Feb 142015
 

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THE OPENING SEQUENCE of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) begins with the mouth of a canon firing and ends a few minutes later with a tourist collapsing dead from the beauty of Rome. An operatic opening, the shots in this sequence expose a sordid relationship between beauty and death and anticipate one man’s journey through memory, loss and longing as he seeks something of more substance than la dolce vita.

This first sequence is distinct from the plot of the film, but operates as a thematic prologue. Everything of the film that follows could be said to be contained in these few minutes: the locals stand among the statues – a woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she reads the paper and a man in his undershirt washing himself in the fountain – the garish tourists gawk, the steady cam passes by floating out over the cerulean fountain waters operating as the visual embodiment of the glorious operatic voices that also pass over all these images and the vista of Rome. Sorrentino, in his New York Times commentary notes that “Rome is a city where the sacred and the profane work together . . . they are tied to each other.” The divine and the destructive, the operatic and the mundane, the still as marble figures and fluid motion of the camera, all create an absurd and sublime mélange. Beauteous, yes, but unsettling too.

These tensions in the opening have something of Freud’s ‘Uncanny’ in them, appearing familiar and yet oddly unfamiliar. This uncanny offers a taste of the dream-like logic of the overall film to follow, a story world of outlandish parties with lascivious suitors, child artists, massive dance numbers and assorted revelry, then side journeys to strip clubs, secret enclaves of the city only accessible by a key master where they find night gardens and even a giraffe. All of this passes by, the visions of a somnambulant searcher, playing homage to other despairing artist journeys like Fellini’s 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita.

5 the great beauty, girls at nunnery

The central protagonist, Jep, is our guide and searcher here and the opening sequence, from canon fire to tourist’s death by beauty, tells us everything we need to know about his struggle, his searching. Ostensibly the canon fire, as Sorrentino in his commentary for the New York Times points out, indicates that it is noon and the listless and lazy characters in the film to follow are only just waking up from the reveries of the night before “they are lazy and always tired so they probably started their day at noon.” However, Sorrentino has the camera begin in the mouth of the canon and pull away so that the canon points directly at the film spectator. A moment of threat so great it is absurd.

canon full

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The canon fires right at the camera and, whether it’s live ammunition or not, that shot is semantically connected to the tourist who collapses dead a few minutes later. The canon might go off every day at noon and might also be part of a historical display about Rome, but here it symbolically connects to the death of the tourist that prologues the film and runs basso continuo under the narrative that follows.

Yet, it isn’t the only shot that addresses the camera directly: there’s the canon that fires at us, the lead singer in the choir, her rapturous voice, her face full of melancholy jouissance, and then, when we finally meet him in the middle of his birthday party, there’s the face of Jep.

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These shots are connected through their direct relationship with the camera: violence and the rapturous sublime build to the tourist’s death and then these all culminate in Jep’s ponderous and melancholy gaze as he stares down us and perhaps his own mortality.

Jep’s melancholy reflection directly pertains to the tourist he never meets. Sorrentino notes in his commentary for the NY Times that the tourist’s death is a “standard case of Stendhal Syndrome.” Though associated more with Florence, the syndrome is also connected to various psychosomatic afflictions involving travelers and other great cities like Paris, Jerusalem. In Paris, those afflicted are most often Japanese tourists who have so romanticized the city that when they arrive reality shocks them to the extent that the Japanese consulate has set up a crisis line for those afflicted. In the case of Florence, scientists recently monitored visitors to the Palazzo Medici Ricardi.

Graziella Magherini, an Italian psychiatrist who analyzed and specialized in this phenomena, named the syndrome after French author Stendhal who in one of his travelogues described “a sort of ecstasy from the idea of being in Florence.” Maria Barnes, a journalist who interviewed Magherini on the subject, felt herself compelled to explore the subject when she saw an American man faint beneath the Giotto ceiling paintings. In a confession that might as well be written by Jep she notes “For me, it is an exciting idea that art has the power to cause people to be seriously disoriented for significant lengths of time, perhaps because that reality seems so far removed from me. I can’t remember ever becoming directly emotional or having had a physical reaction to looking at art.”

For “The Great Beauty,” then, the psychological experience of travel, as troubling as it can be for many, perhaps allows us to reflect on the more static or stationary aspects of life, on the places where we don’t make room to be so moved by beauty. Sorrentino in his commentary notes that he chooses this location, the Janiculum, for the tourist perspective it offers: Rome seen from an outside perspective. Sorrentino also chose to preface the film with an epigraph from Paul Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night: “To travel is very useful. It makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” The epigraph might seem misplaced as the film that follows tells the story of a man who seems, save a memory from a time by the sea, to have never left Rome. Yet the episodic, wandering structure of the film resembles a travel narrative and ultimately underscores that Jep’s struggle is not with an itinerary but with how to most deeply and meaningfully experience the time he has left, that inner travel.

Beyond its tourist perspective, though, the Janiculum has another significance. It is also a temple to Janus, the figure usually noted for being two faced in the sense that he sees to the future and the past. He is the god of beginnings and transitions, and a tourist’s death in a temple to memory and crossroads is a potent beginning for Jep’s story.

But it’s not enough that the tourist dies from beauty, swoons into oblivion. What follows immediately is a scream, one that could be added to the three direct camera shots I already noted:  canon, song, scream, Jep.

scream

Syntactically this would imply a shocked scream in response to the death of the tourist, but as the wail of the scream subsides and the camera backs away from the screamer’s mouth, it becomes apparent that she is screaming from so much party joy. What does this say about the man’s death by beauty? It is not grieved; it is not tragic; it is forgotten in the next frame in a sea of revelers. This isn’t just any roman party though, it’s Jep Gambardella’s 65th birthday party. A profound and powerful relationship to beauty is then juxtaposed with an irreverent and superficial dolce vita.

This collision of the tourist’s death and the party set up what is perhaps Jep’s central question and crisis: what is the difference between experiencing and living and what does beauty have to do with either? As Jason Marshall points out in his article “When Beauty is Not Enough,” the locals who wander among the statues at the beginning of the film provide a chorus of those who are insensitive to this question: “They are surreal figures, the kind that haunt most cities: idle and indifferent to the beauty and excitement around them, to the history they wash themselves in.” They are callous in comparison to the operatic experience of the singers above and the doomed-by-beauty tourist.

Other deaths string along from the first tourist death, accompanying Jep’s searching travels: the offstage death of Jep’s love from his youth; the dancer who dies, almost as an afterthought; the suicide of the tormented son of one of his friends; and, perhaps most looming and oppressive, not the death but the presence of the 104 year old nun Sister Maria, her faith and her reverence. Each in their own way interrupt and shape Jep’s wandering, question his questions before they die or leave him. And each are travelers with him, seeking meaning in the face of beauty and death.

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We are left with the impression that little from the moment of that failed kiss in his youth, to the acclaim of his only book, to this journey of reflection for Jep has mattered, but as he travels through the city we also get the sense that the fellow travelers have given him fresh eyes to see the great beauties around him, to risk the pain of living and inevitable death. The tourist, as he falls to the ground dead in the opening sequence, is the apotheosis of feeling that has escaped Jep, and towards which he journeys. “Roma O Morte” is inscribed on the statue in those first shots, Giuseppe Garibaldo’s rallying cry to draw volunteers to his military and nationalistic cause, but at a glance here it suggests these are two options: Rome with its sort of immortal and limbo-like dolce vita, or a reverence for beauty that leads to death. Jep, by the end of the film, perhaps escapes this dogmatic binary, or at least as a traveler has an experience of beauty that will shape the words to come.

— R. W. Gray

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Feb 132015
 

JayRogoff

…a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death. —Mary Kathryn Jablonski

RogoffVENERA-cover

Venera: Poems
Jay Rogoff
Louisiana State University Press
84pp. Paperback. $17.95
ISBN9780807154298

 

ON ALL LEVELS, JAY ROGOFF’S VENERA embraces the sacred and profane, beginning with its title, which suggests the extremes of both “venerable” and “venereal.” For those savvy about such obscure things, Venera is also the name of the series of Russian spacecraft that explored the planet Venus. Rogoff has described Venera as a book of love poems, parents and children, lover to lover. The book is a tour de force intellectual rollick through Italy, in terms of its art history. And much more.

To those familiar with Rogoff’s many books of poetry, including, The Art of Gravity (Louisiana State UP, 2011), The Long Fault (Louisiana State UP, 2008), How We Came to Stand on That Shore (River City, 2003), and The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995), his verse is known for its formality, intelligence, and exactitude. He has been the dance critic for The Hopkins Review since 2009. As Visiting Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, he teaches courses from Shakespeare to Modernist Poetry and has published his poems extensively in journals, including Agni, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review. 

While Rogoff’s poetry is generally accessible, it can be at times challenging. Having said this, however, it can also be, even in the same erudite, elegant, complex poem — playful, erotic, and at occasional moments, raunchy. Surely, this is not without intent. Upon closer inspection, the reader uncovers complex meter and rhyme structures, including internal rhymes that weld the poems, and clever slant rhymes that unconsciously fuel the senses.

This emotional, intellectual, acrobatic play weaves a tapestry that is quite thrilling. Venera is split exactly in two, and I would submit that the first section, titled “Only Child,” a variety of poems in theme and in structure, is not unlike a seduction, a type of foreplay. It beautifully prepares the reader for the second half of the book, which unfolds as measured, steady and strong. Section one shows the range and versatility of the poet, engages and prepares the reader for the full experience. It is a display comparable to the astounding mating dance of the Bird of Paradise of Papua New Guinea: at times elegant, elaborate, perfected; other times, humorous, yet powerful, in your face even.

Rogoff begins the sequence exploring not only a portrait of the Virgin Mary, but the way in which we view the feminine, in self and other, and in relationship. The poet seems to be subtly coming into a certain sense of social responsibility in his poetry. Indeed, he has remarked about this at recent readings. This maturity can be felt throughout the collection, in which the poems are placed in a larger (art) historical or social context. He does distance himself from engaging in first person emotional drama. This is not to say that Rogoff has lost his ability to be vulnerable and to emotionally engage the reader. For example, his poem “No Dream” maintains its reserve while taking us in a series of questions through the conceit of the dream undreamed. Was it real, or did we imagine it? The poem accomplishes its compelling task in couplets that almost go unnoticed because of deft enjambment and slant rhyme (dream/perfume, erect/conduct, swallow/vanilla, skin/sun, etc):

My lips brushed it – or did I dream
that nape exhaling such perfume,
those fine hairs wicking it erect
in my breath’s breeze to conduct
odors too thick, too sweet to swallow,
pregnant with roses and vanilla?

In section one of Venera we are taken back and forth from the otherworldly to the mundane: from the realm of piano music and paintings to the silverware drawer, from a symphony of birds to the primal bed of intercourse, overheard by a child. In a piece titled “Mother and Child,” he begins in an everyday tone, “Hell of a place to start a family” and later in the poem uses elevated language as beautiful as “They kneel crystal with offerings, their waters / distilled in the effulgence of her face.” Further along it changes again with language describing birth as coarse as “simply undivine, unbearable / a watermelon bursting through her cunt.” Shocking, to experience this shift in the same poem. Surely the poet’s intent.

Rogoff concludes the first section with four poems that squint at our love of life and hint at death. Stellar poems. Like “Life Sentence,” in which a murderer tends daffodils, with grace. It is not only Rogoff’s precise word choice, but also the expert pacing of this poem that is remarkable. And when one is given a life sentence, isn’t it time that is, and should be, notable? The poet writes with authenticity, having worked in prison writing programs in the past. In “Dirty Linen” the absence of the leading character is noted through scent in the poem, primal indeed. And in “Only Child” a woman wakes in the night from a bad dream, and the poem employs a circular rhythm and dialogue between the figures that is magical, almost melding them, concluding on a note that reminds one of the utterly vulnerable tone the poet was able to achieve in his early chapbook Firsthand (the text of which was reprinted in How We Came to Stand on That Shore). A voice one might have missed in the mature poet. Yet it is Rogoff’s restraint that distills the emotion here as it ends the poem:

MMMImagine:
the only child to get you up at night for water
MMis the small child of this visitation —
MMMvoice jingling
MMMlike smashed glass, hand dangling
an eyeless bear —
MMMour child. I cradle you, your back
and bottom sweating in the dark.
MMWe breathe together,
MMMMand the dark at my back
cradles me.

Section one of Venera concludes with “Laughter,” a poem in seven sections, each a tightly woven sonnet. The overall theme is the competition in Florence for the relief bronze Baptistry doors, which were to illustrate the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Like the Renaissance artists demonstrating their skill at its height, so too, the poet shines, and his demonstration of the sonnet form prepares us beautifully for what is to come in section two of his book. The poem’s sequence imaginatively includes a call for entries, a play on the name of Isaac meaning laughter, a description of the scene cast in the doors, a vision of the boy as an animal, and a persona sonnet spoken by Isaac. It is notable how seemingly easily, how expertly, the poet takes on the voices his characters throughout the book: an ex-husband, a kindergartener, a son, a husband, Isaac, and later the Virgin Mary, and the angel in the Annunciation.

And the much-anticipated second section? Here the poet hits his stride. In section two, titled “Venera,” Rogoff delivers 24 sonnet-length poems all with two-word titles the first word of which is “The.” The section begins with three bombshells: “The Reader,” “The Mother,” “The Whore.” All, of course, descriptions of the Virgin Mary – and more. They are also descriptions of a detail in the Ghent altarpiece on the book’s cover, Mary Enthroned, by Jan van Eyck. Other poems in this section examine details of the painting as well. The altarpiece, an early 15th century 12-panel painting has had a compelling history, including fire and theft. Some aspects about it remain a mystery.

As in a number of the poems in this book, Rogoff skillfully takes us from the historic to the contemporary in “The Whore.” He begins with the “Behold the painted woman on her throne” turning the reader’s attention to the historic painting, but Rogoff quickly leaps to a fantasy description of the book on her lap instead (a highly unusual element in the painting), imagining she reads about “angels breathing on the phone, / falling to weightless knees”. As he continues in his cheeky eroticism, we assume the poet addresses the oil painting, “if I could prime under your oily glazes / till your book smacked the floor, I’d wring a cry / from your high throat. Throw off your diadem. / Apprentice me beneath your jeweled hem / to labor in profound, unpainted places”.

Like the altarpiece itself, or any substantial artwork to an avid collector, Rogoff’s poems reveal more with each subsequent reading, and one often gets the feeling that there are subtleties beyond one’s ken that perhaps with research or additional careful study of the work, or simply given time, one could grasp. This is an exciting feeling, a feeling that compels one to read each poem repeatedly, deliberately. An example, which may or may not have been intended by the poet, can be found in the sequencing of the three Mary poems, which begin the second section of the book. They are so powerful together in this position that one almost cannot help but think of them as a female version of the Holy Trinity. When one reads about the Ghent Altarpiece, there is much written about the central panel, Deity Enthroned (immediately to the right of the Mary Enthroned panel), and the debate as to whether the figure there is Christ, God the King, or a representation of the Holy Trinity, marked by the three-tiered crown upon his head.

Masterful, too is the overall sequencing of the poems in this book. There is little to fault. If section one holds one or two weaker poems, perhaps too personal in reference to easily place in the larger context of the book (Who are “Barbara” and “Malcolm” the reader wonders momentarily?), section two has no such issue. The beautiful dénouement of section one, preparing us for the second half, is duplicated in section two, where Rogoff concludes with a beautiful climactic sequence. The poem “The Fountain” is a tribute to the feminine, an absolute Venus poem, which begins, “All things flow from her. We know her tears / create the stinging sea”.

“The Garden,” “The Mirror,” “The Bride,” “The Table,” “The Mirror,” and “The Lover” round out the collection. Art historians reveal that Mary Enthroned shows the Virgin Mary dressed as a bride, and Rogoff speaks of marriage as a mirror in “The Mirror,” when he offers us a redux of many of the images from earlier poems. He sees the Ghent altarpiece painting of the Virgin Mary as a mirror reflecting a mystery and longing for her to “swing her eyes suddenly up”.

Of note in this too-brief section is the gorgeous poem “The Table,” in which the poet envisions the Annunciation from the angel’s point of view:

The angel is in love with her. He wants
to break his contract as the messenger.
He wants to speak for himself. But what terror
in choosing the dreck of human romance,
to feel wing-feathers scatter to the winds;

The poet, as ever, employs enjambment and rhyme with ease and skill. His 10-syllable lines seem like conversational bytes in iambic pentameter, seem human. The exceptions to this meter reveal the angel’s exasperation. The internal rhymes play on the reader’s subconscious mind (break/contract/speak/dreck): the poem is tied together just as the angel is tied to his duty, which he must carry out. If the first section contained poems that alternated sacred and profane, section two more often seems to meld the sacred and profane within the single poem, as seen in these two examples, a painting of a virgin we imagine to be reading a racy novel, exciting the poet (simultaneously exciting us?), and the notion of an angel who wants to be human so that he can fall into earthly love.

In “The Lover” Rogoff concludes the book with a poem that harkens back to the Shakespearean tradition, which has been subtly building with each sonnet in the collection. Familiar to almost all of us, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), arguably one of the most exquisite love poems of all time, ends: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Shakespeare implicates the poem’s power in keeping the beloved alive.

Similarly, as Rogoff ends his collection, we again we see him plead with the figure in the painting to look up. Then he turns the tables upside down and imagines her engrossed in the reading his very poems! But wait. Is he speaking to the woman in the painting or to us when he says, “Lift your … eyes off that page”? And so we think of the poet imaging the reader (us!) also absorbed in the poems. There is sublime transfiguration here. An amazing climax – leaving us both thoroughly satisfied and wanting more.

Lift your luxurious eyes off that page.
Nothing there can save us from the ravage
of the skin’s quick touch into bones – old themes
crumbling our entwined bodies downward grace-
lessly. What remains! – absorbed by your face
absorbed in the reading of these poems.

While the poems in Venera may seem at first glance to be ekphrastic, Rogoff instead uses the Ghent altarpiece as a touchstone for the poems, allowing him to play with sacred themes. This is a perfect fit for the sense of responsibility to the larger world he hopes to address through his work as he matures. To call Venera a book of love poems is an oversimplification, for it is a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq, a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Feb 122015
 

Susan Paddon

This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. —Patrick O’Reilly

Two Tragedies cover

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
Susan Paddon
Brick Books
96 pp., $20
ISBN 1-926829-94-8

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THE MOTHER IS DYING, and soon. There are few new memories to be made, no place to keep them, and no time at all for rehashing half-forgotten romances and arguments. But what Susan wants most from her mother is a finished story, a memoir ideally, which could adequately sate her own curiosity. As the mother’s death draws urgently near, it becomes clearer and clearer to Susan that she is not going to get it, that whatever secrets, stories, even anecdotes her mother has will go with her. Like anyone else, the mother is both finished and uncompleted, leaving Susan with the fragments of a story and no satisfying conclusion. This lack of finality may be why Susan has become so consumed by Anton Chekhov, a playwright whose own life was both celebrated and scrupulously edited by his executors.

This is the parallel that drives Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths, the debut poetry book from Susan Paddon. Chekhov and Susan’s mother, both victims of respiratory illness, are imagined by Susan as similar figures: important, intriguing figures whose lives are the victim of redaction (self-imposed or otherwise), the details of which Susan is itching to discover. Other figures from Susan’s life have Chekhovian counterparts as well. Her withdrawn father and pregnant (and therefore reasonably preoccupied) sister share the role of Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s inconstant wife. Even Chekhov’s curious, admiring visitors are represented by Leona, the lonely next-door neighbour. The parallel strongly established, but also fairly flexible, allowing the characters to sometimes step out of their roles and exist as themselves.

It might have been tempting for Susan to cast herself as Chekhov in the ongoing drama, but she wisely identifies with Masha, Chekhov’s sister, to whom the opening poem of every section is addressed, and who protected Chekhov in life and death,. It may be that Susan’s frustrations stem from the fact that without answers to her questions, she is unable to protect, and control, her mother’s legacy as Masha did with Chekhov. These questions are elaborated on in the poem “Yellow” (34-35): “Who was Penny again? Why did you leave Fort Lauderdale? / Did dad ever write you letters? Are they under your bed?” Without these details, Susan is forced to focus on “record[ing]” the more observable aspects of her mother’s life. Susan soon reveals “I have already imagined after,” a telling line from a speaker who often alludes to her own authorial aspirations, adding a layer of meta-narrative to the book itself.

In reality, the mother is not an especially mysterious figure, and the answers are gradually meted out later in the text: a few youthful flings, maybe, a long-lost friend, nothing that rewards this level of curiosity from Susan. Instead, Susan chafes against her mother’s hesitancy to answer any and all questions; it confounds her, spites her, when Susan considers all she has given up to be at her mother’s side. Before returning to rural Ontario to care for her mother, Susan had lived an implicitly bohemian life with “J.” in Paris. The series of “Unsent Letter” poems, addressed to J., aim to establish a kind of Prozorovian nostalgia for the Paris Susan left behind. Unfortunately, these are generally unsuccessful. “Unsent Letter #2” reads

Today is the Ouvres Portes. On your way up the hill, you will pass three / boulangeries with meringue in their windows, resist each time because there / are milles feuilles on Boulevard Simon Bolivar worth holding out for. The street / cleaners will spray the sidewalks as you pass. (45)

The second-person voice, the future tense, the abundance of unnecessary French, all contribute to a sense of speculation, implying a Paris that is more imagined than experienced. Ultimately, the “Unsent Letter” poems only add to an already lengthy list of diversions from the main text, and reiterate Susan’s self-absorption.

Susan’s frustration is clear not only to the reader, but to her family as well, to the point that her mother, dependent though she is, suggests “Why not / get your hair cut? How about / giving Tammy a call?” (54). From Susan’s perspective, her father is only minimally attentive. The sister’s absence, encouraged by the mother’s insistence on not worrying her with details while the baby is due shortly, reawakens Susan’s impressions of favoritism and sibling rivalry, as depicted in the two poems titled “My Sister” (38, 64). Left with the burden of single-handedly caring for her mother, and without at least the compensation of a startling revelation from her mother, Susan’s resentment is understandable, but no less obvious.

This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. Susan’s development comes as steadily and surely as the mother’s death (another parallel), and pays off with the one-two punch of “Jacksonville” and “The Minister’s Visit.”

“Jacksonville” finds the mother in the hospital. Susan, sitting at her mother’s bedside, begins musing on her mother’s beauty, both her physical beauty and her inner beauty. As she’s thinking, a handsome young doctor comes in to tend to her mother. Susan identifies him as someone who could be swayed by her mother’s beauty, even by something as simple as the taste of her blueberry pie. She begins to imagine herself bargaining with the doctor, convinced that her mother’s beauty and her own grief should be enough to halt the train. For the first time, we sense how imminent and undeniable the mother’s death really is. For the first time, we see the depths of Susan’s fear and desperation, previously obscured by the daily business of caring for her mother. The bargaining gives way to a list which emphasizes her panic, a show of desperation and dependency which echoes the mother’s. “I want,” Susan says, “to show him the Jackson / shot to see if your beauty can inspire a miracle. / I want to shake him in to God” (91).

Within a few pages, the mother has died, disrupting the parallel. Susan is no longer Masha, or Chekhov; With J. leaving Paris for Egypt with her own mother, Susan is no longer even the Susan who writes in her journal and ruminates on her worldly past-life. Instead, in “The Minister’s Wife,” she assumes a third-person voice centered on Leona, the nosy neighbour. Leona is sitting on her couch when the minister arrives. She’s been expecting him (she had already assembled the ingredients for a consolatory quiche), but his appearance provides a concrete image of finality, a cause for external grief. “Oh, God no. Oh, God no.” she says. The speaker continues

….When she is finished, she cries
for everything bad that has ever been.
Not because this loss
is so great, but because loss
is a reminder of other losses. (96)

This is the apex of the book. Susan’s resentment and self-absorption are completely washed away by Leona’s tears. Through the actions and emotions of a (literally peripheral) other character, Susan comes to understand her grief as not hers alone. It is one grief of many, significant, but not singular.

These are strong poems, and when they appear they have real emotional impact. However they are two bright lights in a technically troubled book. Two Tragedies reads very much like a novel, to the point that calling it a “collection” feels inaccurate. Though this isn’t bad in and of itself (“novel-in-verse” is a genre for a reason), it leans uncomfortably close to prose. The poems push forward in a punchy, journalistic writing style, steadily chugging toward their destination, but there is none of the precision, and none of the metaphorical illumination, of truly great poetry. Whatever could be gained through metaphor, surprising enjambments, or complex metrical shifts is missed here. Any allusion to Chekhov’s life is inevitably underlined by the direct explanation of that allusion. Take, for example, “This House,” in which Susan compares her mother’s house to a stage:

No two props set more than three steps apart,
the distance she can travel now
without a pause. I am her leading stagehand,

Danchenko: driver, bodyguard. (20)

It’s a clear case of over-telling, drawing didactic lines to Chekhov in a way that overwhelms the poems. The sentences are concise to the point of fragmentation, and still somehow too heavy.

It would be more charitable to say that Paddon is as committed to telling Masha and Chekhov’s story as she is to telling Susan’s. Occasionally this leads to some stirring moments, like the catharsis of “Dearest Maria” (97). More often, it leads to the intrusion of epigraphs, allusions, and diversions from the more urgent contemporary narrative. Paddon makes frequent use of epigraphs from Chekhov, but these are not often in service of the poems, and sometimes appear to their detriment. “Chekhov’s Bishop Dreams” uses another favourite tool of Paddon, the bridging title. This first-line/title is immediately followed by an epigraph from Chekhov’s “The Bishop”, thereby interrupting the poem to no apparent purpose. It’s a glaring technical misstep, and the poem suffers.

The truth is Two Tragedies is a little overstuffed, indecisive of just which story it should be telling and how much to tell. Another pass of the editor’s pen, a stronger focus on Susan’s own story, and the omission of some less-effective poems and epigraphs (three before the first poem even starts), could have greatly served the book. That Susan finds solace in her reading and her writing is important to her character, and to her story, but it’s not the whole story. Nonetheless, when she’s focused, Paddon is capable of some of the most touching, human poetry I have seen in a while. It is her first book, and I’m more than willing to chalk up any missteps to earnestness, enthusiasm, and commitment to the idea.

—Patrick O’Reilly

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Paddy O'Reilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Feb 112015
 

Thomas McCarthy

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Winter With Catherine

The plover and the plover’s page
Apply their narceine to Kenmare water

In this, the earliest light of winter time.
Night lifts its bitter crystalline,

Clouds withdraw in wounded hauteur.

Sunlight tinctures sorrel and sage
With drifts of its royal orpiment

While we gaze upon a lobster-boat
As it drops a rosary-beads of pots.

Gulls attend each sinking reliquary:
Chattering classes in a frenzy of prayer –

The hour is so casually strummed upon,
It booms in opiate lanquor:

This sun is a river, the plover’s a sea.

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While You Sleep

I watch the timeless candle burning at both ends.
At one end it must be my mother’s face
And her infinite correlation with my own fate.
There’s no other end that I would put in place

At this moment or at any moment in our room.
The candle burns in its circadian rhythms,
Leaving words behind it on her waxy lips:
She told stories to the dark while the world slept

And like poems she didn’t need an end
But supped off the oils of perpetual change.
I watch the warm light on your own restless face.
You are restless like a mother. The precipice

Of night threatens you, though I am here
Always to hold you. You must learn to un-drown
Yourself, to float the way light does
From a timeless candle. Your superstition grows

In the absence of day, but night has no substance
When we are together. Look at the stars
Through the bedroom window: their universe
Is nothing in this huge room, in the light from us.

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At Ink Level, The Sea

Here on the writing desk of the earth
The sun goes down quickly at ink level.
Soon the stony outcrop will be a blob
Of light blue and the sky will be pale
As the tissue rises. Is it time to go in
Or is it time to go outside? Only time

Will tell me how the levels rise –
Phrases cluster on the sunlit page,
So many oyster-catchers thread the surf,
Their needlepoint becomes pale green.
Water is near, shale bursts in applause,
Gulls congregate on a drifting raft.

Am I going out or coming in with the sea?
Not everything is blessed by the promise
Of water: your book on birds
Is soaked by the wash, ink grows pale
In its buckled galleys. From the Hellespont
Of a paper-clip, Leander swims to me.

—Thomas McCarthy

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Thomas McCarthy was born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, in 1954. Educated at University College Cork. He worked for many years at Cork City Library. Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, 1977, Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize, 1980 and O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize, 1991. Fellow of the International Writing Programme, University of Iowa, 1978/79. A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review and guest editor of The Stony Thursday Book, he has directed writing workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week, Arvon Foundation and Molly Keane House. He is a member of Aosdana. His last collection of poems was The Last Geraldine Officer (2009). A new book, Pandemonium, is due from Anvil Poetry in May 2015.

 

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Feb 102015
 

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

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Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014

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My wife says we’ll be eternally close to Tink and Polly, old-time Vermonters, that vanishing stock, and best of neighbors. To me, she seems like some madwoman, talking about how we should stipulate a bench instead of a headstone to stand at this grave she bought yesterday, when I was out of town. A bench, she explains, will enable our children and grandchildren to sit, have picnics, enjoy the scenery. As they take in the panorama, she adds, they can think of us, and in this setting their thoughts will necessarily be happy ones.

