Mar 132017
 

riiki-ducornet-resizedRikki Ducornet

 

1. THE VOID

Atte1mpt to imagine – and the task is futile – an absence, as when the night sky is empty of her moon, of moonshine, of stars, of starlight. Imagine a void in which you are without purchase (there is no place to stand); a night as unfathomable as a pool of ink (there is no pool, no ink) in which the vast firmament has dissolved. There is nothing but absence. (And you, the one who attempts this imagining, are nowhere to be seen.)

Imagine the beggar’s bowl once the beggar has slipped behind the trees to relieve himself – one of the many disadvantages of corporality. The empty bowl he did not submit to you is not there, having vanished into thin air, and there is nothing to fill in its absence. (You must also imagine that there is no air.) I say also recalling that when we (who are corporeal and irreversibly implicated in the material world) gaze upon all that has been seeded and aggregated, we are compelled to acquire things illicit and divine, of powers seemingly magical, to cry out; spellbound: “I’ll take that! And also: this!” Some say we are like ravens bewitched by things that catch the light. Imagine an emptiness that knows nothing of light. That all this that surrounds us is gone: the mole on your lover’s cheek, the shape of her wrists – and consider how once before time (I say once well aware of the absurdity) there was only the Void.

Now imagine he who is the Void, that eminence without name, sleeps. He is perfect, self contained, empty of dreams. And yet, unprompted, he starts, and reaching for a thing both essential and absent, murmurs: Light! (He does not eruct. Nor does he roar. The roaring comes later with Yavweh. Do not confuse him with Yavweh!) (Some will tell you he tore an egg in two and with the yolk made the universe, but no! You see: he was himself the egg!)

This light of his that surges forth the instant he speaks fills the void. Dazzled, he awakens. Or, rather, he is that Dazzlement. He is that Awakening.

That… Quickening.

As when a youth sees, not quite hidden by the leaves, a girl the color of wild honey standing in a pool of water, illumed by the lunar light. Threading the water through her black hair, she moves her limbs in the seductive manner of the willow, the water revealing and concealing forms that – if they are the vessel of light, are also the very things that lead us astray, far from the light we aspire to that initial impulse empty of confusion, limpid and marvelous. (Yet she is marvelous also; this I admit to you. She who causes Confusion! And one is left wondering: why has he who is the light, who is the Egg, engendered so many questions begging answers? The truth is, she is about to upend everything. Washing her hair!

We have acknowledged that the Void is empty beyond emptiness. A regency with nothing above, below, or to either side and so: incorruptible. At its core the Resplendent Germ burns devoid of femininity (yet harboring Her potentiality). He knows (he knows everything) that love without an object is unimaginable. She is there, immanent, standing in a pool of light that reaches her navel: Barbelo! He gazes into the generative mirror that he is and that surrounds him, and sees his reflexion burning there. In this way she is sparked – as when an ember leaps from the fire and blazes alone on the tiles before the hearth.

Enamoured from the First Instant (and this is exactly what it is!) he adores her. After all, is she not a perfect projection of himself? Only an image and yet she knows enough to praise him and ask at once for gifts. She has clout! She is the Womb of Everything. He gives her what she wants in a flash: Thought! Truth! Indestructibility! Foreknowledge! Eternal Life! Newly minted archons, they stand in gratitude, bowing and scraping: the Androgynous Pentad of the Aeons!

Everything stirs. When he gazes into her eyes, a pneumatic current penetrates two perfect irises. Quick as lightning she conceives the One who, if resplendent, will fail to save the world. The Christ! Who any second now will uncoil in Eden, his scales like prisms gleaming in the moonlight, and speak convincingly and sensibly of moral awakening to Eve and her Adam – and this to the eternal rage of Yavweh – that despicable interloper.

But before that can happen, a galaxy of superterrestrial luminaries are projected by the Pentad – they cannot help themselves. Their names are far to numerous to put down here; indeed they would demand a book, no, an entire Library (as would the names of the sublunar demons that, thanks to that malevolence: Yavweh, will any minute now appear in droves and elbow their way into every aspect of existence, disguised as beasts: aerial, aquatic and terrestrial, and hell-bent on corrupting, corroding, mortifying, and bringing everything down. But for now there is Subtlety. There is Perfection. There is Time, also. And space. Indeed the two embrace with such conviction they cannot be torn apart – as on an evening somewhere in the galaxy, lovers come together and time stands still and the flesh dissolves into heat and light. Above them the sky shimmers with powers, with alphabets of fire. These foretell everything to come.

From this bright turbulence Wisdom arises – a luminous egg of stardust quickened by a serpent of fire whose tail rends the night sky like a knife of ice. She is called The Virgin. Perfect Memory. The Lustful One. The Wanderer. Wisdom. Pistis Sophia.

 

2. PISTIS SOPHIA

Alone, suspended in a liminal space between perfect light and chaos, she considers how Barbelo was made, and longs for a loving image of her own to cherish. She acts without permission, and this is her error. Her impulse, born of loneliness and longing, is unlawful. To her shame and horror, she creates a monster with twelve faces – all roaring for attention. She names him Yaltaboath, but his names will be many: Abortion, Miscreation, Abomination, The Adversary of God, Saklos, Samael, Yavweh, Man Eater, Jehova. She takes him far from everything, sets him on a throne within impenetrable clouds and abandons him. Exhausted she sleeps. Her sleep is restless. The cosmos takes on weight. Opacity.

Yaltaboath’s rejection is bitter beyond bitterness. Where he sits brooding, the sky grows dim. “I am God!” He bellows into the silence. “There is no other!” And he calls forth an army of angels to do his bidding: The Reaper, Pestilence, the Keeper of the gates of Hell. Melancholy. Gangrene. There are 365 of them: one angel for every day of the year. They have the faces of wild animals, their forms scripted from the stars in the sky or, as was the bull, seeded by the moon. (It is said they have significance beyond themselves. The fish correspond to the deep waters of the soul, the birds to the soul’s longing for the light.)

But… what of Adam? Is Adam immanent? Do the stars foresee him? Or is he a projection of Yaltaboath’s pride? We know this: it takes Yaltaboath’s angels 365 days to make Adam.

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3. ADAM

Adam is formed of red clay. He is formed of mud, of ashes. (Some call him “volcanic.”) Each of Yaltaboath’s angels make one of his 365 parts: bone soul, sinew soul, blood soul, the right testicle and the left. The angel Yeronumous makes an ear, Bedouk a buttock and Miamai the nails of his feet. (Some say Adam falls to earth from deep space like a meteor – as did that other wild man: Enkidu.)

But angels cannot proceed without demons and so Yaltaboath now summons the passions that – you will appreciate this – take hold only where there is a body to contain them. Passion such as dread and grief, agony and wrath; the kind of thwarted loving that leads to death. (These take their source from carbon, sucking it up just as the infant sucks milk.)

Once Adam is formed, his body is perfect and yet without cohesion. He cannot stand but worms his way along the ground inch by inch. At night when he rests his head on a stone, his lungs ache with dust. He is confused. In the wind he trembles. His destiny is unknown to him; he is unknowing. His life is like the death the Mesopotamians describe in which the dead kneel naked in the dark eating clay.

At last, the archons of the Upper Spheres look down and see Adam confounded in his filth and suffering. They rush to Pistis Sophia and awaken her. She is scolded and she is advised. She calls for Yaltaboath at once. As he approaches, gyring in a vortex of fever and contagion, she shudders with horror. But Yaltaboath is flattered, disarmed by the unprecedented attention. His mother has summoned him at last! And he has so much to tell her! He is the master of an army of angels and demons! Master of an entire world! Its moon and neighboring planets!

“I have seen your creature,” Pistis Sophia tells him. “I have seen how he dwells in ignorance, unable to speak or stand. Yet he could be flawless. Breathe into his nostrils and he will rise. Even the archons, the angels will envy his beauty.

Yaltaboath descends to earth at once and does as she has told him. In the instant he breathes into Adam’s nostrils, Adam stands. But there is something more. The one spark of light that was Yaltaboath’s now belongs to Adam. This gift is immeasurable, for now Adam is fully capable of transcendence.

Yaltaboath sees that he has been tricked and ignites with anger. The same anger that will torment Job and test Isaac. The same anger that will bring down the tower of Babel and cause men to speak to one another without comprehension.

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4. EVE AND THE SERPENT

Awakened to the world, Adam explores paradise. Everything speaks, everything sings. He discerns spells on the backs of turtles, and drinks at pools of fresh water with the lions and gazelles. There are sweet grains to eat, figs, pomegranates, and bitter herbs. What is the world if it is not magic? But if all the creatures have a mate, Adam sleeps alone.

Once again the angels take up the red clay. Formed in the heat of their hands, Eve is the color of cinnamon, of ebony. Her eyes are gold, silver and pearl, and her hair falls to her shoulders like clusters of grapes. When Adam sees Eve for the first time, a veil lifts from his mind. Eve. The moon incarnate. Her perfect flesh unscarred. Reaching out he touches her for the first time. Seven days and seven nights they cling together. In the moonlight the bees move among the stars. My beloved, Adam whispers. My one and only murmurs Eve. (And it is true.)

Christ, who always hovers near, sees this unfold, and smiles. He appreciates that they are resplendent in one another’s eyes, just as Barbelo and his father were once resplendent. He is covered in iridescent scales, and as they embrace he coils around the tree, the One Tree, like a vine, singing. When at last the lovers lie quietly side by side, he approaches Eve. His voice is irresistible. (Of all the creatures in Eden, Christ is by far the most beguiling.)

That night the three of them eat apples, watching lightning strike the horizon, the comets tearing space like birds with knives in their beaks. In the sound of thunder they hear Yavweh’s insane bellowing. (He has never ceased his bellowing and his angels have never ceased their yammering!) When day breaks they run for their lives.

Later, as Adam and Eve continue on alone, they ask questions of one another such as:

Why are we punished in our bodies which are the vessels of light?

Why are we banished from Eden, longing as we do, for the light

—Rikki Ducornet

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The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers, including prints and drawings, are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, the McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and the Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

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Mar 052017
 

Ruth Lepson
Ruth Lepson

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1.

It was Auden who once declared that “the only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.”[1] It is indeed pointless to invest time and meaningful pages outlining how a work is “bad” when the same resources could be used to promote “good” work. Implied in Auden’s remark is what one might call the social function of criticism which, in today’s world of mass cultural production, is to narrow the reader’s search to a handful of quality texts, works that will endure outside current modalities and antics of marketing, and in the process pave an angle of descent into said texts. With this responsibility comes the added burden of picking a critical trajectory, one that does justice to the work without tangentially downplaying the context within which it came into being.

Striking that balance, between a pure reception of the text and a careful interrogation of its context, can be daunting, especially when the writer deliberately places the self – through the work and paratextual material – as the material for the work itself. Thankfully, Ruth Lepson’s poetry does not plunge the critic into this awkward position. Of her private world we know very little, as all she allows us of herself is a small trace of her childhood, on her website:

Born in New York in 1949; a year later we moved to Princeton, as my father got a post-doc in math at The Institute for Advanced Study. My mother, who lived in Lithuania until she was twenty, became a mathematician, too, and a sculptor, and later wrote a (still unpublished) book on math as an art form. My father had studied music at Juilliard while getting his master’s at Yale in math and physics. He played bassoon and conducted. Any spirituality that developed in me came from my maternal grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi, and I lived on my uncle’s kibbutz for two summers, picking pears in ’67…[2]

She leaves us with her poems and the poems alone. Attempting a thematics-obsessed assessment of her work – holding up tropes and biographical anecdotes – is a futile venture, for her work manages to resist this kind of criticism, though resonant with poignant themes. It however consciously dispels and/or balances resonance and theme with the workings of syntax and the controlled use of aphorisms (that create context). Memory, as a recurring theme, is a prime example. It weaves in and out of her most recent collection, ask anyone, but does not stretch into a confession. Instead, the recollection/memory of love, lost or gained, is swaddled in tense (sometimes philosophical) insights that dissipate the affective possibilities love and its connotations. Consider this passage from ‘knowledge in black’:

I’ll tell you where the ocean ends it ends in
a particular place in space which continues
in blackness until that time
you’re swimming in the ocean when time becomes
space you no longer swim . as a body

are we done[3]

The poem itself will continue, leaving that lone line to simmer subliminally, ambiguously, jarringly, in the reader’s mind. It is almost impossible to contemplate what it might imply – a break up, an exit from a heated fight, an ultimatum – without an equal reflection on the sophisticated beauty of the lines above – the build-up to that lone line.  It becomes more complex, endurably so, when the first seven stanzas, including the one above, appear before that lone line:

the switchmen sleep with newspapers
across their chests

it’s true that in the country questions
are green green as pique as somber
stationary things

even later it’s still true and not true
that in the country questions are green
since in the country no one knows literature

and the wild’s of the lion’s mane are
decked with pleasures of all kinds stemming

from the green questions the questions
that are green

I’ll tell you where the ocean ends it ends in
a particular place in space which continues
in blackness until that time
you’re swimming in the ocean when time becomes
space you no longer swim . as a body

are we done[4]

With such a range of ideas, aphoristically shared, the concreteness of the lived experience suggested by the lone line, intense or fragile, evaporates or refuses to yield to our idea of what it might imply. In other words, “are we done,” and its suggestion of proximity to the self, to a dialogue with another, a gravitation towards a personal event, becomes a shadow of a larger idea of life itself. It is extraordinary how Lepson’s poems manage to achieve this feat, offering us the frightening “wilds of the lion’s mane” contrastingly “decked with pleasures of all kinds” in one helping. Perhaps it is her use of robust imagery, aphoristically rendered yet wary of cliché. Interestingly, those aphorisms, it seems, provide context:

you can sleep in the sun when you love
only the enlightened sleep over the sea
anyone who loves can swim in the sun

we fell on the plumes and the berries fragrances
grand and lilac-filled we rose
and the bowers tossed us all the way into the sun

who can sleep over the sea . no one .. only those
who’ve shed . . .
only they sleep[5]

While the first stanza offers a line of general context, “you can sleep in the sun when you love,” the second departs from that general idea and returns to the self, “we fell on the plumes and the berries fragrances,” and the third jettisons the self, returning to a general idea framed as a question: “who can sleep over the sea…” (26). These multiple transitions, towards and away from the self, are central features in Lepson’s work. When the poem moves away from the self, it does so with the intention of establishing or highlighting a strand of universal truth; and when it returns to the self, it is to apply said truth to an individual experience, without lingering on the experience itself (to the point of becoming overtly confessional).

Where have we seen this before? Creeley, of course, whose poems influenced Lepson’s work. Indeed, at first glance, a Creeley reader would see resemblances here and there, controlled enjambments and syntactic manoeuvrings, what – for most poets – would be a nightmare to accomplish without sounding like ducks playing the harmonica.

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2.

While Lepson’s latest collection is a controlled meditation on the self and its relation to objects, people, and existence, the overall tone is better understood by returning to her first output, Dreaming in Color (1980), where signs of what will eventually become her signature near-rendering of intimacies abound. Near-rendering, because the promise of intimacy is often dispelled by a deflection of said promise with, in most instances, an inserted call for critical inquiry.

Consider “Collage,” from Dreaming in Color:

In a corner of Boston –
a group of buildings,
above another group of buildings,
across the street,
in the distance,
pastel green and blue.
Under the full moon,
they remind me of San Francisco,
which reminds me of you.

Maybe they still are
and do.

I looked around.
No one was watching.
There was the trolley.
I put the moon in a box
and got on it.[6]

There is vulnerability and perceptible loneliness in those lines, but those feelings are not evoked by what is said – “they remind me of San Francisco, / which reminds me of you” – but by the cluster of distances and arrangement of objects that bracket those two lines: the buildings, the moon, the absence of watching eyes. The second stanza, strategically isolated, has a subliminal effect that accentuates the speaker’s own isolation in this collage of objects and distances. What we are therefore left to ponder is the very arrangement that elicits – in the reader – the narrator’s own feeling of isolation, not isolation in itself.

In Lepson’s work, thought reveals itself in the choice and structural placement of words and, in other instances, a reluctance to carry an emotion to an expected end. The goal, it seems, is to create a binary that balances overt emotions with critical deliberations. “Love Poem,” from Dreaming in Color, is a good case in point:

Outside it’s pale blue.
Inside it’s pale green.
There’s white muff
on the beige sofa of roses.
Let me smoothe your forehead.
Let my eyes soften.
Let me stop inquiring of everyone else
if I’m still alive.
I’ve been dulled for too long.
Let me show you
charcoal cats
wandering here,
gold bits of music,
the people of cinnamon and maroon.
Stay here.
Not as a woman would ask a man
I ask this, but as the moon
would ask the night.[7]

The first six lines are, in a sense, true of a love poem, for love evokes an image of tenderness, of vulnerability: “Let my eyes soften.” But then the insertion of “inquiring” temporally deflates the reader’s dreamy ride in a land of “pale blue” colors “on the beige sofa of roses.” To inquire is to actively conceptualize and articulate a question. To “stop inquiring” is even more complex, since it a choice to reverse the process. But then the poem takes us back to a place where “charcoal cats” roam, with “gold bits of music/ the people of cinnamon and maroon.” Soon enough, we return to “inquiry,” this time replaced with the word “ask:” “Not as a woman would ask a man/ I ask this, but as the moon/ would ask the night.” One could argue that Lepson would rather have us thinking than dreaming, or doing both simultaneously. This, perhaps, explains the poems in Morphology (2007), a collection that pairs photographs with poems gleaned from moments in the poet’s own dreams. The book itself is a tangible embodiment of Lepson’s aesthetic, that deliberate urge to strike a balance between what is dreamt and felt with a measure of critical detachment.

The poems in Morphology are dreams rendered in words. A dream, as we know, is an intimate thing, personal, remote and unreal. The telling/sharing of a dream is an intellectual process, an act of translation with a keen eye for the subtleties of narrative. First, the dream is recalled in bits and pieces, sometimes in completely mis-remembered chunks; then the dreamer shops for the right words to communicate her dream. In a sense, therefore, the impact of a dream rendered in words relies on the dreamer’s choice of words. And if dreams are abstract, narrating them to a listener or a reader is, in itself, a balancing act, since the abstract remains what it is in the dreamer’s mind, with a “real” equivalent as rendered in words. This, perhaps, accounts for the opening poem in Morphology:

Concepts and
facts are drifting
around in the
air. One at a time
they sizzle into fireworks.
Then I can’t see them be-
cause they’re inside me.[8]

While the dream remains, “inside” the dreamer, it however appear as “Concepts and/ facts . . . drifting/around in the air.” By employing the words “concepts” and “facts” to narrate a dream – for the poem itself is a description of an actual dream – the dream (an unreal thing) becomes a thought-thing expressed in “Concepts and/ facts.” Within the dream itself, as narrated, a duality is apparent: the free-floating “Concepts and/facts” that, suddenly, “can’t” be seen “be-/ cause they’re inside” the dreamer.

In subsequent pages, the reader is faced with unevenly shaped poems[9] – sometimes with wild, blank spaces – that textually concretize recalled moments from dreams:

Fanny Howe and I are go-
ing to … … … … … … . share a

… … … … … … … … … .. suite
… … … … … … .in a dorm
… … … … … … … … . with
two … … … … … … … … . oth-
er wom-
… … … en.[10]

If the shape of this section of the poem (above) mimics the non-linear, subjective nature of dreams, the poet’s recollection – reliable or not – offers us a rather objective picture of that dream. It is this duality, the non-linear and subjective (frail, intimate, sensitive) paired with, wrapped or rendered in objective terms, that marks Lepson’s poetry as “Fragile and objective,” as Fanny Howe says of Lepson’s work.

There is, therefore, a readily visible intellectual breadth in her poems, as that duality – its creation and intended impact – is in itself a product of the poet’s intellectual process. Most important, however, is the fierce grasp on the function and limits of language, where the poet does not merely play and experiment with language for its own sake but for an intended subliminal effect. That subliminal effect is accentuated by the not-quiteness of her poems, how they leave the reader sandwiched between a climax and a joyous longing for more, practically making us “want to think and dance at the same time” as Betsy Sholl says of Lepson’s poems.

In some instances, that not-quiteness appears in the form of a theme paused abruptly, perhaps for fear of slipping into excess. This is more visible in her new collection, ask anyone, where questions of power, politics, society, and life itself are undramatically presented, parcelled in carefully picked phrases that – in themselves –  dismiss ponderosity and pretension. This, to the critical eye, reveals the poet’s faithfulness to form as content in itself, and as receptacle for subject matter. This duality requires of the reader a fierce attention to the poem’s controlled movements and turns, from a central theme or idea to pure aesthetic preoccupation intended to complement or contextualize said theme or idea. Reading Lepson’s work, one sees how that movement is intertwined and brought to life within individual poems:

a shower of sounds –
missed the mist in the
air there tumbling
over the western sky
lifelong
rush tumbling of
climate end of peace

That last line of that excerpt, “climate end of peace,” is as ambiguous as it is poignant.  The reader can see the poet’s gesture towards political commentary, in the same way that – in other fragments of the same poem – the promise of intimacy is quickly dispelled by the use of open-ended language:

got a cup of coffee
for the pleasure of
keeping up with you
no solemnity
a day
worthy and shopworn

The texture of Lepson’s poems reminds one of Duncan’s spare, sharp lines that release small clusters of thought. It was Duncan who reminded us that poetry itself “feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,” very much like what we see in Lepson’s work, where those strands – thought, feeling, impulse – are readily visible.

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3.

Reading Duncan, Creeley, and – now – Lepson, one is strangely reminded of pointillism. This, of course, raises the question: Can language, poetic language in particular, be equated with pointillism? I leave that for another study. Here my focus is not on the very act/process of creating images from dots, but on the subsequent subliminal impact of said image (as an assemblage of individual dots).

Once complete, a pointillist piece, elegant or not, finds itself competing for attention with the very process that brought it into existence. We are, for me in particular, fascinated by the amalgamation of simple color-dots. To see the image, therefore, is to see the whole dots at once; and to see the whole is to acknowledge the presence of individual dots. And this happens automatically, subliminally.

Consider Morning, Interior, Maximilien Luce’s painting of Gustave Perrot. While you see Perrot getting dressed – the morning light streaming in – you also see the collage of unique dots that form the image. There are, therefore, two images at once, though one stands out as the image. What the neo-impressionist does with colors, dots, and divisions, language poets and their descendants do with words. Lepson finds herself nestled, innovatively, between late modernist and early post-modernist aesthetic, at once accessible yet full of controlled inbetweenness.

Lepson is not an easy poet, I must add. This, however, does not imply complete abstraction or a deliberate obscuration in the name of style. In fact, there are poems where she remains accessible, dwelling on a single theme, nonetheless transitioning between moods. This is more visible in her new collection’s final poem, “we’re all small,” a piece for her dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley:

really, creeley?

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were you alive

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at one time

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who visits your burial site

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I do so do

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lots of others were you

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merry – impossible query –

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complex as a bee

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and a flower simultaneously

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you had it all still

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lingering in sadness sometimes

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only one eye with it

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saw like a salamander

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with your existential why

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bye bye I say it over and over

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I ask if you enjoy
the english landscape in

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mt auburn cemetery

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where we walk and where

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they put you on tour

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even in death

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you’re on the tour

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my my[11]

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4.

To the newcomer to Lepson’s poetry, I say two things: start from her recent volume, but be sure to read the rest. Then go to Creeley, Duncan, and Levertov.

— Timothy Ogene

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Timothy Ogene
Author photo by Claire MacKenzie

Timothy Ogene was born in Nigeria, but has since lived in Liberia, Germany, the US, and the UK. His poems and stories have appeared in Tincture Journal, Numéro Cinq, One Throne Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Tahoma Literary Review, The Missing Slate, Stirring, Kin Poetry Journal, Mad Swirl, Blue Rock Review, aaduna, and other places. He holds a first degree in English and History from St. Edward’s University and a master’s in World Literatures in English from the University of Oxford, and he is currently completing a master’s in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first novel, The Day Ends Like Any Day, is scheduled for publication in April 2017.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 12.
  2. See http://ruthlepson.com/biography.
  3. Ruth Lepson, ‘knowledge in black,’ ask anyone (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2015), 25.
  4. Ibid. 24-25.
  5. Ibid. 26.
  6. Ruth Lepson, ‘Collage,’ Dreaming in Color (Cambridge: Alice James Books, 1980), 53.
  7. Ruth Lepson, ‘Love Poem,’ Dreaming in Color (Cambridge: Alice James Books, 1980), 25.
  8. Ruth Lepson and Walter Crump, Morphology (New York: BlazeVOX, 2007), 2.
  9. The shapes were arranged in collaboration with Christina Strong.
  10. Op. Cit. Lepson, Morphology 111.
  11. Ruth Lepson, ‘we’re all small,’ ask anyone (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2015), 68.
Mar 042017
 

Yannis-Livadas 480px

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An adventure that you can neither embark on nor finish. You are, therefore, under duress, even within the illusion of a borderline, evergreen clearing. All you need do is work. Wanting to and, at the same time, not. By a causality that’s not a matter of will. It is a matter of principle. That principle instantaneously gives rise to a will by means of which you are liberated from the principle. You go up in the world, you gain faith, but you mainly take pleasure in losing more than you could possibly have lost.

To stand before chaos “out of which everything emerges,” you need to live in the present, not simply to relate to the present as one aspect of a descriptive system. Poetry is not framed by a narrative but by the poetic capacity and, therefore, by the poetic nature. It does not make sense through the absorbing of the shock of some kind of rhetoric or schematic ploy (which is the exact opposite of the shock created by the content, irrespectively of form) nor with the citing of chosen stylistic consequences. Even, that is, if you stand before chaos, you are at a disadvantage in relation to the one who eventuates, who continually emerges out of chaos. The present which assimilates the future.

Parthenogenesis does not exist, although “parthenophany,” the pretension of virginity, does. You go to sleep being the one and you wake up being the other. Nor will there be an outcome if you do not conceive why you went to sleep as well as why you opened your eyes again. You may close them once more.

Yet, what the thing is that one needs to depend on what you do or (predicated by a short-lived “unfortunately”) what you count on doing. By what penetration does the need ensue for this discussion? Is there more significant priority than the ability of mental penetrating, that is, revelation? Why be concerned with parthenogenesis when there is nothing virginal around? Since we presume nothing virginal has existed apart from what was created in order to concede the virginity of its reality.

So, then, how can the poetic revelations matter, since even a minute before you experienced them, you were a mere novice? And a novice every time, for the umpteenth time. Does this phenomenon make the poetic awe lesser or greater? This is also a state of virginity. A figure of poetic speech, or a statement in a poetic way, the sense of which is indebted, which may only exist as a trope, waiting in line to be shocked at yet a deeper level, in order to become dimensional and substantial. Even the foolishness of advanced experience could support more importance, where all these facts may sound amusing, where nothing is heard while one could be longing for a break of poetic silence. The so-called absent preexists. Poetry forges the senses into consciousness though not as metals. As molecules of air. Winged words of empty promises issuing out of ignorance.

Essence or beauty, depending on how you name the supremacy of the sacred, has been portrayed in words through the endless wandering in the alleys or the highways of basic notions, and the consecutive reading of such notions. These alleys and highways gradually become chains of the poetic naturalness. The real poetic erections are stretching these chains. If the chains do not resound, it means that the poet neglects or breaches his naturalness. When such a thing happens, all the traits of the basic notions, of the poetic state (that is, the void), dismiss its meaning, dismiss the inner bond with what is humane in poetry.

Then comes a pandemic of idle info-lovers, who invent pre-approved confrontations in order to use them as literary “ideologies.” Beguiling insinuations of a foundation under fate’s feet; that is why noble rivalry is so rare nowadays.

The more poetry resigns to itself, especially for no specific reason, the more it is empowered. The more it is recreated thanks to the providence of poets, the more the poets belong to the Arcanum. The poet illegitimately enacts his deadly nature so as to become a newborn crucial dead; i.e. deriving from within his poetic essence, not concerning his essence.

What is born is condemned to death and to being absorbed by the newly born. The newly born is more specifically regulated by death. The newly born is the exchange value of death. Life, is the daemon – poetry, is the teaching of the absolute nullity. The irreversible perforation of what has been poetically affirmed by those who are still spendable.

I observe an immense difficulty in the intellectual movements of most of the people who write poetry, a difficulty within flow. That difficulty is very important. Yet it can’t be dealt with by writing poetry. Poems may be created once people have become attuned with flow. In a similar manner, man can return to a developmental trajectory, to a tradition which, despite the rough patches, won’t be the heralded dystopia but some other, less preordained future necessity.

The fate of poetry rests with the fact that it doesn’t need to seek assessments of its testimony. Only human degradation requires something of that sort, since it itself constitutes the dominant factor, which claims to be transcendence: the labor of Sisyphus, but without the rock and the landscape. Where speech is not born out of transcendence, a macabre dismemberment intervenes. Everything crawls, everything is fragmented and scuttles away to form layers in the outer extremities

Most contemporary poets say, or imply that, they have conquered the ways of poetry, so everything can function as a prototype, everything can fend off the stereotype. Luckily though, the time of the signifying insinuation has been and gone, when it was occasionally expressed through the artful deterrence of paying extreme attention to it; as long as one is nowadays knowledgeable about the dichotomy between the mirror and the mirrored, so as to create poems rather than massify. Might as well, then, consider the plot of this story finished, along with all the rest of these disturbing facts; unless some imbecilic craving for legitimacy turns us into “chatterboxes of the universe.”

One of the typical forms of foulness of those pretending to be poets is the persistence of dishonest empiricism. Instead of decollectivizing and transforming concepts, they merely revise them. Essentialists, dedicated to the martyrdom of their monophonic identification with poetic practice, are not poets, even though their texts be considered “poems.” The subjugation of difference lends cohesion to their views, that is, the tendency to assimilate everything, the sacred offspring of fanaticism imposed via misrecognitions. In most of their writing, those far from naive petty tyrants care mainly about one thing: the condition of their self-definition in a construction of words.

They have given up life and are doing art, which is why they have neither. The texts are written to play the part of a bribed juror. The outcry of people who deserve an outcry. Criticism by people who need criticism. An attempt to enlarge the mouth that silently gapes so that it appears to swallow everything up, so that the subjugation can appear benevolent; so the spirit can be fettered at goodwill.

Yet, being right, just like being wrong, is a macabre means of consent in that those who bow to their spiritual tyrant (whether that is oneself or another) have also worked hard to establish him in power. Because although the process of denudement can often be understood, the denudement itself cannot.

Poetry is middleness, as much chaos as it mediates order. It only offers what is lacking and it is defined by the abolition of the dilemmas of creativity. The definition of poetry is fluid and risky, resembling its nature. The way of its attainment is equally fluid and risky because although poetry is a permanent thing, it avails itself of contingencies, through which it is sought and out of which, simultaneously, it proceeds.

Poetry is not a theory about things, or a danger-free method for approaching things. It is a non-theory: a practice, a structure and, alongside these, some, at least, of their records. The constitution of a poetic subject is possible only as an intervention. Imagination rather than philosophy. Wisdom rather than morality.

A text without qualms is the clear imprint of a person. A text full of qualms, that is to say a text that casts shadows on its own naturalness and serves up the imprint of someone else, though it may find easy acknowledgement and recognition, is nobody’s imprint. This evasion of an imprint gets a response through the readers’ already formed habit of being supportive towards imitation, copying, towards what is a permissible, i.e., widely acceptable. This is particularly the case when the “poems” are by the hand of a “specialist.” The text will be received as major because it will be satisfactorily occupied by the readers’ generic truths and, also, will full-heartedly contribute to the ongoing barrage of likeminded individuals.

If an imprint exists, it will wake up in the reader the consciousness of existence, which, as long as I find out, is neither pleasant nor desirable. It will automatically strand the reader without supporters or allies in the quagmires of information and sociability. And if a desire for an imprint manifests itself, it happens to the extent that the reader is allowed to control the text through his own way of thinking, so that, in case of emergency, i.e. when he comes face to face with poetry, there is always an escape hatch available.

But how can an antimetathesis[1] in the void work with anything that pales before the void? Even a remarkable style will come undone if it does not remain exposed to the forces that fuel it. Just like, for instance, an implication or an allusion can very well come to reliably augur boundless sentimentality if it fails to discern that honesty is the summit of transformation. Honesty forces you to address others only if you have already addressed the most dangerous otherness, yourself.

Almost everyone thinks that poetry is a buoying encounter of subjectivities, a transcultural narrative of existing encounters, yet that is not the case. If it were, the art of poetry couldn’t be the carefree endeavor which continually advances the unattainable; in contrast to strictly academic writing, slam poetry, hip hop ranting, poetry committed to ideologies, adherent movements, etc.

All kinds of accentuations reveal the extent of the familiarization which besets human nous: the familiarization with the thing represented, which stands for familiarity, of both the accentuation and the aforementioned division of the roles that are necessary for discharge; the intermezzo, the predetermined recycling of the entire phenomenon.

At a time when original, individual poetry, affects a non-ideological anarchism; it reveals the conjunction of aesthetics and ethos (which are the same thing) in the void. It enjoins without confusing and it distinguishes without dividing. A live address to what has escaped the notice.

—Yannis Livadas

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Yannis Livadas  is a Greek poet, born in 1969. His work constitutes the idea of experimentalism based on “organic antimetathesis” — the scaling indeterminacy of meaning, of syntactic comparisons and structural contradistinction. He is also an editor, essayist, translator of more than fifty books of American poetry and prose, and an independent scholar with specialization in American modern and postmodernism literature, plus haiku. He contributes to various literary magazines, both in Greece and other countries. His poems and essays have been translated into eight languages. He lives in Paris, France.

This essay is an excerpt from his book Anaptygma: Essays and Notes on Poetry (Koukoutsi Books, 2015).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ιnversion of the organic antithesis.
Mar 022017
 

J P McEvoy image 37 J.P. McEvoy portrait by James Montgomery Flagg, from a 1951 print

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The 1920s saw a surge in experimentation with the form of the novel. In Ulysses (1922), James Joyce used a different style for each chapter, including the play format for the notorious Nighttown episode. Jean Toomer’s “composite novel” Cane (1923) consists of numerous vignettes alternating between prose, poetry, and drama. John Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer (1925) abandoned traditional narrative for a collage of individual stories, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and prose poems. Taking his cue from European Surrealists, Robert M. Coates likewise deployed newspaper clippings, along with footnotes, diagrams, and unusual typography, in The Eater of Darkness (1926). Djuna Barnes’s novel Ryder (1929) includes a variety of genres—poems, plays, parables—and is written in a pastiche of antique prose styles. William Faulkner scrambled chronology and used four distinct narrative voices in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and later even added a narrative appendix. These were all serious novelists who disrupted nineteenth-century narrative form to reflect the discontinuities, upheavals, and fragmentation of the early twentieth century, a time when many new media emerged that would rival and in some quarters supplant the novel in cultural importance and popularity.

But literary historians have overlooked a novelist from the same decade who deployed these same formal innovations largely for comic rather than serious effect, adapting avant-garde techniques for mainstream readers instead of the literati. Between 1928 and 1932, J. P. McEvoy published six ingenious novels that unfold solely by way of letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, ads, telephone transcriptions, scripts, playbills, greeting card verses, interoffice memos, legal documents, monologues, song lyrics, and radio broadcasts. Ted Gioia described Manhattan Transfer as a scrapbook, which could describe McEvoy’s novels as well, and in fact a reviewer of his first novel used that very term.[1] Given their concern with a variety of media (vaudeville, musicals, movies, newspapers, greeting cards, comic strips, radio) and their replication of the print forms of those media, they might better be described as multimedia novels. But perhaps the best, if anachronistic, category for McEvoy’s novels is avant-pop,  that postmodern movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s which (per Brian McHale, quoting Larry McCaffery) “appropriates, recycles and repurposes the materials of popular mass-media culture, ‘combin[ing] Pop Art’s focus on consumer goods and mass media with the avant-garde’s spirit of subversion and emphasis on radical formal innovation.’”[2]

Since McEvoy is all but unknown, a brief biographical sketch follows.

An orphan, Joseph Patrick McEvoy told the Rockford Morning Star later in life that he didn’t “remember where he was born—but he has been told that it was New York City and that the year was 1894.” Newspaper comic historian Alex Jay, who records that remark in a well-researched profile,[3] gives a number of possible birthdates ranging from 1894 to 1897; the consensus today is 1895. Possibly born Joseph Hilliek or Hillick, the boy was adopted by Patrick and Mary Anne McEvoy of New Burnside, Illinois. The same Rockford Morning Star piece reports him as saying “he didn’t go to school—he was dragged. This went on for a number of years, during which time McEvoy grew stronger and stronger—until finally he couldn’t be dragged any more. This was officially called the end of his education.” In the contributors’ notes to a 1937 periodical, he wrote (in third person): “While he was still a guest in his mother’s house, J. P. McEvoy started his writing career at the age of fifteen as Sporting editor of the South Bend Sporting-Times.”[4] He later admitted (in first person), “I remember my first assignment as sports editor for the News-Times [sic] was to cover a baseball game. I was a descriptive writer. I became so interested in what was going on that I omitted the detail of scoring the game. I had to call The Tribune (a rival newspaper) to get the score.”[5] In 1910 he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, which he attended until 1912.

In 1920, a stationery industry journal called Geyer’s Stationer gave this account of his early career (again from Jay):

It is interesting to take a peep into Mr. McEvoy’s past. He early acquired the art of hustling—perhaps that is why he is able now to do the work of two or three men. At Christian Brothers’ College in St. Louis he was the star bed maker. One hundred and fifty a day was his regular chore. Later, at Notre Dame University, he was a “waiter” at meal times and a newspaper man in the evenings. He worked on the South Bend News from six in the evening until two in the morning. When pay day came he required no guard to protect him—$4.00 constituted his salary!

When he came to Chicago, after graduating, he obtained a position as cub reporter in the sporting department of the old Record-Herald.

McEvoy in the 1920sMcEvoy in 1920 (l.) and 1922 (r.)

He created several comic strips there beginning in 1914, and moved on to the Chicago Tribune in 1916 for further strips before joining the P. F. Volland Company, which published books, postcards, and greeting cards. McEvoy published two illustrated books of sarcastic verse with Volland, both in 1919: Slams of Life: With Malice for All, and Charity Toward None, Assembled in Rhyme—with a postmodernish introduction in which McEvoy refers to himself in the third person as “his favorite author”—and The Sweet Dry and Dry; or, See America Thirst!, a mélange of poems and strips protesting the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Slams of Life in particular trumpets the linguistic ingenuity that enlivens his later writings. The mostly comic poems are bursting with wordplay, slang, raffish rhymes, typographical tricks, and flamboyant diction: the first sesquipedalian word in one poem is “Absquatulating,” and the opening stanza of “The Song of the Movie Vamp” reads:

I am the Moving Picture Vamp, insidious and tropical,
The Lorelei of celluloid, the lure kaleidoscopical,
Calorific and sinuous, voluptuous and canicular,
And when it comes to picking pals, I ain’t a bit particular.

Many are quite literate, even erudite: “That’s a Gift” namedrops the historians Taine, Gibbon, and Grote, while another ranges from “the Ghibelline and Guelp” to “Eddie Poe.” The latter’s “The Raven” is parodied in “A Chicago Night’s Entertainment,” and “Lines to a Cafeteria or Glom-Shop” is a takeoff on a canto from “Kid” Byron’s Don Juan.[6] A poem with the baby-talk title “Bawp-Bawp-Bawp-Bawp-Pa!” acknowledges the ancient Greek orators “Who slung a mean syllable over the floor / Isaeus, Aeschines, Demosthenes, too,” and McEvoy seems to have been au courant with the latest poetry and art as well, for another one is entitled “An Imagist Would Call This ‘Pale Purple Question Descending a Staircase.’” He introduced Sinclair Lewis at a talk before the Booksellers’ League in Chicago in 1921; reporting the event, Publishers Weekly identified McElroy as the author of Psalms of Life, a sanctification of his Slams that probably amused him.[7]

McEvoy wasn’t happy at Volland, despite his lavish salary ($10,000 a year, equivalent to around $130K today) and the prestige of being “the first writer of greeting-card sentiments to be admitted to the Author’s League.”[8] In the author’s note at the end of his Denny and the Dumb Cluck—a 1930 novel satirizing the greeting-card business—he writes:

For many years I was editor and poet laureate of P. F. Volland and Co. and the Buzza Co., leaders in the manufacture and distribution of greeting cards, and among other minor atrocities I have compiled 47,888 variations of Merry Christmas. Also I have sat in on art conferences without number, where we met such important crises as “Shall we face the three camels east, or would it be better to put one of those Elizabethan singers out on the doorstep, holding a roll of wall paper?”

Until he resigned from Volland in 1922, McEvoy continued to write for the Chicago Tribune. It ran a serial called The Potters in 1921, illustrated by a friend he had made at Notre Dame named John H. Striebel (1891–1962), with whom he would later collaborate. The Potters was described as “a new weekly humorous satire in verse on married life in a big city” and was later turned into a successful play and published in book form  in 1924.

By then McEvoy had left Chicago and was living in New York City, leaving behind both greeting cards and comic strips to write for the stage. First he wrote a revue called The Comic Supplement (1924), which was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and starred W. C. Fields.[9] McEvoy wrote the original “Drug Store” sketch, one of Field’s favorites and reprised in some of his later films. Ziegfeld forced unwanted changes on McEvoy’s script, but later repented and invited him to begin writing for the Ziegfeld Follies. McEvoy cowrote the 1925 production (with Fields, Will Rogers, Gus Weinberg, and Gene Buck), and continued to contribute skits and songs until 1926.

In 1926 he wrote a two-act revue entitled Americana,[10] a smart but zany show that Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack describes in terms that anticipate McEvoy’s novels: “Americana . . . satirized American life, including an after-dinner speech at a Rotary Club and an awkward attempt by a father to talk to his son about sex; it also took aim at opera (‘Cavalier Americana’) as well as Shakespeare by way of [composer Sigmund] Romberg (‘The Student Prince of Denmark’). Critics welcomed the show as refreshingly clever—a ‘revue of ideas,’ as the Times headline stated. . . .”[11] His other revues—No Foolin’ (1926), Allez Oop (1927), and New Americana (1932)—were less successful but provided plenty of backstage material for his novels.

It was at the Ziegfeld Follies that McEvoy met the inspiration for his first novel. Louise Brooks (1906–1985) was a featured dancer in the 1925 edition, and caught the eye of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a five-year contract later that year. McEvoy thought the wild-living Brooks would make an attractive heroine for a comic novel, and after naming her “Dixie Dugan” began writing a fictional account of her madcap adventures in show biz. Show Girl—made up of letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and so forth—was serialized in Liberty Magazine from 14 January to 14 July 1928, illustrated by his Notre Dame classmate John Striebel, who modeled Dixie on Brooks.

J P McEvoy Showgirl illus by John H StriebelJohn Striebel illustration, Liberty serialization of Show Girl

It was published in book form by Simon & Schuster in July of the same year, and was an immediate success, going through five printings in two months for a total of 31,000 copies in print—not to mention reprints by two other publishers, two British editions, and a German translation (Revue-Girl, adapted by Arthur Rundt). Show Girl deals with Dixie’s zigzagging path to success on Broadway; in its sequel, Hollywood Girl, Dixie (like Louise Brooks) travels out to Hollywood for further risqué adventures. Like its predecessor, Hollywood Girl was first serialized in Liberty (22 June–28 September 1929), then published by Simon & Schuster in book form later in 1929. Both were quickly made into movies, Show Girl (1928) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930); it was initially reported that Brooks would play Dixie, but she didn’t get the part, possibly because she was under contract to another studio (though she had been loaned out before). Both films starred Alice White instead, who resembled It girl Clara Bow rather than the vampy Brooks. Stills from the films were tipped into later printings of both novels, an early example of media synergy.

In 1929, McEvoy’s former employer Florenz Ziegfeld, who appears as a character in Show Girl, produced a musical entitled Glorifying the American Girl with a script cowritten by McEvoy, and then staged a musical version of the novel, on which Gershwin again collaborated.[12] The lamest but longest-lasting spin-off of Show Girl is the comic strip Dixie Dugan, which McEvoy and Striebel began in October 1929 and which ran until October 1966, long after both had died.[13] The show-biz premise was soon dropped for a series of light romantic adventures, and today the strip is held in low esteem by most comic book historians. As Jay notes, McEvoy appeared in the 17 October 1939 edition of the strip, metafictionally depicted arguing with Dixie over money made from the franchise. A forgotten movie version, also called Dixie Dugan and starring Lois Andrews, was released in 1943.

J P McEvoy in Dixie Dugan comic stripMcEvoy in Dixie Dugan comic strip

Dixie Dugan comic stripLater Dixie Dugan strip

McEvoy followed Hollywood Girl with four more novels in the same multimedia format. Denny and the Dumb Cluck (Simon & Schuster, 1930), is about a greeting-card salesman named Denny Kerrigan, who was first introduced in Show Girl as a long-distance love interest of Dixie’s. (The “dumb cluck” of the title is Denny’s new girlfriend, Doris Miller.) In the same author’s note quoted earlier, McEvoy admits

The truth is Denny and The Dumb Cluck is a grudge book. It was I who originated the most famous Christmas Greeting of all—Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. You have probably used it yourself, not knowing—nor caring, which is worse—that it was stolen from me, that I have not received one cent of royalties for it.

I was robbed of that beautiful sediment [sic: a pun often used in his novels] and I swore that I would bide my time and some day I would get even. Denny and The Dumb Cluck is my answer.

McEvoy’s fourth novel, a satire of the comic-strip business entitled Mr. Noodle: An Extravaganza, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post from 15 November to 20 December 1930 (a little too elegantly illustrated by Arthur William Brown) and published in book form by Simon & Schuster in April 1931. In the fall of that year they also published Society—serialized as Show Girl in Society in Liberty between 30 May and 8 August, again illustrated by Striebel—which picks up the Dixie Dugan story where it left off at the end of Hollywood Girl and, after a satiric view of high society in both Europe and the U.S., brings her zany story to an end.

Striebel illustration from Show Girl in SocietyJohn Striebel illustration, Liberty serialization “Show Girl in Society”

McEvoy’s final novel, Are You Listening?, was serialized in Collier’s Weekly between 17 October and 12 December 1931 (illustrated by Harry L. Timmins) and quickly made into a movie with the same title before it was published in book form by Houghton Mifflin in August of 1932. McEvoy’s last two novels apparently didn’t sell well, for they are nearly impossible to find today.

In 1930, at the height of McEvoy’s success, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky ticked off some amusing if questionable trivia about him:

His first piece of writing appeared in the South Bend News. He inserted a job-wanted advertisement.

For some unknown reason he is afraid to enter a laundry.[14]

Lives at Woodstock, N. Y. Is the proud possessor of two blessed events and a St. Bernard dog. The two children are now attending school in California. The dog, dying of loneliness, is to be shipped there next week.

The only jewelry he wears is a black opal ring. Wears this because everyone says it is unlucky.

Is very fond of people who resemble him.

He saves unused return postal cards.

Never actually writes a play or story. He dictates everything. Always has two secretaries working. Never revises any of his manuscripts. Show Girl has fourteen chapters. It was dictated at fourteen settings.

He is unable to part his hair.

Believes there should be a law against bed makers who never tuck in the sheets at the foot of the bed.

As far as comedians go he starts laughing if he’s in the same city as Jimmy Durante.

Always buys two copies of a book. One to read and one to lend.

His full name is Joseph Patrick McEvoy. His mother named him Joseph. His father named him Patrick. Not caring for either, he became J. P. McEvoy.

He has a picture of his wife in every room.

Still receives royalties on some of the greeting cards he wrote. His favorite is the following:

Eve had no Xmas
Neither did Adam.
Never had socks,
Nobody had ’em.
Never got cards,
Nobody did.
Take this and have it
On Adam, old kid.

He was once an amateur wrestler. Gave it up because he didn’t like being on the floor.

He hates to see people in wet bathing suits.

His first book to be published was a volume of poetry titled Slams of Life. He has the names of those who bought it. Two more sales and he could have formed a club.

Smokes a cigar from the moment he turns off the shower in the morning until he puts on his pajamas at night.

His pet aversions are women’s elbows, chocolate candy all melted together, fishing stories, fishermen, fish, Laugh, Clown, Laugh; radio talks on how to make hens lay, buying new shoes, mixed quartets, Laugh, Clown, Laugh; runs in silk stockings, three-piece orchestras, waiters who breathe down his neck and Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

When in New York he puts up at the Algonquin. If working on a story or play he and his wife occupy separate rooms.

His first writing for the stage was a vaudeville sketch. Out of the Dark, written with John V. A. Weaver. It played only two performances in a four-a-day vaudeville house.

His favorite composers are Tchaikovsky, and George Gershwin. His favorite conductors are Toscanini and Frank Kennedy of the Fifth Avenue bus line.

Has two mottoes. One for the home and one for the office. The motto hanging in his house is: “Let No Guilty Dollar Escape.” The motto hanging in his office is: “Watch Your Hat and Coat.”

Dislikes all the Hungarian Rhapsodies from number one to twelve.

His idea of a grand time is hearing Paul Robeson sing anything, going to Havana, being petted by any brunette not over five feet five, depositing royalty checks from Simon & Schuster, throwing pebbles into a lake, reading anything by James Stephens, eating kalteraufschnitt mit kartoffelsalat and attending a Chinese theater with a Chinaman.

He once got sick eating a sandwich that was named after him.

After he quit running a column in the Chicago Tribune the circulation of the Tribune dropped from forty thousand to a million.[15]

McEvoy continued to work in movies and publishing throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He appears in the opening credits of the 1933 film The Woman Accused as one of the ten authors who wrote a chapter each of the serialized novella (in Liberty) from which the screenplay was adapted; he collaborated again with W. C. Fields on the latter’s 1934 films You’re Telling Me! and It’s a Gift; wrote nonfiction accounts of his life in upper New York State; published a children’s book called The Bam Bam Clock (Algonquin Publishing Co., illustrated by Johnny Gruelle); and he wrote a humorous advice column called “Father Meets Son” for the Saturday Evening Post (published in book form by Lippincott in 1937).

J P McEvoy with W C Fields 1934McEvoy with W.C. Fields at a Paramount banquet, 1934

He coauthored the screenplay for Shirley Temple’s musical Just around the Corner (1938), along with an article on her (“Little Miss Miracle”) in the 9 July 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which reproduces a photograph of the author sitting next to the ten-year-old actress. He wrote the book for Stars in Your Eyes, a 1939 Broadway revue starring Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante (the latter had a cameo in McEvoy’s first novel). Other notable magazine contributions include an interview with Clark Gable about Gone with the Wind in the 4 May 1940 issue of the Saturday Evening Post (there’s a photo available of a tuxedoed McEvoy dancing with Gable’s co-star Vivien Leigh), and a profile of Walter Howey, editor of William Randolph Hearst’s Boston American, in the June 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan. He was famous enough to be featured in magazine ads for White Owl cigars, “just off the plane from Havana” (reproduced by Jay).

