Feb 142016
 

 

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Darwin Serink’s short film “ABAN + KHORSHID” tells a non-linear tale of romance from a prison cell. Khorshid fashions a flower out of a piece of paper, then lies down facing it. He remembers his lover Aban, sleep tousled, waking up next to him, in their apartment, in a honey-drenched room. The film then cuts back and forth between two timelines: the lovers wrestling, eating and teasing one another on their life raft of a bed during one endless morning and the two men in their separate prison cells, an impregnable wall between them.

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In their morning bed, Khorshid makes a film within the film, recording the beauty of his beloved with his smart phone, so we — in the place of the camera eye, Khorshid’s eye — are invited to behold the pulpy-lipped beloved Aban. “When I see beauty I have to record it,” says Khorshid. Thus so do we. It is, after all, essential we fall a little in love before the lovers are torn asunder.

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How then does one make a viewer fall in love in less than a handful of minutes? This kind of romantic love, the melodramatic (in the film genre sense), requires a keen attention to time. Even the lovers are in neighbouring cells, even though they can hear one another’s voices, they will, very likely, never see one another again. Time is up. Linda Williams describes this in “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” as the “too late” of melodrama. She references the Italian critic Franco Moretti who “has argued, for example, that literature that makes us cry operates via a special manipulation of temporality . . . at the precise moment when desire is finally recognized as futile.”

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Williams adds that in Moretti’s analysis of the genre, there is a tension between what we desire and an incompatible reality. “Pathos is a surrender to reality but it is a surrender that pays homage to the ideal that tried to wage war on it” (Moretti, 1983, 179). Moretti then stresses a subversive, utopian component in what has often been considered a form of passive powerlessness.” For Aban and Khorshid, that ideal is romantic love.

And it is too late, but it’s also something else. The scenes on the bed remind me of the end of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. Noé’s entire film is built to shock and create discomfort, but the film ends with the beginning: a man and a woman naked in bed, expansive, endless lovers’ moments before all the destruction to come. Moments we have already seen thanks to the film’s reversed chronology.

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We have the awareness of “too late” thanks to the frame of the narrative, but inside that we have the small moments of fullness and denial of time that are the lovers’ domain, their amorous prerogative. These remind me of Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse discussing “the amorous embrace”: “Besides intercourse . . . there is that other embrace, which is a motionless cradling: we are enchanted, bewitched: we are in the realm of sleep, without sleeping . . . this is the moment for telling stories, the moment of the voice, which takes me, siderates me. . . everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted, nothing is wanted: all desires are abolished, for they seem definitively fulfilled” (104). Noé’s naked lovers, Serink’s playful men waking up, eating, chatting in love. These quiet thrumming, full moments abolish time.

What both Irreversible and “ABAN + KHORSHID” share then is this double sense of time: a frame where time is running out around a core where time is suspended. So the film structure encourages us not just to be desiring subjects, but amorous ones, holding on to sweet full time that we know is already gone. “Time destroys everything” reads the title card at the end of Irreversible. Yet “ABAN + KHORSHID” lets the sweet triumph a little over the bitter.

The film was inspired by the photos of two young men, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, that circulated in Western media in 2005, outraging LGBT rights groups. The two men were condemned for allegedly raping a 13-year-old boy, though many were skeptical and argued that they two young men were being persecuted for being gay.

Regardless of the controversy, the photos are arresting. Haunting. The boys in their clean shirts, blindfolded, looking ready for school.

Serink’s tale takes only the idea of persecution, elaborating from that a story of one lover showing the other that the prison walls cannot hold them, can’t cause them to despair and lose their love. Khorshid is the one who adores, the one who knows he has to show Aban that their love is limitless. The story would not have worked with two boys, both despairing. In this sense we share Aban’s struggle to not suffer since he cannot see the beloved, and we share Khorshid’s deep desire to help Aban see that despite that wall they are still in love. This is the subversive, utopian force that Moretti pointed to.

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“ABAN + KHORSHID” has screened at over forty film festivals world wide and won many prizes.

–R. W. Gray

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Feb 142016
 

Ben Jelloun

Although Ben Jellouns writing is simple and straightforward, he does take chances in structure and effect. The narrative shape of The Happy Marriage is corrugated and layered—like the broken and fretful marriage it depicts. It is problematized by withheld information and the character’s anguish and paranoia. —Jason DeYoung

the Happy marriage
The Happy Marriage
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Melville House, 2016
$25.95

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“If we knew what went on between women and men,” Mavis Gallant once said, “we wouldn’t need literature.” This quotation played over in my mind as I read The Happy Marriage, a novel that at times I thought uninspired and clichéd (albeit self-aware of it), and yet at other moments heartbreaking and authentic. The Happy Marriage is about that most ancient and indefatigable topic: betrayal. Only in The Happy Marriage we glimpse it through the eyes of a man and woman during social changes in Moroccan laws and customs, when men no longer hold all the power to determine when a marriage has ended, and when women are enacting more control over their own lives.

Born in Morocco in 1944, Tahar Ben Jelloun was the first North African writer to win the Prix Goncourt Prize for his novel The Sacred Night (1987) and has been short listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of over fifteen novels, he’s is best known for a trilogy about the life of Ahmde/Zahra, a girl who is raised in Morocco as a boy. More recently, he won The International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel This Blinding Absence of Light (2000), a novel that depicts the real-life, twenty-three-year prison sentence of a survivor of King Hassan II’s desert concentration camp, where political enemies were kept in lightless, underground cells with little food or water. Most of his novels, however, are more like The Happy Marriage, preoccupied by the daily life and relationships between men and women in Muslim society. They often focus on escaping its dogmas (Leaving Tangiers) or returning to its comforts (The Palace in the Old Village).

Ben Jelloun lists the typical Western pantheon of influences—Joyce, Cervantes, Pessoa. But he is on record of saying that he doesn’t really identify with other writers, “rather with certain filmmakers: Orson Wells, Federico Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni.” These cinematic influences inform nearly all of is fiction, generally through one of his characters being a movie aficionado. He does, however, state in interviews that Jean Genet, who he knew in the 1970s, gave him one piece of important advice, which Ben Jelloun has followed: “When you are writing, think of the reader, be simple,” Genet advised.

Although Ben Jellouns writing is simple and straightforward, he does take chances in structure and effect. The narrative shape of The Happy Marriage is corrugated and layered—like the broken and fretful marriage it depicts. It is problematized by withheld information and the character’s anguish and paranoia. It is novel in two parts—one male, the other female. Part One is entitled “The Man Who Loved Women Too Much” and Part Two is “My Version of Events: A response to The Man Who Loved Women Too Much.” It’s a tit-for-tat kind of book, similar to another of Ben Jelloun’s novels, The Last Friend (2006).

Part One is the man’s side of things. Known only as the painter, his narrative opens in Casablanca, February 4, 2000. He is bedridden after a stroke, and he is unable to paint. At one time he was a celebrated artist, but now he lives out his days being cared for by a pair of twins who helps him get a round, and is visited by Imane, a physiotherapist, who is helping him regain muscle control. It is a portrait of an invalid that Ben Jelloun presents, but the painter’s mind is still alive, vivid, and over the course of the first part of the novel, he reflect back over his life, dwelling mostly on his unhappy marriage.

At first the marriage is indeed a happy one. The painter and his bride are very much in love. They are, however, from two different strata of Moroccan society (he from something higher than she), and there is also fourteen-year difference in their ages (he is 38; she is 24). “Nobody present [at their wedding] had been happy, apart from the painter and his wife,” we are told. “Nobody had wanted them to get married. One had to be absolutely crazy to want to bring such different worlds together.”

It’s difficult for the painter to trace the beginnings of their marital troubles, saying, “once their son was born, his wife gained a great deal of confidence and her attitude and behavior underwent a vast transformation.” Slowly the small moments of martial discord become a stridency of outrages and indignities. The wife is portrayed as irascible, irrational, and prone to fits. The painter freely confesses to a multitude of affairs, some as short as one night, others that went on for years, followed with heartbreak. Yet, he never sees himself completely in the wrong: “At no point did the painter feel guilty,” we’re told. “He was doing nothing wrong, he was simply looking for some equilibrium outside of his marriage, which only functioned intermittently.”

What’s not revealed until late in the novel is that the painter’s section is being written by an amateur writer, who visits the painter regularly during his convalesce. The two friends chat, the writer types and polishes (reshapes, I often wondered) the story the painter has told, and the pages are kept in the painter’s safe. It is this manuscript—in which the painter blames his wife for all his misery and illness—that the wife finds and prompts her to pen her response.

Part Two is a first-person narrative and a rejoinder to the painter’s side of the story. Unlike the painter who never reveals his own identity, the wife proudly states her name—Amina Wakrine. In comparison to the painter, Amina doesn’t seem to shy from her flaws. Her first words sum up how she sees herself: “Before giving you my version of events, I must warn you that I am nasty.” The wife has a cold eye for herself and for others. What we learn from her more clinical approach to the story of their marriage is that the painter, whom she calls Foulane, an Arabic word used to refer to “any old guy,” is that their marriage had more complexity that he revealed. Yes, there were the infidelities, but also he withheld money from her, despite earning more than enough from his paintings. But his family—not the one he created with Amina, but his siblings—was always his first concern, and he made his wife and children live off a small allowance.

For a while we take the wife’s side of the story as truer—both her petty and principal complaints seem more sincere than the husband’s—until she begins to edge into paranoia, and rants about all the evil spells she believes the painter’s family have cast on her:

Foulane said he didn’t believe in such things, but I had proof that the women in his family were using sorcery against me… I cleaned the house from top to bottom. My friends helped me and we found little packets wrapped in tin foil all over the house, tucked under each bed and inside the toilets. The house was overrun by spells designed to make me ill.

And just like in the painter’s half, we begin to doubt her integrity. Suspicious spreads like an epidemic in this work.

The end of the novel leaves us with our own decision to make (if we care to, that is). Who’s right? Who’s wrong? In both parts, we have common statements of awareness:

While he’d never necessarily wanted his wife to one day grow docile and submissive, he had always harbored a secret hope that she would at least become loving and obliging, calm and reasonable, in short, a wife who could help him build a family life and then share it with him. It had been his dream. But he’d been misguided and he had instead oppressed his wife, forgetting to acknowledge his share of responsibility for that failure. (The Painter)

My mistake was to think people can change. None of us change, not least of which a man who’s already lived out most of his life… (The Wife)

Clearly, both narrators are flawed, and Ben Jelloun does a fine job of not betraying loyalty or agreement with one character over the other—unless you equate giving the wife the last word as consensus. In a Paris Review interview with Ben Jelloun, he says that his “job is not to give answers or to find solutions, but to ask questions, to testify in a human situation….[to] tell a story in hopes that it will incite reflection, provoke thought.” If provoking thought is his goal, I feel he’s done so. As I sit here parsing out this book, I keep coming back to the fact that I just don’t like these characters, neither one. The painter is an ass; the wife is mentally cracked. But then, why do I think these things? Why do I judge them so harshly?

The novel is keenly aware of the changing tensions between men and women in Moroccan society. Often the painter’s section reeks of chauvinism, while the wife’s section smartly leans in a more feminist direction. The infidelities and betrayals, which are damaging yet described quite rightly as “banal,” are in some ways pretense to show the changing political values. Whereas a lesser novelist might have chosen younger characters to portray this change, Ben Jelloun chooses middle-age characters, those whom perhaps would feel the change more intensely. Amina acknowledges “in our culture, a woman who cheats on her husband no longer has any rights, everyone thinks badly of her, even if she was victimized by a lying, violent husband.” Thusly, she enacts her revenge through the changed marriage laws, refusing to divorce the painter, stating:

I’ll never leave Foulane, I’ll never leave him alone. He has to assume his responsibilities. I couldn’t care less about his health, mood or state of mind. I’ll never stop hating him so long as my thirst for revenge isn’t quenched. One day I’ll rebuild my life, but not before he’s paid the price. So long as he refuses to atone for what he’d done to me, or publicly confess in front of everyone, I’ll revue to let go! I’m too proud to leave him. I’m full of hate, and if anyone were to shake me, drops of poison would inevitably fall out.

If this is a happy marriage, it’s not a sense of happiness that many will identity as such. Despite their early nuptial contentment, these are two miserable people, made so by life, ego, family, and conflicting desires and ambitions. One of the tropes that Ben Jelloun uses in the novel is montage: the painter dives deep in his memory, pulling images of the women he loved up and remembering their time together. The Happy Marriage in many ways is part of montage of unhappy marriages that I’ve seen, and perhaps you’ve seen, too. I can’t say this is a good place to start reading Ben Jelloun in English—I’d give that to The Last Friend or Leaving Tangiers. But what The Happy Marriage does do well is give us a solid portrait of two flawed individuals, and their example, one can only hope, might help to make the next marriage a happier one.

—Jason DeYoung

 

Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Feb 132016
 

GerryBeirne

A word of introduction: “What a River Remembers of its Course” is a story from NC Senior Editor Gerard Beirne’s brand new story collection In a Time of Drought and Hunger just out with Oberon Press in Ottawa. Gerry and his wife Eilish, when they first came to live in Canada from Ireland, moved to Norway House in northern Manitoba. The stories in this book stem from that experience, the north, the alienation of the people (native and poor whites) from the land, the poverty, and the isolation. Oberon is a great old  Canadian Press. They have published two books of mine and continue to publish the annual Best Canadian Stories volume, which I used to edit. “What a River Remembers of its Course” is the story of a river and a dam and a native protest occupation told from the perspective of a white man who came north to build the dam and married a native woman who later died, the dam, the protest and the marriage forging a mesh of relations, guilt, and responsibility, the peculiar fraught moral climate of the colonial north.

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Drought and Hunger from pdf-large

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eo could tell you about the dam being a run-of-river structure. He could explain how the water flow is used immediately instead of forming a forebay upstream. He could talk about the spillway adjacent to the powerhouse, the five thirteen metre square steel gates, each over one metre thick with heaters fitted inside their hollow interiors to prevent freezing and condensation. Each gate, he might add proudly, weighed over one hundred tonnes. He could tell you those things over a mug of tea at his kitchen table or he could tell you them while standing on the granite shield fishing for pickerel or while out in the forest hunting late winter moose. What he couldn’t explain was the group of over one hundred protesters who had marched almost twenty kilometres from their small remote community, the same one Loretta had been from, to the dam to occupy it.

He heard the commotion first as he left the powerhouse on his afternoon break. The protesters were marching in a long procession through the gates, singing and beating drums, holding up homemade banners. One man at the front carried the tribal flag and two others a large cardboard sign that Leo later found out was an over-sized eviction notice. He recognised the Chief and some of the other people from the community. Although not at the front, it was hard to miss Mervin, a relative of Loretta’s. He was six and a half feet tall and wore his long black shoulder-length hair in a ponytail.

Leo went back inside to advise the other workers – the operators, distributers, dispatchers, supervisors, technicians, and maintenance staff. They came out after him to watch as the plant manager and several security officers went forward to speak with the protesters. The Chief handed over the eviction notice and ordered the staff to leave immediately. The RCMP were called while the manager tried to negotiate, but by mid-afternoon only key personnel remained. The other staff had left under police escort. The housing complex was locked and the tribal flag raised above it. Leo, a maintenance supervisor, was one of the few permitted to stay.

 

“It’s going to be a peaceful protest,” Mervin told him when he went over to speak with him that first evening. “But we are digging in for a long occupation.” A teepee was being erected on the grass beside the powerhouse where he and Mervin stood. A few young men were building a fire off to the side. A sacred fire, Mervin explained. A lone drum struggled to be heard against the water surging through the spillway.

“Is there no other way to resolve this?” Leo asked.

“We have tried doing it their way. We have sat around their tables and signed their pieces of paper but still no benefits have flowed to us. They violate our Treaty rights and hide behind lawsuits. They have polluted our waters, destroyed our land, disrupted our way of life, left us only despair. It is time for us to take charge, assert our rights.”

Leo understood this. Loretta had suffered the same indignities. When she fell from the boat and slipped beneath the murky water, did not every indignity since the beginning of creation attach itself to her body and weigh her down?

“You do what you have to do,” he said and walked back to the office.

 

Despite the enormity of the structure, there was only so much regulation of the water levels of the lake the dam could control. No amount of concrete and steel could fully compensate for wind and precipitation. Ongoing erosion heavily impacted the shoreline. During high winds, Leo had heard of there being as much as an eight foot difference between the north and south basins, and due to its shallow depth the water was impeded from circulating back to the windward side of the lake, piling up instead on the leeward side. Furthermore, the north end of the lake was experiencing post-glacial rebound from the huge weight of the ice-sheets that had existed there thousands of years before. The land gradually rising back upwards, the lake slowly tilting from the north and moving southward.

