, calculated the hydrogen spectrum, and posited the existence of the neutrino. In spite of these achievements, the Nobel Prize genius spent much of his life in quantum physics desperately unhappy.

outer space stars galaxies hubble darkness gas (2)The Hubble: Colliding Spiral Galaxies

Pauli worked closely with Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg to formulate basic quantum theory as part of the Copenhagen Experiment in 1924. At that time, challenges posed by the hitherto unknown sub-atomic world were galvanized by discoveries like “complementarity”, the dual nature of energy as both particle and wave elaborated by Bohr in 1928. These waters were as uncharted as any crossed by Europeans in the 15th Century on their way to the New World.  Physicists on the sub-atomic ocean also felt comforted close to shore on which the flora and fauna of the imagination provided a template. But even Einstein’s early “thought experiments” were less available to them as they sailed away from land into a featureless sea.

Without the imagination, and its productions, we are lost in deep space, directionless in utter darkness. Images, geometries, and analogies anchors us. How much more vivid deep space becomes if we compare it to a Paleolithic cave. Spinning galaxies and stellar explosions become the photonic equivalents of bison and wooly mammoth emblazoned on its walls. Physicist/astronomer Sir James Jeans wrote in 1930, the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as a creator and governor of the realm of matter…

Bohr AtomBohr Model Atom: UNSW, Australia

We suspect mind and matter want to imagine themselves each mirrored by the other. In this way, they remain comprehensible to us. Pauli challenged that when he questioned Bohr’s visualization of the atom as a planetary system.  The last thing he wanted to do was destabilize that structure, but what he observed in the behavior of electrons made it impossible for him to do otherwise.

Pauli’s assault on Bohr’s atomic theory was inadvertent and devastating. Central to the theory was the image of the atom as a planetary system with electrons orbiting a nuclear “sun”. Pauli found himself moving away from Bohr’s solar model. His attempt to answer the questions it raised led him to what became known as Pauli’s “Exclusion Principle.” One of the conclusions Pauli arrived at was the existence of “spin” as a property of the electron. The fact that electrons “spin” in opposite directions explained why they didn’t collapse in a heap. But sub-atomic “spin” was impossible to visualize. Gravity-based, planetary spin did not operate inside the atom. Still, Pauli’s “spin” accounted for so much. Along the way, it dissolved any possibility of an inert core (sun) at the center of orbiting electrons.  By 1925, it was clear that Bohr’s model of the atom could no longer be sustained.

The atom had become unimaginable.

FLUDD Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris [_] historia, tomus II (1619), tractatus I, sectio I, liber X, De triplici animae in corpore visione.Robert Fludd: Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris, Tomus Ii (1619).

Arthur I. Miller’s book, 137, Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession, describes the reaction of Pauli and his colleagues to the loss of this image. Visual support for atomic theory had provided a concrete link to shared experience. In its absence, the void beckoned. It triggered depression in Pauli, and created anxiety in his colleagues—especially Bohr. They tried to comfort each other. Pauli expressed his hope that eventually quantum theory would make sense of these ideas.  “Once systems of concepts are settled,” he told Bohr, “then will visualizability be regained.” (62)

Pauli moved forward even as he grieved over what had been lost. The products of his own formidable intelligence haunted him. As he would say about his notion of the neutrino:  “I have done a terrible thing. I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.”

Aware that imagination was giving way to numbers, Einstein wrote, “There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience can reach them.” He was talking about the only way he knew to glimpse “the ‘pre-established’ harmony of the universe.” (93)

quote-i-have-done-a-terrible-thing-i-have-postulated-a-particle-that-cannot-be-detected-wolfgang-pauli-71-21-59Wolfgang Pauli

With the collapse of Bohr’s solar model, atomic physics seemed to lie in ruins.

Arthur Miller writes about this turning point in intellectual history: “It was time for atomic physics to move on from trying to visualize everything in images relating to the world in which we live.” (63) Heisenberg put the fine point on it when he suggested that as scientists, and perhaps as a species linked by an inter-connected field of consciousness, we had moved into an area of nature that defied imagination.


Fish Talk

frida_kahlo_1Frida Kahlo: Sun and Life (1947)

Gott ist tot, announced Nietzsche in “The Gay Science” in 1882. On the centennial year 1900 Freud’s “The Interpretations of Dreams,” revealed a hole in consciousness full of hidden meaning, dark fears and desires, repressed instinctive material. What we walled off in order to protect civilization, had spilled from the divided Victorian psyche as Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jack the Ripper. Almost unnoticed, gods from Olympus, Saini, Ararat, Meru, Kailish, Machu Pichu, Zion had fallen into the cultural unconscious. By 1929 C.G. Jung observed that

the gods have become diseases;  Zeus no longer  rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world. (Introduction to “The Secret of the Golden Flower.”)

We had swallowed our mythological offspring. No longer to be summoned by name, the archetypal energy the gods represented were now expressed in a variety of somaticized disorders—whole Pantheons translated into stress-related clinical symptoms.

Gertrude Stein made clear that the rate of change in the 20th Century was greater than in all of those preceding it.  The speed exerts a G-Force equivalent to that which affects astronauts in rockets attempting to burst free of earth’s atmosphere. We have yet to understand the long range effects, how this may change us as a species. But it is also true that the function and structure of the deep psyche hasn’t changed since our ancestors painted images on rock walls where the sun never shines. The cave of our unconscious and its content is as rich in imagery as those at Lascaux and Trois Freres. We visit this Paleolithic space in dreams.  Mythic figures come and go, accompanied by emotions that make our waking ones pale.

Vestiges of these immemorial images survive in comic books, cartoons, video-games, niche marketing campaigns and cinematic special effects—simulations of awe. Certain image rich fairy tales and cartoons stir the unconscious. I am thinking of “The Last Unicorn,”  “The Dark Crystal,”  “The Triplets of Belleville,” the Slavic “Baba Yaga,” and Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” Archetypal figures emerge in apocalyptic high-relief like the emotionally compelling robots in films like “Blade Runner” and “The Terminator,” or the perplexing amalgam of human and machine called Darth Vader, or in disguise as Robin Williams in “The Fisher King.”

Perhaps the richest archetypal figure for me is the original wounded Fisher King, Amfortas, portrayed by the 11th Century minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach in his romance, Parzival.  Once the custodian of the Holy Grail, Amfortas has violated his role by doing battle with a Saracen knight whom he kills. But he is wounded and lives unhealed, in perpetual pain, most severe when in the presence of the Grail. It is eased only when fishing. Amfortas, whose name means “without strength”, must wait for Parzival to arrive in order to heal him and restore what has become a Waste Land.

FishMap 3Wayne Atherton: Fish Map #3

Amfortas is every fisherman. I imagine that he may have been internalized along with all the other defrocked archetypes and now exists inside of us. I hope that for all our sakes he continues to ease his pain by fishing interior depths. And what happens if he feels a tug on the end of his line? I wonder what  he will bring to the surface.  In stories by the brothers Grimm, and Alexander Pushkin, it is a talking fish.

In Pushkin’s poem, “The Tale of the Fisherman and The Fish” (1835), an impoverished Fisherman catches a golden fish in his net who begs for his life. The Fisherman, moved by his plea, throws him back. But the Fisherman’s Wife, after hearing about this encounter, sends her husband back to ask the fish to grant a wish in return. The fish grants the Fisherman’s first wish of a house to replace their hovel. Not satisfied with the house, she sends her husband back repeatedly with an increasingly grandiose list of wishes. Along the way, his wife becomes a queen, and then a tsarina and finally the Ruler of the Sea in order to subjugate the fish to her will. In an earlier version of this folk tale collected by the brothers Grimm and published in 1812 as “The Fisherman and His Wife,” the fish, a flounder, claims to have been an enchanted Prince, but offers to grant the fisherman a wish in return for his life. The wife in an ongoing series of demands moves from a hovel to a castle surrounded by untold wealth. Her queenly crown is replaced by a Papal miter, and then the unvarnished demand that she become God. At that point the fisherman and his wife in both stories are cast back down into their original condition.

There are a couple of minor but noteworthy differences in these two versions. Pushkin describes a gold fish while in the Grimm tale it is an enchanted Prince turned into a flounder. One Fisherman mistakes the gold color for the promise of material wealth. The other one is blind to the omen that he is destined to flounder. Both fail to discriminate between the visible fish as a magical wish-granting function, and the unseen power it draws on. In spite of the fact that both couples have been living on what they draw from the sea, they make no conscious connection to what lies beneath the surface. With every new demand to grant a wish, the sea becomes increasingly disturbed. The princely flounder leaves a trail of blood as it sinks to the bottom. One can’t help but feel for the wounded fish, and the increasingly bloody body of water that shelters it, any connection to the submerged source of abundance eclipsed by the greed of the fisherman and his wife.

Impoverishment and greed remain at the end what they were at the beginning. No one is changed by the narrative—except perhaps the reader.  Andersen and Pushkin have given us a cautionary tale: those who mistake the talking fish for the source of its power, are in the end impoverished.This disconnection between the fish and the fisherman may be more important than what appears to be the moral center of the tale.

What does this mean for the Fisher King?

Will we grow numb to his wound, and lose connection to him in the deep psyche?

If we do, will he simply ride metatstaically through our liver, kidneys and lungs?

 On the other hand, if we invite him into our hearts, might he fish up a new image to reconnect us—or a quantum fairy tale?

Reframing the Questions

OWLOwl Mobbed By Other Birds, England, Beastiary, (1250)

There has seldom been a more moving example of the Fisher King than Wolfgang Pauli. Once the keeper of the Grail, now disconnected from it by the unhealed wound of his own devising, few have fished more passionately for what is hidden beneath the surface. At a time when physics and psychology were undergoing a sea-change, the boundary between them ever more unclear, Pauli wanted to reconcile mind to matter as a unified field. Perhaps we can best grasp the spirit of this period in astrological terms where the imagery describes the movement of the equinox as it shift from Pisces to Aquarius. In Pisces we swam like fish in the ocean of the unconscious. As Aquarians, we will hold the amphora dispensing the element that once contained us. Caught in the transition, Pauli sails into the unimaginable.

Let us say, to extend the Arthurian metaphor, that the loss of the imaginal function in Pauli’s physics was the equivalent to being disconnected from the Grail, and to its abundance. Quantum Knights of the Round Table were stunned by what they faced, the emptiness.  They understood that to reconcile gravity to spin (reclaim the Grail) required imaginal equivalents, but that these wouldn’t happen overnight. For the time being, they could only express their ideas as equations. Pauli, the Fisher King, confided in Werner Heisenberg: We must adjust our concepts to experience.

Pauli stood resolutely at the stern with his line in the water. He became such an exacting critic of his peers floundering theories he became known to them as “God’s whip.” The failure of the imagination to express ideas remained an unhealed wound.

His personal life, too, went into a downward spiral.  In 1927 his mother, Bertha, a brilliant journalist, poisoned herself in response to his father’s desertion following an extra-marital affair. Pauli’s marriage to a cabaret performer proved stormy and short lived. Back in Zurich, he went on drinking binges. His forays into the bars became increasingly violent and he began to argue with colleagues at the university. He might easily have been confused with Fredrick March in the hit movie of 1931, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Pauli may have started off as a Gold Fish at twenty-four, but at thirty, like the Princely Flounder in Grimm’s fairy tale version, he sank to the bottom trailing blood and the invisible neutrino.

In danger of losing everything, he sought help from C. G. Jung, whose vision of the collective unconscious mirrored Pauli’s understanding of the quantum universe. The relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in analytical psychology was analogous to that of particle and wave in nuclear physics. Working with Jung, Pauli recovered the application of his powerful imagination in the existence of the archetypes. These constellated patterns of energy could be expressed in physical form. Pauli used them to reclaim the sense-experience that had been lost to quantum physics.

Through the language of symbols that emerged in his dreams, Pauli once again harnessed the image-making faculty to his formidable analytic abilities in mapping out new terrain, one shared by science and psychology. It was as though someone had whispered in his ear, “What ails thee?”


Briefly Mapping the Terrain

In Bronze Age cultures a temenos indicated a place apart, a sanctuary or sacred grove dedicated to a god. Represented archetypally as a circle squared, it is repeated architecturally in the traditional plaza—a square where (usually) four paths lead to a circular fountain at the center. Jung found the form represented universally in spiritual iconography as the Mandala. A symbol like the temenos is comparable to the neutrino. But its extension into the physical world is preceded by its existence as a psychological fact. Lacking an electrical charge, the neutrino moves through matter without creating a ripple, but holds it together.

CircletriangleSeal of Solomon

My client Perry, a charismatic fifty year old man, went into a tailspin when suddenly abandoned by the only women in years to capture his heart. In our sessions his voice trembled, he became tearful or angry. Then one day he appeared for our session composed, and presented a dream. He found himself on a rock ledge facing a cave. A green curtain covered the entrance. As he watched, a face formed in it, a mouth and eyes. He parted the curtain. It wasn’t damp inside, but warm, the air fragrant. In the middle stood a fountain with water streaming down four staggered round bowls into a square basin. When he stepped out again, the face in the curtain announced: “I’m here.”

