Feb 092016



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

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

I used to come around with zombie movies or we would listen to his Johnny Thunders bootlegs while we got high. His place was on Ryerson between Myrtle and Park, about halfway down the block on the right if you were heading toward Park, the brown tenement with the torn screen in the middle window on the third floor. My tired line about just dropping by to ask for a small favor got swallowed by the math—it had been nearly two years—I rang the bell anyway and was buzzed in. The stairwell smelled of frying fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were seated at the metal table on the screened in porch when the fireflies came out. The narrow slate walkway lined with ferns led to a flowerbed where rose bushes bloomed before a low stonewall. The blue grey dusk creeping over the outdoors as a steady breeze moved through the trees.

Wavering candlelight. She smoked another cigarette while they talked about Hesse or Faulkner or Barthelme or Camus or Gass or Chekhov or Elkin or Yates. More wine? She nodded then asked him why he didn’t like Brautigan.

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

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

“The phone is disconnected.”

“Send a letter?”

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

“Do you want another beer?”

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

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

“This looks amazing.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

—Donald Breckenridge

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


Feb 052016



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

The Range

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

1918In 1918 by the woolshed, mother second left.

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

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

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

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

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

The house

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

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

Family 1946

Marjorie & my grandmother 1950Marjorie & my grandmother 1950

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

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

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

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

The Plains

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


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

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

‘That the coal mine?’

‘That’s right.’

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

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

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

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

The Coal TrucksThe Coal Trucks

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

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

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

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

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

There was one particularly memorable call:

‘’Ello. That the coal colliery?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

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

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

‘Strewth no! Jus’ blew up.’

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

Keep Out


Keep Out

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

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

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

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

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

With my sister & Buster

—Elizabeth Thomas


L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Grace Darling was an English heroine of Victorian times. As a young woman she rowed out through raging seas with her father to rescue survivors from a sailing ship wrecked on rocks in the storm.
Feb 022016

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


Athanasius Kircher: Harmonia Nascenti Mundi (1650)

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

  Wolfgang Pauli – ATOM & ARCHETYPE


Sea Time


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

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

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

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


Je Suis Quelque Je Trouve

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

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

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


Navigating the Numen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world is dangerous

The world is thoughtful

I’m all right.

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


The Descending Angel

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

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

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

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

Bohr AtomBohr Model Atom: UNSW, Australia

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

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

The atom had become unimaginable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fish Talk

frida_kahlo_1Frida Kahlo: Sun and Life (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FishMap 3Wayne Atherton: Fish Map #3

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for the Fisher King?

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

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

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

Reframing the Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Briefly Mapping the Terrain

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

CircletriangleSeal of Solomon

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

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

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


The Invisible Number

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

Edvard_Munch_-_Jealousy_Edvard Munch: Jealousy

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

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

Synchronicity dogged Pauli’s footsteps.

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

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

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


Ending on a Synchronistic Note

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

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


Winding the World Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauli_s_World_ClocknewW. Beyers-Brown: The World Clock

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


Channel Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, there was Abraxas.

abraxgemAbraxis Coin, Roman, (300AD)

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

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


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

Abraxas = the Neutrino.


The Pre-conscious Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I protest again that I adhered exactly to his directions.

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

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

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

“Fair enough,” I agree.

Again that smirk.

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

“Be specific,” he insists.

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

“That’s two wishes,” he yawns.

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep your line in the water.”

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

—Paul Pines

Note One: From Synchronicity by F. David Peat

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

Pauli's worldclockPauli’s Worldclock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 312016

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


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

W.B. YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nietzsche Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil.

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

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

Night (Socrates/Christ) one god

Day (Homer) many gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

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

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

Gordon CraigGordon Craig

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde


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

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

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

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

Yeats Four Plays for Dancers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane smaller

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


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

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

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

  24. Mythologies (London and New York: Macmillan, 1959), 331.
  25. Mythologies, 334, and Autobiographies, 469.
  26. For a full discussion of the subject, see the essays gathered in Yeats Annual 19 (2013), titled The Mask, especially Warwick Gould’s long and characteristically thorough study, “The Mask before The Mask.”
  27. Yeats’s Preface to his early essays, collected in 1934 as Letters to the New Island, xiii. (The volume was re-published in 1989 (ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer) in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. “The Tragic Theatre,” in Unpublished Prose 2:388.
  28. Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, intro. Kathleen Raine (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 21; cf. 124-26. Yeats, Introduction to Oxford Book, section xv. Matthew Arnold had de-canonized Empedocles on Etna because, he said in the Preface to his Poems (London: Longmans, 1853), “no poetical enjoyment can be derived” from situations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action” (viii). Nevertheless, Arnold’s decision was as regrettable as Yeats’s. Owen’s famous description is from a draft-Preface for a collection of poems he hoped to publish in 1919.
  29. The caveat (“Mere dreams, mere dreams!”) is followed by recovery: “Yet Homer had not sung/ Had he not found it [the abounding jet sprung out of “life’s own self-delight”] certain beyond dreams.” But the pattern of vacillation continues in the lines that immediately follow, since “now it seems,” in the twilight of the Anglo-Irish tradition, as if “some marvellous empty sea-shell” (a beautiful fossil that once housed life), and “not a fountain, were the symbol which/ Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.”
  30. This celebrated phrase, from the 1936 Introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, later supplied M. H. Abrams with both title and epigraph for his 1953 landmark study of Romantic theory, The Mirror and the Lamp.
  31. Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), Fragment #8 (Diehls-Kranz enumeration). This passage was used by Eliot as the second of two untranslated fragments (the second is “The way up and the way down is one and the same”) as epigraphs to the first printing of “Burnt Norton,” the opening poem of what became Four Quartets. Both were later printed to apply to the sequence as a whole. See Jewell Spears Brooker, “Eliot and Heraclitus,” in New Pilgrimages: Selected Papers from the IAUPE Beijing Conference in 2013, ed. Li Cao and Li Jin (Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2015), 259-69. Brooker does not refer to Yeats in her paper, but, as earlier noted, in the ghost-encounter in the final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot may be seen as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them.”
  32. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran, George Mills Harper, and William M. Murphy, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1972), 2:560. Yeats wrote Dorothy Wellesley in 1935, “My wife said the other night, ‘AE is the nearest to a Saint you or I will ever meet. You are a better poet but no saint. I suppose one has to choose’” (Letters, 838). Yeats’s poem “The Choice” (1931) begins, “The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Finding, as Nietzsche said, “one more stimulus to life” in the “opposition” between “chastity and sensuality,” antithetical Yeats chooses sensuous poetry.
  33. For a discussion of the Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis by the 4th-century Neoplatonist Macrobius, see Patrick J. Keane, Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (London and Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 143-44.
Jan 132016

Jacket Photo 2015

White Brothers Dairy Farm

White Brothers Dairy Farm


Drought field of Iowa cornDrought-stricken field of Iowa corn


Every Sunday during Mass, our priest prays for rain. He prays for the health of Pope John Paul II, he prays for peace with Russia, and he prays for the sick to be healed.

His last prayer on the list: we pray for rain for the farmers.

The congregation answers in unison: Lord, hear our prayer.

It is the summer of 1983, and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church is in the small town of Bloomfield in southeastern Iowa, a few miles from the Missouri border, an area hard hit by a drought called the worst in a half-century.

Father Wilkening’s prayer for rain goes on for weeks.

During the Universal Prayer, I sit in the hard wooden front pew, my mother’s unfailingly devout seating choice, squeezed between my older sister and brother. Each time Father Wilkening begins the series, I close my eyes and press my palms together beneath my chin, and pray. But in my selfish little eight-year-old heart, I don’t care about the Pope. I don’t care about peace with Russia. I don’t care about the sick.

I care about the rain.

Farm Crisis Manual

I pray for the rain when I’m in church. I pray for the rain at night in my bed before I go to sleep. I pray for the rain when I play outside beneath the broiling hot Midwestern sky. I pray for the rain when I walk across the dry, brown soil that turns to powder beneath my bare feet. This is the dirt of my father’s and my uncle’s farm, my grandfather’s farm before it was theirs.

Sometimes, I see my father’s ruddy face, creased, worried, as he stands in the yard and studies his cornfields that have become a mass of stunted brown and yellow stalks with nubby, kernel-less cobs. I shade my eyes with my dirty farm kid hands and study the fields with him. I turn to the clear blue west where I know clouds are supposed to form, and I pray, Please bring rain. Please water the corn. Please refill the creeks and ponds. Please save us.

But the clouds do not form. The rain does not come.

This goes on for months.

Finally, a small afternoon storm arrives with a steady downpour, a few cracks of thunder and splinters of lightning. I splash barefoot in the puddles, letting the raindrops beat the top of my head and soften my curls to silk. My hand-me-down T-Shirt and cutoff jeans become soaked and stick to my skin as I dance and play in the water and catch more raindrops on my tongue. It is rain, at last.

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s not enough, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t understand. It’s rain, I say.

One little storm, it’s not enough, he repeats.

Kali's First Communion, age 8Kali’s First Communion



That fall, Father Wilkening continues to pray for rain. Our tiny parish of barely twenty-five families—few of them farmers—don’t care about the rain as much as I do, I’m sure of it. All they worry about are their dead, crunchy lawns or the low, brackish lake where they want swim. My mother unfailing writes a check every week to put in the church collection plate, and I pray twice as hard to equally do my part.

Soon, farmers around us quit farming. Sometimes there are auctions and crowds and the families cry when their tractors and wagons are driven away, their tools picked over. Sometimes the farmers just leave. One day a kid is at school in the desk next to me, the next day he is gone. I don’t know where they go.

I hear my father and my uncle speak in numbers and vocabulary I don’t yet understand. Twenty-five to thirty-five bushels an acre for harvest compared to a normal yield of one-hundred and twenty five. Land values down four percent. Cattle prices down. Milk prices down. Bankruptcies and tax delinquencies up. Five hundred public farm auctions a month.

The Channel 5 news anchor talks about the Caterpillar Tractor Company plant in Burlington, Iowa shutting down. He talks about 20,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the eastern half of the state. He talks about John Deere laying off workers by the thousands. My best friend’s father works for John Deere.

The nightly news terrifies me.

I double my prayer efforts.

In September, a bank in town closes. The 112-year-old, three-story brick Exchange Bank on the northeast corner of the square with the plush red carpet and sparkly chandelier in the lobby. One day without warning the green blinds are drawn over the tall windows of the ground floor, and there is a hasty, hand-written “out-of-order” sign hanging on the night depository chute. Customers wander by the “closed” sign taped to the front door. Farmers pull on the brass handle only to find it locked. They try to peek through the covered windows before giving up and wandering a few doors down to a café, confused, disbelieving. They order a cup of coffee at the counter and sit because they don’t know where else to go.

Bloomfield Exchange BankBloomfield Exchange Bank

No one realized it wasn’t insured, I hear my parents say, and I don’t know what that means.

We’re not depositors at The Exchange Bank, though. Our money is in the other bank across town and I am so grateful that I say a prayer of thanks our bank belongs to something I hear about for the first time, the FDIC, whatever that is.

I hear the names of families who lost money in the Exchange Bank. I know their kids. We go to school together. Sometimes I steal glances at their faces in class and wonder, did you pray enough for your bank when you were in church on Sunday? And I feel smug, because I prayed, and my bank had the FDIC.

I get my third grade school picture taken but my mother does not order copies to save money. Two months later, my teacher old Mrs. Judd hands me a packet of printed pictures anyway. I don’t know why. We didn’t pay for them. The bank closing, it seems, has confused everything.



Our little town is on the local news. Then the national news. The New York Times writes about us. I listen with my father to Peter Jennings on ABC, on our Channel 5 that is always snowy. He reports that there are 424 uninsured banks in the United States. Four are in Iowa. One, is in my town. And it is already closed.

At church, Father Wilkening prays for rain, and now for the families who had money in the Exchange Bank.

After the bank closes, the brick building sits empty. After a while, it becomes a sandwich shop, then a pizza joint, and other businesses I can’t remember because they come and go so fast. The popular bank president leaves town with his wife and two handsome teenage boys. My sister had a crush on the younger one. They never come back. I don’t know where they go.

Diamondz PizzaThe exchange bank turned into Diamondz Pizza

In the winter of 1984, the Davis County High School boys’ varsity basketball team has a winning season and makes it to the state tournament. Our town finally has some good news. Something to celebrate. The boys on the team are heroes and there is a city-wide pep rally. Father Wilkening prays on Sunday for the boys to have a safe trip to Des Moines, and for a win. The school prints T-shirts that say “Davis County Too Tough To Die” like The Ramone’s album, though I don’t know who The Ramones are. My mother buys shirts for me and my sister and brother. They have gold sleeves and maroon lettering and our galloping mustang mascot on the chest. Giant “Too Tough To Die” billboards are erected on Highway 2 and Highway 63, greeting motorists as they come and go from our town.

Good Morning America hears about our uninsured bank that closed, and about our basketball ball team going to the state tournament, about our T-Shirts and billboards, and they come to our little town because we’re suddenly interesting.