It had been necessary to excavate the spillway and powerhouse channels through solid granite bedrock. A year later the first concrete was poured. Leo remembered it vividly. He was barely nineteen. That was almost forty years ago. Forty years that had flowed past like the water through the dam. Years that had been diverted, regulated even. Years that had been stored up and then let go. It had taken six of those years to get all of the generating units up and running. Leo was twenty-five by then. Loretta was twenty-three. She was thirty-six when she toppled from the boat and was swept downriver into the log-boom that prevented debris from entering the intake gates. The found her body trapped between the mounds of piled up logs looking for all the world as though she was clinging on for dear life.

Loretta started work as a cook in the camp about three years after Leo arrived. Her family were wary of the dam, the effects it might have upon them, but they were given assurances by the government and the company, and, besides, you take whatever work you get, Loretta told him. “My grandfather worked for the Hudson Bay Company.” She shrugged. “It provided food for his family, my father.”

For almost a year, Leo sat at his table in the camp and watched her while he ate the food that she had prepared, and for almost a year she sometimes watched him back. Tables of men, young and old, chewing and swallowing, talking loudly, swearing and laughing, belching. Their coarse talk and their rough hands swollen from manual labour. Leo’s skinny frame filling out with muscle and flesh. His mild manners peppered with grains of crudity.

“She likes you,” Glenn said. He was almost ten years older than Leo. His wife lived down south with their two young children. Glenn drove an excavator. The work was dangerous, but he didn’t think about that. He couldn’t afford to, he would have answered if he was asked.

They were finishing off their breakfast. Grits and gravy. Leo felt himself blush. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn said. He washed his food down with a mouthful of coffee, picked at a back tooth. “All the food you can eat.”

“I’m not interested,” Leo lied.

Glenn looked him right in the eye. “Course you’re not.” He nodded, pushed his plate into the centre of the table “Why would you be?” He stood up, burped. “You’re a young man. You’ve got the whole world in your grasp, isn’t that so?”

Leo wasn’t sure how to respond, but Glenn stood there as though waiting for a response.

“I mean, she is nice,” Leo said, “but…”

“That’s right,” Glenn said. “But….” He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “The whole fucking world.” He sighed heavily, looked past Leo now.

“I’m not saying…” Leo said.

“What I’m saying is that I’ve got children half your age.” He abruptly gathered up his cup, his plate and cutlery. “Now if you don’t mind, there is some earth out there I’ve got to go dig great big holes into.”

Leo sat there after he left. Loretta was somewhere out of sight. He had no real idea how he had ended up where he was, in the middle of nowhere, shut off from the world by trees and inhospitable land. How was it that people were living here? Glenn was right. He would talk to Loretta, suggest that they take a walk together after they were both done their day’s work. A walk amongst the trees or by the banks of the formidable river. That was what people did, was it not?

 

Leo liked to find older cutovers, areas that still had some woody browse but offered cover and protection, small pocket cutovers that were a little further off the beaten track. The thick stuff at the back down impassible winter roads. At that time of year, moose tended to group up. He often found several together in search of food. Leo would survey the trampled snow, the damaged brush, and maybe then the outline of a bull moose a few hundred yards away, the two feet of antlers looping out from each side of its head, the heart stopping moment, the adrenalin pumping through the veins. The bull might still be in the back of the cut, Leo getting glimpses of it through the trees trying to draw it out with bull grunts and then it disappearing inside the bush line.

After the rut tapers off in late October, the moose hole-up. There are some who think they are drained by the rut, but Leo believed they were simply transitioning into their wintering areas. In any case, there is a lull. When Loretta was alive, Leo and she would fill that lull by making love. At least, that is how Leo remembers it. But Leo knows his memory is not dependable anymore. What, he wonders, does a river remember of its course? If Loretta had lived, there would have been children by now. They would be grown. But instead Loretta had stood up to cast her line and she had lost her footing somehow, and Leo was distracted lowering the block of metal he used as an anchor.

 

Leo would stop and talk with Mervin every few days. The Chief was trying to come to some agreement with the company and the Province. Mervin would tell him what he knew about the progress being made, if any, and Leo would let him know the mood of the workers, but mostly they talked about the fishing and the hunting, the way things had changed since the construction of the dam. The good and the bad. They would talk about the geese migration, and they would talk about people they knew in common. People from Mervin and Loretta’s community. They did not talk about Loretta, at least not at first, but as the protest, the occupation, went on over weeks, Leo knew that Loretta’s name which had been far upriver was drifting nearer and nearer.

 

Mervin was related in some way to Loretta. Leo never really knew how. She had endless relations none of which he understood clearly.

“Surely it is the same for you,” Loretta had said one time, but Leo could not say it was.

“I know most of my cousins, but after that…” He held his hands up in uncertainty. “We are spread far and wide. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario.”

“We live next door.” Loretta smiled. “I do have a distant cousin who moved to North Dakota. Someday we will go and visit him.”

Leo thought of this while speaking to Mervin. He had never been to North Dakota, and he did not think he ever would go now.

 

It was the fifth week of the occupation when Loretta’s name swept in upon the shore. Tensions were getting high. A truck, with parts and equipment, had tried to pass through the blockade without permission. The driver had been pulled from his cab. Punches had been thrown. Leo had gone forward to try and help calm things down. Mervin, all six and a half feet of him, was already standing between the driver and the group of angry protestors by the time Leo got there. It took forty five minutes of negotiations for the parts and equipment to be unloaded and the driver to get back in his truck and drive away.

Leo walked over to Mervin to thank him for his intervention, but Mervin was angry, infuriated by what had just occurred. “He need not think,” he said referring to the driver, “that he can trespass on our land whenever he feels fit to.” His voice was raised, his eyes glowering at Leo. And then he pointed his finger at him. “You know which side Loretta would be standing on if she was here. You know.”

Although Leo had for a long time been expecting this, he was nevertheless caught by surprise. Not just by the mention of Loretta’s name but the overwhelming rush of his own inner turmoil, the dam gate release of emotion. He stood there on the gravel road with the river in the background and the vast concrete walls that held it back and the endless forest of trees overshadowing all and Mervin fuming in front of him pointing his finger and Loretta, and Loretta, being washed up as if for the very first time. Leo felt his knees weaken and his legs begin to shake. And in the cascade, other accidents and other corpses. Tom Farrell who had been crushed when the large concrete wall section being swung into place had swung wide, and Michael Simmons, barely eighteen, who slipped from the scaffolding on the spillway, and Ed Williams who was struck by a steel crossbar while removing a roof from a Quonset that had housed concrete, and all the others who suffered tragic misfortunes and succumbed to their deaths at once.

There have been long periods of time over the years when Leo did not think of Loretta, weeks on end, maybe months if he was being truthful, and then something would bring her back to mind. When he first realised this he felt guilty, as though he had somehow let her down, even more so by how he had let her down by turning away to lower the anchor. But the thing was, and he knew this now, that Loretta was always in his mind even if not in a conscious way. There was no thought he had or action he made that Loretta did not influence. The general course of his life she had gouged out in front of him, and he was just following along.

Mervin was wrong. Leo did not know what side Loretta would be standing on. He could not determine the course of her life as clearly as he could his. Hers had taken an irreversible diversion after all.

 

When Leo and Loretta were first married, they moved back to Loretta’s community and lived there with her brother and his wife and three children. It was not ideal but, as Loretta said, it was a start. They could not afford their own house just yet, and this after all was Loretta’s home. She had lived there all of her life. Being white, not everyone welcomed Leo’s relationship to Loretta. Her grandparents on her mother’s side both disapproved. Her grandmother on her father’s side also disapproved, but her grandfather did not. Her mother said she understood, but Loretta thought that she probably did not. Her father said it was none of his business. “He is a hard worker. That’s good enough for me.” Leo was a hard worker. He helped his in-laws with cutting wood, hauling it, stacking it. He rode his skidoo and his ATV on their behalves. He worked on the engines of their vehicles. In time he was accepted.

Each day he and Loretta drove the nineteen kilometres to work. They talked about their plans for their own home together, about banalities, work details, and they sat in silence too and thought about those things that people think about in their lives that they scarcely remember later.

After the dam was built and the short-term construction jobs dried up, Leo moved into maintenance and Loretta was put in charge of keeping the lodgings for the workers clean. She was one of the few from her community still employed there. “We push brooms and fill plates,” she said.

They eventually got their own house about halfway between Loretta’s community and the dam. A small house not far from the river with a dirt road access. They got a boat, and they fished the river and nearby lakes. And if the accident had not occurred…

 

“We are not asking that the dams be removed,” Mervin said. Leo had stopped by the fire to talk with him before leaving for the day. One of the protesters would open up the blockade later, permit him to drive through. “We only ask that they apologize for the wrongs and make amends. Our people are frustrated, angry, but equally determined. This is not easy for anyone. Being away from family. The nights are cold and long.”

“Why not stay in the lodgings? You have them under lock and key.”

Mervin shook his head. “We have stayed in too many of the white man’s lodgings. No more.”

“Do you want me to leave and not return?” Leo asked. “Maybe I am now ready to do that.”

“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before. What is here is not going away.”

A young woman and a small boy approached the fire. She did not look like Loretta, but still he was reminded of her. Mervin shrugged. “There were many of our people who worked on the dam during its construction. You do what you have to do to survive.”

Unlike Mervin, the woman was too young to remember what the land had looked like before the flooding, and yet here she was. Leo put his hand in his jacket pocket and cradled the car keys. Could it be said, he wondered, that Loretta had survived?

It was time to go. He would walk to his car now and drive back to the house that he and she had built together.

 

When Leo and Loretta got their house by the river, they thought then that this was it, that they had reached a place in their lives where they were finally located, a place they would never wish to leave. The water flowed past their front door unobstructed, and it seemed to them that their life together was unobstructed also. They fished the waters and trapped along the water’s edges. Leo took his gun and hunted in the forest and in the skies. They drove the dirt roads and the snow-covered roads to and from their work at the dam, leaving in the early light of dawn and returning in the fading light of dusk. Loretta skidded off the road one time and ended up buried deep in the snow. She had to climb out through her side-window and walk the three miles remaining back to their home. She cried when Leo pulled her in towards him and put his large arms around her. There was no damage done to her or the vehicle, and if there was a hidden fault within their relationship, the shock of the accident and Leo’s comforting of her later surely repaired it. But despite all of this, when Loretta drowned, Leo would often think that they only had gotten their due. It was not necessarily something he had been aware of as he worked to build and maintain the dam, but deep down within him he had always known that there would be a price to pay. Even when he had travelled north for the first time, he had known he was not of the place, that in some way he was an impediment upon it. Initially in his relationship with Loretta he had thought this too, that he was an impediment to her. “I am not truly welcome by your family,” he said after first meeting them. “At best I am tolerated.” “We are who we are,” she reminded him. “That’s all there is to it.” And later, “there were white people in my family before.” When she drowned, he knew there were many of her relatives and friends who blamed him entirely, and he could not fault them for that.

Loretta and he had stood at their door and watched the river hurry past them. They had tried to stand their ground.

 

The skeleton crew of workers could hear the steady beat of the drumming as they went about their work. Leo tried to avoid the conversations that denounced the protest. Like everyone else, he wanted it to end as quickly as possible, for his life to return to wherever it had been before this interruption, but unlike his co-workers he wanted it to end in such a way that everyone was content with its outcome, that both sides could be accommodated, the gaps between them bridged. They spoke callously before him as though Loretta had never existed or as if uncaring that they might give offence. He felt certain that the beat of the drums that they heard were of a different rhythm to ones that sounded in his ears.

Loretta had heard plenty of abusive talk when she was working there too. There was no manner of insult she had not endured.

“We are an evolving species,” she told Leo on one occasion. “In our case, our skin has grown thicker over the centuries. They can say what they like about me or my people. It is they who grow weaker, become defenceless. Ultimately it is they who will die out.”

“Does that include me?” he had asked.

He remembered how she had looked at him with a mixture of surprise and disappointment. “You and I may not be the same, but we are not that different.”

That is what he wanted to tell his co-workers, we are not that different. There is nothing that the protesters are asking for that we would not expect. They have no anger that we too would not feel, that we would not wish to express.

 

Leo’s parents died two years apart, down South, twenty-three years after the construction of the dam. He had seen them maybe three or four times a year at most after moving up North. They were only a few hundred miles away but worlds’ apart. He had a sister married in a neighbouring town to his home town who had visited their parents almost weekly, a brother who still lived and worked at home. When Leo and Loretta got married none of his family travelled up for the wedding. Instead they waited to celebrate almost two months later when Leo and Loretta came to them. His father in particular was proud of him for the work he had done on the dam, his brother in his own way too, his mother pleased because his father was proud. His sister had no feelings about it in one way or another. You take work wherever you get it.

What is more, they did not travel up for the funeral either. They sent their condolences by phone. Leo although saddened understood this. There was a forest, a granite shield, expansive lakes, heaving rivers, a harsh climate separating them. White-water rapids, portages too arduous to undertake. A people who did not resemble them with a language they could not understand.

He had dialled their telephone number and waited for someone to answer. He wished it could be his brother or preferably his sister. Instead his father had picked up the phone. At least not his mother.

“Loretta is gone,” was what Leo said.

At first there was silence, and then his father replied, “Gone where?”

“She drowned.”

And still the white-water rapids were impassible and the portages too difficult.

“Drowned?”

“She’s dead.”

The forest was thick and dense and unmapped. The lakes and rivers unnavigable. The words strange and incomprehensible.

“Dead?”

Leo’s one wish was that she had died upstream of the dam, that her body had never been recovered.

“I could have lived with that,” he told Mervin on the last day of the protest, after the Province and the Chief finally came to an agreement.

Mervin nodded as though he understood.

 

Here is what no one else knew. Two weeks after Loretta drowned, Leo drove out to the dam in the middle of the night. He parked his car facing the spillway and let the beams from his headlights light it up. He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at the scene made visible by his lights as though he were at some huge outdoor theatre. He looked at the massive rectangular concrete and steel supports the spillway gates were hydraulically hoisted up and down upon to regulate the water’s flow, and he watched the rapid white-water that poured through them. Further up, unseen beneath the surface, water streamed through the intake and around the turbines underneath the generating station before emerging from the draft tubes to calmly reform as a river once more. Was it possible, he wondered, that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts, withheld and released, expending its energy to empower someone else’s world and then be brought back together again as a whole to carry on as if nothing had altered at all?

He stepped out of his car leaving the driver’s door open and walked towards the lower road that ran along the spillway. The lights from the station gave just enough visibility to carefully make his way. The shield, the spruce and brush to one side, the upper main road across the dam on the other. He heard a rustling in the brush and stopped, wondering if it might be a bear. He waited in the near-dark but hearing nothing more walked cautiously on. He passed along the back of the spillway, its towering support walls and gates rising to his left. The noise of the swiftly flowing water sounded oddly like radio static at high volume. He walked past and down behind the generating station, leaned over the protective railing and stared into the gushing water. If her body had broken free of the wood held back by the boom, it would have been swept mercilessly through the intake and around the turbine to be shredded in the furiously spinning blades before being discharged. Was it possible that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts and brought back together again? What no one else knew is that as he leaned over the railing he thought to find out the answer to that. Back up on the gravel and dirt, his car’s engine was still running, the driver’s door was wide open, and the lights splayed their beams uselessly.

 

Glenn, the one who had first encouraged him to talk to Loretta, was another casualty of the dam when he was just weeks away from retirement. He was hauling dirt to stablise the shores when the slope he was driving on gave out and his truck fell into the river with a million cubic yards of dirt. His Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox floated to the surface eventually, but his body was never found. At his memorial, Glenn’s son brought the recovered Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox in proxy of the body. There were others who had died from blasting, falling rocks, electrocution, heavy equipment accidents, and drowning of course. Exhaustion, pneumonia, heart trouble. Most of the deaths got a line or two in local papers if that.

Loretta’s got little more. She may never have existed as far as the outer world was concerned, Leo thought. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn had said except Leo had let her fall through his fingers.

After she died, he threw himself into his work, taking on extra shifts, overtime. Often he stayed overnight at the lodgings. The house was empty without her. He would go back to her community to visit the grave occasionally but rarely visited with her family. He had done more harm to them than the government ever had. He had flooded them with grief.

Instead Leo made a memorial to her down from the house on the shore of the river and laid a few of her belongings there in place of her body.

 

In the dull evening light, a group of around twenty people either sat on folding chairs or stood around the fire in pants, winter jackets, toques, hoodies, and gloves. Men, women and children. Young and old. One elderly man stacked tall logs against one another over the flames as if he was about to burn the frame of a small teepee. Meanwhile people entered and left the white canvas teepee over by the powerhouse. Despite the cold, the overcast sky, there was loud talk and laughter. Leo could tell that something was in the air. He went over to speak to Mervin.