Parting the veil, Perry had discovered the temenos within himself. It continues to inform him today. Though visible to no one else, he can enter and leave it at will. Perry now says that he goes there when he wants to collect himself. Pauli’s apprehension of the neutrino, and Perry’s encounter with the temenos, were experienced by senses interior to those we use when awake.  The absence of a visible image left Pauli uneasy. How could he fully know what he couldn’t see, even guided by his profound intuition. As Gertrude Stein pointed out after returning to Oakland, CA, and finding her childhood home gone: there is no there there.

Symbols like the temenos that bridge inner and outer worlds convey a comforting sense of intention. The naked intuition of the neutrino, on the other hand, alludes to a darker, impersonal mystery. In his work with Jung, trolling the waters of the unconscious, Pauli found his way back to the symbol-forming intelligence. The man who stripped sub-atomic physics of visual equivalents, fished up an image that links deep psyche to the creation of stars. It surfaced, like a talking fish, during his early years of dream analysis with Jung, but in this fairytale took the form of what Pauli called The World Clock.


The Invisible Number

Pauli’s focus on dreams drew him into the mystery of archetypal representations and their transformative power; trolling these waters eased his pain. It also strengthened his conviction: the intelligence embedded in the unconscious, not logic, connected us to what Einstein called “the ‘pre-established’ harmony of the universe.” Ideas that knit the atom to the cosmos could be developed mathematically, tested in equations, but as mathematical formulae could never explain the mystery of consciousness, or account for intuition. As Miller tells it:  “Jung’s theory of psychology offered Pauli a way of understanding the deeper meaning of the fourth quantum number and…went beyond science into the realm of mysticism, alchemy and archetypes.” Pauli continued to flesh out his ideas with the symbolic language of these traditions independently, and in consultation with Jung, for the next twenty-six years.

Edvard_Munch_-_Jealousy_Edvard Munch: Jealousy

Pauli and Jung co-authored a book, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche, to probe the connection between science and psychology. In it they explored the notion of synchronicity, or “meaningful coincidence,” and its sub-atomic equivalent, “entanglement,” where two or more particles with nothing connecting them exhibit identical behaviors—what Einstein called, “spooky action at a distance.”

No better example of this phenomenon could be found than in what became known as “The Pauli Effect,” which was witnessed with some regularity by a number of people on various occasions over the years. When Wolfgang Pauli walked into a laboratory, test tubes shattered, beakers exploded, and objects fell off the shelves. There have been a number of theories put forth to explain this, among them his almost palpable stress-driven intensity, and an overly active pineal gland.

Synchronicity dogged Pauli’s footsteps.

Pauli’s mentor, Arnold Sommerfeld, discovered the number 137 as the value of the “fine structure” of light emitted and absorbed by atoms. Along with the fingerprint, or DNA of each wave length, 137 emerged as a dimensionless fundamental constant in nature, central to relativity and quantum theory and necessary to the existence of life. It is also the numerical sum of Hebrew letters in the word “Cabbala.” Pauli found the number resoundingly archetypal and linked to ancient wisdom traditions. Einstein and the Zohar employ “intuition resting on sympathetic understanding,” as a way to read the book of the world in number and symbol.  137, the constant of underlying unity was such a number, and perhaps a symbolic equivalent for the Holy Grail.

When questioned by a colleague as to what he might ask God if the opportunity arose, Pauli answered, “Why 137?”

On Friday, December 5th, 1958, Pauli collapsed while teaching, then complained of stomach pains. He was transported to the Red Cross Hospital in Zurich, where a friend, Charles Enz, who had accompanied him, noticed Pauli was agitated. When he asked why, Pauli indicated the number above the door. He had been placed in room 137, and announced to his friend quite accurately that he would not be leaving it alive. After the removal of a massive pancreatic carcinoma, on December 15th Pauli died in Room 137.


Ending on a Synchronistic Note

Hubble-Pillarso Creation-Eagle NebulaThe Hubble: The Pillars Of Creation

Given his interest in time, and obsession with the fine structure constant, Pauli felt his dream image of The World Clock was a visual resolution to questions he had harbored for so long, and captured the mystery of the unified field. It might have amused him to learn that according to the calculation yielded by the Hubble space telescope measuring the speed at which galaxies are moving, the age of the Universe, that is the time elapsed since the Big Bang, is currently calculated at 13.7 billion years.


Winding the World Clock

Wolfgang Pauli always felt incomplete as a scientist. Even though “The Pauli Exclusion Principle” revealed the structure of matter and predicted the death of stars, he might’ve been a visitor to the exploration that measures its conclusions in vanishing traces of light, and particles that exist for a femtosecond. String theory accounts for things otherwise unaccountable, like the teleological argument used by Thomas Aquinas to prove the existence of God. Pauli had spent his life in pursuit of a disembodied science that according to Heisenberg defied imagination.

Early in his career Pauli responded to the unimaginable by splitting in half. The professor who by day tail-walked quantum waves, turned by night into a dark figure who raged in bars and brothels. He might’ve split definitively had he not found a temenos in Jung’s psychology. It was already familiar. Pauli had earlier intuited an equivalence between the unconscious and the quantum universe: “even the most modern physics lends itself to symbolic representations of psychic process.”

Certain critics suggested Jung manipulated his subjects to produce the archetypal dream material. He took a pre-emptive approach to his work with Pauli by making sure the content of Pauli’s dreams was “…absolutely pure, without any influence from myself.” For this reason, when Pauli entered treatment, Jung assigned him to a fledgling student of his, Erna Rosenbaum.

During five months with Erna, Pauli retrieved hundreds of dreams. Jung found the symbols that appeared in them similar to those in Medieval Alchemy. Jung chose four hundred of Pauli’s thirteen hundred dreams for his research into alchemical symbolism in the modern psyche. Quite apart from Jung’s research, Pauli probed his own symbol production with detailed notes and illustrations. Included among these notes is a description of the “sublime harmony” he experienced followed his “great vision”: Pauli’s revelation of The World Clock.

As he predicted long ago to Bohr, once system and concepts settle “then will visual imagery be regained.” The structure in Pauli’s great vision is assembled to evoke consciousness as a process of interlocking geometries held in the mystery of the unconscious, which exists outside of space-time. Writing later of Pauli’s vision that arrived on the back of a blackbird (Hermes’ bird) on the wing, Jung says: “It seems to be an attempt to make a meaningful whole of the formerly fragmentary symbols, then characterized as circle, globe, square, rotation, clock, star, cross, quaternity, time, and so on.” He characterized the vision as proof of a “conversion.”

Jung used this “religious” term to indicate the depth of Pauli’s transformation: the wound that had divided his psyche was healed. This vision reconciled science and psychology, along with other formerly opposing elements of his personality, in a complex representation of cosmic harmony, the unus mundus.

Pauli wrote Jung from Zurich in 1938:  “The relationship of these images is strongly affective and connected with a feeling that could be described as a mixture of fear and awe.

Pauli_s_World_ClocknewW. Beyers-Brown: The World Clock

Pauli writes about emerging from his vision in a peaceful state. What moved his genius to significant discoveries in quantum physics was never accompanied by such a profound sense of well-being. Pauli tells us The World Clock brought to light “deeper spiritual layers that cannot be adequately defined by the conventional concept of time.” In that moment, he produced an image that was in itself, and through which he became, a vehicle for transcendence. Jung describes it as “a moment when long and fruitless struggles came to an end and a reign of peace began.”


Channel Fever

Channel Fever is a state of extreme agitation that afflicts seamen on their way into or out of the harbor. Settled on the beach one is anxious to get back to sea. Conversely, still in the channel returning from sea one can taste, see, and smell the beach. Observable symptoms: pacing the companion ways at night, painting valves and gauges in the engine room the wrong colors, compulsive masturbation and emotional lability. I recall watching an able-bodied seaman on a decrepit freighter spend an hour trying to heat a can of soup on a toaster. A more extreme case was the oiler who kept trying to go over the side while we waited for the pilot to take us into Port Newark. As though he might beat us there doing the back stroke. I ran into him a year later at the old Drum Street union hall in San Francisco. After a session with the union shrink, and a brief period on disability, he was again possessed by channel fever, and on his way back to sea.

Something turns inside out in those who spend days adrift in sea-time. Especially fishermen on the troll. Most seamen, when given the opportunity, will throw out a line.  Few would have difficulty accepting the idea that the man next to him at the rail has heard a fish talk. Or admit that he had been recently talking to one himself.

Years after disembarking in Seattle on my return from Vietnam to a world I didn’t recognize, I discovered the writings of those who sailed the unconscious, an order of seamen who not only talked about or to fish, but to a range of invisibles.  Jung cultivated relationships with figures in his reveries, dreams and reflections. Similar to Einstein’s “thought experiments, Jung called this practice “active imagination.” Both situations set up an interrogation of the psyche that allows the observer to engage the Other outside the constraints of space-time, to participate in what is observed like the man who is simultaneously in the train and on the platform.

Notable among the imagined figures Jung cultivated was Philemon, a wise old uncle who became over time Jung’s spirit guide. Many such encounters with archetypal figures can be found in Jung’s Red Book, a record of confrontations with his unconscious based on experiences between 1913 and 1917. It became the seed-bed of ideas he developed over the next forty-five years. In a reverie at the end of the Red Book, Philemon appears at Jung’s door with a gathering of dead souls and informs him: These were seekers and still hover over their graves. Their lives were incomplete, since they knew no way beyond the one to which belief had abandoned them.

Jung revised this discourse as Septem Sermones ad Mortuos in a private edition for friends. He later appended it to his autobiography, “Memories, Dreams & Reflections,” published posthumously in 1962, in which he also describes the occasion when the dead appeared to him in a reverie on Sunday, January 30th, 1916. It started with a restlessness that grew into a sense of other presences filling the room.  “They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’”

In the last version of Seven Sermons to the Dead, Jung’s doorbell rings and he answers it to find the Gnostic sage, Basilides, who flourished in Alexandria about 125 AD.  Basilides answers Jung’s question with the opening line from the Red Book:

The dead came back from Jerusalem, where they found not what they sought.  They prayed me let them in and besought my word and thus I began my teaching.

Jung studied the Gnostic systems for analogies to the structure of the psyche. Basilides conceived of gnosis as light descending from an ineffable God to become entangled in progressively dense layers of matter. Light generated by the deep unconscious is broken into dreams at the threshold of mind and matter. Sparks of that light known to the mind are held in the heart.  The Greeks called the soul-spark, synteresis, which Aquinas would later link to a “knowledge of first principles.” Today, symbols that capture its light, like a Mark Rothko painting, may be reduced to the size of a postage stamp.

ROTHKOSTAMPUS Postoffice: Mark Rothko’s Yellow & Orange (1965)

At Jung’s door, Basilides declared: Hard to know is the deity of Abraxas.

In the earlier draft, Philemon tells us that Abraxas is a God mankind forgot, though he stands above the one they remember. If Basilides were at the door today he might say simply that Abraxas is hard to hold.

Basilides could be describing the quantum world when he tells us: Abraxas is effect. Nothing stands opposed to him but the ineffective; hence his effective nature unfolds itself freely. The ineffective neither exists nor resists.

Before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, there was Abraxas.

abraxgemAbraxis Coin, Roman, (300AD)

He is improbable probability, that which takes unreal effect.  The forgotten god perfectly suited to a quantum world that defies imagination. The notion of scattered sparks of gnostic light may find equivalent in the scattered amplitudes of particle interaction in a quantum field. It is hard to explain the most recent advance of mathematical physics. But how does one visualize the Amplituhedron?

Basilides might say we could call it Abraxas. It is an all-inclusive geometric notion which is not built out of space-time, and described as a “multi-faceted jewel in higher dimensions” that encodes basic features of reality as “scattering amplitudes”?


Where in the face of unimaginable amplitude do we cast our net into the waters of the imagination? A quantum net constellated to hold the stars and the unseen properties of an entangled universe. A net of entanglements to reassemble fragments of scattered light.

Abraxas = the Neutrino.


The Pre-conscious Step

In my reverie, I am sitting in the crew mess, and feel the rush of channel fever. I itch for solid ground. But I can’t see the beach, except as a distant shore. I remember fifty years ago climbing the ladder at the end of the shaft alley to the open hatch behind the paint locker and pushing myself into the storm. Standing at the rail as the fantail rose and fell, I merged with what I saw, what links psyche to the word soul, to know the horse, or a storm as Aristotle suggests we know anything, by becoming it.

philemonC.G.Jung: Philemon (The Red Book)

Even though I can’t see it clearly, I feel the ship that carries me coming into the channel. I consider raiding the “night lunch”, or heating a can of soup on the toaster but understand neither will address my hunger. I hunger to know what moves people to put a human face on transcendence, then die or kill to defend it. A hunger that verges on instinct. I hunger to be comforted by something greater than my hunger. In a world that defies imagination, I hunger for the reassurance of a fairytale.