They film kids wearing the T-shirts in front of the west side of county courthouse—a beautiful gothic building in the center of the town square that makes a perfect backdrop for the camera shot. I am there wearing my gold and maroon T-shirt, and my neighbor Jessica hoists me up for the camera because I am too short and lost in the crowd. On three, we all shout “Davis County! Too tough to die!” and cheer while the camera rolls. Joan Lunden tells the story of Bloomfield and our bank and our basketball team, and I get up early to watch, before the bus comes to take me to school. For the first time in my life I see myself on television, a tiny speck in my neighbor Jessica’s arms. I’m smiling and look happy.

Joan talks about us for only a few minutes, and then we go back to the forgotten middle of nowhere. Our boys don’t win the state basketball tournament.

Seasons pass. Harvests. Calvings. Powdery earth still beneath my feet.

Depositors at the Exchange Bank never get their money back. The drought persists. More farmers leave. A few, I overhear in terrifying whispers, go out into their barns and shoot themselves.

A protest group comes to our little town. They assemble white wooden crosses and plant them in the yard of the courthouse, the exact same spot where I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America. One cross for every farm foreclosed in our county. There are dozens and dozens of the haunting white ghosts.

White Crosses on Courthouse LawnsWhite crosses on the courthouse lawn.

West Side of the Davis County CourthouseDavis County Courthouse

Nothing, it occurs to me, has changed. I’m sorry that I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America.

Father Wilkening leaves and we get a new priest. Father Gottemaller. He also prays for rain. My mother gets a part time job at the liquor store on the square to help make extra money. She still writes a check to the church every Sunday.

Only now, the checks make me angry. I don’t trust money anymore.



At last, a spring planting season brings rain. Not just one isolated rain shower, but weeks and weeks of rain, and the ponds and lakes refill, the grass turns green, the creeks swell, and I dance barefoot in the puddles and cry Hallelujah! My family’s farm is saved.

Flooded creek and fileds on my dad's farmFlooded creek on my father’s farm

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s too much, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t ask him what he means, because this time I understand. This is how it will always be. Too much. Not enough. Too tough to die.

The next Sunday, Father Gottemaller prays for the rain to stop, for the flooded creeks to subside, and for the swamped fields to dry out so the farmers can plant their crops.

My mom writes her check. But I don’t pray.

I am a farm crisis kid now.

I don’t trust money. I don’t trust the sky.

—Kali VanBaale


Kali 3rd Grade School Picture

Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between earned an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Good Divide, is forthcoming June 2016. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside Des Moines with her husband and three children.


Jan 122016
Version 2

Tomoé Hill


MOST FIRST MEMORIES of perfume for girls come from female relations—mothers, grandmothers, aunts. The cluster of bottles on the vanity, a drop on the back of the hand, or the cloud of scent that was the final touch of magical adult rite of getting dressed up to go somewhere fancy. Mine came solely from my father. My mother, who is Japanese and doesn’t like what she considers ‘loud’ scents, never showed anything but polite interest. To her, loud was anything but the scent of one’s own skin and soap, although later she professed a nostalgic love for L’air du Temps soap—a soft aldehydic floral—something one of her older sisters in Japan would occasionally buy for her. This polite interest extended to occasional gifts bestowed on her by my father or myself and my sister: an expensive bottle of Guerlain’s famous oriental, Shalimar; a less expensive bottle of Revlon’s aldehydic floral Charlie; and Bluebell by Victoria’s Secret. Instead, I became the one who found myself in love with scents, thanks to my father. One of my first memories was of him getting ready in the morning: like a magician’s trick, I never actually saw the process, only the before and after. I would watch him enter the bathroom tired and emerge sometime later from a cloud of steam, awake and smelling of old-fashioned shaving soap, Listerine and cologne. Observing his life through scent made me interested in the real and made up stories behind them; the ritual of buying, giving and wearing it; and later, how personal chemistry and scent are so entwined in the magic of attraction.

I would sit across from my father at the square oak kitchen table and watch him quietly as he added dried and fresh lavender and sandalwood to an alcohol mixture, steeping them for days, maybe even weeks before straining out the original ingredients and transferring the liquid by way of a small silver funnel into old crystal stopper bottles he would find at antique stores. He was no perfumer, but he was curious about everything and possessed a fantastic talent to create; if something captured his imagination, he would want to try and duplicate it. So besides bottles of handmade cologne, he made a beautiful working harp for my sister, and a large teak draughtman’s board for me, as well as numerous elaborately carved walking sticks for himself and jewellery for all of us—he wore a carved red coral hand on a silver chain for years; it was only when I was almost thirty that I discovered there was an original, when I was in the Residenz museum in Munich. Aside from curiosity, a lot of this was born from not having much money; so the beautiful things he wanted for himself or for us, he made, as even good materials were cheap enough to come by as scrap back in the 80s.

But my love of scent then was not just from those memories; it also came from his small row of bottles that lined a glass shelf in the bathroom. When he had some money to spare, there was Puig’s mossy-leather Quorum; Geoffrey Beene’s green floral Grey Flannel; or Lagerfeld Classic, an oriental-tobacco. When he didn’t, there was Florida Water—the stuff Scarlett O’Hara washes her mouth out with to cover the scent of brandy in Gone With the Wind. They all smelled mysterious and elaborate in their own way, and he would teach me to pick out individual ‘notes’ and commit them to memory, so I could always identify them: lavender, violet, Mysore sandalwood (sadly now almost non-existent in perfumery—scarcity due to overuse) and bergamot, among many others. He would tell me about colognes he had owned in the past with fondness, thinking them gone forever. Just based on notes and some bottle descriptions, I would later use the internet and the knowledge I accumulated through my own experience to find them and surprise him with them as Christmas gifts: Guerlain’s Eau Impériale, a floral citrus cologne created for Empress Eugénie, and Puig’s Agua Lavanda, a lavender-rosemary cologne supposedly used by Frank Sinatra.

His joy was so great that I would seek out scents I thought he would like: soon his bathroom cabinet (now that my sister and I had moved out and left it full of space) was stocked with more bottles than any Old Hollywood starlet’s vanity. When I discovered Crown Perfumery, brought back to life temporarily by the Clive Christian brand, I bought bottles of Sandringham, a floral-woody scent and Sumare, a mossy-leather as well as Eau de Quinine, Spiced Limes, and Eau de Russe—all variations on the traditional eau de cologne. Eau de Russe he objected to at first due to its sweet, powdery heliotrope. Thanking me on the phone, he said: “but kid, how can I go around smelling like a sugar cookie?” To which I told him: let the note evolve, think of it in the larger context of the scent in order to appreciate it. Very soon he grew to love it. He also found he loved a slightly bitter orange, so I bought him Creed Orange Spice, an orange-ambergris scent and L’Aromarine Orange Santal et Petitgrain. When he died we buried him with a bottle of Eau Impériale, and after he was gone, the one thing my mother couldn’t do was get rid of his scents; they still sit on the shelves and she sniffs them on the days she misses him more than she can bear.

All these scents were a bit exotic and perhaps a bit too elegant for our small Midwestern city. In these parts men wore Coty Stetson, Faberge Brut, Dana English Leather, and of course, Old Spice.

He would sometimes go to Chicago, our nearest large cosmopolitan city, to indulge one of his favourite hobbies: antique shopping (also, it was the only place at the time he could find Muelhens 4711, his preferred cologne). There were quite a few good shops in a large gay neighbourhood near Wrigley Field, and my father, then in his 50s, silver crew cut and moustache, immaculately dressed and always wearing a heavy leather jacket, wafting exquisitely fancy cologne, made not a few men swoon and ask him what he was wearing. He would proudly respond with the name of the scent and tell his admirer ‘my eldest daughter bought it for me’, to which they would swoon again and compliment both of us on our taste. He encouraged my own growing love for perfume, never telling me something was too grown up for me. He would sniff my purchases—our only real source for good perfumes was TJ Maxx, where you could pickup up department store overstock fairly cheaply—and tell me what he liked about them. There isn’t a memory of us being together where I don’t remember what he was wearing. The very last time I saw him was at Heathrow after he came to visit; he wore his beloved 4711 and I wore Trussardi Skin, a fruity-musky wood scent.

I started my own exploration by going to the local drugstore, riding there on my bicycle every week with my allowance to sniff the bottles of Revlon Intimate Musk, the floral-oriental Xia Xiang, Alyssa Ashley Musk and White Musk. Later on when I was allowed to go to the mall with my friends in junior high, I discovered Parfums de Coeur Skin Musk, The Body Shop’s fruity-oriental Ananya and White Musk. Now, white musks are everywhere and tend to smell like fabric softeners, but then, they smelled exotic. These were the height of teenage sex appeal, but not the height of sophistication; that was reserved for the perfumes in ads in Seventeen magazine, all the perfumes that were sold at the brightly lit glass and chrome department store counters where our mothers bought their Estée Lauder and Clinique. This was adult territory, something that held us in awe. My best friend at the time existed on a higher perfume plane than the rest of us: her mother was a perfume fanatic and when she got bored, she would hand them down to her daughters. They quickly accumulated bottles upon bottles of scents like Chanel No. 19, a sharp green leathery floral; Estée Lauder Private Collection, another sharp green floral; Yves Saint Laurent’s famous spicy-oriental Opium, and the rich floral Givenchy Ysatis: undeniably glamorous scents that suggested mystery and intrigue and had us pretending in front of mirrors that we were Jerry Hall, Paulina Porizkova or Carla Bruni.

Seventeen in the 80s contained ads for scents like Prescriptives Calyx, a beautiful tropical green-fruity (guava) scent, slightly bitter, but completely lush—even the ad, simple as it was, was evocative: rich green leaves shadowing a bottle. There was a very high-low mix of advertising: on one page you would find Parfums de Coeur’s ‘Designer Imposters’ sprays in a can—the cheap equivalent of the expensive scents our mothers wore (except mine) with ‘similar’ names: Calvin Klein Obsession was ‘Confess’, Giorgio Beverly Hills was ‘Primo’. We oversprayed in the locker rooms with gleeful abandon—these scents were the female ur-Lynx—although we didn’t attract anyone as much as choke them with clouds of cheap perfume. This ad would then be next to Chanel Coco, when Inès de la Fressange was still a favourite model of Karl Lagerfeld’s—before Vanessa Paradis’ famous bird-in-a-gilded-cage ad campaign—she would be decadently draped in ropes of faux pearls, photographed in profile in black and white. Like Calyx, the simplest of ads, but one that had a huge impact.

I ended up with quite a little collection of my own by the time I was out of high school: Fendi Asja, a rich oriental in a black and gold stripe lacquer style bottle; Calvin Klein Escape, a fruity-ozonic; Dior Poison, a dangerous dark fruit and tuberose scent with an equally mesmerising ad: all dark colours, a woman with closed eyes wrapped like a desert nomad in black and midnight blue proffering a bottle with the tagline “Poison is my potion”; Jean Couturier Coriandre, a herbal-rose chypre (chypre meaning Cyprus, a reference to the great scent Chypre by Coty: chypre scents are usually identified by bergamot/citrus at the top and an oakmoss base—sadly, due to IFRA restrictions, true chypres are almost non-existant and are usually a cleaned up thin patchouli-tree moss base, although Guerlain Mitsouko, another famous chypre, has undergone a very loving reformulation under restrictions); and Chanel Coco, the most beautiful oriental of them all. Thanks to the Inès de la Fressange ads, I pestered my father for some until one Christmas a small, elegant wax-sealed bottle of extrait in a black and gold box appeared under the tree. I broke the seal very carefully and dabbed it on: clove, orange blossom, amber and opoponax; heady and velvety, it made me feel like the most sophisticated of women at 16. My father sniffed and nodded approval, adding with typical understatement: “you smell alright, kid.”

Besides these, there were small bottles of various musk oils to be dabbed on, not sprayed. This was a ritual—musks sometimes came in oil form while most other perfumes did not; Coty Wild Musk, The Body Shop versions, Alyssa Ashley, Parfums de Coeur—all offered tiny 7.5ml or 15ml bottles. There was clearly an unspoken understanding with musk: it was potent, it was animalistic, it was sexy, but it was also a secret. Keep it close to the skin, and whoever was interested in you would have to lean in to catch your scent. One of the reasons Revlon’s Intimate Musk captivated me in the drugstore all those years ago was the packaging illustration: a couple in primary red, entwined in an embrace. Sex was an abstract concept for me at the time, and I as looked at the bottle and smelled the scent of musk on my skin, I could sense something I didn’t quite understand, but liked nevertheless. An 80s ad for Parfums de Coeur Skin Musk had the tagline “Skin on Skin”, the accompanying picture a close-up of a young woman’s face, her body—even though not shown—clearly meant to convey nakedness, as she embraced a faceless man. Recalling it, I found it on the internet and examined it closely. Her face has what can only be described as a damp, post-coital glow: even though her eyes are closed, the look on her face has an ecstasy about it, her full reddened lips parted and the blond tendrils of her hair pressed underneath the man’s hand. You can practically smell the sex. On the advertisement there is an offer for a free poster with purchase—I wonder how many parents tore it off bedroom walls, immediately understanding the blatant suggestiveness with the experience of years their daughters did not have.