“We have signed a memorandum of agreement,” Mervin said. “We are negotiating a settlement. But there is a lot to be discussed yet. The locks will not come off until the agreement is finalised and an official apology is delivered. But at least we are on a path forward now.”

“Good.” Leo like most was eager for the occupation to end.

 

That night as he had stood at the edge of the dam contemplating joining Loretta in the water, Leo looked back to the strand of trees where he had heard the rustling earlier. An animal had emerged from the trees and was standing in the near dark as a large shadowy outline on the granite shield. As Leo watched, it turned its head and its massive antlers, and green reflective eyes made themselves visible. Leo stared at the bull moose and saw himself within it – a lonely creature waiting on the call of a female that might not come. The moose stood observing Leo for a few moments then backed up, turned and disappeared again into the dark.

“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before,” Mervin had said. Leo knew he was right, there was no going back. The moose that had sensed Leo’s presence and returned to the darkness was no longer the same one that had stepped out of it in the first instance. The river could not reverse its course and flow back the way it had come. The young man, a boy really, who had gone north in the first place could at best stand there momentarily before stepping forward precariously into the uncertain future.

—Gerard Beirne

 

Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1999. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. What a River Remembers of its Course is from his recent collection of short-stories, In a Time of Drought and Hunger. He has published three novels including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His short story Sightings of Bono was adapted for film featuring Bono (U2).

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Feb 132016
 

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It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. —Jeff Bursey

Matches_Cover_Front_Mockup_07182015

Matches: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
Punctum
Paper, 538 pp., $25.00
9780692540732

I

An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. The pyrotechnics continue on the copyright page—that overlooked dead leaf in most books (would that there existed a work made up solely of idiosyncratic copyright pages)—where Punctum states:

This work carries a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license, which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors (but not in a way that suggests the authors or punctum endorses you and your work), you do not use this work for commercial gain in any form whatsoever, and that for any remixing and transformation, you distribute your rebuild under the same license.

Anything goes, then, this book is practically a box or kit filled with gears and levers, you can make out of its contents a soapbox racer or a towering edifice to Marxism, a paean to the life of the public intellectual or a scrap with philosopher-sociologist Bruno Latour, and the book performs its own self-transubstantiation from the top line on the back cover where booksellers are aided in commodifying it by the heading “Philosophy/Essays,” like that first word will propel sales or encapsulate the pith of Matches by offering a partial truth—a fragment of the truth—of what Chrostowska has achieved, for what we have here is a multi-sided work: the unnamed narrator (hereafter referred to as N.) as a goad, as a cynic despairing of humanity’s chances, watching while the world comes to a slow and distasteful end, and occasionally winking at this or that outrageous statement. (Who’s to say that essays can’t be spoken by a persona?) The decline is presented in stages, with themes, walk-on parts for minor figures, costumes (verbal dressing of arguments), and sharp attacks (verbal dressing downs). “Before you level at me the charge of inkhorn writer, you must try to understand my reason for choosing ‘bookish words’: they remind me there used to be such things as books” (“Inkhorn”).

Nostalgia, sentiment (not sentimentality), days of golden glory long gone to rust, a cultural milieu fast disappearing, a long battle with inanition and lowering standards—what is this all for? While it contains philosophy, Matches is more an intellectual biography of a fractious mind in contact with long-standing and current crises engendered by politics and science as well as fads and paradigm shifts, sparing scant glances at the stuff of the sensory world. Real people are almost absent, and when they are encountered it’s dramatic and disturbing:

As the bus pulled into the station at the end of the line, I took a tactical position and, passing him, ran my shoulder into his—instantly realizing, however, that my puniness may have left the wrong impression (of an accident, not deliberate aggression). Fearing cowardice and loss of composure, with shame already coming on, I turned around to give him one final look with all the urgency I could muster. (“Angel of Death”)

Instead of a moment of significant impact there is an instance of insubstantiality. Wispiness of N.’s physical self, a life that does not include many descriptions of meals, surfing, broken bones, or guitars, is countered by vigorous cerebral activity. But to be as precise as N., the scene of his running into a man dressed in the regalia of a Nazi SS officer is as vaporous as this: “It is a comforting thought that the extremes of good and
evil as we knew them are a thing of the past, that in our attention-deficit economy good and evil are losing their edge, growing closer together” (“The Gulf of Inattention”). We pause to take in both the humour and the sting. Yet there’s nothing actually going on beyond the press of ink on paper; nothing has happened. Despite the acknowledged limitations of the page Matches makes clear a larger world lies beyond it. But it’s not a safe place, as N. notes: “No scaffold is too elevated for a writer’s execution. He has come into being as a public figure, and it is only fitting that he be helped to die as one” (“Literary Public Execution).

II

Matches has seven sections: Proem (a kind of preface), Books I-V, and Paralipomena (defined as things omitted but added as a supplement). Proem as a whole is a joy to read aloud, and here is the first paragraph:

I had a vision of a book that shed light. A torch book to light my way. A comet book, its luminous tail to leave a trace for me. Its brightness so intense that closing it submerged whoever broke it open in deeper darkness than before. I fancied a kind of sempiternal flame that shot up again as one resumed where one had left off.

Notice the small steps that lead from a personal light to an object “whoever” can use, and then the subtly implied external (and therefore potentially larger) audience of “one” that may find illumination in what’s to come. Attention to assonance and consonance in service to both the embrace of a widening audience and an abiding metaphor persists to the book’s final, slippery words: “Endings: Can be eelusory.”

The bulk of Matches contains threads of discussion, picked up and dropped as N. loses interest, on writing and books, indigenous people, the pursuit of knowledge, Utopia and what that recurrent idea says about the world we inhabit, sensitivity, art, and dreams, but these categories only hint at what resides in this book. Here are random examples:

This work of art may have been made by your neighbour, but in it he seems a stranger. (“Work of Exception”)

What, at base, is resentment, if not the need for equality clumsily expressed? (“Resentment”)

Nature seems never
 to have cared less for our micro-minded designs for self-preservation than in our present age. Twice marked, once wise, we make do in the killing fields without admitting this bleak and ageist thought. And our horrid work isn’t exactly getting any easier. But when our turn comes, let’s not flatter one another. It is nature that pulls the trigger—not in our name, no, but in its own. (“Sapiens sapiens, or Nil Admirari”)

Matches is a work that is replete with fragmentation, a literary incendiary device that changes a marathon reading to a deliberate exercise in sifting cultural rubble. “What do all these fragments have in common?” asks N. “What unites them? Or is their fragmentariness meant to point us in the direction of the titular ‘threshold’?” (“Cannonball”) That question isn’t directed inwards; it’s left to readers to discern what we can from the one-liners, the puns, the pastiches, the wry tone, and the longer considerations of this or that topic. Perhaps figuring out the narrator might help the book cohere.

III

What is N.’s nature? I built in my mind over the course of 450 pages the following figure: a garrulous aunt you primarily see at weddings, funerals, and festive celebrations, stationed by the food, drink in hand but not drunk, a little shorter than average, maybe known as Madge, peppery, quick-tongued, cognitively aware, and unafraid to say what came to mind, a woman wearily aware of the passing of time and the ends of things, nearer to pessimism than meliorism. In “Making Up Lives” N. says: “My biographer might write, based on my work: he was interested in X because he had experienced something like, or something of, X.” He. Everything I had concocted exploded by this pronoun. Recalibration of motivations began, but why had I led myself astray? Does gender change ideas that much? In Chrostowska’s novel Permission (2013), where a one-sided epistolary affair collects tension as to whether or not the recipient of the letters will refrain from responding, the action is made up of recollections and hypotheses, to the point where one might feel bored, until there is a sudden shift, a confession from the letter writer (Fern) that cautions the reader from making complacent assumptions. Chrostowska has executed a similarly smart move in Matches dislocating the point of view so casually and so deep in the work that I’m left questioning myself.

When N. writes about commerce, culture, and civilization, bracing his remarks with long and short quotations from this or that public intellectual, there is a reserve of anger that emerges in flashes of impatience or, more commonly, a forced resignation (or powerlessness) to accept the way things are or look to be going. Matches can be seen as protest literature, though without strikes, demonstrations or civil disobedience. Whatever action the narrator might contemplate is never more than a thought. Passion and humour are present, yet what’s most prevalent is the ambivalence and melancholy about everything from political activity to the use of aphorisms (in a book filled with them), and skeptical or dismissive of such things as “the grasping hand of Christianity in the shape of the modern capitalist state,” life coaches, and “the revolutionary power of social media.” In “Faster! Faster!” N. addresses technology: “Some say that we are modern if and when we accelerate. Such a modernity would be worth celebrating only if things were moving faster and in the right direction.” This leads him to speak on efforts to forestall climate change: “And technological acceleration as a way of outpacing nature’s decline—to save it at the other end—is something of a vicious circle. Has anyone ever succeeded in catching someone they had themselves pushed off a roof?” The Anthropocene age is embraced decisively (as is “the Age of the Troll” [“Naming Contest”]). How to not descend into an even more drastic state is, as any newspaper or newscast will show, a question left to those in power: billionaires and their factotums (so-called world leaders), corporations, and advocates of globalization.

As the entries mount N. comes across as an impotent, ineffectual, dejected liberal who, at times, sounds like a neoliberal or a conservative. The thinkers brought in to bolster a case on this or that topic—de Man, Foucault, Habermas, Nietzsche—are flawed or far removed from the public they ostensibly understand and seek to represent. N. is most withering when he invokes Marx (pilloried not long ago but Lazarus-like since the Great Recession started) in this passage from “Mutatio mundi”:

But Marx’s words cannot themselves accomplish what they call for, which is new to philosophy. They are conscious of communicating a novelty to thought. They are a call for a new totality (the world), in the making of which philosophy can—must—cannot but participate, and the enormity of the task requires marshalling the totality of philosophy, a move so revolutionary as to pull thought out of its orbit. In theology, exegesis, prayer, the task of thought exceeded its worldly limit; with modern philosophy, thought sets for itself a task at once greater than itself and within its new limits, which it projects and identifies with those of the world. The last Feuerbach thesis is furthest out in this respect, jutting out like a pier into swelling waters, its pillars firmly planted in the ocean floor. At the end of it stands the revolutionary visionary. Diverting his gaze from the dreamy horizon now back towards dry land, now down into the depths below, is the tension in his breast between the beachcomber and the pearl diver. (253-254)

In this image there is the liminal space between earth-bound reality and liquid illusions (hopes), and the visionary—the philosophical visionary only—is hesitancy incarnate. A ditherer. The poor, as N. states in “Means without End,” though willing to take some course of action, are unable to act: “After all, how can the slavishly exploited. . ., the truly solidary who willingly gave up their spare and excess means in return for the truth of struggle against ‘scarcity,’ who make ends meet in the struggle’s day to day, who instead of ‘minding the gap’ between where they are and where they’d like to be have wound up dwelling in it bodily—how can they actively prefigure a collective utopia?” The book is redolent of what might be termed negative Whiggishness—a view that everything declines, and that that is natural.

To draw such a clever image as that revolutionary on a pier—pointedly not at a barricade—is to indulge, as N. frequently does, in binary oppositions. This Manichean view of issues—in politics, criticism, social theory—requires false dilemmas and straw men. Far from being a weakness, that suits one of the narrative’s intentions, I believe: through polemics, to make us side (or not) with N.’s black-and-white positions and then catch ourselves for not considering every side. (Men of action will get on with things.) N. has a short entry that removes the option of empathy: “A soft spot for the opponent in a political debate indexes decay in one’s own position” (“Mushy Criticism”). Politics is a blood sport, but not a team one, as shown when religious imagery is used to illustrate more about the individual than about God or His people (the public is often invoked but is never a felt presence):

The simpler the life, the more pronounced its religious features. We carry the world’s expectations of us into our hermitage, priding ourselves on our private orderliness. As long as the mind does not deviate, we feel our days have been well-spent, and we have fulfilled our duty to the world: rising, the first meal, light or heavy, the first stimulant of the day. Morning ablutions, drying and dressing of the body. Choice of activity, planning out the rest of the day, exercise, a look at the budget, concluded with entertainment of some sort. We know it all well enough, take pleasure in this simple discipline, and yet when other things come to occupy our mind, these private rituals quickly lose their gravity and precision. It is still possible to be devout, as long as mind and body worship each other without interruption or intermediary.

A pleasant, unruffled, and still life sanitized of children, pets, parents and siblings, employers, neighbours, and their needs. Nowadays even the ring of a telephone is disruptive. Everything has to have a filter. No wonder social media is so pleasing.

In “Heart & Home” N. looks at this splendid isolation from another angle:

Political ignorance extends to the idea that the nation-state is just a bigger home, in which all the nation’s families live in harmony as in a communal dwelling.

The cosmopolitan, whose knowledge of political community breaks with such sentiments, rejects this Aristotelian conception of the state as home-land—as much as the idea that politics needs a fixed abode—fixed by familial-national attachment. Regardless of what he calls home, his true home is his heart—his cosmopolitan heart. And this home is his politics.

Syrian refugees? Forget about them. And there’s no wish to side with the 99% when your heart is the only residence you need. Who wants to contain multitudes these days? Isn’t selfishness more appropriate for this world than, say, a return to the demeaning German conceit of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, taken on in the last century by the English, and seemingly doing well in the Republican Party?

Narrowness of vision, attributed to the entire populace and shared, to some degree, by N., has contributed to the degradation of practically everything. Yet N. is at times blind to what is glaringly obvious, as when he writes: “Thieves need banks to deposit their stash without accounting for it. This to keep it from being stolen by others like them” (“Safety Deposits”). The 99% believe the real thieves are the banks and bankers, as N. knows, but he sits alone, diagnosing the maladies afflicting the body politic yet barely raising his own pulse through taking part in a struggle for change. He always has more words to buffer his heart, however grimly, as in this creed:

Thinking as source of certainty, and its mouth.

Thinking as the bed of certainty, and its bank.

Thinking as the cradle of certainty, and its grave. (“Three Clear Thoughts”)

There are set pieces when N. distances himself from his own thoughts, perhaps to explore alternate viewpoints in external form. In addition to quotations from Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Cioran, Gombrowicz, and daily papers, which allow for debates on items major and minor, there are dialogues between entities labelled A and B and A and A1. After a while you start to think of A and B as a refined Statler and Waldorf. They glide along in their speeches about what is human and what isn’t, on publishing, and nostalgia, as examples—though we are reminded by N. of “the naive embrace of the benefits of eloquence” with TED talks the epitome, for him, of the debasement of communication—and have a patter that, while occasionally showing irritation, reinforces the notion that they’ve gotten used to each other over time and enjoy their parole. Never mind the camouflage, however; this is N. thinking through subjects.

It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. The comparison to Robert Musil’s work finds some underpinning in “Not Taken Lightly,” where N. writes:

. . . what better evidence that 
we are more discerning when we negate? Surely no one 
today would draw the more obvious conclusion: that there are more reasons to believe or more things to affirm than to disbelieve or disaffirm. But that won’t do. Refusal is often dangerous in going against the ruling consensus, it is courage to belief’s cowardice; it is safer and therefore easier to say yes. You don’t need much brains to say yes or no, but it takes nerve even to jangle your chains—sometimes conscious nerve. Negators expect to be held to account for their nos rather than patted and fed for their yeses. What’s more, negation is not always the result of whim or contrarian adolescence; not infrequently, it comes after thinking things over, thinking them twice (considering the risks of opposition). And expecting to be made to defend itself, it arms itself with arguments so as not to appear irresponsible. Either way you look at it, obviously a form of cognitive refinement.

N. doesn’t fight vigorously against anything, so he has chosen to put down his thoughts while attempting to fix himself in the shifting world. What started as notes has become, over time, a rough profile of his internal life. The fragments can’t be glued together, but they do suggest a lost wholeness that is impossible to reclaim in this breaking world. Has N. unwittingly shown more than he imagined?

IV

In “‘The younger the more clear-sighted’” N. offers this opinion:

Why should we look up to the future as we do? Why should we expect it to go where we cannot lead it by example? Time will not separate the good from the bad. It will not judge better, only similarly or differently. Posterity will not know to hold in high regard what we now fail to appreciate. But we can be sure that it will look down on us—not because we deserve it, but just because it has superseded us.

Posterity contains condescension and youthfulness, and it’s not a smarter time or a safe repository for deferred respect. What does that mean when applied to Matches: A Light Book?