I leave the crew mess. Standing at the rail on the bow, I scan what is ahead. The engines slow almost to a stop. We might be preparing for the pilot to come aboard, as we must before we can dock. He will take us in. The pilot knows the currents and shoals. But his boat is nowhere in sight. I wait, eyes closed. When I open them again I’m standing at the water’s edge holding a line. It appears I have caught and released a fish. The goldfish that pokes out of the water has Wolfgang Pauli’s face, complete with the square jaw tending to jowl. He tells me that he will grant one wish, and asks me what I want.  I reply that I would like to pull up from the depths the answer to my most profound question, which I have not yet framed even for myself.

Ancient+Roman+Mosaic+Revealed+Israel+_0IL5cgUVXQlAncient Roman Mosaic, (Israel): Fish

The Paulifish frowns, then declares he will do even better and instructs me on how to constellate a quantum-net to capture the theory of everything. I take mental notes, follow his directions precisely in drawing the plan.

When I get home, I find a pad and pencil, then draw what I remember, the directive voice clear in my head. I’m disappointed with the result. What I see on the paper looks like a newt.

I return to the shore. The Paulifish appears again.  I describe to him what happened when I followed his instruction. “I ended up with a newt, not a net.”

He repeats my words, a newt, not a net. Shakes his head.

I protest again that I adhered exactly to his directions.

You’re not even wrong,” he repeats his well-known response to a cowering student. Then laughs. “Newton’s net is not what it used to be. I’m talking about gravity. Highly over-rated in the scheme of things. Even a nitwit knows a newt is not a net.”

 It’s not supposed to work this way, I tell him. This interchange between us is supposed to be richer, magical, a way of riddling existence.

He is somber, this Paulifish, nods. If there is something I want from him, I must say it and stop demanding he both ask and answer my question.

“Fair enough,” I agree.

Again that smirk.

“Ok,” I tell him. “I want a concrete image to reveal what I know so deeply it remains invisible to me.”

“Be specific,” he insists.

“I need a pilot to guide me to the harbor I can’t see from the ship in my mind. And to see the ship from the beach where I now stand talking to you.”

“That’s two wishes,” he yawns.

“I want to know the world again as once I did, in full color,” I blurt. “When I could be in two different places at the same time.”

Paulifish nods as best he can, considering he has no neck. He repeats the advice he gave to Bohr when his solar model for the atom went belly-up. Systems and concepts have to settle, he assured me. I will perhaps be able to visualize again what is necessary for me.

“That’s not good enough,” I protest. “What about my quantum net?”

Paulifish tells me it’s too late to discuss this today. I might come back tomorrow. Or, better, in a week. Meanwhile, I should remember his words.

“What are those?” I ask, as if it mattered.

“Keep your line in the water.”

Egyptian-Symbol-Ouroboros-300x300 (1)Ouroboros

—Paul Pines

Note One: From Synchronicity by F. David Peat

David Peat describes the physical characteristics of the clock following Jung’s in his book, Psychology and Alchemy.

Pauli's worldclockPauli’s Worldclock

There is a vertical and a horizontal circle, having a common centre. This is the world clock. It is supported by the black bird.

The vertical circle is a blue disc with a white border divided into 4 X 8 — 32 partitions. A pointer rotates upon it.

The horizontal circle consists of four colours. On it stand four little men with pendulums, and round it is laid the ring that was once dark and is now golden (formerly carried by four children). The world clock has three rhythms or pulses:

1) The small pulse: the pointer on the blue vertical disc advances by 1/32.

2) The middle pulse: one complete rotation of the pointer. At the same time the horizontal circle advances by 1/32.

3) The great pulse: 32 middle pulses are equal to one complete rotation of the golden ring. (p. 194)

…Jung identified the point of rotation of the disks with the mystical speculum, for it both partakes of the rhythmic movement yet stands outside it. The two disks belong to the two universes of the conscious and the unconscious, which intersect in this speculum. The whole figure together with its elaborate internal movement is therefore a mandala of the Self, which is at one and the same time the center and the periphery of the world clock. In addition, the dream could also stand as a model of the universe itself and the nature of space-time…

Note Two: Wolfgang Pauli and the Fine-Structure Constant By Michael A. Sherbon

Journal of Science (JOS) 148 Vol. 2, No. 3, 2012, ISSN 2324-9854 Copyright © World Science Publisher, United States www.worldsciencepublisher.org

Another interpretation of Pauli’s World Clock could be made comparing it to a basic yin-yang space-time model of brain-mind function describing hemispheric interactions [13]. Pauli associated the rhythms of the World Clock with biological processes (in particular the four chambers of the heart and its average rhythm of 72 beats per minute) as well as with psychic processes [14]. In Wolfgang Pauli’s visionary World Clock geometry the blackbird is a symbol for the “turning inward” at the beginning stage of alchemy and the messenger for the creative solar principle.

Note Three: Pauli & Jung: The Meeting Of Two Great Minds By David Lindhoff

Following the dream of “The House of Gathering,” Pauli experienced a waking vision that came to him with great clarity and left him with the feeling of “Sublime harmony.” He called it “The Great Vision.” The Text reads…

This vision of two cosmic clocks orthogonally related to each other by a common center challenges our rational prejudice as we contemplate the physical unrealizability of the construction of The World Clock. The image is a three dimensional mandala symbolically representing the structure of space and time, which have a common center point.

The empty center shows that there is no Deity within the symbol. Taking the vision to have collective significance, Jung observed that modern humans have the task of relating to the whole person, or the self, rather than to a god-image that is a projection of the self.

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published ten books of poetry: OnionHotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding Light, TaxidancingLast Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness and New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros. The last collection recently won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. His eleventh collection, Fishing On The Pole Star, will soon be out from Dos Madres. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.


Jan 312016

Ainsley as Cuchlain in At the Hawk's WellHenry Ainsley as Cuchulain in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, by permission of George Eastman House.


On Christmas Day 1888, Oscar Wilde read to Yeats “The Decay of Lying,” later published in Intentions. That collection also includes “The Truth of Masks,” an essay on theatrical costumes that ends with Wilde’s declaration that “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true….It is only in art criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.”[1] That final aphorism might, in style and content, have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Wilde’s fusion of Hegelian dialectic with Blake’s insistence on the fruitful clash of “Contraries” would have particularly resonated with W. B. Yeats after the turn of the century, when his reading of Wilde became aligned with his earlier study of Blake and his “excited” recent reading of Nietzsche, that “strong enchanter” whose thought, he believed, “completes Blake and has the same roots.”[2]

W.B. YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald.

It might also be said that, in many ways, Nietzsche “completes” Wilde. “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true,” says Wilde. Writing two years later, Nietzsche, affirming art and life over moral/philosophical conundrums, tells us that, for well-constituted spirits, such an “opposition” as that between “chastity” and “sensuality” need not be “among the arguments against existence—the subtlest and brightest, like Goethe, like Hafiz, have even seen it as one more stimulus to life. Just such ‘contradictions’ seduce us to existence.”[3] Obviously, Nietzsche, that master perspectivist, strenuously denies (to again quote Wilde) any “such thing as a universal truth,” and, from The Birth of Tragedy on, he elevated art above philosophy, dismissing (in Twilight of the Idols) Kantian Idealism with its physical reality-denying doctrine of the ghostly “thing-in-itself” as “that horrendum pudendum of the metaphysicians!”[4] Nietzsche’s axiom, from Part III of the material posthumously published as The Will to Power, is well-known: “We possess art lest we perish of the truth” (§822; italics in original).[5] Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche’s references to “masks” are in accord with Wilde’s equation of metaphysical truth with, or its replacement by, “the truths of masks.” Several of his formulations even help illuminate Wilde’s “pose.” Here are the half-dozen most crucial passages—all from Beyond Good and Evil, a book written in the same year (1885) as the original version of Wilde’s “The Truth of Masks”:

All that is profound loves a mask; the very profoundest things even have a hatred for images and likenesses. Shouldn’t the opposite be the only proper disguise to accompany the shame of a god?….Every profound spirit needs a mask; even more, a mask is continually growing around every profound spirit thanks to the constantly false, that is shallow interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives. (Part 2: §40).

Too noble for “Socratism,” Plato, the most daring of all interpreters,…took the whole of Socrates like a popular theme and folksong from the streets in order to vary it infinitely and impossibly, specifically into all his own masks and multiplicities. Spoken in jest, and moreover Homerically: just what is the Platonic Socrates if not “Plato in front, Plato in back, Chimaera in the middle” (Part 5: §190). [Nietzsche quotes the phrase in quotations in Greek, paraphrasing Homer on the tripartite chimaera (The Iliad VI: 181)].

That strength-cultivating tension of the soul,…its inventiveness and courage in enduring, surviving, interpreting…and whatever it was granted in terms of profundity, mystery, mask…: has all this not been granted…through the discipline of great suffering?….[in the] constant pressure and stress of a creative, shaping, malleable force…the spirit enjoys its multiplicity of masks…it is in fact best defended and hidden by precisely these Protean arts—this will to appearance, to simplification, to masks…. (Part 7: §225, 230)

Deep suffering makes noble; it separates. One of the most subtle forms of disguise is Epicureanism and a certain openly displayed courageousness of taste that takes suffering lightly and resists everything sad and profound. There are “cheerful people” who use cheerfulness because on its account they are misunderstood:—they want to be misunderstood. There are free impudent spirits who would like to conceal and deny that they are shattered, proud, and incurable hearts; and sometimes foolishness itself is the mask for an ill-fated, all-too-certain knowledge.—From which it follows that part of a more refined humanity is having respect “for the mask” and not practicing psychology and curiosity in the wrong place. (Part 9: §270)

Whoever you might be: what would you like now? What would help you recuperate? Just name it: what I have I offer to you! “To recuperate? To recuperate? Oh how inquisitive you are, and what are you saying! But give me, please—” What? What? Just say it!—“Another mask! A second mask!” (Part 9: §278)

Do people not write books precisely to conceal what they are keeping to themselves. Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hiding place, every word also a mask. (Part 9: §289) [6]


Nietzsche Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil.

In letters to Lady Gregory and John Quinn (who had sent him in 1902 a new anthology of well-selected writings of the German philosopher), Yeats praised what he called, with remarkable tonal accuracy, Nietzsche’s “curious astringent joy” (Letters, 379), which he related to Blakean delight in energy and to Nietzsche’s own exuberant, life-affirming “respect for the mask.” In annotating selections from Nietzsche in the margins of that anthology, Yeats set up a diagram that explains much, if not all, of his subsequent thought and work, including his dramatic assertion three decades later (in “Vacillation”) that “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart,”[7] and the assertion, three weeks before his death, when, filled with an “energy” he had despaired of recovering, he concluded, “When I put it all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life” (Letters, 922).

Here is the diagram, based on Nietzsche’s major antitheses: Day vs. Night, Many vs. One, Dionysus vs. the Crucified, Homer vs. Plato/Socrates, Master Morality vs. Slave Morality; above all, the Nietzschean (and soon to be Yeatsian) distinctions between passionate, embodied being and cerebral, abstract knowing; and between power issuing in “affirmation” and ressentiment issuing in “denial.”

Night (Socrates/Christ) one god

Day (Homer) many gods

denial of self, the soul turned towards spirit seeking knowledge.

affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.[8]

Yeats’s diagram graphically demonstrates how “Nietzsche completes Blake.” The Romantic poet’s mature dialectic stresses polar inclusion: “Contraries are positive, a negation is not a contrary,” he incised in reverse at the beginning of Book the Second of Milton (Plate 30). But Blake is more dramatically antithetical in the far better-known passage in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he introduced his oppositional Contraries, and their distortion by the “religious,” blind to the Blakean/Nietzschean dialectic “beyond” conventional “good” and “evil”:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these Contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.[9]

Here is one source of the “energy” embodied in Yeats’s final letter and in the “frenzy” of “an old man’s eagle mind” in his late poem “An Acre of Grass.”   In both cases, Blake is “completed” by “Nietzsche, whose thought flows always, though in an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.”[10] His Nietzsche-inspired diagram includes Yeats’s first recorded use of the term “mask.” A half-dozen years later, he wrote: “I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth of something not oneself.”[11] Yeats’s concept of the mask, as both a strategy for carrying on his quarrel with himself and an attempt to restore a lost Unity of Being, is identical to what he would later call, in “Ego Dominus Tuus” (1915), the “anti-self.” The last words of that dialogue between Hic and Ille (“This One” and “That One”) are given to Ille, whose position on mask and anti-self is so close to Yeats’s own that Ezra Pound (with his friend at Stone Cottage when the poem was written) famously observed that Ille should have been “Willie.” Seeking “an image, not a book,” Ille concludes that there is one, like yet unlike himself, who can “disclose/ All that I seek, and whisper it” in secret:

I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self.

Created “in a moment and perpetually renewed,” that mask of some “other self,” of “something not oneself,” is described in the 1909 diary entry as the “painted face” or “game” in which one “loses the infinite pain of self-realization.” It resembles Nietzsche’s “mask” concealing deep suffering, as well as Wilde’s “pose” and “mask,” artifices enabling the multiplication of personalities.