J P McEvoy with Shirley TempleMcEvoy with Shirley Temple, 1938

J P McEvoy dancing with Vivien LeighMcEvoy dancing with Vivien Leigh, 1939

J P McEvoy White Owls Havana cigar adMcEvoy in White Owl  cigar ad, 1940

McEvoy spent the rest of his life contributing to Reader’s Digest as a roving editor, travelling with his third wife, and entertaining a veritable who’s who in America. Visitors to his large estate near Woodstock included members of the Algonquin Round Table, Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Darrow, Rube Goldberg, and avant-garde composer George Antheil. “One hectic weekend,” a local newspaper reported (per Jay), “almost the entire membership of the American Society of Artists and Illustrators attended a fabulous weekend party.” In 1956, McEvoy published his last book, Charlie Would Have Loved This (Duell, Sloan and Pearce), a collection of humorous articles. He died on 8 August 1958.

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“Get hot!”: The Dixie Dugan Trilogy

Show Girl cover image

For most readers in 1928, Show Girl looked utterly unlike any novel they had ever seen. Preceding the title page is a teaser with some hype from the publisher’s Inner Sanctum imprint,[16] and the title page itself is an elaborate cast list “In the order of their appearance,” as in a theater program or the opening credits of a silent film. Each “performer” is followed by a saucy descriptive line, beginning with “Dixie Dugan: The hottest little wench that ever shook a scanty at a tired businessman.” The novel proper begins with a dozen pages of letters—familiar enough from epistolary fiction—which are quickly followed by a cavalcade of telegrams, Western Union cablegrams, newspaper articles (in two columns and a different font) and letters to the editor, playlets in script form, police reports (IN SMALL CAPS), poems and greeting card verses, a detective agency log, various  theater materials (ads, reviews, notices, house receipts), one-sided telephone conversations, a dramatization of a business convention, radiograms, even a House of Representatives session reprinted from the Congressional Record.

Show Girl title pageTitle page for Show Girl

All of this narrative razzmatazz supports a screwball-comic Broadway success story that occurs over a six-month period in 1927. (Nearly every document is dated, from May 1st to October 22nd.) The first half of the novel tracks Dixie’s hectic rise to notoriety. As this 18-year-old Brooklynite explains in a letter to her long-distance boyfriend Denny Kerrigan, she’s hell-bent on joining the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies.[17] He, on the other hand, writes that he wants to “get married and get a little apartment in Chicago, and I’ll come home to you every Saturday night after my week on the road selling mottoes and greeting cards in Indiana” (98).[18] Failing her Ziegfeld audition, Dixie instead becomes a specialty dancer at the Jollity Night Club, where she attracts the smoldering glances of “a tall, dark-haired, black-eyed tango dancer” named Alvarez Romano, who turns out to be the son of a South American president. (She enjoys making out with him: “And when he kisses—well the kid goes sorta faint and dreamy and don’t care-ish and can barely get through the front door and slam it shut” [19].) She also attracts the attention of a 45-year-old Wall Street broker named Jack Milton,[19] who one night after the show invites Dixie and other dancers to a party with his Wall Street buddies. He gropes and mauls her, only to be interrupted by Romano, who stabs him.

The New York Evening Tab turns it into a salacious scandal, and as a result Dixie is deluged with job offers, endorsement deals, and marriage proposals. The Evening Tab begins running Dixie’s first-person life story, ghostwritten and completely fabricated by reporter Jimmy Doyle, whom Dixie describes as “cute as a little red wagon and writes beautiful and I think he’s hot dog” (98). Fairly literate (though he confuses Swinburne with Browning), he describes his “bogus autobiography” to a Hollywood friend as follows, in a representative example of McEvoy’s jazzy style and his contempt for tabloid readers:

Well, I’m still Dixie Dugan and my contribution to the Fine Arts is monastically entitled “Ten Thousand Sweet Legs.” Boy, it’s hot. With one hand I offer them sex and with the other I rap them smartly over the knuckles with a brass ruler and say “Mustn’t touch. Burn-y, burn-y.” Then I sling them a paragraph of old time religion and single standard and what will become of this young generation. (I hope nothing ever becomes of it. I like it just the way it is.) And then another paragraph like the proverbial flannel undershirt that is supposed to make you hot and drive you crazy, and presto! the uplifted forefinger, “But this is not what you should be interested in, children.” And then a little Weltschmerz and then the old Sturm und Drang—a Sturm to the nose followed up with a Drang to the chin—the old one-two. So, as you may gather, this opus is the kind of love child that might result from an Atlantic City week-end party with the American Mercury and True Stories[20] occupying adjoining rooms. So much for literature! (77–78)

Spying on Dixie one night outside the theatre of her new show, Jimmy sees Romano abduct Dixie (to take her back to “Costaragua” to marry her), abducts Dixie himself when their limousine crashes, and then convinces her to lay low while his newspaper milks her disappearance for weeks. The recovering Jack Milton hires detectives to find her, offers to underwrite a musical for Dixie, and enlists Jack to write the book and lyrics for it.

Show Girl sample pages 1Pages from Show Girl

The second half of the novel documents the progress of the musical from its contentious beginning—Milton hires show-biz producers who rewrite Jack’s script and bring in outside contributors[21]—to its disastrous out-of-town opening, to its eventual success after Jack takes charge and restores his original conception. Retitled Get Your Girl, the musical makes Dixie a star, and Jimmy realizes he loves Dixie as much as she does him: “Besides being cute and all that she’s got a quick mind, a keen sense of humor and says just what she thinks,” he writes to his Hollywood friend. “And she really thinks” (195). Meanwhile, Dixie’s three suitors come to different ends: she rejects the marriage proposal of her sugar daddy, Jack Milton. Denny Kerrigan, still pining for Dixie, makes a big splash at a greeting-card convention in Atlantic City (where he catches Dixie’s show), and heads home with a promotion if not with the girl. On a darker note, Alvarez Romano returns to Costaragua to help his father lead a counter-revolution, is captured, and  sentenced to death. He escapes, but all his fellow prisoners are slaughtered, as a two-page article from the Evening Tab reports in gruesome detail. McEvoy places that tragedy near but not at the conclusion of the novel in order not to spoil the happy ending: Dixie finds success and love, conveyed by some clever parodies of notable theater critics of the day (Percy Hammond, Alexander Woollcott, Alan Dale, Walter Winchell) and a flurry of giddy radiograms.

Aside from the novelty of its format, the most appealing aspect of Show Girl is its language. Often sounding like a risqué and snarky P. G. Wodehouse, McEvoy offers a fruity cocktail of slang and flapperspeak, most of it from Dixie herself. She slings words and phrases such as “into the merry-merry” (show biz), “a good skate” vs. “a wet smack” (a fun vs. dull person), “gazelles” and “gorillas” (young women and nightclub predators), “butter and eggers” (theater audiences), “ginny” (tipsy), “static” (unwanted advice), “goopher dust” (a legal loophole), “blue baby” (a dud play), “clucks” (dumb people), “crazy as a brass drummer,” and exclamations like “Tie that one,” “skillabootch,” and “Get hot!” (encouragement shouted at a good dancer). Glib Jimmy Doyle has already been quoted, and throughout McEvoy inserts some clever song lyrics, parodies, and greeting-card verse; he even has Denny quote and praise a song from his own musical Allez Oop. There are times when the insider theater lingo becomes hermetic (“the old comedy mule stunt . . . an easy hit in the deuce spot . . . an unsubtle comedy team in ‘one’ with Yid humor and soprano straight . . . novelty perch turn in four . . . the choice groove next to shut” [52]), but all the slang and shoptalk is a constant delight. One reviewer said “Five years from now Show Girl and Hollywood Girl will need a glossary.”[22] Dixie agrees: she starts a diary in the latter for the benefit of her future biographers:

I can refer them to you Diary and they can see for themselves I’m not handing them a lot of horsefeathers. I suppose too Diary we should keep posterity in mind because when they came across a word like horsefeathers and didn’t know what it meant we should have it defined somewhere, so for the sake of posterity horsefeathers means a lot of cha-cha and cha-cha means what diaries are usually full of. (Hollywood Girl 35)

Dixie is the first of many independent, untraditional young women in McEvoy’s novels. She is a self-proclaimed representative of “flaming youth” (a 1923 novel and silent movie), and at times sounds surprisingly 21st-century: “The real ambition of our young generation . . . is to be cool but look hot” (7). At a time when most young woman wanted to get married as soon as possible, Dixie tells Denny, “I don’t want to marry you or anybody else. . . . I’m young and full of the devil and want to stay that way for a while” (94)—a sentiment that will be voiced by many of McEvoy’s young heroines.

Show Girl sample pages 2Pages from Show Girl

In Show Girl McEvoy introduces other themes that will run through all of his novels, dark undercurrents beneath their playful surfaces. His contempt for the general public has already been noted in Jimmy’s condescending remarks on his newspaper readers, an attitude that McEvoy will later extend to theater audiences, greeting-card customers, comic-strip fans, and radio listeners. When Jimmy meets with the Broadway producers who want to dumb down his play, we get this exchange:

DOYLE (bitterly): I suppose if you got “Romeo and Juliet” you wouldn’t produce it unless you could buy a balcony cheap.

EPPUS: “Romeo and Juliet”? Pfui! I seen that once. There wasn’t a hundred dollars in the house.

KIBBITZER: That kind of play don’t make money. You got to stick to things people understand. (112–13)

Kibbitzer later makes a pass at Dixie, and sexual predation in show business is another recurring theme. Dixie breezily dismisses that incident—“Well, that’s what a female gets for having Deese, Dem and Doze” (118)—but along with her earlier sexual assault at Jack Milton’s party and the lascivious advances of club “gorillas,” McEvoy dramatizes how dangerous show biz is for “gazelles” like her.

The mendacity of the media is mostly played for laughs here, with the joke on the dumb clucks who take celebrity gossip as gospel and actually believe the “sediments” expressed in greeting cards, but corruption is handled more seriously. When the police arrive at Milton’s wild party and arrest Alvarez, Dixie notes that one of the guests, “Wilkins his name was, a big politician I found out later—got the cops off to one corner and gave them some sort of song and dance” that keeps their names out of the papers the next day (30, 32). Near the end, Alvarez’s father travels to New York and promises Milton the oil concession in Costaragua in exchange for financing his revolt; Milton gets a few of his Wall Street pals together and decide “that would be the patriotic thing American thing to do. Our country may she always be right,” Dixie remembers him saying, “but right or wrong we’ve got to have oil.” Milton enlists an Alabama congressman named Fibbledibber to convince his fellow representatives via patriotic rhetoric that America’s honor depends upon &c &c &c, and sure enough Congress authorizes the Marines to intervene in the South American country. These darker elements add depths to what would otherwise be a light entertainment—depths that were drained by the producers of the 1928 movie version (no doubt of the same mindset as Kibbitzer & Eppus), according to those who have seen it. The novel is dark and daring, like Louise Brooks; the movie is blonde and harmless, like Alice White.

Scene from movie Show Girl starring Alice White 1

Scene from movie Show Girl starring Alice White 2Alice White in 1928 movie version of Show Girl

Show Girl’s reviews were as boffo as those for Dixie’s performance in Get Your Girl. Marian Storm quite rightly praised it as “a show-case of language. Whirling, whizzing, dizzying—a bombardment upon eye and ear of monotonous, accurate, faithful ugliness, of snappy similes.” Proposing a new criteria for literature, the Springfield Republican said, “If making ‘whoopee’ is one of the aims of literary art, Mr. McEvoy has scored a literary success.” Ziegfeld himself reviewed it for the Saturday Review of Literature—despite appearing in Show Girl as a character!—and described it as “show business ‘hoked up’ to the saturation point. . . . The action races by and every typographical ingenuity is used to emphasize and amplify the ‘punch stuff’”—slinging slang as deftly as Dixie, but perhaps not entirely comfortable with seeing his profession mocked.[23]

***

Hollywood Girl cover image

Published a little over a year later, Hollywood Girl is one of the first and still best satires of Hollywood—a clichéd subject today but a novelty in 1929, when the industry was still young and making the transition from silent films to talkies. It begins seven months after the conclusion of Show Girl, and ends a year later (i.e., May 1928–April 1929), and features a similar story arc. Get Your Girl having run its course, Dixie is back in Brooklyn looking for work while Jimmy tries to write a new star vehicle for her, vowing to marry Dixie as soon as it is staged. When Dixie learns that flamboyant movie director Fritz Buelow[24] is in New York casting his next epic—Sinning Lovers, based on “The Charge of the Light Brigade”[25]—and is “hot for a jazz-mad baby that could make yip yip and faw down in a new squeakie,” as Dixie puts it (14), she finagles an interview and passes a screen test, on the basis of which she’s given a tentative contract and sent to Hollywood. She gets only bit parts at first, and then none at all, and learns the studio will not be renewing her contract.

At this low point, nearly halfway through the novel, Dixie delivers an emotional, 18-page interior monologue modeled on Molly Bloom’s at the end of Ulysses, at the end of which Jimmy calls her and vows to help. (He too is now in Hollywood as a screenwriter.) He feels a publicity party is what she needs to attract work, which results in a remarkable chapter entitled “Hollywood Party: A Talking, Singing, Dancing Picture with Sound Effects,” another 18-page tour de force that ends with the suicide of an “aging” actress. (“I’m thirty two,” she tells Dixie, “and in this business if you’re [a woman] over thirty you’re older than God” [124].) While the party rages, Dixie goes off with Buelow to another party and is nearly raped. All this Sturm und Drang is heightened by troubling rumors that a Wall Street syndicate of bankers, including Dixie’s old admirer Jack Milton, will be merging the major studios, eliminating jobs, and moving the whole business back east.

Hollywood Girl sample pagesPages from Hollywood Girl

At about the same structural point in Show Girl where Jack regains control of his musical, Dixie learns she has been given the lead in Sinning Lovers, once again thanks to Jack Milton. (Ironically, the studio had decided to give the role to the aging actress the same night she committed suicide.) Dixie is tempted to accept Milton’s marriage proposal after she and Jimmy have the last in a series of fights, but after the preview version of the movie flops, she drops him because he wants to give up on the film (and on her career). She is shocked at his philistine views: “Jack says so far as the bankers are concerned if it doesn’t make money it’s not a good picture and I says what about Caligari[26] and he says I never saw it and from all I’ve heard of it I never want to see it . . .” (205). Fortunately, another producer and director step in, save the film (retitled Loving Sinners under pressure from the censorious Hays office), and the movie makes Dixie a star, as attested by another raft of rave notices (more real-life reviewers, this time representing Los Angeles).

But this is where the novel takes a surprising turn. Unexpectedly, Jimmy Doyle is not called in to save the screenplay, make up with Dixie, and marry her at the end. Instead McEvoy lets fame and riches go to her head: Dixie starts hanging out with silly rich people, indulges in trivial pursuits, and only two weeks after meeting Teddy Page, a “New York millionaire sportsman and young society aviation enthusiast” (227), she elopes with him in Las Vegas. She’s aware he’s a binge-drinking, hell-raising skirt-chaser, but she’s convinced she can change him. “It’s only because he hasn’t met the right kind of girl” (235). (Cue reader’s rolling eyes.) The penultimate page of the novel features a tipped-in wedding photo of the couple (with a dead ringer for Louise Brooks as Dixie), followed by an announcement in the New York Times that Page’s wealthy family has cut ties with him.[27] This unexpected ending is a daring subversion of the wedding bells convention typical of most romantic books and movies, but Hollywood Girl is not a typical novel.

Final pages of Hollywood Girl (book)Final pages of Hollywood Girl

Final pages of Hollywood Girl (serialization)Final pages of Hollywood Girl, Liberty serialization 

In addition to all the narrative bells and whistles of Show Girl, the sequel sports a publicity release, cast lists and shooting schedules, the morality clause from an actor’s contract, interoffice memos, six drafts of the opening sentences of a letter, screenplays (complete with camera directions), a full-page ad in Variety, and some unpunctuated, modernist-looking dialogue. Plus there’s a parody of Edgar Guest (reminiscent of the poems in The Sweet Dry and Dry) and that Joycean monologue. Dixie starts and abandons a diary, which feels like a narrative crutch on McEvoy’s part, but Dixie is so entertaining that it would be churlish to complain. There’s another slew of slang: “maddizell,” “laying down a few flat arches” (dancing), “belchers” (talking pictures), “dog house” (a bass violin), “sitzplatz” (sitting place=ass), and “Hot cat!” (expressing excitement). Jimmy is as glib as ever, as when he is asked by a reporter for his first impression of Hollywood: “Offhand, it looks a little bit like Keokuk [in Iowa] on a Sunday afternoon, except that the houses and vegetation seem to have been retouched by one of those disappointed virgins who go in for painting china” (67). But he can’t top Dixie on the difference between the Big Apple and the Windy City: “New York is a jazz-band playing diga-diga-doo but Chicago is just a big megaphone with an overgrown boy hollering through it: Look at me, ain’t I big for my age” (40).

Like the first novel, there are a few celebrity cameos, including Dixie’s counterparts Louise Brooks and Alice White, aptly enough, and Aimee Semple McPherson via the radio airwaves. Von Stroheim is seen working with Gloria Swanson on Queen Kelly, a production as costly and strife-ridden as Sinning Lovers, and fans of old Hollywood will revel in all the namedropping, tech talk (UFA angles, lap dissolves), and insider dope.

Sexual predation is even more prominent here than in McEvoy’s first novel, and creepier: Show Girl is PG-13, Hollywood Girl R-rated. Director Buelow is a letch who indulges in Trump/Bush “locker room banter” and seduces the Evening Tab reporter who interviews him near the beginning of the novel (and who begins dating Jimmy at the end, when he returns to his job there), and plans to do the same with Dixie. (First, she has to fend off his manager with a joke about pedophilia.) Warned by Jimmy that Buelow “was on the make for me,” Dixie tells her diary “of course he’s on the make and what of it, all men are, only some are sneaky and don’t admit it . . .” (42). Jimmy tells her she will have to put out to be put in Buelow’s movie, which causes their first spat, but Dixie sees plenty of that after she’s been in Hollywood a few months. She keeps saying no to all the men who hit on her, including Jimmy’s Hollywood correspondent, unlike those who say yes: “that’s how you get along say yes talk about yes-men you never hear of the yes-girls but they’re the ones with the Minerva cars and three kinds of fur coats I guess I could get there too if I said yes . . .” (81).[28] The novel is frank about the sex appeal of movies. The aging star says of the latest starlets,

they’ve got one thing I haven’t got—youth. They’ve got young necks and young legs and young eyes. And nice slim, soft young bodies. And you can’t fool the camera when it comes to those things. And that’s what they want out here in this business. Youth. Young flesh. And they feed it into the machine and out comes thousands of feet of young eyes and young legs and young bodies. Reels and reels of it. And that’s what people want to see. Men go there and watch them hungrily all evening and then go home and close their eyes when they kiss their wives. (124)

McEvoy would have used a different verb if he thought he could get away with it. A month later Dixie is almost raped by Buelow, and after her success she speaks of budding actresses in terms of prostitution:

Hardfaced mothers from all over the country dragging their little girls around to studios ready to sell them out to anyone from an assistant director to a property man just to make a little money off them. Agents with young girls tied up under long term contracts at a hundred a week leasing them to studios for ten times that and pocketing the difference. Hundreds of pretty kids from small towns, nice family girls, church girls, even society pets going broke and desperate, waiting tables, selling notions, peddling box lunches on the street corners—I could tell you stories that would curl your hair. (223–24)

Passages like this are what make Hollywood Girl closer in tone and intent to Caligari than Singin’ in the Rain.

These intimations on immorality in show biz perhaps account for the curious number of biblical allusions in the novel, beginning on the first page, when Dixie blithely answers an imaginary interlocutor: “Where’ve you been? On Broadway, sez I. Where on Broadway, sez you. Up and down, sez I—up and down, between Forty-eighth and Forty-second, looking for a job”—the final word punning on the source of Dixie’s diction, Job 1:7: “And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” Over the next few pages there are allusions to the twelve apostles, Jonah and the whale, the book of Genesis, Noah’s ark, and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Though based on Tennyson’s poem, Sinning Lovers inexplicably begins with the Garden of Eden (with Dixie in Eve’s role), and when Dixie resignedly decides to marry Milton, she says, “sometimes I feel like that bimbo in the Bible who sold out for a mess of pottage” (cf. Gen. 25:29–34; “bimbo” is used of men and women in the novel).

Show Girl in Hollywood pagePage from Hollywood Girl, Liberty serialization

The most sustained biblical allusion is the radio broadcast Dixie and Jimmy endure while in a restaurant: from L.A.’s Angelus Temple Aimee Semple McPherson delivers a hokey sermon on Daniel in the lion’s den, spread over four pages in small caps (174–77), exhorting her listeners to tune out “all the jazz bands and the frivolous things of this world” and to sing along with her (to the tune of “Yes Sir, She’s My Baby”):

Yes sir here’s salvation
No sir don’t mean maybe
Yes sir here’s salvation now
Goodbye sin and sorrow
Welcome bright tomorrow
For we’ve got salvation now (177)

This is too ludicrous to take seriously, and though Dixie occasionally refers to herself in terms such as “a devil on wheels” (231), she is hardly Satan, much less Eve, Esau, or Daniel, and her thoughtless elopement at the end makes a mockery of finding salvation. Nor is McEvoy calling for readers to renounce “the frivolous things of this world” like Broadway musicals and Hollywood epics; for his purposes, the Bible is no longer a moral guidebook but a source of wisecracks, but the recurring biblical references add one more unexpected level to the novel.

As with Show Girl, the reviewers ignored the dark depths and stayed at the bright surface of the novel, which they found a little dimmer than its predecessor. “The book is amusing, filled with Hollywood madness and Hollywood slang,” said the New York Times, “but it lacks the easy, hilarious fun of ‘Show Girl,’”[29] not considering the possibility that McEvoy was aiming at something more than “easy, hilarious fun.”

***

Society cover image

Two years later, McEvoy concluded Dixie’s sassy saga with Society, which picks up the same day Hollywood Girl left off.[30] The first half of the novel documents the first few months of Dixie and Teddy’s impulsive marriage: honeymooning down in Mexico and then up in Monterey, Teddy continues drinking and chasing after women, which soon drives Dixie to Hollywood to resume her career. But they make up, and Dixie begins learning more of Teddy’s rich family: his 18-year-old sister Serena, whom he calls “a wet smack and dumb as a duck” (6), who is preparing to make her debutante debut that fall; his 16-year-old sister Patricia, a hellion already wearing heels who has seen Dixie’s film and runs away from private school to pursue a similar career in Hollywood; and Teddy’s predictably stuffy mother and father; in order to trace his daughter, the latter hires the same Open Eye Detective Agency that searched for Dixie in Show Girl. Mr. and Mrs. Teddy Page, as they are called—Dixie loses much of her independent identity after she marries: “Teddy is my career now” (42)—then  sail to France to continue their honeymoon, but during the crossing Teddy lusts after an Apache dancer called Le Megot—“cigarette butt or a snipe,” as Dixie translates, and described as “one of the sexiest little devils I ever saw with a wild shock of hair, a slim lazy body, big black eyes and a red mouth that must drive men crazy” (70). Upon arrival in France, Dixie sends a telegram wittily announcing “LAFAYETTE I AM HERE” (74), but no sooner is the honeymooning couple settled in Paris than Teddy sneaks off to London “on business” to catch Le Megot’s act at the Kit Kat Club. Meanwhile, Dixie is escorted around Paris by an Italian gigolo who had tried to seduce her during the ocean crossing. After another big fight—Dixie throws “a complete set of Victor Hugo at [Teddy], all of which he managed to dodge with the exception of Volume II of ‘Les Miserables’” (109)—they make up and head down to the Riviera.

At that point, halfway through novel, the plot takes a metafictional turn: we learn that Jimmy Doyle is in Paris, working for Colossal Pictures again and “gathering material for a high society movie” (105–6). Excited to learn that Dixie is also in France, he telegraphs his producer with a revised idea: “COULD COMBINE EUROPEAN ANGLE SOCIETY AND DIXIES POPULARITY” (108, sic)—which sounds like a note McEvoy made to himself after finishing Hollywood Girl. Dixie continues to party with the idle rich and tells Jimmy she’s having fun, or “fun in a way. But it’s no pleasure—if you know what I mean. We’re all so bored—Teddy’s friends and their friends—and they work so hard to be amused—and nothing really makes ’em really laugh—only when they’re full of champagne and are their real selves but don’t know it” (123). Dixie is excited to learn she’s pregnant, but just then Teddy gets involved in a sex scandal and both have to sneak back to New York. As the Page family prepares for Serena’s obscenely expensive coming out ball at the Ritz-Carleton on Thanksgiving Eve ($50K, around $750K today), Patricia reconnects with the young communist radical she had met while en route to Hollywood, and attends a rally in Bryant Park at which he speaks the night of Serena’s ball. Learning the cost of the ball, her Red beloved leads a protest march to the Ritz, which is broken up by the police—or as the headline in the communist Daily Worker puts it (177):

TAMMANY COSSACKS DEFEND SACRED RITZ
FROM CONTAMINATION BY STARVING WORKERS
THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS FOR ORCHIDS
WHILE MILLIONS CRY FOR BREAD.

Early the next year, Jimmy returns from France, manuscript completed, and tracks Dixie down in Palm Beach, where she is drinking to excess, experiencing cramps, and having doubts about becoming a mother: “I’m so tired of this silly empty life and realize the baby is going to tie me down tighter than ever” (188). On the next page we read a news account of an explosion on a yacht, in which Dixie was seriously injured. When she learns she has lost the fetus, she declares herself through with it all. Her decent father-in-law arranges a quickie Mexican divorce (and a generous stipend for life), and Dixie agrees to star in Jimmy’s movie Society Girl, “A Sensational Expose of the Haut Monde At Play” as a full-page ad on the penultimate page describes it. The movie is a “smashing hit” (with more fake quotes from real reviewers of the time), and Dixie and Jimmy decide to rest by sailing together for France. Meanwhile, Teddy is already on to his next showgirl, who Walter Winchell informs us (in a tidbit from his column) is “the third gel from the left in Earl Carroll’s Fannyties” (205).[31]

Though Society lacks the hellzapoppin’ energy and jazzy lingo of its predecessors—which in fact would be inappropriate for the leisurely pursuits of the rich and fatuous—the novel is more ingenious than the average satire of high society due, once again, to the novelty of its materials. The title page resembles a formal invitation, set in a copperplate font and even blind-stamped.

Title page of SocietyTitle page from Society

In addition to the usual letters, telegrams, playlets, and news clippings, we’re treated to Dixie’s ocean crossing diary, shipboard schedules and announcements, formal invitations and cards of introduction, menus, invoices, legal documents, a Junior League report by Serena on “A Trip through a Biscuit Factory,” and best of all, several chapters from The Memoirs of Patricia Page (To Be Opened Fifty Years After Her Decease),” an amusingly self-dramatizing, misspelt account of the 16-year-old’s runaway adventure. There are self-conscious narrative winks from McEvoy, as when the stage direction in one playlet describes the head of the Open Eye Detective Agency as “one of those fiction detectives who can only be found in real life” (33), and when Jimmy remarks on the coincidence of booking a hotel room next to Dixie’s: “If a fellow wrote that in a book they’d say he certainly had to reach for that one” (118). As Jimmy adapts his film plans to fit Dixie’s life, and even asks her to supply background material on debutantes (which she does in snarky fashion), it becomes obvious that his Society Girl is a metafictional mirror image of McEvoy’s Society, a film of the novel/novel of the film.

Pages from Society

Pages from Society 2Pages from Society

The darker themes in the first two novels are lighter here: sexual predation takes the forms of handsy gigolos and rampant adultery. As early as page 3 Dixie reports that one of Teddy’s rich friends “went right on the make for me—didn’t seem to mind I was on my honeymoon. Teddy didn’t either. Seemed flattered if anything.” A dozen pages later he shacks up with his ex-fiancée, and his tomcatting ways result in the suicide of one betrayed husband. Prostitution imagery is used for both debutantes—their coming out balls are sales displays for the marriage market—and for “society girls who are poor as church mice and yet have to keep up a swank front and be seen everywhere in the swellest clothes and what they won’t do to get by would put a Follies girl’s gold digging into the ‘come into the drug store with me while I get some powder’ class” (18). Patricia’s communist friend reprises Alvarez Romano’s role in Show Girl to introduce political elements in the novel, railing against the decadence of capitalist society in America and aristocratic privilege abroad, which McEvoy records in garish detail.

He also slips homosexuality into the novel. In a brilliantly rendered playlet set in a Paris nightclub called Le Fétiche, two Harvard boys “doing post-graduate field work in abnormal psychology” marvel at the lesbians. “A rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed contralto in tweeds” sings three new stanzas of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” (1928), another opportunity for McEvoy to show off his gift for parody:

Bugs do it—
Slugs do it—
Evil-looking thugs in jugs do it—
Let’s do it—
Let’s fall in love.
In holes the nice little mice do it—
Tho they are pariahs—lice do it—
Let’s do it—
Let’s fall in love.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Infusoria in Peoria do it—
And the better classes in Emporia do it—
Let’s do it—
Let’s fall in love. (93, 98)

This scene is followed by a letter from a Variety reporter describing the sights to be seen on the way south to the Riviera, including “a little hideaway tucked between [San Rafael and Toulon], entirely populated by the most delightful pixies, male and female, but you’ll never find it unless you meet one of three people, names enclosed here in sealed envelope. They’ll take you there if they like you” (103). In a trilogy about show business, it’s about time McEvoy mentioned the gay element, though it was a daring move for a commercial novelist in 1931.

Though Dixie takes up with high society, she’s never taken in by it. She mocks as she learns “society patter” and affected enunciation, yet can still deliver snappy similes such as “he closed up like Trenton on a Sunday night” (89; i.e., stopped talking). As she occasionally reminds people, she’s still just an Irish “punk” from Brooklyn, and despite a number of poor choices throughout the novel, she retains her best qualities. Teddy’s father praises her “spirit and independence in refusing alimony or settlement” (202), and the news item that concludes the novel indicates she’s single: she has reunited with the love of her life from Show Girl, but she hasn’t married him. Perhaps McEvoy merely wanted to leave the door open for another sequel, but it’s more likely that he intended Dixie to follow in the dance steps of his original model, Louise Brooks, who except for two very brief marriages spent most of her life single. (We can only hope that Dixie doesn’t wind up like our Miss Brooks did.)

Society is blander than its predecessors, but together the Dixie Dugan trilogy is an endlessly inventive portrayal of female independence as well as a damning indictment of show business, politics, sexual attitudes, and society at large. “To those who have followed him since ‘Show Girl,’ Mr. McEvoy has always meant humor and bite,” wrote the Saturday Review of Literature of Society. “The ridiculous and the sharply ironical were always blended,” and though the reviewer felt “the irony has wilted and the humor become worn” in the third novel, it’s that blend of humor and bite, of ridicule and irony—shaken and stirred with linguistic and formal ingenuity—that makes the trilogy as a whole a mordant, madcap masterpiece.

x

Fade to Black: The Final Novels

McEvoy’s 1930 novel Denny and the Dumb Cluck is a spin-off from Show Girl, which documented the failure of greeting-card salesman Denny Kerrigan to convince Dixie to abandon show biz and move to Chicago to marry him. Denny gets top billing in this novel, which begins two years later with a letter dated 11 May 1929 and ends about a year later, and which marks McEvoy’s turn toward darker, more bitter satires of American culture.[32] The novel is festooned with greeting-card verse, whose saccharine sentiments are undercut throughout by the vulgar businessmen who peddle the stuff and the “dumb clucks” who fall for it. Although marketed as a humorous novel,[33] the novel contains attempted suicides, mental breakdowns, divorce proceedings, Chicago mob slayings, and concludes with the murder of the president of Denny’s card company. Even the Hollywood happy ending, in which Denny regales his bride (the “dumb cluck” of the title) with the story of that murder during their honeymoon near Niagara Falls, is undercut by signs of what a terrible husband he will be. The novel is dedicated to Santa Claus.

Denny and the Dumb Cluck cover image

Like McEvoy’s earlier novels, Denny is an assemblage: letters, press bulletins and newspaper clippings, company memos (some shouting in ALL CAPS), telegrams, divorce papers and trial transcriptions, a hotel bill, two lengthy monologues, and selections from a lonely hearts newspaper column penned by “Carolyn Comfort”—actually a “white-haired [male] tobacco-chewing reprobate” (148).[34] It differs from his earlier novels in its structure: they proceeded chronologically, with their multiple story-lines interlaced, but Denny is divided into eight semi-independent sections that focus on specific story arcs. Part 1, dated from 11 May to 12 June 1929 concerns Denny’s modus operandi to selling the Gleason Greeting Card Company’s wares to the female owners of card shops (all with twee names like “Ye Arte Moderne Snuggery”); as he writes to his supervisor Al Evans, this entails “taking out the lady buyers and getting them all warm and confused so they’ll overstock themselves and have to work like hell making profits for you and me eh Al?” (22).[35]

Pages from Denny and the Dumb CluckPages from Denny and the Dumb Cluck

At loose ends one Sunday in Chicago, he meets “the dumb cluck”: a young woman named Doris Miller, estranged from her rich family in Indiana because she moved to Chicago “to make her own way” as a singer—another of McEvoy’s admirably independent young women. But when Denny recites one of his company’s lovey-dovey greeting cards and passes it off as his own spontaneous creation, Doris falls for him. “Poetry always gets dames,” he smirks to Al (15). But after she spots the poem in a greeting-card shop window, she attempts to drown herself. She is rescued, then explains her reason for the attempted suicide to a reporter who gussies it up for a human interest story for the Chicago Herald Examiner (reproduced on pp. 23–25), which leads to a spike in sales for the “Heart Throb” card Denny quoted. Denny hears about the sales but is unaware of his role in the spike.

The next section, however, begins with a letter by Al dated more than two months earlier (3 March) instructing his salesmen to make a big push for the new idea of a Father’s Day card, and concludes with a newspaper report dated 17 June 1929 noting Al’s admittance to a sanatorium for a nervous breakdown, the result of his stress-inducing sales efforts.  This section features heart-rending letters from his wife to her mother on the disastrous effects of his work on their marriage, and also introduces the Gleason Company’s “staff Poet Laureate” (3), Terence McNamara, a hard-drinking party animal (obviously a stand-in for McEvoy himself) whose marriage is likewise troubled. Section three is undated but apparently takes place in April, for it deals with sales plans for Mother’s Day cards. Denny gets nowhere with the proprietor of Ye What Ho Gifte Shoppe, “One of those long legged short-haired Greenwich village gals that wear batik bloomers and talk about their complexes” (60). She has eyes only for a milquetoast customer who shops frequently for cards to send home to mother. (In an ironic twist typical of McEvoy’s novels, he turns out to be a hired assassin.) Denny reports to Al about a crime wave in Chicago, and passes along his (and apparently his creator’s) doubts about his profession and his country: “Boy, you and I picked a piker’s game when we decided to spread cheer throughout the land. It’s nothing to cheer about if you ask me” (69).

Section four documents McNamara’s divorce proceedings, dated between 14 September and 5 October 1929.[36] His wife testifies to his numerous drinking binges on greeting-card related holidays and irresponsible behavior, including the time when McNamara flipped out when his kids recited a Valentine’s Day greeting-card poem to him. But when the poet takes the stand, he wins over judge and jury by answering entirely in greeting-card “sediments” (as it is often spelled in this and other McEvoy novels).

Pages from Denny and the Dumb Cluck 2Pages from Denny and the Dumb Cluck

The final four sections are undated. Section five apparently takes place later in October 1929, for greeting-card president George Gleason is in New York City looking for a replacement poet after firing McNamara for bad publicity. This startling section is a 23-page monologue delivered by Gleason to a Ziegfeld showgirl in his hotel room—she is currently dancing in Whoopee!, which closed 23 November 1929—whom he plies with liquor and tries to seduce until she panics and attempts to jump out the window. In section six, which seems to take place in late October or early November (though there’s no mention of the Wall Street crash during the last week of October), Denny searches for Doris, while the dumb cluck pours her heart out to Carolyn Comfort’s lonely heart column. Section seven must be set in late January of 1930, for football season has just ended and Denny is peddling Valentine Day cards. He’s having a difficult time making a sale to the owner of Ye Merrie Lyttle Nooke in South Bend, Indiana, “a little pug-nosed Mick” who is distracted by unrequited love for a theology student at Notre Dame, and is secretly contemptuous of her wares: “There is a card lying here on the table before me as I write, a sample Valentine given me by that fool salesman, Denny Kerrigan, who sells the Gleason line. It says ‘Love is bright as sunshine, love is sweet as dew’ and a lot more. But it isn’t anything like that at all, darling. Love is bitter and dark and cruel beyond all the cruel dark and bitter things of this world” (177). Her heartbroken letters to the student express true emotions in stark contrast to the false ones offered on greeting cards. After reading a newspaper announcement of her beloved’s ordination into the priesthood, clueless Denny writes to the woman about his new idea for a line of cards: “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ORDINATION.”

The final section jumps ahead a few months to Denny and Doris’s honeymoon, and is mostly taken up by Denny’s account of George Gleason’s murder the previous February by a disgruntled customer. There’s no explanation for how Denny found and made up with Doris, for since Denny is talking to her (another one-sided monologue to a silent woman), there wouldn’t need to be. Doris obviously knows how it happened, but the reader doesn’t, who might be excused for thinking McEvoy grew impatient and didn’t want to write a penultimate section on their reunion and courtship. Denny had suffered some sort of accident in section six that entailed a hospital stay with his face in bandages, and unbeknownst to him Doris nursed him and took dictation for his letters to Al about his search for “that dumb cluck” (156). They obviously reconnected, so McEvoy apparently felt he could cut to the honeymoon and wrap it up.

Despite the ostensibly happy ending, this is a harsh novel, which is to be expected from an author who set out to write a “grudge book” to “get even” with the greeting-card industry, as he admits in the author’s note at the end. It was too harsh for some reviewers: “The book is American in the same way that chewing gun, comic supplements and loud speakers are American,” complained Edwin Seaver in the New York Evening Post. “It is a violent, noisy book.” Contemptuous of the publisher’s attempt to market the novel as light humor, V. P. Ross wrote, “It is too ugly to be delectable, too grotesque to be tragic, and too longwinded to deserve the laurels of humor.”[37] But it is precisely those qualities that give Denny and the Dumb Cluck its edge, its Voltairic clash between ideals and reality, its anticipation of the irony-clad black humor of 1960s novels. A standard boy meets-loses-marries girl novel taking jabs at greeting cards would be too simple. McElroy used that sideline to stand for American business practices in general, many aimed at persuading “dumb clucks” to purchase their goods and services. He even hints that the New Testament’s promises of immortality are as false and hollow as greeting cards when Denny flips through a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room.

The language isn’t as slangy as that in the Dixie Dugan novels, though there are some amusing euphemisms (“you illegitimate sons of Rin-tin-tin’s mother”) and synonyms for drinking binges (“out on a bat”). There is also what appears to be McEvoy’s self-conscious defense of his “humorous” approach to writing versus that of “serious” writers, many of whom flocked to Paris in the 1920s. Denny writes to Al about the old drunk who writes the lonely hearts column:

For years he has done everything in the newspaper racket and found that nobody cared, so now he runs the Lonely Hearts Corner and hopes to save enough money to retire and go to Paris to write a novel. He says he needs a couple of years off from the job so he can gather material. I says, what about all these letters you get from the Lonely Hearts? I should think that would be swell stuff for a writer. A lot of hooey! says he. Now, take that story you were telling me about that girl you tried to find—you know, the one you picked up in a restaurant and took for a lake ride. She jumps off a boat because she thinks you wrote those bum sediments you’re always quoting! Well, I don’t blame her. I’d jump off myself to escape you. Now, I suppose you think there’s a story in that? Sure, says I. Crazy, says he. That just proves you’d better stick to peddling cheer. You’d starve to death if you tried to write. Now me, for instance, I know how, but I’ve nothing to write about and I can never save up enough to get ahead and settle down for a couple of years to do serious work. You know my dream, says he. I want to get a little studio in Paris near Montparnasse, and just sip wine, nibble cheese, and observe life and write about it. (150–51)

You can imagine what that novel would be like, if the old sot ever got around to writing it. But McEvoy did find “a story in that” attempted suicide, a polyvalent one that expands to indict all of American society at the bitter end of the Roaring Twenties when it all came crashing down, and didn’t need to take a few years off in Paris to write it.

***

Having settled his score with the greeting-card business, McElroy turned next to the comic-strip industry. The first half of Mister Noodle takes place in Chicago, where McEvoy got his start in strips, and I can’t improve on the plot summary provided by James A. Kazer in The Chicago of Fiction:

The story of Charlie “Chic” Kiley from Gum Springs, Illinois, is told through letters to his mother, news clippings, telegrams, and transcripts of conversations. Kiley takes drawing classes at the Art Institute and works in the art department of the Chicago Star. Overnight he becomes a nationally known comic strip artist when he introduces Mister Noodle, a strip composed only of profiles (since that is all Kiley can draw). He also effortlessly achieves social status, receiving memberships in the Chicago Athletic, Forty, and Midday Lunch clubs. With his newfound security he is able to marry his girlfriend and he soon has a one hundred thousand dollar per year contract for his syndicated strip. However, when he relocates to the syndicate’s offices in New York City he succumbs to the temptations of beautiful women, nightclub entertainments, and drink. When an actress falls from the balcony of his penthouse the scandal fills the Midwest with moral indignation and his comic book gets cancelled. Only when he returns to Chicago and reconnects with his small town does he get the inspiration for a new comic strip and rediscover success. This satire of the syndicated comic book industry makes pointed comparisons between Chicago and New York to the detriment of the latter.[38]

Illustration of Mr. Noodle from Saturday Evening Post 1Arthur William Brown illustration, Saturday Evening Post serialization of Mr. Noodle

It’s important to note that the novel satirizes only certain aspects of the comic industry, specifically the undeserved success of certain hacks and low-brow taste of many readers. The first time Kiley submits his poorly drawn strips to the editor of the Chicago Star, his boss tells him, “This paper has printed hundreds of questionnaires and prize contests for the correct answers on the simplest subjects, and we have found by experience that the average person knows only three things. . . . He knows his name; he knows his parents; and he knows where he lives. And that’s all he does know. Remember that if you’re going to be a comic-strip artist. . . . Always tell ’em something they already know. The better they know it the better they like it” (41). Talentless hacks pandering to the lowest common denominator is what irked McEvoy, not the genre itself; later in the novel, when a Russian director named Ivan Stalinsky sails to America to make a movie of Kiley’s strip,[39] the director expresses what might be McEvoy’s own views during a gangplank interview with the New York Evening Tab (the same rag that figures so prominently in Show Girl):

“The comic artist is the real modern artist. Comic artists were the first expressionists, and the colored supplements in your Sunday papers, with their vivid reds and greens and blues, are brutal and frank as the life they underscore, and it is only because I have always made pictures with real people rather than actors that I welcome this opportunity to come to your America and make a new comédie humaine, using the real Noodles of American life to reënact and interpret the salty humors of everyday existence. . . . You can say for me,” he added, “that the Supreme Author is a Humorist, and Life is a mad comic supplement He created to amuse the angels.” (125)

McEvoy placed the final sentence upfront as the epigraph to the novel, but then again, the entire statement may only be a swipe at the lofty claims sometimes made for the genre. The author definitely has his tongue in cheek when Kiley’s editor tells him, “Don’t forget the last frontier of old-fashioned virtue is the comic strip” (47).

Unlike the previous novels, the documents that make up Mister Noodle are not dated, except for a clip from Vanity Fair on the last page dated 1932, a year after the novel was published. Apparently the events occur between 1929 and 1930—a character on page 71 recites lyrics from “Just You, Just me,” a hit song introduced in the 1929 musical Marianne, though again there’s no mention of the Crash of ’29—and everything happens at a more rapid pace than in the previous novels, effectively conveying the “overnight-success” aspect of Kiley’s career. This is a deliberately unfunny novel about the funny papers, featuring one of McEvoy’s most despicable protagonists. Not only is he talentless, but he owes his success to others: his girlfriend Dorothy—whom he meets at the Art Institute and later elopes with—gave him the idea for the strip in the first place, which Kiley then adjusts to his boss’s low view of comics (which Kiley later parrots as his own). After he becomes successful, he has a team produce the strip for him while he gallivants around New York City, and even when he returns to Illinois in disgrace at the end, he has learned nothing. Kazer’s description of the conclusion is misleading: Kiley returns to Gum Springs to recuperate, but is subjected to a brilliantly rendered monologue by his ignorant Irish Catholic mother about murders, mayhem, and madness out in the sticks: hardly the stuff of inspiration. When Kiley then meets with his former Chicago Star editor and claims he has ideas for a new strip, he junks them as soon as his boss feeds him an idea for a new strip called Mister Whoosis, which Kiley claims for his own creation when he boasts to his New York syndicate boss of his imminent return to the big leagues. The novel ends with another hick comic artist arriving in the New York and getting carried away at the idea of living the high life, obviously on course to repeat Kiley’s fall. Or not: the last page of the novel reproduces a clip from a future issue of Vanity Fair stating, “We nominate for the Hall of Fame, Willie Timmerman, because—“ (186).

Illustration for Mr. Noodle from Saturday Evening Post 2Arthur William Brown illustration, Saturday Evening Post serialization of Mr. Noodle

The Chicago Star editor’s final lecture to Kiley is a cynical but informed overview of the comic-strip business, especially its lack of originality, and undoubtedly represents McEvoy’s conclusions after fifteen years in the business. When Kiley tells him that he has an idea for a strip that has never been done before, the editor (named James P. Mason) cuts him off:

Worse. Doomed to failure. The most successful strips running today were always successful, long before they were strips. Mutt and Jeff was a big hit when it was called Weber and Fields, and it’s a bigger hit now when it’s called Amos ’n’ Andy. Same idea. Big dumb guy picking on a little smart guy. German dialect, colored dialect, Brooklyn dialect—same thing. Little Orphan Annie is Cinderella. Bringing Up Father—Abe Kabibble—every burlesque show for the last fifty years has had a Jiggs and an Abe. The Gumps? Mr. and Mrs.? Any family comic? Has anything ever happened in any of ’em that hasn’t happened a million times in a million homes?

CHIC: I know, but they aren’t funny.

MASON: They don’t have to be funny. Did you ever watch anyone read a comic page? Did you ever see him laugh? Was there ever a laugh in Little Orphan Annie? One of the most successful comic strips running. People don’t want to laugh so much as they want to feel superior to somebody else. (179–80)

There are discussions like this throughout, with references to many strips and comic artists, which should make Mister Noodle valuable for comic historians, written by someone who was there at the beginning. For literary historians, Mister Noodle is valuable as a demonstration of how to take an unoriginal story-line (rube seduced by the big city) and make it new by way of formal and linguistic innovations. In addition to McEvoy’s usual documents, which as always provide a you-are-there immediacy to the proceedings, there are some amusing parodies of the gossip columnists of the time. Kiley’s arrival in New York is announced by a word-drunk columnist reaching for the literary stars:

AVE! MISTER NOODLE!
An Inquiry into the Irrefragable Tenuities
(From the Editorial Page of the New York World)

Swims into our ken a new planet—the algebraic mystification of orbital aberrations, the torturing ellipse of tortured ellipses, the Theseus before the throne of the Minotaur, half bull, half man, quaint Cretan symbol of American ideology—Mister Noodle—planet X—crying in the wilderness, eating the wild locusts of ephemeral fame, preparing the way for a greater-than-he, forsooth, or peradventure, if you will quibble—but I shout “Gold! Gold!” as did wild-eyed Sutter long ago—and mayhap I will grant you, a Fool’s Gold, but your Au may be my FeS₂, and who will bid me nay, for fool’s gold is the guerdon of fools—always the king on the throne has paid the fool on the stool stones for bread, darkness for light, the louring brow for the laughing lip—and so, in like manner—Measure for Measure, said the Mortal Poacher with immortal finality, or vice versa—we too long and too smugly, I fear, have been paying Mister Noodle of the earth earthy—Punchinello Redivivus!—with Jovian frowns from our high, crystal parapets, remembering not that Jove walked with the sons of men by day and talked with the daughters of men by night—Danaë? Shower of gold? FeS₂? Why not?—and from the little despairs of men, brewed by an alchemy lost to us the great courage of the gods against the cosmic crepuscle of the Götterdämmerung. (Ya sagers, all, shouting in the terrible twilight that finally swallowed warm, shining Olympus and cold, dread Erebus alike.) Vale, Great God Pan! Ave, Mister Noodle! (97–98)[40]

Columnist Walter Winchell is parodied twice, once upon Kiley’s arrival and once after his disgrace: “A certain cocky alien from Chicago, who was King Fish in the ookie-ookie racket a few months ago, and then faw down on his you-know-what with a big phfft is out of the camphor again and trying to merge a meal ticket on a local rag . . . no soap” (163). On the train from Illinois to New York, Kiley makes the acquaintance of “The Boop-a-Doop Sisters,” two nightclub chippies who provide an sassy stream of slang throughout the rest of the novel, even some pig Latin.

As in his previous novels, McEvoy takes the faults of a minor—some in the 1920s would have said trivial, even disreputable—medium of pop culture as a metonym for the faults of America at large. He presumably wrote Mister Noodle in the gloomy months following the Wall Street crash, which perhaps justifies the New York World columnist’s despairing evocation of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods. Reviewers used to the fizzy fun of the Dixie Dugan novels were shocked at the novel: one complained “Its humor is cruel,” another that “There is a great deal that is coarse and unnecessarily realistic,” and a third that it “is hard, brittle, cruel almost to literary sadism”[41]—which sound like the reviews Faulkner’s Sanctuary received the same year. Neither Mister Noodle nor Society (also published in 1931) sold well, and perhaps for that reason McEvoy changed publishers for his final novel.