It must be apparent that the 538 pages that make up this book offer an abundance of streams for critics to attempt to chart and cross, choosing to pay attention to certain ones over others. (One could just as easily focus on N.’s aesthetic views as his politics, for example.) N. has many acute and, at times, severe remarks about those who write on books, and the most fitting may be this: “Critics today need to feel the writer had reason for what they did, reason to innovate, reason to be daring” (“Novel Experiments”). Is this work in need of justification? Not solely critics, of course, but any reader of Matches, now and in the future, will offer an answer to that and an interpretation if they’re open to its arguments, ready to disagree or to be persuaded, after which revelation will follow on revelation, an oecumenical group activity, as each person makes of it what he or she wants, and perhaps needs, since its fragments can be read in numerous ways, under bright and dim light shining straight on or pitched at an angle to throw up facets as the shards are handled gingerly or roughly caressed. No one can piece these entries together to form one wholly, catholic, and postulated assemblage. That’s part of its genius, to allow for and provoke debate on its essence, on the identity of N., and, since this is the way things go, what its creator meant by writing it.

A truly thorough examination of Matches: A Light Book would map all the terrain and take an unusual form: a multi-week course containing lectures, slides, video, theatre, playtime, and interactivity. S.D. Chrostowska is a writer of importance, and with this work she has raised her own personal bar, as well as challenged her countrymen to do the same.

The final words go to N.’s stand-ins where the occasional gloominess is relieved by mordant wit:

A The life of the mind is nearly extinct.
B Leave it to brains-in-vats! Leave it to the machines . . .
A You think they’ll revive it?
B But of course! We’ll transmit to them what we admire but have no more time for. (“Vita contemplativa”)

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East

Feb 122016
 

Palermo balcony

 

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

For 400-500 years the balcony has been working on mastering the art of flight. In the meantime the palace has grown wrinkled and bald and liver-spotted. The thinner and more brittle its walls, the more it fills up with swallow-sky. Swallow-sky is no ordinary sky, and is entirely different from seagull-sky, not to mention pigeon-skies. However, it does show some similarity to bat-sky, although the latter is a night sky of course. The sky graffitied over by the gulls’ trajectory is broad-gestured, self-confident action painting, while the swallow-sky is made up of the spent pixels of untraceably swift, self-effacing movements. Its negative is the airway system of deep blue light.

The swallow-sky is the best introduction into the nature of chaosmos.

O rondine che arrondini lu mare. The way of being of sea swallows is to fly round the sea, round mini-seas that fit into the ellipses drawn by their frenzied hither-and-thithering. There is demented purposefulness in their movement as they whirl in flights, but each swallow’s trajectory is lonesome. It is the sea-sky they are after, not mosquitoes.

One could draw the city map like a puzzle of roof terraces. Like a Klee, but much more jumbled. It is impossible to make an accurate aerial image of the old town because satellites cannot distinguish between roof terraces on one or two levels, or those with a tile or tin roof or one grown over with greenery, and a regular rooftop. Only the swallows know the city’s true map: imagining the morphology of the houses on the basis of their ground plans is as impossible as it is to represent a forest by drawing the circumference of tree trunks. Only the swallows and the cats. A cat can roam the roofs of entire districts, the Cassaro, the Kalsa, only the main thoroughfares block its way with their violent straight lines: the Via Maqueda, the Via Roma, the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. It is not impossible that Palermo cats have learnt to fly, with a discreet flutter like bats. They probably drink not milk but coffee that careful hands place in their way beside the de rigueur canned tuna, at dawn parachute on top of the most trustworthy-looking parked car, tiny electric sparks at the tips of their moustache. The young ones sometimes fall to their death on the broken tarmac that feels like sea pebbles to the feet, like young birds dropped from the nest. Like that ginger kitten thrown by the curbside on my third day here, almost completely buried in litter and dust by evening.

The inhabitants seem to be practicing levitation day and night. Women walk on dizzyingly tall platforms. It is easy to spot tourists in the thick crowds: they are the only ones who fix their eyes on the sidewalk. The locals’ gaze is dispersed at eye level, yet they seem to have feelers for rugged curbstones. The palaces turn their faces to the sky like the martyrs of the darkened baroque altarpieces; what you see from the narrow vicoli, the upwards-broadening piazzette and claustrophobic street corners is mostly their loose double chin. Towers stretch upwards until they glimpse the sea. The domes only exhibit themselves to the top floors, they rotate with their maiolica skirt swollen out round. The sky above them is the sea’s reflection. Looked down upon, the shamefaced sidewalks keep to the walls, try to elevate themselves with obsessive tectonic uplift under the belly of parked cars that take up most of their surface.

Palermo street

As the sidewalks keep vanishing, so do the parked cars adhere to the walls like the mollusks, plastic bottles and rags washed ashore on the breakwater rocks. The little, disused chapel at the entry of my street has an A4 sheet of paper between two brutal steel padlocks pleading with drivers to leave the entrance open at all hours. One and a half cars and two motorbikes are squeezed in front of it.

In place of the thinning tarmac, trash sediments: in the city of dreamers nobody bothers to clean up. Above the trash bins overflowing with pungent stench of rot and urine a slightly squinting Madonna leans out, two subdued Christmas lights stuck into her garish mantle. Below in thick white letters, IN TRASH WE TRUST. The Il Capo bazaar shops, the street-food carts of the Vucciria, the baroque-oriental fish, meat, vegetable, fruit stands of the Ballarò all spill over onto the streets, blocking the distraught motorini with the clients’ shopping bags, the leaves and peels and offal and the liquid stench dripping from the fish stands (the sea creatures are sprinkled with icy water, generous quantities of which end up on the customers’ clothes).

There is a difference of at least fifteen shades between the cornices dipped in the morning and evening light, and the base of the same walls. And of at least fifteen shades between the zones of sky immediately above the most light-filled cornices and the blue in the middle of the sky. Era il ciel un arco azzurro di fulgor. The blue diluted in the middle of the sky is Sahara blue, like the lapis lazuli mantle of Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate turning her eyes away from the spectator who is offered a privileged position as the bearer of the crushing word. There is no position more voyeur-like, yet Mary withholds herself from the gaze. The Messina-born Antonello, who had learnt to paint in the Flemish way, invented the theatre of the invisible.

The small Byzantine domes squatting on top of their box-like churches are champagne bottlenecks. Each one encloses the explosion of desert skies: the foam petrified into mosaic tiles a thousand years ago, but keeps fizzling still, ready to pop its stone cork any time.

Palermo shore

Inhabitants resist the sea while they can. The old town turns its back to it, the pretentious twin elevations of the Porta Felice flanking the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele’s sea end cannot fool anyone: where the street goes over this threshold into the open, traffic stops spilling, only a few people drift over, but inwards the artery is clotted with humans and machines moving in honking clusters to the spasmodic rhythm of streetlights. The planks of the benches along the deserted seawall are practicing disappearance, just like the balconies’ marble floors. Legions of teens elbow their way on to bus 806 (blue, of course) to Mondello beach, armed with radios that keep screaming even an hour later when they are kneeing their way in the sand among sunbathers’ towels, in earnest competition with the thundering disco music off the bars and fried calamari, ice cream, cotton candy, fruit and coffee stands. A guy carries a roaring oversize loudspeaker on motorbike towards the rocky edge of the crescent-shaped beach, while Arabian-sounding Sicilian songs, syrupy pop and merciless techno crash into the traffic jam from pulled-down car windows, covering the convulsions of the engines. As if existence had to be proved in front of the sea’s vast emptiness. In the city only the refugees and the recently immigrated are quiet. On Piazza Pretoria, which is almost completely filled by the late-Renaissance fountain populated with marble nudes, there is a compact slab of 50-100 demonstrators, mostly Africans, in front of the regional parliament. One man is sitting on the ground with two handwritten banners propped up against the fountain’s edge: DIRITTO AL LAVORO – DIRITTO ALLA VITA. An eerily soft-spoken demand. Their silence is as out of place as the fountain itself, originally designed for the garden of a Florentine villa: the statues’ classical mold looks almost cheap here.

Palermo facade

The island and the city on its edge look at their own countenance in the sky and gather shells. Before the Normans they had already gathered a dozen peoples, including Arabians. The Normans took it away from the Arabians, but learnt their language beside Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Their words, gestures, bodies, singing voices got mixed and the city started speaking islandese. Those who speak islandese change their timbre with every sentence. The French and Spanish also landed here with the ambition to rule over it, not recognizing its mirage-like nature. The Greeks and Albanians fleeing from peril all round didn’t attempt to rebuild their lives from scrap but abandoned themselves to this place that never made up its mind which continent to belong to. The rough edges of their names, the Arab gutturals, Latinate consonants, lisping Greek endings were smoothed down like pebbles in the throaty local vowel strings. In the small blind street I stay in and which bears the respectable name Via Bologna, although it has as little in common with the full-bodied leftist university city as its neighbour with Trieste consumed by two-worlds schizophrenia, there is a street tap. In the mornings and evenings people from neighbouring streets come to fetch water. The water they spill while filling their plastic tanks is the only washing the street gets. In this district there are lots of gutted-out houses, semi-demi-ruins with no sewage, this is what the poorest newcomers get. Some of the more consolidated balconies with mass-produced marble slab floors hold massive amphorae or watertanks. The recently arrived sit on the benches of the strangled little park in front of the train station all day long, waiting for connections. Those who are new to the job of waiting are startled by every noise and gesture, at once try to establish and to avoid eye contact. Further up the street in the evenings I can hear five or six languages, of which I only understand Italian and Romanian. Yet all the intonations sound familiar after a few days. Balconies almost rub shoulders, even with the blinds down we can see into each other’s bedrooms. Smells cross over from the kitchens and musics from the TV sets: besides fried calamari and caponata there is thyme, incense and unknown spices that knock me on the head like the scent of jacaranda trees on the streets. When a jacaranda tree blooms, it transubstantiates into scent, the sidewalk beneath is dressed as if for a wedding. Because they can see right into each other’s homes, people stop locking their doors. The ground floor entrances are wide open in the evenings, some sit out to chat with the neighbours, others fool around with a ball trying to amuse children. When dark falls two or three cats queue up for their dinner. From my second day here, I and the two little old ladies who plant themselves in front of the house greet one another. Pingg, go their smiles to my too-loud Buona sera, as I apologetically try to hide the camera with one hand. The street is like a vertical village.

Palermo wall mural

In the mornings a feral tabby eyes me up and down from beneath a parked car. Several people feed it, as they do most strays. Here each square is fitted out with its resident stray dogs, plump and large-size, that lie flat on their sides, not moving an eyelash in the craziest jamboree even. Their eyelids only stir when they dream. They dream often, and then they smile more. They look on the bat-like and invariably anxious-looking miniature dogs walked on leashes with the placid benevolence of aunties. People are genuinely and spontaneously kind to all sorts of stray animals and stray people. On the island even plants are immigrants: tropical jacaranda trees line the posh alleys and the decidedly non-posh thoroughfares that go straight landward for kilometers on end to the margin of the edge of town, and in a place of honour in the lush parks there is always a giant magnolia-fig tree, Ficus macrophylla columnaris, that drives aerial roots into the soil, veritable pillars that grow reptile-like feet, so the exponentially spreading parallel trunks grow to thirty times the width of the mother tree. One tree is a whole forest.

Last morning as I pull my suitcase along the street I glimpse the tabby in the middle of the street. Some car or motorino flattened it in a beastly manner. Before reaching the corner of Via Roma I stop for a moment at the bougainvillea spilling over the broken fence, this commonplace explosion. I can’t help thinking that the cat ended not run over but falling from the rooftop because it was blinded in its flight by the morning splendor.

—Erika Mihálycsa

 

Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Feb 112016
 
Domenico_di_Michelino_-_Dante_Illuminating_Florence_with_his_Poem_(detail)_-_WGA06422

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem by Domenico di Francesco via Wikipedia

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition

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THERE IS A PHRASE coined by the critic Harold Bloom “the anxiety of influence,” which once raised the dust of a herd milling around its allure. Without paying Bloom, a prominent bad-boy, the compliment of either expounding or contradicting the truth of his book The Anxiety of Influence, his phrase “influences” me if only to retort upon it.

I draw my greatest satisfaction as a novelist and a writer of short stories, though the scholarship of others has been a major influence on both my fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist I have written three books that speak to two authors who have drawn the attention of scholarly critics and researchers, Shakespeare and Dante. This perhaps is a form of academic cross-dressing but in the past few months I have returned to think about Dante, since the editor of a literary journal asked me to interview the poet, who has been holed up in his grave for well over half a millennium. As I finished a first draft, I was struck by the coincidence of a note arriving from the wife of the novelist John Barth, saying that she had found my book, Dante Eros and Kabbalah on her husband’s shelf and was reading it. We printed in Fiction Barth’s story of Ulysses setting sail with the princess Nausicca for a new life to the west of Greece, excerpted from Barth’s novel Tidewater Tales. That particular tale was one of those that inspired me in speculating on Dante. Shelley Barth’s curiosity about Dante just as I was returning to the poet was a bit uncanny and it suggested my lecture’s real title.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks his audience, “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

“Answer: Of himself.”

What follows is how I came to read Dante as closely as I could and returned to Dante’s Comedy influenced by a 13th century classic, by literary criticism, the scholarship of others and the way a work of literature often embodies the influence of texts that have preceded it, an enthusiastic if mischievous re-reading of texts that precede it. That sounds like a more generous way to put it than Bloom’s “anxiety.” I could call what follows as advertised “The Anxiety of Laughter,” or “The Generosity of Influence,” or but the title, which seems to ring right is, “The Coincidence of Influence.”

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

I first read Dante in high school. It was the first volume of the Comedy, the Inferno, and it was in John Ciardi’s translation. I read it out of curiosity—I was an omnivorous reader—but although I found it interesting, I did not find myself in it. The world of cruel punishments was repellant. As little boy I was more than once set upon and beaten by juvenile delinquents from the nearby streets of poverty stricken Irish for “killing Jesus” and paraded by canvases of Jesus crucified in the Museum of Fine Arts that made me cringe. The laughter and complexity of the poet descending his Inferno did not bleed through to an adolescent. Dante remained for me through college and graduate school a writer I could admire but not understand. In my mid twenties, however, I received a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference presided over by the poet John Ciardi. Unexpectedly, since the young editor at Simon and Schuster, who procured the fellowship for me, did not like my novel, Thou Work Jacob, Ciardi did; praised it, and wrote several sentences for its publication that still make me blush with gratitude.

Ciardi’s generosity sent me back to Dante. I was now a disciple of Ciardi. He had endorsed me; given me hope that what I wrote would be touched by the poetry of language he said he had found in my first novel. I wanted to be influenced by Dante, the poet to whom Ciardi’s name was so prominently linked. I re-read Ciardi’s translation of Inferno, but decided I ought to read the whole of the Comedy and bought the Modern Library prose version, slowly making my way through Inferno again, then Purgatory and Paradise. The Comedy seemed to be about the three obsessions of my life; sex, politics, and religion, but its drama remained at a distance and though I read with more understanding, I felt no empathy.

At twenty-nine, my mother died. I took up a book that the rabbi at Harvard had given me as a junior or senior, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. At twenty-one I had read three or four pages. It made no sense and I put it down. It was beyond me. Now I read it as a guide to the world beyond, a world to which my mother, abruptly, at fifty-six, and in a startling metamorphosis recovering her beauty as a slim adolescent before her final awful dissolution, had gone. I was left in nightmares and hallucination. Scholem’s lucid scholarship about the Jewish imagination seeking to read the “Other World” led me to the Zohar, the major mystical or Kabbalistic text of Jewish Spain in the 13th century, which Scholem’s volume explicates. Reading the Zohar’s abridged English translation I had just enough understanding of the Biblical world and the Talmud to respond to its flights of wild story telling. Scholem’s warning that there were elements of parody, and deliberate fiction, including the Aramaic, which was an artificial construct of the 13th century, not the 2nd century as it claimed, stimulated my own imagination and its details seeped into my fiction. I became a student of Scholem’s, a group that included I would learn, Harold Bloom and Jorge Luis Borges.