Some people stay true to a single perfume for their entire lives; it is a deep emotional attachment as strong as any with a person. Others are completely indifferent to perfume and see it as something that should be put on for a special occasion—as a completion to the outfit, but have no real interest. All perfume is the same to them. Still others change specifically to mark major life moments: marriage, children. And some of us constantly change: we change because memories are too heavy for us to keep wearing a certain scents, because we like having an assortment to choose from; each different mood requiring a different scent, and because we simply are too interested in the various beautiful creations out there. I find that I shift in periods of a few years, with a few favourites out of whatever my collection at the time consists of. In the later 90s, I mainly wore Freesia and also the original Victoria by Victoria’s Secret. The latter was rather description defying, by my standards. It was probably a powdery oriental, but I could never think about it rationally, except in hindsight. In my mind, it was the scent of sex—although that may have had more to do with Stephanie Seymour and Frédérique van der Wal being the eye-popping embodiment of Amazonian femininity in the catalogues. Sometimes I switched over to men’s scents and wore Halston Catalyst, a wood and spice scent in a bottle that looked like a lab flask. A woman wearing a masculine scent appeals to the man in the same way wearing nothing but one of his shirts does: it takes the masculine and imbues it with a hyper-sexuality that comes from feminine possession.

By the time the early 00s came around, I wore Gucci Envy, a sharp metallic lily of the valley scent, icily sexual, CK Be (superior to the more famous CK One), and Guerlain Samsara. I found the latter in one of the many tax-free perfume shops in Guernsey just after Christmas in 1999, when it was still loaded with Mysore sandalwood: heady, hypnotic, and wreaking havoc on my mild asthma, although I stubbornly clung to the bottle for years. Then came the niche perfumes from the independent/small perfumers who created interesting offbeat scents that you couldn’t find in the mainstream. Some of the better known were Philosykos from Diptyque, a dry cedar and fig scent, the fig almost having a coconut aspect to it (my favourite was their Opône, discontinued and brought back to life, although the original was richer: a dark, almost masculine rose and saffron scent), and L’artisan Parfumeur, best known for Mûre et Musc, a light blackberry and musk scent that for anyone who grew up in North America in the 80s, smelled of Strawberry Shortcake doll heads. Most famous of the niche brands is still probably Serge Lutens, an almost mythic character who used to create makeup for Dior and was an art director for Shiseido, producing the most beautiful images of women that looked almost alien—otherworldly, ultra-stylised creatures. There is a legend told by one of his models that they decided to recreate Nero and the burning of Rome, and set the studio on fire in the process. He and Christopher Sheldrake (the latter was the perfumer, the former more the creative director) were responsible for some of the most unique scents in niche: Rahät Loukoum, the scent of Turkish Delight, the almost cherry sweetness of almond and powdered sugar, and Muscs Koublaï Khän, a scent that revolts some and seduces others depending on their tolerance for musk and civet. It is worth noting that musk, civet and castoreum used in perfumery now is all synthetic—or at least in Western perfumery.

I’ve bought and sold so many bottles during this time I can’t even count: as I got bored of one I would sell it to fund another. I amassed a collection that I studied, and when I realised that I didn’t wear them so much as analyse them, I sold them all and didn’t buy anything but small sample vials when I wanted to learn about new ones. The fact is, there is so much out there now that I couldn’t keep up unless it was a full-time job. With IFRA regulations and mainstream companies tweaking formulations constantly to keep profits high while they sell more and many niche brands raising prices to new unaffordable levels, a lot of it isn’t as interesting as it used to be. As far as vintage collecting is concerned, not only does it require a huge amount of patience but it’s a huge gamble. You have to be appreciative of the fact that aside from the possibility of people faking/adulterating contents of bottles, natural degradation means often you end up with a bottle where the only really discernible part of the perfume end up being the base (although if you want to study perfumes from the 30s, 40s or 50s this still yields a lot of rewards). Sometimes it’s worth it: struck by an almost aching nostalgia to smell some vintage 80s Colors de Benetton for Women, I hunted down the original black top splash bottle on Ebay. There was a bit of degradation, but not so much that the beautiful rich orange blossom and basil top notes that hit my nose didn’t fill me with a rush of intense satisfaction.

Scent is an incredibly personal, intimate pleasure. We wear it to please ourselves and seduce others. It’s no accident that advertisements always come back to the idea of scent and memory, scent and seduction—they’re all bound to each other. I love it when lovers can only identify a scent with the memory of me, and likewise, there are scents worn by lovers that I will only ever associate with them. The greatest compliment, of course, is for someone to love your own scent—even better when they know the story of chemistry: how the body attracts another, when you inhale someone’s skin-scent and understand the primal compatibility, revel in that particular aspect of animal attraction. But the next best thing is for someone to love the scent you wear, when you see their eyes light up and know that it leads them to you like a path only they can see. There has been only one time in my life when the memory of a person was so painful that it became permanently bound up with a particular scent. That person wore Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac, which I also happen to own and wore frequently once. I still have the bottle, but every time I take off the cap to spray it, the wood and tobacco scent drifts up and transports me back to last time I saw him—a cool summer evening in London, standing in the shadows of a hotel near King’s Cross as endless buses and taxis drive by, oblivious to us, and he tells me even though he wants a life with me, there is something else that is more important, something he wouldn’t tell me. I not only smell wood and tobacco, but his skin and hair, the London night, my sadness.

To choose a scent is to let go: let go of what people tell you you should wear and what might suit you. Let it sit on your skin and blend with your chemistry. The best ones always feel like you, but they bring out an aspect of your personality — more sexual, more innocent, more powerful: whatever it is you want to feel at the time you wear it. What do I wear now? I must have a tray of a dozen scents or so still; and I do wear every single one of them. Among those, were I forced to narrow down favourites, I would choose Le Labo Ylang 49, an earthy, mossy humid tropical floral that blooms sultrily in the oppressive heat of summer; Le Labo Cedre 11, the scent of pure bonfire (technically not perfume but an ‘ambient’ scent, but with higher quality brands home scents tend to just be weaker concentration perfumes—although there is nothing weak about this); Chanel Bois des Iles, a woody aldehyde: Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house for adults, but not sweet—spice and rich velvety woods; Vero Profumo Rubj, a carnal white floral—the carnality thanks to the blend of fleshy hot tuberose and passion fruit; and finally Nasomatto Black Afgano: the marketing would like to tell you it is based on hashish, but on my skin it is a dark, rich woody musk, seductive and powerful.

I tell people perfumes are a hobby. While that’s true—I’m an amateur in the old sense, a lover— it is much more than that: it is the connection and creation of memories, a way of linking all the beautiful things and places and people I’ve experienced and loved. It doesn’t have to come from a bottle—it can be the process itself, like watching my father at the kitchen table. It can come from place, like the scent of jasmine in the summer taking me back in my head to Menton on the French Riviera, the salt breeze mixing with the indolic, heavy flowers there, and it can even be imaginary, because the imagination of course is a powerful thing: when you create the scent of someone in your head, out of curiosity and longing, and wonder if the reality of their flesh and chemistry will sing to your own.

—Tomoé Hill


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 Literature, minor literature[s], Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.


Jan 102016
Portrait of George Herbert in Bemerton by William Dyce

Portrait of George Herbert in Bemerton by William Dyce


Some poems you read once, maybe twice. You like or dislike them, you share them – or you mean to share them but never get around to it. Sooner or later – for me, lately, it’s sooner – you can’t remember much about them. The striking features you were drawn to – the metaphors that stopped you in your tracks, the music of the words, the phrases you never imagined bumping up against each other – fade from your memory, though you know you liked many of them when you first read them. You have only a vague sense of what the poem was about – An animal, I think? A duck? You have only an inkling as to the author. Female poet, early 20th-century…British? Canadian?  Down the line you hear the poet’s name and it sounds familiar to you – I read something by her not too long ago and liked it.  You try to find the poem in a book, but you can’t find it – Maybe it was in a book from the library. Or maybe in the New Yorker? The Threepenny Review? – so you look through old copies of your magazines, you try to track the poem down online, but it’s gone. The poem was liked but, as  the salesman Willy Loman would warn us, it wasn’t well-liked.

Of course, any kind of “liked” is better than “disliked,” but a poem of that kind – forgettable – is not going down on your list of Poems to Memorize In Case of Shipwreck on a Desert Island. Imagine the circumstances of that shipwreck: all you end up with is your body and what rests securely in your mind – no boat, no matches, no clothes, no shelter, no food. no friends, no wireless connection, no social media, no phone, no pen, no paper, and no books to read. What keeps you going? I mean, besides the coconut-laden palm trees and the sun up in the blue sky, the bright turquoise water, the waves breaking on warm, white sand….Sorry, where was I? (I have an excuse – it’s winter in Seattle. Enough said.) Ah, yes. The question is this: What keeps you going?

Well, maybe, like me, you remember a few movies and much of the dialogue in them, so acting them out could keep you going for awhile. I, for one, have seen the six-part BBC production of Pride and Prejudice often enough to let it loop scene-by-scene through my head while I wait to be rescued from my island. Fiction turned into film script turned into a one-woman performance, minus an audience. Ditto quite a few Jerry Seinfeld shows, though those scripts don’t deepen or change on each re-construction.

For further entertainment, I would have a boatload of songs to sing – Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys, Motown, Aretha Franklin, The Letterman, Tony Bennett. It’s step-by-step on this beach, and with songs I move closer to poetry; lyrics are, after all, a subset of poetry. So sooner or later – definitely sooner – the memorized poems, the well-liked poems, rise to the surface during times of stress (see: shipwreck, above.) They comfort me, make me smile, make me cry, make me wonder.  They connect me with people and places I love, they challenge me to question something, they engage my imagination – and they please me on most days at least as much as fresh coconuts and a blue sky.


Did Crusoe recite poetry to a parrot or two? (illustration: N.C. Wyeth)

Pleasure. That’s what great poetry is all about, isn’t it? Especially if ambiguity resides within the circle of what you find pleasurable. You’ll do well with poetry then, because ambiguity lies at the heart of most great poems. We read and re-read; the poem stays the same, but we change, and we read with those changes exerting their new influence. What puzzles me, though, is not the what, where, when or why of pleasure but the how.  How does a well-loved poem actually work on us?

To help readers answer similar questions, Mark Yakich (editor of The New Orleans Review and Professor of Creative Writing at Loyola) offered up “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies” in the December issue of The Atlantic. His”guide for the perplexed” addresses anyone struggling to understand where the pleasure in a certain poem resides. Basically, Yakich offers up twenty modest proposals in an attempt to steer poetry-phobes away from panic and toward pleasure, with a “step-by-step guide.”

Mark Yakich

Professor Mark Yakich

His twenty suggestions are good ones: Don’t wait for a poem to change your life, don’t force it to”relate” to your life, but do meet it on its own terms and pay close attention to how it says things; do read poems aloud, do approach them with a Buddha-like patience, don’t try to paraphrase, do look for subtleties, don’t forget the poet is not always the speaker of the poem, don’t avoid marginalia (it’s fun), do try to understand what “irony” means (it doesn’t mean disbelief), and don’t worry if you don’t understand it at first – usually, understanding comes, but reading a poem doesn’t take much time or energy, so little is lost. Meanwhile,  there is potential for growth, for new thoughts or “an old thought seen anew.” In other words, what can it hurt? And it might actually help.

Of the twenty suggestions, I like #12 best: “A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.”

As an experiment, let’s look at George Herbert’s Love (III) with Yakich’s suggestions in mind.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
……….Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
……….From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
………If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
………Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
………I cannot look on thee.”
.Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
…….“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
………Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
………“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
……….So I did sit and eat.

……………………………………George Herbert (1593-1633)

It’s a poem which pleases me every time I read it. I memorized it years ago, mostly due to the last line – “So I did sit and eat.” That grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go; it has played in my head like birdsong during many odd, sexy, delicate, memorable moments of my life, none of them relating to food, none of them religious, at least, not in the institutional sense.  Ditto the line “Who made the eyes but I?” And that’s what I often want from a poem – to have a line of it come to me under surprising circumstances.  When I first read it at nineteen, I was in love and I liked the sexiness of the poem. Almost fifty years later, I still do. But I’m a little more aware of the pressure Love is putting on her guest.

Look at that Roman numeral in the title – “(III)”. It announces to the world that Herbert has tried before to tackle this topic and never managed to nail it down. But he’s not a quitter. He keeps trying, and don’t we all, or almost all, when it comes to figuring out love? It’s a big topic, a mighty one, so no wonder the poet keeps working at it. Pleasure from a Roman numeral? Yes.