Now I’ll admit she’s always been uncannily good at knowing what our children, and now their children, may need or want, but I’m skeptical of this rosy vision of hers. Our kids aren’t as needy as many I’ve known in any case. Even when they were small, they often proved delightfully resourceful.

The two youngest daughters dreamed up sisters for their games: Sharlee was the bright one, Sally the drunken fool. They had Bunnum the rabbit too, and the younger girl often took on the role of Moodyhawk, an odd, mean character who claimed to rule the world. She came, as I recall, from Guam.

An older brother conceived and played the part of a dog named Ruffy. He would school his father or his mother, or often both at once, in their lines of dialogue with Ruffy, often scolding us for faulty inflection or body language. “Not like that!” he’d snap. (When he became a teenager, his grief at the death of his real dog, a sweet Labrador bitch called Plum, would keep him home from school one day.)

The eldest daughter, at four years old, reported, lisping the plural, that she’d found two slugs on a pumpkin. There was gusto, even mirth, in her description of how the orange of the mollusks and the orange of the fruit “didn’t go together.” She was visibly disappointed when she led me out to the garden; she couldn’t find the slugs themselves, merely the pale paths they had left on descending and heading who knew where?

The firstborn child was obsessed with Jeeps, and in bumbling, nightly drawing lessons, I guided his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen. He’d whistle between his teeth in concentration, his breaths turning to small clouds in that frigid space, no matter the ancient Round Oak woodstove glowed red in the corner. Draft after draft after draft. He wanted perfection. Who doesn’t long for that?

Standing on my grave, I start mourning, because I’ll lose these moments and others accrued over so many years. In short, my own vision is far less cheery than my wife’s. Is this a matter of gender? I’ll never know. I can’t speak for motherhood. But can anyone have been a father and conjured such random memories without some inward weeping?

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous.

Meanwhile, and as always for no palpable reason, my mind makes its oblique jumps. I suddenly think of a check I left this morning for a woman who comes now and then to clean house. She bore a child in her teens, and might have gone on to harm, misery, or dependence; but her boyfriend stood by her, married her, helped her to raise that daughter. I admire that woman greatly: her industry, her constantly upbeat mood, whatever a given day’s circumstances and despite her rheumatoid arthritis.

I scribbled a thank you note to her along with the payment. Typically broody, I think just now how the note resembles so much I’ve put my hand to: a note is no more than a note, and still it’s one more thing that will disappear for good.

Those children’s children: how could I ever have known how much I’d love them? You see, it’s not the abstraction death that daunts me; it’s the leaving behind of all the beloved, particular creatures with whom I’ve walked the earth that will cover my ashes, and all the places on earth that have proved so dear to us. And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me that an apter feeling might be gratitude. I have had so much to lose in the first place.

I should study that. Maybe the bench is a fine idea after all.

 

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River, Stars, and Blessed Failure

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I pause in my drive back home from a reading, unknotting my legs and back, which have stiffened while I’ve sat at the wheel. It’s a joy to behold the moon as it breaches the mountain, though I feel even slighter than one of the beads of froth down there in the rapids, which are winking back at more stars than I’ve ever seen in New England. How can there be so many? They rob my breath and speech.

I could almost read my poems out loud again by that moon and those stars. But I’m not in the least inclined to do that. I’m banishing words for the moment, as if by strange instinct – not just my own words, but all. I find it more than peaceful out here to articulate nothing, to feel myself on the farthest edge of conscious thought.

Over the river’s crackle, I catch the lyrical calling of a coyote, and from it can imagine ones nearer to home, their sopranos mixed with the altos of owls and the lilting descant of a freshet. I picture my wife in our house. Perhaps she pauses by a certain window just now, the big one through which at this time of year we watch the deer glide in to browse our night-black lawn. Against that darkness, their bodies show ashen, ghostly, elegant.

Our children are all grown and gone. And yet in this moment their distance feels slight. No longer are we at the exact center of a family constellation, but even so –or is it therefore?– we still know this thing we crudely call joy.

Of course, as one who always longs for the freshest and rarest expression of feeling he can muster, I might easily wince at so paltry and common a noun as that – joy indeed! if I didn’t find this a time, precisely, for rhetorical failure, no words quite apt for what shimmers out there above any one person’s construals of meaning.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

The essays published here will appear in a collection forthcoming this spring by Green Writers Press.

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Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

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The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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Feb 082015
 

Lawrence Sutin

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I hate this question because it admits of many answers that each have some sense, if not certainty, to offer.

There are persons who feel that it’s morbid to think about it, a hindrance to engagement with life. There are persons who feel the exact opposite—there always are, on any question, and we as a species could do better at seeing this as a sign of hope rather than a signal for war—and pointedly face their fear of mortality, become devoted to risky behaviors from climbing mountains to snorting coke because you’re going to die anyway, deal with it by using the fear for what it’s good for, fuel. There are persons who have had their dearly loved ones die and their answer is that there’s no hope of their ever thinking about anything else. Others see death as cosmic drama—the gateway to eternal salvation, damnation or reincarnation. Others look forward to death because they’re convinced it’s lights- out oblivion, a blissful rest from life. Still others say that we’re all dead already and just don’t know it, the afterlife is here and now and you can call it heaven, hell, the bardo, the liminal, the astral, the timeless dream in which the universe become us and us it. A sizable subgroup avoids thinking of their own deaths but relishes thinking of the deaths of those they hate.

All of these views are thoughts I’ve had, but none of them quite answer the question I’ve posed with its focus on when. No one would seriously hold that any person who has come of age could manage never to think about death, so we all would agree that we have to think about it sometimes. To what standard shall we set our mental clocks so that we might devote ourselves efficiently to the task? But what do I mean by efficient and what has it to do with when? I mean by efficient that sort of thinking—and I include feeling as a particularly wrenching sort of thinking—that enables us to live well with the knowledge of death. Now, as just what so enables us is intertwined with our time of life, we return to when as the crucial point. When? For how long and how often? And should it ever stop?

By seeing the complexity of the question I am trying to spare myself the problem of answering it. The complexity itself is the answer, I could say. As few of us know when we are going to die and those few—the terminal and the condemned—who do know are likely to think of death without wondering if they’ve found the proper time, that leaves the feckless majority of us not knowing or wishing to know when we will die and not knowing when we should start or stop thinking about it.

But I think that many of us think about it incessantly without knowing we do, if not unconsciously than implicitly, and always with a mind to how we should spend the time we have, a sack of coins that seems never to empty when we are not thinking of death. Joy and boredom both make time burgeon. So we choose certain jobs, certain loves, even certain sorrows, because given the time we have we naturally choose what we can’t escape.

I recently visited my daughter Sarah in Seattle, where she is living with her fiancé–they are both in their early twenties–and wondering where their lives might best lead. When she goes about her day she sometimes has to drive over Lake Union upon the venerable, girded and cantilevered Aurora Bridge—six tight lanes of two-way traffic with no central barriers to take the brunt if a driver happens to wander into the opposite flow.   One spacy swerve in any of the lanes of the Aurora Bridge—on which if you head south will lead you to the Pacific Highway and ultimately all the way to Mexico—when traffic is moderate or heavy which is every day and cars would crush each other one by one for hundreds of yards. I should add that, since its construction in 1932, it has been a favored site for suicides—over 230, second amongst U. S. bridges only to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

But the old Aurora Bridge with its rattling compression can make you think about death even if you hope to stay alive. That’s the effect it has on my daughter Sarah, who would avoid the Aurora if she could, but given the algae-like spread of the Seattle streets the lost time she put into avoidance would haunt her as the silly cost of fearing to think about death. Sarah does not want to be driven by fear and so she drives the Aurora and does her time thinking.

I have gone along with her on this ride—it’s just the two of us—expressly to watch her and talk with her as she makes the crossing. She’s material to keep my hand moving over this page you now read. She has my brown curly hair only lots more of it. She also has my penchant for anxiety and I would not have wished that for her. I ask how this bridge-drive is impacting her and she says she has to concentrate on her driving to keep her nerves from setting her on fire.

Does she think there is life after death? She does not. What she wants when she is dying is to be able to say that there is nothing left to be done, her design projects completed, her loved ones protected. But she acknowledges the paradox that, were someone she loved dying, a solace to her would be if they would ask her to do something yet unfinished for them. That would take her out of missing them for the time it took to do it.

Suicide?   She doesn’t want to commit it. I breathe again. But in her young crowd the question of preferred method comes up now and then—it’s their way of thinking of death, I’m guessing, with the fantasy of control over their own demise without yet having undergone the agony that makes you yearn for an end—and she felt she needed to come up with an answer. Helium seemed to be easy as such things went. All the while Sarah’s face is serious, her espresso eyes fixed and galactic, the mask of a goddess of life and of death who has no choice but to dwell and rule in both realms.

How afraid are you of death? How often do you think of it when you’re not on this goddamned bridge? Finally I put these questions point-blank and she senses my fear along with hers. She says she tries not to think about it but she does, not a lot, but it never goes far away, she doesn’t think it does for most people.

We have crossed the Aurora Bridge and I am now far more unsettled than Sarah because, at my bidding, my daughter has talked about death to me and I feel I have spurred her to show fear that I wanted to see for the tawdry sake of answering the question of when. But I don’t want Sarah to have any fear of death, none. I want her to be free from every mental crevasse I have fallen into, death’s certainty being an especially deep one. I also don’t want to lie to her when she reads this by hiding the fact that I often imagine happily a future world in which she is vibrant and I am gone. I meditate to accept impermanence but I pray that Sarah’s death will come after I’m gone. I would love it if we could see each other in the afterdeath realm or reincarnate as puppies in the same litter, but I suspect what will ensue is a chain of genetics that will dance through descendants as it has through us. And all of them will think about death and none of them solely when they chose.

So the answer to when might as well be never once you’ve thought about it hard. How else to avoid crossing lanes by recalling we’re tiny sacs of life knocking about without and within, a car or a heart valve could veer and kill us. Our souls would have no idea if they were staying or going as death happened, they would have expected us to have thought about that but we haven’t, not clearly, nothing we have ever thought about seems to answer to this death we will find ourselves dying when there is still a great deal to do and our loved ones need us, loved ones always do. Think of them and not death while you can.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West.  In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com.  He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Feb 072015
 

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In comments made aboard the papal plane en route to the Philippines in early January, Pope Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks. According to the AP, he defended “free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good,” and he condemned the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Such horrific violence “in God’s name,” far from being justified, was an “aberration” of religion. In fact, he said, “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity.” Perhaps; but we also know that, absurd or not, killing in the name of God accounts for many of the more irrational streams of blood staining what Hegel famously called the “slaughter-bench” of history.

Francis is aware of the paradox. His very insistence that when it comes to religion “there are limits to free expression,” anticipates his overt conclusion that a “reaction of some sort” to the Muhammad cartoons was “to be expected.” If not inevitable, a response was hardly unlikely. Most Muslims consider any representation of Muhammad, even the most benign, image-worshiping and therefore blasphemous. And radicalized Islamists, a small but virulent minority of Muslims, have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence when they feel their Prophet has been offended. The pope was not speaking ex cathedra, not pronouncing authoritatively on faith and morals. Still, he was talking about “faith,” insisting that it must never be ridiculed. “You cannot,” he declared, “insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Though these “Shalt Nots” go too far for some, many will be inclined to agree with the pope. In a gentler world I would myself. But this is decidedly not that world.

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This seems counter-intuitive. Surely in the post-9/11 world, a world in which the blood-dimmed tide of theological passion has been loosed, it would make all the more sense not to intensify those passions. One strand of the Enlightenment interprets free speech as universal tolerance, including the acceptance of everyone’s right to practice his or her own religion on its own terms, with its own codes and beliefs. But another strand of the Enlightenment—reflecting the same reaction to the preceding century or more of religious conflict, obscurantism, and superstition—is radically secular, and therefore more likely to be dismissive than tolerant of religion in general, especially those creeds whose adherents cling to what seem to secularists atavistic mores—which is to say, counter-Enlightenment values.

That’s our Enlightenment, of course: European and then transatlantic. But, as everybody knows or else should know, Islam had its own sustained enlightenment. During that 500-year period, a unique Islamic culture flourished, while, simultaneously, Muslim scholars became the saviors and conduits of much of Greek philosophy, literature, and science: a rich deposit that eventually resulted in the European Renaissance. The Islamic Golden Age, beginning in the Abbasid caliphate of the great Harun-al-Rashid (789-809) and stretching beyond the 13th century, occurred during a half-millennium when Europe was mired in what, at least in comparison with contemporaneous Muslim culture, actually were the fabled “Dark Ages.” Benjamin Disraeli once squelched in Parliament an Irish MP who had alluded to the Prime Minister’s Jewish heritage by reminding the unfortunate Celt that while “the honorable gentleman’s ancestors were living in caves and painting their bodies blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.” Disraeli’s contrast might be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the contrast between European and Muslim civilization between, say, the 8th and the 12th centuries.

But that Golden Age of Islam is long past, replaced by a post-colonial world of vast petro-wealth for the few and abject poverty for the many. The current Muslim Middle East is beset by fundamentalist versions of Islam, protracted violence, widespread illiteracy, lack of opportunity, and the growing sense of parents that neither they, nor their children nor their grandchildren, are likely to develop the skills required to function in a modern global economy. Their region is multiply afflicted by authoritarian despotism in the oil-rich states; sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia; tribal and civil chaos; and the rise of ever-more zealous and brutal jihadists, with ISIS in particular now trying to slaughter and terrorize its way to a grotesquely distorted version of the long-lost Abbasid caliphate.

Western secularists understand, may even admire, Muslim rejection of our often sordid materialistic culture. But from the perspective of enlightened reason, fatwas and jihad are another matter. Bans on images of the Prophet can fall into the same dubious category. Such prohibitions, even if they seem excessive, are understandable to most Western observers. This likely majority would include believers, who, having their own religious faith, have no wish to insult an article of Muslim faith. It would also include secularists committed to the thread of Enlightenment thought that stresses tolerance and a respect for the beliefs of others, even those we may consider idiosyncratic.

There are, however, secular defenders of free speech for whom these prohibitions regarding images of the Prophet become intolerable when reinforced by the threat of violence. That is the camp in which I find myself, awkwardly caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can those of us defending freedom of expression in the name of secular values avoid falling into a binary opposition pitting “us” against “them? Yet what are we to do if our response to Islamist terrorism is to insist, in this matter of banned images, that our secular faith in freedom of thought and expression requires us to insult the religious beliefs not only of Islamist fanatics but of virtually all Muslims? There is no easy answer, and perhaps no middle ground, for those of us who might wish, in the name of amity and mutual respect, to honor such a ban, but resist being bullied into it by the threat of violence and death if we do not.

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Pope Francis, though adamant in condemning violence in the name of religion, advocates tolerance and respect for the “faith of others,” both as an intrinsic value and because he is the world leader of a faith he also wishes to see respected by others. One reason his recent comments received such worldwide attention is that, quite aside from being, for Catholics, the Vicar of Christ, this charismatic pope has quickly become a popular celebrity in the secular world. As such, it might be argued, his observations to intimates on a plane should be taken as just another instance of the unscripted utterances that have charmed those who share this remarkably informal pope’s vision of a less pompous pontificate—though these same spontaneous observations unnerve the Vatican Curia and send church officials scurrying to preempt any potential fallout. Forget it. Given Francis’ immense personal appeal and his spiritual prestige as pope, his comments cannot be reduced, as they were the day after by a Vatican PR spokesman, to merely “casual remarks.” His utterances all carry significant weight.

The troubling aspect of his remarks on the plane—for those who were troubled—had to do not only with those “cannots” regarding religion, but with the immediate political context in which they were pronounced. I applaud his effort to bring together rather than divide. But to condemn, as Francis did on this occasion, “insults” or “fun” directed at “faith” suggests—in the context of the politically and religiously motivated slaughter of cartoonists who did not share that reticence—a partial misreading of events, and of the issues at stake. Some, even admirers of this pope, of whom I am one, have been disturbed by what struck us as a less than full-throated condemnation of religiously-inspired violence, even if the killings in Paris represent, as they do, an “aberration of religion,” in this case, of Islam.

In his remarks on the plane, the pope—reaching out, as always, to what he calls “the peripheries”—was advocating tolerance and mutual respect rather than engaging in a debate about freedom of speech. The complicating factor, as recently noted by Timothy Garton Ash—Isaiah Berlin Fellow at Oxford and leader of the Oxford-based Free Speech Debate project—is that in our contemporary world, a world where writers and cartoonists can be murdered for engaging in religious satire, “the argument for ‘respect’ is so uncomfortably intertwined with fear of the assassin’s veto.” But there may be safety in anonymity. Writing on January 22, Ash proposed, as a way of “Defying the Assassin’s Veto” (New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015), the establishment of a “safe haven”: a website “specifically dedicated to republishing and making accessible to the widest readership offensive images that are of genuine news interest, but which, for a variety of reasons, many journals, online platforms, and broadcasters would hesitate to publish on their own.”

Fully aware of the “no-holds-barred French genre of caricature as practiced by Charlie Hebdo,” Ash does not expect widespread endorsement of the often grossly outrageous satirical attacks the magazine has long launched against a wide spectrum of religious and political figures. Nor does he glibly charge with “cowardice” those editors around the world who, dealing with genuinely difficult choices, elected not to republish the Charlie Muhammad cartoons. But he does applaud Nick Cohen’s refreshingly frank observation, made during a panel discussion at The Guardian (which did not reprint the original cartoons though it did publish, a week later, Charlie Hebdo’s memorial cover, depicting a weeping Muhammad saying “all is forgiven”). Cohen said: “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.” As if in response, the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote the following day, “I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.”

“I am not Charlie” prose quickly became, as Ash remarks, a “subgenre.” In his January 9 NY Times column, “Why I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” conservative commentator David Brooks made several characteristically sensible points; but not, it seems to me, when it came to what he thought the “motivation” behind the French people’s “lionizing” of Charlie Hebdo. The mass response in Paris and elsewhere had to do, not so much with approval of the offending cartoons; nor even with approval of Charlie Hebdo’s laudable exposure (one of the traditional targets of satire in Rabelais, Molière and Voltaire) of the use and abuse of religion by hypocrites and fanatics. The marchers were “motivated” by a felt need to defend freedom of expression, to champion liberté, rightly seen as under direct assault by the forces of ignorance, religious bigotry, and militant fanaticism.

The perspective of the pope, as of David Brooks, seems to be shared by most media outlets, which had, until recently, refused to reproduce the “inflammatory” cartoons for the general public. True; free speech is not unlimited. There are considerations of sensitivity, respect for the feelings or beliefs of others. And there is the question of public safety: one mustn’t, to cite the usual cliché, shout “fire” in a crowded theater. In addition, especially in the U. S., many—left, right and center—are quite willing to sacrifice freedom of expression when it comes to voices they disagree with, ranging from speech codes on campuses and college committees disinviting controversial speakers, to attempts to ban flag-burning. And, to cite an example mingling outrage, bias, politics, and self-censorship, there is about as much chance of hearing a favorable word about Israeli policy in the UN General Assembly as there is of hearing a disparaging one in the U. S. Congress.

The crucial question posed by the onboard remarks of Pope Francis has to do with his specific defense of religion set in the specific context of a contemporary world threatened, not by Islam, but by radicalized Islamists ardent to participate—as organized terrorists, as affiliates of al Qaeda and its various offshoots, or as lone wolves—in some form of jihad. Religion’s defense of itself against freedom of speech is nothing new, as attested to by the pitiless but pious burning of “heretics” at the stake; the cherum (ritual of expulsion) pronounced against the noble Spinoza, cursed, damned and driven from his synagogue; the imprisonment of writers and thinkers charged with “blasphemy.” The old lethality resurfaced dramatically in 1989. In the year the Soviet Empire collapsed (fittingly, the 200th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution), Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the irreverent (but brilliant and very funny) chapter on Muhammad’s wives in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.

Though they joined in deploring the death-sentence against the author, the Vatican of John Paul II, the archbishop of New York (John Cardinal O’Connor), the archbishop of Canterbury, and the principal Sephardic rabbi of Israel also united in taking a stand against “blasphemy.” Pope Francis, not given to dogmatic pronouncements, did not use the word “blasphemy.” But, like Francis now, all these leaders insisted in 1989 that “there is a limit to free expression” when it comes to religion. I may seem to be having it both ways: acknowledging that Francis did not refer to “blasphemy” and at the same time making him guilty by association with those who have employed this term. Not quite.

But the pope does seem to me guilty of mixing messages and muddying the waters by using the occasion of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo to inform us all that we must always be respectful, and “never make fun” of anyone’s “faith,” at the very moment he is also telling us (listen up, ye cartoonists and satirists!) that we and they have to “expect” retaliation of some sort when we violate that taboo. The pope was speaking off-the-cuff and with the best intentions. Nevertheless, this is a taboo he shares, in however benign a form, with most orthodox Muslims and, alas, with Islamist terrorists. In a more formal imprimatur of the “casual” assertion of Francis that “you cannot insult” or “make fun of the faith of others,” there has been a recent joint declaration by leading imams and the Vatican strongly urging the media to “treat religions with respect.”

That may seem reasonable and civilized, but in our particular historical-political context, such respect, normally to be encouraged and embraced, presents a threat to both reason and civilization. Conscious of the secular challenge to Christianity as well as to Islam, but fully realizing that a robust defense of freedom of expression (in practice rather than mere theory) virtually requires secularists to risk insulting Muslims, Pope Francis insists that religion must invariably be treated with respect. Like Timothy Garton Ash, I attribute the self-censorship seen in most media around the world less to a decent respect for the faith of others than to fear of violent retaliation. Despite the polarization it simultaneously reflects and intensifies, my own position, succinctly stated, comes down to this: a conviction that it’s precisely the threat of terrorism that makes it incumbent on the West to refuse to sacrifice its deepest value, freedom, to uncritically “respecting” religion—especially when the particular religion in question seeks to blackmail the rest of the world into “respecting” (under some “only-to-be-expected” threat of death) its own ban on images of the Prophet. That prohibition derives, by the way, not from the Qur’an, but from the Hadith, posthumous tales of Muhammad’s life. Ironically enough, Muslim scholars often cite a passage in the Hebrew Bible in which Abraham (whose father, Terah, was a manufacturer of idols) declares the worship of “images” a manifest “error.” The further irony is that the Islamic ban, intended to discourage the worship of idols, has turned the prohibited images, these absent presences, into another and potentially lethal form of idolatry.

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3

Current Muslim resentment and, in its most toxic form, Islamist terrorism, have been fueled by Western colonialism and, more recently, by U. S. military intervention in the Middle East. The colonialist legacy has been, for the most part, unambiguously negative, culturally and politically. In economic terms, the victims of colonialism had imposed upon them an imported labor market management model that encouraged a race to the bottom in pursuit of comparative advantage in cheap labor. Through conquest, and with the strokes of various pens, Western colonialism created states that were less “nations” than multi-cultural entities, subject to authoritarian despots in varying degrees initially subservient to Western interests: kings and shahs and presidents-for-life propped up by the oil-thirsty West, and who, even when they asserted their independence, tended to brutally oppress their own people. In several Middle Eastern states, people ripe for revolution rose up in the exhilarating but tragically short-lived Arab Spring. That revolution, like so many others (notably including the great French Revolution itself), consumed its own idealistic children, and what emerged, or re-emerged, was military dictatorship, Islamic extremism, and another wave of emigration from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. And some of those immigrants, especially but not only in France, became a fifth column: poor, unassimilated, embittered, and therefore susceptible to the siren call to jihad. From their ranks came the killers who lashed out at the “blasphemous” cartoonists in Paris.

In a Le Moyne College open discussion of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, four faculty presenters explored “issues behind and exposed by the murders,” murders “no one could accept.” As the organizer, history professor Bruce Erickson, rightly insisted: “we do not defend the terrorists, or justify the murderers, or reject the Enlightenment, if we ask questions about how to integrate the multi-cultural world and nations that we created through colonialism.” Though most Muslim immigrants to the United States have assimilated well, many living in France and other Western European countries have not, some choosing to self-segregate. Though the “no-go zones,” alleged Muslim enclaves governing themselves under Sharia law, turned out to be a myth, subsequently recanted by its perpetuators at Fox News, this hardly diminishes the problem, nor does it sever the connection between the colonialist past and the terrorist present. The French failure to integrate the children and grandchildren of immigrants generated just the sort of recruits who became the murderers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

As an explanation of Islamic radicalism, these recent colonial developments, though crucial, may be more symptomatic than causal. The deep roots of jihad (whether interpreted as internal struggle or as external battle against the infidel) are to be found in the “sword-passages” of the Qur’an; and the historical expansion of Islamic extremism came with the transformation of large elements of a once relatively open and intellectually dynamic faith, the Islam of the Golden Age, into puritanical sects—primarily but not exclusively Wahhabism. That, of course, is the narrow-minded brand of Islam (a main source as well of much of the treatment of women and gays deplored in the West) globally disseminated through madrassas funded primarily by our “moderate” friend and supposed ally in the region, oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

To trace Islamic radicalization exclusively to Western provocations would be to “infantilize” Muslims, to hold them utterly blameless for their own actions. In saying that past European colonialism and more recent U.S. intervention have “fueled” Muslim resentment, my point (to flesh out the metaphor) is that these Western phenomena have fed, fanned, and intensified the flames of radicalization and reactionary terrorism. Hardly a complete explanation, let alone an excuse, for Islamist extremism, the impact of this history seems incontrovertible. I have already referred to the cumulative, corrosive legacy of the old colonialism; but here are examples of obvious Islamic reaction to Western provocations.

The original Muslim Brotherhood was reacting to colonialist secularization in Egypt. The Iranian theocracy established in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini sealed the revolution against the secularist Shah, installed in 1953, after the coup against the legitimately-elected Mossadegh government: a coup engineered by petroleum-protecting British Intelligence, and orchestrated with a reluctant but still complicit American CIA. Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in reaction to the presence of U. S. troops in “holy” Arabia in preparation for the first (for many of us, the “justifiable”) Gulf War. And over the past decade and a half thousands of jihadists have specifically attributed their radicalization to U.S actions, whether in actual conflict and the carrying out of drone strikes, or in response to the pointless atrocities of Abu Ghraib and to the more systematic employment of torture in CIA “black sites.” The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 preceded the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but came after our first Gulf War. And jihadism intensified and metastasized in the wake of our duplicitous, inept, and counterproductive 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld has proven to be prophetic. In one of his myriad “snowflake” memos, the then Secretary of Defense feared that we “might generate more terrorists than we could kill.”

Given the role of the West in, not creating, but certainly exacerbating, Islamic extremism, it is worth noting that the ban on images of the Prophet intensified during the early period of European colonization when Muslims were most anxious to differentiate their religion from “image-worshiping” Christianity. The prohibition is particularly stressed by Saudi Wahhabism and Iran’s clerical theocracy. Because of the impact of these most puritanical forms of Islam, what is for most Muslims anti-iconic “respect” becomes, for many of us in the West, an idiosyncratic, irrational, regressive, and intolerant shibboleth regarding “images of the Prophet.” And yet it is a ban we are to “respect,” not on the moral grounds of sensitivity to the beliefs of others, but under compulsion: the “assassin’s veto,” the clear and present danger of retribution, including fatwa and death.

Many, probably most, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus wish to be respectful of the beliefs of others and tolerant of difference. When the stakes are as high as they are now, however, this misplaced “tolerance” gives at least the appearance of justifying ignorance and barbarism by labeling religion’s satirists disrespectful, for some, blasphemous. With the advent of contemporary Islamist extremism, the old tensions between the religious and the secular and between freedom and limitation of expression have taken on a new urgency, becoming, literally, matters of life and death. Making fun of faith can put you in the grave.

The pope’s point about predictable retaliation, given the history of the past few decades, is non-controversial. But instead of stating the obvious, that some sort of reaction was “to be expected,” he ought to have questioned how things have come to this pass. Such a discussion would have included the background (Western colonialism), but should also have made it clear that, whatever the oppressive historical circumstances in which it evolved and to which it is reacting, Islamist extremism in its current militant form deserves to be criticized, and needs to be resisted. However flawed the West may be, civilization is preferable to barbarism.

Of course, resisting religious extremism can produce, as unthinking backlash, its own form of religious extremism. To shift from the charge that criticism of religion is “blasphemous,” consider the following manifestation of religious fanaticism, this time Christian, from a Fox News radio host and Fox News TV “contributor.” In recently attacking critics of the box-office blockbuster American Sniper, dramatizing the 160-kill exploits of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in Iraq, Todd Starnes announced that “Jesus would love” the film and would personally thank snipers for dispatching “godless” Muslims to the “lake of fire.”[1]

Far from invoking Jesus to justify violence against Muslims, Pope Francis called for “respect” toward Islam, and, indeed, all religions. In defending religion, theirs and others, from criticism, some Christian and Jewish leaders have invoked the specter of “blasphemy.” To his credit, as earlier mentioned, Francis did not employ that incendiary term, and he was right to refrain. Rather than join them in leveling the charge, we should leave such labeling to the thoughtless defenders of their particular faith, to God-and-country jingoists and to Islamist fanatics.