Yeats’s first public use of the term occurred in 1910, in “A Lyric from an Unpublished Play,” retitled “A Mask” three years later in ASelection from the Love Poetry of William Butler Yeats (Cuala Press). The first speaker in this three-stanza dialogue is anxious to discover whether his beloved’s dazzling “mask of burning gold/ With emerald eyes” conceals “love” or the “deceit” of an “enemy.” The reply: “It was the mask engaged your mind,/ And after set your heart to beat,/ Not what’s behind.” First worn by Decima in The Player Queen, this mask was initially inspired by Yeats’s mistress at the time, Mabel Dickinson. But since the poem appears in a slender volume (The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910) dominated by lyrics to and about Maud Gonne, and reappears in a selection from his “love poetry,” Yeats seems to want us to identify the masked figure with his Muse. To his anxious inquiry as to whether she is his “enemy,” she responds, “What matter, so there is but fire/ In you, in me?” Playing with fire is exciting but dangerous, especially if we are dealing with Maud Gonne, political activist, actress, and femme fatale. A Wildean Salomé in a mask, she is kin to that aloof young queen to whom the lowly jester, having had his “soul” and “heart” rejected, sacrifices his titular “cap and bells” in a beautiful early lyric that perversely flowers, four decades later, in Yeats’s Salomé-like plays for masks (especially A Full Moon in March) in which even colder queens demand severed heads, decapitation replacing the symbolic self-castration of “The Cap and Bells.”

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

“The Mask” was followed, five years later, by “The Poet and the Actress,” a prose-dialogue (unpublished until 1993) in which the dramatic poet urges an actress to cover “her expressive face with a mask.”[12] The Poet is echoing the man Yeats considered “the greatest stage inventor in Europe,” Gordon Craig, who had collaborated in Abbey Theatre productions for several years beginning in 1909, and who insisted, in the first (March 1908) issue of his magazine, The Mask, that “human facial expression is for the most part valueless…Masks carry conviction… The face of the actor carries no such conviction; it is over-full of fleeting expression—frail, restless, disturbed, and disturbing.” Yeats also knew Craig’s “A Note on Masks,” published the same year Yeats wrote his poem “The Mask.”[13]

Craig sought a theater “purged of hideous realism,” and he and Yeats agreed that the Ibsen school of “realism” must be replaced by a theatre of masks if artists were to do justice to what Yeats called in this long-unpublished dialogue, the “battle [that] takes place in the depths of the soul.” It was a conviction realized in Yeats’s own mask-plays, combining Japanese Noh drama with the theatrical insights of Wilde and of Craig, who stage-designed Yeats’s Cuchulain play At the Hawk’s Well, featuring costumes and masks by Edmund Dulac. Launching his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1894), Wilde asserted that “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”[14] He was being more than witty. Yeats agreed with Wilde and Craig, as with Nietzsche, that the purpose of artifice, specifically the wearing of a mask, was not merely to conceal, but to reveal deeper and immutable truths: gathering the audience, to adapt a famous phrase from “Sailing to Byzantium,” into “the artifice of eternity.”

Gordon CraigGordon Craig

There was also the theater of Eros. In diary notes written after the long-delayed sexual consummation (in Paris, in December 1908) of his love for Maud Gonne, Yeats proclaimed that, in “wise love,” both partners may achieve their masks: “each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life. Love also creates the Mask” (Memoirs, 144-45). But that night in Paris had been followed by a morning-after note in which Maud told Yeats she was praying he would be able to “overcome” his “physical desire,” and expressing the wish to revert to their old mystical marriage, an intimate but non-sexual relationship. His immediate grief triggered a mature reassessment, which included sublimation in the form of the century’s greatest body of love poems and affairs with “others.” After the execution of Maud’s estranged husband, Easter Rising leader John MacBride, Yeats had revived his hope of a sustained relationship with Maud: a dream that ended definitively with her final refusal of marriage, physical or mystical, in June 1917. Four months later, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees.

Of course, that “perverse creature of chance” (in “On Woman,” the first of the Solomon and Sheba poems) would continue to fascinate Yeats; and the acceptance of the attendant anguish plays a major part in his poetic embrace of Nietzschean eternal recurrence, both in “On Woman,” where the lovelorn speaker chooses to come “to birth again,” and in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” where the choice to “live it all again/ And yet again,” means plunging once more into “that most fecund ditch of all,/ The folly that man does/ Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.”[15] As Yeats noted, paraphrasing Blake’s “old thought” (in both “Anima Hominis” and in a later letter glossing the erotic tension in “Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers”), it may be that “sexual love” is “founded on spiritual hate” (Memoirs, 336, Letters, 758). Indeed, the “mirror where the lover or beloved sees an image” will return to maliciously threaten the Self in the very poem in which Maud is depicted as “not kindred of my soul.”


The power of Yeats’s best poetry springs from the dialectical tension between “contraries” (Hegelian, Blakean, Wildean, Nietzschean): “Contraries” without which, as Blake said in his most dialogical work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, there is “no progression.” At the heart of this Yeatsian antinomy is the gap between the “bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” as he put it in the “Introduction” to the projected deluxe edition of his work—and the self dramatically “reborn”: the Mask, italicized and defined (in the 1937 edition of A Vision) as Will’s “opposite or anti-self.”[16] The internal Yeatsian drama of masks and personae is played out in interactions and oppositions beginning with St. Patrick and Oisin (The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889); Hic and Ille in “Ego Dominus Tuus”; Aherne and Robartes (‘Nineties’ personae revived for “The Phases of the Moon”); or gentler oppositions between the latter and the young girl in “Michael Robartes and the Dancer,” or between the blonde beauty and the Yeatsian old man in “For Anne Gregory.” The agon continues in the crucial “Dialogue of Self and Soul” and, in the Crazy Jane sequence, in the debates between the repressed and repressive Bishop and Jane, who dialectically double-puns that “Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent.” These tensions persist to the end. Proudly rehearsing his earthly and imaginative accomplishments in his final years, Yeats is challenged—“‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’”—by a more formidable spokesman of the spiritual Otherworld than the Soul in “Dialogue,” let alone Jane’s hypocritical Bishop. Even in the face of death, as we’ll see, the Yeatsian Man has to contend with his own sardonic Echo.

There are also singular anti-selves, impulsive figures such as lusty Red Hanrahan and the ghost of Leo Africanus, a 16th-century Moor conjured up by Yeats in séances beginning around 1909. Yeats imagined this adventurer and travel writer being “drawn to me because in life he had been all undoubting impulse,” while “I was doubting, conscientious, and timid.” There are several parallels having to do with the Gregorys and Coole Park. Among the “excellent company” frequenting the Great House was “one,” Yeats himself, “who ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”), a description that illuminates several poems in The Wild Swans at Coole, as well as his private contrast between himself and the Gregorys.

On a rare occasion when his defense of Lady Gregory against attack had struck mother and son alike as inadequate, Yeats tried, in a letter to Robert, to explain. Because of his analytic mind, with its tendency “to exhaust every side” of a subject, he had lost the capacity for “instinctual indignation.” His “self-distrustful analysis of my own emotions” had, Yeats said, “destroyed impulse.” On this point, he found his stance “unreconcilable” with that of the Gregorys, whose instinctual “attitude toward life” had, like Maud Gonne’s, that “purity of a natural force” Yeats admired, envied—and left to others to embody.[17] And there is, of course, the ambivalent comparison with Robert Gregory himself: the Irish airman whose “lonely impulse of delight” made him one of those heroic men of action who “consume/ The entire combustible world in one small room,” while others, like sedentary Yeats, tediously “burn damp faggots” or count swans on the lake while shuffling among the autumnal leaves littering the estate Robert Gregory would have inherited had he not met his “fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above.”

But Yeats’s central hero—his most formidable opposite, mask, or anti-self—is the Celtic Achilles, impulsive Cuchulain, representing “creative joy separated from fear” (Letters, 913). Resurrected from ancient epic, he became the protagonist of a cycle of five Yeats plays and of several poems. The last of those plays, The Death of Cuchulain, and his final poem on the hero, the terza rima masterpiece “Cuchulain Comforted,” were written in the shadow of Yeats’s own impending death. In the poem, the slain hero is now in the Underworld; hence the Dantesque stanza-form, repeated in Eliot’s adaptation of terza rima in the encounter with the largely Yeatsian “compound ghost” in “Little Gidding.” The hero, nameless except in the poem’s title, lays down his sword to take up needlework; he joins a communal sewing bee, stitching shrouds among his polar opposites, “convicted cowards all.” He is soon to join them in their transformation as well. Those shrouded spirits, already described as “birdlike things,” suddenly sing, but “had nor human tunes nor words,/ Though all was done in common as before [.]/ They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” On an autobiographical level, this role-reversal, almost gender-reversal, by Yeats’s solitary, hyper-masculine, and defiantly non-conformist warrior-hero, tends to confirm the essential truth of one of Yeats’s most revealing self-appraisals, or un-maskings: his reference to himself, already cited, as “one who ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart.” Even here, in that birdlike “ruffling,” there is a faint vestige of the mask of the hawk-god, Cuchulain.

The Guardian of the Well in ‘At the Hawk’s Well’ (frontispiece). Illustration by Edmund Dulac for “Four Plays for Dancers” (1921)Edmund Dulac design for costume and mask for At the Hawk’s Well.
Illustration from Four Plays for Dancers, 1921.

There is a similar revelation of the sensitive man under the heroic mask at the conclusion of a dialogue-poem already referred to, “Man and the Echo.” Standing in the cleft of a mountain and confronting imminent death, the Man hopes to “arrange all in one clear view,” and, “all work done,” prepare to “sink at last into the night.” But the world is too contingent for such well-laid plans. Echo’s ominous repetition, “Into the night,” raises more, and more metaphysical, questions: “Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?” Finally, all philosophic thoughts stop together, interrupted by an intervention from the physical world, and a reminder of the suffering and radical finitude the poet shares with all mortal creatures:

But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.

Mitchio Ito as the Hawk collageDancer in costume designed by Dulac,  At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, by permission of George Eastman House.

In some poets, such a conclusion might be sentimental. But it is precisely Yeats’s frequent deployment, especially after encountering Nietzsche at the turn of the century, of a heroic, pitiless mask that makes this moment so poignant. For here Yeats identifies—not, as he so often had, with the perspective of the predatory bird (with Cuchulain, son of that “clean hawk out of the air”)—but with the death-cry of a defenseless, pitiable victim. One recalls chastened Lear on the storm-beaten heath (“Take physic, pomp…. I have ta’en too little notice of this”) and Nietzsche’s final breakdown in Turin, tearfully embracing a beaten coach-horse.[18]


“Man and the Echo” (1938) is the last, and one of the greatest, in Yeats’s long litany of dialogue-poems. Given the tension between the provisional nature of his commitments and his attraction to a form of polarity that generates power, it is unsurprising that Yeats was repeatedly drawn to poems (over thirty in number, great and small) that take the traditional form of debate or dialogue, necessarily exercises in masking. “The Mask” itself, a brief early instance, would be followed by much more elaborate examples, beginning with “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Later Yeats presents us with more dramatic oppositions and dialogue-poems, such as the Crazy Jane and Man and Woman Young and Old sequences, and, along with “Man and the Echo,” the most resonant of them all, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927) and the appropriately-titled “Vacillation” (1931-32). That poetic sequence begins by explicitly laying out the antinomial tension between contraries that had, in the wake of his completion of Blake by Nietzsche, supplanted Yeats’s hitherto univocal vision. “All things fall into a series of antinomies in human experience” (A Vision, 193): an abstraction blooded in the opening lines of “Vacillation”:

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

It turns out (as in “Lapis Lazuli” and its lesser companion-poem, “The Gyres”) to be a Nietzschean “tragic joy,” based on the antinomies (“Night/Day,” “Christ/Homer”) set up three decades earlier in the margins of that Nietzsche anthology. In the debate in section VII of “Vacillation” (“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in stichomythia), the defiant Heart refuses the purifying fire proffered by the spiritual Soul: “Look on that fire, salvation walks within.” Temporally and thematically wrenching Augustinian Christianity into a pagan and heroic context, Heart, a “singer born” who indignantly refuses to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire,” responds: “What theme had Homer but original sin?” And, in his own voice, inflected by Nietzsche, Yeats asserts in the final movement of “Vacillation” that “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.”

But not even that resonant proclamation ends the antinomy. The poem’s final movement had begun with a question: “Must we part, Von Hügel, though much alike, for we/ Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?” The spiritual side of the usual Yeatsian antinomy is here represented by the Catholic theologian and mystic, Friedrich, Baron von Hügel, whose The Reality of God and Religion and Agnosticism had been posthumously published in 1931. Yeats might be as moved by the miraculous state of the body of St. Theresa, which “lies undecayed in tomb,” as he is by the preservation of “Pharoah’s mummy,” yet

                                      I—though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb—play a predestined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hügel, though with blessings on your head.