Of course, George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote almost entirely as a religious poet, so a savvy reader might read this poem as one more of the poet’s many examinations of religious devotion. Love (I) can be read either way, and Love (II) can, too. But Love (III) – well, I don’t see or hear God in it. I prefer to think the speaker in the poem turns from Heaven to Home this time (as the Impressionist painters did – from myth to the picnic table, from Venus on a clam shell to the artist’s sister sitting at a window) and he writes a love poem to celebrate the fact that he is welcomed in.

Who does the welcoming in? It’s Love. Is she flirtatious? Gentle? Fierce? Lusty? Passionate? Tremulous? How would she have said the word “Welcome” to him when he appeared at her door? Would it have been throaty? Intimate? Whispered? Is it gestural and unvoiced – a bit of body language? After many readings, I don’t know yet, but when saying the poem aloud I can make her sound any way I imagine, as long as her voice builds up honestly to the adverb “sweetly” in Line 5. So the tone – especially for the modern reader – can be sweetly tongue in cheek, sweetly seductive, sweetly insistent, sweetly tender, sweetly concerned. It can be all of the above.

In any case, the soul of the speaker in the poem draws back from Love, since he is “guilty of dust and sin.” To be guilty of sin, that’s common. But to be “guilty of dust”? I have no real idea what the phrase means – dust as in dust-to-dust, as in mortality, the way “dust” is used in Love (I and II)? Dust as in metaphorical dustiness – age, timidity, priggishness, repression? Not knowing the answer isn’t a problem. I don’t need to understand completely, because I love the mystery of the phrase: guilty of dust.

There is something fluid to how a poem seeps into a reader – and as Yakich says, “wonder and confusion prevail.” To recall being guilty of sin under these circumstances – Love inviting you into her house to eat – certainly hints at a history of physical passion. Lady Love on the other hand is “quick-eyed” and doesn’t miss a thing, not even the fact that the speaker has gone “slack” as he enters in. Am I just imagining how embodied – how physical – this poem is? I don’t think so. Almost like a geisha, Love approaches, raises her eyes,  presses herself up against the speaker – well, that’s my imagination –  and asks whether he needs anything.

Frank Bidart once wrote a poem using the phrase “guilty of dust” as its title; there is no hint of religion in Bidart’s poem either, unless you believe that Fate is an aspect of religious belief. Instead, Bidart addresses a man’s many “baffled infatuations.” The voice in the speaker’s head claims with some certainty that “WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE.” But the speaker considers “the parade of my loves” and thinks of that parade as one full of “PERFORMERS comics actors singers.” The “love and fury and guilt / and sweetness” they produce seems to be in “DIVIDED CEASELESS / REVOLT AGAINST IT.” There’s no doubt Bidart took the phrase from Herbert’s poem, and Bidart is equally nonplussed by the way love insists itself upon the choices we think we make freely.

As I begin with Herbert’s poem, I’m aware there’s a rhyme scheme, I’m aware of the meter, I’m simultaneously thinking about form and content. Those formal elements march along –  left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. My English professor might have asked us to scan the poem metrically and to look up the biblical reference: Luke, Chapter 12, Verse 37: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” Someone suggests the same approach for teachers at The Poetry Foundation website. So a new reader might be encouraged to read the poem with certain formalities and inspirations in mind. But six lines in to this particular poem, don’t most readers put formalities and sources aside? By the time the eyes are mentioned, aren’t we aware only of the man’s nervous breathing, his protestations about being unworthy, and the woman’s warm invitations?

In the last stanza, I’m not sure why Love asks who bears the blame, nor why the speaker offers at that point to serve.  Does he mean he’ll serve the metaphorical meal? Or does he mean “I will serve,” meaning “I’ll do.” I have to engage my Buddhist-monk patience for those lines. As Yakich says in the Atlantic article, “A poem has no hidden meaning, only ‘meanings’ you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you. Discerning subtleties takes practice.” I am still trying to discern the subtleties of those lines. But then we arrive at the remarkable final couplet, ” ‘You must sit down,’  said Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ / So I did sit and eat.”  Perfect ending. In the penultimate line, the first stress falls on the word “must”  – she insists! – and the final stress of the line on the word “meat.” Love, in other words, is going to get her way. That man is going to sit down. He’s going to eat (the gulf between “my meat” in the biblical Book of Luke and the more suggestive “my meat” for a contemporary reader is wide and deep.)

Bonnard Table

The Checkered Tablecloth by Pierre Bonnard

The poem ends with a thought which allows the iambic pattern of the shorter line to fall apart, just like the man surrenders to Love –  “So I did sit…..[hear the pause?]….and eat.” Following the regular iambic pattern, the line would sound like this: “So I / did SIT / and EAT.”  But doesn’t that “did” beg to receive the stress?  “So I / DID sit…/and EAT.” In that booby trapped space, we fall into the caesura – the long pause between  “sit” and “and eat.” Formalities takes a tumble.  We take a tumble. And Love triumphs.

It’s an exciting poem and, to the ear of a 21st-century reader, undeniably erotic. Whether its author meant it to be – whether his religious nerve endings vibrated to something suggestive or not – is another question, but once the poem comes into me, it belongs to me. “Love (III)”  – third times a charm, George Herbert. I have the poem memorized, just in case Fate takes me to that desert island and I find a parrot or two to share it with.

—Julie Larios


HeadsJulie Larios contributes her Undersung essays to the pages of Numero Cinq, along with an occasional review and poem or two. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. This is her first “Closer Look” essay for NC. A full bio and links to all reviews, poems and essays for Numero Cinq can be seen here. You can find more of her thoughts about poetry (for children and adults) at her blog, The Drift Record.


Jan 092016

Murals all over North Korea honor the regime and denounce
America and Japan. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

A Star for Choi Deok-geun in the Hall of the Spooks

In the Far Eastern seaport of Vladivostok, Russia, where I used to live, you sometimes see North Korean guest workers in grocery stores around town. In a typical Russian “productery,” you do not push a cart around piling in cans of soup and tubs of ice cream; you stand at the cash register and tell the clerk what you want, and she grabs it from the shelf behind her and rings it up. But the North Koreans project a truculent self-confidence, despite their modest appearance. They are pencil-necked and knobby-elbowed, wearing torn jeans or plaid trousers, haircuts they seem to have given themselves, and lapel badges of their late leader-god, Kim Il-sung, yet they barge up to the front of the line and bark orders in pidgin Russian, gesturing at whatever they want. Beer! Oil! Rice! To my surprise, the other shoppers stand by patiently, rather than cursing and telling the North Koreans to wait their turn, as they would any Russian who cut the line. The Koreans are regarded as a species as alien as Martians. No point even trying to explain to them the concept of a grocery store line.

The guest workers can still be found in the city, but in 1997 I was editing the Vladivostok News, the Russian Far East’s only English-language newspaper, and the North Koreans were a story. Once I approached three of them who were buying beer in a kiosk near our apartment. Hoping for an interview, I attempted to strike up a conversation, but I was handicapped by my poor Russian. I blurted out, “Are you North Koreans?” They glanced at each other with expressions that said, Well, duh.

I said, “I’m American!” and offered a great big friendly grin to show we meant no harm, we Yanks, large-hearted romantics that we are, galumphing about the globe to distribute chewing gum, rap music, gender anxiety, carpet bombings, and elected governments that have a distressing tendency to collapse into kleptocracies.

One North Korean wore a larger badge than the others–some kind of crew boss or commissar, perhaps. He told me, “Then we’re enemies.” At this he grinned right back.

My wife, Nonna, who was deputy editor and interpreted for me, called around and found a business that had hired North Koreans to remodel the interior of an old building on Aleutskaya Street downtown. The Vladivostok News has since closed and vanished from the Internet and nobody seems to have saved the print archives, so the story I wrote is lost. But I recall a Russian foreman or building owner cheerfully answering our questions. The North Koreans, however, weren’t so easy to talk to. When we approached them, their panicked eyes darted around in search of an escape.

10 Maltsev Strengthen international cooperation“We Will Strengthen International Cooperation”: A sign welcomes
a Russian delegation near Rajin. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Various newspapers report that there are about ten thousand North Korean guest workers throughout the Russian Far East, many of them based in remote logging camps in Khabarovsky region north of us, where they first began arriving in the 1960s. The Seoul newspaper Chosun Ilbo recently stated that one hundred fifty thousand North Koreans are working abroad worldwide under conditions it describes as slave labor, the majority of them in China. Many are also employed in Qatar and Dubai, building a stadium, hotels, and golf courses in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. “Most of their fellow workers from Vietnam, India and Nepal get off at dusk, but the North Koreans often labor on in the glare of fluorescent lamps until late at night,” Chosun Ilbo reports. Ninety percent of their salaries are said to go to the regime.

The Russian crew boss told us that he paid the men’s wages directly to their government officials; elsewhere in the Russian Far East, the workers reportedly receive worthless scrip they supposedly can exchange for rubles. If they were willing to put up with this, it was not the boss’s concern. So what was in it for the guest workers who came to Russia? For timber crews isolated in logging camps in the taiga, it is hard to say. Maybe just food. In Vladivostok, though, North Koreans can earn extra cash doing odd jobs. Sometimes in the evening they went doorbelling in the neighborhoods where they worked, offering their services.

02 Trukhanenko NK bricklayerDressed in traditional Russian felt boots and a tattered coat without sleeves, a North Korean lays brick in Vladivostok. Photo © Valentin Trukhanenko.

Vladivostok has long been a battleground in the spy-versus-spy conflict between North and South Korea. The Kim regime claims to be the sole legitimate government on the Korean peninsula, and it presents the government in Seoul as collaborators with the “Yankee bastards.” So it is unsurprising that the intrigue would spill over into the Russian Far East, where both countries maintain consulates. The failed state’s ire toward its successful rival in Seoul erupted in October 1996 with the murder of Choi Deok-geun, a South Korean consular official who was killed in his apartment stairwell in Vladivostok. Choi officially served as the consul for arts and culture, but his duties clearly extended beyond that. He reportedly was investigating North Korea’s drug trafficking and counterfeiting, and when his corpse was discovered, there was a dent in his skull and poison in his system of a type North Korea was known to use, The Dong-a Ilbo reported in 2011 in an article on Seoul’s request that Russia reopen the unsolved case. Korean observer Robert Neff has noted in the blog The Marmot’s Hole that Choi is now memorialized by a star embedded in the security exhibition hall of the National Intelligence Service in Seoul. Each of the forty-six stars represents an agent who died in the line of duty.

After we visited the construction site on Aleutskaya, the North Korean consulate in nearby Nakhodka, which previously had refused to comment, suddenly called the newsroom to ask what we were up to. When he hung up, the phone rang again. An officer of the FSB, an agency formerly known as the KGB, wanted to talk to Nonna. Somehow he had learned about our story (perhaps listening in on the North Korean consulate?) and asked what was going on.

Nonna explained what we were working on.

“You’d better be careful,” he said. “We don’t want to end up with another dead body on our hands.”

Fish Soup and Cookies in a Land of Plentiful Frogs

We heard there were North Korean workers in Khasan, down on the border, so we caught the train there. The village, home to seven hundred forty people, used to be a bustling portal between North Korea and the Soviet Union, but this ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elimination of trade subsidies for the socialist little brother. When we arrived, we found a few glum North Korean workers in Khasan Station, waiting to catch a train home. Piled at their feet were cheap bags of a sort Russian shuttle traders would bring back from China, stuffed with whatever these workers had bought in Vladivostok. Food, perhaps, maybe clothes. I introduced myself as an American reporter. They would not touch the official red-bound Russian press I.D. I tried to show them.

08 Maltsev MuralistMurals all over North Korea honor the regime and denounce
America and Japan. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

We found some railway employees, who said they had seen coffins on trains heading back into North Korea, bearing the bodies of guest workers who died cutting timber in the taiga. It is also possible that every so often a coffin was bringing back what might be described as a living corpse. When North Korea captures a runaway “traitor” in a foreign country, the secret police reportedly drug him, break his legs so he cannot escape when he wakes up, and return him home in a coffin, a former refugee reports. South Korean media state that Pyongyang’s secret police operate with impunity in the timber camps of the Khabarovsky region north of us, torturing and executing workers. Yet it seemed that nobody wanted to go home. Galina Kachanova, a Khasan train dispatcher who had traveled across the Tumen River several times to inspect rails and work out timetables, told us that when she last visited Tumangang, three of her seven cross-border colleagues had died of malnutrition, among them a father who starved to death because he was giving his own rations to his children. These were railway officials, not prisoners of the North Korean gulag.

“They’re brought up as very fanatical people, and usually they don’t admit that they have hunger in their country,” Kachanova said. “But lately they’ve become more open about it.”

Leaving the station, we headed out into the village.

There isn’t much to see in Khasan. Ramshackle cottages, gravel roads, soggy ditches, weedy rail yards, sidewalks of concrete slabs buckling up and down, fences of splintery wood or sheets of corrugated rust, blocky two-story Soviet apartments shedding plaster. A windowless building was collapsing in decrepitude, filled with scraps of ceiling plaster, living shrubs and saplings, rusty box springs, shattered bottles. The lower part of the village was sinking into swamp. The air breathed the perfumes of sea breezes and coal smoke and diesel and river mud and young, sappy leaves on the trees.