***

In contrast, reviewers were very impressed by Are You Listening?, and quite rightly so. It is his most compelling performance, his most technically ingenious “stunt” (as one reviewer called it), his grittiest and most realistic novel, and his most powerful dramatization of the impact of new media on the public. The media in question is commercial radio: only a decade old by 1932, “The invasion by this sort of blah is now history,” one of the novel reviewers lamented (William Rose Benét, he who labeled it a stunt):

One hears it not only in every apartment but on every street corner. It has turned any imaginative life that exists for the man in the street into a mixture of ballyhoo slogans, thickly syrupy sentiment—usually about all the wrong things—and sensational thought images. . . . [T]he industry in its infancy has so far managed to spread more blatant vulgarity on the air than one would even have suspected. This is probably what a democracy loves. It is certainly what it continues to listen to without noticeable protest.[42]

McEvoy’s “noticeable protest” puts it even more dramatically: a broadcaster describes radio as going “into every home, every factory, every story, every place where men and women meet to eat, sleep, drink, work or play; this tremendous voice from which there is no escape; this modern jungle drum beating from coast to coast . . .” (236). For some lonely souls in the novel radio provides companionship—“Turn it on in the morning and let it run. Keeps them company” (143)—but one character who can’t escape it lambastes radio for “babbling all day like a half-witted relative” (129).[43]

Are You Listening ColliersAre you Listening?, Collier’s serialization, illus. by Henry L. Timmins

The main story-line concerns the three O’Neal sisters, who have left Middletown, Connecticut, to try to make it in New York City. The eldest, Laura, went there to become a concert singer, but now performs for Radio WBLA (pronounced blah, as Benét notes). She shares an apartment with her younger sister Sally, who works as a receptionist at WBLA all day and parties all night. Their airhead kid sister Honey, nearly 18 when she moves in a little later, is “trying to crash Broadway” (40) but has to settle for bit parts on the radio, and eventually for a gig as a celebrity gossip reporter for the New York Morning Tab. All three have trouble with men, none more so than Laura, who is romantically involved with Bill Grimes, a continuity writer for WBLA. He’s stuck in a hellish marriage with a shrew who won’t grant him a divorce until he can afford to pay a huge alimony; near the end, he accidentally strangles her to death, then flees with Laura as WBLA, in cahoots with the police department and the Morning Tab, livecasts the manhunt for them. Because of the radio reports’ reach, the couple is ID’d and arrested in Florida, Bill is convicted of manslaughter, and is sent to Sing Sing (which was recently wired for radio). The novel ends with all three sisters listening, from different locations in different moods, to a live radio broadcast of Cab Calloway and his Joy Boys singing “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” from the Cotton Club.[44]

The novel elapses over about a year’s time—undated, but apparently from May 1931 to spring 1932—and and is partly conveyed by way of radio broadcasts, set in boldface italics: announcer palaver, jingles, speeches (including one from the Vatican by the pope), skits plugging ludicrous products, musical interludes, and live shows from various locations, including the notorious Nut Club in Greenwich Village. (There are also some short-wave police bulletins near the end.) The broadcasts alternate with the main mode of the novel: unpunctuated dialogue, one-sided telephone calls (with unspaced Célinesque ellipses …), monologues, and italicized shouting in a larger point size. The earthy dialogues are often interrupted and undercut by the airy nonsense of the broadcasts, usually for darkly ironic purposes. (Saccharine love songs provide musical background for spats between couples; a noted judge delivers a speech praising Prohibition hours after his all-night, booze-filled yacht party; peaceful Christmas hymns are interrupted by the barked police reports on the manhunt.) And as in all of McEvoy’s novels, there is extensive behind-the-scenes dramatizations of putting a show together, especially the frustrating attempts of creative people to meet the needs of their commercial sponsors. WBLA’s producer regards radio as “a theater of the air. The advertising is incidental, but so far as the public is concerned, a necessary evil” (90). The sponsors, of course, feel precisely the opposite: one client, after hearing a Shakespearean skit created for the Eureka Exterminator Quarter Hour, wonders “if some of it won’t be hard to understand. Of course I understand it, but then you know how the average person is—especially when it comes to words like—like—like well, some of those words the girl used. . . . Seems we use a lot of time on the air without saying something about our product. Couldn’t we mention that it comes both in liquid and powder form, or something like that?” (184). The frequent time-of-day announcements are called M-O-R-I-S-O-N WATCH TIME after its sponsor, which anticipates the subsidized years in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

McEvoy’s reliance on dialogue to carry the narrative is reminiscent of other novelists of the time such as Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Evelyn Waugh (Vile Bodies), and Virginia Woolf (The Waves). In the radio bits, he demonstrates his gift for satire and pastiche, but the dialogue is impressive for its unvarnished realism from a wide variety of characters, from radio personnel and sponsors to Wall Street investors to speakeasy owners and gangsters. (Just before he strangles his wife, Grimes tells her that her psychologist “just wanted to lay you” [219], perhaps the first appearance in fiction of the vulgar verb.[45]) By way of dialogue McEvoy ingeniously conveys everything that a third-person narrator in a conventional novel would—appearances, actions, settings—putting the reader in the same position as a radio listener creating visual images from dramatized scripts.

Pages from Are You Listening 1

Pages from Are You Listening 2Pages from Are You Listening?

The best lines are delivered by McEvoy’s female characters, most of whom reveal how difficult it is to be a woman, especially in what Sally O’Neal calls “this man’s town” of New York. When station announcer Buddy Law tells her he can’t see how girls stand it, she answers, “Buddy, when you’re a girl you learn to stand almost everything. That’s what being a girl means” (15). Both Sally and Honey party hearty in defiance of their conventional, religious mother, who visits and lectures them on a woman’s place in the world (safely married at home in an apron), while older sister Laura is so exasperated by her failed career and troubled relationship with Grimes that she attempts suicide. She complains of her neighbor Mrs. Peters, who turns on her radio “in the morning and never lets up until two o’clock the next morning,” but her mother tells her she does so because “She’s lonesome and sad. How would you feel if you used to be a famous actress, and now because you’re not young any more you can’t get a job and have to sit home and listen to the radio.” Laura replies, “Well, that’s just tough if she grows old and gets out of step. Who can help that?” (129). Later, Mrs. Peters offers some sound advice to Honey, who can’t decide whether to accept a rich man’s invitation to attend a football game in Chicago: “Remember, it’s always the woman who holds the key to any situation like this. It can be any kind of situation she chooses, and the man must abide by her decision. If I haven’t learned anything else in my fifty years, I’ve learned that men accept a girl on her own valuation of herself. If she wants respect for herself, she must have it for herself first” (167). As in his other novels, McEvoy portrays independent women in a positive light, but in Are You Listening? he poignantly captures the despair of women trapped in hopeless situations. The psychologist who treats, “lays,” and then abandons 50-year-old Mrs. Grimes doubts his smart secretary’s diagnosis that she’s dangerous: “Why? Just because she’s emotionally starved, repressed, and somewhat inclined to hysteria? What of it? Most married women of that age are.” “True,” his secretary responds, “but she’s a potential manic-depressive, starved, thwarted, on the edge of her menopause and fixed on you. You know that’s a bad spot” (195; like “lay,” this may be one of the earliest appearances of the word “menopause” in fiction). Both Laura and Alice Grimes suffer psychotic meltdowns, Sally and Honey fend off near-rapes, and in another scene a gangster Sally is dating knocks a woman unconscious. The plight of women alternates with the ubiquity of radio both formally and thematically in this gender-sensitive novel.

Despite its grim theme, there are some amusing bits. Answering the phone while the station’s broadcast blares overhead, Sally wisecracks, “If there’s anything that’s good for a hangover, it’s German on a loudspeaker” (45). There are clever Gilbert and Sullivan parodies that recall the McEvoy of Slams of Life, and the listening audience is treated to musical performances by such groups as the New Art Plumbing Symphony Orchestra (under the direction of Arturo Garfinkel) and the Beau Brummell Dandruff Dandies’ Jews’ Harp Trio playing the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. (His Tristan and Isolde is incorporated into an ad for bathroom fixtures.) But as in McEvoy other late novels, the humor is black.

Even though the aforementioned William Rose Benét called Are You Listening? a “‘stunt’ novel” and stated “There is nothing a bit ‘literary’ about the book,” he praised it to the skies, pompously concluding his review: “Mr. McEvoy has been ere this a champion of the comic spirit. He has also, however, seen the cruel significance behind all the moronic chatter now burdening the ether, and has praiseworthily evoked it in this novel for us to see. Underneath all the japery, it mutters in our ears like the ghost of Hamlet’s father!” Hollister Noble, in a rave review for the New York Times Book Review, praised the “consistent balance between the serious delineation of character and the mocking irony of [the radio station] environment,” and complimented McEvoy

for two distinct achievements. He has re-created with amazing fidelity, through the rapid-fire conversation of his characters, the very breath and life of the studio. And at the same time he has skillfully handled a great variety of characters, each of them early delineated and definitely individual. All of them have the full flavor of reality, and Mr. McEvoy is most adept in depicting their collisions with the fantastic complexities and whirling enigmas surrounding them.[46] Perhaps heeding the show-biz advice of always leaving them wanting more, McEvoy ended his performance as a novelist on that high note.

***

The final line of McEvoy’s final novel is “Are you listening?,” which would be echoed 43 years later in the final line of William Gaddis’s multimedia novel J R, spoken into a telephone: “Hey? You listening . . . ?”[47] McEvoy resembles Gaddis in many ways: both have a caustic sense of humor and dim view of America; a high fidelity ear for dialogue and the vernacular; and a penchant for the comic-ironic juxtaposition of public statements vs. private sentiments, high art vs. low entertainment (in J R Gaddis uses Wagner much the same way McEvoy does). Both use documents in fiction—J R has several, and his novel A Frolic of His Own is filled with legal documents, a play script, letters, newspaper clippings, brochures, even recipes—and both satirize the frivolous uses of technology in the arts: like the Russian director in Mister Noodle, Gaddis in his final, posthumous novel Agapē Agape stares agape at “the lavish opulence of American technical resources and at the same time secretly frighten[ed] and depress[ed by] the remorseless rhythm of this great machine, spawning and spewing in callous complacence an endless flood of elegant marshmallows” (Noodle 136–37). Three other innovative fictions of the 1970s that come to mind are the vaudevillian skits, speeches, and news reports that make up Philip Roth’s Our Gang (1971), Jerome Charyn’s novel in the form of a literary quarterly, The Tar Baby (1973), and Robert Coover’s use of show-biz tropes to indict American culture in The Public Burning (1977), another novel comprised of documents, monologues, poems, and parodies. Whether regarded as a covert avant-gardist of the 1920s, as a harbinger of the Black Humor of the 1960s and certain multimedia novels of the 1970s, or as an avant-popster avant la lettre, J. P. McEvoy deserves to be rediscovered and reprinted.

J P McEvoy still from Woman Accused 1933Still from Woman Accused, 1933

—Steven Moore

.

STeven Moore

Steven Moore is the author of the two-volume study The Novel: An Alternative History (2010, 2013), as well as several books on William Gaddis. His new book, My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays, is forthcoming from Zerogram Press.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Manhattan Transfer: The American Novel as Scrapbook,” http://www.fractiousfiction.com/manhattan_transfer.html. T. S. Matthews, New Republic, 25 July 1928, 259. The most famous predecessor for the “scrapbook” novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); for a literal example, see The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston (2011).
  2. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 83.
  3. “Ink-Slinger Profiles: J. P. McEvoy,”<http://strippersguide.blogspot.de/2015/06/ink-slinger-profiles-by-alex-jay-jp.html>, posted 8 June 2015. This treasure trove of research is the source for many of the biographical details that follow.
  4. North American Review 244.1 (Autumn 1937): 206.
  5. Quoted in Ray Banta, Indiana’s Laughmakers: The Story of over 400 Hoosiers (Indianapolis: PennUltimate Press, 1990), 115.
  6. The Sweet Dry and Dry includes a parody entitled “The Boobyiat of O Howdri Iam.”
  7. “Lewis Talks to Chicago League,” Publishers Weekly, 19 March 1921, 914.
  8. James Curtis, W. C. Fields: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2003), 157.
  9. For details, see Curtis (157–64) and especially chapter 23 of Simon Louvish’s Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields (London: Faber and Faber, 1997). Louvish says they had a lot in common, physically and temperamentally, and concludes, “McEvoy’s influence on Bill Fields was profound and long-lasting” (254). They appear together in a photograph on p. 255.
  10. It was registered with the Library of Congress as Americana: A Novel Revue—an inadvertent (or not) pun setting the stage for the revue-like novels McEvoy would soon write.
  11. George Gershwin: His Life and Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 377. Gershwin wrote a song for the show (“That Lost Barber Shop Chord”). McEvoy was assisted by Morrie Ryskind and Phil Charig, and worked with composers Con Conrad and Henry Souvaine on the score. Conrad (1891–1938) writes the music for the musical in McEvoy’s first novel, Show Girl.
  12. See Pollack 451–61 for a detail account of the musical, who notes that the script “lost much of the charm of the original novel” (453). Ethan Mordden agrees: “Very little of McEvoy’s satirical view of how scandal and crime sell fame came through” (Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008], 268).
  13. Jay records McEvoy’s remark that he stopped writing the strip around 1936 and turned it over to his son Denny and Striebel. See the feature story on the origins of the strip in Modern Mechanix, April 1934, 57, 143–44 <http://blog.modernmechanix.com/dixie-dugans-fathers/#mmGal>.
  14. For the reason, see McEvoy’s “A Jeremiad on Laundries” in Slams of Life (58–59).
  15. Times Square Tintypes (New York: Ives Washburn, 1930), 245–48.
  16. Show Girl was what The Inner Sanctum calls a Life Saver. Part of it showed up on a gray afternoon and promptly ran away with the working day of our staff. It was read and accepted in twenty-four hours. Laughter is an irresistible salesman. A number of other customers fell in line. Liberty laughed and bought Show Girl for serial publication. First National is filming it and a musical comedy is in the offing.”
  17. Her age is not given in the novel, but in the sequel set a year later, Dixie writes: “As for me I am nineteen years old and what is technically known as a virgin although I have been most thoroughly and thrillingly mauled on many occasions . . .” (Hollywood Girl 37). She also states “I am now five feet two inches tall and weigh 110 pounds” (36)—Louise Brooks’s stats.
  18. Barry Shank offers some informed observations on Denny and his profession in A Token of My Affections: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 148–51, one of the only treatments of McEvoy in recent criticism (though he gets some plot details wrong). Of McEvoy’s Slams of Life, Shank writes, “As an attempt at satire, the book fails to sustain a critical viewpoint. But it functions quite well as a document of the cheap cynicism that seemed to haunt those who produced culture on demand for commercial purposes in the first half of the twentieth century” (147).
  19. His formal name John Milton is given a few times; apparently McEvoy liked the idea of naming a horny Wall Street broker after the Puritan poet.
  20. American Mercury was the leading literary journal in the 1920s; True Story [sic] featured sleazy “sin-suffer-repent” confessions by women (often male ghostwriters).
  21. Real-life Broadway veterans Con Conrad (music), Sammy Lee (choreography), Herman Rosse (scenic design), and Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn (additional songs). Several celebrities make cameos in the novel, including Florenz Ziegfeld, Jimmy Durante, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and many others are namedropped.
  22. Saturday Review of Literature, 30 November 1929, 491.
  23. All quoted from the 1928 edition of Book Review Digest.
  24. He is called Fritz von Buelow only on the cast list in the front of the book, and is apparently based on McEvoy’s friend Erich Von Stroheim, who also makes a few cameos in his novel under his real name.
  25. In 1929, the idea of making a romantic movie out of Tennyson’s 55-line poem was absurd, but in 1936 there appeared The Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
  26. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1919 German Expressionist masterpiece.
  27. The final page of the Liberty serialization (28 September 1929, 73) is much more elaborate: the Times announcement mimics the paper’s actual display and text fonts, and the extended photo includes several wedding guests and a caption, not just the wedded couple as in the published book.
  28. This is occurs in Dixie’s monologue, echoing the closing line of Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses: “. . . and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Like alcohol, Ulysses was prohibited in America at this time, but McEvoy managed to obtain both.
  29. Quoted in Book Review Digest for 1929.
  30. However, there is an inexplicable dating discrepancy: Hollywood Girl ends in April 1929, but Society begins in April 1930. A few references in the past tense to the Crash of ’29 indicate the novel is indeed set in 1930, the bulk of it from April to December, and concluding around the time of the book’s publication in the fall of 1931. Cf. note 33 below.
  31. A pun on Carroll’s stage revue Vanities. “Known as ‘the troubadour of the nude,’ Carroll was famous for his productions featuring the most lightly clad showgirls on Broadway” (Wikipedia).
  32. Thus the novel occurs during the inexplicable 1929–1930 gap between Hollywood Girl and Society, which is perhaps what McEvoy intended by re-dating the latter, hoping nobody would notice.
  33. The novel was published by Simon & Schuster’s Inner Sanctum line, an experiment at pricing new novels at $1.00 (instead of the usual $2.00) and using stiff paper rather than cloth covers. They were color-coded: blue for “books in a more or less serious vein,” green for detective and mystery novels, and red for “books of a lighter nature” (ii). Denny was classified as red.
  34. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts was published three years later in 1933.
  35. Al and a few other characters from the greeting-card subplot in Show Girl reappear here.
  36. McEvoy drew upon his own 1922 divorce trial for this section. Jay quotes from a news story in the Portland Oregonian (27 August 1922), in which McEvoy accused his estranged wife of failing to take proper care of their children despite a generous alimony and “of gay ‘carryings on’ in her home at late hours after the children had been put to bed.” She countercharged “that McEvoy was too friendly with other women.”
  37. Outlook 155 (27 August 1930): 667. Seaver’s review appeared in the 9 August issue of the Evening Post, p. 5
  38. The Chicago of Fiction: A Resource Guide (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 236–37.
  39. When Stalinsky finally visits a Hollywood movie lot, a scene rendered in play form, the stage directions state he is shown around by a studio exec “overawing him with the lavish opulence of American technical resources and at the same time secretly frightening and depressing him with the remorseless rhythm of this great machine, spawning and spewing in callous complacence an endless flood of elegant marshmallows” (136–37), which can be read as McEvoy’s final verdict on the movie industry.
  40. This sounds like Percy Hamilton, who is parodied near the end of Show Girl (212).
  41. All quoted from the 1931 edition of Book Review Digest.
  42. “The Ghost in the Radio,” Saturday Review of Literature, 20 August 1932, 52.
  43. This recycles a stage direction in a restaurant scene in Hollywood Girl: “Above the clatter of dishes and the bumble bumble of voices a radio loud-speaker, pleasantly ignored, drools and cackles with the idiotic insistence of a half-witted relative at a family dinner” (168).
  44. There are footnoted permission acknowledgments for this and some other songs quoted in the book. McEvoy hadn’t done so in previous novels and may have run into legal problems.
  45. The earliest example recorded by the OED is John O’Hara Appointment in Samarra (1934).
  46. “Tuning for the Moonstruck Static of Radio land,” New York Times Book Review, 28 August 1932, 4.
  47. J R (New York: Knopf, 1975), 726. There’s no evidence Gaddis knew McEvoy’s work.
Feb 122017
 

two-urns-and-the-sea

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Brindisi

Start out to the centre of a city chosen at random, let it be Brindisi. From the train station a promenade leads straight to the sea, lined with palm trees: their shadow striates the pavement in the noontime sun, horizontal window grids. The town is daydreamy, as if caught in an endless afternoon, all the shops about to close. The promenade saunters at leisure into a tree-lined square, then continues seaward: the circle that can be drawn in the middle of the square has two fountain crescents on its sides, water trickles on a squat wall’s horizontal yellow, red, green mosaic strips into a basin painted deep blue. The promenade leaves the early afternoon park behind, in it the few Africans sunken into themselves, whose aloneness is not alleviated, but rather thickened by their cellphone music. The music reaches out after the shadows of the passersby, always one step behind. From the windows, the clinking of cutlery.

The promenade has its palm trees and its procession: light processes on it all day long. Before reaching the sea, it slows down in a little park among four symmetrically planted olive trees. There are no two olive trees that look alike. In the middle a clamant white marble statue, the two twisted animals at the poet’s feet, a dog and a lamb, look as if carved from preposterously bleached, knotty olive-tree wood: here Virgil lay dying on his return from Greece.

The poet looks out on the sea, on the tongue of land closing in the sea behind the two harbours, and beyond them, to the wider outer sea. Because the town has two waterfronts: city between two waters, with a sea locked between two land strips. Levante and ponente harbor basins, the water-faces turned to the upward- and downward-going sun.

The lungomare is one sole theatre balcony gazing out at the sea: its consoles are the palm trees that by their hair fasten it to the sky, so it can’t drift out on the high waters.

Go up a flight of stairs to the one-and-a-half column marking the end of the Via Appia: one fell and broke into pieces, its capital a pedestal today, in Lecce, for a saint. The fragment of its trunk lies sideways on a tall base, broken not in splinters but along knotty sinews. Like a slice of some gigantic flayed animal, a tuna trunk laid out on a counter, in it the muscles’ inward-turned cramp, the inward-glowing gaze of the stone flesh. The divinities on the intact column’s capital are caught in the instant of their winged dash, just about to hurl themselves on the blue, on a liquid crystal airwave, their gazes their wings. Their flight throws the sky open and lengthens distances.

column-in-brindisi

The column stands in the air, not on the ground: in the light, compacted into a slab it froze into the instant of stepping out of the blue and entering our space, to become flesh. The height is situated at the place where the seno di levante, the harbor basin turned to the upward-going sun, abuts the seno di ponente, the harbor lying towards the downward-going sun, close to the old town’s cape east where it presses its face on the water, like a statue on a prow. Across the water, the canal between the two harbours leading out into high water: a sea gorge. The columns look beyond the landmark willed by Mussolini, the monument of the seamen fallen at sea: the capital of the intact column is windblown hair, while across it the human figure on the oversize reddish-ochre wedge cutting into the water is a monumental trinket, indomitable carved cliché. At the foot of the stairs, a patient little archaeological collection: the volutes of its Attic, Italic vases glow like candelabra in their showcases; the goose, deer, drapery fold sketched in white on the lacquer-like blacks, dark browns and reds of Gnathian vases resist the pull of museum death. The flavor of ancient oil or wine impregnates their walls, as the August sun, a memory shred, impregnates the bleached, graying skin at winter’s end.

The yellow triangle of the square in front of the cathedral is there to fence in the sky. Its lines of sculpted bishops’ staves and downward-turned faces are choruses answering one another from the galleries. Shadows are razor-sharp in the blazing sun. The animal-faced consoles, thick like a comb, supporting the Gothic balcony of the palace that obliquely closes the square on the right, are fulgent apparitions. The façade clings to the balcony, lest it rise with slow wingbeats above the roof of the palace opposite. A dancer’s naked back drifts across the square, bearing a vertical message inscribed along the spine, its beauty a see-through lightning.

Animal-faced-consoles-Brindisi

The orange circolare connecting the peripheral districts meanders on the patched-up asphalt among concrete fences, roof-terraced blocks of flats, to the sea. Now and again an unwitnessed transfiguration on the empty streets: magenta masses of bougainvillea spread out on a wall, the gigantic foliage of a pine tree which, as light traverses it in the wind, looks deciduous. In the frame of burnt-out lawn and unbroken façades only the colours of awnings gesticulate wildly. With their short shadows, the empty bus stops are banal sundials, the whitening afternoon oozes away around them. Now the bus is driving straight ahead between the barbed-wired fences of the military and civil airport, leaving the inhabited areas behind. The Indian figs pay no heed to the barbed wire, they are both inside and outside, nonchalantly showing off their red and yellow figs. Where the bus drops me off (you go ahead, there’s the sea), the road forks: in the bifurcation the hideousness of an unfinished dark gray concrete building is trying to withstand the assault of green and blue. In front, a short concrete fence: its sediment of graffiti, rain and sun looks like a Cy Twombly.

its-magic

On one side of a gaping hole in the fence, a sign prohibits entry and warns of crumbling structures; on the other side, a graffiti points at the hole: IT’S MAGIC. Beyond the wall a row of aligned squat bungalows, their whitewash long washed off: a brittle youth summer camp above the waterfront. Inside, in the forbidden zone, a few teenage boys are dressing, their radio turned to the maximum. The shores of the little gulf are impatiently lapping up the rolling waves with flat rocky tongues. To the right, the road continues in a long pier; beyond the pier lies the industrial port with its cranes and tows. To the left, several fishermen, unstirring anthropoid cranes; on this side in a hollow, two women are sunbathing in deck chairs they somehow balanced on the rocks. A graffiti points the way to the pier: PUNTA RISO, Cape Ridicule. Tucked in the underarm of the industrial port, this no-man’s-land is a secret passage to the sea, a postindustrial outing destination, private adventure park, ridiculously beautiful garbage dumping site fitted out with billboards FOR SALE/TO LET. I’ve always imagined the Algerian seaside in Camus’ L’Étranger like this, stripped of picturesque adornments, a compact horizon within concrete lines and unrestrained stone growth, where the deeper and the higher blue touch.

abandoned-white-buildings-brindisi

The shore pitted to reach the sea’s horizontal line has nothing to do with those inexhaustibly photogenic cliffs modulating from deepest black to bone white, on which the coast towns are built. Here the stones are dark brown and dull red, with a reddish-yellow silt, as if springs high in iron were welling up among them. Looked at from above, they seem a broad, petrified strip of mud or argile that has been trampled, kneaded into these forms by invisible cloven-hoofed, web-footed, elephant-legged herds: edges and hollows everywhere, a plain of saw dents, pits, precipices, minute ravines squeezed among sandpaper pumice, against which the whipped-up Veronese-green water, blue only in the distance, lashes mercilessly. Deuterium. When a wave tumbles down and the tidal backlash sucks water out from among the rocks, for a moment a check pattern trembles on the dimpled water surface above the well-like hole: tugging in two directions, the flow tightens perpendicular water-threads woven above and beneath one another, the water fabric cambers upward like drum skin, before hollowing in again, to be broken into chips by the next wave. At the juncture between the water-threads tiny points of light vacillate, projected on the rocks: their spectral reflection still drifts on the rough matter, barely touching it, when the texture below is torn up by a new wave. Time captured in the trap of light.

water-threads-brindisi

When the sky is clouded over, the indigo blue of the distant waters is transposed into indigo green, and the golden reflections are supplanted by dimmed mercury light. The direction of the clouds cannot be guessed: they thicken above the sea, rise like dough, as if they were spreading out into several directions at once. After a while, metallic raindrops start falling from their blackish mantle. Between the heavily rolling lower and the rarefied upper waters a few oblique light beams, taut tightropes, measure distance like a jet airplane’s condensation trail, or a gull’s flight. The rocks on the shore retain all waste. On the bottom of a pit that fills up with seawater through invisible cracks, three springs from the deck chairs of yesteryear: they lie in geometric order, their rust colour delicately tuned to the rock, growing a spectral reddish-silver halo on the water surface, rich and strange. A few steps away, iridescent black rubber or plastic stains sea-changed into mineral sediment lead, like a path strewn with lentils, to another hole, tiny marginal sea, on which a white stain hovers: osso di seppia, the cuttlebone of a Sepia. The find asks for edgy Montale words. What ebb has shipwrecked the bone blade lighter than water? Like a paper cutting knife, to cut up the thickly inscribed pages of the waves folding upon one another.

channel-to-sea-brindisi

A short-headed fisherman with a stout Guttuso frame is meticulously tenderising the day’s catch on the Polignano rocks: with one brutally proficient movement he sticks two fingers under the squid’s mantle, tears out the ink sac and something I presume to be the viscera. He gathers the ink sacs into a plastic bag and throws the other entrails, of the size of a fingertip, back into the sea, among the bathers. The thus-eviscerated creature he first smashes against the rocks with sparing movements, then methodically hammers and mangles into the rockface with a flat wooden bat, until the elastic arms are reduced to an amorphous jelly. Torn out into the empty air that burns its skinless limbs like acid, the creature bleeds a foamy, mucous liquid that looks as if secreted by a flock of snails. Its torment is perhaps only registered by the arms of its fellow creatures touching it along the linear network of pain. The smaller squids and octopuses do not get the bat: them the fisherman kneads, punches, rolls with his palm on the rough stone like dough, or clothes at the creek. Now and again he rinses them in the sea: I imagine the mollusks being hauled back into their own element, away from the scorching and suffocation, only in order to regain sensitivity for the first blow. The octopus is caught not with a net or spear but with the bare hands, the fisherman says, you need to have a good eye: il polipo è il migliore mimetizzatore. When it spots you it freezes, because it fears humans: this is the moment to grab it.

shore-pot-holes-brindisi
Several times I swim past a woman who is scanning the waters along the coastal cliffs, with a knife fastened to her wrist and a net in her other hand: a marine shopping bag. Out of the water, she cuts up the sea urchins gathered in the net, spoons out their flesh into a plastic bowl. Then aligns the empty, upward-turned shells on the stone, walnut or lychee peels; death has hatched from their sticky inside. The breeze smears the pebbles with the smell. The foaming, viscous blood of the octopuses dries on the stone into a rainbow. My last morning on the lungomare: fishermen toil on the massive breakwater rocks, vanno a faticà. In front of each of them, a plastic basin; one has a baby’s bathtub: they rock them like a cradle, not even looking. The congested mollusks are knocked together in a swill-like liquid, death’s whisks in the baby-tub. Below them, the unbroken, deep blue distance from which they have been evicted into the asphyxiating air. The foam whipped by the creatures short of sea and the pungent smell is all we hear of their agony; above them, bitten-off, close-vowelled words, with an intonation swinging to the rhythm of the rocking, narrate about sea weather.

meteor-debris-sign-brindisi

At the entrance to the camp a sign warns of infiltration of acque meteoriche from the airport. Meteoric precipitation on the lunar landscape. Obviously the dark red stria cutting deep cracks into the rocks like tiny canyons are heavy metals that ended up here from a different planet. The rain dripping from the indigo clouds is in fact falling-star dust raining from outer space in drops the colour of mercury, pulled by the gravitational force of the tossing blackish-green water.

meteor-sediment-brindisi

Going toward the pier, the riotousness of the stones is flattened out, like the waves running up on sand banks: it is drowned in the sand which has assimilated the glass chips and bottle corks. In the splinter-sand, a broken mosaic, the floor of an extravagant outdoor bathroom in the deserted camp: the archaeological find of a 1970s summer, it glows, turquoise and sky blue, from under the debris, determined not to gray for the fall. In its waters the fish and sea stars of the late antique mosaic, uncovered under the cathedral’s floor, could swim.

broken-mosaic-brindisi

Summer’s layers can still be detected in the light storming the pine tree’s crown, like on the skin of the chic middle-aged ladies walking the Corso, whose tan is several hues darker than their honey-blond hair. Here the landscape doesn’t go bald and stiff for the winter, but rather, folds its wings like a bird. Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß. You can see from a distance that the bar at the foot of the pier is closed: the tropical colours of its spaghetti curtain get drenched in the evening. The Berlin-blue sentrybox squatting in the parking lot in front of the bar watches over the cold dust with its shortsighted windows. In the pavement, in an unfilled square where nobody has bothered to plant a shrub, a heap of peach juice boxes lie, sucked clean, their straws breathing a fruity bouquet: summer’s used-up condoms. In the evening, outdoing the racket of parakeets on the palm trees, a flight of swallows dementedly swarm around an exotic cypress. The crown preserves light for a while yet, moving ever upward, but the wind is let loose on the square.

ugly-concrete-building-brindisi

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Trani

From the protuberance of land into the sea, two long piers broken in angles set out like strong swimmers, then become disheartened: the sea renders all distances meaningless. At the end point where the piers turn back, two lighthouses stand like stout inverted exclamation marks; the sentences they introduce run beyond the horizon. Practical considerations aside, everything here serves the view: on the anthropodal piers’ end-points facing each other but tactfully looking away, the stocky lighthouses perform a rare stunt all day long. Almost jumping forward with their complementary green and red, like a Venetian painting’s red or white brushstrokes applied with calculated casualness, they push the sea into the background but, at the same time, their iridescent axis brings all the aqueous hues of blue, violet, mother-of-pearl, green to boiling point and show that the real drama is the one that takes place in the background. Figure and ground are thus continually oscillating, the shadow of a passing translucent cloud is enough to dull the green or red tower and push it back to ground.

green-lighthouse-trani

As sunrays swim into the open from behind a cloud, lighting up the red and green lighthouses echoing one another on the two piers’ ends, first the one, then the other, the water is striped with turquoise-green, Berlin blue; closer up, Veronese green and, at the farthest point, navy blue. A stone bench made of a single block in front of a slender metal railing, nothing to detain the gaze. The Trani stone breathes, decomposes white into colours like Rome’s travertino, and captures every light. It is filled up with light and starts glowing: light-active stone, it radiates like radioactive metals. Between two layers splitting like slate, the cement of petrified shells: time’s congested ebb and flow.

red-and-green-lighthouses

Il mare non è il massimo a Trani, they warn me. As if it were not the same sea, of the same taste, burningly salt-bitter; as if it didn’t leave the same salt dust on the skin. As if our lego cities, toy trains could interest it in the least. Yet obviously the sea is not the same: the waters mouthing the coast cliffs of the undulating near-horizontal karst landscape are different from the sea that touches the crouching pebble shores further south, and whose backward-tossed waves sweep in the pebbles from the shore with a loud thudding and cracking. The amorphous waters dissolve different colours from the various stones and soils, as the maturing wine dissolves different flavours from the barrels made of wood of differing ages and qualities.

Those who know it well go to the sea in boats and yachts, not like the landlocked. The seagoers have their own well-trodden (well-glided should be the word) paths, waterways, bustling main thoroughfares and quiet side alleys; the sea surface is just as variegated for these flâneurs as the streets with their porches and shop windows. A few kilometers to the north, in capital letters on the Barletta sports yacht harbour’s blue corrugated iron barracks: CHI AMA IL MARE SARÀ SEMPRE LIBERO. At the landward bend of the asphalt path and running track that goes around the barracks, beyond the railings of the waterfront, a loaf of bread left out. Bread cast to the sea. This is my body. Let me in.

lighthouse-another-angle

The anthropodal pier divides the waters: outside, the wider sea is thudding; crashing against the massive breakwater rocks, it boils up in foam; for an instant the stones get a sheen of a mirror’s silvering when water runs off them. It is impossible to decide the colour of the waves, their green glass side looks engraved, black looms in the hollows. There are many first-rate landscape painters on whose canvases the air is in movement, trembles, vibrates, but the sea has no truly good painter. Those who paint it mostly paint the reflections on the sky, on the landscape, in the air, of its tumultuous change of consistency. The great Dutch sea-painters paint ships first and foremost: convoluted knots and prow ornaments, forests of masts and sails to disentangle. Their sea is an embossed tapestry background. On the protected side the taut water surface mixed from turquoise and jasper is in still movement, it is no mere defoamed mini-sea smoothed out into a monumental pool. In the late afternoon a couple of porpoises venture into it. The breakwater rocks are patches of blotting paper in the glaring light, their porous surface retains all the reflections of the blue-white.

On the shore, the cathedral. They had to mark the place with a sign that is not dwarfed, not ridiculed by the distance measured in the horizon. Stone bread cast to the sea. Its cornice is something rich and strange, a gigantic frieze that could easily belong to an ancient temple’s architrave, were it not for the animal faces serving as its consoles. The sky rising from the cornice dilutes blue paint in sky water. It gathers in the white, the air around fills up with electric discharges. Immediately below on the corner, white glows. The interior is traversed by light as if by a magnetic wind, from the spokes of the rose window that starts spinning in the light like a pinwheel, to the apse that opens one sole, giant window to the east, onto the sea. One cannot tell which is the true façade, the one with the winged bronze door, or the one with the giant window looking out on the sea. The coast towns line up the Romanesque headquarters of light which turn their apse windows flanked by elephant-borne columns, their most precious ornament, to levante. It is not the relics and likenesses, but the light that is their holiest possession: the incessantly showering, radioactive light that solidifies into a block in the upward and forward propelling space, and which casts white shadows on the white walls.

gargoyles-trani

Like most of Apulia’s cathedrals, this one, too, was restored “back” in style in the 1920s–30s, into homogeneous Romanesque, the crust of late Baroque (here, ottocento, antiquated even in its own time) stucco theatre wings, concave windows, boisterous statuary peeled off its rose windows, capitals, sculpted portals. Elsewhere, once the skins covering one another are removed, the spaces left behind are sterile, school textbook-like, and restoration turns out to have been retouching: against the intent to restitution, it is not their original, hidden life that buildings reveal, but the empty place of time, the imperishable and unbreathing would-be-alabaster china skin of fake eternity. But here everything is breathing: the wide-open-eyed animals of the capitals, the spoglio columns brought here from Roman buildings, the inscribed steles built into the walls, the stone folds. The church is like the archaic Greek statues: we know that they had inlaid pupils and were painted over, yet for us it is the whiteness of marble that drives time back into them. It is light that returns the erased gaze into Trani’s white, uncovered eyeball that now gleams in all its power: the wall is a scripted membrane through which time oozes in and out. The only ornament of the triumphal arch before the crossing is a fragment of the cornice’s stone frieze running around the building outside: da capo repetition without closure. Every view of the building is in balance, unalterable, yet stirs like the statues that can never be entirely reduced to canons. White painted on white, coloured exclamation mark between the upper and lower blue: the flocks of retired French and German Kulturtouristen are beautified when it shines its face upon them.

cathedral-trani

The towns’ cells precipitate themselves on the promontories that jut out into the sea. The city walls and the Norman, Hohenstaufen castles pointing the acute angles of their bastions radially outwards at the outer world cannot deceive: above, around, next to them every side, flank of the city, all its profiles overlooking the sea are hollowed out into ovals, amphitheatre audiences whose fourth wall is the immense sea. They are sails offering themselves up to the light: stitched to the odd tumescence of land, the facades along the coast fold back, carve in, are constantly capitulating to light, willingly uncovering their soft parts. The concave little squares are tubular flowers, light vibrates on the wood of their closed shutters like on the inside of an eyelid. The mouths of the little streets, vicoli, flare seaward like estuaries, it is the tidal waves of light that carved them out. The hour of the day, the changing sky mixes the colour of the walls: every house, every window a Danae, their encounter with the light no tucked-away, inane secret of state, but an event that can only manifest in the undisguised.

To rest in this light yet. Ask for delay every day: a few more southern days, to harry the last sunbeams through the flesh.

lido-bella-venezia

Above the angel wings flapping over the fallen in the world wars, the parrot-rackety, tropical enclave of the Giardini Pubblici extends its throbbing fervor. Below the seaside alley’s balustrades a wooden pavilion built directly on the water, its vacuity spells out more than season’s end. Above its flat roofs is written with oversize letters, Lido Bella Venezia – Ristorante Bar Pizzeria. The landscape makes the planking’s grating sky-blue pale, as it does with the phantom image of Venetian pizza and lagoon-colour canals meant to be seductive. All around, beauty sits on the view with such immovable matter-of-factness as the cathedral’s weight on the pages of the sea-sky. Its slender vertical gravity balances the inexhaustible horizontal. Above the pavilion’s flat roof four poles reach up into empty space: turned-up bar stool placed on the table after closing time. Below, the clean-swept water surface is waiting for the opening.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihalycsa

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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 to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

 

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As a young man, Daniel Green had hopes for academic criticism, but as this excerpt — take from his essay “Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” — shows, he had to set those hopes aside, as more and more academic criticism tended to subordinate literature to political and theoretical agendas. Later, weblogs, too, disappointed him because they pursued sensational or trendy books instead of considering literary works in depth. —Jeff Bursey

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I aspired to become an academic critic precisely because so much general interest criticism was focused on the “mushy middle” of literary fiction and avoided the books I was most interested in reading. Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers (some journals concentrated exclusively on such writers) and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews. Academic criticism no longer manifests these virtues, however. It is as agenda-ridden as literary journalism, although its agenda emphasizes a different kind of propriety, the propriety of political and cultural analysis (in its way similar to the kind of analysis favored by the New York Intellectuals). And while academic journals continue to offer longer and more sustained commentary, this commentary is more concerned with context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former. Academic criticism of contemporary fiction no longer provides a more rigorous, expansive, open-minded alternative to the popular reviewing media. For text-based criticism, the general interest book review is what we’re stuck with.

At one time I held out hope that the “literary weblog” would provide a plausible alternative to print book reviewing. I still think that, in theory and potential, blogs could still be perfectly good sources of serious literary criticism. There is nothing in the nature of the cyber medium that precludes the blog from being the publishing vehicle for serious writing of any kind. If serious critics, facing the likely demise of newspaper and magazine reviewing in the not distant future, turn to the cyber/blogosphere as an available substitute, literary criticism will flourish well enough. Such book reviewing sites as The Quarterly Conversation and Full Stop have already demonstrated that online reviewing can be just as credible as print reviewing, in many cases going far beyond, both in length and in critical heft, what is offered in all but the most studious general interest print publications. They are also much more likely to cover experimental and translated works and books from independent presses, which are at best sporadically reviewed in mainstream print book review sections. Unfortunately, it cannot at this point be said that the literary blog has validated hopes it might sustain a form of general interest criticism that could replace, perhaps even surpass, what is left of print criticism. There are indeed some very good literary blogs offering worthwhile criticism, but on the whole the literary blogosphere has become largely an echo chamber for book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective. Literary blogs have become not an alternative to the established critical order but part and parcel of it.

Those blogs now calling themselves “book blogs” in particular have pledged themselves to this order. Mostly devoted to superficial appraisals of potboilers and best-sellers, these blogs actively seek to be conduits of publishing propaganda (in the guise of “promoting” books). They have apparently become the most popular type of “literary” blog, and if “book blog” eventually becomes the name applied mostly to such weblogs, the future of literary criticism online is bleak indeed. But even those still self-identifying as “literary blogs” have settled in to an overly cozy relationship with both publishers and the print reviewing media. (Many of the bloggers have themselves sought out reviewing opportunities in the print media, as if the ultimate purpose of creating a literary blog was after all to attract enough attention to catch on as a newspaper reviewer). While in general one does get from literary blogs a fuller sense of the diversity of fiction available to readers (more emphasis on independent presses) than from the print book reviews, too many of the posts devoted to specific books are discussions of the newest and hottest from mainstream publishers. Much time is spent obsessing over lists of various inane kinds (the Top 10 ____), and in preoccupation with prizes, the dispensing of which apparently substitutes for criticism absent the real thing.

Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its fifteen seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they’ll have the authority to suggest.

—Daniel Green

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Daniel Green is a literary critic and sometime fiction writer. His reviews, critical essays, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He has a Ph.D focusing on postwar American fiction and an M.A. in creative writing. His website is http://www.thereadingexperience.net/tre/

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Feb 022017
 

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ABSTRACT

As a three-year-old, my son was a philosopher king. One day, in all sincerity, he asked, Why can’t the good people just kill all the bad?

I have a personal relationship with Jesus, who was able to procure a list that his father’s meticulous angels had drawn up. My credit cards are linked to air miles, which I have never spent. With the list, free global travel, and my (legal) assault rifle, I was able to dispatch the undesirable. The babies initially posed a quandary: on the list, destined for a life of casual cruelty and selfishness, but what would happen once I offed their inevitably corrupting parents? What if the babies were raised by kind people? It’s always nature versus nurture.

If I thought any of this would work, yes. There is nothing I wouldn’t try to make this world safe for my son. What to do?

You can’t promise the child a just, or kind, or beautiful world. But you can teach him where to find it, in snatched glances and in-between spaces. You can teach him how to look.

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LITERATURE REVIEW

The pig running with a knife stuck in its back is already roasted. The bent-over nun is bare-bottomed. Baked fish fly from stream to plate, the shacks are made of sugar, the pastry roads flake under your feet. You are never cold and can sleep all day. A paradise, a parody, a broke-back peasant’s dream. You come to Cockaigne by way of Breughel, or medieval poems. Cockaigne, variant Cockney. Coken, of cocks, and ey, egg. Meaning, the cock’s egg, an impossible thing.

The men of Plato’s Republic shared wives, children, and resources. The original Utopians – Thomas More’s – shat in gold chamber pots. Their slaves were shackled with gold, and their prisoners were crowned with riches. Wealth was dirty, something to be eschewed. These were theoretical – or satirical – attempts to deal with enduring human problems: sex, money, work, power. The jealous guarding, coveting and/or avoidance thereof.

Superimpose the dream of a just society onto the vision of a lost city of gold and you will, like Candide, see Voltaire’s El Dorado. Built of gold and silver, the city is stately and well-proportioned. Children play with unhewn chunks of ruby, emerald, and sapphire; a sense of ease derives from this great wealth. Peace and great contentment, beauty and science. There are no prisoners or priests.

Utopia literally means no place. An impossible thing.

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Seaside

The town of Seaside is privately owned, which means that the developers were able to make it almost exactly how they wanted. Architects of the ideal. The village is designed to be walkable, with useful and attractive public spaces. Located on the coast as the name suggests, or rather, prudently set back several hundred feet, it is the town where The Truman Show was shot. The pastel houses come in various flavors: Victorian, Neoclassical, Modern, Postmodern, and Deconstructivist, all with friendly front porches. The town has a motto: A simple, beautiful life.

My mother and father took me and my sisters and their families to Seaside one year for a holiday get-together. Although I was still single, my sisters had small children, and the Florida coast seemed like safe bet for an easy and pleasant beach vacation. It was all that: easy, safe, pleasant.

The Seaside Institute, founded and run by the town’s developers, has an “academic center” in the middle of town. The Institute’s mission is to “help people create great communities.” Apparently, it was founded on the premise that great communities can be created, ex nihilo, by a group of hard-working, well-intentioned, great people.

I remember walking the streets in search of a meal. The streets, the sidewalks, the manicured yards, and the friendly front porches were always empty.

seaside_florida_architecture Architectural styles in Seaside, Florida (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Ecotopia

In Ecotopia, trees are worshipped, love is free, technology is embraced, and a woman is president. The borders are secured; a hefty arsenal keeps the little country safe. The late Ernest Callenbach, earnest prophet, early recycler, organic gardner, film buff, and author of the eponymous novel from the 1970s, imagined what might happen if the feminists, Black nationalists, and environmentalists of that time created a great community and seceded from the union. The book’s form is that of a visiting journalist’s diary; it is widely taught in colleges now.

In Ecotopia, Black people have retreated to Soul City – formerly Oakland, CA – their own country within a county.

The culture of Soul City is of course different from that of Ecotopia generally. It is a heavy exporter of music and musicians…

The people living in Soul City are flashier, drinking high quality Scotch whisky, trading in luxury good, driving private cars.

And, the (white) Ecotopians love Indians:

Many Ecotopians are sentimental about Indians, and there’s some sense in which they envy the Indians their lost natural place in the American wilderness. Indeed this probably a major Ecotopian myth; keep hearing references to what Indians would or wouldn’t do in a given situation. Some Ecotopian articles – clothing and baskets and personal ornamentation – perhaps directly Indian in inspriation.

This, despite the presence of any real Native Americans.

Non-lethal war games help men discharge their natural aggression. Kind of:

Goddam woman is impossible! Got really turned on at the war games…and made no resistance when one of the winning warriors came up, propositioned her, and literally carried her away (she weighs about 130)…Later…she was relaxed and floppy, and I tossed her around on the bed a little roughly, wouldn’t let her up, more or less raped her. She seemed almost to have expected this.

Can’t blame Callenbach for trying, but a single author will always be limited in his vision for other people. Stereotypes, segregation, erasure, rape. All with the best of intentions. And with some good ideas mixed in.

eftelingthemeparktalkingtreeEfteling Theme Park Talking Tree

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Cascadia

If Ecotopia took a deep breath, expanded its borders to include parts of British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, it would be Cascadia, the bioregion where I live and for which there are occasional secessionist agitations. There is a flag for Cascadia and I’ve seen bumper stickers around town, though have yet to see a referendum on the ballot. Not surprisingly, the cultures and the boundaries of the two hypothetical countries more or less align with one another and with the real Pacific Northwest.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Ecotopia or Cascadia were dreamed up and named, this area was home to a number of communes and experiments in ideal (white) society. The West was a place for imagination and ambition; smallpox and colonialism had made vast swaths of it almost unpeopled. Men with grand socialist ambitions believed that the Pacific Northwest – Washington State in particular – could be a petri dish in which socialist colonies would take hold, and then infect the whole country.

Harmony, Freeland, and Home were all well-established colonies in northwest Washington. Equality thrived until an arsonist burnt it down.

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Omelas

I was a child who regarded the adult world as inherently corrupt or, at best, misguided. I felt affirmed in this when I read about Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas, the perfect world made possible by the existence of a single spot of suffering. A child locked in a cramped, filthy basement, a child who is kicked and beaten, fed just enough to keep alive, a child who is alone and unloved. A child who is taken from the good life once s/he is old enough to remember the good life; this point of reference allows the child to understand the depth and injustice of his or her suffering.

The prosperity, health, kindness, and gentle wisdom of Omelas, are all because of the child’s misery. Most citizens of this Utopia accept that this is simply the way their perfect world works, but some are appalled, and blow that popsicle stand. Walk away, and never come back.

A side-note: Omelas, or at least its namesake, would be located in Ecotopia. Omelas is Salem, the capital of Oregon, spelled backwards. With an O slapped on for euphony.

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America

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – Preamble to the United States Constitution

And. What we lock in the basement.

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Z.1

We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. – Howard Zinn

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Z.2

The Mato Grosso region of Brazil is covered in trees. It’s a jungle. According to legend and rumor, there was a grand city tucked away in the Amazonian rainforest. Many men of European descent searched there for what they believed might be the true El Dorado. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early 20th century, was obsessed with the place. He took clues from Indigenous stories and Manuscript 512, a document he came across in Rio de Janeiro library archives in 1920. The account, presumably by the Portuguese bandareinte (settler and fortune hunter) João da Silva Guimarães, is titled Historical Relation of a hidden and great city of ancient date, without inhabitants, that was discovered in the year 1753. It tells of gold in the streams and buried treasure, as well as of a grand, abandoned city.

Fawcett wanted not gold, but to name, claim, and chart the world. A knowledge conquest. He called this city Z, and referred to it only cryptically in his notes and letters. Fawcett made it his life’s work to find Z. In 1925, on his eighth expedition, Fawcett, his son, and his son’s best friend vanished into the jungle. They were last seen crossing the Upper Xingu River.

There were rumours that Fawcett had been eaten by cannibals, rumours that he’d gone native and become a tribal king. Z was dismissed as yet another El Dorado delusion, the entire Amazon was seen as a counterfeit paradise, incapable of sustaining urban life, and Fawcett was dismissed as a crank and a dilettante.

Crazy, but Fawcett was right. Z was there all along. Within reach, or almost.

Kuhikugu is a vast archeological complex at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Brazil. Where Fawcett thought the City of Z would be. The Kuikuro are likely descendants of the estimated 50,000 people who lived in Kuhikugu about 1,000 years ago. When archeologists started listening to the Kuikuro and then looking at satellite imagery enhanced by LiDAR, they started seeing Kuhikugo. The towns of Kuhikugu are mathematically laid out on cardinal points, connected by roads, bridges, and canals, protected by palisades and concentric moats. The presence of terra preta, a type of soil that is formed by long-term cultivation, and of earthen berms likely indicate agriculture and fish-farming.

kuhikuguKuhikugu archeological complex

Increasingly, there is thought that the Americas were populous, urbanized, and widely farmed prior to European contact. The myth of El Dorado didn’t spring from nothing: conquistadors, bandeirantes, European explorers, Jesuits did see gold, riches, and great cities. But like the physics principle that tells us observation changes what we see, the European reporters infected the subjects of their reportage with disease. The natives died. In the Amazon, the jungle swallowed the cities whole.