4

It’s not necessary to applaud the often scurrilous Charlie Hebdo cartoons in order to defend the cartoonists’ freedom of expression. Unlike American satire (aside from two of its greatest practitioners, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken), French satire has a long history of being anti-religious and anti-clerical, as well as being offensive—savagely and equally—across the board, skewering every sacred cow in sight. French satire, like the French state itself, is fiercely secular, as is most of post-World War II Western Europe. This is precisely why the previous pope, the conservative Benedict XVI, was so determined to re-Christianize Western Europe. And this is why the French people and their leaders came out in such numbers in the immediate aftermath of the lethal assault on Charlie Hebdo. Aside from expressing outrage against these particular religiously-inspired murders and this specific assault on free speech, the French marchers were defending their twin, and notably secular, heritages: the Enlightenment and the Revolution—at least the Idea of the Revolution, stain-free, the bloody guillotines of the Jacobin Terror conveniently repressed.

But despite the heartening response in the streets of Paris and elsewhere, rallying in support of Charlie Hebdo (like many others, I wondered where President Obama was, or at least Biden or Kerry), the Islamists have already won to the extent that almost everybody else in the world was, at least initially, too “terrified” to even reproduce the Charlie Muhammad cartoons—just as they were too afraid of violent retaliation to reproduce the famous “Danish cartoons” in 2005. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about the threat of lethal violence. Though many Danish papers republished the Charlie Hebdo images, they were, significantly, not reproduced in Jyllands-Posten, where the original “Danish cartoons” had appeared. Citing the paper’s “unique position,” and concerned for employees’ safety, the paper’s foreign editor, Flemmings Rose—hardly a coward, indeed, the very man who had commissioned those Muhammad cartoons a decade earlier—candidly admitted to the BBC: “We caved in,” adding that “Violence works,” and that “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.” One understands his caution, and the dangerous alternative. But there is an even greater danger in surrendering the pen to the sword. Islamists, whose preferred method of terrifying infidels and recruiting fresh jihadists is the publicly exhibited decapitation of prisoners (or, most recently, burning them alive), may, paradoxically, have made it necessary to be religiously offensive in order to defend the Western concept of freedom, now faced with a challenge as theocratic as it is political.

Not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or labeling them offensive, insulting, or, worse yet, “blasphemous,” is no longer simply a matter of “good taste” or “respect for others.” In the context of a growing threat by Islamist extremists—ranging from self-appointed jihadists to organized armed forces aiming to establish by the sword a new Islamic caliphate—such normally laudable sensitivity becomes, instead, a caving-in to intimidation by fanatics. The momentarily most ruthless of them (ISIS or ISIL) is determined, in God’s name (Allahu akbar!), not only to forcibly install an “Islamic State” in the heart of the Middle East, but to repeal the Enlightenment and the modern world.

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5

One can make nuanced arguments against both the Enlightenment and modernity, but NOT when the alternatives are irrationality, atavism, and—for unbelieving secularists—superstition. In the end, in the view of skeptics, the leaders of organized religions, Francis included, are in the business of defending their vested interests, their own particular accumulations of doctrine, tradition, and (for agnostics and atheists) “superstition.” But believers who are not fanatics have a particular responsibility to be unequivocal in condemning religious fanaticism.

No one in the world is better positioned to do so than this deservedly popular pope. The emphases and values that dominate his papacy were forged in the 1970s. When, in 1973, Jorge Bergogli became Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he distanced himself from a Catholic hierarchy that had acquiesced in the brutal repression by the military junta; intensified his compassionate and Jesuit commitment to the poor; and, while avoiding direct confrontation of the military regime, struggled (in the words of Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge) “to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to save Jesuit lives” (the later accusation that he betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta is baseless slander). As cardinal, he exercised the same wise leadership and again stressed compassionate concern for the poor.[2]

As pope, taking his name from Francis of Assisi (a notably humble saint cherished for his protective love of the earth and of animals, and for his ministry to the poor), the former provincial and cardinal has, true to both his Jesuit heritage and to the spirit of his chosen name, continued his own focus on the poor and wretched of the earth. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the joy and true meaning of the gospel, he pointedly denounced, to the annoyance of many conservatives, the “economics of exclusion.” He has also emphasized the dangers to the environment presented by global climate change, and even speculated that there might be a place in heaven for animals: a charming thought of which the original Francis might approve, but which doctrinally-concerned Vatican spokesmen felt the need to quickly walk back. In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis performed the solemn Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony not, as usual, in the Lateran Basilica but in an institution housing young offenders. He washed and kissed the feet of a dozen prisoners, one of them (though this was, traditionally, a males-only ritual) a Muslim woman, a gesture that, as Eamon Duffy notes, “predictably scandalized the liturgists and canon lawyers.”

As practiced by this pope, the imitatio Christi, following the example of Jesus, differs from the emphasis of sin-obsessed Augustine, and even from the focus on the interior life and withdrawal from the world of Thomas à Kempis in his 15th-century devotional book Imitatio Christi. This Francis follows his namesake, stressing the path of Jesus, born in a manger, preaching to the poor, practicing humility. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who tended to treat opposition as “dissent,” Francis has been humble and conciliar in conducting meetings, encouraging a frank expression of views. In opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014, he told the bishops that, in discussing what were certain to be controversial issues, no one should be silent or conceal his true opinion, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, deviation from the official line had courted reprimand, even removal. Thus, as Eamon Duffy emphasizes: “For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.” [3]

Given that attitude, one might have expected, if not quite “encouragement,” at least greater “respect” for the “fearless public outspokenness” exhibited by the massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. At the very least, the pope, a remarkably empathetic man pastorally sensitive to suffering, might have displayed greater tact by mourning the dead a bit longer, before admonishing us, with the bodies not yet buried, to always “respect” religion and never “make fun of the faith of others.”

But here, the admirable Francis fell short. At least as viewed from the perspective of a secularist committed to virtually uninhibited freedom of expression—not least when it comes to religion. But that is not the only perspective, and not—as is hardly necessary to add—one shared by Francis. As pope, he is necessarily a man to double business bound, at once a condemner of violence and a defender of religion—any religion, since, in his view, none deserves to be insulted. That includes, of course, his own religion. Just as he had protected the Argentinian Jesuits in his care in the 1970s, so it is his duty now, though a reformer critical of some of its salient shortcomings, to protect the church as a whole.

On that papal plane, in responding to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and to the retaliatory murders that followed, Francis was talking common sense, decency, civility, and mutual respect. That’s all to the good. In a chaotic world of already inflamed religious-political passions, his intention was obviously to condemn the murders in Paris without adding fuel to the fire. But his equanimity was not altogether disinterested. In asserting his own ban—“You cannot make fun of the faith of others”—the pope was also defending the Company Store: the Roman Catholic branch of a global theological enterprise. In that sense, and to that extent, he was aligning himself, not with the massacred humorists, but with their murderers: fanatics who had killed the cartoonists precisely for “making fun” of the fanatics’ own distorted version of Islam.

Like politics, theology can make strange bedfellows. But far more than this momentary convergence of interests would be required to bridge the moral abyss stretching between Pope Francis and murderers. That would be especially true of murderers who violate his own deeply-held conviction that “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity. ” For him, what happened in Paris was the commission of a supposedly religious act that is, in fact, an “aberration” of the religion and of most of the teachings of the Prophet in whose name they claim to act.

Acknowledgment

Though I learned from the previously-mentioned Le Moyne open forum on the roots of, and responses to, the Charlie Ebdo murders, this essay was originally generated by a casual but serious email exchange with three friends, all Le Moyne graduates: Scott, Jack, and Markus. Some reservations of the latter about the initial draft were incorporated in the revised version. My thanks: to Jack in general, and, on this particular occasion, to Scott, for sending along the AP item that started us off. I’m particularly grateful to Markus, for critically reading the first draft and helping to sharpen and clarify my thoughts, not all of which he will endorse. The same is true of Bruce Erickson, the organizer of the Le Moyne forum, who, along with the four faculty presenters, enriched my understanding. Bruce also responded to my penultimate draft, thoughtfully, graciously, and productively challenging my position.

—Patrick J. Keane

January/ February 2015

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I have two problems with the well-made American Sniper, one political, one cinematic. Once we are in Iraq, we see Chris Kyle skillfully picking off targets, all of whom, he is certain, are “terrorists” and (as described in his book) “savages.” They were enemies, and in killing 160 of them, Chris Kyle saved the lives of countless American troops; he is a “hero.” Yet many of those he killed do not fit into either of Chris’s categories. But back up: how do we get to Iraq? That political quandary is solved by cinematic legerdemain. In an early domestic scene, Chris and his wife are watching on TV the collapse of the smoldering Twin Towers. A sudden cut, and we are instantly transported to combat, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq! The effect, intentional or not on Clint Eastwood’s part, is to “fuel” (there’s that verb again) or, rather, refuel, the myth (peddled above all by Dick Cheney) that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11 and was also harboring al Qaeda. In short, the invasion of Iraq, whatever our fears about WMD, is still being sold to a gullible or manipulated public as justified retaliation for 9/11. If it’s good enough for a hero like Chris, it should be good enough for us.
  2. Duffy, “Who is the Pope?” New York Review of Books (February 19, 2015), p. 12.
  3. The most celebrated demotion by Francis has been that of Raymond Cardinal Burke, removed as head of the church’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. A conservative American traditionalist and harsh critic of the “confusing” doctrinal views of the new pope, Burke had been especially “outspoken” at the Synod on the Family, and had certainly violated protocol in describing the church under Francis as “a ship without a rudder.” But he may have been sent off to a largely ceremonial post in Malta at least as much for a sartorial extravagance utterly alien to the humble spirit of this papacy. Though it was long out of favor, even before the advent of Francis, Burke habitually sported the capa magna, a twenty-foot-long train of scarlet watered silk.
Feb 062015
 

BraddBradd Allen Saunders. Photo by Dana Saunders.

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THE CURTAIN RISES. We see a sparse, police-interrogation room with a wooden table and two chairs center stage. Over the empty chair is draped a sport jacket. A bright, hot, swinging light with a naked bulb is hanging overhead. There is a small table in a far corner which holds a coffee pot and some styrofoam cups. In the middle of the stage center sits a small cassette tape recorder. Under the table, nearly out of sight, is a briefcase.

AT RISE: Onstage is JOHN ANTHONY CARILLO and NICHOLAS CARGNISCENTI.

CARILLO is sitting directly under the hot light next to the table looking a bit edgy. At first glance, he appears to be a charter member of society’s fringe — a trifle thugish, hair unkempt, beard heavy. Further scrutiny reveals a deceptively intelligent, almost civil look in his eyes. He’s made a stab at respectability here: wears a tie, loud, plaid pants which don’t match and a shirt that couldn’t possibly go with anything — his Sunday best.

CARGNISCENTI is pot-bellied, balding, 50ish, ulcerish, wears a blue shirt, cuffs rolled back, down to business, shoulder holster with gun, double-knit, sale at K-Mart pants, loafers. He sweats profusely.

CARNISCENTI stands in the corner, his back to the audience drawing coffee from the machine.

CARGNISCENTI takes a drink and then motions to CARILLO.

CARGNISCENTI

Coffee?

 

CARILLO

(shaking head)

Caffeine.

 

CARGNISCENTI downs the coffee in a quick gulp and walks to the center table facing CARILLO. CARGNISCENTI pulls a cigarette from a shirt pocket, lights it up, then offers one to CARILLO.

 

 

CARILLO

(shaking head)

Nicotine.

 

CARGNISCENTI pulls a stick of gum from a pocket and motions to CARILLO.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Gum?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

No?

(a beat)

Why not?

 

CARILLO

Sugar.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Sugar.

(a beat)

Comfortable?

 

CARILLO

Not really.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Don’t blame me.

 

CARGNISCENTI turns away and starts to pace absentmindedly.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You have waived the right to have an attorney present.

(a beat)

Why?

 

CARILLO shrugs.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I guess you know what you’re doing.

(a beat)

You are John Anthony Cardillo, right?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

No? … Sure you are.

 

CARILLO

No, I’m not … Carillo.

 

CARGNISCENTI

That’s what I said.

 

CARILLO

No, you said Cardillo.

 

 

CARGNISCENTI

No I didn’t. I said Carillo.

 

CARILLO

You said, Cardillo.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Did I? … I don’t think so.

 

CARGNISCENTI pushes a button on the tape player. A tape pops out. He holds it in front of CARILLO.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have here a blank tape, John. Is it all right if I call you John?

 

CARILLO

Tony.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have here a blank tape, Tony. Nothing. Blank. When we’re done, the tape will be full and what we’ll have on it is the truth … Simple …We’re gonna know the extent of your knowledge and involvement in the murder of detective Nicky Carruthers. When you’ve told us everything you know, and we’re both satisfied as to the truth, this little bit of unpleasantness will be over. How does that sound?

 

CARILLO shrugs, noncommittally.

.

CARGNISCENTI

(turning on tape)

Good. So … Tony … Tell me about the 23rd of April, 2014, roughly between the hours of eight and ten.

 

CARILLO

Ah … I watched television with my girlfriend and then I fell asleep. When I woke up it was the 24th.

 

CARGNISCENTI reaches over and turns off the tape.

 

CARILLO

You want to know about the 24th too?

 

CARGNISCENTI

No. I want to know about the 23rd.

 

CARILLO

Oh, I read the newspaper too. I forgot I read the paper.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(cynically)

And what did you read?

 

CARILLO

Cartoons.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Well … It’s good to keep informed, Tony. TELL ME the truth.

 

CARILLO

That’s what happened.

 

Suddenly CARGNISCENTI grabs the empty chair next to the table and throws it angrily across the room.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You son-of-a-bitch! You could at least have the fucking decency to be consistent! The last time you were here, Carillo, you went to a movie.The time before that you went out to dinner with some friend nobody can find. And now, now you simply spent a relaxing evening at home in front of the TV!

CARILLO

I read the paper too.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Tony? Do you have any idea why we think you’re lying?

(a beat)

We think you’re lying because you’re not telling us the truth. That’s why we think you’re lying.

 

CARILLO

I’m not lyin’. It happened.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What! Which!

 

CARILLO

What I told ‘ya before.

 

CARGNISCENTI

John?

 

CARILLO

Tony.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How can that be?

 

CARILLO

I did go to a movie.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Now you went to a movie.

 

CARILLO

Yes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Just a minute ago you watched television.

 

CARILLO

I did. I watched TV, but that was later.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Did you go out and eat?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

 CARGNISCENTI

So you lied.

 

CARILLO

I ordered a pizza. I went to pick it up.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I see … So … Let me get this straight. You went to a movie, you picked up a pizza. I presume you ate it. Did you eat it?

 

CARILLO

Uh-huh.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Was it good?

 

CARILLO

Not bad.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You ate an average pizza, watched television, fell asleep with your girlfriend.

 

CARILLO

That’s right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

All of this between the hours of eight and ten.

 

CARILLO

Yeah.

 

CARGNISCENTI pauses for a moment digesting things. He turns to Carillo.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What d’ya think’s goin’ on here, Carillo? You think we’re playin’ some kinda game? ‘Ya think we’re just jokin’ around here? This is serious.We’re tryin’ to get to the bottom of things here.We’re tryin’ to find out what happened, you and I … What we’re after is the truth. It’s no joke. It’s fucking serious.You get it?

 

CARILLO does not reply. CARGNISCENTI sighs, then continues.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Carillo … John…

 

CARILLO

Tony.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Whatever the hell … Let’s speak hypothetically for a minute … What if I offered you this stick of gum

(pulls out gum)

and I said ‘Why don’t you have a stick of this gum, Carillo? It’s so good, it’s loaded with sugar.’ And you said ‘No thank you, Detective. I don’t like sugar; it’s bad for my teeth.’ And I said ‘That’s okay, Tony. Here, take it. It’s sugar free.’

(a beat)

Would you think maybe I was jerkin’ you around?

 

CARILLO

Maybe.

 

CARGNISCENTI

There ain’t no fuckin’ maybe’s about it, Carillo. The damn things either got sugar in it or it don’t. Right? Am I right? I have to be right.

 

CARILLO

Not necessarily.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(extremely frustrated)

You …You’re … Why don’t you explain this to me … I … Frankly, I’m stumped.

 

CARILLO

Okay. Maybe it’s loaded with sugar, but maybe the sugar comes from honey instead of regular white sugar so it’s loaded with sugar from the honey but it doesn’t have any artificial sugar which is bad for ‘ya. You shouldn’t eat that stuff you know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Fuck.

(a beat)

Just answer me this … Sugar is sugar, right? Go with me that far. Sugar is sugar. I have to be right.

 

CARILLO

Depends.

 

CARGNISCENTI

It depends on NOTHING! Sugar is sugar! THAT’S IT!

 

CARILLO

Say I’m allergic to sugar and maybe even honey. I could still have gum that is fruit sweetened — which is a kind of sugar but it’s not the same molecularly — so, I’m allergic to sugar, but then I’m not. It depends.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(keeping calm, but ready to break)

It’s still sugar.

 

CARILLO

Depends on how you look at it.

 

CARGNISCENTI

John?

 

CARILLO

Tony …

 

CARGNISCENTI

What does this have to do with anything?

 

CARILLO

I don’t know. You ask the questions. I answer ’em.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Okay … Tell me this … Is it possible to be in two places at the same time? … Huh?

 

CARILLO

(a beat)

Yeah.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You know, thirty years on the force I never hit anybody before, but you’re close … That’s not possible … All right? … I don’t know shit about sugar and fruit juice, but I do know, I do know that no human being alive can be two places at one time … I know that … I know that.

 

CARILLO

What if you asked me a bunch of questions and I wasn’t answering and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just not here. I’m worryin’ about my wife. She’s havin’ a hysterectomy.’

 

CARGNISCENTI

You’d still be here.

 

CARILLO

Part of me; part of me’d be at the hospital.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Thirty years and you’re damn close.

 

CARILLO

You go to somebody who saw something — a murder. You ask him, ‘What did you see?’ and he says, ‘Actually, officer, nothing. I was here watchin’ it, but I didn’t see it.’

 

CARGNISCENTI

He was still there. Do you understand me? He was actually, physically there. Physically.

 

CARILLO

So you’re a positivist. That’s just another philosophy.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You cannot be in two places physically at one time you asshole!

 

CARILLO

What if I was standin’ on the border and had one foot in California and the other in Arizona?

 

CARGNISCENTI

You would still be in the U.S., Carillo.

 

CARILLO

What if I had one foot in California and the other in Mexico?

 

CARGNISCENTI

You would still be on the earth.

 

CARILLO

What if I had a spaceship and I —

 

Suddenly, CARGNESCENTI leaps upon CARILLO in a wild fury choking him by the neck.

 

CARGNISCENTI

LISTEN YOU BASTARD! …YOU …YOU CAN’T DO IT! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?! IT CAN’T BE DONE! IT CAN’T, IT CAN’T. IT CAN’T BE DONE SO YOU CAN’T DO IT!!!

 

CARGNISCENTI stops suddenly, coming back to earth. He tucks his shirt, takes a deep breath, collects himself. He turns on the tape.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Let’s back it up. You went to a movie first, right?

 

CARILLO nods.

 

CARGNISCENTI

When did it start?

 

CARILLO

Around eight.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Eight … 8:05, 8:15, when?

 

CARILLO

8:07.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How long did it last?

 

CARILLO

Around two hours.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How long did it last — exactly.

 

CARILLO

An hour and forty-eight minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Let’s see … 8:07… an hour and forty-eight minutes …9:55. That gives you just five minutes to go out, eat a pizza, watch TV, read a newspaper, and go to bed …

(a beat)

I hate to even ask this, Tony, but is that possible? … Humanly?

 

CARILLO

Yes.

 

CARGNISCENTI reaches over and turns off the tape.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have a blank tape here, John …

 

CARILLO

Tony

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have a tape and I have a lot of time … More time than you got. Do you understand? I can sit here for hours: hours, days, months, years if have to, and I will. I will stay here till the end of time. Do you understand?

 

CARILLO looks bored and distracted.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(very deliberate)

The movie was one hour and forty-eight minutes long. It started at 8:07. That means — based on real time — it was over at 9:55. I asked you what you did between eight and ten and you told me you also went to a pizza parlor, ate pizza, went home, watched television, and fell asleep with you girlfriend by ten o’clock.

(a beat)

Five minutes is not enough time to do all those things. Is it?

 

CARILLO

You’re right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(cynical relief)

I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to hear you say that, Carillo. For a moment there I was beginning to wonder about everything.

(a beat)

So. Tony. If we both agree that it’s impossible, then you couldn’t have done all that. Right?

 

CARILLO

Sure I could.

 

CARGNISCENTI

We were making progress … All right you bastard! I give up! You tell me HOW! I WANT TO KNOW HOW!

(quiet rage)

And it better be good. It better be so good … It better be like a miracle it’s so good.

(backing off, more objective)

You’re trying to make a jackass outta me.

(pause — turns on tape again)

You went to a movie. What did you see?

 

CARILLO

The Flying Wallendas.

 

CARGNISCENTI

We can check that.

 

CARILLO

It was really awful too.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Was it?

 

CARILLO

Yeah.

 

CARGNISCENTI

So?

 

CARILLO

So I only watched about an hour, then I left.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I see. The Flying Wallendas. Okay. Then?

 

CARILLO

‘Bout fifteen minutes before I left, I ordered a pizza from my phone in the lobby. Then I went to pick it up.

 

CARGNISCENTI

And what time was this?

 

CARILLO

‘Round nine.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Nine what?

 

CARILLO

Ah …Yeah … All right … It was a … I saw a clock. It was seven after nine.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How long did it take to get to the pizza parlor?

 

CARILLO

(shrugs)

Twenty… twenty-five seconds I’d say.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(dubious)

How long?

 

CARILLO

It was next door.

 

CARGNISCENTI

So you met a friend there.

 

CARILLO

Yeah. We both had some spaghetti.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Spaghetti.

(a beat)

You ate spaghetti.

 

CARILLO

Spaghetti. Yeah.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You said you had pizza.

 

CARILLO

Yeah, I did. I had spaghetti and then I had pizza.

 

CARGNISCENTI

So you had pizza and spaghetti that night.

 

CARILLO

Right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Just you and your friend.

 

CARILLO

No. It was just me.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Just you.

 

CARILLO

Yeah, it was just me.

 

 CARGNISCENTI

You just said you met somebody.

 

CARILLO

I did.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How could it be just you then?

 

CARILLO

It wasn’t.

 

CARGNISCENTI

It wasn’t just you?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You just said, “It was just me.”

 

CARILLO

It was. It was just me that had the spaghetti and pizza. My friend, he just had spaghetti.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(pausing to understand)

I see …

(a beat)

So … You were with a friend, but you, and you only had both pizza and spaghetti that night.

 

CARILLO

That’s right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I see … That must of been pretty filling, Carillo. Two meals.

 

CARILLO

No, I just had one.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Pizza and spaghetti — that’s two. Right? One, two.

 

CARILLO

Yeah, but I just had one.

 

CARGNISCENTI is quiet for a moment fighting confusion and irritation.

 

 CARGNISCENTI

So you ate with this guy.

 

CARILLO

Yeah. I don’t remember his name; we went to school together, I think.

 

CARGNISCENTI

We can check that.

 

CARILLO

Or we may have worked together. I don’t know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

We can check that too.

 

CARILLO

Then again, he may have been somebody I just met someplace. I don’t remember.

 

CARGNISCENTI

He was eating spaghetti.

 

CARILLO

He was eating spaghetti and asked me if I wanted some. So I said, yeah, cause my pizza wasn’t ready. So I had some.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Uh-huh. Till the pizza was done.

 

CARILLO

Right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How long did it take?

 

CARILLO

Thirty minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Thirty minutes.

 

CARILLO

Yeah, usually a pizza takes about fifteen, but …

 

 CARGNISCENTI

No! How long did it take after you first came in, after you met your friend, after you ate spaghetti, after the pizza was ready and then you left? How long did all that take?! Just that!

 

CARILLO

Ten, fifteen minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Which one?

 

CARILLO

Huh?

 

CARGNISCENTI

Which was it? Ten or fifteen?

 

CARILLO

Fifteen.

 

CARGNISCENTI

That makes it 9:22 and twenty-five seconds.

(a beat)

Continue.

 

CARILLO

Ah …

 

CARGNISCENTI

What about the guy?

 

CARILLO

Oh … He said a …”See you later,” and I said, “See ‘ya later,” and then I left.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You guys exchange numbers?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Addresses?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How’d you expect to see him again, Carillo?

 

CARILLO

I didn’t.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Continue.

 

CARILLO

Got in my car and went home.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How long did it take you to get home?

 

CARILLO

Eight, ten minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI stares at CARILLO in a way that suggests he wants a more definitive answer.

 

CARILLO

Nine minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Nine. Let’s see, that’s approximately 9:31.

(a beat)

Took say a minute to get to your car…

 

CARILLO shrugs.

 

CARGNISCENTI

9:32.

 

CARGNISCENTI motions for CARILLO to continue.

 

CARILLO

I ate the pizza.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(cynically)

An average pizza.

 

CARILLO

It was pepperoni. I had a couple pieces and then threw the rest out.

 

CARGNISCENTI

It sounds to me like you just lied, Carillo. It doesn’t sound like an average pizza to me. Sounds to me like it must of been a bad pizza.

 

CARILLO

It was the mushrooms.

 

CARGNISCENTI just stares at CARILLO, obviously irritated at the apparent incongruity.

 

CARILLO

Pepperoni and mushroom pizza. The mushrooms, they bother my stomach.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What time was it when you threw out the pizza?

 

CARILLO

I don’t know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How long did it take?

 

CARILLO

(annoyed)

I don’t know!

 

CARGNISCENTI

How…

 

CARILLO

Look, I don’t carry a stopwatch! I don’t —

 

CARGNISCENTI

Approximately!

 

CARILLO

I don’t —

 

CARGNISCENTI

AN APPROXIMATION!

 

There is a long pause as they both calm themselves.

 

CARILLO

Fifteen minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

9:47.

 

CARILLO

Approximately.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Approximately.

 

CARILLO

Then I went to bed.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Took off your clothes, brushed your teeth, etc.

 

CARGNISCENTI stares at CARILLO for the conditioned response.

 

CARILLO

Five minutes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

9:52.

 

CARILLO

And that’s it.

 

CARGNISCENTI

And that’s it.

 

CARILLO

Yeah.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I see. What about the television, Carillo? Didn’t I hear you say earlier that you just watched television then went to bed?

 

CARILLO

Oh, yeah. I turned on the TV, watched the end of a show, and then went to sleep.

 

CARGNISCENTI

The newspaper …

 

CARILLO

There was a newspaper lyin’ around that I read while I watched TV, then I slept.

 

CARGNISCENTI

And that’s it.

 

CARILLO

And that’s it.

/

CARGNISCENTI

The girl, Carillo? … Didn’t I hear something about watching television, reading a newspaper, and then falling asleep with someone?

 

CARILLO

Oh, yeah.

(a beat)

My girlfriend.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Where is she?

 

CARILLO

I don’t know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You don’t know.

 

CARILLO

We split up.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You split up?

 

CARILLO

Yeah.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Where is she living?

 

CARILLO

I don’t know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

In the city?

 

CARILLO

I don’t know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Somewhere in the state, perhaps?

 

CARILLO

I don’t know.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Somewhere is the country … The United States?

/

CARILLO

I don’t know!

 

CARGNISCENTI

You two must have been pretty close.

(a beat)

What’s her name?

 

CARILLO

Jane.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Jane … Jane what?

 

CARILLO

Doe.

 

CARGNISCENTI’S face begins to turn color.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(extreme irritation)

Jane Doe?

 

CARILLO

Hey! It’s common! It’s a common name! People are named that! They are!

 

CARGNISCENTI begins to pace with great agitation.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Jane Doe. … Somewhere out there is a woman named Jane Doe. We don’t know where she is; she could be living or dead, but from ten ‘o clock and for the rest of the night she’s your alibi.

 

CARILLO

Right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I see …I see … So that’s how it all happened … Well it’s all come together now, Carillo …Clear … Clear as mud … Makes me feel like a fool for even doubting you.

 

CARILLO

That’ all right.

 

CARGNISCENTI pauses for a moment manipulating the mood. He turns off the tape.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Carillo?

(a beat)

I’m going to prove to you, now, how you can’t be two places at the same time.

 

CARGNISCENTI pulls out a briefcase from under the table then opens it.

 

CARGNISCENTI

First, I’d like to ask you something. You are just a regular person, right? You’re not some kind of god or anything. Are you?

 

CARILLO

(scornfully)

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I just wanted to be sure.

 

CARGNISCENTI pulls a tape from the briefcase.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What I’m going to introduce to you now, John, is what we in the business call evidence. It’s sort of an accumulation of facts and relevant circumstances which point to the likelihood of how certain events transpired.

 

CARGNISCENTI ejects the previous tape from the machine and sets it aside. He points the new tape at CARILLO.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You know what this is?

 

CARILLO

A tape.

 

CARGNISCENTI

A tape. Not just any tape, not a blank tape. This one has evidence recorded on it … Carruthers was wired when he died. You didn’t know that did you.

 

CARILLO

Yes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You knew that?

 

CARILLO

Uh-huh.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(unconvinced)

Then you know what’s on it.

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI flashes quick irritation, then calms.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I’ll play you the tape.

 

CARGNISCENTI puts the tape in the machine and turns it on.The MACHINE plays. Two voices can be made out but they are difficult to distinguish the sound quality is so poor.

 

VOICE 1

I’m puttin’ an end to this Carruthers. The game’s over.

 

CARGNISCENTI

That’s you.