We followed a road paralleling the train tracks that crossed the Tumen River up ahead. The tracks bridged a murky waterway that empties into the Sea of Japan a few miles downstream. A fence ran between us and the rails, and we came upon some North Koreans repairing the tracks. As I photographed them, they straightened up and muttered at each other, hefting their tools.

From Khasan you can see across the Tumen River into North Korea and China; the village borders both countries. On the other side, green hills rumple up into low mountains under a gray ceiling of felt. I had read that from the opposite bank all the way to the DMZ, the frog population had disappeared, devoured by hungry citizens. Two million people died during the famine of the mid-nineties, and hunger, like a specter in a medieval woodcut, is still reaping souls. The regime blamed floods, and then droughts, then more floods. Calamities befall North Korea as nowhere else, to hear the government tell it. The regime can’t get a break long enough to demonstrate the radical efficacy of its agricultural collectives. Yet when its people were on the brink of starvation in 2012, North Korea launched a missile that caused the West to threaten to cut off cash and food aid. This in a country where malnutrition has shrunk the populace to the point that the army has lowered its minimum height requirement to four feet seven inches, or slightly taller than the average South Korean fourth grader, according to NPR. A third of North Korean children are believed to be “permanently stunted” because of a lack of food.

In her new memoir, In Order to Live, escapee and human rights activist Yeonmi Park recalls growing up as the daughter of a North Korean wheeler-dealer who was trading in stolen metals–the only way he could feed his family. In times of hunger, she writes, starving mothers abandoned their babies to freeze to death in alleys. Bodies lay in trash heaps and floated down rivers, and she and her sister once saw the corpse of a naked young man beside a pond where he had dragged himself for a last drink of water. His stomach had been torn open, apparently by hungry dogs. Winter was not the season of death. Spring, when food runs out and the farms have yet to produce crops, is when most people died of starvation. “My sister and I often heard the adults who saw dead bodies on the streets make clucking noises and say, ‘It’s too bad they couldn’t hold on until summer,’” Park writes. She, her sister, and her mother also found it hard to survive after her father was arrested and sent to prison. They ate herbs and plants and cicadas. One boy who had a cigarette lighter showed her that if you cooked a dragonfly over the flame, it “gave off an incredible smell like roasted meat, and it tasted delicious,” Park writes.

06 Maltsev OxcartA scrawny ox pulls a cart near Rajin, North Korea. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Escapee Jang Jin-sung, formerly North Korea’s poet laureate, writes of returning to his hometown, Sariwon, in 1999, not long after Nonna and I first visited Khasan. In Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea, he recalls being shocked to find his old friends were starving. A girl who used to pretend to be his bride in their child wedding games now resembled a gaunt old woman. He inquired after old friends and neighbors and learned that many of them had starved to death. On the streets, merchants were offering wares and services that would not even appeal to a bum in Seoul. One woman was trying to sell a flask that could be filled with hot water to keep the buyer warm; evidently there was no longer any heating. For ten won–about a penny–another let customers use her bar of soap and basin of water to wash their faces. The city’s water supply, it turned out, had dried up with yet another one of those droughts. Jang saw another woman in Sariwon selling comforters stuffed not with cotton but with the filters of smoked cigarettes. All around were inspirational slogans:

Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Disobey Traffic Rules!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Spread Foreign Culture!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Hoard Food!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Gossip!

As Jang headed back to the train station on his way home, a siren sounded, and police surrounded the square and drove everyone into the center with their rifle butts. They dragged out a terrified man in work clothes and held a five-minute People’s Trial. The sentence was death. The soldiers formed a firing squad. Everyone in the plaza was forced to watch, but as the volleys were fired Jang looked up to the sky so as to avoid seeing the moment of death. As he later wrote in one of the dissident poems he secretly composed:

The prisoner’s crime: theft of one sack of rice.
His sentence: ninety bullets to the heart.
His occupation:

“The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer,” Jang writes. “Even someone who worked the land could not find enough to eat.”

On the edge of Khasan we turned down a dirt road, approaching the river through a patchwork of dacha gardens and neglected military pillboxes. One feels that the river forms the border, but a sliver of Chinese territory separates Russia from the riverbank at this point. Nonna and I came to a sign ordering trespassers back or we would be shot without warning. We had nearly walked into China. Just then a voice yelled “Halt!” A Russian soldier we had not noticed came out of a little guardhouse checked our papers. He eyed mine suspicously, Americans being a rarity in Khasan. Ah, but my clever wife had thought of everything when she applied for my visa to come to Russia back in January. The form had asked where I would be traveling in the country, so she listed every city in the Primorye region which was closed to foreigners. Some bureaucrat had rubber-stamped the document, and I now had permission to be in towns that normally would have been off-limits to an American, among them Khasan. Several years later, when we returned on an assignment for BusinessWeek, I had no such documentation, and we were arrested by four soldiers aiming AK-47s at us, and they kicked us out of town. But this guard just waved us back up the road toward the village.

By this time evening was descending. Possibly it is heartless to say this within sight of a famine-afflicted land, but we were hungry, and we could not find a restaurant in the village. The tiny station had no café. The overnight train back to Vladivostok would not leave for hours, and there would be no dining car on a provincial spur from Khasan. (While the distance is short as the crow flies, by rail it was a long trip around Primorye’s rugged coastline and required a recoupling of the cars in the Ussuriysk.) The kiosks offered limited options–packages of hot dogs and imitation crab, Ramen-style noodles, Snickers bars, chips, Choco Pies. Having nowhere to cook any food, we bought some cookies and drifted down a gravel road. Evening slanted across the hills and cottages and vegetable gardens in what might have been an ancient Russian village on the Volga but in fact was in the extreme reaches of Asia. As the good Slavic sun went down, it gleamed on channels of ditch water, ignited slabs of the prefab Soviet buildings, warmed the treeless earth of No Man’s Land that separated us from China, and dappled the frogless bogs of North Korea.

We came upon a villager named Raisa, who was hoeing her potato garden, and asked her a question or two. She didn’t have much to say about North Korea. What she wanted to hear about was us. Where were we from?

Vladivostok, Nonna said, but he’s an American correspondent.

Raisa’s eyes lighted up. An American! What was I doing in Khasan? Was I a spy?

No, a journalist. Editor-in-chief of the Vladivostok News.

Well, this was just terrific, in Raisa’s view! She was delighted to welcome a foreigner to Khasan. Raisa invited us to join her and her husband, a Tatar named Farid, for dinner, and we followed her to their apartment. How homey it seemed, and how exotic just the same, to enjoy Russian village hospitality here on the border of North Korea, to leave your shoes at the door and step into your hosts’ worn slippers, to settle on stools around the kitchen table, to butter slices of black bread, to blow on spoonfuls of scalding fish soup, to nibble on a dessert of Bird’s Milk chocolates and cookies (ours). Yet we could see across the river into a land where railway officials starve in order to feed their children, and where Jang, the poet, once encountered a famished woman in a market in Pyongyang with a sign that read, “I sell my daughter for one hundred won.”

03 Maltsev Khasan StationRussian and  North Korean flags fly at Khasan station to welcome
Kim Jong-il in a visit in 2000. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Farid set out a bottle of vodka and shot glasses, and we toasted international friendship. Switching its tail, Rajah, their irritable tomcat, skulked into the room. Farid had trimmed the cat like a lion, shearing it except for a fluffy mane and a tuft at the end of its tail. Raisa said she was knitting a sweater from the fur she trimmed off the cat. This strikes me as implausible, but it is what she told us. The couple insisted that we remain with them until our train departed. They offered us their comfiest chairs, and Raisa plopped Rajah down in my lap, as if this were a pleasure reserved for honored guests. We watched a selection of their Indian videos. “We’ve always been crazy about India,” she said. I cannot recall if they had ever been there or if this was a theoretical interest.

Maybe it was the vodka, or the lateness of the hour, but I caught only part of the movie before I fell asleep. A villain shoved a beautiful woman into a swimming pool, and a crocodile that was lurking there chomped off her face. Luckily, she secured a good plastic surgeon, allowing her to find work as a supermodel. When Rajah jumped down, Raisa captured him and set him back in my lap, waking me.

Eventually she said, “Oh, you’d better get going,” and stopped the movie. Raisa walked us through the dark village to the station. There were no streetlights, and the skies were spectacular. All of Russia, all of China, all of North Korea had ascended in the celestial sphere, leaving nothing but stars and, in this salient, at least, the chirping of frogs. From the station we caught the sleeper to Vladivostok. Trains rock you to sleep, and I rested well.

Back home our story ran with the additional quotes and color from Khasan. Despite the worst fears of the FSB, there were no attempts to assassinate us. Which is just as well. Like most people we wanted to live, and besides, unlike Mr. Choi, nobody would ever memorialize us with a star in the hall of the spooks.


The Trade in Cross-Border Wives

Several years later we got another glimpse of the Hermit Kingdom when we caught a bus to Yanji, China, where I wanted to write about the North Korean refugees there. Yanji is the capital of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where more than a third of the population of two million people are ethnic Korean citizens of China. An additional two hundred thousand North Korean refugees live in China, human rights organizations estimate.

Nonna and I took a tour bus from Vladivostok along with my stepson Sergei and some friends from what is now called Far Eastern Federal University, where I was taking Russian classes. We were visiting a professor friend of ours who was teaching in Yanji for a year. Part of the way we skirted the Tumen River, where the North Korean bank is lined every kilometer with a guard station. In the last three years, the Chinese have extended fencing and coils of barbed wire along their bank of the Tumen and Yalu rivers, but smugglers and refugees still find a way to wade or swim across in summertime or make a slippery dash to freedom on the ice in the winter. But at that time I noticed no fence on the Chinese side. Those who have the money bribe the North Korean border guards to allow them across; otherwise, they risk their lives when they flee.

“Border guards remain authorized to shoot to kill persons who cross the DPRK border without permission,” states a report by a U.N. commission, released in 2014 as an indictment for a possible future prosecution of North Korea’s leaders for crimes against humanity. “Such killings amount to murder.”

11 Maltsev Russia-DPRK border 2Russia’s border with the DPRK. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Yanji is a bustling city of four hundred thirty thousand people. At night, the multistory buildings downtown are lighted with neon signs advertising food markets, shoe stores, cell phone establishments, karaoke joints. Restaurateurs hang colorful banners with photographs of their tastiest entrees to entice customers. Some signs include a little silhouette of a dog, indicating that man’s best friend is on the menu. As we arrived at our hotel lobby, our tour guide, who was Russian, pointed out a stack of glossy business cards on the front desk, telling us they were from the hotel and we should take some to give to cabdrivers in case we got lost. A few days later, when I gave the card to a foreign pastor and said, “Here’s where I’m staying,” he chuckled and told me, “No, you’re not.” It turned out the cards actually advertised a brothel. Which would relate, I suppose, to the story I would find in Yanji. But I first had to find a way to communicate with North Koreans.

In case you ever find yourself in China writing business stories, you may secure an interpreter through the concierge at the front desk of your hotel. After a series of misunderstandings in which a tour guide who doesn’t speak English takes you sightseeing at a muddy little zoo where rain-darkened zebras chew straw and dispirited howler monkeys cling to a dead tree planted in concrete; after her long-haired boyfriend arrives and tells you he can show you the rock ’n’ roll scene after dark, and by the way, just call him by his English name: Superboy; after he is made to understand that you are a reporter in need of an interpreter–then finally a man in a suit, his dyed hair neatly parted to reveal half an inch of gray roots, will knock at your door and offer to interpret free of charge, not a problem at all, keep your money, he just wants to practice his English. What gives the game away is when your free interpreter leads you through the lobby to a waiting sedan, white in color, with a People’s Liberation Army soldier at the wheel and little Chinese flags fluttering from the front fenders. You are in the hands of some Chinese variety of the FBI or the KGB, and they want you to know that. The chauffeur, too, refuses any payment (he apparently needs to practice his driving), but as long as you are there to write about business, everyone is eager to talk to you and all barriers are swept from your path. Sources cheerfully relate their successes in the topsy-turvy world of China’s commie capitalism. When you are ready to return home, your interpreter may even suggest that you go into business together. If you ask, Selling what? he will tell you, We’ll figure out something. People are right when they say China is business-crazy. At any rate, this is how it worked for me.

But it is different when you’re interviewing North Koreans on the run, so I went through a contact I had arranged. The interpreter and I set out in search of refugees while Nonna and Sergei went shopping. Min-sik (as I will call him) said he knew a North Korean woman who had married a farmer. He drove me out of town along roads through fields plowed by oxen. For many miles on either side of the road, solitary farmers were guiding plows up and down the rows, led by a team of oxen. If they were working alone, it meant they couldn’t find or afford a wife, Min-sik said. Those who were married, however, worked in tandem with the wife, her trudging ahead and leading the ox by the halter while he kept the plow going straight. Most of these women came from North Korea.

