Jun 122016
 

SydneyLea

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“MAYBE I’LL TRY that special,” my new pal Joe said, a sardonic smile on his face. The six of us had just lingered outside a moment to laugh at the sign in the diner’s window. The Baseball Special consisted of a hotdog and two hard-boiled eggs. Needless to say, as witless college freshmen, we swapped some witless humor about what may after all have been intentionally ribald humor on the part of the place’s owner.

None of us yet knew that owner’s name, because this was our first wee-hour foray to the United, part of a timeless freshman rite: the first All-Nighter. Eddie Witten insisted he’d pulled one in high school, though the rest of us, innocent of any such experience, were loudly skeptical. Our little group shared an odd exhilaration –unspoken but obvious, at least to me– at the prospect of hitting the books until the sun came up. It felt like an initiation into independence from conditions so lately abandoned. None of us now needed to consider household rules or curfews.

We did quickly come to know the name of the United’s only waiter; Gus was stitched in raveling red on his pocket. He seemed ancient to us as any pseudo-Gothic or pseudo-Federalist building on a Yale quad. Stooped and flat-footed, he wore an expression, bored, world-weary, or both, as he took our orders, turning an ear, presumably the better one, to each speaker in his turn.

At last Gus gathered up the ketchup- and coffee-stained menus and limped back to the kitchen. No one had asked him for the Baseball Special. The old man wrote down none of our very varied requests, and I marveled, thinking he must be what my Dad meant by an old-time waiter, a real pro.”

Gus soon returned with a tray of food, none of it bearing the least resemblance to anything we’d asked him for, but for whatever reason, nobody thought to complain.

The week just past in New Haven had held other novel experiences for me. During Convocation, famed art historian Vincent Scully, the sort of spellbinding speaker I’d never heard, assured the students assembled in Commons that they represented “a thousand future world leaders.” I concluded, instantly and instinctively, that the description couldn’t possibly apply to me, and I likewise remember looking around at the other 999 freshmen, and having similar doubts. Fifty-odd years later, my inference still feels right.

In the case of those who did become leaders, most, with honorable exceptions like my classmate Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, became leading money men, not moral nor cultural exemplars.

On the day after Convocation, I’d been far more taken by Professor Scully’s lecture. His was the first art history course I’d ever taken, one starting with classical Greek sculpture and architecture and ending, at year’s end, with the modern abstract painters. There in the United, I fancied that if I squinted my eyes, I could almost make the images of Greek monuments on the diner’s walls blend with those in Mr. Scully’s slides. During lulls in our boisterous conversation, I did a lot of such squinting, because for all my greenhorn irony, I enjoyed being imaginatively transported in that or any other way.

My daily schedule at the start of college days was about exactly opposite to the one I’ve adopted for most of my life since. Once I moved on from lowly freshman status, I’d gotten most of my required courses out of the way and could elect ones that met in the afternoon or, at worst, at 11 a.m, which allowed me to sleep in, even if, so far as a liberal education was concerned, this scarcely represented a good premise for selection.

As a freshman year, however, I couldn’t duck those morning classes, including ones on Saturday, so as soon as the last was dismissed, I would usually return to bed. On awakening from my afternoon siesta, I’d think of something to amuse myself until suppertime. Sadly enough, alcohol– a demon I later had to struggle hard to exorcise– played a progressively prominent part in such amusement, more, say, than hockey practice, swims at the gym, or simply reading.

My obligatory schoolwork waited until after dinner, and it often took me well into the early hours of the next day. I soon, therefore, became more or less an habitué of the United, going there for a break at least three times a week, sometimes in company, more often on my own.

Every college freshman likely tries at some point to dope out a schedule that will allow him (we were all hims at early-sixties Yale) somehow to beat the system. Most of my friends soon discovered there was no such magic formula, and went back to saner modes of behavior. I either failed to make that discovery myself, or, having made it, persisted no matter. I honestly can’t remember which.

Becoming a regular led to frequent contact with Spiro, the United’s proprietor, a soulful-visaged Greek who dressed, invariably, in blue suit and dark, solid tie. Spiro assigned himself the night shift at the register, for reasons I shortly divined: he had another daytime enterprise.

I’d sometimes be the diner’s only customer in the wee hours, and so it was that, after about three weeks of showing up at his establishment, I was let into a real confidence from Spiro. He stressed that his revelation was not to be shared with anyone. The man’s dearest wish, it turned out, was to complete the epic poem he’d long been working on, Sixty Steps from Yale. He’d accumulated more than seventy pages of manuscript, all of them in Greek, and all composed, he claimed, in genuinely Homeric fashion.

Spiro had cultivated a manner of discussing his undertaking in what can only be described as blurbese, an idiom that favors antithesis. Sixty Steps from Yale, he announced, was a tale at once sweet and dark, despairing and uplifting. It concerned a beautiful Greek girl, recently arrived in America and a Yale student from an old Connecticut family, who had fallen in love.

Spiro would insert a Byronic hand between shirt and jacket front, lean his head back, and proceed more or less like this. “The young Greek woman is of humble origins but born with a noble spirit. She meets her lover at her father’s restaurant. The two look at each other from separate tables. How great is the distance that separates them, yet how much greater the attraction that blooms in their hearts.”

Spiro always spoke at whatever length I had time for. I don’t quote him exactly, I’m sure, but I do catch his manner. “The poem is both light- and heavy-hearted,” Spiro might begin. “The couple’s destiny is written in heaven, but every force on earth seems to interfere with it. The boy’s parents disapprove, the girl’s are suspicious of the Yale man and his airs. At times wildly comic, at others gloomy, Sixty Steps from Yale is not only a love story but also a look at two cultures, one ancient and one young.”

However flowery, his speech was every bit as articulate as I indicate.

Today, half a century later, I wince at how I betrayed my pledge of secrecy. The very day after first being sworn to confidence, I shared what I’d heard from Spiro with my closest companions. I’d ape the old man’s book-jacket rhetoric, and my cohort would obligingly guffaw.

I should instead have felt honored to be Spiro’s interlocutor. There seems to have been something in me, specifically, or so I like to think, that Spiro considered congenial, perhaps even poetic, no matter that the notion of becoming a poet would have struck even me as absurd. No, I liked booze, girls, and ice hockey, in descending order of preference. I certainly had no epic intentions, no ambition as a writer of any kind, none in fact as anything. I’d genuinely rejected Professor Scully’s prognostications of my future.

As a sophomore, I moved far from where I’d been billeted that first year. My schedule didn’t become much saner, and yet my sorties to the United became ever rarer. The Connecticut drinking age being 21, I’d befriended another local merchant, who served as my liquor dealer until graduation. Now my wee-hour diversions tended to involve nothing but liquor, until my trips to the United ceased altogether.

Thus it was a good while after it happened that I learned of Spiro’s death– and only by way of scanning the obituaries in the New Haven Register. I assumed that the old gent’s magnum opus remained unfinished, that it would never be discovered, save, perhaps, by some family member, who’d stash it away with other keepsakes from the writer’s life, not to be considered again.

As I write, I’m older than Spiro was in those days. I may even be older than our waiter Gus, who back then struck our company as unimaginably ancient.

Unlike him, unlike Spiro, I find no orthodoxy, Greek or otherwise, fitted to what I believe. And yet just this morning, prompted who-knows-how, I found myself praying to God, scarcely for the first time, that He forgive me for having once shown qualities so often joined in the unworldly young– stupidity and arrogance.

How, after all, can I know that Sixty Steps from Yale was fit for ridicule? I never read it, of course, having, in Ben Jonson’s words, little Latin, less Greek. Still with all the confidence of immitigable ignorance, I imagined the work to be farcical, sentimental, and overwrought.

Unlike poor Spiro, I’ve published twelve collections of poetry. I’ve won a prize or two, garnered this or that sweetheart fellowship, taught in various higher educational institutions (Yale among them) for over forty years. At the same time, of course, I remain a stranger to the vast majority of citizens, bookish ones included, even within my tiny state of Vermont. After I am gone, my obscurity will in all likelihood become as complete as that of the United’s owner. The diner itself lives only as a sketchy memory of people my age and older. With no false humility, I can say that I’ll lack the sort of accomplishment that Spiro could have pointed to. He did manage the United, after all, well and for a long time.

Perhaps I’m the sentimental one these days, but now it strikes me that there was real poetry in Spiro’s merely composing what he did of Sixty Steps from Yale, given his need to keep his diner going, to keep Gus more or less content, to keep serving what was, after all, pretty good food. And as I recall all this, it seems that Spiro’s very authorial effort was epic in and of itself.

— Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Jun 112016
 

image001Toyen (Marie Cerminova): Among the Long Shadows

This is the fourth and final chapter in Paul Pines’ book-length essay on the Fisher King of legend. You can find the earlier essays in the NC archives, but for easy reference, here are the links.

 

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Parzival felt all the grief he had encountered since he first began his long journey into exile from true innocence of heart. And in the same moment of anguished illumination, he saw how—mile after mile, day after day, battle after battle, until he had finally met defeat at  his brother’s hands—that guilt-driven journey had taken him further and further from the one true source of joy and meaning in his life. Reflecting on his pride and bitterness, the willful error of his ways, he found himself wondering what the wound was at the heart—or in the mind—of man that kept him forever in exile from what he most desired.

—Lindsay Clarke, Parzival and the Stone from Heaven

For Whom the Buoy Tolls

image002Marsden Hartley: Lighthouse

For several months I’d had an email correspondence with Justin. We’d never met face to face. He was a poet who had also been a fisherman and spent time at sea. A mutual friend in the UK had initiated an electronic introduction based on our common interests. Subsequently we’d exchanged work by mail—copies of our respective memoirs and latest books of poetry. I had hoped my collection, Fishing on the Pole Star, would ring true for him.

We both grew up fishing for blues out of Sheepshead Bay and Montauk, I as a passenger on party boats, and he as crew. The account of his childhood, under the rigorous command of his father, a charter boat captain, haunted me. I was moved by the thought of him as a boy filling the ice chests, cleaning the catch, stowing gear and hosing the deck. What might he have been thinking as he untangled the lines of anglers fiddling with the drag, or gaffing a big blue before it jumped the hook? His formative years in my imagination tolled like the buoy I passed as a seaman, Robbins Light, at the entrance of New York Bay.

Justin’s emails to me were cool, almost formal, a few words to make a point or ask a question. Probing further in this medium after reading each other’s personal confessions on the page felt awkward. He had been born in Sag Harbor, a brilliant blue-eyed boy. He’d done well financially, and moved to the UK where he was now a citizen, with an office at Oxford of the kind reserved for scholars and Emeriti.  I was surprised by his email in early April saying that he’d be spending the summer at his home, Ardetta Exilis, on Martha’s Vineyard, and would I care to visit him there on the weekend following my residency in August at the Gloucester Writers Center. I wrote back that my wife would be joining me in Gloucester and we had planned coincidentally to be in Vineyard Haven on Thursday where I’d be reading at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore. In a following message dated Friday, August 1st, Justin indicated that due to an unforeseen obligation, he was no longer free to host us for the entire weekend, but an overnight on Friday, the day after my reading, would work well for him. He apologized that it couldn’t be longer, but looked forward to our visit.

“Let’s do it,” said my wife.

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Leaving Gloucester

On the my last night of my residency, Carol joins me in the one-room cape, perched on the road between Gloucester and Cape Anne. She may have expected something more elaborate. We sit at the small writing table I’ve been using all week, taking in the scene. With her broad cheeks, and full lips, red highlights in her shoulder length hair, she is my Queen of Cups. I point out the black and white photo of poet Vincent Ferrini, who had lived there, beside his friend, Charles Olson. Both have been palpable presences for me. Imposing at 6’7”, Olson’s physical size is proportional to his impact on American poetry. With good reason he named the persona that gave voice to his vision, Maximus. From the first night I spent there, lines from Olson’s visionary poem “The Kingfishers,” have been echoing in my dreams.

What does not change / is the will to change

image003Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water

Carol points out that I’d come to this fishing village, inhabited the home of another poet/fisherman, friend of an even more renowned one, to read from Fishing on the Pole Star, my own poetry collection about fishing.

“It’s almost operatic,” she comments. “Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.”

“I woke with these lines from ‘The Kingfishers’ in my head…then couldn’t stop thinking about Amfortas.”

“In Wagner’s Parsifal,” Carol comments. “Amfortas is a baritone wounded by his own holy spear.”

“Wolfram’s Amfortas betrays his duty as Grail keeper by killing another knight, who leaves him with a wound that won’t heal. His pain is almost unbearable. Only fishing eases it.”

“Until Parzival appears to heal him.”

“Or he’s able to get insured for a pre-existing condition,” I tease her.

“Parzival or Amfortas, which are you?” Carol’s green eyes sparkle.

I shrug. “Navigating between baritone and tenor.”

Earlier in the week I’d given a talk after my poetry reading. The title had come to me on the first morning here: Trolling with the Fisher King. Ideas and images followed. I recorded them in my dream journal. The thirty or so people who came to hear poems from Polestar remained when I followed up the reading with my talk. In fact, they seemed more engaged. What I had to say about the Fisher King spilled like water out of my Aquarian unconscious.

Operatic, indeed.

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On the day of our departure, over coffee, I recall last night’s dream. I’m seated at a long table between Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini, waiting for a scheduled event. They are talking about poetry and art, the essential nature of creative imagination with its spontaneous production of symbols. I lean over and say:

This is where we find ourselves
On soiled angels’ wings
This is the way we come to the end
The way the end comes to us
On soiled angels’ wings…

“What do you make of it?” Carol studies me.

image004Tarot (Alphonse) Mucha: Queen Of Cups

“My discussion with them, and this place, is coming to an end. But why soiled angels’ wings?”

“Maybe that’s what happens when we try to fly beyond our comprehension.” She touches my hand. “Or sing off-key.”

I had embarked on my Fisher King troll with the encouragement of an imagined Vincent Ferrini gazing down at me from the black and white etching on the wall that made him look like Pedrolino.

“What if I can’t hold onto the Fisher King, the conversation I’ve been having with him all week? It could stop cold when I drive away from Ferrini’s house?”

“We can’t let that happen.”

Carol takes my arm as we walk to the Hyundai. As she sees it, my troll with the Fisher King is open-ended. We might think of our Martha’s Vineyard journey as a quest, and our mysterious destination, Ardetta Exilis, as the Grail Castle.

I slip easily into the driver’s seat.

Ardetta Exilis. My wife repeats the name. After fastening her seat belt, she checks her iPad. Carol is expert at searching the internet. Even before I pull out on to the road, she finds the definition: the Castle at the end of our road is named for the least bittern, a small wading bird similar to the heron.

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In Flight

image005Wayne Atherton: Cover, Fishing on the Polestar

I point our silver Hyundai south, toward Boston. We will spend the night there on Kenmore Square, not far from what used to be Miles Standish Hall, the dormitory for Boston University students half a century ago. We arrive at the Buckminster Hotel, a grey stone and brick structure designed by Sanford White at the start of the last century. It follows the U-shaped corner of Beacon and Brookline in a circular embrace. What had been the front entrance is now a Pizzeria Uno, but in the 50s it had been the home of Storyville, that hosted Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Sarah Vaughan among others. Many of them had performed here at the same time I lived across the street, before I knew their names.

The new entrance on Brookline is marble, with glass sliding doors leading into the original art-deco circular lobby, painted lemon yellow and crowned with gold-leaf laurels over the registration desk.

The space feels like the past renewed, still vital, reassuring but not cloying, open to what may come next.

In our case, a nap. And then a slow walk down Commonwealth Avenue like a European boulevard divided by a verdant mall. Falling light casts a glow over the stone and brick buildings with their turrets, garrets and wrought iron fences. We turn onto Mass Ave. and again on Boylston. The streets are full of tourists and natives, often distinguished by their respective body languages. Even the exuberant traveler betrays a certain stiffness.

On the veranda of the Atlantic Fish Company we are lucky to score a table by the rail hedged with flowerboxes and set with silverware on a white linen tablecloth. Carol and I split a toasted goat cheese salad of wild greens, roasted red and golden beets, spiced pecans, and red wine vinaigrette. She orders a seared north Atlantic salmon with ricotta gnocchi, Andouille sausage, spinach, heirloom cherry tomato and a white wine-lemon pan sauce. I can’t resist the seared sesame tuna served rare with sautéed bok choy. Half way through the meal we realize that only a year earlier this place was devastated by the Boston Marathon bombing. Which explains the pristine condition of the interior, the white walls and stair to a second tier, polished wooden floors and impeccable modern bar under a raised ceiling.

The wounds are no longer visible. I am less confident that they are entirely healed, that they do not bleed through, as unseen but cohesive as dark matter.

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The afternoon is slightly overcast when we start out, follow US-1 down the coast, but burns off by the time we take Exit #7 towards Cape Cod.  We cross the Bourne Bridge, and proceed to the second exit on the roundabout to MA-28, a flat highway divided by a median that will take us south to Woods Hole, where we will catch the ferry to Vineyard Haven.  We stop in Falmouth at the bagel café, then continue down Woods Hole Road, then make a left to the Steam Ship Authority where we wait in a line of cars to be directed on to the ferry. We eventually follow directions to the belly of the vessel. Once parked, we climb three flights of stairs to the top deck. Summer residents and weekend tourists sit on hatches and lean against rails. Seagulls cry and the smell of salt air revives us from the fatigue that had nestled in my bones on the drive down.

The invitation to read at the Bunch of Grapes, the island’s only year-around book store, came through Jay and Ivy who shuttle between their house in Tisbury, and an apartment in Boston. Jay has spent the summer playing piano in a jazz duo at the country club, while Ivy owns and operates an art gallery exhibiting mostly local artists. They thought my Pole Star would attract an audience on an island populated by poets and fishermen, and offered to host us for the weekend. But when I told them about Justin’s invitation for the following night, Jay shrugged and agreed with Ivy that Justin was entirely unknown to them, as was the compound called Ardetta Exilis, in the area they referred to as Menemsha Heights. And when they greet us at the landing stage in Vineyard Haven, they confide that no one they’ve talked to has anything more to add.

I tell them that this is because the Fisher King’s castle occupies an imaginary space, a dimension that intersects with ours, but can’t be accessed by intention.

“Invitation only.”

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The Bunch of Grapes is a legendary bookstore on the island, catering to a literary population, among them a couple of visiting U.S. Presidents. Located on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, it occupies a space across the street from the original store that burned down in 2008 when the restaurant next door, Moxies, went up in a kitchen fire. The new location, once a Bowl & Board, is now hedged by wooden book cases and table displays behind lattice windows. Prominently on display are signed copies of Boys in the Trees by local author Carly Simon. And another island resident, historian David McCullough, has left a supply of his latest book, The Wright Brothers.

I am here to read from Fishing on the Polestar. Our event takes place in a nook at the rear where chairs and a couch have been arranged in a circle. There may be as many as thirty people gathered and we need more chairs. As we suspected, the subject of fishing appears to have  expanded the audience.

image006Richard Saba: Ancient Clamor

Most of those here understand how to read the book-of-the-world in birds and schooling fish, weed-lines and tides, and an invisible bottom. These fishermen, both commercial and sport, are intent on blues, stripers and bonito. But I talk about small islands, some uninhabited, or protected by reefs, and I enumerate the rituals of trolling baits and lures on multiple lines that shape the pursuit of marlin, the fisherman’s Grail, through the Bahamas. The focus of everyone in the room coalesces when I reach the poem at the heart of this collection, “Marlin Strike.”

It opens when a five-hundred pound marlin takes the hook, and a life and death communication between fish and fisherman transpires through a strip of mono-filament. The powerful creature dances, leaps, tail-walks the water until it is exhausted and comes willingly to our starboard side where the “wire man”, hand wrapped carefully around the wire leader, “swims” the fish until his color returns. A marlin with faded pigment is instantly a feast for sharks. At full strength, the marlin is shark-proof.

I describe how Caleb, our wire man, holds the creature close to our hull, talks softly, strokes his bill. The boat cruising at a super slow speed allows water to circulate through the gills. Caleb swims him until we see the marlin’s deep purple and green stripes glow, then removes the hook. The marlin, whose jaws are capable of crushing a human hand, gently bites down twice on Caleb’s to indicate he is ready to go. Caleb releases him. Still brushing our gunwale, this great creature rises above it, remains suspended for a timeless moment:

we gaze into
the perfect roundness of his eye
……………….watch the boundary
…………………….between us
………………………dissolve
……………….glimpse

in that great wink of eternity

………..the Divine Child

……….watch him swim
……………..away

………..the unconscious
………….conscious of
……………..itself

When I‘ve finished, people linger for Q & A. The blonde woman who had been working the register when I came in, wants to know more about what I saw in the depths of that perfectly round eye. The question brings tears to mine. I have a hard time describing that gaze, so deeply knowing.  Except to say that it continues to gaze at me, locates me in my own depths, a primordial moment that endures as an inexpressible word on the ocean’s tongue.

And then, to release the catch? Inconceivable for most, especially for those who troll the waters around this island.

“There’s no choice, if you truly recognize the intelligence you’re dealing with.”

 “Is it hard to release it, watch it swim away?” a thin young man with a piratical blue do-rag tied around his head wants to know.

“How do you say goodbye to one who takes a part of you with them?”

A greybeard in a watch cap, about my age, comments on my image of Vietnamese fishermen in dugouts pulling up silver splinters of light on multiple hooks. He has seen them too, on the South China Sea, and appears comforted by the memory.

An elderly women in L.L. Bean jacket lets me know she is well into her eighties and regularly fishes from her dingy in Katama Bay.

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Good Directions

image009John Marin: Marin Island

I remember that in the tale, Parzival is told by a man fishing from the back of a boat that he can find shelter in a castle not far away. But he must follow the fisherman’s directions, proceed up the road, make a left, and then cross a drawbridge. Parzival is unaware that this is the Fisher King himself guiding him to the Grail Castle, or that in symbolic terms the left is the direction of the unconscious, the side sinister.

The road is flat, lined intermittently by low stone walls framing oak, and white pine hedged by meadows and wetlands. We wind through Tisbury, and Chilmark, past an untended graveyard where John Belushi is buried. A mile beyond that landmark we find Menemsha Road, make a right, snake up hill, admiring private homes tucked into the hills. Night Heron Lane, a name that foreshadows the least bittern, comes up quickly. We turn left, and continue climbing. Soon Carol points to the unsigned road on our right, thickly wooded and flanked by huckleberry, bayberry and the occasional white oak saplings. We have followed the directions faithfully.

“This must be it,” Carol’s voice is hushed “The entrance to Ardetta Exilis.”

I steer the silver Hyundai between imposing stone pillars eight feet high on to a graded gravel road that curves gently up a wooded slope. We level off past a grassy alcove hedged by rhododendrons on my side, before opening on Carol’s side into an informal Japanese garden, featuring a pond surrounded by weeping maples. This careful balance of art and nature announces a domain created by a precise and prosperous hand.

image010Toyen (Marie Cerminova): Eclipse

I stop a few feet from a structure resembling a Mayan stele or Egyptian boundary marker planted in the ground where the road loops right into unseen territory. We get out of the car and walk over. This stele is made of a polymer material that might be mistaken for translucent marble. There are words engraved on it, which turns out to be a poem. In two four line stanzas the poet asks us to consider which is most frightening, an indifferent or hostile universe.

“One of his,” I tell her.

The mutual friend who had introduced us thought that Justin and I, two fishermen/poets, might have something to say to each other. This had prompted an exchange of books, along with a few brief emails. I’d been touched by the unornamented severity of his memoir. But the same quality in Justin’s poems left me unmoved, indifferent rather than dismissive. Whatever we might have to say to each other had not seemed pressing as I read his writings. But now, having entered his world, I’m curious.

“Do we abandon all hope?” My wife strays to the edge of the Japanese garden.

“Not yet.”

I follow her to a bench beneath the weeping cherry tree. We sit. Neither of us know what to expect, but I fill her in as best I can, starting with details I recall from his memoir.

Justin was born to an Irish mother from Hell’s Kitchen on the upper West Side. The family had owned a bucket-of-blood bar on Broadway. Her brother, an avid fisherman, and a Westie, had taken a bullet in a gang related incident. She met her future husband at her brother’s wake, the Captain of a charter boat out of Montauk. After they married, she moved to Sag Harbor, and never went back. Her only child, Justin, grew up a working class Bonacker, or “bub”, tags most island locals wore with pride. Justin never identified with either. There are photos of him as a wiry boy with curly locks, his jaw set as befits one under his father’s thumb. He is alone in each of the black and white photos, one taken beside a bicycle, the other in front of the boat. Justin excelled at school, but otherwise spent his time securing lines, gutting fish, and cleaning up after rich customers—until he escaped on scholarship to Harvard, graduate work at Oxford, and then to a career in international finance. Evidence would indicate success.

image011Herman Maril: Province Town

 It’s a long way from a peninsula at the tip of Long Island’s south fork to this gardens in the Menemsha Hills. Hands that once dispensed chum, the smelly stew of fish parts, bones and blood thrown into the water as bait, now held a British passport and the key to rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he spent at least half of his year. He also has an apartment in London’s elegant Palace Gate.  This house in the Vineyard may be as close as he gets to his blue-collar Bonacker roots at the end of Long Island.

While I often fished out of Montauk on party boats, the pricey charters were always financially out of my childhood reach. It’s just possible though that Justin and I crossed paths as teenagers on the dock. I’ve spent enough time in that world to imagine what it was like to grow up as he did, and why he felt compelled to escape it.

Less familiar, is the world in which he now lives.

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Be Welcome Here

We continue up the drive to a parking area in front of a circular blue stone terrace where a weathered woman in denim coveralls, her silver hair piled on her head, waves us into a parking space. Her dark eyes are wide set above broad cheeks. It’s hard to judge her age, but it is north of forty. She welcomes us to Ardetta Exilis.

“Did you have trouble finding us? First timers often do.”

“It feels like a separate world,” observes Carol.

“What’s left of our ancestral lands.”

image012Djorde Ozbolt: Monkey Business

She is quick to let us know that she’s a full blooded Wampanoag, who traces her line back to the great chief Massasoit. Even with her coiled silver hair, and in work clothes, she radiates dignity. I think of her as “princess.” She helps us carry our backpacks and carry bags up a hill that flattens into a field bounded at one end by a forest. Through a gap in the vegetation she points out a view of the Aquinnah cliffs.  We follow her to the guest cottage, a grey cape perched on a raised deck that offers a view of the ocean trough a tangle of windswept pines.

“This is the highest point on the island,” she tells us. “Over three-hundred feet.”

Our princess opens the sliding glass door, then invites us to enter. In spite of the rustic exterior, the appointments inside include brass bathroom fixtures, comforters stuffed with the finest down, and flower arrangements flanking silver trays of dried fruits and trail mix. Our princess waits for us to take it all in, before instructing us to feel free to explore the grounds or rest, but that we will be dining tonight with our host. The path at the far side of the meadow follows the ocean and leads eventually to the Main House.

We’re expected there at 8:00 PM.

“Please,” she adds before taking her leave, “try to be on time.”

.

In the Zone

We start out early. The path runs through a forest of Bonsai pines, their limbs artfully twisted by strong winds. Beyond it, parallel rows of solar foot-lights are reminiscent of a miniature landing strip. Their glow lines a gravel path across a lawn that slopes to a ridge on the right. We walk to the edge, where a rocky slope drops to a beach sixty feet below carpeted with smooth round stones. The light appears to be falling fast. S/W of us clay-faced bluffs burn red in the last rays of the sun. Los ultimos rayos del sol.

image013Arthur Dove: Red Sunset

Carol points to a steep descent along a trail flanked by huckleberry, and bayberry. On the west side of the slope white oak saplings flank the trail to a look out, and from there a cedar and fir stairway descends to the beach. Small waves break soundlessly. A red-tailed hawk circles above them. Carol would like to go down there, feel the spray.

I touch my watch. No time for a detour. But she holds my arm, and we linger there, details in a painting where light spills over the bluffs like blood from the wound in a darkening sky. Before the sun disappears, we break the spell and head back to the path edged by dwarf conifers. Solar lights glow like fireflies that lead us to a pond, where they end at a wooden foot bridge. Just beyond the bridge, a blue stone patio borders the two story structure of stone, wood and glass at the crest of the hill. It is a hybrid of modernist and Romanesque forms. A wall of tinted glass rests on a fortress of weathered grey shingles incorporating cathedral windows and an entrance set into a gothic arch.

“Ardetta Exiles,” whispers Carol.

Our shared but unspoken sense of the occasion is now clear: what started off as a trip has turned into a pilgrimage. Two stone benches on the patio convey the peacefulness of a medieval monastery. Carved oak doors rise the full height of their gothic niche. It is clear that beyond the entrance, the walls disappear behind a wall of arbor vitae to occupy considerably more space than meets the eye.

“It’s an eyrie,” I reply.

“I agree,” Carol squeezes my hand. “Very eerie.”

“Not that,” I clarify. “Ardetta Exiles, the bittern’s nest.”

image014Percival’s Quest, 1385-1390

A carved wooden door set into the niche rises to a vaulted ceiling. Strips of glass on either side of the door allows a peek into the ante-chamber. I can’t find a bell, so reach for the brass knocker shaped like an eagle’s claw. Before I can bring it down, a shape appears on the other side of the glass.

The man who opens the door wears a navy cashmere crew neck over white ducks and boat shoes. I barely recognize him from the black and white photos in his memoir. Justin’s once curly locks have thinned, spun gold turned reddish and threaded with grey. He bows slightly, then stands back to let us in. As I wonder if he is permanently bent like a question mark, he straightens to his full height, I guess at 6’3” or thereabouts.

“I believe we’re on time.” I enter, Carol close behind me.

“Perfect.” His voice is soft, almost apologetic. “Forgive me. We keep only a small staff, so I must answer the door myself. Come in.”

image015Frank Auerbach: Head of E.O.W. (1955)

Justin’s head appears too small for his body, but his clean shaven face, curiously unlined except for grooves bracketing his mouth, makes his age impossible to judge. The most striking features are his blue-grey eyes. They catch mine like fish hooks, then release me.

“Please.”

Justin takes our jackets and folds them neatly on the bench to his right. His long-fingered hands are tapered, almost delicate, in contrast to his corded neck common to certain thin men whose muscles are like cables. His shoulders are slightly bent in the manner of one who must gaze down at others. When he leads us into the vestibule, he appears off balance, as if one leg were a millimeter shorter than the other. A skylight in the entry way illuminates an abstract painting. Justin draws our attention to it.

“de Kooning,” I guess, thinking it one of the Untitled series he painted in the 70s.

“Auerbach,” Justin corrects me. “Our greatest living painter.”

A few steps beyond we stop in front of a cubist assemblage on a pedestal. It stands at the arched entrance to a dimly lit room. Steel straps wrap a green vertical chess board. I could picture it in a garden by a wading pool, a New Age sundial.

“David Smith?”

“No,” Justin gentles my ignorance. “It’s a Caro. Chamber Music. If you listen closely, it sings.”

Caro nome…” says my wife.

“Ah, you know Rigoletto.” Justin’s face lights up for a moment, then becomes stern. “I mean Anthony Caro. The music his sculpture makes isn’t an aria, from the heart, but structural, detached, like the vibration NASA captures in the planetary rings, Uranian music.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever hear such music,” Carol is thoughtful

Justin steeples his fingers in front of his lips. He takes her in.

“Keats tells us, unheard music is the sweetest,” I observe.

Justin is less impressed with me. He takes Carol’s arm. She steps closer to the assemblage. “Bend closer.”

“Ah, I hear it,” she says, rising after moments of fixed attention. “The whispered song in a chambered nautilus.”

“Indeed.” He lets go of her arm, and, as if to balance the moment, addresses me. “Caro made this piece in the 60s. I found it in his studio shortly before his death last year at eighty-nine.”

We cross the threshold into the next room, which is also dimly lit. On the far side I can see a picture windows framing the night sky. When he turns up the lights, the world bursts into color. Paintings of all descriptions float on white walls, luminous as reef fish. Glazed ceramics, dyed weavings and metal sculptures glow on shelves and in niches like shards of the spectrum. Carol and I are stunned.

image016Kenneth Armitage: People in the Wind

A monumental Anselm Kiefer dominates one wall with its mottled surface, lattices of blacks and golds floating like clouds in a white and blue sky above a field of wild flowers, and mountains on the horizon. Running through the sculptural topography of ridges and charged particles there is the suggestion of train tracks in the field. I think they must lead to Auschwitz.

Jerusalem,” he all but sighs. “This way.”

Justin leads through an arch on the other side of the painting, but cautions us to be careful. There are three steps leading down into the dining room. As he takes the steps I note again his slight but definite limp. He walks to the head of a table surrounded by cathedral-back chairs. The space can seat twelve comfortably. Tonight it is set for four. He pulls out the chair on his right for Carol, then indicates the one to his left for me. The fourth place at the other end remains empty. Each place is set with delft china and Waterford crystal. Wild flowers—violets, dog roses, primrose, black eyed-Susan, orange cornflower, red trillium, buttercup and purple phlox decorate the center.

I’m comforted by Carol’s smile facing me across the table, then direct my attention to what is on the wall behind her. A rectangular canvas in a plain metal frame features a beefy young woman, dark hair pinned back, in a white satin sleeveless dress and toe-shoe on her one exposed foot. Her other leg folded under her, she sits on a chair with her left arm plunged into a long black boot which she polishes with the cloth in her other hand, back to a window in the stone wall. What’s most remarkable about this work is the way moonlight floods the room with shadows, at the edge of which a cat stands on two legs looking up at the sky. I see elements of Balthus, and Magritte, but know it’s neither of them.

image017Paula Rego: Angel

“Latin American.” I guess. “Botero?”

“Nice try.” His frown lines deepen when he smiles. “Paula Rego. The Policeman’s Daughter.

image018Paula Rego: House Underground

Rego, he tells us, is Portuguese, though she’s long been a resident of the UK. We learn that she is highly respected in the English art world, and has been honored by the Queen. Justin knows Dame Paula, has spent time at her studio. He describes her work as darkly childlike, dominated by grotesque fairytale figures in narratives that hint at sexual secrets. This one, between father and daughter.

A tall, expensively preserved woman in her fifties interrupts our host when she enters from the kitchen behind me. She has salt and pepper hair cut boyishly close. Her pale face defined by “good bones,” is webbed with fine lines, but tight skin around her mouth and jaw hint at cosmetic surgery. Makeup, skillfully applied, heightens the color in her cheeks and lips. A white cardigan over designer jeans relieves the formality of her presentation without cheapening it. Her voice is soft, and slightly accented.

“Good evening. So glad you could come.”

“This is Violette, my fourth wife.” Justin rises briefly.

“I hope you’re not vegetarians.” Her voice betrays a hint of an accent. She shakes our hands before taking a seat facing her husband at the other end.

“Violette is French, more precisely, Parisian.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed,” Carol told her.

“All those years at the American School,” Violette replied.

“And at Cornell,” commented her husband. “She’s a vet.”

“Large animals. Mostly horses,” his wife pours claret from a crystal decanter beside her husband, then moves to her seat at the opposite end of the table.

“There will be a warm port later, to wash down the daube, which Violette has prepared.”

“I hope you like daube,” she says.

“We had a memorable daube several years ago in Normandy,” I tell her.

“I think of it as a variation on beef stew,” Justin toasts. “Bon appetit.”

Carol observes that Justin seems to know most of the painters on display here personally.

“He makes a point of it,” his wife replies. Violette rings the bell at her end.

Our princess, the Wampanoag woman who greeted us this afternoon emerges from the kitchen, followed by a man who might be her husband carrying a silver tureen: the daube has arrived. They are both dressed in white shirts and black pants, familiar servers’ colors. The man places the tureen in front of our host, besides a stack of porcelain bowls. The smell of vegetables and meat well-seasoned with herbes de Provence increases when Justin removes the lid.

Deliberately, as if he’s peeling skin from a grape, Justin serves dinner.

I ask him about Anselm Kiefer, a favorite artist of ours. Kiefer’s breathtaking Let the Earth Open and Bring Forth a Savior, has drawn us again and again to MASS MoCA, the museum in N. Adams Mass., since 2008. Justin shakes his head sadly.  Kiefer has become complacent, he says. Paula Rego continues working despite health issues. Frank Auerbach, he repeats, remains the great genius of our time. At eighty-five he is as productive as ever, and uninterested in the marketplace even though his work increases exponentially in value by the day.

image019Anselm Kiefer: Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior

“The marketplace has been good to you,” I observe.

“People I do business with know me well.” He fixes me with translucent blue eyes, then smiles ever so slightly. “As we speak, I’m in the process of letting go of a company I built years ago to create a new one. I do it with minimal stress.”

“Almost casually?”

“Exactly.” He rolls past any suggestion of irony. “My great love, beside art, is the sea.”

“One we share,” I remark.

Justin is quick to let me know that here, too, I’m out of my depth. He has crossed the Atlantic in small crafts three times—most recently on the 38 footer. The earlier ocean crossings he made with other men. He will make the next one alone.

“I’m sailing my boat to Naushon Island tomorrow morning. Five miles to the North Shore in Buzzards Bay.”

“Sounds like a good life,” I observe.

“Not without its challenges.” His voice softens.

I agree. No life is free of difficulties.

“He’s referring to his son and third wife.” Wife number four gossips openly. “Others in his family, also, who will go unnamed.”

“Many depend on me. And I take care of them all.” His tone changes from confession to something harder edged. “I care for them, but not about them.”

“Really?” Carol is piqued.

“I don’t get emotionally involved.”

Justin declares as a point of pride that he doesn’t trust emotion, which includes love, vows of all kinds, gratitude, and promises. His jaw and neck tighten visibly, then release.

“What do you trust?” Carol asks him.

“One thing only: the human need for protection. I’m willing to provide this for others, according to my code. After I’m gone, that ends.”

“What do you mean?” my wife leans forward.

image020Francis Bacon: Lucien Freud

“Tell them,” Violette’s frown lines deepen. When he hesitates, she continues: “He’s leaving all his wealth, including his art, to charity—nothing to his son who has not lived up to his expectations.”

“It must be difficult to live up to the expectations of one who has accomplished so much,” I keep my tone neutral.

“That’s true. Children of men like me don’t fare well.”

Justin’s tone is flat, but something flickers in his eyes. For a second I glimpse the wounded bait boy from Montauk with the hands of an artist, one who spent his childhood cleaning other people’s fish. I wonder if we passed each other on the dock as kids, and if we had, would I have noticed, or remembered him?

Violette rings the bell.

Her minions are almost invisible in their ministrations. The man whom I guess to be a Wampanoag too, clears the table, then helps the princess bring in individually built dishes of fruit compote. Our host becomes animated again and pours four snifters of deep red port to go with the dessert. He then turn his attention to Carol.

“And you, who know the words to Caro nome…?”

“I’m a private voice teacher.” She sings a few words from Gilda’s aria in Rigoletto.

Justin becomes visibly intrigued. He probes further, listens attentively to Carol talk about her training, and early career as an operatic soprano. She has performed with the original Wolf Trap Company, in the Bernstein Mass, sung with the Philadelphia Symphony, but at one point found a professional career too stressful to pursue. Instead, she has taught music in the public schools until her retirement five years ago.

“I have my own voice studio, and work with a few aspiring performers, but mostly young people involved with theater. I find it very rewarding.”

image021Dragon King

Justin nods, then inclines his head as if hearing something inaudible to the rest of us, and then, in a light, but not unmusical baritone, sings:

La ci darem la mano,

La mi dirai di si,

Vedi, non e lontano,

Partiam, ben mio, da qui.

Carol hardly notices he is touching her hand, and responds in her haunting soprano:

Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor.
Felice, e ver, sarei,
Ma puo burlarmi ancor.

“Mozart. Don Giovanni,” says Justin.

“Don Giovani attempts to seduce Zerlina,” Carol explains. “La ci darem la mano, ‘We will take each other’s hands.’”

“My favorite duet,” he says, then half-sings the words. “’Andiam, andiam…come, come with me and reawaken the pleasure of innocent love.’”

“But Elvira, whom he has already seduced, interrupts him.” It is Carol, in this case, who interrupts our host.

Justin’s long fingers linger on her wrist, before he withdraws them. But not his gaze.

“It doesn’t end well for the Don,” my wife continues. “In the end he refuses to repent and a chorus of demons take him down to hell.”

“The poor baritone is undone.” Justin apologizes. “As you can see, beside art and fishing, my other great passion is opera.”

“I thought you didn’t trust emotion?” Carol reminds him.

“Except in opera,” comments Violette.

“I’m not at all sentimental.” Justin glances at his current wife, then turns his attention back to mine. “But I have powerful desires.”

“My very own Don Giovanni,” Violette’s voice falls to a whisper. “And he, too, is unrepentant.”

His jaw tightens again. This time, it doesn’t release. In that bait-boy voice, his eyes still fixed on Carol, he confesses to being a great philanderer.

“It’s the only thing I learned from my father, besides how to fish and captain a boat.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Carol’s voice breaks. She is genuinely moved.

“A question for you.” I intervene, attempting to mask my chagrin.

“All right.” Reluctantly, he turns toward me.

“Do you consider your impact on others?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your entire presentation from the moment we walked in has been a demonstration of your power. And now you sing the part of Don Giovanni gazing at my wife as if you’re about to invoke the Droit de seigneur.”

Justin appears surprised to hear this stated so boldly. He at first steadies himself as if to fend off an insult, but recovers in seconds. A smile crosses his face.

“Of course,” he replies. “You could read it that way.”

Intending to disarm him and to touch the core of his wound, I ask: “Was it hard to meet your father’s expectations?”

Justin takes a deep breath, then nods. “I forgot, you’re a psychotherapist.” His voice is almost raw. “I did everything he asked of me on the boat. I was cook, mate, rigger, and fisherman. My father thought that everything else had little value, including my wealth, art, or intellectual achievement.

What you see here, my ‘presentation’ as you put it, would have meant nothing to him.”

I suspect that his father’s rejection of what the world now considers his son’s accomplishments, utterly devalues them for Justin. Without a doubt, my question has pierced through, but instead of healing his wound, has opened it up. I realize that I wielded my challenge like a sword, as Amfortas did when he betrayed the Grail.

I recall Parzival’s question. The one he failed to ask which now perches on the edge of my tongue: What ails thee?

But I can’t get it out.

Try as I may to manage my response, his defenses have triggered my aggression rather than my compassion. Although ashamed, I am defiant. I’m also more aware than Parzival was on his first visit, and this changes everything.

What ails thee?

Would Justin find the question naïve? Whatever I surmise about his condition, he is surrounded by abundance and gives from it what he deems necessary to those he must, and those he favors.

All else is post mortem.

After coffee and fresh fruit compote, I am ready to leave. I fold my napkin and place it beside the empty crystal. Carol follows suit. As I stand, and as my wife pushes back her chair, a hint of panic flushes his cheeks.

“Au revoir,” says Violette. “I’m going riding in the morning and probably won’t have a chance to see you.”

We exchange European ghost kisses with wife number four, and prepare to leave.

“A few more minutes of your time, please.” Justin faces us. “I know you’re tired. It won’t take long. There’s something I want to show you.”

.

image022Paula Rego: Vanitas (pastel, 2006)

There is a new note in his voice, a compelling urgency. Violette and the princess have already started clearing the table. Our host indicates that we should turn right, to another wing of the house. We follow him through corridors displaying art work by blue chip painters, sculptors and ceramicists, to a landing where we stand at the rail of a balcony that looks down at a floor below. Justin points to the spiral staircase a few feet away. We descend single file down into the belly of the castle. I’m reminded of the unrepentant Don Giovanni sinking into hell surrounded by a chorus of demons and I half-fear what we might find—a dungeon outfitted with leather whips and electronic sex-toys for practices not inconsistent with the humiliation he experienced as a child.

But I am wrong.

Justin wants to show us his secret place. It is dimly lit, without windows or mirrors. This is his temenos, a sanctuary where he feels safe and, perhaps, even whole.

The space resembles a cathedral—not through any architectural intention, but in the almost shrine-like arrangement of contents beneath a vaulted ceiling. State-of-the-art Bose speakers like icons rise from perches on the walls. Amplifiers, monitors and support equipment all have their own niches. At the center of the room, elevated a foot above the floor on a wooden platform, a black leather chair with a headrest waits with open arms. A headset and a remote rest on end tables on either side.

It is a throne.

Carol and I have been given an audience, are the audience, in this throne room surrounded by invisible courtiers— tenors, baritones, sopranos and mezzos. CDs and vinyl, arranged on tiers of shelves like rungs on a heavenly ladder no doubt hold a peerless collection of music, especially opera. The throne is placed optimally for balanced sound. It can swivel, or be adjusted for comfort at any in angle of repose.

image023Robert Fludd: Temple of Music

Of all his worldly possessions, the ones in this chamber are not for display. Everything here, he confides, exists for him alone. He has felt compelled to bring us here thanks to Carol. In spite of his protestations, her response to his sculpture with Caro nome, and in the duet La ci darem la mano… her Zerlina to his Don Giovanni has opened Justin’s heart. And then I, too, have pierced it with my question. Even if I haven’t fully understood how, I have penetrated his the shield of his wealth, his palace of defenses to realize his struggle all along has been with the Charter Boat Captain, the philandering father, who saw in his son only what he despised in himself.

And I grasp that it’s a wound we share. How else could I have seen it in him, if it weren’t mine as well!

“I am happiest when I come here,” he tells us. “I don’t need anything or anyone else. And I am never lonely. Let the world do what the world does, as long as I can sit in that chair and listen to Maria Callas.”

Quickly, Justin selects a record from a shelf, sets it on the turntable, adjusts the earphones, and then ascends the throne. He picks up the remote, locates the cut he is looking for, then clicks it. At that moment, his eyes close, his head falls back, rests on the chair, then jerks forward and twists, like the torsos of Michelangelo’s prisoners struggling to liberate their still imprisoned bodies from uncarved marble. He clicks the remote and the voice of Maria Callas fills the room with Tosca’s lament, Vissi d’arte.

His features compress, then release from what appeared an unbearable moment of agony. And then I see his cheek is wet, but without a trace of tears.

.

Reeling In

image024John Marin: Sunset, Casco Bay

We are packed and ready to leave Ardetta Exiles a few minutes after 7:00 AM. Only the conifers stir in a sea breeze. We walk from the guest quarters to the main house hoping to thank our host and say goodbye. No one answers my claw-hammer knock at the door. Justin told us that he’d be leaving early to catch the tide on his trip to the privately owned Naushon Island, where only invited guests are allowed access. Violette, his fourth wife, let us know she had plans to go riding in the morning, and said her good-bye after dessert. She keeps a horse at a stable nearby, where one of her companions, a former Olympic dressage competitor,  often accompanies her.

“I wish we could’ve talked more,” says Carol. “She reminds me of Don Giovanni’s spurned lover, Elvira.”

“How does it end for her?”

“She enters a convent. But before that, Elvira gets to sing a great angry aria.”

Back in the parking lot, we search for the princess. This descendent of Massasoit exhibited the rare balance and wisdom of natural royalty, even as she served and cleared someone else’s table.  I’d hoped to thank her for making us feel at home, but neither she nor her male companion are in evidence.

Belted into our  Hyundai, we start back down the road along which we arrived the day before.  In the stillness that accompanies our departure I feel like Parzival leaving the Grail Castle, haunted by the specter of missed opportunity.

image025Peter Reginato: Yellow Interior

Justin protests that his solitude is sufficient. It doesn’t matter if anybody sees what hangs on his walls or hears what he hears in the depths of his castle. For all of his material abundance, cultivated esthetic, imperial assumptions, he remains Amfortas. The voice of his suffering continues unheard in its own operatic frequency.

“Why are you frowning?” asks Carol.

 “Not sure.”

Again, I’m seized by a sense of personal failure. I’d missed the point of the dinner at Ardetta Exiles, and the challenge posed by my host. It was easy to look into Justin’s face and see his wounded pride, but not my own. Instead of resonating to his buried grief, I’d fed my envy.

“Have you figured it out?” my wife pursues.

“The name Parzival means ‘to pierce, to break though’. I ruffled his defenses, but failed to breach them.”

“Or you own” she says.

We drive past the default question our host has graved in polymer: What frightens us most, the indifference or hostility of the universe?

Beyond the stone pillars, we turn onto the road that will lead us back to the ferry from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole.

“What’s to become of Justin?” I ask aloud.

“You tell me.”

“What if the Fisher King were to disappear completely, or become like the neutrino, a particle that leaves no footprint but binds the world?”

My wife smiles. “Would that change what’s in your heart?”

image026Kusama: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
(light installation at the Tate Modern)

I glance up into the rearview mirror. As I do so, an image appears in another mirror at the back of my head where a moment ago there had been neither image nor mirror. The unhealed Fisher King, crowned by earphones, listening to Maria Callas sing—not Gilda from Rigoletto, or Zerlina from Don Giovanni—but an aria by Puccini.  The shock of her voice pouring from those Bose speakers, filling the room with Tosca’s lament when she fears that her God has abandoned her. It begins:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore
I lived for art, I lived for love

And ends:

Perchem, perche, Signor
Ah, perche me ne rimuneri cosi?
Why, why Lord
Do you repay me like this?

And this is what I’m left with, the image of Justin on his throne. Long after it dissolved, I can feel the aftershock of his unbearable pain and invisible tears.

.

Dancing in the End Zone

image027Wayne Atherton: Everything Is Permitted (collage)

We feast on clam chowder in the open air on the ferry’s top deck. Later, as we cross Buzzard’s Bay on the Bourne Bridge, it is comforting to drive in silence, each of us attending the theaters of our discrete minds.  After a long straight drive on the Mass Pike we pass into New York State. After so much time in New England it looks unkempt. This is abundantly evident as we approach Albany on the other side of the Hudson. The State Capital is a bizarre assemblage of architectural periods conjuring the archeological remains of an incoherent civilization: Rockefeller’s modernist Empire State Plaza with its three phallic white tombstones and the other worldly entertainment center, The Egg, nested at its center, mingle with 19th Century row houses, beside Gothic  and multi-arched Romanesque revival buildings like the State Capital.

“Home again,” I observe.

“Are you ready for re-entry?”

“I’m working on it.”

It occurs to me that in our time the Fisher King might exist not as a figure to be healed, but one who wakes us to ourselves by remaining unhealed. A post-modern Parzival’s attempt to heal him must fail. When I share this with her, she points out that I did affect Justin with my question, even if I’d asked it in anger.

“The attempt may fail, but not the longing to heal. In spite of your anger, you wanted to get through to him.”

“Personally, I’m looking forward to poached salmon, and a glass of wine.” I yawn. “Then early to bed.”

“If you’re tired, I can drive.” she says.

“We’ll open a bottle of Breca,” I tell her. It’s our favorite Spanish red.

We turn right at Albany on the elevated highway that crosses the Hudson to 787 North along the river to Troy. We take this as far as the exit to 7 East towards Saratoga. I reconsider Parzival’s question, what ails thee or me?  The answer, I conclude, is numbness.

image028Roy Laewetz: Three Fishing Ladies (detail)

I search for the mystery once evoked by the image of a fisherman in the mist on the stern of a skiff. I am having difficulty feeling anything that expresses the awe and fascination once posed by The Wounded Fisher King.

“Stay to the right,” my wife directs me. “We turn off here.”

“I see it.”

“What are you feeling?” asks Carol.

“Lost,” I tell her.

.

I’m careful to negotiate the next turn that arcs right, then twists left to 87 North without a hitch. After merging on to the Adirondack Northway, I adjust the Cruise Control to the 75 mph that is consistent with the flow of traffic.

“Let’s stop at the Price Chopper,” says Carol. “I think we need salad, vegetables, and maybe a baguette.”

“Is it conceivable that in the course of time Amfortas might have become so disconnected and that he turns into Justin?”

“And if your wound went unaddressed for ten centuries?”

“You were right from the start,” I admit. “This only makes sense if Parzival and Amfortas are two split off parts of a single psyche.”

image030Albrecht Durer: Melancolia I (detail)

We get off the Northway at Exit #18. A few minutes later we pull into our driveway in front of the white ranch at 55 Garfield Street in Glens Falls, NY, home of Bob & Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America”. I take comfort in this, and the “quantum uncertainty” in which a particle can exist everywhere and nowhere, until consciousness connects subject to object and we see as we are seen. Carol removes her backpack from the trunk, and hands me mine.

image029Paula Rego: Dame with a Goat’s Foot

“It’s good to be home,” says my Queen of Cups, as she takes my arm with her free hand on our way to the door.

.

In Search of the World Soul: An Afterword

If life is to be sustained hope must remain,
even where confidence is wounded,
and trust impaired.”

—Erik Erikson

.

By all accounts, in his early years, Carl Jung was terrified at the prospect of being so internally split that he would forever suffer from a psychic Amfortas wound.   Later, in 1959, during a BBC interview, in response to the idea that collective dissociation would at some point reach a critical mass, Jung observed: You know, man doesn’t stand forever his nullification.

image031Darren Tunnicliff: Quantum Entanglement through Time

Jung pointed out that the latent intelligence of the deep psyche, what we call the unconscious, responds to painful conflicts under pressure, over time, with the dreams and symbols that help us to understand them. The Grail is such a symbol. It arose from the growing disconnection between Eros and agape, the elevation of spirit in a devalued physical world. Wolfram’s Parzival tells us that the Grail’s wounded custodian, the Fisher King, can be released from suffering by one who becomes conscious that he shares such a wound. Jung’s calls this process in which the solution to a systemic conflict emerges the Transcendent Function.

The embedded intelligence from which symbols, and myth arise is autonomous. It doesn’t depend upon or necessarily reference discursive intellect. Often, the shifts in attitude take place under the radar and are communicated in the language of dreams. The deep nature of conflict addressed at this level can’t be resolved by reason or custom. And the resolution arrived at can only be described in the telling or enactment of a myth.

Wolfram gives us a myth within a myth which locates the origin of his tale in a war waged in heaven between the angels of light and darkness. It is the neutral angels who descend to deliver the Grail, a symbol of wholeness, to us. Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd Century also speculated that the creation of the world as we know it was born as an answer to heavenly conflict.

In our time, quantum physics has shed light on what earlier had been beyond our grasp: at a sub-atomic level matter and energy, particle and wave, are interchangeable. The speed and direction of these particles can’t be known at the same time, and the form one will take depends as much on the observer as the observed, and can be discussed only in terms of probability. The relationship of energy to matter exists as fact, but remains unimaginable to the naked eye. This resolution is a measure of our time, free of symbolic/mythic content. At best, it leaves us with uncertainty.

I remain drawn to the idea of the Fisher King, but he, too, has become difficult to recognize. The myth in which he is rooted compels me, but no longer describes the challenges that shape my world—the G-Force rate of change, geometries recognizable only in virtual space, the suspended alternatives of “super states,” and a cosmology that points to a multi-dimensional universe.

How might any prospective Parzival penetrate the intuition of a realm beyond intuition?

Physicist Irwin Schrodinger’s model of the atom as a solar-system fell apart because the image no longer described the electron’s behavior. Without it, the atom became unimaginable. Wolfgang Pauli, who’d deconstructed it, assured his colleagues that an image would emerge in time to embody what waited faceless in the dark. Albert Einstein understood that the mystery of our condition is more deeply apprehended when it looks back at us. If not, we are gazing into the abyss. Without recognizable landmarks, we are lost at sea.

                                                                    *

I glimpsed the Grail in the marlin’s eye, and immediately recognized what stared back at me as “the Divine Child.” In my book, Fishing on the Pole Star, I record watching “the unconscious conscious of itself” swim away on release to disappear into the primordial depths. What good is that unless something is born from it, seed of my heart-break?

I remember that glimpse even as I reel in the projections of our collective fears. They are recycled Victorian nightmares with a post-modern flourish: Dr. Frankenstein masters the genome, Dracula transforms into a vampire rock-star, only to be superseded by legions of viral zombies which define our war with creeping numbness. I cling to the hope that longing, even expressed as anger, will “pierce through” the callous thickening around our humanity. It is unclear what might deliver our cultural psyche under the assault of constant stimulation that leaves us dumb in an avalanche of words.

image 30Arthur Dove: Me and the Moon

The neutral angels might want to reconsider their strategy and take the Grail back to the war in heaven—reboot the Transcendent Function.

This is not where I thought my troll would end, with a suspicion that the entire mythos, and the psychological underpinnings of symbol formation itself, are no longer reliable.

I began this journey trolling with the Fisher King, and ended it with Justin, crowned by headphones, weeping for the doomed singer, Tosca, who rises on soiled wings to relocate human pain in the sublime. Justin as wounded Amfortas points to what we are both missing, the divine breath that carries such a voice:  Vissi d’arte, I lived for art/ Vissi d’amore, I lived for love. In Tosca we glimpse the World Soul, the interstitial presence connecting visible and invisible realms. Not a particle that leaves no footprint, unless it is possible to imagine a suffering neutrino.  Tosca, a recognizable aspect of the World Soul reminds me of words by Leo Stein: “Though the mole is blind, the earth is one.    

The World Soul exists in and out of time.

The philosopher Alfred Whitehead suggests the World Soul has two components, the unchanging primordial, and the consequent nature that shares our experience. The Primordial abides but is informed by the consequent that unfolds in space-time, shares in our suffering and joy, and is changed by it. From that point of view, the archetype of the Fisher King, like all expressions of eternal forms, is beyond our grasp. What we visualize as the Fisher King, the figure on the stern of a skiff, is our idea of the archetype, and subject to events beyond our control. It is possible, even inevitable, that changes will re-shape the ideas we thought unchanging in ways that make them unrecognizable, like gods disguised as beggars.

image 31Wayne Atherton: Spider Mind

Wolfram makes it plain that neutral angels brought the Grail to earth to save it. More than the danger posed by warring angels, the Grail’s descent into our world replicates the Transcendent Function, the active principle of the World Soul. A symbol, Jung tells us, is alive to the extent that it expresses “the immutable structure of the unconscious.” Only such a symbol and healing mythos can address the challenge that pits us against our “nullification.”     

We live at the center of a mystery that nothing prior to the present moment can cipher, uncertain how the Transcendent Function will eventually respond to what can’t be imagined.

Something vital to the World Soul pins us to the production of symbols, myths, and dreams that inform its primordial aspect, and the consequent one in space-time that flows in sympathy with our condition. It may be that I no longer recognize the Fisher King or Parzival as I had at one time conceived of them. The changes to our archetypal ideas may be our greatest hedge against nullification. The Grail, that had been an external principle of restoration and balance, may best be realized now as an internal potential. We are each us a Grail, in which warring and neutral  angels continue to give birth to the Transcendent Function.

This is where we find ourselves
On soiled angels’ wings
This is the way we come to the end
The way the end comes to us

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—by Paul Pines

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Pines_Paul

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

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Jun 082016
 

Patrick Modiano Nobel announcement 2014

Patrick Modiano at Swedish Academy Press conference 2014Patrick Modiano at the Swedish Academy’s press conference 2014 (via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

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1.

When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature, not very many people knew who he was. This was a delicious irony, if you had ever read any of his novels. Modiano’s work, when seen as a whole, is like a patchwork quilt, his books forming a coherent design, related by pattern, theme, and sometimes character, each one revolving around a fugitive, enigmatic narrator. Sometimes the narrator searches through the rare fragments of his past, trying to shed light on his personal circumstances, and sometimes it is the present that is bewildering and opaque, in which he searches for that lovely French concept a point de repère, an orientation point, an anchor, a compass direction. In both cases the same ambiance is created by the story: one of melancholy, nostalgia, an aching emptiness where there should be the bustle and roar of ordinary daily life, a sense of dislocation from others, and a quest that never ends.

I first came across Patrick Modiano when I was teaching twentieth-century French literature, some time around 2002 or 2003. The first novel I read was Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person), quintessential Modiano, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the year it was published. It is the story of Guy Roland, a private detective who is suffering from amnesia. When his amiable boss retires, Guy decides to take this opportunity to make his identity the subject of his researches. He contacts a man he knows who has a vague memory of him from the past; Paul Sonachitze takes him to meet a friend and together they ponder Guy’s oddly ageless face and their own memories. Perhaps they have seen him in a nightclub they kept, in company with a Russian named Stioppa? Guy tracks Stioppa down to a funeral and makes contact with him. Touched by his story, Stioppa gives Guy a biscuit tin containing old photos and documents. In one of the old photos Guy sees a man who maybe resembles himself a little, in the company of a woman Stioppa identifies as Gay Orlow, a Russian who emigrated to America. When Guy tries to track her down, he finds she committed suicide many years ago. But another name, another trace arises, keeping him tied to his quest. This is how his narrative will progress, a slow hopscotch from clue to clue, none of which will prove definitive, though he will tenaciously keep going.

Eventually, the pattern of his researches repeatedly circles around a single black hole. During the Occupation, Jimmy Pedro Stern (who he thinks he may have been) and his presumed girlfriend, Denise Coudreuse, retired to a chalet in the southeast of France, aiming to outwit the threat of the Nazis. They seem to have made a break for the border of Switzerland in the company of smugglers, but something must have happened, something traumatic of which Guy has no recollection, only a faint sense of unease. Denise has never been heard of since. Only one person might be able to enlighten him about this event, a friend called Freddie Howard de Luz, who shared the cabin with them. Freddie has moved to Polynesia, but when Guy arrives in Bora-Bora, Freddie has of course disappeared in his boat. The novel ends with Guy about to pursue the final clue he possesses, an address in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome where he may once have lived.

You might think that this inconclusive ending would be disappointing, but I did not find it so. Closure, an answer, the solution, would by this point have been the intolerable choice. Throughout the entire novel, Guy has been searching, until it feels that this uncertainty, the solidity of not-knowing, is precisely what defines him. And as the story wends its way through a fragmentary archive of papers, postcards and old photos, the reader understands how little such material could ever say about a person. If Guy even knew his real name for sure, what would this tell him about himself? The most audacious conceit of the novel is to pit an urgent quest for identity alongside a dawning realisation on the part of the reader (never the narrator, alas) that there is no single formulation that could define and describe a person, no one event, no one friend, no one piece of information, that could tell us what we truly need to know about ourselves. Collective memory turns out to be the great repository of our lives, and yet it is never more than patchy and discontinuous, little more than a reflection of ourselves looking back.