 

VOICE 2

This ain’t no game, Carillo, this is real. And you’re finished.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Carruthers.

 

VOICE 1

You want real? I’ll show you real…

 

CARGNISCENTI

You drew your gun.

 

VOICE 1

… This is real.

 

VOICE 2

That’s not real, that’s crazy.

 

VOICE 1

Whatever you call it …

 

VOICE 2

Don’t be a fool, Carillo. This’ll only make it worse. You can’t run from the facts.

 

VOICE 1

Neither can you.

 

VOICE 2

NO!

 

There is the rustling of footsteps, the sounds of a brief, but intense struggle, then a LOUD GUNSHOT.

The tape is immediately silent. BOTH MEN just sit and listen to the silence a moment, looking distant.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Sound familiar?

 

CARILLO

Maybe.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You wanta hear it again?

 

CARILLO

No.

 

CARGNISCENTI

That was at 9:53 on the evening of April 23rd, 2014. This tape, Carillo, is corroborated by three eyewitnesses who have identified you in a line-up as the assailant.

(pause)

A nun, a priest, and a thirteen year old boy.

 

CARGNISCENTI pulls some papers from the briefcase.

 

CARGNISCENTI

They have each signed a sworn affidavit. Each story corroborates the other to the slightest detail. They are in complete agreement on the facts. And those facts are: that you shot Detective Nicky Carruthers on the 23rd of April, at 9:53 p.m.

 

CARGNISCENTI pauses for a moment to let the full weight of things sink in.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Now.

 

CARGNISCENTI ejects the tape with the evidence and replaces it with the blank one. He turns on the machine.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Why don’t you tell me what really happened.

 

CARILLO

I told ‘ya.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Tell me again.

 

CARILLO

I went to a movie, then I…

 

CARGNISCENTI

(sudden fury)

GOD DAMN IT, CARILLO! GOD DAMN IT! THIS IS SERIOUS! WE’RE SERIOUS NOW! … I’ve got facts here. I’ve got witnesses, signed affidavits, a tape. You’ve got no alibi, nobody corroborates your story, no witnesses, no friend, no girlfriend. Nothing! You understand? You’ve got nothing! You’re dead! Unless you open you mouth soon and start speaking the truth, you’re going to die. A man is dead and you will also be. It’s serious stuff here! Serious stuff!

 

CARGNISCENTI cools down. There is a long silence as CARILLO appears to be coming to a decision.

 

CARILLO

Okay. I met Carruthers.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Good.

 

CARILLO

At 10:53.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Shit.

(a beat)

You admit, now, that you saw him though.

 

CARILLO

Yes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

At 10:53.

 

CARILLO

Yes.

 

CARGNISCENTI

How do you explain the fact that we know he died at 9:53?

 

CARILLO

He didn’t.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Huh?

 

CARILLO

He didn’t die at 9:53.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have affidavits, I —

 

CARILLO

I saw him at 10:53.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Then how do you explain —

 

CARILLO

It was a set-up.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(exasperated)

What?

 

CARILLO

I saw Detective Carruthers at 10:53 on the 23rd … He called me some time after ten. I was in bed. He said he had to see me about something. He was in serious trouble. It was a little before eleven when we —

/

CARGNISCENTI

Hold it. Why would he want to see you?

 

CARILLO

We were working together. Carruthers was undercover. He was working on a special project under an assumed name. Nobody knew who he really was. I was supplying information … for a fee. He trusted me. But there was a problem. See, Carruthers was a crook. He was diggin’ up evidence against people on the street then usin’ the information as blackmail. But, his big mistake — where he really got into trouble — was he was doin’ the same thing to the department. He had at least a dozen cops payin’ him to keep his mouth shut about different things he knew.

(pause)

When I met with him, he was lookin’ for protection — place to hide. He was scared. Said he had to disappear. Said somebody was gonna kill him.

(a beat)

Some cop. He said some cop was gonna kill him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(completely unconvinced)

So this tape …

 

CARILLO

Frame.

 

CARGNISCENTI

And the witnesses …

 

CARILLO

Same thing.

 

CARGNISCENTI

One of the witnesses was a nun, Carillo.

 

 CARILLO

His ex-wife.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Huh!

 

CARILLO

His ex-wife’s a nun. She hated him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

… And a priest.

 

CARILLO

Dealer. Carruthers was puttin’ the squeeze on him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

And the kid?

 

CARILLO

A drug addict. Doin’ it for the money.

 

CARGNISCENTI gives a cynical pause. He feigns sincere confusion.

 

CARGNISCENTI

So, ah … Let me get this straight. The tape is a lie, the witnesses are paid liars, the evidence is planted, and Carruthers was alive and well and speaking to you at 10:53.

 

CARILLO

That’s right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Well, somebody better tell the coroner.We found a body at 9:53.Coroner says it was undoubtedly Carruthers.

 

CARILLO

Coroner’s in on it.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Looks like we have the makings of a fucking conspiracy here! Is there anything you don’t know, Carillo? The coroner’s in on it …Jesus. Next thing you know, you’ll be saying the pope!

 

CARILLO

(shrugs)

He had connections.

/

CARGNISCENTI

Well, you’re still going to burn. You know why? Because your story sucks. You have a vivid imagination, Carillo. Exceptional. But do you wanta know what the big difference is between you and me? My theory and your theory?

(a beat)

You’ve got no proof! Nothing! You have nothing! Not one god damn leg to stand on! Nothing but allegations and fantasy!

(pause)

Carruthers is dead and you’re in trouble, so you better start making sense — quick. Because there will be a trial and there will be those witnesses and this tape and after a judge and jury and lawyers have spent a lot of time and money determining your guilt, they’re gonna be angry you make them go to so much trouble and they’re gonna flip the switch on you. They’re gonna put you away! For good!

(pauses)

I can save your life, if you just tell me … If you just say, ‘I killed him.’ Say, ‘I killed him’ and I can save you.

(a beat)

Say it.

(no response)

Say it.

(still no response)

Say it!!

 

CARILLO

You killed him.

 

CARGNISCENTI stares, stupefied at CARILLO.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What?

 

CARILLO

You killed him, Cargniscenti.

 

CARGNISCENTI erupts into mad laughter.

 

CARILLO

You killed him. He was always talkin’ about you: “Cargniscenti knows I’m here. Cargniscenti is after me. I pushed Cargniscenti too far. If anybody gets me it’ll be Cargniscenti … Cargniscenti is trying to kill me!”

(pause)

You killed him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(still laughing)

That’s rich!

 

CARILLO gets to his feet.

 

CARILLO

He knew everything about you: drugs, the payoffs, that hooker you were screwing, the whole ball of wax. Everything. And he was charging you exorbitantly for the details. Information is expensive isn’t it, Cargniscenti? Expensive to get, even more expensive to get rid of.

 

CARGNISCENTI is beside himself with laughter. He manages to calm himself a moment.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You’re a lunatic!

 

CARILLO

So you made up your mind to kill him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Completely crazy!

 

CARILLO

And then decided to dump it on me.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Babbling! You are babbling like a completely crazy lunatic!

 

CARILLO

Those witnesses …

 

CARGNISCENTI now sits in the chair vacated by CARILLO, completely exhausted.

 

CARILLO

The ones who saw me at the movies, pizza parlor, on the street; you paid them to keep quiet, just like you paid the other ones to talk …

 

CARGNISCENTI

(tired)

That’s enough …

 

CARILLO

You met Carruthers exactly one hour after I did … At 11:53.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Do you hear me?

 

CARILLO

You told him you’d had enough …

 

CARGNISCENTI

I said that’s enough!

 

CARILLO

You told him that he’d pushed things too far …

 

CARGNISCENTI

Don’t push me!

 

CARILLO

You said you were gonna bury him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I’m gonna get you.

 

CARILLO

Then you drew your gun …

 

CARGNISCENTI

Enough!

 

CARILLO

And pulled the trigger …

 

CARGNISCENTI

ENOUGH!

 

CARILLO

…And you shot h —

 

CARGNISCENTI leaps forward and grabs CARILLO by the neck. BOTH MEN fall to the ground, choking and punching one another. CARILLO releases himself from CARGNISCENIT’S grip, struggles to his feet and moves to the far side of the room. CARGNISCENTI is lying prostrate, completely exhausted. Finally, after recovering his breath, he gets to his knees.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Carillo …Carillo … I like you… I like you … You’re amusing … You have a very amusing sense of humor. You do … I like you.

 

CARGNISCENTI finally gets to his feet and stumbles to the table. He grabs the tape with the recording on it and waves it at CARILLO.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(waving tape)

Your funeral… See it? … This is it … I gave you your chance, but this … boom, boom, boom, is the nail in the coffin … Listen to it. Boom! … Boom! … Boom! … It’s the last sound you’ll hear … Nail in the coffin.

 

CARILLO

I don’t think so.

 

CARILLO says nothing. Quietly he reaches into his coat pocket and removes a tape. CARGNISCENIT stares at him.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What’s that?

 

CARILLO

(motioning to tape recorder)

Mind?

 

CARGNISCENTI shrugs. CARILLO walks to the table, ejects the tape in the machine, and replaces it with his tape. He presses the button. The MACHINE plays. Two voices can be made out, but they are difficult to distinguish the sound quality is so poor.

 

VOICE 1

I’m puttin’ an end to this, Carruthers. The game’s over.

 

CARILLO

(interjecting)

That’s you.

 

VOICE 2

This ain’t no game, Cargniscenti, this is real. And your finished.

 

CARILLO

Carruthers.

 

VOICE 1

You want real? I’ll show you real…

 

CARILLO

You drew your gun.

 

VOICE 1

… This is real.

 

VOICE 2

That’s not real, that’s crazy.

 

VOICE 1

Whatever you call it …

/

VOICE 2

Don’t be a fool, Cargniscenti. This’ll only make it worse. You can’t run from the facts.

 

VOICE 1

Neither can you.

 

VOICE 2

NO!

There is the rustling of footsteps, the sounds of a brief, but intense, struggle, then a LOUD GUNSHOT. The tape is immediately silent. BOTH MEN just sit and listen to the silence a moment, looking distant.

 

CARILLO

Sound familiar?

 

CARGNISCENTI

(shocked, but recovering)

No one’s gonna buy that.

 

CARILLO

Boom, boom, boom.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Gimme that!

 

CARGNISCENTI lunges for the tape, but CARILLO jumps out of the way just in time.

 

CARILLO

Last sound you’ll hear. Boom, boom, boom.

 

CARGNISCENTI

That thing is outright blasphemy.

 

CARILLO

Boom.

 

CARGNISCENTI

If you think anybody’s gonna believe that, you’ve lost your mind. It’s just gonna make it worse for you.

 

CARILLO

I don’t think so, Cargniscenti. You see, there are witnesses: nuns, rabbis, paperboys; they’re gonna come forward; they all saw something. As soon as this story breaks, as soon as it begins to excite and inflame their little minds, they’ll come outta the woodwork, one by one. And they’ll remember things, some of which will have actually happened, just fragments at first. Then someone, somewhere, will rearrange all the fragments and put ’em together to make a story, and bury you.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You know, Carillo, I’m coming to the conclusion that you’re stupid. They won’t remember anything because they didn’t see anything.

 

CARILLO

How do you know?

 

CARGNISCENTI

Because I didn’t do it.

 

CARILLO

What’re you going to do if they say you did?

 

Impulsively, CARGNISCENTI lunges again for the tape.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Gimme that thing!

 

CARILLO jumps out of the way and removes himself at a safe distance.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Look, Carillo, I’m not scared because I know you killed Carruthers. And I have proof. Do you understand? I have the proof you did it.

 

CARILLO

You did it, Cargniscenti.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You did it, Carillo.

 

CARILLO

You.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You.

 

CARILLO

You did it.

 

CARGNISCENTI

IT WAS YOU!

 

CARGNISCENTI lunges at CARILLO again. CARILLO puts the table between him and CARGNISCENTI.

 

CARILLO

Cargniscenti, when the shit starts flying and they begin to dig and they start finding out things, nobody’s gonna have any trouble believing you killed Carruthers. The department will be more than happy to bring this on you just to get rid of it. It’ll be just another shovelful of shit they wont’ have to deal with . A simple matter of convenience.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have a reputation. I’ve been on the force for thirty years.

 

CARILLO

So much has happened in thirty years, too.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Not a single blemish.

 

CARILLO

But so many things under the surface.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have two citations for extraordinary valor …

 

CARILLO

And a host of betrayals as long as your arm.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Four medals for good conduct …

 

CARILLO

A sordid personal history of illicit activity.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Three public service awards.

 

CARILLO

Ties to the underworld.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Steady promotions.

 

CARILLO

Corruptions.

 

CARGNISCENTI

No one will lay a hand on me.

 

CARILLO

They’ll bury you.

(a beat)

You and I both know that once the allegations have been made you’ll never live ’em down. Even if you’re exonerated of all charges (which is highly unlikely) the lingering doubts everybody’ll have will kill ‘ya. They’ll have a life of their own. They’ll be what you are. They’ll replace you. When people look at you they won’t even see you. They’ll be seeing those doubts. And no matter what you do from now until the rest of your life, you’ll never be anything other than what they think you are, which is no different that it is for anyone else, except in your case they’ll be thinking the worst.

 

CARGNISCENTI sits down again. He looks shaken, distant, completely beaten. He stays for a moment slumped in his chair when suddenly he is rejuvenated as though possessed of an idea or having come to a decision.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Listen, Carillo. I couldn’t have killed Carruthers.

 

CARILLO

Sure you could of.

 

CARGNISCENTI

No I couldn’t.

 

CARILLO

But you did.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I didn’t.

(a beat)

I didn’t because I couldn’t.

 

CARILLO

(cynically)

Don’t tell me you have an alibi.

 

CARGNISCENTI

The best.

 

CARILLO

Alibis means nothing.

 

CARGNISCENTI

The best.

(a beat)

There’s no way I could have killed Carruthers, because — I’m Carruthers.

 

CARILLO

(deadpan)

Insanity is a good defense if you play it right.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I’m not kidding, Carillo. I’m Carruthers. I couldn’t of killed him because I’m him.

 

CARILLO

Good. The whole trick is: if they believe that you believe …

 

CARGNISCENTI

DAMN IT! … Listen.

(conspiratorially)

Nobody knew who Carruthers was; he was completely covert. Nobody even knew who hired him. The captain thought the chief hired me, the chief thought the mayor hired me, the mayor thought the governor hired me, and the governor couldn’t remember if he hired  me or not. I had access to so much information … People were terrified. They were …volunteering … money in exchange for … nothing … silence… I took advantage … Just certain people at first, then I started initiating things … It was amazing! … Money for nothing. Money for nothing but silence. I started believing that since Carruthers wasn’t real that he could do anything to anybody and get away with it. Cause he didn’t exist, see? … Nobody could hurt an imaginary character … But that’s not true. See, one day somebody beat up Carruthers and Cargniscenti came to work with a black eye! … Suddenly, Carruthers had to disappear; he was dangerous; but how?

(pause)

Somebody had to kill him … He couldn’t just …vanish. So I worked this tape out … to escape … Somebody had to do it, so I used you … I made the tape, I found a body, I knew something about the coroner … You were a logical choice … And it was easy …

 

CARILLO laughs, greatly amused, and shakes his head.

 

CARGNISCENTI

It’s the fucking truth.

 

CARILLO is still laughing in disbelief.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Look. I’ll drop it if you will. Okay? We can both just walk away from this.

 

CARILLO

(ominously)

You’re a killer, Cargniscenti. You killed detective Nicky Carruthers at 11:53, on the 23rd of April, and you’re going to pay for that.

 

CARGNISCENTI

YOU ASS! I’m letting you go, so back off! While you still can!

 

CARILLO

I think we’re past all that now, Cargniscenti; it’s the point of no return … And the best thing is, when you come out with this cockamamie story I won’t even have to say a word.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(toe-to-toe)

All right, baby. I have the tape. I have the witnesses. You have a lousy reputation; everybody knows you’re a crook. I can get you. Even if you didn’t do it, you know I could get you anyway. I have all the resources at my disposal.

 

CARILLO

(confidently)

The nuns …the priests …the newspaperboys … They’re all going to come forward …

 

CARGNISCENTI

I have the resources and I can get you.

 

CARILLO

Fragments …bits and pieces … Somebody saw something … heard something …

 

CARGNISCENTI

You can’t do shit! Do you hear me! You can’t do anything because I’m Carruthers!

 

CARILLO

Keep it up.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I’m Carruthers … And if I have to tell the whole world I’m Carruthers I’ll do it. Even if it means getting killed!

 

CARILLO

(coaching)

Sincerity, Cargniscenti, but not desperation.

 

CARGNISCENTI

And I’ll tell you what; I’ll get you for murder; I’ll get you for killing me and I won’t even be dead. Boom!

 

CARILLO

No no, no, no, no.

(a beat)

I’m gonna get you for killing me and I won’t even be dead.

 

CARGNISCENTI

What?

 

CARILLO

I’m Carruthers.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I feel sorry for you.

 

CARILLO

Boom.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You have lost all contact with reality.

 

 

CARILLO

Reality? You don’t know the meaning of the word.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You don’t even know who you are.

 

CARILLO

I’m Carruthers. The Feds had me on serious tax evasion charges. I had no choice really but to cooperate. I became part of the governors new eyewitness and informant program. (It was a reelection year.) It was a completely covert operation; nobody really knew who hired me, even the governor. He had a policy of not knowing these kinds of things. I took the name Carruthers: title: detective … incognito. I knew about the street, but the title took me into the department itself, gave me access to information … I began to take advantage … But then things got a little out of hand. There was a cop in the department I knew everything about, and I was using it to squeeze him dry. Word was he was gonna kill me … Carruthers had to go … So I made this tape … I found a body… I knew something about the coroner … Somebody had to do it so I used you … And it was easy … Easy.

 

CARGNISCENTI laughs in a disjointed, slightly diabolical way that seems to have little to do with anything funny.

 

CARGNISCENTI

(curiously distracted)

Give it up … You actually think I’m going to jail for killing myself?

 

CARILLO

No. You’re going to jail for killing me.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Give me that tape, asshole!

 

CARGNISCENTI lunges, CARILLO dodges him easily, moving out of reach.

 

CARGNISCENTI

I’m puttin’ an end to this, Carillo. The game’s over.

 

CARILLO

This ain’t no game, Cargniscenti, this is real. And you’re finished.

 

CARGNISCENTI

You want real? I’ll show you real …

 

CARGNISCENTI removes his gun from his shoulder holster and points it at CARILLO.

 

CARGNISCENTI

… This is real.

 

CARILLO

That’s not real, that’s crazy.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Whatever you call it…

 

CARILLO

Don’t be a fool, Cargniscenti. This’ll only make it worse. You can’t run from the facts.

 

CARGNISCENTI

Neither can you.

 

CARGNISCENTI takes aim.

 

CARILLO

NO!

 

CARGNISCENTI

YES!

 

CARILLO lunges at CARGNISCENTI. They struggle for control of the gun, their bodies pressed against each other. The gun is sandwiched between them, obscured from view. There is a LOUD BANG! as the gun discharges. Just who has been shot is not clear. BOTH MEN stare at each other with equal shock. A thin, slightly ironic smile emerges from each man’s lips. CARILLO drops the tape. It clatters at their feet.

THE LIGHTS SLOWLY FADE TO BLACK.

 

CURTAIN.

—Bradd Allen Saunders

.

Bradd Allen Saunders is an award-winning playwright, produced in New York and Los Angeles, writer and director of the feature film, The Lounge People, starring Buck Henry and Amanda Plummer, and author of the novel Ivetha: An Airedale’s Compendium (available on Amazon.com). He is also a freelance journalist, a writing teacher and advisor at Film Connection/Film Institute in Los Angeles, and a screenplay and film lab mentor for the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (Cinephilia Productions) in Beirut Lebanon. He lives in Pasadena, California.

Detective Nicky Carruthers is Dead is a winner of the Kernodle New Play Award at the University of Arkansas and has been produced at First Stage Theater in Hollywood, California and at The Powerhouse Theater in Santa Monica, California.

 

 

 

 

Feb 052015
 

Ian Colford

.

As a young man, Francisco Cordoba had but a single living relative: an uncle who made a modest living selling feed and other supplies to local farmers working in the hills above San Gregório. Upon the death of his uncle, Francisco—who had not settled on a profession—left his home in Envigado and moved to San Gregório to take control of the business. When he married, it was here that he took his young bride to live. And it was in the village of San Gregório nine and a half months after the wedding that Claudia gave birth to the first of their ten children, a girl, María Concepción, known to her family as Conchita.

Claudia, who was ten years younger than her husband, had been pampered as a child and was nervous about leaving home. She missed her family and sometimes regretted the choice she had made. But with Conchita to occupy her she quickly forgot her homesickness. Francisco’s business prospered, and like the naïve little fool she was, Claudia allowed visions of comfort and affluence to fill her head. She gave birth to Antonio José less than a year after the first, and now had two babies to keep her busy. Her mother arrived unannounced from Huelva to maintain order within the house, and Claudia was grateful to have help with the cooking and cleaning. But she also wanted to succeed on her own, and once she was back on her feet she sent her mother home.

Life was good. Francisco had men working for him, men he trusted to watch the shop while he was gone. He took Claudia in the bus to Huelva to see her family and show off the children whenever time permitted such an extravagance. After she gave birth to Eléna Serafína they built a bigger house, with room for César Javier when he came along. They were so happy they did not see that trouble was brewing, that within shabby apartments and tiny houses crowding one another on narrow side streets Francisco’s men were struggling to feed their families. They did not know that even in a village the size of San Gregório there were people without homes of any kind who stayed alive by working at menial day jobs and, when these were scarce, begging for food in the open air.

The strike caught them by surprise. It was not a strike against them, or even a local strike, but a general strike that paralyzed the economy and dealt a lethal blow the fragile national currency. Workers everywhere agreed the only way to get a raise in wages was to bring the country to its knees. But their leaders were a dissolute lot who had not bothered to think beyond the day after tomorrow. Francisco offered his men more money and expected them to return to work, but other employers were not inclined to be so humane. There was a standoff.

It was at this moment, with store shelves quickly emptying and people queuing up around the block to withdraw their savings from the bank and the country in a state of turmoil approaching anarchy, that General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte seized power.

Aguaria declared an end to the strike. Those who defied his orders were arrested and never seen again. The historians depict him as a monster, but his intentions were honourable, at least in the beginning. He tried to restore order and get the economy moving, for he had recited an oath of office and even though the oath was recited behind closed doors with a gun held to the judge’s head, Aguaria took his oath and his office seriously. However, he suffered feelings of inferiority that resulted from his diminutive stature. He was a short man and because of this happiness had always eluded him. He never married. He rode a big horse and wore thick-soled boots, and there was a fat cushion on the chair where he sat behind his desk in the presidential palace. Officially, his personal aide was the only one besides himself who knew of the cushion. But in truth everyone knew. The whole country knew. And he knew the whole country knew.

Aguaria’s mother had been wild and promiscuous and to compensate for her frequent absences his father lavished praise on his only son for any accomplishment, no matter how trivial or meaningless. It was said that for simply getting out of bed in the morning he was rewarded with a dozen gold escudos. Aguaria entered manhood with an ego swelled out of all proportion. His ego was as large as he was small. He took himself very seriously and could not tolerate being the butt of any joke. But because he was small he was sure that everyone everywhere was laughing.

As time went on his dislike of laughter grew into a dangerous and obsessive paranoia. His dreams were filled with the smiling faces and laughter of other people. Amongst the clamour of traffic and the raised voices of street vendors that poured through the windows of the presidential palace, he could always identify with uncanny clarity the ring of a young girl’s laugh. He imagined laughter surging through telephone wires up and down the entire length of the country. He heard the echo of receding laughter whenever he entered the Council Chamber for a meeting and was sure it started up again the moment he left. The burble of water circling the toilet bowl and flowing through pipes sounded to his ears like laughter. His horse, his dog, his parrot: they were all laughing behind his back. When the wife of the man whose office he had seized went on the radio and called Aguaria a “nasty little troll,” he went crazy for real. He made himself president for life and sent his troops into every corner of the country to root out the opposition, which had rallied behind the old president.

In San Gregório Francisco’s men had returned to work and the business was flourishing again, but when the troops arrived everything came to a standstill. The soldiers, operating on orders that were at best vague and at worst contradictory, didn’t know who to arrest first, so they arrested everybody, all at the same time. People fled in every direction. Some managed to get across the mountains and over the border; others were killed or died in the effort. With Francisco in jail and no one to buy the products he sold, the business failed. Claudia, not yet twenty-five and living in a large house with eight children and pregnant with a ninth, had no husband, no source of income, and no food. She began baking. Soon she had taught herself so well that she was able to build up a small regular clientele and support her family on the proceeds. Francisco had been released from jail by the time Aguaria was removed from power, but the business was gone and the only job he could get was in the mines. Before leaving for the mountainous interior, where the men who worked the nickel and zinc mines lived in camps, he sold the house and moved Claudia and their nine children to an old farm, where there was space for the children to run about and an opportunity to grow crops. He also impregnated his young wife for the tenth, and last, time.

  .

The Death of Federico Adolfo

Federico Adolfo was born weak, but did not seem more seriously endangered than other infants born at that time and in that place. In a short while he developed a robust cry and a tenacious grip. María Concepción, who was ten, fed and bathed him while Claudia saw to the others. Francisco, taking a break from the mines to help with his new son, was home working in the fields. To be sure it was a tragedy, but at least it happened quickly and, so one would hope, painlessly. Young Federico was crawling about, playing with Sara Violeta and Carlos Vincenzo, who were not much older than him, when he must have come across a stray button from Claudia’s mending. He popped it into his mouth. In a few seconds his eyes were bulging, and this made the other children laugh. When his face turned blue and he began making ugly sputtering noises, one of the children ran for their mother. Foam was coming from his mouth when Claudia took him into her arms, and soon he was not breathing. Terrified and confused by what was happening before her eyes, she called for her husband, but the boy was dead before Francisco reached the house. The doctor who examined the body found the button in the boy’s windpipe, but he said it was nobody’s fault, these things happen. The entire family and many from the community attended the service at the Iglesia de San Gregório and watched the tiny coffin interred in the little sepulchre. Claudia cried for a week, and for months afterward tears hovered at the corners of her eyes. The bitterness of those tears was still on her tongue when Sara Violeta developed the first symptoms of the disease that would claim her life.

 .

The Death of Sara Violeta

It started innocently, with the child sleeping a few minutes longer each morning. But nobody thought anything of it, and in fact Claudia was thankful because it meant the precious morning hours were less hectic without the youngest clamouring for attention. Sara had been a demanding baby, colicky and greedy for the nipple. Claudia had only just weaned her when Federico Adolfo was born. But Sara had fussed and fumed all through Federico’s brief life, and now Claudia was thankful her youngest daughter was finally quieting down. With reluctance Francisco had returned to the mining camp at the beginning of November, with the hottest days of summer just around the corner. But even with his income they were still just making ends meet and could not afford to hire anyone to help out. Maybe Claudia was relying too heavily upon María Concepción, who had a delicate constitution and was, if truth be told, not the brightest girl in the world. And that summer proved very hot and dangerously dry. Fires consumed the forests all around them and the sky was so thick with smoke the birds took to bedding down in the middle of the afternoon. With all this going on Claudia was unaware that Sara Violeta was not eating as she should, that she was sleeping more and more each day, and that during her waking hours she exhibited a degree of lethargy that most professional observers would agree was alarming in a child that age. When María Concepción came to her mother one morning and said she could not wake Sara, even then Claudia did not believe there was anything seriously wrong. The girl was tired, maybe had a stomach bug or an ear infection. Claudia entered the room and found Sara in her crib as always, but when she took her into her arms it was like she had lifted a bundle of dry twigs. The girl had lost flesh and weighed almost nothing. With shame she wondered, When was the last time I held her? And what was she to do, with no husband to take charge, no telephone, no vehicle? She sent Antonio José running across the field to Cristián Pérez, their nearest neighbour, who grew alfalfa and maize and who had a truck and would know what steps to take. But the boy was gone for more than two hours, and it turned out that Cristián had just moments before left the house to visit friends. It took his wife that long to find out where he was and get him to come back, pick up Antonio José, and drive the boy home. Cristián, a young man with religious leanings but not much tact, was the first to raise the possibility that Claudia and Francisco had somehow offended God and were being punished. But his comment, though well intentioned, provoked only tears and anger, and he drove Claudia and Sara Violeta into San Gregório to the free clinic without further comment.

It was too late. Claudia stayed by her side but the girl never woke up. She died that same day. The doctor made reference to a wasting disease, showed Claudia some charts, and read a passage from a thick book that was full of big words. It was not her fault, he said. The disease had no known cause, no known cure. Some children—he linked his hands together on his desk and, though he was normally a happy man, assumed his most solemn professional manner—some children choose to die, and once they do this there is no going back.

Claudia returned to the farm alone. She wrote to Francisco and told him there was no reason for him to come home. She would make the arrangements and see Sara Violeta to her final resting place. She wrote to Cristián Pérez and his wife, thanking them for their help. Many came out to pay their respects, but not as many as the first time. For a fortnight after the funeral the house was silent, but Claudia did not cry. She could not. She sat in a chair and with a fear of death in her bones observed her eight remaining children occupied with their innocent amusements and wondered which would be taken from her next.