Citing Samson, who took honey from the bees swarming in the body of the slain lion, Yeats is adapting the Bible (Judges 14:14) to make his own recurrent point that it is “only out of the strong” that sweetness comes. The poem’s final line—a patronizing yet courteous, benign dismissal of the spiritual spokesman—was cited by Yeats in a 1932 letter to Olivia Shakespear, his first lover (“young/ We loved each other and were ignorant”) and most intimate lifelong correspondent. Having just reread his entire canon, and thinking of the old debate between Oisin and St. Patrick and of the more recent one between Heart and Soul in “Vacillation,” Yeats clarified what he now considered the power-producing tension dominating all his poetry: “The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint, but not without vacillation. Is that perhaps the sole theme—Usheen and Patrick—‘so get you gone Von Hugel though with blessings on your head’?”(Letters, 798)[19]

Yeats’s principal Celtic “swordsman” is Cuchulain rather than Oisin; but no matter, Saint and Swordsman emerge as Yeats’s ultimate antinomial “contraries,” and his most sustained “masks.” The blessing on von Hügel’s head is a terminal benediction by a man who, like von Hügel, believed in miracles, and who had also experienced such privileged moments as the epiphany recorded in section IV of “Vacillation,” when his “body”—that of a fifty-year-old poet sitting “solitary” in a “crowded London shop”—“of a sudden blazed,” and “twenty minutes more or less/ It seemed, so great my happiness,/ That I was blessèd and could bless.”

It seems to me no accident that in “Little Gidding,” his masterpiece and the very poem in which he encounters Yeats’s ghost, T. S. Eliot also alludes to Yeats’s dismissed saint, echoing von Hügel’s “costingness of regeneration” in referring to the cost (“not less than everything”) of refinement in spiritual fire. Eliot knew that, despite Yeats’s momentary sense that he was “blesséd and could bless,” everything was a price too high to be paid by the older poet, a “singer born” who refused (in section VII of “Vacillation”) to be consumed in the “simplicity” of spiritual “fire.” This is only one of several even more obvious allusions to “Vacillation” in the course of Eliot’s encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” in Part II of “Little Gidding.” That the recently dead Yeats plays the predominant part in that “compound” is demonstrated by both the drafts and the final version of this magisterial passage, as well as by Eliot’s explicit remarks in several letters. Nevertheless, it may be said that, as presented in the ghost-encounter in this final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot emerge as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them” (“Little Gidding,” III, 174).[20]


Four years before “Vacillation,” in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” My Self, anticipating the antinomies (day/night, death/remorse) set up at the outset of “Vacillation,” chooses “emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Yeats’s emblem of vital and erotic life is again a sword, but this time, a Japanese ancestral sword (the gift of an admirer, Junzo Sato) wound and bound in female embroidery. In his magnificent, life-affirming peroration, the Self embraces the entangled joy and pain of Nietzschean eternal recurrence: “I am content to live it all again/ And yet again.” Having read Nietzsche’s The Dawn, Yeats adopted the “privilege” of the autonomous self in that book “to punish himself, to pardon himself,” so that “you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourself.”[21] The Yeatsian Self, spurning Soul’s ultimate doctrinal declaration, “only the dead can be forgiven,” a grim passivity that turns his own tongue to “stone,” asserts the right to

Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Reversing a venerable tradition (running from Plato and Cicero through Marvell) of debates between Body and Soul, flesh and spirit, the Self is triumphant, reflecting the “movement downwards upon life, not upwards out of life,” Yeats had adopted in the first years of the new century. It was a movement he associated—in the remarks to Ezra Pound prefacing AVision—with “a new divinity”: Sophocles’ chthonic Oedipus, who “sank down body and soul into the earth,” an earth “riven by love,” in contrast to, or in “balance” with, Christ who, “crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body.” (Letters, 63, 469; A Vision, 27-28). But since My Soul is also a part of Yeats, the “Dialogue” ends in a state of self-forgiving secular beatitude, including the “joy” sought in “Vacillation,” with the Self employing the spiritual terms Soul would monopolize.

The Soul had summoned Self to imbibe from the Plotinian “fullness” that “overflows/ And falls into the basin of the mind,” and so “ascend to Heaven.” Self, embracing a pagan affirmation of life, began his peroration by defying Neoplatonic Soul, punningly declaring that, “A living man is blind and drinks his drop.” In effect, Nietzschean Self “completes” the climactic cry of Blake’s Oothoon, heroine of Visions of the Daughters of Albion: “sing your infant joy!/ Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!”—a Blakean “praise of life” Yeats specifically connects with “Nietzsche…at the moment when he imagined the ‘Superman’ as a child.”[22] Hating the “same dull round” of all forms of cyclicism, Blake would have rejected Nietzsche’s doctrine (or thought experiment) of eternal recurrence as an anti-humanistic nightmare. But Yeats forces the “completion” on the basis of the energy and childlike joy in life shared by Blake and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, prophet of the Übermensch.[23] The fusion, anticipating the more personal epiphany in “Vacillation,” enables Yeats to conclude that “We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest.” The religious vocabulary conventionally reserved for the spiritual spokesman becomes, in the unchristened mouth of Self, a rhapsodic chant. For, as Yeats had memorably observed in the “Anima Hominis” section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[24]

In this psychomachia, this antinomial conflict between opposing aspects of the self, Yeats also completes Wilde with Nietzsche, whose stress on antithetical conflict, penchant for images of combat, and sense of discipline added hardness and virility to what Yeats had inherited from Wilde concerning mask, artifice, and pose. Thus Nietzsche helped forge the “mask” we think of as most distinctively Yeatsian: the poet’s own version of what he called in A Vision Nietzsche’s “lonely, imperturbable, proud Mask” (128). It is a Homeric mask, as Robartes makes clear in “The Phases of the Moon,” Yeats’s poetic synopsis of his lunar System. Eleven phases “pass, and then/ Athena takes Achilles by the hair,/ Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,/ Because the hero’s crescent is the twelfth.”

And yet, as we’ve seen, in two of his latest and greatest poems, “Man and the Echo” and “Cuchulain Comforted,” the second describing the transformation of his own proud hero and anti-self, Yeats, who had earlier assumed the masks of Crazy Jane and a Woman Young and Old, also revealed a gentler, feminine, almost androgynous side of himself—perhaps what we might call the Wilde(r) side. It is no accident that Yeats’s greatest composite symbol, Sato’s sword, is not only sheathed, but protected and adorned by “That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound,” in effect, reenacting the rondural structure of the Winding Stair (as literal staircase in Yeats’s Norman tower, emblem, and book-title) as well as the spiral symbolic of both Goethe’s Eternal Feminine and Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde


Discussing the relation between “discipline and the theatrical sense” in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats outlined the “condition for arduous full life”:

If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask.[25]

Yeats here combines the Blakean Contraries (“the active springing from Energy” preferred to “the passive that obeys Reason”) with the theatrical language of “The Truth of Masks.” But Yeats never acknowledged Wilde’s use of the term “mask.” Perhaps because, for all his importance as a precursor, Wilde had to be “completed” with Blake and Nietzsche, and with Yeats’s own theories, classical and occult, of hero and Daimon. In the “Anima Hominis” section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats writes, “I thought the hero found hanging upon some oak of Dodona an ancient mask…that when he looked out of its eyes he knew another’s breath came and went within his breath upon the carven lips.” He tells us that “the Daimon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite”; that unity is achieved “when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks” and “perhaps dreads”; and that “the poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat.” (Mythologies, 335-37)

There are many sources (psychological, theatrical, occult) for Yeats’s inter-related but shifting aesthetic and ethical theories about what he called “the Mask.”[26] In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde had asserted that “truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style,” and Yeats insists that “Style, personality (deliberately adopted and therefore a mask), is the only escape” from the heat of “bargaining” and the “money-changers” (Memoirs, 139; Autobiographies, 461). Contemporary “reality” and the merely individual may be transcended by tradition, by elemental, ideal art, “those simple forms that like a masquer’s mask protect us with their anonymity.” A quarter-century earlier, in “The Tragic Theatre” (1910), Yeats had celebrated, as another “escape” from the “contemporary,” the expression of “personal emotion through ideal form, a symbolism handled by the generations, a mask from whose eyes the disembodied looks, a style that remembers many masters.”[27] The most recent of the masters to swim into Yeats’s ken at just the right time to shape his new style was “that strong enchanter, Nietzsche.”

Yeats Four Plays for Dancers

In prose and in many poems and plays written after 1903, Yeats adds to his arsenal Nietzsche’s theory of the mask, as well as his concepts of self-overcoming, the will to power, and the contrasts between Apollonian form and Dionysian energy, slave morality and magnanimous master morality. To a considerable extent, he also adopted the Nietzschean “critique of pity,” the masked endurance and transformation of “great suffering” inherent in Nietzsche’s noble morality and tragic vision. “What I have called ‘the Mask’ is an emotional antithesis,” Yeats writes, “to all that comes out of [the] internal nature [of subjective men.] We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragic” (Autobiographies, 189). Yeats’s subordination of “passive acceptance” to “active virtue” in the service of tragic joy was most notoriously displayed in his refusal to include in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse poems “written in the midst of the Great War.” It was idiosyncratic enough to presume to liberate Oscar Wilde’s stronger from his weaker self by cavalierly cutting lines in reprinting “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in his Oxford anthology; quite another for Yeats to exclude altogether the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen.

Though “officers of exceptional courage and capacity,” and men whose vivid and humorous letters revealed them to be “not without joy,” as poets they felt themselves bound to “plead the suffering of their men,” suffering they made “their own.” Yeats is thinking of Sassoon and Graves, but primarily of Wilfred Owen, who announced from beyond the grave that his book was “not about heroes,” nor “concerned with poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” As editor, Yeats said, he had “rejected these poems for the same reason that made [Matthew] Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies.” Repeating, as he often did, Coleridge’s striking image of mimetic passivity, Yeats concluded: “When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind.” In explaining to Dorothy Wellesley why he had omitted the war poets (including Owen, killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice), Yeats repeated his point about “passive suffering” not being a theme for poetry, adding “The creative man must impose himself upon suffering.”[28]

The contrast between “passive acceptance” and “active virtue” is more palatably symbolized in the opening movement, “Ancestral Houses,” of Yeats’s sequence, Meditations in Time of Civil War. Fusing Coleridge’s mechanical-organic distinction with his own elegiac reverence for the Anglo-Irish aristocratic tradition, Yeats counters the fountain-image of Plotinus with an overflowing fountain of autonomous life associated with Homer and Nietzsche, whose will to power and morality of master rather than of slave is evident in the imagery:

Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call.

Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet….[29]

In A Vision, Yeats distinguishes passively accepted “necessity and fate” from a chosen “destiny,” and antithetical “personality” (creative, active) from primary “character” (imitative, passive): “rhetorical” concepts and contrasts that play out in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” where Yeats makes “poetry” out of the “quarrel” with himself. Prior to Self’s triumphant recovery, he wonders how one can escape what Yeats called in “Ancestral Houses” that “servile shape”:

That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape.

In the end, what Hegel and, later, feminist critics would call the Gaze of the Other, must be countered by the assertion of creative autonomy. As Yeats famously declared, “soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the mirror turn lamp.”[30] In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the servile mirror of passive acceptance is replaced by active self-redemption. The internal “quarrel” between Self and Soul issues in that “Unity of Being” Yeats always sought, but, after 1903, not through exclusion but through inclusion, an antinomial vision accepting, not half, but the whole dialectic. In the language of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher as important to Yeats (who aligned him with Blake and Nietzsche) as to T. S. Eliot, “attunement” can only be achieved through the “counter-thrust” that “brings opposites together,” for “all things come to pass through conflict.”[31] As Soul-supporting George Russell (A.E.), “saint” to Yeats’s “poet” and “swordsman,” surmised in a letter to his friend about the poem, “perhaps when you side with the Self it is only a motion to that fusion of opposites which is the end of wisdom.”[32]

Those opposites—reflected in shorthand in the old diagram Yeats drew in the margin of his Nietzsche anthology, and played out in many of the major poems that followed—set the One, Logos, universal Truth, Eternity, and Divinity against the Many, Contraries, minute Particulars, Moments in time, and Humanity. But fusion, ultimate reconciliation at a dialectical higher level, requires that provisional clash of opposites; for (Blake again) “without Contraries is no progression.” The “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” perhaps Yeats’s central poem in terms of its ramifications throughout his work, before and after, is also his greatest exercise in creative, life-affirming masking. In the poem’s final fusion of opposites, or antinomies, or Heraclitean counter-thrusts, Yeats’s crucial precursors are Blake and Nietzsche (as well as Macrobius, whose Commentary on Cicero’s dialogue between ghost and grandson in “The Dream of Scipio” Yeats echoes in order to alter).[33] But a role is also played by Oscar Wilde, as audacious as the Romantic poet and the German philosopher in reminding Yeats that the play of antinomial “contraries” is artistic, and that “the truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.”