Rue des boutiques Missing person collage

At the time of reading this novel, I had never been more overworked or more stressed. I had a young child and a highly demanding job and it seemed to me that I was living multiple and incompatible lives. I found this novel unusually soothing. Guy’s world was so serenely empty, rarely containing more than one person at a time alongside himself. The places he visited—restaurants, manor houses, apartment blocks, rural railway stations—were always empty or abandoned. He was dislocated, for sure, but, considered from another perspective, he was free. In the way that reading a book can provide a fantasy environment inhabitable for the duration of a story, a sort of holiday destination for the mind, Modiano provided me with a refreshing void. I felt a rush of hopefulness that the networks of love and responsibility that bound me might one day fall away, leaving no trace. It was so peaceful, this untethered existence in a barren place, from which the whole of a life might be seen if one could climb high enough into the depleted air.

Naturally, this was not what I taught the students when we read Modiano together. We spoke about the more obvious themes of memory and identity and trauma. But when I reread this novel, beginning to think about writing this article, those were not the themes that touched me still. Twelve years after that first encounter with Rue des boutiques obscures, my life had changed beyond recognition. I had left the university, my son had grown and moved away, I now worked every day alone. I had in fact moved into the position that Modiano’s narrators occupied, often obliged to look back over my own past and try to make some sense of my memories. This time I identified with the melancholy and the nostalgia in the writing. I felt within my body the perplexity of missing a past that had been so intense, so urgent, so overwhelming. It is the strangest feeling to look back on times of passionate engagement and find the old emotions worn so thin and threadbare. What odd creatures we are that we can lose the best and worst of ourselves with equal disregard, no matter how hard we try to cling on.

This was the experience that reading Modiano offered me: a game of two halves, each so different to the other as to be unreconcilable. Yet that stretch of time in between my readings seems crucial to understanding Modiano as a writer. The fracture that runs between the present and the past lies at the origin of all his novels. For Modiano’s formative experiences came from a time that he had not lived through himself, but for which he would vicariously search across his books: the dark and troubled era of the Occupation in France during the Second World War.

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2.

Born in 1945, Patrick Modiano was the son of a Jewish businessman of distinctly shady transactions and a Flemish bit-part actress. Neither had any interest in being a parent or was able to show any kind of affection. Patrick and his younger brother, Rudy, were shuttled between caretakers and friends when small, and then sent to boarding schools, even when the parents were living less than a hundred meters away. His mother was a ‘pretty girl with an arid heart’, whose emotional crimes Modiano couldn’t even bring himself to enumerate in his brief memoir, Pedigree. The admission that he felt ‘the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness,’ is immediately countered by the assertion that he will ‘keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now….’ Distance becomes the key note of Modiano’s account of his early life; the death of his younger brother aged nine is recounted in a paragraph, entirely without specific details. But it seems evident that it is not a lack of emotion that fuels his brevity, more the sense of skimming narrative stones over pools of memory that have the quality of molten lava. ‘It’s not my fault if the words jumble together’, he writes. ‘I have to move quickly, before I lose heart.’

His father warrants more attention in the memoir. Alberto Modiano survived the Occupation, which resulted in nearly 76,000 Jews being deported from France to the German death camps, from whence a mere 2,500 returned alive. Between 1940 and 1944, his father lived in permanent danger. He found a security of sorts in underground collaboration work, becoming a black marketeer and engaging the patronage of a group of morally deplorable demimondains. Modiano believed that his father was on the outskirts of the notorious rue Lauriston gang, also known as the Bonny-Lafont gang. Henri Lafont began his life of petty crime aged 17 and used the confusion of the French exode to escape from prison. Aided by a number of spies for the German army and a handful of military men whose speciality was punishment, he let it be known to the German powers that he could provide information and goods that could not be obtained legitimately, and even conduct kidnappings and assassinations if need be. When Lafont teamed up with corrupt French police inspector Pierre Bonny, his black market business took off in ways that blurred the distinction between policing and crime. The Bonny-Lafont gang represented the most shameful element of the Occupation, the sort of organization that arose out of the vortex of normalized brutality and petty crime, and that sucked in the poor and the vulnerable alongside the immoral and the violent.

Modiano clearly longed to have some genuine insight into his father’s emotional life during the Occupation. But his father was a ruined man by the time he knew him, a man who held him at arm’s length, explained nothing, and wrote terrible letters of accusation and reproach as his only contact with a son abandoned in unsavoury boarding schools. ‘He never told me what he had felt, deep inside, in Paris during that period’, Modiano wrote in his memoir. ‘Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he himself didn’t really know what he was?’ To understand the emotions that motivated him would justify Modiano’s compassion and encourage a fantasy of reconciliation. But Modiano would never know whether his father fell into crime because he had no other recourse or because it suited him as well as anything else.

Un Pedigree collage

In 1968 at the precocious age of 22, Modiano burst onto the French literary scene with his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, which won him both the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Roger-Nimier.  It was the wildly picaresque story of Rafael Schlemilovitch, a French Jew born at the end of the war, though seemingly with the capacity for time travel. The narrative hops and skips frenetically through the history of anti-Semitism, with Rafael working in the white slave trade and then becoming a confidant of Hitler. He is tortured for collaboration and about to be executed when he wakes up on an analyst’s couch. Never again would Modiano write such a fierce and scattered novel, and that was just as well. By his second novel, La Ronde de nuit (The Night Watch), his focus had narrowed in ways that added intrinsic power to his narrative. This novel employed stream of consciousness to depict the schizophrenic life of a young man who is working as a double agent for both the French Gestapo and the Resistance. It has a nightmarish tone as the narrator sinks into hopeless confusion over his identity, torn as he is between the conflicting demands of the groups he works for, either of whom will denounce and execute him should he fail in carrying out their demands. The novel could be read from one perspective as a loose dramatisation of the Bonny-Lafont gang, and it contains a large selection of repulsive characters, many of whom carry the real names of people his father had known.

By his third novel, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads), published in 1972, Modiano’s intent to merge himself with the fantasized place of his father in history becomes clear and is used as a masterful narrative conceit. The novel opens with the description of a photograph: three men in a bar, one of whom is the narrator’s father. As the narrator sinks his gaze into the photograph so the frame falls away and we enter the scene with him. The narrator is a young man attempting to have a relationship with a father he barely knows; in fact, the most memorable event they shared was his father’s failed attempt to push him under a metro train. Still, the son is determined to create some sort of intimacy, and in order to get closer to him, he infiltrates the ring of collaborators and black marketeers with whom his father is working, though he keeps his filial association secret. As the narrator gets closer to his father, the ambivalence of his feelings of love and hatred become stark. He begins to realise how pitiful and impotent the man is, how desperately tenuous his hold on security, how little respect he has for him. And at the same time, the things the narrator must do and the people he must associate with sicken him ever more.

Plunging into an atmosphere that sapped me mentally and physically; putting up with the company of these sickening people; lying in wait for days on end, never weakening. And all for the tawdry mirage I now saw before me. But I will hound you to the bitter end. You interest me, ‘papa.’ One is always curious to know one’s family background.

The narrator does indeed accompany his father to the bitter end. When his father tells him that he has paid for safe passage out of Paris and an escape route to Belgium, the narrator is convinced it is a trap. And when the two of them go to meet their contact, they are arrested and put in a police van. At which point, the narrator steps neatly out of the fiction he has created, the one that began when he stepped into the photograph, reminding the reader that there was nothing of substance being recounted here, just the fantasies provoked by an evocative old snap. It’s a moment of brilliant dislocation for the reader, although it’s not as if we haven’t been warned over the course of the narrative. ‘You become interested in a man who vanished long ago’, the narrator tells us at one point. ‘You try to question the people who knew him, but their traces disappeared with him. Of his life, only vague, often contradictory rumours remain, one or two pointers. Hard evidence? A postage stamp and a fake Légion d’honneur. So all one can do is imagine.’

And imagine is what Modiano does. These three novels, published in English together as The Occupation Trilogy, are resolutely cerebral affairs, red-flagged works of fantasy that proclaim their uncertain status every step of the way. But there are touchstones that return repeatedly—the desire to plunge deep into the collaborationist experience with sympathy for the complex emotions and necessities that compel it, guilt, shame and pity for the father and the wretched filial love that seeks to absolve and rescue him. The critic Nathalie Rachlin ties these components of Modiano’s texts in with the findings of Austrian journalist Peter Sichrovsky, who interviewed the sons and daughters of Nazis for his book, Naître coupable, naître victime. Sichrovsky found that these children ‘often charged themselves with and experienced the guilt and remorse their parents never expressed or perhaps never felt about their roles in Nazi crimes.’[1] Sichrovsky saw it as a strategy that would whitewash the parent’s image in the imagination of the child, making that parent a viable role model again. It would seem that the sins of the fathers do indeed become the psychic burden of their offspring.

The Occupation trilogy

Or, at least, the legacy of the Second World War for the next generation in France and Germany was one of unresolved guilt. In the aftermath of the Occupation, emotions swung violently between extremes. The retreat of the Germany army was followed by immediate reprisals in a wave of violence against collaborators that became known as l’épuration sauvage—the brutal purge. Some statistics suggest that more French people were killed by vengeful resistance fighters than lost their lives in the war. But when de Gaulle returned to liberate Paris and head up the provisional new government, he came with a ready-made narrative to soothe the troubled French soul. De Gaulle believed in a country that had been united in solidarity against the occupying forces, and a vast resistance network that had worked tirelessly and unflinchingly throughout the war. This was the myth that salved the conscience of a nation, but produced what the historian Henry Rousso would describe as unresolved mourning for the reality of its traumatic past.

Modiano started writing about the black truth of the Occupation while it was still a taboo subject, but he wrote for a generation that was ready and willing to catch him up. Rousso argued in his book The Vichy Syndrome that in the years between 1975 and 1994 France became obsessed with reviewing the Occupation. The death of de Gaulle signalled the end of an era, and previously hidden documents were coming to light during the trials of war criminals in Germany that proved the extent of French involvement in the deportation of the Jews. Rousso declared that ‘Patrick Modiano must be placed in a category of his own, so great was his influence in those years.’ The novelist spoke directly to a powerful cultural upheaval, and spoke in the terms of bewilderment and loss that seemed so pervasive. For Modiano, it was a private compulsion to peer into the obscure regions of the past and to dredge through the ambiguous mess he found there. But it happened to coincide with the nationwide shock and vertigo that accompanied revelations of scarcely imaginable wrongdoing.

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3.

To read Modiano purely as an elucidator of great historical concerns is to miss how crucial the personal is to his work. And without that personal element, we underestimate his extraordinary technical audacity. The book that perhaps shows this the best is Dora Bruder, in which Modiano describes his attempt over many years to uncover the biography of a young Jewish girl who was deported with her father to Auschwitz and died there. Some reviews of the book in translation call it a novel, which is most certainly is not, but given its structural similarity to so many other Modiano works, it’s a forgivable error. Fiction, in Modiano’s hands, is always a sort of autobiographical fiction, and non-fiction, in the form of Dora Bruder, is somewhere between a Holocaust memoir and a highly speculative historical reconstruction. It is written in the cool reportage style that is so quintessentially his, and which in its very serenity seems able to provoke a storm of emotion in the reader. (Modiano reminds me of Edith Wharton in this way—terrible things are recounted in a voice of supine elegance, as lives are ruined for the failure to adhere to a dominant social code.) But what Modiano has to report is his usual tale of loss and fragmentation.

‘Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading of page 3 caught my eye’, Modiano begins. It’s a petit annonce, asking for information about a 15-year-old runaway, Dora Bruder. The fact that her parents live on the Boulevard Ornano is really what captures Modiano’s imagination. For it is an area of Paris he knows well from childhood visits with his mother and adolescent dates with a girlfriend. He can conjure up a number of memories, all mundane and yet resonant for him, of his presence in this place, and as always for this author, the pull of psychogeography is immensely powerful. All Modiano’s narrators walk the streets of Paris, aware of traces of the past—their own or other people’s, it really doesn’t matter. The point is to be attentive to a kind of profound historical vibration that keeps the past enmeshed with the present. For instance, when Modiano finds himself watching a film from the 40s, he writes that: ‘I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation….[B]y some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film.’ In the immediate surroundings of his characters, the material meets the ineffable in a way that enriches their experiences. For Modiano it’s a sixth sense, one he appeals to when he declares that his memory begins before he does. ‘So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born’, he remarks at one point. The elusive Dora Bruder, whose traces he will follow with increasing tenacity as the points of contact between them multiply, becomes one of them. The traces her presence has left on Paris will be there for Modiano’s perception.

Dora Bruder

Finding out anything factual about her is painstaking and time-consuming work. It takes four years for Modiano to discover her date of birth, longer to discover when Dora and her father were deported to Auschwitz. At one point, Modiano writes a novel inspired by Dora (the brilliant Voyage de noces, or Honeymoon) in the hope he might exorcise the hold she has over him, but it doesn’t prove to be satisfying enough, and back he goes to the hard-to-access records, the fading testimonies, the endless speculation. Gradually a shadowy and incomplete portrait of Dora begins to emerge, a possibly headstrong young woman who runs away from the convent where her parents placed her in the hope of keeping her safe from the Nazis. The notion of the fugue is a very redolent one in Modiano’s writing, for he, too, was a runaway aged 15. That experience in 1960 was one of the most intense of his life:

It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke: the clean break, deliberately made, from enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates; you have nothing to do with these people from now on; the break from your parents, who have never understood you, and from whom, you tell yourself, it’s useless to to expect any help; feelings of rebellion and solitude carried to flash point, taking your breath away and leaving you in a state of weightlessness. It was probably one of the few times in my life when I was truly myself and following my own bent. This ecstasy cannot last. It has no future.

The shift into the present tense is a subtle moment of coincidence between Patrick Modiano and Dora Bruder, and the extended community of runaways and self-selecting outcasts. By settling his emotional experience down over her rare facts, Modiano comes closer to Dora, breathing life back into his insufficient data. There is more: his father’s account of being picked up by the French gestapo one evening in February 1942 and narrowly avoiding detention is one of the few family stories Patrick has. Now it begins to seem likely to him that Dora might be the young woman his father mentioned, who was one of the other passengers in that same police van. ‘Perhaps I wanted the two to cross paths, my father and her, during that winter of 1942’, Modiano admits. This is, after all, the strategy that is continually deployed—Modiano’s memories bring him closer to Dora, and the thought that Dora’s life has touched his, even at a generational remove, adds depth and meaning to the paucity of Modiano’s family history.

Where lives touch across time, in Modiano’s reckoning, there is a spark, an illumination. A process of osmosis occurs, which Modiano describes with extraordinary transparency. Whilst we see it as a function of the talented writer, who reanimates a lost Jewish woman from meagre details, we are aware that he also writes as a private individual trying to make sense of his sparse personal history. For how much of our understanding relies on our ability to occupy the same emotional space as another person? This is how we identify, this is how we relate, and yet this is also how we use our imaginations and how we create fiction.

Modiano remains ever-vigilant to the limits of his knowledge. By the end of the book, Dora’s life remains mostly obscure, and he acknowleges some gladness that Dora retains ‘her secret’, an essential privacy that even the death camps could not take away. Some of the most heart-rending parts of the book are the fragments of letters of enquiry which Modiano came across in his researches, sent to the authorities in the wake of other disappearances. Painfully polite and carefully worded, family members risked their own safety by appealing for information about their missing loved ones in the black days of 1941-2, when the deportations of the Jews were at their height. Dora Bruder becomes special to us over the course of the book; we begin to think we know her and understand her story, and the impact is significant when we realise she was one among thousands. Yet such is Modiano’s ability to create concentric circles from the personal to the general to the universal, every fragment he reproduces sings with its own specific life and every lost soul touches us deeply.

Patrick Modiano’s books are essentially about loss and abandonment. They are about the difficulties we experience in creating and maintaining identities when the past is obscure and our personal history has been crushed under the bloodied wheels of History itself. In the majority of his books, he wrote unflinchingly about the legacy of the Occupation. He never wrote about war itself; the reality of battle lies the other side of the fracture in time, consigned to the distant and unknowable past. Instead, his work is a careful enumeration of the intolerable losses of war that persist for decades, and which we should perhaps consider closely in our contemporary times, when the desire for sabre-rattling seems as strong as ever and the idea of occupying forces is considered a harmless one. Not only do those caught up in war lose the people they love, and the right to satisfy hunger and protect the property they own; it is not just the desire to live without fear that is forcibly removed. War requires those who survive it to do so at the loss of their innocence, their dignity and sometimes even their humanity. And these are losses that have heavy consequences for the next generation, who must deal with the legacy of shame, guilt and humiliation. The violence of war is not the end of a story, but the breeding ground of many other kinds of violence—emotional, psychic, existential—that poison the lives of generations to come. It takes writers like Patrick Modiano to bring the reality of this alive.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best small photox

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Nathalie Rachlin, ‘The Modiano Syndrome: 1968-1997’ in Paradigms of Memory; The Occupation and Other Hi/stories in the Novels of Patrick Modiano, ed by Guyot-Bender, Martine and VanderWolk, William (Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 121-135. Specific quote from p. 130.
May 052016
 

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I FIRST SAW the drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House over forty years ago while in college, in H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, a standard text on the subject at the time, the pictures illumined with only a few sentences of explication. First the three-dimensional drawing of a home spare yet engaged, complex yet composed, low lying yet forward looking—a lean, solid wedge opening out into the world and negotiating the earth and sky:

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Below it the sketch of the ground floor plan, a grid of right angles that do not intersect, difficult to read as a living space, that extends, in seeming contradiction to the first drawing, out into space without clear containment, yet still a scheme coherent and compelling:

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And a chord was struck within, or a tone cluster, that gathered and realigned. Part of the attraction came from the material, brick, whose deep color and rough surface textured my life growing up in North Carolina, providing hue and permanence and friction to all I once found attractive, all I resisted. All the homes where I lived and all the schools I attended drew their substance from the red clay beneath the state’s soil. But resonance came from Mies’s form, the structure, what it analyzed and took apart, what it put aside. Because I was looking for alternatives to the architecture I knew—the colonial attenuations, the classical appropriations, their rigid symmetries—for a way of life that transcended the manners and mannerisms those styles housed and encouraged. I wanted a plan that directed me away from the state’s muddied past and out of its funneling course. I wanted to build a life that sounded the vitality of the present moment and looked to the future, that left options open in a changing dynamic. I wanted to be modern.

Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms
Living. Changing. Now.

Mies van der Rohe/“Working Theses”/1923

Such was the spirit and ambition when Mies’s drawings were first exhibited in avant-garde exhibitions in Germany in 1924, when architects looked for ways to escape the entrapments that led to the broil of the first war. They helped establish his reputation and set the course for his later work, anticipating the Barcelona Pavilion.

It’s the sketch of the floor plan that most captured attention. It reflected aesthetic interests of the time—Cubist ideas about space—and acted as a visual manifesto. And it has sustained interest ever since. It appears on the cover of the recent third edition of William Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900, serving as gateway to the subject:

Curtis cover NC

The sketch is a work of art in its own right, reminiscent of De Stijl paintings, in fact has been compared to one. The figure has the power of a sign, an ideogram that captures a principle, concise and complex, that represents an essential understanding of the world, or the way we might want to see it. Or it could be taken as a symbol for the creative act, or a model for prose. Or a picture of thought itself, of both a theory and method combined, interrelated.

Architecture has given us the most visible face of modernism and provides one strain of its mood. Definitions of movements, however, always run into problems. General definitions lack the power of distinction; strict ones ignore variation and individual talent, as well as run the risk of reducing design to simple rules that lose the sense of art. Often they are shaded by agendas, depending upon what critics want to defend or attack.

There are, however, useful tendencies. Modernist architects were inspired by industrial and technological innovations in material and construction, and wanted to capture their energy and potential in buildings that gave the look of lightness, transparency, freshness, and purity. They built to reveal structural function, not disguise it, though function was ambiguously defined and that motive led to some deception. If reference was made to a region and its past, it was heavily abstracted. But most rejected the past architectural languages of support as unnecessary, of ornament as dishonest, of ceremony and monument as out of step with the times. Instead they wanted buildings that crossed national borders and cut ties with the past as the world approached new social order, belief in which for some approached the spiritual. Unlike many modernists in the other arts they were optimistic.

The style spread to ubiquity, from our cities to our suburbs, throughout the world, giving the places where we all worked and lived a common stamp. It has been with us some hundred years, depending upon when one wants to set the date of its beginnings. Here there is paradox. What was once fresh now appears stale, what was once startling in its innovation now looks passé. By attaching itself to the present modernism fell into the stream of what it tried to step out of, becoming in effect a historical movement without clear sense where it might go next. In the hands of the less inspired, the majority, the architecture became formulaic and monotonous. In the universities, where the leading architects settled, it became refined, rarefied, and inbred, yet theirs were the designs selected by corporations and institutions not for cultural regeneration but for brand recognition and status. Lost in both cases was any sense of common purpose and social cause. Some grand schemes were proposed to remake the world, some of these were in part completed and proved disastrous. The trailing off, the diversions, and the failures provided grounds for the scourge of postmodernist gibes and attacks, whose architecture itself provided the face of that movement and one sense of its tilt.

Yet Mies’s design still strikes imagination today, maybe something else, and still escapes the pitfalls of critical debates and the drag of time. Records for the project, however, are sketchy. It is not clear when the drawings were made and there is little supporting discussion. The two drawings themselves don’t align, having inconsistencies that needed to be worked out in final construction. But the Brick Country House was never built, and there is debate whether he intended to have that done. All that remain are photographs of the two drawings, most of poor quality.

And I put the house aside, leaving its traces to the tangled war of memory and forgetting. For I left for California, the land of promise and casual fantasy, to start a new life, where I endured its flights, distractions, and scourges, going off course, getting lost on distant shores, home itself, any home, a fading thought.

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Home

 

To chart a place on earth—that is the supreme effort of the built environment in antiquity. Shelter, of course, always takes precedence. But its issue transcends self-preservation and comfort. Shelter engages human alliances and rank, and so it becomes the task of residential architecture to advance the pattern of collective existence. From family to empire, the stages of social and political gradation affect the scope and intricacy of this extendable pattern. But in the end organization only tidies up; it cannot satisfy darker anxieties of being afloat in a mysterious design which is not of our own making. To mediate between cosmos and polity, to give shape to fear and exorcize it, to effect a reconciliation of knowledge and the unknowable—that was the charge of ancient architecture.

It is a charge that is no longer pressing, that no longer has meaning. Geomancy had no place in the laying out of New York or Teheran; Buckingham Palace was not planned to be the pivot of the cosmic universe. At some point we chose to keep our own counsel, to search for self close at home.

Spiro Kostof/A History of Architecture

Kostof’s rich prose itself provides a place to dwell. Everything begins at home, whether we care to recognize that fact or not.

Eumaios crossed the court and went straight forward
into the megaron among the suitors

Megaron is the term Homer uses to indicate a large hall around which palaces were once built, in this case Odysseus’s, where his loyal swineherd now appears. It refers to a common floor plan found in Asia Minor, including the site identified as the city of Troy, that dates back to the third millennium BC and later appeared in Mycenaean Greece, likely an import.

Mycenean_Megaron Wik

Columns support a front porch, which protects the palace from the elements and provides formal entry. In the center of the room, an open hearth, which gives warmth and sets the locus for libation and animal sacrifice to the gods. It is a place of residence for chieftains and a center for cultural and political events, marking the consolidation of social order and the rise of aristocratic power in the early days of Greek civilization.

The plan is the basis for later Greek temples, where columns extend around the perimeter and the hearth is replaced with a statue of a deity.

PartFloor use

A temple is a house for the gods that we can enter, giving us a home in the world as well as a means of defining our relationship with it and with each other. For example the Parthenon, where bright-eyed Athena, Athen’s guarantor and protector, the virgin goddess of wisdom, inspiration, strength, and justice, stands in the center of the main chamber, the cella, and receives the citizens of the city. The chieftain has moved out, the people, democratically, let in; unseen powers above have been brought down to earth and given form. Beliefs have visible expression in the face and stance of the goddess, before whom, in more direct and communal participation, citizens can show their respect, make appeasement, and bargain with forces beyond their control, often unpredictable and violent.

That the world is violent the Greeks recognized and embraced. As Kostof explains strength comes from recognition of the power of opposition, a way to gauge one’s own. Above the columns, around the temple, the violence is depicted in friezes of warring factions captured in the pitch of battle—Lapiths and Centaurs, Greeks and Amazons, Greek and Trojans, giants and gods—the outcomes unresolved. Warring opposites complement each other, not contradict, showing an essential part of the Classical spirit that keeps distance, “a sense of timeless idealism,” but maintains engagement in the strain of conflict.

NC centaur

For in the final analysis, the sole purpose of religion is to prevent the recurrence of reciprocal violence.

René Girard/Violence and the Sacred

Or opposition gives us a means to project the hidden conflicts and desires within on the world without and keep us intact, the transfer vouched by displacement into a sacred scheme. A temple offers a container for the violence in our collective hearts.

Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion is a home and also a temple of sorts as well, and like the Parthenon is a projection of a people’s desires to define their values and offer a way of life. The Weimar Republic commissioned him to build it for that city’s international exposition in 1929, wanting to put a new face on Germany that looked past the war and the country’s militaristic past towards new purpose and peaceful order.

NC BarcelonaExpositionPanorama.1929.ws

Against the pomp, imposition, and inflation of past architectural styles from the other nations, Mies’s subdued design, calm, level, and collected:

NC BP wiki

Like the Parthenon, it is set on a raised base that requires slight ascent and, once entered, procession to discover its design and intent. And like the Parthenon, it has a statue that offers figurative expression, Georg Kolbe’s Dawn, standing in a pool in the back corner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But the pavilion has a decidedly domestic cast, in fact suburban, bringing aspiration closer to the ground in low-ceilinged rooms that encourage us not to look up but at each other. Nor does it try to impress with mass and means of support. The load is carried by eight slender chrome piers. The walls are free standing and seem to float in space. There is a similar effect in the Brick Country House, where the floor-to-ceiling windows open up the sense of structure and pass support to the isolated sections of brick walls.

Mies admired Greek architecture and studied its influence under Peter Behrens, Behrens himself influenced by neoclassicist Schinkel. His work reflects classical proportion and composition, these brought back to human scale. We also see the energy of involvement in the play of tensions implied in the offset planes and angles.

Indeed we should strive to bring Nature, houses, and people together into a higher harmony.

Mies

The Brick Country House is a temple for private rites and follows in essence another long tradition, that of a home placed in spacious setting away from the polis, as described in the writings of Pliny, that extends through Palladio into the last centuries. They were homes for the patrician order, and as such reinforced their remove and power. But they carried with them a proposition about our relationship with what might lie outside and beyond us, what appears in the world that is not of our design and making, what has been referred to over the millennia with a term of shifting and escaping associations and assumptions, what we still call nature.

NC BP floor plan Wik

In both we see Mies’s break with tradition. Axial planning and symmetry have been replaced with asymmetric designs that have no explicit center. The walls are incomplete, thus the rooms are left open, and their relationship to each other and to the overall design, the relationship of the buildings to the external world, in general the relationship of interior to exterior, are all part of a dialogue that has no final resting point. Instead of a plan of orderly containment and progression to guide the life inside, options for a program are left to the residents to decide freely, without any being decisive. Nor is there explicit reference to past architectural orders and the meanings they might carry, or, aside from Dawn, who in her twisting, rising stretch into consciousness echoes the asymmetric design of the pavilion, any figurative expression. The languages of decoration have been refined to abstraction, or put aside.

Still there is careful placement and unifying composition, and still a sense of centering. However, while there is great energy in the tension of the play of planes, gone is the strain that once charged Greek temples. Both the pavilion and house exhibit control, certainty, confidence, and composure, though we do not know yet what awakening Dawn or wakers in the house might have or where that might lead.

In the shadowy hall a low sound rose—of suitors
murmuring to one another.

Classical orders, however, came back with a vengeance in Germany and elsewhere not long after.

NC nazi arch

Nostalgia fused with symmetry can be a powerful conduit for single-mindedness.

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The Elements of Fiction

 

Greek thinking is at once typal and specific. It takes on an idea (or a form, which is nothing other than a congealed idea), nourishes and perfects it through a series of conscious changes, and in this way informs it with a kind of universal validity that seems irrefutable. The process is in fact ideal, that is, based on “the perfection of kind.” It presupposes orderly development and the practicability of consummation.

Kostof again

I loved building with construction sets when I was a kid and could spend hours sitting on the floor of my bedroom, absorbed in physical act of putting one piece on top of another, of setting concrete objects into empty space, watching them gather, the building rise, in a process that at first seemed endless, a great part of the joy. But I’d yield to the demands of the materials, the various pieces in my set, and to the design in my head—just a thought, just a sketch—and give myself to those, anticipating but not yet knowing, often not knowing until the end, the shape and success of the final product. Once I adjusted to the small scale, space became huge, extending to the reaches of the world and its peoples, invisible spirits making appearance, my excitement from entering the world and commanding its space mounting with the rising building, that thrill, however, mixing with the equally strong fear of disturbance that always comes from the violation of the creative act. And always, when done, when I stepped back and looked at my creation, my efforts spent, the pieces in my set exhausted, I felt the sadness of completion.

Recently I took up building again, using pieces from the Lego architecture series, constructing models of well-known buildings as well as attempting some of my own design. I spend much more time in preparation, studying and revising floor plans. I still pass hours on end with the same absorption, the same anticipation and dread, but now I am moved to parallel contemplation of other things, of higher things, of all that might be thought, one path my life has taken. And still, the building completed, I feel the depression at the end when all that I excluded in the design flies back at me or escapes into fleeing nothing.

What I often think about is writing. Architecture, like writing, is a ritual of construction, a repetition of acts to fulfill desire and serve some purpose, and since a series of actions that moves towards an end, it has a story. Architecture is one kind of fiction, the building of one desire and sacrifice of another, whose life comes from the implied opposition. Philosophy, religion, politics—everything is fiction. Our different thoughts and different beliefs and different actions take different forms and we experience them in different ways, but the elements are the same and the task is to find ways to make them work together.

Setting is site, the land, its contours, its life, its exposure to the elements, as well the life of the people who live there, their history, their beliefs, their customs, their habits, these expressed in other buildings near which the new construction is placed, to which it might make reference.

Character is the inhabitant, who will be determined in large part by his or her setting. But also there is the character the architect hopes to create through experience of the building. Differences between the two might lead to conflict, which, the architect hopes, finds resolution in character transformation.

Plot is the floor plan, a building’s structure, and the program it offers characters. Time has been frozen in the plan, but it comes alive as characters move through the structure. The plan determines how they rise, how they descend, how they gather and interact, where they might disperse, these subplots combining to form the ascent of the narrative trail and conditioning the move to resolution.

Point of view, the perspective by which we experience a work, is omniscient third person, effaced. The architect knows the intent of the overall design, but we have to discover it by experience and implication. That takes us, of course, to the problem of nailing down and knowing the Author, a matter of fractured debate the last decades. If I am the designer of my own buildings, I am thrown back on myself, on all the conflicts and uncertainties there. The problem splits in other ways when I model buildings by well-known architects and try get inside their heads.

Voice is the accumulation of small touches to create the mood that colors how we receive the building, which comes in architecture from the posture of accents, the directness or slant of references, or their pointed absence, from the suggestions that arise from shapes. When building I can stare in perplexity at a single wall, just a simple rectangle, which with the addition of a single layer of bricks can move from bathos to the sublime.

Theme comes from placement and variation of recurring motifs—the angles, the shapes, the openings and enclosures, the play of light and shadow—and how these join to form a coherent whole. Theme takes us to the matter of meaning, if we can go that way, to the larger world and the world of ideas, and to voice, which determines our emotional attachment or distance, a large part of meaning.

NC floor diag

I started the model of the Brick Country House because I thought it would be a quick and easy project, well suited to the Lego parts I had. But once underway my earlier fascination, dormant all those years, resurfaced, and I gave myself to hours of reflection that moved me farther out, in all directions. I also ran into problems I wasn’t sure how to solve. It is not a simple house at all.

As for setting, the drawings indicate a large house, low, wide, and spreading, situated on a considerable tract of open land, reinforcing the tradition of the country house and its occupants, the implications there, at least in the abstract. Mies also uses the traditional material of brick, perhaps a nod to local soil and customs. The son of a marble carver and proprietor of a small concern, he didn’t have formal training but did have experience early on in the building trade, and late in life he expressed his admiration for the craft and care of the masons, another influence. The two tall columns above the roofs suggest chimneys and bring their associations, though hearths are not marked in the floor plan. He built other homes with brick for well-off clients at that time, but also a monument to fallen Communists in the Sparacist revolt, during the November Revolution, suggesting his cultural sensitivity wasn’t fixed in one direction. Also implied is the setting of the new world he saw coming and its life, though still in the abstract. Neither drawing, however, offers specifics of site to fix the setting in any actual place and time.

Mies may have only intended the project to be a position piece for exhibition, in which case the specifics would have been left out to highlight the concept. Wolf Tegethoff, however, in Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses, has made careful study of available evidence to conclude he planned to build the house for himself and had a particular site in mind in a suburban area outside Berlin, in fact had two sites in mind, and the three-dimensional drawing was made for one, the floor plan sketch for the other, thus accounting for the discrepancies in their alignment. So they might also have been preliminary designs for actual construction, which would have to be adjusted in the later final planning and construction.

As for plot, the house’s program, the small rooms on the right might be utility rooms for food preparation and other functions, or, if privilege is involved, living quarters for servants. Or they might provide working space for the owner, removed from the rest of the house to allow concentration. The narrow middle section could be a library or casual den. The rooms on the left, larger, could be used for more formal social functions, dining and gatherings. The second floor, since separate and private, might have held bedrooms and other rooms for repose and intimacy. I’m just guessing, however. The only indications Mies wrote on the floor plan are the general designations “living space” on the left and “service space” on the right. But to fix the plan with a definite program is to miss the point.

In the ground plan of this house, I have abandoned the usual concept of enclosed rooms and striven for a series of spatial effects rather than a row of individual rooms. The wall loses its enclosing character and serves only to articulate the house organism.

Mies

Plot, theme, character, and voice can subsumed in the term organism, an intriguing and elusive concept. The rooms, like those in the Barcelona Pavilion, flow into each other without full delineation of their boundaries or definitive separation from the exterior. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is obvious and was acknowledged. The walls and the areas they suggest give a sense of internal involvement, denser, more enclosed and defined in the smaller, compact rooms on the right, that opens through the narrow middle section and out to the rest of the house—and beyond. Little is in line with anything, and there is an energy in the overall plan that never settles.

With corners removed, the design encourages an open way of living, away from the compartmentalization and hierarchy of the past, in a fluid, flexible space that offers full visibility and the chance for common interaction and individual retreat. Plot is not a matter of a set path of actions or final ends but an evolving process; setting becomes the immediacy of the present moment, an ever-changing now. Theme comes from the related ideas of freedom and flux and vision, expressed in a mood that is open and light. But the plan is not chaotic. Rather, it shows a precise, complex, asymmetric logic where control is never lost. We do have the option of the possibilities of containment in rectangular enclosures, however. As Tegethoff observes, the incomplete walls imply, through a gestalt of perception, extension into corners, giving mental closure. There is also the motif throughout of implied squares, separate and overlapping.

The house gains extension in its structural interrelationship with site, which takes us to the world of nature and whatever might lie beyond. It is the outside walls, which do not intersect at a common point, that give the house its greater energy yet at the same time, with their figure of an incomplete but implied cross, off-center, stability. While we might not see the overall plan or the outside walls completely, Tegethoff notes we will be aware of them inside and can fill in gaps. And moving through the house engages us in the outward motion. The many full-length windows lighten the sense of load and encourage openness and exterior vision. We will see the outside world in many parts, from many angles, and can put it together it through the experience of living and moving throughout the house. Seen from the outside, the house promotes a similar effect in a play of solid brick planes and separate, multiple reflections of the world in the glass windows, always changing, and in an interaction of light and shadow. Inferred is the idea that knowing the world, like living in it, is an active process of multiple points of view and assemblage.

Still, the overall structure raises questions. It is not clear what is front or back or where the main entrance is, if there is one, or how the house might communicate with the rest of the world, as these distinctions have been put aside in the larger scheme. Such distinctions might not matter or even make sense, however, in a home in the country, and perhaps Mies wanted a house that maintained the openness of the setting and its lack of orientation while avoiding the conventional formalities of entry and exit. There is no overt pretension in the main facade, if we can find it.

The outside walls are vital, yet the most problematic. They mean three separate yards, though for what distinct purposes I can’t imagine. They provide division, but not functional definition. The only way to move through the three areas they create is through the house. Also they exert complete domination of the estate, with all that might imply.

If the house were built on actual site, however, likely we are seeing a front view in the three-dimensional drawing. Tegethoff argues the closed face of the foremost rooms and the spreading yard before them provide separation from the street and remove the traffic of the world, allowing for private life. Entry is likely from the back, and the walls hide the other areas from public view, perhaps one being a garden for personal cultivation. The walls, however, would have to stop somewhere, presumably the boundaries of the property, which, standing isolated, would look awkward. Also they would have to be shortened considerably in symbolic representation, losing the sense of their extension. Other adjustments are needed, but they would disrupt the overall plan and effect. And once placed in a neighborhood of other homes, the Brick Country House would be enclosed, losing the effect of openness into space.

But even if the project is a conceptual proposition there seems to be no place for trees or other landscaping, which would be disruptive to the horizontal character of the house and its openness. Nature has been rendered as flat, empty space, a bare idea. The effect is orderly, serene, even breathtaking—and solitary and chilling.

NC side view

Either way, actual or theoretical, the drawings raise the question as to what forms our lives might take separately and together, even if provisionally, even if momentarily, with what common understanding, or whether we will become Dawns perpetually rousing but not gaining full consciousness, an awakening.

For Mies, architecture was neither a technical problem nor applied sociology but rather, as he wrote in 1928, using words that are as ambiguous as they are emphatic, “the spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.”

Christoph Asendorf

Intellectual may be the term with the most resonance and ambiguity, depending on how one sees the life of the mind. The outside walls suggest extension that, theoretically, since their lines run to the edges of the drawing and look to go further, is endless. The plan gives a picture of a mind asserting itself, opening up to and grasping all space and time. It recalls the Cartesian grid—Tegethoff again—with the implied cross suggesting the presence of x crossing y, giving us the coordinates to map the universe and comprehend it. But Mies’s grid, with the axes offset, the shapes incomplete yet suggesting closure, their interrelationship complex, gives us a picture of a universe that is active, not static, not divided evenly down a middle. Yet it is only a theoretical proposition, a rationalism that cannot be filled with empirical data, the stuff of our lives. The plan reminds me of the precise, brilliant propositions of Wittgenstein and of all the philosopher bracketed and left in suspension—ethics, esthetics, and even the matter of our existence itself—which could not be contained in his logic.

NC Witt 1

Wittgenstein. There were moments, while building, I felt I was lifted to that plane.

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Completing the Brick Country House

 

NC Witt2

There is no plan for the second floor or any view of the rest of the house. But really there isn’t much left to do. The floor plan provides openings and walls for entire first floor, while the three-dimensional drawing gives views of two sides. All that has to be done is locate the rooms on the second floor and fill out the back walls. The smallest problems, however, are often the hardest.

The three-dimensional drawing has a wide perspective with a low horizon and vanishing points well off the visible picture plane, I assume to give the building the horizontal cast Mies wanted. Such a perspective is also necessary to include the outside walls, or a good portion of them, important to the design. But it is an extreme perspective drawn with lines at slight angles, difficult to capture—I tried with ruler and pencil—and I’m not sure it is consistent. Neither my model nor the models and CAD renderings I found online can account for the distance between the second-floor room, with the windows, and the smaller chimney on the right, and I couldn’t recreate it.

NC w arrows

That room is especially hard to read. Its front wall appears to begin next to and behind the large chimney. That would make for a narrow room, however, given the way it appears to align with the first floor. Some of the models I saw move the room forward and extend its width all the way to the edge of the first floor, adding a brick section before the glass. But that distorts the relationship of its windows to those on the first floor. Also there should be a corner line in the chimney to indicate where the room begins, which does not appear in the drawing. I kept it behind the chimney but moved its rear wall back and its side wall in to maintain apparent relationships. The band at the bottom indicates terracing, the only suggestion of site contour. Perhaps Mies wanted the house, like the Barcelona Pavilion, slightly elevated. The house and the rest of the land look to be on the same level.

But those are only structural details. I could not fill in the manner and temper of time and place, which moved me towards a theoretical model, my preference anyway. Nor could I share the surprise—or shock—of Mies’s innovations. I am well familiar with nearly a century of modernist abstraction, and open floor plans have become a standard convention, unquestioned. I also had to fight my own esthetic interests. I must confess that, like bourgeois Germans then, I do not like flat roofs. Most essential and least supported by facts, the spirit of the design and the mind of its creator, which I would have to discover in the process of building.

I still had to fight habits that called for a practical program and put aside the demands of small uses—closets, bathrooms—simple, slight needs that present great challenge to any overall design. Thinking about the house in conventional terms ran me into all kinds of problems and felt like unwanted intrusion. So instead I followed guidelines of design and structure, not use, suggested by the two drawings, referring to the floor plan to set the rooms and openings for the first floor, and the three-dimensional drawing to guide overall appearance:

Structurally, the brick walls provide support points for a reinforced slab that forms the base for the second floor, though I’m not sure my design is structurally sound—and questions were raised about his.

The second floor should be contained within the first and not extend beyond.

Like the first, it should be composed of free-standing walls and windows floor to ceiling. Its floor plan should maintain the pattern of open corners and implied squares, and continue the energy of the first.

The back of the second floor should provide several windows for light and view, of varying widths for variety and complexity.

Again, almost nothing is aligned in the first floor, except the brick exterior wall at the top with the second floor wall beyond the large patio. This reinforces the influence the extending walls have on the overall energy of the design and adds a measure of control. In my design for the second floor, I made the back wall of the back room on the second floor, which I added, to align with the bottom exterior wall, for that reason.

I also added that room to give the floor some width to fill out and integrate the whole building rather than have a narrow, isolated floor atop the first.

I decided it did not make sense, formally or practically, to have windows at the back of the floor overlooking the greater span of the roof, although I see alternatives to my placement.

The enclosure should suggest and complement the first floor but not repeat its forms and have some complexity. My second floor, as is apparent from the roof pictures below, provides a complex shape that echoes its length and provides offsetting variety. That it’s set at a right angle to the first reflects the cross shape of the exterior walls, reinforcing their influence and adding another degree of tension.

I decided there should be continuous walking space on the roof around the exterior of the floor, with the exception of the large platform by the large chimney, and assumed a door or doors. The access enhances the physical experience of openness and relationship with the land, though I don’t know that is desirable or needed. There should be continuity of the plane of the first floor roof, however, visible from within.

NC roof 1

NC roof 2

Aerial views matter. Even if we don’t see the top, we construct it in our minds, and it will be seen in the minds of those who will look at illustrations and flyover shots later, a pattern among patterns, part of an overall pattern of the surrounding landscape. The roofs overhang the floors slightly for guttering, which I couldn’t reproduce in my model, so I made sides of the roofs flush, except where there are extending platforms. I assumed there are patios beneath the platforms, shown in the floor plan, which I modeled in gray. The floor plan does not differentiate between windows and doors, nor are doors explicitly shown in the three-dimensional drawing, so I made all openings planes of glass without distinguishing detail.

Exterior views, rotating counterclockwise from the first:

NC aa

The two chimneys, if they are chimneys, with the line of progression implied from the smaller to the larger, unify the house and reinforce the outward and now upward direction of the scheme. The three-dimensional drawing presents a view seen near ground level, from considerable distance. Our experience of the house will change as we move closer and walk around, although the exterior walls will limit and determine our views in the three separate areas they create. The unity within the horizontality is maintained in some views. In others it breaks down and we are more aware of the separate components. It is what I discovered in making the model, the many different aspects of the house.

NC a

I added a corner window to the back room of the second floor to complement the one on the first. For the rooms on the right, the floor plan calls for an overhang, and I tried three options, one over the first floor, as shown, two parallel platforms over both, which looked repetitive and static, and an overhang only on the top, which removed the walking space and added a vertical element I didn’t think called for, as well as dissipated the variety and energy of the overall design of the top roof.

The narrow window on the second floor, far right, may be a mistake, but it offers the only view from the second floor of a large part of the backyard and the land beyond. I didn’t want to repeat the size of the first floor opening or create a checkerboard of regular squares. Another option would have been a wider window above it, but that would have meant one floor-to-ceiling window atop another, without clear structural separation, at odds with the rest of the design.

It was in this corner, near the end of construction, that I most began to question what I had done.

NC b

A window or door is not marked on the floor plan for the opening near the middle, next to the exterior wall, so I left that space open, providing an internal penetration to the house and allowing protected entry. This side, which I took for the back, most presents the mass and solidity of the building and emphasizes the materiality of brick.

Possible second floor plan:

NC 2nd floor plan

As in my first floor plan model, windows have not been placed. The large area in the middle would be a common area with entries to the smaller rooms around it. The black tiles represent where the stairs enter the second floor.

The most important determinant of the design is the active, outward expansion into space. Should the second floor continue the expansion or would the design reverse course and we ascend instead into another area of concentration? The floor plan only provides two dimensions. How would the third dimension, height, be added, and with what effect? Entry to the second floor is only provided by the narrow stairway, which would cause intense concentration. That could be avoided by making the the entire area of the largest room, which looks to be a foyer or maybe a living or dining room, an open space that extends the full two stories. But I’m not sure such a solution would be structurally sound or fit Mies’s intentions. The whole first floor looks to be covered by the slab, upon which the second rests. Also such a solution would limit usable space on the second. And any view from this large space on either floor would be interrupted by the large platform in the middle, which would be intrusive and disrupting.

But I only list general esthetic concerns without relationship to a specific controlling principle. The open mesh of lines in the floor plan, the suggested squares, the implied vertices, might be guided by some central idea, an essence. Careful study could be made of these, of their proportions and relationships, to find a pattern that, once understood, might provide a key for the second floor and the hidden walls.

NC diagram

The design speaks but doesn’t give answers. A host of options presented themselves and none settled. I only made a brief effort, without result. My attempt to recreate the sun with a spotlight and study patterns of shadows created by its diurnal course got no further.

Throughout the process, at every shape, at every turn, at every opening, I was struck by the originality of the design, the order of its scheme. But I have no confidence in anything I have done. What I knew from the outset only became more apparent as I approached completion, that I would never be able to maintain Mies’s precise shapes and careful proportions, much less assemble them into a unified whole. I only moved further, with each piece, with each attempt to comprehend the space, to indecision and uncertainty. Instead of finding a home, I worked my way out of one, its spirit vanishing with its creator.

NC top floor plan

NC witt 3

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Bricks

 

NC brick kiln

Architecture begins when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

Mies’s comment, like his other remarks, like the man, is concrete, concise—and enigmatic.

A brick is an obdurate object of ambiguity that hovers between idea and matter, between life and death. Its texture can be smoothed to glide our touch or left rough and abrade. It can be molded into even shapes for consistent construction or made uneven, presenting individual challenges each time one is laid in a course. The hues can be made consistent, offering an even appearance, or they can vary from one brick to another, presenting more individual challenges. But while it can come close to an ideal oblong shape, it never attains perfection, and it can as much be said that it approaches perfection as it resists it. A brick has the right heft for throwing through a window in revolt. It can also be stacked to encase one solidly. Its color takes on that of blood and the earth from which it is made, or both inseparably combined. Whether it preserves blood or shows it spilled, whether it reveals decay or stalls it—these questions cannot be answered. In spite of its ambiguity, however, we are always aware, in mind and in hand, of its touch, of its mass and weight, of its presence.

Just after college, still in North Carolina, I took on a string of junk jobs to make some extra bucks while I was trying to decide what to do with myself. In one I was a brick palletizer for a brick company, a complicated title for a simple task. At the beginning of each day four of us, two to a team, would enter one of a half dozen large dome kilns by a small opening, climb the pile, and lift, lower, and stack bricks on wood pallets so a forklift could come and take them someplace else.

Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.

Once inside the kiln, you couldn’t see who you worked with and after a while didn’t care. All I can remember is bricks. They were sharp-edged, heavy, and rough; we had to use thick rubber gloves to hold them that we’d wear out in a week. Stacked close to the ceiling, smallest on top, largest at the bottom, bricks blocked out, seemed to absorb what little light came in. You couldn’t even hear yourself think or cuss, because outside the opening fans the size of airplane propellers roared to cool us, the bricks off. As we worked, we bumped, dragged, and scraped the bricks against each other and ourselves, raising a dust the fans returned that burned our eyes and, mixed with our sweat, seeped into cuts and scratches. Our hands cramped, sometimes locked. The bricks, still warm from the firing, got hotter the closer we worked to the center of the pile, as if in some inferno. Even on the cold mornings—it was winter—we stripped to our waists ten or fifteen minutes into the day.

One day I teamed up with an old black man, easily in his sixties, and now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. He moved slowly and deliberately, but with economy of effort, and I had trouble keeping up. I had the position on top, the old man, below. I was always stopping to straighten my back and catch my breath, and my halting labor broke the cadence of his. That irritated him, I could tell, but he never said anything about it. He never spoke about anything, or swore, or shrank, or groaned. The only interchange we had was the passing of hot, heavy bricks. Nor did he look up: he saw no further than arm’s length, than the bricks that came down in irregular rhythm.

A kiln is also a kind of temple built for communion within a system that has its own beliefs and practices, that attempts to attain its own sense of perfection. For me it was a place of contemplation, where I saw things precise and clear. While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light.

The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a week. Twenty to fifty bricks a pallet times two or three pallets an hour times eight hours a day times two hundred and fifty days a year times over twenty years would build how many houses?

With what effect on the body and spirit?

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Suitors

 

Now by Athena’s side in the quiet hall
studying the ground for slaughter, Lord Odysseus
turned to Telemakhos.

We are all modern now, by default and by desire, and modernism has returned by leaps and bounds.

Our world has become increasingly abstract, simplifying itself by its own process. The cost of labor to procure materials and build with them—one effect of a loose move towards democratization—has led to reductions, while mass production and mass media and mass marketing most determine the appearance of what we see in our day-to-day lives. It’s hard to find a language of embellishment in our current culture that might stick. The once dominant influence in Western architecture of classical forms and detail, and the culture that created them, can only be referred to now sentimentally or ironically. We are distant from other influences as well, and they can’t be tapped without a sense of intrusion or appropriation. Whatever geographical moorings we once had have been diluted by our movement away from centers and dissolved by the abstract ways we define our lives together. Our gaze is now outward, international, beyond nation, this in a world that is still trying to define its themes, whose plot fractures in local skirmishes or climbs precipitously to virtual apocalyptic visions, on our screens.

Our conversion to scientific revelation—and scientific-looking revelation—has given us certainty and confidence but removed the base for awe. Transcendence itself has been dismissed as an illusion, a vague desire. We have no fixed set of beliefs upon which to build anything, no cause to look up, and no compelling reason to design one way or another. We do not know what to be afraid of, have even put the thought of fear aside, but somehow have bypassed the suspicion we should be afraid of ourselves.

Still we are moved to wonder, or whatever has taken its place, by our technological devices and constructions, these ever propelling us to the threshold of what we cannot and do not want to name. Because by default and desire we are attached to the present moment, the pulse that feeds our self-awareness, now, and we can’t think of that moment without thinking of its decay, so are propelled to look forward to the next, to the future, in visions whose spirit is fresh, whose surfaces are pure, unhindered by distracting detail.

We can build now almost anything we want and open up our walls to the endless world and endlessly let it in, and do so with little visible external support. At least this much has been transcended, the restrictions once imposed by gravity that necessitated placing beams on posts, that limited openings and kept us close to the ground, that constrained the building of an esthetic.

Our buildings can take any shape we want:

NC Gehry

Or they can rise closer to the heavens:

NC burj

Or give us the means of ascent:

NC Apple 2

And we have embraced nature in our constructions, integrating its color into our pure whites and sheer glass and shining steel.

NC Fields vallco

Or used nature to efface them. This is Rafael Viñoly’s project for The Hills at Vallco, which will become the world’s largest green roof that will cover a mixed-use complex:

NC Vallco below

It is all exhilarating, really, but it all makes me dizzy. I don’t know if that is where my quest to be modern has taken me or whether modernism has left me behind. Or maybe modernism, reaching beyond itself, has left itself behind.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Elliot offers another view of eternity, different from Wittgenstein’s, and raises other questions.

The new Apple headquarters, a Norman Foster design under construction now, and The Hills, still a proposal, will lie next to each other, part of a plan to revitalize Cupertino, the heart of Silicon Valley, where I have lived some thirty years without ever taking root. I have been buffeted by the turbulence of the tech industry, its busts, but haven’t enjoyed the exuberance of its booms. And a new energy has emerged once more, taking me by surprise, because I am removed from that life and didn’t know about these buildings, just a mile away, until I saw them announced in the media.

Apple Campus 2 itself will be 80 percent landscape, with many functions submerged underground. Steve Jobs said he wanted to bring back the California of his youth, “the fruit bowl of America”; the company, after his passing, represents it as “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s brand values of innovation, ease of use and beauty.” There’s a term for the suppressed iconography, pastoral capitalism, and according to Louise Mozingo, who coined the term and wrote a book with that title, the movement is global. Apple’s profits the last years have been enormous. The Hills, however tells another story. The current Vallco Mall, which it will replace, has been in decline since its inception. All its anchors—Sears, Macy’s, etc.—have left and it is now half tenanted. Covering the stores with grass will somehow resurrect them.

Both pictures are also misleading. The green spaces they create will only provide a small patch of land in crowded streets and compacted homes and stores that stretch out for fifty miles. And they conjure a past that that never was and promote a way of life at odds with the hectic pace and manic schedules needed to thrive here.

Mixed-use is another trend designed to halt the decay of sub- and exurban sprawl. The idea is to combine residence and commerce in a mix of apartments and restaurants and offices and shops in central integration, to bring us closer together. Cupertino, whose previous attempts to establish a city center have failed, is giving it a shot. Main Street Cupertino is another mixed-use complex, nearly completed, in front of Apple 2, and about which developers say:

It’s all happening at Main Street. Everyone in your group—from young professionals to big families—will find what they crave in an inclusive community atmosphere that enhances your time together. Food, wine, friends and fun are celebrated here at Main Street. From enlightened burgers to craft beer, artisan pizza, vegan wraps and more, everyone will find something to love.

Angels have descended to write copy.

I can only stand aside in disbelief. But maybe there is innocence in all of this, maybe even a future. Because I, wingless, am the one who has become corrupted over the years. I am the one who is tortured by irony and wrecked with doubt, whose only mood now is fatigue. Maybe it is time to put those aside, let go, take a leap, and think of another way of life. There is something here that approaches spirit, even a kind of peace and order, and I do not know what life these visions will bring. I try to imagine myself tending the fields above Vallco or dining among the others in casual assurance or gathering with them out in the open field, waiting to see what will appear on the large screen. Who call tell what stories will yet be played there? And those fictions will have a home in the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, proposed for the shores of Chicago, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, brought to us by the director who has given us our modern epics and exhorted us to trust the force:

NC Lucas museum

But I will not be there to see them. The tech companies—Apple, Google, the others—with their salaries to lure, along with international buyers, have sent housing prices soaring with no end in sight, and there has been an epidemic of landlords evicting tenants so they can raise rent, as has happened to me. I have a month left on my lease, and my rent, already steep, will likely double if I look elsewhere. It makes no financial sense for me or anyone of like salary—teachers, policemen, social workers, shop owners, much less the mixed-use clerks and waiters—to live here.

So I will take ship and set sail again, for parts unknown. . . .

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—Gary Garvin

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Notes

There is another drawing of the floor plan, made by Werner Blaser under Mies’s supervision late in his life, 1965, that details the placement of each brick—and adds a hearth to the large chimney. As Blaser states,

. . . the ground plan of the brick house is a good example of the manner in which Mies van der Rohe developed the art of the structure from the very beginning. The structure of a brick wall begins already with the smallest divisible unit: the brick.

Cited by Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer in Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas. The brick placement, however, has little relationship with the original drawings, and, as the authors point out, such a claim cannot be true. Rather, the drawing served as a manifesto of Mies’s method, well after the fact, without consideration for actual construction. According to them, referencing Dan Hoffman, discussing other brick houses actually built:

Mies has consequently been credited with coaxing a machined precision out of the handiwork of bricklaying to the point where the masonry units and mortar joints merged to form an overall texture of such regularity that it approached the appearance of an industrialized surface. Craft was pushed to a degree of such perfection that it disappeared.

Such precision is not possible with brick, but it does represent a desire, an upward goal. The purpose, the point of such a desire, however, rests elusive. Then again, looking for purpose may miss the point. For all his precision and control, Mies is difficult to locate. He rejects formalism, which leaves open the matter of esthetic grounding. His only reference point is the spirit of the “new era,” or a platonic conception of it, without critical question:

The new era is a fact; it exists entirely independently of whether we say “yes” or “no” to it. But it is neither better nor worse than any other era. It is a pure datum and in itself neural as to value.

From “The New Era,” 1930, found in Programs and manifestoes on 20th-century architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads. Another paradox: we can see the facts of this new era but not its spirit, yet without this ideal concept his architecture collapses. Ultimately Mies approaches religion, or an abstraction of it. There’s a kind of faith in his neutrality.

Mies, “Working Theses” also found in Programs.

Mies, “Indeed we should strive to bring Nature” from Tegethoff.

Mies, “In the ground plan of this house, I have abandoned” from Mies van der Rohe, Jean-Louis Cohen.

Mies, “Architecture begins when two bricks” from Architecture: The Subject is Matter, ed. Jonathan Hill.

Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey.

Christoph Asendorf, “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Dessau, Berlin, Chicago” from Bauhaus, ed. Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend.

Wittgenstein quotations from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden.

Quotations about Apple 2 from “Look Inside Apple’s Spaceship Headquarters,” Wired.

Portions of this essay appeared in the author’s piece at Archinect and his short story “Willy.”

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Picture Credits

Mies van der Rohe drawings from Alex Maymind “5 Projects: Interview 5,” via Archinect.

From Wikipedia Commons: the floor plans of a megaron, the Parthenon, and the Barcelona Pavilion; photographs of Centaur and Lapith, the Barcelona Exposition, the Barcelona Pavilion (or rather its reconstruction), Dawn, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Adrian Smith’s Burj Khalifa.

Albert Speer Zeppelinfeld via drexel.edu.

Apple Campus 2, The Hills at Vallco, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art via designboom.

All photographs of the model by the author.

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Gary Garvin lives with his son in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English, though he is in the process now of relocating. 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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May 042016
 

word cloud 500px

x

It is a radical, a primitive impulse—elementary.
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
—Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

x

The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor seamstress for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. There are tried and true patterns she will revert to, and for good reasons. But like all artists, she will deviate from the patterns, too, beginning new traditions and conventions in the place of old. That, however, all the patches are made of the same fabric—a fabric woven of the mind’s sympathy with the material world—we can be quite sure.

§

Two myths regarding the origin of language haunt our presentiments about the way we know reality and, thus, our conclusions about how and what the world means. One posits an absolute and legible world of meaning; the other an utterly meaningless world. The first tells the tale of a lost Ur-Sprache, wherein words were identical to the things they signified. Mixing Kabbalistic creation magic with esoteric Renaissance alchemy, this myth is one source of Romantic views of the world as whole, harmonious, and inherently logical (“worded” and in accordance with Reason). The assumption is that things mean, and that their meaning is at least partially legible—if not transparently through the dark glass of the fallen language of man, then at least through the visible language of nature, its patterns and repeating hieroglyphs. From ancient times through the mid-18th century at least, scholars and mystics have searched for traces of a perfect language, supposedly lost after the collapse of Babel tower or after that other fall in Eden, claiming sometimes that it was a form of Hebrew and, at others, inventing new symbol systems that promised to heal the rift between word and world, human mind and cosmos. Suspending for a moment belief in the myth’s more esoteric tendencies, the idea that language could be intrinsically related to reality is somewhat supported by etymological evidence tracing the roots of words in the world of matter, binding thought to history, nature, and social practices. Most compelling of all is its occasional call—as in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (1303-5)—for the modern poet to bridge the chasm between both words and the essences of ideas and things with a creative regeneration of language.

The second myth deceptively denies any correspondence between words and world, and tends to insist that individual experience cannot be translated from one person to the next. It came more recently to prominence, though there were proto-believers, or shall I say skeptics—for it is a skeptical myth, though myth just the same—even in ancient times. It came to hold sway in the late 19th century, along with other skepticisms, gained considerable ground at the turn of the 20th, and is currently one of the most pervasive articles of faith of the 21st-century social theorist and even many writers who, in holding to it, undermine a belief in their own work. In this explanation of the origin of language, words have never and never could be anything but arbitrary labels for things. This arbitrariness signals a kind of treacherous deceit. The way we think is, they warn, directed and controlled by these arbitrary signifiers— masters, which have no right to such guiding and limiting power over our thoughts and the world they pretend to describe. Words, in this story, coalesce into controlling concepts, cutting up the world into arbitrary categories and quickly shutting down thought and vision. As if that were not bad enough, this tyranny of words deceives in yet another fundamental way. By presenting an order that is invented, words give the lie to the actual dis-ordered state of the world. Words cover up a chaotic, fluid abyss that cannot (or rather should not) be reduced, differentiated, or delimited. Words impose definitions where there should be none, separating, distinguishing, discriminating. Perhaps by the end of the 21st century, light itself will be decried as another separator of substances, an arbitrary surveyor of imperialistic boundary lines between brightness and shadow; but for now we may enjoy our chiaroscuro, virtually guiltlessly. Not so our words. Words in this myth fail to translate between thing and mind and between person and person and language and language. All is a jumble. This myth of untranslatability marks a kind of second Babel, inaugurating a dire suspicion about the ability of words to mean anything, and about meaning altogether.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

A driving force of the myth of untranslatabilty is the myth of social construction, which, in its most extreme form, denies any relationship between our social attitudes and customs and our biology, our instincts, or experiences, thus cutting the lifeline between materiality and ideas. Neither the myth of the perfect language nor that of non-translatability are true in their extreme forms, but both contain germs of truth, and both are analogies for the fears and hopes of human beings who are, naturally, quite concerned with whether or not the world has any meaning and how we might know what it is and then communicate it to others. But like all strict dualisms, their extreme polarity avoids the fruitful unification of opposites where the world meets word and both might be expanded through contact.