I was unaware what would happen when I tried again to read Dante. Suddenly the poet spoke to me. I had absorbed a language of imagery reading the Zohar, a language that made the barriers of Italian, Aramaic, the world of l3th century Spain and late 13th century Italy, seemingly sealed against each other, fall away as I recognized their common share in neo-Platonic philosophy. Scholem had taught me to hear the laughter in the Zohar as a vast hot spermatic flood burst out of the earth and drowned a hapless world of sex abusers; a world fathoms beyond Melville’s dreams of the White Whale. Now I heard Dante’s bitter self-laughter for the first time but I could not have gone many steps beyond the opening cantos of the Inferno if I had not found myself the beneficiary of coincidence and the generosity of influence. About this time I had several interviews with Professor Harry AustrynWolfson who was described at the time of his death in The NY Times obituary as the world’s greatest scholar. Wolfson’s unexpected friendship extended as a result of some articles I wrote about the Boston Jewish world in the Sunday Globe brought me the gift of his witty, mischievous presence, his extraordinary books, and their insights into the poetry of religious philosophy. In particular just at the moment when I was absorbing Gershom Scholem, I read in Wolfson’s short masterpiece, Religious Philosophy, a startling essay called “Immortality and Resurrection” which viewed the possibilities of the Afterworld from the perspective of the Church Fathers. To my father, Harry Wolfson, his freshman tutor at Harvard, was the final authority on Maimonides, Spinoza, Philo. Wolfson I would realize was also a pre-eminent scholar of the Church Fathers and the Islamic Kalam. An essay of Wolfson put what I believe was the key to Dante’s search for Beatrice in my hands and Wolfson was my guide through Purgatory and Paradise though I could never have turned the lock without the coincidence of reading Scholem roughly at the same time.

Now several figures step out of the shadows with their books and thoughts. For long before I met John Ciardi and decided to solve for myself the mystery of Dante’s authority, I was prepared by one of the two professors at Harvard who are responsible for my career. This was the critic, Albert Guerard, who wrote the first important critical study of Andre Gide in English, and is still an authority on Conrad. It was Albert who announced to me in his workshop that I was an important writer, who chastised, encouraged, drew me close, smacked me down. He shared his paranoia and his dreams, and I slowly assimilated his critical perspectives. Both as a teacher and in my three books on Shakespeare and Dante I find myself working out Albert’s dictum that one can always find the writer in his or her work. (A former City College chairperson, who wrote a single book on Shakespeare talking about the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions of plays, dismissed the first of mine, The Absent Shakespeare as “a book for the Humanities,” implying that it had nothing of scholarly value though I had found some value in his.) With the insights of Scholem, Albert Guerard, Wolfson in hand I went searching for Dante in the Comedy. I determined to try to read him in Italian encouraged by another coincidence. Speaking about my thoughts on Dante in Paris during a sabbatical to Andre Le Vot, who was a professor of American Literature at the Sorbonne on my way to Italy he urged me to try to read Dante in Italian. I protested that I knew no Italian. He asked if I could Chaucer in Middle English. “Yes, easily, ” I laughed and added that when I was required to basically memorize the whole of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales I found myself dreaming in Middle English. “Then you will be able to hear Dante in Italian,” Le Vot insisted. I had been sketching to him, the possibility of a radical revision of what I considered the “pious view” of the mass of critical literature on the poet. The text that suggested this to me was Max Frisch’s William Tell, in which the Swiss novelist using footnotes as his sly knife in the back lacerated the Swiss myth of William Tell as a hero, We had published Frisch’s William Tell in the magazine I edit Fiction. I was and remain in awe of Frisch and I decided to draw on his tactics writing about Dante. Max, his wife Marianne and I were seated in a sunny window of a restaurant outside Zurich, where I was his guest. Frisch smiled faintly when I outlined my project and that was enough of a blessing to continue.

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I found myself in Florence and above it in the Tuscan countryside at Bernard Berenson’s villa months later, with a copy of the Sinclair translation that has the Italian facing it on the other side of the page, walking with Dante. I began to understand him, hear him though I had the echoes of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essay whistling in my ears, and Howard Nemerov’s (who had been as generous as Ciardi to me), thoughts on the Comedy as well. Albert Guerard showed a first draft to one of the deans of Dante studies in America, John Freccero who wrote that I was “the Philip Roth” of Dante scholarship, that I had treated Saint Augustine, shamefully, but that he would have loved to have me in his graduate seminar. Closer to home it was City College’s Renaissance scholar, Frederick Goldin, who confirmed that I was indeed on the “la diritta via,” Dante’s “right track.” I had become the director of the M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing at the college. After hearing a lecture by Professor Goldin I asked to sit in on his class on medieval romance. As he translated at will from the Provencal poets who had brought the neo-platonic notion of love into the vulgar languages and created the literature of Provence, Italy, France and Germany—I recognized the laughter and dreams that underlay Dante’s Comedy. Indeed Dante himself acknowledges the debt, but to feel it alive, leaping from one world to another, that would have been difficult without the aura of Frederick Goldin’s class in which scholarship made vivid the French Arthurian romances, the German Parsifal, their radical implications, texts that as he taught them became what one might call with sly appropriation, the true, the blissful “magical realism.” Frederick in one sentence about Dante confirmed an intuition that I felt but had not dared to give words to. At every turning in his descent through the tortures of Hell, Dante sees the punishment of his own sins. My own sins often coincided with Dante’s and this gave me a sense of how pride, covetousness, deception, if truly recognized has to haunt us all at some level of consciousness not to mention the deep sexual riddles to which our bodies seem to consign us regardless of human will. Dante keeps asking these questions in the Purgatory, and in Paradise, something that many readers do not recognize.

Finding the essay by Cecil Roth on Emannuel Ha-Romi the Italian-Jewish poet of the Renaissance who wrote a parody in Hebrew of the Comedy led me to think about a series of poems that Roth discussed. Dante’s contemporary and friend Cino da Pistoia, in an exchange with Bosone da Gubbio, put both Emmanuel and Dante in the same circle of hell with Alessio Unterminei, a truly filthy one where the condemned sit under caps of shit for using their talent as writers to seduce young women. That lit up the character of Dante, as seen by his contemporaries and it was an element of biography ignored by almost all conventional Dante scholars. It was funny and cruel and yet Dante and Emmanuel might have had a good laugh at their contemporaries’ exchange—one at least gave them hope of an escape from Hell. Another precious contribution came from a scholar at NYU who invited me to join a seminar on medieval philosophy, Professor Alfred Ivry. His lucid article on the degree to which Maimonides was influenced by the Shiite doctrine of concealment, was another proof for me that Dante too was concealing secrets. El-Farabi’s dictum, on which Leo Strauss built his remarkable book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, posits that poets in a society in which freedom of speech is not allowed, particularly doubt about a faith that the State endorses, learn to leave their real meaning concealed from the vulgar eye. Three times Gershom Scholem, whom I met in Jerusalem, then in Zurich, then again in Jerusalem, —not knowing anything about my manuscript on Dante asked me if I had read Strauss’s book When I finally read Strauss a shiver passed through me as if the master of Jewish mystical doctrine, Scholem, had read my secret. The coincidence was uncanny so was the Dante I found in the Comedy whose burning question to Beatrice was—what body will I find you with here in Heaven? Will I experience you in the body you had on earth. Isn’t that the question I had to ask my mother in the dreams that came after her death? Isn’t the hope of some extraordinary coincidence or its defeat what drives one great novel after another? The Dante I fell in love with was a poet who had secrets to whisper to those who could read between the lines and I found many, unconventional scholars, few of them however among the guardians of Dante as a Catholic puritan, willing to assist me. The footnotes of Dante, Eros and Kabbalah are crowded with such voices.

I was asked last year if I would interview Dante and the idea renewed my curiosity in associating anew with the poet. I tried through a fiction to make contact with him again, to hear his voice, and in pursuit of that took up the bi-lingual pages of the Hollanders, which some said had displaced the Sinclair as the best edition in that regard. I had a painful disagreement with Robert Hollander when I was invited by his wife Jean to their home in Princeton. I had no idea that Robert was a preeminent Dante scholar, but reading his notes on the Inferno now I understand how deep I put my foot in my mouth at supper suggesting that Dante had slept with Beatrice. The company laughed but Professor Hollander at the head of the table turned to ice and the atmosphere became glacial. Despite extraordinarily learned and witty notes on Dante’s Comedy, the poet’s sources and influences, Robert Hollander insists there that Dante has no real sympathy for the tormented. His Dante is a resolute Puritan, while mine is a laughing sinner. And yet my deeper quarrel now is with his wife, Jean’s translation, which however talented I feel misses the art of Dante in ignoring the frequent repetitions of words. And to introduce the uncanny into this story, I must add the coincidence of my friend, the Biblical scholar, Edward Greenstein’s lecture on the campus just a few weeks ago, which reacquainted me with his essay on Biblical translation. For Edward’s definition of “literal” translation, which he redefines as “literary” translation, is in fact the summation both of the rationale of my work on Dante, to lose myself in the Comedy, or rather, to find myself by finding Dante. Not to understand the “meaning” of the Comedy, which must finally be elusive, but to find oneself in the Comedy itself. To do that, however, one must enter the Comedy, enter its words, its associations, and I think every serious writer understands that this requires as literal an understanding as possible. I am going to quote Edward Greenstein at some length in this regard.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov . . . translated Pushkin “into a rigorously literal and consequently rather ugly English version” because he felt that only in this manner could one lead the reader to the poem itself . . . John Berryman, the lyric poet employed a fairly literal style of rendering the Book of Job into English, contending that such a translation would be “truer.” The early Twentieth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a clear preference for a more literal translation of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic over a more recent but less literal one. It is hardly coincidental that many Biblicists, as well as some serious amateurs, who devote themselves to the literary analysis of Scripture tend toward the more literal styles of translation. A work of literary art is essentially an arrangement of words, as music comprises tones and silences and as sculpture comprises matter and space. If one loses the words, one loses the art, just as one loses the music if one loses the tones or the silences. But aside from a purist’s devotion to words, there are two other foundations supporting more literal translation. The one is stylistic. The meaning of a biblical passage may hinge on the repetition of a word or an allusion. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 the word bayit house’ interweaves three themes: King David had already established his kingship and was dwelling in a royal house: the Lord, his god, was then dwelling in a tent-shrine, not in stable house: David will build for the Lord a house and the Lord will assure the enduring prosperity of David’s dynasty, which is expressed in Hebrew by “bayit house.”: The more literal rendering of the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV) of 1611 translates bayit consistently as ‘house’ so that the literary device of verbal repetition reaches the English reader. The more idiomatic rendering of the British New English Bible (NEB) of 1970 translates bayit as “house” when it refers to the king’s palace or the future temple but as ‘family’ when it refers to David’s dynasty. The super-idiomatic Today’s English Version (TEV, entitled the Good News Bible) of the American Bible Society (I976) renders bayit as “palace,” “temple,” and “dynasty” in its respective references, completely obliterating the thematic connections of the original.

I could go on and on here but my subject is Dante not the Bible. There are two more quotes, from Greenstein, however, relevant to my conclusion.

Walter Benjamin (d. 1940), in his “unequalled” essay on “The Task of the Translator,” insisted that “a literary work” does not in any essential way tell anything or impart information! It does, it is. In the “literary” view it is perhaps more crucial to convey the rhetorical features of the text and the manifold connotations of its words than it is to convey the denoted or ideational message of the text. Philological translation endeavors to pin down meaning while literary translation seeks, as in literary analysis, to proliferate meaning . . .

As the German Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher put it, in his epoch-making essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”

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That is what the novelist or poet, reading Dante most often wants to do, on the one hand to “proliferate meaning”; on the other to “move towards” the author. I found myself frantic reading Jean Hollander’s translation as I watched her ignore the repetition of words in Dante’s Inferno in order to convey the different shades of meaning she thought they had in the varying context of specific cantos. In doing so, the subtle associations intended by Dante in repeating a word were lost. Long ago at Harvard I learned the tenets of New Criticism under Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier—one could decipher a work though the repetitions of key words by an author. (Shakespeare’s hammering at “nothing” in King Lear, as it is flung in her father’s face by Cordelia then by the Fool, taken up by Lear, Kent, Edmund, Edgar — echoed over and over in the action, Lear crying “the thick rotundity of the world” to “be struck flat” to nothing, and looking for a breath of life in the play’s last moments where there is no life, nothing). Jean Hollander by changing Dante’s deliberate repetition of a keyword was making it impossible to trace Dante’s intentions. Even her husband Robert became uneasy at this as I found when I read his notes to Jean’s translation — particularly in regard to one word that had caught my attention.[1] It was the word on which the whole of my book Dante, Eros and Kabbalah depended, smarrita or smarrito—which can be translated as I do “bewildered” but also “confused,” or “lost,” and which provided me with the understanding of what was happening throughout the Comedy as Dante groped his way down and up through the windings of the Other World. The way at the beginning is not so much “lost” as “confused” for the poet is, “bewildered” in life. Preparing these remarks, I wondered—could it be there at the very end of Paradise? I had not asked that question in my book. If Dante began with human bewilderment, however, surely before the final overwhelming vision of the Unknown in the whirling geometry of the Heavens “bewildered” would show up but in a very different context. Coincidence, the Divine laughing coincidence of plot assured me that the great poet would spin bewilderment into his resolution. Finding it there, I laughed with glee.

I think that from the keenness that I suffered
Of the living light that I would have been smarrito, bewildered
If my eye had been turned from it.

Paradise, 33, 76-78

This is the true laughter of the Comedy. Dante turns his confusion “smarrito,” upside down in a volley of geometrical fireworks. His verse implies that while once bewildered, lost, etc., and yet would be if he looked away, now absorbed in a vision, he never will be.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See page 201, of The Inferno, A Verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002, where Robert Hollander does acknowledge that Jean’s translation cannot convey the associations of “ “The word used by Virgil to describe Dante’s difficulty is smarrito, a word that has been associated with the protagonist’s initial lost and perilous condition (Inf I.3) and then occurs again (Inf XV.50) with specific reference to his lostness at the outset of the journey for the last time in the poem It is also used in such a way as to remind us of his initial situation in Inf. II, 64, V.72 and XIII.24; in the last two of these scenes the protagonist is feeling pity for sinners, emotion that the poet fairly clearly considers inappropriate.”

    I do not have the space here to challenge that remark about “pity” where Robert Hollander assumes (as he does throughout his notes) the role of Inquisitor who will not allow Dante or his readers to feel any sympathy for sinners against Catholic doctrine. I do however want to acknowledge Jean’s brilliance in her translating e sanza alcun sospetto, as “without the least misgiving” in the Fifth Canto and her catching the deadfall at the end of this canto (which a much praised translation by another contemporary poet makes a complete hash of) by exchanging the hard c’s of the Italian for the d’s of English, “E caddi come corpo morto cade, And down I fell as a dead body falls.” To return to smarrito, in line 72, in this Fifth Canto, where Dante earlier writes, pieta mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito” and Jean translates, “pity over came me/ and I almost lost my senses.” Robert remarks (p. 105) “The repetition of the word smarrito to describe Dante’s distraught condition, also recalls the first tercet of the poem Here we can see his reuse of key words from previous contexts in order to enhance the significance of a current situation in the poem.” Yet how does “lost my senses” signify to the reader that the key word “smarrito” has been repeated. Even Robert’s “my distraught condition” is closer to the “bewildered” that I choose in my translation.

    Of course the reason for the Hollanders’ joint choices in translation are revealed in this note (as in others), “69-72 di nostra vita. The echo of the first line of the poem is probably not coincidental. Dante was lost “midway in the journey of our life,” and we will later learn, some of his most besetting problems arose from misplaced affection.” (p. 105) The Hollanders’ Dante is an author who is in their view, not Dante, the character; a character who is a benighted “lost” soul. This is not my Dante; a Dante who on the contrary as the author, chooses to reveal himself in the fiction of his character Dante, a Dante who is bewildered at the beginning but not at the end of the whole Comedy; not bewildered “smarrito” in the final canto, because he does feel sympathy, pity, throughout his journey, and because his affection was never “misplaced” but rather the source and rationale and end of his journey which brings him to its final laughing revelation.

Feb 102016
 

Chirbes

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

On-the-edge

On the Edge
Rafael Chirbes
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions, January 2016
$18.95
464 pages

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:

A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.

This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction[1], should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.

Born in 1949, in a small town in the province of Valencia, into a family with republican roots—that is, on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War—Rafael Chirbes would be influenced and shaped by the post-war environment in which he was raised and educated. When he was four years old, his father committed suicide, but not before teaching his precocious son to read. His mother, who worked as a switchman until she herself was detained by the authorities, was unable to afford to support him; so young Rafael was sent to an orphanage for the children of railway workers. His schooling would soon take him away from the Mediterranean coastal community of his birth; he spent his childhood and adolescence in the landlocked Castile region of Spain during one of the bleakest eras of the dictatorship. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Madrid to study Modern and Contemporary History. There he became involved in underground anti-Franco activities that would see him spend time in prison.

Always a voracious reader, Chirbes supported himself working in bookstores and writing literary criticism prior to heading to Morocco to teach Spanish. Returning to Europe he spent time in Paris, Barcelona, La Coruña, and Extremadura before ultimately making his way back to Valencia. He engaged in a variety of journalistic activities until 1988 when, at the age of 39, he released his first novel, Mimoun. From that point on, he would produce a series of novels that merged elements of realism and introspection with history and storytelling to fashion caustic portrayals of modern Spain.

Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. And through Esteban, the anguished protagonist at the heart of On the Edge, the last of his novels to be published before his death from cancer in August of 2015, he has created a powerful testimony to the devastating personal impact of the economic crisis on his fellow countrymen. And, without preaching, he deftly sheds light on the broader currents flowing through a society plagued by concerns about poverty, violence, xenophobia, Islamophobia, human trafficking, prostitution, moral corruption, and environmental degradation.

Originally published as En la orilla in 2013, On the Edge opens with a gruesome discovery on the morning of December 26, 2010. Ahmed, a Moroccan migrant worker, presently unemployed, spends his days fishing in the marshlands outside the fictional communities of Olba and Misent where, as in other regions of the country and the continent, the economic collapse of 2008 has left its mark. Unemployment is high and climbing higher, while the detritus of the burst housing bubble can be seen along the roads lined with building projects left abandoned in various stages of conception and construction. Two dogs fighting over a piece of carrion attracts Ahmed’s attention, disturbing his quiet interlude; but when he realizes, to his horror, that the contested meat is, in fact, a human hand, he panics, making a hasty retreat lest he be wrongly connected with the scene of a possible crime. The lagoon, he knows, hides a decaying legacy of discarded goods, the spoils and evidence of all manner of legal and illegal activities.

Moving back almost two weeks in time, the majority of Chirbes’ novel will unfold over the course of a single winter day. Seventy year-old Esteban is a man at the end of his rope. Swept up in the euphoria of greed when it seemed there was no end to the burgeoning property explosion, he mortgaged all his father’s land and possessions, including the carpentry workshop and the family home above it, to enter into a partnership with Pedrós, a local developer with grand schemes—a man who has now suddenly disappeared leaving his creditors in the lurch and Esteban completely bankrupt. Forced to lay off his employees and say good-bye to Liliana, his cherished Colombian housekeeper, he is left with the thankless task of attending to his aged father’s personal care while awaiting imminent foreclosure and the loss of absolutely everything.

On the crisp, clear day in question, Esteban leaves his father secured to a chair in front of the TV, and heads out to the marshlands with his dog. As he makes his way through the reeds, along wet, obscured trails, ripe with the pervasive smell of rot and decomposition, he engages in a long and convoluted series of melancholic soliloquies. He recalls his Uncle Ramón, his father’s younger brother, who taught him to hunt and fish, made him toys and was more of a true father figure than the cold, gruff man, now aged and decrepit, presently tied to into an armchair at home. The blunt lessons about life and death that Ramón passed on to his young nephew on their hunting and fishing expeditions to the marshes will haunt Esteban’s own reasoning to the very end:

[T]he fisherman who fails to choose the right bait does so because he doesn’t know how fish think, and a fisherman or a hunter has to become the thing he’s hunting, the real fisherman falls in love with his victim: he’s hunting himself. Hold the hook like this, no, we’re not going to use the dough we normally use for bait, today we’ll use this stuff. Smell it. Disgusting, isn’t it? What a stink! Well, fish love that smell. And so do crabs. Everything rots. We’ll end up rotting as well and we’ll smell quite a lot worse. Many years from now, you’ll rot too—and it’s that rotten smell that the fish like. When you get older, you’ll realize that they’re like humans in that respect. Don’t go thinking you’re not going to end up smelling like a dead fish, Esteban.

Some sixty years on from these marshland lessons, Esteban is, as he combs the area—the lagoon, the canals, and the muddy pathways—closer to being both hunter and his own prey than he has ever been.

Another ghost that inhabits his retrospective musings is Leonor, his first love; the woman for whom he had returned to the town of his birth after a brief attempt to flee. She would soon abandon him, in effect condemning him to a lonely life of sawdust and wood glue, beside his father in the family carpentry workshop while she headed off to Europe to marry his best friend, Francisco—a man who did manage to escape and would, for decades, lead a life of glamour and prestige, before returning, after Leonor’s death, to assume an existence of cultured semi-seclusion in the finest house in town.

Lack of ambition, environmental factors—I used to think: I am the owner of my own deficiencies. The only thing I own is what I lack, what I cannot reach, what I’ve lost, that’s what I have, what is actually mine, the empty vacuum that is me. I have what I don’t have. And I felt infinitely sorry for myself, filled with a bitterness that sometimes verged on hatred of her, a false hatred (no, I don’t think I ever hated her, I still felt aroused whenever I saw her, I desired her, yes, I desired her right up until the end, she was the only woman for me), and a false hatred of Francisco which extended to my father (and did I really hate him, do I still hate him?), or vice versa: love in absentia. They were two sides of the same coin—on one side, what seemed to me unattainable and, on the other, what was denied to me: Francisco showing me what could have been, and my father showing me the depths of the nothingness that had become my sole property.

Chirbes allows his protagonist ample space for extended, rambling rants and remembrances—long sentences unwind in single paragraphs that stretch on for pages—peppered with asides, often directed at his father, who is silent, or to Liliana, from whom he imagines and integrates affectionate responses. Rhythms of resentment, nostalgia, and regret play out against each other, driving Esteban’s restless inner monologues forward as he catalogues and re-catalogues his history of failures and betrayals. Repetitiveness often arises, one part perseveration, one part forgetfulness; balanced by a healthy measure of witty observation and philosophical musings. In spite of himself, Esteban is a captivating narrator.

He is however, no less a complicated, conflicted and paranoid human being. Over the course of more than 400 pages we spend so much time inside his ruminations that it can be tempting, as Chirbes himself might warn us, to only see what our protagonist is choosing to see. And this is where On the Edge is so much more than the claustrophobic internalized ravings of one isolated man. No social situation is ever that simple. And the stage on which Esteban stands, in fact where he is planning to orchestrate and perform his own denouement, is inextricably bound to, and echoes, the whirlpool of rapidly declining economic circumstances around him.

So, other voices are invited to contribute. First there is a recurring Greek chorus of sorts, mediated by Esteban, mind you, who take turns speculating on the present state of social and economic affairs (Where could Pedrós have disappeared to?) over nightly card games at the local bar. These are, for the most part, Esteban’s peers—old friends—each carrying their own baggage, secrets and culpabilities. Yet, are their pasts really as shady as our guilt ridden and suspicious narrator imagines?

Then there are the recurring passages where otherwise silent supporting characters are granted an opportunity to step up and own the stage for a moment. Background stories briefly surface. We hear from disgruntled former employees of the carpentry shop, or their beleaguered spouses; their lonely, frustrated, and weary accounts cut through Esteban’s monologue. His father even speaks from the past through reflections recorded on the pages of an old calendar, and, eventually, his precious Liliana is allowed to offer her own brutal perspective. But perhaps even more revealing is the fact that some of the most important players—Ramón, Francisco and Leonor—essentially remain silent, known primarily through our protagonist’s memories and perceptions.

Esteban’s small corner of Spain, the one in which he finds himself in late middle age, belongs to the ordinary man, the small town resident—running a business on the bright or shady side of the law, or perhaps both. One imagines that it would have been almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of economic promise; an excitement that might have sounded more loudly for a the citizens of a nation that had come, relatively speaking, late to democracy. Here our narrator stands divided between his resentment of his father’s stubborn adherence to the socialist values that restricted his expansion of the carpentry business; and his bitter envy of Francisco, the son of a family with a dark fascist past, who fled Olba to ride the coattails of a world enamoured with the pleasures of fine wine and dining (with a line of coke and a beautiful escort on the side, of course). But as he nurses his regrets and calculates the sum of the injustices life has dealt him, Esteban’s strongest emotion is one of resignation to his fate, the one last thing over which he can exercise any control.

In her Afterward, Valerie Miles describes On the Edge as a “poetic spasm, an epic of the garbage dump written by a witness who breaks the underclass’ legacy of silence during a crisis that is not merely economic, but social and acutely moral.” The setting reinforces this reality most vividly: the fetid, polluted marshes, with the blue glint of the sea shining in the distance. Here the solidity of the ground can be dangerously deceptive and even the beautiful blooms betray their origins in their scent. Chirbes’ Mediterranean is no romantic playground—it is harsh, unforgiving, and unforgettable—like the monumental novel that he anchors in this desolate wasteland.

– Joseph Schreiber

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Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He tweets @roughghosts.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Valerie Miles, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2014), electronic edition.
Feb 092016
 

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On the corner of Myrtle and Carlton the old man yelling out an open window: What’s today? He was bald with no eyebrows: What day is today? My best guess must have satisfied him because he disappeared behind a torn curtain without another word. After the line was disconnected I put the phone in a drawer. A one-act play about a young woman giving her baby up for adoption—the father was one of her professors—I worked on it nearly every day for three months but it didn’t survive a second draft. Earlier that week I discovered my wife’s letter to a mutual friend where she stated that our marriage was over and that her plans for when she returned to New York in the fall did not include me. I would read novels until late at night, until I couldn’t focus on the sentences, then turn out the light and listen to the radio until dawn. Three blocks later I discovered it wasn’t Thursday and that one of Don Imus’s lungs and a hotel in Thailand had collapsed. If sleep didn’t come I would quit trying then make coffee and sit down in front of the manuscript while the sky turned blue. The Daily News also told me that the city was still sweltering. Walk by the Korean market, pharmacy, another diner, Italian bakery, dry cleaners, and a bank. The box fan I found on the street worked for an hour before the motor began to smoke. On our first wedding anniversary I destroyed the old upright piano in the front room with a hammer and screwdriver. Living off infrequent loans and a twenty-pound bag of rice. Most of the keys were broken so stripping the piano down to its heavy brass frame enabled me to pound on every out of tune string. Rice and eggs for breakfast, rice and beans for dinner, anything leftover went for cigarettes and beer. Each character was assigned a row of strings, I built cascading passages around pages of dialogue, seeking greater contrast between the lines, hoping that would help me define the characters, and yet no matter how intricate the passages or how many hours I pounded on the strings, every one of them remained bloodless stand-ins mouthing clichés in an airless suburban melodrama. I had absolutely no interest in even considering the possibility of looking for a part-time job. Another bank, bodega, liquor store, and a barbershop. Our mutual friend was a willowy Brazilian with waist-length red hair who spent part of the previous winter living with us after being evicted from an East Village loft. The ceiling in the room where she slept leaked whenever the snow on the roof began to melt, so on those nights, while brown water gradually filled the pots lining the floor, she would join us on the big futon in our bedroom. On the night we drank a fifth of bourbon alone together she informed me in her heavily accented English that sadly, my marriage was a green card sham, I might have thought it was love, but no …pointing a long index finger in my direction…You are being delusional and she is using you … Can’t you see that? I quietly tried to justify what must have appeared to be an extremely one-sided relationship as we talked in semi-coherent circles about the nature of unrequited love until the bottle was empty. The next day I asked if she remembered our conversation and with a sheepish smile she said, No, I had a blackout. Our mutual friend eventually found another place in the East Village where she lived for a few more months on her parents’ dime. I was already alone when she turned up in late March with the suitcase I was to store for her while she went back to Brazil. I finally opened it, after convincing myself that I was only looking for money, to discover a jumble of colorful polyester dresses a few books and the letter from my wife.

It was about a mile off the interstate and the first left after the gas station. She told him about being blindfolded for a psychology class then slowly led into what turned out to be a large greenhouse filled with dozens of varieties of orchids. He drove cautiously with both hands on the wheel, desire linked to anticipation, accommodating her running narrative with an appreciative silence through miles of Franklin County farmland. The TA asked her to identify all of the things she could smell in that humid room. Sunlight hung over the wide stream, a long drum roll as the Skylark ran over the wooden bridge, above the clear water that sparkled where it pooled. She came up with an insightful analogy for being in a greenhouse, that blindfolded visit was her first but would certainly not be her last, something she thought he would find amusing, but it isn’t coming to me just now, and looking out the open window at the endless wooden horse fence running alongside the road while searching her memory could not bring it back, I’ll probably remember in another minute when I’m thinking of something else, instead she recalled the damp clouds of musky sweet human-flesh-like-flower scents, sharp chemical smells of fertilizers and herbicides, the close proximity of the TA, apparently he’d forgotten to let go of her forearm, with his cheap aftershave and stale coffee breath, but she made no mention of those smells so as not to offend him, knowing that would have a negative impact on her grade, instead she reproached herself for the disgusting nicotine stench on her own fingers, then quietly added, and something that smelled just like cold rice.

I used to come around with zombie movies or we would listen to his Johnny Thunders bootlegs while we got high. His place was on Ryerson between Myrtle and Park, about halfway down the block on the right if you were heading toward Park, the brown tenement with the torn screen in the middle window on the third floor. My tired line about just dropping by to ask for a small favor got swallowed by the math—it had been nearly two years—I rang the bell anyway and was buzzed in. The stairwell smelled of frying fish. The door opened, “Holy shit,” when I reached the second floor landing, “how’s it going?” We shook hands, “Hey Tom,” before I walked in, “how are you?” He worked nights as a doorman, “I just started my vacation.” The blinds were down and the air conditioner was rattling away in the window while turning out cold air. “Have a seat,” the television faced the couch, “you want a beer?” A cigarette was burning in the ashtray. “Sure.” Tom grew up in Bensonhurst, “You’re a little early for the party,” but had lived in the neighborhood forever. The opened pack of Marlboros on the coffee table. “Party?” I called after him. The store-bought painting of an amber sunset seeping through a cluster of bare trees that hung on the wall to the left of the television was slightly crooked. I needed at least five dollars to get through the next five days and put off looking until everything was gone. The advertisement for replacement windows ended with a familiar jingle. Tom’s roommate appeared wearing a blue apron and said hello. “Isko’s been cleaning,” Tom followed him back into the room, “and cooking all day,” then handed me a cold bottle of Budweiser. “It smells really good.” Isko asked if I was hungry. I opened the beer before telling him that I’d just eaten. He gave me a skeptical frown before returning to the kitchen. “In a few hours,” Tom sat down, “this place is going to be swarming with Filipino dudes.” I laughed before asking, “Just guys?” “Afraid so.” Leaning back on the couch, “Are you going anywhere?” He took up the cigarette, “I’ll probably retreat to the bar,” flicked away the ash. “No, for your vacation?” He shook his head, “I’m just going to catch up on my sleep.” Tom was an irregular fixture at the bar around the corner. Sears was having their annual back to school sale. “Nice.” He would usually come in drunk and fill the jukebox before getting into an argument with another regular over a real or imagined slight then get thrown out of the bar before any of his songs came on. The blonde mother selected a dress for her smiling daughter: Featuring styles to fit every budget. We bonded over pitchers on a Tuesday night and early that Wednesday morning, while pushing each other along Myrtle Avenue in a wheelchair that we’d rescued from a pile of garbage, I realized that I’d discovered a kindred spirit. The black mother presented her teenage son with an orange sweater before admiring an array of colorful scarves for herself. “Can I grab one of those?” Indicating the cigarettes. The brunette looked over paint samples with a grinning salesman by her side. “Sure.” I took one from the pack, “You remember that girl I used to go on about all the time?” Our dedicated sales staff is always on hand to help with all of your home improvement projects. He passed me the lighter, “Can’t say that I do.”

The broken yellow line ended before the road narrowed. He asked her what cold rice smelled like and she laughed while saying that sperm smelled just like cold rice. The car slowed as towering oaks and maples crowded out the blue June sky. If the human race possesses the highest form of consciousness, or so says the collective wisdom of that very same human race, she turned to him before stating, then we still have so much to learn from nature. This nineteen-year-old college sophomore majoring in English literature who also wrote plays was my biological mother. If his left hand was anticipation then his right hand was desire. According to the papers I received from the adoption agency in Palo Alto when I turned eighteen, my biological father was in his mid-thirties and married with three children, apparently he was an insurance adjuster who enjoyed playing the piano. More like a warm envelope, she undid the metal buckle, that greenhouse, and slid over to the center of the wide dark blue vinyl seat, like being embraced inside a humid envelope, draped her left arm over his shoulders, enveloped in a warm envelope, but that isn’t quite right. I’ve always told people that he was one of her professors, or an older writer who was mentoring her, and that the career title she bestowed upon him while signing me over at the agency was an allusion to Franz Kafka.