What failed in the quest for Z, for El Dorado, was imagination, or sight.

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Z.3

Every alphabet comes to an end. From sea to shining Z. There is speculation that American democracy – our attempt at a just society – is at an end. Our new President won by promising safety and freedom for some people at the expense of safety and freedom for other people. By promising the return of a lost Utopia. Make America Great Again.

If Americans had been able to see this country has never been just and great for all who live here, and, too, if Americans had been able to see the very real – if imperfect – greatness of a country founded on ideals of equality and justice, maybe they wouldn’t have felt a need to make it great again. Maybe they would’ve voted more modestly, for making America incrementally better.

mapofutopia1Map of a Utopia

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METHODOLOGY

I look for meaning in a small room. My analyst is a tiny, birdlike woman. She speaks softly, and can say shocking things. She sits in her chair. I sit on the couch. It is too soft. I would never dream of lying down. There’s a view of a parking lot and also a microbrewery.

The purpose of my visits with her are wholeness, integrity. She is a Jungian, so she comes at all this from the perspective that you have to dredge the unconscious, sift through your dark, ugly, unseen, painful matter. You must unfold, unpack, remember, shake out everything that’s been pressed: depressed, repressed, oppressed. Everything you’ve locked up, you must release. Everything in the basement gets hauled upstairs, into the sunlight.

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PRESENT STUDY

A few years ago, my husband, our young son, my mother and I went to a villa in Baja that both friends and the internet promised was heaven on earth. It had been a hard winter.

What we now call Baja California was thought by Spanish conquistadors to be an island, quite possibly the island paradise described in a novel popular at the time.

At the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue.  – Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, The Adventures of Esplandián

islandofcaliforniaIsland of California

We took a rough dirt road – an arroyo, really – from the airport on the Pacific coast to our destination on the Gulf. It was night. My mother was buckled in, she’s religious about seat belts and safety, if not about God or anything else. She was also clinging to the handle above the car’s door and offering helpful driving tips, like slow down. My husband was driving, maybe a little fast. My son was bouncing in the back seat next to me, thrilled for any kind of adventure. There were no villages, no houses, no streetlights along the way. Our world was limited to the wan beams of our headlights. When we finally came to the other side, we unknowingly shot by the villa, and had to backtrack to find it.

Morning, and we woke to beauty.

We wandered up to a palapa for breakfast – buckwheat pancakes and great slabs of papaya – and then one of the owners gave us a tour. He was a soft-spoken gringo of late middle age, polite, not effusive. The villa was comprised of a main house, where the owners lived, and a number of casitas. The workmanship of the place was meticulous; the balconies and curved balustrades, the tilework, the fountains. The owners themselves had built the place. Please stay away from the main house, on the paths that wind through the yucca, the palms, the plumeria, and hibiscus. I saw a wild fox perched atop a saguaro.

As my mother, my husband, our guide, and I stood on a terrace gazing out to the sea – I remember I was running my hand up along a smooth, coral-colored Tuscan column – we heard a splash behind us.

My then five-year-old son was at the bottom of the pool. He didn’t know how to swim. Fully clothed, I jumped in to save him. I was wearing a long skirt which covered my face as I entered the water. I reached out blindly. My boy wasn’t there.

When I tugged the skirt off from face and could see, our guide was hoisting him out of the pool. He’d calmly knelt down at the edge, reached into the pool and grabbed my son as he’d surfaced for air. He didn’t even get his sleeves wet.

The pool had mermaids mosaicked on the bottom.

Before we wandered down the hill to the beach, I buckled my son into the life vest I’d packed. Beaches back home in the Salish Sea are gray-green and rocky, covered in kelp, barnacles, and eel grass. This one was absolutely blank, just hot sand and blue water.

We encountered another young boy at the shore. Named after an archangel, he was a grandchild of the villa’s owners. Oh, so-and-so? I asked, naming our guide. No, all of them, he said. I learned that a wealthy, graying, seemingly happy commune owned the villa. My boy and the other played in the ocean waves for hours, laughing. The sand glimmered as if with gold as it was kicked up by the clear water.

inbajaIn Baja

We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. – The television director who controls Truman’s world in The Truman Show

The Lyman Family, also known as the Fort Hill Community, was the creation of Mel Lyman, a banjo and blues harmonica player. Photos, including one shot by Diane Arbus, show a man of thin body, hollowed cheekbones, a hot gaze.

In the 1960s, the group attracted some wealth and intelligence, and members included architects, artists, and the daughter of a famous painter. Although they dabbled in LSD and astrology, they hated hippies. Men wore their hair short, and women did as they were told. Wives were not shared concurrently, but serially. Mel fathered at least 5 children by 4 women. As with children in Plato’s Republic, the Lyman kids were removed from their parents and raised collectively. The Family also dabbled in guns, racism, and bank robbery. One member was shot to death at the scene of their single attempted heist and another, actor Mark Frechette, was arrested. Frechette later died in a weightlifting accident in prison.

The Lyman Family recovered from the bad publicity, and continued to buy and develop properties for their communal living. A farm in Kansas. A base in Los Angeles. A loft in Manhattan. A compound on Martha’s Vineyard. A villa in Baja. They started selling their skills, and incorporated a high-end construction company, which designs and builds homes for Hollywood directors and movie stars.

According to the Family, Mel Lyman died years ago, on his fortieth birthday. The cause and location of death were never disclosed, and his body was never produced, leading to speculation that he went into deep hiding, and may still be among us.

Some of the Family spend most of the year down in Baja; the grandkids don’t visit as much as the elders would like, so they’ve started renting out casitas to tourists.

The villa was self-sufficient: solar-powered, eco-friendly, off-the-grid, farm-to-table. At one dinner, after an owner slid a huge plate of food in front of me, I asked if the chicken was one that he’d raised. Costco, he said. Similarly, when I complimented the person I thought was the cook, I was told that actually, the Mexican did all the cooking.

I never saw this Mexican, nor any of the other workers, though ostensibly it was they who kept the pool so clean, the garden so lush with water trucked in weekly from afar. I heard, occasionally, the voices of children. Once I peeked into the off-limits zone and saw a tiny shack. That must’ve been where the Mexicans lived.

I was a big empty HOLE trying to fill itself with TEARS – Mel Lyman, Autobiography of a World Savior

Seen from the beach, the villa’s grounds were an island of green in the sere brown land. Baja is a bone dry finger that pokes into saltwater. It presents two obvious possible deaths: one by drowning, the other by thirst. A third struck me as we were climbing up the stairs from the beach to the summerhouse: death by sunburn. Although I’d assiduously reapplied sunscreen to my child’s skin throughout the day, I hadn’t done so on my own. I was scorched, and hurt for days.

My thighs are now freckled, sun-spotted from the burn. Skin damage because of Baja. When I think of that time, I try to remember that the beauty and kindness shown, I try to remember that people sometimes grow and change, that every family is an expression of an attempt, that I am judging based on very little. The archangel and his mother, both progeny of the Family, were lovely. But really what I think about is Mel, and the shuttered away Mexicans, and the fact that there are no trees.

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FINDINGS

  1. Utopias are dystopias or satires; the kings are harmonica players.
  2. Actual attempts at ideal society fizzle out, as do actual attempts at living. Which is not necessarily a value judgment.
  3. Now you can strap the world you want onto your head. It’s in a box, this virtual world, this reality. You are immersed, as if in liquid. You move through this liquid world, seeing everything as if you’re right there. One can easily imagine an ideal world (safe, beautiful, egalitarian, fun) being successfully marketed and inhabited. Maybe you’ll be able to spend most of your life there. But from the outside, you’re still just a person with your eyes covered.
  4. Once, while walking along a river in the Canadian Rockies, hand in hand with a poet with whom I was wildly infatuated, I saw a vast herd of elk. I pointed them out to my companion, who was confused. I looked again. What I’d taken for elk were simply the dark spaces between trees in the forest. It is possible to confuse absence and presence.
  5. The Kingdom of God, I’ve heard, is all around us, if we have but vision to see.
  6. When not advocating wholesale genocide, my then three-year-old son sometimes (at least once) had moments of coruscating wisdom. One night on the tiny ferry we take from the mainland to our island home, he climbed out of his car seat and started speaking, as if in tongues:

    I am everything
    I am a grizzly bear shark deer
    I’m all the animals in the world
    I am everything

    I’m looking at the moon and the stars
    I’m the ocean and the fish
    I am everything

    I’m the boats I’m the trains I’m the excavators
    I’m all the pieces of equipment
    I’m the roads I’m the cars
    I am the signs

    I’m the houses
    I’m everything in the houses
    I’m the cupboards I’m the oven I’m the cereal I’m the food
    I’m the computers I’m the lights
    I am electricity

    I’m the windows I’m the grass
    I’m the trees I’m the birds I’m the sky
    I am everything

    Then he went back to potty talk and whining. We are all of us occasional prophets trapped in bewildered flesh.

  7. Utopia is a fertile lick of land in the floodplain of the Skagit River in Washington State. There were Utopians there once, briefly. They fled to higher ground during the first wet season, but the name stuck. My husband recently bought a plot of land there, in Utopia. On it, he will grow trees. They, the big leaf maples, acer macrophyllum, will be the new Utopians.

maple-in-vitro

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CONCLUSION

Jesus spit on the blind man’s eyes, and put his hands upon him, and asked him what he saw. The blind man looked up and said, I see men as trees, walking. –Mark 8:23-24

When my son was an infant and started to cry, I’d take him out under the Japanese maple. The green light under the leaves would calm him. Or maybe it was the aerosols. Trees talk with one another by releasing tiny chemical particles into the air. These arboreal perfumes are believed to make people feel healthier and happier. The Japanese invented a phrase for walking through the woods to enhance good health: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. These same aerosols seed clouds to make rain and cool our planet down.

Aerosols are tree cafe chatter, you’re not quite sure which tree is saying what. An even more sophisticated communications system, tree-to-tree talk, lies underground. The mycorrhizal network, also known among scientists unafraid of bad puns as the Wood Wide Web, is the connecting of various tree roots to one another by fungal filaments. The trees give necessary carbon to the fungi, the fungi reciprocate with food and drink, and act as carriers for chemical missives, nutrient love letters. A tree under attack by aphids or fire in one part of the forest can sound the alarm to other trees far away. Do they have feelings, these trees? Is it why a mother tree will fend off the growth of other trees nearby, but make space for her children? Why she will give them everything she has?

mycorrhyzalnetworkMycorrhizal Network

Charles Darwin, after Origin of the Species, turned his attention to plants. He believed that trees were like very slow-moving, upside-down animals, burying their root-brains deep in the dirt, and flashing their sex bits up above. Among the ancient Greek, the Druids, the Italian streghe, trees spoke with the gift of prophecy. Oracular trees.

Consider the trees.

Where I live now, on Coast Salish land, tree-people were the first people, then salmon-people, killer-whale-people, crow-people and others. After a while, human-people came along. I have no doubt that life was hard, and I don’t wish to romanticize – or to have lived in – any time other than my own. I do, though, wonder what justice looks like when trees are considered teachers and equals, as they were. I’d think that differences in our own species – language, culture, color, gender, ideas about god, fashion, all that – would look smaller, hardly worth mentioning, or at least more gracefully negotiated. If you can respect a cedar, might it be easier to respect someone who is not a mirror of yourself? Maybe we wouldn’t regard the world – or each other – simply as resources. In a world where everything is holy, the sun glints off the raindrops on the web of the divine, making the connection between all things visible.

Balance must look different, too, when man is not the fulcrum. No architect or author. No pale king.

It is easy to lapse into utopian thought. This world is bruised and marked and hardened. But still, it flickers between what it is and possibility. We must imagine what we cannot yet see, or can glimpse only through the cracks: a society made up of all these different kinds of tree, animal, and human people, learning the ways of one another and of the air, the water, the living dirt.

oz

—Julie Trimingham

REFERENCES

The Republic, Plato, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1497

Utopia, Thomas More,http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2130

Candide, Voltaire, http://candide.nypl.org/text/chapter-18

Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885–1915. LeWarne, Charles Pierce: Seattle: University of Washington Press

The Return of the Utopians, Akash Kapur, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/the-return-of-the-utopians

Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach, Bantam Books

Ernest Callenbach New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/books/ernest-callenbach-author-of-ecotopia-dies-at-83.html

The Ones Who Walk Away form Omelas, Ursula Le Guin, http://engl210-deykute.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/omelas.pdf

Utopia, Thomas More, available online at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm

Autobiography of a World Savior, Mel Lyman, http://www.trussel.com/lyman/savior.htm

Steven Trussel has an online compendium of Mel Lyman information: http://www.trussel.com/f_mel.htm

The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America, David Felton, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-lyman-familys-holy-siege-of-america-19711223

Once Notorious 60s Commune Evolves into Respectability, http://articles.latimes.com/1985-08-04/news/vw-4546_1_lyman-family/2

The Lost City of Z, David Grann, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/19/the-lost-city-of-z

Under the Jungle, David Grann, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/under-the-jungle

More links and information on Percy Fawcett: https://colonelfawcett.wordpress.com

A translation of Manuscript 512: http://www.fawcettadventure.com/english_translation_manuscript_512.html

1491, Charles C. Mann, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/

The Island of California was a common misconception among the Spanish in the 16th century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_California

The Island of California was thought to be a paradise, inhabited by Black women, ruled by Queen Calafia/Califia.

The Atlantic Monthly published an article on The Queen of California in 1864, Volume 13. https://books.google.com/books?id=pd9rm7JwShoC&dq=%22Queen%20of%20California%22&pg=PA265#v=onepage&q&f=false

The Power of Movement in Plants, Charles Darwin and Sir Francis Darwin, 1925, available for reading online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5605

The Intelligent Plant, Michael Pollan. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant

Do Plants Have Brains? http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/152208/do-plants-have-brains

Radiolab on tree talk: http://www.radiolab.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree/

Suzanne Simard’s TED talk on how trees talk to each other: https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en

Information on very old trees in Britain: http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/discoveries/newdiscoveries/2010/The+Pulpit+Yew

Photographer Beth Moon has taken pictures of some ancient, powerful trees. You can see some of these photos from Portraits of Time and Island of the Dragon’s Blood. http://bethmoon.com/portfolio-page/

Beth Moon’s stunning images capture the power and mystery of the world’s remaining ancient trees. These hoary forest sentinels are among the oldest living things on the planet and it is desperately important that we do all in our power to ensure their survival. I want my grandchildren – and theirs – to know the wonder of such trees in life and not only from photograpshs of things long gone. Beth’s portraits will surely inspire many to help those working to save these magnificent trees. — Dr. Jane Goodall

I believe it is through the unique vegetation that the spirit of Socotra is defined, with mythical trees like the dragon’s blood tree or the fabled frankincense trees and the island’s culture so closely linked to nature which sets this island apart from the rest of the world.” — Beth Moon

The observer effect in physics simply states that the act of observing will change that which is being observed. It is similar to, though different from, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which states that increased precision in measuring the position of a particle will diminish precision in measuring the momentum of the particle, and vice versa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)

Smithsonian archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921-2012) is credited with coining the phrase counterfeit paradise, referring to the Amazon. Her book Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise was, and remains, controversial in its contention that pre-Columbian Indigenous populations were, due to environmental restrictions, small and not very complex.

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Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her fictional travelogue chapbook, Way Elsewhere, was released in May 2016 by The Lettered Streets Press (https://squareup.com/store/lettered-streets-press/). She regularly tells stories at The Moth and writes essays for  Numéro Cinq magazine. Gina B. Nahai blurbed Julie’s first book, saying, “A novel of quiet passion and rare beauty, Mockingbird is a testament to the power of pure, uncluttered language—a confluence of feelings and physicality that will draw you back, line after graceful, memorable, line.” Julie is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer with Longhouse Media (http://longhousemedia.org) on a documentary film about the Salish Sea.

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Jan 152017
 

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After all, that was only a savage sight while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist—obviously—in the sunshine.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow, captain of a slight and halting steamer, after many weeks navigating the treacherous Congo has reached his destination deep inside Africa, the inner station of the trading company where chief agent Kurtz presides, Kurtz the emissary of profit and reform, a model of the hopes of Europe, the leader of the native tribes, a genius at acquiring ivory. The subtle horrors are as much the fruit of Kurtz’s efforts as of what lies within the jungle, but also are Marlow’s own black projections on its darkness, not returned. The pure savagery brought to light is Kurtz’s symbolic gesture, heads of native rebels he had cut off and put on stakes, lined before the station house. The heads, however, do not face outward to warn tribesmen from transgression but inward towards the house, where Kurtz can contemplate their gaze.

I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hillah. Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands, so I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo you want to smile.

We contemplated her gaze and that gesture, at least for a while, as she faced us, the smiling Army Specialist Sabrina Harman, who aided in the gathering of intelligence at her station, Abu Ghraib, the prison deep inside occupied Iraq. Or rather we saw her in pictures brought to light after years of subtle horrors in a war we thought was going well and whose mission we were sure of, the pictures bringing a clarification, an obviousness, a relief, their own kind of rightness. She does not look at what she smiles over or what she thumbs up but we see them, the pile of grotesquely hooded, naked men, the blackened corpse.

Was it over a decade ago or a century? It is hard to keep track of time in a world that recreates itself afresh every day. Somehow the Abu Ghraib pictures have been washed aside in the stream of things, of other disturbing images that continue to flow past. The distance between our purpose then and our behavior, between our professed ideals and the horror, however, has not been closed and the pictures still haunt me. I have not found a way to explain or discharge them, or come to terms with other lingering subtleties in a world where I do not know where I stand. I have no idea where we’re headed, though the world tells me we are moving forward. I do not know what to with my hands either.

Against all the sharp narratives that have played out the last years, in battlefields imagined on screens and in the world actual, it is to the muddy story about a captain who just goes up a river and back I most often return, a journey that resembles my own. I have only observed the horrors of history, of the present, from a distance, yet they still belong to my world and I have felt their currents, as well as sensed all that lies beneath them, unseen, unknown. Like Marlow, I work for a trading company of sorts—we all do—and my station is modest and my task simple. Like Marlow I have been on a long trek and kept my shoulder to the wheel. I think I am good person, or good enough, and have provided some service, though I know not to make anything of either or rest easy. Like Marlow I keep my distance, like Marlow I do not have any answers, like Marlow I do not forget easily. I have yet to meet face to face, however, anyone with the revelatory power of a Kurtz.

Kurtz’s virtue is that he can front the terrors that lie without and he holds within, face their contradictions, and feel their full effect. This is what redeems Kurtz in Marlow’s eyes against all others in the company who stumble through their corruption without pause. And Kurtz has a voice, though we hear few of his words, most significantly the two that refer to his black vision. Marlow stays detached—he has to—and observes the horror through Kurtz, one step removed, just as Conrad has us observe Marlow, when he does not speak, through the narrator, adding one more frame to the layering of frames. There was a morbid fascination, but Sabrina Harman’s reaction was one of mute disjunction, not approval, a frozen reaction to the horror she witnessed but could not contain. No one framed her, though she was following orders.

I would like at last to be able to look into the heart of things, within, without, and come to an understanding, though I have got no closer over the years and have yet to find a frame. I do not know what I project on the world, nor can separate that from what it returns. And I would like to find a solid voice I can live with, that sustains me and helps me reach out, though still it wavers. Like Marlow I need to keep distance without losing sight so I can find perspective and maintain it. There are times, however, I see myself as Harman, transfixed, stunned and speechless, though without a smile.

The thumbs up—it is our universal gesture now for everything, that graces all we have seen and done, that we sign above where we’ve been and where we are headed, whatever we happen to be doing at the present moment, which, along with an open face and guileless smile, the captured gaze we show the world and that defines us, has replaced the two-fingered sign of benediction, pointing to a another kind of transcendence..

Thumbs up pic

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As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld. His remark received the status of pop wisdom and circulated widely.

Any life is a mission and every mission has a life, each a journey into the unknown, each a story whose plot charts the trajectory of beliefs and desires against the ground of reality over the course of time. It is the tension between the first and the latter that propels the action and moves us through the telling, leading us to climax, the locus of dreams and nightmares.

Marlow as a boy was fascinated by the mystery of Africa, as was Conrad, who made a similar journey upon which his novel is based, inner Africa then a white, undifferentiated patch on the map, a blank slate that stirred his curiosity. Rumsfeld, our Secretary of Defense, talked about what we know and what we do not know in a press conference to justify the invasion of Iraq based not on the possibility of the presence of weapons of mass destruction but upon the possibility of possibilities unknown, the blank space where he plotted his course and let his imagination sail.

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

What do we know we know?

We live in a culture that believes in itself and in us, in the value of our individual existence and our collective endeavors. We also recognize the necessity of managing material needs for survival and growth, which can lead to compromise and sacrifice. It is difficult to put our ideals and the physical world together. War, when deemed necessary, brings its own realities that unsettle any equation. The temptation is to consider ideals airy and insubstantial, thus suspect, and practical decisions defensible because they are grounded in reality, to favor realists over idealists, though ideals can have concrete manifestation and reality does not make sense without some kind of basis. Nor can concrete action be promoted without abstract justification or even be coherent. Then there are our desires, which do not fit easily with either reality or ideals, but flit fretfully between them.

Conrad’s Belgium, like Europe, was a champion of progress and enlightenment that it wanted to pass on to the peoples of the rest of the world to free them from misery and confusion, though not raise them to its level and give them power over their own lives. It also had a stake in claiming territory in Africa the other European countries were carving up in their dreams of conquest. And Africa had ivory, a symbol of purity, the mystical white growth of the tusks of huge beasts, a substance that is hard but suggestive to the touch and can be carved with delicacy and precision into curved and intricate shapes that endure, that was used to make billiard balls and piano keys and inlays and jewelry and knife handles and figures of saints, which at the time returned enormous profit.

We inherited the ideals of the Enlightenment, which we wish to pass on by example. We also debate our relationship with imperialism, where we struggle with distinctions. Of course there is our need for oil to warm and transport us and create our synthetic products, where we all are more involved than any of us might like to concede. Then there was the attack in New York and the fallen towers, the necessity to protect ourselves from invaders as well as appease whatever vestiges remain of tribal revenge, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Bin Laden and Afghanistan, however, were soon abandoned, and plans had been made for decades to destabilize the Middle East and gain control of world oil supplies. Rumsfeld made Iraq a priority well before the towers fell, which event provided pretext for the invasion.

Past and present, our world has depended on the transmutation of pliable substances and unsettled values, and it is difficult to find stable ground.

Justification was provided, however, to allow action and keep our ideals intact, based on essential difference. Africans were seen as savages, thus fell outside standards reserved for civilized people. Kurtz himself wrote an eloquent tract for the International Society for the Prevention of Savage Customs. The difference was supported by concrete observation and physical proof, the contrast between skin white and black. For us the difference was that between free people and terrorists who oppress, which the Bush administration used to freely suspend the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions and allow brutal interrogation at Abu Ghraib, this supported by concrete evidence of the violence turned against us by the people of occupied Iraq, though we found no links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda. Instead we brought them in.

Both differences, however, are based not on known knowns, or even known unknowns, but unknown unknowns. Marlow never penetrates the jungle to observe the people and their customs. He does not know the language, nor does Conrad give the natives a voice, except a handful of words they speak in broken English, the last to inform us of Kurtz’s death. Our government listened to no one except Chalabi, the Iraqi exile they wanted to put in power, and knew almost nothing about the Arab people’s beliefs and desires and customs, only just enough to humiliate them. Intelligence gathering had to come later, at Abu Ghraib. In Marlow’s story all we see are shots fired blindly into the jungle and dilapidated outposts at the fringes; in ours we largely saw our mechanized race through the desert, our guided missiles flying through the air, whose cameras showed us their blind destruction, and our command post at Saddam’s Palace, surrounded by tall concrete blast walls that separated it from the rest of Baghdad, from which civilian leaders of the occupation only timorously ventured.

And we saw what we now know we know but still strains belief. In Conrad’s novel Africans are taken from their villages, some set against the others, most forced into labor and chained, starved, beaten, and left to die. In real life Congo Free State, women, men, and children were freely mutilated. Failure to meet production quotas at the rubber plantations was punishable by death, and King Leopold ordered the hands of the guilty be cut off and sent back to Belgium as proof of execution. Natives also saw their children slaughtered, their villages burned. In the some two decades of Leopold’s occupation, the population decreased by an estimated ten million, this caused by murder, abuse, neglect, disease, and drastically fallen birth rates.

During the decade of the war in Iraq and since, civilian deaths from violence runs almost two hundred thousand, most caused by the sectarian violence we unleashed in a country we occupied but could not control, the total still rising. At Abu Ghraib, where thousands were detained, most civilians who posed no threat, prisoners were deprived of food and sleep and warmth; burned, beaten, flooded, and attacked by dogs; hooded with sandbags or forced to wear women’s panties on their heads; made to stand naked separately or huddled into piles; and raped or forced to commit sexual acts with each other or sodomized by a broom handle and a chemical light stick. The pictures we finally saw were part of the process, taken to double their exposure and multiply the humiliation. Specialist Harmon took one of the pictures of the hooded man standing on a box in a shower, loose wires attached to his fingers to make him fear he might be electrocuted if he stepped off, his arms raised high by his sides like wings or like those of another well-known figure, providing us perhaps with the most clarifying image from the war. The corpse she thumbed up had been beaten to death and put in a body bag and packed with ice, waiting to be taken out secretly to cover up his murder. Then there were the Abu Ghraib pictures we did not see because they were not released, along with the unseen torture at Guantanamo Bay and rendition at unknown places.

It is the excess of reality, known knowns, that taxes belief, not any buried secret or flight of ideals. Not seen, not known, not even known they were unknown and stretching belief further, were the horribly obvious ironies that sent our values soaring, that white civilized people savagely brutalized blacks they labeled savage, that our torture was carried out in the very prison Saddam Hussein had created to terrorize his own people, whose freedom and well being had become the final justification for our invasion.

Or that when we entered the heart of darkness we were looking at ourselves..

Unknown

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America stands against and will not tolerate torture.

President Bush to the United Nations, well after the fact.

Exterminate all the brutes.

The note Kurtz scrawled with a shaking hand at the end of the pamphlet he wrote for the International Society for the Prevention of Savage Customs.

Marlow returns to Europe with nothing to sustain him other than the memory of Kurtz, who helped him see more clearly what he didn’t see well before. He is more distant from the world, or rather more aware of his distance. One’s journey to find oneself in the world begins and ends at home, perhaps to realize one has never left it, or that one has no home to return to. But the novel ends without conclusion, without resolution of plot, and Marlow himself reaches no larger understanding.

My challenge, then, is to see if I can pick up where Marlow leaves off. But I feel naive yet at the same time presumptuous for looking at what is so obvious and attempting to explain what should be self-evident, as well as perverse for looking at it again, the obviousness made no less obvious by its magnitude, or no more. And it is difficult to take on the obvious, what offends in its absurd and utter simplicity, with a straight, with any kind of face, and not lapse into sarcasm or ridicule. But there I run the risk of trivializing my opposition without effect, who simply can dismiss me, and alienating anyone else who might listen. Already I’m beginning to lose myself. But there remains the perplexing problem, perhaps not obvious, of why the obvious isn’t obvious.

So I persist and look at the severed head that rests on a pole and stares back at me, and ask the obvious question: Why wasn’t demolishing Abu Ghraib a first priority? Given how efficiently the Bush administration managed our perception of the war with its manipulation of the media, why weren’t we immediately shown the razing of its walls? The images could then have been coupled with those of pulling down Saddam’s statues, which we did see many times. The act would have brought cause and effect together and provided a conclusion that would have at least given the appearance of validity to their justification for the war—saving the Iraqi people from oppression—which might have satisfied the rest of the world and us, at least for a while. Doing so, however, might not have served their real purpose. It is also possible they did not understand the terms of this argument. Another possibility is that we weren’t especially interested in seeing that footage.

Bush did offer to tear down the prison, but Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim Iraqi president, refused because he couldn’t justify the cost. Given Yawar’s tenuous command and our administration’s overwhelming influence, it is impossible to believe he could not have been persuaded otherwise. Also the Abu Ghraib pictures had already been aired, so Bush was only trying to control damage, and his proposal was to build a modern prison in its place, which would have better suited his plan.

I can go no further, if I hold any human value, without stepping back, separating myself, and standing opposed, which is what I did at the time, a decade of total disaffection with our government, of skepticism about government itself. But to stand apart I need a justification to support my foray into interpretation and keep myself intact, and the justification will require creating my own essential difference: I am moral and they were not.

Our leaders were ruthless and corrupt, and acted without conscience, looking only to their own interests—both Bush and Cheney’s roots ran deep in oil—and those of the wealthy few who shared them and stood to profit from the war. Their only motive was to protect those interests and extend their power. There was the risk, however, that by ignoring the ideals of democracy they might undermine their standing in the world and the basis that kept them in power during elections. The only way they could justify their action was to create the difference between free people like themselves, like all of us, against terrorists, not like any of us, but they had no interest in freeing anyone. They needed a prison, and stuck with Abu Ghraib because it was convenient, so they could maintain control and gather necessary intelligence as well as intimidate the people of Iraq through fear. They had to maintain distance from the torture by keeping the details unknown so they would not be implicated or caught in contradiction as long as they could. By the time their hypocrisy was exposed, if that ever happened, it wouldn’t have mattered because by then they would have had control, what was done was done and could not have been reversed, and there was no other power at home or, with the fall of the Soviets, in the rest of the world strong enough to oppose them.

That interpretation to some may smack of glibness and political bias, and often leads to such accusations. It has always been hard to make it stick. Yet there is so much to support it and little that contradicts. Still, it doesn’t account for their behavior. Understandably they rushed to war and did not want to build a broader coalition. Time lost and shared participation might have weakened our support and their grip. What it does not explain is their haste. They likely did not have to worry about losing our support, not after 9/11. The Vietnam syndrome had run its course, and the war in Afghanistan was well received. If they did have to worry, they had created the fear of more attacks on us that would have bolstered our support if it flagged. So they ripped through Iraq, facing little resistance because Saddam had little resistance to offer, destroyed the regime, and planned a quick withdrawal, yet had no strategy for occupation, which makes no sense at all because they ran the risk of losing what brought them to Iraq in the first place, control of its people and their oil. And still left out is the excess of violence at Abu Ghraib, where, by so many counts, most of the intelligence gathered was of little use and often false. Tortured men will tell you whatever you want to hear.

Unless they were worried they might lose resolve themselves, that their justification, their distinction, might lose momentum. There may be a categorical mistake in assuming anyone can act without conscience, however perverse the outward signs. Also a political interpretation rests on the assumption their behavior was rational and they knew what they were doing. There is another way to understand their actions that takes us further into darker places, and I need to make another distinction to go there: I am sane and they are not.

Erich Fromm, in The Heart of Man, explains how our natural aggressive urges, our love of ourselves, and our affection for others, unchecked, can run rampant and grow malignant into necrophilous, narcissistic, and incestuous formations. In the powerful, the three can merge and lead to a syndrome of decay, where destruction becomes an end in itself and source of delight, as we saw in Europe the last century. Leaders need the support of their followers, of us, to build power, and do so by building our attachments to sterile things and hollow abstractions that flatter and melt reserve but do not strain us with difficulty, investing both with meanings they cannot hold, meanings that avoid meanings and deflect troubling questions. Stronger incentive is still needed, however, along with concrete proof, so leaders appeal to our sense of rightness by setting us against those who are not right, less human, or not human at all, and to make the argument conclusive, set us against those who can be readily identified and who are weaker and can be easily disposed of.

The only way the process can work is to remove the difference from reality and keep the unknown unknown so we do not see into hearts of those we oppose even as we attack, or see who we really are and what we are really doing. Otherwise the edifice of destruction loses its foundation and collapses. No wonder the statue of Saddam had to come down first. But it is difficult to maintain the illusion and keep the unknown unknown, yet the only way to support it is to push it further and step up the attack. Perhaps a guilty conscience did come into play, which only would have increased the strain, and with the strain, the necessity to put that voice aside and return more viciously to their argument. Proving superiority not only leads to paranoia and sadism, it depends on them.

And Rumsfeld’s logic of unknown unknowns was a spiraling ascent into paranoia. By controlling all intelligence, bypassing standard channels and having all intelligence run through him, accepting what fit and rejecting what did not yet at the same time removing himself from other intelligence, he was left to his own devices and worst fears. Perhaps he was merely being calculating when he thought he could pass off on us the reports of yellowcake uranium from Niger or the purchase of aluminum tubes made in China—both which might have been used by Saddam to develop nuclear weapons, both reports quickly rejected by the intelligence community worldwide—but his plan depended on weapons of mass destruction, so he bracketed them in unknown unknowns yet acted as if they did exist. He needed Saddam to have active ties with the terrorists, though Saddam had no use whatsoever—they only would have weakened his position—so Rumsfeld left known knowns, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, behind to chase the phantoms. Saddam’s paranoia has to be factored in, along with his smoke and mirrors, but the only way Rumsfeld’s scheme works is to take them at face value and not try to see past them, assuming he could make that distinction. Meanwhile pending, what might have been the greatest deterrent to the mission and helps explain his haste, was Saddam’s offer, once he saw our forces mass, to bring inspectors in—he was begging—and show he had gotten rid of the weapons of mass destruction for the obvious and convincing reason that he did not want to give the U.S. cause to invade and lose his power.

The racial difference of Conrad’s day had one advantage: positing savagery into color provided obvious identification to clarify the European mission and even open the possibility, however immense the task, of a total solution. Terrorism gave no such advantage, as the only way to identify terrorists from non-terrorists was by their behavior, or, in the absence of such behavior, signs to suspect possible terrorist behavior, and if those could not be found terrorists had to be created. Perhaps there was a racial element involved as well, but then the search spread here at home with the endless surveillance. By keeping the details of Abu Ghraib unknown and propping up the terrorist distinction, the Bush administration allowed the violence to go unchecked, and without definite limits there was no way to complete the mission and close the circle as it was impossible to know when to stop. There is no telling how far the torture might have spread had the pictures not turned up.

One way to interpret their plan for a quick retreat is that, unconsciously, they wanted to escape the terrifying strain of what they envisioned. Or perhaps they wanted to pass the violence off on someone else but instead got stuck. Either way, the evidence points to wholesale destruction as the end result, consciously planned or not.

Somehow, in this context, I have to find high ground to better see and chart a clear course. But if I divest myself of my government I remove myself from power, without even a thought of representation or possible action unless I discover or create a space outside it. To consider myself moral leaves me with a burden that is difficult to bear alone, where it is too easy to stumble, the burden made enormous by the enormity of the abuse I try to face. I will always have to walk stiffly erect on a narrow path. To consider myself sane in the face of monstrous insanity removes me from my own internal debates and narrows the path further, the path already twisted by pursuit of the monsters it created for me, ever present.

But our leaders were somewhat genial men, not charismatic tyrants, who at least feigned humility, and they genuinely wanted our support. And their appeal, however conflicted, was for freedom, not conquest, which might have been sincere. Also they knew they needed us, as we could could topple them in the next election if they fell out of our favor. We love our freedom and want to feel good about ourselves, about our attachments to our reflexive devices and to each other. The fall of the towers might most have upset us when we realized what they did not support and how much they did not support it. Or what upset us was what we didn’t know but lay hidden in our own unknown unknowns, which vexed us even as we fled them. We, so many of us, believe the purpose of government is to turn us loose and set us free. We want to protect our self-interest and the interests of those who freely gather wealth. The market collapse at the end of Bush’s second term did not take us to Wall Street but elsewhere to find causes. And what distinctions do we make? Savagery is not rejected but openly embraced, an appetite fed endlessly on our screens in an unending crescendo of climaxes. A case could be made that we weren’t misled by tyrants, but rather with open hearts shaped the men we elected to represent us, then gave them a free hand.

Irony requires a context, and if none of us, our leaders or the free people of the U.S., saw the irony of Abu Ghraib, it may have been because we did not have one. Either we didn’t want to see the irony or we simply did not understand it.

I need to step back further and make another distinction, but I am running out of room.

I have gone too far, I haven’t gone far enough. Reality is more complicated. Reality is always more complicated, though complexity might have been pursued in order to avoid it. The Iraq invasion rested on decades of pressing concerns along with questionable and ambiguous involvement with allies and enemies alike, themselves questionable and ambiguous, including American covert support of Iraq in its war against Iran where Saddam did use gas, that support not stopped when he used it against Iraqi Kurds. Or perhaps our leaders just got lost in the vast complexity of what they were trying to do. Factoring in incompetence offers some relief. To deny psychological or moral interpretations, however, is to concede values have no influence and that our minds do not come into play. That the Bush administration really believed, that we believed, with all our hearts, that by toppling Saddam’s regime and pulling out we would build allies in the Middle East and restore world order, that the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms and, left alone, follow our example and build a democracy of free people, that oil would freely flow once more—does not contradict the moral and psychological interpretations, or, if it does, sends us all into chaos, which might be where we are.

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Marlow falls silent without finishing his last thought, leaving it in ellipsis, then sits apart from the other men on the deck of the cruising yawl on the Thames where he has told his story, returning to a cross-legged position, his back straight, arms down, and palms out, like a Buddha. Behind him, the brooding gloom of London. Before him, passage to the open sea.

But Marlow ultimately is a practical man, more occupied with managing his life than understanding it. Managing, in fact, is his answer, as, in a version of Freudian sublimation, he believes one should find oneself in one’s work, though he distances himself from the value of the work he performs. Efficiency is the key, and his main criticism of Kurtz is that he lacked restraint, that he couldn’t control the primitive forces inside him, inside all of us, and in nature itself, both forces coming together in Kurtz, corrupting and destroying him.

Freud in his later work, trying to account for the destructive course the world had taken, speculates that guilt from the conflict between our collective conscience and our dark, inner urges caused the malaise, the force of our desires unconsciously working on the guilt and taking a malicious turn.

What has held us back the last century, what have we not openly, freely tried? What does anyone feel guilty about now?

He also debates a death instinct, somehow somewhere inside us, maybe throwing up his hands.

Fromm prefers inside us a lighter, more creative force, which, when corrected by objective knowledge gained from science, might lead us from self-absorption and self-destruction.

What has our creative force brought to light, or our science? What hasn’t been explored by science in the mind, in nature? What hasn’t been diminished in both by the search?

All three, Marlow, Freud, and Fromm, posit some unconscious force, making a thing of the question they are trying to answer and thus avoiding it, leaving it in unknown unknowns that continue to haunt. And they miss what escapes them in their pursuit, what frightens us yet moves us and gives us the terror of hope—

There is nothing in the heart of darkness, except, perhaps, the heart.

I reread Heart of Darkness not looking for answers but a place to linger, and it is the novel where I most feel at home. The meaning of the story, as the narrator tells us, lies not in the core of the plot but outside it, this meaning enveloping it with an indistinct yet present glow, like a halo. It is the glow that draws me and keeps my doubts alive as I wander through a world only dimly perceived and try to navigate the jungle of Conrad’s thoughts, and of ours.

I am human and that matters. It is always the starting point and the point to which all journeys should return.

But I wonder if my best course now is not to sit apart, like Marlow, away from all fears and desires, and rest with the understanding that does not try to understand, the voice that does not speak.

There are moments, however, I am moved by bright visions and red passions, and I hear fresh voices from a distance speaking a strange language, and they come, and they gather, massing, and I join them, and they join me, and I lead them to light, and words come, and I hear a beating in dark places that matches the beating of my heart, faster, faster…

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Selected Readings

It is difficult to know what can be taken for common knowledge when so much still remains disputed and denied, but all factual claims in this essay made have been extensively researched and supported elsewhere. Another irony of the war is that it has taken careful, responsible writers years of painstaking research to discover what happened so quickly and was hidden so long.

Seymour Hersh, in Chain of Command, provides details on the abuse at Abu Ghraib and traces the chain of command involved, as well as reviews other matters touched on, such as the questionable evidence for Saddam’s ties with Al Qaeda and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He cites a 2003 poll that showed 72% of the American people believed Saddam was personally involved in 9/11. To what extent the poll reflects the effectiveness of the Bush spin on the war or our own desire to make the connection would make an interesting study, though it’s unlikely the two factors could be sorted out.

At least one operative knew Conrad. Hersh describes the clandestine special-access program (SAP) that was created to track down terrorists. Few were aware of it. According to one former intelligence official, “We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’”

George Packer, in The Assassin’s Gate, also reviews the events and influences leading up to the war and our subsequent occupation, our isolation and detachment during that time. He cites an early draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, written in in 1992, commissioned by Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, and overseen by Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary for policy, which states: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.”

So many of us quickly leap to accept conspiracy theories while others too quickly reject them out of hand. Peter Dale Scott, in The Road to 9/11, carefully and convincingly reviews decades of U.S. covert operations around the world, the questionable ties with allies and enemies alike, including terrorists; the administration’s ties to business; the secret policy decisions; and the hidden efforts to centralize power that led up to and influenced the invasion. The full details are dizzyingly complex and extend across the globe.

Only one example. He reviews U.S. covert policies under CIA Director William Casey and Vice President Bush at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the 1980s, policies that continued and had effects later:

(1) to favor Islamist fundamentalists over native Sufi nationalists, (2) to sponsor an “Arab Afghan” foreign legion that from the outset hated the United States almost as much as the USSR, (3) to help them to exploit narcotics as a means to weaken the Soviet army, (4) to help expand the resistance campaign into an international jihadi movement, to attack the Soviet Union itself, and (5) to continue supplying the Islamists after the Soviet withdrawal, allowing them to make war on Afghan moderates.

Note also the view of business:

In 1997 the Wall Street Journal declared: “The Taliban are the players most capable of achieving peace. Moreover, they are crucial to secure the country as a prime transshipment route for the export of Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and other natural resources.”

That Rumsfeld’s behavior approached paranoia has been commonly discussed. I sketch my own interpretation for comparison. Scott develops the idea further in his theory of deep state politics.

The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment has only recently been released and can be downloaded at http://detaineetaskforce.org/report/

Our support of Iraq in its war with Iran, in spite of its use of gas, is discussed in two New York Times articles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/18/world/officers-say-us-aided-iraq-in-war-despite-use-of-gas.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/15/world/us-says-it-monitored-iraqi-messages-on-gas.html

America stands against and will not tolerate torture. Bush’s full statement on United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 2004, can be found at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72674

The Yale Genocide Studies Program reviews the abuses and genocide in the Congo Free State at http://www.cis.yale.edu/gsp/colonial/belgian_congo/

The death toll in Iraq has been tallied and analyzed at Iraq Body Count at http://www.iraqbodycount.org

That the intelligence gathered at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers was unreliable is reviewed extensively, with links to many sources, at http://thinkprogress.org/report/why-enhanced-interrogation-failed/

This Wikipedia page reviews fully, with many sources, why Saddam’s ties with Al-Qaeda were insubstantial: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam_Hussein_and_al-Qaeda_link_allegations

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris wrote a long piece on Sabrina Harman, “Exposure,” reviewing her behavior and reactions, in The New Yorker (March 24 2008), the source of the opening quotation.

Edited picture of Rumsfeld from The Huffington Post.

Picture of Sabrina Harman via The New York Times.

Man on a box picture via Wikipedia.

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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Jan 112017
 

 

ONCE, dureth the premiere quartern of mine simpering nonage (as a-goed I solo in weepsome wander, blown hithery-thitherward ’twixt fortune’s crosswinds), came I to a mansion in the deep of the forest. [Gen 28:17][1] Stately stood such capacious coverture o’er mine surpris’d espying: a visage of security and grandeur, plot proud aback that well-kempt plat. So palled in count’nance wast I, and wained in will (worn rough thorow seasons of hard hungerings, set a-ravin for scantest lee, viz. some calmly embowerment with an maw appeased), that I breach’d it unknock’d, and ensu’d to interview its contents, as ’twere I its menselord. [Ezra 9:7][2]

Immersed in the trespassion, nary a blot bedaub’d the speck o’ mine conscience, nor pang stirr’d atop mine stomack—so rawhewn a ware was I, tofore arriving hearthside out of that lifepart lost to the stygian, abysmal wilderness. Less man than ape, less ape than shag, e’ery territory whatso bode beforth I betook as mine own: a creature of cormorant contumancy. [Ecc 10: 3][3]

But O noumenal engines! Strange machinations of fate! Since when hath sin paved the way to salvation? How longst hath sinister paws moonlit works for their goodliest adversaries? Such topsy-turvydom unbeknownst me in those years of vassalage to a daimonion of deception wholesome, whoso hath me enthrall’d to an heathenism most desperat and prav’d. Embogged wast I formerly in the gomorrahic quad, risking perpetually to whelm under that murky mire, putrid pool in-filled with the undammed lust which sluiceth fountainous from mine torrid heart… [Psa 69:14][4]

But ne’er hath I reck’n’st heretofore, that sorrysome obliquity could volant vault one unto the imparadised headspace of true religion, whereof spiritual satiety is ’stablished via an o’erabundance of hea’enly commodity. [Luk 19:20][5] Hardly a hint I’d – this coxcombical paynim, a veritable Nabal [1 Sam 25:25][6] – that sottish dalliance would embeckon me to seat at Beulah’s table! [Isa 62:4][7]

O, and to espy in mine mind’s eye that cornucopia afresh! Blessed be the site of mine enraged ingurgitation! Mine gut distendeth at the mere memberance, for behoveth I thenst myriad abounds, baskets, closets, drawers—e’erything robusting with fitliest firstfruit! Forthwith flagons of ambrosial stock plashed mellifluous into mine bejewelled goblet, whilst an exquisite caravan of victuals made pilgrimage to mine bowels. Yum pottage bub’d slabby on the stove, dulcetous censors vaporating pendent, erewhile viands enumerate in excelsis. [Mat 22:2][8] Forsook wath I – in that poverish’d state, as an infidel to the faith – to be seduced by such an alimental horde of engorgements! [Jam 1:14][9]

Forsooth! So starv’d was I, swound on the spot by insuperable gratuity, that recalleth I coting a couple of queries, sayed more out of astoniment than reprobate: ‘Hast the gnat e’er comest to council He who Is? Or the prawn mounteth Sinai? Did Gabriel erst learnst the wyrm to read His message?’ Whilst pondering liken paradoxes of Providence, I hied to repast of the soldanic surfeit, and thereby liss the massy weights which fate hath me cast. [Psa 55:22][10] Scarcely I’d satt’st mine thirst and attain’d second heaven of gustatory gratifaction, whence, in a glance askance, spott’d I e’en more alluring, yet greater gainsomely properties…

What comely caparisons! What fulgent finery! Weren’t mine clots so cloven, ow’d to the hevy habergeon I’d accoutried to fend mine bosom from battailous onfalls (which oft-times, amidst the arbours endur’d unto the hour of mine deliverance, wast bidden to valourise its reputed proof by experimental mettle), thenst peradventure I’d not incline to wot covetously of my host’s affects, for affright of a right scourging. [Jos 7:25][11]

But dreadfulest lust of novelty! Carrion history! So sin-slain and loth of self wast I, mine crave, wound of want and ressentiment, couldnst stave off the prospect of poaching some raiments, and dissembling mine mien to impose my host. [Eph 4:28][12]

Cometh eventide, donning clouts chose from mine patron’s wardrobe, draped with Urim and Thummim, [Lev 8:8][13] in so repose I contemplated mine own gratulated appetence. [Prv 22:3][14] But lo! a shadowy flicker in the vestibule—cursed luck! Divine folly! Wast it the vice-gerent of Philistia, shrewd Beëlzebub, whom cometh to collecth mine soul? To enter yet another specie of sinner into his sepulchral vault? [Job 1:7][15]

No, be it by the prevenient grace of God—though verily in that inmost moment of fear didst mine humours vacate unto mine undercarriage, commixing black and yellow biles into a draff most foul! [Rom 16:20][16]

Of an all-to-befooled torpor, of the type which accompanieth gross induement amidst softly environs, I gat braked. I hast’d mineself procinct to spot in a pinch howst mine beholder heldst me begirt, interpos’d ’twixt mineself and the onely outgang. [Joe 2:1][17]

Specting henceforth to catch hurt or halter, I hid hind my hooks to targe the charge I ticipat’d to wrack mine personage. ‘By den or Topheth, I’m annihilate!’ mine mind fix’d thusly. Yet, dumbfound me, for naught a chiding nor elstwise doleful obloquies fell ’pon mine brow that nocent moment. O sovran savior! Halleluiahs heightliest for thine vicar fair and true! [2 Cor 11:14][18]

“What means this?” spake a voice from yonder corridoorway, athwart the hall. [Hos 14:7][19] A-sensing clemency in the tenor of this interlocutor, mine sensibilities demi-restored, timorous tarried I forth an apology:

IME. “Prithee, do not cheweth me out! Hasten not to umbrage! I shamble humblewise at thy hoofs, plaguest with grief for mine unwelcome carriages. Hearken thy eres to mine weepsome storie: I am me, who ye do not acquaint, but who nauther doth desir’st to hector thine person nor cozenage tempt! I deem mineself thine manservant, mine liege, if ye deign to make no stick with me, tho ye findest thyself in thy just jurisdiction to seek recompense. Or elst shalst I pledge anon to loitereth no furthur in thy midst, and intermeddleth ne’er ’gan in thy busyness? O, how to essay the heart-humiliation I beseech thee to besee emblazons like a burning bush on mine bosom!?” [Tit 3:3][20]

At this I couched submiss in grovelage, and so saith she (I espying her matronic features as a-stepped she into the luminate chamber), “Sirrah! Sociate a tad, if ye beest not too hot for Heaven to go a-repenting presently for yer e’erlasten soul! [Acts 3:19][21] Tell me, what are ye made up of? What wears ye? Yer a-fooling if ye would have me believe thou arenst familial, haltered in familiar garbs… Pillag’d I gather from the rectory vestry?”

IME. ’Pon being discover’d, I’d disremember’d mine attire! Damnation! “Fair arbitress, let me swage thy doubty inklings: in truth I be a cock of the right kind, and not the scrub beseen afore thee. These last days, and for at least a fortnight preceding, stretching immemorial into the yore of mine anguished rind, hath seen me subducted nethermost, notwithstanding mine struggles to upstay soul and bodie. But with God as our ternary, bear me witness here and hence: I avoweth to aright mine appropriations, and make reparations for thy depletions forthwith.” [1 John 1:9][22]

ALP. A-stepping forwarder, quoth the authorial lady-person (I a-hearkening her pitch, which beseemst accustom’d to hote), “Afterthink not thy meagre samplings of the grounds’ produce, and keep thine picked equipts, meetest shouldst themst thou deemst. [Luk 6:29][23]Thou art forgiven. [Mat 6:14-15][24] Thine wrongdoing is absolv’d, and ye may egress peaceably, or loaf awhile if thou mayest.”