Over the course of the 20th century, philosophers continued the exploration begun in ancient times of how we know the world, focusing more directly on how we know the world through language. In the 21st century these queries have often been reduced to a set of conclusions about how we don’t and can’t know the world, neither through language or otherwise. Although these philosophies have often been liberating, breaking down preconceived limits and questioning restrictive assumptions, when taken to their logical extremes they lead to silence and solipsism.

Social construction is, of course, grounded in the much older philosophical supposition that it is impossible to experience, see, or know “the thing in itself.” We see only phenomena and not realities, and our seeing is determined by filters or structures in our brains that mediate the ways in which we see. Over centuries, this realization has been transformed to mean that what we see is necessarily either wrong or extremely different from what is, an assumption that was not present in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Although Kant conceived of the a priori mental structures that determined our perception as divinely given, we might secularize his exploration by accepting that there are basic biological constants in human brains through which we see, sense, and experience phenomena. While Kant did note that each person sees a different shade of red, he did not suggest that we each see entirely different colors, or that colors themselves did not exist.

The “categorical imp of the perverse” acknowledges that there are some a priori givens or essences in both our minds and the world and that, whether we can see the “thing in itself” perfectly or not, we still have some access to a reasonable sense of reality in its basic forms; that our individual perception, although subjective, is not so radically different from that of others as to prohibit correspondence and communication; that we can use words and images to approximate our meanings and expand our own perception and that of others; and, finally, that while we may follow the categorical imperative as a general law, we also will, like Poe’s imp, perversely deviate from its strictures when an uncontrollable irrational impulse, a creative urge, an ethical scruple, or simple taste dictates. This is an unfashionable idea, to be sure, for it does not provide the satisfaction of either complete wholeness and harmony, on the one hand, or of complete nihilism and alienation, on the other. Instead, it hovers uncomfortably in a middle realm where some things are real and repeating and others open to interpretation and change. It leaves us neither completely omnipotent nor completely helpless.

Without the interventions of the foolish imp (pointing out naively that the emperor has no clothes, for example) an utterly de-materialized form of reader response theory might prevail in the social scene, regardless of the “text” that is being interpreted. The categorical imp wags its finger at an “anything goes” interpretation of the world, blurting out “foolish” truisms to make sophisticated social theorists blush, but also does not stay long within any constructed system that can be exploded or questioned.

Kant Imp PoeLeft: Immanuel Kant, 18th-century portrait  Right: Edgar Allan Poe by Michael Deas (Both public domain)

Nietzsche, inaugurating the “linguistic turn,” made us aware of the way language conceptualizes reality by creating names or descriptions of things that may leave out as much as they contain. Words are inexact figures and metaphors, inaccurate and incommensurate attempts to describe reality. We group similar things that nevertheless exhibit many differences into general categories; and this process induces a sort of simplification of seeing. We come to perceive dogs, trees, men, women, instead of each individual creature and entity. This eventually leads us to create abstractions and reifications, such as love, good, bad, noble, moral, money, which may become more and more removed from physical reality and experience. Yet, while many theorists after Nietzsche came to see the use of language as a treacherous crime committed upon reality, he tended to see it in a more creatively joyous light. Just as long as we do not come to be the slaves of ossified constructs and concepts, just as long as the “creative subject” continues to make new terms, new words, new metaphors, new figures to describe a changing reality from his own shifting perspective, just as long as individuals stoke the flame of a living language, language can be a prod and a stimulus to new seeing.

Social construction theory has tried to moralistically discredit this joyous aesthetic and existential world- and word-making activity and has replaced it with an imperative to strip every word and every concept of its given meaning by calling all designations and conceptualizations into question. Berger and Luckmann, authors of The Social Construction of Reality (1966), reduce all human culture to “an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth, the theoretical integration of which requires considerable intellectual fortitude in itself, as the long line of heroic integrators from Homer to the latest sociological system-builders testifies.” Thus the enlightened skeptics discard all of literature, philosophy, and history in one fell swoop—excepting, of course, their own myth and narrative, of a social system occurring randomly and ex nihilo, which just appears and dupes all subsequent humans into following rules and belief systems which have nothing to do with human tendencies, desires, or human nature. The champions of the subsequent puritanical silence would discredit myth, historic narrative, fairy tales, religious legends, songs, poems, paintings, totems, and talismans as random and as traitorous social constructions. They would have us scoff at any product of the human imagination as if it had been made by some abstract non-human author, as something necessarily imposed upon the passive human from some extraneous force that would have to be virtually extraterrestrial, not ourselves, not natural. They would insist that a human is not capable of experiencing his or her reality without being blind-sided by the already constructed way of seeing determined by his or her society, as if construction only works in one negative, exclusive, terminating direction, when, in fact, new ideas, new conceptualizations, new abstractions exponentially proliferate over the ages, as new details, microcosmic particulars, and relative complexities are incorporated into our shared cultural, scientific, and artistic discourse.

Of course our visions and perspectives are colored by our social context and these visions vary from one culture to another, often extremely. The variations between cultures must be the product of many different influences, from genetics to climate to landscape to the requirement for survival of a particular place and a particular people (gene culture co-evolution). Originary group social experiences are passed down from generation to generation, and are altered or not over time. Certainly old customs can be kept longer than necessary and humans on the whole may act according to originary evolutionary necessities that are no longer useful and even sometimes harmful in our current context. But these ways of seeing and ways of acting are not random. In other words, while there certainly are many social constructs, there is no such thing as “just” a social construct—a phrase that suggests that the construct appeared out of nowhere and has no validity whatsoever. Social constructs including language, education, and art are the positive product of human interaction with nature, the physical world, social groups, experience. They may always be questioned and often must be challenged, but they are fundamental and indispensable to human culture.

Over time there is oscillation between repeated forms and invention, including the benefit of influence, interaction, discourse, criticism, the scientific method, testing of assumptions, positing of hypotheses and theories, gathering of facts and evidence to support the hypotheses and theories, foregrounding certain facts over others, selecting out and focusing on one or another aspect, evaluating based on differing values and differing relative needs of the moment.

One can say that different people notice different things when they read a story; that their experiences color what they will remember and the emotions that different words or images inspire. But one can’t say that the story itself is different. What is in it is what is in it. A test consists in the subjective reader pointing out something (making an observation). Is it really there? Or is it a wrong reading, a reading into, a hallucination? Do others see it too, now that it has been pointed out? Indeed, since people do largely see mainly what others have seen before them, it takes a particularly brave or odd reader to suddenly find something there that others have missed repeatedly. Different reading capabilities will see more nuances; simpler people will miss complexities or misread altogether. Someone may grasp the literal but not the allegorical or ironic level.

But here we are talking about a story, something made with some level of intention by a conscious being, something limited. What of the vast and contradictory text of the world? How do we read it collectively even though there is no author and no given purpose? Arrive at an interpretation of its infinite elements and relations? Not all readings are acceptable or right. Yet they persist. How do people live entire lives misunderstanding reality, or not understanding aspects of science, biology, history, anthropology? We still come to absurd conclusions about observed phenomena, like primitives inventing myths to explain the terrors of nature. What of these myths? They are readings and explanations. Technically, scientifically wrong, but often they are allegorically, humanly, right. People lived, perhaps, more beautiful and richer lives believing in Zeus and the divinations of the Oracle than we do today with our scientific knowledge of cause and effect. But there have also been instances when superstitions and wrong-thinking have led to terrible misery and violence (as they still do today, alas). What we want would rather be myths that are “true” to the most healthful, life-affirming essence of Nature, myths that help us to understand who we are and to face up to the fearsomeness of the unknown. Myths that help us to embrace change and mortality and reality. The myth of a perfect language and the myth of untranslatability can be classed in the larger philosophical categories on either side of hope and despair. Which myth is most true to our potential as a species and which do we want to dream on? Do we want skeptical solipsism or holistic Idealism? Again, as in all such extreme polarizations, the sweet spot is in their synthesis, in the creation of a new myth: perhaps that of the categorical imp of the perverse.

Imp of the Perverse by Leonard BaskinImp of the Perverse (from Leonard Baskin’s Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies and Elves, Pantheon 1984)

How much, then, is our reading of the world, of events, of words, of symbols invented or constructed; and how much, on the other hand, is it inherent in nature, in our biology, in our evolutionary coding? Words and symbols describe, denote, suggest, but they may also coerce and imprison; words calcify clichés, but they also can be rearranged and newly coined to make us see and be in new ways. The relationship of the material world with the world of words and ideas has, of course, significant bearing on the very question of meaning, not just the meaning of words, but of the meanings or values we attribute to the world and our ability to share, compare, and translate these meanings with others over time and space. Meaning in the sense of an intentional predetermined purpose by some external agent is not credible. We are not here for something (short of evolutionary processes, which cannot always be counted on our side or in our interest). And yet, our biological sensory essences are replete in themselves with a life force, a will to power, a will to pleasure and also, surprisingly, an evolved ethical and social sense. According to E.O. Wilson, in The Meaning of Human Existence, “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction—the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete….” If this is the case, what would it mean for the continuation of our species were we to turn our backs on these originary processes? We create and find meanings, valuations, scales of significance about things, acts, people, as a result of our shared experience. These conclusions are not random or arbitrary, but based on our own bodies, on nature, on what seems to work, on what brings pleasure, excitement; on instinct, on counter-instinct; and, yes, also by conditioning and resistance to conditioning. By denying the direct influence of material reality on our ideas, we undo the bonds between thought and action. By breaking the current from world to word and mind, we break the current back as well: a disembodied idea cannot touch an embodied world.

Modernism introduced both freedom and alienation through the recognition of perspectivism and relativity, inventing non-linear modes of communication such as symbols, metaphors, novel arrangements of forms to express the newly significant internal states that could not as easily be expressed in didactic language. Postmodernism robbed the individual of even the comfort of her own temporary, provisional, shifting view—relieved by moments of being as extratemporal, exceptional moments when all flux was set in a harmonious form before being dispersed once more. And then further denied us the notion that these experiences might be translatable to others through poetic form. Declaring that everything cancelled everything else out, and that any interpretation was as good as any other (thus none were any good), postmodernism simultaneously opened the airwaves to an inchoate cacophony and closed many mortal ears to the music of the spheres. Ostensibly taking away the privilege of the elite reader, any reader of the world was now equally entitled to affirm his own arbitrary reading over any other. Some contemporary theorists, lacking, however, the compensation of another world that may have softened the blow of Berkeley’s 18th-century de-materialism, go a step further, by suggesting that there isn’t even a world or a reality to know in the first place.

But through materiality we are literally in touch with the textures, the colors, the approximate spaces and dynamics of iteration and difference in our shared physical world. Although our experiences of the real are necessarily colored, limited, or expanded by our personal experiences and subjective lenses, we need not give in to alienated despair and a rejection of the possibility of translation from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, or past to present to future. Although my perception of the world is filtered through my own brain, experience, and interests, it is possible that the words that I use, the images that I make to evoke that world will mean something to you. And the differences between how I see the world and the way you see it are, in fact, enriching and expansive variations of individual and group worldviews, creating awareness of individual sentience and self-consciousness.

Schiller noted the difference between what he called “naïve” and “sentimental” approaches to poetry, the former exemplified by the simple objectivity of Homer, the latter by the subjectivity of Romanticism. We are all-too-well aware today that all vision (even Homer’s supposedly objective reporting) involves re-vision and that all expression comes from a particular perspective; but that need not mean that each representation is hopelessly inaccessible to other humans who share, at least to some extent, much of the same cellular structure, much of the same instinctive apparatus, and much of the same social and natural experience. Henry David Thoreau, though labelled a transcendentalist and thus supposedly a proponent of innate knowledge rather than empiricism, was really committed to what he called “fronting the facts” of reality: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy:” he wrote, “we reason from our hands to our head.” Analogies would not mean anything to us if they did not correspond to something we recognized from a shared real world.

In this age where alienation is taken by some as a mark of sophistication, I would rather hearken back to a time when sentimentality—which in Schiller’s sense is a mode of perception and expression that infuses some external entity with a subjectivity—was not a dirty word. For the cost of abandoning communication and correspondence between persons and between persons and their world is far too high to uncritically accept philosophies that insist on the absolute incommensurability of perception and phenomena, word and thing, individual and individual. The ultimate cost of abandoning an approximation, a translation of some shared meaning, is not only culture and community as George Steiner and others have noted, but also any impetus for individual or group agency. For, if we cannot know the world well enough, and cannot know others more or less, and cannot know even ourselves, it would not only be impossible to function on a daily basis, but it would be impossible to dream about and to work to minimize the space between what is and what could be. The kind of knowing that helps us with practical functioning and the kind that helps us dream and engage with the world are both proximate, but they have different uses. The former is a pragmatism that accepts certain probabilities for the sake of efficiency and practicality. The kind of knowing that allows us to dream and act, however, is one that fathoms the difference between what is determined and what is yet determinable, keeping always a lifeline from the palpable facts of nature down to the subconscious watery depths of the imagination, a kind of knowing which must continually measure what in our life is necessity and what might yet be changed.

If constructs in the form of language and images have a tendency to direct thought, thereby potentially limiting how we see the world, then the “creative subject” (to use Nietzsche’s term for all humans who act upon the object of the world) has an ethical and aesthetic responsibility to rejuvenate where ideas have become ossified, and to invent new living language where vision has become merely conventional. Even evolutionary and genetic coding can be resisted to varying extents, so that individual and group choice may deviate from long-repeated patterns and veer away from social and biological conformity. Environmental events also alter what is beneficial for survival, inducing adaptations which change the course of social behavior. But extreme forms of social construction deny the biological and evolutionary foundations of our thought and action. According to Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the old, established, standard social science model made a religion out of the idea of the impressionable empty mind waiting to be imprinted by any external force whatsoever, denying any connection between one’s physical characteristics, one’s material surroundings, and one’s behavior (gene-culture co-evolution), shifting the entire cause of social systems to conditioning and social engineering. Pinker’s radical stance is that:

We have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.

Although, as he notes in his introduction, most people acknowledge that everything is both nature and nurture, when it really comes down to it (in liberal milieus, in any case) politically correct assumptions veer sharply away from biological causation. Pinker traces the ideological shift from biology to historical materialism to social construction, and quotes Franz Boas saying, “We must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary;” and Durkheim: “Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms;” noting also that Skinner’s behaviorism was based on a belief in the complete malleability of individuals. The blank slate model has been used, of course, as political leverage to affirm the equal potential of all persons; but, as Pinker argues, it also works against the development of the kind of innate ethical behavior that can do battle against totalitarianism, the shadow that looms large over this discussion. Marxist historical materialism, which, certainly in its received form, oddly leaves the material of the body out when calculating what material forces shape the individual, is based on the blank slate model; and whereas Nazism was, of course, grounded in an ideology of ethnic cleansing with direct links to biology. Rescuing the humane exploration of the extent of genetic causes of behavior from its associated calumny, Pinker reminds us that, “Government sponsored mass murder can come from an anti-innatist belief system as easily as from an innate one.” The Stalinists, in pursuit of a political goal based on the blank slate, killed just as many (or more) people as the Nazis. Noam Chomsky, whose research on universal grammars leans in the direction of the perfect language myth, echoes Pinker’s reservations about the political benefits of the blank slate model:

If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community.

Social construction theory, likewise dependent upon the total malleability of the blank slate model—although ostensibly a radical attack on exploitative and oppressive essences, universals, and absolutes—has a paradoxical tendency to discourage rather than inspire radical activity. This is because it is cynical about the individual’s participatory agency in creating and, if necessary, reconstructing our shared world, the essential ethical agency affirmed by existentialism. Adorno finally conceded that there can be some form of poetry after Auschwitz, but can we find our way back to a scientific and philosophical ideology that balances the influence of both biology and environment, an assessment of language that allows for some measure of conceptual correspondence with reality, a way to appreciate the significance of civilization amid its cruelties and kindnesses? And if we cannot, how shall we possibly proceed as a culture, as members of an extended and complex cultural and ecological system? Centuries after the Kantkrise, when people rightfully experienced the disequilibrium of a world from which the horizon, in Nietzsche’s image, had been wiped away with a sponge, a world wherein all established values were subject to reevaluation, a mature attempt is called for: to do our best, despite subjectivity, perspectivism, and cultural differences. Because the real costs of abandoning the possibility of communication are nothing less than culture, community, and ethical agency.

Nietzsche characterized language as a “prison house,” and Wittgenstein famously noted the challenge of struggling against the walls of language, but both concluded that there was no choice but to attempt to communicate despite the challenges. Nietzsche wrote: “We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language.” I suggest that, instead of a prison house, what we really have is a misprision house, a house where misunderstandings haunt our communications; a house, however, which we may readily transform with all manner of expansion, rearrangement, implosion and explosion. A house of our own making, subject to our own renovations. A house of any kind requires foundations. In language, these foundations are words and concepts; in society, the foundations are shared universals. Cultural relativity is one of the largely unexamined assumptions of contemporary society, but many anthropologists and sociologists have made the case for a wide number of behavioral constants across all cultures. Steven Pinker includes a list compiled from Donald Brown’s Human Universals as an appendix in The Blank Slate, featuring such commonalities as ambivalence, figurative language, rituals, gift-giving, in-group and out-group consciousness, nuclear family structures, incest taboos, art appreciation, attempts to predict the future, punishment for antisocial behavior, distinguishing self from others, sexual jealousy, synesthetic metaphors, taxonomy, language applied to misinform or mislead, synonyms, cooperation, selfishness, status seeking, explaining events by causation, fear of death, proverbs, ethnocentrism, private inner life, redress of wrongs, risk taking, hope, &c. Chomsky, as already noted, argues for an innate and universal grammatical structure for all languages. Despite manifest differences, he writes, “…it seems that very heavy conditions in the form of grammar are universal. Deep structures seem to be very similar from language to language, and the rules that manipulate and interpret them also seem to be drawn from a very narrow class of conceivable formal operations.” Although there are variations across cultures in terms of language and customs, “the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” There are more things in heaven and earth that are universal than the social constructionist will usually allow, and the tension between these universals and individual will and choice is the same tension present in the categorical imperative, put into new and equally paradoxical words by the American transcendentalist Emerson, who received his Kant filtered through the German Romantics. In his famous essay, “Self-Reliance” Emerson writes: “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”. In other words, if you follow your own conscience instead of blindly following conventions and social constructions, you probably will find yourself where the most conscious humans before you have found themselves; but it is not something an ethical person can take for granted. Thus one must assess and experiment anew— while keeping the experiments of others always within reach.

Steven Pinker Blank SlatePhoto of Steven Pinker by Rose Lincoln, Harvard University

A young male friend of mine told me of an experiment he conducted with a woman friend to try to “be together without preconceptions,” without language, without definitions. It fell flat. What is left when we take away history, archetypes, essence? Some preconceived images and roles are still meaningful, though others have become empty shells, simulacra, and conventions. What still reverberates, and why? Consider Proust’s Swann and his comparison of his beloved Odette to the women in old paintings. Her beauty in the present is enhanced by its comparison and relation with the already delineated forms of archetypal female beauty. When I was a young woman, I was attracted and repelled by de Beauvoir’s encouragement in The Second Sex to simply live as one is, and let that define what a woman is. I understood the problem with any individual woman trying to fit into a pre-existent role of womanliness, and judging her success and failure as a person based on the extent to which she fits into this role, especially in so far as the myths have often been written by men. Indeed, de Beauvoir’s discussion constitutes one of the clearest illustrations of the existentialist motto: existence precedes essence. But much is lost if we abandon the ancient archetypes altogether. Some essences do precede existence, and they cannot easily by altered by even the strongest will. A woman is whatever any particular woman is; but at the same time a woman is an echo and a continuance of what women have always been: in poetry, history, song, painting, myth. Today’s blank slate theory is tantamount to a total blankness, a neutered neutrality, especially as it threatens to wipe away not only history and archetype, but even biology and instinct. If fantasies of roles and patterns do not excite the modern contemporary moralistic lover (who may try to be blank even in his or her perception of eroticism), then at least biology ought to do the trick. But even that is repressed or denied. Nothing is supposed to be determining except social context, which is allegedly random and created by oppressive institutions. Shall we then sacrifice erotic imagination and sexual pleasure for a sterile—indeed blank—moralistic neutrality? Or is it possible to play affirmatively with the fruitful tension between innovation and an engagement with determined biology and past archetypes? Today we speak of fluidity and the social construct of gender, often without considering the implications of these ideas. Fluidity is consistent with a rejection of the “construct” of gender, but transformation of physical and stylistic trappings seems still to keep faith with the gender roles it claims to repudiate, only changing the individual’s physicality to match a pre-created role. I certainly have nothing against each individual pursuing his or her or their own sense of sexuality. I sometimes feel like a thunderstorm, a mountainside, a young boy, an old book, a lioness, a flower, a lightning bolt, a field of moss. Yet I am concerned about the way in which this new mode of thought joins other current ideologies to deny the reality of the material world.

I suppose I am rather old-fashioned though, believing even that words mean something that can be traced back to nature through their roots. Emerson, who nowadays is also old-fashioned but in his time was a proponent of the new thought, wrote that words were “fossil poetry;” and an archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D, elaborated on this suggestive phrase in a book much loved by Thoreau. Trench writes:

[A] popular American author has somewhere characterized language as “fossil poetry.” He evidently means that just as in some fossils, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrate lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would have been theirs,—so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves…Language may be, and indeed is, this “fossil poetry.” [But it also is] fossil ethics, or fossil history.

How far from this belief in the significance of etymology we are today! Some contemporary people seem to really not believe that words have any meanings at all. They do not keep their words and speak untruths easily, just as advertisers do, with rampant euphemism, ignoring the proper use of grammatical symbols like possessive apostrophes (perhaps a subconscious attempt to do away with private property and possession?), sprinkling them around haphazardly, in hopes that one might make some sense somewhere or sprout into a sentence.

Sounding somewhat like Wittgenstein, who came to believe in the organic communal development of language over time, Trench writes, “Man makes his own language, but he makes it as the bee makes its cells, as the bird its nest, he cannot do otherwise.” Indeed, why should human language-making (like the mind) be something outside of nature? Why an imposition upon nature? Trench compares the natural growth of the tree of language to a “house being built of dead timbers combined after his own fancy and caprice.” “Language,” he writes, prefiguring the coming Modernist crisis, “is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought….” And continues, landing on more solid ground than the later language philosophers, declaring that it is “on the other side that which feeds and unfolds thought”; and that “there is…a reality about words.” Words to Trench are not mere arbitrary signs, but “living powers…growing out of roots, clustering in families, connected and intertwining themselves with all that men have been doing and thinking and feeling from the beginning of the world till now.” Tribulation: from tribulum-harrow, a threshing instrument; Caprices—from capra, a goat; Daisyeye of day; Laburnum—golden rain. Words are like artifacts in curiosity cabinets, except that they are living, evolving.

If originally words were arbitrary, they grew out of each other in accord with reality. But why do we worry so much about the distinction between what is and what is perceived or how named, when the perceiver and namer is made of the same nature as the observed thing? Why would the structure of the human mind and its brainchild language commit treachery on its own kith and kin, its own world? That sometimes false etymologies are attached to words whose real etymologies have been forgotten may only prove the connection of words to realities all the more, since the new explanation relates the old word to some existing reality. We are always binding words to what is, even if they do not strictly come from one particular is. Trench writes: “errors survive in words” and “disprove themselves”: tempers, humors, saturnine, mercurial, jovial (descriptions of people born under these planets); to charm, bewitch, enchant, lunacy, panic, auguries, and auspices (from divination), initiating (from rites)—all mark the persistence of Pagan words in Christian lands. The universe was named “cosmos” or beautiful order, probably by Pythagoras. Was this not an expression of natural human sentiment, voiced by one man? It is surely one possible good name for the universe, though not the only or ultimate one. Someone else in a later era might choose rather to name it “chaos.”

Words born of specific cultures attest to that culture’s history and tendencies. Though sometimes it may be difficult to ascertain which is the stronger, dominant friend, language or reality, we cannot deny that a relationship obtains. Smith comes from smite; wrong from wring; haft from have. Shire, shore, shears, share, shred, shard are all connected to the idea of separation. The contemporary fear of mastery and dominance denies even this relatedness. Some people would rather have no meaning than a meaning that is possibly imposed. Rather not use language at all, they think, than use the language of the oppressors. Why not, instead, make new words? Become ourselves creators?

A belief in the meaningful relation between words and the world extended in Thoreau to a belief in man’s ability to read the visible meanings (verba visibilia) in nature as lessons in human conduct of life. In his 1837 journal he writes, “How indispensable to a correct study of nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth.” A few entries later he is observing ice crystals on the lake:

When the ice was laid upon its smooth side [the crystal] resembles the roofs and steeples of a Gothic city, or the vessels of a crowded harem under a press of canvas….Wherever the water, or other causes, had formed a hole in the bank, its throat and outer edge, like the entrance to a citadel of the olden time, bristled with a glistening ice armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warriors filing into the fortress, in another the glancing fan-shaped banners of the Lilliputian host, and in another the needle-shaped particles, collected into bundles resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for the phalanx of spears.

Thoreau cannot help but draw meaning, make stories and connections between observed natural phenomena and human life and civilization. We all make meaning when we look at Nature. We say the moon is smiling on us lovers, fancy an overcast, stormy sky is melancholy and a bright one happy. These are merely natural phenomena with no intentional meaning inherently attached. But spring blossoms make us think of newness and rebirth because they are new rebirths; just as autumn’s gloominess is death, a temporary going-under, a symbol system of the Urpflanze’s recurrence. This surely is no invention, but the truth of their significance. We naturally tell ourselves stories of human life when observing nature (as we do when we listen to music, as sounds suggest landscapes and actions, crises, moods, narratives from human life). And Thoreau would have us learn from Nature how to be more noble, more hearty, more equanimical about changes and cycles: “So let it be with man,” he writes, over and over, after describing a natural process.

But just as there are repeating natural laws that can reliably be studied to learn about the world, ourselves, and each other, there is the categorical imp of the perverse, which, again and again, proves that man can break the patterns of thought and behavior constructed by his forefathers and foremothers. Changing presentiments over centuries have been initiated by individual discoveries and inventions, by accidents and reactions, by experience that proved old presentiments wrong, and in response to new physical realities: infinity, entropy, solar heat death, eternal recurrence, millennial apocalypse, chaos theory, robotics, creationism, evolution, and social construction itself.

The Horn of Babel by Vladimir KushThe Horn of Babel by Vladimir Kush

Was evolution (“just”) a social construct? No better than the one it replaced? Darwin’s critics accused him of gathering data to support his hypothesis, as if such a process were a manipulative and dishonest method of forcing existence into a certain essence. The opposite was true. In the twenty years of gathering and testing evidence from the natural world leading up to his writing of The Origin of Species, Darwin actually worked from observation toward hypothesis in a remarkably innocent way, not expecting to find (to borrow Nietzsche’s wonderful image in “On Truth and Lying in a Supramoral Sense”) the truth he had himself hidden behind a bush. But ironically, he actually discovered data that undermined Creationism, the socially constructed truth of his society, thereby proving that individuals are not all such dupes as social construction theory makes us out to be. Social construction theorists tend to reduce the rich history of human thought down to a few coercive institutionalized oppressive ideas, ignoring the variety and ingenuity and complexity of any given society’s presentiments, dreams, and beliefs.

In fact, not only are there repeating universals and also deviations from these universals over time and space, but differences among cultures and throughout history may actually depend on a vital interplay between universality and deviating human agency. If everything is not entirely, externally, randomly constructed, or, on the other hand, entirely determined by biology, inheritance, or evolutionary urges, then we have some degree of agency to choose what we love and hate and favor and impugn. We have the agency to break out of established patterns and create new ones, which then create individuated modes and variations. Paradoxically, thus differentiation proves comprehensive, as the deviations of so much that usually repeats (archetypes, life forms, ways of living, attitudes toward beauty, others, family, nature, ethics, deep structures in languages), can be attributed to choice rather than coercion or random conformity.

In After Babel, Steiner talks about translation (by which he means not just from language to language but from person to person) as a process including destructive aggression, appropriation, and expansion. We break the meaning of the other when we attempt to understand and re-present; we appropriate it into our own idiom, idiolect, understanding. And then we also add something to it. We expand it with interpretation, elucidation, interest, passion (thereby deforming it). This is analogous to all relations between individuals and countries (passionate love, colonialism, anthropological study), and I suspect that the current distrust of language has something to do with our sensitivity about appropriation and mastery. No one wants to dare speak for someone else or for another kind of person, assuming incomprehension; practicing silence. At the Vermont Studio Center, where I was resident one winter, some of the other writers were sensitively discussing whether a white person could write a black character or a male a female one. But is not at least one part of what a writer does imagining the “other” and delineating and dissolving, dissolving and delineating the differences between everything? With such fastidious exclusions, most of literature would have to be banned. Today, it seems that many people don’t dare express themselves or dare love or enter into relationships at all, for fear of overcoming or being overcome by another person’s personality, power, desires.

What are the consequences of such paranoia in regard to appropriation? Steiner writes: “If a substantial part of all utterances were not public or, more precisely, could not be treated as if they were, chaos and autism would follow.” Although language can limit the horizon of our consciousness, it is also one of the ways or maybe the only way to expand it. Poetic language, as Wittgenstein suggested, is the answer to a cliché–ridden, ossified thought. Living language, as Robert Musil practiced and preached it, is the active process of revivifying stale meanings through the magic of metaphor-making. Although the process is inaccurate, metaphors, writes Musil, “bring beauty and excitement into the world.” Steiner concurs: “Vital acts of speech are those which seek to make a fresh and ‘private’ content more publically available without weakening the uniqueness, the felt edge of individual intent.” And continues:

In significant measure, different languages are different, inherently creative counter-proposals to the constraints, to the limiting universals of biological and ecological conditions. They are the instruments of storage and of transmission of legacies of experience and imaginative construction particular to a given community. We do not yet know if the “deep structures” postulated by transformational-generative grammars are in fact substantive universals. But if they are, the immense diversity of languages as men have spoken and speak them can be interpreted as a direct rebellion against the undifferentiated constraints of biological universality.

He suggests that we use language to hide, keep secrets, lie, imagine fictions; that groups use language to differentiate and leave others out, in ways that give us advantages evolutionarily. Of course, over time, the circle of insiders grows larger, as the unknown becomes more and more rare. Amid persistence of sameness, however, there exists persistent resistance to sameness and a constant generation of difference.

George Steiner After Babel

The existential requirement is that each person decide for herself, in all circumstances where there is choice, paying heed to the essences and facts that cannot be altered. The best way to make meaningful decisions is to choose based on the real characteristics of real life. This does not mean we must choose always the most practical, the most reasonable action for survival. We may choose to throw all our comfort and safety away because of the perverse beauty of an irrational gesture or passion or an act of ethical bravery, or to act in direct contradiction to nature and society as an affirmation of our free will. The biological, evolutionary imperative would seem to favor survival or protection of self, but sometimes we do things that are certain to mean our downfall. Why? Out of a sense that there is sometimes something more important, more beautiful, more brave than personal safety, possibly to protect our genes living in the bodies of our relatives, possibly in consideration of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run; mayhap for reasons we will never understand. Consider these three gestures:

1. Sophie Scholl, the young German resistance fighter, who with her brother smuggled anti-Nazi propaganda into the university while classes were in session, stood at the top of the balcony as the professors and students streamed from the classrooms, her work already safely done. Instead of sneaking home and avoiding arrest, she flung the rest of the fliers down over the heads of her fellow Germans. Papers flying freely in an atmosphere of terror. She and her brother were beheaded, but for one moment the word sang. For one moment, everyone was free.

2. Nastasya Filippovna, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, is courted from all sides by scoundrels and maniacs. Her “virtue” has already been compromised due to her situation as a woman without means, yet she has a lofty soul. Beloved of Myshkin, the “idiot,” she glimpses, then loses faith in, a possible redemption. When Rogozhin, one of the scoundrels, comes to a party with 100,000 rubles with which he effectively means to “buy” her, she agrees to go with him; but first she casts the bundle of bills into the fire with a last wild gesture of free will, daring another suitor to plunge his hands into the flames to take the money for himself. He does not, and Nastasya transcends for a moment the petty laws and priorities of her society.

3. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia risk torture and death to resist the stronghold of their totalitarian society. They do many useless things (Winston buys a cloudy glass paperweight and a creamy papered journal even though either of these acts, if discovered, would mean arrest). But the most powerful symbol of these many resistances is repeated twice in the book, once as a pre-vision in Winston’s dream of the “golden country,” and the second time in reality when the two lovers meet for the first time in a landscape strikingly similar to the dream: “She stood looking at him for an instant, then felt at the zipper of her overalls. And, yes! It was almost as in his dream. Almost as swiftly as he had imagined it, she had torn her clothes off, and when she flung them aside it was with that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated.”

Nineteen-Eighty Four, a picture of a totally constructed universe based on a brutally enforced ideology of the blank slate, shows us how close and how far we are from being infinitely malleable today.

Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there. And when enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than pre-established social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric, become in time established, sanctioned, and limiting; and new people may find that there are better (or worse) ways to get from here to there. If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made in a certain place because of beauty or because of utility; for sentimental reasons; for access to a view; because it is private; because there are obstacles adjacent to it; because there are special features along the route; or because there are no other options left. Yet any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.

Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr “Desire Paths” group (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Herbert Marcuse’s classic book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), is an indictment of what he characterized as the flattening out of contemporary American consciousness into a closed system of self-reflexive rationality that resisted external (two-dimensional) critique. It begins by noting that the current social construct was a “project” chosen by people at one time out of a number of alternatives. In a footnote he explains that his use of the word “project” alludes to Sartre’s linkage of autonomy and contingency, and presupposes a freedom and responsibility, despite the fact that the choosers most likely were the most powerful people in the original society. His whole book is an explanation of how very difficult it is to see beyond the “rationality” of any given social construct, but also an imperative to create the conditions under which we might. Marcuse calls for a rediscovery of a lost dialectic, a two-dimensional space which keeps alive the friction between ideal and real, status quo and possibility, subjective and objective, calculable and incalculable, appearance and essence, universal and particular, concept and specific iteration, and not least of all, spirit and matter. A hero of the New Left, Marcuse nevertheless criticized many of the basic assumptions of leftist ideology, including the democratic rejection of European intellectual and artistic culture, the increasing conflation of art and life, and the increasing dematerialization of sociology, linguistics and science in his time. Contemporary physics, he notes, does not entirely deny or question the existence of the physical world, but “in one way or another it suspends judgment on what reality itself may be, or considers the very question meaningless and unanswerable.” This then shifts the emphasis from a metaphysical what to an operational how and “establishes a practical (though by no means absolute) certainty which, in its operations with matter, is with good conscience free from commitment to any substance outside the operational context.” Materiality becomes assessed only in terms of its quantifiable use for humans, diminishing our relationship with the qualities of matter and weakening our ability to counter and critique the material status quo. The end itself, of one-dimensional consciousness, is a closed system of democratic totalitarianism, controlling every aspect of our lives.

While everything is filtered through our human interests, and thus somehow “instrumental” towards our human “use,” some uses are more strictly utilitarian than others; some serve the continuation of a status quo more than others. Individually and socially we have an underdeveloped interest in the qualitative experience of materiality, in dreaming induced by matter, not merely efficiency, practicality, exploitation of resources. Critical yet utopian thinking occurs as we free ourselves from the condition of what and how much and begin to consider the why and how; two-dimensional discourse helps us to transcend the needs of the current system to consider not only alternate answers, but completely different questions.

Marcuse ended his book in a less than hopeful mood, but the revolutionary movements of the late sixties, encouraged in part by his ideas, surprised him and gave him cause to hope. But where are we now, over half a century later? We may, indeed, not be able to save the earth, or stem the rush of species loss, and we certainly cannot undo the lasting legacies of political and social havoc wrought by man’s inhumanity to man in any simple way. Although Candide provided a picture of what Voltaire had deemed an inevitably cruel and destructive force rampant in what was already in his time far from the “best of all possible worlds,” today climate change changes the equation to an extent which should prick the conscience of anyone who has retreated to his garden instead of trying to make sense of the world or make it better. We have arrived where we are because of who we are as a species. We are responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly, for the beautiful and the damning, in compliance and resistance to genetic coding, evolutionary habits, environmental changes, and the social and cultural memes we have created together out of the deeply imbedded contradictions of our natures: competition and collaboration, love of and exploitation of nature, curiosity and will to ignorance, practicality and squandering, ethics, aesthetics, and hypocritical morality. Thus it is up to us to try to reverse the damages we have wrought and to preserve as much as possible of what is precious and essential about life and of our cultural history, both for ourselves and for all the other species with whom we must learn to empathize. But this can only happen if we begin to see again the meaningful connections between ourselves and the natural and created world, mediated through words, images, and our senses, and if we learn to use whatever languages possible to communicate a fullness of feeling about what it means to be a deeply fraught, complex human being in a world in this state of crisis. We can, furthermore, only reverse the damage wrought if we deviate from the business-as-usual status quo of our society’s current “rationality”—replacing quantifiable with qualitative, empty materialism with materiality imbued with spirit. To do so will inevitably seem foolish and perverse to those too entrenched to imagine other ways of living, to anyone too committed to the immediate profits of the current system to consider that they might, actually, be much happier without all of the possessions and processes they misconceive as necessary. If we do not, however, manage to succeed against what really are terrible odds, we must at least bear witness to the tragic fall and leave some traces of the aesthetic and ethical consciousness of humankind, even if no one ever comes after us who can decipher the script.

We have often been capable of overturning the paradigms created by our predecessors, challenging, criticizing, or revising the constructs and narratives of other humans, following old errors to new truths or old truths to new errors, bungling sometimes, but doing our best. It has been a conversation and debate, a love song and a lamentation over the ages, among strangers and friends, enemies and kin, all of us trying to understand the world and our place in it; trying to balance the many voices within each of us with the many voices within others. We can continue to discourse in this polyphonic chorus of the past and the present, or we can decide, with the social constructionist theorists and their deconstructionist allies, that no way in which anyone has ever described the world, no poem, no theory, no evaluation or re-evaluation of values is reality-relevant (except of course the social constructionist theory itself); that language is a crime against nature; that the history of ideas and the idealistic pursuit of education is an Enlightenment plot to impose random ideas of good and bad on a benighted populace. We can just do away with our libraries and our picture galleries, our approximate meanings and our attempts to understand what can never be completely mastered, our mythologies and our delightful misprisions, and smugly, certainly, moralistically and accurately, resort to grunting and sneezing. No misleading words; no oppressive influences; no images to teach us that one thing or person is more beautiful or more valuable than another; no theories; no ideas at all. Only a purportedly honest, gaping, silent void.

—Genese Grill

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Genese Grill 350x479px Photo by Suzanne Levine

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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May 012016
 

Tomoe HillTomoé Hill

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IF THIS FEELS like a flood that flows from my fingertips, it is: I have gone for so long without this kind of communication—I am thirsty, I am hungry, I am ravenous in mind and body. I wonder if there is anyone who feels the same.

*

I am leaving my period of hibernation. Or is it stagnation? It has felt the same, at times. I must re-enter the world, alone, and I am frightened. Looking at rental properties online bewilders me—brand new riverfront towers, chrome and glass boxes—then I spot a place hidden away. When I go to see it—a tiny annexe of an oast house—it is set on wooded land, a small bright stream running through it, something out of a fairy tale. It is late January, and a light dusting of snow drapes the dark green moss-covered shelter to park the car, the lighter green of the grass. It silvers the white snowdrops that cover the grounds like a carpet. Driving there, the lanes are narrow and the car brushes against tangled holly, waxen green and needle-edged. You would have your own section of garden, says the landlord. Apple and pear trees. I touch one of the trunks: cold, gnarled and waiting again for its branches to explode with leaves and fruit, and suddenly remember how Demeter rendered the earth barren in the months Persephone was bound to the underworld.

He tells me a charming anecdote about the property: that if the owner cuts off the supply of water from the stream to the nearby castle, he can still be beheaded. The peculiar charm of a violent past gives these places their character. There is a high, weather stained brick wall that hides me away, an old wooden gate with a metal latch that needs kicking open when it rains and causes it to swell. A large old-fashioned bell with a small strap is mounted on the white painted brick of the entry alcove. Will anyone ever ring it? I think to myself. The inside of the annexe is smaller than I thought, but then, it will be just myself and all of my books, and that is enough. Part of me, I think, needs to be tightly enclosed for some time to come—coccooned. With a shaking voice I place a deposit on the phone that afternoon and start packing in the evening. I am haphazard about everything but books and perfume; these are packed carefully, lovingly—swathed in bubble wrap and cotton wool. Words and scents, the only precious things these past long years, the ones that still made me feel alive.

A drop of Le Labo Benjoin 19 spills on my fingers as I pack: it smells of warm animal fur—memories of a tiny black and grey kitten that liked to sleep inside in the bed when it was cold—fall, winter and smoldering wood. It scents my dreams, where sex still permeates everything, even though I turn in my bed and there is no other, even though my body generates the heat of passion in the depths of sleep.

Myth is steeped in sex: how it transforms us, in both wonder and fear. We pursue and are pursued. How would a lover now come to me? Not in a shower of gold or the guise of a swan, but in those languorous hours where my mind, restless in a sleeping body, imagines the softness of sheets as skin, my heat creating the ghost of past lovers, future ones next to me.

I awake: secretly wet and aching, not just muscles, but also flesh—with longing, with loneliness. My hair brushes my back and feels like a lover’s fingertips in the morning; that slow arousal that makes the eyes flicker open and the mouth form words of almost inaudible want. I smell animal heat and embers: it hangs in the room, the heavy draperies of lust.

*

One bitterly cold evening I move out, leave my old life. I am paralysed by fear as I stand outside my new threshold. The movers are still at the annexe, so I bring in the remaining boxes from the car and move about the kitchen mechanically, cleaning and pretending that everything will be alright, that I have made the right decision. Once they have gone, I set to work: I pour a large glass of whisky, light candles, set about moving bookcases and methodically filling them. I open box after heavy white box and gently take each one out, remembering how they were ordered on the shelves before. Anatomy, art, philosophy, Roman and Greek history, classical novels, modern ones. Ballard and Bradbury, Davis and Joyce, Benjamin and Barthes. I murmur titles under my breath like some healing mantra. I don’t really believe in much of anything, but books are at the top of the small list of what I do.

I work steadily, late into the night, stopping briefly to eat, unable to taste anything but the whisky that I refill my glass with. When the most important things are finished—the bookcases and the bed—I sink exhausted into a hot bath and stare at the ceiling. I need to be surrounded in scent right now, more than any other time, and so the water is perfumed with Ormonde Jayne’s Ta’if: rich red roses, dates, and orange blossom. Of course it is frowned upon now to consider such imagery, but I cannot help but think of Ingres: The Turkish Bath, pale peach and pink-tinted flesh, curved bodies resting against one another—when time is nothing but pleasure or the anticipation of it. On top of the bookcase in a corner of the small bedroom is a tray filled with my perfumes. The bedside table is stacked with a few of my comfort books: Ulysses, Metamorphoses, The Arcades Project, and something by P.G. Wodehouse. Perhaps that seems odd, the last choice, but I need to remember to laugh now. Nevertheless, I fall asleep that night listening to the owl in the trees outside, tears staining fresh linen.

*

I am a solitary person by nature, but this new silence is hard to get used to. I fill it with Mozart and Puccini’s operas and read voraciously to make up for lost time. The person I left felt ignored when I read too much—as he was not a reader himself—and so my compromise for years was to watch television while thinking of the things I wanted to read, visualising turning the pages. I would end up devouring books when he wasn’t around, one perpetually in my hand as I went about the house doing chores. But as any reader knows, half the pleasure of reading is talking about it with a like-minded person. I knew no like-minded people. I knew people who read grocery-store bestsellers: sports and celebrity biographies, the latest popular trilogy turned movie, but no one who delved below the surface into the wild literary deep, the tangles of words and thoughts that capture and drag you back down into the depths, barely letting you breathe. In the month before I moved out, when things were in the last throes of finality and it didn’t matter what I did, I stayed up late into the night, reading Ancient Medicine, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things or Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

I no longer draw my bedroom curtains at night. I like that there are no eyes to watch me like there would be in the city, save the ones of the nocturnal animals and birds—and what do they care about me? I am the stranger here. When the night is stripped of its sodium lights, its intrusive concrete structures, when all that is left is trees and undergrowth, stars and the noises of the ones to whom the earth belongs, I feel accepted. I turn off my light and stand by the open window—it is always open, even on the coldest nights, because when I shiver, it reminds me that I am still alive, that something can touch me. I breathe in the scent of the water from the nearby stream. Fresh-running water has a metallic scent, ozonic. It speaks to you of purity and the places that are still relatively untouched by our interference. The water that flows down the mountains in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France is like this: it may be sultry and hot in the cities by the sea, but drive a half-hour or so upwards along the windy rocky road, and the air becomes crisp and icy. I was amused the first time I was in England and saw a Pimm’s, full of herbs and fruit and vegetables: the air in the mountains is a version of that. The icy breeze carries with it the scents of hyssop, rosemary, lavender and thyme; dried grasses and overripe fruits that fall in the shade by the roadsides, figs, mainly. Beautiful purple-black figs that split almost when you touch them—the most sensual of fruits. White milky sap that oozes out, inviting you to dig your fingers in and tear it apart: reddish-pink seeded flesh that you can do nothing else with but sink your mouth onto and devour, juices dripping from your lips and chin. At the small cafés that are in every village in the mountains, I was always intrigued by the tall, ice-filled glasses of green effervescent liquid that everyone sipped under striped umbrellas. I asked in my halting French for one, and when the cool liquid ran down my throat, I understood: it was mint sirop with sparkling water, the romanticised taste of the icy liquid that poured forth from the mountains.

But the animals: there are many foxes here. They seem unafraid of people, because here we leave them alone. Coming home in the still winter evenings, they walk close enough by to unnerve me, although they have always seemed indifferent to my presence. But their noise first startled me as I lay in bed: it sounded like a child screaming, a high pitched broken wail, over and over. They are either fighting or fucking, I think. Does it matter which? Both bring a certain degree of agony to the noises that emanate from the body, whether woman or animal. Now I listen to them and it is a kind of lullaby: a violent, lonely one that matches how I feel. Some nights, when the landlord is away and I am at my lowest point, I lean out of the window and wail with them. It does not make me feel better, but for that night, less alone.

*

I can’t get used to my new home. Logically, then, it is not a home. It is a house—but not even a house, an annex. Somewhere I come after a day of arguing to wander about, restless, up and down the small flight of stairs; staring at the bookcases; taking long eucalyptus or rose-scented baths in order to let the water take away some of the invisible weight. I decide I will plant flowers. Walking the outdoor rows and through the greenhouses at the garden centre, I choose rosemary and hellebore, two of each and wait in the open doorway looking at the idyllic Kent countryside as they are potted. Rosemary will flank my door, hellebore will sit in the wooden alcoves. In the mornings and evenings I take to rubbing sprigs of the herb as I leave and come back. Never having been one for ritual, I find my actions both strange and comforting. Rosemary has a clearing, energising scent: a combination of mint, pine and camphor. Its oil is strong—so much so that only lightly running a fingertip across it leaves you scented for hours. I like to be marked in that way, because it reminds me of my skin being anointed by a lover’s fluids. Rosemary… remembrance, as Shakespeare’s line goes. Memory is sometimes punishment. Plants have taken the place of flesh now.

*

I finally tell my mother that I have left: something I could not bring myself to do until now. As much as the silence has screamed, I did not want, did not know how to tell anyone what had happened. All I told her in the end was brief: I’ve left. I don’t really want to talk about it. I’ll be fine. I was lying, of course. I don’t think there was much truth in those words at all, bar the part about having left, and that too was a sort of lie: You see, we had divorced years ago. We just stayed together. Why? That is a rope so long, that even holding it for all these years, I am not quite sure where its beginning is. I never told her we divorced. Why? That, at least, I can answer simply. It happened around the time my father got ill and then later died. I didn’t want to burden her. My sister had her own marriage problems at the same time, which everyone knew about. My instinct has always been to withdraw at bad times where hers is to amplify. But to pile one child’s troubles onto another seemed unforgivable to me.

Physically, my mother is slight—a child’s body: only 4’9”, the weight of a sparrow. And yet, like most mothers, she has shouldered mountains without complaint. But I knew that I would have been the proverbial straw, and would have died rather than uttered a word. There never seemed a good time to tell her, later on. After my father’s death, I was trying to make sure, as best I could across an ocean, that she was functioning as well as she could, grieving, but not too much: I didn’t want her to sink into a death-reverie that some fall into, the reverie that swallows lives whole. Those are sinkholes that dot the road of our family; we see them miles off yet some of us have been hypnotically drawn by them: choosing to stare into that small abyss, then jump in without a backwards glance.

*

Lily of the valley grows creamy white, en masse along the shadows of the moss-patched brick wall, and the roses are blooming early: there is a tangle of them outside the downstairs windows. Mixed pale pink and yellow, I can reach out and draw them to me. I tweet pictures of the grounds and the flowers. I get the impression people think I live an idyllic sort of lifestyle, although I quickly dispel notions that I somehow own this property. Sometimes I am too poetic with the accompanying things I write with photos. They come out of me in melancholy but I think they are read as romantic—something like pastoral isolation. Other people’s perspectives are such a curious thing.

I hate the word reclaim. I am supposed to reclaim my life, my power as if it were a suitcase waiting at an airline’s lost items office, or a piece of dusty furniture in the attic that just needs a clean and some new paint. An action is sometimes just as hollow as words can be empty. There is an elusive something beyond the writing and the doing that restores us to something more or less whole in the world.

I receive an email for an acceptance, a short memory piece about how I used to walk the London streets at night. This was in my university days, when I couldn’t sleep, from too much reading. There is a fine line between recalling memory and creating false ones when you spend a lot of time trawling through the archives of your mind. It is how people go mad, I imagine—slip from one to another. When the mind and body are under stress, attack from that rush of adrenaline, some people strangely grow tired and need to sleep—hide in the safety of the unconscious, like losing yourself in the rows of a vast library.

I am finding that I lose myself like this while I am awake.

The same place previously accepted a fiction piece of mine that had the same dreamlike feel. There was a line about muscle memory: how when you have not had physical—sexual—contact for a long time, your body expresses its frustration by acting out pleasurable motions. Sometimes I find my legs in the act of wrapping as if they were reaching to pull a lover close, a hand in mid-air caressing. Often now, I am awakened by my body betraying me in the ultimate way: dripping with sweat, in the midst of full orgasm, back arching away from the mattress. I don’t remember what I was dreaming of.

More than the geographical isolation, more than not knowing anyone, this is the thing that makes me feel like some sort of ghost among the living. I remember sex vividly, I think of it—want it constantly, and yet it feels like a country I visited a very long time ago, one that I don’t know if I will ever return to. My body knows, and fights—fights the idea that one day I could forget completely. I am touched by its determination.

Over the Easter weekend I order two large turquoise ceramic planters, to be filled with as much lavender as they can hold. I have envisioned where they will sit in the alcove, fragrant on the breeze and bringing bees. When I go to pick them up, I realise I have been a bit too romantic: they are easily over 30 kilos each, filled. I can’t manoeuvre them myself. One of the men that works at the garden centre lifts them into my car, managing to scratch the side of it in the process, to which I stay silent, more concerned about the folly of my purchase. One goes in the boot, the other is lifted into the back seat. When I arrive home, it takes me about twenty minutes just to partially lever out the one in the boot. I have parked next to the gate, but it is still a struggle—admittedly a comic one to look at—to get it to the alcove without dropping it and shattering all the bones in my feet. I swear at the bees that have already arrived in greeting, then go back to the car, where I spend the next hour crying and cursing and spilling soil everywhere. The landlord is gone, and I refuse to call my ex-husband to come and help me. I think wildly for a moment that I will dig the soil out, handful by handful into another container so that I can move it. I end up leaving it there the entire long weekend, and whenever I leave the house to go to the shops or exercise, I am hit with a dizzying and humiliating wave of fragrant incapability.

*

I have been asked out on a date. This takes me by surprise. I have been speaking to someone online, a friend of another online acquaintance. He offers to come down from where he lives if I would honour him with a date. I agree, and we meet at the National Gallery. I am wearing a black Helmut Lang dress, wide-brimmed grosgrain-trimmed olive-green hat, high leopard-print suede Saint Laurent heels—relics from a past life. My wardrobe is a reliquary, and occasionally I open the doors and silently contemplate the stack of expensive shoes, row of fitted dresses, silk shirts, brocade pencil skirts and pile of cashmere jumpers piled in a wicker basket. Am I praying? No, but I am wishing for something—maybe that is the same. “They’re just so beautiful” Daisy sobs into Gatsby’s colourful stacks of thick silk and flannel shirts in The Great Gatsby. A similar type of worship, perhaps. Worshipping a person she knows but doesn’t, in the way I recognise myself, yet at the same time do not. I ask the cabbie who drops me off to wish me luck. Good luck, love, he says heartily. When I arrive at our meeting place and touch his shoulder lightly in greeting, he shakes. The shaking extends to his voice, which quivers very audibly, and I don’t know if he is just terribly nervous, or if I am somehow displeasing. I can dress and apply my makeup, but I have no idea what looks back at me in the mirror. In my head it is still the shape of the woman who could not get off the sofa a year and a half ago, held down by a body slipping out of normal function in the extreme; preventing any form of living, such as it was.

He has brought me a gift: a bag full of Anne Carson books. Most have inscriptions to me on the first page, a very hopeful and premature wish for coupled longevity. We walk around the museum, I holding onto his arm lightly, which I think he likes, although part of the reason for this is because my heels are damnably painful since I am not used to walking in them anymore. I try to make him comfortable, but he trembles throughout. He says that he was that nervous all the way down on the train. I am nervous, but I don’t think it has ever manifested itself quite so visibly, drastically. He is intelligent and charming, but seems afraid of things. He doesn’t seem to like London at all, the people, the heat of the day—which isn’t even that hot. Afterwards, we walk to a nearby expensive hotel and have a champagne afternoon tea. Or rather, I do, because he doesn’t eat those sorts of things. At least he drinks. We sip our champagne and have a rather technical conversation about sex, which reminds me of The Bell Jar, where Esther has a long, serious talk about sex with a young man from another college, after which he deliberates and then announces he would like to have sex with her, because she would be the right kind of girl. It all felt mechanical and cold. I kiss him goodbye as a test. I want to know if I feel anything, if my body registers something my brain doesn’t. His lips are soft but I feel nothing. As I sit on the train home, I feel relieved, frustrated and also guilty.

We have a few conversations on the phone. They are long, but again, feel mechanical to me. Sex is discussed at more length. He admits he is squeamish. He doesn’t know if he can give me what I want, but he says he would like to try. The problem is, I want everything. I don’t want someone who is afraid or timid. I don’t want to have to teach anyone. The person who touches me next needs to grasp me in a way that shows they understand. Within the boundaries we create for ourselves, we need to roam free. I have never understood why this is so difficult for some people.

Sometimes you get an innate sense of a person—nothing they say specifically, but a reading between the lines. You feel that they feel about these things the way you do. Something about sex exudes from their pores, and you want to get under the skin and explore. Maybe your body just smells pheromones. We like to think it is a more cerebral connection. But even through a screen, although of course you can’t smell, you can still sense. Something animal still translates, distantly.

*

I have been invited to my first literary event. I am unsure why, maybe it is because I talk about and post pictures of my books all the time. But I accept, and then spend terrible amounts of time wondering who might be there, if they will think I am a fraud or interloper because I have not written a novel and I work in a completely different area. I envision worldly authors discussing literature I haven’t read and discussing people I don’t know. When the day comes, I take the train, a growing knot in my stomach. Since I am early, I find a bar and proceed to drink Manhattans and worry further, nervously folding and unfolding the corner of the page of a book I have brought, Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces. I listen to the chatter that combines into one indistinguishable voice, thinking how some people take these conversations for granted, how others talk because they can’t bear silence in their heads or around them—how it is a kind of death to be alone with only their thoughts. I come close to turning around and going back to the annex, to the lavender and rosemary, to the foxes. But as I sit there, chatting to people online, someone says they understand, they probably wouldn’t have the nerve to go, either, easier to stay home. For some reason that makes me determined to see it through. I pay, leave and turn up late—walking into the room, one foot forced in front of the other. Faced by the prospect of having to introduce myself to this crowd of strangers, I feel my lips go numb. One of the hosts says hello and introduces themselves, I stammer a pleasantry back. Then someone else recognises me from online, someone I talk to a bit more on and off. I say hello, admit to being petrified, and find myself mumbling I can’t do this and walking swiftly out. I’ve already made it around the corner and down the street when he catches up to me. Hey. Hey! You walk really fast. Where are you going? I slump against the wall of a building. I don’t belong there, I explain. I don’t know anyone either, he says. A lot of us don’t, except from online. You’re the same as us. The same as us, I think. Come on, he says. X is there. You know, who writes _______. You’d like him. I’ll introduce you. I find myself surprisingly drained, but willing. I let him humorously march me back in, and end up spending the couple hours left talking, much more easily than I would have thought possible. It feels like coming back to a language you haven’t spoken in a long time.

*

It is my birthday. I stay at home, because I can’t face the idea of going to work and having my ex-husband wish me a happy birthday. Happy what, exactly? I wake up and spend a lot of the day on the sofa reading in silence, the windows open wide throughout the annex to let in the warm breeze. The landlord is on the grounds tending to a great bonfire—the smoke, scent of flames, smouldering wood and ashes drift in and cover everything, including my skin. I have a fanciful idea that this is somehow a kind of purification, a burning of the past—but not quite rising up from the clichéd ashes. I think the embers will continue to burn for some time. On television people who have terrible lonely birthdays always seem to open a bottle of champagne and toast themselves ironically—this seems to me an awful waste. I drink whisky instead and think about how it burns going down my throat, the taste of smoke and peat and salt air. It reminds me of walking along cliff edges in Skye—how isolated it felt, and wondering if it settled in the blood and bones of people who lived here. Perhaps it lies dormant, waiting for a person, a place to trigger it back to melancholy life. Or does it grow on you like moss, covering you until you become indistinguishable from your landscape?

*

In Sex and Terror, Pascal Quignard says, “What the world is: the traces the wave leaves when the sea slowly withdraws.” He was, appropriately enough, speaking of sexual melancholia. This is what I continue to feel. In my last experience, to put it brutally and bluntly, I was fucked enough to feel guilty, but not enough to come. I can’t give any eloquence to the moment our bodies broke free, animal scent heavy in the room, all-too-human emotions leaving us wild-eyed.

*

There is a book by the name of Pond, where at one point the protagonist—also isolated, although less so than I am—speaks at length of her discontinued cooker, almost at the end of its life as she cannot source a required control knob. It is a faithful appliance, one that has helped sustain her, and so it takes on an almost mythic quality. When I moved in, and even now, the one thing I hated about the annexe was the cooker: no strange, far-off brand, but a standard old white Belling. Old, because as pleasant as my landlord is, he does not wish to or cannot afford to have new appliances put in. These things were really of the least importance in my mind (it was also after I moved in that I discovered there were no kitchen drawers), but in the life I had come from there was a kitchen I was especially proud of: ash countertops stained to look like oak (we were told oak itself was not practical), pale grey-green rustic wooden cabinets with dark silvered handles, even cabinet doors that hid the washing machine and refrigerator/freezer fronts. A large, pristine white double farmhouse sink, although I only ever seemed to use one side—the kitten we had liked to occupy the other, watching contentedly as I washed vegetables. A microwave built into an alcove. A large oak table and matching wine cubby. A set-apart shelf above the sink that held tins of expensive exotic teas: Mariage Frères Earl Grey French Blue and Sultane, Fortnum & Mason Russian Caravan and Irish Breakfast, Kusmi Samovar and Thé Vert à la Menthe Nanah. While all this seems posh and aloof, it was not without humour. There were glass chopping boards scattered on the countertops, a matching green to the cabinets. They had botanical prints of fruit and herbs with their Latin names below, which I glimpsed in a shop and had to have immediately. It was only as I was washing one months later that I realised the small scripts in full were Biblical references: where in the Bible the fig appeared, etc. We were not religious, and then it dawned on me why visitors—close acquaintances—who happened to glance at them gave us strange looks, but never said anything than oh… nice. I just thought they didn’t like botanical prints. After that, whenever we used them, we said we were chopping for Jesus.

The cooker is the one thing that best symbolises the chasm between my old life and new. I use it very little as a result: I find it depressing the way it produces memories—not because I miss that life, but only because they persist—alongside the foil-wrapped salmon for one or the roasted vegetables I made way too many of once, automatically calculating for two. I can afford to buy something new, but the thought of the hassle of having to disconnect and move it when I eventually leave (will I eventually leave? This seems wildly optimistic) makes me tired. And I wonder how often I would use it anyway, if it would just be a superficial thing to try and make me feel better, that in the end, wouldn’t.

*

I had braced myself for that period of a week and a half when the office was closed for the holidays. Said that I would stay in and read, write. It is true that I had enough to occupy me in daylight hours, but once the sun set too early, I would find myself staring out of the window into the dark, seeing nothing but my own reflection from the candlelight behind me. I could have flown back home, true, but I couldn’t bear to face the rest of my family outside of my mother. You see, it would have been the first time I had gone home since I left—it would have felt like failure, not homecoming. I am sure most of my relatives would have been outwardly kind, but I would know that inside their heads, unasked questions would be buzzing like angry wasps.

I had one relation in particular: an aunt who gave me conflicting advice over the years—I must be better and more clever than the men. I must be independent. But at the same time, the first questions regarding a boyfriend would be: How much does he earn? What does he do? What kind of gifts does he buy you? Even when I was younger, I tolerated it with a laugh, although secretly I was appalled. When I became engaged, I grudgingly told her what she wanted to hear. She happened to be in London on 9/11. My then-fiance was in America, trying to get a flight out. He ended up on one of the first commercial flights they allowed, and he recalled how thick and heavy the silence was the whole eleven or so hours. This relation phoned to arrange a visit whilst I was watching coverage on television, my neighbours vague and not terribly interested in what was happening—it wasn’t here, after all, it was there. Sometimes there is the same thing as not existing at all. Get your ass to London, she said laughingly down the line. Fuck you, don’t ever speak to me again, I said, slamming down the receiver. The famous family temper rearing its head (You’re descended from Samurai and Vikings, my father said mildly, after one of my youthful outbursts. You shouldn’t be surprised by this). Now, I wonder how much of my decision to marry him was a knee-jerk reaction based on her. Rebelling against her approval of him by convincing myself I was more in love than I really was. I was relieved when he came back safely, but not as much as I should have been.