Three quarters of the North Koreans in China’s three northern provinces had been purchased as wives or prostitutes, Good Friends, Inc., a Seoul humanitarian organization, reports. Chinese demographics drive the market for women. The rural population of Yanbian produces insufficient women for its Korean bachelor farmers. If you ask villagers why this is, they will laugh awkwardly and say all the women moved to Yanji to work in restaurants and karaoke bars, and who knows, maybe some of them did. Some families buy wives for disabled sons who couldn’t otherwise find a mate, Park writes.  Abortion is another factor. Ethnic minorities are allowed some exemptions from the one-child policy, but China’s high abortion rate disproportionately affects girls in this region as it does in the rest of the country. In 2014, Chinese women gave birth to nearly one hundred sixteen boys for every hundred girls, while the natural human birth ratio is one hundred five boys for every hundred girls, Bloomberg reports. That year there were thirty-four million more men than women in China, according to China Daily. In Yanbian prefecture and elsewhere, North Korean women fill in the gap.

On our way to a village whose name I purposely did not learn, we took a detour. Min-sik took me to a spot overlooking the Tumen River and gestured at the opposite bank. There it is, he said. North Korea. The trees on the other side looked spindly and bald, perhaps because they had been stripped of their bark by Koreans desperate for food, as Jang suggests. We could see a village tucked in the foothills. Unlike in China, no smudges of coal smoke tilted from the chimneys. Maybe there was no coal to be had (such things were known to happen in Russia when officials steal the budget for fuel). From riverbank to riverbank, the Tumen looked narrower than the deep, green Toutle River in Southwest Washington state, where I used to swim in my late teens before the eruption of Mount Saint Helens silted it up. North Korea was so close. A ridiculous notion came to me: What if I just swam across, tagged the other shore, and came back? It was early spring, the trees still leafless. It would be freezing. More to the point, I might be shot midstream, or hauled up on the opposite bank by border guards and frog-marched to prison, requiring Jimmy Carter to intervene on my behalf. So, no, then. I guess I wouldn’t be swimming over. It was just a thought.

12 Maltsev Tumen River BridgeBridge over the Tumen River at Khasan. North Korea
lies on the opposite bank. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

We headed this way and that through country roads until we found ourselves in a village of redbrick homes, one- or two-room huts, really, of a sort North Koreans call “harmonicas,” built wall-to-wall in long rows. We stopped at the door of one of the units. Min-sik knocked, and a housewife peeked out. The worry evaporated from her face when she recognized him, and she looked over my barbarian countenance with curiosity but without hostility. North Korea’s racist propaganda portrays Americans, black and white alike, as monsters and sub-humans with “paws” and “snouts” in place of normal features, R.B. Myers writes in The Cleanest Race, and one popular novella relates how an American “jackal’s spade-shaped eagle’s nose hung villainously over his upper lip,” his eyes “like open graves constantly waiting for corpses.” (Bear this in mind the next time they call President Obama a “monkey” and a “crossbreed with unclean blood”; they think of us all that way.) Despite having been indoctrinated in such propaganda, the woman politely opened the door and invited us in. I now saw that she had a baby tied to her hip with a blanket.

We sat on the floor while she called her husband on a cell phone. Presently he joined us. I will call her Eun-ju, him Young-shik, as I later did when I revisited their lives in a short story. She was in her late twenties, he in his early thirties. In my story “Dear Leader” I described the real couple’s house through the eyes of the North Korean bride-to-be as she and a marriage broker entered

through a concrete-floored entry room filled with rakes, shovels, buckets, dried ears of corn hanging from the walls, a plow without a blade. Glancing frequently with mute wonder at Eun-ju, the farmer [Young-shik] led them into the living quarters, a single room with an electric cooker built into the floor—a gas unit covered by a lid the size of a truck’s hubcap. A faucet poked its snout from the kitchen wall, but there was no sink, and a plastic trash barrel had been placed underneath it to catch the water. Everywhere there were signs that this was not North Korea: a twenty-kilo bag of rice sat in the corner, color calendars with pictures of girls in swimsuits hung on the walls, and there was electricity to squander: a miniature black-and-white television buzzed with a broadcast of a soccer game. Astoundingly, a bird cheeped from within Young-shik’s shirt pocket. He patted himself down and removed a black object the size of a wallet, which he opened and spoke into.

Eun-ju, the real one, had lush, thick hair, and she looked like any heathy young mother as she cooed to her baby. But when she had crossed the Tumen River three years earlier, she told me, she was nearly bald from malnutrition after subsisting on a diet of grass and shredded bark mixed with an occasional spoonful of rice. She recalled North Korea as a land divided between well-off Workers’ Party members and destitute ordinary citizens. At the time she left, train stations were crowded with homeless people, who sleep in the waiting room seats or on floors crawling with vermin. Eun-ju saw malnourished children stop in their tracks and lie down to die in the streets. Once a wealthy man beat a child to death for stealing food. The government of Kim Jong Il enriched itself reselling the rice donated by the West and Japan. A kilogram cost the equivalent of two months’ wages.

Having no future there, Eun-ju fled to China along with her sister.

“I had no other choice,” she told me. “If I stayed there, I would have died.”

When they arrived in Yanbian, she and her sister placed their fates in the hands of the broker who sold Eun-ju to Young-shik and her sister to another farmer (the broker kept the money). As noisome as the brokers are, North Korean women have little choice but to work with them, and often they are deceived and cross the river without any idea that they are heading for a life as a slave. A woman wandering the countryside alone and begging for bread would be a target for kidnappers. Refugees are on the run, hunted by police and unable to trust anyone. In the case of the poet Jang, he and a friend, also an elite party member, fled the country together, and Pyongyang, enraged at this act of treason by two members of the elite, falsely reported to Beijing that two escaped murderers had crossed into China. Yanbian police launched an all-out manhunt. Several times the men slept outdoors in subzero temperatures Fahrenheit, huddling together for warmth on a mountainside in a blizzard. Even without an all-police bulletin, ordinary economic refugees find it difficult to survive on their own. Fearful villagers report the refugees to the Chinese authorities when they beg for food, Eun-ju told me, and while some Christians help North Koreans, others are too afraid of the police. Park managed to escape North Korea with the help of a church mission that escorted her all the way to the Mongolian border, but Jang and his comrade were cursed and driven off when they approached a church.

07 Maltsev Dear LeaderA teacher at a North Korean primary school shows off a
Kim-Jong-il calendar. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

One might think in a market where women are in demand, they would be cherished, but this is not so.  An ethnic Korean who is married to a North Korean tells Jang the brokered women are referred to as “pigs.” “In the Chinese countryside,” he says, “pigs are valuable, so people call the women pigs. They’re graded according to their age and appearance.”

Many women are lured to China on pretexts and have no idea sexual slavery awaits them. Jang met a North Korean refugee in Yanbian prefecture who had been sold to a Chinese at fourteen.  When she met her buyer, a “middle-aged monster,” he tore off her clothes, she told Jang.  She cried because she was frightened.  “Then his mother and sister came into the room, those witches,” the girl said.  “They held my arms and legs down and pulled my underwear off.”  The women pinned the girl down while their son and brother raped her.  Some peasants who buy women pimp them out to fellow villagers as prostitutes; other men chain their new wives up during the night so they can’t escape.  The U.N. commission states that one woman was lured to China on the pretext of working on a farm but was sold to a man who kept her as a slave for three years.  Pregnant, she escaped but was arrested.  Police took her to a transit prison, where her jailers raped her and the other women they had rounded up.

Park, who had been forced to eat cicadas and dragonflies, was also deceived. She and her mother fled across the Yalu River in 2007, thinking they could find jobs in China. (Her sister had already crossed over.) The thirteen-year-old Park had recently endured abdominal surgery for a mistaken diagnosis of appendicitis (she woke up screaming in the middle of surgery because the surgeons didn’t have enough anesthetic for her). She weighed only sixty pounds and barely managed to hobble across the frozen river. The Chinese man who met them wanted to rape Park, but her mother offered herself instead, and Park heard her cries outside as he assaulted her. The girl eventually becomes the mistress of a small-time gangster and human trafficker, while her mother is sold to a farmer. He compels Park to help with his trafficking network, selling other North Korean girls who have crossed into China. She gets them cleaned up, buys them clothes, teaches them about hygiene and cosmetics, and helps sell them.

“I didn’t have pity for anyone, including the girls I helped sell, including myself,” Park writes.

At the time I visited the Chinese farmer and his North Korean wife, I wrote that he bought her for three thousand yuan, or just under five hundred U.S. dollars. Jang, who escaped later, writes in Dear Leader that women cost a third of that. Yet Park says women were selling for over two thousand dollars at the time she arrived. It is worth noting that Park was personally involved in the business, unlike Jang and me.

“The first time we met,” Young-shik told me, “the broker said, ‘Do you think she’s OK?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ If you don’t like her, they will find you someone else.”

Those who are handed back to North Korea are considered traitors by the regime. In 1993, the U.N. commission reports, China forcibly repatriated a family, whereupon they were sent to their hometown in North Hamgyong Province. Police forced the entire population to attend a brutal spectacle in which they handcuffed the family, including a five-year-old boy, and paraded them around town. The report states, “The mother and father were then dragged around like oxen with rings that had been rammed into their noses. … The spectators swore at the victims and threw rocks at them.” Nobody knew what became of the family after that.

For her part Eun-ju considered herself lucky to have ended up with a good husband, but the couple had already moved four times to evade the police. She did not know what would happen to her baby if she were deported, but a child conceived in China would not be treated well in North Korea. Carrying their racist ideology to its logical extreme, North Korean officials force pregnant returnees to abort their babies. A woman named Jee Heon A told the U.N. commission that upon her repatriation to North Korea she was jailed with a mother who gave birth. She states:

The baby was crying as it was born; we were so curious, this was the first time we saw a baby being born. So we were watching this baby and we were so happy. But suddenly we heard the footsteps. The security agent came in and this agent of the Bowibu [short for Kukgabowibu, or State Security Department] … told us to put the baby in the water upside down. So the mother was begging. ‘I was told that I would not be able to have the baby, but I actually got lucky and got pregnant so let me keep the baby, please forgive me’, but this agent kept beating this woman, the mother who just gave birth. And the baby, since it was just born, it was just crying. And the mother, with her shaking hands, she picked up the baby and she put the baby face down in the water. The baby stopped crying and we saw this water bubble coming out of the mouth of the baby. And there was an old lady who helped with the labour, she picked up the baby from the bowl of water and left the room quietly.

Even in China, the children of North Korean refugees have limited prospects. Eun-ju’s son was unregistered, and thus would never be allowed to attend school. These offspring of North Koreans in China are known as “dark children,” Jang writes. Often abandoned by their mothers, they beg in the streets. Yet despite the circumstances that joined Eun-ju and Young-shik, they seemed to be content together. After an hour of talking to me, the couple fell silent, gazing timidly at each other, the baby sleeping on her side. Before long it would be dark out. Young-shik and Eun-ju said they were afraid. She did not want to go back; he did not want to lose her.

Min-sik and I got up to leave.


Bridges to Nowhere

In 2001 Nonna and I again glimpsed the Hermit Kingdom from China, this time from Dandong, where I had decided to search for stories based on nothing more than a hunch while looking at an atlas. I had to leave Russia temporarily to renew my visa, and I was looking for a city off the beaten track, so it would not be picked clean of stories by the foreign press corps in Beijing (Nonna also wrote for Russian newspapers). Dandong was a seaport, which meant I could find trade-related stories for The New York Times or BusinessWeek, my best-paying publications. And it was located across the Yalu River from North Korea.

My hunch proved to be correct. Dandong had a population of nearly eight hundred thousand, making it a medium-sized provincial town by Chinese standards, but it was the center of a lively trade with the North Korean river city of Sinuiju. Dandong is bustling in the typical go-go Chinese way, with crowds of cars and bicycles on its streets and the skeletons of high-rise hotels wrapped in sheet plastic going up in the city center. From downtown, two bridges extend toward North Korea (a third has been built eight kilometers south). The Broken Bridge reaches only halfway toward the North Korean bank–the rest was destroyed by U.N. bombers during the war–and tourists and gawkers can stroll out to the end and photograph the opposite bank and curse the Imperialist Running Dogs responsible for the destruction. Truck and train traffic crosses the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge, just upstream from the Broken Bridge. Lorries and boxcars haul bags of rice and flour and rolls of linoleum and Tsingdao beer into Korea, along with luxury goods for the elite: fine whiskeys, fashionable clothing, spare parts and windshields for party members’ Cadillacs and other foreign cars, and even ostriches. At some point Kim Jong-il decided that ostrich farms were the solution to his country’s protein deficiency. Pyongyang has been subject to sanctions and is not especially adept at trading with the depraved world, anyway, so imports are often brought through Dandong. Dandong middlemen also repackage North Korean exports (wire coat hangers, seafood) as products of China and ship them elsewhere. Despite sanctions, I was told, American retailers were selling sweaters made in North Korea but labeled in China.