A keycard illustrated with instructions on how to unlock the beige fireproof door —insert face up in slot above handle/turn handle after green light appears—that opened into room 201. Curtained afternoon sunlight in stale air-conditioning backed with the faint smell of commercial-grade disinfectant. The door locked automatically when it closed. A blue and white Do Not Disturb door hanger attached to the handle. A two-toggle vertical brass wall plate at shoulder height left of the door contained switches for the brushed nickel-plated ceiling fixture above the full-sized bed and the pale green ceramic cottage table lamps with cylindrical beige canvas shades atop both nightstands. The peephole offered a fisheye view of the fluorescent illuminated blue beige hall. The fire exit plan with security instructions on when and how to safely evacuate the room and building in the event of a fire —illustrated with two human figures fleeing orange flames—beneath a map of the 2nd floor with green arrows pointing toward the stairs. A notice for safe storage availability at the front desk beneath the exit plan along with instructions for locking the door in addition to suggestions on how and when to open it. The room was carpeted in the same thin blue-grey fire retardant nylon and Polypropylene blend that covered the floor in the hall while the walls were pasted in fine textured vinyl coated beige wallpaper. The stuccoed ceiling was painted off-white. The empty black compact refrigerator stood beside the beige pasteboard bathroom door opposite the six foot tall and seven foot wide accordion door finished in shimmering vinyl oak veneer that pulled back on narrow metal runners to reveal four wooden anti-theft hangers suspended from a narrow metal rod spanning the length of the shallow closet.

Did you know, kissing his cheek, that of the thousands of species of orchids that there is one called the bee orchid? Perhaps he was an actual insurance adjustor and my insistence on having her outfit him with a literary subterfuge is nothing more than romantic mythmaking, although it is much easier for me to imagine her being intimate with a man she shared a passion with in addition to their mutual physical attraction, especially considering their difference in age at a time when it was considered deeply reactionary for anyone in their teens or twenties to trust much less be romantically involved with someone over the age of thirty, and while I’m proof that exceptions do exist, he must have held something for her other than a briefcase full of policy drafts. Why is it called that? I know that he was of Welsh and Scottish descent and that she was from a large Irish Catholic family. Its blossom mimics the appearance, scent and even the tactile experience of the female bee. According to the papers her only request was that I be placed with a family that had liberal religious beliefs. When the bee attempts to mate with the flower these yellow pollen sacks get attached to his back. I do not know how they met, how their relationship began or ended and I can only presume that they were fond of each other otherwise she probably would have terminated the pregnancy. The car slowed to a near stop before turning left onto a gravel road. Unless her desire that I be placed with a family that had liberal religious beliefs was in response to a repressively devout upbringing and she didn’t terminate the pregnancy out of fear of being excommunicated by her family. A cabin eventually appeared between the trees. Birth control is considered a sin by practicing Catholics, which might help to explain its fumbled use or complete absence. Pollinia, she recalled before swinging the car door closed. At the time abortion was illegal so having one done was either prohibitively expensive or a risky, unprofessional and potentially life threatening procedure. The pale stones bordering the walkway glistened with rainwater. I owe my existence to some unknown combination of love, faith, and the lack of an affordable alternative. They look like little saddlebags, adjusting her orange mini-skirt, attached to its back as he flies off in search of a real female bee.

I tore off the filter then lit the cigarette while telling Tom about the girl I met in school, he picked up the remote and muted Hawaii 5-0, how beautiful she was, her amazing body, her intuitive intelligence, describing our incredibly passionate relationship that lasted until I got someone else pregnant, we were both twenty-one, and we lost touch after it ended, after I ended our relationship because I wanted to do the right thing, my biological mother had me when she was twenty and gave me up for adoption so I’m not about to try and convince anyone to get an abortion, although that someone else who got pregnant had a miscarriage, like less than a month later …Anyway… We lost touch but I never ever stopped obsessing over her, exhaling smoke, three years later, that winter, not this last one but the one before, picking a stray bit of tobacco off my lower lip with my thumb and middle finger then flicking it away, we ran into each other on the corner of Lafayette and East Eighth, here I combined the words incredibly romantic and magical renewal in a sentence that eloquently described the rebirth of our relationship while leaning forward and crushing what was left of the cigarette in the ashtray, further elaborating on her beautifully body, above the undone smoke, claiming I experienced a love previously unknown to me … a love I’d never even imagined was possible … we spent that entire spring in Europe, I described weeks in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, on the island of Sardinia, telling him that we got married at the end of last summer here in Brooklyn and lived together for seven blissful months before she decided that that was enough of being married, quickly adding, not to me specifically but in general and she went home …taking another swig from the bottle before telling him that I followed her in April, quietly confiding that we fought constantly, it was the exact opposite of the previous spring, I described a few of our more vicious fights, bleak hotel rooms in Frankfurt and Prague, endless losing walks through Vienna, our tearful goodbye in Milan, how out of desperation I begged my father for money and that by some miracle he actually wired me fifteen-hundred dollars, that I spent nearly all of June by myself in Rome where I sat on the same bench in the Villa Borghese every day and worked on this play that I’m still trying to finish, coughing into my open palm, but I ran out of money and had to return to her parent’s house, that when I did it was war all the time, finally when I was absolutely convinced that our marriage was finished I took a packed commuter bus down a winding alpine road to the Innsbruck train station and boarded a Munich bound train, from there I snuck onto the subway and rode it to the airport then boarded a flight to JFK, that I arrived in New York with a dollar in my wallet and vaulted the turnstile at JFK then took the A to the C back to Fort Greene and for the last month I’ve been afraid to leave the house because she is coming back to me and I have to be there when she does … I’m only here right now because all the flights from Europe are in for the day and—

The full-size mattress with freshly laundered white cotton sheets—fitted sheet beneath loose sheet beneath a soft white thermal herring bone cotton blanket—two sets of foam pillows encased in sky blue stripped sateen pillow cases and a solid aquamarine polyester bedspread. The nightstands with their tightly woven pattern of banana leaves over honey-finished plywood were positioned at both sides of the head of the bed. Pale green ceramic cottage table lamps with single setting sixty-watt incandescent bulbs and cylindrical beige canvas shades atop each nightstand. Located on the left nightstand—if you were standing at the foot of the bed with your back to the television— was the digital alarm clock indicating the correct time in faint green LED numbers and the television remote. Atop the nightstand on the right was a small metal tent sign illustrated with an exed out cigarette informing guests that they were occupying a non-smoking room. The drawer below the sign contained a copy of the Gideon Bible. The bulky dark grained plywood credenza with storage space that included three empty drawers and two side cabinets with two empty shelves. Atop the cadenza was the beige push button telephone with instructions bordering the keypad—Dialing the Front Desk, How To Make A Wake-Up Call, Calling Collect, 1+800 Numbers, Local, International Calls beside the thirty-two inch color television where Steve McGarrett and Danno were exchanging vital information over the phone.

They were seated at the metal table on the screened in porch when the fireflies came out. The narrow slate walkway lined with ferns led to a flowerbed where rose bushes bloomed before a low stonewall. The blue grey dusk creeping over the outdoors as a steady breeze moved through the trees. Wavering candlelight. She smoked another cigarette while they talked about Hesse or Faulkner or Barthelme or Camus or Gass or Chekhov or Elkin or Yates. More wine? She nodded then asked him why he didn’t like Brautigan.

A two-toggle horizontal brass wall plate at shoulder height just left of the door with separate switches for the track lighting that framed the mirror above the sink and the circular overhead fluorescent encased in a semitranslucent plastic shade. Both switches activated the ventilation fan built into the wall above the door. Light beige tile floor with matching vinyl coated wallpaper, a standard shower stall with three shatterproof glass walls, a chrome showerhead that resembled a drooping sunflower built into the beige tile wall, complementary four-ounce plastic bottles of fresh citrus scented shampoo and creamy citrus hair conditioner tucked into the beige ceramic shelf beside the single handle chrome shower faucet. Thick white bath towels hanging at waist height from the outer shower stall door and on the metal rod behind the beige toilet. A new roll of white toilet paper attached to the ceramic beige holder. The toilet seat and cover were down. Beige faux marble countertop, beige ceramic toothbrush/cup holder mounted to the wall with a disposable plastic cup incased in clear plastic placed in the holder. Beneath the toothbrush/cup holder were three small bars of soap individually wrapped in pale glossy paper and illustrated with bright yellow lemons. Twelve clear 40-watt incandescent bulbs framed the wide spotless mirror. A single handle polished chrome faucet—left for cold and right for hot—with matching pop-up drain. The squat black plastic coffee machine cradled the glass pot embossed with the manufactures name and a row of even numbers in vertical ascending order 2-4-6-8 at half-inch intervals. The black cord for the coffee maker was plugged into the bulky three-pronged outlet beside an unopened box of beige tissues. A small wicker basket contained five ounce Hotel Brand coffee packets—two regular, two French Roast, one decaffeinated—three coffee filters, three Lipton cinnamon tea bags, two thin wooden coffee stirrers, two Styrofoam cups individually encased in clear plastic and three of each—non-dairy creamer, raw sugar, processed sugar and artificial sweetener—in individual five gram packets.

Standing up, “I should get going,” as I made my way to the door, “I don’t want to burden you with this,” the room began to spin.   “Can’t you just call her and find out when she is coming back?”

“The phone is disconnected.”

“Send a letter?”

“I have but I haven’t heard anything.”

“Do you want another beer?”

Isko walked in with a steaming bowl of soup, “You should eat,” chunks of grilled fish, cellophane noodles, bean sprouts, and cilantro in a clear broth.

“Eat.” He placed the bowl on the coffee table then presented me with a Chinese soupspoon and some chopsticks.

“This looks amazing.”

Or maybe they sat on the couch and held hands in the same room where he wrote when he wasn’t neglecting that manuscript. Making time to write must have been challenging with a teaching job, a wife, three children, and a teenage lover. Dark oak floors, walls stained a lighter shade of blonde, exposed beams running beneath the high vaulted ceiling. Was he between chapters or had something big just been sent off to an editor? A cast iron wood-burning stove stood silently in the corner. It’s almost too bad that it’s too warm for a fire. Maybe disillusionment with a stalled manuscript caused their relationship to take shape. Or maybe he was enjoying some modest success, she had been an early admirer of his work, and their relationship simply grew physical from there. Or maybe he played her recordings of Maggie Teyte singing Debussy’s Proses lyriques after Baudelaire, accompanied on the piano by Gerald Moore, where the atmospheric arpeggios suggest the play of sunlight on water. These 78s were made during the blitz while the Germans were trying to destroy London, and here he might have added, although Teyte was considered past her prime when these recordings were made they are some of my favorite pieces of music.

Blue-grey flame resistant blackout drapes and a semi-transparent white nylon lining hung before the broad double paned sealed window that pulled back to reveal a second floor view of the employee parking lot. A battered red Cadillac Eldorado with a torn black canvas top beside a green Volkswagen Beetle, three rows of sun bleached yellow parking slots on weathered asphalt, a green dumpster and an empty laundry bin. Yellow arrows indicate the left entrance into the parking lot and right exit onto the service road that ran parallel to the six-lane interstate. The thru-wall air conditioner spanning the length of the window blowing cold stale air into the room accompanied the endless lines of traffic racing beneath a cloudless blue sky. Across the interstate and another service road a group of office workers—four women and three men—were gathered at a bus stop. Beyond the bus stop was a fenced in parking lot and a boarded-up service station.

She listened attentively—discounting the pops detracting from the flowing sound—and wanted to say something intelligent, not just that the music was beautiful, she wanted to convey the genuine impression that hearing this with him right now was uniquely relevant, that this moment belonged solely to them no matter what the future held. She wanted to say something memorable to equal his enthusiasm and tried to read his expression while speaking over the music. Her attempt at being profound, to explain exactly why the music moved her probably came off as performative, naïve, the language she used was awkward and ultimately unnecessary because she had conquered him on the very same day she agreed to spend the weekend alone with him in this out of the way place. Maybe he told her that, and not in so many words, maybe it had been conveyed silently, maybe she could read him well enough and she knew, or at least suspected she knew just how real this moment was for him as well, so they were holding hands and listening in silence as Maggie Teyte and Gerald Moore evoked the fragile beauty of a profound yet temporal love entwined in perfect harmony with nature. I’ll never know what they had together, and of course relationships such as theirs are frequently occasioned by quick furtive physical encounters, but I want to believe that they did have at least some time to enjoy each other in an idyllic place, and maybe I wasn’t conceived in the backseat of a car or in some dank motel room. Seven months after a certain date in June of ’67 she would leave Central Ohio to go and live with her aunt in San Francisco. She gave birth to me there in the middle of March. I was adopted two months later and in the spring of the following year she contacted the agency to see if I had been placed.

“One penny weighs two point five grams,” I was telling Tom about the pretty Dominican cashier at Key Food, “fifty cents is nine ounces,” who was always so gracious, “a dollar weighs one pound and two point five ounces,” whenever I paid for groceries with my pockets full of pennies. Tom shook his head before asking, “How can you walk around with no money in your wallet?” After ringing me up she would weigh the coins on the scale above the register. “What are they going to steal?” Empty beer bottles strategically placed before us. “That’s a great way to get shot.” “Bullets are expensive,” I shrugged, “and it’s not worth the hassle.” “These kids don’t think like that,” Tom leaned forward, “you’re just another opportunity,” and took his wallet off the coffee table, “they get angry when you don’t give it up,” removed a ten, “you know that.” “All the more reason not to leave the house.” “Here you go,” he handed it to me, “Howard Hughes.” I tucked it into my wallet while promising to pay him back.

The television in the living room of her shared Telegraph Hill apartment shows color footage of battle-weary Marines gradually emerging from the jungle while a young male reporter, in a helmet and flack jacket, standing off to the side with a microphone in his right hand relates the objectives of Operation Oklahoma Hills. The soldiers disdainful expressions are captured as they trudge by the reporter as he continues speaking: During the last eight-weeks Marines from a number of battalions along with an ARVN regiment cleared out the base camps of two NVA regiments. Although the NVA avoided major confrontations throughout the operation the Marines were able to inflict a substantial number of causalities while suffering relatively low losses. The scene had shifted to the CBS newsroom in New York City when the telephone rang and she got off the couch then quickly crossed to the kitchen before it rang again. It was the woman from the agency who apologized for the delay in getting back to her, but yes, a family adopted her baby nearly two months after he was born. She expressed surprised relief and thanked the woman for returning her call before hanging up the phone.

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A jetliner appeared low and massive on the immediate left—silver and blue with the landing gear down—making its final approach to the nearby airport. The metallic whine of its engines rising over the droning air conditioner and maybe you glimpsed a few faces in the row of oval windows before the shadow of the plane flashed over the interstate and blue city bus approaching the group of office workers.

—Donald Breckenridge

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Donald Breckenridge is a novelist and the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, and managing editor of Red Dust Books. He is currently co-adapting Laura Raicovich’s A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties for the stage and working on a new novel. His writing has recently appeared in Vestiges, BOMB and is forthcoming in Black Sun Lit.

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Feb 082016
 

Mooney

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Golf Pro, Monobloc, A Theory of the Firm

I’ve been told certain seabirds travel inland
bringing cold, bewildered prey. Heavy prey.
Or that airplanes find their pilots’ fingers heavy,

so they purge their swollen bellies over grasslands.
Deck chairs, paperbacks, anything. Any falling manifest
can catch the air and zombie feather-headed down

to where it drapes its dead body on the trap by fairway eight,
or the dogleg bend beyond the reach of eager heavyweights.
I didn’t used to be like this. I made the college team

on the strength of college arms. Went bald and lost my knee.
I took the job we all take. Weak-winded, undersized,
I still drove the ball far enough to teach lessons.

But now the sky is falling. Every morning brings cast-aside lumps
or lightest finery. A monobloc chair made the tumble unslighted,
hero to its factory cousins turtled under heavy sitters.

An eight-iron away, Jensen’s A Theory of the Firm.
I pulled the chair up to reread it, bent to help
the last Sumatran spider through a crack in its cage.

One summer day: pianos. Dotted obstacles downed as if
they stumbled on a conference of cartoon antagonists.
It went on like this. We ran out to scavenge antique doors

and christening gowns. The club built a house but we moved into
the basement. Played the radio loud to drown out falling parcels.
My game slowed down but we picked up better hobbies.

My daughters learned falconry and fencing. My son wore
the pelts of soft endangered mammals. My wife found the memoirs
of some far-off Casanova and left to learn his language.

On hole four’s island, I found a bubble-wrapped trestle desk.
I dropped my clubs, pulled the chair up and my Jensen.
I have lived long enough and there is no one left unlike me.

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Doomer Meet-Up, University of Toronto

A chance of rain.
Always, somewhere, there will be a chance of rain.

It’s not true what they say about Pizarro and the Mayans.
The minotaurs. We repeat that story but we know it isn’t true.

Incans.

There is a certain kind of stove that refuels with only water.
If you know of any water, or can trap it.

I applied to have my road renamed Condensation Trail.
Just go to the archives and ask.

Jewish? Then I don’t have to tell you.

My grandfather farmed in silt so I suspect I have the knack.

Let’s not get distracted by video games. We are here to share skills
and to network. Who responded to the thread about lettuce?

A pamphlet on domesticating wolves.