*

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day: in those early hours that straddle both, I am in bed, books scattered on the duvet. I can’t stop crying, but I don’t know why. I am frustrated and perplexed at my inability to stop. The person I wish would send a few words by email or message is silent, busy doing what people do at this time of year. But very kindly two people who know my situation—at least part of it—send me emails. I am grateful for the acknowledgement, and that they don’t do that thing some do of trying too hard to make a person feel better. The few words are more than enough.

*

This is not therapy, nor is it cathartic. It exorcises nothing. I have always found it curious that people consider writing about experiences—mainly terrible—as such. In my mind I always pictured it, perhaps cruelly, like those travelling spiritual healers who claim to be able to cast out sin or sickness. Get thee out, Satan. A white tent with other people’s memories sitting on benches crying Hallelujah. What is this, then? I am not entirely sure. What it feels like is a bottle of champagne (how strange to think of it in terms of such a celebratory drink) that has been shaken: you understand the pressure building inside, and although the glass can withstand it, to remove the cork and let the agitated contents flood out is preferable to letting it settle and not know if you will be met with an explosion or lifeless liquid later on.

— Tomoé Hill

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Tomoé Hill was born in Wisconsin and after escaping to London, now lives and writes in the South of England. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literatureminor literature[s]Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.

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Apr 132016
 

Sarajevo street corner June 2014

In the summer of 2014, I spent two weeks with friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the time Sarajevo was marking the centennial of the assassination that sparked World War I, the national soccer team was making its first appearance in the World Cup, and the nation was reeling from massive citizen protests in the winter and devastating floods in the spring. My host and guide was the Bosnian writer Goran Simić. —Thomas Simpson

x

I. Sarajevo, June 20, 2014

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran Simic’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown.

Alone, on foot, I make it safely to the other side. My pulse races, but I still can’t shake the jetlag as I start the twenty-five minute walk south into the heart of Sarajevo, down the wide, busy streets called Patriotske Lige and Koševo. Thick, gray morning clouds shroud the city, and the weak daylight throws shell-shocked buildings and roadside litter into dismal relief. A little of the Bosnian I’ve been studying for months comes to mind: meni se spava, I feel tired. God, I feel tired. I barely slept on the overnight flight across the Atlantic, an hour maybe, two at the most. In my sightline, two rows ahead, a guy was watching The Wolf of Wall Street on his seatback screen. I dozed in and out of that three-hour marathon of excess: stockbrokers manhandling strippers, Jonah Hill masturbating openly at a lavish pool party, Leo DiCaprio snorting cocaine off an eager blonde’s heaving breasts.

So I am waking up slowly to Sarajevo, even though the visuals are jarring. I see the hulking, worn stadium from the 1984 Olympics, a glaring reminder of Yugoslavia’s depleted prosperity and promise. I clutch my black backpack’s single, diagonal strap, which stretches like a seat belt from my left shoulder to my right hip. The knuckles of my right hand bore under the strap into my sternum, as if to knead my constricting heart and lungs. I lift my chin and flex my shoulders, chest, and biceps a little. I’m feigning toughness, copying the confidence of younger, streetwise Bosnian men.

I’m steeling myself because there’s more to take in: three massive, historic urban cemeteries, Muslim, Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox. Locals say the bones of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, are here in a little roadside Serb chapel. Soon Serb nationalists will adorn it with flowers, marking the assassination’s centennial by salting the wounds of neighbors who managed to survive the Siege. “Gavrilo,” a hit song by the Bosnian rock band Zoster, captures the mood. It’s got the looping, centripetal feel of an anthem and a hangover:

Gavrilo, Gavrilo, srce uzavrelo…
Gavrilo, Gavrilo, raging heart…

za jedne on je heroj, a drugima je zločinac
to some he’s a hero, to others a criminal…

na put bez povratka, on je krenuo…
he took off on a path of no return…

još i danas hodimo njime.
and we’re still walking it today.

I had anticipated some the graveyards’ lessons about World War I, World War II, and the Siege of Sarajevo. The headstones from this century are somehow more unsettling. An unwelcome thought intrudes: Sarajevo will go on dying. A few steps later, what feels like a corollary follows on its heels: None of this is going to work. Multi-ethnic Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The International Community. Democracy. Human Rights. None of it, despite the lessons of history, and despite the gala centennial events to come next week, when the eyes of the world will once again, however briefly, be on Sarajevo.

Sarajevo CemeteryCemetery in Sarajevo

I don’t know where I’m headed except a café somewhere to find coffee and my bearings after two years away. I pass a side street named after the poet Šantić and a bakery called Markale, where my mind involuntarily adds “massacre.” I’m getting closer to the action now. Off to my right, on the main thoroughfare that honors Tito, I see the stately national presidency building, a monument to the idiocy and greed of Bosnia’s corrupt, ethnonationalist ruling elites. Just last February, protesters torched it, taking their cues from Tuzla in trying to kickstart a “Bosnian Spring.”

A spacious café and bakery, brightly lit, mercifully intervenes. I go in, merge with the morning rush, and scan the large glass case of pastries. When it’s my turn, I fumble through my Bosnian. Dobro jutro – “Good morning” – I say. Želim kafu…espresso, i… – “I’d like an espresso and….” My Bosnian suddenly leaves me. I can’t remember the word for pastry, much less any kind of fruit. As I start to gesture clumsily toward a tray of turnovers, a woman behind me steps in and saves me. Višnja, she says – cherry – and laughs.

I thank her – hvala – placing my relaxed right hand softly over my heart. I take a window seat, a few feet above street level, and watch Sarajevans stream into the city in cars, on buses, and on foot. I write višnja in my notebook and practice the ice-breaker that I’ll use over and over again on this trip: Na bosanskom, govorim kao beba. In Bosnian, I talk like a baby.

When my espresso comes, I pour in the two thick packets of sugar that come standard. They render the bitterness palatable, the darkness soothing. As if on cue, the sun pierces the clouds. I end up staying for hours, reading Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, jotting down fragmented thoughts, and ordering a second espresso. Meni se spava, I tell the waitress with a wink. She laughs, understanding, and suddenly I remember what makes Sarajevo such an easy target. So much life, compressed and distilled, to destroy from above. I size up the huge pane of glass to my right, remembering how desperately Sarajevans avoided and barricaded their windows during the Siege. I imagine how easily the wall of glass could shatter, and I start to hope, stupidly, irrationally, that this café will always be here, safe, forever.

§

A lunch date with the poet Goran Simić pulls me away. We’re headed up to a small log-cabin restaurant near the Skakavac waterfall, about a thousand meters above Sarajevo. In his aging two-door black Renault, we inch and wind up suspension-mangling dirt roads. When we’re finally in the clear, we step out, glance miles across the valley, and find a patio table in the sun. The restaurant’s owner, Dragan, likes to joke that the daily menu is whatever he’s got. You have to trust him, and here one’s faith is rewarded. He assembles a succulent assortment of fried dough, local cheeses, sliced fresh tomato, and smoked sausages. Goran and I drink a little local rakija and beer.

Goran is back in Sarajevo after more than fifteen years in Canada, where he resettled after the Siege. Goran’s acute sense of how much work needs to be done in Bosnia has brought him home. His labors of love are the Bosnian plenums – grassroots, democratic citizen assemblies fighting for political reform and social justice – and PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local chapter of the international literary organization that celebrates the freedom of expression as a human right. This Bosnian branch of PEN emerged during the Siege, when Goran and some colleagues created a downtown haven for writers desperate for a meal and place to write. Now, as the multiethnic organization’s membership ages and carries out its work without support from the Bosnian government, the challenge is to keep the society alive and infused with fresh blood. It’s an ongoing experiment, a test of whether an inclusive humanism can triumph over death-dealing ethnonationalism. Yesterday brought a small victory: the induction of new members, including two brilliant young women, Adisa Bašić and Šejla Šehabović. Yet the meeting took place in the midst of a bitter internal struggle, a war of words between Goran and a dogged literary rival who keeps publicly calling Goran a Chetnik, a bloody Serb – not one of us, not a real Sarajevan. The conflict threatens to tear the Bosnian PEN apart.

Restaurant near Skakavac watefallRestaurant near Skakavac waterfall

After the meal, Goran finds a picnic bench where he can stretch and sack out in the shade. He says his battery’s exhausted, and Skakavac is his place to recharge. I can see why. The sun is strong, the mountain air clean. Grasshoppers chirp, sheep bleat, the bells of livestock tinkle, and a creek sings below. I walk a little farther up the hill, taking photographs of the panorama. I nap briefly in a small hikers’ shed. Rain clouds invade and threaten but move on. There is peace.

§

Eventually it’s time to get back to the city for an evening poetry reading. Sponsored by the Mak Dizdar Foundation, and held in a gorgeous upper-floor atelier with exposed brick and candlelight, the affair is intentionally international. It gathers award-winning writers from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Goran’s friend and PEN colleague, the poet Ferida Duraković, is the M.C. Performing live alongside her is one of the finest lutenists in the world, Edin Karamazov. They are mesmerizing together.

To the audience’s left is a balcony with French doors. It offers a sunset view of the Presidency Building, highlighting the difference between the politics and the poetics of Bosnia. To our right is a bar with hors d’oeuvres, and members of the audience move back and forth freely throughout the evening. The atmosphere invites us to linger, and we do for more than an hour after the reading ends. I wander onto the balcony and gaze at the Sarajevo night sky.

A thunderstorm hits and brings heavy rain. I go back into the atelier and meet two adult grandsons of Mak Dizdar, the celebrated Yugoslavian poet. I tell them that tomorrow I’ll be off with Goran to Stolac, their grandfather’s birthplace, southwest of Sarajevo. The Dizdar brothers give me a sense of what I’m in for: a breathtaking landscape and an ancient city, with extraordinary Ottoman architecture that’s been utterly razed.

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II. Aladinići and Stolac, June 21-22, 2014

The next morning we drive southwest to the Herzegovinian village of Aladinići to celebrate the birthday of Adisa Bašić, one of the writers who has just been inducted into PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina. In her mid-thirties, blonde, and tall, she towers over many of the older, predominantly male colleagues who voted her in. On the way out of town we pick up Hana Stojić, a Sarajevan friend and contemporary of Adisa who works as a literary translator in Berlin.

The rural, hilltop Aladinići property feels worlds away from Sarajevo, where Adisa still has an apartment in a decaying high-rise. It’s in wine country, the climate Mediterranean. A grape arbor shields the front patio and driveway from the summer sun. Peaches, cherries, watermelons, apricots, grapes, pomegranates, figs, and mint grow nearby. Here, Adisa has found refuge and rejuvenation. One of her dreams, she says, is to gather generations of Bosnian women artists in a place like this for retreats, so they can tell and write their stories.

After hours of relaxed conversation and a dinner of grilled chicken and ćevapčići, we get down to business. Bosnia’s national soccer team, making its first appearance in the World Cup, has a match against Nigeria tonight in Brazil, and we’re all dying to watch. Adisa and her husband, Adnan, tack a big Bosnian flag to the front of the house, and some neighbors join Adnan in an attempt to rig a TV up on the patio. They take turns fiddling with the controls and climbing onto the one-story cottage’s flat, cement roof to get to the antenna. As the sun sets, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” pumps out of the stereo in Goran’s car, parked under the vine arbor with the doors open. The music’s unruly passion mingles with the village’s evening call to prayer.

Goran, Hana, and I plan to crash at a hostel in Stolac after watching the midnight match at Adisa’s. But as darkness comes the owners call to encourage us to come sooner rather than later. They tell us that the police are already patrolling Stolac’s main intersection in case there’s trouble with the crowds, and the last thing we’d want to do is stumble through town in the middle of the night. So we say good night – laku noć – to our friends and leave Aladinići.

On the way to Stolac, Goran and Hana ride in front and sing along with Johnny Cash. They’re nailing it, conjuring the voice of the man in black, the vocal cords torn but smooth:  I’m gonna break, I’m gonna break my, gonna break my rusty cage and run.

We find the hostel banked on a steep riverside hill. As we settle in, Goran and Hana step onto the balcony for a smoke (one of the reasons they’re so good at imitating Cash). I join them at the rail, stargazing. Below us, the dammed Bregava River rushes, soothing and strong.

Close to midnight, Goran and I get ready to go into town to watch the game. Hana, exhausted by a spate of recent travel for work, bows out and sleeps. As Goran and I drive across the Bregava and approach the main intersection from the north, we see disturbing signs: on our right, the lampposts sport Croatian flags, not Bosnian. On our left looms the religious equivalent of the flag: a Catholic church’s enormous bell tower, aspiring to dominate the surrounding landscape.

Sure enough, the cops are set up at the intersection, standing outside their parked, flashing cruiser. I start wondering what we might be getting ourselves into. But after we park and start to walk, excitement trumps the tension. Bosnian flags hang high across this southern stretch of road like fluttering Buddhist prayer flags, and the first bars we see with outdoor patios are jammed. We gravitate to one across the street that has a little more breathing room. We quickly figure out why. The bar’s television isn’t showing the game. The choice needs no translation. This is a Croat bar. Who gives a shit if Bosnia’s playing tonight?

We walk back across the street. A kid tosses a firecracker onto the pavement just a few feet away from us. BANG! I shudder and swear before laughing nervously and moving on. Goran and I spot a little table with two chairs at the edge of a sprawling patio, where we can see most of the huge outdoor video screen. A waitress comes over to greet us. She’s lean and radiant, with shoulder-length brown hair and a small tattoo on the right side of her neck. She’s wearing the royal blue jersey of Edin Džeko, the Bosnian striker who’s a bona fide superstar in the English Premier League. Džeko grew up in Sarajevo, survived the Siege, and has become the kind of once-in-a-generation player who is giving Bosnians faith that this team can make a deep tournament run.

After Goran and I order our drinks, I use a clumsy mix of Bosnian and English to ask the waitress for the wi-fi password. She smiles and switches to English on the fly: l-o-c-c-o, the name of the bar, all small letters. I connect, and right before the Bosnian national anthem I send my wife pictures of Aladinići, of pomegranate, oleander, and the grape arbor. I tell her there’s a chance that the adjacent property could be for sale, that Goran and I are starting to dream like Adisa. Something like a writer’s colony, a place for Goran and other Bosnian artists to get away for more than an occasional afternoon at Skakavac.

The game’s about to start. This is one that Bosnia desperately needs to win, or at least play to a draw, to advance beyond the opening round. In the first match of the tournament they had given mighty Argentina all it could handle, but a fluke own goal and some late wizardry by the Argentinian Lionel Messi – some say he is the best in the world – sealed the Bosnians’ fate, 2-1. It was an inspired, impressive performance by the Bosnians that left them with no points.

In tonight’s first half, the favored Bosnian team looks strong. They sustain pressure on the Nigerian defense. Before long, Džeko breaks free, and his shot finds the back of the net. We erupt, bolting to our feet and pumping our fists before the heartbreak: Džeko is called for being offside. The goal is nullified. Replays confirm that it was a terrible call. Just minutes later a Nigerian forward, fighting for space, pushes a Bosnian defender aside and scores. No foul is called. Just like that it’s one-nil, Nigeria.

At halftime we’re keeping hope alive. The waitress stands poised where the patio meets the bar, her chin raised a little as she surveys the crowd and grooves to the driving rock music. Goran and I find a table at the center of the action, in the thick of the crowd, with a better view of the screen.

When the second half starts, Džeko’s off his game, getting free and finding chances but not striking cleanly. Our spirits lift when Vedad Ibišević, who scored against Argentina, enters the match late, but the team still can’t find a way to break through. Tension mounts. Bosnia’s running out of time. Right behind us, a fan’s drumming, which has been keeping us upbeat all night, is now accompanied by somebody’s drunken vuvuzela. Hoarse, blaring, and erratic, it’s driving us insane. Two powerfully built guys in front of us finally snap, turning around and yelling at him in Bosnian to – I can only assume – shut the fuck up. As the clock mercilessly advances, one of them starts to sidestep us and move toward the vuvuzelist. I start looking for escape routes, trying to figure out if Goran and I can get back to the car and out of town if fists and bottles start to fly. I’m not sure we can. A reassuringly tall, formidable bartender steps in, however, and cooler heads prevail.

The clock hits 90:00. Only a few minutes of extended, injury time remain. Džeko suddenly finds a seam, an opening to the keeper’s right, but his shot is deflected and caroms off the left post. It’s crushing. Bosnia is finished. When the final whistle blows, a bottle shatters on the pavement behind us. I flinch, fearing a swell of rage, but it doesn’t come. We leave in peace. Goran quickly musters perspective. The team just had no energy tonight, he says. We find the waitress, settle the tab, and make our way to the car.

We get back to the hostel on the Bregava after 2 a.m. Hana stirs from a deep sleep and asks how the match came out. We give her the bad news. In the morning, forgetting, she asks again. We go into town for coffee, settling at a café next to Locco. Hana tells me to take my camera and walk over to the nearby mosque, undergoing major restoration, to see a rare neighboring of olive and oleander trees. I walk the neighborhood a little in broad daylight. I get my first good look at the Bregava and the surrounding hills that frame the architecture of nationalism: the rival sanctuaries, flags, bars, and monuments.

Before we leave town I walk past Locco. I see our waitress sitting outside on the empty patio. She looks pale and spent. We exchange polite, flat smiles. As the day wears on, Bosnians will rage about the officiating, citing the blown calls and a photograph – of the head referee, Peter O’Leary, smiling at the end of the match with his arm around a Nigerian player – that looks damning. Tens of thousands of Bosnians will sign fruitless online petitions demanding the suspension of O’Leary and even a revision of the score to make the final score 1-1. When we get home to Sarajevo, a newspaper features a photograph of a dejected Bosnian in Brazil. The headline reads, “TUGA NAKON EUFORIJE” – heartache after euphoria, the euphoria of feeling, at least for a little while, that anything is possible.

Goran Simic in AladiniciGoran Simić relaxing at Aladinići

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III. Mostar and Blagaj, June 25-27, 2014

Goran and I had been corresponding all spring about driving to the Adriatic Coast, which I’ve never seen. We finally have a plan. We’ll head southwest from Sarajevo. On the way we’ll spend the night in Mostar with friends of mine, Lejla and Sasha, and their children, Ena and Sandro. Lejla and I had engaged in the standard bilateral negotiations about food and lodging. I said that Goran and I didn’t want to impose, so we would take them out to dinner and spend the night in a hotel. Lejla wondered what the hell I was thinking. We’ll cook out, she said, and watch the Bosnia-Iran World Cup match. You’ll stay in Ena’s room. We’ve got room for Goran too.

When we arrive, we call Lejla from the riverside patio of the stylish, renovated Hotel Bristol, where I had stayed in 2004. We meet and embrace on the bridge over the Neretva.

Ena, who’s eleven now, has her room ready for me upstairs, with its view of conjoined apartment rooftops and the neighborhood minaret. In neat rows images of cartoon princesses and professional rock climbers plaster the walls. I remember watching Ena compete as a climber two years ago, and a framed certificate reveals that she is now a youth national champion. Two-year-old Sandro has turned into a powerhouse too. We tussle playfully, and when he kicks my leg with surprising force, I start thinking that Bosnia might have its next Džeko.

I find Sasha outside by the grill. We’re meeting for the first time. When I visited the family before with my guide – Lejla’s cousin and Sasha’s best man – Sasha was in Norway, installing air conditioners to help support the family. In his mid-thirties, he’s of medium height and wiry, like Ena, but weathered, with buzzed brown hair, piercing eyes, and an iron jaw. With him is a friend, Slađo, whom I’ve met before. Tall and thick, like the Yugoslavian forwards who occasionally appear in the NBA, he has an infectious laugh. As soon as I see him, I remind him of the night we drove up a steep hill on Mostar’s perimeter. When we got out of the car, Slađo sighed and surveyed the quiet basin. He seemed poised to impart wisdom. He said, “You know, Mostar is just a giant toilet bowl that needs to be flushed.” People in every former Yugoslavian republic might have heard us laugh that night.

As he minds the chicken on the grill, Sasha shares fragments of his story. As a high-school-aged kid, he lost his father in the war. After that, he had spent a little time in the US, first at an international youth camp, Camp Rising Sun in upstate New York. Then he stayed briefly with Frank Havlicek, an instructor in international affairs at American University who had visited Bosnia and knew Sasha’s mother. Sasha tells me that Havlicek offered to set him up with a mailroom job at The Washington Post, a basement apartment, and a car, but Sasha turned him down. He says he couldn’t ever get used to the States. The people were too cold. They didn’t know their neighbors. They would look strangely at you if you just tried to bum a cigarette. A couple of times he snapped and got into fights. He knew he had to come home.

The food’s ready, so we go in for dinner and the game. Bosnia decimates Iran, 3-1. Nigeria will advance with Argentina to the second round. We talk late into the night.

The next morning, I’m the first to rise with Ena and Sandro. I ask Ena if she can show me how to connect to the internet. It’s not self-evident because the family laptop is missing some keys. Ena points to the culprit, Sandro, and laughs. To buy ourselves some time on the computer, we bribe him with my pen and let him scribble with abandon in my notebook.

After a few minutes of sending quick messages home, I sign off and grab my Bosnian-English phrasebook. Ena, who has studied English in school, is game. We practice:

Yesterday was Wednesday.
Jučer je bila srijeda.

Today is Thursday.
Danas je četvrtak.

Tomorrow is Friday.
Sutra je petak.

Ti si moj učitelj, I say – You are my teacher. She smiles, ear to ear.

Goran, Lejla, and Sasha make their way down. As Lejla brews coffee, they talk freely in Bosnian at the table. I stay with Ena, continuing my language lessons. Suddenly the conversation grows animated. I ask what’s up, and Goran tells me that a local youth – briefly in jail for savagely beating a Mostar university economics professor, Slavo Kukić, with a wooden bat – has been released and apparently will not face trial. Kukić had made the nearly fatal mistake of questioning the judgment of some fellow Bosnian Croats who gave a hero’s welcome to a convicted war criminal, Dario Kordić. Kordić had recently been released from prison after serving only two-thirds of a twenty-five year sentence for crimes he committed during the ethnic cleansing of Ahmići in 1993. The news leaves Goran, Lejla, and Sasha stunned.

I thank Ena, freeing her for morning cartoons on TV. I go to the table. Knowing that Goran and I will have to leave soon, I ask Lejla what sort of future she sees for her family in Mostar, what sort of future for Ena and Sandro. She is blunt, needing none of her usual time to switch to English. “There is no future in a divided city,” she says.

Lejla sends me off with a gift for my family, a set of four ceramic mugs decorated with Mostar’s Old Bridge. Despite my best efforts to pack them carefully, two will shatter somewhere between here and home.

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We have one last stop on the way out of town: a second round of coffee back at the Hotel Bristol with Štefica Galić, a journalist and human rights activist based in Mostar. A Bosnian Croat, she’s been visiting Slavo Kukić in the hospital. She corroborates our pessimism. “There is no justice,” she says. “Nothing will happen. We know that for sure.”

The beating took a heavy toll; images of the professor with a bandaged skull, blood-soaked shirt, and battered back are circulating widely. “He will feel that pain his whole life,” Štefica tells us, “but that will not stop him.” She knows what she’s talking about. She has been physically assaulted by Croat nationalists before, after screening a documentary about her late husband, Neđo, who had risked his life during the war to save a thousand neighbors from ethnic cleansing. Some call him the Bosnian Schindler.

Now, in postwar Mostar, Štefica carries on with what she sees as a struggle against resurgent fascism. Even some of her relatives have begged her to be quiet, to quit stirring up trouble, but Štefica is fit for battle. A generation older than I am, she is in better physical shape. She has the lean physique and perfect posture of a yoga instructor. Her bright blue eyes shine past carefully penciled mascara; they are reservoirs of compassion and sorrow.

I tell her in Bosnian that I have a question, a serious one: do you want to stay or leave? She says she’ll stay, of course. So much of her life, so much of her family, is here. But sometimes, she says, “I want to disappear.”

Like Lejla, Štefica sends me off with souvenirs of the place she loves, the place she wants me to remember: a ceramic memento of the Old Bridge and a travel guide that convincingly portrays Herzegovina as “an inspiring piece of Heaven.” Even so, I can’t help feeling that Štefica – and Mostar – are in a hellish limbo between recent and imminent devastation. As Goran and I head south out of town, I see scrawled Bosnian graffiti that for once I have no trouble translating: nema boga, there is no God.

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Sorrow and fear have me dazed. Wisely, Goran has planned some time for us at the wellsprings. We’ll have lunch in Blagaj at the source of the Buna River, which emerges clear and abundant from beneath a high, sheer cliff.

At the base of the cliff, an old Sufi dervish house, neglected during the war but recently restored, offers a chance for quiet contemplation. Riverside, a framed passage from the Qur’an reads, “We made every living thing from water.” As Goran and I dip our hands in the river, he tells me that the Buna has somehow always had a way of maintaining its equanimity even during the recent floods.

Sufi Dervish House at BlagajSufi dervish house at Blagaj

We cross the small bridge to eat fresh trout and Vienna schnitzel. After taking a few photographs, we walk the narrow road, lined by souvenir stands, back to the car. Suddenly Goran is leaning through a passing van’s window. He’s nose to nose with the driver, and I have no idea what has set him off. Then I hear peals of laughter, and Goran lets me in on the joke. The driver is his old buddy Ermin Elezović, who’s here with his wife, Alma, on their day off from leading guided tours all over the country. We head back to one of the restaurants for coffee and dessert. Alma insists I try Ashura, a delicious Turkish pudding that blends apple, figs, and nuts. Lore links it to Noah’s Ark, to miraculous survival during a time of famine and flood.

Ermin is candid: we’re crazy to drive to the coast today. The traffic, he says, will hold us up for hours. Improvisation ensues, and before long it’s settled: forget the coast. We’ll spend the night here, in Blagaj, with Alma and Ermin.

We go to their serene property, which they’ve just bought after spending most of their lives in Mostar, including the war years. The backyard, bisected by a stone path, extends to the Buna. In her garden Alma grows assorted herbs and vegetables. In the rest of the yard she and Ermin tenaciously plant, water, and prune.

It turns out that Alma and Ermin have known Sasha’s family for decades. They tell me something Sasha hadn’t, that his father was killed by a sniper – no, a grenade. (“What’s the difference?” Goran wonders aloud.) At the time their own son, Jasmin, was just in elementary school. Inside the house Ermin shows me wartime black-and-white photographs of the family. Pointing to little Jasmin, who at the time had been stuck indoors for six months, Ermin says, “Look at his eyes. The light is missing.”

In one shot Ermin wears a T-shirt from War Child International, the UK charity he worked for during the war. Through their mobile bakery, Ermin tells me, they made and delivered 1.3 million loaves of bread to trapped, terrorized people in Mostar. War Child also organized a star-studded British benefit album featuring Paul McCartney, which raised more than a million pounds to establish Mostar’s interethnic Pavarotti Music Center.

We have dinner on the covered patio: potatoes with garlic and herbs, a tomato and cucumber salad, plums, pears, strawberries, and cheese. At dusk, by candlelight, we drink from teardrop flasks of rakija. Lightning flashes across the western sky. A jolt of thunder follows. Goran, laughing, says it’s war again.

Alma says she finds herself thinking more and more about writing her story. The memories have been too much to live with this long, too much to bear. “I think I will be stronger,” she says. Goran encourages her. “Each single life is a novel, yeah?” he offers tenderly.

Before bed we watch some of the World Cup. Ermin pours me a shot of industrial strength Montenegrin rakija, 50% alcohol by volume. When I finally muster the courage to bring it slowly to my lips, it burns my eyes. I take two hesitant sips and start to cough. Goran and Ermin are in hysterics. I finish, say good night, and go up to the loft. Fresh air flows freely. It’s the best night of sleep I’ll get in Bosnia. Ermin must have known that to relax, I needed to be knocked out cold.

In the morning Jasmin comes by just as Goran and I are getting ready to leave. He’s 26 now, and the light is back in his eyes. He’s funny as hell, just like his parents. Telling him my name gets us riffing on The Simpsons. Jasmin’s favorite moment is of Homer adrift: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman!” We cackle.

On the way back to Sarajevo, Goran and I find that Ermin has cut a piece of glass from his workshop to replace our cracked passenger side mirror. A few hundred yards down the pockmarked road, it pops out. We laugh, stop in the middle of the road, and reinforce it with duct tape. It holds the rest of the way.

Near Mostar we see more of the architecture of aggression: a brand new Catholic church, right next to a destroyed abandoned house. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed far too often. Homes and factories lie in ruins, while new, expensive sanctuaries grow like weeds. It’s the engineering and manufacture of cultural domination. Štefica called it pure provocation, like animals marking their territory.

Nature offers another brief reprieve. We wind north through the Neretva valley, farther and farther from the river’s end in the Adriatic Sea. Compressed strata of steep, forested stone slant sharply to the river at forty-five degrees before they gradually recline to parallel. Johnny Cash sings, If I could start again, a million miles away….

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IV. Sarajevo, June 27-29, 2014

It’s the eve of the assassination’s centennial. Sarajevo’s commemorations have begun, and Goran and I go a little off the beaten path to one of our favorite spots, Sarajevo’s Museum of Literature and the Performing Arts. Two years ago, walking the city, I had wandered into the museum’s beautiful, landscaped courtyard of roses and stone pathways.

The museum’s director, Šejla Šehabović, like countless custodians of culture in Sarajevo, works for little or no pay, thanks to the wrangling of politicians who withhold appropriations from institutions that benefit all Bosnians, not just a single ethnic group. She puts on an incredibly brave face. In her thirties, with short brown hair dyed to a brilliant copper, she fights like mad to keep the museum alive. Last spring’s heavy rains brought fresh worries: a leaking roof threatens the papers of Ivo Andrić, perhaps Yugoslavia’s most famous writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. His historical novel The Bridge on the Drina all but foretold the horrors to come at century’s end.

Sejla Sehabovic and Goran Simic, Sarajevo 2014Šejla Šehabović and Goran Simić

The mood is festive tonight. We’re here for the release of graphic novelist Berin Tuzlić’s Sarajevo Assassination 2914. Images from the book, enlarged to poster size, line the gallery walls. Menacing and dystopian, they evoke the present. Rival religious and ideological factions posture and provoke. They brandish cartoonishly violent mentalities in a restricted palette of aggressive red, black, blue, purple, yellow, and orange.

In the courtyard after darkness falls, live music and large-screen projection bring the book and exhibition to life. An earnest baritone narrates the novel’s text while a keyboardist and Tuzlić himself, a rock-solid drummer, add a dark, driving musical overlay. One of the text’s refrains distills centuries of manipulation and disillusionment: Istorija je fikcija, history is fiction.

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The next morning, the day of the centennial, Goran’s in the mood to get back to Skakavac. The Vienna Philharmonic’s concert tonight at Vijećnica, the restored city hall and national library, barely interests him. He can take only so much reminiscing. He remembers racing to rescue what he could from the flames of that dying treasure. Ninety-eight per cent of the historic collections are lost forever. My own memory leaps to Goran’s “Lament for Vijećnica”:

When the National Library burned for three
days in August, the town was choked with black
snow. Those days I could not find a single pencil
in the house, and when I finally found one it did
not have the heart to write. Even the erasers left
behind a black trace. Sadly, my homeland burned.

When we settle at Skakavac, under another spectacular summer sky, we speak of Goran’s fresh collection of poems. “I am trying to put on paper something I would like to forget,” he says.

That afternoon and evening, Goran reconnects with friends. I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by walking the city. Crowds and sun lighten the mood. A store called “Marx™: Clothes for the People” welcomes tourists to post-socialist Sarajevo, and T-shirts of passing teens borrow English slang to indulge in urban sarcasm and play: “Slam Dunk,” “Fuck the Future,” “Cute But Psycho,” “I’m Limited Edition.”

In the centuries-old Ottoman bazaar I stop at the expansive courtyard of Bey’s Mosque. I circle and photograph the tall, canopied fountain. Without thinking, I place my left hand, palm and fingers, on one of its aged wooden pillars, and I’m nearly brought to tears. The wood feels alive – I almost know it’s alive – cool to the touch, and strong, but without the rigidity of stone. I breathe in slowly and am at rest.

To the east is the restored Vijećnica. It’s cordoned off for the exclusive, black-tie affair inside, but I can take photographs and listen to the concert’s simulcast outside at sunset, just across the Miljacka River. When hunger sets in, I set my sights on one of my favorite burek shops, and I decide to practice my Bosnian. Everything goes smoothly except for the math. Focusing on the two types of pie I want – beef and spinach – I lose all sense of proportion. I accidentally order a kilo of each, and the shop owner wonders if I’m certifiably insane. When I finally figure out what’s happening, I sheepishly confess, Trebam vježbati moje… – “I need to practice…” Before I can say moje broje (“my numbers”), the shopowner finishes the sentence for me: “…your Bosnian?” I turn red and laugh, perfectly content to exchange my dignity and a few bucks for some of the best food in Sarajevo.

At nightfall, a heavy boom shakes the city. It unnerves me, and it takes me a few seconds to hear the sound for what it is: a celebration of the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. A swell in the market crowds follows. I linger at the outdoor cafés before walking home close to midnight. Sarajevo’s packs of stray dogs, normally friendly and docile, start getting edgy and unpredictable. Their shrill call-and-response echoes across the valley, slamming off the mountains. As I walk up Koševo, toward the darkened graveyards, toward Gavrilo, two of them trot behind me before sprinting ahead full tilt, like predators in the wild. One of them starts lunging recklessly at speeding cars, barking out of its mind. I can barely look. I whisper a plea: Don’t make me watch you die tonight.

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V. Tuzla, June 30-July 1, 2014

On the last leg of our trip, heavy rain falls on the winding, forested road north from Sarajevo to Tuzla. By now the disastrous spring rains should have run their course. The damage has already been done. In the Tuzla Canton alone, landslides and the brown, swollen Bosna River have destroyed hundreds of homes. Thousands of Bosnians are refugees once more. Goran squints through the windshield as excess water ripples and pools across the road. “Nature out of balance,” he says, a reminder that in Bosnia, things can always get worse. A roadside billboard with a skull and crossbones shouts “DANGER!” to warn of wartime landmines displaced and resurrected by the recent floods. A subsequent sign, apparently without irony, pitches a café called Vertigo. The Robert Plant and Jimmy Page album No Quarter powers through the car stereo: I couldn’t get no silver, I couldn’t get no gold. You know we’re too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole. We pass up Vertigo and stop for lunch at the hillside restaurant Panorama, where clouds fog the view of the valley below. As soon as we sit, Goran asks the waiter for a good, stiff shot of rakija. “Better make it a double,” he says. “I’m driving.” We unleash a torrent of laughter.

As we approach Tuzla, a city of mining and industry, we survey the destruction. Debris from the floods lines roadside fences and clutters yards. A turbulent sky shifts and reconfigures its shades and layers of grey, permitting only slivers of sun and a thin, diluted streak of blue. A power plant’s enormous cooling towers, chain-smoking, superimpose their own brownish haze. Suddenly, traffic crawls. The floods have devoured a large section of our lane, forcing a long line of cars to snake off onto gravel and dirt.

When we get back on the road and come to the heart of the city, we see wreckage that’s man-made: the smashed windows and sooted, graffiti-tagged façade of the Sodaso chemical plant. It’s a gutted casualty not of wartime shelling but of an economically devastating postwar privatization; the plant was ground zero for the fiery citizen uprisings of last February’s “Bosnian Spring.” We enter a traffic roundabout, where a large banner encourages union solidarity – Sindikat Solidarnosti – and a young woman hustles by on foot, hunched, with no umbrella. Her shirt says “Sunny Beach Club” in English.

Near the town square, the site of the 1995 massacre that Tuzla is famous for, we park on the street in front of a Catholic school. Near the main entrance is an arresting scrap metal sculpture, eight to ten feet tall, of St. Francis. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked, with his eyes to the ground and his palms to the sky, he is the incarnation of hunger and despair. The artist has riveted, dented, crimped, and shredded the metal with reckless precision. Francis looks as though he’s been hit by shrapnel, or a shock wave, and he is literally unraveling, his thrice-knotted cords tearing away from his cloak of poverty. Wild birds – are they predators or prey? – besiege him, their wings stretched vertical and taut. No sentimental kinship binds these creatures to Francis; their only communion, their only solidarity, is in their intimacy with the abyss.

St Francis of TuzlaSt. Francis of Tuzla

We’ve come for a lecture at the local atelier across the street from this St. Francis of Tuzla. The event has been arranged by Nigel Osborne, a professor, composer, and activist visiting from the UK and working closely with a young local university professor and activist, Damir Arsenijević. When we meet, Nigel strikes a note of hope. In his sixties, he is tall, bearded, and broad-chested, with a booming voice and infectious energy. He tells us that this is a chance for exploited, suffering Bosnians to reimagine everything, to remember that they “can change things fundamentally.”

Osborne’s connections to Bosnia run deep, back to the war, when he collaborated with activists and artists, like Goran and Susan Sontag, to keep Bosnians and Bosnian culture alive. Now, working with local university professors and activists in Tuzla, he’s invited tonight’s speaker, the economist Fred Harrison, a London-based contemporary of Osborne and an architect of Yeltsin-era land reform in Russia. Osborne and Harrison are touting such reform as a revolutionary alternative to rapacious, neoliberal global capitalism, reform that once had put Russia on the path to real social and economic justice before oligarchs hijacked and derailed it.

In his lecture Harrison calls the current global economic system “a cruel one,” a form of “cannibalism” and “medieval bloodletting” that sacrifices workers and youth in order to save the financial sector. Merging fluidly with the corruption of local elites, that system has left ordinary Bosnians desperate and unemployed at rates surging toward fifty percent. A revolution is possible, Harrison contends, but we will have to “build our minds anew” by returning to moral, non-ideological “first principles” of authentic democracy and collective ownership of the land. Tuzla’s unions and plenums – the emerging, town-hall style citizen assemblies – will have to lead the way, he says, in dismantling an entrenched system of greed.

Afterward at a restaurant on the square, Osborne is buzzing. I ask him what he thinks about Professor Harrison’s suggestion that Bosnia should seek the political and financial support of Great Britain. He thinks it could work. During the war, he tells me, Great Britain, unlike so many other western powers, started to repent for its tragic misunderstanding of the Bosnian situation. Now with the likes of William Haig and Angelina Jolie paying such close attention to Bosnia, there could be enough international momentum for real change.

Soon Professor Harrison walks in with the director Carlo Gabriel Nero, who filmed the evening’s lecture for Al Jazeera. We all have a date at a nearby café and bar, Urban, to sing sevdah, the Bosnian blues, with local professionals. The music – full of tremulous vibrato, of vocal oscillations encouraged by an accordion and anchored by an acoustic guitar – is not for the faint of heart. Osborne is fluent. He grabs his guitar and sits in. When he sings, all the Bosnians in the bar join him. They know these songs of love and sorrow by heart. After a while, I move back from the inner circle of musicians to the edge of the bar, where two Bosnians give me their sense of what it’s all about. One says that this is a kind of sijelo, a gathering with comfort food and live music, usually sevdah, where everyone feels like old friends. Another says that it’s about the pursuit and experience of merak, translated loosely as a moment of true happiness, ease, and no worries at all.

I thank them. It’s almost midnight. We’ve been at it for hours, and the crowd is starting to thin and fade. Everyone has somewhere to be tomorrow, when morning will bring the hope and the anguish of starting from scratch.

—Thomas Simpson

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Thomas SimpsonPhoto by Melissa Cooperman

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in 2017. This fall, the University of North Carolina Press will publish his first academic book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Mangalia Beach by Nicolae TonitzaMangalia Beach, 1930 by Nicolae Tonitza, via Wikiart.

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I realize, all of a sudden, that my title sounds like the name of a rehab facility in Arizona, a place where “happiness” is very rare indeed and where the “shores” are notional ones, at best. I am quite certain that Baudelaire was not thinking of such a place, as he conjured up a luminous vision of utopia in the first quatrain of his sonnet, “Exotic Perfume”:

When, with both my eyes closed, on a hot autumn night,
I inhale the fragrance of your warm breast
I see happy shores spread out before me,
On which shines a dazzling and monotonous sun.

He was envisioning a place far from the gray realities and dismal vexations of mid-nineteenth-century Paris, a place free from the constraints of the here and the now, somewhere strikingly distinct from the sites we inhabit in our daily life, a place of “order and beauty / Luxury, peace and pleasure,” as he puts it in his “Invitation to the Voyage.” That vision is inspired (and I use that word in its fullest sense) by a lover’s scent. But it is constructed in the poetic imagination, corresponding to a set of ideals clearly impossible in ordinary, quotidian existence. The site toward which Baudelaire points is a distant one and a different one, a place both foreign and unusual—in a word, an exotic place.

It is not uncommon to find evocations of such places in French literature before Baudelaire; yet he explored the idea of the exotic so insistently and programmatically that it became, under his pen, a recognizable, codified literary topos. So much so that it is difficult to speak about any sort of literary exoticism in France without bringing Baudelaire into the conversation—even when it is a question of literary gestures in our own time. For while controversies about what constitutes the “exotic” and what attitudes one ought to adopt with regard to it have undoubtedly evolved a great deal since Baudelaire’s time, the notion itself remains a highly charged one in contemporary French culture, and a sure trigger for polemics of various ilks.

Most recently and notoriously, the idea of the exotic may be seen to subtend debates about the relationship of “metropolitan” French literature (that is, writing produced in France) and “francophone” literature (texts written in French outside of Metropolitan France—in Africa, for instance, or in Quebec, or Haiti). A manifesto signed by forty-four writers which appeared in Le Monde in March of 2007, under the title “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French,” calls for nothing less than the abolition of the distinction I have just mentioned, proclaiming “[t]he end, then, of ‘francophone’ literature, and the birth of a world literature in French” (56). The manifesto justifies its brief for “World Literature” with considerable vigor:

“World literature” because literatures in French around the world today are demonstrably multiple, diverse, forming a vast ensemble, the ramifications of which link together several continents. But “world literature” also because all around us these literatures depict the world that is emerging in front of us, and by doing so recover, after several decades, from what was “forbidden in fiction” what has always been the province of artists, novelists, creators: the task of giving a voice and a visage to the global unknown—and to the unknown in us (56).

A crucial dimension of the manifesto’s argument hinges precisely on the notion of the exotic, and on the marginalization that such a designation entails: “How many writers in the French language, themselves caught between two or more cultures, mulled this strange disparity that relegated them to the margins, themselves ‘francophones,’ an exotic hybrid barely tolerated?” (55). For that marginalization effect is clearly the other face of the notion: if the exotic evokes “Luxury, peace and pleasure,” it also, through that very otherness, points to something far outside a given speaker’s community of experience.

In that perspective, the exotic and terms closely related to it continue to animate discussions in France, discussions that range far beyond purely “literary” spheres, discussions that color much broader cultural and political discourse. I am writing, right now, a couple of months after the Islamic State attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and I can testify that a significant proportion of political debate since that event is grounded in the way that the French (and I mean “French” of many different stripes) conceive of the other, whether that other be person, or place, or both at once. In all of that extremely complex and at times very painful debate, one thing is abundantly clear: we are, all of us, very attached to that idea of the other, and very reluctant to abandon it—even when it proves to engender more problems than it serves to resolve. As Sander Gilman puts it in his study of alterity, Inscribing the Other, “Stereotypes arise when the integration of self is threatened. They are therefore part of our manner of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world. This is not to say that they are positive, only that they are necessary. We can and must make the distinction between pathological stereotyping and the stereotyping we all need to do to preserve our illusion of control over the self and the world” (13).

Baudelaire 1844 By Emile DeroyCharles Baudelaire 1844 by Emile Deroy, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Having noted the breadth of sway that the exotic enjoys in the French imagination, I would like now to turn to happier shores than those of massacre and the reaction that it provokes. I would like briefly to examine a few recent French novels that are situated in part or in their entirety in the United States. These are texts wherein the notion of “America” is deployed as a radical other with regard to metropolitan French culture, and which play with the idea of the exotic in a very interesting manner. The first example I shall adduce (one where the phenomenon that interests me is both most massive and obvious) is Tanguy Viel’s La Disparition de Jim Sullivan (2013). The second word in Viel’s title is usually rendered into English as “disappearance”; but in its euphemistic usage it can also mean “death,” and Viel plays productively on that semantic ambiguity throughout his novel. It is not the only ambiguity that he exploits. For his narrator, like Viel himself, is a French novelist—and he is moreover working on a book entitled La Disparition de Jim Sullivan. Over the last few years, he has become convinced that the only way to achieve truly international literary success is to write an “American” novel:

Americans have an unfair advantage over us: even when they situate the action in Kentucky, among chicken farms and cornfields, they manage to write an international novel.…They manage to write novels that people buy in Paris, as well as in New York. …The day that that became clear to me, I took a map of America and hung it on the wall of my study, and I told myself that the action of my next book, all of it, would be located over there, in the United States. (10-11, my translation, as elsewhere unless otherwise noted)

With considerable energy and admirable diligence, he sets out to write such a novel, exploiting all of the commonplaces that he has identified in the genre. In the first instance, he takes care to strew American proper names throughout his text very liberally indeed. It is a technique that is certain to pay dividends, particularly when one recalls Roland Barthes’s characterization of the proper name as “the prince of signifiers” (“Analyse” 34). Thus, characters’ names are quintessentially American ones: “Dwayne,” “Susan,” “Tim,” “Dorothy,” “Jim,” “Donald,” “Moll,” “Joyce,” “Lee,” “Alex,” “Milly,” “Becky,” “Ralph,” and so forth. That impression of authenticity is heightened by the fact that Viel causes his French novelist to use first names rather than last whenever possible—Americans are renowned for the casual ways they address others, after all. The toponyms are just as familiar as the anthroponyms, moreover: “Montana,” “Kentucky,” “Detroit,” “Michigan,” “New York,” “Los Angeles,” “Ann Arbor,” “Chicago,” “Rochester,” “Sterling Heights,” “Baltimore.” But it is undoubtedly in the names of automobiles where that technique gets its most mileage, for the automobile, as everyone knows, reigns supreme in American consumerist culture: “Cadillac,” “Pontiac,” “Ford,” “Dodge,” Buick,” “GMC,” “Chrysler,” “Mercury,” “Thunderbird.” It sounds like a poem, doesn’t it?—or a prayer.

The behavior of the novelist’s characters is just as convincingly American as their names. They are always driving their cars, for one thing, with “a bottle of whisky on the passenger seat” (16), cigarette butts overflowing the ashtray, a copy of Thoreau’s Walden and a hockey stick lurking in the trunk. Prominent among those characters is a university professor, because Viel’s novelist has noted that “in American novels, one of the characters is always a university professor” (19), a figure so innately beguiling as to captivate the attention of even the most jaded reader. Adultery is everywhere practiced here, fueled undoubtedly by all that whiskey, all those cigarettes, all that driving around. Violence abounds, too, as indeed it must, because Americans are famously inclined to explode into violence one after the other, like firecrackers at a Fourth of July celebration.

Despite all of his laudable efforts at verisimilitude, however, Viel’s novelist remains curiously removed from his “America.” He confesses that he has never actually had the opportunity to visit the United States, and that his information (though abundant) is secondhand, deriving in the main from two sources: American novels and the Internet. The former serve him well enough, I think; but the latter, granted its tendency to flatten and homogenize human experience, sometimes leads him into infelicity and outright error. Much of the action in his novel takes place in Detroit, but everything he knows about that city comes from the Internet, and most of what he has learned is anecdotal and trivial: “In Detroit, according to what I’ve read on the Internet, people can see up to 3200 windows in one glance” (11). He can be excused, perhaps, for spelling “mother fucker” as two words rather than one (34); but his allusion to “lion hunting in the Colorado mountains” (137) will inevitably raise eyebrows. He remains, of course, French; and the gaze that he casts upon America is necessarily a French one, filtered through French culture, ideology, and myth. Moreover, he is demonstrably writing for a French public. “For us here in France,” he remarks for instance, “it seems odd to include an ice hockey team in a novel” (49-50), clearly identifying his narratees as French, and wagering simultaneously on the familiarity of “Frenchness” and the alterity of “Americanness.”

The wager that Tanguy Viel himself stakes is, I believe, a bit different; and the game he is playing is patently a more sophisticated one. Where his novelist is utterly candid (and indeed naive) in his reading of America and its culture, Viel is far more sly, taking an ironic stance both with regard to his narrator and with regard to “America.” Let us remember that irony is always a question of distance, whether literal or figural, and allow me to remark that the notion of distance massively informs both the narrator’s novel and Viel’s own. Yet it is clear that those books are not one and the same, despite the fact that their titles are identical. To the contrary, the distance separating them looms ever larger as the novel—Viel’s novel, let’s be clear—progresses. If that consideration were not perfectly obvious, Viel takes care to underscore it in the closing pages of his novel, causing his narrator to remark:

I didn’t stress it too much in my novel, because I didn’t want to make it a political thriller, with complicated intrigues involving both fictional characters and real people, like American writers often do, it’s true. After all, even if I looked toward America throughout my work on this project, I nonetheless remain a French writer. And we French do not make a habit of mixing real people with fictional characters. That is why I didn’t mention the name of Barack Obama in my novel. (120)

That final pronouncement reads like a Zen kōan, or a paradox of Zeno, until one remembers that this (fictional) novelist is not Tanguy Viel; that the embedded novel is not the frame novel; that, in a word, no gesture of metalepsis has been accomplished here, in spite of any appearance to the contrary, and notwithstanding the pull of our own readerly desire.

With considerable resourcefulness and subtlety, Tanguy Viel exploits that readerly desire in order to keep us significantly (and agreeably) off balance. At some moments, he encourages us to plunge headfirst into the fictional world, abandoning our skepticism and our rationality. At other moments, he obliges us to step back from the fable and recognize things for what they are. Insofar as the representation of America is concerned, his game is likewise double. He puts the mythology of America to use in very canny ways, both frankly (through his very literalist narrator) and ironically (through the distance he constructs between his narrator and himself). Turn and turn about, he plays upon the familiar and the exotic—and, most crucially perhaps, on the familiarity of the exotic. One might say that it is always a question of “America” in this novel, rather than of America. And one might argue, too, that it is a book perfectly suited to “American” readers, whatever happy shores they might call their own.

Tanguy Viel Disparition de Jim Sullivan

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Shores, happy or otherwise, are often at issue in Maylis de Kerangal’s Naissance d’un pont (Birth of a bridge, 2010), which tells the story of the construction of an immense bridge spanning a river, just inland from the coast of California. Like Viel, Kerangal gives place of privilege to onomastics, entrusting proper names with an important dimension of her “American” strategy. People’s names here are about what one might expect: “Katherine,” and “John,” and “Ralph,” certainly, but also that most categorical of American names, “Duane” (here spelled with a u rather than a w). Recognizable figures from the real world flit in and out of the novel, in cameo appearances, among them Sarah Jessica Parker and Larry King. Brand names confirm that the action of the novel takes place in a fundamentally commercial world: KMart, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Wallgreen [sic], McDonald’s. Chevrolets and Dodges duel on the highways, providing delicious moments of verisimilitude: “It’s a late-model Viper on 22-inch rims, 500 horsepower, a monster worth forty-five thousand dollars” (42). But Kerangal’s onomastic pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the name she chooses for the city where the bridge will be built, “Coca.” She glosses it helpfully for us shortly after enunciating it, mentioning that it shares its name with a famous brand of soda (29). For “Coca” is the French for “Coke,” as any five-year-old in France could testify; and what is more indisputably American than Coke? It represents in some sense the summit of American commercialism, a product known and savored worldwide. In a similar light—and I’m speaking here reductively, of course, relying on cultural commonplace—California represents for many people the apotheosis of American culture, the site where the various currents composing that culture flow in unabated spate.

Yet that is only one of the connotational fields onto which the name “Coca” opens. The other is a shade darker in tone, and the word “cocaine” hovers in its center. The fact that Kerangal has that in mind is confirmed by several references in the text, more subtle but no less sure than the ones pointing to Coca-Cola. Early on, for instance, Kerangal mentions the public buses serving Coca, suggesting that they are dangerous means of transport, “operated by bug-eyed bus drivers: lack of sleep, coke” (29). On several other occasions, she suggests that deep corruption lurks behind Coca’s shiny new facade: “Coca! Coca! Coca! The Brand New City! A danger zone where febrile businessmen rub shoulders with dealers of all kinds, cunning teens, opioid-addicted dandies, loan sharks both male and female, night-blind girls, and bewigged assassins” (169). Contrary to what its Babbitts would have us believe, Coca is “a rotten hole” (72), a place “arising ex nihilo from the New World” (185).

Yet it is perhaps inaccurate to imagine that Coca surges up out of nowhere, perhaps more useful to think of it as emanating from a deep reserve of mythology, one devolving upon “the measureless breadth of the landscape, an unmanageable immensity” (46) and “an enormous desire” (67), a golden place in the Golden State. For desire is at the heart of Coca. Workers flock there from all over, “among whom are people from Detroit, chased out of that city by the closing of the automobile factories” (97) Kerangal notes, reminding us that the American economy has suffered in recent years. Those workers, she argues, are simple folk, “people averse to conversation, serious and dedicated laborers for whom distractions like bowling, beer, and sex would not suffice for long” (101). More than anything else, they are impelled by mythology: “poor people looking to better themselves, dreamers lost in the clutches of the myth of the West, the obstinate myth that consumes them” (189).

The vision of America that Kerangal proposes is thus significantly vexed. On the one hand, it is a place where community milestones are celebrated by “ceremonial releases of doves, cheerleaders, jugglers, traditional Indian dances, police parades, and distribution of free t-shirts” (329). On the other hand, it is a place where local prostitutes “swallow speedballs: coke + bicarbonate of soda” (134). Let us forgive the inaccuracy of the recipe furnished, and focus instead on the brutality of the image, and the way it contrasts with that of the municipal festivities. And let us remember that the very notion of contrast itself is an essential component of the mythology in which “America” is wrapped:

It is the land of making-do and the smalltime job, of accommodations and fiddles, of all the little strategies of survival that sharpen one’s wits, the land of little vegetable gardens, fertile and overgrown, the land of hammocks swung up in damp cabins, of plasma TVs right off the shelf and fridges filled with beer, of mobile homes where depressed Indians with penetrating gazes try to sleep, of prefabricated, slapped-up houses that won’t make it through the winter, their floors warping and their wiring melting as soon as the portable heating units are plugged in, their pipes freezing right under the siding. It’s the place on the other side of the water, the edge of the city and the verge of the forest, it’s the place right on the margin. (191-192)

In short, Maylis de Kerangal’s “America” is a liminal place, one that is neither fully “inside” nor “outside,” but which insistently questions both of those sites in an oppositional manner, and through a discourse of alterity. It’s no utopia, that’s for certain. But I think nonetheless that Baudelaire would have no trouble recognizing it as somewhere demonstrably animated by the spirit of the other, a place very efficiently conceived to make the reader of this novel reflect usefully upon that other—and perhaps more crucially still, upon the place that he or she calls “home.”

Maylis de Kerangal Naissance d'un pont

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Representations of America are not lacking in Christine Montalbetti’s writings. Her novel Western (2005) takes place in a rough-and-ready frontier town called “Transition City,” and it plays upon a venerable set of traditions inherited from Bret Harte and Zane Grey, John Ford and Sergio Leone. Journée américaine (American day, 2009) returns to the American West, but in present time, following a man as he makes his way across the plains of Oklahoma to the mountains of Colorado. In Plus rien que les vagues et le vent (Nothing but the waves and the wind, 2014), Montalbetti goes still further west, to the Oregon Coast. There, everyone has a story to tell: “Colter,” “Harry Dean,” “McCain,” “Shannon,” “Wendy,” “Moses B. Reed,” “Mary,” “Perry,” “Rick,” “Tim Doyle,” each of them has a past with a different tale. Yet those differences may be largely anecdotal, because every one of these individuals is scarred by the past, and the tales they tell testify to that damage in fundamentally similar ways.  They have all somehow washed up in Cannon Beach, “the furthest edge of America” (271), like driftwood. Harry Dean works there as a farmer; Wendy is a waitress; Moses owns a bar called “Ulysses’ Return”; Tim runs a souvenir shop; Mary works in the grocery store; and so forth. Their lives intersect frequently in this small town, often in the bar in the evening, and that is mostly where we hear their stories, thanks to the narrator. He is a curious bird, the only anonymous character in the novel. He is exceptional in other ways, too, for we know very little about his past, merely that he is French—”the fucking Frenchy,” as he calls himself on one occasion (228), adopting the epithet that has been used by some of the more xenophobic citizens of Cannon Beach to identify him—and that he has come up the coast from Long Beach, through Portland. “It begins like a road story, when you think about it” (15), he remarks.

I got here on a rainy day, in a rented Ford (a white Crown Victoria, with rear-wheel drive).

The car, with its automatic transmission, ate up the road, almost without any effort on my part. I gazed at the rain beading up on the windshield, then being wiped off, then once again beading up like on the very first day, then again being massacred under the rubber blades of the windshield wipers, pressing against the glass. (16)

Road stories are of course typically American narrative forms. America did not invent the road story, to be sure, no more than Baudelaire invented the idea of the exotic. But America indisputably appropriated the form, injected it with a massive dose of specifically American mythology, exploited it to a rare degree, and exported it so successfully that it can now can be said to bear an American stamp—at least in its most recognizable shape, where the mode of transportation is always four-wheeled, the road is always broad, and the direction is always westerly.

The narrator’s road story is not the only one in this novel, moreover, because all of the characters have been involved in their own road stories, before each of those stories crested and broke upon Cannon Beach. Still other narratives circulate liberally in this fictional world. The narrator reads and rereads Lewis and Clark’s Journals, for instance, in a two-volume edition belonging to Perry. He does not seem to recognize that he is holding in his hands one of America’s foundational road stories, but that fact is surely not lost on the reader of Montalbetti’s novel. One night in the bar, the talk turns to the Odyssey—yet another road story, but this time far more venerable—and Harry Dean knows enough of it to assure the others that it is a tale that ends in blood. That is just one effect among many others suggesting that this story will likewise end in blood. Catastrophe looms from the beginning of the novel. Pressure builds and will seek release, in an eruption as inevitable as that of Mount St. Helens, which the folks in Cannon Beach remember all too well. Reflecting on the events of the recent past in his motel room, gazing out at the sea day after day, the narrator comes to understand that he himself is involved in a story, though the question of what role he may play therein—witness or actor, victim or hero—is well beyond his ken. He tells his tale in an engaging, complaisant, dilatory manner, one that seems unconcerned until we realize that he is deferring an event which is far more painful to tell, a very violent event through which he is significantly transformed.

One might suggest that, more than anything else, the narrator’s transformation is a question of naturalization—one that involves, in the first instance, his body:

Since I have been holed up and idle in this motel room on the edge of America, existing on local fare (pizza and hamburgers that I have delivered), my body has become American.

That was what I was seeking, undoubtedly, that metamorphosis.

I have to say, too, that with all of this space surrounding a person, space that is not merely an idea, but which is also an idea, with the thought of thousands and thousands of square kilometers under immense skies, one can understand, in so vast a dominion, that there should be so many people who wish to be fat. In order to occupy a bit more space. Seeking a more acceptable ratio with the territory.

To adapt their body to the dimensions of the landscape. (278)

Curiously, the metamorphosis that the narrator undergoes has the effect of erasing his former story in favor of a story to come, or a story yet to be written:

The man that I am now, this fat man, doesn’t have a story yet.

His beginning can be traced back to the day that he rented the white Ford and left Long Beach, California, where he was just passing through, having spent a moment, you’ll remember, watching the pelicans feeding so voraciously. The day that he got on the road and started driving, obliviously, toward his shape to come. When he got into the car, when he stopped at the Blueberry Inn, when he went into the Waves Motel for the first time, he didn’t look like he does now; but that appearance was already in gestation. (280)

It is a matter of catastrophe, after all, one that is far more local and personal than the eruption of Mount St. Helens—but perhaps no less telluric. Importantly, it can be described as a certified “American” catastrophe, one whose principal agency can be located in the way that “Americans” tend to identify themselves in distinction to a variety of others. Though it should be noted that the narrator refuses to recognize such agency. “To my way of thinking,” he remarks, all of that is the ocean’s fault” (86). And in a sense, maybe he’s right, because the ocean (like narrative itself) involves forces that are irresistible, in which even the strongest of swimmers may founder; and once you submerge yourself in it (again like narrative), you are necessarily a part of it, wherever else you may wish to be.

Christine Montalbetti Plus Rien que les vagues et le vent

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Paul Fournel locates most of the action of Jason Murphy (2013) in France; but his characters direct their gaze across the Atlantic, indeed clear across the continent, once again to the very edge of America. To San Francisco more specifically, and to a cultural moment when the poets of the Beat Generation were just beginning to put right-thinking American mores so dramatically into question. One of those poets interests those characters particularly, a certain “Jason Murphy,” who may have written a novel on a long, continuous scroll well before Jack Kerouac used that technique to write On the Road. The scroll seems to occupy much more space in the characters’ imaginations than the man who wrote it, and who may or may not have survived the glory years of the 1950s and 1960s. People invest their desire in that artifact for different reasons: a publisher because of the sales windfall it would ensure; a graduate student because of what it would represent for her dissertation; a professor of literature mindful of his scholarly reputation; and so forth. As all of them strain toward that object of desire, a kind of Grail Quest emerges; but it is one fraught with ironies of various sorts, and one that is very unlikely to provide salvation for anyone—least of all for Jason Murphy.