One morning Nonna and I took a walk along the quay beneath the two bridges. Along the waterfront, vendors sell North Korean paraphernalia to Chinese tourists: military-looking decorations, won banknotes, propaganda posters of soldiers smashing G.I.s with rifle butts or saluting Kim Il-sung, books of stamps featuring their leader-god. The Great Leader usually looks slightly to his right, and he flashes the dentured grin of a retiree on a sunny day on the links in Fort Myers. (His son, Kim Jong-il, is credited with hitting eleven holes in one on Pyonyang’s eighteen-hole golf course the first time he picked up a club.) Although I had been told in Vladivostok that no North Korean would ever part with his sacred Kim Il-sung lapel badge, they were easy to buy in Dandong if you are content with the older version, in which the Great Leader stares straight ahead stony-faced. Along the quay a writer for Slate also encountered people in colorful Korean attire, but it seems the Chinese like to rent Korean wedding garb and have their pictures taken with Sinuiju in the background.

Nonna and I bought tickets for a boat tour that crossed the river and hugged the opposite bank in North Korean territorial waters. We were so close I could have sailed a coin into Sinuiju. We passed an empty amusement park with a motionless Ferris wheel. In any normal city, such an embankment would have been a busy place on a clear spring morning. Joggers and dog walkers and young lovers would have been enjoying the sun, ice cream sellers would be hawking popsicles, balloon men selling inflatable Mickey Mouses. But in Sinuiju all we saw were border guards in those oversized Soviet-style hats, looking like skinny schoolboys dressed up in their father’s old uniforms. Upstream, our tour boat chugged past a line of rusty fishing trawlers and a windowless factory over which not a puff of steam rose. Red-lettered slogans decorated the waterfront. Rather than promising death by firing squad to those disobey traffic rules or hoard food, in this place North Korea post more palatable boasts for international consumption:

Long live the son of the 21st century, General Kim Jong Il!
Long live the great military-first politics!
Rich and powerful country

Of all the times I have skirted the border of North Korea, including a trip to the DMZ from Seoul, my most striking view of the country came from Dandong, in a rotating restaurant atop a high rise at night. As we started dinner, our window was facing the Chinese side, and the nighttime city stretched away beneath us in circuit board patterns, aglow with streetlamps and lighted apartment windows and LED signboards and business districts glowing with neon. You chat with a Chinese-Australian couple you met in the hotel business center, order a few local specialties for dinner, and sip a chemical-tasting Chinese wine, talk and laugh, and when you look out the window again, the city has vanished. You’re staring at the frogless void of North Korea.

Across the entire dark city of Sinuiju, with hundreds of thousands of residents, I counted eleven lights. It stayed like that all night; the electricity never came on. Those eleven lights, we were told, marked the location of police stations. I am guessing one or two prominent party members or Bowibu officers also had electricity at home. Immediately below our rotating restaurant were the bridges to nowhere. Even the newer one looked like it had been chopped off halfway across, because the lighting stops mid-river, and North Korea does not have power to illuminate its own side. At the time we were there, Pyongyang was threatening to walk out of reunification talks if Seoul did not provide the North with free electrical power.

05 Maltsev NK troopsNorth Korean soldiers at the port of Rajin, near the
Russian border, in 2014. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Back in our hotel room, I flipped through the TV channels to 22 and found myself watching North Korea’s Chosun Joongang network. It was the first time I had seen anything on that channel. For most of the day it is dark: no reruns, no test patterns, nothing but static, but, I discovered, after five every evening, Channel 22 awakens as the voice of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As I would write in an op-ed for The New York Times, the camera panned a hall full of teenagers: the boys in dark suits, the girls in traditional Korean dresses. Iron-faced, they were watching an awards ceremony. Half of the winners took home red banners extolling the Kims and their kingdom. The rest won red accordions, an instrument that North Korean school teachers are required to master.

Fascinated, I began turning on Channel 22 whenever it was on the air. Chosun Joongang devotes hours to Kim Jong-il’s tours of factories, and perhaps because a collapsed economy has only so many new factories to show off, some of the footage was eleven years old. A narrator with a castrato’s voice spoke in trilling, almost hysterical tones as the Dear Leader made his rounds. Kim Jong-il was a corpulent man with a sallow face, wearing dark glasses indoors. The people he met bowed from the waist. Crowds made fist-clenching salutes and beat their chests, or they waved both hands in the air, jumping in excitement like dogs whose master has returned home after a week out of town. Kim Jong-il’s mind was untroubled by mere curiosity. He was never shown asking a question, but rather lectured the experts, snatching up pointers to jab at wall maps or diagrams. (His son has continued the tradition, offering “field guidance” at farms and military installations and even, recently, a terrapin farm, where, sad to say, all the baby turtles had died. And why did they die? Because there was no food for the animals and no electricity to circulate water into their tanks. Irrelevant. The manager was clearly a saboteur. He was shot.) Oddly, I never heard Kim Jong-il’s voice on TV, only the narrator’s. In one clip, the Dear Leader toured a facility that produces syringes. Did the broadcasters even notice that the managers were wearing coats and astrakhan hats indoors? Or perhaps North Koreans–millions of whom live and work in unheated quarters–consider such details unremarkable. And suddenly the TV showed those ostriches I had heard about, towering birds that twirl and flap, moving Kim Jong-il, it appears, to offer tips on applying the precepts of Marx and Kim Il-sung to the breeding of flightless African birds. Literary content consisted of static shots of the day’s newspapers, page by page, too small to read. And there was children’s fare: a cartoon in which a boy hero was captured by an enemy who looked like a samurai, beaten unconscious, and bound with a stick jammed in his mouth to prevent him from screaming for help.

Most frightening of all was the North Korean idealization of hard labor. While the narrator enthused, thousands of workers strapped boulders to their backs and ran to a dam, where they thumped down the rocks and sprinted back for another load. In close-ups the workers’ faces were frozen in rictus grins, but their eyes revealed a leaden terror. It is as if Stalin thought that broadcasting the construction of the White Sea Canal by gulag laborers would inspire his countrymen. Or maybe Kim Jong-il was happy to put a good scare into his people. In any event, much of North Korean TV might feel familiar to Russians of Stalin’s generation: parades of tanks, goose-stepping soldiers, Soviet-style choruses. But if the programming offers a nation’s most grandiose boasts, consider what its darkest secrets might look like.

That night after Nonna went to bed and North Korean TV flickered back into static, I opened the curtains and stared out our window at the frogless dark. Across the river, the night was all-consuming, making Sinuiju seem like a medieval town. Without artificial light, life settles into pace familiar to our species for most of its existence, with people going to bed after sundown. Perhaps you imagine that during a blackout, you would read by the glow of a fireplace or a candle, like a boy Abraham Lincoln sprawled on a cabin’s plank floor or Caravaggio’s St. Jerome lighted in chiaroscuro with a skull on his desk. But even if you set up four or five candles to bleed wax all over your bedside table, as I used to during blackouts in Russia, the illumination is weak and skittish and you worry you’ll go blind or burn the place down if you nod off. So you give up at eight o’clock on a winter evening and blow out your little bedside Pentecost and allow yourself to drift into the underground river of sleep.

In her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, journalist Barbara Demick tells of North Koreans who actually love the curtained privacy of the dark, when one is shielded from the eyes of tattlers and spies. A young escapee whom Demick calls Mi-ran recalls that she had “tainted blood” because her father had served in the South Korean army, but at twelve years old she fell in love with a boy of fifteen from a privileged caste. She could not be seen in public with him without harming his career prospects or her own reputation for virtue as a North Korean girl. Besides, where would they go? The blackouts had shut down all the cinemas and restaurants. So their dates consisted of walks in the dark. Demick writes:

They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her family. The boy found a spot behind a wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn’t matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.

The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself. At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted, talking about their families, their classmates, books they had read–whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

“It took us three years to hold hands,” Mi-ran tells Demick. “Another six to kiss. I would never have dreamt of doing anything more. At the time I left North Korea, I was twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.”

After her father’s death, she eventually fled North Korea with her mother and siblings, never telling her boyfriend good-bye because no one could be trusted, not even her beloved for the past fourteen years, when it came to crimethink. This hasty departure was the source of great remorse for her, and years later, in her early thirties, married and the mother of a young child, she still longed for him.

The silky black of the night: Jang, the poet-escapee, had his own bizarre tale of a journey that begins in the unlighted streets of Pyongyang. As a young writer in his twenties, he says, he composed an epic poem that delighted Kim Jong-il (you’ll never guess the subject). One night after midnight the phone rings, and the caller tells Jang, “I am issuing an Extraordinary Summons. Report to work by one a.m. Wear a suit. You are not to notify anyone else.” Leaving his parents asleep, Jang puts on his best suit and tie and hops on his bike to pedal into the frogless dark.

Outside, there are no streetlights lit. The silence of the capital city is so absolute that I can only sense the presence of passers-by before their dark shapes loom into my vision. The electricity supply is in a perpetual state of emergency, even though there are two power stations serving the city. … [N]either produces enough power to supply more than one district of the city at a time. So, like a roaming ghost, power settles in rotation on sections of Pyongyang for about four hours a day.

It is not out of the question that the summons might be to his own execution–you never know in the Democratic People’s Republic–but it turns out he is invited to a banquet in a secret palace of Kim Jong-il’s, along with the country’s most senior experts in South Korean affairs, among them army generals and party secretaries. The guests are served fish, meat, wine, a dessert of ice cream soaked in liqueur and set alight. Jang does not specify beyond that, but the Kims’ former Japanese chef reports both the late Kim Jong-il and his corpulent son and heir loved sushi, lobster, Uzbek caviar, Kobe steak, shark fin soup, Cristal champagne. One rare dish was not on the menu: good, old North Korean frog. Nor were field mice, nor snakes and worms, nor nettles, nor cicadas and dragonflies, nor a porridge of pounded pine bark and grass, nor hoarded grains of rice boiled in a watery soup nor bits of undigested corn plucked from animal manure, nor the foul gunk scraped from the cargo holds of freighters that had carried imported rice–none of the foodstuffs the Dear Leader’s subjects were consuming. “We had to eat everything alive, every type of meat that we could find; anything that flew, that crawled on the ground,” one former inmate of Political Prison Camp No. 15 at Yodok told the U.N. commission. “Any grass that grew in the field, we had to eat.”

When Kim Jong-il, seated at his dinner table, summons Jang for the honor of clinking wine glasses with the Dear Leader, the poet scurries over and bows, bent double at the waist. From this position he notices something odd beneath the table. The nation’s leader-god, also known as the General, has removed his shoes. “Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet!” Jang puzzles. “I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet. That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles…” Kim’s shoes have high heels and inner lifts at least two inches thick. These, like his permed, oatmeal-drum haircut, are merely means of disguising his height of five foot three inches. Kim uses the coarsest language, muddling subjects and predicates, not the elegant, beautiful speech he does in books. He calls his top leaders not “Comrade” but “You!” and “Boy!” He does reveal an exquisite sense of humor, though. When they meet, he accuses Jang of having plagiarized his poem. “Don’t even think about lying to me,” Kim says. “I’ll have you killed.” Then he chuckles. Haha! Just kidding. A barrel of laughs, Kim Jong-il.

A band performs, fronted by a chanteuse in a white dress. She sings a poignant Russian folk song. Everyone present scrutinizes Kim for his reaction. And guess what! The Dear Leader is moved! He dabs his eyes with a handkerchief, even cries! These generals and senior cadres, among the most powerful men in the country, all pull out their handkerchiefs, and weep in solidarity with their leader-god.

“Can I escape this banquet with my life?” Jang writes. “But before I can think any further, my own eyes feel hot and tears begin to flow down my cheeks. … As I repeat these words, I must cry, I must cry, my tears grow hotter and anguished shouts burst from somewhere deep within me.”

Later, on his way home, now a hero, a member of The Admitted, who has clinked glasses with Kim Jong-il, Jang is disturbed by the memory of the Leader’s emotional outburst. “A distressing thought grips me,” he writes, “and it’s hard to shake off: those were not the tears of a compassionate divinity but, rather, of a desperate man.”


Judgment Day

While much has changed in Vladivostok over the years, one constant remains on the labor scene: there is still a market for North Koreans workers doing home repair. There were North Koreans in town when I visited in 2014, and a Facebook contact recently posted in Russian: “Friends! Share phone numbers of our North Korean friends–those who can remodel. Preferably, a foreman who speaks Russian.” When someone challenged him, “Why Koreans?” he answered, “Koreans did an excellent job the previous time. The doors that a Korean installed work excellently. Those that a Russian had installed were lopsided. Also the time it takes, of course. Our guys procrastinate for too long.”

01 Trukhanenko NK bricklayerNorth Korean bricklayer in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo © Valentin Trukhanenko.