IME. “Puissant arbitress! Stupendous nurse! Which is the heavenly host I shouldst direct mine prayers of gratitude?”

ALP. She chortleth at this praise, and so revealed her holy agname. “I be Avia Lux Promethia, headmistress and abbess of this seminary. This glebe wast lent by His Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a testament to the devotion of His Royal Majesty to the One True Religion,” – whence, as an aside: “(tho’ maugre His fixtur’d entitlement, His presence be vap’d here, a mere nominalist spectre).” Promethia continu’d: “Thus we are left to travail as we willst, (in despite of His ghostage,) tho most ignominably with the devices and means of His charitable subsidy. Our dignity thus resides in our collectivity, the way we work in a common way, [Col 3:23][25] dig the land together, and level the burthens and bounties alike. [1 Tim 5:8][26] Whilst I extendeth ye petition to won with us for a furlough, ye must opt to cooperate and learneth the modes and methods of our diurnal practices. That is, so long as ye dwelleth under a shared domicile, and resume to surp the lush of our seasonal vintaging.” [2 Thes 3:10][27]

IME. “O venerated catechist! Evangelic succourstress! Ministereth truely to this dumpish doat, how to intervolve mineself with thine magnificence, and, by and by, to genuinely earn thine glorious fealty. No ginning schemeth, nor pragmatic plot do I stow to misfit your plantation or go a-roguing. Whate’er be the mission, set me on’t, and I shall press thee dearly.” [John 14:14][28]

ALP. “Then bestir yetn’t, lest rooted in doped derpitude thou wisheth to remain. The hadj at hand may demand domesticity and focus honed inly, pace peregrination to distant lands. First, riddle me this: canst thou read and write?” [Hab 2:2][29]

IME. “A tittle.”

ALP. “Then thou must ’prove ’pon these principle parts of thy dividuality! For this be the mandatory faculty at our seminary, where we be devoted not solely to doing goodly deeds. We seek as well the comprehension that goeth withal, which codeterminates these acts from abaft the scenes. [2 Pet 1:5][30] Thusly one canst justly rejoind the braggadocio and misgone musings of the e’ernewing whelps, [2 Tim 2:24][31] who be born appetent of mindfulling foodstuffs, as each babe doth ingress empty-bowel’d to the great chain of appetition. How elst shallst one cognate the quiddity of some thing, ’cept thru timing hours aside to attentive focus, not onely of its boding, but of its root wyrds, their limitary and subtle connexions? [John 1:1][32] Since any craft consists of divers tasks, solely thru years spent on intelligental labours can one master wholly the ethereal essence of a quid, and attain o’erstanding enow to ply practicion wiseliest. Thine firstmost duty, then, is to read—see thou yon librarie thither. Inure thineself with manuscripts and incunabula, aware that they be sembled specific for neophytes such as thineself, who wish to turn a new leaf on life. Aft ye shall finish this scholastic sacrament, one graduates to the division of especial research that relateth to the guildcrafts and their coordinates, whence one can start to tribute at a capacity yond that of a mere philosopher.” [Mat 10:8][33]

IME. “But thems a lot of books, methinks! They lo lumbersome, and lack appellant coverage. Besides, for endeavours literary I’ve not the disposition, nor natural knack. Is it really so wrong that the orphan’d striplings go without literacy, and the finescripts and aggravat’d headaches that attend therewithal? Many great men hundreds of years ago were illiterate. Natural tutelage is better, by the by, and one should not deviate from the norm’s prescription: to do is to know—and nothing besides!” [Ecc 4:5][34]

ALP. “Avaunt ye!” Promethia utter’dst, her charitable beam befouled into a lour, “and glozeth not: ‘Do I have to? Can I do it?’ Ye must, so thou shalt! Don’tst commit thyself premature to the lazier house. Know the cupidic whispers a-courting surrender be aimed by the fiend Apollyon, who aims to steer thine journey back out into the horrent hedge, and headfirst into pandemonium. [1 Pet 5:8][35] But yield not to the flattery of the fiend—thou shalt persist [Col 1:11][36] – ’tis e’en a third of the trifold commandment of Alma Mater Zelda!” Here she interrupteth herself to perform orisons that in due course I wouldst adopt as mine own, and proceedeth to wit: “She who founded this commune, didst so on the grounds of this precise precept, along with two other axioms of piety: ‘Thou shalt ken’ and ‘Thou shalt limn.’ The force of this trinity, which Zelda gaveth to guideth our actions in this misfortunate world, is absolute. [Rom 6:23][37] Beknownst not to dispute with the One True Religion! [Deut 6:16][38] Nay, elst I be left no choice but to holler forth, and deployeth the nuns’ militia to interdict ye under manacles.”

IME. “Aye, so shalt I abate mine protestations,” sigh’d I, a benighted novitiate, yet in the dark to the glorious gift that that cordial moniale, oracle of the sacred heart, hath arranged for me. [Prv 1:7][39] “Go thence, and sign to me thine most rever’d inditements. Just tread lightsome on’t, and spare me thine sharpest snibs, tho’ tardy progress might I onely plow ’pon this bibliodyssey which thou hath layed upon me.”

ALP. Promethia reaffirmed: “Ensue at thy wont, and spect not to suffer mine cavilry. I depart thee so ye can initiate thy duty in sanctitude. Just pledge to keep patience at the forefront of thy conversation. [1 Thes 5:14][40] Take this as the paramount of mine sapience, since alack this virtue, one shant ’spect to surmount those stacks o’ shelves, or o’errun those rows o’ logs, which standst in the way of thy salvage. So fuse the aforemention’d virtue into thine heart, and thou shalt see e’en the mortalest sin of acedia moralis [2 Cor 7:10][41] – the origin of dejection, inborn stain of slothfulness – shalt speed apace in its palling and purification from the human soul, and erelong shalt the curricula be history.” [Gal 6:9][42]

ALP. “So baptise thy innermost being in patience,” proceedeth Promethia as she bid me to the athenæum adjacent, “for thou art hereborn reafter as a disciple of the One True Religion. No longer a no one, thy newly nomination ist Gnosis Patience Reading. Heed thine archmother Zelda’s triune appeal, Gnosis, and recalleth for thine inspiration the patience shewn at thy chancy apparition in the parlor, whence stricter lawgivers would’ve demound worsen penance for thy misdemeanours. In kind, as a welcome guest lets bygones be of his proprietor’s o’ersights, untoward banters, tasteless tangents, loopy lapses, and descents into arcane argot and lore of inconsequence—belikewise, as a chile in the house of God, thou shalt be lithe whilst visiting the Hall of Metaphysicks (or the Temple of Theology, or the Ashram of Ontology, for that matter), and tolerate the company, voices, and thoughts expressed therein, at least awhile, afore ye pronounce them decrepit or defunct or dead or gone or over, or some other hasteful judgement. [Prv 18:2][43] Endeavour to sedulity, rather than repeateth oncemore that unsightly ritual by which legions of indolent lads and wenches fallst farst into an exile self-imposed, namely by fancying themselves born-again know-it-alls. They cloak their confusion in a blanket of condemnation, and relinquish to childish choler the prerogative to adjudge the qualities of a multitude of works, when really ’tis but their crippled sense of forbearance that refuseth to admit any wares for e’en the most liminary of inventories. [Prv 1:22][44] Forsaken of patience, they sabotage their avowed quest to illuminate, ending up lost in the woods—retracing their missteps, victims of their own interminable circuitry.”

ALP. Promethia hadst me secured to attain spiritual success, ready to be sealed in the scholarly sanctum for mine virginal session, whence, ast she departed, parled she once last: “In place of letting the quick of thy wit become a capricious censor, plod with patience at thy hardest core. [Heb 10:36][45] Elst the hillsides of lofty learning makest for toughgone treading, so long as yeest struggle shy of the surmountainous vantage by which ye can commence to fathom one’s uncommensurability with the sprawl supernal. There, once ye have peak’d the mound, patience manifests naturally, and doth not dissipate with the downclomb. [2 Pet 3:15][46] It holds on the horizon, even aft the descent, so long as ye can review the same perspective which scop’d it atop that lightening crest, and recogniz’d forthwith that paragon of perseverance whom sits astraddle an empyreal throne, spanning cosmos, awaiting calmly for being’s cease… So ’til thou hast crost that luminescent plateau, and met Patience in the flesh, recite to thineself what it is made of, learn it by heart, and put it into practice in one’s pilgrimage on the path to the One True Religion, and the future shall be yers, for ever and everest. Amen.” [Luk 21:19][47]

—Noah Gataveckas

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noah-and-malcolm-raymond

Noah Gataveckas lives in Toronto with his partner Amanda and their newborn son Malcolm Raymond. He teaches Math and Computer Science at the high school level, as well as provides editing and consultative work to educational groups in Canada. He has previously published works for Numero Cinq, the Danforth Review, Platypus Review, and North Star. Aside from teaching and creative writing, his interests include critical theory and social activism. He also continues to work on finishing his first book – Symposium: A Philosophical Mash-up – and finding a publisher for it. ‘The Philosopher’s Progress’ is taken from chapter 13 of this unpublished manuscript.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. And he was afraid and said, ‘”How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
  2. From the days of our ancestors until now, we have been steeped in sin. That is why we and our kings and our priests have been at the mercy of the pagan kings of the land. We have been killed, captured, robbed, and disgraced, just as we are today.
  3. When he that is a fool walks by the way, his wisdom fails him, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
  4. Deliver me from the mire and do not let me sink; May I be delivered from my foes and from the deep waters.
  5. A third servant came and said, “Master, here is your original funding, which I laid away in a piece of cloth…
  6. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name means Fool, and folly goes with him…
  7. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Beulah; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.
  8. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.
  9. But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
  10. Cast your burdens on the Lord and He will sustain you…
  11. Then Joshua said to Achan, “Why have you brought trouble on us by stealing? The Lord will now bring trouble on you.” And they stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies.
  12. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he might have something to share with anyone in need.
  13. He placed the breastplate on him and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece.
  14. A prudent person forsees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.
  15. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
  16. Soon the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord be with you.
  17. Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of our Lord is coming; for it is nigh at hand…
  18. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light…
  19. People will dwell in my shadows; they will flourish like the grain, they will blossom like the vine…
  20. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another…
  21. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.
  22. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
  23. …And if someone takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic as well.
  24. If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours.
  25. Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…
  26. If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the true faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
  27. For even while we are with you, we give you this rule: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”
  28. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!
  29. The Lord said to me: “Write my answers plainly on tablets, so he who reads it may run with it…
  30. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge…
  31. The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and be patient with difficult people.
  32. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
  33. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!
  34. The fool crosses his arms and starves himself.
  35. Stay alert! Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
  36. You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.
  37. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our saviour…
  38. You shall not but the Lord to the test, as you did already…
  39. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
  40. We urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are lazy and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
  41. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
  42. Let us not loose heart in doing good; for in due time, if we do not faint, we shall reap.
  43. Doing wrong leads to disgrace, and scandalous behaviour brings contempt.
  44. How long, foolish ones, will you love ignorance? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?
  45. For ye have need of patience, so that, having done the will of God, ye may receive the promise.
  46. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation…
  47. By your patience you will win life.
Nov 122016
 

Jeremy Brunger

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This year I will attend the University of Chicago, a school whose reputation for serious academic study is nigh unparalleled; it compares to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, yet is half a mile from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the North American continent, the South Side, and a mile or two from neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and Englewood. My area of study, one of general humanism, will have me pondering Foucault, the implications of Marx’s commentary on literature, the meaning behind Schopenhauer’s peculiar use of Latin. In a city that can boast of having over forty shootings in one weekend, I have to wonder what I can possibly learn of humanism while living in its own refutation. Many poor Chicagoans consider the city to be the very bustling embodiment of Hell: it is the nexus of Midwestern drug trafficking due to its convenient location and enduring sense of segregation, nearly a tenth of its citizens are out of work and live in what sociologists call deep poverty, and it out-competes every other US city in the arena of addiction to heroin. In 2015, the longest period of reprieve from gangland-style murder lasted only five days. Odd, that I have the privilege of moving to study at Chicago’s premier ivory tower when many of its citizens wish, above all else, to flee the Windy City and never look back.

That, of course, is the crux of my wonder: privilege is another word for access, and the underside of college towns is that their long-term residents rarely study past high school. I have access to an oasis in Chicago because I have a certain kind of privilege largely denied to those who want to escape those economic black holes which pepper the city. I am white—whiter than white, I already have a college education, which negates my lower class socioeconomic status—and so can graze the finest courses of education this country has to offer. The city of Chicago has one of the biggest, most developed economies in the country, and manages its own stock exchange, but half of the population starves for the fruit of that industry. Poor Chicagoans get murdered outside of one- or two-storey apartments with names riffing on Martin Luther King and faux-Parisian boulevards, not in front of Trump Tower.

Bigger Thomas, the murderous anti-hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, would have lived ten minutes away from the University of Chicago when he smothered rich, white, and educated Mary Dalton in her bed. Bigger grew up poor and hated in the 1930s, but he did not grow up uniquely: today one in five children in Chicago live in the sort of poverty Bigger would have found familiar. Wright was a Marxist who found in urban misery a powerful signal that the proletariat not only can but ought to revolt against the nervous conditions which characterize the lunacy of poor life in big cities. Were he alive today he might find the inspiration to pen a sequel to Native Son, this one bleaker, more starkly realistic: Bigger would belong to one of the fifty-nine gangs in the metropolitan area, shoot other twenty-year-olds with a stolen Glock, and become addicted to black tar heroin before getting gunned down in retaliation.

The picture is one of apartheid—what should not be a first world complaint—which provides a perfect rendition of what is most wrong with America. Wealth inequality in Chicago is steep and is the source of its plague of violence; it is also an example, writ larger, of how those who live in other cities work and die without ever seeing the benefits of liberal progress. The city’s average income hovers around sixty thousand per annum, but its most violent districts earn a third of that market share at their luckiest. It is not for nothing that Chicago is the basis for Gotham, that grim, imaginary playground where Batman battles petty criminals and domestic terrorists. Gotham, too, is a wealthy city whose people are poor, but it just might have the better reputation. Chicago has no vigilante Batman, it only has vigilantes. In fact, its police force is currently being investigated by the federal government for racist retaliation against poor black people unaffiliated with gang activity and for structural racism ranging from street-level police murders up to its own city government. The city which harbored the country’s first serial killer, the Haymarket anarchist killings, and Upton Sinclair’s socialist fervor against corrupt business practices edges toward anarchy once again. Carl Sandburg would ill tolerate the city which gave him his richest poetry a century ago. Nelson Algren, who was more honest in his portrayal of Chicago, wrote in Chicago: City on the Make that “in the Indian grass the Indians listened: they too had lived by night.”

That night has lasted long for the city’s worst off and most abandoned, who, if they cannot recite Dante’s Inferno, can no doubt compare its concentric circles to the neighborhoods of Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The specters of lust, greed, wrath, fraud, treachery, and violence inform the news which Chicago exports, and haunt the lives of Chicago’s indigent all-pervasively. Recently, on the South Side, a body was found bound and burned to death; a pregnant woman was murdered in a drive-by shooting; several teenagers were shot for reasons unknown. All this within walking distance of a university that caters to the children of the elite and teaches the economists of the world that neoliberalism is morally useful.

What salve will a national election year offer Chicago? It has already produced a president, who maintains a house in the South Side for when his tenure in the Oval Office is at an end. Since 2008 the city’s murder rate has steadily increased, while black employment has steadily decreased. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offer anything of worth to the most distressed groups in the city; both seem entirely at odds with the well-being of the urban underclass to begin with, since Chicago supports Clinton by political default and provides hefty ownership royalties to Trump by virtue of his properties.

 

Chicago, then, is a chimeric political animal. The rapper Common once called himself “a veteran of the Cold War” after witnessing gang violence and epidemic poverty in the city of his birth, and knew such horrors were but natural extensions of national policy. As neoliberalism wrenches Europe with its support for austerity, it wrenches likewise even the most dynamic of American economies, and exerts a special stranglehold on Chicago, which produced its main tenets radiating outward from the University of Chicago, to the White House, and back to the multiple slums which cluster for miles around the South Side grove of academe.

The late economist Milton Friedman, powerhouse and public intellectual of neoliberalism, has more to do with the phenomenon of gangbanging than any of his triumphant followers of the last half-century care to admit, for neoliberal policy was in large part his brainchild, and remains the cause and effect of Chicago’s ganglands. That the university, which has its own sub-department of Marxism in the humanities and social sciences, gave birth to the Reaganite policy of eliminating public budgets for the benefit of the private sector, says volumes about how the class schism operates in a city of three million people. The vocal support for one direction of the political process is naturally underscored by a real support for its neoliberal opposite. Slash money to schools, slash money to public aid, slash money to cultural works, slash money to housing—all in the name of promoting a capitalism which considers the advantaged and disadvantaged equals in market theory—and behold a polity which casually declares itself a war zone.

The few like Friedman, who spoke for the many, condemned the many to a suffering that has lasted for generations. Never mind that a monetary regime which considered abundance of cash flow preferable to a deficit—that abundance only needed to reach the rich—categorically impoverished those who had long benefited from New Deal policies. Hell features drive-bys and stray bullets, and the murdering of toddlers whose only crime was being brought into the world by drug dealers. Neoliberal economics is another name for social Darwinism, and on this, if little else, the laissez-faire capitalists of the Reagan-era Chicago School and the street gangs of Englewood agree. Gang life is capitalism in miniature. Neoliberal policy spread beyond American borders and beyond the borders of liberal democracy to influence the world from pole to pole and wreaked a havoc so similar between them one wonders why Chicago hasn’t been declared a national emergency.

That this war zone generally only encompasses a third of the city—those parts which white people like me can afford to not live in, nor rarely traverse—speaks pitifully to the legacy of racism which neoliberalism has inherited and maintained. Jean-Paul Sartre, in typical sardonic style, wrote the following impression of American cities, with 1940s-era New York City as his model:

But these slight cities…reveal the other side of the United States: their freedom. Here everyone is free—not to criticize or to reform their customs—but to flee them, to leave for the desert or another city.

Long after the death of that urbanite philosopher, the prospect of fleeing an American city looks more and more, and merely, to be the stuff of dreams for most.

—Jeremy Brunger

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Jeremy Brunger is from Tennessee and now attends a humanities graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests tend toward the Marxian: finding devils in the superstructure, studying the effects of poverty on mental life, railing against the dumb, brutal figure of capitalism. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.

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Nov 082016
 

Jose de Trevi photograph_2José de Trévi

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In his 1944 existentialist play No Exit, Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people.” He was, of course, referring to the “perpetual ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object in the world of another consciousness,” but the phrase has been misinterpreted and misused to suit our needs ever since. In my experience, Hell came in the form of a man named José de Trévi, a Belgian tenor who sang with the National Opera of Paris from 1930 to 1943. Tenors at that time were regarded as “princes among singers,” and de Trévi was a rare breed of tenor, one who could sing outside a tenor’s typical vocal range. Because of his talent, he made a career singing the most coveted lead roles in the most prestigious theaters all over Europe, specializing in some of Wagner’s most famous operas: Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser, all four epics of the Ring Cycle. Over the course of his career, he sang in over three hundred performances throughout France, and was hailed repeatedly by critics for his singing, his acting, and his dashingly good looks.

de Trevi letterExcerpt of letter from José de Trévi to his wife, Elsa

All letter excerpts are from the author’s personal collection.

I first encountered de Trévi when I purchased a couple of his letters at a Parisian flea market in August, 2014. The letters were correspondences between him and a woman named Elsa—who I learned through the letters was de Trévi’s wife. I was captivated by the outpourings of “my dear beloved” and “my adored love” that de Trévi showers on Elsa. He tells her how much he misses her and their young son, Billy. He writes that he hopes he will see an end to their miseries soon, that he wants only to be with his little family. “But, my beloved,” he writes in one letter, “I am obligated to stay here, obligated by necessity, by money—that accursed metal that prevents you from doing many things, and prevents me from seeing those that I love!”

Elsa and Edouard de Trevi photoElsa and Billy 

His letters offered small glimpses into the personal life of a man who, in the 1930s and early 1940s, was a pretty big deal. But aside from a couple of short biographical articles about his career and a few brief mentions in out-of-print books about the opera, I could find nothing else about de Trévi. It seemed that he was quickly disappearing from recorded history. So I kindly took it upon myself to track him down and tell his story.

At first, it was all fun and games—deciphering his handwriting, translating his letters from French to English, digging into archives to read reviews of his performances. I fancied myself a kind of private detective, and everything de Trévi wrote about the opera, the people he spent time with, the way he spent his days, even his tone and the expressions he used were clues into who he was. But de Trévi’s life still remained largely a mystery. I could find nothing about who Elsa was, why de Trévi left the opera, or even how he died. I followed every lead and hit hundreds of dead ends and gave up on the project altogether more than once. And then, after a time, I’d feel the nag of unanswered questions, and I’d return to the books, the operas, the letters, and let de Trévi lure me back into the lonely hole of biographical research.

de Trevi letter fragment_2

If you are wondering if these road blocks I’ve encountered aren’t due to my amateur status as a biographical researcher, I’ll admit I’ve wondered the same thing. So I interviewed the much more seasoned biographer, Deborah Baker, who has written three critically acclaimed biographies on vastly different subjects. Her first book In Extremis was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography about the life of the writer Laura Riding, an obscure and enigmatic poet who was one of the most influential figures in British-American literary history before she renounced poetry and spent the last fifty years of her life as a recluse in the swamps of Florida. Baker’s second book, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, traces Allen Ginsberg, a poet and leading figure of post-WWII counterculture, on his spiritual odyssey in India in the 1960s. Baker’s third book, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, was a finalist for the National Book Award and my introduction to her biographical chops.

The Convert is about the life of a woman named Maryam Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus into a secular Jewish family outside New York City in 1934. In her teenage years, she converted to Islam, and in 1962 she moved to Pakistan to actively live her faith under the guardianship of a man named Abdul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi was an influential leader in the mid-century Islamist revival and the father of its political movement. While living in Pakistan, Maryam began publishing essays on the evils of Western culture and the righteousness of Islam, and quickly became an active player in the growing divide between Islam and the West.

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Baker’s interest in Maryam, like mine, began with letters, a set of twenty-four that she found in the archives of the New York Public Library. And like me, she quickly became obsessed and spent the next several years reading and analyzing Maryam’s letters, her diaries, and her published essays to understand why she converted and how Islam served her spiritually. What Baker uncovered was a life fraught with peculiar events, strange circumstances, and ever-straining relationships with those who took Maryam in. Almost immediately after her arrival, Mawdudi began to pressure her to marry, though Maryam showed little interest in anything but her work. A year after her move, Mawdudi had her committed to an insane asylum, where she spent several months before being released into the guardianship of Mawdudi’s friend and political colleague, Mohammad Yusef Khan. Within days, Khan married Maryam without Mawdudi’s permission, and their relationship grew further strained. Eventually, Baker traveled to Pakistan to meet Maryam and discovered not the idealistic and hopeful woman of her letters, but a lonely old woman whose dreams of Islam did not seem to match her lived reality.

The book is an intersection between Maryam’s story and Baker’s tale of discovery. It weaves back and forth between Maryam’s letters and the events in her life and Baker’s research and reflections on what she has found. Reading Baker’s finished work on Maryam Jameelah was like looking at a perfect example of what I wanted my story of de Trévi to be. It combines mystery and adventure, is insightful and reflective, and follows Maryam’s life from her troubled childhood, to her awkward teenaged years, to her conversion to Islam. It details her life in Pakistan, probes into why she is committed to the insane asylum, teases out the truth about the circumstances surrounding Maryam’s marriage to Khan, all while exploring some of Baker’s own burning questions about cultural perspectives, the meaning of faith, and the seemingly irreconcilable tensions between Islam and the West.

But, misery certainly loves company, and so I was thrilled to learn that Maryam, as a research subject, was no less hell-inducing for Baker than de Trévi has been for me. In both the book and an interview I conducted with Baker about her research, I discovered just how frustrating biographical research is. It is not all fact-finding and mystery-solving. First of all, it involves a ton of tedious background research, road blocks, and dead-end leads. Second of all, you have to work for the truth. And finally, you spend years of your life researching and analyzing your subjects only to find that their lives are nonlinear, chaotic messes that you have to put into some semblance of a narrative.

Of course, if I had read the epigraph in the opening of Baker’s book, I might have avoided the frustrations altogether by never choosing to engage with de Trévi in the first place. The epigraph reads: “Whoever undertakes to write biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery….Truth is not accessible. —Sigmund Freud.” But I skipped it or at least didn’t pay much attention to what Freud had to say, and so I’ll share with you now three hard-learned insights into what makes other people so hellish to research and write about.

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1. Other people play hard to get.

One of the first things that drew me to de Trévi was his obscurity. There were a few biographical articles written about him, but they were just brief overviews of his career path and the major roles he played. The letters gave me some details of his personal life not present in the biographical articles about him, such as the name of his wife and the fact that he had a son, but there were whole pieces of his life that remained opaque, and I was excited to be the one to unearth the mysteries. But obscurity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes for a more interesting subject, but on the other hand, the lack of information is an obvious roadblock to research.

de Trevi letter fragment_5

In researching de Trévi, I was particularly interested in why his career with the opera ended in 1943. There was plenty of evidence in his letters to show that at least through 1942, he was demanding more roles and new contracts, and that he was trying to continue singing until at least as late as 1955. So had he left willingly, or was he forced out? Had his voice begun to fade, or had he gotten too expensive, or perhaps too demanding, to keep on the cast? One article said he was let go for refusing to sing in German, but I couldn’t verify this claim, and so I added this possibility to the list of questions the end of his career posed.

Unfortunately, if your subject hasn’t given you the answer himself, a simple Google search probably isn’t going to yield an answer either. Furthermore, finding the answer to a question usually doesn’t mean finding the answer directly. When I began researching de Trévi’s career, I thought that I was looking for a letter or contract or newspaper article that would tell me exactly what had happened, but of course, there was nothing of the sort. But answers are usually buried in clues, and finding them means researching around the question itself, asking new questions and speculating about possible outcomes. And this means doing an absurd amount of background research so you know what questions to ask of your question.

If this seems obvious to you, then you are probably someone who pays attention to epigraphs. I, on the other hand, as someone who likes to just dive right in, thought that because I was writing about a particular person and not a history of the French Opera, a general understanding of the culture and time would suffice. I quickly learned that without being nearly an expert on pre-WWII Paris and the French Opera—or at least consulting with one—I wouldn’t know how to put together the clues given to me in the letters.

I looked to Baker’s book to see the kind of research she had to do in order to write the story. In all, she cites forty unique sources and sixty-eight unique citations, excluding the letters themselves. But she told me in our interview that, even before she began pursuing the answers to specific questions about Maryam, she read hundreds of books on Pakistan and political Islam, India, anti-colonialism, and general history of the 40s, 50s, and 60s in the Middle East and America. She also read English translations and analyses of the Qur’an, scholarly works on Islam and the modern world from both Islamic and Western perspectives, and any available biographical information about the people Maryam knew, most extensively Mawdudi. By immersing herself in Maryam’s world and her immediate environment, Baker was better positioned to answer questions raised by Maryam’s strange life.

Deborah Baker

One of these questions that the book tries to answer is why Maryam was sent to the insane asylum. In a letter home to her parents, Maryam writes that Mawdudi sent her to the asylum for various “transgressions” she had committed against him, but she does not go into detail about the nature of those transgressions. She also expresses fear of Mawdudi’s politically driven intentions, leaving Baker to wonder about the circumstances around the incident.

One of the great things about Baker’s book is that we can actually follow her train of thought as she investigates a particular question. In order to understand why Maryam was committed, she turns first to Maryam’s character, asking herself what she already knows about Maryam: she is outspoken, idealistic, and faithful, and though she rejects the West, is still of the West. She can then ask herself what the transgressions might have been: an argument with Mawdudi about a tenet of the Qur’an? Maryam’s refusal to marry anyone Mawdudi suggested? Or could they have been related to some cultural misunderstanding on Maryam’s part? Baker also asks questions of Mawdudi’s character: What were the nature of his religious beliefs? How did he feel about Maryam? What was his involvement in politics? Each of these questions gives way to new, broader questions: How does Islam view unmarried, working women like Maryam? How does it view mental illness? What was the political atmosphere at the time?

Every avenue of research that Baker pursues requires a constant interplay between Maryam’s character, Mawdudi’s character, the events in Maryam’s life, the social and cultural factors at play, and the larger sociohistorical backdrop in which the incident took place. And every possible answer gives way to new questions, new speculations, and asks Baker to reassess what she already knows. Answering the question, then, is not always a matter of finding the answer, but of eliminating possibilities and inferring an answer based on what you know about the person, her immediate environment, and her place in history. In the end, Baker concludes that Maryam suffered from some kind of mental illness, but that she was also a victim of the cultural divide between the Middle East and the West.

Sometimes, though, even your best efforts to answer a question yield nothing but dead ends. Where this is the case, Baker suggested “hanging your hat on something else.” In other words, don’t get too attached to a particular fact you hope to uncover about your subject’s life. Rather, allow your research to make way for something else—another dramatic moment or a new revelation about your subject’s character—that will hold your story up.

I have not yet found an answer to why de Trévi left the opera, and perhaps I never will. While I thought that this would be the scandal around which the rest of my story revolved, I’ve had to let it go for now and pursue answers to other questions. But there is also space in the story for unanswered questions. Toward the end of The Convert, Baker asks: “How well did Maryam’s pronouncements on the true Islamic way of life serve her as a wife and mother? How well did her frail spirit withstand a life defined not by abstract notions but by whooping cough, typhoid, malaria? Had she achieved something noteworthy, or had she squandered her life on a dream? If the story didn’t end happily, how did it end?” (Baker, 211). She never finds answers to these questions, but by acknowledging them, she reveals something about the mystery and complexity of Maryam’s character, and of life itself.

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2. Other people are liars.

If unanswered questions and dead ends are sound reasons not to engage in biographical research, then the ability to go through their personal letters and diaries is a rather tempting reason to engage. In fact, I’ll admit, my first interest in de Trévi was born of sheer nosiness. I pored greedily through his letters hoping to find some mention of an affair or confession of a crime or exposé of a deep, dark family secret. But I soon learned that even in personal letters, people are not so forthright as you’d hope them to be. You really have to work for the gossip.

de Trevi letter fragment_3

de Trevi letter fragment_4

For example, in one letter to Elsa, de Trévi writes, “As you know, it is necessary that the affair of M.C. gets definitively settled.” In another letter, he writes, “I see more and more that nothing has been done about M.C.” But he’s never told me who M.C. is, and I’m left feeling like an outsider to an inside joke, or even worse, an outsider to what I am convinced was the juiciest secret between them.

Not only does de Trévi leave out information, but also he makes conflicting claims about his intentions and desires. Remember when he told Elsa how much he longed to be with her but had to stay in the opera for money reasons? Well, in another letter that same year, 1937, he writes to Elsa that he had a busy upcoming winter season at the opera and promised that this would be his last season, the end of their miseries. But in letters that I discovered in an archive, written around the same time by de Trévi to the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, de Trévi shows no sign of wanting to leave the opera at all. In fact, right up through the last letter of the collection dated in 1942, five years after he tells Elsa he is going to leave the opera, de Trévi demands to sing more roles, claiming that he is the Wagnerian tenor of the Paris Opera. Reading these letters, I couldn’t help but feel that de Trévi had misled Elsa and me, that in fact he never wanted to leave the opera, that he was an artist first and a father second.

Letters and other personal documents are full of missing or misinformation like this. Some amount of missing information is to be expected, of course, because like everyday conversations, the person at the receiving end of the letter already knows what is being referenced, and as a researcher, you are eavesdropping halfway through. But in many cases, the writer is intentionally vague or misleading in order to deceive the recipient, or perhaps keep a secret between them from a third, unintended reader, such as a nosy but well-intentioned researcher like myself.

Even the most intimate letters, where we hope to find honest confessions, and diaries, where we expect a writer to really open up, have an implicit audience and therefore, the writer will twist his thoughts, feelings, and accounts of events ever-so-slightly—or perhaps drastically—in the interest of presenting a positive public view of himself. The person on the page, then, is a kind of invented persona. But where the writer slips up and we can spot a misstatement or a lie, we see glimpses of the real person behind the façade.

Spotting a lie can be as simple as recognizing an inconsistency with a known fact. Maryam’s earliest letters comprise a memoir published in 1989 called Quest for the Truth: Memoirs of a Childhood and Youth in America, 1945-1962: The Story of One Western Convert. In these letters, Maryam describes being bullied at school, at summer camp, and generally feeling estranged from her own family. She details her questions about her Jewish faith and growing fascination with Arabic history and culture that gradually turns to a sympathetic understanding of them, to her parents’ disapproval. In letters written after her move to Pakistan, Maryam describes finally feeling a sense of purpose, of meaning, and of home among her Islamic brothers and sisters in Pakistan (Baker, 18). Through these personal pieces of writing, Baker sees Margaret Marcus evolve from a troubled misfit, to a soul-searching sympathizer with the Arabic plight, and finally, to Maryam Jameelah, devout Muslim and champion of Islam.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-5-20-33-pmLeft: Young Margaret Marcus, Right: Maryam Jameelah

But Maryam was also a liar. Aside from the memoir’s too-long title with one too many colons, it had a few issues. First of all, Maryam incorrectly dates one letter November 31, 1949. Secondly, she refers in the letter to a speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at Maryam’s high school the previous evening, which, Baker discovered in a newspaper article about the event, actually wasn’t delivered until the following February, 1950. It seemed that Maryam had forgotten to fact check a few things, but luckily for us, Baker hadn’t. She determines that the letters were inauthentic, that they had been fabricated as a kind of backstory by Maryam while she was living in Pakistan.

We can also spot lies by being aware of conflicting accounts and statements, either within the writer’s own writing, or between the writer’s accounts and the accounts of another person. In letters she wrote home to her parents, Maryam describes her life with Khan, “I am now home with my Khan Sahib, my co-wife Shafiqa, her children and aging mother, and many relations… After a long search, I have found my place and I will never exchange it for any other. You no longer have to worry about me. I believe I’m going to be very happy now” (Baker, 159). But this fairy-tale ending to Maryam’s strange life began to show cracks after Mawdudi’s son, Haider Farooq told a different version of the story, one that reveals Maryam to be an aggressive, mentally unstable woman who essentially tricks Khan into marrying her. Of course, Farooq might have been lying as well. But Maryam had already lost a little credibility, and even in her own writing Maryam shows a lack of interest and, in fact, an aversion to marriage. Baker wondered if this sentiment was sincere. She asks in the book, “For whose benefit…had [Maryam] narrated her happy ending?…Had she written this to allay her parents’ fears about her welfare or to establish her triumph? Was it meant as a piece of entertainment or of propaganda?” (Baker, 191).

A third way lies are revealed to us is through inconsistencies in the writing itself. When we read letters, we get accustomed to the tone, style, and ticks of the writer, and sudden changes in these established patterns can alert us to some kind of lie. In the case of the fabricated letters, Baker was further tipped off by the fact that while in her other letters, Maryam always referenced family news, these letters were missing any reference whatsoever. Baker notices a similar inconsistency in the letter in which Maryam explains that she has been sent to the insane asylum. Whereas Maryam tends to be wordy and detailed about everything else in her letters, in this instance, she is reserved, almost flippant about the incident. Baker suggests that there is something she doesn’t want to admit to her parents or even, perhaps, to herself.

What, then, do we make of all the lies? While they can be frustrating and require more outside research, they also reveal more about our subjects than the content of the letters themselves. Truth here isn’t just about the accuracy of stated events and feelings, but about the implications of the writer’s lies and secrets. What motivates them to keep secrets, to misstate things, to invent other selves? How do they view themselves? What agendas, desires, denials are revealed about the subject through their lies? In considering Maryam’s fabricated letters, Baker writes:

Maryam had composed these letters as missives to posterity, a Cinderella backstory plotted to foreshadow how her embrace of Islam had rescued her from America. The evils of Western civilization amounted to no more than a stage drop for her private travails. It was as if [Margaret] never ceased mining the material of her own life to establish certain proof that Islam was the answer to all the riddles it posed. (Baker, 208)

Baker doesn’t believe that Maryam necessarily made up the stories about her childhood, though she does disregard their content. But the fabrication of letters reveals something deeper about Maryam: her desperate desire to prove that Islam had been the solution to all of her problems and, more generally, the problems with Western culture. Furthermore, the positive spin Maryam places on her life in Pakistan tells a much bleaker story than if she had admitted that things weren’t going so well right up front and begs the question to what extent she wanted to believe, or did believe, her version of the story.

With personal documents, we are not dealing with facts, but rather secrets, personas, and lies, and it is up to us to interpret them, distinguish fact from fiction, and determine what the lies are saying about our subject. The real truth about our subjects often lies not in what is credible, but in what is false. Where the views diverge from reality or statements differ from facts, we see our subject ripped wide open, their imaginations revealed, and their deepest desires exposed.

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3. Other people’s lives are messy.

When I started researching de Trévi, I was under the delusion that with enough persistence, I could uncover his entire story from birth to death, unearth all of his secrets, and discover some universal truth about opera singers or history or life. For nearly two years now, I’ve pursued every lead, followed every avenue of research, and unearthed a smorgasbord of facts and details and speculations about de Trévi. It is easy to get caught up in secrets and lies, and tempting to continue the research until we’ve answered every question. But sooner or later, we have to stop researching and start telling the story.

de Trevi portrait and signatureJosé de Trévi: photo and signature

Lives do not unfold in a narrative fashion like we’d hope, and as researchers, it is up to us to make sense of what we have, to connect the dots and create some order out of all the chaos. So after we’ve uncovered everything we can about our subject, what do we actually have? First of all, we have a general chronology of the events in the subject’s life, a list of events pulled from letters and interviews and historical accounts of the person. De Trévi’s major life events included his first performance with the French Opera, his marriage, the birth of his son, and the end of his opera career. From such details as this, we can identify particular dramatic moments, conflicts, and places that we can turn into scenes and settings. With some imagination, for example, I can write the scene where he first steps onto the stage or a scene in which he pens a letter to Elsa from his room at the Hotel d’Iéna. We also have a general historical chronology in which these events took place, in this case, just before and during WWII in Paris. We can see where the events in the person’s life might have intersected with larger events. For example, in German-occupied Paris in the early 1940s, the German soldiers made up the majority of theater audiences throughout Paris, and de Trévi would likely have sung for them on many occasions. These historical events give us a more believable and interesting backdrop and shed light on the lives of our biographical subjects. Finally, we have a sense of character, inferred from both the truths and the lies we discover in their writing, from what others have said about them, and from placing them in their sociohistorical surroundings. Sounds like all the makings of a pretty compelling narrative, if you ask me.

How then do we create order out of the chaos? Baker suggested defining the scope of the narrative. A biography does not need to give equal weight to, or even to include, every moment of a subject’s life. Defining the scope means, first of all, determining the chronological boundaries of the narrative. This is determined by both what information is available to us, as well as where we think the most interesting and dramatic moments are. In Baker’s book, for example, she focuses Maryam’s story primarily on the part of her life covered by the letters, from her decision to move to Pakistan, to her arrival, to the insane asylum and finally, to her marriage to Khan. She does some backstory about Maryam’s childhood, but covers her entire adult life in Pakistan after her marriage, including her life as a mother, in less than a chapter of the book.

Defining the scope also means determining the larger focus of the story itself. What themes can we tease out of our subject’s life, and what larger questions does their life answer? Baker asked me to consider my own story about de Trévi. Is it a love story? A war story? A 1930s Paris story? These things are not mutually exclusive, but defining the scope of the narrative can help us see connections between events in the subject’s life, and between the subject’s life and historical events, and we can ask how this particular life reflects life in a wider sense and what questions it answers for us. In The Convert, Baker asks What is the nature of the divide between Islam and the West? Maryam’s story, then, encompasses the larger cultural, historical, and metaphysical issues raised by this question. But by encompassing certain themes, we necessarily exclude other themes and issues, which helps to focus and direct the story and the research.

Creating order is also a matter of structure. Though we are attempting to recreate a life, we do not need to put that life into chronological order. The Convert is structured, not according to the unfolding of events in Maryam’s life, but rather according to Baker’s gradual discovery of Maryam’s life. The book begins with what is arguably the most pivotal moment in Maryam’s life, her move to Pakistan, and then follows Baker’s line of questioning as she investigates Maryam’s life and tries to answer the root of the disconnect between Islam and the West. The story jumps back and forth through time, as each question that arises for Baker necessitates new investigations into Maryam’s past and inspires new reflection in Baker’s present. This structure in turn teases out the peculiarity of certain events, heightens the mystery, and allows the questions themselves to create tension and drama within a larger story.

Finally, creating order is a matter of self-reflection, about answering why we chose this particular subject in the first place. For Baker, Maryam Jameelah’s search for faith and truth mirror her own and help her confront her own biases and assumptions about the world in which she lives. At first, I didn’t think my de Trévi project was anything more than a completely selfless attempt to recreate another person’s life. But one residency, when I was excitedly telling a faculty member about the letters I’d found and my research of de Trévi, she stopped me mid-gush and said, “You love him, don’t you?” The question took me by surprise, but she was absolutely right. As much as I hate de Trévi for coming into my life and sending me on an endless goose chase to discover his, I love him, because he tells me something about myself and about the fragility and purpose of human life. De Trévi ends one of his letters, “Goodbye my dear, adored Elsa. You are my whole life and my reason for being on this earth.” In some ways, I think that de Trévi has become my reason for being, or in the very least, my reason for writing. At some point, the biography itself turns back on the biographer, and understanding what our subjects say about us can help us understand what we are trying to say about our subjects.

So researching and writing biography isn’t all bad. Despite the frustrations, the road blocks, the chaos, in the end, it is an act of self-discovery, of love, and a little bit of narcissism. It is also an act of creation. If Hell is (researching) other people, then Paradise is bringing them back to life, and it stands to reason that as researchers and writers, we are gods: we listen to their lies, clean up their messes, and try to make something beautiful out of them.

Works Cited

Baker, Deborah. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. Graywolf Press: New York, 2011. Print.

De Trévi, José. Letters to Elisabeth de Trévi. Trans. Mary Heitkamp. Personal Collection.

—Mary Brindley

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mary-brindley

Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born, Boston-based copywriter currently living in London. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction and is excited to make her publishing debut on Numéro Cinq.

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Nov 012016
 

torino2-018-beterAn Apology for Meaning, Artist’s Book, Genese  Grill

 http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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My real delight is in the fruit, in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons grow. —Goethe, Italian Journey

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.  —Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

 

In Torino, Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis, goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas, the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming, Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing of life, love, pleasure, and appetite. At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert, if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material world which surrounds us.

isis-and-osirisPage from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Meaning is not something that we need to artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence. We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of temperatures. And if all else fails, this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them. And what resonates will be made manifest in real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today: humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real. Instead, we work with what there is, and endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that we make with our hands, out of paper, pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly forgotten. And yet, their fleeting presence is of the utmost importance.

I am sitting on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor; clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese, sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to be like this here and some other way somewhere else?

As Goethe noted in his famous Italian Journey, an experience of difference both enunciates one’s individuated self and dissolves it. Visiting another world, you imagine that you might have been, could have been, still might be, sort of someone else, leading a different life in a different country, in a different language, with a different family, lover, children, vocation. Your certainties, the things you took for granted, are called into question. You would be more comfortable not examining them, not questioning: why do you and your fellows do what you do? Are these differences a result of customs, habits, social constructions, error, accident, nature? Are they the result of our upbringing, something atavistic in our blood, or determined by the atmosphere, the landscape, or the history that surrounds us? The external differences—are they petty? Do they alter from the outside who we are inside? Or are they representative of who we are, from the inside out? Ask a novelist or a method actor how much each gesture, each phrase, each seemingly minor choice reveals about identity. The way we eat, how much beauty we need, or how much labor, leisure, love, rigor, sleep, poetry, space, air, skyline, horizon, practicality, recklessness.

And now I am experiencing the differences, the strangeness here in Torino, among people for whom all of this is natural, normal. I enjoy this sense of difference, to a point, as most of us do. We seek it out, we are sometimes sick to death of our own lives and want to gaze at, play at others’ lives; but only for a spell. It can be tiring; one feels alien; sometimes wants to cry out of frustration because everything is so confusing and the simplest things seem impossible; and the people look at you like you are an idiot and you are in a way. You are an adult who does not know things that a child knows.

I get lost often. Sometimes a piazza will have four different entryways with a statue in the middle. Who can remember which way one entered or egressed from? Since I am not usually in a hurry, I wonder why this should matter to me. Maybe because we want always to seem like we know where we are going and as if we already have everything we want. And this has something to do with desire and the desire for love, which is sometimes shameful. As a stranger one wants something. Is looking for something. Has left home to find something that one does not already have. Desire is the need to become one with what is foreign, to take it into oneself and to be embraced by it as well. As Ann Carson tells us in Eros the Bittersweet, we long to be one with the other, but when we have assimilated what was once strange, it is no longer the other and no longer serves its purpose. Knowledge comes only at the cost of desire fulfilled; we can only seek out more and more things, people, places, books, mysteries we do not yet know, have not yet seen or solved or read so that we may experience that supreme thrill of coming to know again and again. We crave difference, but we also cannot keep from looking for likenesses. We seek both everywhere. And the new experiences we have are continually threaded back into what we already know.

NietzscheNietzsche ca. 1875

In the Egizio Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had the same instinct for symmetry as ours; for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame; for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space; for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonates with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them. Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more thorough comprehension of these artifacts, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension. What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total homogeneity.

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand. A good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another, struggling to approximate a shared vision (as in the erotic desire to become one with the unknown). Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and also to conceal our meanings from each other. It is a dance. Sometimes clumsy, but sometimes surprisingly beautiful. The differences between language, as Steiner suggests, may be a result of a human need to differentiate one group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality. There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses; and to delineate differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, there are those who insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond external, physical differences). On the other hand, these same people tend to insist that it is impossible to understand the other; that there are no universals; that there is no shared sense of value; and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other at all, since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be more deceptive than descriptive. Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the importance of the physical world; on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it; between the human brain and its sensory apparatus; and, finally, between one human brain and another. In reality, things and people are self-similar and they deviate from sameness; but even the deviations do not prohibit some approximation of understanding.

Those who deny difference and simultaneously insist on incommensurability are trying to do two contradictory things at once: 1. to strip away differences that might cause conflict or justify hierarchies or discriminations, resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity, and, 2. still paradoxically denying that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, difference) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no more resentment or hate against the “other”—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness. On the one hand, we are ignoring the inevitable consequences of our neutralizations, neglecting to weigh how much difference makes life rich and strange and fascinating. And, on the other hand, by critiquing conceptualization, deconstructing symbolic archetypes, and undermining the significance of language, we are denying the natural affirmative instinct for finding likenesses and correspondences.

On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not “really” present may be called “pareidolia,” most often ridiculed as a psychosis that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods, endeavoring to prove through argument and scientific study that the piece of fabric housed in a crypt in Torino once was wrapped around no one other than Jesus Christ. The Shroud Museum has rooms filled with “evidence” of why we should believe the shroud belonged to Him: there are blood stains from where the crown of thorns would have been; stains in the shape of wounds suffered when he was tortured, an exemplar of the instrument with which he would have been scourged. The fact that there is just one wound mark where his feet would have been is explained by arguing that both feet were punctured, one atop the other, with but one nail. There is no mention in the museum of the carbon dating done on the fabric, which dated it to a time much later than Jesus’s supposed death; but there is an example of the loom upon which the cloth might have been woven and an example of a crown of thorns, which is arched like a dome and not open like a wreath. Image after image is presented to convince the skeptic that the shroud belonged to Jesus. At first it is hard to even see the shapes that would suggest any face or any body, but, as if one were gazing at one of those magical illusion pictures, if one looks long enough, the desired shapes begin to come into focus—and fade just as quickly into indistinguishable marks again. Desired shapes: the shapes one wants to see.

torino4-019Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Fresh lovers often insist that they are “exactly alike,” noting that they both amazingly like chocolate or were born on a Friday as signs that they are made for each other. And even someone as wise and experienced as myself may choose to be deluded into reading into signs that may not be there at all, thinking that the intern at the artists’ residency is making eyes at me, when really he probably just looks at everyone like that. He had told me tales of rituals in his home town where someone would dress up as Dionysus in animal skins and horns, a bag of blood hidden under the pelts, and someone else would chase after him and “kill” him, spilling blood all over the streets. But what did that mean?

Of course, all of our seeing is a process of selecting out that to some extent overlooks the fact that reality is a mass of non-delineated color and light, a mass of shifting molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and entities. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who belongs with whom are comprehensive contextualizations or merely constructed biases, wishful thinking, or limitations. We can say the same thing about words and the concepts that they form—that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality, that they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names—qualities that might render these things more fitting to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept a form of psychosis, hallucination, wishful thinking, pareidolia?

When we note a pattern, say, of bird or insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the desired arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to conclude that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it? Of course, this is essentially the scientific method, but we use it indiscriminately every day, without the necessary “controls” to make our experiments scientifically viable. And science itself is subject to the same kind of criticism: even if its trials are well-documented and avail themselves of responsible criteria for investigation, the scientists have, as we well know, already decided to ask some questions over others, thereby determining what kinds of answers might be found.

But here is the crux: we do all this because we want, we need to draw meaning. And we draw meaning most readily from things that repeat or seem to repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exceptional random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that (at least on a molecular level) everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation. Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize (or is it imagine) shapes, distances, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces responded to expressions, inducing them to smile, and make eye contact, so that they were cared for, and thus survived. This is rather suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning-making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would simply not survive as either individuals or cultures. Autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival. And many say that we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it may sometimes be inaccurate, although it may sometimes look like psychosis or pareidolia, it is far better to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (always acknowledging that they can change and rearrange) than to exist always in an undifferentiated sea of colors, sounds, and non-shapes, unable to communicate.

But after visiting the Shroud Museum in Torino (the actual cloth is carefully hidden inside its box, only to be taken out on rare jubilee days), I do not believe that the shroud of Turin belonged to Jesus. The form of the body suggested by it is simply not sinuous and beautiful enough to satisfy our mythic desire for him. The image that the experts draw from the bloodstains is of a bulky square-shouldered man, not at all the sweet beloved of the visionary mystics as depicted in paintings over centuries. Just as the scientists who discovered the shape of the DNA molecule knew that they had finally found it because the double helix was the most beautiful configuration, so we can see that the shroud did not belong to the son of God because of the gracelessness of its traces.