 .

The Death of Carlos Vincenzo

Carlos Vincenzo, now the youngest, had just started school. The bus that picked up all the Cordoba children, along with others from the area, passed along the road in front of the farm every morning. Claudia worried as any mother would, but the driver of the bus was well known to everyone. He did not drink, he had never had an accident, and his own daughter rode on the bus with the other children. Carlos was a patient, gentle child who could sit for hours staring out of the window, watching the birds flitting from tree to tree and the grass waving in the wind. He loved nature and spent his time in a never-ending quest for answers to the questions that were always on his lips. He chased butterflies and collected grasshoppers. He dug worms from the soil and studied them before returning them to their homes. He loved standing in the field on clear nights and watching the stars trace a path across the heavens. After his death there was general agreement that insatiable curiosity had been his downfall. He left with the others in the morning but when the bus brought the children home in the afternoon he was not among them. Claudia held her breath. She would not panic. After all, Carlos Vincenzo was easily distracted and could wander off in search of ladybugs or follow a trail into the woods simply because it was there. He would come home when he got hungry. She questioned the others, and they all insisted he had been on the bus, until Eléna Serafína expressed doubts about this. She had not seen him on the bus, she said. She had only assumed he had been there because everyone said that he was. And when the very last question was answered Claudia understood that Carlos had stood with the group waiting for the bus after school, but had not boarded it. With this, she left María Concepción to cook the supper and hitched the cart to the horse. She followed the road into San Gregório all the way to the schoolhouse, searching for traces of her son. She stood where she believed the bus would have picked them up, looking all around.

It was a time when the country’s farms were producing more food than people could eat. Prosperity was just around the corner, and so, either for sport or out of jealousy, the Gods were sending coyotes and pumas down from the mountains at night to steal sheep and goats from farmers who were not looking for trouble and did not deserve it. Whenever a farmer shot a coyote trying to steal from his herd, he mounted the carcass on a stake and left it as a warning to others. Some farmers had more than a dozen rotting coyote carcasses stinking up their fields. But the pumas were quicker and craftier than the coyotes, and the thefts continued. Both sides suffered losses, but people were afraid that because the farmers seemed to be winning this contest, the Gods would become angry. What would happen, they asked, when the Gods decided enough was enough? All of the thefts had occurred at night and no one dreamed the animals would be so bold as to enter the village during the day. So when Claudia made her discovery, she feared she had found out something that could not be true. For at the edge of the school grounds she found fresh tracks that had been left by the feet of a big cat.

By this time it was late afternoon and the light was fading, but she told the schoolmaster her suspicions and he raised the alarm. The next day all the children in the village stayed home. The farmers joined the local police in the search, and when they found poor Carlos Vincenzo there was nothing left but bones. Claudia recognized his schoolbag, though it was torn and bloodied, and this was the only vestige of her son that was returned to her. The cat was never caught, but Carlos Vincenzo’s death was taken as a warning, and the farmers decided that to appease the Gods they would have to sacrifice one lamb every night to the coyotes and the pumas sent to keep them humble. Each evening, in a rotating schedule, one farmer tethered a newborn to a stake in a field and in the morning buried the remains. Claudia wrote to Francisco and told him to stay where he was, but when he read the letter he was on the next train to Envigado. The sparsely attended funeral had taken place, but he went to the cementerio and stood by the grave of his lost son and wept, for he had harboured a special affection for his little Carlos Vincenzo, his little cientista. When he came home he announced they were selling the farm and moving. He did not let on that he was convinced the place was cursed and that even if it didn’t sell they would have to leave anyway.

It is a common belief that misfortune begets misfortune, and Francisco thought that if they made a clean break with the past they would break the cycle of calamity. Agriculture was booming and the farm was purchased by a business concern that relegated sentiment to the trash heap and entertained no fear of curses or the evil eye. Francisco moved his family into an apartment in a busy section of Envigado. Here, surrounded by the bustle of a modern town that housed thousands of souls conducting their daily affairs, they would be shielded from the spirits that for some reason had singled them out, and safe from the misfortune that had stolen so much life from them. He would get a job and come home every night like other fathers. Claudia could see the children off to school and spend her days free of the worries that wore her down and were making her old before her time. The building was clean and situated close to the school, close to the Iglesia Corazón de María, where they would all go to worship on Sunday morning. What harm could befall them in such surroundings?

Claudia did not like the town of Envigado, which she thought was noisy and dirty and full of unsavoury characters—nothing like her childhood home, the pristine seaside village of Huelva. But she was willing to accept the possibility that Francisco had hit upon a truth that she, in her agitated state of mourning, which had not subsided for three years, had overlooked.

 .

The Death of Eva Cristina

Eva Cristina was a placid child who liked nothing better than to play with her two little cloth dolls, one with short hair, one with long hair, which she had named Bella and Lorenzo after the characters in the famous adventure books. She played quietly and by herself in the corner of the room that she shared with her surviving sisters, Ana Luisa, Eléna Serafína, and María Concepción. They were all older than her and watched over her, always asking how she felt, always telling her to be careful going down the stairs and crossing the street, escorting her to and from school as if she were a baby. With a grave expression her mother felt her forehead every morning and at least once a week asked her if she felt any pain when she peed. Even sitting by the window reading a book, “Be careful!” was all she could hear. When she scraped her knee on the sidewalk, her mother fled downstairs in a panic to use the telephone and called a doctor, who smiled oddly at both mother and child as he placed a small bandage on Eva Cristina’s bruised knee, which didn’t even hurt and had stopped bleeding. On one occasion—Oh, the embarrassment!—when her friend Rosalinda Iglesias was passing around figs from her father’s garden, María Concepción snatched it from Eva Cristina’s hand before she could take a bite and threw it into the gutter. Eva Cristina was not supposed to eat anything that did not come from home, her eldest sister scolded her in a loud voice. All the other children were eating figs, but Eva Cristina was not allowed. Days afterward snickers and laughter were still heard all around the schoolyard. She longed to escape from the overbearing kindness of her sisters and did not know why they treated her, and no one else in the family, like a patient in a hospital. Because Eva Cristina had only a dim recollection of her sibling’s deaths and did not understand that in the Cordoba household the obvious was not up for discussion, that behind her back every measure was being taken to avoid another tragedy but that to her face, all was well. There would be no talk of untimely demise, no mention of the mortal peril into which Eva Cristina placed herself every morning when she got out of bed. No. Even Francisco, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground, could not bring himself to tell his youngest that they only wanted her to live a long and happy life.

And so it transpired that over and over again Eva Cristina allowed her thoughts to stray into dangerous territory, and when they returned from these expeditions they brought with them childish notions of infection and disease. She went to the public library and, looking in the medical encyclopaedia, found such horrors as she never knew existed. For she had decided she was sick and that her ailment was of such severity that her death was not only inevitable but imminent. Why would they treat her like she was sick if she were not? It made perfect sense. But because the subject was shrouded in secrecy and veiled in silence, she asked no questions and said nothing to her parents or her sisters about the discovery she had made. She simply went to bed and waited for death to come. Shadows appeared beneath her sky-blue eyes, her hair began falling out, her teeth came loose in her head, her skin, which had glowed with vitality, became sallow and dry. Her joints ached, she lost her appetite. Dreaming that Federico Adolfo, Sara Violeta, and Carlos Vincenzo were waiting for her on the other side, she was comforted and lapsed into a coma. The doctor left the sick room shaking his head, unable to put a name to Eva Cristina’s illness. Claudia responded to this latest crisis with serene acceptance as she applied a cool damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Francisco cursed and wept. She died on a warm Saturday night, during festival. Through the window came the singing and laughter of revellers on the street. The entire family was in the room when the priest applied the holy oil to her lips and palms. Moments later she breathed her last, and once it was over all eyes turned to Pedro Diego.

 .

The Death of Pedro Diego

Pedro was neither daunted nor fearful because he had ideas about his future, ideas that included football, marriage to a girl who, like his oldest sister, was named María, and maybe even playing drums or flugelhorn in a mambo band. He had no plans to die young and expressed this intention loudly, boastfully, to anyone who would listen. He had too much to do, the world was large and there was so much in it he had to see. Rather than become morbid, as he might have given that he was next in line to die, Pedro told jokes and seemed determined to drag his family out of the pit of despair into which they had descended. His mother’s long face sent him into fits of exasperation. His father’s drinking made him angry but never sad. He would not submit to the forced care of his older siblings and did what he wanted when he wanted. He played forward on the school football team, joined the school band, and when he had some money took his friend María to the soda shop for malted milks, just like they did in America.

Gradually, influenced by Pedro Diego’s irrepressible good humour, the Cordoba household shrugged off its mourning weeds and one by one its members ventured outside to join the living, to draw the pure mountain air into their lungs, to feel the heat of the sun on their skin. Claudia was able to laugh once more. Francisco limited his drinking to weekends and settled down to his job at the train station, where he managed a maintenance crew. María Concepción ceased her scolding and the other children felt gay and carefree, as children should, for the first time in years. The apartment was filled with light and laughter.

Pedro saw this happen and was proud to have contributed to his family’s recovery. With each success—a smile on his mother’s face, the delighted squeals of his sisters when he teased them about their boyfriends, his father’s booming laugh in response to a joke—he grew bolder and more confident. As different from his unfortunate sister Eva Cristina—who never escaped the echo of death’s heavy tread—as night is to day, Pedro ignored the very existence—the very possibility—of death. He lived as a boy might who had never seen another life end. Some would say he was heedless. The chances he took made it seem so. He was certainly willing to call attention to himself, performing dangerous stunts as if wagging a defiant finger in that dreadful hollow-eyed, hooded face. On a dare he climbed the flagpole behind the school. Once, he laid down on the tracks and refused to move until the roaring of the train was deafening and his friends thought he was dead for sure. Another time, in defiance of both reason and those who said he couldn’t do it, he ate a lit cigarette. Drunk on notions of invincibility and showing off for María, who always attended his games, his play on the football field became swaggering and aggressive. Ignoring the etiquette of the field, not to mention ideals of sportsmanship, he openly taunted the other team’s players when he scored a goal, thrusting his fist into the air and pelting them with insults. For Pedro Diego, nothing was trivial. He lived his days with such intensity that he almost seemed to emit a glow, as if a fire smouldered within his slim body. During the championships he castigated his own team mates for the sloppy play that led to their elimination, mouthing off to anyone who would listen. When Claudia said Pedro, please, it is over; you should think of other things, he did just the opposite. He thought and spoke of nothing else.

And so it came about that word spread through the school that he would teach the two prime offenders a lesson, Luis Gomez and Alonzo Díaz, who had each committed numerous fouls and turnovers. He would take them by the throat, wring their necks, kick the stupid teeth out of their stupid heads. He made these threats to show off to María, not meaning any of it, but speaking so convincingly that Luis and Alonzo became afraid. For protection Luis brought a knife to school, and one day, on the way home, there was an altercation behind an abandoned warehouse. Two against one is never fair, especially when one of the two has a knife, but Luis and Alonzo were not interested in fairness, and when the blade penetrated the tender flesh between Pedro’s ribs and punctured his lung, and his blood had left its stain on the grass of the empty lot, both boys felt that justice had been served. As for Pedro, whose only regret was that he would never have the chance to tell a soul what it was like to die at the peak of his youthful form beneath a blazing afternoon sun, the moment was everything he had longed for.

It was with an air of resignation that the remaining members of the Cordoba family conveyed the body of Pedro Diego back to his final resting place in San Gregório, and saw him interred beside his siblings. Claudia was numbed by the loss and said hardly a word, shed hardly a tear. Soon after the funeral, which was attended only by family members and Pedro’s girlfriend María, Francisco lost his job with the train company and was forced to return to the mines. He was not drinking, but some claimed he had the smell of death on him. As this did nothing to bolster the morale of his companions on the maintenance crew, he was asked to resign. Francisco understood that he was a victim of fear, ignorance, and superstition, but for him it was a relief for the moment to be able to place many miles between himself and Envigado, for the population of the mining camp changed from one season to the next, and he could travel there confident that tales of his family’s agony would not follow him.

 .

The Death of Ana Luisa

Claudia kept her eye on Ana Luisa, who was a shy girl, and very bright. She was thin, but also strong and athletic. She was never ill, and this gave her mother hope that she would grow and thrive. In addition, Ana was sober and reflective, possessing an even temperament, given to excess in neither tears nor laughter. Claudia was worried that she would suffer from Pedro’s death more than any of them, for the two had shared a close bond. But when a few months passed and the girl showed no signs of depression, Claudia breathed a sigh of relief and got on with her chores.

Ana hid her passions well. She was going to be an actress or a dancer, and pursued both of these interests at the school, on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, after her regular classes. Her teacher was Mrs. Durany, who had come over from England with her elderly husband, who had since died and left her not as well off as she had hoped. As a result, she was forced to make a living in the only way she knew how, by providing basic instruction in the twin arts of dance and acting to youngsters who might very well grow up to practice one of these professions, but in all likelihood would not. Because she suspected that most of her students were dilettantes, she resented the time she had to spend with them, even though she was paid for her efforts. Her sourness was manifest in the nagging tone of voice and the expressive gestures that accompanied her commands, her favourite of which was an indifferent flick of the wrist as she gave up trying to impart some difficult notion in a language that confounded her. Ana Luisa was perceptive enough to see that her teacher did not relish her duties, but she also wished to make the most of these lessons, which, as she well knew, could come to an end at any time if her mother ran out of money to pay for them. Her desire bordered on desperation, for she also laboured under the impression, false or not, that time was short. This was not something that had ever been expressed in so many words, but the surviving Cordoba children could surely be forgiven for believing their days on this earth were numbered.

More so than her brothers and sisters, Ana Luisa was haunted by the link she saw between passing time and dwindling opportunity. She had spent all her years in the warmth of Pedro Diego’s passion for life. It was she who came closest to understanding his reasons for flirting unabashedly with death. When his flame was snuffed out she vowed to make something of herself or die in the effort. A part of her went beyond simply cherishing the memory of her younger brother to transforming him into a romantic icon, a martyr who had perished for an ideal, and though she was only a girl whose understanding of such matters could never be other than hazy and incomplete, she knew that she loved him and that whatever she managed to accomplish in her lifetime would be to keep his flame alive. It was she, and not the girlfriend María, who, every day for two weeks, until the rain washed the stain away, had placed a bouquet of fresh daisies on the spot where Pedro Diego’s lifeblood had flowed into the ground. It was she who kept one of Pedro Diego’s shirts, grotty with his sweat, folded beneath her pillow. It was to Pedro Diego, and not the Lord Jesus, that Ana Luisa directed her prayers at night and in the morning. But she was also wise enough to know that even if she tried to explain it, nobody would understand how a normal girl could harbour an obsessive longing bordering on lust for a younger brother who was dead, and so kept her passion a secret. Ana Luisa, outwardly as calm, patient, and reasonable a girl as you could ever hope to meet, was on the inside seething with thwarted desire and conflicting emotions. When Mrs. Durany threw up her hands for the last time and, finally packing in the lessons, boarded the first steamer bound for her native England, and her mother told Ana Luisa that it was just as well because there was no money to continue the lessons anyway, she realized that her great hopes had been dashed. Assuming the cool demeanour with which she had deceived her entire family in the months following her brother’s death, she took Pedro Diego’s shirt into the front room and cut it into strips with a pair of scissors. When Claudia asked what she was up to she smiled and said she was going to make a quilt. Then she took the strips into the bathroom, tied them together into a noose, and hung herself from the hook on the back of the door.

The news of his daughter’s death reached Francisco long after the fact, because Claudia had delayed telling him and then bad weather had brought down the camp’s supply plane. Two months after Ana Luisa had been laid to rest in the cementerio at San Gregório (because Claudia had convincingly argued that it was not suicide but “despondency” that had killed her daughter), a salvage team found the plane, buried the pilot, and brought the cargo, including the mail, back to the camp. Though the mines have long since closed, the story still circulates among those who heard it from those who were there, about the man who received bad news from his family. Hours after he had collapsed on the floor of his hut, a crumpled piece of paper in his hand, his inconsolable wails were still being heard for miles in all directions—echoing through mountain passes, reaching into valleys and across the high plains, frightening the animals, and sending the innocent goatherd to his knees with a prayer on his lips.

Francisco did not return to Envigado but instead asked for longer shifts. During this difficult time he performed his labours, ate his food, smoked his cigarettes, in the mechanical and submissive manner of a doomed man waiting for the next blow to fall.

 .

The Death of César Javier

Of all her children, César Javier was the most aloof, the most enigmatic and difficult for Claudia to understand. When he spoke, everyone listened because it happened so rarely, but the words issued laboriously from his mouth and his observations, mostly of a mundane nature, touching upon the weather or events at school or the exploits of friends, did not reveal anything of his soul. Unlike Pedro Diego, he was not interested in sports or girls. His eyes were heavy lidded and there was no gleam in them. She did not like to think of him as dull, but he was indifferent to the flesh accumulating around his middle, his grades were poor, and the way he chewed his food reminded her of a cow. He collected comic books, and whenever Claudia went tidying in the room shared by her two remaining sons, she pulled the box containing the comic collection out from under the bed in the hope that his reading habits would convey to her something of his essence. But she was disappointed. Action heroes with names like The Flash, Superman, and Hulk did not speak to her of anything meaningful. Their eyes were empty, which she took to mean their souls were empty as well.

At thirteen César Javier seemed to have no ambition and few interests, and when his teacher told her that her son was not suited for school and study, and that he should be apprenticed out to a trade, she did not argue. The boy did not oppose this decision either, and as if he were capable of a response such as relief or gratitude, Claudia interpreted the grunt he emitted when she shared with him the news that he would not be returning to school as an indication that her efforts on his behalf were appreciated.

One of her neighbours in the apartment building was Támar Rodriguez. He worked for the tram company, and when Claudia explained the situation, Támar was only too willing to help. He would personally oversee the boy’s apprenticeship and ensure that when the time came, a position of some sort would be made available. Támar Rodriguez did not make this offer out of the goodness of his heart. He had been an admirer of the attractive young mother Claudia Cordoba for many months, casting a furtive eye over her slim black-clad body whenever he happened upon her. Because he was no longer a young buck and not yet a lascivious middle-aged boor, he had only admired from afar and not made any overtures, which instinct told him would be unwelcome. His contact with her had been therefore limited to infrequent but cordial greetings in the stairwell or in the hallway. He was naturally shy, and normally he would keep his distance until he had made inquiries to determine her situation. But as she had approached him, and he saw no evidence of a husband, the opportunity to ingratiate himself with a young woman by performing a service that would cost him nothing by way of money or inconvenience seemed too good to pass up. He would make his move only when he judged by the light in her eyes that the time was right.

Claudia had no intention of being unfaithful to Francisco, and if someone had caused her glance to linger upon Támar Rodriguez with the suggestion that this man wanted to seduce her with kindness she would have laughed out loud had she not been in mourning. As it was, she had no suspicion of his designs upon her and did not feel compelled to explain where her husband was. She simply believed that César Javier’s need for a trade had to fill a corresponding need somewhere in the town, that by the merest chance someone close by worked for the tram service, and that she should make it her business to consult him about the possibility of her son receiving training and, eventually, employment. Támar was very tall and pale like a cadaver, and he manoeuvred his attenuated limbs in the stiffly awkward manner of a man wearing stilts. His small eyes were recessed so deeply in his head that the skin encircling them seemed bruised, and he had a little moustache that he stroked unconsciously, but in a most repellent manner, whenever he spoke to a woman he found attractive. Claudia recoiled at the sight of him, and it was only out of politeness that she met his gaze and responded to his greeting whenever they encountered one another in the hallway. She did not want to, but because her only goal was to secure a future for her slow-witted son, she would consort with Támar Rodriguez in order to accomplish this, and she would not complain about it.

César Javier remained an innocent bystander as agreements were made on his behalf and arrangements put into place for his benefit. It did not occur to him to question anyone or anything, and when the Monday morning arrived on which, instead of going to school with María Concepción, Antonio José, and Eléna Serafína, his mother gave him his lunch in a paper bag and turned him over to their neighbour Señor Rodriguez, he accepted it as both natural and inevitable.

Támar Rodriguez did not himself work on the trams. He performed duties related to scheduling and payroll in a small office building, and it was here that he intended the boy would serve his apprenticeship. He had been so delighted to find himself the object of Claudia’s attention that he agreed to act on her request without giving much thought to the tasks that would have to be carried out. As the day approached when Claudia Cordoba’s son would accompany him to work, he began to entertain a fantasy about the boy. He envisioned a young man with a flare for numbers who was both funny and interesting, who would become not only his assistant on the job, but also his eyes and ears within the Cordoba home. Ensconced together at the office, they would have leisure to discuss all manner of things. Through the son, Támar would come to know the mother with great intimacy, and when César Javier returned home each evening he would sing the praises of his mentor so lavishly that soon, like a love song, the mere mention of his name would be enough to melt Claudia Cordoba’s heart. And so on that first, and, as it turned out, last morning, many doubts and grave misgivings flooded into his brain while he briefly endured César Javier’s limp handshake and met two expressionless eyes staring at him from out of a doughy face. Instantly he regretted not having taken the trouble to previously make the boy’s acquaintance and neglecting to even ask about his interests and capabilities. By the time they reached the office building, Támar Rodriguez had decided that if César Javier was the price, then he was prepared to completely forgo Claudia’s affections, for he did not think he could tolerate this boy’s slack-jawed company for a single morning let alone for the months it would take to successfully complete an apprenticeship in payroll.

Once they were in the building, Támar went to the reception desk and made a phone call. He had heard of an opening in the mailroom, and he told the mailroom supervisor, Julian Nuñez, that he had brought someone to help out. Julian, a thin ingenuous young man in blue overalls, emerged from his basement refuge, and the instant his hand touched César Javier’s in greeting, Támar Rodriguez considered his commitment to both Claudia and the boy at an end. Whistling a carefree tune, he took the two flights of stairs up to his office at a brisk sprint.

Willing to attribute his unfavourable first impression of the boy to nervousness, Julian asked César Javier to follow him down to the basement. But after a couple of questions, to which César Javier responded either with perplexed silence or his signature grunt, Julian realized what he had been saddled with. From the mailroom he phoned payroll services to tell Rodriguez that his joke was not funny, but was informed that Támar had called in sick and might not be in for the rest of the week. He hung up and allowed his disappointed gaze to drift across the room to César Javier, who sat where he had been told to sit, staring gape-mouthed at the single light bulb suspended from the ceiling, holding on his lap the paper bag containing his lunch. Plainly, since there was a good chance he could not read, he was an unlikely candidate for sorting mail. And since he was abnormally heavy for his age and had almost tripped going down the stairs, he was probably unsuited to pushing a trolley from office to office delivering mail. Could he find anything for this boy to do in the mailroom? Julian thought not. He phoned custodial services and told them that their new employee had wandered into the mailroom by mistake. In response to the question, What new employee? Julian made a sound that was unintelligible and yet had the unmistakable ring of infuriated authority to it. Presently, a buxom woman with grey hair tied in a bun and wearing a green uniform appeared and, much to Julian’s relief, escorted César Javier away.

Through all of this, and through all that followed, César Javier behaved in the compliant manner that had enabled him to reach the age of thirteen with a full belly and relatively few scars. He smiled and did what he was told and accepted everything that appeared before his eyes as the inexorable result of what had come before. He had never liked school and so was happy to be taken somewhere else, but this new environment—in which many people who were strangers to him were asking the same questions and leading him back and forth from one place to another—made little sense. By mid-morning he found himself seated in a dark basement room cloudy with cigarette smoke surrounded by a group of people, young and old, all wearing identical green uniforms. This was the staff room for the custodial crew. The epithets they were directing toward him—imbecile, moron, fat boy, pigface—were all familiar and therefore no cause for alarm. There was, however, something vaguely sinister in the laughter, which was general and uproarious, and in the manner in which some of them thrust grinning, gap-toothed, contemptuous faces before him while emitting hoots and donkey brays and sounds that perhaps a monkey might make. Of course, César Javier had no way of knowing that hiring standards in custodial services were very low, and that many of those taunting him had been victims of bullying and prejudice all their lives and, having been forced to put up with it, were all too willing to dish it out. He might have found a home for himself here were it not for his trusting disposition and utter lack of malice, which set him apart and made him a natural victim. The limits of his endurance had never been tested as they were tested on this day, but he sat and smiled for an hour, perhaps two, clutching the bag containing his lunch, waiting for the onslaught to end. He remained calm and did not experience any fear—that is, until one of the men took the belt from around his waist and another kicked the chair out from beneath him.

In his second-floor office, Támar Rodriguez was suffering twinges of guilt and feeling that perhaps he had been too hasty in his dismissal of Claudia Cordoba’s son. How onerous would it be, after all, to put up with the silent maniquí occupying the corner of the office, even for a month or two? Trying to teach the boy the subtleties of double-entry bookkeeping would be a wasted exercise, but surely he was not totally impervious to learning. During slack times he could tutor him in the ABCs, perhaps teach him a dirty poem or two. And if the prize awaiting him was Claudia Cordoba’s trust and, eventually, affection, then maybe it would be worth troubling himself to that extent.

He had picked up the phone, intending to call young Nuñez in the mailroom and ask him to have César Javier sent up to his office when his attention was drawn by a commotion on the street, which his office overlooked. To his shock, surprise, and dismay, there was César Javier himself, his face bruised and bloodied, his trousers down around his ankles, cradling the paper bag with his lunch in it as if it were an object of tender reverence. The boy had obviously suffered a bad fright and somehow injured himself. He was looking up and down the street, taking one step this way, stopping, taking a step that way. People passing by gazed at him in wonder and then sidestepped him, as if they suspected he was mad or dangerous. Seeing the expression of terror on the boy’s face, Támar understood how selfish and ill-advised his decision had been, to abandon him to a pack of unsympathetic strangers, and, wishing to redress what he now saw as an act of disloyalty, flung open the window and called down to the street, “César Javier wait! I will come down! Wait for me!”

It was too late. Hearing a voice calling his name from somewhere up in the sky, César Javier’s terror was multiplied. No one will ever know what lunatic notion sent him on a wild dash into the busy street, where he was knocked down and crushed by a truck delivering furniture. Támar Rodriguez turned quickly away and covered his eyes. However, the sounds—the impact of metal against flesh and bone, the squeal of tires, the screams of people running to and from the accident scene—were not so easy to escape. Somehow he got word to Claudia, who arrived just as the debris was being cleared away and her son’s lifeless body was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. Támar spoke to her just long enough to explain that he had let the boy out of his sight for only a minute and had no idea how this could have happened. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and draw her to him, but the cool formality with which she received his excuses kept him at a polite distance. He could see that attempts to console her would be pointless and that he could forget about ever winning her affections. He fled back to his office, where he shut the door and instructed his secretary to hold his calls for the rest of the day.

But Támar had been wrong. Claudia was not angry. She spoke to no one else and after a few moments of brooding contemplation drifted away from where her son’s blood stained the cobbled street, clutching to her chest all that remained of her inscrutable but beloved César Javier: one of his shoes and the bag containing his lunch—two cheese and tomato calzones, still in perfect condition.

The death of César Javier marked the end of a dismal chapter in the history of the Cordoba family. Francisco returned home from the mines, and with the money he had saved from working hundreds of extra shifts was able to purchase a small farming property in the hills outside of Envigado, on the San Gregório road nearby the little hill village of Lasanía. As quickly as could be arranged, he moved his wife and three precious children out of the town that he had thought would be a haven for them and tried to put this latest misfortune behind him.

 .

The Death of Eléna Serafína

Eléna Serafína, as her name suggests, had an angelic disposition, but she was also beautiful. She had a small upturned nose, inky black hair that fell straight to her slim waist, small delicate feet, and, at only fifteen, breasts that had grown to the size and firmness of ripe grapefruit. Claudia had difficulty both purchasing and making clothes to fit her comfortably and that also retained a degree of modesty. Fearful that Eléna’s extraordinary beauty would ignite the passion of every boy in the province—for you had only to take one look at the girl to fall in love with her—Claudia tried dressing her in a loose-fitting bodice covered with an old-fashion blouse, in a plain baggy skirt, in overalls, in a dumpy cotton dress that reached to her ankles and covered every inch of her. But the shining beacon of Eléna Serafína’s beauty was not to be dimmed, even when buried under multiple layers of unflattering attire. She cut the girl’s hair into a disorderly mop, but it grew back straighter and more exquisite than ever. She told her daughter that it was sinful to enhance her beauty with lipsticks and blushers, which were finding their way on to the grounds of even the most rigidly protective Catholic schools, but Eléna Serafína did not need help from artificial cosmetics in order to be declared the most beautiful girl for miles around.

Because it had been necessary for Francisco to return to the mines, Claudia wore herself out trying to protect her daughter, staying up late into the night, listening and watching for suitors who might try to creep through the window into the girl’s bedroom, chasing off the packs of young men who gathered like hungry wolves on the road leading to the farm, weeding the love letters out of the day’s mail and throwing them unread on the fire. At school Eléna Serafína was shielded from unwelcome advances by her older sister and, at Claudia’s request, by her teachers. But with Eléna Serafína growing more womanly by the day, Claudia, in despair, realized that nothing short of consigning her to a cell in the monasterio católico hidden deep in the hills would keep her daughter safe from harm. Though she would argue until the last breath had left her body that it was not true, she had, unconsciously perhaps, already resigned herself to a loss that was foreordained.