Once again, proper names color the text of this novel, and orient the reader’s horizon of expectation in certain ways. Fournel borrows many of those names from contemporary American literature: Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Patricia Highsmith, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Patchen, Tom Wolfe. Other familiar cultural figures, from Johnny Cash to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to Jerry Garcia, are name-checked here. On the toponym side of things, Fournel points us toward San Francisco (where he directed the Alliance Française between 1996 and 2000, and which he consequently knows well). Each of the sites that he evokes—Golden Gate Park, Haight Street, the Panhandle, Polk Street, North Beach, the Tenderloin, Berkeley, the Castro, the Mission, Union Square, for example—is recognizable to anyone reasonably familiar with San Francisco. Even someone French (for it must be recalled that he is writing in French, for French readers), because the city of San Francisco occupies a great deal of space in the French cultural imagination, and French tourists abound there. It is perched, after all, smack on the western edge of the American continent, the place where Manifest Destiny sends us, the place where the American Dream (as a European conceives it) reaches its ultimate expression.

It is legitimate to wonder, in view of references to so many real people and places, why Fournel chose to organize his novel around an imaginary author like “Jason Murphy.” Clearly, he has anticipated that question, for when her advisor asks the graduate student why she has chosen to write on Murphy, rather than on Kerouac or Ginsberg, she replies, “Everyone studies those two, they’ve been worked over again and again. People know a lot about them. Murphy is more secret, less well known, a bit on the margins” (39). There is certainly no arguing with that. Yet another reason may be bound up in the fact that people don’t quite know what to make of Murphy’s writing, not even knowing for sure if he’s a “good” writer or a “bad” writer. That is a question the graduate student must grapple with, as she reads and rereads Murphy, while at the same time reading the work of the few critics who have turned their attention to him, including “Donald Allen in New American Poetry 45.60 and The Life and Lives of Jason Murphy by Warren Motte, which she knew by heart” (71).

We can forgive her if from time to time she daydreams about other, more manageable research projects. “Her thoughts turned to Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. Montparnasse is three Metro stations from here. That could have been a great dissertation topic. ‘Paris in the American Imagination: Ernest Hemingway, the Model of the Rich Poor Man.’ 200 pages tossed together in three months, with all of the backdrops right next door” (53). The project that she envisions stands in a pleasingly ironic relation to Fournel’s novel, of course, and it comments upon the latter with some pungency. Because one of the things that Fournel puts on offer in this book is an image of San Francisco as the French imagination constructs it. And by extension, insofar as San Francisco exemplifies certain important features of a broader American ideal, he invites his reader to ponder a defining moment in American cultural history, when “America” began to come to terms with the American Dream as a dream. Hunter S. Thompson points straight at that moment in his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of.…There was madness in any direction, at any hour.…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (66-68)

Paul Fournel suggests that Jason Murphy’s role in that dynamic was a crucial one, despite the fact that relatively few things are known for certain about him. He drove a Hudson and drank Four Roses Kentucky bourbon, often simultaneously. He visited Paris in 1953, staying first near the Place des Vosges, then in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He had a shack on Half Moon Bay. Lawrence Ferlinghetti knew him well, and indeed had published him, which provides Paul Fournel with an opportunity to sketch Ferlinghetti in broad outline, for the benefit of his reader: “An ageless poet, with a pretty good head for money, which had allowed him to found a small, prosperous publishing house and a very wonderful bookstore, ‘City Lights,’ in San Francisco. He published and sold the whole Beat Generation. And he also translated Prévert into English, a very welcome gesture” (48). But Ferlinghetti and Murphy had a falling-out, long ago, and the former has no idea what has become of the latter in the many years since that event.

It is useful to remember that it is not the man who is of central importance here, but instead the work he produced. On the Road and Howl both circulate freely in this novel, serving as stable points of intertextual reference and sure guarantors of authenticity. Yet Fournel draws our attention more closely still to Jason Murphy’s poetry, which he quotes extensively, in the original English, complaisantly furnishing a French translation for those readers whose English might not be utterly fluent. If one steps back from the fictional world for a moment, still another reason for choosing a fictional author quickly becomes clear: it allows Fournel to invent an American poet, one who may not be the most distinguished poet of his generation, but who is nonetheless eminently worthy of our attention. One whose greatest achievement, moreover, may be yet undiscovered, just waiting for the right combination of diligence, obsession, and circumstance to reveal it. As if diligence, obsession, and circumstance had anything to do with writing—or with literary scholarship, for that matter.

Paul Fournel Jason Murphy

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Jean Rolin composes Savannah (2015) in a decidedly minor key, and the image of America that he provides therein is painted in muted, even melancholy, colors. The text follows a narrator closely resembling Rolin himself (so closely in fact that I shall call him “Rolin” in my account of the book), who performs what Freud called the “work of mourning,” retracing a visit to Georgia he had undertaken seven years previously with a close companion, “Kate,” who has since died. In Savannah, Jean Rolin exploits a mythology of America a bit different from the kinds we have noted thus far, one that wagers upon the belatedness of the American South, and upon the exoticism of that region, when seen in long focus by a European eye. Rolin is known for the way he puts exotic landscapes to work in his writing, whether it be that of the Congo in L’Explosion de la durite (The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, 2007), or that of the Australian Outback in Un chien mort après lui (A dead dog after him, 2009), or that of the Strait of Hormuz in Ormuz (2013). Here, however, many of the terms upon which Rolin relies in order to construct place and mood have been conveniently codified well before he puts them to use, by the writers of the Southern Gothic.

Among those latter figures, Flannery O’Connor is paramount, for it is she who interests Kate most particularly. Kate and Rolin had traveled to Milledgeville, “in deepest Georgia” as Rolin puts it (11), seven years prior to the narrative present of Savannah, in order better to understand O’Connor, with Kate filming more or less constantly along the way and in the town itself. Now, Rolin returns there in search of something that he never makes explicit. One might note however that such a return, in itself, is a familiar gesture in our cultural lexicon. People in mourning often do revisit places where they had been happy, even if (and perhaps especially if) they had not fully recognized their happiness at the time. What they seek may vary, but certain features are common to most of those quests: the topos of grief and the very process of grieving; the idea that one’s past happiness becomes ever more distant as one’s memory of that moment erodes; the paralyzing impression that whatever may happen now will necessarily be marked by the shadow of the past. Yet something else is going on in Savannah too, I think, something beyond a remembrance of things past. For Jean Rolin could just as easily have situated his book in France, after all, in a landscape far more familiar to him and to his French readers. That he should choose the American South suggests that there is something about that place that he finds particularly intriguing, something closely suited to the expressive needs that animate his project. I wonder if it might be possible to trace that “something” through the cultural commonplaces that Rolin puts on display in his book.

First and most obviously, Rolin insists upon images that invoke death and commemoration. Kate had wished to visit the Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, in order to include it in the film she was making. Rolin returns there, now of course in a very different frame of mind, attuned to that site in ways that he had not anticipated, noting details that had largely escaped him during his first visit. Among other cemeteries, Laurel Grove, also in Savannah, had also interested Kate, with its “lawns, scattered headstones, trees from which hung long beards of moss” (108-109); and Rolin returns there, too, visiting Hillcrest Cemetery, Catholic Cemetery, and Bonaventure Cemetery for good measure. That itinerary, and more particularly the account of that itinerary, serves to remind us that Savannah itself is a memorial of sorts. It is what the French call a tombeau, a tomb, a literary form serving to memorialize an individual who has died. The most famous of those tombeaux is perhaps Mallarmé’s sonnet, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe,” but there are many other examples of the genre; and it is a tradition that Rolin exploits massively.

Another set of images that Rolin puts into play involves low-end Americana. Motels figure heavily in that semiotic—as indeed they have done since Nabokov. Rolin alludes to a modest motel in Savannah “situated on the corner of River Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue” (18) where he and Kate had stayed. But when Rolin tries to locate it in an Internet search in order to stay there again, he finds that “it had disappeared between then and now, leaving no trace other than the markedly negative comments of its last guests, some years previously” (23). Sic transit gloria mundi. Thankfully, other motels have sprung up to take its place, notably “the Best Western motel, situated at the intersection of Bay Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue” (23). Even Milledgeville, as far-removed as it may seem, possesses its motel, about which Rolin notes, with considerable understatement, “one is not greeted in a Best Value Inn in Milledgeville like one is greeted in a Four Seasons in Washington” (89). Clearly enough, however, it is not the Four Seasons that interests him, but rather the Best Western, the Best Value Inn, and places of similar ilk.

Other unpresuming “American” places retain Rolin’s attention. The bus station in Savannah, for instance. He notes that neither he nor Kate knew how to drive a car, and that they were thus obliged to travel by bus and by taxi during their visit. Taxi drivers figure in this narrative too, of course; and they are stock types in American cultural imagery, too. Rolin is moreover fascinated by a bar called “Malones,” which touts itself alluringly as a place “Where the girls dance on the bar” (43), and by a storefront operation called “Cash Loans Until Payday” (97), and by “a landscape of desolation, that of a vastly sprawling, metastatic mall” (88), all of which seem to him to represent sites where the American Dream has gone to die. Because it is not only Kate who has died: it is a whole world that has died along with her. And in just that perspective, one of the advantages of the myth of the American South becomes apparent, because that myth is founded squarely upon the notion of dying worlds.

That helps, I think, to explain Rolin’s interest in unclaimed urban spaces and wastelands of various sorts, an interest that is long-standing and that in fact inflected his relationship with his friend. “Sometimes I reproached myself for imposing upon Kate my own taste for vacant lots and disaffected port areas,” he remarks (35), a scruple that did not prevent him from taking her along to places of that sort, again and again. On several occasions in Savannah, he speaks about a power plant in the city that he admires, waxing positively lyrical when describing the sickly orange sodium light that glows within it. “Kate had become familiar with that lighting,” he remarks, “because of all the time we spent together in ports, in Saint-Nazaire, Dunkerque, or Le Havre” (43). Rolin takes pleasure in walking along the Savannah River, watching “the tugboat Florida” or “the auto freighter Tugela from the Wallenius-Wilhelmsen fleet” (41) make its leisurely way through the city. The key feature of ports, of course, is that the people and things one encounters there are always in transit—and that is a state that Rolin cultivates very deliberately indeed. “The surest way of giving oneself the impression of being left behind, of being less than nothing,” he says, “is to walk alone on the unpaved roadside of a major highway, if possible in the United States, and preferably when night is beginning to fall” (99). For in a place like that, one can tell oneself that one has come to the heart of the matter, right where the dying dream of American progress meets the waking nightmare of grief.

Jean Rolin Savannah

x

The America that each of these novels invokes is not so much a place as an idea, one that is significantly mutable and (importantly) adaptable. It matters little, I think, if the elements that compose it are immediately recognizable to an American eye, if they pass some putative test of “authenticity.” For that is not what fiction is about—most of the time, at least. For fiction has its own rules, and it exercises its own sort of tyranny in its appropriation of the real. As soon as it is integrated into a fictional world, America becomes “America”—and to the degree that the fictional world is a compelling one, that process of “Americanization” becomes more pronounced. Such an argument will strike many people as heresy, I have no doubt; yet I am persuaded that the way fiction transforms reality and adapts it to its own purposes is one of the reasons we readers keep returning to fiction. Not to escape from the phenomenal world, but rather to see it in another light, one that illuminates features of that world that we might not have recognized otherwise. Sometimes those features are so deeply imbricated in the pattern of everyday life that they become largely invisible to us; sometimes we fail to register them because they do not fit easily into the interpretational grids we habitually impose upon experience; sometimes the hierarchies we construct in order to distinguish the significant from the insignificant are not supple enough to accommodate outliers and limit cases. Sometimes as well, it’s true, we have to travel to shores far removed in space or in time from our own, in order better to understand the here and the now. From France to America, for instance, or from America to France. And back again.

—Warren Motte

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “Analyse textuelle d’un conte d’Edgar Poe.”  In Claude Chabrol, ed.  Sémiotique narrative et textuelle.  Paris: Larousse, 1973.  29-54.

Baudelaire, Charles.  “Exotic Perfume.”  Trans. William Aggeler.  http://fleursdumal.org/poem/120.

—.  “Invitation to the Voyage.”  Trans. William Aggeler.  http://fleursdumal.org/poem/148.

Collective.  “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French.”  Trans. Daniel Simon.  World Literature Today 83.2 (2009): 54-56.

Fournel, Paul.  Jason Murphy.  Paris: P.O.L, 2013.

Gilman, Sander.  Inscribing the Other.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Kerangal, Maylis de.  Naissance d’un pont.  Paris: Gallimard, 2010.

Montalbetti, Christine.  Journée américaine.  Paris: P.O.L, 2009.

—.  Plus rien que les vagues et le vent.  Paris: P.O.L, 2014.

—.  Western.  Paris: P.O.L, 2005.

—.  Western.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.

Rolin, Jean.  L’Explosion de la durite.  Paris: P.O.L, 2007.

—.  The Explosion of the Radiator Hose.  Trans. Louise Rogers Lalaurie.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.

—.  Savannah.  Paris: P.O.L, 2015.

Thompson, Hunter S.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.  New York: Random House, 1971.

Viel, Tanguy.  La Disparition de Jim Sullivan.  Paris: Minuit, 2013.

xWarren Motte 2016

Warrent Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

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Apr 092016
 

dirt
The thing I remember most about arriving in Spokane, Washington, at the end of August in 1991, to begin my MFA in Creative Writing, was the heat and the dust. I remember walking from the apartment in Browne’s Addition (where I was staying until the university residence opened, being put up by a kind soul who did not know me from Adam – like the dust, I drifted into his apartment on the hot currents of air, settled on his couch, and he generously let me stay – thank you Jeff Blaustone) to The Elk for a breakfast burrito the morning after I arrived. The heat and dust weighed down on me. I could feel it in the air, I could smell it deep within my nostrils, I could taste it on my tongue, and I like to believe I could hear it too.

Now all these years later, three good friends from back then are featured here in Numéro Cinq writing not about dust but dirt from the anthology, Dirt: A Love Story – Barbara Richardson (editor), John Keeble and Jeanne Rogers. Barb and Jeanne had already completed their first year in the program by the time I arrived, and John was a professor in the department. My fondest memories of all three of them are related to landscape (well, there was that one night in Jeanne’s caboose out at Loon Lake, but it’s probably best not to go there) and the journeys involved in reaching new landscapes.

On one occasion, Jeanne who had planned some quiet time alone in Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast in a small cabin she had rented by the ocean graciously offered me and my wife a ride there and back. We stayed closer to the town in the Oddball apartment, a last minute rental. During the day we walked the beach, enjoyed the views of the ocean, the mountains and rugged coastal outcroppings, the famous Haystack Rock or hiked the headlands with their panoramic views. Barb drove us to the Thoreau Conference in Missoula, Montana, where we attended workshops with Rick Bass and Simon Ortiz, heard an electrifying reading (his first in 13 years) by the late great Jim Harrison. More readings and panel discussions with environmentally concerned writers such as Richard Nelson, Marilynne Robinson, Terry Tempest Williams, William Kittredge, and Sandra Ciscernos amongst others. And John eventually led us to Alaska. His seminal non-fiction account of the Exxon Valdez oil spill encouraging me to persuade my wife (easily done) to go backpacking there for three months before returning to Ireland.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to John. The two years I worked with him as my instructor and thesis advisor shaped me more as a writer and as a person than anyone else I can think of (and it needs to be said, he is one of the finest writers North America has produced, his superbly intricate fiction and non-fiction always socially and environmentally prescient.) I also owe so much to Barb and Jeanne too for their kindness and friendship. It was an extraordinary time for me, and those were extraordinary journeys we took. As for the Spokane dust, I can hear it still.

—Gerard Beirne

barb

 

Introduction — The God of Dirt

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F

or thousands of years, humans have looked to the heavens for inspiration and divinity. Looking to the heavens may be the greatest mistake we, as humans, have ever made. We project what we want onto the open skies, the blank distant blue. Whereas looking to the earth sends clear messages—intricacy, impermanence, solidity, interrelation, humility. You can’t fool dirt. Nor can you escape it. You can’t manipulate meaning as you can from the mirror of an empty sky. Dirt anchors us all in reality. And so we need to remember and relearn the ongoing, resonating divinity of dirt. As John Keats wrote, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

That poetry is everywhere. It comes in through all our senses. Green, gold, scaled, seeded, sour, shining, sneaky, squeaky, voluminous . . . Mary Oliver writes, “The god of dirt / came up to me many times and said / so many wise and delectable things, I lay / on the grass listening.” The essays in Loving Dirt are that listening. Remember the joyful freedom of splashing in a mud puddle? The thrill of climbing an eroded cliff? The artists, scientists and authors in Loving Dirt drag you outdoors, scuff your knuckles and muddy your feet. They make dirt live and breathe again.

“The first set of essays, “Land Centered,” returns dirt to its rightful place—as the crux of life in the experiences of people who are flagrant dirt fanatics. These writers revel in the fact that dirt is “magnificently humble.” Long may they reign. Then, armed with new appreciation, take a muddy fall into “Kid Stuff,” the second set of essays, which explores our early contact with dirt. Go ahead, these writers say, “major in mud pies.” Because the humbling, hallowed fact is that dirt is our mother. And she doesn’t call us inside at night in order to ignore her gifts.

“Dirt Worship,” the next set of essays, shows just how to get “that motherly feeling” on in adulthood. How to place your feet on the ground and your hands in the soil and claim your ancestry, your grand, mysterious inheritance. This centering in the land leads to curiosity about the good stuff under our feet. And so the fourth set of essays, “Dirt Facts,” offers insights into the masterful and largely ignored scientific processes within dirt, the “interesting secrets” that children and dogs, who may not understand, enjoy with all their hearts.

Lastly, the essays in “Native Soil” embrace the challenge of adoring seemingly unlovable ground—third-growth woods, weedy urban lots, overgrazed prairies—”the sort of land that desperately needs to be loved and protected, and rarely is.” These essays salute and defend our native soils as if they were life itself, which they assuredly are. “Humble” comes from humus, ground, and humilis, lowly. Humble outdistances pride. Humble whispers connective language, and waits when we don’t listen. By book’s end, you will recall the generous, wordless, irresistible divinity of dirt.

“That divinity says get filthy. Grab a shovel. Hike a ravine. Breathe a dust storm. Reek like old goat and sleep like Venus after a dirty long day. Relish dirt’s unbiased receptivity. Worship, if you will, the endless fecundity of soil. Or better yet, fall in love. Dirt makes a resilient astounding lover. Tireless. Generous. Unstoppable. And most often unthanked. Start thanking. Put your belly on the ground and say thank you. Wherever you are. Winter, spring, any season will do. Lie there saying thank you until all of your internal chatter and sophisticated notions and cogitative claptrap stop.

“While you’re down there, imagine every plant that has ever lived. Every seed that has dropped, every band of people, every fish in every stream, every hedgehog, every grasshopper, all the grasses of all the prairies on earth are still here. The trees. The elephants. Every single ant and albatross. You needn’t try to imagine it, it is so. Under your belly. The earth should be groaning under piles of its own dead life forms, but what a spacious, cleanly earth it is. Right beneath you lies a creative silence so vast it makes time stop.

“Walt Whitman, long gone from us, said, “Look for me under your boot-soles.” He meant it literally. This astonishing vanishing act to which we belong deserves consideration. And deep respect. Respect for the arbiter of this vast balanced nuanced productivity. Let God in heaven take care of the stars. We, along with the scientists, artists, and poets, are forever called to loving dirt.

— Barbara Richardson

 

john keeble

Imago Ignota

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M

y earliest memories of dirt come from when I was a young boy of four. We lived on a hill and during springtime I would combine the dirt with small stones and sticks and construct experimental earthworks to guide the water of the snowmelt into little lakes and dams. Sometimes a small stick would double as a boat, enter a rivulet, and careen downwards. I suppose it was mud I played with, dirt mixed with water. There were the mud puddles, too, the bane of mothers and a great source of pleasure for young people in galoshes who were fortunate enough to have dirt around them. I first lived in a small town in Saskatchewan and we had plenty of dirt in those days, all right.

There was the dirt I remember when I was not much older, a patch of it near the steps at the back of our house. I sat on the steps in the sunlight with a stick in my hands and drew in the dirt. I was brought to consider infinity, as I had lately been struck by the meaning of “The End,” and then by the question of what comes next after “The End.” This simple, rudimentary contradiction was a childish insight into the nature of things, and while my phrasing of the question has grown much more ornate, I can’t say that my understanding of its meaning has improved in the least. What strikes me as fascinating is that I was drawing a figure with my stick in the dirt while trying my hardest to unravel this matter. The question seemed to emanate from the dirt, radiating through the squared off head and querulous expression of the figure I had drawn. It said something about what I might see now as the classic fundament of elements . . . earth, water, air, and fire . . . but which then was merely the grounding sense of touch with a solid thing, holding the stick in my two small hands, touching one end of the stick to the dirt, and moving it to outline the rudimentary head while my mind went off toward the empyreal, sparking the imagination. It was an obscurity felt as inchoateness, an “imago ignota,” and it is important to consider the order in which those two things came: first, the grounding, and second, the sparking.

When I was eight, my family moved to Berkeley, California, where my father attended the Pacific School of Religion. There on the lavishly planted and somewhat unkempt grounds of the campus I found myself transfixed by a slope overgrown with dense bushes, surrounding a single, huge fir tree, which I watched during storms from our apartment window. The tree tilted, bent, and whipped in the wind. One spring day, I made my way to the tree by crawling beneath the bushes. Upon reaching it I found a tremendous gnarled root system clutching at the dirt. The brown needles that fell from the tree made a thick duff, eventually to be transformed into more dirt, and there were spider webs that held entrapped flies and a colony of sow bugs, which curled up into balls when touched. Those things were the grounding there. It was a potential, frangible detritus, found in a dark place, and, I thought at the time, safer than any other place I knew of, solitary and secret. I had to creep out the way I came, emerging covered with dirt and with cuts from the thorns and brambles.

My family moved to Southern California where I had a transfigurative experience with dirt. We traveled to Death Valley to camp for several Thanksgivings, a time of year when the desert was cool. We went with friends of my parents, the Sayles, for whom I recall having great affection, though now I know little about them, except that they were artifact collectors, and old enough to be my grandparents. They had no children. We camped in a place with a hot springs, which was near what seemed a vast plain stretching as far as the eye could see, but with very few plants growing on it. Instead, it was littered in places with small stones of agate, jasper, flint, opal, and obsidian which had been chipped by human hands. It was a stone flaking ground and we would walk along, traversing the flat with our heads down as we searched for artifacts, and I remember one I saw . . . a pink-colored piece of opalized agate. I bent to dig it from the dirt. It seemed presentational, an ensconced arrow point, and I can envision it still, the dirt framing the luminous stone. I lifted it to show it to Mr. Sayles, who touched his finger to the fine flaking on the point’s gently curved hafting and pronounced it to be a 2000 year old ceremonial or mortuary point.

Whether he was right or wrong, I have no idea. I do not possess the arrow point and I think now it was possibly ceremonial because of the ornateness of the hefting, but unlikely that it was 2000 years old. At the time, I knew nothing of the value of artifacts, and certainly I did not consider that the original makers, feasibly Panamint Shoshone, might wish to lay claim to them, and thus that what I was engaged in was a form of plunder. Though at age ten or eleven, I was at a time when my consciousness was dividing into what some hold as the signal stage of growing out of childhood, the nagual (familiarity with the non-ordinary) giving ground to the tonal (a fixation on the ordinary, the everyday), the possibility that what we were collecting came from a burial ground did not register, perhaps simply because it was not a part of the conversation among the people there . . . the Sayles, my parents, and myself. It would take Barry Lopez years later to articulate that for me. In his essay, “The Stone Horse,” he describes his encounter with a horse made of an outline of stones, a four hundred year old intaglio laid into sunburnt and sandblasted desert varnish, which is a patina of iron and magnesium oxides. He says, “. . . the few who crowbar rock art off the desert’s walls, who dig up graves, who punish the ground that holds intaglios, are people who devour history. Their self-centered scorn, their disrespect for ideas and images beyond their ken, create the awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives, in which the past is merely curious or wrong. . . . [But] I remembered that history, a history like this one, which ran deeper than Mexico, deeper than the Spanish, was a kind of medicine.”

From the experience of finding the arrow point in the dirt, misunderstood as it was, I developed one, sometimes useful habit, that of searching the ground when I walked, of being alert to what the dirt offered up, to the sparking that helped me make my way as an adult. This is how it is in Eastern Washington on the farm where my wife and I have raised our children and lived for forty years: deer carcasses, cow carcasses, a heifer practically disemboweled by her breech-born calf, all manner of carcasses going into the ground, raccoons, porcupines, mice, and gophers, flies and maggots eating the dissolving flesh, dust from taking the care to disk in the residual organic matter left after baling hay. It’s garden dirt made into soil, I suppose, chicken shit and dirt, cow patties and dirt, deer manure, convoluted moose droppings and dirt, snow and dirt, rain and dirt, dirt from dirt roads, dirt in the nostrils, in the cracks of skin, imbedded under fingernails, dirt storms, veritable clouds of dirt, great plumes of dirt blowing across the Pacific from the Far East, for nothing is strictly local. There was the stratospheric column of volcanic ash from Mount Saint Helens that covered our place in 1980 and floated around the world, this and more on ground covered by one of the largest floods known to the history of the world more than twelve thousand years ago. The ice dams broke apart at the end of the last glacial age and the resulting floods inundated hundreds of square miles from Missoula, Montana to the Pacific Ocean, covering portions of Idaho, Oregon, and much of Washington. Where we live there are fields where the once massive eddies slammed into the hills and turned, dropping their loads of dirt. Within sight of such fields there is basalt on the surface, known as scab rock, where the water raged, washing the dirt away.

It is interesting how the word, dirt, has undergone a nearly hundred eighty degree turn in meaning in our culture. The word is thought to emerge originally from Old Norse . . . drit . . . meaning excrement. The Oxford English Dictionary lists this first, “1. Excrement,” but there are other meanings, too, “2. Unclean matter, such as soils and any object adhering to it; filth, especially the wet mud and mire of the ground, consisting of earth and waste matter mixed with water. 3. Mud, soil; earth; mould; brick-earth,” and it adds the more metaphorical meaning, “4. The quality of being dirty or foul; dirtiness; foulness; uncleanness in diction or speech.” I have a copy of Webster’s Dictionary, dated 1911, which defines dirt as: “1. Any foul or filthy substance; excrement; earth; mud; mire; dust; whatever, adhering to anything, renders it foul or unclean.”

The change seems to have happened sometime in the last century. In 1927, Hermann Hesse published his novel, Steppenwolf, in its German edition and near the beginning of the book he has his willfully shabby and unkempt protagonist, Harry Haller, pass by a place “so shiningly clean, so dusted and polished and scoured so inviolably clean that it positively glitters. . . . Don’t you smell it, too, a fragrance given off by the odor of floor polished and a faint whiff of turpentine together with the mahogany and the washed leaves of the plants—the very essence of bourgeois cleanliness, of neatness and meticulousness, of duty and devotion shown in little things? I don’t know who lives here but behind that glazed door there must be a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity, of ordered ways, a touching and anxious devotion to life’s little habits and tasks.” Haller goes on to claim . . . undoubtedly ironically . . . that he is not being ironic.

The tension Harry Haller foresaw is out in the open now, for the world’s population, and its inventions, have increased exponentially while the earth’s dirt in its frenzied and fecund form has proportionately diminished. We’ve also come to understand very well the new dimension added to dirt. No longer is dirt always a thing that needs to be washed out like Lady MacBeth’s “spot,” made hygienic and sanitized. One does not think solely of one of a number of secretive, contagious killers, cholera, say, looping around a village in the mud and water, or E. coli poisoning from animal waste stirred into fields of salad greens. On the contrary, we’ve come lately to think we’ve grown excessively clean, that our immune systems require more contact with the minerals and myriad of microorganisms, which, if one were to dig one’s hands in the dirt one would come up hefting a load of the visible and invisible . . . earthworms, larvae, tiny insects, tiny snails, nematodes, and bacteria, frangible fossil matter, frangible sticks and leaves, carbon, and radioactive isotopes, some of which might contain the germs of yet unrealized cures. My wife and I have a dog that eats dirt every springtime, and a grandchild who adventures in it just as I once did, searching out his inchoateness and the seemingly random sparking. If only we could cease our plundering habits, the products of human invention which strain to drive the earth into utter exhaustion. We’re playing a fool’s game with our dirt, blindly transforming it “behind that glazed door . . . [into] a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity” through genetically modified crops and monoculture, herbicides, fertilizers, coal mining, petroleum extraction, and fracking, that dire, unthought out, and “awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives.”

—John Keeble

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jeanne

Sinking Down Into Heaven

I

am a Midwest farmer’s daughter and as such, no stranger to dirt—four hundred and fifty acres of it to be exact. In addition to growing sweet corn, field corn, alfalfa, oats and wheat, we raised dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs and sheep. The dairy barn took up the western section of land next to the woods. The steer barn, corncrib and hayloft claimed the eastern border near the creek. The sheep grazed on the northern edge close to the swimming hole and the pigs wallowed in the mud to the south. My bike and I were constant travelers on the gravel roads that connected the respective barns and outbuildings, and I’d be lying if I said that navigating those loose gravel roads on my black Schwinn with skinny tires was not a tricky endeavor that required Bandaids and Mercurochrome on a regular basis. I rode my bike from one end of the farm to the other, and when my legs grew tired, I high-tailed it over to the swimming hole. I ask you: what could be better than a hot dusty bike ride followed by a cool swim and a lazy sunbath? Often, as I lay atop my dry clothes, I imagined the earth spinning faster and faster, imagined myself clinging to the warm grasses for dear life so that the centrifugal force would not spin me off into the ethers. Other than my grandma’s house, there was no place I would have rather spent a summer afternoon.

When the sun neared the grove of trees in the west, I headed home to our well-worn, two-story white farmhouse, its wide front porch and spacious yard shaded by oak trees. Our family garden plot, sixty-feet by thirty-feet of fecund soil, ran alongside the fence that separated our side yard from the cow pasture and in it we grew everything imaginable: raspberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cucumber, yellow squash, zucchini, acorn squash, green beans, sweet peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, rhubarb, green onions, white onions, carrots, potatoes, peppers and the best sweet corn known to man. Many afternoons found me on the front porch staring off toward the neighbor’s property on the far side of the creek while I snipped beans, shelled peas and daydreamed about the swimming hole, a permissible destination only after chores were completed. Much like the sunrise, chores began and ended each day.

My duties consisted of tending our garden—weeding, hoeing, thinning, picking and preparing the fruits and vegetables for farm-style, midday meals and evening meals we called supper. As farmers, we didn’t use the word dinner for the evening meal. To us, dinner meant Sunday dinner at noon. I never heard the word used in the context of an evening meal until I went to school, learned to read and discovered that Dick and Jane ate dinner in the evening. That’s also when I discovered that town people were not exactly like us country folk. But I digress. Preparing one noon meal and one supper each day for six hungry people didn’t begin to put a dent in all of the produce, so we spent numerous hot summer days canning, freezing and pickling the abundance.

Hundreds of cucumbers transformed into dill and sweet pickles. We put up row-after-row of canned tomatoes and peaches, the later bought from a peach farmer who lived down the county line road apiece. In the cool, dank cellar on shelves that lined the canning room, we placed clear Mason jars filled with round, peeled red tomatoes and peeled yellow peach halves, their crimson insides prime candidates for a Cezanne still life. We froze green beans, squash, raspberries, strawberries and tender sweet corn kernels that we carefully and laboriously removed from the cob using a metal and wooden device that looked like a medieval torture rack. We froze whole strawberry-rhubarb pies and put up jar after jar of my personal favorites: raspberry and strawberry preserves.

loved every part of the dirt, manure and water that went into creating our prolific garden. I also loved the dirt, manure and water that caked on the soles of my bare feet, which were often so dirty that they looked as if I were wearing short brown boots. I was nine years old the summer those dirty feet helped me rise from picking the low-to-the ground strawberries, stretch my back from having been bent over for so long, place my hands on my hips and wonder: How can town people be happy without loving a piece of land?

That evening at the supper table I posed that question to my father, a man who had more than once shared his regret about not completing college as had his two older brothers, who now wore suits and worked in cities. From time-to-time he had also wondered aloud if he had made the right decision in remaining a farmer instead of finding a more sophisticated occupation. As he pondered my question, his normally steel blue eyes turned a bright blue and his jaw popped as he chewed—sure signs that he was getting riled up.

“You know,” he said, “I was a kid during the Great Depression. Town people lost their jobs. No money. No food. Nothing. Those scrawny town boys pulled up to our farm hungry. And guess what?” He stopped talking. A slow grin spread across his face. “We gave ‘em food. For once they needed something from us. That’s what having land means.”

In the autumn of my sixth grade school year when I was ten years old, my grandma died, and because I adored her more than life itself, everything changed for me that year, including, and especially, my relationship with dirt and the land. True to those times and that place where she lived in southern Illinois, in a small town cradled between the Mississippi River to the west and the Wabash River to the east, there near the Kaskaskin River in Grandma’s small town, my father and his siblings placed her open casket in the parlor beside the piano for a wake that lasted three nights and three days. It was my people’s time-honored manner in which to pay respects and say farewell. It gave us a few days to become accustomed to the idea of her no longer being with us. It gave us time to be with her body a little longer, time to say goodbye. For three days running, every time I passed by the parlor I glimpsed Grandma lying there in her dark blue church dress. A few times I could have sworn I heard her playing the piano and singing one of her favorite hymns. One time I even thought I heard her familiar chuckle followed by her dentures clacking as she said, Oh Jeanne—you do beat all.

On the fourth day they moved Grandma’s casket to the church, but it wasn’t until after the memorial service when the pallbearers closed the casket that the realization hit me: I would never see her again. We followed the hearse to the cemetery and as we stood beside the open grave, the thought of Grandma being trapped underneath six feet of dirt made me feel crazy with rage. I became hysterical. I screamed, cried, kicked and carried-on something fierce, all to no avail. Nothing could change the ordering of that day. Despite my protests, Grandma’s coffin was lowered down into the earth and covered with shovelfuls of dirt, which to my ten-year-old way of thinking, had completely and utterly betrayed me. I crossed my arms over my chest and declared my relationship with dirt and the land finished, forever.

*

Fifteen years later as I watched my two preschoolers play in the back yard, John Prine’s newly released “Please Don’t Bury Me” came on the radio. The lyrics made me feel as though he shared my aversion to the practice of burial. On that afternoon, I adopted Prine’s contagious melody and goofball lyrics as my theme song regarding the thought of being six feet under for eternity.

For Mother’s Day my daughters’ preschool teacher sent home a yellow rose plant and when its blossoms began to fall onto the kitchen countertop, I planted it haphazardly in a sunny spot in the front yard. To my surprise it flourished. By summer’s end, after several enthusiastic days of planting other young rose starts, we had a burgeoning rose garden—reds, apricots, yellows, pinks and whites. For the first time in many years I felt great pleasure as I pushed the shovel down into the earth and inhaled the smell of moist, lush soil.

I took off my gloves, rested one knee on the ground and lingered, my bare hands carefully arranging the soil around the base of each plant, tending to their needs much like I cared for my young children.

The years passed, my daughters left for college, and as I moved from one state to another and from one house to the next, I became obsessed with annuals and perennials. Without consciously planning to do so, in the yards of the new houses, I recreated my grandmother’s flower garden: pink climbing roses, purple butterfly bushes, catmint, lime green hydrangeas, lavender, yellow day lilies, red carpet roses, white snap dragons and multicolored hollyhocks. Ushered in by the beauty of the roses, my passion for dirt and its works had returned. However, Prine’s catchy tune remained my theme song regarding burial; I doubted that would ever change.

Coming face-to-face with death as an adult gave me the unexpected gift of freedom. Life handed me a three-year crash course during which I lost two close family members and discovered a cancerous lump in my breast. Surgery, followed by seven weeks of radiation that turned my breast an angry, painful red, gave me ample time to ponder my mortality and last wishes. Oddly enough, after living in close proximity with death for three years, I no longer feared it. Death and I had taken time to get to know one another. I felt at peace knowing that I, like my two family members, would one day return, in some capacity, to the earth. My loved ones chose cremation. My uncle’s ashes were sprinkled from the deck of a boat into the San Francisco Bay. My favorite cousin’s ashes were sprinkled in a meadow off a California back road near Lake Tahoe. For my own going-away party, I decided I wanted “Please Don’t Bury Me” played, and even though I’ve always imagined my ashes being sprinkled into the Pacific Ocean from a beach on the Oregon Coast, a different possibility came to me not long ago.

On a hike near my home a vast field of blue camas lilies stretched out before me. Have you ever seen their blue tips swaying in a morning breeze? The sea of periwinkle was divided only by a narrow dirt path. It wasn’t a tall mountain that I traveled to. No need for hiking boots or rappelling ropes. The blue field did not appear on a postcard you would mail home from your hotel saying, This is where we visited today. No one sold jewelry, photos, hot dogs or candy—not even—as you will probably be surprised to hear, expensive bottled water. I did not need a guide, so safe was my passing there. From the main road traveled by cars, I simply walked down the narrow dirt path through the blue lilies, every now and again feeling the moisture of the marshland rise up around my feet. How I loved that oozing up and over the sides of my shoes. How I loved that feeling of sinking down—not dangerously down, mind you—but sinking down just far enough to know that I too was planted, or could be, if I stayed long enough, in that patch of marshland dirt. How I loved that sinking down on the flat dirt path into blue heaven.

—Jeanne Rogers

You can listen to a radio interview here with Barbara Richardson and Jeanne Rogers after a reading with John Keeble in Ashland, Oregon.

 

Barbara Richardson‘s two novels, Guest House and Tributary, reflect her ardor for life in the West. Tributary won the Utah Arts 15 Bytes Award and the 2013 Utah Book Award in fiction. Her 2015 anthologies, I Am with You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients and Dirt: A Love Story
rely on the power of collaborative storytelling to open hearts and minds. She has worked as a landscape designer in Oregon, Utah and Colorado. She now writes and edits in Kamas, Utah.

John Keeble is the author of five novels, including Yellowfish and Broken Ground, and 2013 saw the publication of The Shadows of Owls. He is also the author of a collection of stories, Nocturnal America, and of a work of nonfiction, Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. He is a professor emeritus of Creative Writing and English at Eastern Washington University. keeblefiction.com

Jeanne Rogers’ memoir, Changing Course, chronicles her leap from land to sea while working as a steward assistant on an oil tanker. Her 2013 poetry collection, Through the Cattails, celebrates the fragile interconnectedness of human lives. Her short story, “Instructions for a Bed Sheet Parachute,” was awarded best of collection in the 2013 anthology Detour. Her work has also appeared in Willow Springs, The Bellingham Review, Calapooya Collage, The Raven Chronicles and Poets West, among others.

Apr 042016
 

Donald Trump collage

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The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— W. B. Yeats

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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
The Perennial Relevance of “The Second Coming”

PART ONE
The Poem as Response and Anticipation

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS
II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

PART TWO
Things Fall Apart, Contemporary Crises, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration
IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Political Center Threatened
V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

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INTRODUCTION

In his 2016 foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, novelist Tom Bissell asks how it is that, two decades after its publication and almost eight years after its author’s suicide, David Foster Wallace’s complex and groundbreaking fiction, though “very much a novel of its time,…still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?” Wallace himself, as Bissell notes, “understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience with equal force.” In a critical essay written while he was at work on Infinite Jest, Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels address their contemporary audience like “a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus.” But in the case of those lacking DeLillo’s observational powers, Wallace continued, the “deployment” of, say, contemporary pop-culture “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.” This observation demonstrates the usual disconnect between Wallace’s lucid critical prose and the enigmatic, multi-layered, funhouse of his fiction. For ought is not is. As Bissell observes, Infinite Jest “rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event.”

Infinite Jest, as its Shakespearean title confirms, is the work of a modern Yorick, a man acutely aware of the contemporary world, especially of the play-element in culture. And yet it is “infinite,” a novel transcendent both in its linguistic exuberance (language being Wallace’s only religion) and in terms of its ambition to express “everything about everything,” even if we are left, 20 years later, still unable to “agree [as] to what this novel means, or what exactly it was trying to say.”

Unlike Wallace, W. B. Yeats did believe in the “Platonic Always”: in that “Translunar Paradise” to which he had been initiated by his studies in the occult and by his later immersion in the Enneads of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. And yet Yeats could, in the same poem (“The Tower,” III) in which he evokes Translunar Paradise, “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth.” For the antithetical tension that generated the power of Yeats’s poetry required allegiance as well to the things of this world. Even as he yearned for his heart to be consumed in spiritual fire and gathered “into the artifice of eternity,” he remained “caught in that sensual music,” the very fuel that fed the transcendent flame. These antitheses (cited here from “Sailing to Byzantium”) play out in all those dialectical poems leading up to and away from the central “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927).

In the case of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” written eight years earlier, the “Platonic Always” is present in the poem’s archetypal symbolism: that of a bestial image rising up in the desert. The vision is at once concrete and sublimely vague: timeless, universal, transcendent. Its genesis, however, was thick with particulars. In the process of revision, Yeats deleted (aside from “Bethlehem”) all specific references; but examination of the poem’s drafts reveals that Yeats’s symbolism and apocalyptic prophecy were rooted in his response to contemporary events. In registering details of the moment in time in which he was writing, the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the drafts reveal a poet looking back, into earlier history, and ahead, to our own time, with what David Foster Wallace called “oracular foresight,” and birthing a beast that, a century later,  “still feels…transcendently, electrically alive.”

Written almost a century ago, “The Second Coming” has emerged as the prophetic text of our time, uncannily and permanently “relevant.” The best-known poem by the major poet of the twentieth century, it has become something of a requiem for that century, now carried over into the first decades of the twenty-first. That “The Second Coming” is the most frequently-quoted of all modern poems testifies to its remarkable applicability to any and all crises—not only to the Communist Revolution to which Yeats was initially responding when he wrote the poem in 1919, and to the rise of Nazism, which, almost twenty years later, prompted Yeats to quote his own poem; but to the domestic and international crises we ourselves face in 2016, a crucial election year.

A decade ago, “The Second Coming” was often cited in connection with the Iraq War. The 2007 Brookings Institute report on Iraq was titled “Things Fall Apart”; the following year, Representative Jim McDermott called his House speech demanding a strategic plan for Iraq “The Center Cannot Hold.” These days, the disintegrating “center” evokes the polarization of American politics, or the European economic and migration crises, while Yeats’s slouching “beast,” its “hour come round at last,” portends current eruptions in the Middle East, especially the specter of ISIS rising up in the desert and its exportation of terror within and beyond the region. In addition to substantial ISIS-claimed or ISIS-inspired attacks in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon, European jihadists inspired by ISIS have launched large-scale attacks in France and Belgium. At the moment I am writing, March 28, 2016, there are threats of further, and imminent, attacks on European targets. As noted at the end of Chapter I, ISIS jihadists have announced that Paris and Brussels are “just the beginning of your nightmare,” and that networks already positioned in Europe are ready to unleash “a wave of bloodshed.”  Are “Mere anarchy” and Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide” about to be “loosed”?  And the fearful prospect of radioactive materials in the hands of radical jihadists is now no longer a nightmare but an approaching certainty.

At home, as the survivors of an increasingly sordid and embarrassing primary campaign, the two remaining principal contenders for the Republican presidential nomination out-bellow each other, each boasting, based on zero experience in foreign or military affairs, that he and he alone is the man needed to utterly defeat and destroy ISIS. Listening to simplistic Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, one is reminded of Pauline Kael’s devastating synopsis of John Wayne’s 1955 anti-Communist propaganda movie Blood Alley: “Duke takes on Red China—no contest.” One way or the other, a rough beast is slouching to the Republican convention in Cleveland.

Such Yeatsian allusions have, of course, become commonplace. In accounting for the extraordinary power and perennial relevance of “The Second Coming,” I will illustrate its near-ubiquity and show how Yeats’s revisions of his original (historically-specific) manuscripts universalized the final poem, making it, oracle-like, applicable to all crises, our own included.

 ↑ return to Contents

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PART ONE: THE POEM AS RESPONSE AND ANTICIPATION

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS

The genesis of “The Second Coming” is to be located in Yeats’s troubled response to contemporary history, specifically, the European political and economic crises attending the immediate aftermath of the First World War. As I noted in an essay published four years ago in Numéro Cinq, the genesis of my own thoughts on the poem’s timelessness, as an ode for all seasons, was my observation—nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11—of the remarkable frequency with which “The Second Coming” was being applied—in magazines, newspapers, and blogs—to almost every contemporary crisis or division, foreign and domestic.  Centers weren’t holding, conviction was lacking, passionate intensity defined the worst, and rough beasts seemed to be slouching in every direction. It was an old story.

Yeats’s poem in general, and its ominous yet expectant final line in particular, provided, back in 1968, the title for Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the iconic collection of the same title. The essay describes an outer and inner de-centering: the ’60s druggy counterculture and the author’s own disintegration as a result of her immersion in the ethos initiated by Haight-Ashbury. The collection as a whole dramatizes the breakdown of order and civility when rough beasts slouch to Los Angeles and New York City. That line continues to inspire allusions. While some found comic relief in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (the ’60s novel by Peter and Derek de Vries), that judgmental judge, conservative legal scholar Robert H. Bork, titled his grim 2003 projection of an America in cultural and moral decline Slouching Towards Gomorrah. The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, echoing Yeats’s poem (its first four lines appear as the epigraph), titled his 1958 elegy over the breakdown of Igbo culture Things Fall Apart. In our own contemporary Culture Wars, things continue to fall apart, with communal decency ruptured, on both sides, by political ideology.

Surveying the decline in the quality and civility of specifically conservative discourse, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a conservative, alluded to Yeats’s poem in observing: “It’s a climate in which the best often seem to lack a platform commensurate to their gifts, while the passionate intensity of the worst finds a wide and growing audience.” Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly moralizes, though with none of Judge Bork’s civility, comes to mind. Notable among Limbaugh’s many pontificating violations of taste and decency was his public branding of a Georgetown law student (an advocate for women’s health issues seeking inclusion of contraception in her college’s insurance coverage) as a “slut” and “prostitute.” That was in 2012, three years before Donald Trump, out-Rushing Limbaugh, found his wide and growing audience.

That famous line made even more famous by Achebe—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—has also been aptly applied to the European debt crisis, and its threat to the world economy. In 1919, when he wrote the poem, Yeats was looking out at a postwar Europe torn apart by crippled economies and various national revolutions. Though today we have a “European Union,” it is, economically and demographically, gravely imperiled. Complete financial collapse has been averted by cheap loans from the European Central Bank, and the actions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Time Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year”). But failure to resolve the underlying problem of the inefficient economic policies of the most indebted nations (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) means that we may still face the prospect of what some prominent economists were envisaging—to cite the blood-red cover and banner headline of the August 22, 2011 issue of Time—as nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”

The cover article itself, titled “The End of Europe,” following in the line of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s 2009 history of sovereign debt, This Time is Different, noted that Europe was not experiencing a typical, correctable recession or even facing “a double-dip Great Recession.” Rather, wrote Rana Foroohar, “the West is going through something more profound: a second [post-1929] Great Contraction of growth,” with investors “suddenly wary that the European center is not going to hold.”  Doubling down on that allusion to Yeats, Foroohar began her lead article in Time’s October 10 “special issue” on the economy: “If there is a poem for this moment, it is surely W. B. Yeats’s dark classic ‘The Second Coming’.” She compared what the poet faced in 1919—“the darkness and uncertainty of Europe in the aftermath of a horrific war”—with the current situation. After quoting the poem’s opening movement, and connecting the “centre cannot  hold” with the “shrinking” of “the middle class,” Forohoor observed of the poem as a whole,  “It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent description of our own bearish age.” Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, saw, even after emergency help, “dark storm clouds looming on the horizon.” The resistance to the austerity pushed by Merkel and the stubborn lack of growth had led to violence in the streets and to the emergence of extremist, fringe parties. Coupled with Muslim immigration and the rise of Islamic extremism, that trend has since continued and intensified: in France, Poland, even in Germany, with the emergence of revanchist and authoritarian parties. Politically as well as economically, it would seem, “the center cannot hold.”

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Shifting from Europe to the Greater Middle East and beyond, the crises have also intensified, with responses to them participating, rhetorically, in the same pattern: the compulsion to return in times of turmoil to the resonant images of “The Second Coming.” Over the past three years, the poem has been repeatedly quoted in regard to the increasing instability of the international order. Though not the first to consider Yeats’s lines uniquely relevant to their own time, we have a better claim than most. The poem’s opening movement, posted on the website Sapere Aude!, was singled out as the “best description” we have of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, responded to the dangerous “crumbling” of the old “international order” by quoting the whole of “The Second Coming,” a poem that “seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics.” He concluded “A Little Doom and Gloom” (his sweeping survey of crises in Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Asia) on a note of foreboding: “I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ slouching our way.”

Walt’s concerns resonate, and Rogoff and Reinhart may have been right; perhaps “this time” (for, as of March 2016, the European economic crisis is hardly resolved) is “different.” Or it may be that such projections as those sensationalized by that blood-dimmed Time cover were alarmist hyperbole—as charged by one sanguine respondent to the Time issue, who thought “our shifting economies” more likely to be “birth pangs of a new day.” Perhaps; indeed, Yeats’s eternal gyre can be read optimistically, though the birth pangs of his annunciatory rough beast suggest otherwise. When we consider the rise of ISIS and the metastasizing international threat presented by jihadist terrorism, along with Europe’s current immigration crisis, we may conclude that there may be even more terrifying doomsday scenarios in the future. Either way, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” will remain in attendance, ready to supply apt metaphors embodying our sense of an ending: the dying of one age, with another, yet unknown, “to be born.”

This talismanic poem’s projection of cyclical and violent rebirth in the form of a sphinx-like beast rising in the desert eerily foreshadows today’s Middle East, most dramatically, the rise of ISIS out of the wreckage of Syria and Iraq. The once hopeful Arab Spring has long since turned autumnal. Caught up in the region’s cross-current of sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions, overwhelmed by military elites and by long-suppressed but well-organized Islamists, the young rebels who actually initiated the Arab Awakening quickly became yesterday’s news. Revolutions devour their own children. History “Whirls out new right and wrong,/ Whirls in the old instead,” to quote Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem originally titled “The Things That Come Again.” As two Middle-East experts, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, accurately predicted as early as September 2011: whatever the outcome of this struggle, “victory by the original protesters is almost certainly foreclosed.” And so it has turned out. Optimistic anticipations of beneficial change were shattered by what Agha and Malley called, perhaps echoing the Yeatsian widening gyre, “centrifugal forces” (“The Arab Counterrevolution”). Many in the chaotic Middle East are now, as various Islamic sects vie for power, and ISIS galvanizes jihadists, wondering what comes next—or, in Yeats’s stark image of expectation-reversal, what rough beast is slouching their way.

The long-sustained hostility has also intensified between Israel and the Palestinians, with the elusive two-state solution further away than it was when the UN partitioned Palestine 2/3rds of a century ago. That embittered stalemate is epitomized in the title of a recent book, Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine. In lieu of advancing any proposals to resolve the issue, the book offers, on facing pages, differing perspectives on the same events. The “sheer reciprocal incomprehension” in these parallel narratives, with “two sides locked in…a dialogue of the deaf,” reminded British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft of a famous phrase of Yeats (for once, not from “The Second Coming,” but from “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” a poem written a dozen years later): “Great hatred, little room.”

Like many lines from “The Second Coming,” this phrase, too, applies throughout much of the Greater Middle East. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, militarily propped up by Vladimir Putin, continues to barrel-bomb his own people, while we puzzle over how, now that one plan to arm the Syrian “moderate” opposition has ignominiously failed, we might prevent further carnage. In Afghanistan, what began as a justified attack on the Taliban sponsoring al Qaeda now seems a futile counter-insurgency: a struggle hampered by our putative “ally” in the region. Playing both sides in its own self-interest, Pakistan covertly supports the resurgent Taliban it originally created and funds extremist madrassas (now over 1,300) intended to displace Afghan state schools, where secular subjects are taught as well as religion. And Pakistan is itself an unstable nation, its nuclear arsenal partially dispersed and therefore vulnerable to seizure by its own Islamist radicals.

And then there is the nuclear game-playing of a truly paranoid regime. North Korea is already in possession of several nuclear weapons, and its erratic dictator, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, has become increasingly provocative. North Korea’s nuclear bomb test in January was quickly followed by a rocket-launch, part of a project whose goal is to eventually mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile. The rocket was launched not only in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, but even in defiance of the Hermit Kingdom’s powerful neighbor, China, the only nation thought to have the leverage to restrain its unpredictable ally. Apparently not; Kim Jong-un is spinning out of control, threatening, in March 2016, to aim nuclear missiles at Seoul and Washington. A propaganda video released the same month depicted a submarine-launched ballistic missile visiting nuclear devastation on the US capital.

There is a double threat involving Iran: the danger of that theocracy violating the recent accord by surreptitiously working to develop a nuclear weapon, and of the predictable and unpredictable ramifications of an Israeli and/or US preemptive strike. Should our policy be to prevent, to contain, or to attempt to destroy? This issue, politicized in this election year, has become as polarized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet, unless the nuclear agreement works, unless reason on both sides prevails and the center holds, we may be careening into yet another, and potentially even more profoundly destabilizing, war in the Middle East.

In Iraq, we have ended our large-scale military presence after a war we should never have started. But in toppling Saddam Hussein, we rid Iraq of a brutal and megalomaniacal dictator whose tyrannical reign had at least one positive aspect: his repression of militant Islamists. As a result we have left behind not only an economically ravished country (35% of those fortunate enough to have survived Operation Iraqi Freedom live in abject poverty), but one divided along predictably sectarian lines. The discrimination against the ousted Sunnis, not yet redressed by Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in 2014, not only affects every aspect of life, but alienates (since they have little incentive to protect the Shiite government in Baghdad) the very Sunni fighters needed to resist ISIS.

The negative consequences of our misguided disbanding of Saddam’s Sunni army after its defeat in 2003 were compounded by our decision to back Maliki over secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, whose party won the March 2010 parliamentary elections, but fell two seats short of a majority. Maliki, pressured by Shiite Iran, broke his pledge to integrate the government and instead institutionalized the repression of the Sunnis. Obama was urged to cease supporting Maliki by, among others, Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five US ambassadors to Iraq and as a senior advisor to three CentCom commanders. Khedery concluded a 2014 opinion piece:

By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated. Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11. (Washington Post, 3 July 2014)

Shortly after we initiated the Iraq War, a Syrian businessman, Raja Sidawi, a friend of Washington columnist and writer David Ignatius, offered a prescient observation. Ignatius cited it, somewhat skeptically, in his July 1, 2003 Washington Post column, “The Toll on American Innocence.” A dozen years later, in October, 2015, he reprised it; and its second coming—in a cover-piece in The Atlantic, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East”—was far more somber. What Raja Sidawi told his American friend in June 2003 was this: “You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America.” Given his cultural and practical knowledge of the region, Sidawi’s remark may not quite match the oracular clairvoyance so many of us have found in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” But it will do. We stormed into Iraq with “shock and awe”; and with hubris, a mixture of political duplicity and the American confidence of Innocents Abroad—“innocence” indistinguishable from ignorance. We changed; the region didn’t. The result: a variation on the old Sunni-Shiite war, “with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11.”

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Principal among those plotting radicals, their brutal implementation of an apocalyptic theology flourishing in the implosion of Syria and Iraq, is of course the Islamic State: ISIL, or Da’esh, best known as ISIS. Confronted by the spectacle of ISIS, commentators from Left and Right, including experts on Islamist terrorism, turned in 2015 to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”  In a Huffington Post piece titled “ISIL: The Second Coming,” composer Mohammed Fairouz, whose setting of Yeats’s poem premiered in New York City on March 10, applied his epigraph, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” to President Obama’s failure to confront barbarous ISIS early on. A June 2015 posting on a West Coast socialist website, titled “Iraq: ‘Things Fall Apart’,” cited the opening three lines of the poem, noting that Yeats “might have written today, and nowhere is this more true than in Iraq.” In a blog posted in August, a former liberal turned Neo-conservative announced, “Read this, and think of ISIS.” The “this” was the full text of “The Second Coming.” The poem had been haunting her, she reported, since 9/11, and “these days it seems more than ever that the rough beast is on the march.”

Between these two, in a July Wall Street Journal essay, “A Poet’s Apocalyptic Vision,” David Lehman, himself a poet, described “The Second Coming,” extrapolating from the moral anarchy of 1919, as a fearful pre-vision of our present anarchy. “If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics, and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than” this poem, in which Yeats envisages no Christian “second coming,” but “a monstrosity, a ‘rough beast’ threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.” The accompanying color illustration— a slouching leonine creature with light beaming from mouth and eyes—attempts to visually capture that “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” But the image, in this case, is a counter-example to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, or even (if they are Yeats’s) seven words.

Lehman WSJ essay photo by Yao XiaoPhoto by Yao Xiao

After sketching its historical, psychological, and occult contexts, Lehman focuses on the text, celebrating the poem’s “metrical music,” “unexpected adjectives,” and such “oddly gripping” verbs as “slouches,” as well as Yeats’s “epigrammatic ability,” best exemplified in the last two lines of the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism, says Lehman, retains its authority as both “observation” and “warning.” We may, he suggests (yielding to the irresistible impulse to specify politically), “think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century.”  He concludes by recommending that we read the poem aloud to appreciate its “power as oratory,” and then ask ourselves which most “unsettles” us: “the monster slouching towards Bethlehem or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?”

Lehman’s question is valid, despite his being unaware that Yeats, interpreting Marxism-Leninism as a second coming of the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were vacillating European moderates and liberals who had failed to respond to, much less resist, revolutionary brutality. In its initial drafts, “The Second Coming” reflected Yeats’s response to the violence in Russia in light of the violence in France a dozen decades earlier. But in its final version, the poem also looks, almost clairvoyantly, ahead to the future. And even French and Russian revolutionary brutality can seem tame in comparison with the theologically inspired and politically intimidating barbarism of ISIS, with its mass rape and enslavement, beheadings and crucifixions, and its growing capacity to inspire and ignite terror attacks well beyond the borders of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also seeking radioactive materials. As in the past, “The Second Coming” is at hand to supply metaphors. In the final pages of  ISIS: The State of Terror, two noted experts on Islamist jihadism, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, quote “The Second Coming,” and then conclude:

It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst—the most base and horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of “best,” then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq….

The double point made by Stern and Berger epitomizes their theme as well as the current crisis, marked by the bloodlust and passionate intensity of the “worst,” and the lack of conviction the civilized world, the “best,” has thus far displayed in fully engaging this religiously inspired death cult. Reviewing this book, and two others on ISIS, Iraq specialist Steve Negus remarks that “only one quotes Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’ but the others must have been tempted” (New York Times Book Review, April 1, 2015). Negus was writing before the publication of the latest book-length study, counterterrorist expert Malcolm Nance’s Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe (2016). He was also writing five months prior to the publication of perhaps the best of the bunch: The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants. His deep knowledge of ISIS’s political strategy and apocalyptic theology reflects McCants’s immersion in primary Arabic sources. His good-news, bad-news conclusion is that ISIS will be defeated, but that its example will inspire future jihadists. McCants does not cite “The Second Coming.” However, given his richly informed apocalyptic emphasis, it seems safe to imagine that he, too, “must have been tempted.”

In the month I am writing, March 2016, US commandos killed the Finance Minister of ISIS, and, as a result of coalition bombing and Iraqi army advances, ISIS is losing some ground in Syria and Iraq. But even as its Caliphate contracts, ISIS is expanding—geographically into Libya and elsewhere, and exporting terror throughout the Middle East and Africa, and into the heart of an under-prepared Europe. Last November’s coordinated attacks in Paris, which took 130 lives, were replicated by members of the same Molenbeek-based Belgian cell in Brussels on March 22, when two brothers and a third suicide bomber slaughtered 31 and wounded almost 300. Hundreds of alienated European Muslims, radicalized and militarily trained by ISIS in Syria, are now back in Europe, organized in operational cadres. In a video released on March 25, two Belgian ISIS fighters warn that “This is just the beginning of your nightmare.” Promising more “dark days” ahead for all who would oppose them, the terrorists in command of ISIS have threatened that jihadists already positioned in Europe are prepared to unleash a “wave of bloodshed.” Once again, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.…”

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II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

In accord with the mystery of the Sublime, Yeats’s sphinx-like beast slouching blank-eyed toward Bethlehem is a horror capable of many interpretations but limited to none, and, therefore, all the more terrifying. For that very reason, as I’ve just illustrated, “The Second Coming” is perennially relevant. Almost a century after the poem first appeared, pundits in books and essays, newspapers and magazines, routinely draw upon Yeats’s evocation of cultural disintegration and imminent violence, and lines from the poem (the whole poem, in Joni Mitchell’s 1991 riff) riddle popular culture, as we can see by consulting Nick Tabor’s recent compendium of dozens of pop-culture allusions, itself titled “No Slouch.”[1] More gravely, as part of our common crisis-vocabulary, we intone that “things fall apart”; that “the centre cannot hold”; that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; that we confront forces “blank and pitiless as the sun”; that one era, symbolized by a “widening gyre,” is ending and another imminent, signaled by the loosing of a “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy,” dreadfully attended by a  “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. How has the poem achieved this Bartlett’s-Familiar status?

sci fi collage

An Endless Source
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In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.
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Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I refer in the first endnote to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.
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Science fiction writers seem particularly addicted to language from “The Second Coming.” Among the episodes of Andromeda, the 2000-2005 Canadian-American sci-fi TV series, were two titled “The Widening Gyre” and “Its Hour Come Round at Last.” But the prize for multiple allusions goes to a project that originally appeared as a six-part e-book in 2006 (marking the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek series). An omnibus edition, Star Trek: Mere Anarchy, was published in 2009. This “Complete Six-Part Saga” takes from Yeats more than its main title (also borrowed by Woody Allen for his 2007 collection of comedy pieces). All six of the individual novellas in Mere Anarchy (each by a different author) derive their titles from “The Second Coming”: Things Fall Apart, The Center Cannot Hold, Shadow of the Indignant, The Darkness Drops Again, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Its Hour Come Round.