256px-full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_turinFull length negatives of the Shroud of Turin

There has to be a difference. Difference is thrilling, is frisson, is friction. If there were no difference, no distinction, no discrimination, no delineation, we would see nothing. Everything would be one blended morass, one moving, shifting mélange of everythingness. No shadows, no lights, no textures, no patterns or deviations. So we like to go away, discover new things, challenge ourselves, compare and contrast the familiar against the strange in order to understand, again, our expanded selves. And yet we find ourselves in a constant emotional oscillation, a cycle swinging between comfort, tedium, restlessness, curiosity, desire, risk-taking, danger, exposure, discomfort, exhaustion, home-sickness, comfort, tedium…ad infinitum.

Thus we come to the necessity of maintaining some borders at a basic level, personally, and then globally. We need secrets, mysteries in order to remain where we are, among our fellows in our homes, in our romantic relationships; or else it is as if we were running rampant around the neighborhood, around the world, continually searching for newness, making so many things the same as we unite with them, making everything homogeneous and known all too quickly. A promiscuous lover is someone who has not learned how to mine the depths of himself and his beloved; is quickly bored; doesn’t have enough inner resources to discern the depths hidden in his lover; thus he moves on quickly in order to stimulate his poor imagination. Curiosity, desire, conquest of new ideas and intellectual territory, all have their value: but they should not be gluttonous. If we are to feast, let us leave time for regeneration of resources; let us make sure we properly savor what we are sacrificing and devouring. The communion of the self with the other cannot be celebrated so swiftly that all differences are leveled out, sanded away, consumed by the Moloch of desire for newness. This touches on the problem and pleasure of materiality. The basic limitation of resources; that they are not infinite. You can melt down idols to make new ones, but then the old idols no longer exist. How can we contrive to keep the old ones and erect new ones, too? Of love we can barely speak in this regard: the old lovers are replaced by new ones, yet they remain, one hopes, still within us, and we within them, in traces, some very potent, as we continue to consume and appropriate and expand, becoming new ourselves and shedding strangeness as we go, exploring our anti-selves, the characteristics we harbor that are anathema to our primary identities and the identities of our native lands and cultures.

After writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, and serving many years as advisor to the Duke of Weimar, Carl August, Goethe “stole” away at three in the morning, from his friends, his duties, and his romantic (but non-sensuous) relationship with Charlotte von Stein, to sojourn in Italy for two years. There he found himself in contrast to the differences he experienced, searched out the ancient remains of classical Rome, learned about architecture at the foot of buildings designed by Palladio, learned to see by looking at Italian paintings, developed his concept of the universal Ur-Pflanze from which all plants metamorphose (Alles ist Blatt), and enjoyed, above all, the weather and the fruit. His wonderful account of his adventures includes detailed descriptions of the geology, flora, and fauna of the countries he passed through), along with evaluations of artifacts, architecture, painting, and peoples (he burdened down his pack with rock specimens as well as heavy books). Referring to the Greek god, who could not be conquered in wrestling matches as long as he remained in contact with his mother, Gaia, Goethe writes, “I see myself as Antaeus, who always feels newly strengthened, the more forcefully he is brough into contact with his mother, the earth”.

The Germans have always harbored a romantic longing for the physicality of Italy, “the land where the lemons bloom,” as Goethe writes, as mythic antithesis of everything Germanic (stoical, cold, disciplined, abstract). Nietzsche sojourned to Torino, a Dionysus on the River Po, in conscious ex-patriot spirit. What meanings did he find there, that philosopher with a hammer who famously denied the existence of “Das Ding an sich,” and called on us to bravely consider the abysmal probability that there is no meaning or purpose to life whatsoever? He certainly meant that there was no predetermined meaning or God-given purpose, no purpose ordained by a God. But he did not mean to repudiate the ways in which the world can be meaningful (affirmed, celebrated, enjoyed). For his rejection of the “thing in itself” was decidedly not a transcendental call to celebrate merely the disembodied life of the alienated mind out of touch with the physical world (a thing in itself, surely, despite Berkeley’s skepticism, and despite the inability to know it absolutely or objectively beyond phenomena). Here in Torino, this city so beloved by Nietzsche, while I am struggling with the question of meaning, I feel compelled to come to terms with him on this question. We are in agreement on the central importance of the material sensuous goodness of the world and on a deep suspicion of any ideologies which aim to affirm something in contradiction to the facts of this real.

goethe_stieler_1828Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.  (Public domain)

Ecce Homo, which he wrote while in this city, begins with a serious discussion of the vital importance of digestion, weather, and music, all experienced by Nietzsche (and clearly by Goethe as well) as fundamental physical requirements for living the right life. The theological-metaphysical questions are deemed unimportant at best, treacherous deviations at worst.   Thoreau, whose first chapter in Walden is called “Economy,” planted beanstalks as the most efficacious conduits to a realm where one might best consider “higher laws”. It makes one wonder what would have happened to Thoreau had he visited Italy (he traveled a great deal, he noted, in Concord). Would he have abandoned his dietary restrictions against drinking coffee? Might he have succumbed to the animal spirits and fallen in love? Margaret Fuller, who translated that comprehensive man of spirit and sense, Goethe, complained about the disembodied tendency of her friend Emerson (and Thoreau was even less sensual than his mentor), did travel to Italy and fall in love, gave birth to a probably illegitimate child, and participated in the Italian revolution. If she had not tragically drowned on her return home, she might have infected all of Concord with a new European sensuality! Just imagine. Nietzsche, who admired Emerson greatly, who was just about as abstemious and celibate as Thoreau, still knew how to reason from the hands to the head, as the bard of Concord counseled—and from the stomach too, though, it would have to be a strong one.

Love of Fate meant for Nietzsche a love of life exactly as it is, which seems to suggest a belief in a thing in itself after all…the world in itself, as it is—mediated by our senses, our tastes, our interests, our desires, yes, but not subject to utter transformation of its basic realities: mortality, gravity, pain, beauty, brilliance, energy, stupidity, music, pleasure, illness, cold, sunshine. Darwin explained all of this in his own way. We don’t live in a friendly universe. The world cares not a fig for our personal happiness, though our genes may well fight mightily for their own generation. And the connection to Spinoza, greatly admired by Nietzsche, may be helpful: the world was not made for us humans, and thus should not be judged according to how well it does or does not serve our aims and desires. The world is good in itself. Is god, is divine in itself, whether we are experiencing petty miseries or committing atrocities. The world is beautiful, even without the concept of beauty invented by humans. We are to look at the world from the “perspective of eternity,” which is not a transcendental perspective, but, rather, one which provides an angle beyond our own particular immediate interests. Objectivity? Well, not quite. With Nietzsche we can speak of a perspective from the mountain top, as far away from the flatland as possible, but with a knowledge of the subjective world of taste and senses. Nietzsche writes, in The Twilight of the Idols, “One would have to be situated outside life, and on the other hand to know it as thoroughly as any, as many, as all who have experienced it, to be permitted to touch on the problem of the value of life.” For, if our reflections seem all-too mercurial, shifting, and arbitrary from the perspective of eternity, closer up they are instinctive and healthy tastes, responses to and engagement with the world.

As subjects, creative subjects, we make of this world as it is what we can. We cannot help but make meanings about it. But let these meanings be in metaphoric harmony with the real facts of nature. Let us make and preserve myths which help us to understand, to celebrate and to weep over the true facts of human existence, and its true pleasures and pains. Gilgamesh is struggling with the death of his friend. He searches for a way to be immortal, to conquer death. But when he thinks he has found it, a snake eats the magic herb he has foolishly left on the shore while he swims. Thus, although humans must be mortal, a snake can continually shed its skin. A true myth. The kind of fiction that Nietzsche railed against was of another kind: a false fiction, one that repressed the reality of death, repressed natural instinct and pleasure, repressed sexuality and the will to power, repressed beauty and energies and great health and desire in the interest of a transcendental Idealism offering an afterlife, and some sense of pious righteousness in exchange for all that made life meaningful. The myth of Christianity he would battle with the myth of the beautiful drunken god: Dionysus versus the Crucified One. Thus, he aimed, not to do away with all myths (that, in fact, was Socrates’s great sin, according to Nietzsche), but to celebrate the myths that are in accord with the true facts of life. Steiner quotes a cryptic passage from Nietzsche’s notebooks: “God Affirms; Job Affirms.” And glosses that Nietzsche was referring to his idea of the aesthetic justification of the world. The world of wonder and beauty. Look at what I made, says God to Job. I made the Leviathan. I am an artist. Don’t talk to me about your petty troubles.

And here in Torino, Nietzsche, enjoying a rare respite from his chronic pain, in withdrawal from Wagner, the Wagnerites, the Germans and their obtuse Idealism and Morality, enjoyed the sunshine and the air and the food and the gelato (but not the wine); enjoyed the graciousness of the people; and the lightness of Carmen (Torino was “tutti Carmenizzatto”). The world that Nietzsche celebrated was not so much a world of the future, a world of future higher men, but a revival of Renaissance and Pagan values. Not at all the postmodern insipid relativity of values with its snide rejection of beauty, nobility, genius, aristocratic individualism.

512px-friedrichnietzscheturinNietzsche dedicatory plague in Turin

Meaning has been attacked from two sides: on the one hand by the commercialization and commodification of life, by the simulacrum covering up an abyss of shallowness and the emptiness that is left over after the orgy of sensationalism, as humans become more and more bereft of any real connection to nature, human relationships, history, culture, beauty, pleasure, divinity, sacredness. On the other hand, it has been attacked by the cold lizards of theory, who feel nothing themselves but only touch us with their clammy hands so that we too feel a chill and cannot sense the heat in what naturally should move us. These theorists even dare to claim Nietzsche as their own. Because he questioned the idea of a transcendent meaning, aiming with his iconoclastic hammer at the ideology that denied the real meanings of the world, they use his words as an attack on meaning altogether. Because he called for a transvaluation of values, they use his words as an attack on values altogether, missing his joyous celebration of the values of nobility, of the Renaissance, of ancient Greece, of great art and great men, of genius and beauty and rapture. Indeed, he had a hammer (though sometimes it was a tuning hammer for a piano, not a bludgeon), and there was smashing to be done. He was a great destroyer, who called himself “Dynamite.” But he destroyed only as a preliminary to creation. The epigones took up his hammer and began smashing even the idols Nietzsche himself had venerated. They smashed veneration altogether. And in their adolescent giddiness, in the din of their mob fury against what was once great, in their ressentiment, they did not hear the most important part of his message: the axes must be turned into chisels, to carve new idols, new values, new words, new forms, new metaphors, ones that honor what is vivid and beautiful in life, ones that affirm the instincts and the senses.

In a museum in Torino I saw a painting of Santa Lucia, her bloody eyes on a plate. She was a good pious girl, promised in marriage to a pagan, whose mother was ill. She was called by an angel to devote herself to Christ instead of the Pagan fiancé, and in exchange, her mother would be cured. She willingly did so, refusing to bow down to the Emperor, and giving her dowry to the Church instead of her future husband. For this, some say, her eyes were gouged out. Or else she cut them out herself so as not to be attractive to her husband-to-be. She is lovely and fierce in the paintings, and probably the man they had chosen for her was a brute and not to her taste; and her devotion to Christ healed her mother; but can we not think of a better story for her? Is this really a model worthy of imitatio? So many of these maiden saints, who refused arranged marriages and gave themselves to the disembodied fantasy of the beautiful, scantily-clad Christ instead, were exercising the only power they had, and for this they are admirable. They found, by these religious subterfuges, one way of protecting themselves from drunken brutish masters in the form of husbands, pimps, and fathers. But their virginity was no great prize. Can we not imagine stories for them with better endings? Lovers to their tastes, freedom to choose, to adventure beyond the convent or house-wifely walls? Instead of continuing to venerate the lives of these pious girls, we would do well to imagine new vitae for them, lives lived in rebellion, not against Pagan Emperors and sexuality, but against the control of their bodies and souls by male authority figures, lives lived in full flowering of their sexuality and pleasure-loving instincts, in celebration of female desire. We must make new saints, and also revive old models worthy of veneration from the archives of history, woman and girls who knew light and dark, pleasure and pain, flesh, the devil, and the divine sweetness of the embrace of a beautiful, living beloved body. Poor Santa Lucia. We pity her and regret the loss of her beautiful eyes. And then, in her honor, we go looking for traces of other myths or at least a few fallen figs from some controversial historic feasts, to savor from the safe distance of a relatively tame and unromantic time.

512px-santaluciaPainting of Santa Lucia, Syracuse Italy

I am on my way to Gardone Riviera, on a pilgrimage to visit Il Vittoriale, the monumental house, shrine, and garden of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian novelist, poet, patriot, lover, and aesthete. When I mention him to people here they sometimes seem uncomfortable; because he was wild enough to disregard the Treaty of Versailles and take over the island of Fiume to turn it into an artistic utopia; because of his relationship with Mussolini; because he represents or seems to represent many things that are nowadays in bad odor. To get there I have to take a train to Milan and one to Brescia and then a long bus ride.

It is a misty, cool, warm morning in February, and confusions proliferate: about trains, ticket machines, banks, language, customs. They seem to do everything differently here, but for them that is how it is done. Then I realize that even in my own milieu I am strange. That I am strange, wherever I go. An artist is outside of society, but also very inside it. Inside of life. Observing, but also feeling through and for everyone and everything. After writing that down I wonder if it is arrogant, as if I were suggesting that regular people don’t feel, are not conscious. No, it is not that, but rather that their attention is mostly elsewhere, and ours is so often concentrated on reflection, on the symbolization of everything. Watching gestures and configurations, listening to emphases and choices of words, noticing formal variations and repetitions. As Suzanne Langer notes, to use symbols (rather than just signs) is to talk about the world, not just to denote it, not just to deliver information, but to consider how things are, and even why. And as artists, our lives are consumed by symbols and symbolic interpretations. The entire phenomenal world is to us a sort of symbol-picture of something else. No, not of another world, as Plato would have it; not a bad copy of some perfect original, but actually a symbol-complex of itself.

The phenomenal nature of the physical world means to us. But we don’t make of it what isn’t there, but see in it all that there is to be seen in it. Well, not everything at once—that would be too much, that would be a jumble. But we see many things, one after the other, from different perspectives, in correspondence; we have many ways of seeing meaning in what is. We are curious about how things are made; where they came from; how they were invented; what human need they answered; what history they contain; what natural materials; what natural miracles are evident in their existence; what they tell us about human and animal life, past and present, about desires, fears, curiosities, mistakes, kindnesses and cruelties, despairs and foolish hopes. Thoreau, allegedly an arch anti-materialist, collected and used objects to trace history… as artifacts of material culture, looking, always, for the law and the deviation. Goethe, a naturalist and collector of botanical, geological, and artistic specimens, traced the variety of the plant world back to one original Ur-Pflanze, and then envisioned the entire world of objects and behavior as an allegory for this constant development, this constant Becoming (Werden), from out of the essence of Being (Sein).

All artists mine objects, physical acts, stories, events, speech utterances, places, buildings, man-made and natural, for their significance, for traces of how and what we have dreamt of and done battle for; for their own qualities and also for the way in which they are allegories for other things, feelings, events, experiences; for the way they seem to echo and repeat. When we see repeating patterns we naturally sometimes think we have learned something about life, some tendencies or natural laws…and, despite the doubts shed upon such instinctive correspondence nowadays, often it is true. But it would be foolish to take only one or two experiences and construct a final story about life. The largest, broadest vision would be necessary to oversee all the conflicting narratives before coming to any conclusions. Life is brutal, life is tender. Humans are brave, are craven; are polygamous, monogamous; people of habit, craving change; we like to deviate and to stay close. So, whenever we try to maintain just one thing we discover another side or possibility, but not to the extent that everything cancels everything else out. We may still come to provisional conclusions about the nature of the world, society, our lives, about what works and what does not; in fact we must. But let these not be rigid or polarized, let us not base hasty conclusions solely on either the sum of the good or the sum of the bad experiences. A little hope is healthy, as is a touch of denial, since sometimes things turn out better than one expects, even in the worst of circumstances. As much horror as there is, there is also always good. Neither can be cancelled out by the other. We must see it all. Read it all into what we find before us. Find a way to embrace it all. Amor fati—Love of fate.

I arrived at Gardone Riviera too late in the afternoon for a tour of the house, so began my visit to D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale degli Italiani with a sunset stroll around the “most beautiful garden in Italy”. From my Neo-Classical hotel, with its palm trees, classical columns, and reproductions of Roman sculptures, I walked up the steep winding paths and stairways to the grounds, past little houses perched amid orange trees and covered in vines, until I found the gate and entered D’Annunzio’s strange dream: grottos with idols; walkways beneath portentous archways; a sudden St. Francis of Assisi; a fountain encircled with gorgon heads; a lofty monument to the heroes of Fiume; a giant boat docked on land; columns topped with statuesque nudes. A sign before a sun-dappled little garden made up of rocks, small columns and upright missiles, informs the visitor that this is the most sacred spot of all. The “little lake for dancing” is at the bottom of a steep ravine, reached only by winding down hundreds of small stone steps. The large amphitheater is encircled from behind by tall cedars and the snow-capped Alps, and its stage has a gleaming Lake Garda as its backdrop. I imagined Isadora Duncan, one of D’Annunzio’s many lovers, walking there—as if on the water—in consummate Classical grace.

torino2-015Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

That night I wandered around the out-of-season resort town, looking for somewhere to dine, lighting upon Caffe D’Annunzio itself, one of the only places opened, where three or four locals were crowded around a counter drinking wine. I nursed a negroni on the closed-down patio while wondering what Il Vittoriale means. Why, I wondered, should it make us uncomfortable? D’Annunzio had a sense of the heroic about him that is out of fashion today. A sense of superiority and sacredness, a will to power, a contempt for lowliness, sickliness, vulgarity, cowardice. People may mock D’ Annunzio’s mythologizing, moralistically decrying his frequent bad behavior, I think—or perhaps this is the gin and the absence of a restaurant—, but at least his impulses were signs of life, of appetite. D’Annunzio might well be censured or ridiculed for his celebration of militarism and his association with Mussolini , for his many lovers (whom he adored, but also treated atrociously), for his many dogs and his race cars, for the consciously elaborated mythology of himself as a demi-God, for a combination of wounded pride and delusions of grandeur—except that he was a great writer, and his grand lifestyle enriches our collective imagination.

 

nunes_vais_mario_1856-1932_-_gabriele_dannunzio_sdraiato_mentre_leggeGabriele D’Annunzio Reading by Mario Nunes Vais (1856-1932)

Compared to the lukewarm morality of today, our smug conformity and communal piety, D’ Annunzio’s mythic theatricality exercises a certain attraction. Considering all of this, I found myself laughing out loud at the mad, mad world, strolling on the closed-down boardwalk. I was dwarfed by a 19th century edifice, crowned with a bright yellow Renaissance-style tower with the words GRAND HOTEL emblazoned in golden-tinted mosaic. It was a huge sprawling place where Churchill and Mussolini, and many other mortally-flawed heroes and villains stayed. Like most everything else here, the historic hotel was boarded up until May, and the boardwalk was surreal, empty, but for a lone palm tree swaying on the promenade. In my drunkenness, with the help of a kind stranger, I managed to work the cigarette machine I found on the way back to my hotel, and smoked a rare cigarette—which, in its rareness, got me even higher—and wondered about the difference between aesthetic individualism and fascism. The cigarette, in its naughtiness, helping me to flirt with the decadent charms of immorality.

Aesthetic individualism is associated with culture, beauty, delicate sensibilities, the collection and preservation of fragile artifacts, and an internationalism that revels in the multiplicity of the creative imagination; fascism is nationalistic, collectivist, brutally destructive, anti-intellectual, a danger not only to human beings and their ethical freedom, but also to the beloved precious buildings, artistic and historical artifacts so admired by the aesthetic individualist. So why would they ever, why do they sometimes keep common cause? In the case of D’Annunzio, we have a man of letters whose only real political affiliation was with the Party of Beauty, but who in fact did collaborate with a man who would subsequently become a fascist dictator. But even before Mussolini came to be Il Duce and to be called by D’Annunzio “an evil clown,” their relationship was strained. They came together at the start of World War I, over a shared vision of a new Roman Empire, a romantic ideal that called for the re-annexation of Trieste, Fiume, and other territories that had once belonged to Italy and which, they both agreed, should once again be theirs. D’Annunzio roused his countrymen to enter the War and to defend the French culture under siege, with speeches and street theater, and fought on the front lines. But after the Treaty of Versailles failed to reward the Italians for their sacrifices in the war, he took history into his own hands, and, with a ragtag militia, easily took Fiume back for the Italians, to the cheers of the mostly Italian populace, and tried to found an artistic utopia with a democratic constitution there. Mussolini kept himself scarce and watched from afar as the dream foundered over the course of a little more than a year, only later to seize Fiume from the Austrians himself, this time, much to D’Annunzio’s displeasure, to make it part of a fascist state. The fascists were frequently embarrassed by D’Annunzio’s eccentric sybaritic antics, his poetry and his displays of what they considered “feminine” voluptuousness; his nude sunbathing and worship of art. His association with workers’ collectives agitating for unions and civil rights also complicated matters. When D’Annunzio was not being swayed by the democratic socialists, or being lured into shady dealings by the fascists, he was doing whatever he fancied, collaborating with composers on operas, writing plays for his lovers, writing sumptuous novels and books of poems about his lovers, spending money he did not have on beautiful books and objet d’art, and making love. He felt that Mussolini had abandoned him at Fiume and that he did not give him the credit he deserved for bringing Italy into World War I; but Mussolini the dictator saw to it that a national edition of D’Annunzio’s complete works was published and that the extensive quixotic renovations of Il Vittoriale be funded in part by the Italian government. D’ Annunzio, in turn, dedicated his house and grounds to the Italian people as a monument to the soldiers who dared to take Fiume with him. It was also a retreat. Although he had dabbled sensationally in politics and war, he was, by nature, an aesthete who enjoyed comfort and sensuality. Luxury, he wrote, was as essential to him as breathing. He liked to sit at the feet of lovely women, and shower them with flowers, leaf through ancient leather-bound books and recite poetry in the dark. Over the course of a five year period, he once wrote over 1000 letters to one woman alone. They don’t make men like D’Annunzio anymore. In the mostly empty dining room of my hotel, there were none to be seen, so I gave myself to a large piece of black forest cake with whipped cream, and the conversation of the owner and his friends, who tried to get me to drink more and more champagne and spoke to me in a mixture of broken English and mostly incomprehensible Italian. Somehow I stumbled upstairs alone, somewhat nauseous, and had a nightmare about D’Annunzio. Or was it a dream?

The following day I made it into the sanctum sanctorum, D’Annunzio’s house. In the entryway to what he called “the Priory” stands a column to divide the guests into welcome and unwelcome. The many creditors would have to wait on the right, the women, mostly artists and poets and actresses, would be ushered in on the left to a room filled with incense burners and a helicopter blade hanging from the ceiling. The lucky ones would be brought to the music room, cocooned in dark tapestries. D’Annunzio had lost an eye in the war and was sensitive to light. Besides, music requires concentration of the mind. The floors are covered in carpets and pillows, for lounging or making love; busts of Michelangelo and Dante, his ‘brothers’, stand like witnesses. Books and music folios line the walls, surrounding life masks, sculptures, lamps of blown glass fruit, leaded windows, an organ, lyres, lutes, bells. The predominant tones are red, gold, and black. From the music room we proceed to a writing room, with a large desk, where D’Annunzio died, and a medicine cabinet filled with drugs. Over the doorway from the writing room to the bedroom, we read: genio et voluptati —genius and voluptuousness. The bedroom is called The Room of Leda and overflows with chinoiserie and silken fabrics and cushions. But genius is not all pleasure and happiness. Consider the Leper Room, for meditation on the death of his mother and Eleanore Duse, which features a bed in the shape of both a cradle and a coffin, “the bed of two ages”. Two leopard skins are draped over the steps leading down from the bed. A painting of Saint Francis embracing the leper hangs near the bed. We are to understand that D’Annunzio considers himself a leper in the eyes of society, in exile here after his failed attempt to raise life to its rightful gloriousness despite the philistine, luke-warm good behavior of his fellows. In his Italian Journey, written back when words like lofty, harmonize, exalt, true, and noble could be read without embarrassment, Goethe commented on the poor reception granted to a number of Palladio buildings:

How poorly these choice monuments to a lofty spirit harmonize with the life of the rest of mankind…it occurs to me that this after all is the way of the world. For one gets little thanks from people when one tries to exalt their inner urges, to give them a lofty concept of themselves, to make them feel the magnificence of a true, noble existence.

Alas, Goethe saw the tendency of things, already at the end of the 18th century. Though I wonder what he would have thought of D’Annunzio’s taste. The Relics room is a syncretic temple to all religions, mixing sacred objects with profane military paraphernalia. There are elephants, bronze Buddhas, medieval crosses, rows and rows of Catholic statuary, and a Fiume flag on the ceiling. Over the doorway is written: “Five Fingers, Five Sins”. Out of the original seven, D’Annunzio had excluded lust and greed. These two were not deadly sins, but virtues in his creed. A broken steering wheel on the altar, which once had belonged to an English racecar driver friend, symbolizes the religion of risk. His workshop, the only room in the house to let in natural light, can only be entered by prostrating oneself beneath a low ceiling and taking a few small steps. The writer had to humble himself before his muse, his great love, the actress, Eleanore Duse, whose bust sits upon his desk, covered with a silk scarf so her beauty would not distract him from his work. La Duse, as she was called, earned the full adulation that Il Duce was denied.

torino4-037Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

D’Annunzio called his house “the book of stones,” and like all good books it is filled with symbols. Everything means something. And the many mottos written on ceilings and round the rims of rooms and over doorways help us should we falter in our interpretation. And yet, I probably will be trying to understand it all for a long time to come. Certainly, although it would be simpler to outright reject grandeur and beauty, because of its sometimes questionable provenance, I cannot moralistically deny myself the intellectual and sensual pleasure it brings. And yet, the provenance and history of objects is significant and fraught with tangled skeins of so much seeming good with so much seeming bad. I will continue to be curious about all the life and the history that can be gleaned from material remains—portals to other worlds and times—and to embrace the wild contradictory nature of humanity with an amor fati—love of fate—communing, even if need be, in occasional discomfort, with all kinds of ghosts, neither assuaging nor simplistically censoring the transgressions of these haunted spirits.

What would D’Annunzio have thought, however, had he known that the souvenir shop outside the grounds would feature not only snow globes with little miniature Il Vittoriales and coffee mugs emblazoned with his face, but also a section devoted to his special friend and nemesis, Mussolini, offering brass knuckles and ominous riding crops for sale? Would he have approved? I would like to think he would he have considered it an impudent intrusion, actuated by purely capitalist vulgarity, a treacherous re-writing of his more nuanced story, rather like the posthumous revision of Nietzsche’s biography by his Wagnerite sister. (Elisabeth-Forster Nietzsche, as is well known, attempted to posthumously present her brother as a proto-Nazi, he, who in reality despised the Germans and who called in his last days for the death of all anti-Semites. The Mussolini display made me feel queasy, so I quickly exited the little shop and walked down the hill to beautiful Lake Garda, which Goethe, on his visit, had called “magnificent,” trying to separate the marvelous and admirable Italian writer from his unsavory companion. I caught the afternoon bus out of town, and made it back to Torino by late the same evening.

I spent my last week wandering around gazing at everything, saying goodbye with my eyes, entering dark churches on rainy afternoons and returning to museums I had already visited. I abandoned my foolish infatuation with the intern from Sardinia. It had been a case of pareidolia after all, or a matter of witchcraft. I visited Brunilde one more time, who had been angry at me after the last lunch for refusing dessert, a strawberry delicacy which the blackboard claimed was “the cake of love.” Probably she had cursed me, and my refusal to eat the cake was the cause of my romantic failure. This time I was all alone with her in the little restaurant. We talked despite my faulty Italian and her non-existent English, and she even gave me the name of another restaurant, scribbling it on a little piece of paper, which I did not lose and used the following day. I knew better now: I would do whatever she said and eat whatever she suggested. Lunch was orecchietti with spinach pesto and a mouth-watering cutlet swamped in delicious artichoke sauce, a glass of red wine, sparkling water, and for dessert a divinely magical zabaione with roasted almonds, an espresso, the traditional shot glass of absinthe-soaked grapes, and something extra this time, to mark my initiation: a little jar of sugar cubes soaked in liquor and spices, which I did not know really how to eat or drink. She became frustrated with me and took it away, “Only the sugar, only the sugar;” but she had accepted me, just the same, this woman whose gruffness was a legend, but whose favor I had longed for. I was sure she was a witch, and that she could help me or hurt me. After the espresso, I paid the bill, but was short some 60 cents. She waved me away; it was a mere trifle between such good friends. I wished her a beautiful life, una vita bella, and Brunilde the fierce blew me a kiss! I was blessed.

torino4-030Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

On the way to the airport, the Alps, covered in snow, were visible behind the utilitarian architecture at the edge of the city. All along the street, shutters opened and green curtains were extended from inside to out and draped over the little balconies. From a tall building, a white sheet, like a small cloud, was shaken out in the fresh morning air in the wind and sun. Church spires rose up, shopkeepers brought out boxes of fruit for display, and old men in gray caps trundled along the sidewalk, newspapers tucked in the pockets of their old tweed jackets, ready to be unfurled along with the far-off world at the nearest caffè. The time had come to leave, and the following were my last words with which I armed myself for a return to the American landscape of ironic nihilism, that nihilism born in part of a fear of the complexity inherent in material objects and in the often painful distance between dreams and reality which they reveal:

Whosoever today does not respond, does not resonate to the stirrings of beauty and the energetic life force of the world as it is, who is not filled with wonder at its teeming multifarious richness, who mocks those in the past who have made objects and symphonies and wrote poems to celebrate the intricate, elaborate, strange, cruel, and tender rhythms of life, must be dead of spirit. In the Palazzo Madama museum, after bathing in sunlight streaming into a room of baroque golden splendor from a grand window, I entered the tiny tower housing a collection of small treasures, and any lingering doubts about meaning were immediately purged from me. I knew that the doubters were blind, deaf, and dumb. These intricate treasures were immediate palpable evidence of the perennial human need to celebrate the real delights and dangers of nature and civilization. Carved ivories, etched gems, blown glass, cast bronze. Fancy— made out of the real substance of the physical world, its colors and textures and qualities. I was thus armed to do battle against the skeptical intellectuals and their social construction blasphemy. I knew: Whosoever does not love Nature and the artifacts of humankind’s love of matter (colors, curves, sounds, textures, words, flavors, rhythms, light, light, light!) may as well be dead. Such a one is bereft of heat, of senses, of love, of lust, is a lizard of theoretical idiocy; just as much a repressor of the instincts and the body and nature as any inquisition or poison-spider priest. Philistine sophisticates, parading as the new intellectuals and new anti-artists, may you chortle on the dust of your own dreary scoffing. We others, we naïve ones, have been filled with wonder by the beauty of the world.

—Genese Grill

.grill-genese-grill-with-artists-books-cropped

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.

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Oct 132016
 

stridentopolis-by-ramon-alva-de-la-canal
Stridentopolis, by Ramón Alva de la Canal

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IN ROBERTO BOLAÑO’S The Savage Detectives, the characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima head north from Mexico City to Sonora in search of Cesárea Tinajero, a forgotten poet from the 1920s. Loosely associated with the post-revolutionary avant-garde movement known as Stridentism, Tinajero had since become a cult figure for the Visceral Realist group led by the book’s young heroes, who are eager to track down any information they can find on her. Anyone who’s read The Savage Detectives, however, knows that their quest is a distraction—one of the characters even says he believes Belano and Lima invented Cesárea Tinajero to justify their trip to Sonora. It’s perhaps fitting, however, that the Stridentists are largely known for their role as a MacGuffin in a novel written some 70 years after the movement’s demise—in real life, as in the world of the novel, they’re primarily conspicuous by their absence.

Though we’re approaching the centennial of the Stridentist movement, there are few signs that they ever existed. Only a fraction of their texts are available from Mexico City’s main public library, and while Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire has gone on hosting poetry readings and art exhibitions to this day, its counterpart in Mexico City—Café Europa, once located in Mexico City’s gentrifying Roma Norte neighborhood—is now a hipster bakery. Mexico’s cultural historians have either ignored the Stridentists—Octavio Paz didn’t think to even mention the movement in the chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude on the post-revolutionary intelligentsia—or they’re brought up simply to be dismissed as a cheap knockoff of the Futurists.

In their heyday, however, the Stridentists were admired across the Americas: their work was praised by a young Jorge Luis Borges and John Dos Passos translated Manuel Maples Arce’s poem Urbe into English in 1929, while the future Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias led the (potentially fictitious) Guatemalan chapter of the movement. They also had a considerable impact at home, with one contemporary work of criticism comparing Urbe and Arqueles Vela’s short story La Señorita Etc. with Diego Rivera’s murals at Texcoco’s Chapingo Autonomous University, arguing that these three works marked a revolution in Mexican aesthetics—but while the work of Diego Rivera is rightly lionized today, Maples Arce and Vela have largely been forgotten. It’s no wonder that the Stridentists obsessed Roberto Bolaño—researching them, even in the Internet age, is an equally frustrating and rewarding experience, involving a great deal of time in the National Library’s Rare Book Room.

So who were they?

First we should set the scene. By the end of 1921, the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution had definitively ended. Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated; Pancho Villa, though retired and living on a ranch with his last remaining followers, would soon suffer the same fate. The first two revolutionary presidents, Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza, had also been killed, the first during a counterrevolutionary coup d’état and the second by a rival group of revolutionaries. Power passed into the hands of a one-armed revolutionary general named Álvaro Obregón, under whose rule Mexico would begin to recover from the ten years of civil war that had left one million dead.

In the view of a young poet named Manuel Maples Arce, however, there was something hollow about this brave new age. “No spiritual agitation accompanied these outward convulsions,” he would later write. “In Russia, the Suprematist poets and painters painfully affirmed the restlessness of the Bolshevik moment. The November Group did the same thing in Germany. But Mexico’s intellectuals remained apathetic. Abroad, they continued to judge us for our endless exportation of literary trifles, sentimental junk and execrable odes sold at laughable prices to publications destined solely for the archives. But the post-revolutionary restlessness, with its proletarian eruptions and tumultuous protests, stimulated our inner agitation. We too could revolt. We too could rebel.”

stridentist-manifesto

A strange manifesto then appeared on the streets of Mexico City, posted between advertisements for plays and bullfights. Opening with a declaration of war on Mexico’s national heroes (Death to Father Hidalgo!) and the Catholic religion (Down with the Archangel Raphael, Down with Lazarus!) and freely quoting F.T. Marinetti (“An automobile in movement is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), Maples Arce’s manifesto rejected the Symbolist-influenced poetry then popular in Latin America in favor of an art that would embrace the new: “It’s necessary to exalt, in all the strident tones of our propagandistic pipe organ, the contemporary beauty of machines…the industrial system of great throbbing cities, the blue shirts of explosive workers in this electrifying and poignant time: all the beauty of this century.” Despite the undeniably strong influence of Futurism, Maples Arce distanced himself from that movement’s forward-looking focus: “Nothing of retrospection. Nothing of futurism. The entire world, at rest, marvelously illuminated in the stupendous climax of the present minute…always the same and always being renewed. We shall have presentism.” The manifesto concluded with an index of European and Latin American avant-garde figures from a wide variety of schools; here Jorge Luis Borges appeared alongside Jean Cocteau and Diego Rivera alongside Max Ernst. Other names are more obscure. Like the infamous list of experimental musicians included with Nurse with Wound’s debut album, the manifesto utilized the catalog of influences as a statement of purpose.

Using the manifesto and his first book of poems, Interior Scaffold—which Borges praised “for its torrent of images and the mastery of its form”—as a calling card, Maples Arce attracted a small circle of writers that shared his desire to revolutionize Mexican literature. The first to declare his allegiance to Stridentism was Arqueles Vela, a columnist for the Mexico City weekly El Universal Ilustrado, who was soon followed by the Puebla-based poets Germán List Arzubide and Salvador Gallardo—as well as by Kyn Taniya, the son of Mexico’s ambassador to France, who had already established himself as a poet in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Apollonaire and Romain Rolland. They would be joined by a group of visual artists that included Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Fermín Revueltas, Germán Cueto, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. Together they launched a short-lived magazine, called Irradiador, which published their work alongside that of their counterparts in Spain’s Ultraist movement.

exterior-scaffolding-by-fermin-revueltas
Exterior Scaffolding, by Fermín Revueltas

Much of their early work was given over to a celebration of the new marvels of the 20th Century (airplanes, radio, jazz, urbanism), capturing Mexico’s post-revolutionary optimism despite themselves. When the country’s first radio station was launched in May 1923, the inaugural broadcast featured the reading of a poem by Maples Arce that celebrated the new technology. Their critics lambasted their embrace of modernity as being derivative of Futurism, but this weakness was in many ways also a strength: while European avant-garde figures such as Marinetti and André Breton spent much of their time exploring the respective meanings of Futurism and Surrealism, leaving behind a large store of theoretical writings, the Stridentists simply wrote. With their disdain for theory and dogma, the Stridentists were able to avoid the cardinal sin of high modernism: difficulty. It’s hard to get through Ezra Pound, for example, without outside guidance, but the work of the Stridentists is much more immediate—Arqueles Vela wrote that Stridentism was a “sincere poetry, one that doesn’t organize emotions, which are always disorganized.” As they sought to capture the new sensations of their time without submitting them to an intellectual scheme that would require extensive interpretation on the part of the reader, their work was often playful and highly accessible, as can be seen in the following poem by Kyn Taniya:[1]

THE LAST BREATHS OF PIGS SLAUGHTERED IN CHICAGO ILLINOIS THE SOUND OF THE NIAGARA ON THE CANADIAN BORDER KREISLER RIZLER D’ANNUNZIO FRANCE ETC. AND THE JAZZ BANDS OF VIRGINIA AND TENNESSEE THE ERUPTION OF POPOCATEPETL OVER THE VALLEY OF AMECAMECA LIKE THE ENGLISH BATTLESHIPS SAILING INTO THE DARDANELLES THE NOCTURNAL GROANS OF THE SPHINX LLOYD GEORGE WILSON AND LENIN THE BELLOWING OF THE PLEISIOSAUR DIPLODOCUS THAT BATHES EACH AFTERNOON IN THE PESTILENT MARSHES OF PATAGONIA GANDHI’S PLEAS IN BAGHDAD THE CACOPHONY OF THE BATTLEFIELD OR THE BRIGHT SANDS OF SEVILLE TIRED OF THE BLOOD AND GUTS OF BEASTS AND MEN BABE RUTH JACK DEMPSEY AND THE CRIES OF THE BRAVE SOCCER PLAYERS WHO KICK EACH OTHER TO DEATH FOR THE BALL

All this for no more than a dollar that’s
right just one hundred cents gets you
electric ears to catch the sounds that sway
in the kilometric hammock of radio waves

………………………………………… EO EEEOOO EO…

The Stridentists spent their days at Mexico City’s Café Europa, which was so desolate that they dubbed it El Café de Nadie—Nobody’s Café. “Nobody cares for it or administers it,” Vela said. “No waiters bother the customers, nor does anybody serve them anything… We are the café’s only customers, the only ones who don’t pervert its spirit.” Vela mythologized the café in his short story El Café de Nadie, which centers on two men—evocations of Maples Arce and Vela himself—who haunt the back tables, watching as a woman named Mabelina takes on a series of different personalities to please her rotating cast of lovers. By the end, she’s left writing her name on the café’s tables to remind herself of her identity. Here the engagement with modernity is much more ambiguous than with the Futurists, to whom they were so often compared: if the anonymity of urban life is liberating, allowing us to reinvent ourselves as we please, the danger is that this very anonymity will remake us in its image.

el-cafe-de-nadie-ramon-alva-de-la-canal
El Cafe de Nadie, by Ramón Alva de la Canal

The Stridentists would take full advantage of the café’s solitude. There they held poetry readings and concerts of “Stridentist music” by Silvestre Revueltas, exhibiting masks by Germán Cueto, photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, and paintings and engravings by Fermín Revueltas, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez, all hung between advertisements for Moctezuma beer and Buen Tono cigarettes.

It was at one of these exhibitions that Maples Arce debuted Urbe, one of the key texts of Stridentism and the poem that marked the movement’s political turn. The inspiration for Urbe came one May Day, when Maples Arce had to return home on foot as the city’s trolleys had been paralyzed by the day’s strike. As he walked through the city’s streets, he mingled with the proletarian demonstrators and reflected on Mexico’s still shaky political situation: “The dissent of the unions, the political agitations and the threats of civil war loomed over us,” he would later write. “In the Chamber of Deputies, speeches were suddenly interrupted by the thunder of pistols. Those who stood in the way of progress encouraged groups of politicians and military officers to try and seize power while the workers demonstrated their state of alert. I observed these spectacles, reflecting on the circumstances and responsibilities of those men who could influence the nation’s destiny. Under these stimulating influences, when I got home I started writing a canto that trembled with hope and desperation. I saw the clear need to give the revolution an aesthetic agenda, and in Urbe I joined my intimate emotions with the clamor of the people.” It’s easy to see what attracted Dos Passos to this poem and led him to befriend its author during his 1927 trip to Mexico. Like Manhattan Transfer, published the same year, Urbe is both a celebration of urban modernity and a longing to redeem its sins through leftist politics:

Here is my poem,
brutal
and multiple,
to the New City.

……………………….Oh city all tense
……………………….with cables and labor,
……………………….the sound
……………………….of motors and wings.
……………………….The simultaneous explosion
……………………….of new theories,
……………………….further off.
On the higher plane
……………………….of Whitman and of Turner
……………………….and, a little nearer by,
……………………….of Maples Arce.

The lungs of Russia
are blowing towards us
the wind of social revolution.
The literary pantysniffers
won’t understand
this new beauty
born in the century’s sweat,
……………………….and the ripe moons
……………………….that fell, rotting
……………………….are the stench
…………………….that rises
……………………….from the intellectual sewers.

If Urbe was the first sign that the Stridentists had become tired of shocking the bourgeoisie and longed to overthrow them instead, they would get their opportunity in 1925, when General Heriberto Jara became governor of Veracruz. Jara, a former anarchist, had joined the Constitutionalist Army during the Mexican Revolution but maintained his ties to the labor movement. As governor, he promoted the growth of unions, expanded and modernized the state’s infrastructure, and fought the power of the British and American oil companies that treated Mexico’s oil-rich Gulf Coast as their personal property.

Shortly after Jara’s inauguration, Maples Arce, armed with a letter of introduction, traveled to Xalapa and convinced Jara to make him his right-hand man. List Arzubide soon joined him, as did Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. There they edited a new magazine—Horizonte—which, in the place of the avant-garde texts and theoretical articles of Irradiador, ran translations of Tolstoy, H.G. Wells and Rudolf Rocker beside articles on the initiatives of Jara’s government and the political issues of the day. Their new publishing company, Ediciones Horizonte, printed cheap editions of the classics alongside their latest poems, as well as the first mass-market edition of The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s classic novel of the revolution. During this time, List Arzubide wrote Zapata: Exaltation, the first book celebrating the now-legendary insurgent leader, who was then seen as little more than a glorified bandit. The Stridentists also involved themselves in the founding of the state university and Xalapa’s proto-brutalist athletic stadium. Thanks to the patronage of Governor Jara, they were able to go beyond eulogizing modernity through poetry to working directly to modernize Mexico: they would turn a sleepy provincial capital into Stridentopolis. “Stridentopolis consummated the truth of Stridentism,” wrote List Arzubide. “An absurd city, disconnected from everyday reality, it corrected the straight lines of monotony by developing the landscape.”

horizonte-cover

This utopian project was not to endure, however. In 1927, Mexico’s post-revolutionary government was facing its worst crisis in ten years. It was fighting on several different fronts—against foreign oil companies, against large landowners and against the Catholic Church, which had been chafing under the restrictions of the 1917 Constitution (article 130 of which placed restrictions on its political rights). Though this last conflict had been festering ever since the constitution was promulgated, the situation worsened in June 1926 when President Plutarco Elías Calles demanded the full application of Article 130. In response, Mexico’s Catholics launched a guerrilla uprising on January 1st, 1927. President Calles needed the support of the United States government in order to win the war, and so Jara—who had been seizing the assets of British and American oil companies that owed taxes—had to be forced from power.

Jara’s fall triggered the disintegration of the Stridentists as a group. The movement’s internal cohesion had already been strained by the move to Xalapa, as not everyone heeded Maples Arce’s call—Arqueles Vela had instead gone to Spain as a correspondent for El Universal Ilustrado, while Kyn Taniya was made Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, where he and Miguel Ángel Asturias proclaimed the formation of the Guatemalan chapter of the Stridentist movement, of which no other trace seems to have survived. Salvador Gallardo, in the words of List Arzubide, simply “went out into the provinces and the provinces swallowed him up.” Both Maples Arce and List Arzubide, meanwhile, were encouraged by their experiences working with Heriberto Jara to focus on politics full-time. Maples Arce grew disgusted with Mexico’s political climate after only one term as a federal deputy, however, and left for a short period of self-imposed exile in Paris before reconciling himself with the post-revolutionary state in the mid-1930s. List Arzubide would remain an outsider. He joined the Communist Party and on one occasion narrowly escaped deportation to the infamous Islas Marías prison colony alongside Fermín Revueltas’ younger brother José, who would later write a celebrated novel about his imprisonment. On another, Sandino—then in Mexico to collect money and weapons for his insurgent army—gave him an American flag that his men had captured from the U.S. Marines and emblazoned with the words “This flag was captured from the imperialist Yankee forces. Fatherland or Death. Cesar Augusto Sandino.” When the U.S. Embassy heard that the flag was in Mexico, they demanded that it be returned to them. List Arzubide then smuggled the flag out of the country, traveling first to New York, where he hung it from the balcony of a friend’s apartment, before taking it to the World Anti-Imperialist Congress in Frankfurt.

xalapa-athletic-stadiumXalapa athletic stadium

In the year following Jara’s downfall, Álvaro Obregón was assassinated by a Catholic extremist and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents began Mexico’s slow drift towards a sui generis totalitarianism. This coincided with a period of silence on the part of nearly all the movement’s writers, a period that gave their rivals the opportunity to write them out of Mexico’s literary history. Yet this fate is what allows us to come to their work fresh today—the fact that the movement fell apart when a popular revolutionary was constitutionally but undemocratically removed from power even gives them a certain aura of martyrdom. If it’s now impossible to think of Marinetti without recalling his association with Mussolini, and if Mayakovsky died a “second death”—as Pasternak put it—when he was eulogized by Stalin and taught to Russian schoolchildren, Maples Arce and his comrades still remain untainted. This was undoubtedly partly what attracted Bolaño to the movement, especially at a time when the old rivals of the Stridentists were cheering on the bloody repression of the 1968 student movement, an event that forms the political background to The Savage Detectives.

In a sense, the Stridentists’ ephemerality is a testament to their success: neither looking forward nor back, they sought to capture a given moment in time, and they succeeded. In the first Stridentist manifesto, Maples Arce quoted Walter Conrad Arensberg’s assertion that a true poem shouldn’t live for more than six hours; Stridentism lasted for six years and then disappeared. “As good revolutionaries, we knew that every revolution that isn’t crushed at the right time will become reactionary when it crystalizes and is forced to uphold what it had fought in the immediate past,” List Arzubide reflected after the movement’s end. “We were the only revolutionaries who were willing to sacrifice our struggle for lack of heirs. And now that the movement has been liquidated, we hand our work over to the historians because from here on out we hope to avoid the discussions of the academics from the year 2941 who will measure, weigh, clean and polish what was born precisely, lived completely and died without an echo.” There is no better epitaph.

— Joshua Neuhouser

SUGGESTED READING LIST:

Panchito Chapopote by Xavier Icaza
El Movimiento Estridentista by Germán List Arzubide
Poemas Estridentistas by Germán List Arzubide
Las Semillas del Tiempo by Manuel Maples Arce
El Café de Nadie by Arqueles Vela

Secondary works:

Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers
Elevación y Caída del Estridentismo by Evodio Escalante

Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution by Rubén Gallo
El Ruido de las Nueces: List Arzubide y el Estridentismo Mexicano by Francisco Javier Mora
El Estridentismo o Una Literatura de Estrategia by Luis Mario Schneider

[1] All poems translated by Grant Cogswell

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neuhouser

Born in Indiana and raised in Seattle, Joshua Neuhouser has lived in Mexico City since 2010, where he works as a freelance translator. His projects have included Rebellion in Patagonia by Osvaldo Bayer (co-translation with Paul Sharkey, AK Press 2016) and The Iguala 43: The Truth and Challenge of Mexico’s Disappeared Students by Sergio González Rodríguez (Semiotexte, forthcoming). He is currently at work compiling an anthology of the Stridentist writers.

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Oct 102016
 

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It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. In both cases, however, the major factors that led to their destruction came from structural tensions outside the buildings, not within, from design flaws in the larger world. And many of the same forces that shaped Pruitt-Igoe, social and economic, direct the design of homes for most of us today and determine where we live and how well.

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Pruitt-Igoe

Most of us know its story, or at least most of us have seen the pictures that left afterimages in our imagination of disaster. At least Pruitt-Igoe brought issues of public housing to the fore. Originally planned as a segregated complex in downtown St. Louis, Pruitt Homes for blacks and Igoe Apartments for whites, the project comprised 33 11-story buildings holding some 2800 apartments on a 57 acre site. It was cause for hope when tenants started moving in, 1954, this at the time of the optimism of the post-World War II boom. The design, with interior pillars supporting an exterior skin of brick and windows, a facade free of ornament and reference, followed principles of Modernism and initially received critical acclaim. To encourage community and give the residents open space Yamasaki placed corridors on the floors, a nod to Le Corbusier’s “interior streets” in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. On a larger scale Pruitt-Igoe echoed Le Corbusier’s utopian desires, as outlined in his book The City of To-morrow and Its Planning and demonstrated in his various designs for an ideal city, where his essential solution to urban crowding was density—high-rise offices and apartments set in a rational grid to allow light, space, natural landscaping, and, supposedly, freedom.

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Yamasaki’s design is derivative, perhaps, but there has been far worse for public housing, and private for that matter. The major criticism of Pruitt-Igoe and similar projects has been density. Studies have been made examining the deleterious psychological effects of crowding people in small spaces, especially the higher up a building goes. But as in Le Corbusier’s post-World War I Europe, the need for low-income housing in St. Louis was large and pressing, as it is now in urban areas around the world, and solutions have to be large scale and entail simplification and sacrifice. In many urban areas today, given steep real estate costs and increasing population, the only alternative is to go up. As it was, Yamasaki intended a less dense complex with a mix of high- and low-rise buildings, but rigid federal standards mandated the taller buildings, and other cost-cutting compromises were made that reduced space within the apartments and without. Building contractors inflated their bids, straining the budget further. Still, it did have playgrounds and open space, and facilities for communal needs. The buildings were solid and had heating and plumbing, often lacking in the slums. In so many ways Pruitt-Igoe was superior to the housing tenants had before.