Hildo Van Krop masks of Cuchulain, Emer, and Woman of the Sidhe Bronzes cast from Hildo Van Krop’s masks for 1922 Dutch production of  Yeats’s The Only Jealousy of Emer.
(From l. to r.) Emer, Cuchulain, Woman of the Sidhe.

—Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane smaller

Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “The Truth of Masks,” in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), 432. Intentions (1891) also includes “The Critic as Artist.”
  2. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 379. This Yeatsian formulation may be one source of Harold Bloom’s theoretical conception (in Bloom’s term, tessera) of how a later poet, experiencing the “anxiety of influence,” imagines himself preserving his originality by “completing” a somehow truncated precursor.
  3. Genealogy of Morals, Third Treatise, §2. Nietzsche recalls and refutes Pauline dualism: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary to one another” (Galatians 5:11). Citations from both the Genealogy and from Beyond Good and Evil are from Beyond Good and Evil / On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014). Here (pp. 287-88, as on p. 192, Beyond Good and Evil, Part 5 §198), Nietzsche couples his hero Goethe with the Persian poet Hafiz, who inspired Goethe’s final book of poems, West—Eastern Divan (1819).
  4. Twilight of the Idols, “The Four Great Errors”: 3, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 495. When Wilde says that “the truths of masks are the truth of metaphysics,” he means, my colleague Michael Davis astutely suggests, two things. The first is that “metaphysics is itself a mask,” adding that “Pater and Wilde are sharply suspicious of metaphysics precisely because” it is “beyond the physical,” and “both were intent on breaking down the mind/body distinction.” The same, of course, is true of Nietzsche. Though “mask” can be “something like a false face, a merely superficial ideological construction,” it is also the case “that masks themselves might have an alternative value to metaphysics, an alternative site for the construction of meaning that might even undo metaphysics and replace it with another sort of truth.” Again, Nietzsche would be in total agreement. My paper was initially written in response to a presentation on Wilde, Yeats, and the Mask by Jean Paul Riquelme (Le Moyne College, November 2, 2015), which both Michael and I attended. His observations cited above were in response to that first draft.
  5. The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 435. The full context is instructive. “For a philosopher to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ he ought to be thrashed. Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” If Nietzsche is criticizing the famous equation uttered by Keats’s hitherto silent Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he might be less surprised than most to find Keats asserting, in his own voice, the inferiority of “poetry” to “philosophy.” Again, the full context—the entry for March 19, 1819, in Keats’s extended journal-epistle to his brother and sister-in-law in America—is illuminating. “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest man shows a grace in his quarrel—by a superior being our reasoning[s] may take the same tone—though erroneous they may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.” The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, 2 vols. ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 2: 80-81. Like Blake, Nietzsche, and Yeats, Keats contrasts univocal truth, longed-for yet rejected, with the clash of contraries: the antinomies that generate “the energies” finely displayed, whether in a “quarrel” in the streets, in the dynamic tensions energizing a poem, or in what Yeats called the “quarrel with ourselves” out of which we make “poetry.”
  6. Beyond Good and Evil, 41-42, 85-86, 129, 135, 185, 187-88, and 191-92.
  7. From the seventh and final section of Yeats’s poetic sequence “Vacillation.” All of the poetry is cited, by title rather than page-number, from W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. and intro. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992).
  8. Scribbled in the margin of p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (London: Grant Richards, 1901). The book is now housed in the Special Collections Department of the library at Northwestern University (Item T.R. 191 N67n.). In that last letter, leading up to the assertion that “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it,” Yeats told Lady Elizabeth Pelham, “I know for certain that my time will not be long….In two or three weeks—I am now idle that I may rest after writing much verse—I will begin to write my most fundamental thoughts which I am convinced will complete my studies. I am happy, and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted.” The letter was written on January 4, 1939. Yeats died, or “completed” his life, on January 28.
  9. Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, commentary by Harold Bloom (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), 34. This is Plate 3 of the Marriage; for the reverse-passage from Milton, see 128.
  10. Essays and Introductions (London and New York: Macmillan, 1961), 130. The poem cited names Blake and alludes to the eagle-like soaring of Nietzsche’s “aeronauts of the intellect” (Dawn §542).
  11. Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 191. Much of Yeats’s unpublished autobiographical material, including the important 1909 Diary, first appeared in this volume.
  12. First published in the expanded edition (1993) of David R. W. B. Clark’s Yeats and the Theatre of Desolate Reality (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965).
  13. Quoted in Denis Bablet, Edward Gordon Craig (London: Heinemann, 1966), 110. Yeats had been aware of Craig’s work since 1901, when he saw his celebrated production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneus. For the appraisal of Craig as Europe’s “greatest stage inventor,” see Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, 2 vols. ed. John P. Frayne and Colton Johnston (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 2:393.
  14. The Artist as Critic, ed. Ellmann, 433.
  15. The thought might make you “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth,” says Nietzsche’s demon in the passage introducing the thought-experiment or ordeal of eternal recurrence. But have you, even “once,” experienced a “moment” so “tremendous” that you “fervently craved” it “once more” and “eternally?” The Gay Science, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), §341. Echoing that passage, the Yeatsian speaker in “On Woman” wants, should he come “to birth again,” to find “what once I had/ And know what once I have known.” He will accept sleeplessness, “gnashing of teeth, despair;/ And all because of some one/ Perverse creature of chance,/ And live like Solomon / That Sheba led a dance.” In the draft of a Solomon and Sheba poem published 80 years after it was written, Yeats depicts himself as a folly-driven Solomon perplexed by the “labyrinth” (a code-word for Maud) of Sheba’s mind. Will he be proven a wise man or “but a fool.” (See Yeats Annual 6: [1988] 211-13.)
  16. Essays and Introductions, 509; A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962). For the “Rules for Discovering True and False Masks,” see 90-91. Each Phase in Yeats’s intriguing if bizarre lunar scheme has, along with its Will, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate, its Mask, True and False. Wilde is located, along with Byron and “a certain actress,” in Phase 19, “the phase of the artificial, the fragmentary, and the dramatic” (148). Nietzsche is the solitary occupant of Phase Twelve, that of “The Forerunner” and the hero (126).
  17. In this draft letter to Robert (Memoirs, 252-53, 257), which may or may not have been sent, Yeats describes this as the “one serious quarrel” he ever had with Lady Gregory. In “The People,” another poem in The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats similarly contrasted himself, “whose virtues are the definitions/ Of the analytic mind,” with the impulsive Maud Gonne, who has not “lived in thought but deed” and so has “the purity of a natural force.” The poems alluded to later in this paragraph—“The Wild Swans at Coole,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” and “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”—are the opening three poems in The Wild Swans at Coole, their bleak tone reflecting both the contrast with heroic Gregory and Yeats’s despondency in the aftermath of Maud’s rejection of his fourth and final marriage proposal.
  18. No sooner had he famously embraced the horse being viciously whipped than Nietzsche collapsed in the street: a collapse that proved mentally permanent. Yeats’s Nietzschean critique of “pity” as inappropriate to art explains his two most notorious public rejections: of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie for the Abbey Theatre, and of Wilfred Owen’s war-poetry from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
  19. The Olivia-poem cited is “After Long Silence.” In his attitude toward von Hügel, Yeats may be recalling another statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, almost as famous as, and allied with, “Without Contraries is no progression.” This statement, “Opposition is true Friendship,” at the end of Plate 20 (Poetry and Prose, p. 41), is painted out in some copies of the Marriage, perhaps because Blake did not want readers to think he was reconciling with his opponent in the immediately preceding passage: the debate between himself and the conventionally religious “Angel” in the fourth and most important “Memorable Fancy.” That debate had ended with the Blakean figure declaring, “we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.” Yeats doesn’t want to reconcile with von Hügel, but his tone confirms that opposition need not preclude friendship.
  20. The correspondents in the letters referred to are John Hayward, Maurice Johnson, and Kristian Smidt. For details, see Helen Gardner, The Composition of “Four Quartets” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 64-67. And see below, n. 29.
  21. §437, §79. The volume Yeats knew as The Dawn (a book that demonstrably influenced other poems as well, most notably “An Acre of Grass” and its companion-poem, “What Then?”) has been best and most recently translated by R. J. Hollingdale as Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). I quote pp. 186-87 and 48 of this edition.
  22. Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 474-75. In epitomizing Blake’s “praise of life—‘all that lives is holy’,” Yeats is fusing passages. Along with Oothoon’s chant (final plate, Visions of the Daughters of Albion), he is recalling the choral conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “For every thing that lives is Holy!” And his phrase “praise of life” also seems to echo Blake’s America, Plate 8:13: “For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life.” (The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 50, 44, 53). John Steinbeck, who puts the slightly misquoted line, “All that lives is holy,” in the mouth of his Blakean-Whitmanian prophet Jim Casy in Chapter 13 of TheGrapes of Wrath, was probably thinking only of the finale of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  23. When Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into “golden-emerald delight,” he also jumps into a cluster of images and motifs we would call “Yeatsian,” primarily but not only because of Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, echoing Blake’s “every thing that lives is holy”:

    In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer; all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra III:16)

    Along with Self’s final chant, one recalls the Unity of Being projected in the final stanza of “Among School Children,” an antinomy-resolving state where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know the dancer from the dance.” And Zarathustra’s transformation of “spirit” into “bird” will remind us of the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero—in both The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted”—into a singing bird.

  24. Mythologies (London and New York: Macmillan, 1959), 331.
  25. Mythologies, 334, and Autobiographies, 469.
  26. For a full discussion of the subject, see the essays gathered in Yeats Annual 19 (2013), titled The Mask, especially Warwick Gould’s long and characteristically thorough study, “The Mask before The Mask.”
  27. Yeats’s Preface to his early essays, collected in 1934 as Letters to the New Island, xiii. (The volume was re-published in 1989 (ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer) in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. “The Tragic Theatre,” in Unpublished Prose 2:388.
  28. Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, intro. Kathleen Raine (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 21; cf. 124-26. Yeats, Introduction to Oxford Book, section xv. Matthew Arnold had de-canonized Empedocles on Etna because, he said in the Preface to his Poems (London: Longmans, 1853), “no poetical enjoyment can be derived” from situations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action” (viii). Nevertheless, Arnold’s decision was as regrettable as Yeats’s. Owen’s famous description is from a draft-Preface for a collection of poems he hoped to publish in 1919.
  29. The caveat (“Mere dreams, mere dreams!”) is followed by recovery: “Yet Homer had not sung/ Had he not found it [the abounding jet sprung out of “life’s own self-delight”] certain beyond dreams.” But the pattern of vacillation continues in the lines that immediately follow, since “now it seems,” in the twilight of the Anglo-Irish tradition, as if “some marvellous empty sea-shell” (a beautiful fossil that once housed life), and “not a fountain, were the symbol which/ Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.”
  30. This celebrated phrase, from the 1936 Introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, later supplied M. H. Abrams with both title and epigraph for his 1953 landmark study of Romantic theory, The Mirror and the Lamp.
  31. Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), Fragment #8 (Diehls-Kranz enumeration). This passage was used by Eliot as the second of two untranslated fragments (the second is “The way up and the way down is one and the same”) as epigraphs to the first printing of “Burnt Norton,” the opening poem of what became Four Quartets. Both were later printed to apply to the sequence as a whole. See Jewell Spears Brooker, “Eliot and Heraclitus,” in New Pilgrimages: Selected Papers from the IAUPE Beijing Conference in 2013, ed. Li Cao and Li Jin (Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2015), 259-69. Brooker does not refer to Yeats in her paper, but, as earlier noted, in the ghost-encounter in the final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot may be seen as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them.”
  32. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran, George Mills Harper, and William M. Murphy, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1972), 2:560. Yeats wrote Dorothy Wellesley in 1935, “My wife said the other night, ‘AE is the nearest to a Saint you or I will ever meet. You are a better poet but no saint. I suppose one has to choose’” (Letters, 838). Yeats’s poem “The Choice” (1931) begins, “The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Finding, as Nietzsche said, “one more stimulus to life” in the “opposition” between “chastity and sensuality,” antithetical Yeats chooses sensuous poetry.
  33. For a discussion of the Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis by the 4th-century Neoplatonist Macrobius, see Patrick J. Keane, Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (London and Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 143-44.
Jan 312016

What ever happened

At the top of the page this month, we feature a series of texts and podcasts — interviews, reviews, essays — that are touchstones of the aesthetic we try to foster at Numéro Cinq. They don’t cover the gamut of things we publish, but they represent notional path, the throw of desire. Formalist, modernist, attentive to words and patterns over message. The intention here is not to define a program, but to make readers think about the nature of art, especially in an epoch of market-driven late capitalist values so pervasive that they seem to many as real as the air they breathe.