A friend, Bill Nack, biographer of the great racehorse Secretariat and an informed reader of Yeats’s poetry, remarked of “The Second Coming” in a letter: “So many lines and images are written indelibly, chipped in stone on that wailing-wall we call the 20th, now the 21st century.” The poem is a mine of incisive and quotable phrases, from the opening movement’s bullet-point declarations (fusing metaphor and abstraction, chaos and order) to that final momentous question. The presentation is cinematic, with the “vast image” looming gradually, and dramatically, into focus:  a mere “shape,” then “lion body,” then “head of a man,” then a zooming in on the creature’s “gaze,” followed by a panning movement back out, since that gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” In addition to the tensile strength of its unforgettable verbs (loosed, troubles, reel, vexed, slouches), the poem’s extraordinary power is attributable to its sources in the occult and the unconscious, its Egyptian and mythological reverberations, and, above all, its alteration of the Bible (Daniel, the gospels, Revelation), culminating in the shock value of the subversion of the Christian interpretation of the “second coming.” “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out” than the poet envisages, not the return of Christ, but the advent of a sinister rough beast. Apparently moribund for two millennia, it is now, ominously and sexually, “moving its slow thighs,” while “all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.” Indignant because those circling scavengers had mistakenly thought the immobile creature mere carrion; but the beast, imperceptibly stirred into antithetical life by the rocking of Jesus’ cradle two thousand years earlier, is alive. Now, initiating a new cycle, it slouches, provocatively and precociously, towards that infant’s birthplace in order itself “to be born.”

But the poem’s universal relevance, its adaptability, is, above all, testimony to the success of Yeats’s method in revising the original manuscripts. Written in January 1919, first printed in The Dial in 1920, and collected the following year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” had its sociopolitical roots, as the poet’s widow confirmed in the 1960s, in Yeats’s troubled response to the political situation in Europe in 1917-19. And the drafts of the poem, some of the pages preserved by his wife, reveal that Yeats’s apprehensions about the socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy, and, above all, Russia, during and immediately after World War I, were associated, as we’ve seen, with his reading of the Romantic poets and of Edmund Burke, and their responses to the French Revolution: what Shelley called “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.”

As earlier noted, Yeats initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were those who had failed to resist, eventually epitomized, for Yeats, by the British King, George V. As it happens, Kerensky’s Russian Provisional Government had initiated an offer of asylum, promising to send the Tsar and Tsarina and their children to England for safety: an offer rejected by the King (fearful of reaction from the British Labor Party), even though he was Nicholas’s cousin. This cowardice and violation of the family bond, not known to Yeats at the time he wrote “The Second Coming,” surfaced two decades later in “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” where Yeats’s most famous and least inhibited female persona is revived to bitterly decry the fact that

A King had some beautiful cousins
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.

Family_Nicholas_II_of_Russia_ca._1914Tsar Nicholas II and family, ca. 1914 (via Wikimedia Commons)

But “The Second Coming” resonates far beyond that old atrocity. It looks back from the Bolshevik to the French Revolution, as filtered through Yeats’s reading of Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets.[2]

Yeats’s natural affinities were with his major poetic precursors, those permanent revolutionaries Blake and Shelley. But in his own political response to revolution, Yeats found himself closer to the great Anglo-Irish conservative statesman Burke, the chief intellectual opponent of the French Revolution and chivalric champion of the assaulted Marie Antoinette. He also found himself aligned with a former supporter of the Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven”): the largely if not completely disenchanted William Wordsworth. At this time, Yeats was reading the French Revolutionary books of Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. His own ambivalent response to catastrophe (horrified and yet strangely exultant), as projected in “The Second Coming,” registers the differing perspectives of Burke and the Romantics on the French Revolution, now refracted through the prism of what Yeats took to be its rebirth in Bolshevism.

An idiosyncratic yet often complex and even profound visionary, Yeats was as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Blake and Shelley, and an occultist to boot. All of these influences, along with his conservative reverence of Swift, Burke, and of an idealized Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as his response to Wordsworth’s Prelude, converge in “The Second Coming,” as in its close relatives, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and the sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” All three reflect, along with the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the War of Independence in Ireland. And they all recapture Burke’s elegy over the fall of Marie Antoinette, and his premonition of “the glory of Europe…extinguished forever,” of “all…to be changed.” The sequence’s recurrent “nightmares” and the drowning of “the ceremony of  innocence” in “The Second Coming” echo Burke’s “massacre of innocents” (with the palace at Versailles “left swimming in blood”) and Wordsworth’s “ghastly visions” of “tyranny, and implements of death,/ And innocent victims,” in passages of The Prelude dramatizing his reaction to revolutionary massacre. Such echoes confirm Yeats’s juxtaposition of the excesses of the French Revolution with the postwar turmoil in which he was writing in 1919.

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting and interpreting his associative connections, we can trace in the drafts of “The Second Coming” his linking of Burke’s lamentation over the assaulted Marie Antoinette with the spectacle of the Russian royal family, including the Tsarina Alexandra, “battered to death in a cellar” (as he would have Crazy Jane later put it). Yeats connects Bolshevik brutality with such French atrocities as the September Massacres and the Jacobin Terror—what, annotating Wordsworth, he characterized as “revolutionary crimes.” In the face of “unjust tribunals,” with admitted royalist “tyranny” replaced by “mob-bred anarchy,” Yeats laments that there’s “no Burke to cry aloud, no Pit[t]”—no one, that is, to “arraign revolution,” as Burke had in the Reflections and in later speeches and William Pitt in ministerial policy. In further noting that “the [G]ermans have now to Russia come,” Yeats seems to combine the 1917 military invasion of Russian territories with the decisive German role in spiriting Lenin, and thus Marxian Communism, into Russia. As a result: “There every day some innocent has died” in revolutionary purges epitomized by the Bolsheviks’ July 1918 slaughter of the Tsar, the Romanov children, and the Tsarina Alexandra: “this Marie Antoinette,” who “has more brutally died.” The crucial point is that, as he continued to revise, Yeats stripped “The Second Coming” of all these particularized references. What prompted him to do this? The drafts themselves offer intriguing clues.

Yeats handwriting collagePages from drafts of “The Second Coming”

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting
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Despite the conjectures necessitated by the rapid scribbling of a man whose handwriting was maddeningly difficult to begin with, most of the specifics and the gist of what Yeats means are clear in this early draft (page 1., image above):
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Ever further h[aw]k flies outward
from the falconer’s hand. Scarcely
is armed tyranny fallen when
when this mob bred anarchy
takes its place. For this
Marie Antoinette has
more brutally died and no
Burke [has shook his] has an[swered]
with his voice, no pit [Pitt]
arraigns revolution. Surely the second
birth comes near—
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……….intellectual gyre is thesis to
The/ gyres grow wider and more wide]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
The germans have now to Russia come
There every day some innocent has died
The [ ? ] comes to [?fawn]…[?murder]
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In other drafts (all Box 3, Folder 39, W. B. Yeats Collection, SUNY, Stony Brook), Yeats confirms his regret that there’s no Burke or Pitt to arraign Bolshevik crimes as they had French Revolutionary terrorism: “—no stroke upon the clock/ But ceremonious innocence is drowned/ While the mob fawns upon the murderer/ And there’s no Burke…nor Pitt….”; and, again, “there’s no Burke to cry aloud no Pit[t].” Astutely analyzing the drafts in 2001, Simona Vannini had no doubt about the coupling of French and Russian atrocities. But, resisting the “scholarly consensus” (she refers to Donald Torchiana, Jon Stallworthy, and myself), she doubts, based on the drafts alone, that Yeats intended an “explicit correspondence between the murder of the French and the Russian royal families.” But one does not live by the drafts alone.
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Finally, as slowly but surely as the rough beast itself, the poem as we know it begins to emerge (pages 2.-4., image above).

§

In the most dramatic of the visions induced in Yeats during some 1890 symbolic-card experiments with MacGregor Mathers (the head of Yeats’s occult Order, the Golden Dawn), the poet suddenly saw, as he records in an unpublished memoir, “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones”—a vision transmogrified, in the published Autobiographies, into “a desert and a Black Titan.” Even in this dramatic instance, Yeats continues, “sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.” In the drafts of “The Second Coming,” groping for figurative language to introduce the mysterious moment immediately preceding the vision of the vast image rising up out of “sands of the desert” and “out of Spiritus Mundi,” Yeats first wrote: “Before the dark was cut as with a knife.” Whether examining the finished poem or the drafts, we are surely justified in locating one of the principal origins of the rough beast in Yeats’s occult experiments with MacGregor Mathers.

We may also have, in the cautionary example of Mathers himself, a key to Yeats’s abandonment, in the course of revision, of the historical figures and events specified in the drafts. Yeats found his occult friend’s apocalyptic imagination, “brooding upon war,” impressive when it remained “vague in outline.” It was when Mathers “attempted to make it definite,” that “nations and individuals seemed to change into the arbitrary symbols of his desires and fears.” Yeats was aware of the tendency of literalists and cranks to apply the obscure symbols of Revelation to the world-historical crisis of their own particular moment in time. This is what Mathers was in the habit of doing and what Yeats had initially done, as evidenced by the drafts of “The Second Coming.” Of course, it was what the Apocalyptist himself had done in producing a text that was less an inspired prophecy than a coded account of events happening at the time he was writing. But there was one clear prophecy. John insists, following Paul and Jesus himself, that the promised second coming was imminent. Implicit throughout Revelation, that prophecy is explicit and particularly resonant at the end, where John puts the premature parousia in Christ’s own mouth, “Surely, I am coming soon” (echoed by Yeats: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”), and concludes by intensifying the urgency in his own voice: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20)

Less interested in correlating specific events with Revelation or in predicting the future than he was in artistically mining Revelation as a rich source of resonant symbolism, Yeats was particularly fascinated by sublime aspects of the apocalyptic Beast: simultaneously menacing, exciting, destructive, and potentially renovative. (In depicting the first coming of Christ, he had referred, in the turbulently sublime final line of his visionary poem “The Magi,” to “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”) Above all, Yeats, as visionary, would have had no desire, by binding his prophecy to particular events, to make himself ridiculous—as had many biblical scholars, or MacGregor Mathers. That would be to succumb to what Alfred North Whitehead would later call (in one of Yeats’s favorite books, Science and the Modern World) “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

St. Jerome, aware of the many strained, historically specific misreadings preceding his translation of the Bible, was content to revise previous commentaries on the Book of Revelation rather than venture one of his own. As he observed in a letter, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.” The same might be said of the final version of “The Second Coming,” which retains Yeats’s own “desires and fears” without limiting those generalized (“abstract”) emotions to the specific (“concrete”) historical events that originally provoked them. That the beast slouches, in the single vestige of specificity, towards Bethlehem makes the creature a type of the Antichrist. But Yeats was hardly a conventional Christian pitting sectarian goodness against Satanic and bestial evil. In fact, while the final poem and title refer to Christ’s parousia, the original drafts repeatedly refer, not to the “second coming,” but to the “second birth,” echoing Wordsworth’s “nightmare” premonition in The Prelude that the “lamentable crimes” of the September Massacres were not the end of revolutionary violence in France, but a precursor of the far worse Terror to come: “The fear gone by/ Pressed on me like a fear to come…”

For the spent hurricane the air provides
As fierce a successor; the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding-place
In the great deep; all things have second birth. (Prelude 10:71-93)

Wordsworth’s image of a malevolent and returning tidal sea may remind us not only of the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide” in Yeats’s poem of “second birth,” but of another powerful, and no less apocalyptic, prophesy of  “coming” destruction. In Robert Frost’s 1926 couplet-sonnet, “Once By the Pacific,” the water is “shattered,” and “Great waves looked over others coming in,/ And thought of doing something to the shore/ That water never did to land before.” This is an unprecedented rather than repeated act of destruction, but its premeditated “thought” makes Frost’s ocean even worse than Yeats’s “murderous innocence of the sea” (in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” where revolutionary violence takes the form of “sea-wind…/ Bred on the Atlantic”). Though Frost’s shore “was lucky in being backed by cliff,/ The cliff in being backed by continent,” the sea seems backed by God himself, whose creative fiat in Genesis, “Let there be light,” is soon to be superseded by his apocalyptic extinction of light:

It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken.[3]

In that final line, Frost moves from Genesis (1.3) to the Book of Revelation (21:1). In reversing Christian expectation (in Matthew 24 and Revelation), the poet of “The Second Coming” echoes the whole of the Prelude passage, which ends with Wordsworth returning to Paris, scene of the worst atrocities of the September Massacres, to find the place “unfit for the repose of night,/ Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.”[4] Yeats’s “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, invoked a Dionysian and eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast”: an eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what he called, in Beyond Good and Evil, these “more humane ages.” Unsurprisingly, since Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” and that “Nietzsche’s thought flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn,” Nietzsche’s beast (first trotted out in Yeats’s 1903 play Where There is Nothing) later resonated in his archetypal mind with Blake’s Tyger and his half-bestial Nebuchadnezzar, slouching on all fours (as in Daniel 4:31-33) on Plate 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

William Blake Nebuchadnezzar (Tate copy)Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rough Beast
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The vast image or animated sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi” has many “sources.” It can be traced back to the most dramatic of the mental images induced in Yeats during the symbolic-card experiments he conducted in 1890 with MacGregor Mathers, the dominant figure in the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. In his most memorable vision, Yeats saw a “Black Titan” rising up ominously from the desert sands. Other components are drawn from Shelley’s stony pharaoh Ozymandias (his wrecked statue almost lost among the “lone and level sands”) as well as from his Demogorgon (in Prometheus Unbound): a nightmare denizen, along with the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” of the mysterious “Thirteenth Cone” in Yeats’s occult book, A Vision.
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Around 1902, Yeats “began to imagine” a brazen winged beast “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.” In that same year, in his uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, he envisaged a laughing, destructive beast resembling the eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast” of Nietzsche: a Dionysian, libidinal, eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what Yeats’s “strong enchanter” called (in Beyond Good and Evil) these “more humane ages.”
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In perhaps the most momentous of his imaginative fusions, Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots,” and that Nietzschean thought “flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.” The rough beast of “The Second Coming” can be seen as a fusion of Nietzsche’s savage cruel beast with (along with the dragons of Revelation and of comparative mythology) aspects of Blake’s Urizen, his Tyger, and his bestial Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours at the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
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In the 1795 color print reproduced here, Blake returned to the image he had engraved on the final plate of The Marriage. In Daniel 4:33, the Babylonian king, cursed and “driven from men,” ate “the grass as oxen”; his hair “grew like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, his mind darkened, stares, unseeing, directly at us. Though his “gaze” is as “blank” as that of Yeats’s “rough beast,” Blake’s king is more terrified than terrifying. But his bestiality and slouching posture is likely to have contributed to the composite beast of “The Second Coming.”

All precursors of the “rough beast.”  But Yeats’s response to French revolutionary violence, and its rebirth, was at least as powerfully influenced by the bestial imagery and conservative politics of Edmund Burke. For conservative Yeats, the September Massacres and French Reign of Terror foreshadowed the emergence in Bolshevik Russia of that “Marxian criterion of values” he described in a letter of April 1919 as “in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder”: the same inevitability Burke had early and uncannily prophesied in 1790. In terms of imagery, attitude, and actual verbal details, “The Second Coming” would be a very different poem if it had not had precisely this twin historical genesis. Finally, however, the poem, in its final, published text, is not “about” either the French or the Russian Revolution.

Nor is it about the National Socialist revolution. Many readers have taken it that way, citing a 1936 letter in which Yeats, refusing to politicize the Nobel Prize by recommending a German dissident writer, also condemned Nazism, quoting the most Burkean line in the poem as evidence that he was not “callous”: “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.” While Hitler, with the help of Goebbels, read himself positively into the Book of Revelation, as a secular Aryan Messiah and initiator of the thousand-year Third Reich, Yeats, though a man of the Right, saw the Führer as a type of the apocalyptic beast. In applying to Nazism and the threat of a second world war an image he drew from Burke and applied to the First World War and the threat of Jacobinism reborn as Marxist-Leninist Communism, Yeats was being neither hypocritical nor intentionally misleading. Indeed, he was participating in a tradition of allusion that goes on to this day. And justifiably. For if “The Second Coming” were “about” any one of these historical cataclysms, it could hardly accommodate, as it does, all of them.

§

No less a figure than Goethe has said that to be fully understood, works of art must, to some extent, “be caught in their genesis.” The manuscripts of “The Second Coming” serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence. The speaker has had an apocalyptic vision, a “lifting of the veil” (the Greek meaning of Apokalypsis) and the disclosure of something hidden from the rest of us. But when “the darkness drops again” over the manuscripts, as it should, we are left  with what really matters—the public text of the poem, freed of the umbilical cord attaching it to its genesis, and thus  limiting its evocative power.

If, in studying any poem, particularly one responding to contemporary events, we were to focus unduly on generative intention, and on the immediate context of its creation, the poem would inevitably dwindle in meaning and impact as that particular moment receded. Yeats’s realization of this explains his deletion, in revising “The Second Coming,” of specific historical details. In Waiting for Godot, Yeats’s fellow Irishman and fellow Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, achieved symbolic resonance by avoiding all overt reference to the historical-political matrix of the play: the German Occupation and French Resistance. Similarly, by cancelling allusions to the Irish situation and all specific references to past and contemporary revolutions, to Burke, Marie Antoinette, Pitt, Germany, and Russia, Yeats liberated his poem from those localized events destined to be assimilated like so many grains of sand in the desert of time. As an anti-Marxist, Yeats would have enjoyed the effect, since it is Marxist critics above all who have been disturbed by the autonomy of works of art, by their capacity to outlive their particular hour—what Geoffrey Hartmann has memorably called art’s “aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time.”

Insistent that the power of his images derived in part from their roots, Yeats declared in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of his late retrospective poems: “Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?” As we’ve seen, “The Second Coming” arose out of two sources, particular and universal. The specific events that provided its initial stimulus helped to shape the final poem. But Yeats, who was, like Carl Jung, fascinated not only by the occult but by alchemy, knew what he was doing when he transmuted the base metals of his historical minute particulars into the poetic gold of universally resonant archetypes. The archetypal symbols he received, or evoked, especially that mysterious and bestial “vast image” taking form “somewhere in sands of the desert,” came, he asserts, “out of Spiritus Mundi”: out of the World Soul that Jung—who reported strange beasts troubling the dreams of his own patients during the First World War—called the Collective Unconscious. That storehouse of archetypes causes universal symbols to arise in individual minds. But if the symbols in “The Second Coming” reflect Yeats’s own immersion in what he called the “Great Memory,” it is also, since each mind is linked to it, our Unconscious as well. In the dialectic of Yeats’s symbolic poems, myth is personal and experience is mythologized. In a similar reciprocity, allusions to “The Second Coming” register individual responses to current crises, contemporary forebodings which, simultaneously, resonate with eternally recurrent archetypes transformed by a great poet into “masterful images.”

“The Second Coming” obviously and dramatically transcends the minutiae of its origins. But it is one thing to simply be general and abstract, quite another to universalize after having delved deeply into, and worked through, materials that are concrete and specific. The method of Yeats—who always insisted that “mythology” be “rooted in the earth,” that we must delve “down, as it were, into some fibrous darkness”—falls into this second category. Influenced, as was Joyce, by the cyclical philosophy of Giambattista Vico, Yeats agreed with Vico that “Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses; the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to the universal; the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars” (Scienza Nuova, 1725). Yeats has it both ways in “The Second Coming.” The specific details of the poem’s political genesis have been buried; but the poet’s rooting of his fears and cryptic prophecy in contemporary history—significant soil enriched by the conflicting responses of Burke and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, to the great upheaval of their era—surely contributed to the unique power of a disturbing poem whose universalized vision of violent transformation haunted the rest of the twentieth century, and shows every sign of haunting ours. Without that rooting in Viconian and Blakean “particulars,” idiosyncratic theories and his obsession with what Joyce mockingly called Yeats’s “gygantogyres” could easily have produced oracular bombast that would be truly “callous” and shapelessly rather than sublimely vague.

What we have instead is a poem in which Yeats has it several ways at once. The seer casts a cold eye on the whirling of gyres beyond our control, yet seems, at least in part, excited by the rebirth of cyclical energy. But the note of boredom-relieving anticipation detectable in “its hour come round at last” is offset, not only by the elegiac Burkean music of the opening movement, but by the poem’s deepest tonality. For the real surprise, trumping the Nietzschean irony that this “second coming” will take a very different “shape” than that expected by naïve, optimistic Christians, is that Yeats’s own expectation will be exposed as a pipe dream. We must trust the tale and not the teller. For the poem itself, less aloofly visionary than human, suggests that the antithetical era being ushered in will not assume the hopeful form of the Nietzschean-aristocratic civilization welcomed (“Why should we resist?”) in Yeats’s long note to the poem. Instead, the newborn age is likely to take the chaotic shape prefigured by its brutal engendering. With that deeper insight, that peripeteia or sudden plot-change and readjustment of apocalyptic expectation, both the theoretician and the cold-eyed oracle in Yeats yield to the poet and man whose vision of the beast truly “troubles my sight.” This troubled vision is also rooted in apocalyptic literature. Yeats is doubtless recalling the response of the prophet Daniel (two hundred years before an echoing John of Patmos) to the final and most “terrifying and dreadful” of the “four great beasts” he sees in a dream: “my spirit was troubled within me, and the vision in my head terrified me….I was dismayed by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 7:19-20, 8:15-27; cf. Revelation 13:7).

Yeats’s dramatic plot-change, foreshadowed in the poem’s drafts, is reflected in his final punctuation. Violating the grammatical logic of its own peroration, “The Second Coming” ends in a question, leaving us with an open, apprehensive, awestruck glimpse of imminent apocalypse, or transformation, or the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide of terror that may constitute (to again quote Shelley on the French Revolution) “the master-theme” of the post-9/11 “epoch in which we live.” Yeats was even more honest when, in the drafts of the poem, he explicitly acknowledged that whatever gnosis was involved was not his, but the beast’s: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.” In the poem as published, we are left with human uncertainty rather than prophetic certitude. The syntactical and vatic momentum that follows “but now I know…” is retained, and yet the poet ends, as Daniel had, with a cryptic, troubling vision he “did not understand,” and therefore with a genuine question: the mark of interrogation that always, according to the unknown Greek author of the great treatise On the Sublime, attends that mystery.

Peering into the dark forward and abysm of time, their sight “troubled,” readers of Yeats’s poem are easily persuaded that something ominous is afoot. But we are left wondering which of our own current crises might emerge as no less transformative than the events Yeats was responding to in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming,” specifically his connection of 1919 with the bloodshed following 1789. As those drafts reveal, Yeats was paralleling the two most momentous events in the history of the modern Western world: the French Revolution, and its blood-dimmed aftermath, with the First World War and its various sequelae. The consequences of the Great War include the global influenza pandemic that swept away at least 10 million more people than the 37 million fighters and civilians lost in the war itself, as well as the slicing of the modern Middle East out of the rotting carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Before the 1921 Cairo Conference, which created, ex nihilo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, John Maynard Keynes warned the man who had presided over this division, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill: “If you cut up the map of the Middle East with a pair of scissors you will still be fighting wars there in a hundred years’ time.”  Five years from that centennial, Keynes seems no less prophetic, and rather more specific, than the poet who envisaged anarchic disintegration and a beast rising from “somewhere in sands of the desert.”

Though excised by the poet, and partially erased from our collective memory by a historical flood bringing even greater calamities, those World War I-related events sowed the seeds of much that followed. Even Yeats’s stress, in the manuscripts, on the execution of the French queen and its repetition in the massacre of the Russian royal family, were not idiosyncratic choices. Whatever one thinks of Yeats’s politics or of the hapless Romanov dynasty, Yeats was not simply—in Tom Paine’s trenchant critique of Burke’s tear-stained apostrophe to Marie Antoinette—“pitying the plumage while forgetting the dying bird.” Alexandra (“this Marie Antoinette” who has “more brutally died”) was battered and shot to death with her husband and children in the “House of Special Purpose” in Ekaterinburg. Though there was no signed order, the ultimate decision was Lenin’s. Those murders marked a pivotal moment when—in the summation of historian Richard Pipes in his magisterial The Russian Revolution—history made a turn toward genocide, when human beings were placed on a list of expendables and the world entered “an entirely new moral realm.”

Yeats sensed this seismic change and registered it in the drafts from which “The Second Coming” evolved—though he saw it not as “an entirely new” moral phenomenon but as a “second birth” of revolutionary massacre. The execution of the Russian royal family—the barbarous slaughter, in particular, of the children, shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by drunken incompetents—was Yeats’s contemporary example of the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide and slaughter of the innocents that, for him, hearkened back to the French Reign of Terror and, for us, as readers of “The Second Coming,” prefigures all the horrors of the twentieth century and beyond: war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, famine, economic chaos, ecological degradation, melting ice shelves and rising sea levels, and political anarchy—in the form, in our own country, of an ideological and special-interest polarization so intense that the center can no longer hold.

Yeats’s prophetic poem—as open to interpretation as the Beasts and Dragons and Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse—envisages, or, rather, can be made to envisage, any and all of these nightmares. Front and center at the moment is ISIS: the apocalyptic cult of fanatics operating out of their medieval Caliphate and able to ignite or at least inspire terror wherever the Internet and the various forms of social media they have mastered can reach. ISIS does not exhaust the legion of threats our own century of stony sleep has vexed to nightmare.  Like Yeats, we are left wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards” us?

W.B. YeatsW. B. Yeats, 1932 (photo by Pirie MacDonald)

In Part Two, we will revisit the turmoil of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. Though both have deep causal roots, both are the immediate result of our 2003 decision to invade Iraq: a disaster exacerbated by its antithesis: President Obama’s understandable but consequential decisions and then indecisions regarding the Syrian civil war. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are the roots of the tree from which most of the poison fruit has fallen, but the carnage and chaos in Syria not only expedited the rise of ISIS but produced the current immigration crisis. It is a tragic history.

When various moderate factions first rose up against the Alawite tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, it seemed part of the hopeful Arab Spring. Obama, who had been criticized for his alacrity in abandoning President Mubarak in Egypt, was now criticized for his reluctance to urge the ouster of Assad. After several months of calibrated diplomacy and sanctions, Western policy shifted to regime change. In tandem with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama announced that, for the good of the Syrian people and before his regime was utterly rejected by them, the time had come for “President Assad to step aside.” The policy became distilled to three fateful words: “Assad must go.”

That was in August, 2011, when perhaps 2,000 had been killed in the conflict. Figures differ, but a consensus estimate is that, in the subsequent five years of civil war, well over 300,000 Syrians and non-Syrian combatants have been killed, while another 70,000 have perished because of lack of water, medicine, and other basic necessities. Assad alone is responsible for the slaughter of 10% of his own people, over 40% of them civilians. In 2013, President Obama, in a decision as fateful as the announcement that Assad must go, drew a red line, threatening to attack Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own people. When the Syrian President crossed that line, twice, Obama, on the verge of ordering airstrikes, reversed himself, for reasons, and with consequences, we’ll revisit. Meanwhile, the slaughter continued. In addition to the deaths, nearly two million people have been wounded in the ongoing conflict, and approximately 120,000 are currently starving and freezing in towns besieged by government or anti-government forces, and subject to bombing—from the air by Assad and (until recently) by his Russian ally, and, on the ground, by the various warring factions, especially ISIS, which recently launched its worst bombing attack of the war, killing at least 130 people.

The continuing horror in Syria has also created a wider humanitarian and political crisis. Millions of refugees have inundated not only the region but a Europe already buckling under the burden of debt and demography, and giving rise to right-wing anti-immigrant movements that are now threatening centrist governments. The primaries leading up to our own 2016 presidential election—driven by populism on the Left and, most dramatically, on the Right—exposed a fragile political center that, here as in Europe, may not hold. Thrilling some, dismaying most, a nativist rough beast, Donald Trump, is slouching towards Cleveland to become the presumptive Republican nominee, or to hurl the convention into anarchy.

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PART TWO: THINGS FALL APART, CONTEMPORARY CRISES, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration

Its evocation of imminent yet mysterious catastrophe has made “The Second Coming” the swan song of our time. As the 20th century’s preeminent visionary poet, Yeats, alert to the dangers of hubristic Enlightenment faith in reason and the utopian myth of collective moral progress, was also telepathically attuned to the paradoxically related loosing of the tides of irrational fanaticism. Religion obviously plays a role in a cyclical poem in which the Christian era’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” are said to have been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”:  a nightmare that takes the shape of an apocalyptic beast returning to Bethlehem to be born. But in the twenty-first century, there is an even more terrifying twist on the visionary “nightmares” that rode upon Yeats’s sleep in “The Second Coming” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” For today, the forces of irrationalism threatening civilization are quintessentially theological and not only committed to terrorism, but, potentially, armed with the most nightmarish, even apocalyptic, weapons.

In part a reaction to Western colonialism and more recent US intervention, militant Islam has deep theological roots in the “sword-passages” of the Quran. Though we have no choice but to confront the threat of jihadist terrorism, our “global war on terror” is both quixotic and often counter-productive. In the Bush-Cheney administration, Neo-conservative hubris joined with the evangelical notion that it is our messianic mission to extend to all cultures, however little we may understand the ethno-sectarian complexities, what President Bush invoked as “the Almighty’s gift of universal freedom.”  The result was the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, worsened when “liberation” became occupation. Worst of all, in the case of such stateless actors as al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists, and now, in the case of ISIS, our global war tends to generate more terrorists than we can kill. We face a metastasizing religious fanaticism impervious to traditional forms of rational or military deterrence and driven by the mad conviction that any and all forms of terror against the infidel West are part of a holy war carried out to avenge past injustices, all under the auspices of their approving God.

President Obama’s anti-terrorist policy, militant but limited, and only partially effective, will doubtless be intensified, whether Hillary Clinton or a Republican is the next President. If the latter, the principal competing visions may once again become apocalyptic, with each side embarked on a sacred mission to eradicate perceived evil. Along with religious-right hawks, we have militants ranging from Rapture-ready End-Timers to apocalyptic Christian Zionists to unreconstructed theoconservatives still clinging to a version of Bush’s Bible-based foreign policy. Despite Ted Cruz’s hyperbolic pledge to make the desert sands “glow,” there is a significant difference between the combatants: a distinction made graphic in the recent nuclear threats by apocalypse-hungry ISIS jihadists, whose suicide belts and Kalashnikovs will seem a quaint memory once they have acquired enough radioactive material to build a divinely sanctioned dirty bomb.

And then there is Iran. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, insists that the endlessly reiterated chant, “Death to America,” is aimed, not at the American people, but at the US government and its “arrogant policies.” There is a danger of that distinction blurring should Khameinei—despite the more “moderate” elements in his government and against the majority wishes of the Iranian people, as reflected in the March 2016 elections—choose to resume Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is already defying UN sanctions by testing missiles, tests not covered in the recent US-Iran strictly nuclear agreement. Any cheating on that nuclear accord would invite, well beyond sanctions, harsh retaliation, probably in the form of a massive preventive airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—by the US alone, or in concert with Israel. No one knows what geostrategic repercussions might follow.

A greater nightmare scenario involves actual rather than potential nuclear weapons, with more to come. Pakistan is planning to more than double its arsenal of 100 warheads, including tactical (“battlefield”) weapons, which lower the threshold to nuclear war. And Pakistan, which would then be the fifth-largest nuclear power, is a state (to cite the title of Ahmed Rashid’s recent book) “on the brink” of chaos, perhaps in the form of an Islamist coup. Nine years ago, a matured Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, determined to resist such militants. “Extremism” can be contained, she said, “if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up against fanaticism.” Just before the general election, she was assassinated. No Pakistani since has mobilized any “moderate middle,” and there is no prospect of any “center” likely to “hold.” Even if there is no full-scale coup, Pakistan’s arsenal—widely dispersed to deter the perceived enemy, India—will become still more vulnerable with the addition of those smaller, easier-to-steal “battlefield” nuclear weapons. They, or larger warheads, could be seized by a now more globally oriented Pakistani Taliban or by a post-bin Laden al Qaeda still inspired by 9/11: in both cases, terrorists clearly willing to use even these ultimate weapons in the name of Allah.

Though he admired much in the Islamic and Asian traditions, Yeats, who had read Spengler, feared a decline of the West accompanied by the rise of a barbarous fanaticism threatening all civilization. Europe’s debt crisis has now been compounded by Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and, above all, by the potential of the new migration crisis to destroy the European Union, now “on the verge of collapse,” according to Europe’s central figure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policy of  welcoming Syrian refugees has put even her dominant position in jeopardy. Yeats’s history-based vision of impending European disintegration, a centrifugal blowing apart triggering a decline and fall of the West as a whole, has taken a demographic and terror-haunted form. The problem of Europe’s dramatically declining native birthrates, long accompanied by growing Muslim populations, is, in 2016, exacerbated by the flood of refugees. Many Muslim immigrants, old and new, unassimilated and hopeless, are often hostile to the host countries, with some extremists eager to kill in the name of jihad—as demonstrated by various terrorist plots, culminating in the coordinated attacks in Paris and, three months later, in Brussels. Noting, in the aftermath of those attacks, that the EU has a single currency but lacks a common database to screen terrorists, Die Zeit political writer Jochen Bittner wondered (in the Yeatsian title of his March 24 NY Times op-ed): “Can the European Center Hold?”

Confronting crises in the turbulent Greater Middle East itself—the rise of ISIS, as a “state” and as a generator of jihadist attacks beyond the region; the mass migration produced by the ongoing carnage in Syria; and the apparently irresolvable impasse between Israel and the Palestinians (their contested land the setting for the biblical myth of Armageddon)—we have ample reason to fear that some momentous change is “at hand,” attended by anarchy and violence. Even those of us most skeptical of oracular clairvoyance often find ourselves caught up in the mingled terror and apocalyptic shudder of the Yeatsian Sublime. No matter how novel the specific threats that arise, we can’t seem to find better or, it sometimes seems, other words than those Yeats put on paper almost a century ago.

Responding to “The Second Coming” in our own troubled moment of history, we sense—now more than ever—that “the centre cannot hold.” Like the “falcon [that] cannot hear the falconer,” things seem to be whirling giddily out of human control. The centrifugal forces we have ourselves unleashed—sociopolitical, technological, military, economic, ecological—are now in the saddle and ride mankind. Within the long-term impact of the overarching global climate change we have exacerbated, there may be perfect storms combining nature and technology. Full-time teams are still fighting the radioactive tide at Fukushima, the nuclear plant devastated five years ago by earthquake and tsunami. A full clean up may take the rest of this century, and in the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable, a Japanese disaster threatening to become a wider catastrophe.

We in America gaze out at what, despite (and often because of) free-market globalization, is an increasingly unstable world: overheated and overpopulated, sporadically wealthy but overwhelmingly impoverished, violent, threatened by terrorism, and by both under- and over-reactions to it; and  groaning for a deliverance that seems never to come. The Arab Spring quickly lost its liberating early bloom, and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, far from evolving into even semi-stable states, let alone democracies, are well on their way to falling apart: into mere anarchy, or becoming failed states ripe to be dominated by Islamist extremists. China (Napoleon’s sleeping giant) is awake but stumbling; Russia is once again militant under Putin; Iran and North Korea pose future and, in the case of the latter, a present nuclear threat; jihadism is on the march in the Middle East and Africa, its terror networks threatening to unleash a “wave of bloodshed” in Europe. Fresh crises loom everywhere, none more existential than the challenge to the planet itself presented by global climate change, and the threat to Western civilization posed by the apocalyptic savagery of ISIS.

Looking homeward, we wonder about the state of our own democracy. The Democratic Party offers little to rally around, and President Obama, reluctant to get into the trenches, has had a dismal record of working with Congress.  In fairness, it must be added that this President was resisted from the outset by many who, for political, economic, ideological, or racist reasons, never accepted him;  35% of registered Republican voters remain unreconstructed Birthers, and another quarter are “not sure” he was born in the United States. Even so, Obama has been too aloof to be fully effective.

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But the primary blame is located in the very titles of some recent books: The Disappearing Center; Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy; Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party; and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The respected bipartisan authors of the latter, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, formerly critical of both parties, now insist that the core of the current dysfunction and polarization is an inflexible and obstructionist Republican Party. Beginning with the demonization of opponents prescribed by Newt Gingrich, the party’s “center of gravity has shifted far to the right.” Today’s GOP is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Mann and Ornstein concluded by hoping that voters in 2012 would “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents.” Only then will “an insurgent outlier party” have “some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.” But things have continued to fall apart, with Republicans uninterested in moving toward a “center” that, many clearly believe, should no longer “hold.” The extremism Ornstein and Mann described three years ago is more obvious today. With no sign of getting better, our politics has gotten far “worse,” incarnate in that reductio ad absurdum, Donald Trump.

Even those of us who intend to vote this November have become frustrated by a system not only dysfunctional, but increasingly venal. Mark Twain’s old witticism that “we have the best government money can buy” was never more telling. Our electoral process has been utterly corrupted by “dark money”—to cite the title of Jane Mayer’s brave and brilliant new expose of the Koch Brothers and affiliated billionaires behind the rise of the radical Right. Their flood of filthy lucre was fully unleashed by the Super PAC-producing Citizens United decision—reinforced by the SpeechNow and McCutcheon cases—all thanks to a conservative and “activist” Supreme Court majority. Those decisions have set more beasts a-slouching. In an overheated 2012 essay titled “Beast of Citizens United Slouches Forward,” Charles Pierce described Mitt Romney as “in every way the rough beast” predicted by Justice John Paul Stevens (in his eloquent dissent in Citizens United): a beast “slouching toward Iowa to be born.” (This particular beast in pinstripes would be undone by the secretly taped revelation that he, like the rich donors he was speaking to at the time, believed that 47% of Americans were freeloaders, mooching on government handouts).

Writing in Vanity Fair, Craig Ungar also cited “The Second Coming,” in noting the re-emergence of a discredited Karl Rove, among the quickest to appreciate the SpeechNow decision, which overturned limits on individual contributions to PACs, making it easier for big donors to influence elections. “Proving the Yeatsian verity about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity, Rove has created a ruthlessly efficient political operation beholden to no one but himself.” Though dismissed by Donald Trump as a “total moron,” Rove, like Yeats’s irrepressible rough beast, is again heading-up his American Crossroads Super PAC, specifically dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The corrupting power of unrestricted money is manifest in the sorry spectacle of politicians pandering to the narrow interests of their party’s base and accommodating an ever-growing army of lobbyists, the most influential representing corporate interests. The result is legalized bribery, and, under the aegis of supply-side economics and an antipathy to government, a breakdown of that balanced public-private partnership epitomizing the genius of the American system at its best. Today, competing in a global market, Western democracies must engage as never before in strategic economic planning. Public investment in jobs, infrastructure, education, and research will be required to restore economic competitiveness. But such federal prescriptions are disdainfully rejected by Republicans, who have turned Ronald Reagan’s mantra about the federal government being the “problem” rather than the “solution” into Ayn-Randian economic dogma, referring to Washington as if it were an enemy capital and indulging the fantasy that the “socialist” federal government, which has supposedly “never created a job,” should just “get out of the way” and let the infallible free market work its trickle-down magic.

In this ideologically polarized context, those of a Keynesian bent, who still wish President Obama’s initial stimulus package back in 2009 had been larger, more innovative, and tied to financial regulation of the bailed-out banks, and who see a positive role for an activist federal government in economic crises, can expect no compromise (now a dirty word) from those committed to the deregulated market forces of the private sector. Hence, the persistent clamor of Republicans, who have virtually all signed on to Grover Norquist’s Pledge, for lower taxes on the most wealthy—the “job creators.” That remains a priority even in the face of an accelerating disparity between the many and the very few: a concentration of private and corporate wealth that translates into political power since laws tend to get written in accord with the interests of those (say, the Koch Brothers) writing the checks. Democrats, when they are not complicit in corporate power, bow to their own special interests, fostering divisiveness in the form of identity politics.

Either way, little constructive gets done. Despite the abysmal approval ratings of Congress, partisan confrontation blocks progress on any measure aimed at healing our economy and repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Three years ago, two liberal commentators drew on Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to deplore the gridlock. Addressing the political “failure” to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, economist Paul Krugman decried (in his New York Times column in September 2012) Republican opposition to any plan likely to reduce unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity.” Five months earlier, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary announced his fear that the US economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Playing a variation as well on “the center cannot hold,” Robert Reich observed that the top percent or two have now accumulated “so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed,” and that Republican resistance to tax increases had drained funds required to finance important public investments depended upon by that collapsing middle class. With Washington paralyzed by the divide between dread of mounting debt and the need to invest in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, our economy is still “slouching toward” potential disaster.

Krugman and Reich (and Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, debt, deficits, and burgeoning entitlement spending certainly matter, and must be addressed, as fiscal conservatives rightly insist. On the other hand, most Republicans seem ideologically incapable of acknowledging the opposite danger: that deep retrenchment in public spending is likely to have the same effect here as in Europe, where fiscal austerity, even when it has arrested the downward slide, has failed to produce growth. Yet, as Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has said, “market fundamentalism, radical privatization, and a universal fear of state power are overly simplistic answers to the question of how to sustain a modern, globalized economic order.” His focus is European and global, but Avineri is not forgetting the private-enterprise purists of the Republican Party in the United States.

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Political tension, even partisanship, is not only inevitable but desirable; as William Blake reminds us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without Contraries is no progression.” Blake also notes in the same text that “Opposition is true friendship,” that differences can be dialectically fruitful, and need not sour into enmity.  But our current political divide is less dialectical than rancorous; and it transcends “politics as usual” because the widening gap is not only economic and ideological but often cognitive. Senator Moynihan’s reminder that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” has been trumped by political expediency and, often, by actual or willful ignorance. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by a polarized and polarizing media that caters to those who prefer to have their own prejudices confirmed and amplified rather than to actually think. In the cable war, CNN tacks to the center, but the conservative audience addicted to Fox News has little in common with the liberal audience addicted to MSNBC; and in that war, the clear victor has been Fox, the supposedly “fair and balanced” organ of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.

In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter devoted two books to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. One needn’t accept every nuance of what conservatives might consider his “elitist” condescension to conclude that Hofstadter’s fears are, today—when the political spectrum in the United States has shifted dramatically to the right—far more justified than they were when he was writing a half-century ago. What would he make, for example, of venomous, pseudo-populist right-wing radio or of the dominance of the Fox News Network? What of fundamentalist resistance, not just to ACLU excesses, but to the very concept of a constitutional separation of Church and State? Or of the Religious Right’s self-congratulatory challenge to the validity of science; most notably, dismissal of the scientific consensus on a partial but manifest human impact on global climate change and, most mind-boggling to the rational, the faith-based denial of the demonstrable truth of evolutionary biology? What would Hoftadter have to say, if he wasn’t rendered mute, by the spectacle of Ben Carson, a physician who is also an evolution-denying biblical literalist; of Ted Cruz, a sanctimonious, inflexible ideologue who deems everyone who demurs from his religio-political absolutism a far-left extremist; of insult-monger Donald Trump, who is—well—TRUMP.

At times we seem to be re-fighting the Civil War. During that defining national tragedy, both sides, equally immersed in the wrathful sword-and-vintage imagery of Revelation that dominates “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” saw themselves engaged in an apocalyptic struggle, each on God’s side and fighting against perceived evil. The Confederacy may have been defeated by the Union armies, but the old ideological struggle persists between central government and states’ rights, between a concept of the common good and unfettered individualism. And once again, though with considerably less justification, what ought to be a public-private partnership is turned into a conflict hyperbolized and sanctified by conservatives and libertarians as a fight to the death between federal “tyranny” and individual “liberty,” now intensified by the guns-and-God identification of the former with all that is reprehensibly “coercive” and “secular,” the latter with stridently libertarian and evangelical concepts of “freedom of religion.”

Faced with the acrimonious divide in our current religio-political Culture War (another example of a “dialogue of the deaf”) and attuned to the language of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, we readily concur that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist earlier cited, returning to “The Second Coming” in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, lamented the “disappearance of a Christian center.” This “polarization is a sign of what happens” to a deeply religious country when “its theological center cannot hold.” However persuasive or dubious Douthat’s specific claim, his citation of Yeats’s famous line helps rhetorically by locating his argument within a larger and resonant context.

More than a quarter-century ago, in a 1988 “On Language” column, William Safire noted that Yeats’s line about the “center” failing to hold “is quoted whenever polarization takes place and centrists disappear.” That observation is even more germane today, when most centrists have fled Washington in frustration or been driven out by their own party’s more extreme elements. Six-time Indiana Republican Senator Dick Lugar, a notably civil and nuanced Republican with almost unparalleled expertise in foreign policy, was defeated in the 2012 primary by a Tea-Party challenger funded by massive outside spending.

The House situation worsened with the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republican State Leadership Committee, deploying over $200 million from Republican-aligned “independent groups,” achieved the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) dream, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process until the new census in 2020. By assuring right-wing Republicans safe seats, gerrymandering underwrites obstinacy, reducing the Congress to a partisan, obstructionist combat zone, with opponents demonized and compromise replaced by mutual contempt and deadlock. When, in December 2015, Donald Trump, touting flexibility, criticized the relentlessly uncooperative Senate behavior of his main rival, Ted Cruz, he was furiously attacked by right-wing bloviators Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin for so much as suggesting he would be willing to work across the aisle. In response, a Cruz spokesperson, back when her man was still relentlessly buttering up The Donald, regretted only that Trump, in accurately noting Cruz’s rejection of any compromise, had resorted to “Democrat talking points”! No wonder centrists leave in frustration. What moderate Republican Olympia Snowe described, in announcing her retirement, as the Senate’s “crumbling center” epitomizes our larger cultural breakdown. When things fall apart, no center, religious or political, can hold.

The 2012 Republican primary debates were filled with fevered, self-righteous, semi-theological rhetoric about “taking our country back,” and “saving the soul of America.” Obama was still elected to a second term, to the dismay of Republicans who, from the outset of his first term, never intended to be a “loyal opposition.” Mitch McConnell flatly stated that the “priority” was to make Obama “a one-term president.” Even now, most Republicans put partisan politics ahead of cooperation, then complain when Obama resorts to executive actions. The old adage that politics ends at the water’s edge is long gone with the wind. Republicans adamantly resist, or ridicule, the nuclear deal with Iran, and would rather criticize a president they despise than find common ground in confronting the danger of ISIS.

Though there are thoughtful individual Republicans, their Party has become ideologically extremist and anti-intellectual, hostile to “elites” and to science. No Republican presidential candidate (even when there were seventeen of them) felt free to publicly accept the fact of biological evolution, let alone acknowledge the crisis of global climate change, resorting to denialism based on reports covertly funded by fossil-fuel interests. In December 2015, the Obama administration helped bring together in Paris 195 nations in an accord committing them, for the first time, to lowering planet-warming carbon emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The modest reductions are tailored but voluntary, making this an executive agreement, not a treaty, which would have been rejected by the Senate, controlled by Republicans who, beholden to the Kochs and their affiliates, either deny established climate science, pronounce the cost of combating the problem prohibitive, or are simply out to thwart the President’s agenda.

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The 2012 Republican primary was temperate compared to the 2015-16 anti-establishment circus, initially starring a pious, clueless neurosurgeon (who would later flame out and endorse Trump), then dominated by a talented but absentee junior senator; an articulate but hyper-ambitious ideologue loathed on both sides of the aisle; and, above all, by a reality-TV huckster and hyperbolist. After losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Donald Trump crushed Cruz and Marco Rubio in the next three primary states, becoming—against all predictions from pundits left and right—the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. He has continued to cleverly exploit the national frustration at the polarization and dysfunction of Washington, as well as the growing (and justifiable) annoyance with “political correctness.” But in the process, building on and exacerbating the growing fear of all, not just radicalized, Muslims, the Birther-in-Chief (who later played that card on Canadian-born Cruz) has tapped into the nativist zeitgeist and Know-Nothingism of a substantial slice of the American electorate—whose fears, frustrations, and left-behind fury he adroitly channels and fuels.

Republican leaders, having long ginned up their base but caught off guard by the consequences, are now terrified at the looming prospect of Trump becoming their nominee. But he is the untethered Frankenstein’s monster they created—liberated from the Establishment, from Fox News, even from the Koch Brothers! The GOP’s strongest ticket would include John Kasich. But in an extremist milieu, victors tend to be those who appeal to voters “full of passionate intensity,” rather than to the “best”—the better-informed and less absolutist, who don’t expect simple answers to complex questions. Hoping Trump (and Cruz) would fade, the Establishment sought to anoint, as the Party’s “savior,” the more “electable” Rubio, whose initially upbeat campaign quickly darkened into the same old fear-mongering, religious pandering, and strident hawkishness. Since Bernie Sanders, despite his victories and virtual ties, seems unelectable in a center-right country, the Democratic nominee will be a self-wounded, baggage-laden Hillary Clinton.

We can be sure that both sides will be full of passionate intensity. We can also be sure that the Democratic and Republican candidates will be equally supported by their respective Super PACS. Hillary Clinton is flush in PAC money, Cruz is second only to her, and even Donald Trump (closing in on the nomination) will eventually come to the trough. Before his departure, Rubio’s cash cows included three multi-billionaires, who also happen to be pro-Israeli zealots. Despite differences (especially over the West Bank settlements), Israel is our ally, to whom we are bound by history and culture. But must loyalty be obsequious? The Republican nominees (even Trump, who caught hell for saying he would try to be a “neutral” negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse) are tripping over each other vowing unconditional support of Israel. But 2016 began with primary emphasis on the terrorist and refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq.

This was the subject of President Obama’s rare Oval Office Address in late December (a speech prompting emails from two old Fordham college friends, a Democrat and a Republican, but both foreign-policy hawks). In his Address on the terrorist threat, the President said that we should continue our current policy: working with international partners, using targeted airstrikes and special forces to attack terrorist networks. But he also warned against an expansive ground war in Iraq and Syria, calling for a “sustainable” victory using a minimal number of US ground forces. ISIS (or ISIL, as he prefers) would only grow stronger as an insurgency against an occupying power. “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.” But alliterative rhetoric is no substitute for a specific strategy.

Until recently, almost everyone (aside from John McCain and Lindsay Graham) agreed with the President that substantial (tens of thousands) of American ground forces would be counterproductive. Trump’s characteristically crude and crowd-rousing alternative—to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”—was bested by Cruz’s lunatic and illegal proposal to “carpet-bomb” their “troops,” to make the desert sands “glow,” presumably with radioactivity.  Given the jihadists’ proximity to the civilians they terrorize and use as shields in the places they occupy, how many tens of thousands of innocents would we have to vaporize to destroy the Caliphate? Besides, even as ISIS loses territory in its Syrian-Iraqi base (down by more than a third from its apogee), the cancer metastasizes—to Yemen, Libya, elsewhere in Africa; and it retains the ability to inspire and coordinate terror attacks far beyond.

There was a shift, to include substantial “boots on the ground,” in the March 10 Republican debate. In calling for a large-scale injection of US troops into the region, the Republicans are in ironic accord with ISIS, itself the bitter fruit of our misguided invasion of Iraq and, in particular, of our ill-planned, blundering occupation, whose chaos created al Qaeda in Iraq. We want no more of that carnage. ISIS does, committed as it is to its own chiliastic scenario, its version of Armageddon. Based on ancient myth, revived by Abu Musàb al Zakhari, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq and the godfather of ISIS, and reiterated by the “Caliph” himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS apocalypse calls for a final battle on the plain outside the small village of Dabiq (north of Aleppo, in Syria). This unlikely place has long been prophesied as the site of the ultimate victory of the Islamic Caliphate over the armies of the infidel—nowadays, those of the United States. Much ISIS propaganda is devoted to luring us into that land war.

Dabiq Burns Cursader ArmiesImage from Islamic State video, in Dabiq (issue one) (via Clarion Project)

It is a lure we should resist. We can target, provide intelligence and special ops; but the main anti-ISIS ground force must eventually be made up, as the President says, of other Sunnis. At least for now, those Sunnis are divided among themselves. The Saudis, the promulgators of fundamentalist Wahhabism and funders of radicalizing madrassas throughout the Greater Middle East, continue their long and sordid double-game—though there are recent signs that they may finally be ready to field anti-ISIS troops. In any case, thus far, President Obama has not displayed the leadership skills (given these divisions, perhaps no one can) required to put together a pan-Arab force, let alone helm or guide the alleged coalition of “sixty-five” partners.

I agreed with some of the substance, though not the “anti-academic” tone, of the response to the Oval Office speech by my Republican Fordham friend. Ridiculing the president’s claim that his plan was “working,” he described Obama as “the ultimate college professor,” couching events that

unfold before his eyes as academic exercises requiring intellectual examination. True, there is a scholarly aspect than can be argued long into the night, but what is really needed is a bold, rousing response like that of George W. Bush, with the megaphone atop the rubble. It’s about looking and acting like a leader, despite the fact that it might not go beyond immediate visceral satisfaction.

Obama may indeed be too “professorial,” but I have no nostalgia for the sort of “bold, rousing response” that led us, hard on the heels of the justifiable attack on the Taliban harboring al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to the duplicitous invasion of Iraq. That 2003 invasion and the subsequent violence and chaos of the occupation triggered a massive increase in worldwide terrorism, an increase British Intelligence has aptly dubbed the “Iraq Effect.” It also engendered much of the current crisis in the Middle East—notably including the abrupt turn, in word and deed, to apocalyptism among Sunnis, not only in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but in the global jihadist movement. This new End Times appetite among Sunnis, hitherto skeptical of apocalyptic thinking, was fueled by Sunni clerics and by the al-Qaeda precursor of ISIS, Zarqawi, who envisaged the new American “Crusaders” as having joined the Shia and the Jews in a triple union to “destroy” true Muslims. Unlike al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi believed “the Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.”[5] We now know what rough beast, its hour come round at last, has been slouching to be born in the deserts of Iraq: ISIS.

According to unreconstructed foreign policy hawks who still defend the invasion of Iraq and still fail to grasp the historic complexity of the Sunni-Shia division, that monstrous birth is entirely attributable to Obama, who “abandoned” a “liberated” Iraq made “stable” by the “Surge.” In exploiting the Anbar Awakening, General David Petraeus bought the provisional loyalty of Sunnis even more appalled by al Qaeda than by American forces. But while it was a success tactically and as PR, the Surge, elevated to the status of myth by Republicans, barely affected the underlying realities. Yet the President is incessantly condemned by Neocons, the right-wing media, and the current crop of GOP candidates for “squandering” our “gains” in Iraq by withdrawing “precipitously.” Though he is not without fault, this is far too sweeping, and, of course, characteristically partisan.

Like others, the President was slow to realize the gravity of the threat presented by ISIS (far from the “JV-team” of his glib dismissal), and he failed to heed warnings about the double-dealing of Maliki. The President was eager to get out of Iraq, in accord with his promise during the 2008 campaign, and reflecting the consensus of the vast majority of the electorate. But Republicans tend to pass over that other pledge: the one made by us to the Iraqi government, to completely withdraw US troops by 2011, a pledge made by President Bush. Without the Status of Forces agreement rejected by Maliki (at Iran’s behest), were we to leave in place, in violation of our own agreement and against the express disinvitation of the host government, a residual force of, say, 15-20,000 American troops? The President’s critics on the Right blandly assume that such a force would have prevented the rise of ISIS. General Petraeus recently expressed a wish that we had “tried the experiment,” though he is doubtful “it would have made a difference.”

Opportunities were lost, especially in Syria; today, ISIS entrenched and the Internet at its command, there are no longer any routes to a quick victory without considerable risks and downsides. Any plausible, as opposed to preposterous, plan to defeat ISIS, would not be wildly different from what the President seems to think he can wish into existence, and would involve actual rather than half-imaginary coalitions, Arab and European. But our internally-divided NATO and Arab allies lack the capacity to organize and lead an effective counteroffensive on their own. And Obama may not be the leader required to inspire and implement such a strategy. More hawkish Hillary might be up to the task, more so than Trump, Cruz, and the departed Rubio, all of them as inexperienced as they are bellicose. Had he not fallen from grace, the gifted David Petraeus, running as a Republican or a Democrat, might have provided both experience and thoughtfulness.

We should be under no illusion that there is any military silver bullet that could even conceivably resolve a crisis ultimately based on a long-delayed backlash against Western imperialism and economic exploitation, grievances made toxic by the most militant sections of the Quran being fed by radical clerics to alienated young Muslim men, ripe for revenge. But understanding the causes does not eliminate the need to confront the consequences. Given the deep sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious context, and the endless supply of hopeless young men susceptible to the siren call to jihad, eager to spill blood for the glory of Allah and to advance the End Times, there may be no way to avoid a protracted struggle. One would be more satisfied with a multi-pronged, gradual degradation of ISIS leading to eventual defeat were it not for the immediate dangers presented by sleeper cells, and by the ultimate nightmare: the acquisition by ISIS or its affiliates of a dirty bomb or, worse yet, a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Time is no more on our side here than in the need to confront the challenge of global climate change. So, what to do?

In Europe, intelligence has to be much better shared and the EU borders made less porous. Thousands of European Muslims have traveled to Syria and back, now thoroughly radicalized, militarily trained, and ready to wage jihad in their home countries. One such man, Salah Abdeslam, who helped orchestrate the attacks in Paris, slipped easily out of France and into Belgium. Four months later, he was found, by sheer luck, hiding out in jihadi central, Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where he grew up. Though Belgian authorities announced that another attack was “credible and imminent,” Abdeslam’s questioning, apparently perfunctory, yielded no information. Within days of his capture, members of his cell launched their lethal attacks on the Brussels airport and metro station.

In the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East itself, we should counter Iran by pressuring al-Abadi to re-enfranchise the Sunnis, incentivizing the “Iraqi” army to fight, as it has started to do by recapturing Ramadi. We should also inform Turkey that we’re going to intensify our arming of the Kurds—and directly, not through Baghdad. Even then, we can hardly be confident that Sunni forces, themselves radical (foolishly disbanded but left armed by the US in 2003, they became the insurgency against us), would produce eventual stability. And the Kurds, willing and demonstrably able to fight ISIS, are primarily interested in their own independence: understandably, but a further source of regional instability. In fact, in the final week of 2015, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resumed a fierce battle to “annihilate” the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), militants who have long sought Kurdish autonomy.

In the immediate future, Iran and Russia have to be accepted as in fact what they are: major players in the region. This will outrage most on the Right and, when it comes to our policy in Syria, undermine what’s left of the “Assad-must-go” position of the Administration. The more pragmatic assessment of the President’s own Joint Chiefs is that any vacuum left by the removal of Assad will be filled with Sunni extremists rather than largely non-existent Syrian “moderates.” Even a provisional alignment with the supporters of the murderous Assad regime is repellent. But the principal goal we have in common with Iran and Russia is defeating ISIS. For now, along with preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (the one other goal we share with Putin), confronting ISIS must be a strategic priority. In December 2015, a UN Resolution, jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, united many nations in an overdue effort to cut off the sources of ISIS funding. But that cooperation was dwarfed by the impact of Russia’s continued and intensified bombing of Syria, little of it targeting ISIS.

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Caught up as we are in the struggle with ISIS in particular and jihadism in general, there is a related tension: between Islamophobia and a realistic assessment of the facts. In the wake of the large-scale Paris attack (preceded by the Charlie Hebdo murders and followed by the events in San Bernardino; Brussels was yet to come), President Obama sought to avoid demonizing Islam, while acknowledging that the Muslim community needs to grapple with the issue of radicalization and political violence. In his Oval Office Address, he urged Americans “to see Muslims as neighbors, friends, and countrymen, and to avoid bigotry and discrimination. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must,” he said, “enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” But, the President added, that “doesn’t mean denying the fact that an extreme ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” a “real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”

The latter is a problem that also needs to be confronted by those who, like the President, want to accept, if not the 65,000 recommended by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Donald Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional proposal that we ban all Muslims until we can figure out “what’s going on” is outrageous, but not, for many, much more so than the Administration’s plan to take in refugees whom even the Director of the FBI acknowledges we cannot properly vet. Tens of thousands of Syrians are starving in besieged towns, and almost all refugees have suffered horribly and deserve compassion. But ISIS would be derelict in its terrorist duty if it didn’t seek to infiltrate and radicalize some of those masses. Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—have taken in almost four million refugees, and Iraq and Egypt between them another 400,000. Even after the Paris attacks, up to the turn into 2016, Sweden and Germany (having already accepted over a million refugees) were absorbing very high numbers per capita. That ended abruptly in the final week of 2015. Since then the sexual attacks in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, by Arab and North African Muslim men, have challenged Merkel’s admirable welcoming policy and fueled legitimate concern, as well as xenophobia, erupting in street violence between right-wing opponents of immigration and leftist advocates of asylum.

Since our own Muslim population is far better assimilated it seems inhumane and craven for us to resist welcoming a mere 10,000 more, two-thirds of them (as referred to us by the UNHCR) women and children. But many Americans of good will, even those aware that the refugee problem has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II, nevertheless fear, when it comes to Syrian war refugees, the radicalizing reach of ISIS. Of course, that is just one more aspect of the ISIS strategy of inculcating fear, turning victims seeking to escape from barbarism and lethal violence into potential security threats. The record suggests otherwise. According to an October 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, of the 784,000 refugees we’ve taken in since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. But recent events have intensified our concern. Having accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refuges since 2012, and now, with many Americans (and virtually all Republicans) opposed to the President’s plan regarding the 10,000, the United States runs the risk of fueling—across the European continent—the sort of anti-immigrant (and anti-American) far-right populism represented in France by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, and, in Hungary, by Putin buddy Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Worse yet, our resistance to accepting refugees further destabilizes such frontline states as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and strains relations with Germany, which has borne the brunt of the flood into Europe. We have contributed $450 million to alleviate the crisis in Syria, yet appear to be sitting it out, though we are hardly blameless in terms of responsibility. An increasing number of Germans believe, with good reason, that while they are shouldering the consequences of the collapse of Syria, it is America that bears much of the responsibility for the causes of that collapse.  Even former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Bush’s war partner, though still proud of the ouster of Saddam, admitted (on CNN in October 2015) that “mistakes” were made. Indeed, “the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of Syria figure among the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

That accurate conclusion was drawn by Michael Ignatieff, playing off but going beyond Blair’s admission. The Murrow Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School observed in his November New York Review of Books essay “The Refugees & the New War,” that the refugees present not only “a humanitarian crisis,” but “a national security challenge,” though not the one stressed by those unnerved by the possibility of importing terrorists. US strategy in the final year of Obama’s presidency should start, he concludes, from the understanding that helping Europe deal with the refugees is

critical to the battle against jihadi nihilism. If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the US and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights. In a battle against extremism, giving hope to desperate people is not charity, it is simple prudence….In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.