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Occupancy began high but plummeted. Attempts to integrate Igoe, after a Supreme Court desegregation ruling, failed. Whites left. The buildings suffered rapid deterioration and became a focal point of gangs, drugs, and vandalism, of neglect, assault, and fear. The corridors turned into a no-man’s-land, avoided and defiled. Hope turned to a pathology so broad and impacted that the only solution authorities could see was to destroy them. Their answer to violence was more violence. Demolition started in 1972 and continued until 1976, when razing of the entire complex was complete.

A quick review of the causes of its demise will not do them justice. They are complex and interrelated, pervasive and ugly. Nor will numbers tell the story persuasively. Rather the conditions have to be experienced, suffered and endured, to understand their magnitude and insidious effects. Still, Chad Freidrichs’s recent film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, now on DVD, built on extensive research from city planners, urban historians, and sociologists, provides a depth of understanding lacking when the project was first conceived.

Start at ground level, before construction began, with attitude and motive. Government funded construction for public housing has never been strongly supported in this country, as was the case in St. Louis in the ’50s. Business interests, however, prevailed, but their desire was to clean up the eyesore of the downtown slums to make commercial and residential developments attractive for the thriving St. Louis metropolis they anticipated, which they wanted to give a modern face. There were other motives, not publicly voiced, that emerged later.

Many facilities were not adequate in the first place, their problems exacerbated by lack of funding for maintenance. Elevators broke down, incinerators overloaded and trash gathered, water pipes broke in winter. Security and other services also got cut. The buildings declined in rapid, downward spiral. Many residents were poor blacks who fled the agricultural South in hope of better opportunities. The assumption that tenants could pay for maintenance was not realistic. It became completely untenable when their incomes fell because the urban boom, the modern, new St. Louis, did not come. Instead the city’s population shrank with the flight of tax-paying residents to the surrounding suburbs, taking with them the commercial and industrial base and jobs from the city’s core.

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Pruitt-Igoe did have mixed income at the start. Soon, however, the residents were overwhelmingly poor, many paying as much as three-fourths of their income on rent, and they were densely packed together. Tenants of high-rises on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, however, manage well enough. Density most affects low-income families. Their circumstances wear at their resolve and they lack the means to change them. Concentration increases pressure on the fault lines. The family is the first circle of the structure of community and the first line of defense in crisis. Welfare laws undermined families by mandating fathers of recipients not be in the home. By 1965 two-thirds of the residents were minors, most in single-parent homes, attenuating the social fabric even further. Residents were constantly surveilled, and other restrictions made them feel isolated from the world and neglected.

The overwhelming factor was race, bound to poverty in intractable and destructive concentration. Segregationist sentiment remained strong, publicly and privately, and blacks, by various tactics and covenants, were barred from the suburbs and the jobs there, and from the jobs that remained near where they lived in urban St. Louis. For so many blacks a project like Pruitt-Igoe was the only option, or the option the welfare authorities pushed on the poor. Public housing became the instrument not to solve social and economic problems but to isolate and contain them, and allow them to fester and erupt. Really, Pruitt-Igoe was a monument to its society’s prejudices, blindness, and failures, and their combined results are what the pictures of demolition we all know so well most represent.

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Now, 40 years later

How much has changed? Paul Jargowsky, in “Architecture of Segregation,” reports that concentration of poverty in barrios and slums has returned and again is linked to race, again is the result of policies and attitudes similar to those of the ’50s. It is almost twice what it was in 2000 and falls heaviest on minorities, black and Hispanic poor. We have seen its effects in the police shootings and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis, and Baltimore, as well in reprisals—police slayings in Baton Rouge and Dallas. What we don’t see is what lies beneath the surface of those isolated events, yet all indications are disturbing. Mood is difficult to detect, but we’ve gone from a world that in the ’60s found the need to proclaim Black Is Beautiful to one that tells us Black Lives Matter.

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Next up the economic scale, most of the rest of us. What the chart on the left shows is that income for 80% of us has flatlined while it has soared for the top 1%. More of us are now living with compromises, stagnant pay and diminished benefits in low-level jobs with limited chances for advancement or in contract work that pays even less and is less secure. Or we work longer hours in jobs that do not match our talents, and even hold down two. Or we try to make it on our own with small businesses in an economy that is stretched.

Money is power, and what the chart on right represents is our influence, our ability to make changes for ourselves and in the world at large. It also determines the construction we see in our world as well as gives voice to how we are supposed to see it. Architectural commissions, like money, like land, are limited resources, and the top 1% hold the greatest sway as they hire top architects to build their luxury townhouses or suburban spreads and the most prominent buildings in our urban environment, offices for the corporations they control and institutions where they have influence. These are the buildings that get the most attention in architectural reviews.

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Meanwhile housing, our major living expense, continues to rise steeply. Public-built homes for those of us at the bottom is a moot point as low-income housing is handled through subsidies to private concerns by a ratio of four t0 one, its quality and character determined by lowest common denominator design, its price by whatever the market can make its residents bear. For those of us steps above, an increasing number cannot afford to buy a home but have to rent, and the cost of rentals has kept pace. In its recent report “Out of Reach” the National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates that there isn’t a single state in the nation where workers paid minimum federal wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of their income. On average they need two and a half times that pay. The burden is much, much worse in many areas. The report breaks the numbers down, state by state.

Even as you climb the income ladder, many of us are making still more compromises with homes well below the standards we once had cause to expect. We are moving further away from the cities, from our jobs, and from each other in exurban sprawl, or into infill housing or shared housing or smaller, crowded apartments in the city, homes whose quality and style run from dismal to variations of bland.

What can’t be graphed is the decline in the quality of our lives or the effects the disparity may have years from now, or soon. In the tension of the current environment it is difficult to know whether one is being realistic or alarmist, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Pruitt-Igoe pictures aren’t prophetic in another way.

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Geometry

“[A] town is pure geometry,” Le Corbusier tells us in City of To-morrow. “When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.” He takes our breath with the clarity, consistency, and comprehensiveness of his vision. And chokes us. Jane Jacobs, who lived in the city and studied its people, found that his open spaces led to isolation and bred crime. It is hard not to believe that the simplicity of his design didn’t mask some psychological drive, hidden. Despite genuine sympathy and the best intentions of planners from Fourier’s Phalanstère in the early 19th century, a response to the crowding and squalor brought by the Industrial Revolution and an influence on Le Corbusier, on into designs of the 20th, so many architectural solutions for mass housing have been marked by isolation, containment, and coherence through abstract regularity in a hierarchy of some sort. And by grimness. They want to clean things up and put them in order, not give them life. The working poor were seen en masse as an abstract problem to solve, not individuals looking for variety and fulfillment. Later reactions to Le Corbusier’s monolithic plan were just that—reactions motivated by reverse sentimentality and abstract theory out of touch. Recent urban designers have shown more knowledge and sensitivity, but one has to wonder how much time planners, past and present, spent learning about the people they were trying to help.

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Le Corbusier should not be singled out for criticism, however, and in many ways he responded to the spirit of his times. The world had become abstract itself, absorbed in process, notably industrialization and technology, which architects embraced, and distant from the beliefs and customs that once gave our lives texture and character. The major abstraction the world has to contend with now is the move to the free market, which is anything but free. Whole systems of values have been replaced with fascination in whatever we can be induced to buy, a theme we play out in endless variation. Government managed economy and public welfare policies of the last century have lost substantial ground. Government designed by political thinkers is dead. The greatest irony of “free enterprise” is that it has led to consolidation and growth of large corporations now worldwide, shrinking our influence and status in this process. Business leaders created monoliths on their own, without the help of architects.

Free enterprise does have efficiencies and provides incentive, but as a system of belief and behavior it offers, by definition, nothing substantial, yet its adherents invest it with a veneration that approaches religious fervor. They have also given it a wild ride. Housing was once the bedrock of the economy and a means of individual stability and expression. In the first decade of this century we had a spree, when mortgages lost their moorings and became instead a source for massive, exotic speculation. Complicated financial instruments were created on top of a huge pool of subprime—dubious—loans that no one understood, not even those who bartered them, resulting in a crash that took the economy with it. It was all exhilarating, really, if you can step back a moment and take it in, a non-euclidean triumph. Perhaps a stretch, but the temptation is to say that our more exotic, risky, even perilous architectural designs of the last decades match this spirit, this abandon.

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Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

So much other architecture now, clean and white, open and transparent, appeals to us with its purity and abstraction. Some of it is classically well-proportioned, some is fanciful, some is funky, some technologically marvelous. But so much of it works within theoretical inbreeding and a narrow set of esthetic assumptions it does not question, assumptions and ideas that give us an ever-diminishing sense of self. Some propels us forward towards a fantastic, abstract future that shows no recognition of the past and has little bearing on our present lives. How well these buildings will stand up to the test of time, how well they will weather the abuse of climate and social and environmental erosion, whether they can maintain their pristine appearance and if so at what cost—all these questions remain open.

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Billy Towns

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The most moving and convincing statements in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth come from interviews with a handful of former residents themselves, who were strongly attached to their lives at the complex. At the beginning they experienced joys and a community there that have been overlooked. They speak with clarity and conviction, and reveal the depth of their humanity. They also are not blind, as they understand the motions within and without that strained their lives and led to conflict. One watched his brother die of wounds from a fight as his mother tried to put him back together. But they have endured and come out whole. They represent possibilities missed and lay the groundwork for future construction.

Of special interest is a bonus feature on the DVD, More Than One Thing. It’s a 16mm black-and-white film made by Steve Carver while a graduate student at Washington University that juxtaposes scenes in the life of Billy Towns, a high school student whose father died early and who grew up at Pruitt-Igoe, ever present as backdrop. The ghettoes, he calls it, exposing the stigma attached to such housing, though he goes on to say the projects aren’t that bad. He always tries to make the best of what he has.

Billy is ambitious and wants to make it in life. Most he wants to be somebody and gain respect. The way to do that, he says, is be good at more than one thing, thus the title. He plays two sports, basketball and football, and has dreams, unrealistic, of playing pro. Apparently he can hold his own in the pool room and also plays trombone. At the beginning we hear, in ironic statement, his faltering yet spirited rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” But he is observant and thinks. He is realistic about himself, his world, and his chances.“I don’t think I look that good,” he tells us, “and I don’t think I look that bad.” He knows he will need ability and have to make opportunities himself. He respects the value of education and wants to go to college.

He also understands the ways of the world, and the film shows how they have molded him, unconsciously, imperfectly, and potentially tragically. Against his ambition and efforts, boredom, which he fights. He says there’s nothing to do in the projects, a recurring theme, so he goes uptown, where he sees white stares. If he has to be good at more than one thing, it’s because he knows he will have limited opportunities because he is black. He also knows what is most needed in our world: “Without money what else can you do?”

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His greatest tension and temptation is violence, to which he may have succumbed. Gang pressure is implied and likely is overwhelming. Fighting is stupid, he says, and he sees the insanity and desperation of blacks killing blacks. But violence of some sort simmers beneath the surface of the whole environment. It is the counterpart to frustration. Like the residents in Myth, Billy feels the urge to lash out somewhere, anywhere, at someone, at something, even if it’s just to break a bulb or smash a windshield. The only other alternative is to be passive and just let things go. Billy’s solution is to stay away from connections. Friends get you in trouble, he says, and he has few. It’s not good to trust too many people because he believes closeness can hurt you, as it probably has. He also mistrusts romantic attachment, more than might be expected at his age. His resolve comes at a price—isolation.

Yet he remains upbeat and keeps looking for options and keeps moving on. At the end of the film, hat in hand and thrust forward, he joins a few friends in a loose, bluesy dance on the sidewalk, utterly engaging, all of them in sync.

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Not only should we build housing for people like Billy Towns and the Myth tenants, construction that knows and respects them and gives them space to be themselves and grow, we can also learn from them. In spite of everything, we see Billy’s irrepressible spirit, his desire to reach and move forward and not be defeated. We can learn what it means to be alive and how to stay alive, a lesson that might sustain us all.

And we should construct housing like this film. More Than One Thing is a tremendously successful piece of architecture. It builds for Billy what Pruitt-Igoe couldn’t, a container that gives him recognition and life. Carver finds spirit and complexity where others only see abstract problems, people as abstract types, and pathology. His style is original yet universally compelling, not lapsing into rigid symmetries, sentimentality, or the constraints of esthetic theory and political ideas. Every shot is well composed, with texture, contrast of shadow and light, and compelling spatial variety.

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The film understands context, the world it which it stands, and transforms its facts, its currents, into vital expression.

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Carver can also find the poetry of flight in the barest place.

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Most, the film has rhythm, in the pacing of its shots and a jazz score that links it frame to frame, that lifts the spirits and keeps it, Billy, and all of us moving. Just as important, it is built on a solid base, humanity, empathy, and broad social understanding.

Firmatis, utilitas, and venustas, durability, utility, and beauty, the principles of architecture Vitruvius outlined centuries ago—More Than One Thing succeeds on all counts. It is well made and solid, and should last a long time. It is useful in the ultimate utility, the means to have a life. There are many types of beauty, and many theories of beauty, but all derive from the same source, the human spirit. Carver has found his own that transcends the trendy or merely pretty. It is a gorgeous film. Relevant to the subject, he accomplished all this on a low budget, with limited technical means.

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Non-manifesto

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Manifestos serve a purpose. They make quick, abrupt statement, clear the air, and get attention. Seldom do their authors test their assumptions, however, or even examine them, but there is some value here as they don’t get diluted in qualification. This manifesto is no different, except it has nothing theoretical to state nor anything specific to propose. It only has one maxim: there are no good ideas. Its only corollary, which necessarily follows, is that there are no good designs.

That does not mean there aren’t bad ideas or designs. There have been too many that were too gross or malignant, and we have suffered too much from their effects. Nor that we shouldn’t come up with new theories and test them or try new designs. On the contrary, we must. “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” Keynes warned us at the time of the Great Depression, and we see the result in our free market chaos now. The same applies to politicians and architects. “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back,” he added, anticipating the totalitarian horrors to come.

Explaining why the manifesto is true, and how many different ways it is true, however, would take volumes, and that is the point. To do it would require thorough study of all the partial successes and wholesale failures from the past, of all the theories upon which they were built almost all of which had short half-lives. But those are all we have to work on. The view that we have discovered something new and final, or are going in that direction, that we can make a break and leave the past behind, that we have changed in some fundamental way, that we are moving towards some future progress—is an illusion and a trap we have fallen into too many times. The thought that we can build the perfect society or perfect building is already an act of crippling surgery. Any idea, any design, necessarily, inevitably, will come up short. There is too much much to comprehend, too much beyond our control, too much we can’t predict. Forcing a concept and projecting it globally compounds the deficiencies by accelerating orders of magnitude.

Really, the non-manifesto is liberating. It allows openness and flexibility and provides a check to our impulse to contain, control, and extend. We will always end up with compromises, and understanding that will help us come up with plans that are workable and satisfying. It also encourages us to be tentative and keep close to the world around us and to what most matters.

We have known all along what we most need to know about ourselves. We will always have to observe and explain and try out new ideas, and we will always have to make adjustments. But the things that most define us are the things that most resist definition. At our core, the irreducible fact of our existence. We stray from it at our peril.

“Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms. Living. Changing. Now.” Mies van der Rohe, “Working Theses,” a century ago. The industrial and technological momentum he found attractive and wanted to transform now strains us and drains our will. Anything we build now will have to be durable and protect us. It better be ready to take some hits. But hopefully we will come up with something that is resilient and gives us life.

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Credits

More Than One Thing has recently been restored as part of a National Film Preservation Grant. It is at the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis and will be aired this November at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Special thanks to Steve Carver for his permission to reproduce the stills from his film.

Permission for the photograph of slum housing in St. Louis, near the Pruitt-Igoe site, from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photograph of Le Corbusier’s proposal for a city from ArchDaily.

Pictures of the aerial shot of Pruitt-Igoe, implosion sequence, vandalized corridor, and Phalanstère from Wikipedia Commons.

Income graphs from “It’s the Inequality, Stupid,” Mother Jones.

Housing graph from J. P. Parsons Real Estate Charts. Note the recovery from the last housing bubble and his prediction of another.

Photo of Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health from “Gehry in Vegas,” BoomerReviews.Com.

The Obama administration has just released the Housing Development Toolkit to tackle issues of housing inequality. Introduction:

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:

obama-graph-jpg

Richard Florida breaks down public housing expenditures in “The U.S. Spends Far More on Homeowner Subsidies Than It Does on Affordable Housing,” The Atlantic Citylab. Excerpt:

The U.S. shells out roughly $46 billion a year on affordable housing—$40 billion on means-tested programs and another $6 billion in tax expenditures through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which supports affordable housing investments for low-income Americans. Compare that to $195 billion in subsidies that flow largely to wealthy and middle class homeowners via tax deductions for mortgage interest.

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.
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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Oct 022016
 

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“The same Society [of Loretto] will become, besides, an asylum or shelter for old age, decrepit or useless slaves, and whatever kind of sick or distressed fellow creature may call for their assistance, as far as this poor condition shall permit.”  —Father Charles Nerinckx, 1813

“In America, we’re all immigrants. This land did not belong to the white people till we stole it.” —Ceciliana Skees, Sister of Loretto, 2016

For over two hundred years, the Sisters of Loretto have aspired to sanctify what history books have termed the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky into a home for the Virgin Mary. The first nuns, the daughters and sisters of pioneer farmers, envisioned the bluegrass plains and open skies to be as pure and untouched as the body of their beloved Mary. But the land they chose for the new home of God’s mother was as ancient as the hills of Jerusalem and as bloody as Golgotha. By 1812, when the original five Sisters of Loretto, Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart, began teaching Catholic children the rudiments of their faith, the land on which their motherhouse rested had been mapped, contested, divided, parceled, and sold, with generations of its original inhabitants besieged by epidemics and invasion. After over a century of warfare between natives, colonists, British, and French, the fields of central Kentucky were cluttered with detritus of battles primordial and fresh. The land was holy ground for many different people, but it was also blood land. In fact, the first Mother of the Sisters of Loretto, Ann Rhodes, purchased the land for the convent with the sale of a slave named Tom. This commodification of human flesh is a strangely disturbing beginning for an order of women who hoped to create an enclave for good works and education. How are we to understand women who swore vows of poverty but nevertheless bought and sold other Catholic souls? Such paradoxes of intentions run through the history of Loretto, as they do through the history of America.

Embedded deep into the consciousness of white settlers was the sense that the seemingly limitless fertile acres of America were an untouched Eden, the earth at its most new, its most pure. Perhaps the Sisters rejoiced that they were building Mary’s home in a newly born world, exempted from the sins of their forebears. But they also confronted a land of ruins, of mounds full of bones and the spirits that had once animated them. They were of a vocation and a religion that believed it was possible to converse with heaven, to hear the call of saints and spirits. If there were ghosts in the bluegrass, surely they glimpsed them. What did Mary and Ann Rhodes think when they discovered clay shards and copper medallions while digging in their gardens? How did they respond to the risings and ridges of the earth, the palimpsest of a land that had once teamed with people? I wonder if the nuns had a sense of the age of the land they inhabited, if they tried to fit the relics they found into their story of the creation and redemption of the world.

Loretto itself is named for Loreto, Italy, where pilgrims since at least the later middle ages have venerated a one-roomed stone house as the childhood home of Mary in Galilee. Tradition holds that angels carried the home to Italy to escape the ravages of the invading Turks. The choice of name is telling. The first Sisters hoped to recreate an ancient Judaean dwelling-place on the American frontier. None of them had ever been to Italy, so the Loretto they envisioned must have sprung from sermons, gospel verses, and their own imaginations—a home built of sandstone and flavored with olive oil, a place of simple domesticity where a young girl learned and grew into worthiness and first heard the voice of an angel. This home of Mary’s girlhood represented their hopes for themselves, for the children they would raise and send out into the world, and for those who would join them in their eternal prayers at the foot of the cross.

Society of Loretto buildingsLoretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky.

Yet other people possessed competing spiritual ties to the same fertile floodplains of the Ohio River Valley. The Shawnee believed that the central Ohio Valley was the heart of the world, given to them by Meteelemelakwe their Creator for perpetual sustenance. In recorded origin stories, Meteelemelakwe had lowered the ancestors of the Shawnee to the island of the earth in a basket and instructed them to travel to the river that would be their home for eternity. To them, the land that included Kentucky could never be sold, promised, or bargained away. Since the 1750s, they had fought a series of wars with the British and the Iroquois in order to keep settlers, hunters, and land speculators from encroaching further west. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, as well as the Cherokee, had twice sold the land to speculators, and in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British had ceded it away to the newly formed American government. Despite promises and bargains, the British did not stop the onslaught of eager settlers who traveled on flatboats down the Ohio River or climbed over the mountains through the Cumberland Gap to reach Kentucky. In 1775, there were only about 150 Anglo-Americans. By 1800, there were 220,855. Within ten years the number had doubled to 406,459.

The original Sisters of Loretto may not have been aware of the intricacies of failed treaties and false sales with the Shawnee that precipitated their arrival at Loretto, but they were certainly aware they were not the first inhabitants of their Edenic possession. White settlers had only been present in Kentucky for thirty-seven years, and those years had been rife with blood and conflict. The War for Independence lasted for eight years, but in Kentucky it had turned into twenty. Thousands of people, Shawnee, Lenape, Ohio Iroquois, French, and British, had been killed, taken captive, or died of starvation. The Sisters knew that only thirty years before, other settlers had crowded into forts for protection. They would no doubt have heard the tales that circulated among colonists of women taken captive, disappeared into the dark wilderness. In 1780, only five years before the Rhodes family emigrated to Kentucky, over 700 Shawnee and other warriors, along with British rangers, attacked several forts and captured 300 colonists. The experiences of the captives varied widely, with many, especially women and children, adopted into native families to replace lost members. Many were so pleased with their new lives they had no desire to leave when given the opportunity. But colonists considered the natives akin to demons, and many women feared the threat of sexual assault, true or not. The Old Testament books that made up the bulk of their readings were replete with battles, carnage, and violation. When the Sisters read of the rapes of Dinah and Tamar, did they envision Levantine kingdoms of centuries past or the forts and newly built farms of Kentucky?

It is difficult to get a sense of individual consciousness from the first five sisters—Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart. Any surviving key to their individual personalities has become shrouded in hagiography. According to the legend of Loretto, Mary Rhodes was so disturbed by the lack of schools in Kentucky that she began teaching her nieces and nephews in her brother’s house. She soon banded together with two other single ladies, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern, and the three of them moved into two old log cabins across the creek from Mary’s brother’s farm and invited local children to board with them and learn their letters. After a few months they revealed their joint desire to take the veil and sought the approval of their delighted priest, Father Charles Nerinckx, a Belgian immigrant who was hoping to nurture just such fledgling female communities. On April 12, 1812, the women traveled to the Nerinckx’s home on nearby Hardin’s creek. Kneeling outside the roughhewn church with a statue of Mary imported from Belgium, they received his blessing and he pronounced them the first sisters of the Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were soon joined by Ann’s younger sister Sarah and Mary’s younger sister Ann.

Loretto main buildingMotherhouse main building

According to the early histories of Loretto, the first Sisters were hardworking, courageous, devoted to their students and the survival of their Order. They faced hardship with tenacity and never wavered in their faithfulness to the Virgin Mary. In both their prayers and their actions, they strove to imitate her compassion for the world as well as the suffering of her son. And there is little to contradict or augment that portrait, as only a handful of documents from their own hands exist, and none of those are letters, diaries, confessions, or any of the narratives that indicate character or temperament.

Of course, some of this reverential biography must be true—in order to survive in unfamiliar country without stores and roads, living in split-log cabins, anyone would have had to be courageous and not averse to hard work. One of the original cabins still exists at the Loretto Motherhouse, although it’s been deconstructed and reconstructed several times. A tiny one-room cabin, with wooden shutters blocking most of the natural light, it manages to be at once claustrophobic and cavernous, the testament of an extremely harsh life for the people who crowded into similar such rooms. The rain and snow soaked in through cracks in the walls and the damp rose from the earthen floors. Ann Rhodes died of tuberculosis in a cabin like that. The Sisters and their students crowded into spaces impossibly small and uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. Somehow they managed—folding up the beds during the day to make room for meals and lessons, cooking outside in a lean-to, planting and canning vegetables to get through the winter. All that was true. But they didn’t have to do it alone. And they were hardly as impoverished as the stories would indicate. While the pioneer Sisters defied the elements and renounced all their earthly possessions for the greater treasures of Heaven, they still retained ownership of other humans.

The first document to survive from the sisters is a record of purchase. In that loopy cursive of centuries past, Ann Rhodes recorded that she was selling one bed, two spinning wheels, assorted kitchen furniture, and one negro male named Tom to Father Charles Nerinckx in perpetuity for seventy-five dollars. She used the money to purchase the surrounding land, as well as to pay for repairs on the cabins. Father Nerinckx returned both Tom and the furniture to his spiritual charges and nothing more is written of him in the records.

Bill of sale of slaveBill of sale for Tom and assorted household goods (used with permission of the Loretto Archives)

Tom would be joined by others within a few years. Within the lifetime of Father Nerinckx (who died in 1824), there were enough slaves to merit two separate kitchens. An early set of copybooks from one of the Sisters recorded that Father Nerinckx had ordered that strangers were not permitted in either the white or the colored kitchens. In 1860, there were 70 slaves at the Motherhouse. In March of 1853, upon the death of Mary Rhodes, there were altogether 170 Sisters living at the Motherhouse and eight other schools and convents in Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and New Mexico. Since the other convents were smaller, there may have been as many slaves as Sisters at the Motherhouse.

The presence of those 70-some slaves places the stark purity of Loretto’s early mythos in further context. The brief references to Tom add another story, of more than 70 other stories stitched into and around the central narrative of early Loretto. But those stories are shadows, lost on the edges of old diaries, fallen in between the ripped creases in letters. We know the occasional name, the occasional number, but we don’t have any written memories relating what life was like for those who lived, worked, prayed, and died in the service of the Sisters at the Motherhouse.

Everything is conjecture, based on comparisons and built around blank spaces. But Loretto rose from two cabins in 1812 to a sprawling estate that was both a school, a house of worship, and a fully functioning self-sustaining farm community, and slaves were responsible for much of that achievement. Their labor also contributed to the flourishing of the larger Catholic community in Kentucky—owning slaves gave the Sisters the free hours to teach Catholic children, which was their central goal. They could not have fulfilled their mission without slaves to till their grounds and tend to their laundry, harvest their corn crop, milk the cows, and see to the never-ending labor of an extensive farm.

The Sisters of Loretto bought and sold slaves, and some received them as inheritances from family members. According to her father’s will, Mary Rhodes received “a boy named George, a girl named Anna, and one feather bed and other furniture.” New postulants also brought slaves along when they joined, as part of their dowries to the institution, such as the four women who joined in 1817, bringing ten slaves with them. Many of their transactions’ records were destroyed in a fire, but at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, a convent of similar size, an entry for the annals in 1840 records that “they bought five negro men; two women, two girls and two boys . . . . The prices of hire were also very high; and the Council decided it was better to buy servants for the farm etc., then pay so much for hire and often get bad ones.” In the same year, Catherine Spaulding, the foundress of the Charity convent, sent money back to the Sisters for the purchase of two girls. She was the same woman who had declared that, “our Community must be the center from which all our good works must emanate.”

One of the hallmarks of slave experiences was a marriage of Christian religion with native African practices, memory, and experience merged into a distinctly African-American creation. This was true regardless of denomination. How do we understand the lived moments of spirituality for individuals enslaved in a religious house? Throughout Kentucky, masters and slaves worshipped in the same churches, with slaves in the back or up on a balcony. Father Nerinckx had insisted that the slaves in his parishes, which included Loretto, receive the sacraments so if they believed in the teachings of the church they served, they knew their souls belonged only to God. They were washed with the same water at birth and departed their bodies to the same rites. Regardless of whether slaves accepted their status or rebelled in their hearts, they participated in the rituals of their masters. And judging by the numbers of African-Americans who remained Catholic after emancipation, they imbibed the meaning of those rituals. African-American Catholics didn’t split off into their own congregations, unlike Protestants who formed specifically black denominations, historically spoken of as the Black Church. Catholics insisted on communion within the larger body of Christ.

Living as a slave in a house of education may have provided opportunities, even if only grasped in stolen moments. Another scribbled statement, from Father Nerinckx, copied in a notebook by an anonymous hand: “Permission is given for the sisters to instruct colored women and girls, but they may not converse with them without the superior’s permission, and the superior should be vigilant that no disorder occur through her negligence.” Unlike other states, it was never illegal to teach slaves to read and write in Kentucky.

Given that some slaves in Loretto were literate, it’s hard not to wonder what they may have read and how their reading affected their identities. It’s tempting to imagine slaves at Loretto developing subversive ideas through books. Abolitionist literature existed in Kentucky, and it’s not impossible (although impossible to prove) that some of it made its way into the kitchens, laundry, and slave quarters of Loretto. Beginning in 1822, the Kentucky Abolition Society regularly published a newspaper, and of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold 300,000 copies the first year of its publication. Even if none of these works ever reached the confines of Loretto, however. there was no shortage of bibles, and biblical stories, with tales of Israelites yearning to be free from bondage and the Lord hearing their prayers, were among the most subversive in a slave-holding society. The religion of the Sisters preached equality before God, equality among the members of the body of Christ, however they may have practiced it. And slaves and Sisters alike must have recognized this contradiction. If black women were the ones more likely to be literate, as Nerinckx’s memo suggests, than the spiritual hypocrisy they faced was even more baffling. The lessons they learned in the bible as well as those they received during the liturgy directly contradicted social dictates about the worth of both their souls and their bodies.

The female slaves occupied a strange space at Loretto. According to historian Deborah Gray White, in popular imagination, the black female body was oversexed, as ripe for exploitation as it was devoid of virtue. The same society that prized white female chastity valued black women as objects of male lust and as breeding sows to provide more property. Owners had no stake in preserving black virginity. At a convent, the contrast between the different conceptions of womanhood could hardly have been more starkly apparent. The nuns possessed the privilege of control. In the days before effective birth control, monastic vows offered women a socially approved alternative to dangerous and potentially tragic cycles of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and childrearing. Vowed women controlled their bodies, tempering them with fasting and long hours of prayer, but never ceding physical or legal control to a man.

Black female slaves, however, were not the owners of their own bodies. They could hardly make decisions about their virtue when they could be married off and sold away at another’s whim. In 1837, at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, the Sisters, “resolved that the black girl Matilda be sold for $550 to a catholic who will not send her down River.” “Down River” referred to the Mississippi River, the main conduit into the deep South. Slaves sold down the river faced separation from their families as well as increasingly brutal labor conditions on cotton plantations.

Female slaves also faced sexual violence from white men and black slaves alike. And yet the female slaves at Loretto found themselves serving other women whose flesh had been demarcated as not only privileged, but sacred. A young black woman could wonder, surveying the untouched bodies of her communal mistresses, am I not a virgin too? And yet that virginity was somehow a less perfect offering for the God whose waters had baptized them both.

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Dolors of Mary

Loretto was meant to be the home of the Virgin Mary, but Kentucky is not Nazareth, and its landscape bears the scars of its twinned worlds. A biography of Mary’s sorrows, rendered in marble, lines the path to the cemetery at the Motherhouse. The Dolors of Mary, as they are known, trace the holy family from the flight into Egypt through the tortured steps of the Passion. Artistic tradition limits the sculptures to seven, but each tangle of stone limbs bespeaks a lifetime of maternal care, from the loss of her child in the Temple at Jerusalem to her final harrowing witness. At the fourth station, Mary meets Jesus in the streets as he carries the cross on his back. They lean into each other in an embrace, the sun and the wind driving against them, the temple as their sky. She helps him bear the cross just for a moment but knows she must relinquish him to his fate and its weight.

If you follow the path of the Dolors to the end, you find yourself at a rough stone slab about the height of a tall person that rises above the gravestones of deceased Sisters, a memorial decorated with a handsome brass plaque featuring a relief row of African-featured profiles—women in headscarves, an old man with a worn expression, a young child with round cheeks. It has stood there since 2000, bearing all the known names of the slaves at Loretto, names gleaned from archives, from contracts, handwritten in faded ink, slanted antiquated handwriting, catalogued in acid-free boxes numbered on shelves in the archives. Clearly the names listed on the stone are just fragments of memories, brief references in bills of sale— “Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, The Drury Family of Ten slaves, Anna and George, the slaves inherited in 1838 by Sister Laurentia Buckman . . . And all those whose names have been forgotten.”

Loretto Memorial

The placement of the Dolors and the memorial stone together perfectly encapsulates the paradox of slavery at Loretto. The Sisters of Loretto sorrowed with Mary and suffered with Jesus. That moment existed eternally and defined their entire identity, including their prayer life and their earthly mission. To that end, they created their own forms of suffering to emphasize with Jesus—asceticism in food, sleep, dress, separation from friends and relatives, and obedience to the rule and will of superiors. But who embodied sorrow and suffering more than their slaves? Tom, Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, and all the other men and women of Loretto enacted the torments of the Cross on a daily basis, with their forced labors and subjugated wills. In the reminders of their inferiority, whether in the form of cruel taunts, harsh censure, or gentle explanation, they lived out the experiences of Jesus, tormented and insulted on the road to Calvary. And they bore a Cross from the moment of birth. One African-American spiritual, with clear Catholic overtones, equates the affliction of slavery—the hollering and scolding of masters—with the burden of the Cross.

I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
Done wid driber’s dribin’ …
Done wid massa’s hollerin’ …
Done wid missus’ scoldin’ …
I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary hail!
To help me bear de cross.

The sufferer cries out to Mary, who, in Catholic literature and liturgy, is the archetype of sorrow. How many sorrowing mothers watched their children sold away from them? Watched the children left to them broken in body, in the fields, at the whipping post? While the Sisters sorrowed with Mary, did the slaves hope that Mary sorrowed with them?

§

Loretto came of age alongside the state of Kentucky and indeed, the entire United States, so to get lost in its grounds and to dig through the extensive archives is to confront the paradox of American history. And when we study that history, when we read the names on memorial stones or dig into the sinews of the earth, we learn that we are a species of dark hearts and infinite cruelties, with conflict woven in our souls. We also long for salvation, whoever we are, and have composed an infinite variety of paths back to the sky or into the ground, myths of suffering and redemption, and stories of sin and forgiveness. Our first hope for atonement, for the bodies broken and displaced on a multitude of crosses, for the voices disappeared and the records lost, is acknowledgment. And once we have built the memorial stones and reached the ends of the records, what then?

Sisters of Loretto Graveyard

Many thanks to the Sisters of Loretto and their co-members, especially Eleanor Craig, Susan Classen, Antionette Doyle, and Ceciliana Skees, for their candor and their generosity.

— Laura Michele Diener

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Works Consulted

Barnes, Mary Matilda SL. One Hundred and Fifty Years. Loretto Motherhouse Archives, Nerinx, KY.

Boles, John B. Religion in Antebellum Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. Print.

Butler, Anne M. Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Campbell, Joan SL. Loretto: A Early American Congregation in the Antebellum South. St. Louis: Bluebird Publishing, 2015. Print.

Joan Chittester, Ed. Climb along the Cutting Edge: An Analysis of Change in Religious Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1977. Print.

Copeland, M. Shawn, Ed. Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

Gollar, C. “Catholic slaves and the slaveholders in Kentucky.” Catholic Historical Review [serial online]. January 1998;84 (1 ):42. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 8, 2016.

Harrison, Lowell R. and Clotter, James C, Eds. A New History of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Hogan, Margaret A. Sister Servants: Catholic Women Religious in Antebellum Kentucky. Diss, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008.

I Am the Way, Constitutions of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Nerinx, KY, 1997. Print.

Lakomäki, Sami. Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.

Lewis, R. Barry, Ed. Kentucky Archaeology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Print.

The Loretto Community. A Century of Change: 1912-2012, Loretto’s Second Century. Point Reyes Station, CA: Chardon Press, 2012. Print.

Suenens, Leo Joseph, Card., The Nun in the World: Religion and the Apostolate. Westminster, MI: Newman Press, 1963. Print.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985. Print.

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Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage, and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

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Oct 012016
 

fiveravensFive Ravens

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Over the course of recorded history, many profound intellectuals have contemplated the nature of mathematics. Albert Einstein believed that math was nothing more than “a product of human thought,” which caused him to wonder how its principles could seem “so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality.” In contrast, Johan Kepler believed that mathematics was an inherent feature of the Universe, famously stating, “geometry existed before creation.” But regardless of one’s philosophical leanings, it’s obvious that, from the curious perspective of a human mind, Nature seems to be “written in the language of mathematics” (Galileo Galilei).

A few million years before Einstein, Kepler, and Galileo mused about the Universe, the concept of mathematics likely originated from an evolutionary breakthrough that happened before modern humans ever walked the earth. When hominids emerged from their primate ancestors, they gained a powerful ability to recognize patterns in the natural world, which allowed them to comprehend cause-and-effect in a way that had never been achieved by any other species. Their ability to understand and predict patterns of behavior in wildlife allowed hominids to become effective hunters and trappers, despite their relatively weak and slow physiology; their ability to recognize patterns of physical correlation allowed them to manipulate different materials to create novel technologies (e.g. tools, clothing, housing, etc.); and their ability to understand and predict seasonal patterns would eventually lead to the development of agriculture. All of these examples illustrate that hominids’ pattern recognition fostered a myriad of practical evolutionary benefits. But along with these utilitarian advantages, this ability also provided a cognitive foundation for creative expression and this would eventually lead to the earliest known forms of visual art.

In 2014, the Leiden Museum carbon dated a collection of prehistoric cutting utensils found on the Indonesian island of Java. The tools were constructed from mussel shells by Homo Erectus, a primitive species of hominid that is closely related to modern humans. While this technology was relatively typical for the time period, researchers noticed that there was something quite atypical about these tools: some of them were engraved with zigzagging lines and the arrangement of the patterns demonstrated a high degree of intent. With no reasonable inference regarding their practical value, the researchers had to assume that the lines were made for aesthetic purposes. When the tools were tested, the results indicated that the shells were roughly 500 000 years old (300 000 years older than any previously discovered artwork); this suggested that hominids developed conceptual thought much earlier than previously believed. But with regard to mathematics, since these artifacts were made roughly 400 000 years before any known stone figurines or cave paintings, it also suggested that geometry – not figurative images – inspired the first aesthetic creations.

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When hominids evolved into modern humans, they developed an ever-growing fascination with Nature. And undoubtedly, as they explored, examined, and experienced their environment, they would have noticed, even before the concept of geometry was developed, that the Universe often structures itself in aesthetically balanced forms. The circle, the pinnacle of balance in geometry, was likely the first shape to capture their attention. The sun and the moon were (and still are) omnipresent features of life on earth, and I imagine that our ancestors would have frequently gazed skyward to appreciate their seemingly perfect form. But Nature’s creations go far beyond the circle: from the radial symmetry of flowers, to the logarithmic spirals of mollusk shells, to the fractal scaling of succulents – geometry pervades the Cosmos. To early humans, these elaborate arrangements must have represented an underlying order, a guiding spiritual force that created and organized the Universe. So unsurprisingly, mathematical arrangements played a significant role in early religious art .

As humans moved out of Africa and spread across the globe, they split into numerous civilizations, all with unique beliefs and practices. But despite their profound diversity, all cultures had some form of visual art, with the vast majority incorporating mathematical arrangements. Some symbols, such as the “flower of life” (a series of overlapping circles arranged to form a floral pattern) and the Pentagram (a five-pointed star made of a continuous line), were found on artifacts from pre-classic Greece (and in all likelihood were developed by earlier tribal civilizations); other symbols are still in use today: Taoism’s “yin yang” (2-fold rotational symmetry), Judaism’s “star of David” (3-fold radial symmetry) and the “Caduceus” (1-fold reflection symmetry) are all ancient geometric forms that have survived through the ages into modernity.

But these techniques were not limited to the “Old World,” and, in the Americas, many indigenous cultures used geometry in their art work – including my Salish ancestors. While Coast Salish culture didn’t create semiotic symbols like many European civilizations, they did create visual art (spindle whorls, rattles, house-posts, etc.) with animal and floral forms that utilized the same geometric techniques found around the world. These design elements have been carried into modern Salish art and have been expanded upon by the contemporary master, Susan Point, and subsequently, by the newest generation of Salish artists, such as lessLie , Maynard Johnny, Chris Paul, and myself.

As I began to study Salish design, I became enamoured with the geometric techniques used by my ancestors. This inspired me to widen my research, and I engaged in an expansive study of traditional geometry in other cultures. In this exploration, I became particularly fond of two styles: the Asian mandala and Islamic tessellations.

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Mandalas are geometric images that represent the Cosmos, which are used as a meditation tool in some Buddhist and Hindu cultures. They traditionally consist of a circle that is enclosed in a larger square with four t-shaped gates, all structured using 2-fold reflection symmetry. Some of these designs show characteristics of fractal geometry – meaning shapes that show similarity at every scale (such as a mandala within a mandala within a mandala etc.). Modified versions of these techniques became an integral part of my artistic style – a style that would eventually lead to the works in Sacred Geometry.

Islamic art has had an equally strong influence on my creative development. Unlike Christianity and Judaism – whose worshippers have a long history of producing depictions of religious figures (e.g. Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” or the Tzippori Synagogue Mosiac), idolatry is considered blasphemous in Islam. As a result, their cultural art diverged from the other Abrahamic religions, and Muslim artists created many unique art forms, such as calligraphy and tessellations. Tessellations are infinitely repeatable patterns consisting of a series of identical shapes (called tiles) that fit together to form a larger design. A checker board is one of the simplest forms of tessellation (a series of identical squares), but Muslim artists took the concept to a remarkable level of complexity. From the 7th century through the entire Middle Ages, in South Asia, The Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, Muslim artists decorated rugs, ceramics, architecture and much more with these awe-inspiring patterns. Using little more than straight lines (a detail that would play a significant role in the development of my exhibit), Muslim artists created intricate designs with interlacing and overlapping polygons and circles that often unite to create star and floral forms. The symbolic value of these tessellations adds the sacred element to the geometry: the circular shapes represent the paradoxical unity and diversity of existence, and the pattern’s infinite nature (i.e., its geometric ability to expand forever) represents the boundless possibilities of the divine realm.

The modern master of mathematical art, M.C. Escher, credited Islamic geometry as the inspiration for his renowned woodblock prints. In 1936, he visited a Moorish mosque in southern Spain and was enthralled by its tessellated architecture. Escher (and at his request, his wife) feverishly tried to sketch the various patterns for later imitation. After this visit, Escher engaged in years of study and practice, until eventually he was ready to reveal his unique twist on the tessellation. But he believed that “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” would hold “little meaning” for his audience and that his tessellations would only be appreciated if they were recognized as “clear symbols of people, animals, [and] things…” But this is where my artistic intentions diverge from the master.

Considering the artistic era that Escher lived in, it’s not surprising that he had a deep passion for figurative art, which had been a nearly universal convention for centuries prior. But while Escher was developing his geometric style in the 1930s, Modernists were shouting, “make it new,” and developing an aesthetic world space that would transcend the fetters of artistic tradition. The Modernists would, in time, essentially change the definition of fine art, but at the beginning of Escher’s career, these new creative movements were still quite divisive. Taking into account the divided nature of the zeitgeist, mixed with Escher’s formal training in illustration (an extremely figurative medium), it’s easy to understand why his art took its specific form – a form that I’m forever grateful to have known and studied.

But since the 1930s, artistic culture has traveled through a vast range of movements, which, during Escher’s development, had yet to be imagined – one of which being Minimalism. Following the Modernist currents towards Post-Modernity, some artist drifted further and further from the verisimilitude that had dominated art for most of recorded history. And in the early 1960s, some New York City artists – such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly – were creating abstract paintings with simple geometric forms that lacked any notion of figurative imagery. Since these artists weren’t overly concerned with imitating objective reality or even representing objective reality through a unique perspective, they were able to focus on the subtle aesthetic aspects of their paintings (such as contrast, weight, balance, orientation, etc.), which created works with an understated but powerful effect. Considering the enduring legacy of these artists, I believe that their work has demonstrated that, contrary to Escher’s opinion, “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” can be meaningful, if they exist in an appropriate artistic atmosphere. And by abandoning the religious, naturalistic, and humanistic meanings of the past, Minimalist art carries a meaning that, in my opinion, is at the pure center of all creative endeavors, a meaning that has slowly become my primary artistic focus – which is to represent that mysterious and elusive quality known as beauty.

As I continue my studies of visual art, it seems as though the more I learn about aesthetics (i.e. the nuanced details create and emphasize beauty), the less I intellectually understand the concept; this is likely because beauty doesn’t operate on the intellect and is, by nature, not rational. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to call beauty irrational either. A far more accurate term, one used by the philosopher Ken Wilber, is trans-rational, because it seems to operate on something much deeper than the intellect, what some might call the heart or soul or spirit. In my experience, beauty only fully manifests when the intellect subsides, when the mind goes quiet and all “hows” and “whys” disappear. There’s no rational value in gazing at a midnight sky punctured with mysterious light from distant worlds or the radiant spread of red hues rising in a twilight fade from the horizon – but, for me, only the trans-rational aspects of life can give meaning to existence. Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “We have art so we may not perish by truth.”

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My growing devotion to aesthetics helped me set the parameters for this exhibit: I decided to let my intuitions about geometric beauty guide every creative decision. This meant prioritizing aesthetics over the figurative elements (i.e., animal forms) that I was accustomed to using in my traditional Salish art. Although animal images do appear in a few pieces, those specific designs developed organically – meaning they only took a figurative shape if, in the designing process, it seemed to happen on its own. The appearance of figurative art among these images might be due to some quasi-Pavlovian impulse that developed from years of Salish designing – illustrating that artistic habits, like all habits, also die hard. But regardless of their origin, I’m happy with the results.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed the puzzle-like challenge of arranging animals to fit my aesthetic vision and taste. But the designing process for Sacred Geometry was a refreshing change in my practice. I surrendered control to the mathematics, and with nothing more than a little refinement, the designs essentially built themselves based on the geometric processes I applied. This manner of working felt much more natural than any designing I had done previously – so natural that, more often than not, I hardly felt involved. While the idea might seem cliché and is often perceived as pseudo-spiritual hyperbole, I (and numerous people I have talked to) know firsthand that, in those purest moments of expression, art seems to be created through you, not by you. And I can say, without a hint of exaggeration, that these experiences are the sacred aspect of creating art.

The other constraint I set for myself was to design using only straight lines and circles, a style that I serendipitously discovered while sketching. I loved the idea of creating art with such simple structures – so simple, in fact, that they are almost always the first structures that a child learns to draw. Take, for example, a toddler’s stick figure: it generally consists of a circle head, circle eyes, a half circle mouth to form the obligatory smile, with straight lines creating the torso and limbs. But what, I wondered, would be possible if I restricted myself to these fundamental aesthetic tools? When I first started working with the constraint, I thought that the possibilities would be limited; at most, I hoped to get a small series of designs from the concept. But to my surprise (and ecstatic delight), I found that the potential was much greater than I anticipated. As I experimented, more and more avenues for creation presented themselves, with a surprising range of diversity. Within a month or so, I knew that I had the concept. And, more importantly, I knew that I had discovered a new creative world space that I could return to for the rest of my life.

Some might consider the art in Sacred Geometry more contemporary than my other work, and, in a way, it certainly is. But in another sense, this work is more traditional than anything I have done before – because it draws on a tradition that started before my Salish ancestors ever carved a spindle whorl on the Pacific Coast, a tradition that started before the first human crafted a symbol to honor the earliest conception of God, a tradition that even started before Homo Erectus carved that first pattern into a mussel shell. It’s a tradition that started in the big bang (and according to Kepler, even before), that first moment of creation when, in a mysterious Cosmic exhalation, Spirit took a three-dimensional form and started building the Universe according to timeless laws of geometry.

—Dylan Thomas

brave-new-whorlBrave New Whorl

 

nautilusNautilus

 

spectreSpectre

 

tipping-pointTipping Point

trancendanceTranscendence

butterflyButterfly

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Born in Victoria, in 1986, Qwul`thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation, originally from Valdes Island. Dylan was exposed to the art at a young age because his family continues to participate in their culture and tradition. He has trained in jewelery with Seletze (Delmar Johnnie) and has apprenticed under Rande Cook in all mediums of the art. Rande has also been a major help in the development of Dylan`s design. His other artistic influences have been late Art Thompson, Susan Point and Robert Davidson.

The images reproduced here were originally produced for Thomas’s first solo show at the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, which opened in August.

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Aug 102016
 

Ben Lerner is seen in Brooklyn, New York on Monday September 14, 2015. Adam Lerner / AP Images for Home Front Communications

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” — Ben Lerner

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The Hatred of Poetry
Ben Lerner
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016.
Paperback, 86 pages, $12.

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Ben Lerner’s monograph, The Hatred of Poetry, is an extended meditation on the nature of poetry (or, Poetry) and its relationship to the reader. Lerner first broached this topic in his 4000-word essay for the London Review of Books in 2015, in which he concludes, “You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.”  While much of The Hatred of Poetry is derived from thoughts shared in this essay, the revised version is subtler, cannier, and ultimately claims, if only in passing, “a place for the genuine.”

The essay can be read as a tribute to Lerner’s teacher, Allen Grossman, the late poet and critic, and Grossman’s influence on this writing is found everywhere. Only a few pages in, Lerner recollects Grossman’s retelling of the story of 1st century Caedmon, the earliest known Anglo-Saxon poet. The illiterate cowherd was, according to the account rendered by the Venerable Bede, transformed through a dream into a poet; the poem with which he awoke, however, was never as good as the one in his dream, “for songs, be they never so well made, cannot be turned of one tongue into another, word for word, without loss to their grace and worthiness.” From Bede’s rendition of Caedmon’s dream comes Grossman’s characterization of the poem as “necessarily a mere echo” of the truer poem, the “virtual poem” existing just out of reach for the poet. “In a dream your verses can defeat time,” Lerner writes, “your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.”

From this apocryphal beginning, Lerner deftly sketches a characterization of poetry as a long-beleaguered medium, wearily defended and just as wearily attacked for millennia. Lerner himself, of course, is a poet, author of three volumes of verse. His first collection, The Lichtenberg Figures, won the Hayden Carruth Prize; his second, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two novels, both of which feature self-reflexive narrators (the first, Leaving Atocha Station, is told by a successful poet [Adam] abroad on Fellowship money; his second novel, 10:04, is told by Ben, a poet in the wake of a surprisingly successful first novel) have been widely acclaimed. Born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas, Lerner has already been awarded a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has every logical reason in the world to rest comfortably, yet his work brims with self-abnegation, a “self-subverting whisper” which persistently threatens to spill over into self-pity, but never actually does.