A boy named Ramón Casimiro finally bypassed all the precautions and safeguards and insinuated his way into Eléna Serafína’s heart, and, shortly thereafter, her britches. The incident happened in an empty field near the school, just beyond the Lasanía precincts. Like many others smitten by her unrivalled beauty, Ramón had been observing Eléna Serafína ever since she arrived at the school, hoping to catch her eye and, in not too subtle a fashion, communicate his intentions. Eléna, indifferent to her looks, which she regarded as nothing special, was not a flirtatious girl, and if left to her own devices would have been perfectly capable of spurning the advances of boys and young men who did not interest her. However, camouflaged beneath the dowdy outfits provided by her mother and shielded from reality by her sister and the teachers at the school, who were anxious to avoid scandal, she had retained far too much childish innocence for a girl of fifteen and had not even the vaguest inkling of the impious thoughts that her body inspired in the male of the species. She did not care that her hair, her skin, and her breasts were perfect. She did not care that boys ogled and whistled at her. However, Ramón Casimiro caught her attention because he was a few inches taller than the others, his shoulders were broader, and his biceps were just that much more developed. He was also smart, in a nefarious, conniving sort of way, and after observing how her sister María Concepción and the teachers fussed over her to no end, had determined that a direct approach with this girl would get him nowhere. He would have to plan a sidelong attack, and with this in mind elicited the services of one of Eléna’s closest friends, a squat and graceless girl named Carola Gómez, whom he charmed and corrupted with a promise of sexual escapades once she had helped him to seduce Eléna Serafína.

For Eléna Serafína her beauty was truly her downfall, for not only did it inflame the lust of every man she encountered—from the elderly gentleman whose nether regions had been asleep for decades to the boy just entering puberty—it stirred to life envy in the hearts of girls and women who believed themselves above envy, including those whom she counted among her friends. Carola Gómez, as empty headed and selfish as only those can be who fail to perceive beneath the surface of things, was blind to all but the physical beauty of her friend and of the boy she wanted desperately to be with. That the price for gaining the one was losing the other did not trouble her, and she agreed to convey Ramón’s notes to Eléna Serafína the same moment the request was made.

What began tentatively soon became a passionate exchange of lover’s vows. Carola Gómez was kept very busy as go-between and sometimes wondered if the erotic high jinx that Ramón had pledged would be sufficient recompense for her efforts. She was also disappointed that Ramón’s affection for her friend seemed to be sincere. When he had solicited her aid he had made it sound as if he regarded the whole episode as a lark. But now, reading his notes to Eléna Serafína before passing them on, she always wept because the words were full of poetry and the most profound understanding of sentiments that all women long to have whispered in their ear. She went down on her knees at her bedside and prayed that when he had had his way with Eléna Serafína, whom she had grown to hate, he would write such things to her. What she was too ignorant to realize was that Ramón, coming from a sophisticated household, had consulted his father’s library, where he discovered The Collected Works of William Shakespeare in translation and was cribbing liberally from The Sonnets and Romeo and Juliet. Eléna’s notes in response professing gratitude for Ramón’s courtesies, though passionate in a restrained, and ultimately childish, way, were far less forthcoming, and after the first two or three Carola did not bother to read these before placing them under the stone in the schoolyard, where Ramón came by later to retrieve them.

There is no getting around the fact that Eléna Serafína was all too easily duped by Ramón’s borrowed eloquence, and she soon agreed to a clandestine meeting, away from meddling influences and beyond the range of prying eyes.

The sexual history of our race is filled with stories of young women losing their virginity in untimely fashion to unprincipled young men. Eléna Serafína had fallen under a spell, and with her imperfect understanding of her own sexual potency, allowed—some would say invited—the worst to happen. Her friend Carola provided the pretext, agreeing to tell María Concepción that she and Eléna were going to her house to do their homework together, while in actual fact Ramón was waiting for the object of his desire in a field beyond the village. Carola led her friend, like the proverbial lamb to slaughter, along the road that took them out of the village, chattering all the way about how intelligent and handsome Ramón Casimiro was, and advising Eléna to be nice to him. Because the boys were segregated from the girls at school, Eléna Serafína had never been alone with any boy other than her brothers. In the field she took his hand and smiled. Ramón smiled as well and, placing his other hand on her cheek, gasped at the divine softness of her skin. Eléna looked over her shoulder to ask Carola what she should do next, but her friend was gone. This was not part of the arrangement, and her heart began to tremble. But Ramón quieted her fears, gently stroking her while saying that Carola would be back in a few minutes and in the meantime they might as well lie down in the grass and get comfortable.

To his credit, he was not rough with her, but in his eagerness to be persuasive tore several buttons from her dress, which was one her mother had pieced together from an old tablecloth and finished with a drawstring that had come from a sack of potatoes. Once he had her clothes off, he could hardly contain himself. Her beauty was far greater than he had imagined, even in his most zealous adolescent fantasies. All in all, for Ramón, though he achieved climax much more quickly than he would have hoped, it was a pleasing and gratifying experience, worth all the dishonest scheming in which he had engaged, even worth the embarrassment of having to ally himself with that odious little Carola Gómez, whom he had no intention of ever touching let alone taking to bed. When he was done he stood and, tossing her clothes toward her, curtly instructed Eléna Serafína to cover herself. Then, valorous to the end, he left the naked, weeping girl where she lay in order to go home, where his mother would be preparing his supper.

Claudia sensed a change had taken place, and within a week had determined that her daughter was carrying a child. The girl, innocent to a fault and utterly incapable of telling a lie, readily confessed what had taken place. Her naïveté was so complete that she was unsure if she should be proud or ashamed. Claudia knew of the family of this boy. The father was powerful in the unions and the mother, with her rich woman’s airs, had all of the teachers at the school eating out of her hand. There was nothing to be gained from making claims and hurling accusations, so she decided to keep Eléna Serafína at home until the baby was born.

And so the months went by. María Concepción, bitter with the knowledge that her mistake was costing her family so dearly on this occasion, lost the ability to smile, and at the sight of her stern elder sister Eléna Serafína, whose condition had made her excitable, invariably broke down into tears. Antonio José, encountering Ramón Casimiro on the street in Envigado one evening, gave the boy a black eye and would have done worse had his friends not been there to restrain him. Claudia wrote to Francisco that all was well, but her heart was heavy with foreboding because a child cannot develop normally in the womb within an atmosphere made poisonous by rancour and spite. She tried to lighten the mood in the household by baking sweet cakes and keeping all the windows uncovered, and by telling stories that she thought her children would find amusing, but often discovered she was eating the cakes alone and speaking only to herself. María Concepción’s scowls, Eléna Serafína’s tears, and Antonio José’s anger sapped her strength, and she had just taken to her bed when, halfway through the ninth month, Eléna appeared at her side saying that the moment had come.

The timing could not have been worse. Though Claudia was confident she could deliver a baby herself, when she saw it was a breech she decided that Antonio José would take the cart and go into town to fetch the doctor. However, the rains that had started the previous day continued unabated, and Antonio José did not get very far before discovering the road was impassable. When he returned home alone Claudia began to weep, for she knew that she could not deliver this baby without help. María Concepción assembled the necessary implements and provided plenty of hot water while her mother made Eléna Serafína comfortable, but when the baby had been delivered up to his neck, Claudia’s worst fear was realized. He was stuck and would come no further. Without delay, she would have to cut Eléna in order to make the passage easier. Placing a damp towel in the new mother’s mouth in order to stifle her screams, she ordered Antonio and María to hold Eléna still while she performed this delicate and risky manoeuvre. The incision she made with a kitchen knife was small but produced so much blood she could not see what she was doing. Finally the baby came free, but it would not breathe and Claudia’s efforts to revive it proved futile. This left them with the task of saving Eléna Serafína, who was bleeding to death before their eyes. They tried damp towels and bandages, even cauterization, but nothing would staunch the flow of blood. In an automatic gesture, the delirious Eléna had taken her two siblings by the hand and maintained a grip of unnatural strength. It was almost as if she thought they might pull her to safety. But as the seconds ticked by and the blood continued to flow, her grip slackened, and it was not long before the girl’s struggle ended. Soon the only sound to be heard was the rain drumming on the roof of the house.

Claudia had the baby with no name interred with his mother. Nobody dared voice an objection. The Cordoba family’s frequent visits to the cementerio of San Gregório had, in the most unfortunate way, earned them the right to dictate how things would be done. Even the new young priest was not above looking to Claudia and Francisco for advice on how best to conduct una misa por los difuntos.

 .

The Death of Antonio José

This was in the days of compulsory military service, and at seventeen Antonio José had reached the age when he could expect to receive the call. He awaited his conscription notice with anxiety, but also eagerly, torn as he was at the thought of leaving a home that had seen more than its share of tragedy but which was also familiar and dear to him. When the letter arrived, three days after his birthday, he was disappointed to learn that he was being assigned to a camp far to the north, deep in the desert interior. His friends had been telling him stories of others who had performed their service in towns on the coast, where during their leave they consorted with the local girls and visited the beaches and casinos that attracted cruise ships carrying American tourists who were always on the lookout for ways to part with their money. In his mind, Antonio José had constructed a vision of himself in a starched white uniform, a beautiful girl on each arm, raking in stacks of chips at the roulette table. He understood that the reality was probably less glamorous than his fantasy, but like most boys his age he also was not fully aware of the kind of humiliating, boot-licking grunt work that basic training actually entails.

By age seventeen Antonio José felt cast adrift in a dangerous, hostile world with no idea why he was there. The deaths of eight siblings had burned eight holes in his young heart and left it permanently scarred. His only means of shielding himself from more pain was to keep all people at a distance and hold himself aloof from serious emotional attachments. To this end he cultivated a callous and defiant public persona, pretending to care about nothing and no one, even though he cared deeply about everything and everyone.

After the death of Eléna Serafína, he pulled away from his mother and sister, and with menacing silences and accusing glances made them think he held them responsible. At home he quarrelled with María Concepción, bringing tears to her eyes by calling her a bitch and even una buscona—a whore—even though he had no basis for such allegations and did not himself believe she was anything other than a gentle young woman whose heart, shattered by grief, could never be mended. For her part, she told him he was behaving like a fool, causing them all to suffer needlessly when they had already suffered enough. To forget his sister’s pain, he went into town with his friends on weekends and caused trouble, getting into fights, breaking windows, defacing public property. But try as he might, he could not lose sight of the immense divide that existed between his true caring self and the delinquent identity he was working hard to adopt. Unaided, he would never become genuinely heartless and convincingly project the image of a sullen, disrespectful teenager. He needed help. And the instrument he chose to help him in his quest was alcohol.

Antonio José had seen his father falling-down drunk more than once, and it was true that Francisco had a weakness for drink. He could easily have destroyed himself in this way. But he demonstrated true strength of character by moderating his intake and exhausting himself through hard work. He had escaped back to the mines shortly after Eléna Serafína’s funeral, but when Claudia wrote to him about Antonio José he returned home determined to rein in the boy’s wayward tendencies and set him on the right track.

It was customary for boys to be initiated into the ways of men at an early age, and Antonio José had enjoyed a glass of red wine with dinner when he was only fifteen. Claudia had permitted this and Antonio José never drank more than a single glass and never exhibited a thirst for more. His habitual drunkenness at sixteen therefore came as a great surprise, and he was a surly, argumentative drunk. Francisco’s presence in the house did nothing to inhibit his craving and, if anything, made it worse since he was unable to avoid the disappointment in his father’s eyes. Prohibitions were put in place, but by Saturday night Antonio José had always managed to lay his hands on money that his older friends could use to buy a bottle of wine for him. However, despite the heartache he was causing, Claudia did not want her last remaining son to enter the military without fanfare. They held a celebration for his birthday, with presents, cakes, and wine, and Antonio José was allowed to get staggeringly, roaringly intoxicated. At midnight Francisco, Claudia, and María Concepción carried him to bed and tried not to listen while Antonio José, out of his mind and raving, scoffed at them for the misery they endured, for their regrets, for their constant state of mourning. He said he was going to be free. He would change his name and make a life for himself somewhere else, away from the pernicious influence of the Cordobas of Envigado province. He remembered none of this in the morning, but on a subconscious level some vestige of this sentiment must have stuck. As the day neared for him to leave home, he grew pensive and less cantankerous. A few weeks after his conscription notice, a subsequent letter had arrived with a schedule and instructions he was to follow upon his arrival in the northern military outpost of Puño. He had gone into town to purchase the train ticket and told everyone he was leaving Wednesday morning. Over several days, while Claudia prepared pastries and other tidbits he could enjoy on the trip, he packed his belongings. However, on Tuesday morning while it was still dark he got out of bed, took his filled duffel bag, some scraps of food, his shaving kit, and a few other important items, and quickly left the house. The train pulled out of the station at five a.m., heading north. He said goodbye to nobody.

Antonio José’s train did not go all the way to Puño. It made its final stop in Arica, where he was to board a military transport bus that would take him inland to his destination. Arica was a port town, located in a beautiful coastal region blessed with a dry warm climate that attracted thousands of native and foreign holiday goers to its glistening beaches. The schedule told him that he had a few hours of leisure before he was to report to the local Cuartel General, where the bus would be waiting. He was tired after his trip, which had taken more than forty-eight hours, and had slept only fitfully. But the sight of Arica, brilliant in the morning sunlight, with its winding cobbled lanes, resort hotels, coconut trees, and brightly painted buildings inspired him with a sense of adventurous longing. He had never been anywhere like this, and was instantly filled with resentment that his family should have held him back, as if this had been done deliberately, in full knowledge of the pleasures of which he was being deprived. Moreover, the follow-up correspondence he had received had long since dispelled the fanciful notions that had earlier filled his head. He was therefore not convinced that the military was where he belonged and regarded the two years of service awaiting him with suspicion and fear.

He carried his duffel bag with him into a café and took a table by the window. Instantly, as if by magic, a little man with grey hair and an unruly moustache appeared and with a damp cloth wiped down the table. With an inviting smile he asked Antonio José what his pleasure would be. Antonio José ordered a cup of coffee. However, he had already received two cheques from the state, one as an advance on his military salary and another intended to cover his transportation costs. He had cashed these and had therefore a substantial wad of pesetas stuffed into his jacket pocket. At this decisive moment his thoughts travelled upon two distinct paths through his mind: one which saw him spending the next two years in Puño, which was reputed to be a barren, desolate encampment where he would be living in uncomfortably close quarters in a tent with a mob of sweaty new recruits, performing menial labour from dawn to dusk, eating tasteless gruel, and pissing behind a cactus, and another which summoned him to live his life to the fullest, to experience all he could in the short time allotted to him. He called the man back to his table and ordered breakfast and, purely out of curiosity since he had never tasted it before, a whisky.

Of course, Antonio José did not understand that, genetically speaking, he had the makings of a true alcoholic and that the first drop of fiery amber liquid to hit bottom in his stomach would ignite a thirst that would not be quenched until he had consumed the entire bottle. His father had beaten back the demon only by sheer will power, but Antonio José was far from the sobering influence of his family. Having arrived in the cosmopolitan resort town of Arica feeling cheated by fate and in the mood to be more than a little reckless, with his pocket bulging with pesetas and two years of state sanctioned imprisonment on the horizon, he didn’t stand a chance.

The little man in the café was no innocent bystander. The duffel bag and the wad of cash branded Antonio José as a new recruit, away from home for the first time, and the little man knew that the military was willing to pick up the tab for whatever mayhem these inexperienced, vulnerable young men created. He also knew, though officially it was unacknowledged, that every season the military expected a small number of new recruits to go completely off the rails, to lose all their belongings, all of their money, their dignity, sometimes the clothes off their back, sometimes their freedom, and sometimes their lives. The little man had seen it happen on a number of unfortunate occasions. But who was he to go against fate? In fact, a widespread belief existed among the tavern owners, barkeepers, casino operators, pimps, drug dealers, bootleggers, and purveyors of pornography who did business in Arica, that this was the way in which the military weeded the weaklings and derelicts and perverts out of its ranks before they found their way in. Popular opinion held that these businessmen and -women were in fact performing a vital service for their country. By providing a source of temptation that only the most grossly substandard of its citizens would be unable to resist, they were saving their armed forces hundreds of thousands of pesetas in tribunal and court marshal costs that would otherwise be spent after the fact when these inferior young men showed their true colours. The little man in the café therefore believed that, though technically it was against the law to serve hard liquor to a teenager, and especially unethical to do it before eleven o’clock in the morning, he was bound by a sense of duty and national pride to fill the order. This was how Antonio José Cordoba found himself lifting a glass of the finest American whisky to his lips before he had been off the train for twenty minutes.

The first sip filled him with a warm feeling of kinship for all humanity and a supreme sense of self-confidence, and he quickly drained the glass. He drank his coffee as well, but suddenly the food he had ordered seemed repulsive, and without tasting a single bite of breakfast, he paid his bill and left the café in search of an open bar or taberna, where he could do some serious drinking.

Lined up side by side along the road that faced the beach was a tempting array of establishments suitable to the boy’s purpose. He selected one and went inside. Here, in a smoky interior made intimate by subdued lighting, the middle-aged woman behind the bar, who felt upon her broad shoulders the same weighty responsibility for her country’s welfare as the little man at the café, filled glass after glass according to the instructions of her young patron. When Antonio José could no longer hold himself upright on his stool, she assisted him into a back room and laid him down on a cot, where he instantly began to snore. She also rifled his pockets and helped herself to the money he owed her, along with a sizable tip. She forgot about the duffel bag, which sat abandoned on the floor of the taberna for a short while before another patron, who had been keeping an eye on these proceedings, walked off with it. Antonio José awoke an hour or so later aware of only one thing: he was going to die if he did not immediately have a drink. He did not know where he was, but in the muddle that his brain had become, this did not register as a concern. When the same woman refused to serve him—because she now recognized him for what he was: someone who would happily drink beyond his means if given the opportunity—he raised a stink and was forcibly ejected.

Outside, he wandered along the boardwalk beneath the afternoon sun feeling himself hard done by and craving that deep affection for all humanity and the supreme sense of self-confidence that had warmed him earlier. Without these the world was intolerable and all the people in it seemed deceitful and small-minded. Finally, in a side street close to the port, nestled between a boating supply store and a muffler repair shop, he found a drinking establishment that would serve him. He sat down and pulled the much diminished wad of cash out of his pocket and laid it on the counter.

Events become sketchy at this point, but the one thing that is certain is that Antonio José did not survive the night. He was found by the morning’s first light face down in the shallows near a wharf where amateur anglers went to collect bait and cast their reels. The back of his head bore the imprint of a mortal blow, but the autopsy, carried out under the watchful eye of a military coroner, showed that he had in fact drowned before he could die from the effects of his wound. The body was shipped home, with the costs graciously borne by the state, and delivered to his family, who had spent several frantic days trying to establish his whereabouts after his surreptitious early morning departure only the week before.

Francisco was now in demand at the mines and had been promised a good salary and credit toward a pension for the years of service he had already put in. After Antonio José’s funeral, and before leaving once again for a work term of indeterminate length, he sold the house that had seen the death of one child and delivered another to an ignominious fate at the hands of strangers, and relocated his wife and daughter to the farm where he intended that he and Claudia would live out their final years. This was also on the San Gregório road, but much further away from Envigado, in view of the mountains and situated in virtual isolation on the plains between the highest hills.

.

The Death of María Concepción

María Concepción wanted to make her mother happy. This, she felt, would be her mission in life. However, because she had lost the ability to smile, and because she was by nature dour and judgmental, humourless and quick to tears, she faced great impediments to her aim of re-inventing herself as a carefree, amiable presence within the home. She did not really enjoy housework and had no intellectual ambitions, though she had been a competent enough student and always received the praises of her teachers. She was also thin and gangly, with shapeless legs and almost undetectable breasts, and she wore her frizzy reddish-brown hair long and tied back from her narrow face. She had suffered the pangs of loss every bit as sharply as her parents, for she had been a mature ten-year-old when little Federico Adolfo had choked on a button, and her memories of her other siblings lives and deaths were fresh and never far from the active centre of her mind. She was, in short, a living repository for all the sad events that had taken place in her family’s history, and she became blushingly conscious of this every time her mother’s gaze lighted on her and then seemed, as if in response to a reflexive aversion, to shift quickly away.

Claudia was at a loss to understand her behaviour toward her daughter, whom she loved more than her own life. After a few months spent alone with her in the farmhouse, the girl’s grim presence was causing her the kind of physical discomfort with which anyone who has attended the sickbed of a dying loved one will be familiar. They did not argue, but the girl had a way of looking at her that seemed to peel the layers away and leave her exposed. Claudia stopped seeking her out and, in fact, began plotting ways to avoid her. When by necessity they must be together, she suffered her presence as she might an offensive odour or a nest of spiders that could not easily be got rid of. The meals they shared were particularly trying. María Concepción seemed to feel obliged to maintain a flow of conversation no matter what effort it cost her, all of it meant to avoid discussion of the one topic weighing most heavily upon both their minds and none of it anything that Claudia wished to hear. Claudia was always glad on those occasions when she could truthfully declare she was unwell and would take her supper alone in her room.

On Sundays they hitched the horse to the cart and side by side rode to church in San Gregório, where they endured the uneasy salutations of their fellow parishioners, every one of whom knew the family’s tragic history and none of whom were able to make their attempts to appear untroubled by the presence of the Cordoba women in the least convincing. On Saturdays they loaded the cart with the goods they had prepared for market and made the long journey together into Envigado. These simple activities should have given Claudia great pleasure, a pleasure one could reasonably assume would be heightened by the simple fact that she was sharing them with her daughter. But, inexplicably, Claudia derived no satisfaction from anything she did when María Concepción was at her side and found the girl’s austere company and forced chitchat a source of great anxiety. She did not wish her ill, but looked forward to the time when she would be free of her.

At nineteen, Claudia had reason to hope that María Concepción would, after attracting a suitor and getting married, soon be leaving home. She was, though unsmiling, not without her physical charms. Men sometimes approached her outside the church after mass, and others tried to beguile her with suave glances and bravura displays of eloquence at the market. But because she was timid and could not smile, none of these advances met with much success, and, seeing that the girl showed little interest in anything other than clinging to her mother with unseemly devotion, Claudia decided to begin laying the groundwork for an eventuality that, if God had any grace at all, could not be far in the future. She began talking with exaggerated enthusiasm about other women she knew whose daughters had married well and who were now raising families of their own. Into the awkward silences that were strewn like stones throughout their conversations she dropped the names of young men whom she regarded as suitable matches. As if the girl had ever expressed such a desire, she sighed and said she would have no objection if María Concepción still wanted to move into San Gregório and get a job as a schoolteacher. And finally, and in a regrettable moment of vexation brought on by the girl’s apathy toward everything but her mother’s needs, she reminded María Concepción that when she was nineteen, she was married and had already given birth to two children, a fact of which her daughter, having been one of those children, was painfully aware.

María Concepción could only see that her mother was roughly cutting off her attempts to form a meaningful bond with her, and it dawned on her one day over breakfast, while she watched Claudia tentatively slice into a hard boiled egg, that her mother was afraid, afraid in the same manner that a person fears an incident or experience that will cause her pain. Claudia might be blind to it, but her daughter—once she had analyzed the pattern of recent behaviour and understood her mother’s dread—realized in a blinding flash that when Claudia looked at her she did not see a healthy young woman who had every reason to go on living. She saw someone who had not yet died but whose time was fast approaching. This neither shocked nor alarmed her, but it did enable her to understand why her mother was always pushing her away.

With only these and similar notions to keep her company for hours at a time, the girl began to speculate further. There must be about her, María Concepción thought, a negative aura, a toxic cloud or vapour that, though invisible, influenced people and events around her in a harmful way. She looked back over the years, recalling her siblings, each one in succession, and thought about her role in their deaths. And for each she found a reason to believe that, had she said something at an appropriate juncture or behaved in a slightly different manner at a crucial moment, that child would still be alive. It was enough that she thought her mother was struck with terror at the sight of her, but in a short time she had also convinced herself that her mother would somehow achieve contentment if she were gone. From here it was a short leap to the conclusion that her mother wished she would die. And from here, it was logical to assume that she deserved to die.

The girl continued to live her life and perform her chores, but once she had allowed these ideas to permeate her consciousness she became less of a flesh and blood entity and more an ethereal, vaporous presence. She spent hours out of doors, in the full glare of the summer sun, tending to the rose bushes with which she had formed an unlikely attachment. As time went on and the roses flourished, saturating the air around the house with their perfume, her skin acquired a milky translucence and her body became even more willowy and fragile than before. She drifted about the house in complete silence, shocking her mother with sudden and unexpected appearances at her side, floating from room to room and, like a shadow, leaving not a trace of herself behind, only the faintly perfumed scent of rose petals. Claudia did not see her eat a morsel, did not hear her speak a word for days at a time. She tried to rouse herself to alarm, but found she had not the heart for it. It was like the child had died along with the others and was already beyond her reach.

And then there came the day when María Concepción failed to appear at breakfast. Claudia forced herself to go looking. The house was silent, but outside there was a breeze and already the birds were filling the rose-scented air with their song. She crept along the passage to the girl’s bedroom. Within her heart fear mingled with hope to create something she neither recognized nor understood. When she thrust back the door without knocking she was shocked to find the room filled with light. Through the wide open windows the rose bushes reached numerous tendrils forward like groping fingers. María Concepción lay on her bed with her hands clasped over her breast holding a single pink rose. Her skin was pure chalk white and her abundant red hair was spread around her on the bedclothes in luxuriant shining splendour, concealing the pillow on which her head rested. Her eyes were closed as if in sleep, but her slightly parted lips had curled into a smile at the thought that now, after years of suffering, her mother would be happy.

§

Many years later news of the death of General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte filtered down to the common man by way of gossip and innuendo. First it was the nurse who had pressed her ear to his mouth and heard his deathbed confession, then the priest who had been called in at the last moment to perform the rite of Extreme Unction. Then one of the General’s bodyguards, who had long been living abroad, went on American radio and spoke about the General in the past tense. Finally there was such a clamour in the street that the state-controlled media had no choice but to report the death as a fact. The President hung his head and declared it was true, adding that the reason it had been kept secret was concern for public safety: the fear that in the midst of their celebrations people would behave badly and cause themselves and each other harm. But in truth, the President feared that because the economy was not as robust at this point in his term as he had promised it would be, people would look back on Aguaria’s administration with nostalgic longing and, forgetting the insane and random brutality that had been his trademark, turn the late General into a saint and his grave in the Cementerio Parque el Prado into a shrine.

Claudia, when she finally heard the news of Aguaria’s death nearly a year after the fact, made no connection with her own life. She had to think for a long while to bring an image to mind, and when she did, she saw a little man with a big moustache wearing military garb riding a grey stallion. Then she thought no more about it.

But she thought often and deeply about her children, who had visited this world far too briefly and passed into the next as if lured by some enticement impossible to resist. Fifty years after the death of her last she could still be seen making her weekly trek to the cementerio of San Gregório, where she swept off the graves of her offspring with a wicker broom, paused over each to mutter a prayer, and then trudged home along the dusty San Gregório road. As the years went by she often spoke of these visits and the things her children had done with the lives they had never lived. Federico Adolfo was a famous poet and had read to her from his latest project, a series of dramatic poems depicting the great military victories from the country’s long history. Carlos Vincenzo had become a college professor and visited the Galapagos Islands, where he studied the climate and the marine environment. The creatures he described seemed so outlandish and unearthly that she could hardly believe her ears. Ana Luisa had become a dancer. People all over the world paid money to see her perform. Antonio José was a soldier, César Javier a tram conductor. The others had all become parents and gave her the news of what their own children were up to. To hear these stories never failed to lift her spirit because for a mother, there is nothing more richly satisfying than to listen to her children describe their accomplishments.

When she understood that the last year of her life had arrived she brought each a special gift, and if anyone had been brave enough to commit the blasphemy of opening the paper bags in which the gifts were delivered, they would have found:

For little Federico Adolfo: the button that had unfairly claimed his life, which the doctor had presented to the young mother after conducting his examination. Claudia had kept it all these years, intending she knew not what, but the time had come to return it. She had often taken it from its hiding place to examine it, a plain black button from a pair of Francisco’s trousers. It had gone missing, and so distracted had she been by the squalling of her children she had not given it a second thought. Until it was too late.

For Sara Violeta, who had been so irritable and greedy for her feedings: the rubber nipple off the baby bottle she had used once the child had been weaned. The bottle had long since been broken, but if it had not been she would have brought that too.

For Carlos Vincenzo: the school bag that had been found in the forest close by his remains, still stained with his blood. She had never washed it. It was empty and she had always been curious to know who had taken his books and pencils.

For Eva Cristina, who had perished most mysteriously under the influence of a pernicious but unknown contagion: the two little cloth dolls, Bella and Lorenzo, with which the girl had been able to amuse herself for hours at a time.

For Pedro Diego, her little daredevil, the boy who would not stop laughing: a photograph of his friend María, the girl who had won his young heart and who, standing next to the family, had wept long and hard at his funeral. Claudia had discovered the photo in his school bag among his belongings after he had been laid to rest. It bore teeth marks along its edges and this strange fact had always brought a smile to her lips.

Ballet slippers seemed an appropriate parting gift for Ana Luisa, who had dreamed such noble and ambitious dreams but who fell victim to the despair of failure much too early.