Jan 282016


Here’s the Theatre Passe Muraille onstage interview with Douglas Glover, who wrote the book (Elle) on which the stage play (Elle) by Severn Thompson is based. Andy McKim, artistic director at TPM, is a really intelligent and genial interlocutor (there were three pages of lovely questions of which he only managed to ask a handful). The event was billed as “Eggrolls with Andy” and there were, in fact, eggrolls. This was on the evening of January 20, just before the main performance. The location is the little cabaret stage in the bar on the balcony above the stage at TPM. The pictures were taken by the poet Amber Homeniuk, who has appeared before on these pages. She managed to capture some of dg’s more expressive moments.

The sound file is below the images.



Buy tickets here!





Buy tickets here!

Jan 262016


I almost missed this one from yesterday. Actually, a good review of Severn Thompson’s performance. Here’s a teaser. Click the link below for the rest.

Severn Thompson, who adapted the play from the original novel by Douglas Glover and plays the role of Elle, is absolutely captivating. In what is essentially a one-woman show, minus about ten minutes, Thompson holds the audience’s attention in a vice grip with her precision, depth and hilarity. Her script it beautifully poetic, and she is a master of its delivery. Through her words and conviction, she creates a landscape and characters that were as vivid and clear as if they had been on stage with her.

Read the rest at Mooney on theatre.

Jan 262016


Another review. This one at Torontoist. Here’s a taste:

For a full-blooded heroine with courage, resourcefulness, and a healthy libido to match any debauched Victorian gentleman, look no further than Elle at Theatre Passe Muraille. Actress-playwright Severn Thompson’s rousing adaptation of Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel finds her embodying the legendary Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, the young French aristocrat who was marooned on the fabled Isle of Demons off the coast of Newfoundland in 1542 and lived to tell the tale.

Glover’s conception of Marguerite is of a “headstrong girl”—and a bawdy one, too. When we first meet her, she’s aboard her uncle’s ship, having vigorous sex with her seasick tennis-player boyfriend as a means of distracting herself from a horrendous toothache. It’s one helluva’ opening scene—hilarious, erotic, and disgusting all at the same time.

Read the rest at Torontoist.

Jan 252016

Domenico_di_Michelino_-_Dante_Illuminating_Florence_with_his_Poem_(detail)_-_WGA06422Domenico di Michelino: Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem (detail)

Dante, myth, masks, illumination & lies predominate in the February issue, a thematic crystallization focused on contributions by Pat Keane, Paul Pines, and Mark Jay Mirsky who has earlier appeared in these pages as a reviewer (of Genese Grill’s Robert Musil translations) and as a fiction writer. Mirsky’s fiction created a sort of love quadrangle comprising Dante and Beatrice, a teacher and his much younger inamorata. Dante obsesses the narrator as he obsesses Mirsky. This month Mirsky throws off the mask of fiction and offers an essay on his passions: Dante, humour, translation, and influence. It’s a surprise essay in many ways, salient among them is its emphasis on the comedic irony of the, well, Dante’s Comedy. Mirsky shows how at least one translation misses the comedy in an attempt, perhaps, to be clear. Fascinating to read him. Erudite and yet informal and approachable and present.

Mark Jay MirskyMark Jay Mirsky

I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.—Mark Jay Mirsky

MeElizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas, who has already contributed a gorgeous Australian childhood essay, returns this month with an extension of her memoir into her teens, redolent of a place and time nearly forgotten these days. Just read the places names in this excerpt out loud and you will be transported.

IN THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south. —Elizabeth Thomas

MooneyJacob McArthur Mooney

From the Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney, we have edgy, witty, wry, even dystopian little poems, also quite funny when he’s writing about the jun that falls out of airplanes onto the world below.

We need to accept that the doom will foster monsters.

We think the end will be a noun when it will really be a verb.

No. Best to collapse the future in front of you:
You will die or your child will be taken by the dying.

—Jacob Mooney


AineGreaneyPanelAine Greaney

Also two chapters from a memoir What Brought You Here by the Irish expat writer Aine Greaney, who I actually knew in the mid-1990s, when she was a student in a workshop I ran in Albany for the New York State Writers Institute. We had lost contact, now we are brought together by the good offices of Senior Editor Gerard Beirne.

No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”

Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. —Aine Greaney

Gregory2recropfor the site nowGregory Howard

Gregory Howard I found when he started exclaiming about NC’s fiction offerings on Twitter, expressing his astoundingly good taste. Such a fine coincidence: a terrific young writer who followed the magazine. I got in touch, and, Lo!, he sent me a fantastic short story, deeply strange, quirky, surprisings and grand.

He met Fuchs in Belem. It was during the Cirio de Nazare, the great procession of the Virgin and as they met the thousands sat in the trees, pulled at the rope, dragged the Virgin to her Cathedral home, waving giant totems above their heads, hands, legs, larger heads, mouths: parts of themselves to be healed. Fuchs was taller than my father expected. He had imagined, for some reason, a small man. A small man with large, owlish eyes. But Fuchs was slender and his face was “the face of a man who talked with people professionally.” They met in a café. My father talked of us and the brilliance of Niemeyer, while Fuchs mostly nodded and said things like “yes, of course” and “very interesting.” My father was tired. He felt at times that he was talking with Fuchs the way you talked to cat on a rug. —Gregory Howard

Chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_croppedS. D. Chrostowska

Jeff Bursey reviews S. D. Chrostowska’s Matches, just out with Punctum press. We ran an excerpt in the January issue.

An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. —Jeff Bursey

IMG_1516Donald Breckenridge

From NC multiple recidivist (novel excerpts, interview) Donald Breckenridge, a stern, sad memoir excerpt with a nouveau roman-ish dis-affectedness, obsessive detail, and a cumulative emotional punch.

On the corner of Myrtle and Carlton the old man yelling out an open window: What’s today? He was bald with no eyebrows: What day is today? My best guess must have satisfied him because he disappeared behind a torn curtain without another word. After the line was disconnected I put the phone in a drawer. A one-act play about a young woman giving her baby up for adoption—the father was one of her professors—I worked on it nearly every day for three months but it didn’t survive a second draft. Earlier that week I discovered my wife’s letter to a mutual friend where she stated that our marriage was over and that her plans for when she returned to New York in the fall did not include me. I would read novels until late at night, until I couldn’t focus on the sentences, then turn out the light and listen to the radio until dawn. —Donald Breckenridge

éSean RileySean Riley

From our own Mary Kathryn Jablonski, a fascinating interview (with stunning images) with textile artist Sean Riley.

I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear.—Sean Riley

MaryKathrynJablonski2015Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Ainsley as Cuchlain in At the Hawk's WellHenry Ainsley as Cuchulain in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.

Pat Keane contributes what is at once a great essay in the history of ideas (the idea of masks from Blake to Wilde to Nietzsche to Yeats) and yet another approach to his Irish eidolon. I say “approach” because much of what Pat writes is in the nature of approaches to the obsessional brotherhood of his mind (Nietzsche, Emerson, Yeats, Wordsworth, Twain), using affinities to illuminate and reveal aspects of each in the other, In this case, Wilde is the starting point of the essay, but the thing leaps at the moment when, reading Nietzsche, Yeats made a little explanatory diagram in the margin.

On Christmas Day 1888, Oscar Wilde read to Yeats “The Decay of Lying,” later published in Intentions. That collection also includes “The Truth of Masks,” an essay on theatrical costumes that ends with Wilde’s declaration that “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true….It is only in art criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.” That final aphorism might, in style and content, have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche.—Patrick J. Keane

PAT kEANEPatrick J. Keane

Palermo wall muralPalermo wall mural

Erika Mihálycsa, who has already sent us stories and translations, contributes a dreamy and evocative essay on living in Palermo, Italy.

Balcony for dreamers. There is no floor: abandon gravitation ye who step out here. Turned so entirely outward that it got refined out of existence, there not to detain but to accelerate the gaze. The wrought iron railing as an exercise in minimalism in this least minimalist of cities: how to draw the minimal line that can hold the maximum of time. —Erika Mihálycsa

ErikaErika Mihálycsa

spiritualpilgrimwoodcutIn two places at once _ Spiritual Pilgrim, Woodcut, anonymous German artist, circa 1530. Jung, CW 10, plate VIIThe Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World (Woodcut) 16th Century

Paul Pines, a poet, novelist and psychotherapist, offers yet another essay, the third, in a series of meditations on the legend of the Fisher King. Part cultural exploration, part dream analysis, part memoir, part prose poem, the essay and its earlier avatars is a brilliant exposition of symbolic structures that are both out there (culture, the world) and inside (the soul, the mind).

In my twenties, as a merchant marine crossing both oceans and several seas, I spent hours at the rail watching the mysterious relationship between sea and sky. At times they existed peacefully, like sleeping lovers, fused, with no defining horizon. Afloat in seamless space, I glimpsed the plenitude of timelessness. More often, water and air colluded in creating spellbinding iterations of light. Most incredible were their sudden declarations of war. And with each shift of mood between them, I identified a corresponding one in myself so that concentrated thus, in this floating world, the only secure anchor was the observing eye that contained the image linking both worlds. —Paul Pines

Pines_PaulPaul Pines

ChirbesRafael Chirbes

Our newest contributor Joe Schreiber does a masterful review of Rafael Chirbes’ newly translated novel On the Edge.

Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. – Joseph Schreiber

There is more, of course. There always is. NC at the Movies, a review of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage by Jason DeYoung. And maybe more than that. I dunno. I’m only the editor, an accidental participant.

Jan 232016

elle7Severn Thompson as Elle, and the sheet (see below)

State the obvious. Elle, the novel, and Elle, the play, are distinct works of art. They are radically different forms; we have different expectations. The novel’s more than 200 pages of text suck down to perhaps 40-45 pages of script. This is necessary for the transformation into a play, a necessity and a problem for the playwright in terms of selection, but it’s not something the novelist mourns because, of course, the novel remains, fully in tact, over there on the book shelf.

In brute terms, a lot of the novel disappears. What disappears? The whole sequence of events that occurs after Elle’s return to France is gone. That means Rabelais is gone and the joke about Elle inventing the modern novel. Comes Winter, the native girl brought to France by Jacques Cartier, also disappears. Her tragic story is a dystopian inversion of Elle’s own adventure in Canada. Also gone is the frame device of the one-eyed child-stealing man and the novel’s contemporary tail with the Elle-like young woman on the beach at Sept-Iles with her older lover. These characters and devices are meant to extend the myth and the story of Elle into a larger, more mysterious cosmic rhythm beyond history. The novel is built around a complex set of themes loosely implied in words and oppositions like transformation, literary/orality, translation, New World/Land of the Dead, the invention of printing, colonization/love, and so on. Very little of this survives in the play except in stray phrases or references. Also missing from the play are the details of Roberval’s own failed colony upriver from Elle, pages and pages reduced to a few phrases and the mention of the colony’s failure. What survives in the play is a reduced set of events, a roughly similar sequence of action from Elle’s arrival in Canada to her rescue and departure for France and then, of course, Roberval’s murder in a Paris cemetery years later. The play focuses on Elle’s time in Canada and, in plot terms, becomes more of a female adventure story, Elle as Robinson Crusoe, than the novel is. Conversely, also in brute terms, a lot of the text of the play, the words, come straight from the novel. If you imagine a Venn diagram of the novel and the play, they would overlap at these points. After that, they diverge.

I say this not to diminish the play but to be clear about differences. You don’t want to make the mistake of expecting the play to replicate the novel precisely. I have listed some of the novel elements that didn’t make it into the play, but Severn Thompson’s Elle is an enactment, a presence, with a different structure and tool set, different intentions. It has actors, set, sound, lighting and a reactive audience, all in the same three-dimensional space. A novel is pure text; a play has a physicality that bleeds into the plastic arts so that on stage, moment by moment, you’re presented with tableaux or pictures that have a physical beauty. The presentation at Theatre Passe Muraille has an amazing set, starting with the what the director Christine Brubaker calls “the claw,” a metal and papier mache structure at the back of the stage that looks like the ribs of shipwreck or a dead animal or the back of a cave or the edge of a forest. It also feels like a hand, cradling the characters on the stage in front of it. This is the magic of theatre. The claw is an abstraction that changes with light, verbal context, character action, and, above all, the audience’s imagination.

Besides the claw, there’s the sheet. Oh, wonder of abstraction and efficiency. Severn and Christine needed a bear onstage and a woman changing into a bear and a way to imply that the actors are entering the world of dream. If this were a movie, there would be an actual bear. The sheet is a miraculous rectangle of cloth of indeterminate but changing colour that seems stretchy and drops into gorgeous folds. It’s a sail, Richard falling into the ocean, a robe, a tent, a flag, a hut, a fire, a bear, a sign of dream, and the face of transformation when Elle changes into a bear. There are some stunning moments with this sheet, which is sometimes on the stage floor, sometimes woven into the arms of the claw, sometimes suspended on hooks over the stage, and so on. When the white bear falls upon Elle and dies, it’s the sheet. It’s eerie how quickly the audience gets the implication, a lovely bit of theatre and timing. When the bear woman cures Elle and she drifts into a dream state, Severn the actress has her arms inside the sheet which, pulled from behind by Jonathan Fisher, the second actor on stage,  creates a stunning abstract idea of a woman with golden wings. And, of course, when Elle changes into a bear, she’s draped in the sheet, again pulled from behind, so that the human face is suggested but is also bearish. She changes into a bear just by having the sheet pulled against her face and body.