The Hatred of Poetry may be Lerner’s answer to his own unspoken questions. Of poetry – “I, too, dislike it,“ he asserts in the well-known words of Marianne Moore –Lerner writes, “Sometimes this refrain (which Lerner has made of Moore’s words) has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.”

The rest of Moore’s poem, quoted on Lerner’s opening page, reads, in its entirety: “Reading it, however, with a perfect/contempt for it, one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.” In order to reserve such a place, however, a great deal must be cleared away. In Lerner’s telling – harking back to Grossman’s “virtual poem” – poetry itself is used as a means to provoke negative capability, poetry meaning poetry showing what poetry is not, i.e., words on the page. Whether dissecting the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall or Emily Dickenson’s broken lines (“a mixture of virtuosity and willed dissonance”), Lerner suggests that poetry makes “a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time.”

That negative image of the ideal Poem (that poem that “we cannot write”) is reinforced through poetry critique. From Plato’s provocative (to contemporary readers) banishment of the poet as citizen of the ideal city, through, for example, Mark Edmundson (“The Decline of American Verse) and George Packer (“Presidential Poetry”) who bemoan the current state of poetry as being mired in the particular to the expense of the universal, Lerner’s point is that prose written about poetry upholds the place that poetry provides for the “glimmer of the virtual.” In other words, the “defense itself becomes a kind of virtual poetry – it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.”

Lerner closes with a relatively extended meditation upon the virgule, signifying the slash, the virgula or “little twig” used to indicate line breaks when quoting poetry in the context of prose. He observes that Claudia Rankine, in the pre-publication galleys of Citizen: An American Lyric, used the virgule “where it could be read as a typographical representation of verse’s felt unavailability.” In the final copy, however, these virgules were gone, leaving only what Lerner calls “a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation” behind. Rankine’s Citizen, is named lyric where otherwise that quality would not be likely assumed: the poem is, after all, comprised almost entirely of prose. “What I encounter in Rankine,” he writes, “is the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry — and especially as lyric poetry — catalyzes an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb.”

The seeming divide between poetry and prose is a border that Lerner has blurred before: in his first novel, the narrator (a poet) writes, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose (…) where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” He quotes this passage twice in the pages of The Hatred of Poetry, before making a final – and, yes, lyrical – segue towards the essay’s coda. The virgule, he writes,

can be heard in Virgula Divina, the divining rod that locates water or other precious substances underground…(It can be heard) in the name of Virgil. Dante’s guide through Hell. And in the meteorological phenomenon known as “virga”… streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground. It’s a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth, between the dream and fire; it’s a mark for verse that is not yet, or no longer, or not merely actual; they are phenomena whose failure to become or remain fully real allows them to figure something beyond the phenomenal.

Throughout the book, references to Grossman are made, off-stage as it were, including Lerner’s telephoned conversation with poet/critic Aaron Kunin (“also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s”), or recognitions of Grossman’s influence on this or that observation. Then, abruptly, a few pages from the book’s close, Lerner writes: “Today, June 27, 2014, Allen Grossman died.”

In Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” the poet writes:

(O)ne of its (personism’s) minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

O’Hara’s manifesto is typically read as mocking; Lucky Pierre is a slang term for the middle person in a 3-person sexual encounter. Of course Lerner, with his love for ambivalence, would produce a manifesto of his own, one placed “squarely between the poet and the person.” But which is which? Who is the person, and the poet – is it Lerner? or is it his teacher, Grossman? Who, of course, can no longer be reached by phone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would suggest that perhaps The Hatred of Poetry could be read as a poem “between two persons instead of two pages.” Lerner writes that poetry is, “where relations between people must appear as things.” Its final pages certainly merit such a reading, as it. By the second to the last paragraph, Lerner can assert that poetry “is on the one hand a mundane experience and on the other an experience of the structure behind the mundane, patches of unprimed canvas peeking through the real.” We might not have initially considered the comparison, but Lerner introduces it: “why not speak of it — fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.” Like sex, like speech itself, poetry is forever seeking purchase in the real, yet exists only in “the glimmer of virtual possibility.”

One of the aspects of Lerner’s writing that I find most compelling is the way he distrusts his own facility with language, his self-conscious working against a fluency that he cannot seem to dismantle (as he writes, in Mean Free Path: “I was tired of my voice, how it stressed / its quality as object with transparent darks / This is a recording.”) If, as he writes, the “closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them,” then the acknowledgment of that distance is itself the truest kind of faith. In The Hatred of Poetry, we find, I think, the truest kind of love.

— Carolyn Ogburn

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Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

 

 

Aug 092016
 

Self-Reliance cover 500pxCover image for The Domino Project’s edition of “Self-Reliance,” c2011.

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Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested—“but these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very ready transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution, the only wrong is what is against it. 

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

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Quantum sumus, scimus. That which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)

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If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)

 

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This year marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Until I sat down recently to re-read it in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give on the subject, I’d somehow managed to forget just how complex and internally qualified that essay is, and how the interpretive problems are as compounded as they are clarified by Emerson’s later revisitings of his central idea. As Spinoza tells us in the final note to the Ethics, “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” The difficulties one encounters in reading Emerson in general are inseparable from the pleasures. The principal complications stem, in the first place, from Emerson’s temperament and style, and, second, from the richness of the spiritual, philosophic, and poetic traditions in which he was embedded, and by which, for all his originality, he was profoundly influenced.

Stylistically, Emerson is so committed to polarity that his powerful yet ambiguous texts are full of overstatements and qualifications, swerves and counter-swerves. In the second half of many lectures and essays, he takes away with the left hand what he has just given with the right. As he notoriously proclaimed in our main text, “Self-Reliance,” a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (E&L 265). His disciple Walt Whitman was never more Emersonian than when (in “Song of Myself” §51) he asked a rhetorical question and responded audaciously: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself./ (I am large. I contain multitudes)”—to which Emerson’s German disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, responded: “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[1]

There is a polarity at the heart of “Self-Reliance,” a primary thrust and a secondary elaboration, taking the form of a caveat, an inconsistency, what the prosaic Understanding would consider a “contradiction.” What Emerson meant by his pivotal idea is not always as obvious as our initial excited response to the clarion call to independence in “Self-Reliance” would suggest. The ambiguity lurking beneath the surface has required interpretation, and thus potential misreadings, of what the volatile and not always consistent Emerson actually intended to convey in urging on us his imperative of self-trust and inner reliance. In what follows, I will flesh out those complications and “contradictions,” and attempt to resolve them, not only by exploring Emerson’s later elaborations on the idea, but by placing climactic emphasis where he himself placed it in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance”: on the “peace” that relies on trust in Intuition, yet requires a moral, divinely inspired component, “the triumph of principles.”

“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most widely-read essay and, if not his greatest, certainly his most influential. Emerson’s central idea in this essay has had a profound impact on American thought as well as on the world of practical affairs, commercial and political, especially in its glorification of the “individual” at the expense of “society,” depicted as a distraction or hindrance. Many an American Captain of Industry has found Emersonian sanction for often rapacious business practices. But despite his strenuous advocacy of self-reliance, admiration of men of action exercising “power,” and observation that, like history, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” (E&L 267), Emerson’s individualism was not meant to endorse commodification and the Exchange in the form of ruthless corporate aggrandizement, nor, though this connection has also been made, to justify Western expansion. It is certainly open to use and abuse, but in its various adaptations, self-reliance has all-too-often been simplified, even distorted—most often in the same way in which “Social Darwinism,” with its self-centered doctrine of the “survival of the fittest,” has misrepresented Darwin’s theory of the various ways, often cooperative rather than competitive, evolution actually works.

We are not wrong to read “Self-Reliance,” a prose Song of Myself, as an unforgettably defiant declaration of independence: an exhilarating celebration of the individual who has cast off the repressive and conformist strictures of society, and buried the dead past in favor of “the present hour.” Employing a favorite device, the rhetorical question, Emerson asks: “Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” Where the soul “is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.” Narcissistically, this out-trumps Trump, but it is saved by Emerson’s turn to “today” and to Nature. The “blade of grass or the blowing rose”

exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence….But the man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with a reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy or strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (E&L 270)

But Emerson’s concept of the sovereign self, living for the moment and liberated from the burden of the past, simultaneously incorporates (though often overlooked, especially by thrilled young readers rebelling against their elders) an insistence that every person’s inmost identity is part of a larger whole, a transpersonal universal. To be sure, “Self-Reliance” sets the individual in splendid isolation against all that would threaten the imperial self, especially the opinions of others and all the interrelated conformist pressures of society and tradition. And yet the essay also stresses “virtue” and “principles”: built-in safeguards against the egocentricity Emerson seems not only to most value, but to license and unleash.

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The concept of an inner self that transcends the merely private and egoistic (just as Jungian “individuation,” or “self-actualization,” often seems inseparable from “self-transcendence”) is rooted in those earlier-mentioned spiritual, philosophic, and poetic sources comprising the “traditions” by which Emerson was influenced. For even this arch-champion of self-reliant originality and radical independence was deeply indebted to selected precursors, preeminent among them John Milton and his visionary progeny: poets and thinkers in the Romantic tradition (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle) and clerics in the line of radical “inner light” Protestant spirituality, from Reformation theologians to one of his own mentors, the liberal Unitarian William Ellery Channing. Emerson’s “star of the American Church” (JMN 7:470) proclaimed, in his famous sermon of that title, “man’s likeness to God,” a God who “dwells within us.” Emerson was an even more ardent believer in the God within. Fusing the “still, small voice” of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ assertion that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), he told his cousin David Greene Haskins: “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the still small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He had “only glimpses” of the “divine principle that lurks within us,” but for Emerson, “God is, and we within him,” a conviction for which he found even pagan support—in the 6th and final book of Ovid’s Fasti: “There is a God within us. It is when he stirs us that our bosom warms.” (JMN 4:27-29, 3:12)

However radical, Emerson’s insistence on what Milton (negatively) and the British Romantics (positively) referred to as “divinity within” has precedent in both testaments of the Bible. “I will put my love within them,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:32-33), anticipating Jesus’ assertion that “the kingdom of God is within you.” The uncanonical Gospel of Thomas contains an identical formulation, “The Kingdom of God is inside you.” Though a suppressed text unknown to the author of “Self-Reliance” (it was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt more than a century after that essay was written), this Gnostic gospel is remarkably aligned with Emerson’s own religious radicalism, most fully developed in the “Divinity School Address” he delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838.

On that memorable evening, Emerson shocked the theological faculty of his alma mater by (among other outrages to even Unitarian convention) describing “historical Christianity” as corrupt and “corpse-cold.” One “would rather be,” he intoned (quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much with Us”), a “pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” than to be a conformist Christian “defrauded” of the “manly right” to “dare” to “live after the infinite Law that is within you.” In a passage uncannily parallel to a central passage in Thomas (“if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”), Emerson announces, in the most dramatic antithesis in the Divinity School Address: “That is always best which gives me to myself….That which shows God in me fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart and a wen.”[2]

What scandalized the Divinity School faculty—especially as garbed in the deliberately provocative rhetoric Emerson employed on this notable occasion—thrilled the young graduates in the audience. Each neophyte preacher, fortified by the God within him, was, proclaimed Emerson, to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”[3] That unmediated access to the divinity within, Emerson’s refusal to draw a clear distinction between the inspired “self” and the inspired Savior (Jesus was but one, though the first and greatest, to realize that “God incarnates himself as man”), along with his contemptuous dismissal of tradition and “conformity,” allies the Divinity School Address with the essay it directly anticipates: “Self-Reliance.” In fact, that essay is in part a reaction to the furious public controversy following Emerson’s Address: a widespread and incendiary brouhaha in which the lecturer was condemned as a “mad dog,” a “pagan,” an “infidel,” even a demonic Pan or devil who had planted “the cloven hoof” of German pantheism and atheism in New England.[4]

It is true that, in both lecture and essay, Emerson was intellectually participating in a philosophy imported from Germany: in the epistemological “Copernican revolution” of Immanuel Kant, as transmitted to him, “filtered,” through the British Romantics, principally Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom stressed the centrality of Kantian Transcendental Idealism and the radical extension of Kant by J. G. Fichte, who transcended the antithesis between Ich and Nicht-Ich—famously Englished by Carlyle and Emerson as “Me” and “NOT ME” (E&L 8)—by positing a “pure I,” even a “Divine-Me.” In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge published a caricature, what he called a “burlesque on the Fichtean Egoismus.” Coleridge’s satiric doggerel opens with a burst of Latin translatable as “Huzzah! God’s vice-regent, myself God,” and continues:

The form and the substance, the earth and the sky,
The when and the where, the low and the high,
The inside and outside, the earth and the sky,
I, you, and he, and he, you, and I,
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!

Everything, the Supreme Being included, is part of the world’s “Lexicon,” with the “I” or Ich as the “root.” In all “cases,” grammatical and philosophic, the Fichtean Ich is the “case absolute,” “self-begot,” yet indistinguishable from “the God infinitivus!”[5] What Coleridge says here of the Fichtean Egoismus was later said, more genially and in more readable verse, of Emerson by his friend James Russell Lowell. Writing at his epigrammatic best in the finest vignette in his 1848 Fable for Critics, an amused and yet devastatingly on-target Lowell wrote:

All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got
To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what;
For though he builds glorious temples, ’tis odd
He leaves never a doorway to let in a god.
’Tis refreshing to old-fashioned people like me
To meet such a primitive Pagan as he,
In whose mind all creation is duly respected
As parts of himself—just a little projected;
And who’s willing to worship the stars and the sun,
A convert to—nothing but Emerson![6]

Though Lowell was aware of the complexities in Emerson’s position, his parody conveyed (to quote Coleridge on his own “burlesque” of Fichte) “as tolerable a likeness” of his subject’s “idealism as can be expected from an avowed caricature.” In an early, unpublished poem of his own, Emerson located God at the “bottom of my heart,” his “voice therein” an “oracle” and “wise Seer” who always guides “aright.” I “never taught what it teaches me,” Emerson concludes. “Whence then did this omniscient Spirit come?/ From God it came. It is the Deity” (JMN 4:447-48). Another notebook entry, a meditation recorded on May 26, 1837, begins and ends with questions: “Who shall define to me an Individual?….Cannot I conceive the Universe without a contradiction?”

In between these genuine questions, Emerson contemplates the “One Universal Mind” and “my being embedded in it.” God is “the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body…and my private will.” A “believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two….Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual.” He overcomes this philosophic duality and “contradiction” by falling back on the mysterious light of Intuition. At moments, a “certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life.” At such privileged “moments,”

I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He. Then, secondly, the contradictory fact is familiar, that I am a surprised spectator & learner of all my life….But whenever the day dawns, the great day of truth on the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora.[7]

Emerson’s imagery in this extraordinary passage reflects the Inward Light of radically immanent Protestantism, and, more specifically, the language of his favorite lines in the poem that most haunted him and to which he most often alludes: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” where those intimations are presented as “the fountain light of all our day/…a master light of all our seeing.” But the merging of self and God also resembles that of Fichte, which casts its own light, thrilling yet problematic, on the concept of Self-Reliance.

Wordsworth Coleridge Carlyle composite(l. to r.) William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Allied with the spiritual conceptions of an “inward light” or “divinity within,” the most radical aspect of Emerson’s conception of “self-reliance” is derived in part from German Idealism. Emerson’s core idea had, in turn, a momentous impact on a later German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Idealist proponent of the Will to Power and of the Übermensch. The American’s most enthusiastic and formidable European disciple, Nietzsche considered Emerson the major thinker of the age and filled almost every margin of his copy of the Essays with scribbled annotations. Nietzsche is “Emersonian” in his condemnation of the dead weight of the past, in his praise of “Dionysian” instinct and intuition, in his exaltation of the exceptional or “higher” man, and in his dismissal of the conformist “herd.”

At times, Emerson could be as ruthless as Nietzsche toward the mediocre “herd,” as in the following provocative passage on the relationship of “great” individuals to the community, which occurs in no less crucial a text than “The American Scholar,” a lecture read by Nietzsche and a precursor of his untimely meditation “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Here, sounding like Nietzsche, is the supposedly benign Emerson on the current condition:

Men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men [approximate] to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened, yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature….The poor and the low are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. (E&L 66)

The goal is the “enlargement” of the self, a crucial concept Emerson derived, as we shall see, from Coleridge. Furthermore, in keeping with the related reciprocity between “Each and All” as laid out in Coleridge’s “Essay on Method” in The Friend, we “each” have a stake in developing the potential of “all” for the greater good. But this Nietzsche-anticipating (if not quite Nazi-foreshadowing) passage in “The American Scholar” is a notably harsh as well as hyperbolic cultural teaching. Usually, Emerson qualified or caveated his most hyperbolic assertions; Nietzsche tended not to. And though he borrowed the phrase from Emerson’s Divinity School Address (E&L 88), Nietzsche, that atheist and self-professed Antichrist, really meant it when he announced that “God is dead.” Emerson, devotee of the God within, cannot have known what the catalytic impact of the doctrine of self-reliance would be on the precociously brilliant German youth who began to read him at the age of seventeen. Himself a great liberator, Nietzsche found his own liberating god in Emerson.

What gets liberated is another matter. Though the Nazis exploited and distorted much that was in Nietzsche, few serious readers any longer accept the once-commonplace alignment of Nietzsche with Nazism. But such explosive phrases as “the blond beast,” “the master race,” the “Will to Power,” and the Übermensch, did provide materials to be exploited and distorted. As Nietzsche himself said in opening the “Why I Am a Destiny” section of Ecce Homo, “I am no man; I am dynamite,” and dynamite, which can explode indiscriminately, is particularly dangerous in the wrong hands, a “fate” Nietzsche feared.[8]

Emerson was an equally brilliant and provocative phrasemaker. His guilt by association is less notorious than the Nazification of Nietzsche, but Emerson—that glorifier of the “aboriginal Self,” celebrator of one’s “sacred impulses,” professor of “one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man” (JMN 7:342), and champion of autonomy, “self-reliance” and the “God within”—has also been connected with Hitler and Nazism. One distinguished American critic, Alfred Kazin, reported in 1997 in God and the American Writer that he once heard another distinguished literary critic, the conservative Southerner Cleanth Brooks, “charge that ‘Emerson led to Hitler.’”[9] The charge is of course excessive. Yet, in his own perverse way, Hitler was a product of the same German Idealist philosophy that found its way to Emerson by way of Coleridge, Carlyle, and French philosopher Victor Cousin. Reading Fichte, philosopher of the “Divine-Me,” Hitler marked passages in which Fichte claimed that “God and I are One….My work is his work, and his work my work,” among other identifications of himself “with God.” In perusing Fichte, the Führer found evidence to support his own growing belief that the “mortal and divine were one and the same: that the God he was seeking was in fact himself.”[10]

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

Appropriately enough, Hitler’s eight-volume set of Fichte was given to him by Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who also gave the world in 1934 the greatest of all propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, whose opening shot features a plane bearing Hitler descending from the clouds: deus ex machina, the Führer as God. At the Eagle’s Nest precisely a century after the 1841 publication of “Self-Reliance,” a metaphysical Hitler informed his mesmerized guests: “If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but consciousness and awareness,” adding, in the sentence adopted as my third epigraph, “If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.”[11]

This emphasis on divinely inspired intuitive “insights” sounds remarkably like the Emerson of much of “Self-Reliance”: the champion of “Intuition” who privileged “self-trust” and the “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded,” and who insisted on “the source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin” (E&L 268-69). To this Emerson, as we have seen, “no law can be sacred” but that of his own nature. He lives “wholly from within,” and, while his “impulses” seem to him to come not “from below,” but “from above,” even if “I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil” (E&L 261-62). Given his equation of the individual with infinitude, the self with the God within, Emerson, who has been blamed for so much by so many critics of unrestrained individualism, might even be blamed for the messianic psychopath whose will to power transformed the most culturally and philosophically sophisticated nation on earth into the most barbaric and, together with an all-too-willing new Germany, produced worldwide carnage and a genocide so ferocious that it shattered our naïvely optimistic theories of progress and disfigured the image of humanity itself. But unlike Emerson, Hitler genuinely was “the Devil’s child”: “the devil’s miracle man,” in the memorable depiction by psychologist and Holocaust historian Walter Reich.[12] The supposedly “God-given insights” of Adolf Hitler were really the dark side of the Protestant belief in the Inner Light, of Fichte’s “Divine-Me,” and a particularly rancid example of the High Romanticism of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Emerson gone sour.

Pace Cleanth Brooks, Emerson is not responsible for the rise of Hitler. Nevertheless, that the concepts of divinity within and of self-reliant individualism are not only liberating, but also potentially anarchic or tyrannical or both, was conceded by some of the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists themselves, usually in their later, “conservative” years. For all their emphasis on the individual mind and heart, and their celebration of “genius” and the godlike creative Imagination, Coleridge and Wordsworth—like their mentor Milton and unlike the advocates of a rugged individualism or will to power that is mindlessly or brutally self-assertive—retained a belief in autonomy, freedom, and idealism without forgetting that the needs of a humane society, knit by ties of reciprocal obligation, were incompatible with selfish (merely private and therefore petty) individualism. Despite his obsession with society’s threat to the self, the same is true of Emerson.

Hitler contemplates Nietzsche Hitler and bust of Nietzsche (via Axis History Forum)(Photo credit)

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On the other hand, making the author of “Self-Reliance” socially responsible runs the risk of de-radicalizing or “taming” Emerson, whose fierce celebration of self-reliance and the God within at once fascinates and troubles even that most devout of Emersonians, Harold Bloom. “In forming the mind of America,” Bloom writes, Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” That last image is a silent but appropriate allusion to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), a poem endorsing (in contrast to externally driven women like Maud Gonne, who “eat a crazy salad with their meat”) the “radical innocence” of the autonomous soul that discovers that it is “self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” This concern about the Pentecostal and political ramifications of Emerson’s alignment of the autonomous self with the divine will occurs in Bloom’s 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?[13] The following year, another major literary critic, Denis Donoghue, agreeing with this momentary reservation but, unlike Bloom, hostile to Emerson, set himself against all benign interpretations of self-reliance. Rejecting the depictions by stalwart Emersonians of their hero’s individualism as a “social value,” even “the flowering of democracy” (a thesis nuanced in Stanley Cavell, strenuous in George Kateb), Donoghue, going too far in the other direction, presents us with an “arch-radical” with “no interest in providing professors of politics with a theory of society.” Emerson was “really an anarchist; necessarily so, since he cultivated the thrill of glorifying his own mind and refused to let any other consideration thwart him.”[14]

Two decades earlier, Bloom had registered his negative response to the often-castigated passage early in “Self-Reliance” where Emerson denies his “obligation” to those “poor” with whom he has no “spiritual affinity,” even though he confesses “with shame” that “I sometimes succumb” to the call of “miscellaneous popular charities” (E&L 262-63). In response, Bloom acknowledged that “self-reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness,” a remark endorsed with vigor a few years later by John Updike, always hostile to Emerson, who reduced this anti-philanthropic passage to a simple doctrine of “righteous selfishness.” Subjecting the same provocative passage of “Self-Reliance” to a brilliant textual and contextual reading, Stanley Cavell insists that the biblical sources on which Emerson is playing reveal him as clearly distinguishable from “those who may be taken as parodies of him.”[15]

Perhaps. But there is no denying that Emerson disliked “stirring in the philanthropic mud,” even when—as in his open letter to President Van Buren protesting (in vain) the carrying out of the brutal and unconstitutional Jacksonian policy of uprooting the Cherokees from their ancestral lands—he believed in the cause. What he resented was being pressured into acting. As an exponent of self-reliance, he was determined to do only what “concerns my majesty & not what men great or small think of it….I write my journal, I read my lectures with joy—but this stirring in the philanthropic mud, gives me no peace.” And, in concluding on the quietist note that “I will let the republic alone until the republic comes to me,” he endorses the “wise passiveness” of Wordsworth, who condemned (in “Expostulation and Reply”) the overbusy conviction that “nothing of itself will come,/ But we must still be seeking.” He had also alluded to these lines in 1837, declaring, in the peroration of “The American Scholar,” that if “the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him” (E&L 70), and again, three years later, and explicitly, when he told the abolitionists in his audience that he would persist in wearing his loose and unbecoming “robe…of inaction, this wise passiveness, until my hour comes when I can see how to act with truth as well as to refuse.”[16] That hour would come, the republic would seem to Emerson to have “come” to him, when the question of slavery, and the danger of its extension, epitomized in the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, moved Emerson to eloquence on behalf of a republic threatened by what he slowly but surely perceived to be a moral abomination.

The hour had not quite “come” in writing the letter to President Van Buren, when Emerson had accepted the activist role “rather from my friends” than from his own dictate. “It is not my impulse to say it & therefore my genius deserts me, no muse befriends, no music of thought or word accompanies. Bah!” (JMN 5:479). The violence of his language reveals his sense that no matter the justice of the cause, he had, by submitting to collectively imposed pressure from his neighbors, betrayed his own intuitive “impulse,” his nonconformist creed of self-reliance.[17]

Readers of Emerson are aware of the often-chilly dismissals of human ties sometimes required by the dominant aspect of the doctrine of “self-reliance.” Consider an often-overlooked element in the famous or notorious epiphany in the opening chapter of Nature, where Emerson becomes a “transparent eyeball”:

Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign or accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance. (E&L 10)

In this ocular epiphany, the self becomes part of God, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things” (Wordsworth,“Tintern Abbey”). But we are so caught up in the visionary moment that we barely notice the dismissal of “friends” and “brothers”—even Emerson’s beloved brother Charles, the “dear friend” whose recent death is alluded to in this chapter’s final words (E&L 11). “Who can ever supply his place to me?” Emerson writes in a heartbroken journal entry. “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now, in a kind of compensation, Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eyeball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, the great and disturbing essay “Experience,” written in the aftermath of the death of little Waldo, Emerson’s son taken by scarlet fever when he was not yet six, proclaims the allegedly superficial nature of grief and love. In the most troubling single passage in all of Emerson, he says of “this calamity: it does not touch me. Something which I fancied was part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me…falls off from me, leaving no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473).

Devastated by the death of his boy, Emerson is struggling to compensate for his loss by adapting Wordsworth’s idealist praise of those “obstinate questionings/ Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings,” in Emerson’s favorite stanza of “Intimations of Immortality.” Yet, even if we detect this verbal and thematic connection to the great Ode, we cannot but be shocked by the apparently heartless use of the coldly scientific term, “caducous,” typically applied to a placenta or shed leaves from a tree, or other fallings-off that leave the quintessential life unchanged.[18] Later in “Experience,” we are told that

The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love….There will be the same gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture….The soul is not twice-born, but the only begotten,…admitting no co-life….We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. (E&L 487-88)

xWaldo_Emerson 480pxWaldo Emerson, four months before his death in January, 1842. (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

To return to the essay “Self-Reliance”: immediately preceding his denial of any “foolish” obligation to miscellaneous popular charities, Emerson rejects “the doctrine of love” when it “pules and whines,” famously declaring: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim” (E&L 262). Having, like Jesus (Matthew 12:34-48), played this audacious variation on Deuteronomy 6:9 and Exodus 12:23, Emerson immediately adds, “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.” This afterthought is a minor example of a dominant pattern in Emerson, who characteristically supplies the reservations or qualifications to his own liberating, challenging, but overstated case in “Self-Reliance.” Though implicit throughout, it is only at the very end of “Self-Reliance” that Emerson most clearly qualifies, delimits, and moralizes his claim for the liberated self. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he writes, adding at once and finally: “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (E&L 282; italics added).

In the second half of the essay Emerson had spoken of “our docility to our own law” and the “poverty” of all else, even “nature,” in comparison to “our native riches.” But this is so only because “God is here within.” Emerson rejects “the rage of travelling” (E&L 278). Man’s “genius” is admonished “to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean” (the source of the title, The Inner Ocean, of George Kateb’s first book on Emersonian “self-reliance”). Consequently, “let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause,” alone, “begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary. So let us always sit” (E&L 272-73). As that loyal Emersonian Robert Frost would later put it in a 1936 couplet included in his collection, A Witness Tree (1942): “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”[19] In fact, to fully illuminate this passage of “Self-Reliance” requires us to enter a veritable echo chamber.

Transparent eyeball by CranchCaricature of The Transparent Eyeball by Christopher Pearse Cranch (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Emerson concludes that “all concentrates,” since the “vital resources” of everything in nature, including human nature, are “demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (E&L 272). As in his description, earlier in “Self-Reliance,” of honor as “self-dependent, self-derived” (E&L 266), Emerson’s language echoes that of Milton’s Satan, describing himself and his fellow fallen angels as “self-begot, self-raised/ By our own quick’ning power…./Our puissance is our own” (Paradise Lost V:860-64). But the purport (Emerson as “the Devil’s child” notwithstanding) is less blasphemous than an affirmation of what Yeats, as we have just seen, referred to as the self-reliant soul’s recovery of “radical innocence”: the realization “that it is self-delighting, / Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” The analogy with Yeatsian “radical innocence” is not forced since Yeats is echoing, not Satan, but the Emerson of “Self-Reliance,” who tells us early in that essay that to remain always “formidable” we must “avoid” external “pledges,” and adopt an “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence” (E&L 261).

The “ultimate fact” in every instance, Emerson continues in the passage we began with, is “the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE,” since “Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause” (E&L 272). The language of the ONE is that of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, as mediated by Coleridge, but Emerson—fusing psychology and morality with Neoplatonist mystical theology—locates divinity in the tabernacle of the self. It is, however, what he will later call—in “Uses of Great Men” and his late essay “Character”—an “enlarged self.” But even in “Self-Reliance,” his phrases (the “triumph of principles” and “ultimate fact”) echo Coleridge’s insistence, in The Statesman’s Manual, that only the “enlargement and elevation of the soul above its mere self attest the presence, and accompany the intuition of, ultimate PRINCIPLES.”[20] In “Character” (1866), referring in detail to these “great enlargements,” Emerson defines “morals” as “the direction of the will on universal ends,” adding: “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings.” Having linked the correspondence sought by the Roman Stoic between the universe and his own moral impulses with the modern ethicist’s “Categorical Imperative,” Emerson quickly buttresses Marcus Aurelius and Kant with the Wordsworth of the Intimations Ode, quoting, as he so often does, the lines about “truths that wake/ To perish never,” the “fountain light of all our day,” and “master light of all our seeing,” which lead, in moral men, “to great enlargements” (W 10:94-97). In “Uses of Great Men,” the Introduction to Representative Men, Emerson says that “these enlargements” liberate “elastic” man from his “bounds” so that he is “exalted” by “ideas” transcending his individual self (E&L 622-23).

But this transcendence of the private self, though an aspect of the argument in “Self-Reliance,” is hardly the primary thrust most of us register while reading the essay, or in the immediate aftermath of our initial bewitchment by Emerson’s rhapsodic celebration of the “spontaneous,” “intuitive” self as the very font of “originality” and “power.” In the opening paragraph of the essay, we are urged

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. (E&L 259)

The dramatic imperative to “believe your own thought,” your own “private heart,” can make us miss the reciprocity between “inmost” and “outmost,” our “first thought” and the “Last Judgment,” the individual and the “universal.”

It’s no wonder most readers miss these qualifications and caveats. David Hume roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” and Emerson wants to shake and shock us out of our conformist complacency. So powerful is his advocacy of self-reliance that Stephen Whicher, whose Freedom and Fate was for several decades the most praised study of Emerson’s “inner life,” influentially insisted that “the lesson” Emerson “would drive home is man’s entire independence. The aim of this strain in his thought is not virtue, but freedom and mastery. It is radically anarchic, overflowing all the authority of the past, all compromise or cooperation with others, in the name of the Power present and agent in the soul.”[21] It would be hard to improve on so brilliantly concise a summation of so crucial an aspect of Emerson’s position. Though not the only “strain” in Emerson’s thought, it is exhilarating, and can be—as Denis Donoghue and others have emphasized—anti-democratic and dangerous.

Cavell, Lawrence Buell, and George Kateb would disagree, but hostile critics—most (not all) coming from the political Left, and most of them focusing on “Emersonianism,” as opposed to the personally benign Sage of Concord—have seized on the ambiguous legacy of Emersonian individualism in order to stress immoral rather than moral “enlargements”: the hazards of a detached, egoistic, antisocial, unlimited, avaricious, anarchic, even solipsistic self, valorized and privileged at the expense of solidarity, association, community. Morse Peckham, writing a decade after Whicher, spoke for many in saying of Emerson, he “created a doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ which could be and was absorbed by the anarchic individualism of the socially irresponsible middle-class Philistine.”[22]

One might respond that, just as Nietzsche should not be blamed for the crimes of Nazism, the excesses of unfettered capitalism or of Ayn Randian selfishness should not be laid at the door of Emerson. But the provocative ideas and stylistic seductiveness of both of these great liberators, in particular their exaltation of a seemingly autonomous self, opened casements on some perilous seas. Nevertheless, for those who would, under the aegis of self-reliance, confuse the Miltonic distinction between “license” and “liberty,”[23] Emerson has an austere response, even in “Self-Reliance.” The “populace” may think that the “rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism,” a wholesale dismissal of moral law. That is not so. A commitment to self-reliance “enables me to dispense with the popular code.” But “if anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment [for even] one day.” For self-reliance has its own “stern claim” and self-legislated challenge:

truly it demands something godlike in him, who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself as a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (E&L 274)

The preacher of self-reliance as “law, to himself,” has his own Categorical Imperative; and, as in Milton, he “who loves liberty, must first be wise and good.”

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I have already elaborated on the third of my epigraphs, citing Adolf Hitler. As indicated by that epigraph and the first, from Emerson himself, Emersonian Self-Reliance is less a doctrine than—as Nietzsche would put it—potential “dynamite.” It can also be (at least hypothetically and theoretically) diabolical—“if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil”[24]—unless it is tempered by other considerations. Here, the formative influences, crucial to Emerson, are those of John Milton and his principal Romantic disciple, Coleridge.

Like Hitler, Milton’s Satan bases his “divinity” on a corrupted sense of what Milton himself meant in his prose texts, as well as in the masque Comus and Paradise Lost, by “freedom.” As my friend and former colleague, Milton scholar William Shaw, observed in responding to the present essay, this “warped” sense of freedom is impervious “to the freedom of others, and not only self-serving but without a moral foundation.” It inevitably leads to “tyranny, and the more powerful the person, the more terrible the tyranny.” In Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Bill notes, the “tyrant” is defined as “he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction.”[25]

As my middle epigraph reveals, Coleridge strove to affirm the primacy of “that which we find within ourselves,” without losing sight of our moral and communal responsibilities and without surrendering to the willfulness of what Coleridge, specifically citing Milton’s fallen archangel, called “Satanic pride,” “wicked” enthusiasm, and self-worshiping rebellion. In its “reprobate” form, he writes in a much-discussed Appendix, “the WILL becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relation of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others,” the consequence of the will’s “fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.”[26]

Like Coleridge and Wordsworth (indeed, all the British Romantics), Emerson was steeped in Miltonic thought and poetry. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, immediately “fancy that they feel/ Divinity within them breeding wings/ Wherewith to scorn the earth”; but the “false fruit” inflames instead lascivious “carnal desire” (IX:1009-14). Familiar with Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom of heaven is “within you,” the Romantics and their American disciple were also well aware that, in the final book of Milton’s epic poem, the Archangel Michael promises fallen Adam, as abundant recompense for the Eden lost, a “Paradise within thee, happier far” (XII:587). Having experienced a bogus sense of “divinity within,” Adam and Eve achieve (to again cite Bill Shaw) “their ‘paradise within’ when they have learned obedience to God,” along with “such virtues as…temperance and charity. And the Lady in Comus is unassailable because of her subscription to ‘sober laws.’ She loves ‘virtue’ because she alone is free.”

But the Romantics, who venerated Milton, also revised him. To one degree or another, they naturalized the supernatural, secularized the sacred, and, as Wordsworth made dramatically manifest in the great “Prospectus” to The Recluse, psychologized Miltonic theology. For nothing in Heaven or Hell, neither “Jehovah—with his thunder,” nor the “darkest pit of lowest Erebus,”

can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
(“Prospectus,” 35-41)

Emerson printed the whole of the “Prospectus” in his anthology Parnassus, renaming it “Outline” to accurately present it as Wordsworth’s guide to his entire canon: a Kant-echoing synopsis (to quote the conclusion of The Prelude) of “how the mind of man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells, above this frame of things/…In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine.”[27] Emerson followed the Romantics in this internalizing process, emphasizing, above all, the sanctity of the sovereign human mind. In the final and climactic sentence of his seminal book, Nature—his imagery of light, blindness, and perfect sight silently but unmistakably gathering up Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth—Emerson had proclaimed “the kingdom of man over nature” (E&L 49). Four years later, in “Self-Reliance,” he insists that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” continuing by posing that characteristically audacious rhetorical question: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions if I live wholly from within?” (E&L 261-62)

In such passages, Emerson is the rhapsodic champion of autonomy and originality, exalting an intuitive “divinity within” and liberation from the dead weight of the past. Repudiating outworn institutions and established authority, he insists, in notably virile (and, as we’ll see, again Miltonic) imagery, that to be a “man” one “must be a non-conformist,” since “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (E&L 261). Once again, faced with this antithesis between society and self, we need to seek the balance Emerson wants us to find, however difficult he makes the task by the power of his own rhetoric.

Paradise Lost 1667 title page

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7.

Resistance to conformity and to the burden of tradition also extends to self-reliance and self-trust in engaging literary and historical texts, though, here again, we encounter a huge caveat. We are to read “creatively,” Emerson tells us in “Self-Reliance” and in “The American Scholar,” adding in a third, “History” (which opens Essays: First Series), that the student is to read “actively and not passively; to esteem his own life in the text,” for everything is “within us, of the soul.” This, he asserts, is his “claim of claims” (E&L, 237, 239). If this claim, exciting as it is, seems excessive, it’s because it is. Anticipating all of these essays, Emerson had foreshadowed in an 1831 journal entry his defiant assertion of autonomy and originality. The journal entry reads: “Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence. Let him scorn to imitate any man, let him scorn to be a secondary man” (JMN 3:199). And following this scornful rejection of parasitic imitation in favor of creative originality, he inscribed in the same journal these four lines of verse:

In your own bosom are your destiny’s Stars.
Confidence in yourself, prompt resolution;
This is your Venus! & the sole malignant,
The only one that harmeth you, is Doubt! (JMN 3: 251)

But despite adamant and absolute “confidence in yourself,” this ringing endorsement of self-reliant originality is borrowed. The lines are quoted from a German play by Friedrich von Schiller, which Emerson referred to as “Coleridge’s Wallenstein” since he read Schiller’s drama in the British Romantic’s translation—just one of many examples of Coleridge serving as a transatlantic conduit of German thought to his less-than-totally self-reliant American recipient. “Insist on yourself,” cries Emerson; “never imitate,” which is, at best, to half-possess “the adopted talent of another.” And this imperative was foreshadowed in the dramatic declaration at the outset of “Self-Reliance” that “imitation is suicide,” that a man “must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion” (E&L 278-79, 259). Nevertheless, other examples of what has been called the “paradox of originality” occur in “Self-Reliance” itself. Though it rejects “imitation” and mere reading (“tuition”) in favor of spontaneous “intuition,” “Self-Reliance” begins, “I read the other day some verses….” (E&L 259). And halfway through, Emerson begins a paragraph: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am’ but quotes some saint or sage” (E&L 270). But once again, despite the point he is making, Emerson himself is quoting, this time from René Descartes’ Second Meditation. “The truth,” as Emerson acknowledged in an 1835 lecture, “The Age of Fable,” is that “There never was an original writer. Each is a link in an endless chain.” Indeed, our debt to our precursors is “so massive” that one might say (as he does in a splendid late lecture, “Quotation and Originality”) “there is no pure originality. All minds quote.” “Genius borrows nobly”; if we could trace the line back to them, we would, he adds, find that “even the archangels” quote.[28] This paradox is never more paradoxical than in Nature. That seminal book, which announces American and Emersonian originality, is riddled with unacknowledged borrowings from Coleridge and Wordsworth, and yet somehow remains original.

Claiming originality yet quoting, mixing what he contrasts as book-learning or “tuition” with original “intuition,” Emerson is not dismantling the whole “upright” and individualistic thesis of “Self-Reliance,” a text that is nothing if not a rejection of suppliant dependence and an expression of what he repeatedly calls the “sovereignty” or “majesty” of “the erect position” (E&L 282)—though, even here, Emerson is echoing Milton’s description of unfallen Adam and Eve, “erect and tall,/ Godlike erect,” and “clad/ In naked majesty.”[29] And yet, since a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson can, in a famous passage at the outset of “Self-Reliance,” propose as the “highest merit” ascribable to “Moses, Plato, and Milton” that they supposedly “set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they [themselves] thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (E&L 259). These inner flashes anticipate the “Spontaneity or Instinct,” the “primary wisdom” Emerson calls “Intuition” (E&L 269, cf. 259 and 271). These gleams of light constitute, Emerson insisted in a contemporaneous (1845) journal entry, “the best part…of every mind.” Tantalizing “gleams” hovering “unpossessed before” a man, they far exceed in significance “that which he knows” through pedestrian Understanding. Emerson’s famous contrast, derived from Coleridge, between “Reason” and mere “Understanding” is complicated by the fact (a source of confusion for readers) that Emerson also follows Coleridge in equating capitalized Reason with “intuitive Reason” and thus with what the Romantics mean by the creative Imagination.

Those mysterious “gleams” to which Emerson refers emanate essentially, as we have seen, from his most cherished poem, the Intimations Ode. He was haunted by its “visionary gleam” and turned Wordsworth’s “a master light of all our seeing” into “the master light of all our seeing.” These profound intuitions and intimations, which even Wordsworth acknowledged were ineffable (“be they what they may”), remained, in Emerson’s favorite phrase from the Ode, “the fountain light of all our day.” That repeated “our,” replicated in Wordsworth’s shift from “I” to “we” in the final stanza of the Ode, marks the transition from the private self to a more generous inclusiveness. The “self within” of Emersonian self-reliance is also more expansive than it initially appears—an expansiveness reflecting a pair of talismanic texts provided to a grateful Emerson by Wordsworth’s friend and fellow-laborer, Coleridge.

I have earlier cited Coleridge’s emphasis, in The Statesman’s Manual, on the “enlargements and elevation” of the principled soul “above its mere self,” a passage echoed by Emerson in both his essay “Character” and in “Uses of Great Men.” Two Coleridge texts that meant even more to Emerson, the “Essay on Method” in The Friend and Aids to Reflection, provided crucial help in forming—as a sort of supplement or qualification, even partial corrective, to “Self-Reliance”—his idea of an expanded or enlarged self. The reciprocity between “each and all” (“the relation of each to the other, of each to all, and of all to each”), coupled with the Latin axiom Quantum sumus, scimus (“we are what we know, and know what we are”), became, with the help of Coleridge’s own gloss in Aids to Reflection, momentous sources for Emerson’s finding (to synopsize the passage of Coleridge cited as my second epigraph) “within ourselves,” a self that is paradoxically “more than ourselves,” the ground and substance of the moral life and of “all other knowledge.”[30] This Coleridgean sanction for an inner self that transcends the merely egoistic helps explain what, at its deepest level, Emerson meant by “self-reliance.” However straightforward it may seem at times, it is actually a complex concept—mixing Milton, Kant, and the British Romantics, in a blend that turns out, paradoxically but as usual, to be distinctively “Emersonian.” As such, it cannot, or at least should not, be reduced to “rugged individualism,” let alone to mere selfishness.

Transparent Eyeball by Ron KosterTransparent Eyeball courtesy Ron Koster, Psymon Web Bindery

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Conclusion

Given Emerson’s habit of emphasizing, depending on the occasion, a single aspect of a larger truth, his formulations are often ambiguous, and this is nowhere more true than in his various presentations of self-reliance. In the end, however, Emerson’s key concept seems to embrace and illuminate—however fierce the affirmation of individualism and independence in the essay actually titled “Self-Reliance”—the problematic relationship between the merely private self and what a Coleridgean Emerson called the “enlarged” Self, between the Self and God, even the polarity between what he referred to as Solitude and Society. An “intensely focused thinker who kept returning lifelong to his core idea,” Emerson was, notes Lawrence Buell, “forever reopening and reformulating it, looping away and back again, convinced that the spirit of the idea dictated that no final statement was possible.” Nevertheless, like George Kateb, perhaps the most penetrating analyst of the theory of Self-Reliance, Buell insists on the importance to Emerson of what Kateb calls “impersonal individuality”: a formulation that subsumes the apparent or actual “contradiction” between the God within and what Emerson calls “the “Over-Soul,” between the assertion of an autonomous, intuitive self and the absorption of that self in an all-encompassing universal and impersonal life-force. I cannot improve upon Buell’s final formulation:

The Me at the bottom of the me, the “Trustee” or “aboriginal Self” on which reliance may be safely grounded, is despite whatever appearances to the contrary not a merely personal interest but a universal. The more inward you go, the less individuated you get. Beneath and within the “private” is a “public” power on which anyone can potentially draw. So Self-Reliance involves not a single but a double negative: resistance to external pressure, but then resistance to shallow impulse.[31]

That a double negative should be at the crux of an affirmative vision is only one of many paradoxes attending Emerson’s central idea. One is occasionally left wondering if Emersonian self-reliance is advocacy of extreme individualism, or individualism at all. If we are to take Emerson at face value when he later claims (W 11:236) that “Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God,” it has to be added that few of the ardent young readers intoxicated by the essay of that title have taken it as a theological treatise.[32] And what, precisely, is Emerson telling us about the relationship between Spirit, Nature, Mind and, ultimately, between God and Man, Divinity and the Self? Such protean relationships, volatile in themselves, are further problematized by Emerson’s often shifting definitions, within a single text or over time. The paragraph of “Self-Reliance” that begins by insisting that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” continues:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.—“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. (E&L 265)

In the case of Emerson, this admission or, rather, vaunting of inconsistency, contradiction, and sibylline incomprehensibility, may seem to be the “last fact behind which analysis cannot go” (E&L 269). Yet even in “Self-Reliance,” the aboriginal Self is neither anarchic nor arbitrary; indeed, it is disciplined by “stern” if self-imposed laws, a Self whose internal moral depths renders trivial the merely private good we associate with our superficial selves. “Compare all that we call ourselves,” says Emerson in “Character,” all “our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinence, and we take part with hasty shame against ourselves.” Juxtaposing two phrases separated graphically by only a single letter, Emerson explicitly contrasts our deep “moral nature” with what Wordsworth refers to in the pivotal stanza of the Intimations Ode as “our mortal nature,” whose hasty shame takes the form of guilty trembling. After evoking those Wordsworthian “High instincts, before which our mortal nature/ Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,” Emerson goes on to quote the rest of this crucial ninth stanza—accurately, with the exception of one significant change; he alters Wordsworth’s “a master light” to “the master light of all our seeing.” (W 10:94).

That is the light that Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson, call “intuitive Reason”: the near-angelic power that leads the lowercase self, limited by “tuition” and mere Understanding, to “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition”; and it is in that “deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,” that “all things find their common origin….Here is the fountain of action and of thought” (E&L 269). And it is this “fountain light of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing,” that guides and distinguishes the higher (individual and yet universal) Self: the Transcendental Self in which we can “trust,” and upon which “reliance may be safely grounded.” The lower self, “bound” and constricted, is often mired in “mean egotism” (E&L 10). But “whenever the great day dawns, the day of truth in the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora” (EPP 497). In that aurora—the great Ode’s “fountain light of all our day” illuminating intuitive “truths that wake,/ To perish never”—contradiction and duality blend (for those, however skeptical, still open to that light) into a Unity in which Reason and Intuition are indistinguishable, the enlarged Self finding “peace” in (to again quote the final words of “Self-Reliance”) “the triumph of principles.”

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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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 (2008).

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Photo credit  Return to photo

Photo originally reproduced in “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism’” by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April ­2008.

Emerson texts cited parenthetically

E&L   Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. NY: Library of America, 1983.

EL   The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, 1972.

EPP   Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. NY and London: Norton, 2001.

JMN   The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1960-1982.

W   The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §2, in Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), 99.

  2. E&L 81; italics added. For the passage (verse 70) in Thomas, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 32.

  3. E&L 80, 89. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from Harvard following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint yourself at first hand with Deity.”

  4. For a synopsis of the vehement response to the Divinity School Address, as well as Emerson’s own response, in his poem “Uriel,” see my Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 339-44.

  5. For both lampoon and commentary, see Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols. 1:160. Vol 7 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Bart Winer, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969-2003).

  6. Lowell, A Fable for Critics (New York: George P. Putnam, 1848).

  7. EPP 497. This polarity was later fleshed out in “Circles,” in the famed paragraph beginning, “Our moods do not believe in each other,” and ending, “Alas…for this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall” (E&L 406): a vacillation between self-deification and utter nihilism.

  8. Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 326. This opening paragraph had begun, “I know my fate. My name one day will be associated with the memory of something tremendous.” Expressing a “terrible fear” that “one day” he would be “pronounced holy,” he said he was writing Ecce Homo to “prevent people from doing mischief with me.” Written in 1888, but not published until 1908, eight years after Nietzsche’s death, Ecce Homo did little to prevent mischief.

  9. Kazin, God and the American Writer (New York: Vintage, 1997), 14.

  10. This is the conclusion of Timothy W. Ryback, in “Hitler’s Forgotten Library: The Man, His Books, and His Search for God” (Atlantic Monthly [May 2003], 76-90). In 2001, Ryback studied Hitler’s annotations in these and other religio-philosophical books and manuscripts in the Führer’s personal library, volumes now housed in the Hitler Collection in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  11. Quoted by Paul R. Hinlicky, Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from Nazism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 134.

  12. Reich, “The Devil’s Miracle Man,” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1999.

  13. Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2004), 200. Earlier, however, in the title of the Prelude to a 1996 book, Bloom equated Emersonian “Self-Reliance” with “Mere [pure] Gnosis,” especially with the Gnostic concept of the “deep self” as a “unit of the universe,” the “original self” being “already one with God.” Omens of Millennium (New York Riverhead, 1996), 1, 15, 20, 23.

  14. The American Classics: A Personal Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 42-43, 51. In a Marxist critique, V. F. Calverton conceded Emerson’s sincerity and his initially liberating impulses. “Eternally,” however, “Emerson’s stress is upon the self, the individual self, the personal ego. Society can take care of itself, or go hang, as the frontiersman would have put it. It is the individual who must be stressed, the individual who must…become sufficient unto himself….Without wishing it, Emerson gave sanction by virtue of his doctrines to every type of exploitation which the frontier encouraged.” But Calverton goes too far in concluding that the faith of Emerson and Whitman in the common man as “a petty bourgeois individual” is outmoded and must now be replaced (he was writing in the depth of the Depre