This openness—at once strategic and in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent confirmations of the rights of stateless refugees—is currently complicated by the sheer scope of the crisis; while hesitance is propagandized by jihadists as anti-Muslim hatred. Trump’s “total ban” feeds that narrative, yet appeals to some annoyed by Obama’s attempt to recognize distinctions. With jihadism expanding and growing more savage and dangerous with the emergence of the apocalyptic and ruthless Islamic State, many have wearied of the President’s nuanced language, especially his apparent inability to utter the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism.”

This semantic sensitivity, though diplomatically defensible and admirably intended to avoid turning combat with jihadist terrorism into a war on Islam itself, nevertheless seems misguided, unnecessary, and patronizing—to the vast majority of Muslims and to those capable of distinguishing between them and jihadists. His stubbornness on this point (adhered to by Hillary) also leaves Obama, once we get beyond the lunatic Right’s delusion that he is himself a covert Muslim, vulnerable to the charge of politically correct reticence—and worse.

In a discussion of foreign policy during the December Republican primary debate, Chris Christie contemptuously dismissed the President as a “feckless weakling.” None of the other Republicans on the stage objected to this depiction of a sitting President, whose reputation affects national security. The prime example of this “weakness” for most of his critics, even for many of his supporters, remains Obama’s pivotal rethinking of his initial decision, in the summer of 2013, to militarily enforce the chemical-weapons “red line” he had drawn in Syria, cancelling the airstrikes intended to punish Assad for crossing that line. While the President should never have laid down that red line, he did have valid reasons, military and political, to rethink the airstrikes. His reversal was influenced by David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary authorization, Angela Merkel’s reluctance, and Obama’s own second thoughts about the danger, in blowing up chemical depots, of poisoning the very civilians he was trying to save.  But the price was not only a loss of US “credibility,” but a perception of Obama himself as vacillating, indecisive, “weak.”[6]

Though Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of the Middle East should be appreciated as wisdom rather than dismissed as weakness, he can also be frustratingly overcautious. He can also appear casual, as in his decision, after Brussels, to continue his visit to Cuba and Argentina rather than rush back to Washington. (Despite the baseball-and-tango “optics,” he was also ordering the commando operation that took out the ISIS Finance Minister.) Better Obama’s cool and restraint than the reckless hubris of Cheney and Bush, whose “bold, rousing response” led to the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obama’s restraint is also preferable to the macho chest-thumping of Chris Christie, hailed (three years ago by conservative pundit Bill Kristol) as a much-needed incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast.”[7] This President’s scrupulous deliberation has its own flaws, but it is sober and rational compared to the half-truths and hyperbole that have marked this Trump-dominated Republican primary in general.

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IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Center Threatened

In fact, the more one sees and hears Donald Trump, the more one recognizes in him, far more than in Christie (who later hitched on to Trump), the contemporary political incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast”—boorish, narcissistic, reckless, given to irresponsible hyperbole and ad hominem bullying. In a January 20 New York Daily News op-ed, “Slouching toward Des Moines,” Harry Siegel deplored the inadequacy of the candidates then gathering for the Iowa caucuses. “The people who would be President are lunatics, liars or both,” he opined. Citing Yeats’s poem in its entirety, he synopsized “the Republican view of the world, and America’s place in it,” by directly quoting Trump, and captioning as a symbol of “passionate intensity” a photo of Trump being endorsed by syntax-challenged flamethrower and nitwit, Sarah Palin. “What rough beast?” Siegel wondered, answering himself: “I’m afraid we’re about to find out.” One day earlier, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted the intensified conflict between the frontrunners for the Republican nomination: Trump, an “ethno-nationalist wrecking ball,” and Ted Cruz, “more demagogue than ideologue.” Gerson concluded his January 19 Washington Post column: “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose. The future of the party as the carrier of a humane, inclusive conservatism now depends on some viable choice beyond them”—a sentiment echoed by his NY Times counterpart, David Brooks, hoping for Trump and Cruz to kill each other off.

A few days later, National Review, the venerable conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley, weighed in with a special Against Trump issue, featuring twenty-two diatribes denouncing Trump, a “philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the conservative ideological consensus.” In varying degrees of panic (the one African-American among them, Thomas Sowell, more exercised by hatred of Obama than fear of The Donald, sounded positively unhinged), the right-wing pundits (plus Glenn Beck) projected the nomination of Trump as a disaster for the Republican Party and a catastrophe for their own “principled,” intellectual conservatism.

Trump characteristically dismissed National Review as a failing, elitist magazine, and announced that his followers’ loyalty was such that if he were to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” it would have no effect on his numbers. The outrageous remark was at once offensive and funny. Fears that it might also be accurate were allayed when a suddenly vincible Trump was defeated in evangelical Iowa by a hymn-citing Cruz (“To God be the glory!”), while just edging out a no-less-pious Rubio, praising “Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.”  Better Trump than Cruz, though it’s hard to know which demagogue best embodies the Yeatsian “worst.” As a deal-maker par excellence, Trump seems flexible and pragmatic, but as a candidate on the stump and on TV, he plays a man “all conviction” and “full of passionate intensity,” his certitudes and seemingly spontaneous outbursts cunningly calculated to inflame, while entertaining, the huge crowds he attracts. Media-savvy and freewheeling, a master of the immediacy of reality TV, Trump plays on the frustrations and fears, the anger and alienation, of his core audience: white, non-college-educated, struggling economically—in short, the very “losers” this relentless exponent of “winning” almost certainly despises even as he charms them.

Going into New Hampshire, some attention shifted to Cruz and Rubio, but moderate Kasich beat them both, and all were trounced by Trump, whose decisive victory there, in South Carolina and Nevada (and solid lead in the national polls) left the Republican Establishment reeling. Much of the Religious Right has rallied to Trump, but not Richard D. Land, the former President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Dipping into the “maelstrom” of sociopolitical turmoil agitated by the “populist uprising” of 2016, Land, now executive editor of The Christian Post, reported on January 31, that lines of Yeats’s “famous poem” keep “running through my mind.” He quoted a half-dozen lines of “The Second Coming,” beginning, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and asked, in conclusion: “Can the political-societal center hold, or has it been hollowed out (center, and increasingly the center-right and center-left) to the point that America and her political institutions have devolved into…ethnic, societal, religious, and electronic tribes (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)?” Has the “tidal wave of intense populism” surfed by Sanders and Trump left us with a “political tsunami” and an anti-centrism “currently beyond rational constructive consensus?”

This imagery, like the loosing of Yeats’s irrational “blood-dimmed tide,” captures the out-of-control aspect of the 2016 election. The populist appeal of Bernie Sanders, focused on inequality of wealth and opportunity, though anti-establishment, is comparatively benign. But just as Yeats tapped into the Collective Unconscious of  Spiritus Mundi for his images in “The Second Coming,” Donald Trump has, alas, tapped into part of the American psyche—not the Emersonian “Oversoul,” but the darker Under-Soul, or “base,” or id, of the contemporary Republican Party. His appeal, populist-nationalist and pseudo-conservative, though based on himself as the latest embodiment of the Great Man theory, feeds on the facile illusion of simple solutions to complex problems and on what Nietzsche called ressentiment.

As E. J. Dionne noted in an August, 2015 Washington Post op-ed titled “When Yeats Comes Knocking,” Trump “is a symptom of a much wider problem.” Citing the “most cited poem in political commentary,” Dionne observed that we are “definitely in for another ‘Second Coming’ revival,” since “the center is under siege all over the democratic world.” Dionne, a liberal, quoted conservative Reihan Salam, also struck by the similarities between Trumpism and rising movements (to the left and right of centrist European parties) that “manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew.” In a February 24 NY Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg, author of a balanced new study of Ronald Reagan, noted that unless the Republican Party (which venerates Reagan, but more in the breach than the observance of his pragmatism) “repudiates the inflammatory rhetoric of the primary, it will lose Reagan’s claim to the center and become more like one of Europe’s chauvinistic right-wing parties.”

Trump’s wealth allows him to spurn corporate donors and PACs (appealing to his working-class supporters), and to mock (in tweets) his fellow candidates as “puppets” who (aside from Kasich) flock to palatial meetings to “beg for money from the Koch Brothers.” But he is at one with the Republican Right in fomenting hatred of a federal government allegedly out to “take away our guns” and freedom; and no one has matched Trump in manipulating the festering rage and fear over rapid demographic and sociocultural change that the former fringe but now center of the GOP has been scaremongering for years. That witches’ brew culminates in Obamaphobia: a visceral hatred directed at the ultimate “other”: that alien and Constitution-spurning usurper in the White House whose domestic reign Republicans deem “lawless” and “imperial,” even as they pronounce him “weak” in foreign policy. The hatred is most toxic in Cruz and Rubio, who accused the President of deliberately intending to damage the United States.

In dealing with Syria and ISIS, Obama’s characteristic weighing of every alternative can summon up, even among some of his supporters, the most repeated phrase from “The Second Coming.” I would not myself ascribe to the President a “lack of conviction,” let alone the sweeping “all conviction,” applied (by David Lehman and by the authors of ISIS: The State of Terror) to those who have demonstrated insufficient decisiveness in confronting the terrorist challenge. Cool, poised, and aloof amid the fevered atmosphere of polarizing and extremist babble, Obama may see himself (a colleague, historian Ed Judge, suggests) as the “Man” in Kipling’s “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Almost congenitally incapable of expressing and evoking that “visceral” response sometimes required of a leader, Obama can vacillate. Again, his pivotal decision/revision not to enforce with air strikes the red line in Syria brings to mind Yeats’s tragic insight, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

This President may not be the “best,” but he is far better than this year’s Republican alternatives, all (with the only partial exception of John Kasich) critics and haters at once dismissive of Obama’s “weakness” and apoplectic about his exercise of executive power. Finally, however, as it is worth recalling, there are passions even more intense than Obamaphobia. The excellent documentary, “VICE Special Report: Fighting ISIS,” which debuted on HBO on the final day of 2015, ends with Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Baghdad, lamenting the presence in fragmented Iraq of multiple “passionate intensities,” none boding well for the region, or for us.

§

Like the volatile American primary races, the world doesn’t stop turning and churning. 2016 began with the US stock market’s worst-ever start to a new year, a five-day sell-off reflecting international economic and political turmoil. There are two epicenters this time, Europe and China. In China, runaway economic growth has come to a sudden halt, reflected in the plummeting of its financial markets and fostering a cycle of decline and panic throughout the world, especially in South America and in South Africa, whose economies rely on supplying Chinese manufacturing’s insatiable demand for natural resources. These negative repercussions are compounded by the collapse in the price of crude (at its lowest point in a dozen years), which has already had a devastating impact on petro-states, much of whose oil is sent to China. The dramatic slowdown of the long overheated Chinese economy, the second largest in the world and a main driver of international trade, could conceivably trigger a global recession deeper and wider than the US and Europe-centered financial crisis of 2008.

The European situation is more immediate and more dire. Geoffrey Wheatcroft opened a February 18, 2016 essay in The National Interest: “There are times—and the present moment is very much one of them—when certain great poems, minatory and ominous, force their way into the mind.” He cites Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Auden’s “The Fall of Rome,” Kipling’s “Recessional.” But his title, “Europe’s Political Center Cannot Hold,” confirms that he really has in mind “that extraordinary, oracular work,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The lines about mere anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide being “loosed upon the world” were (notes Wheatcroft, aware of the poem’s original context) “not meant to be a guide to everyday politics.” Yet the words “the center cannot hold” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” written in 1919, “seemed all the more forceful with every year over the next decades of totalitarianism, total war, and total murder.”

So they do again today. We have witnessed the explosion of the Levant and the implosion of Europe, the rise of demagogues on both the Left and, more notably, on the Right, on both sides of the Atlantic. The internal atrophy of politics in the United States is another question [and one not limited to “Donald Trump’s vulgarity”]….But we Europeans should hesitate before sneering….What has happened in these recent years is not just the near collapse of the European Union, but the demonstration of its complete inadequacy to deal with present dangers, from the self-inflicted and unresolvable crisis of a single currency…to the awful problem of mass immigration [caused mostly by refugees fleeing the horror in Syria]….Beyond that is the acute threat within Europe to political stability. The [the old center-right and center-left consensus] is now being severely challenged from the outside left and outside right by parties and politicians called “extremist” or, much more revealingly, “populist.”

Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, only free of Soviet imperialism for a quarter-century and in the European Union for a decade, have shown “alarming signs of sliding back into authoritarianism, nativism, racism and corruption.” Even “more perturbing” are events in the nations of Western Europe, recent experience in the largest of which (France, Germany, and Italy) has been “somber.” Consider France, where the National Front founded by neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen is now headed by his more adroit daughter, who expelled her father from a party whose tone, however, remains staunchly nativist, “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim.” Wheatcroft’s survey, brief but ominous, provides sufficient evidence to support his grim Yeatsian thesis: “Europe’s political center cannot hold.”

On the humanitarian and political fronts, 2016 arrived accompanied by an intensification of already bad news. The Syrian refugee nightmare continued to worsen by the day, with tens of thousands of Syrian civilians—cut off in towns besieged by pro- or anti-government forces, and bombed from the air—starving and freezing as a harsh winter set in (an ironic reminder of the antithetical crisis: accelerating global warming). Russian airstrikes, especially in and around the rebel-held city of Aleppo, intensified sharply. The February peace talks in Geneva were suspended before they even started, a “temporary pause” essentially attributable to Putin’s bombing, a strategy popular at home and successful in turning the war in favor of Russia’s ally, Assad. In March, that goal achieved, Putin withdrew.

Putin was always seeking a military rather than a political solution in Syria; while the US negotiated but seemed unable to stop him, debating even about airdrops of food and medicine in areas where Russian planes were operating. The agreement reached in Munich on February 11, between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for a “cessation of hostilities” on the ground in Syria in order to get humanitarian aid to besieged areas. This tentative step toward a true cease-fire depends on its being honored by the various warring parties and by Assad himself. At the very moment when negotiations to that end were underway, ISIS launched its deadliest attacks of the civil war, bombings that took at least 130 lives. Whatever our role or Putin’s, without a genuine cease-fire, the humanitarian crisis will intensify within Syria and continue to expand throughout the Middle East and Europe as desperate refugees flee starvation and carnage.

At the same time, we have an expanded example of the post-World War I European fragmentation that prompted Yeats to conclude in 1919 that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In 2016, beyond the internal collapse of the European “center,” the transatlantic alliance binding the United States and Europe since the end of World War II and anchoring global stability for seven decades seems no longer able to hold. We are still united by shared values, but there is a growing divergence between European and American priorities. Their militaries underfunded, worried about the potential threat of unassimilated Muslim populations, the nations of Europe (and Turkey, also a NATO member) are too divided among themselves to present much of a united front. Insufficiently full-throated in celebrating American “exceptionalism,” and caricatured by jingoists as “apologizing” for America, Barack Obama has been more justly accused of indecisiveness in his vacillation over the Syrian “red line.” We retain—for good or, as we know all too well, for ill—the option to act unilaterally; but  things have fallen so far apart that, whoever is President, the US may no longer be able to lead a coalition of the unwilling, or unable.

This transatlantic division and consequent diminution of resolve and leadership is especially dangerous at a moment when the West is confronted by so many global challenges. The most urgent emanates from the world’s most volatile region, the Middle East, torn by its own divisions: the old and apparently irresolvable breaches between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Shia and Sunni. After three decades of opining about the Middle East, Tom Friedman, in effect, threw up his hands, admitting in his February 12 NY Times column that none of “the many Mideast solutions” are any longer viable. He concluded that the “real,” as opposed to the “fantasy,” Middle East is “a wholly different beast now slouching towards Bethlehem.”

The intra-Muslim rift has been intensified by the recent rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s two most powerful oil-rich states, and the principal defenders, respectively, of the Sunni and Shia branches of schismatic Islam. Triggered by the Saudi execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and the ransacking and torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the crisis between these regional rivals led, in early January, to a severing of diplomatic relations and to escalating tensions affecting the whole of the Middle East. The breach torpedoed hopes for diplomatically resolving the crises in Syria and Yemen, in which Tehran and Riyadh support opposing sides, and it works to the benefit of ISIS by further destabilizing a region already fractured along ethno-sectarian fault lines. With this Saudi-Iran rupture, we also have the hypocritical spectacle of one barbaric theocracy criticizing the other for behaving—barbarically.[8]

Both autocracies relish the graphic execution of their perceived enemies, and both spread terror: our “ally” through its far-flung madrassas and by permitting its elites to fund jihadists; our opponent, but partner in the nascent nuclear agreement, more directly, and through such proxies as Hamas and Hezbollah. The January 4 New York Times account of the crisis was accompanied by a video of a Tehran mob being whipped into a religio-political frenzy by a cleric ranting that the decapitation of al-Nimr, part of a mass execution (forty-seven in all, mostly by beheading and mostly Sunnis), was carried out at the behest of Islam’s true enemies. According to this turbaned pundit, the Saudis are the “collared dogs” of the Little and Great Satan; thus, the protest climaxed with the usual chants: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” (even, for good measure, “to England”).

As a fomenter of hatred, unrest, and terror, Iran is second only to ISIS. Offering one glimmer of light, the March 2016 Iranian elections confirmed widespread support for the reformers and those most committed to the nuclear agreement with the US. Whatever the leadership’s internal stresses, and while it remains a theocratic tyranny, Iran seems dynamic compared to its sclerotic regional rival. While revolutionary Iran meddles, propping up the Assad government, bankrolling Israel’s regional opponents, and stirring up Shia minorities in the Sunni-dominated Gulf states, the Kingdom is experiencing its own severe internal tensions. The new dynastic discord within the Saudi royal family has reached the point where open conflict is now a plausible threat, a scenario incomprehensible before the January 2015 ascension of King Salman. Reputedly suffering from dementia, the aging King may have deferred considerable authority to his favorite son, defense minister and Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman.

Whoever is calling the shots, ailing father or impulsive son, the monarchy’s new and unilateral aggressiveness (pursuing in Yemen a costly, brutal, and indecisive war against the Houthi movement and the Yemeni army, and ordering these recent provocative executions) reflects less strength than fear. Fear of a succession crisis; fear, despite huge cash reserves, of a collapsing oil-based economy; above all, fear of revolutionary Iran and its hegemonic ambitions in the region. The nuclear deal with the US has alarmed not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but all the Sunni states. Its verification procedures are persistently and deliberately misrepresented by its opponents, but the accord still comes with a cost. Even those of us in favor of the deal— given the unpalatable alternatives—should be as troubled as its opponents are by the prospect of a $100 billion or so windfall attending the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the initial withdrawal of sanctions. Most of that money will be needed to rebuild the sanction-damaged Iranian economy. But some of it will inevitably be used to fund Iran’s proxies. What impact might that influx of cash have on the region?

Bahrain and Sudan joined the Saudis in breaking diplomatic relations with Iran; the Emirates sharply reduced contacts; and Shia militias bombed Sunni mosques in Iraq. Quickly rippling through the Middle East, the decision to behead al-Nimr stirred protests as far away as Pakistan and India. The fact that the United States advised against the execution of al-Nimr and was given no advance notice of the Saudi decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran suggests that the young Crown Prince may be in charge in Riyadh. With the role of the US diminished, China and Russia both weighed in, urging restraint; Putin even offered to mediate. This political and religious crisis, the most dangerous regional confrontation in decades, threatens, in the language of several Middle-East experts, to “spiral out of control.”  Retired General Mark Hertling, a perceptive CNN military analyst, concerned that a more direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could erupt, employed the same imagery: “That’s the key issue. This is spiraling very quickly.” It is hard, in pondering the perennial relevance of “The Second Coming” to contemporary crises, not to think of Yeats’s own spiraling imagery: the poem-opening falcon, no longer under the control of the falconer, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” its spiraling movement replicated by the “desert birds” whose shadows “reel” about the ominous “shape” moving in “sands of the desert.”

This crisis, on hold but potentially explosive, is part of a recurrent centrifugal pattern. Yeats was responding to specific historical events in “The Second Coming.” If readers were bound by the literary equivalent of judicial “originalism,” the theory espoused by the eloquent but reactionary late Justice Antonin Scalia, many or most of them would be guilty, in endlessly citing and alluding to the poem, of misappropriation, quoting Yeats’s words while inadvertently or deliberately misconstruing his original political intentions. But we are not thus bound, as Yeats also intended. For his deepest and most genuine foresight, as we have also seen, was his decision to delete, in the process of composition, virtually all the specific details that would have tethered his poem to the events of 1919 as seen through the perspective of the worst atrocities of the French Revolution. The result is a universal poem that has resonated with every generation of readers, and from every political perspective, for almost a century.

Whether we have in mind international political and economic crises, the coarsening and polarization of American politics, the metastasizing of Islamist terrorism, the fragmentation of the European Union and of the Middle East, the refugee tide inundating Europe and the Levant, the danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear blackmail, or the interrelated ecological challenges threatening life on the planet itself in our new “Anthropocene Age,” we may be reminded of John Donne’s disoriented cry early in the 17th century. With “new Philosophy” calling “all in doubt,” sun and earth “lost” and the “Firmament”  itself “crumbled out againe” to atoms, the Metaphysical poet summed up the chaos in a single line: “‘Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone” (The First Anniversary, 205-13). That lamentation over the loss of wisdom, cohesion, stability and order was surely recalled by an admirer of Donne, W. B. Yeats, when he wrote the line that has become so familiar to those contemplating the world the modern poet prophesied as he brooded, in excited reverie and dread, over European disintegration, and envisioned, “everywhere,” the loosing of an irrational blood-dimmed tide of “anarchy” and varieties of “passionate intensity” erupting in violence and chaos. To quote it once more: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

One recalls that open question from Yeats’s near-parallel poem, the great sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: given all this, “is there any comfort to be found?” If so, it is unlikely, for most readers of “The Second Coming,” to derive from Yeats’s own Burkean political perspective, in which the sociocultural disintegration threatened by centrifugal forces could be countered only by the values of a hierarchical, aristocratic civilization. What comfort there is, if there is any at all, may be inherent in the symbol of the gyre itself: the eternal cycle which, for Blake, was a dehumanizing nightmare, but, for Yeats’s other great mentor, Nietzsche, an eternal recurrence to be embraced with astringent tragic joy. And there is a variation more comic than tragic. That aspect of the recurrent cycle was caught by an anonymous editorial writer in the Christmas Eve 2015 issue of a newspaper, the Memphis Flyer. “Simultaneously looking back and forward,” and proceeding “ahead into the next turning of the eternal gyre,” the editorialist invoked the locus classicus:

That aspect of the eternal gyre is something we of the Western world owe to William Butler Yeats, whose poem, ‘The Second Coming,’ gave us lines to remember through all the cycles, all the turnings of fate that seem to foreshadow an end but merely invite a new beginning. There are times, as Yeats wrote almost a century ago, when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ A hundred years later, and it’s still true. It will always be still true. And we will survive and scramble to find our place in a brand new cycle, which itself will seem to be heading to an end but will just be the same old adventure in a new cycle….

The phrasing at its most glib—“merely,” “brand new,” “just be the same old adventure”—is in keeping with the purpose of the editorial, which was to wish its readers a “Happy New Year!” But, mutatis mutandis, this  optimism differs only in tone from Yeats’s own pipe dream, as expressed in his lengthy annotation to “The Second Coming.”  I refer to the vision—influenced by Nietzsche but one that would have repelled Blake—of that new and nobler hierarchical civilization Yeats hoped, and apparently believed, would succeed the democratic and Christian age that was dying.

Introducing his play, The Resurrection, Yeats presents a counter-myth to democracy, Christianity, and that linear “progress” Nietzsche dismissed as a “modern theory, and therefore vulgar.” “When I was a boy” Yeats tells us,

everybody talked about progress, and rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth. I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin. [Around the turn of the century, after reading Nietzsche], I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.

Yeats goes on in this paragraph to cite his 1903 uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, featuring a Nietzschean beast with the literally hilarious name, “Laughter, the mightiest of the enemies of God”—a beast (he adds in a footnote) “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.”

But is this assertion, this claimed identity, really accurate? Mythically and politically, the apocalyptic “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” wingless and certainly not laughing, may represent both the end-product of the vision of the “progressive” Left and the first stirrings, life arising out of death, of an antithetical vision of the aristocratic Right. But however “exciting” it may be, the risen and slouching creature, as actually presented in the poem, is far less promising than sinister, its imminent birth less hopeful than horrifying. In terms of its precursors, Yeats’s rough beast resembles Nietzsche’s beasts, cruel or laughing, only peripherally. And it has less in common with Blake’s prophetic Tyger, terrible but beautiful, than with the slouching, bestial Nebuchadnezzar of Blake’s striking illustration. Indeed, as a creature of “second birth,” the rough beast may most resemble one of those “tigers” Wordsworth imagined prowling the bloodied streets of revolutionary Paris, ready to pounce again in the even worse Terror to come: for all things have second birth.

In short, whatever the poem’s original starting point as a response to his juxtaposed Bolshevik and French Revolutions, and whatever Yeats’s own politics and cyclical counter-myth to the vulgar modern myth of linear progress, “The Second Coming” turned out, as a linguistic work of art, to have a momentum all its own, quite aside from authorial intention. Though the tone of the finished poem mingles dread with a vestigial schadenfreude (“I-told-you-so”) exultation, it ends in human incertitude rather than prophetic certainty.

Other readers may differ, but, aside from that breathless and ambiguous phrase, at once cyclical and terminal, “its hour come round at last,” I find—once we’ve turned from the prose glosses to the actual text of “The Second Coming” itself—little or nothing of the anticipatory optimism attending Yeats’s theoretical celebrations of ecstatically destructive beasts. Nor, I believe, at least as poet rather than prose annotator or apocalyptic theorist, did W. B. Yeats—his sight titillated, but, finally, as “troubled” as ours by what he glimpsed before the darkness dropped again.

↑ return to Contents

V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

Re-narrowing the focus, I want to return to the current American political scene, specifically to the 2016 Republican primary race. As mentioned earlier, back in 2012, Bill Kristol, the conservative mastermind who had earlier helped midwife both the Iraq War and the emergence to national prominence of Sarah Palin, welcomed Chris Christie as the “rough beast” the Republican Party needed to win the Presidency. This time around, we have two far more likely Republican contenders for the title of “rough beast”: Donald Trump, obviously, but with Ted Cruz lurking in the wings.

Christie was forced out of the 2016 race after a humiliatingly weak showing in New Hampshire, but not before humiliating Marco Rubio, who, in a campaign-altering meltdown, reiterated a canned accusation that it was Obama’s deliberate intention to damage the US:  “We have to stop saying that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing….” Rubio kept robotically repeating this charge of presidential treason, even after Christie had twice ridiculed, not the malice or the mendacity, but the verbatim repetition! In a second coming, Christie, out of the running himself, returned as a revenant the day after the Republican debate in Austen, Texas, to repeat his takedown of Rubio. Having finally been put on the defensive in that debate by Rubio, Trump demonstrated his skill in dominating the news cycle. The next day, in a surprise “Big Announcement,” he trotted out Christie to repeat his ridicule of Rubio while effusively endorsing the “one man” able to provide America “the strongest possible leadership” and insure that “Hillary Clinton will never return to the White House.” In one stroke, this tag team of bullies blunted Rubio’s short-lived post-debate “momentum,” taking the wind out of the sails of the Republican Establishment’s preferred last hope to Stop Trump.

Shortly thereafter, with Christie looking less like a formidable surrogate than a flaccid sycophant, Trump managed (after failing, in response to repeated questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper, to definitively repudiate the support of David Duke and the KKK) to reach a new level of vulgarity. Trump turned Rubio’s innuendo-laden taunt about his allegedly “small hands,” and what that “meant,” into a boastful “guarantee,” in the next debate, of his impressive sexual endowment. The “debates” had deteriorated from mere incivility to schoolyard braggadocio, with “he-started-it” silliness to follow. When a lush photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was distributed by a group unaffiliated with Cruz, Trump tweeted a threat to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. At first Cruz responded with an indignant defense of his wife (its sincerity tainted by the fact that it was plagiarized, verbatim, from the 1995 film, The American President), before bellowing, after Trump had posted an unflattering photo of Heidi, that this “sniveling coward” better leave “Heidi the hell alone.”

In the first Super Tuesday round of primaries and caucuses, Ted Cruz, who had not at that point descended into the Trump-Rubio gutter, did well, crucially holding his own state, Texas, and winning several others. Though Rubio, ironically the first “Tea Party” senator, had briefly become the darling of the Establishment, the attempt to slow down Trump by wrestling with him in the mud had backfired and been to no avail. Trump took seven of eleven states on Super Tuesday. Subsequently, and even more ironically, with Rubio fading (he would never get beyond his two minor victories: the Minnesota caucuses and the Puerto Rican primary), and Trump denounced by Mitt Romney as a fraud, Cruz, in whom everything anti-Establishment was concentrated as in a bouillon cube, emerged as that Establishment’s last desperate hope to keep the blond-maned rough beast from slouching to the convention in Cleveland with the required 1,237 delegates, or with so many fired-up acolytes chanting Trump! Trump! Trump! that it would prove difficult if not impossible to broker him out of the nomination.

It would be a battle between egotistical demagogues, equally capable of commanding an audience, though their oratorical styles could hardly be more different. Silver-tongued Cruz, who can’t say “hello” without sounding as if he’s pontificating from a pulpit or from atop a soapbox, deploys the  elaborately-constructed, orotund sentences of a trained debater, skillfully weaving his points into a coherent argument. Rambling and repetitive Trump rallies his rapt audiences in staccato, non-syntactical bursts, hitting the same few points, and often legitimate grievances, but appealing less to reason than to emotion and prejudice. In a March 8 NY Times op-ed, “Only Trump Can Trump Trump,” Tom Friedman noted the folly of rivals trying to rationally convert Trump “fans” who respond to him on a “gut level” impervious to logical argument. Friedman’s conclusion, that “you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into,” aptly reminded my friend Dennis O’Connor of Jonathan Swift’s advice to a young clergyman in 1720: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.”  In addition, with his base, Trump assumes the ethnic stereotypes he shares with them, and in which, as a businessman, he has trafficked for years. He also possesses a bully’s ability to size up an opponent and skewer him with an ad hominem epithet. “Little Marco” was left, diminished, on the ropes; a single hyphenated adjective, “low-energy,” from which Jeb Bush never recovered, was enough to demolish a dynasty. “Lyin’ Ted,” puffed up with hubris, proved able to take a punch.

The latest avatar of the Religious Right and a purist ideologue—a contemporary right-wing version of Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” of the French Revolution—Ted Cruz is, for many, more frightening even than Trump. An unctuous, sanctimonious ultra-conservative, Cruz thunders apocalyptically about undoing everything done by his hated predecessor on “my first day in office”—“repealing” Obamacare, “ripping to shreds” the nuclear agreement with Iran, getting rid of regulations on corporations, stringently curtailing a woman’s reproductive rights, rolling back environmental protection measures (indeed, terminating the EPA, along with the Department of Education and the IRS); devoutly committing ourselves to Israel, right or wrong; to judicial originalism; and to the extremist agendas of both the NRA and the Koch Brothers.

Hardline conservatives applaud many of these presidential priorities, but Ted Cruz is a zealot and a singularly unattractive one, loathed from the outset by his Princeton and Harvard classmates and later by his Senate colleagues. It is not necessary to consider him (to cite the paired photo of Cruz and Grandpa Munster that has gone viral) “a blood-sucking vampire from a bygone era,” or as “Satanic” (a televised adjective David Brooks later modified to “Mephistophelian”), in order to be turned off by Cruz’s naked ambition, his self-righteousness, his preening arrogance, and the studied artifice of his oratory, as bombastic as it is demagogic. One can admire his verbal skills, but despise the man himself, to say nothing of the hard-right policies he so apocalyptically and inflexibly espouses.

Ted Cruz Grandpa Munster

To observe that Cruz was cursed with a vampiric and (however appropriately) a Joe McCarthy-like visage is to risk joining Donald Trump in belittling a person’s physical appearance. But it’s his facial expressions I find repellent, wincing every time he punctuates his favorite applause lines by chuckling—silently, creepily, barely moving his lips and without anything resembling actual human mirth. Listening to his speech to his followers on the evening of the third Super Tuesday, the Ides of March, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cassius, that cunningly ambitious man who thinks too much and has “a lean and hungry look.” As Caesar intuited, “Such men are dangerous.” Though many Republicans, including former rivals Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham, have now, however half-heartedly, endorsed Cruz as the only way to Stop Trump, others remain no less terrified of the prospect of the reptilian Ted Cruz slouching towards Washington.

Republicans unnerved by Trump and repelled by Cruz are now hoping for an open convention, in which most pledged delegates, committed to the primary and caucus results only through the first ballot, would be free to vote for anyone on a second and subsequent ballots. But that threatened to loose “mere anarchy.” If Cruz or front-runner Trump were to be spurned at a contested convention, their followers might revolt—even, as Trump warned (or threatened), “riot” or launch an independent third party. As March ended, the panicked GOP, having long nurtured its radical right wing, seemed on the verge of disintegration. Party elders feared that neither a detested Cruz nor an unpredictable Trump would be able to defeat a damaged but still formidable Hillary Clinton (they continued to dismiss “that socialist,” Bernie Sanders). In addition to losing the Presidency, with Trump as nominee, Party bosses fretted that some centrist Republicans would either cross over, or not vote at all in November; or that the “Trump Effect” would further radicalize the GOP, strengthening Tea Party challenges to Establishment incumbents, and wrecking what was left of the no longer very grand Grand Old Party.

With no center able to hold, Ayn Randian conservative Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, now seemed like a moderate. But, however respected, even revered he was, Ryan was unable to get hardliners on his right to endorse his budget, while being threatened, from his other flank, by Trump, who rejected cutting Social Security benefits, and informed Ryan who would be “boss.” Even the Republican center-right, the position represented by all three Bushes, had manifestly collapsed, with Trump having achieved the unique feat of unleashing the furies of both the extreme Right and, for Republicans at least, the populist Left. Ryan himself was privately and publicly urged to become the savior at the convention (a role Kasich hoped to play, in the wake of his March 15 victory in Ohio). But any such convention coup, though infinitely preferable to the extremist alternatives, would leave the ultras committed to Cruz and the devotees fanatically loyal to Trump more convinced than ever that they had been betrayed yet again by the Washington elites: insiders represented, on the Democratic side, by Hillary Clinton, a battered but resilient survivor of Bernie Sanders’ valiant and stunningly popular insurgency from the progressive Left.

The division within the parties reflected, but failed to resolve, the massive discontent in the nation: the very frustration and anger—much of it rooted in the slowly, weakly and, above all, unevenly recovering economy—that had fired up the anti-Establishment Sanders and Trump movements in the first place. Some professed themselves perplexed by voters torn between the apparent extremes of Trump and Sanders. That phenomenon can be explained by their overlapping support from blue-collar workers. Those workers, always a low priority for Republicans, were largely abandoned in the 1970s by the Democrats, who have become—as progressive gadfly Tom Frank argues in Listen Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016) —more allied with non-union technocrats and other professionals. There are exceptions among individual pundits and politicians (even Hillary Clinton is having second thoughts on trade). But in general, the “party of the people” became less interested in blue-collar workers and thus in economic inequality—which has actually widened under Obama.

Into this vacuum came Sanders and Trump, whose populist blue-collar appeal is based on their protectionist opposition to outsourcing and to international trade agreements that have benefited corporations but taken away thousands of manufacturing jobs, especially in the Midwest rustbelt. American de-industrialization is not attributable to NAFTA, CAFTA and the TPP alone, but unemployed factory workers are understandably less interested in nuanced theoretical discussions of the positive aspects of globalization than in eagerly listening to those who reflect their grievances and promise to redress them. No matter that, as a businessman, Trump does not practice what he preaches when it comes to outsourcing and hiring illegals. No matter, as well, that he (and Bernie) make campaign promises, many of which they would not be able to fulfill as President. Both create hope, much of it false. But the desperation is real, and the appeal powerful.

Though the American economy under Obama has created 4 million private sector jobs since 2010, many without a college education or lacking the skills required in a new economy have been left behind. Unemployed and underemployed whites are at the core of Trump’s constituency. But these painfully real socioeconomic conditions do not fully explain the phenomenon of Trump, who is also, as David Remnick observed in the March 14 New Yorker, “the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence” (the assault on science, the elevation of Sarah Palin, etc.) and years spent “courting the basest impulses in American political culture,” beginning with  Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and including, more lately, “a birther movement and the Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Birther-in-Chief Trump, flaunting endorsements by the barely coherent Palin and the evolution-denying Doctor Carson, occupies a prominent position at the populist epicenter of this intellectual decadence.

Unlike that of Sanders, Trump’s populist insurgency is spiked by a toxic dose of nationalism and xenophobia. Something short of a fascist or a racist himself, Trump assumes and fuels the resentment and racism of many of his followers: a visceral hatred evident in the outbreaks of violence at recent Trump rallies. As usual, there are two, if not quite equivalent, issues in tension. Sarah Palin, eloquent as ever, has dismissed the protests as “punk-ass little thuggery” cheered on by a leftist media. It is true that Black Lives Matter activists intend to disrupt more than protest, undermining the free-speech rights of Trump supporters. What matters is how Trump has responded to this double “tension.” Unsurprisingly, he has not made it a “teachable moment.” While he does “not condone” the violence against the various protestors (some carrying “Sanders” signs), Trump most certainly does not condemn it. Instead, he incites or incentivizes it, announcing from the podium that he himself would like to “punch” protesters, and waxing nostalgic about the days when such dissidents would be “carried out on stretchers.” When one of his fans did in fact sucker-punch a black protestor as he was being led away, Trump offered to pay any legal fees incurred by the assailant—who was immediately afterward taped, not only expressing pleasure at having punched his victim in the face, but adding ominously that he was “not one of us,” and that “next time we may have to kill him.”

Such behavior and such an attitude are obviously extreme even in the most raucous Trump rally. But the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” is often allied with prejudice and ignorance. One is therefore unsurprised by Trump’s professed “love” for the “poorly educated,” and by the enthusiastic willingness of “my people” to follow their Leader. Even Vladamir Putin, that poster boy for virile masculinity, has been impressed by the same quality in Trump—who returned the compliment (“at least,” in contrast to Obama, “he’s a leader”). The exception among foreign heads of state, Putin also pronounced Trump “brilliant and talented,” leading to an official endorsement by the head of Russia’s state-owned news agency.

No Putin, let alone Hitler, Trump has been more engagingly compared to Mussolini. The Donald recently, if unwittingly, re-tweeted a favorite maxim of Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”), and his neo-fascist tendencies extend beyond the jutting jaw he shares with Il Duce.[9] But even this alignment is overblown. More apt is the comparison with a later Italian leader, plutocrat turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom Trump shares a megalomaniacal and vulgarian cult of the Self. Like all his buildings and projects, Trump’s private Boeing 757 airliner, the backdrop at outdoor rallies, is emblazoned with his name in huge letters. Each step of the plane’s airstair has two “TRUMP” signs; every bath-fixture and seat-buckle is 24-karat gold; every leather seat is stamped with the Trump crest. Asked recently who he consults on “policy,” he responded, as a narcissist would, “I talk to myself. I have a great brain.” The machismo and self-aggrandizement are grotesque, but to his fans, such displays project their leader’s confidence, strength, and authority.

Trump Mussolini

Jonathan Weiner, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (2009), recently described Donald Trump’s core voters as driven by their attraction to authority, to plain-spoken solutions to problems and the promise of decisive action in defense of their traditional values. In “Why Trump?,” an online essay published on March 6, cognitive scientist George Lakoff interpreted the nation’s politics, and Trump’s in particular, “metaphorically,” in familial terms. The “conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country” can be encapsulated in two common but antithetical forms of family life: “The Nurturant Parent Family (progressive) and the Strict Father Family (conservative).” Inculcating “discipline” and “strength,” the Strict Father model produces “winners,” who deserve to win, not only in life, but in electoral contests. Thus, a “formidable candidate’s insults that stick are seen as victories—deserved victories.” For those whose attitudes and prejudices have been deemed outmoded and stigmatized as “politically incorrect,” Trump “expresses out loud everything they feel—with force, aggression, anger, and no shame.” By supporting and voting for Trump, they make him their voice, and their views are made “respectable” by “his victories.” He is “their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.”

Donald Trump photo by Tony WebsterPhoto by Tony Webster (via Flikr Creative Commons)

Lakoff sketches out a conservative worldview embracing distinctions  Trump adroitly straddles.[10] But it is the distinction between “direct” and “systemic” causation that most illuminates Trump’s appeal to the wide following he has attracted. According to Lakoff, empirical research has shown that conservatives “tend to reason with direct causation,” and to deal with a problem by “direct action,” whereas progressives are more in their element engaging the “complex” interactions involved in “reasoning with systemic causation.” If it sounds like Trump vs. Obama (he of the unenforced “red line”), it is.

“Many of Trump’s policy proposals,” as Lakoff notes, “are framed in terms of direct causation.” Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico: build a wall to stop them. Many have entered illegally: deport them, even if 11 million are working and living throughout the country. Jobs are going to Asia: slap a huge tariff on the goods produced there. ISIS profits from Iraqi oil: send US troops to Iraq to seize it (in fact, coalition bombing is now taking a serious toll on ISIS oil production). Want to defeat ISIS?—“bomb the shit” out of them, and threaten (even if it’s a war crime) to kill the families of jihadists. Seeking information from terrorist suspects?—water-board them, or worse. Afraid a few terrorists might slip in among Syrian refugees?—ban all Muslims from entering the country.  To add the latest: tired of funding NATO and providing a nuclear umbrella in the Far East?—declare NATO defunct and let Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear capability. “All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not [to] those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.” Trump’s can-do machismo (including his insulting of the way a woman “looks”) will be less effective in a general election than it has been on this rowdy campaign trail.[11]

§

Contemptuous of Trump’s penchant for simplistic solutions to complex problems, and stunned by his colossal egotism, skeptical observers of his campaign were initially incredulous, even amused. But their sides stopped shaking in mirth as he piled up victories. With his near sweep on the third Super Tuesday (March 15), his delegate count became virtually insurmountable. Crushing Rubio in his home-state, winner-take-all Florida, Trump drove the Senator from the race, collecting a bonanza of 99 delegates. Kasich held on in his home-state, denying Trump Ohio’s 66 delegates. Cruz won nowhere, but continued to collect delegates, slouching toward Cleveland with a number sure to be second only to the front-runner,  whom he planned to defeat at a contested convention. Needless to say, if he fails to reach the nomination-clinching 1,237 prior to the convention, Trump will not go gently in any floor fight; there are arms to be twisted, and there’s always that threat of a “riot.” Quite aside from his own fierce will to “win,” The Donald has repeatedly told us that what he is leading is not a mere political campaign, but a “movement.”  He’s right, and he’s not alone.

Such anti-centrist movements, driven by right-wing authoritarianism and galvanized by Europe’s even greater immigration crisis, are proliferating throughout the West. In France, Marine Le Pen has slowed her activities as president of the right-wing National Front, but only because she is preparing to run next year for the Presidency of France. (Her father, the party’s ousted neo-fascist founder, having tweeted in January that if he were an American, he “would vote for Donald Trump,” accurately described Trump in March as “an independent candidate with populist language; this is what has made him successful.”) In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition is under threat because of her (no longer welcome) welcoming policy toward migrants. That policy, controversial within her own party, is challenged by right-wing opponents, most prominently by Frauke Petry, the efficient and determined leader of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a populist, anti-immigration party she led to victory in several mid-March elections. Going beyond even Marine Le Pen, Petry has proposed that police “shoot, if necessary,” at migrants attempting to enter the country illegally.

In impoverished Greece, over 100,000 migrants have arrived since the beginning of the year; in late February, police clashed with asylum seekers at the Macedonian border. Politically, demographically, and economically, the culminating moment came on the night of March 7, when Europe officially closed its borders. The leaders at the summit convened in Brussels, the EU capital (also, ironically, the central nest in Europe of unemployed, unassimilated jihadists in the making), proclaimed the end of “irregular flows of migrants.”[12] Henceforth, refugees fleeing from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq would no longer be able, in the typical scenario, to escape to the Turkish coast, board a raft to Greece, and travel on, seeking refuge in Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe. Instead, the EU pledged billions in aid to Turkey in exchange for a commitment to take the migrants back. It was a drastic step, but the alternative seemed to be the continued fracturing of Europe, with centrist governments, burdened by debt (with the exception of Germany) and besieged by refugees (and here Germany is no exception), battling against “energized movements from right and left.”

I am quoting a February 25 Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria, repeated three days later on his GPS Sunday-morning television program on CNN. Zakaria’s title and theme are a modestly hopeful variation on Yeats: “In the West, the Political Center Holds—but Barely.” He begins:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It’s time to quote W. B. Yeats’s famous poem again. But this time, it really does seem that the political center is under intense pressure—from left and right—all over the Western world….Across Europe, governments that occupy the center ground find themselves struggling against [extremist] movements….Centrists are under siege in the United States as well….Why are centrists so vulnerable?

Zakaria notes that moderate politicians and governments have performed rather well in recent decades, steering their countries through many difficult challenges. But while they may be competent, “centrists are dull, practical types,” and “there is always a search for romance in politics.” Even amid centrist success, there are still problems, many of them, often outnumbering the successes, stemming from the same force: globalization. Whatever their ultimate source, there are “enough problems to galvanize the romantics who believe that the answer is a revolution.” And, in contrast to traditional politicians, “outsiders,” a Donald Trump for example, “promise easy answers.” Zakaria turned again to “The Second Coming”:

“The best lack all conviction,” Yeats wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The simple solutions are, of course, non-solutions. And they mostly won’t happen.…But what is happening is political paralysis. The romantics and the radicals might not have the power to overturn the centrist consensus, but they can place it under relentless pressure….In the United States, the country and its political leaders have spent months debating fantasies [building the wall, deporting 11 million people, banning all Muslims]. Meanwhile, there is no discussion of the important issues and the actual, plausible policy options to deal with them—regarding the global economic slowdown, massive infrastructure deficits, growing inequality and climate change, among others.

Yeats was wrong. The center can and does hold, but just barely.

Even that tempered and terminally caveated hopefulness—though a far cry from the optimistic interpretation of the eternal gyre as “just the same old adventure in a new cycle”—may or may not amount to whistling in the dark. Just one day after Zakaria’s reassurance on television, provocative social critic James Howard Kunstler also repaired to “The Second Coming,” painting (in a March 1 blog titled “Yeats’s Widening Gyre is Upon Us”) a dismal picture of the United States as the two parties slouched toward their 2016 conventions. The “sinking global economy,” igniting “cluster-bombs of default through the financial system,” would centrifugally “effloresce,” Kunstler surmised, right around the time of those conventions. He foresaw both front-runners “lumbering inevitably toward their respective nominations,” with the GOP likely to split into “warring factions” in a probably futile attempt to derail Trump at the convention: a split reflecting, and exacerbating, the nation’s economic and cultural fissure. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has sparked a revolt that could spawn a liberal version of the Tea Party, which might, in turn, become a truly revolutionary movement were Trump or Cruz to win the presidency. Kunstler concluded: “Yeats’s widening gyre is upon us, and the second coming will not be the reappearance of the celebrity known as Jesus Christ, but rather of the event called the American Civil War.”

The optimistic God’s-eye interpretation of the eternal gyre seems, in the present circumstances, far too cheery to be persuasive. We may hope that Fareed Zakaria’s less dramatic projection of a threatened “center” holding, “but barely,” proves more accurate than James Kunstler’s vision of a second Civil War.  And yet, the American political “center” richly deserves to be challenged, as it now is—powerfully from the left, even more powerfully from the right. In his 1925 poem “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers brooded, “sadly smiling,” as “this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” Prophesying coming decay, this austere, almost survivalist poet of rock and hawk held out one Nietzschean-Yeatsian hope. There will always be “noblest spirits,” for whom “corruption/ Never has been compulsory.” When “the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” So, “shine, perishing republic./ But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center.”

The Jeffers poem, written at the same time as Robert Frost’s earlier-quoted sonnet of impending disaster, “Once by the Pacific,” was only one of three darkly prophetic poems cited by readers responding to a March 2016 essay, “Donald Trump and the Remaking of America.”[13] The essay was by military historian and retired colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose critical history, America’s War in the Greater Middle East, would be published in April. He has long condemned the Iraq War as a catastrophic decision—as has Trump, though Bacevich otherwise dismisses The Donald as a reckless celebrity performer who has, dangerously and all-too-effectively, adopted a bellicose “attitude or pose that feeds off, and then reinforces, widespread anger and alienation.” At once less interventionist and more hawkish than Hillary, Trump was aligned by Bacevich with Cruz and Rubio, in that all are “unabashed militarists,” each claiming that, as commander-in-chief, he would take no “guff from Moscow, or Pyongyang or Beijing or Tehran.” Each has asserted that, once in office, he “will eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ put the Mullahs back in their box, torture terrorists, and give Bibi whatever he wants.” (In this same month, Trump pronounced all of Islam motivated by “hatred of us,” and threatened to kill the families of terrorists—though conceding that if, as president, he could not “expand” the laws, he would, reluctantly, abide by the Constitution and the Geneva Convention.)

Responding to the Bacevich essay online, “John T” summoned up the famous “centre” that “cannot hold” and the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide,” recalling as well that “the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” and that a “rough beast, its hour come round at last,” is slouching to be born. After quoting eight lines of “The Second Coming, John T observed that the emergence of Donald Trump marks “the fulfillment of a half-century’s considered and deliberate emasculation of the underlying sense of social responsibility that once held this country together in a fragile balance.”  But, as it turns out, John T is no fan of the contemporary American center.

“The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said long ago, but it is the corporate center itself that created and unleashed the monster of Trumpism that is tearing the Republican Party apart and that, in the end, will put an end to the corporate institutions that… have so successfully controlled and undermined the very social contract that made their dominance possible. Donald Trump and what he so gleefully represents is a cancer metastasizing through the Republican Party, but what the Democratic pundits who are so joyfully pouncing on the wounded beast fail to understand is that it is a cancer that will bring the Democratic Party down in the same manner….[The followers of Bernie Sanders] expect and demand real and fundamental reform. [They are] not going to have it,…and are not going to accept the lies and pretense that Hillary Clinton is attempting to market. Donald Trump may be the rough beast slouching towards Washington, but the coming fragmentation of the two parties quarrelling over the prize he is seeking is the only hope for real long-term reform that we have left—if we can weather the storm.

Responding, “Ikallitres,” a poetry-lover aware of Matthew Arnold as well as of Robinson Jeffers, observed that “quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has become passé because it can be used to describe any and every one of the disasters that our politics has become.” (From my perspective, the second part of that sentence at once demonstrates and rebuts the first.) The same was true, he continued, of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (locating us “here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”). Though grateful to have been reminded of the finale of “Dover Beach,” John T responded to the criticism of his having cited Yeats in words I’ve been employing throughout this essay, though, unlike Ikallitres, I do not find “The Second Coming” outmoded: “Yeats is so passé precisely because his poem was so very prescient at the time he wrote it and so very relevant today.”

Will the Western “center” hold? Should it? The “centre” celebrated by Yeats (a Romantic drawn to both Burke and Nietzsche) was cultural, steeped in ceremonious tradition: not our moderate political center, which he would have doubtless found as “vulgar” as the “thickening center” deplored by Jeffers, a fellow Nietzschean. And yet Yeats, in revising, purged his poem of particulars that restricted it to his own moment in time and reflected his own political perspective. As I have stressed throughout, in so doing, he universalized the poem, making it perennially relevant, applicable to the crises not only of his time but of ours. Reading “The Second Coming” in 2016, we lament the collapsing of the center and the falling apart of things in our present world of anarchy and blood-dimmed violence. We also dread the emergence—from the chaotic Middle East, from fragmented Europe, from our own polarized politics—of some new incarnation of that rough beast, its hour come round at last, and slouching towards us.

—Patrick J. Keane

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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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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “No Slouch” (Paris Review, 7 April 2015). Oddly, Tabor’s otherwise thorough gathering omits Mitchell’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (on the Night Ride Home album, 1991). But he lists innumerable pop-culture references, including many book-titles, especially sci-fi and detective novels. My own favorite examples range from the titles of all six volumes in the recent Star Trek compendium, itself titled Mere Anarchy (also a Woody Allan book title) to the 12-issue Batman series, written by Kevin Smith, and gathered together under the rubric The Widening Gyre.
  2. In fact, those crucial lines, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” echo Shelley and Wordsworth. According to the last Fury in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the “good” lack “power,” the “powerful” lack “goodness”; and “all best things are thus confused to ill” (1:625-28). But Yeats, who was reading the French Revolutionary Books of The Prelude, is also recalling a phrase he underlined in Book 11 (“I lost/ All feeling of conviction”), and is verbally close to a passage in Book 10 in which, contrasting the moderate Girondins to the murderous Jacobins, a troubled Wordsworth speaks of “The indecision on their part whose aim/ Seemed best, and the straightforward path of those/ Who in attack or in defense were strong” (130-32). And there is a final parallel. In Wordsworth’s Excursion, which Yeats read in 1915, the “bad” earn “victory o’er the weak,/ The vacillating, inconsistent good” (4:298-309).
  3. Frost’s poem is riddled with more-than-biblical echoes, though the poems alluded to all have apocalyptic implications. In “Once by the Pacific,” the “clouds were low and hairy in the skies,/ Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes”: a fusion of the “insolent fiend” who, in the phantasmagoria at the climax of Yeats’s evocation of  “the things that come again” (the original title of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”), “lurches past, his great eyes without thought/ Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,” itself a negative echo of the primary passage Frost has in mind: “the locks of the approaching storm,” in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,”  where the wind-blown clouds are “Like the bright hair uplifted from the head/ Of some fierce Maenad.”
  4. Prelude 10:92-93. Almost eleven hundred victims suspected of Royalist plotting were butchered during the September Massacres. Among those dragged from prison in September, sentenced to death by tribunals, and killed instantly by small squads of executioners was the Princess de Lamballe, maid of honor to Marie Antoinette. Notoriously, her body was mutilated and its sexual parts paraded before the windows of the prison that held the royal family.
  5. McCants, The Isis Apocalypse, 146. For evidence that “most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq,” and on the “triple-union” now helmed by the American “new Crusaders,” McCants (145-46) cites Apocalypse in  Islam (2011), 121-40, by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu.
  6. For details, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016), 70-90.
  7. Following a Republican 2012 presidential primary debate and registering both the on-stage verbal meltdown of then front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, Kristol fired off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who then wanted the outspoken New Jersey governor to get into the race—ended by quoting an email from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the caliber of his party’s candidates. Concurring with the emailer’s allusion—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”—Kristol couldn’t “help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats hadn’t suggested the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ “Sounds,” he concluded, “like Chris Christie!”
  8. Reviewing a study of the Iran-Iraq War in January, 2016, Graeme Wood cited Henry Kissinger’s observation at the time that it was “a pity both sides can’t lose.” Given the horrific death-toll, the remark was (as Wood says) not only “famous” but “fatuous.” Nevertheless, in contemplating the potential of a larger Iran-Saudi conflict, one might be forgiven if, for an irresponsible moment, Kissinger’s realpolitik remark came to mind—along with then-Senator Harry Truman’s observation, in June 1941, when Nazi Germany had invaded the USSR: “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Brutal; but, Truman thought, in the best interest of democracy.
  9. See Fedja Buric’s “Trump’s not Hitler, he’s Mussolini: How GOP anti-intellectualism created a modern fascist movement in America,” Salon (11 March 2016) accessed April 1, 2016.
  10. As in the old Chain of Being (or the Elizabethan World Picture diagrammed decades ago by E. M. W. Tillyard), this conservative worldview is hierarchical, extending from God to man to nature. Conservative “family-based moral worldviews run deep,” and, Lakoff argues, “Conservative policies” are inflected, even shaped, by this Strict Father hierarchy. Your moral worldview defines for you what the world should be like; “when it isn’t that way, one can become frustrated and angry.” Lakoff notes variations and the split among white evangelical Christians, laissez-faire free-marketeers, and pragmatic conservatives bound by no evangelical beliefs. Winning among all three groups, Trump himself is “a pragmatic conservative, par excellence.”
  11. Trump, already opposed by almost three-quarters of women polled, finally suffered what may be genuine damage. On March 30, pressed hard by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the question of abortion, Trump said, not only that it should be illegal, but that any woman who had an abortion should be subject to criminal “punishment.” Here is the exchange, verbatim:

    Matthews: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

    Trump: The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.

    Matthews: For the woman?

    Trump: Yes, there has to be some form.

    A more deft politician would never have let himself be cornered by this cable-news version of Socratic dialogue. For Rush Limbaugh, who quickly sped to Trump’s defense, Chris Matthews was no Socrates but a “Democratic Party hack,” whose gotcha question came “out of left field.” Of course, Limbaugh has no problem when the same relentless badgering is employed in the form of questions coming “out of right field,” as they incessantly are in the habitual technique of his fellow right-winger Sean Hannity. In any case, however it was educed, Trump’s astonishing statement, which goes beyond even the extremist anti-abortion positions of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, was quickly walked back by Team Trump. But the damage was done. The Donald’s freewheeling, unscripted style had finally cost him. How much remains to be seen; but some backlash was quickly evident in his falling well behind Ted Cruz in the polls leading up to the next important primary, in Wisconsin, on April 5.

  12. The Brussels agreement, finalized on March 18, went into effect on March 20. Two days later, three suicide bombers (two of them brothers) killed 31 people and wounded some 300 in Brussels, striking at Zaventerm airport and Maelbeek metro station. A fourth terrorist, whose device remained undetonated, escaped, becoming the subject of a widespread manhunt. Anti-terrorists raids and searches occurred in France and Germany as well as Belgium; and ISIS threatened more “waves of bloodshed,” especially in Europe.
  13. The Jeffers poem has a more direct connection to another poem by Frost. “Our Doom to Bloom,” one of Frost’s late—serious yet light-hearted—assaults on the US welfare state, has as its epigraph Jeffers’s “Shine, perishing republic.”
Apr 012016
 
Rick Jackson

Richard Jackson

Robert Vivian

Robert VIvian

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From Traversings, by Richard Jackson and Robert Vivian (Anchor and Plume, New Orleans, publication imminent).

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FINDING PARADISE (RJ)

When Dante finally arrived there he had no words
for it. The frog giggers in the river must think
their spotlight is their way to revelation. The dam’s
been broke for years, the mills broken wheels turn back
to a time before time, if they turn at all. The evening sky
still leans down over the ridge line as if it wanted to be
water. The river rubs against the ledge rock. Here we are
far from beheadings and crucifixions in what was once
the land of paradise, a word that came from the Persian
meaning an enclosed park. They must have had this place
in mind. One trout tries for but misses the Jesus bug
that skates away. At night the bats will take what the fish have
missed. Plato thought we are born with a memory of Paradise.
Imparadise’d in one another’s arms is what Milton said.
I think that owl wants to be the moon. He knows
Paradise is the life you’ve hidden from yourself.

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Frog Light (BV)

I, too, was king of the frogs, king of the night palpitant of shadows and king of the white hot spotlight that kills with its stare in the sweeping net of a searching full moon, myself dazed between water and earth on the brink of paradise as the gigger closed in on me with his bamboo spear and beer brewing alchemy in his veins, and what will do you with your vast immortal longings and amphibious wishes deep in the Ozarks before I am speared and the angels pin back their wings and lean in closer to listen to the murder of my race. They say we taste like chicken but the whole world sings in our swollen throats. Before the light freezes me I tell the river I won’t let a window kill me.

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WINDOWS (RJ)

There’s no telling how many worlds live inside our windows.
Each breath raises that question. Each question is a ladder
that has nothing to lean against. Above it, the full moon reveals
the torn paper edges of clouds it hides behind. Tonight it is
just cool enough to stop the insects’ singing. Look the other way
and a distant storm silhouettes the far hills. We have to live on
the rim of these dreams. We make, from a cluster of stars, shapes
they would never agree to be a part of. No one knows what to make
of the solar dust that may or may not explain our origins. When
you lose your sense of smell, they say, your chances of dying
increase exponentially. Why is another question. We name things
to stop them from changing. These are not windows, but mirrors.
This evening, I swear, I saw a stone learning to become a star.

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When Stones Abandoned The World (BV)

All at once they picked themselves up from the barren fields and started walking toward the horizon, silent, solemn march going to the stars even as they tried to become them and rose the thrust and the warbler and the startled robin and I could see that the stones were naked but unabashed and unashamed wanting only to be rinsed again and rose the wind and the dust and where were the stones going but to another place not of their keening and to watch them go I felt abandoned and I did not ask the stones why they were leaving everything behind and rose other birds and still others, starlings and crows and turkey vultures and smoke from a distant fire and if you could see the stones moving, if you could see them turning away you would wonder if home is a dream we tell ourselves to keep from dying though death is with us always in the smallest things, a moth on the windowsill with its paper wings full of dust, old, faded pictures of loved ones long since gone into the ground, but the stones wouldn’t say for they had lain prostrate long enough and the whole earth seemed to tremble and shimmer in the wake of the their passing rife with jewel fire of beauty—I mean the way the ground burned after them in variegated flames, I mean the heart and quake of it that had its equivalent somewhere inside me as I was left behind and there was nothing I could do but watch the stones go on their steadfast journey and vault of sky above them, changing itself with every passing cloud to show them how it was done.

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NOT THE SAME (RJ)

Sometimes our dreams flutter with the moths against
the window in their desperate attempt to reach the darkness.
I don’t know what drives them. The universe inside us
spins along as if it knew where is was going. It is the same
with our rudderless words. By now the storm that has been
crawling along the mountain tops has begun to show itself.
The sounds of individual drops of rain on the window are
really one sound. The other day an asteroid, a rock from
some world we’ll never see, passed, as the astronomers say,
nearby. Stevens called this the odor of stars that links us to
whatever is beyond us. St Francis knew it and talked to trees
and stones, to birds and stars, to the world he loved because
it was a world inside this world. Tonight the news is enough
to put the heart is a sling. The hands of the rain are empty.
The moth doesn’t know which way to turn. The night sounds are
padlocked in their stalls. In the morning the sunlight will judge
what the night has left. To think of love is not the same as having it.