Poor César Javier. Something had prevented him from eating his lunch on the day he had died, but he had carried it with him until that truck had ended his life. For him she brought two fresh cheese and tomato calzones to appease his hunger.

What else could she have brought for Eléna Serafína, the only one of her girls to bear a child of her own? Few mementos remained, but the one that stood out was the oversized brassiere she had had specially made to contain the girl’s enormous breasts.

For Antonio José: the object of his single-minded craving and the instrument of his ruin, a bottle of red wine.

For her beloved María Concepción: a little basket filled with rose petals.

§

Francisco retained a deeper recollection of Aguaria’s tenure as president. He had often cursed the General under his breath, especially when bearing one of his children to an early grave. But when news of the little man’s death reached him one hot dusty day when he was enjoying a cigarillo and a drink of homemade aguardiente at a sidewalk café in San Gregorio, he waved his hand in front of his face as if chasing off a fly. “The damage has been done,” he said to his old friend Egberto, who had likewise suffered under the tyrant’s rule. The faces of his ten dead children passed before Francisco’s eyes as the two old friends raised their glasses. To dispel the memory Francisco looked upward, into the piercing afternoon sun, and briefly considered the anguish that human beings are capable of enduring. By silent and mutual consent, he and Egberto toasted General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte, the little man whose vanity was the object of an entire country’s derision. It had caused mayhem far and wide, led to the demise or disappearance of thousands, robbed families of their offspring, ruined the nation’s reputation on the international stage, and brought close friends to blows. “The waste,” Egberto commented, shaking his head. “Imagine the waste.” Francisco nodded, knowing, after all, more about waste than anyone could ever imagine.

They turned back to their game of backgammon. It was Francisco’s move.

—Ian Colford

 

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Remarkably, more than 30 years after his first story was published, Ian Colford keeps finding things to write about. He gets most of his ideas from overheard conversations and from just keep his eyes open, but when the pickings are slim he makes things up. Often, an idea will simmer for a year or two before the writing starts, with the final product bearing little resemblance to the original concept. “How the Laughter of the Nation …”  was originally included in the draft manuscript of his novel The Crimes of Hector Tomas (2012) but was cut during the editorial process. He is grateful to Numéro Cinq for giving this story its web debut. A novella, Perfect World, is forthcoming from Freehand Books in 2016. At present he is working on a sequence of stories using characters that appeared in his 2008 story collection, Evidence. He works as a librarian at the Sexton Design & Technology Library at Dalhousie University.

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Feb 042015
 

Charles D'Ambrosio

D’Ambrosio has led us into a new sphere of understanding—that of our intimate human connections and what binds us together, all through intelligent narrative, or what he calls “scrappy incondite essays.” The essays here are anything but scrappy—they are a curiosity with a sense of doubt and unknowing at the root of each piece along with an under-layer of irony and despair. — Melissa Matthewson

Loitering, Charles D'Ambrosio
Loitering: New & Collected Essays
Charles D’Ambrosio
Tin House Books, 2014
368 pages, $15.95
ISBN 9781935639879

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To loiter is to linger aimlessly, to make purposeless stops in a journey to a particular destination. In Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book, Loitering, this is what we do, we linger—on ideas, in places, with people—and though at times the essays lack some sense of purpose or direction, we trust that eventually we will arrive where we are supposed to. And even if we don’t come to a finite ending, even if we find ourselves off the beaten track, it doesn’t matter because D’Ambrosio has led us into a new sphere of understanding—that of our intimate human connections and what binds us together, all through intelligent narrative, or what he calls “scrappy incondite essays.” The essays here are anything but scrappy—they are a curiosity with a sense of doubt and unknowing at the root of each piece along with an under-layer of irony and despair.

Charles D’Ambrosio is best known for his two short story collections, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction in 2007. D’Ambrosio’s fiction has appeared in the New Yorker including such stories as “Screenwriter,” “The High Divide,” and “Drummond & Son.” Some of the essays that appear in the new collection have also appeared in the New Yorker, though under different titles. D’Ambrosio has won many awards for his writing including the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Lannan Foundation fellowship among other prestige.

Overall, D’Ambrosio has created essays that act as containers of promise, as collections of ironies, troubles, joys, and heartache expertly driven by an empathetic and confident narrator all within the context of idiosyncratic subjects. Many of the essays were previously published in Orphans from Clear Cut Press, which sold out of its first print and was never reprinted, along with the addition of six new essays. In this work, D’Ambrosio writes about Seattle, whaling, suicide, Salinger, Richard Brautigan, family, money, Chicago, furniture warehouses, gambling, among other subjects.

D’Ambrosio’s essays are small journeys—episodic, anecdotal, rambling—but, also ruminant and ironic. They are addictive not only for the strength of D’Ambrosio’s humor and insights, but also for the language, syntax, and rhythm of each sentence. Let’s take the title essay “Loitering,” in which D’Ambrosio takes us to Belltown in Seattle lingering as a bystander in a standoff between police and a gunman who has taken hostage his girlfriend. The opening sentence exemplifies how D’Ambrosio decides to portray himself as a narrator for the entire collection to come. “This is totally false, but for the sake of the story let’s say the events in question begin around 2:00 a.m., just because that’s when I show up on the scene.” Here, D’Ambrosio unapologetically lets the reader know that he’s forging details, and in this honesty, he opens the essay up, invites the reader to take part by allowing for trust as he leads us down a narrative path of which the main goal is to illuminate all the tender and banal strands of humanness that thread us together.

The essay meanders, not necessarily in terms of physical space, but intellectually as we hear from D’Ambrosio about Alaska (“I came back from salmon fishing in Alaska”) to his bed where he has been recovering from atopic dermatitis (“Half the reason I’m at the crime scene is I haven’t had any human contact for awhile”) to our shared histories and uniqueness (“I suppose it could also be said we’re known to the extent that we’re dull and orbital about our life, that what’s quotidian about us is more easily shared than the exuberances and passions that push us out of the predictable.”) As any essay should do, the incident is a bouncing point for exploring how we portray ourselves to each other—through “what’s dullest and worst about ourselves.” He does this by using the characters, strangers, vagrants he encounters on the scene to take him into these insights as well as interjecting with “preambular” thoughts from himself. In another meta-technique, D’Ambrosio reports from the scene, but humorously admits he’s not a journalist, but ironically, he is reporting, thus creating a dramatic structure for the essay, making himself into another character on the scene and pushing against typical journalistic tendencies.

My main problem vis-a-vis journalism is I just don’t have an instinct for what’s important…My first note was about the old alleys in Seattle, those island places where sticker bushes flourish and a man can still sleep on a patch of bare earth, where paths are worn like game trails and leave a trace of people’s passing, and how these naturally surviving spots are systematically vanishing from the city, rooted up and paved over mostly because they house bums—an act of eradication that seems as emotionally mingy as putting pay slots on public toilets, but is probably cost-effective in terms of maintenance, since bums generate a lot of garbage in the form of broken glass and wet cardboard…Also my notes bleed black ink and blur in the rain as I write them. I don’t write a note about that.

The most enjoyable part of reading D’Ambrosio’s essays are his rhythmic, long sentences. He references this in his preface even: “I relied on my ear to a ridiculous extent, trusting that if I got the sound right—the music, the mood, the feel of things—then sense might eventually make an appearance.” For example, in the same title essay “Loitering,” D’Ambrosio has boarded a Metro bus in Seattle for people who have been evacuated or flushed from crime scenes in order to keep warm on a cold night. D’Ambrosio admits that “everybody in there’s fucked up in some heavy way.” He goes on,

They’ve been ripped out of their bedrooms and are dressed mostly in nightwear, which is something to see—not because I have any fashion ideas or big thesis about nighties and pj’s, but rather because, this surreal dawn, the harsh, isolated privacy of these people is literally being paraded in public. The falling rain, the bus going nowhere, the wrecked-up passengers dressed for sleep, the man with the gun—these are the wild and disparate components of a dream, and I haven’t slept, and it’s just weird.

In this first sentence, D’Ambrosio begins with the description of the vagrants, and admits it is an occasion to take notice, but it’s the light of day that makes the people vulnerable and that’s the significant part of this sentence. D’Ambrosio uses an interjection half-way through the sentence to set off the real thought he’s searching for. In the next sentence, he uses a list of details to create rhythm set off by an em dash which creates the next beat of the sentence with his understanding of these details and his thoughts on such a thing.

D’Ambrosio’s essays are successful also for the way he provides commentary on ordinary subjects that at the same time illuminate some other human despair or failing. In another essay toward the middle of the book titled “American Newness” D’Ambrosio visits a facility where various manufactured homes are on display. As D’Ambrosio considers the way manufactured homes are imitations of the authentic home, he tell us, “It’s that inserted layer of sincerity that rings false. It’s evilly unAmerican to say aloud, but real divisions exist between people, and the houses themselves try hard, desperately hard, to obscure those difference.” D’Ambrosio tries hard to get on board with the manufactured homes, but can’t seem to see pass the imitation. “…I was just walking around in the factory faking my enthusiasm and hiding a creepy low-grade horror. Normally I don’t like my meaning ready-made, but by the time I headed out to my truck I was in total despair.” As he continues on his tour, he finds the loneliness in the homes, and the people who live there when he visits a local bar and names the local characters singing karaoke where “Divorce and treachery and betrayal were in the air but so was desire…” Finally, he visits one home where the fake pictures of families jettison him into total despair for the kind of life that’s being created. “Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten.”

In Loitering, D’Ambrosio gives us “the soulful texture, the nap of personality” of places, people, and life all over the world through poignant essays that are impressive and complex in their enduring value. Loitering is one of those books where each sentence is a tonal and syntactical adventure, where every page contains a new surprise—you’re never sure what you’re going to get, though indisputably, you know it’s going to be good.

—Melissa Matthewson

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Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds degrees in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz (BA) and the University of Montana (MS). She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Assistant Essays Editor at the The Rumpus. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Defunct, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Under the Gum Tree, and Terrain.org among others.

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Feb 032015
 

RW with trout

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How The Blind Dog Perceived Human Sadness

was a mystery no less than her willingness
to attend to it. The way she nuzzled a hand,
so that it might be extended to her and washed clean

of whatever it was that afflicted it, which she smelled.
It had to be, for she was deaf too, there was no way to tell
her of it otherwise, that fragrance, that human blue fetor
no human could detect nor make better any better

than she, with her vast practical capacity
for affection, her sadness-eating dog reciprocity,
her thoroughness, the skin salts delectable and relished,
the milky eyes from which her world had vanished

and reappeared as a scent she did not understand
and might not have needed to, except that a man
she loved somehow exuded it, and she smelled
his breath then too, as he spoke and told

her what it was, which she could not hear.
Still, it may have been, because she was so near,
something her nose could actually discern
and why it was she left the hand behind

to lick his face as well, and it was in the things he said
to her and were about her too, in ways
that reeked of misery, except that she was good,
which she most of all wanted to know, and did.

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Uncle

You should understand she does not hate you
and wants not the least of what matters most
in your world. Rather, you should try to grasp
how much she pities you. Maybe you do

somehow, and it’s pity you can’t abide.
You would prefer hate, but you won’t get it.
Your need for power, or money, is a habit,
a scar from some wound very deep inside,

deeper in the bone than blood or brotherhood.
A vicious and powerful man is a pathetic thing,
but for residual love by another, undeserving
even of pity. If not in yours, it must be in her blood,

who remembers loving you, back when you were
the man she remembers, not the man you are.

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Chances Are

“While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings”
…………………………………..—Oliver Wendell Holmes

I woke this morning with it in my mind
and it could not be dislodged, removed,
or replaced: the silken, almost-but-not-quite
cloying voice of Johnny Mathis, on whom
my mother had a crush. He was, in those days,
she said, a very pretty man. The problem,
for me, is the prettiness of the productions,
the way this tune begins with plucked chord
from a harp, of all things, then resolves

to a decorous but appropriate piano and guitar,
just before the truly cloying strings come in.
I don’t remember feeling it odd
that my mother would have a crush
on a black man. Maybe the delicacy
of his features and that mild, yes, silken, voice.
What if it had been James Brown, I wonder?
She preferred pretty. Pretty man, pretty
voice, pretty song. There’s a weird, ethereal

soprano, it sounds like, ululating
over the song’s unctuous bridge: what
were they thinking, those producers?
They were thinking of my mother, I suppose.
All I know is that it won’t go away
until it does, and I wake one morning
with James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s
Man’s World” similarly lodged in my mind.
Or Johnny Hartman’s “You Are Too Beautiful,”

or something by the Beatles, or Janis Joplin,
who managed beautiful but never quite pretty.
My father’s not quite an invalid, and every morning
my mother dresses him as though he’s got somewhere
to go, and chances are tells him he’s pretty,
then leads him, as usual, to his chair.
That’s where he’s sitting when I call.
He’s listening to Johnny Hartman, which she chose
for him. She’s peeling and slicing him

a perfect summer-succulent peach.
She’ll want to get him to bed soon,
so I ask her about the crush on Johnny Mathis,
and she says “Yes, I did. A very pretty man
with very pretty voice.” They don’t socialize much
anymore. We talk about Mathis. She misses
their neighbors, a gay couple across the lake.
“Such wonderful decorators,” she says, then worries
she should not have said such a thing.

“Why are you asking this, Bob?” she inquires.
And so I tell her even now, as we’re talking,
that “Chances Are” is lilting through my mind
in the background. She rouses my father to say hello
and goodbye, the extent of our talk these days.
Still, it’s what we’ve said that does it,
I think. It takes me a while to realize,
but it’s true. I don’t know what else is there,
but in the time since we hung up, in my efforts

to formulate a better answer for her, “Chances Are”
has disappeared and been replaced by those efforts.
Regarding Mathis, the last thing she said was
“I hope he’s happy now, don’t you?” Recalling that
brings back the song, and I find I am happy too.
Or happy as my mother is,
which, given her situation with my father, seems
like a miracle, or at least something awfully good.
Chances are, just because, awfully good, the last phrase’s

syllables elided, so that awfully is a trochee,
a pretty bit of pronunciation, metrical accommodation.
There’s something about the way pretty diminishes
that which it describes, a function of class perhaps,
the strictures of modesty militantly enforced.
The danger of beauty, lunatic infatuation, avarice
and woe, sinkhole of the mirror, the hubris
of aspiration, something rotten in the apple that isn’t.
How is it I awaken every morning with a song

in my head, but never, not once, a poem.
“Beauty without dignity, neat elegance without
elevation; beauty of a slight, diminutive, dainty,
or childish kind, without stateliness”: the demarcations
of prettiness thus expressed, the dictionary
in its twenty volumes is pretty on my shelf,
beautiful and savage, by definition, inside.
You can look up Mathis’s Beverly Hills mansion
on the internet and find that it is stately.

I think it’s safe to say I will never awaken
in such a house nor with a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
on my mind, unless it had been secretly set to music
and recorded by James Brown, whose name,
of course, is a spondee. A diminutive man,
only five-six, a bomb, a dervish, a sex machine.
Johnny Mathis is five-seven. My father was five-nine
but is bent approximately to my mother’s five-four
now, and, chances are, bruisable as a peach.

.

Or Possibly Languor

So many words for it lovelier than
what they describe: lassitude, torpor,

lethargy, ennui. The phalanges of lead,
the lifting of eyelids requiring hydraulic force.

I am interested in the fact that lassitude—
the word, that is—has declined

in use by nearly fifty percent
over the last two centuries, lethargy

likewise, by almost half as much. Also
that enervation peaked around 1875,

along with ennui. How can that be?
And torpor, if linguists and lexicographers

are correct, is almost all gone now.
Indolence, however, thrives, even though,

or maybe because, it is October,
even the local birds burdened with it.

This rumpled nuthatch, for instance,
having sidled along the deer rib perch

from the nubbined spinal end
to the very point at which the bone’s screwed

to the porch post, where the bird sprawls
against the cedar and does not sing not at all.

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Sunnyside Bench Church, Abandoned

The farmer who converted it to a hay barn
might know the date of the last Sunday service.
It’s spring now, almost all the hay is gone.
The steeple bell’s a redtail hawk, looking askance

out over the graveyard across the gravel road.
A fire blew through last August, a few stones
show scorch marks still, and the wooden posts
of the barbwire fence around it are black and lean.

Out front the glass of the announcement box
is gone. A few letters of the old minister’s
name have yet to fall: Rev T OMA OX: Cox,
possibly Knox. Thomas, of course. For listeners,

there’s abundant birdsong, the plunge of the river
rising from a thousand feet below. Inside,
there’s mouse scrabble, the thin clatter-quiver
of a windowframe, loose in its sash. A few shed

snake skins glitter in a corner, under a row
of extant coat hooks from which a pitchfork hangs.
There’s a single, mostly whole stained glass window
in the eastern wall: a serpent showing its fangs,

perched in the boughs of the famous tree,
a bullet hole, it looks like, through the trunk.
No pulpit or altar on the holy of holies.
The pews were sold or cast off as junk.

Whatever it was the Revered Cox or Knox
intoned from up there isn’t hard to imagine.
The usual talk of heaven and hell all such flocks
heard and still hear, ordinary praise and sin.

What’s strangest is the presence of the cross,
still hanging on the high back wall.
Hand-hewn pine beams, a bird’s nest
tucked in the notch at the cross-beam’s right angle.

—Robert Wrigley

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Robert Wrigley has lived most of his adult life in the Northwest—in Washington, Oregon, and Montana, but mostly in Idaho, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Idaho. He has published ten books of poetry, including, mostly recently, Anatomy of Melancholy & Other Poems and, in the UK, The Church of Omnivorous Light. A recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Poets’ Prize, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and a Pacific Northwest Book Award, he has also been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, and the Times Literary Supplement, among many other magazines and journals. He lives in the woods with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes.

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Feb 022015
 

WittgensteinandMusilRobert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist, philosopher, student of mathematics, physics, behavioral psychology and engineering with mystical tendencies, and the author of the great unfinished experimental novel, The Man without Qualities. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian philosopher whose thoughts on logic, mathematics, language and ethics have been extremely influential in both philosophical and artistic circles. He is the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and many unfinished works, including Philosophical Investigations.

Disclaimers: 1. I do not pretend to be an expert on Wittgenstein. These, my observations, come from a mere few years of study of a philosopher who deemed that even his closest peers did not understand him. By comparing my interpretation of his ideas to those of Robert Musil, I am merely suggesting connecting strands, and possible shared concerns, and generally avoiding here (in the interest of space and time) the very real and complex differences between their world views. 2. Since I have spent decades studying and writing about Musil, I have concentrated mostly on Wittgenstein in this essay, assuming a general knowledge of Musil which is probably quixotic at this point in his ill-fated English-language reception. Hopefully the hints and references to his ideas and works will lead the reader back to the primary sources and also to my more thorough treatment of things Musil in my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s &c.,&c. . 3. This essay could only be “completed” if I allowed it to be just that—an essay, or “essai,” a trial, and not at all a finished work of writing. It is an attempt to pull together many, many related but still insufficiently synthesized ideas. It will take a lifetime to get all of this into some truly presentable shape.

— Genese Grill

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“Necessity is nothing but Existence, which is given through the Possibility itself.” — Immanuel Kant,
The Critique of Pure Reason

“It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their direction, and he awakens them.” — Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

“It is clear that however different from the real one an imagined world may be, it must have something—a form—in common with the real world.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“Thought is surrounded by a halo—Its essence, logic, represents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought…prior to all experience [this order] must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to effect it—it must rather be of the purest crystal…” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

One of the most troubling challenges of living in what is nowadays assumed to be a relativized subjective universe is never knowing for sure whether what one sees, understands, or experiences is the same as what someone else sees, understands or experiences. What once was conceived to be solid shared reality, describable with definable words and measurable by standardized tools, has, since Kant (and, over the next century, in the wake of Einstein, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud), been deemed increasingly fragmented, uncertain, and relative. After philosophers spent centuries wrestling with the question of what could be known about the world and the related question of what, in fact, reality is, with or without the intervention of the subjective experiencer, the so-called “linguistic turn” in twentieth century philosophy took this question a step further by concentrating on the role played by language in describing, creating, delimiting, or expanding our experience and knowledge of the real. Modernist art and literature wrestled with these problems of knowing and communicating and earnestly strove to find ways to build bridges between the individual alienated person and the shared world of nature and culture. To put it simply, Kant was looking at the limits of thought; Wittgenstein at the limits of language. But both were concerned with the way philosophy had hitherto claimed to know or say certain things (of a metaphysical sort) that in their opinion could not be known or spoken of with certainty. Despite these reservations about the possibility of knowing or speaking certain things, neither Kant nor Wittgenstein rejected the realms of ethics or metaphysics as valuable aspects of experience.[1] And Musil made it even more clear than Kant and Wittgenstein (through his experimental fiction; through showing, not theorizing or merely saying) that aesthetics was the realm wherein one could begin to know, experience, and articulate those things which could not be grasped otherwise. He called this realm the realm of essay, of the ethical, of the aesthetic, of the other condition, and, despite his training as a mathematician and scientist, despite his tendency toward philosophical precision, he valued this realm above all others, choosing to write a novel rather than a scientific treatise for reasons with which Wittgenstein would probably have concurred. But the philosophical question of what could or could not be known of the shared world of phenomenon, and, thus, expressed in language (what kind of language became a heated question in Modernist poetics) haunted writers in the early twentieth century.[2]

Another philosophical conundrum discussed by Kant and then revisited by Modernist thinkers was the related question of ethics and the nature of the willing, determining self. For Kantians, as Anthony J. Volpa notes in his biography of Fichte, “At issue was whether selfhood as autonomous agency was an illusion and indeed whether the very notion of an integral self dissolved if the individual was merely one more object in a web of causes” (46). A hundred years later neo-empiricists like Ernst Mach (whom Musil critiqued and praised in his doctoral dissertation) were definitively denying the nature of the integral self and casting doubt on the individual’s ability to determine his or her shared reality—for quite other reasons and with quite other consequences than earlier thinkers. While in Kant’s time the debate was one between a divine determinism and the free will of the ethical individual, in contemporary philosophy the debate is between a random chaos or a mechanistic universe and a treacherous social construction wherein the individual plays no meaningful role. What exercised Musil and Wittgenstein was the quest for some direction for individual ethical behavior; and the search for some conduit to meaning amid the increasing fragmentation and uncertainty. In contrast to the abstract philosophizing of many logicians, Musil and Wittgenstein were, like the transcendentalists before them and the existentialists to follow, engaged in exploring philosophical questions that could help human beings figure out how to live.

320px-Klagenfurt_-_Musilhaus_-_Robert_MusilDepiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt

According to Allen Tiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil, “Musil saw no place for human concerns in Mach’s limited positivism…in critiquing Mach he was already thinking of science’s uses for humanity…[Musil was] troubled by Mach’s idea of truths as mere fictions…” (34). Tiher goes on to say that Musil’s critique of Mach in many ways works as a critique of Wittgenstein’s belief that language could only depict the substance (not the core) of reality (“propositions mirror the exact part of facts, though nobody could ever point to exactly what they might be…all that can be meaningfully said is what can be mirrored in propositions in language”) (Tiher 42). Musil wanted to at least consider the possibility of knowing the thing in itself, whereas Wittgenstein may have been more skeptical about such certainty. Yet Tiher also points to commonalities between Musil and Wittgenstein, noting that both “yearned for a reality beyond the limits of positivist propositions and functional relations” (42). Both Wittgenstein and Musil “reacted to Mach’s limitation of knowledge to the realm of functional relations” (42). Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus, 6.52 “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all”. Tiher concluded that “Both conceive of aesthetics as a ‘showing’ of ethics, and of ethics as the realm where values are as real as any other aspect of reality” (43).

Early twentieth century Machian positivism inspired a new set of concerns for contemporary artists, writers, and philosophers, who were struggling with what they called a crisis of language (like the Kantkrise of an earlier generation of artists) amid a greater crisis of values. Did the breakdown of some certainties mean that anything was possible? Or rather nothing? Or were there natural parameters or boundaries, some sort of a priori order to things?[3] In the wake begun so long ago, today many heirs of two generations of skeptical inquiry err on the side of a radical openness and relativity of values to which Kant, Wittgenstein, and Musil would not have subscribed.

Many 20th century thinkers and artists, following the spirit if not the law of Kant’s ethical aesthetic imperative, believed earnestly in the possibility of redemption through art and an ethical conduct of life born of the friction between experimental empirical assessment and some sense of essential but shifting truths, between personal and shared reality, between repeating patterns and new arrangements, and between established archetypes or forms and new metaphors and synthesis—in short, in a kind of proto-aesthetic existentialism, whereby the artist and thinker expands the possibilities of the real (through seeing for the first time what was always there)without denying reality’s concrete parameters. These thinkers and artists were dealing with a struggle between necessity and arbitrariness, a priori truth and creative agency, asking such question as: What do we have agency over, what not? And how do language and art function in this interchange between what is necessary and what is possible or even merely constructed? How does the word or image “make” the world (as Musil and Wittgenstein suggest repeatedly), how does language respond to the world, answer the world? Is it like a call and response? A mirror, a warp, a description or re-creation? A betrayal, a social construction, a deception? Are certain facets of reality best described by showing, not naming, as Wittgenstein suggested and Musil modelled? Or is it impossible to know, and then impossible to describe or communicate at all?

While it has been the fashion for the last half century at least among sophisticated theorists and artists to maintain that nothing whatsoever can be determined, communicated, named, or delimited, past masters of precision and soul were capable of carefully examining what in fact still remained in the shared universe that could be established to be repeatable, certain enough, objectively measurable, and to what extent language could in fact be used to communicate not only what was solid, but even those more tenuous shifting internal subjective states that made up so much of the content of the art and literature of the psychologizing 20th century. The distinction between a world where nothing at all can be determined and one in which only certain things can be has been too often slurred over. The difference between a world wherein language means nothing and one in which language can approximate and approach meaning is considerable; and it takes patience and daring to dwell in this uneasy borderland, exemplified by Robert Musil and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

ludwig-wittgenstein-nacido-en-viena-austria-1889-fallecido-en-cambridge-reino-unido-1951-125700_w1000Ludwig Wittgenstein

These two thinkers lived almost side-by-side on Rasmofskygasse in Vienna for about a year sometime between 1920 and 1921, possibly without ever making each other’s acquaintance. They were both snobs who craved discourse; both were scientists who had more faith in art than in philosophical logic; both were individualists who were suspicious of collectivism and resisted joining groups or being categorized into positions or ideologies[4]. They both rejected externally-imposed morals and social judgments in favor of a personal rigorous ethics and conduct of life. They both had ambivalent relationships with the scientific positivists of the Vienna Circle. In contrast to the members of this circle, both wanted to connect philosophy and science with aesthetics and ethics and make it meaningful for human life[5]. Both resisted theory in favor of experimental empiricism. Both had mystical experiences as soldiers in World War One, leading to puzzling relationships with something they both sometimes called “God”; both were mathematicians suspicious of mathematics; both were engineers and inventors; empiricists and idealists; pragmatists and utopians. Both looked to anthropology to present alternative possible ways to live; both loved Dostoevsky; both worked and wrote in a non-linear,[6] inter-disciplinary fashion; both liked to go to the movies. Both of them were obsessed with using language precisely; but both rejected language skepticism, while acknowledging the limits of language and knowledge; and both saw metaphor as the best possible mode of expressing certain experiences and truths. Both were so committed to the experimental method and a resistance to closure or final solutions that they were almost pathologically unable to finish their works. They are exemplars of a special breed of idealist-realists—a group of people who throughout history have simultaneously hugged the surface of the real “what is” while reaching for the ideal “what could be”; thinkers who have labored to establish what can and cannot be known or spoken, thinkers who have eschewed what Musil called “Schleudermystik” (wishy-washy mysticism) and Wittgenstein called “transcendental twaddle,” and, at the same time, kept at bay a nihilistic relativism or void of all values. (Other thinkers in this cadre include Thoreau, Blake, Novalis, and Nietzsche).

(c) Bridgeman; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe Rasumovsky Palace, Vienna, Corner of Rasumofskygasse and Geusaugasse, by Carel Victor Morlais Weight

To harbor some belief in a repeatable recognizable shared reality and a language that serves well enough to communicate what we think, want, and care about is to fundamentally take responsibility for our place and agency in the world. The opposite tends toward an adolescent “whateverism” wherein everything cancels itself out and wallows in bankrupt cynicism. In contrast to this hollow sophistication, Wittgenstein and Musil are related to the transcendentalist age of self-improvement and both earnestly struggled with determining what was the right way to live. Their “sense of possibility” (Musil’s phrase) and skepticism about social conventions and abstract propositions about right and wrong was not the same as absolute license, total openness, or self-indulgence. Looking back to Wittgenstein and Musil, we find an alternative to the total relativity of values and vacuum of meaning—a veritable model of existential responsibility and an ethics grounded in a complex analysis of what can and cannot be known, expressed, or experienced—an ethics, in short, grounded in aesthetics. Ironically, the refusal to accept any shared reality today in some philosophical circles has led to a situation similar to the age of faith. While in the latter the realm of truth was found in scripture or metaphysics, in both cases truth is not recognized in the real exigencies or material experience of life. In both cases truth is an abstraction, although in one this abstraction is to be mistrusted while in the other it is to be uncritically believed. High Modernism marked out a middle zone between skepticism and non-critical acceptance of abstract generalities and ideals. This middle zone is difficult to navigate, but it is imperative that we abide here in uncertainty to catch the shirt tails of agency as reality flies past our subjective indifferent gaze.