The Mongols. Dan Carlin said they’d half-fill a cup with horse milk,
then nick the horse’s neck to mix in a half cup of blood.

We need to accept that the doom will foster monsters.

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

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

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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Irrational Exuberants!

Six hours later, slumped against the Bay bus sign that reads
…………….No Sunday Service,
it will embarrass you to learn the bar is not a chain.

The plastic-wrapped menu with its store of stock images,
…………….the staff’s zone defence.
Despite all this and more, there is only one Banknote,

and only one You. Go home and hunt tomorrows. All the
…………….unknotted ties in Toronto
wash their wounds in the water gushing wild from

the runoff. It was not supposed to rain. You were supposed
…………….to go to bed.
Listen to the band over a gossip of olives.

Three aging spreadsheet jockeys who had someone teach them
……………. fingerpicking
pitch the best of college radio, 1995. The dips

in their set list spell out the next recession. All the English majors
…………….in the bar are
made to wear miniskirts. Make your mind up –

on every chewable political topic of the day, do it now. This.
…………….This pivot table
in the soothed centre of your selfhood. These functions:

this payout. This is the middle-class poem
…………….you’ve been writing
all your life since you stepped into the bar.

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The Italian maestro sits

on a chest of lesser flautists,
on oboe meat and things unstringed.

Pauper-prince, democrat, he lifts
his one long finger, finds the note

below the verb for first advances.
Gesture source and sorcerer;

some young souls simply buy their seats
while others are born fully clothed,

marked in major-fifth arrangements
and dusted like a bun. The Italian maestro

sits on memory; no score for five hours,
a stiff lapel away from weary soloists.

The Italian maestro sits on a trunk
marked Your Plans After College

as the trumpet stutters forward in its cage.
Given to tantrums and paid

by the day, the Italian maestro sits
through fundraising shticks

with a butt plug and cigarettes, coos
in the ears of unpaid interns.

Corner historian, five-foot-two, the Italian
maestro mounts his seat, kicks out a stand

for the cymbals stashed inside it.
The Italian maestro sits by your bed,

rearranging your books by
how much of them you’ve read.

Somewhere in the second hour tossing
in your sleep, the Italian maestro leaves.

He walks from your apartment
into the arms of someone new.

—Jacob McArthur Mooney

 

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Jacob McArthur Mooney‘s books are The New Layman’s Almanac (2008), Folk (2011), and Don’t Be Interesting (forthcoming 2016) all from McClelland & Stewart. Folk was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas International Prize and the Trillium Book Award in Poetry. He is also the host of the Pivot Reading Series in Toronto and was the Guest Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2015 (Tightrope Books).

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Feb 072016
 

diane-williamsAuthor portrait by bill hayward.

Despite disruptions of her own reputation, Williams remains most adept at dropping readers into an inarticulate present where something is always amiss and each sentence conveys a syntactically spry sense of yearning, however vague or fleeting that sense may be. In the stories throughout Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative jumps beg to be bridged, implied meanings considered, and absences filled however readers see fit to fill them. —Jason Lucarelli

dianewilliamsfinefinefinefinefine

Diane Williams
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
McSweeney’s Books, 2016
136 pages, $20.00

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Inside every Diane Williams story lives a tense and turbulent narrative, where pressurized and peculiar sentences carry epiphanies and ambiguities—and sometimes both in the same sentence.

To read one of her stories is to forget what you know about conventional storytelling. Forget the rise and fall of dramatic action. Forget plot. Revel in the inconclusive. These fictions are fractured, and many of them last for only a page or two. But their brevity is impactful, an unexpected slap.

What Williams has created over eight collections of condensed fiction is an enigmatic genre of prose that falls somewhere between language game, parable, and poetry. And her exploration of this genre-bending territory continues in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her newest collection of stories.

Diane Williams has been described by Ben Marcus as “a startlingly original writer worthy of our closest attention.” She has taught at Bard College, Syracuse University, and the Center For Fiction in New York City. As current editor of the well-respected literary annual NOON, she publishes authors like Gary Lutz, Greg Mulcahy, Deb Olin Unferth, and Noy Holland, and stories that “leave one conscious of powerful meanings not yet fully absorbed.”

Williams’ own stories have been called “unsettling,” “sensual,” “cryptic,” “strange,” and “revelatory.” They leave us asking, “What is this?” Here’s a taste from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine:

The Bucky’s waitress says she is happy to have back that amorous part of her life and that this makes her less of a Plainer Jane.

And, with an old man named Humphrey, she says she’s made a pretty bargain.

Today she said, “I’ll take some of this, too!” and she took a gulp of my water.

And we enjoy laughing about the poor hot beverages she serves and about our divorced husbands. Although my partner in marriage, Ray, was nobody to laugh about—Ellie always says she’ll clear the decks to ignore that. (“Flying Things”)

Readers looking for insight into Williams’ narrative logic should turn to Gordon Lish, her teacher of many years and the editor of her third collection of stories The Stupefaction. Lish holds that there is a “combative relationship between sentences,” and that while each sentence is born from the prior sentence, “every sentence is in contest with what has been said.” His method of composition is based on students saying “no” to the prior sentence, and “swerving” away from its intended direction. Lish would instruct his students to write each sentence by “looking for how it’s saying something other than what you think it’s saying, and exploring that rather than what you think it intended to say.”

With Williams, this method of composition, this continuous swerving away from the expected, lends her fiction a suppressed quality where narrators engage syntactically but remain proactively evasive. An absence or break in logic becomes a source of narrative momentum. In an interview with The White Review she said, “I don’t think I’d be happy if I were clear about everything that ends up on the page. I’d like to get beyond what I know as far as I can. In my fiction I like to provide some mystery, a place to meditate, where I might be nearing a new insight, if in fact I haven’t reached it.”

Her latest collection of 40 short stories, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, contains tales of characters encountering ghosts, marital woes, pesky gophers, second husbands, thieving sisters, dinner parties, and, above all, impending death. These new stories are as short or as long as anything Williams has written in the past, yet the finest fictions here are the longer ones, the ones persisting beyond three pages. In these stories, Williams demonstrates a new willingness to linger, to follow an intended direction and extend a narrative arc beyond a few sentences or a paragraph. This new continuity is not purely a function of length. Rather than deflect the flows in her prose as she has seemingly done in the past, Williams appears to embrace them. By balancing ambiguous phrases beside narrative assertions, she allows readers to enter the action instead of being barred from it.

The collection kicks off with “Beauty, Love And Vanity Itself,” a story told in first person perspective with a length of two pages, 380 words. A woman, who is largely unconcerned with her appearance, is looking for love. While the “real thing” comes along, she chooses instead to go forward on the “funny path” pursuing her “vocation.” The narrator makes her way through a town and keeps to a path along a fence where she looks into the distance. Suddenly, she is poolside at The Marriott Courtyard where she seems to witness three women drowning in the hotel pool. When she alerts the lifeguard, he says that the women do not “know what the rope is” even though “everybody knows what a rope means.” She asks the lifeguard why he failed to tell them that, and he says because he doesn’t “speak Chinese.” The story ends with the narrator and lifeguard watching the surface of the water.

Yes, a Diane Williams story in summary form does not appear a compelling read nor an accurate conveyance of her uncompromising vision. To summarize Williams is to miss the actual drama of the work, which is in her aggressively organized sentences. This drama is not always character-on-character fiction, but the inner workings of characters, the switching of gears, the erratic battle between competing motives enacted by the grammar in each sentence.

Let’s look at a few examples from “Beauty, Love And Vanity Itself,” starting with the first sentence:

“As usual I’d hung myself with snappy necklaces, but otherwise had given my appearance no further thought, even though I anticipated the love of a dark person who will be my source of prosperity and emotional pleasure.”

The story begins “as usual,” as most of Williams’ stories do, in the middle of things, in a world already awry. In this sense, “as usual” points back to the narrator’s habits off the page, the habits that got us to this place of engagement. The sentence’s terse drama turns twice on not one but two “but constructions” (the use of a conjunction to reverse, revise, surprise, or contrast). The first “but” initiates an interior drama in a narrator who chooses to accessorize instead of focusing on improving her physical appearance. This conflict is amplified by the variant but construction “even though” as readers realize that the best the narrator can do in anticipation of a “source of prosperity and emotional pleasure” is to throw on a few necklaces. Continued re-readings allow the phrase “hung myself” to behave figuratively, as if this is a narrator who often sabotages her own desires. It’s a theme that reappears throughout the collection: our ability to impede our own progress.

What follows from here is a narrative arc that draws out this conflict, until the narrator swerves so steeply she changes tense mid sentence:

“The real thing did come along. Bob—Tom spent several days in June with me and I keep up with books and magazines and go forward on the funny path pursuing my vocation.”

After introducing the “real thing” and confusing his name—Bob or Tom—the narrator abandons her desire entirely. She neglects to define her “funny path” or her “vocation,” and as she walks through town the language leans metaphorical. The narrator says, “And isn’t looking into the near distance sometimes so quaint?—as if I am re-embarking on a large number of relations or recurrent jealousies.” At this point, the form of the story seems to embody its content. This is a narrator whose attention is hard to hold.

The story concludes with the indifferent narrator and lifeguard watching the drowning women. The narrator says:

“Our eyes were on the surface of the water—the wobbling patterns of diagonals. It was a hash—nothing to look at—much like my situation—if you’re not going to do anything about it.”

This commonplace description is made verse-like through the alliteration in “water” and “wobbling,” and the assonance shared between “surface,” “patterns,” “diagonals,” “hash,” and “at.” Attention to linguistic force is evident in all that Williams writes, but her attention is especially fine in sentences where sound and sense work as one. As readers try to understand what the narrator’s “situation” is, the phrase “if you’re not going to do anything about it” points a metafictional finger at readers to arrange the mess into a straightforward conclusion. Readers are directed back to the spaces between sentences, to the unsaid, and, in this way, the final sentence frames the rest of the collection: active participation is required.

Readers looking specifically for a formula or to excavate traceable patterns of desire in each story may find gentle hints or remnants in shorter works, and more opportunities for connective tissue in longer ones. In “The Romantic Life”—three pages, 567 words in length—a love-deprived, life-shy houseguest has a run-in with a ghost named Gunther who leaves her with much-needed confidence. Nested among the story’s sentences is the narrator’s pattern of desire captured in two lines, before and after Gunther’s appearance. The first sentence, in which her desire is expressed:

“And, really—wasn’t this a lavish new world with new and possibly better rules?—so that I would no longer be sitting along the curbing.”

And, the second, where she confirms that desire’s fulfillment:

“I stayed at Rohana’s another day or two before I went home with a new backbone for my plodding along.”

These sentences establish a contextual connection between expectation and closure, making the story one of the collection’s most startling cohesive pieces.

Despite disruptions of her own reputation, Williams remains most adept at dropping readers into an inarticulate present where something is always amiss and each sentence conveys a syntactically spry sense of yearning, however vague or fleeting that sense may be. In the stories throughout Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative jumps beg to be bridged, implied meanings considered, and absences filled however readers see fit to fill them.

In a half-formed family history, “Head Of The Big Man”—two pages, 439 words in length—Williams appears to speak outright at the notion that she abandons or under develops the desires of her characters, when she concludes the story with: “Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy—all the rest!—will have their great hopes realized more often than not—unless I decide to tell their stories.”

In “Gulls”—one page, 212 words in length—a woman says to her husband, ‘“We’ll have to knock ourselves into shape, won’t we?”’ Yet whatever that shape is—the shape of a happy couple?—is left unmentioned.

One of the collection’s longer stories, “To Revive A Person Is No Slight Thing”—three pages, 625 words in length—describes the dangerous early days of being a newlywed. The reader drops in on an argument between a wife and husband for which there is little context: “I ripped off some leaves and clipped stem ends, with my new spouse, from a spray of fluorescent daisies he’d bought for me, and I asserted something unpleasant just then.”

In “Perform Small Tasks”—two and a half pages, 589 words in length—a secret relationship is brought into the light, and the male narrator says, “…I wondered if I would rise to my own occasion.” It’s a phrase that carries the same expectant quality in the collection’s epigraph by Leo Markun: “How long will Harry Doe live?… Who will win the war?… Will Mary Jane Brown ultimately find a husband…?” Any reader upended in suspense might ask similar questions. But readers of Williams’ fictions would do better to reconsider what is reasonable.

Viktor Shklovsky held that the technique of art is “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Despite the brevity of her surreal fictions, Williams extends this “length of perception” as far as it will go. Her stories may be short, but their mysterious centers are nearly unreachable—and reaching them is not always part of the exercise. As Williams once said, “How unlifelike to understand perfectly.” Instead of reinforcing normal human habits of perception, her fiction exists to subvert them.

The characters in Williams’ stories sometimes rise, sometimes don’t, and sometimes readers just don’t know. The real fun is in her sentences that stick inside the mind and mouth where—with enough wrestling—they may shake loose stark revelations about human existence. Her incisively plain language has a delightfully weird way of reintroducing the uneasy drama in everyday life, and distorting its familiar forms into something you’ve not seen before.

— Jason Lucarelli

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jason-lucarelli-2016

Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Feb 062016
 

Sean Riley Sean Riley in Morocco

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One eye sees, the other feels. – Paul Klee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MKJ: So they are all interconnected.

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

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

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

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

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

—Sean Riley & Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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

Sean Riley WEBSITE

MaryKathrynJablonski2015

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

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Feb 052016
 

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I

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

The Range

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

1918In 1918 by the woolshed, mother second left.

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

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

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

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

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

The house

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

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

Family 1946

Marjorie & my grandmother 1950Marjorie & my grandmother 1950

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

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

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

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

The Plains

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


Messages

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

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

‘That the coal mine?’

‘That’s right.’

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

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

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

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

The Coal TrucksThe Coal Trucks

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

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

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

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

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

There was one particularly memorable call:

‘’Ello. That the coal colliery?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

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

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

‘Strewth no! Jus’ blew up.’

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


Keep Out

1953

Keep Out

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

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

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

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

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

With my sister & Buster

—Elizabeth Thomas

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L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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

AineGreaneyPanelÁine Greaney

 

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

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

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

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

—Gerard Beirne

 

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

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The Americans said I had courage.

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

“Yes, I am.”

“How long have you been over here?”

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

“Oh! What brought you here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secure accommodation?

ABSOLUTELY. ALL FIXED UP THERE. NOT A PROBLEM.

Valid passport?

IT’S ALL THERE, SIR.

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

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

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

I whispered, “Thank you.”

§

 

America Had Big Blue Freckles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the sweat had lodged between my breasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I have adequate means.”

Thunk. I was in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Áine Greaney

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

Feb 032016
 

Gregory Howard

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shuddered.

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

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

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

He heard Fuchs swallow. The sound of something emerging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside it began to rain again in heavy sporadic drops.

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

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

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

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

—Gregory Howard

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

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Feb 022016
 

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

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Athanasius Kircher: Harmonia Nascenti Mundi (1650)

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

  Wolfgang Pauli – ATOM & ARCHETYPE

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Sea Time

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

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

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

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

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Je Suis Quelque Je Trouve

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

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

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

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Navigating the Numen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world is dangerous

The world is thoughtful

I’m all right.

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

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The Descending Angel

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

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

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

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

Bohr AtomBohr Model Atom: UNSW, Australia

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

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

The atom had become unimaginable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fish Talk

frida_kahlo_1Frida Kahlo: Sun and Life (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FishMap 3Wayne Atherton: Fish Map #3

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for the Fisher King?

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

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

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

Reframing the Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Briefly Mapping the Terrain

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

CircletriangleSeal of Solomon

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

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

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

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The Invisible Number

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

Edvard_Munch_-_Jealousy_Edvard Munch: Jealousy

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

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

Synchronicity dogged Pauli’s footsteps.

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

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

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

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Ending on a Synchronistic Note

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

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

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Winding the World Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauli_s_World_ClocknewW. Beyers-Brown: The World Clock

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

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Channel Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, there was Abraxas.

abraxgemAbraxis Coin, Roman, (300AD)

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

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

amplitudaeronAmlituhedron

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

Abraxas = the Neutrino.

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The Pre-conscious Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I protest again that I adhered exactly to his directions.

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

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

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

“Fair enough,” I agree.

Again that smirk.

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

“Be specific,” he insists.

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

“That’s two wishes,” he yawns.

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep your line in the water.”

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

—Paul Pines

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Note One: From Synchronicity by F. David Peat

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

Pauli's worldclockPauli’s Worldclock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jan 312016
 

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

x

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

W.B. YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

Nietzsche Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil.

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

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

Night (Socrates/Christ) one god

Day (Homer) many gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

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

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

Gordon CraigGordon Craig

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

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

 §

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde

§

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

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

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

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

Yeats Four Plays for Dancers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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

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

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

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