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Day Is A Word (BV)

How are we to make the shadows whole wherever they fall or the sound of rain that comes sweeping down then timpanies away and the moth trapped in a jar, oh, the holy fluttering like a heart skipping a beat wanting to keep on forever and how is the shadow of a doorway absence unto itself that seeks not its own fulfillment but the vision of a door as a dream the shadow loves more than itself for it carries its darkness as a reckoning and the stillness of an empty church at the foot of a mountain and the devout ear of the teacup whose reign of openness is here to stay and the moth again so light against the glass even its desperation carries a stroke of sweetness into the land of bottled oxygen and because the moth is quiet in its doom somehow the whole world is blessed and the shadows again, partial, shifting and reverent in their silence that belies the night they come from and day is a word, a cry and a candle flame as somewhere else on another page the moth is free and flies imperfectly for all of us in a delirium of loops, writing its impossible verses in the air.

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A DOOR WITHOUT A ROOM (RJ)

Wenceslas Cathedral, Olomouce, Czech Republic

Sometimes our dreams flutter with the moths against
the window in their desperate attempt to reach the darkness.
I don’t know what drives them. The universe inside us
spins along as if it knew where is was going. It is the same
with our rudderless words. By now the storm that has been
crawling along the mountain tops has begun to show itself.
The sounds of individual drops of rain on the window are
really one sound. The other day an asteroid, a rock from
some world we’ll never see, passed, as the astronomers say,
nearby. Stevens called this the odor of stars that links us to
whatever is beyond us. St Francis knew it and talked to trees
and stones, to birds and stars, to the world he loved because
it was a world inside this world. Tonight the news is enough
to put the heart is a sling. The hands of the rain are empty.
The moth doesn’t know which way to turn. The night sounds are
padlocked in their stalls. In the morning the sunlight will judge
what the night has left. To think of love is not the same as having it.
Today it is a Cathedral and its famous carved door for Saints
Cyril and Methodius that has traveled all over Europe looking
for a home. You have to imagine where that door might
lead you. Outside the word for fog creates its own world
as it wraps itself around the campanile. There must be a name
for that empty space between the fog and the ground. A couple
of squirrels disappear down its whitening aisle. Inside, a woman
tapes a prayer to a wall with other prayers, and hopes it will
find its way to a love that lies beyond the wall.

Tomorrow will be
Chattanooga where the gypsy moths, who are never anything
like angels, have left their tattered webs in the trees that, like
so many Sybils, have started to deal out their leaves. A friend
once said the leaves are the souls of everyone who has been
forgotten. They fall to meet their own lost shadows. Who has
an answer we can believe in? We have put so many padlocks on
our dreams. Every word should be a door, though our words
last longer than what they mean. Or, every word should be
a prayer, a kind of love to open again our lost or forgotten loves.

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Dream Book (BV)

The hour just now and the holy stillness in rapt awakening, and see how the chair waits for the body and the table upright for the books and the hand that would turn the pages, fingers on paper, leaf after thoughtful leaf while outside other leaves fall from the book of a tree, each one a poem unto itself and so bright in its glowing as I dream of a book or it dreams me and mysterious words within and here are scales of music and a whole cathedral of choir and the love of pure sound in the valley of throat, that hollow chute where emptiness is fulfilled so the book is also my heart wanting so much it can’t be said, maybe the stars or mice out in the fields, maybe the unplowed furrows, the lonely rows and the train tracks beyond stained with creosote and the long moaning of many miles and the crushing burden of coal cars moving brothers of earth across the earth and away from this moving caravan a butterfly, so light no train could bear it nor any human heart though mine will try by saying simply yes to it, go, my gentle friend who cannot see me.

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Richard Jackson has published over twenty books including thirteen books of poems, most recently Retrievals (C&R Press, 2014), Out of Place (Ashland, 2014), Resonancia (Barcelona, 2014, a translation of Resonance  from Ashland, 2010), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland, 2003), and Heartwall (UMass, Juniper Prize 2000), as well as four chapbook adaptations from Pavese and other Italian poets. Traversings (Anchor and Plume), an exchange in poems and lyric prose with Robert Vivian, will appear in April 2016. He has translated a book of poems by Alexsander Persolja (Potvanje Sonca / Journey of the Sun) (Kulturno Drustvo Vilenica: Slovenia, 2007) as well as Last Voyage, a book of translations of the early-20th-century Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, (Red Hen, 2010). In addition, he has edited the selected poems of Slovene poet, Iztok Osijnik. He also edited nearly twenty chapobooks of poems from Eastern Europe. His own poems have been translated into seventeen languages including Worlds Apart: Selected Poems in Slovene. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry and Poetry Miscellany, a journal.. He is the author of Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). He was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia for his work with the Slovene-based Peace and Sarajevo Committees of PEN International. He has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, and two Witter-Bynner fellowships, a Prairie Schooner Reader’s Choice Award, and the Crazyhorse prize, and he is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in Best American Poems ‘97 as well as many other anthologies. Originator of VCFA’s Slovenia Program, he was a Fulbright Exchange poet to former Yugoslavia and returns to Europe each year with groups of students. He has been teaching at the Iowa Summer Festival, The Prague Summer Workshops, and regularly at UT-Chattanooga (since 1976), where he directs the Meacham Writers’ Conference. He has taught at VCFA since 1987. He has won teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and VCFA. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret Award for teaching and writing.

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Robert Vivian’s most recent collection of prose poems, Mystery My Country, will be published in 2016, along with Traversings, a new book co-written with Richard Jackson. He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy—The Mover of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom, in addition to the novel Water and Abandon. He’s also written two books of meditative essays, Cold Snap as Yearning and The Least Cricket of Evening. Several of his plays have been produced in New York City and his monologues have been published in the Best Monologues series. His essays, poems, and stories have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Quarterly, Ecotone, and dozens of other journals. He teaches at Alma College in Michigan and has taught several times at various universities in Turkey, especially in Samsun, Turkey.

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Mar 112016
 

7

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The Portuguese island of Madeira, a ‘pearl of the Atlantic’ situated 850 kilometres west of Marrakech, is known as a place for people who like to walk. Retired hiker types from northern Europe flock here year-round to trek the levadas – an ancient and seemingly endless network of irrigation channels that criss-cross the island. The levadas flow between high mountain peaks, through banana and eucalyptus groves, and up on the wild north of the island through the primeval, UNESCO-protected laurel forest that at one time covered much of southern Europe. The trails are mostly flat, making them surprisingly easy to walk: they transport water, and water doesn’t like to travel uphill. It’s all so beautiful, beautiful, the visitors say. ‘Come to walk!’ the tourist brochures say. Walk walk walk, levada levada levada. And flowers.

That’s all fine, but it’s not my Madeira. I’m a dedicated pedestrian and academic (possibly in that order), and I’ve lived on this island for the past three years. I don’t do a lot of levada walks unless friends are visiting, but I get my share of exercise. I move around almost exclusively on foot, except when I buy groceries and take a taxi home. What I mostly see of Madeira are the streets of the capital, Funchal. To walk in Funchal is to walk almost constantly at a slant, on a near-vertical slope. Since settlement in the fifteenth century, the city has gradually climbed up the side of the steep volcano whence Madeira was born. Nearly every house, including mine, enjoys stunning views across the Bay of Funchal. This distinct and dramatic urban landscape, seen from street level at walking pace, is the Madeira I inhabit.

Madeira streets

Taxis have trouble reaching my house. When I tell them the name of my street, they mutter under their breath and slap the dashboard of their ancient canary-yellow Mercedes-Benzes. Most drivers already know me: I’m the tall estrangeiro, the One Who Walks, the non-tourist who cabs it. Funchal is a small city; I think a lot of people know me this way. My boss told me that his father once pulled him aside and asked, ‘Nuno, are you paying the new estrangeiros enough? I often see the tall one in glasses walking by the side of the road – like a stray dog!’ My boss explained that the foreigner liked to walk, though I’m not sure he understands it either. When I walk home from work, the last stretch up to my street has me bent so far forward that I can reach out and touch the ground in front of me. People driving past eye me with a blend of suspicion and pity; a couple of the friendlier ones have stopped to offer me a lift.

It’s a typical weekday morning and I’m standing in a ditch by the roadside. I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett, whose characters I remember were always hanging out in ditches – just hanging out, their lot being simply to represent our debased state as human beings. I can relate to this. I lean back and press myself against the dirty wall, my feet deep in cast-off drink containers, as a bus passes inches from my face. There is a blast of exhaust-filled wind and a deafening noise as the bus shifts up to the next gear, then silence. The sky is a high, hazy blue and I’m on my way to work. I step out of the ditch and continue along the single-lane bidirectional road with houses like walls, no sidewalks or trees or grassy boulevards. If I reach out with my broad wingspan I can almost reach both sides.

Julian1

Parked cars are a huge pain in the arse. I’m tempted to key the car blocking my path, a BMW that’s far too big for such a small island. I even fantasize about walking right over the top of it – I could do it! But instead I wait for a break in the morning rush hour traffic, the cars taking turns to go around it. Even on roads with sidewalks it is difficult and dangerous to be a pedestrian. Cars use the sidewalks as parking spots; somehow they’re immune to ticketing, it’s a populist government and everyone drives. So pedestrians – me, the One Who Walks – are forced to walk on the road. Sometimes I squeeze my passive-aggressive body between the parked car and the wall, snapping in the wing mirror as I pass. Often there are people sitting in these parked cars, why I’ll never know. They’re always playing Candy Crush. My defiant mirror-folding gesture is lost on them. They either ignore completely my body squeezing past their window, refusing to look up, or they act like I’m crazy, like I’m in their space. Hey pal, careful with that wing mirror!

I’ve had some minor altercations. Once I broke the wing mirror off a parked car – it was already taped up, I hardly touched it – and the woman yelled at me as she opened her door a crack to snatch the mirror back from the ground where it lay. Another time it was more serious. I was waiting to cross a busy road, and people kept driving through the zebra crossing. One, two, three cars. When the fourth car approached I started to step out, to signal that it was, in all fairness, my turn to cross. The guy kept driving through at high speed, nearly hitting me. As he drove past me I lifted my leather satchel in a way that was half defensive, half threatening. He was so close that it made contact and clipped the wing mirror – oh those wing mirrors! The mirror came right off. (The satchel was full of books.) There was a loud crack and it went sailing through the air and landed with a tumble, skidding briefly along the road. The Fiat Panda screeched to a halt. The guy was nineteen or twenty, wearing cut-offs and a Cristiano Ronaldo haircut, and he jumped out and started cursing me in Portuguese, calling me the son of a whore. If we had been in North America I might have been worried, like afraid he’d pull out a gun or a bat. But I was twice as big as the guy, if rather willowy and professorial looking, and when I swore back at him in English and shook my satchel full of books he jumped in the Panda and drove off, waving his fist in retreat. I crossed the road.

Julian9

Every morning I start my commute walking straight downhill. I often break into a run because the incline is so steep. Suddenly I’ll hear a car and flatten my body against the wall as the driver passes with a blank stare or an absentminded wave. After fifteen minutes downhill it levels out for a bit and then I usually put in my earbuds and start back up another hill to get to the university. It’s great exercise – so much that I crave it restlessly when I work from home. But I also go through a lot of shoes, stripping the soles right down to my socks every few months.

Being a pedestrian in Madeira is all about humiliation. It’s impossible to ignore, a nagging voice you can’t drown out with the loudest music or the most engrossing podcast. I remember spotting a fellow academic once when I was walking home from the university, a visiting lecturer from MIT. He wore a thick red beard and spectacles and earbuds like me, and he was walking in the opposite direction. I gave him a hail-fellow-well-met but he didn’t notice. He was evidently deep in thought, taking long strides, and he paused to step into the ditch when a bus drove past. Here was my doppelganger; my own humiliation externalized.

So why do I walk? I’m a grown man, with a decent job, and yet just the other day some moron in a Peugeot sprayed me with wiper fluid. Why do I spend my mornings and evenings walking along the gutter – breathing diesel exhaust, dodging dog shit, stepping over abandoned pairs of underpants – instead of cruising the winding roads in a climate-controlled Audi A3 like my colleagues? I’m not cheap; I’m not particularly sporty either. I don’t climb mountains and I’ve never kayaked. What’s wrong with me? Am I afraid to drive? Am I a masochist with psychogeographic tendencies?

madeira8

For a while, until I thought better of it, I had considered calling this essay ‘Foreigners, Deficients, Dogs’ – in the end I worried it might be taken the wrong way. I was riffing on the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ sign that used to hang in lodging house windows in Britain. (I happen to be Irish as well as Canadian.) The use of the offensive-sounding term ‘deficient’ was meant to be an ironic commentary on the Portuguese word deficient that is still used to label people with various mental or physical challenges. Although I see almost no other pedestrians on my morning commute, every morning I walk past two guys with Down’s Syndrome at different points in the journey. They both look about my age, and they possess the same determined, slightly harried look of the pedestrian in a hostile landscape that I must also wear as I walk along the ditch. This being southern Europe, one guy is always smoking; the other guy shouts a loud ‘Bom dia!’ just at the moment he passes me, and I shout back to him over my shoulder. The ‘dogs’ in the hypothetical title were a reference to the packs of stray dogs that I pass every day: usually six or eight in a gang, oddly laid-back and unintimidating despite their size and number, some of them limping after run-ins with cars. The foreigner, of course, is me – and the visiting lecturers who don’t know that nobody walks in Madeira. On this island, we are on the margins – quite literally – while drivers occupy the central space.

There are really two questions I ask myself most days: ‘Why do I walk?’ and ‘Why do I live in Madeira?’. Sure it’s sunny here, but so is San Francisco. After years of living in Madeira my Portuguese is still pretty terrible. Am I afraid to compete in the great northern cities of industry? Perhaps, although I’m fairly certain I could get a job elsewhere. There must be more to it.

If I dig deep, I think it’s that I love the contrast – between the breathtaking beauty, the tropical flowers and sun and sea on one hand; and the plague of traffic and stupidity and all kinds of human failings, which are universal failings, on the other. Anyone who has travelled in southern European cities like Athens or Barcelona or Naples, not to mention the cities of the global south, knows this contrast and its peculiar frisson. Something about the ugliness and beauty of human life, the union of pain and pleasure, is ultimately why I live here and why I walk. I like things to be difficult. I don’t want to be insulated from the pain any more than I already am; I don’t want a life of easy pleasures. Before I moved here I lived in Vancouver and found it depressingly dull, so polished and sensible and fit. I don’t want to give up the hard pleasures that you earn by seeing the world at street level: I want to see what people in cars never see, and breathe the air they don’t have to breathe – even if it kills me.

— by Julian Hanna

(Photos by Simone Ashby. To see more, visit Instagram @tar_island.)

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Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

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Mar 072016
 
Sam Savage author photo

Sam Savage photo by Nancy Marshall

The news reached us early in February that Sam Savage is dying. It is an immense and awful honour to be thus involved in an author’s final days. It comes to us because of Jeff Bursey’s relationship with Savage, a relationship based on multiple readings and reviews over the years and the magnificent and compendious interview Jeff did with Savage for our May 2015 issue (“It Is Not a Novelist’s Job to be Merciful: An Interview with Sam Savage”). In the days that followed, Jeff was in touch with Savage about a retrospective essay we intended to publish. Savage sent us a new unpublished short story to go with that essay. And then, amazingly, Savage sent us his entire Collected Poems, most of which have never been published, many of which are brilliant (I absolutely adore the comic sequence called “The Kiffler Poems,” which forms the last third of the book). Thus we have for you today Jeff Bursey’s retrospective essay on the works of Sam Savage, a short story by Savage, and his complete Collected Poems. 

I don’t know Sam Savage except through his work and through Jeff Bursey, which is a lot when you come to think of it. But I think of him reading these words in his bed, and the moment seems holy. Thank you, Sam.

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Introduction

Sam Savage has a genius for getting inside his characters’ heads and bringing out their worst and best traits in such a way that we are never in doubt that the individual—it can be man or woman or, yes, animal—is a presence who has felt pain and sorrow and has a story to tell. His lead characters are intensely believable because the language is intense and believable. This exquisite combination of words and psychology, along with Savage’s knowing penchant for idiosyncratic behaviour, is rare indeed, not found in fiction as frequently as we might desire.

A brief overview

Part of the appeal of Sam’s novels is enjoying the control displayed as his characters do things you would not expect, but that make perfect sense within their own way of being in the world. Each book features a voice (“a way of speaking, a way of seeing the world from an angle so specific that it defines the character of the person who is viewing the world in that way,” as he defined it in the interview he did for Numéro Cinq in May 2015), a set of restraints, and a major task (it may appear trivial or obsessive or disturbed to outsiders) that consumes the positive energy of the narrator. While it might seem easy to convey the type of claustrophobia that comes from situating events and impressions in one mind, it is another level of difficulty to keep that from becoming dull for the reader as the character flails about and retreats further from sociability, competency, and normal manners. Offsetting the potential for the reading experience to turn oppressive is the presence of humour (aggressive or dark more often than gentle or whimsical) and compassion. These elements are handled with firmness and skillfully, always allowing a sufficient amount of space between authorial command and the apparent free agency of a character to move quickly from one activity or mood to another.

It’s partly the purpose of this essay to underscore those and other achievements of a truly fine novelist. Think of this as a reminder, or an alert, to the existence of someone who deserves respect for his art.

Correspondence and interview

Sam was born 9 November 1940; our first exchange occurred in October 2010. So there’s no great depth of knowledge that I’ll draw from here. I also won’t claim to not sound awkward when writing him. We’ve exchanged a few opinions on books, on readers, on the economy, on the Internet, and so on. When I saw a short piece by him in the Winter 2014 issue of Paris Review I asked, in January 2015, if this was part of a new novel. No, just a short story. Had he given up novel writing? His answer had the same bracing absence of self-pity as his fiction: “Well, Jeff, I am 74 years old and in bad health. I don’t have the courage or stamina for another novel. Not a voluntary retirement from writing but simply a recognition of the facts.” Not a case of overstatement and no hint that amplification would come. Either he isn’t like that or, more likely, he’s not like that with some guy he’s never met sitting at a computer northeast of his home, I thought. He is as reticent when it comes to leaving materials behind for biographers: “… I receive few letters, and don’t keep most, and write even fewer. Mostly emails, which I intend to delete before the axe falls. I’d like to leave no trace except my novels.”

Provoked by his health statement to act, in February 2015 I sent Sam the first set of interview questions with the aim of getting more down than the “trace” of his novels for those who, like me, wanted to know about the mind that created them. At the end he summed things up this way: “It has been a long haul, but I am grateful for the chance to address some of the issues you raise. I do think that not many people get where I am coming from, and perhaps this will help a little. And, I am sure, what was long for me was three times as long for you. So thank you.” Of course, the month-long process didn’t seem arduous to me as I found his answers fascinating.

When I first read Firmin I thought that here was a new and supple voice that was capable of wringing pity from vermin. Sloth cemented my appreciation of his talent. Sam’s books are filled with obsessions, a loneliness that is at times terrifying, a devotion to form and voice, and, above all, an underlying humanity that deserves comparison to the works of Joseph McElroy and Gabriel Josipovici. We read of a mind destabilizing and threatening not to be there much longer, and the tension of what’s going on, or what may be revealed in a few lines or at the top of the next page combines with the haphazard (almost leisurely, if that doesn’t sound peculiar) self-exploration of the narrators who cannot help but go on about themselves as they drive (or are driven) towards some shattering, final obstacle.

In the NC interview Sam talks about living with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin, versus the South where he was born: “I work. I used to take walks in the neighborhood. Now I look out the window. In the warmer seasons Nora and I go out to lunch once or twice a week. My sons come for long visits every year. Friends come from South Carolina and from France. I don’t know anybody in Madison apart from neighbors, a couple of Nora’s friends, and doctors. I can hardly be said to live here. I feel I am just passing through, practically unobserved, like a ghost.” It’s the ghostliness of his books—that they may become pale and unseen except by a few souls—which this essay is trying to address.

News I didn’t want to hear

In the interview Sam addressed his health. He had learned in the 1970s that he has alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, and this means he’s “…missing a blood component that protects the lungs from attack by some of the body’s own enzymes. The consequences vary widely. Chief among the more serious are liver failure and lung destruction…. It’s an ineluctable, irreversible process.” The expectancy of life ending soon is a feature of his novels. “There was a long period, in my twenties and early thirties, before I became really noticeably sick, when awareness of death in the form of a boundless encompassing dread was so persistent and unbearable that I contemplated suicide in order to escape it… Maybe being sick—and during the last twenty years quite obviously so—has made me more sensitive to the blitheness with which we normally—and I suppose I can say mercifully—go about the business of living.” Looking on things now, I should not have been surprised by what he had to say.

A note on 4 February 2016 spelt out matters with Sam’s usual lack of sentimentality and matter-of-factness: “I was hospitalized for a time in November and on discharge was put into a special Medicare category called Hospice designed for those deemed to have fewer than six months to live, where all restrictions are lifted on morphine and such. In other words, I am dying, and rather rapidly. I am unlikely to live out the six months. In my view I won’t even get close.” He’s not the type to draw attention to his own—well, he’d probably never say plight unless it suited a character, and so I’ll say this turn. “I have no inclination to keep it secret and am prepared to do anything I still can to give my books a chance to live on without me.” At the same time as he expresses what’s taken 40-some years to draw so very near, he writes about it not quite casually, but without self-indulgence, not wanting anything for himself, precisely, but advocating for his art. He knows what creating those novels demanded and required. Most writers, most artists, can identify with that.

Novels

In an effort to pay respect to this artist’s life’s work, then, here are selections taken from reviews I’ve written of his books for various journals to give readers an idea of their flavour. (One novel not considered is The Criminal Life of Effie O. [2005], which he’s dismissive about in the interview.) The hope is to encourage people to entertain this thought: that not reading Sam’s novels (all published by Coffee House Press) is a missed opportunity, something you won’t know you would have missed unless you read him.

Cover_of_firmin_novel_by_Sam_Savage

Firmin (2006; with thanks to Books in Canada.)

“Firmin gathers impressions of the world from novels, history books, and maps. He has a lot of knowledge which, because of his position, will never be put to use. He fails at sign language, learned from a slender pamphlet, the only time he gets to try it, and typing is impossible for him. He can play the piano, but this never helps him pick up girls. He prefers devouring books to anything else. An insatiable reader, he categorizes authors. In fiction, there are the Big Ones, like Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Strindberg, from whom Firmin learns that ‘no matter how small you are, your madness can be as big as anyone’s.’

Firmin’s situation is complex, bizarre, and at times unutterably sad, due to his exceptional condition. He is a rat who was raised with literature for sustenance, in every sense of the word.

“. . . Airy grief in some way sums up Firmin’s predicament. It’s impossible to read Firmin and not contemplate what it’s like to be out of step with everyone, forever, and not through choice. This trim novel is a modest delight, with its clever conceit, an abiding respect for literature, and geniality co-existing with melancholy.”

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The Cry of the Sloth (2009; with thanks to Open Letters Monthly.)

“In the delightfully mordant The Cry of the Sloth, Sam Savage gives us Andrew Whittaker, a lonely man, isolated by a failed marriage, his own misdeeds, and his often ugly personality. A bookish individual, editor and owner of a small-time journal named Soap, Whittaker bears rat-like teeth at his competition. He writes letters to his ex-wife, women he knew years before, contributors to the failing journal, and impatient bill collectors, and these letters make up the majority of the novel, with the occasional excerpt from a diary and passages from a novel Whittaker has underway. While the correspondence tells us that Whittaker is desperately trying to keep his magazine afloat, and is a failure at romance, the novel he’s writing illustrates his loneliness, bitterness, and sexual frustration. Though Savage limits us to Whittaker’s point of view and we therefore have only a one-sided version of events, it’s clear that by the end of The Cry of the Sloth we have witnessed the fairly rapid decline of Whittaker as he loses his friends, his family, his income, and control over his emotional and mental state.

“. . . In the midst of the systemic corruption of the Nixon years, Whittaker embodies, on a modest level, smallness and pettiness, and is a reminder of how easily we can turn, or naturally be, rotten to others while deluding ourselves about our own importance. The Cry of the Sloth is a fine example of the epistolary novel (another is Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea), and reminiscent of works that attempt to make someone who is unlikeable at least approachable (Joseph Heller’s Something Happened comes to mind). By focusing on a minor, carping, mean-spirited man, it shows that even an unedifying life can serve as a moral lesson.”

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Glass (2011; with thanks to Requited)

“Like the figures in Firmin and Sloth, Edna looks to be completely on her own. One of the many accomplishments in this fine novel, saved for the last pages of Glass, and carefully led up to, is to make a reader come close to understanding the deadening sadness of her life, and potential fate, and, finally, feel sympathy for a character whose ways can be off-putting and obscure. One wonders if Sam Savage is indicating that we live in a Godless universe, with Edna just one more creature in a glass cage, unloved and not made to last. If so, then this is a chilling picture of old age and contemporary society.”

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The Way of the Dog (2013; with thanks to The Winnipeg Review.)

“[This novel] begins quietly, like Savage’s other works, with readers closely following the mind of Harold Nivenson, a man of undisclosed age living alone in his crumbling home.

“. . . Hatred entered Nivenson’s life early on. His siblings would steal one piece from every puzzle he started, and even if he wasn’t sure they did, the anxiety that there would be a hole in the picture at the end ‘destroy[ed] the pleasure [he] might otherwise have derived from the puzzle.’ Without much more explanation, Nivenson says he ‘became, in my family and for my family, and ultimately for myself as well, the representation of failure.’ His sister and brother, due to the inaction of their parents, ‘bear the entire blame for my situation, a situation that amounts to a disability…’”

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It Will End with Us (2014; with thanks to Numéro Cinq)

“Told through haphazard recollections, It Will End with Us portrays the Taggarts as troubled by the father’s offhand brutality… and the mother’s unraveling mind…, located within dire economic and environmental conditions. The myth of the fertile South is replaced with the reality of a parched region losing its resources—dusty land can’t bear crops, neither Eve nor Thornton produce children…, and the crumbling family home a rebuke to the prosperous Big House frequently featured in Southern history. Savage’s foray into Southern fiction bears some resemblance to Faulkner in its capturing of the deterioration of a self-important family and its host culture, but in Eve there is a larger theme at work, to my mind, than that of the decline of the South. She does not look back with self-pity. Whether we can trust her is open to question.

“. . . The integrity of the main character and of the story told, fascinating topics deftly handled, lead into another aspect of her that is equally rich. A character named Eve who focuses on a childhood when her family was intact invites us to entertain the possibility that this novel, certainly at one level about the mythical/real South, at a deeper level plays with religious myths through the creation of a Biblically-named figure from Spring Hope—a debased name for Eden—who is trying to retrieve a pre-lapsarian world that never existed.” (Full NC review is here.)

Final thoughts

To return to Sam’s news, which he has given permission to be shared, I asked him if he wanted to add something, in a public venue, about his impending death. Why did his answer surprise me? “I think I have nothing more to say.” There’s no appeal for sympathy over his state, no last explanation. In keeping with his integrity, Sam’s novels say what he would like to remain in our heads. They are the artistic achievements he has left standing, that he has left us, and which we have the wonderful prospect of reading and re-reading now and into the future.

 — Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Mar 042016
 

Richard Farrell

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On a Thursday afternoon in September, some three decades ago, I sat in Mr. Belanger’s fifth-grade science class at Tatnuck School when the Blue Angels roared into town. Six insignia-blue jets buzzed the hillsides of gold-orange trees and circled over the city before they threw down their landing gear.  It was opening day of the Worcester Air Show, and our sleepy hamlet had suddenly become center stage for a spectacle of aeronautic derring-do and unimaginable pageantry. We stood—two dozen mesmerized kids temporarily released from the rigors of life science—in the windows of that classroom, staring out as the blue planes, one by one, lined up and touched down. Then Mr. Belanger barked at us, and we returned to whatever irrelevant topics awaited in our textbooks.

The ensuing three days of air-show mania were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The roar of an approaching Skyhawk would send me sprinting outside as if the house were on fire. Blue jets thundered overhead, practicing right above the yellowing sugar maple in my backyard. The ground rumbled as planes climbed, looped, crossed, barrel-rolled and boomed on high, turning the sky above Walter Street into a veritable six-ring circus. My friends and I dashed and chased, waving at the pilots who flew so low we could see their golden helmets and almost read their names painted on canopy sides. Our prosaic lawn furniture became front row seats for an otherworldly show. Delta-winged jets, tucked inches apart, twirled heavenward before screaming back toward Earth. Even now, decades later, the memories of those days seem fantastic and utterly surreal.

When the air show ended, I knew, and declared quite publicly, that one day, I would become a Navy pilot.

Blue Angels A4 SkyhawkBlue Angels in the A-4 Skyhawk, as the author first saw them

§

Emerson writes that self-trust is the essence of heroism. The human spirit, in conflict with itself, must struggle against the trappings of society, ego, and expectation. The enemy is a prevalent falsehood—the mask that we wear out in the world. To hear the Transcendentalist tell it, the hero removes the mask, revealing some inner light, illuminating a truer wisdom.

I knew all about masks. As a snaggle-toothed boy growing up just forty miles from Emerson’s front door, self-trust came reluctantly, if at all. Instead, I admired men like Chuck Yeager, or at least Tom Wolfe’s re-imagined version of Yeager, fabricated from the author’s imagination and an ancient gallery of heroic archetypes. The enduring myth of American meritocracy offered up a path for a good ole boy from West Virginia to convert passion and courage into an express ride to the very top of the pyramid—a test pilot, a general, a bona fide hero with world records to prove it. If Yeager could do it, I reasoned, then why not me? I only had to find the appropriate mask, wear it with a rigid certainty, and suppress any and all emotion that might reveal hesitancy, doubt, or weakness.

§

Ten years after the Worcester Air Show, still pursuing my dream of becoming a Navy pilot, I returned from physics lab to my room at the United States Naval Academy, only to find that a plebe from 10th Company had climbed out of his fifth-floor window and plunged to the brick walkway below.

His shattered, uniformed body was visible from my window as paramedics rushed in vain to save his life. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars had cordoned off the road, but the air was eerily still. I expected sirens, but heard only the chirping of birds, the rustle of a breeze off the Chesapeake. Again, it was September. A warm, clear day sparkled. Spinnakers billowed on the Severn River as sailboats tacked their way out to the hazy bay.

The mask had suddenly fallen away.

A moment later, my roommates came back from class. D.J. unpacked his books while Darren tore a long piece of masking tape off a roll and wrapped it around his fingers—sticky side out— and began to daub the tape against his chest, removing dust and lint, preparing for inspection. Darren would quit the Naval Academy later that year and send letters from Wisconsin regaling us with tales of coeds and frat parties.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Doesn’t look good,” I said. “Kid must’ve jumped.”

Paramedics wrapped a vacuum splint around the man’s leg and positioned a backboard nearby. Several firemen closed around the scene. Their arched backs formed a reverent, almost prayerful circle of yellow coats around the dying midshipman. Extending from the center of that circle were navy-blue uniform trousers, the same scratchy wool-polyester pants I wore that day, except the pants on that brick walkway below me were covered in dark blood.

Blood pooled on the bricks. Blood soaked the paramedics’ gloves. At one point, the rescue workers all lurched back in unison. Blood, from a blown artery, geysered out from the center. I felt my knees buckle.

Then D.J. came up and sat beside me on my desk. Just a few weeks into our sophomore year, we had been roommates only a short while. D.J. was an engineer, serious and taciturn by nature. His silence could be unnerving, because I never knew what he was thinking, but in that strange moment, D.J.’s quiet demeanor felt steadying, like a sea captain in a gale. What good were words?

Then an echolalia of chow calls began from open windows all around Bancroft Hall. Sir, you now have ten minutes until noon-meal formation. The uniform for noon-meal formation is working-uniform-blue-delta.

Chow calls were one of the many tedious rituals plebes were forced to repeat, six times a day, at ten and five minutes before each meal. One thousand plebes, minus one, repeated the rote words in a haunted chorus, a maddening mayday from a symphony of oblivious cuckoo clocks chiming the hour. Only this was no mayday. The unfolding misery below our window would not interrupt the routines.

§

I don’t believe that whatever wisdom a middle-aged man has acquired is any truer than the dreams of a ten-year-old boy or a twenty-year-old midshipman. Passions abound, both in the spring of life and in its autumn. We are filled with hope, doubt, fear, longing, joy, and grief. The boy dreams of taking flight, while the grown man reassembles the broken fragments of the past.

These days, I’m a stay-at-home father, a trailing spouse married to a woman who works long, irregular hours as a Navy obstetrician. While my wife manages laboring patients, I spend my time worrying about car pools, sleepovers, birthday party gifts and baseball practice. My children’s schedules dictate the rhythm of my day, leaving precious little time to worry about their dreams: What paths have they already begun to walk? What shapes their destinies? What masks have they already begun to wear into the world? My son wants to play professional basketball; my daughter wants to ride horses and live on a ranch in Montana.

The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic, Emerson writes. At times, though, I want only simple happiness and security for my children. I don’t want my son’s body battered by contact sports. I don’t want my daughter’s heart broken. But life and wisdom always come with scars.

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Rituals at Annapolis were enshrined within a tradition and rigidity that even the most ardent cynic might admire. Each moment of our day creaked with customs, from reveille to taps. We marched, saluted, studied, and trained. We followed honor codes and conduct codes. For four years we scoured our rooms, polished brass belt buckles, folded tee shirts and socks with mathematical precision. We tucked sheets into taut hospital corners as though it were a holy sacrament. We believed in big ideas—in America and freedom and power—and we worshipped those ideas through a steadfast devotion to the most minuscule details. Our faith, like our duty, was absolute and unflinching.

For the entire four years we lived together in Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world. Bancroft Hall was a home and a prison, a hearth and a hell. The massive building, erected at the turn of the last century in the Beaux Arts style, mixed classical symmetries with rococo flourishes. Cold stone surfaces rose to slate gray mansard roofs, trimmed with oxidized copper flashing. Nautical-themed statuary and maritime bas-relief decorated the corners. The scale of the building imposed on us, a structural symbol of an institutional ethos: the individual submitted to the will of the whole, an idea and ideal manifested in rusticated concrete and polished floor tiles. Neoclassical lines spoke of order. We marched beneath its imposing domes and stood midnight watch in Bancroft’s vast, cavernous hallways, always reminded of history, of fallen alumni and of future sacrifice, our individual existences reduced to fodder. For emphasis, brass cannons guarded the grand front staircase.

bancroft hall colour adjustedBancroft Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

In Memorial Hall, at the center of Bancroft, were inscribed the names of more than a thousand alumni who died in battle. A flag from Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812 was enshrined behind glass. That flag reminded each of us daily with its tattered motto: Don’t Give Up the Ship.

Annapolis pushed a hero-heavy curriculum. The ghosts on the yard were all once great warriors, and we were taught to borrow their masks. Tecumseh stood watch over manicured lawns. Every academic building gestured toward mythical grandeur—Nimitz Library, Halsey Field House, Preble Hall. We revered warrior virtues and worshiped at the altar of self-sacrifice and bravery, all the while puffing out our chests with bravado and notions of coming glory. Self-trust received little attention. To interpret the iconography: there was no higher virtue than to lay down your life for your country.

Death, however, came with obligations of community and valor. While it was heroic to die in battle, it was something entirely different to take one’s own life. As the paramedics attempted to hold on to the young man’s fleeting existence on the bricks below my window, our routines continued apace. There would be no time-out for this suicide, no memorial to his sacrifice.

My roommates stepped back from the window and continued getting ready. Darren turned and D.J. taped-off his back. “Cooperate and graduate,” we learned, recited and believed as an article of faith. All for one and one for all. I rolled the tape around my own fingers, uncertain what it all meant, and kept watching out the window.

Memorial Hall Don't Give Up the ShipMemorial Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

§

In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden reminds us that there is something rather mundane about the shape of human tragedy. The subjective nature of suffering always leaves room for the rest of the world to carry out the logic of the day. Icarus goes kerflooey while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. Auden’s poem addresses the very notions of torment and flight. The poem examines Brueghel’s sixteenth-century oil painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which itself returns to the ancient legend of Daedalus and his eager son. Early versions of this legend can be found carved on Etruscan jugs from the seventh century before Christ. Man has long dreamed of taking flight, even before the discovery of the physics and engineering that made such dreams possible. And for even longer, humanity has managed to ignore tragedy with a blithe nonchalance. Perhaps our indifference is some vestigial hangover of evolution. In the primordial ooze, there would’ve been hardly time to stop and mourn for a fallen comrade while the tiger closed on our heels. Progress lacks easy definitions.

In Brueghel’s painting, an indifferent sea swallows up the ghostly legs of the falling Icarus, while shepherds and sailors go about their day. As Auden says, everything turns away.

Landscape with the Fall of IcarusLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel, Pieter the Elder

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Plebe year at Annapolis was the hell of it, ten grueling months stuffed with relentless military indoctrination, hazing, and physical exertion. I saw varsity linebackers reduced to tears, future fighter pilots so frazzled they’d forget their own names. But in that caldron of discipline and cruelty, an incredible thing happened. The self receded. Second-guessing disappeared. The yoking of regulation, discipline, and custom to our daily habits somehow managed to supplant the individual will. Life became a form of ascetic retreat, with a scripted rigidity, uniforms, slogans, and beliefs. As cruel and brutal as it could be, the routines were also incredibly liberating. The mask simply fit.

Ego vanished plebe year, perhaps not into some higher plane of spiritual awakening, but it was gone nonetheless. You submitted to the will of the larger institution. You became invisible, indistinguishable, if only to avoid getting reamed out by any one of the three thousand upperclassmen who outranked you. The regulations, routines, and discipline squeezed every last drop of individuality out of the blood, a dialysis designed to filter out lazy and timid habits from civilian life and replace them with the bellicose faith of military mythology and American altruism. To be certain, it was a herd mentality, but when in the crush and rhythm of the herd, oh what freedom!

The flipside to joining the herd was an obliteration of self-trust. Emerson wouldn’t have lasted a week at Annapolis. To question, to exert, to challenge—these things were unimaginable. Membership exacted the steepest price. Self-trust wasn’t heroic, it was dangerous and defiant, a tumor in the organs of an otherwise baleful gallantry. The very last thing a military force can withstand is the warrior who thinks too much.

The plebe who jumped that bright September day was named Kevin. Though I didn’t know him personally, the odds were good that we’d passed each other in the halls. I might have braced him up, chided him for an untucked shirt, or demanded he address me as “sir.” Until he jumped, he was just one of a nameless legion of young men and women like me, who turned over our identities and fates to the hallowed traditions of Annapolis.

Only later did I learn that Kevin came from Ohio. He’d managed to gut it out through the misery of Plebe Summer, but the end was still a long way off.  Kevin wanted to quit the Academy, perhaps to return to a more normal life along the shores of Lake Erie, but his well-meaning family, friends, and company officer all told him to stick it out. So did the institutional codes. The reminders were everywhere: Don’t give up the ship.

I can only imagine how words and ideas raged like cannon fire in Kevin’s mind as he struggled. I’d certainly suffered my share of setbacks and doubts during my own plebe year. Sometimes the pressure just got to be too much.

Did leaving for Kevin feel so much like failure that dying seemed a more reasonable option? Did words like sacrifice, duty, and hero slash at him as he pitted them against other words, like freedom, family, and home? Abstract ideas can inspire men to great sacrifices, or they can bring about catastrophic consequences.

As Kevin’s life spilled out on the brick sidewalk below my window, the only thing I processed was the waste of it all.

§

There’s very little that’s heroic about being a stay-at-home dad. No archetype exists, no books about domesticated heroes have been written. My day-to-day challenges involve time management and festering peccadilloes of unsorted laundry and unfinished homework.  “A man is his work,” my father intones, and these days my labor involves making beds, ignoring dust piles beneath the furniture, driving the kids to school. My failures and fuckups register in the emotional damage I can do with a raised voice or forgotten promise. My successes are far more muted. There are no air shows, no bright blue jets and golden helmets. There are no uniforms to hide behind, no masks to wear. A bizarre emphasis falls on the most mundane—the al dente texture of mac ’n’ cheese, the book reports I forget to check until the last minute. I can’t say how high or low the stakes are. Some days this work seems important. Other days, I feel like I’m wasting every second of the precious few I have left.

I never became a Navy pilot, though I came close. I graduated from the Naval Academy, became an officer, and eventually reported to flight school at the very same base where the Blue Angels were stationed. For six months, I donned a helmet, a flight suit, and a parachute and learned how to fly. On yet another September day, I climbed into a T-34 and soloed. After landing and shutting off the engine, I strutted across the flight line like I’d finally arrived at the threshold of where heroes dwelled. But the feeling didn’t linger. In fact, the closer I came to the finish line, the emptier I felt.

I thought that becoming a Navy pilot would change something fundamental about who I was. I thought gold wings would somehow smooth out the rough edges, erase doubts, fill in the empty places. In short, I assumed that I’d grow into the mask. But the opposite was happening. A month or so after that first solo, I suffered a seizure in an airplane. I was lucky to have survived, but I would never again pilot an airplane.

I suppose words like surrender and failure often seem loaded, freighted with the tincture of forever: heroic narratives that offer few examples of second-place finishers.  As a young man, words and ideas seemed ironclad, irrevocable, and failure felt freighted with only disgrace. But the moral value of a win-at-all-cost mentality is a very shallow one, not to mention entirely false. When I was forced to stop flying, I assumed my life would never recover. But I grew up. I learned, listened, and saw beyond rigid notions of right and wrong. We all win. We all lose. In somewhat equal proportions.

At ten and at twenty, it was easier to believe in mythical, right-stuff heroism. My ego willingly surrendered to the bon mot and the battle flag. Only later, with failure, with surrender, was I able to begin to understand self-trust. Emerson doesn’t address this, but sometimes self-trust looks a lot like self-doubt.

Richard Farrell as plebe at AnnapolisThe author in his plebe year

As I boy I read and reread Yeager’s autobiography. I watched The Right Stuff so much that my VCR tape began to stretch. I felt called to the shores of the Severn, but I certainly didn’t understand the implications or repercussions of that calling. My dreams were twisted and warped by the very myths in which I so vehemently believed. Watching the grisly aftermath of a shipmate leaping into the abyss was like watching some inverted, mangled, nightmarish version of my dream.

I wish I could go back and tell Kevin that things would have improved. Plebe year eventually would end. Whatever burdens he carried with him to the ledge that day were temporary ones. Didn’t he know that?  I wish I could have convinced him that there was no lasting shame in quitting the Academy. He would have recovered. Like my roommate, Darren, he could have written letters from a civilian college—boasting of frat parties and girlfriends—while his roommates back at Annapolis envied his freedom. Instead, he opened a window on a glorious September day and jumped.

And though my kinship with him was institutional—born of the anonymous Brigade of Midshipmen and the identical uniforms we wore—his short life became an enduring lesson. From my window, I watched him take his final breaths. Something died in my own heart too. Was it innocence? Was it faith?

I would continue to believe in heroes. I would wear my class ring and feel an incredible pride as the Blue Angels roared over graduation. But I would also eventually leave behind the simplistic codes and the consuming urgency of an organization that esteems martyrdom. I would eventually see through the cracks in the ivory tower, smell the rot in the walls.

As Kevin’s life ran out, right there on the brick sidewalk below me, could he have fathomed how the routines around us continued undisturbed? Was he trying to make a statement?  Was I the only one who heard? The institution had long before turned deaf. His suicide hardly altered the plan of the day. But I felt the mask slip.

And yet we turned away from Kevin, we who claimed to be his shipmates, trusted guardians of each other’s fate. We didn’t even skip a formation for his death. And for twenty-five years I’ve carried a measure of shame about that. Below my window, his navy-blue uniform pants and black shoes were drenched in blood, while I and four thousand other midshipmen simply prepared for lunch, as if nothing had really happened.

Like the ploughman in Brueghel’s painting and Auden’s poem, I bent to my task. I turned away. There simply wasn’t time to listen. Or maybe there wasn’t enough silence. The voices of shouting plebes droned off into a din as the paramedics lifted Kevin’s lifeless body onto the gurney. Sirens began, drowning out the wind, the birds, my own thoughts and feelings. I did what I had to do. I turned back from the window, straightened my belt buckle, and went out to formation.

Self-trust was a tall order, especially for an idealistic young man who wanted the world to make sense. Heroes carried on, even if carrying on was the least heroic thing any of us did that day.

After the fall, Daedalus surely saw the sky as a burden for the rest of his life. Every cloud, every soaring bird, and every star became another reminder of his lost son. Or maybe that’s just foolishness. Maybe I’m still looking towards myths and heroes to explain the world, rather than trusting my own heart. If self-trust perpetuates heroism, what does that say about self-doubt?

I see not any road of perfect peace which a man can walk, Emerson writes, but to take counsel of his own bosom.

It is morning here, and birds are singing and the light is golden. Soon my kids will come bursting from their dreams, hungry, eager for whatever private desires spur them through the day and fill their beings. I want them to soar, of course, though I’m fearful of what they may encounter in flight. But for now, I will make breakfast and oversee showers. I’ll try not to worry about what kind of people they will become, where life will take them, or how it will twist and turn, with its infinite number of ways to break hearts but also to stir passions. We forge ahead on these fragile, corruptible paths, always capable of discovering great joys but never far from sadness either. But I don’t have time to ponder these things much, because my kids are almost awake, and there is so much to be done.

—Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell collage 480px

Richard Farrell  is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Nonfiction Editor at upstreet. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in Descant, Hunger Mountain, Newfound, Blue Monday, Dig Boston, Contrary, and others. He is currently writing a collection of short stories and a novel. In 2016, he will be a resident writer at the Ragdale Artist Community in Lake Forest, Illinois. He lives with his family in San Diego.

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Mar 022016
 

Munro

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In 1998, I was lucky enough to land a job as a book reviewer for the Financial Times under the auspices of the great editor Annalena McAfee. In the 12 months I reviewed books for her, I posted 26 reviews and was introduced to some incredible writers and books. One of those was Alice Munro who, believe it or not, was not that well known then (outside of her native Canada and especially on my side of the Atlantic). This was long before the Nobel Prize win and the universal acclaim she now enjoys (or rather doesn’t). The collection I reviewed for the FT was The Love of a Good Woman (Vintage, 1998). What struck me in particular about Munro’s style was how successfully she mined the interior life of her (largely female) characters. The POV in her stories constantly shifted, too, and time seemed amorphous, easily sculpted by the author to suit her needs. Key dramatic moments in the stories were only mentioned in passing and the endings were highly uncertain and not really endings at all. She broke all the rules and, because of that, her stories seemed remarkably true to life. I knew I had stumbled across a master storyteller.

The one story that especially drew me in was called “Jakarta”. As is the case with so many of Munro’s stories, it is set in the Vancouver area in the 1950s, during the height of the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs. Sonje, who is described as ‘calm’ and ‘Nordic’ and who has ‘thick fair hair’, is married to Cottar who, at 38, is significantly older than her. Cottar teases Sonje mercilessly about her bourgeoise aspirations. Cottar is a journalist who has scandalously travelled to communist China. He believes in free love and encourages Sonje to sleep with other men, the thought of which makes Sonje unhappy and so she doesn’t follow through.

Sonje and Cottar are on vacation in a rented cottage for the summer when Sonje meets and befriends a woman called Kath, who lives in the area permanently with her husband Kent. They quickly realise that they both used to work at the Vancouver Public Library at the same time although they didn’t know each other. Kath, who is darker and taller than Sonje, strikes Sonje as a free spirit and she compares herself unfavourably to Kath. During their days on the beach with Kath’s one-year-old daughter Noelle, Sonje and Kath discuss the relationships in the books they are reading—including DH Lawrence’s “The Fox”—but the subtext of their discussion is their own attitudes towards their husbands and marriages. Kath is shocked when Sonje says, ‘My happiness depends on Cottar’ and is struck by how Sonje is overly eager to please Cottar. Kath hints that she finds her own husband, Kent, conservative and stuffy. Kent disapproves of ‘pinko’ Cottar and the wild parties Cottar holds at his and Sonje’s summer cottage and Sonje can tell that Kath is attracted to that lifestyle and has a longing to be much more bohemian than she is.

At a beach party one night, Sonje cooks and looks after her guests. She is the perfect hostess. Kath gets drunk and dances flirtatiously with a stranger, with whom she exchanges a fumbling kiss, while Kent stays at home looking after Noelle. At the end of that summer, Cottar and Sonje move to Portland, Oregon, so that Sonje can take care of Cottar’s blind mother while Cottar is off on another journalistic junket to the Far East.

Suddenly, we shift 30 years later, to when Kent visits Sonje in Portland, where she is still living in Cottar’s mother’s house, although Cottar’s mother is long dead. Kent and Kath have long since been divorced. Kath lives on her own beside a small lake near Toronto, her second husband recently dead, while Kent is married for a third time, to a much younger woman, Deborah, who is younger even than his own daughter, Noelle. Sonje explains to Kent that, while Cottar was away in the Far East, she received word that Cottar had died suddenly of an insect bite while he was in Jakarta. ‘Jakarta used to be called Batavia, did you know that?’ she asks, to which Kent replies, ‘Vaguely.’ She goes on to say that she has a theory that Cottar didn’t die at all, that he is still alive. Sonje can’t explain why she would think that, and neither can Kent, but she does, and she tells Kent that Cottar’s mother also believed that he was still alive. In an uncharacteristic moment of candour, Kent says to Sonje, ‘They got away. Both of them. Cottar and Kath.’ That’s where the story ends.

The tenses and time schemes in the story are all mixed and fractured. Part 1—about Kathy and Sonje’s friendship—is told largely from Kathy’s POV. Set 30 years later, Part 2 is told from Kent’s POV when he visits Sonje in Oregon. Part 3—the night of the beach party—is told mainly from Kathy’s POV but also from Sonje’s. Finally, Part 4 is again from Kent’s POV while he visits Sonje. The story explores the fault lines of marriage—the personal struggle either to adhere to conventional notions of marriage or to find alternatives to it. The argument Kath and Sonje have about DH Lawrence’s “The Fox” illustrates this perfectly. Kath and Sonje can’t admit it to themselves, or each other, but they have married the wrong people. What is left so beautifully understated in the story is that, deep down, they both know it.

A few years later, I came across a diagram called the Semiotic Square, originally devised by A. J. Greimas. It was defined as ‘A structuralist-inspired model for the visual representation of a semantic logic which describes a narrative’s elementary structure of signification’. It’s one of those ideas in narrative theory that is much better understood as a diagram than a verbal definition:

Greimas Semiotic Square

When I saw this diagram, something immediately clicked. An inkling, a recognition, that had always been there in the back of my mind became articulated by this diagram and I understood straightaway what Greimas meant.

In the diagram, Greimas was trying to map the possible permutations of relationships between four people in a story. He labelled these relationships ‘contrary’, ‘contradictory’ and ‘implied’. The difference between something that is ‘contrary’ and ‘contradictory’ is one of degree—something contradictory is a direct opposite whereas something contrary is along the same lines but not as strong. For example, the opposite of love is ‘hate’ whereas ‘indifference’ implies the same thing in kind but not degree. Another example would be ‘truth’—the contradiction of which is ‘lies’, whereas ‘white lies’ would be merely a contrary idea —‘white lies’ is along the same lines as ‘lies’ but is not as extreme.

One of the things I had been particularly drawn to in “Jakarta” was the shifting POV between the main characters and the fact that there were four of them. Many great novels are studies of single characters—loners, outsiders or outcasts—e.g., Madame Bovary, The Outsider, The Bell Jar. Then you have novels that are dissections of the symbiotic/obsessive/co-dependent relationships between two people (usually in a marriage)—e.g., Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. And then there are those stories about love triangles, usually two men in love with the same woman—e.g. Anna Karenina, Thérèse Raquin, The End of the Affair. But Greimas’ square was picking out the relationships between four people. It dawned on me that Greimas’ square described very well what was going on inside Munro’s story.

Square for Munro

Each character in “Jakarta” has a relationship of differing strength with each of the other three characters. The story is a working through of each of these relationships, beginning with the strongest—the most contradictory—and working down through the layers, ending with the implication that there might have been a connection between Cottar and Kath all along. The other ‘implied’ relationship that we are left with is that between Sonje and Kent. The edges and cross hairs of Greimas’ square are a visual representation of the themes of the story—they are the story —and “Jakarta” as a whole is a working through of this set of relationships.

When I thought about Greimas’ square in light of Munro’s story, everything fell into place. Greimas’ square helped me to understand the nature of “Jakarta” and, as with the great studies of individuals, marriages and love triangles, this four-way split (usually two sets of couples) was another universal deep structure, which continues to pop up everywhere in books, movies—any form of narrative storytelling.

Another, very similar, North American exploration of modern love revolving around the four-way split between two couples is the three novellas by Andre Dubus (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”, “Adultery” and “Finding a Girl in America”) gathered together into one volume entitled We Don’t Live Here Anymore (Vintage, 2004). The three novellas explore two marriages—Hank’s to Edith and Jack’s to Terry. Each of the novellas is told from a different POV—“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” from Jack’s, “Adultery” from Edith’s and “Finding a Girl in America” from Hank’s. Again, taken together, the novellas are an exploration of the kind and degree of the bond that each of these people has with the other three.

Square for Dubus

In common with Dubus’ novellas, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015) is a collection of three stand-alone parts, each told from a different POV and set around two couples. Set in Seoul, Part One, entitled “The Vegetarian”, starts in the first person from the POV of a man whose wife, Yeong-Hye, one day announces that she is now a vegetarian. Her husband finds this intolerable, as does her father and mother, and they seek to force her to eat meat. Yeong-Hye resists so strongly that she cuts her wrist in protest. Her family have her committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she stays for several months.

Part Two, entitled “Mongolian Mark”, is set two years later and is told in the third person from the POV of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist who has formed a secret desire for Yeong-Hye ever since her attempted suicide. Yeong-Hye is now living on her own in an apartment and her brother-in-law begins to visit her. He asks for her help with an art project. He paints large flowers on Yeong-Hye naked body, then his own, and films them having sex together. This part ends with Yeong-Hye’s sister finding out about their affair.

Part Three, entitled “Flaming Trees”, is in the third person and told from the sister’s POV. Yeong-Hye has been committed to a psychiatric hospital again and, as her sister travels to visit her, the sister thinks back to when she first met her husband and to when her and her sister were young girls. It transpires that their father used to physically abuse Yeong-Hye, about which her sister has feelings of shame and guilt. While in hospital, Yeong-Hye tells her sister that she has completed her metamorphosis from animal to vegetal and is now a tree. The book ends with a vision of some trees on fire.

Square for Han Kang

As the novel progresses, so we shift around the edges of the square, or across the square, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the human relationships in the book. The sister, who was barely mentioned at the start, evolves into a main character. Her husband, also hardly noticed at the start of the book, comes forward to have his own voice before then disappearing from the narrative altogether. By the end of the novel, Yeong-Hye’s ex-husband (the entry point into the novel) has long since been forgotten. The men disappear, the women remain. Both marriages are shattered, one by a refusal to eat, the other by an act of sex, and there is an implication that Yeong-Hye and her sister’s huband would have been a far better match, as would Yeong-Hye’s sister and Yeong-Hye’s ex-husband. The only constant is Yeong-Hye herself, although she doesn’t have a voice or her own vantage point in the narrative. She remains an enigma from start to finish.

Another recent novel that is fascinating to consider in light of Greimas’ square is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (Cape, 2011). Barnes’ novel is divided into two parts, both of which are narrated by Tony Webster when he is retired and living alone. The first part begins in the 1960s with four intellectually arrogant school friends. Towards the end of their school days another boy at the school hangs himself, apparently after getting a girl pregnant. The four friends discuss the philosophical difficulty of knowing exactly what happened. One of the friends, Adrian, goes to Cambridge while Tony goes to Bristol. Tony acquires a girlfriend, Veronica, at whose family home he spends an awkward weekend. Their relationship fails in some acrimony. In his final year at university Tony receives a letter from Adrian informing him that he is going out with Veronica. Tony replies to the letter. Some months later he is told that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving a note saying that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine their life, and may then choose to renounce it.   At this point Tony’s narration of the second part of the novel begins many years later with the arrival of a lawyer’s letter informing him that Veronica’s mother has died and bequeathed him £500 and two documents. These lead him to re-establish contact with Veronica and after a number of meetings with her, to re-evaluate the story he has narrated in the first part. The revelation is that Adrian had an affair with Veronica’s mother, and so the young Adrian is Veronica’s brother, not her son, as Tony had assumed. The reason Veronica keeps saying throughout the book that Tony ‘doesn’t get it’ is because he never understood this link. The reason her mother had Adrian’s diary and said he had been happy in his last few months is because he had been with her. Tony feels guilty because his spiteful letter drove Adrian to Veronica’s mother, which led them to produce a son, which led to his suicide. As Tony says, ‘I looked at the chain of responsibility. I saw my initial in there.’

Square for Barnes

Those relationships that seem logical and likely to succeed—between Tony and Veronica, for instance—are the quickest to fail, whereas those most unlikely ever to come about often prove the strongest—between Adrian and Veronica’s mother, Sarah, for instance. As soon as Adrian starts his relationship with Veronica’s mother, the dynamic in the novel shifts and the two longest surviving relationships—between school friends Tony and Adrian, and the mother-daughter relationship—are severed forever. And, lastly, the hint of sexual tension between Tony and Veronica’s mother when Tony spends the awkward weekend at Veronica’s home hints at a relationship that might have worked.

After thinking about this square structure in relation to Munro, Dubus, Han Kang and Barnes, I started to see this pattern everywhere: Andre Gidé’s Strait is the Gate, DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, Renée Knight’s Disclaimer, to name but a few. All these novels, so wildly different in style and tone, all shared a foundation built on the four corner stones of two sets of relationships and all were explorations of the four sides and crossways of these squares.

But then something struck me. Looking again over the Munro, Dubus, Han Kang and Barnes, I realised that they all shared something else in common—all these narratives had a ‘black hole’ in it—i.e., that one of the four characters in the story were, in some way, not present—either they had gone missing, or died, or didn’t have a voice in the narrative. In “Jakarta”, Cottar is the only character whose POV we are never aligned with at all. He then disappears from the narrative altogether and it is precisely this disappearance that forces the other characters to review their connection to him and each other and, in the end, brings about the possibility of the ‘implied’ relationship. He is the ‘black hole’ in the story, the fall guy who must suffer and be sacrificed in order for the others to survive or change.

In Dubus’ We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Jack, his best friend Hank, and Hank’s wife Edith, all have their own voices when retelling their versions of the same set of infidelities. Hank and Edith’s POV might not be first person, like Jack’s, but their narrative POV is very close third person and the narrator continually uses free indirect style to allow us to hear what Hank and Edith are thinking and feeling, so their voices feel very like first person. Terry, however, is not allowed her own voice. She is the last to transgress her vows of marriage and it is this final transgression that finally brings about the collapse of one marriage and the re-evaluation of the other. After sleeping with Hank on two consecutive nights because she was unhappy, ‘Terry told Jack about Hank. Then, desperate and drunk, Jack told Terry about Edith.’

Dubus’ trilogy of novellas is a detailed, intimate account of his belief that marriage is the beginning and discovery of emotional conflict, not its resolution. Hank and Edith’s marriage breaks down and they both move on to other lovers, while Jack and Terry’s choice to stay married initially emphasizes the misery in their decision. By the time we get to Hank’s POV, however (which is set many years later when Hank is now with a much younger woman), the survival of Jack and Terry’s marriage takes on an unexpectedly sanguine tone.

In Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Yeong-Hye is again the only character whose POV we never move to. We hear from her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, all of whom talk about Yeong-Hye, but she has no voice of her own in the narrative. This is the point of her story. In order to fulfill her desire to move from an animal to a vegetal state of being, she makes the Bartleby-like decision not to engage with those around her on their terms, terms which she finds intolerable. She sacrifices herself in order to move to another realm of understanding and this move is what horrifies her husband and parents but is what her brother-in-law and, finally, her sister come to love and accept, admire even.

In Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (Cape, 2011), it is Adrian’s suicide that is the bomb dropped on the set of relationships in the novel, but this suicide was brought about by Tony’s hateful letter, which is the source of Tony’s guilt. This knowledge is what forces Tony to reassess and recount to us his role in the lives of Adrian, Veronica and Veronica’s mother (whom he only met once). Adrian’s suicide is a black hole down which he falls, down which Veronica and her mother also fall, albeit for different reasons and in different ways.

All these magnificent stories are highly organised, intense studies of humans interacting and behaving oddly with each other. They throw light on sublimated desires and warped motives. Ultimately, however, in all of these stories, it is some kind of lack, absence or failure of one corner of the square that triggers catastrophic change and collapse in the other three. There must be a black hole, a sacrificial lamb, for the story to work and it is these black holes that are the secret keys to the stories. Through them, we slip down a wormhole and emerge at the story’s end with fresh understanding of just how weird and wonderful human beings can be.

— by Richard Skinner

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Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner is the author of three novels, all published by Faber & Faber. He has also published three books of non-fiction, including a book of essays, reviews & interviews entitled ‘Vade Mecum’ (Zero Books). His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in seven languages. Richard is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. Website address: http://richardskinner.weebly.com/

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Feb 122016
 

Palermo balcony

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palermo street

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

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

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

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

Palermo shore

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

Palermo facade

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

Palermo wall mural

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

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

—Erika Mihálycsa

 

Erika

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

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Feb 112016
 
Domenico_di_Michelino_-_Dante_Illuminating_Florence_with_his_Poem_(detail)_-_WGA06422

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

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition

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

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

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

“Answer: Of himself.”

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

cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise, 33, 76-78

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

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Jay Mirsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 092016
 

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know, kissing his cheek, that of the thousands of species of orchids that there is one called the bee orchid? Perhaps he was an actual insurance adjustor and my insistence on having her outfit him with a literary subterfuge is nothing more than romantic mythmaking, although it is much easier for me to imagine her being intimate with a man she shared a passion with in addition to their mutual physical attraction, especially considering their difference in age at a time when it was considered deeply reactionary for anyone in their teens or twenties to trust much less be romantically involved with someone over the age of thirty, and while I’m proof that exceptions do exist, he must have held something for her other than a briefcase full of policy drafts. Why is it called that? I know that he was of Welsh