There is deliberate anachronism in the play just as there is in the novel but enacted quite differently. Itslk is an Inuit hunter in Elle, the novel. He presents the intersection of European colonization and the myth/culture of native Canada. In the play, his role is expanded. Jonathan Fisher has a desk and sound board and a microphone and a guitar set up  off to one side of the stage. Through the play he makes music, sings a native song, does a throat singing loop, plays the guitar, etc. He’s a contemporary native artist/musician watching the play and participating in the play and, at the appropriate moment, he comes to the centre of the stage and plays the part of Itslk. Again, theatre is physical. In the same moment, Elle is onstage speaking her lines (having sex with Richard, pleading with her uncle, crooning over her dying baby) AND the contemporary native is present just a few feet to the side with an electric guitar and a soundboard. The effect in a theatre is difficult to parse precisely because, in the audience, you are aware of the juxtaposition but at any given moment the imagination is engaged with Elle or the line. The lighting focuses you. It’s a mechanism of audience manipulation that seems marvelous to me. And, of course, there are multiple message loops: Jonathan Fisher is an actor but also an Anishinaabe musician. Also in real life he is a member of the bear clan. And he delivers one of the lines that does depart significantly from the thematics of the novel. This occurs when he is reciting the story of his mythic quest/hunt for the white bear, a quest that Elle disrupts by her presence (one of the crucial metaphors of the novel is the moment when Elle’s European story collides with Itslk’s mythic quest and destroys it). In the novel Itslk is aware, sadly and tragically, that the disruption of his story means the ultimate disruption of his culture, a moment that cannot be redeemed. In the play, Severn Thompson gives Jonathan’s Itslk a more hopeful line about the bear returning, the myth world coming back (in other words), which is a nod to the contemporary resurgence of native of culture. The novel wants the reader to dwell in sadness; the play wants to leave some hope. That aside, there is clear a moment of delight when Itslk appears. You can feel the audience shift. It’s a daring and brilliant invention, this Jonathan Fisher/Itslk character. And he gets to deliver some very funny lines, bring back the dead dog, bring back the tennis ball, and deliver the thematic legend. (It’s fascinating watching audience, BTW. When Elle throws the ball off the ship and Leon, the dog, apparently dies, the audience turns against her, faces go suddenly glum. But when we hear the dog bark off stage, glimmerings of recognition appear. And there is a wondrous delight when Itslk produces the lost tennis ball — for me, this is a bit like watching the readers reading my novel.)

Lighting, sound. You deeply enjoy the effects. The framing of the tableaux on stage and with lighting creates a monumental feeling, creates focus, creates shadow and transformation. Some images are spectacular. For example, the moment when Elle/Severn falls through the ice. Suddenly she’s illuminated by a bright filtered light from above, a column of light, that imitates the flickering, shadowy feel of being under water while the actress mimes a person drifting down. There is more of this than I can describe here. And in all these moments you see the differences in the kinds of works of art. Novel. Play. (And film, if you think about it — the play is so much a series of abstractions demanding audience interaction whereas in a movie there would be much more of the real, a real ship, a real island, a real bear. A film more often than not will try to leave less to the imagination than a play or a novel.)

A play has actors, not to be left out. Severn Thompson loved the novel Elle and saw a place for herself in it, and she is a spectacular actress. On stage every fibre of muscle is engaged in action. Her body is an instrument. She is amazing to watch. We are so used to movie and TV acting, which is mostly minimalist acting from the eyebrows to the chin (actually, on TV acting is mostly a minimal movement of the lips in speaking). The intensity of a stage play is astonishing. I saw three performances and the best audience was the third night which had an ASL component and a large number of deaf people in the audience. ASL is, of course, an enactment of language. Deaf people communicate with actions and they are acutely tuned into the physicality, the presence of the speaker. You could almost feel their attentiveness to Severn’s every move. In stature, she is a diminutive woman; on stage she is monumental and heroic (also very comic, sometimes pathetic, always passionate, exploding with energy). The lighting keeps trapping the gestures, like a series of still photographs, and they are gorgeously expressive. She’s also just a wonderful mime. With a gesture and a hanging of the head, she inhabits bearishness. She knows how a body looks drifting in the ocean. She has so much to work with in the play from lust (gorgeously funny sex scene early on, also a scene in the novel), rapture, resignation, pathos, rage, animal transformation, flirtation, and love to childbirth and the death of the child. It’s a huge part for an actress, a dream role, I would think. And Severn runs with it. Extravagantly and joyfully. I wrote the book, and I was still misting up when Emmanuel dies in her arms. Even the third time I saw it.

What else? Too much to think of. A note on structure. The novel has some little thematic pre-texts, then the frame with the one-eyed man, then the sex scene on shipboard. What the play does instead is quite fascinating. It actually opens with what you might call an overture, a montage of moments (tableaux accompanied by gong-like sound effects and flashes of light) that in fact presage the action of the whole play in gesture alone. The bear is the there, the death of the general, the death of the baby. Just a gorgeous piece of structure. Then the frame: Elle in Paris, by the cemetery, catching sight of the general, Roberval, her uncle in the gloomy street and starting to tell her story. Then the story begins, on shipboard, sex with Richard. Fleetingly, Elle steps back into the storytelling moment, once or twice, just enough to establish the frame and story together, and then we are off. We return to the frame scene at the very end of the play (these transitions beautifully indicated by a repetition of gesture, key language, also a slight costume change and a jug of wine) and thence to the final confrontation with Roberval. Throughout there are beautiful recursions, language, shape and gesture. The “headstrong girl” phrase from the novel. The shape and presence of bearishness (even Jonathan Fisher, with his fur vest, sometimes hulks like a bear). The cradling of the baby Emmanuel (at one point, again, Fisher is back behind the claw, apparently cradling a baby in his arms). It’s also interesting the way the play is text heavy through the scenes up to and including the arrival of Itslk. When he leaves and after the birth and death of the baby, the play leans more and more heavily on image. Itslk’s presence effectively introduces the native element and begins to educate Elle in the epic traditions of the new world (she is already steeped in her own epic traditions). The death of the baby and the advent of the bear woman (and her symbolic rebirth in the ocean) bring Elle into the world of dream and dream and image subsequently drive the remainder of the play, which, here, takes on a quality reminiscent of German Expressionist theatre. These are structural effects, small and large, that you notice upon revisiting the play, and you begin to appreciate the amazing physical inventiveness of theatre.

When I go to a play, I desire a total experience: intelligent interaction with characters/actors on the stage, magical and surprising effects, emotional engagement, language. I got what I wanted when I saw Severn Thompson at Theatre Passe Muraille. I wrote the book, I knew the lines, but I was still surprised and entranced. It was delightful still on the second and third viewing; I saw more, of course, and appreciated the artistry more (and was able to peek at the audience). If you can, go more than once. It’s revelatory. First reviews of the play kept mentioning that awful movie The Revenant (which, in my head, I keep referring to as The Ruminant). That is a completely wrong-headed response based on the most superficial resemblances (wilderness, survival, bear, revenge). Elle (both play and novel) is about first contact, the tremendous collision of European and native cultures, it is about an act that is continuous and ongoing, a conversation between our cultures. Because she is a woman (and a reader), Elle is the most apt and available of the Europeans for transformation. She and Itslk are paired cultural receptors; they know what is going on, the vast, tragic pageant. The Ruminant is a movie with its dumbed-down realism and a pop-Nietzschean thematic that’s very appealing to commercial audiences. It’s not the same thing at all.


Buy tickets here!





Buy tickets here!

Jan 222016


Saw the play for the last time last night then closed the Epicure with Jonathan Fisher, the excellent Anishinaabe actor who plays Itslk, with audience members coming up to the table and chatting to us. A most pleasant way to pass the time.

Here’s another review, somewhat more thoughtful and appreciative of Severn as an actress.


The virtue of Glover’s novel and of Thompson’s adaptation is its satire.  When Elle is rescued she notes that Portuguese and Basque fishermen have been coming to Canada long before the French “discovered” it and claimed it for their own.  That Elle survives longer in the wilderness than the French government-supported colony is itself a critique of colonists’ inability to adapt and learn from their surroundings.  In its anti-male satire, Elle may call herself “frivolous” but her tennis-playing lover is hopelessly impractical and is the first to die.  In ints religious satire, Elle, once a fervent Catholic, begins praying to both her god and the natives’ and finally to none. 

The role that Elle provides is a juicy one for Thompson and ideally suited to her strengths.  Her wry delivery makes the satire all the more trenchant.  Her ability to convey a character’s strength beneath her own view of herself as vulnerable is perfect for Elle’s situation.  Thompson has always been an insightful interpreter of words, but here she has a chance to display her equally superlative skills at mime and physical theatre.  The Elle she creates changes before us from a self-centred society-oriented aristocrat to simply a lone human being with the one simple wish to survive.  

Jonathan Fisher, who primarily adds live guitar music to Lyon Smith’s highly effective soundscape, is a taciturn, self-contained Itslk, welcome as an unromanticized First Nations character.  His presence in what it otherwise a one-woman show is important for embodying the show’s critique against the European colonization of the New World as if it were not already inhabited.  Physically, the playing area already is inhabited before Elle becomes aware of it. 

Designer Jennifer Goodman has reconfigured Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace into a narrow thrust stage bringing Thompson very close to the audience, the peninsular stage helping to depict both the isolation of the ship and later the isolation of the island.  Goodman’s set is a giant bony structure that looks very much like the skeleton of left hand or left paw threatening those on stage.  Yet, depending on the lighting, it can also look like the inside of the cave where Elle seeks refuge or the ribs of the hut Itslk helps to build.  Brubaker makes very imaginative use of a large piece of cloth that can be a sail, a tent or, most remarkably, the skin of the bear into which Elle transforms herself.

Click here to read the rest at Stage Door.

Jan 212016

doireann imram 2014 3


Thrilled for Doireann Ní Ghríofa who featured in Uimhir a Cúig back in its early days. A bilingual poet, her first English language collection of poetry, Clasp (Dedalus Press), has been shortlisted for the prestigious Irish Times Poetry Now Prize. This year’s shortlist of five includes four women and one man – read more here. The award worth €2,000 recognises the best collection by an Irish poet in the previous year. Doireann is in some mighty company including Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian. Previous winners of the prize include Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Sinéad Morrissey, and Dennis O’Driscoll.


You can read Doireann’s poems (some in both Irish and English) and watch her video collaborations with Peter Madden here.

—Gerard Beirne

Jan 212016


When Severn Thompson read the novel Elle four years ago she had no idea that this story would capture her imagination for years to come. The Governor General’s Award-winning novel written by Douglas Glover is based on the true story of Marguerite de Roberval. Marguerite, along with her lover and nurse, were marooned by her uncle the Sieur de Roberval on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Thompson spent the last three years adapting and workshopping Elle before bringing it to Theatre Passe Muraille. “It struck me as so refreshing to find a female voice from a time I had heard very little about, in the very early days of the explorers in the mid 1500’s,” says Thompson. “I felt very close to her [the character]. The story crossed 500 years very easily for me. It brought the past to the present.”

Read the rest at In the Greenroom.

Jan 212016


Another review that’s positive despite not being able to keep The Revenant out of the lead. Jesus wept. :)


The biggest story in the film world right now includes hypothermia, parenthood, bear attacks and Leonardo DiCaprio’s potential first Oscar win in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant. Who knew its companion piece would be revealed at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, and that Hollywood’s favourite movie would share so many similarities with a story foundational to the creation of Canada.

In Elle, which had its world premiere this week at Passe Muraille directed by Christine Brubaker, writer and actor Severn Thompson adapts Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel of the same name into a mostly solo performance that weaves feminism, survival instincts, colonialism and magic realism together.

Read the rest at The Toronto Star.

Jan 202016


Here’s another review by a man who seems to think everything would be better as a movie and reviews the play as if it were a text and not a series of scenes and tableau-like images that, as the play wears on, remind you more of German Expressionist theatre than what he inappropriately calls “magic realism.” He makes no mention of the theatricality of the play. His descriptive vocabulary is minimal. “Tense” — what does that mean? And he obviously hasn’t read the novel. This is typical of a certain withered Toronto provincialism that equates the Academy Awards with the acme of our culture and thinks that by mentioning them you mark yourself as hip and in the know. :)

What can you expect from a newspaper that so badly read the mood of the country as to endorse Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in the last election? And we all know how that went down.


A white person left for dead in the North American wilderness in the days of conquest and colonization. A highly symbolic encounter with a bear – and local indigenous peoples. An epic journey of survival across a frozen landscape seeking revenge.

No, it’s not The Revenant, the Alejandro Iñárritu film leading this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s Elle, Douglas Glover’s 2003 Governor-General’s Award-winning novel – now transformed into an occasionally tense, but frequently funny play by the actress Severn Thompson.

Read the rest at The Globe and Mail.