We have come so far from that comfortable pre-Kantian world of shared beliefs, and we have heard so much skepticism about shared reality that we have almost become blind to the palpable real that is right in front of us, to the facts of our shared existence—birth, death, seasons, dusk, bodies, beauty, the night sky. Many contemporary theorists would have us scoff at the possibility of experiencing anything real at all, or at the possibility of using words to describe what we feel or see. But they must be blind themselves, and lacking fundamental sense organs, to arrive at such a bankrupt state of existence wherein nothing at all is real and no combination of words can resonate with an external or internal event. I have a young friend, so steeped in the allurements of this “philosophy” (it should be called love of no-truth, not love of truth, since, according to its basic tenets there is no truth to love) that he feels the need to create a new mythology, a trumped-up mythological meaning, since there is, he fears, no real one anymore. But wait! There is still meaning, there is still a real world, and words can still be used to celebrate and lament it! And this meaning will come from our sensual, aesthetic, experiential contact with the real, mediated through the mind, the senses, language, and images, the only tools that we have. Herein we may have some glimpse of the meaning behind the pronouncement (which we find in both Musil and Wittgenstein) that “ethics and aesthetics are one”. For aesthetics does not merely connote fantasy and fiction but sense experience, a living palpable conduit between the abstracted mind or pen and the real breathing, smelling, scintillating, churning world. How we see and experience and the way in which we formulate what we see and experience depends on sensations, formal arrangements, and the process and poetics of space, time, and shifting perspectives. And these perceptions determine our actions and judgments about how to live.

Wittgenstein is thought to have changed his ideas on the relationship between language and reality in between his writing of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, maintaining later that language is not necessarily a picture of the world, but, rather, that language determines what we see and, in effect, makes our world. But neither position is based on a radical separation between the mind as language-maker and the reality that it attempts to describe. Instead, it is a matter of interpreting, and expanding or limiting (waxing and waning, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology), our perspectives. According to David Pears, Wittgenstein, “abandoned the idea that the structure of reality determines the structure of language, and suggested that it is really the other way around: our language determines our view of reality, because we see things through it” (13). As my friend Dharman Rice put it, Kant’s theories suggest that the mind is not a camera simply recording what is out there, but rather has something to do with choosing, selecting, and arranging the phenomena it encounters. According to Kant, phenomena are transmitted or filtered through transcendental schema or structures of the mind (space, time, etc.); according to Wittgenstein, this arranging occurs through the process of language use. I scoured Kant in vain to find an answer to the question of whether this means that what the mind sees is an illusion, I could find no definitive answer (probably because it is the wrong question. Kant is not concerned with what is or is not there, but rather to what extent we can determine it). It seems to me that he does not assume that the filtered view is false. It is merely filtered. The same seems to be true for Wittgenstein. What changes in between the Tractatus and The Philosophical Investigations then is not Wittgenstein’s conclusion about a priori reality, but his process of arriving at a conclusion at all. In fact, one could say that there are really no conclusions, only a process. While in the Tractatus he relied heavily on what he came to see as a priori givens or logical abstractions, in the Investigations he is modelling a process of experimental empiricism, a method quite close to Musil’s aesthetic of experimental essayism, one which resists theory and final conclusions in favor of what Musil would call “partial solutions” or the “utopia of the next step”.

According to Ashok Vohra in his Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mind, this process is not a refutation of realist philosophy, although a realist might consider it to be. Wittgenstein,

[M]aintains that acceptance of any proof is an act of ratification which is independent of any previous acts of ratification. Nothing that we have done in the past forces us to ratify, or to withhold ratification from the proof which we are now being offered. This sounds absurd, because we naturally assume that the meanings of the terms used in the proof of the would-be theorem or equation must have been fixed in advance. But what Wittgenstein is suggesting is that their meanings were not completely fixed in advance, and that their full meanings accrue to them bit by bit when the later ratifications are made or withheld. (136)

In other words, the human mind continually participates in making and acknowledging a shifting changing world. This is an alternative to the chicken and egg question of whether the mind makes the world or the world the mind. The answer to the riddle is that the mind and the world constantly work together to fashion a meaningful approximation of reality. Further, of course, the mind is a part of the world, a part of nature, and thus should not be so very different from what it sees and records as to prohibit correspondence!

Immanuel_Kant_3Immanuel Kant

C. N. Wilson explains in his book, God’s Funeral, that Kant “was trying to marry the twin truths: namely, that by the very process of perceiving and knowing, we invent our world; and also that this world has a reality of its own.” In a note, Musil summarizes the paradox: “Kant: Concepts without observation are empty. Observation without concepts is blind” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1820). In another formulation he explores the question of how the phenomenological world interacts with the human mind: “In truth, the relationship between the outer and the inner world is not that of a stamp that presses into a receptive material, but that of an embosser that deforms itself in the process so that its design can be changed into remarkably different pictures without destroying its general coherence” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1435). In a conversation about ideality and reality with some high school students from The Walden Project here in Vermont, two of them came up with a marvelously helpful image: the ideal is like a light shining on the real, but it has to be plugged in to the real to shed light in the first place. The real, without imagination, ideas, dreams, or light, is nothing but a mechanical mass; the ideal, without the real, would have nothing to shine on.

In answering the related questions of what is determined and what determinable, or what is essence and what existence, what transcendental and what existential, or how much do our perceptions contribute to shared reality (beyond doubts about knowing the thing in itself), both Musil and Wittgenstein were pragmatists of sorts, who believed that we know the world well enough to avoid burns, bumping into tables, walking into walls, and well enough to understand basically the words others use. They also, as scientists, must have seen that the mind was not separate from Nature in some Cartesian sense and that such a natural structure or lens would probably see in a fashion more or less consistent with the reality of nature. As David Pears writes, describing Wittgenstein’s general perspective, “When the field [of observation] is extended to the limit, there does not seem to be any possibility of discovering that thought and reality might fail to fit one another[…]. [T]he fact is that in certain general ways thought and reality must fit one another”.[7]

Prop 5.6—5.641 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus states: “The world is my world’, ‘I am my world. (The microcosm)” and “The subject does not belong to the world; rather it is the limit of the world’. But this need not contradict his emphasis on what Thoreau would call “fronting the real”. This is, in effect, the same paradox of Emersonian Self-reliance and the Kantian categorical Imperative and its subsequent iteration in existentialism: what is true for me is true for all men; what I do determines what others do; existence precedes essence. Our actions change the world; our perceptions expand and contract it; reality waxes and wanes depending upon the words we use to describe it; but that doesn’t mean that we change the basic coordinates of nature. Proposition 3.032 states: “One can depict something that contradicts logic in language just as little as one can present a figure in geometry whose coordinates contradict the laws of space; or give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.” And, again, in proposition 3.033, we read: “One used to say that God could create anything except something that contradicted logical laws— in other words, we couldn’t say what an illogical world would look like.” And yet, certain strictures, like grammar and some mathematical rules, are arbitrarily limiting. And there are socially-constructed morals and prejudgments that inhibit a fresh experience of the real. These must be resisted and continually tested. Musil wrote: “The period and the semicolon are symptoms of stasis. We don’t make them because we learned to, but because that is how we think. And that is the danger in them. As long as one thinks in sentences with end stops, certain things cannot be said; at most they can be vaguely felt. Infinite perspectives (moving inward) would have to be expressed like infinite rows” (Notebooks II, 822). As such, the way we use language to talk about our world can limit or open up what possibilities we see in it.

Perhaps the answer to the alleged problem (Wittgenstein would probably say that there is not even a problem to begin with!) is that knowledge of reality does not comes solely from empirical experience (as opposed to a priori essence), but that it comes from a process of synthesis and the constant creation of fresh, repeating—not rigid and unexamined—metaphor. A metaphor which, chez Wittgenstein, always points outside itself by virtue of its very nature as metaphor. Both Wittgenstein and Musil repeatedly make the distinction between living language and dead cliché, and this distinction is linked to their common cause of experimental empirical ontology and the processes called, respectively, the utopia of the next step (Musil) and re-ratification (Wittgenstein), whereby nothing is certain until one takes into consideration what comes next, or, until one re-tests it within new circumstances. Musil writes: “Living word full of meaning and correspondence in the moment, bathed in will and feeling. An hour later it says nothing although it says everything that a concept contains.” And Wittgenstein writes in his Philosophical Investigation, “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?–In use it is alive. Is life breathed into there?—Or is the use its life?” (432e).

Instead of adhering to one polarization of the empiricist/Platonist spectrum, Wittgenstein (like Musil and Nietzsche too) posits another kind of process of world-making (one that acknowledges a reality outside of abstraction, language, and theory), one which involves a conscious awareness of our use of language and image to create a good deal of what we consider reality and truth. The trick, as Nietzsche explains in his “On Truth and Lying in a Supra-Moral Sense,” is to never forget that the metaphors which we invent to describe and see the world are not rigid absolutes in themselves, but rather living, self-generating, shifting approximations or, to use Wittgenstein’s term, “family resemblances” rather than exact representations— likenesses, overlapping commonalities.

Although there are multifold possibilities of how language may be used to describe reality, there are not infinite possibilities. There are limits; and these limits are the limits of logic, reality, nature, experience and shared human and social life. And these limits have very important consequences in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s world views for determining a conduct of life. In fact, both of these individualistic—one might even say anti-social—thinkers, were deeply concerned with questions of society and the problem of solipsism. Wittgenstein’s rejection of the idea of a private language is one answer to the Modernist question of artistic solipsism, and touches on a central problem never solved by Musil: how might the mystical experience of “the other condition” depicted in his unfinished novel expand from the private specialized realm of two people to become a social utopia for the many? And how do his insane characters (Clarisse and Moosbrugger) serve to both destroy and invigorate common language with their private idiolects (Clarisse, in one very Wittgensteinian scene in the Nachlass chapters of the novel, tries to remove the meanings from words by taking them out of their natural order, by repeating them, by underlining them). One of Wittgenstein’s answers to the problem of solipsism is his conclusion that, as Vohra writes, “the real relationship between words and physical phenomena is not contingent but essential, and that language is not the product of one person, but has evolved with human life” (6). Although we do have private (i.e., nontransferable) sensations, they are stimulated by public, shared phenomena (the objects of observation) (Vohra 16-17). The necessity of communicating with others is served by a union of aesthetics and ethics, requiring an awareness of reality taking the special case into consideration rather than an abstract impersonal morality. Individual responsibility is born in each new moment— in concert with others. As opposed to an alienated despair or nihilism about the ability to ever share values, ideas, goals with others, Kantian, Wittgensteinian, Musilian individualism breeds ethical consciousness when it includes other-directed awareness. Anti-individualistic collectivism, on the other hand, can be the seedbed of a lack of self-responsibility. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that the problem with the idea of private language is its lack of practical social consequences. A private language is like one’s right hand giving one’s left hand money (80) or the absurdity of a person giving “himself a private definition of a word” (80). What would understanding be, what consistency? It would be, Wittgenstein writes, like “… a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism” (81). “Imagine,” he continues,” someone saying: ‘But I know how tall I am!’ and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it” (82).

There is a real world outside of or in correspondence with the mind, and its parameters do limit and guide what can and cannot be correctly said. Wittgenstein “holds the view that one who attempts to use a private language not only fails to communicate his meaning to others, but also does not have a meaning to communicate even to himself; in other words, he does not succeed in saying anything at all” (Vohra 38). Sensations, while they can be kept private, are communicable (Vohra 52). A private language is category mistake, according to Wittgenstein, that ignores the social nature of language. Language is a set of activities, and practices, defined by certain rules, and uses, “a form of life” (Vohra 66). As such, the individual has a social and ethical responsibility to use language in a way that corresponds to a shared social reality. While today some theorists might see this as a treacherous crime, or a sort of social coercion applied to the idiosyncratic non-contingent mind, Wittgenstein and Musil probably saw it as a pragmatic and workable means to attempt to communicate ideas and feelings. People who imagine Wittgenstein as the patron saint of silence and the impossibility of communication may be surprised to read this rather characteristic statement from the Philosophical Investigations: “The sign post is in order—if, under normal circumstances, it fulfils its purpose” (35 e). Inexact, he suggests, does not mean unusable.

And while Musil too (following Nietzsche’s metaphor theory in On Truth and Lying) is clear about the fact that metaphors are inexact, that, in fact, every time we make a metaphor we are perpetrating a sort of crime against the true differentiation of each entity or idea, he is equally clear that this process of inexactitude and imprecision is just what humans must do in order to bring “beauty and excitement” into the world. Making metaphors is a form of human-generated, reality-generated meaning-making which continually resists ossification, cliché, and fixed ideas. It is an ethical and aesthetic process of existential engagement in expanding (without denying) the boundaries of the real, of nature, of truths in their varied, shifting relativity. And this expansion of boundaries—what Wittgenstein called waxing—works in tension with the constriction of the already known and accepted, the already established conventions (a waning), as well as with the eternally reverberating archetypal and naturally recurring realities of shared human life (trembling aliveness of ancient energies). In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes: “6.43 If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language…. In brief, the world must thereby become quite another. It must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.”

All philosophical theories are rooted in pictures (metaphors); and every already-known picture must be continually uprooted by the introduction of a new picture, a new metaphor: once a simile or metaphor has been accepted, it is too often taken for granted, no longer seen as a picture but taken as a reality or an exact representation. The creation of new metaphors is necessary not only for the successful creation of new meaningful art objects, but, moreover, for the enlivening and generation of ethical life through living language and living forms. Wittgenstein writes: “The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy” (qtd. in Monk, 302). Monk glosses: “In understanding ethics, aesthetics, religion, mathematics and philosophy, theories were of no use” (304). In lieu of theories then: art, the realm of the individual case.

Each poetic pronouncement or artistic expression is at once a free act, individual voice, new note, an addition to and a conversation with, response to, answer to what has already been. And it can only be understood within such a linked context of history, cultural discourse, and shared experience of the world and its cultural products. Rampant skepticism, anti-intellectualism, and obfuscation lead only to careless, speechless, inarticulate grunts and irresponsible confused beings. Art, again, is often the best medium for communicating what cannot be shared otherwise and it models a process of generative re-visioning and a creative tension between what is and what can be, between the abstracted whole and the individual unique non-repeatable experience. Wittgenstein writes: “We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by another. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.) In one case the thought in the sentence is something that is expressed only by the words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)” The use of poetic language, the ongoing conversation of form and image is a fruitful correspondence between particular individualized once-in-a-world empirical experience and a store of family resemblances, likenesses, and shared cultural and natural reverberations.

While sometimes the most valuable aspects of these human experiences (shared or alienating as the case may be) cannot be easily imparted, what can be shown but not said (in art rather than logic) is nevertheless sometimes stammered (one tries to say it, denotes it, suggests it, points to it) before it disappears. As Kafka wrote, “Truth is the light on the shrinking grimacing face”. We try to bring the wordless phantoms up from the depths or catch the rush of a flying experience of nature with words that are all too clunky, all too general. But they serve. They have to serve. And sometimes they serve brilliantly.

Wittgenstein apparently saw himself as “a disciple of Freud because of Freud’s use of similes: ‘It’s all excellent similes’, he said in a lecture on Freud’s work; and of his own contribution to philosophy: ‘What I invent are new similes’” (Monk 357). And Wittgenstein’s late philosophical technique even seems a bit like the technique of modernist fiction. The playing of “language games,” according to Monk, was a “method of inventing imaginary situations in which language is used for some tightly defined practical purpose. It may be a few words or phrases from our own language or an entirely fictitious language, but what is essential is that, in picturing the situation, the language cannot be described without mentioning the use to which it is put. The technique is a kind of therapy, the purpose of which is to free ourselves from the philosophical confusions that result from considering language in isolation from its place in the ‘stream of life’”(330). Wittgenstein’s anthropological approach has a good deal in common with the process by which fiction helps us to think about ourselves and our social assumptions by presenting alternative or slightly oblique visions of reality. This is, of course, a technique which Musil utilized expertly. Monk’s description of Wittgenstein could be a description of Musil the possibilitarian whose protagonist Ulrich was always imagining how things could be different; who was working on a utopian novel imagining all sorts of different ways to live; and whose short prose piece “Cannibals” describes a society of flesh eaters in a way that mirrors our own moral justifications for things that might be seen as aberrations: “By imagining tribes with conventions or ways of reasoning different to our own, and by constructing metaphors different to ones commonly employed, [Wittgenstein] tries to weaken the hold of certain analogies, certain ‘similes that have been absorbed into the forms of our language.’ He attacks, for example, the Platonism that regards logical propositions as analogous to factual propositions. ‘Isn’t there a truth corresponding to logical inference?’ he makes his interlocutor ask. ‘Isn’t it true that this follows from that?’ Well, replies Wittgenstein, what would happen if we made a different inference? How would we get into conflict with the truth? […]The point here is that the criteria for correct or incorrect reasoning are not provided by some external realm of Platonic truths, but, rather, by ourselves, by ‘a convention, or a use, and perhaps our practical requirements’” (Monk 381).

Wittgenstein’s new method in Philosophical Investigations rejected the earlier essentialist method of the Tractatus as metaphysical. His theories, he deemed, did not match real language or real experience (Pears 105-7). The generalizations arrived at intuitively were not results of empirical investigations…and, “he had wrongly assumed that the multifarious uses of language must have a high common factor [a generalized abstraction]. The truth was more complex: each resembled each other in many ways [family resemblances]” [and thus, he] “turned his investigation onto the multifarious differences” (107). Wittgenstein’s new method mirrors Musil’s:  “[I]t is empirical…it shows great respect for the particular case and …it is more like art than science, because the nuances of particular cases are not caught in any theory, but are presented in careful descriptions of actual linguistic practices…”(105).

Such an experimental method is actually a conduct of life—one requiring an open-endedness resistant to closure or absolute solutions. Demanding, in fact, a constant new re-visioning of fresh circumstances and combinations and a radical skepticism about received ideas and established categories. Wittgenstein’s work method was quite a lot like Musil’s, whose Nachlass is thousands of pages of versions, alterations, notes, sketches, and cross-references. Wittgenstein, according to Monk, would begin by writing remarks in a notebook; then he would select the best of these, write them out, “perhaps in a different order, into large manuscript volumes. From these he made a further selection, which he dictated to a typist. The resultant typescript was then used as the basis for a further selection, sometimes by cutting it up and rearranging it—and then the whole process was started again. Though this process continued for more than twenty years, it never culminated in an arrangement with which Wittgenstein was fully satisfied, and so his literary executors have had to publish either what they consider to be the most satisfactory of the various manuscripts and typescripts…” (Monk 319).

The work of philosophy, the work of the artist, in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s sense, is a job with no end. One can never arrive at a conclusion. Monk explains: “This conception of philosophy, which sees itself as a task of clarification that has no end, and only an arbitrary beginning, makes it almost impossible to imagine how a satisfactory book on philosophy can be written. It is no wonder that Wittgenstein used to quote with approval Schopenhauer’s dictum that a book on philosophy, with a beginning and an end, is a sort of contradiction” (326). Musil, who never finished his magnum opus, would have concurred. In fact, as long as one lives, the work of being a human being is likewise an open experiment. We can never rest, but must always strive for the utopia of the next step, ever re-ratifying what we thought we once knew. “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”

— Genese Grill


Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Wittgenstein speaks of a certain kind of experience, similar to Musil’s mystical “other condition,” in which “I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’…another experience…the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’”. Monk writes that Wittgenstein “went on to show that the things one is inclined to say after such experiences are a misuse of language—they mean nothing. And yet the experiences themselves ‘seem to those who have had them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value’. They cannot be captured by factual language precisely because their value lies beyond the world of facts” (qtd. 277).
  2. In my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities,” I wrote:

    Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to the modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for articulating individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (that is, metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language. What philosophy and science could not describe or explain might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the inherent inaccuracy and generalization of rational and scientific conceptualization or logical abstraction. On the other hand, the selection process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony. Marjorie Perloff, in her book Wittgenstein’s Ladder, wrote: “Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of ‘philosophy’ as if it were ‘poetry’ dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death)” (i)

  3. In The World as Metaphor, I wrote: “Wittgenstein wrote that the central question that exercised his entire life’s work was: “Is there, a priori, an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?” What, in other words, is the nature of the order of the world and what is the role of the human subject in maintaining, producing, destroying, or rebuilding our shared reality? And while the easy answer is that Wittgenstein negated the possibility of an a priori reality, declaring instead that humans construct their shared reality out of language and perception, the fact remains that in many pronouncements he suggests that there might actually be such an “essence of the world,” one that we simply cannot access or express. “What belongs to the essence of the world,” he writes, for example, “cannot be expressed by language” (31). Making meaning of the world, whether through discovery of, or invention of, patterns and recurring forms, seems to be a requirement for survival, an aesthetic operation conducted upon possible random chaos to make life bearable. Gunter Gebauer explains, quoting Wittgenstein: “Only if we see the world in the proper perspective are we filled with ‘enthusiasm . . . (But without art, the object is a piece of nature like any other’); this occurs through a particular method of description. With the help of the art of description, the wonderful side of the world can be grasped” (35). Conversely, Gebauer continues, “Wittgenstein also knows the moments in which he loses this vision of the world,” when he has, “‘done with the world,’ he has created an amorphous (transparent) mass, and the world in all its variety is abandoned like an uninteresting junk closet” (34–35). This description is eerily reminiscent of many of Musil’s descriptions of a world miraculously flooded with, and just as suddenly drained of, meaning. In keeping with Musil’s constant allegorical comparison of world and word, this process of meaning and meaninglessness is most often described by him as the difference between living and dead words. The living word, like the living world, does not mean anything definite or fixed, but is imbued with meaning by the creative subject. The dead word, or “concept,” like the petrified world of received ideas and unexamined “facts,” is always the same word/world, no matter what one brings to it”.
  4. “The search for essences is, Wittgenstein states, an example of ‘the craving for generality’ that springs from our preoccupation with the method of science…’The tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness”…”Wittgenstein’s avoidance of this tendency—his complete refusal to announce any general conclusions—is perhaps the main feature that makes his work difficult to understand, for without having the moral pointed out, so to speak, it is often difficult to see the point of his remarks”. Ray Monk. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 338.
  5. Wittgenstein gave this explanation of the anti-positivist intentions of his Tractatus in a popular lecture to the “Heretics” club: “My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk on Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics, so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it…” (qtd. in Monk, 277).
  6. Philosophical Investigations. Foreword: “My thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination—and this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought crisscross in every direction…The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made…” (ix).
  7. David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Viking Press, 1970, 31.
Feb 012015
 

OndjakiClose

This past summer, I reviewed Angolan author Ondjaki’s novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret right here at Numéro Cinq. I loved the book, which read like a fun kid’s action/adventure film from the 1980s, and thanks to modern technology, Ondjaki and I began chatting on Twitter after he saw the review. Over time, our conversation—a direct message or email here and there across several months—turned into an interview, which is transcribed below. 

— Benjamin Woodard

 


Benjamin Woodard (BW):
What drew you into wanting to become a storyteller?

Ondjaki (O): ​I really don’t know. I guess each time someone asks this, a writer lies. I happen to like short stories, tales, and literature in general. One gets caught up in this “thing” of reading, and then eventually comes the writing.​

BW: Granma Nineteen… is only your third work translated into English. How interested are you in having your work translated? Is it important to you to have your stories reach a non-Portuguese speaking audience?

O: I am not that worried about that. I mean, I really think these things [translations] happen as they do, when they do. It’s important to me to be happy with a short story, a poem, a book. Of course translations open new doors. I don’t mean that I don’t care, but “important” could be a strong word. I see it as I write, and then some translations happen. I am happy with the result so far.​

Granma

BW: You mention “being happy with a short story, a poem, a book.” What kind of process does a piece go through before you consider it finished? Does it vary?

O: I think it does. And many times I guess it’s a shot in the dark. When and how can one say “it’s ready”? I’ve had things that took me a year or two to “become” ready. And I also have pieces that took five years. Sometimes, when you’re just “preparing” (which I think is also writing), the idea can linger for more than five or ten years. In the end, you have to be happy with the result. But trying to be happy now, and forty-three years from now, it’s a long shot in the dark future…

BW: Branching off of this, you’ve amassed a rather large library of published work already in your literary career. Is seems you must have quite a bit of discipline when it comes to writing. Could you expand on your writing schedule?

O: You cannot imagine how I am laughing right now. Discipline? Me? I don’t think I recognize the word. Not when it comes to writing. I really do a tremendous effort to “wait” for the right moment. I keep working things in my mind, but as for the writing moment I tend to think there has to be some sort of magic. Or not. I convince myself that I write when “everything in me” is ready. I do not mean to bullshit, it’s just what I feel. For now. That’s why, in fact, I love short stories more than the rest. They tell me when they want to show up. Novels, yes, they require some sort of schedule, but it’s more just being available. Waiting. Like when you go fishing or hunting: it’s not about the amount you catch. It’s about the quality of the waiting time. I am still a beginner, but I “began” to understand that it’s important to wait. Just wait. The poem will come. The short story will come. Or not. I think writing is also about learning to be untroubled with both of these results.

BW: What was your literary exposure growing up? The boys in Granma Nineteen… seem to have a steady diet of 1980s adventure films, and their story reads like a children’s adventure film. Do any of these forms of media come into play with your writing?

O: I remember, after Asterix and some stuff like that, reading some “serious” Brazilian authors (Erico Verissimo, and then Graciliano Ramos), and Gracialiano was so powerful and “dry” and sad. But I liked it right away. After, don’t ask me why, I chose to read Sartre. Two or three years later, Garcia Márquez would be the most important of writers. Now, about the movies, I actually forced myself to remember certain films for the book, and that’s also to honor those days in which fiction also came into our lives through cinema and television. By fiction, I mean movies, but also soap operas. And I am aware that these were very important for my generation, so it’s also for them that I include some scenes or movies. It’s also for me: I actually would like to be there right now. If I could use a time machine only once, I know where I would go: a magical place, dusty, yellow, called the 80’s. That’s me. Still today.

Nausea

BW: How old were you when you read Sartre? That seems pretty intense for a kid to read.

O: I think I was around fourteen. It was…somehow it was different. I remember I got two books at the same time, Márquez and Sartre’s Nausea. I did like Nausea’s main character a lot. He was lonely, he was weird, he seemed to me like a sad real person. I am not sure how much I got from that book then. It does not really matter. Every book is different each time we open it. Not so much the book, necessarily, but we are different readers in different moments of our lives. And I was in that sad mood at fourteen. Right after or right before that, I read The Hermit, the only Ionesco novel. Another sad character, another strange book. It made sense during those days. I am not sure I know why. I am not sure I want to remember why.

BW: Who do you look to as an example of a great writer?

O: I think books are more important than writers. But, right now, I guess there are three names I could not leave out of this answer: Ruy Duarte de Carvalho (Angola), Raduan Nassar (Brazil) and Erri De Luca (Italy). Any of these three (and two are still among us) should have won the Nobel.

BW: What makes you say that “books are more important than writers”? Do you mean that they are bigger than the authors who construct them, or more influential?

O: They are bigger, for sure. It’s what’s within the books that counts the most. Not the writers. It’s the body of a poem, not the hand who wrote it. It’s the memory that we have of a tree or a mountain, not so much the tree itself. Maybe the important part of a book is what you feel (or what you become) while you’re reading it. Do you feel a change in your skin or smile when you read something? Can a few (or a thousand) words change what you feel, what you are? Can a poem convince you that you can fly for thirty-seven seconds? Did you think that you could fly for thirty-seven seconds and a book made you fly for forty-nine seconds? It’s always about the meeting point between you (the reader) and the book. Sometimes, so many times, magic happens in that place.

BW: Does travel influence your writing at all? Am I correct in thinking that you now live in Brazil?

O: I think I live in Brazil now. This is where I stop most of the time. I travel a lot, I try not to, but sometimes I do travel a lot. I don’t know how it reaches my writing. I really don’t. I tend to like meeting new people and seeing cities, but sometimes it’s too much. Too many eyes, too many voices, too many airplanes. So lately airports are strange places for me. They make me sad, especially when I am returning from any place I call home. Luanda is still home for me. It’s a place that stays inside, though I’m not sure if it’s still the real Luanda. I don’t write exactly about the places I visit. Usually it’s more about the remains of those places in me. People. Moments. Trees. Colors. Shadows. Dreams. Hands. Shoes. Fogs. (Secret: sometimes I think I live somewhere in a lost bridge between now and the past.) I spend too much time not in the present. And I pay the price.

— Ondjaki and Benjamin Woodard


Ondjaki
was born in Luanda, Angola in 1977. He studied in Lisbon and Portugal. Ondjaki is the author of five novels, three short story collections and various books of poems and stories for shildren. He has also made a documentary film, May Cherries Grow, about his native city. His books have been translated into eight languages and have earned him important literary prizes in Angola, Portugal and Brazil. In 2008 Ondjaki was awarded the Grizane for Africa Prize in the category of Best Young Writer. In 2012, The Guardian named him one of its Top Five African Writers. Good Morning Comrades marked Ondjaki’s first appearance in English. Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, launcing Spring 2014, is his newest English translation.

Woodard Bigger

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Kenyon Review, Necessary FictionPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Jan 312015
 

 

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Tom Take 4

Tom Faure is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq. A graduate in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

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