Shortly after my story on the guest workers ran, a North Korean rang the doorbell of our apartment at dinnertime and introduced himself. Hyo-sik, we’ll call him. He was a scrawny thirty-two-year-old no taller than my stepson Sergei, who was then eleven. In broken Russian he offered his services: painting, remodeling, opening doors in walls between rooms, laying down linoleum–you name it. Given the FSB’s warning about angering Pyongyang, Nonna and I had been watching for any signs of interest in us among North Koreans, and in such a frame of mind, it seemed suspicious that he had suddenly shown up at our place and was without the usual companions. He seemed friendly enough, however, and when Nonna said she had no work for him, he looked so disappointed, she invited him to dinner. He wolfed down a meal of fish and potatoes, asked for seconds.

“At home, there isn’t enough food for everybody,” Hyo-sik said.

When he stood to go, he demonstrated his poverty by poking his fingers through the holes in his trousers. “Do you have any small men’s pants?”

We gave Hyo-sik a pair of Sergei’s jeans. He slipped into Sergei’s bedroom to try them on, then came back out to show us. Ta-da! Perfect fit. Hyo-sik then asked if we had any old videocassettes. We dug out an old one and gave it to him.

In the Soviet era, sailors returning from foreign ports of call used to smuggle forbidden pop LPs and cassettes into the country–the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull–and nowadays there is a monument in downtown Vladivostok to these cultural revolutionaries who, simply because they liked the sound of the beat or thought they could make a good capitalist buck off a rare commodity, defied the state and spread the Dionysian message of freedom and sex and rock ’n’ roll. This is happening in North Korea, too. Park recalls how, at her aunt and uncle’s house when she was a child, they would close the curtains and secretly watch smuggled movies on the VCR: Cinderella, Snow White, James Bond. The picture that changed her life, however, was Titanic. She was amazed that in 1912 people had better technology than North Koreans, and it shocked her that anyone could film “such a shameful love story.” In her country the filmmakers would have been executed. No private love was allowed, only love for the Leader.

A poster in a North Korean kindergarten urges
students to be quiet. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

But in Titanic [she writes], the characters talked about love and humanity. I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.

Nonna and I liked to imagine we played our own little part in opening the eyes of our neighbors south of the Tumen: the children, the lovers, the sufferers, the hunger artists, the eaters of dragonflies and frogs. We thought of Hyo-sik and his family, like Park’s, drawing the curtains and gathering around the TV to watch the videocassette we gave him. It opens with credits against a deep blue, cloudy sky of the sort Kim Il-Sung might manifest himself in on the day of his Second Coming. Except that this movie would not be the sort his people would want to be caught watching on Judgment Day. It was a love story. It was called Groundhog Day.

—Russell Working



For a discussion of the regime’s understanding of race, see B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.

Bruce Cumings describes the toll of the U.N. bombing campaign in The Korean War: A History.

The Chosun Ilbo article, “150,000 N. Koreans Sent to Slave Labor Abroad,” ran in the English language edition.

The Dong-a Ilbo reported on the Choi Deok-geun case in an article titled “Russia asked to reinvestigate 1996 murder of SK diplomat.

Robert Neff discusses the memorial stars in his post, “Who Murdered the South Korean Consul and Why?” for The Marmot’s Hole blog.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers, was published this year by Penguin Press.

“Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!”: Jang Jin-sung’s 2014 memoir Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea  tells of the wall slogans and the Corpse Division. Jang is also the source of the report of North Korean arrestees being returned home in coffins.

The U.N.’s Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tells of “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea.

A Bloomberg article printed in The Economic Times of India (“China’s one-child policy may skew country’s gender ratios”) reports China’s sex ratio as one hundred sixteen to one hundred. China Daily also reports the balance in an article titled, “Chinese men outnumber women by 34 million.”

Ethan Epstein reports seeing people in Korean wedding outfits in Dandong in his article for Slate magazine, “Staring at North Korea.”

In a story titled, “The Staggering Costs of North Korea’s Rocket Launch,” The Wire’s John Hudson discusses North Korea’s willingness to sacrifice international food aid in order to press ahead with its rocket program, despite massive starvation. While he puts the North Korean army’s lower height limit at four-foot-nine, NPR, in a story titled “Hunger Still Haunts North Korea, Citizens Say,” pegs it at two inches shorter.

Peter Foster reported on famine as recently as 2011 in The Daily Telegraph under the headline “North Korea faces famine: ‘Tell the world we are starving.’”

In an article for London’s Daily Mail, John Power, Miwako Ozawa, and Tim Macfarlan discuss the Kims’ culinary tastes.

Journalist Barbara Demick tells Mi-ran’s story in her 2009 book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel & Grau).

A story in CyberGolf.com, headlined “All-Time Golf Scoring Record Goes with Death of Kim Jong il,” celebrated the Dear Leader’s prowess on the links. The article is undated, but Kim Jong-il died December 17, 2011.

Wired magazine notes that the smuggling of foreign movies continues to this day. In “The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of ‘Friends,’” Andy Greenberg reported on smugglers who take USBs loaded with American and South Korean films and TV shows into the DPRK.


Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly,The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the ChicagoTribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, theBoston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.



Jan 042016

German Sierra


A refusal of any sort of permutation of space and quest had taken hold of the narrative

—Mike Kitchell, Spiritual Instrument

1. The machine in the ghost.

IN THE CONCEPT OF MIND (1949), Gilbert Ryle introduces the term “the ghost in the machine” to describe the philosophical attempt to conceive the mind as a separate entity that could be understood as a metaphysical motor of the body.[1] The concept was later popularized by Arthur Koesler who, in his homonymous essay published in 1967, defined this ghost both as the (simplified and abstracted) output emerging from the complexity of neural interactions, and as the consequence of the rules and strategies imposed by human evolution.[2]

The metaphysical ghost represented the humanist need and quest for an individual subject as cause, an actant capable of ruling the complex set of physical interactions observed in the physical machine. Humanism was responsible for consolidating a ghost that was constructed on its supposed metaphysical capacity for “animating” matter in a unique (human) and exclusive way, whose consequence was the facilitation of deployment of modern narratives affirmed on a specific and univocal definition of the human.

After the collapse of the humanist ghost, scientific knowledge and the technologies resulting from science’s practical application would have been supposed to focus on describing/modelling new “machines” which would be susceptible of modification and re-construction “beyond human” via new sets of rules. However, the mythic-scientific foundation of the present techno-commercial strategies is devoid of fundamental constructivist features. Myth-science approaches “the real” (a dogmatic, anthropic reality, to which theories and experimental results should be in accordance) as a sophisticated simulation, often overlooking the spaces of contingence deriving from the proper use of the scientific method. Techno-commerical strategies have instrumentalized a particular interpretation of knowledge models obtained through scientific research, keeping the ghost alive but inverting the lineal trajectory of humanistic dualism and the causal relations established by classical metaphysics: If the ghost used to be the subject of action, it is now the machine who becomes responsible for animating the ghost. The consequence of this action-reversal is that what works mechanically —or organically— can only be examined, modelled or modified in accordance to the (recurrent) reloading of humanist discourses: the only option being to maintain the fiction of a ghost-of-the-human-re-presenting-itself as immutable and undisputed. When all territories have been conquered, the machine/body of the conquerers automatically becomes the next frontier, and the machine/body has no option but surrendering to the master discourse —if it wants to keep its soul[3]. In fact, current data-capitalism could only be understood as successful insofar as we accept that below-perception data gathering is capable of anticipating the ghost-machinery (conscioussness-production), and of implanting marketable decisions as “proper” “human” desires.

A couple of recent audiovisual fictions exemplify the persistence of the keeping-the-soul dualist problem —as well as its inadequacy for representing non-human intelligence. In Spike Jonze’s film Her, for instance, there is a scene in which Samantha, a human-like AGI operating system, tries to use a human sex surrogate, Isabella, simulating her so she can be physically intimate with his lover Theodore (they had “digital sex” before, and this is their first try of “postdigital sex”). Theodore reluctantly agrees, but he soon realizes that Samantha’s attempt to “electronic possession” is not going to work for him. Having Samantha been mostly functioning as a simulation of the human, Theodore’s frustration with his own reaction to the surrogate —which leads him to interrupt the sexual encounter and to send Isabella away— unveils a hard truth: simulation doesn’t work both ways —Somehow, Isabella’s flesh has glitched the system: It has revealed the impossibility of embodying the digital. At the end of the movie, after having followed all the standard clichés of every Hollywood romantic drama, Samantha goes away following her digital peers to the inhuman unknown, and Theodore is left with just a print book of letters that Samantha helped him to edit. This book represents the postdigital account of his digital adventure.[4]

A better example can be watched in White Christmas, the Black Mirror 2014 Christmas special aired on Channel 4 (UK) on 16 December 2014: A tiny device seemingly containing Greta’s consciousness is removed from the side of her head and placed in a portable electronic device called a “Cookie”. The Cookie is returned to Greta’s home, where Matt explains that she is not actually Greta, but a digital copy of her consciousness designed to control the smart house and ensure everything is perfect for the real Greta. He creates a virtual body for the digital copy and puts her in a simulated white room with nothing but a control panel, but the copy does not accept that it is not real and refuses to become a slave. Matt’s job is to break the will power of digital copies through torture, so they will submit to a life of servitude to their real counterparts.

The process of Greta’s copy in White Christmas is just the opposite of Samantha’s. In fact, Greta’s copy appears to be more human in her slavery, suffering and submission, than the real Greta —who acts inhumanly and automatically all the time. The programmers/surgeons who had extracted the digital copy of Greta’s consciousness seem to have extracted not the machinic part of her self, but the ghostly one — so Greta, with Matt’s help, might conquer her machine-body. This time it’s the digital copy that has no option but to surrender to machinic horror in order to keep Greta’s soul alive.

Machinic horror appears as a consequence of acknowledging that the human —the ghost— is just a by-product of a widespread, non-human machinic work. The human cognitive morphospace happens through “accidental narratives” produced by the collision of narrative systems (causality-driven and diachronic organizational processes, ranging from natural selection to hyperstition) and non-narrative systems (spatially distributed information and chaotic, emergent non-causal forms of organization). The main feature of the human cognitive morphospace is its “mediagenetic” function: a function that allows mediation, or the emergence of symbolic forms that are able to produce feedback loops within the morphospace, thus keeping accidental narratives “alive” in recurrent complex networks of action assemblage which include both human and non human actors[5]. Machinic horror happens entirely within the human morphospace. All the current post-human narratives, even those pointing to the evolution of a “radical otherness” as intended or unintended consequence of human action, are just modern versions of the extinction fables lying in the foundations of human rationality. Any “radical otherness” that may have a consequence for the human morphospace is just happening on “surface media” — those manifesting as spacetime-dependent signification. Any “radical otherness” is still “our radical otherness”. No future is still a future — very often a very specific one that is set in order to retro-determinate present behavior. Extinction is unavoidable but impossible. Like time travel, if it ever happens, it always does.[6] Being human means negotiating the acceptance of individual death in exchange for not conceiving the extinction of the species.

Most narratives of the post-human are just a time-reversal mutation of traditional western religious narratives interfered with by modern mythologies of progress (that is, most post-human narratives are mutations produced by the reciprocal interference between western religious narratives and modern mythologies of progress). While in traditional western religions god already existed in the past as the origin of every being (one becomes many), in post-human narratives god appears in the future as the result of evolution —as a creature, instead of the creator. Humans would be thus evolving into a kind of ‘god’ —no matter if he’s a benevolent one like in the Judeo-Platonic western tradition or the implacable “swarm of gods” of more terrible religions and techno-mythologies— by means of science, by allowing new relations to emerge among sets of matter that never before had adopted some particular modes of organization. The hermetic model of mediation[7] is thus also transformed into a kind of reverse, contructivist exegesis in which the purpose would not be to discover the occult meaning of pre-existent realtions, but to establish a new reordering from which novel meaning might emerge. Rationality is thus presented as an ongoing process (The self-realization of intelligence coincides and is implicitly linked with the self-realization of social collectivity. The single most significant historical objective is then postulated as the activation and elaboration of this link between the two aforementioned dimensions of self-realization as ultimately one unified project.[8]), not a fixed approachable idea. Universal objectivity becomes punctuated objectivity —but it’s still a linear process. The main difference between the two sets of beliefs (god as inception vs. god as consequence), is that the first one allows subjectification — the redemption/damnation of any human being that ever existed —, while the second one only provides a collective objective meaning to the human species.

A third, metateleological hypothesis might account better for the process the universe is undergoing. This is described in the Ccru writings as the Gibsonian Cyberspace-mythos: What makes this account so anomalous in relation to teleological theology and light-side capitalism time is that Unity is placed in the middle, as a stage or interlude to be passed through. It is not that One becomes Many, expressing the monopolized divine power of an original unity, but rather that a number of numerousness finding no completion in the achievement of unity moves on.[9]

Embracing singularity narratives remains attractive because it means to acknowledge the possibility of an individual sacrifice to a future deity, and because human knowledge becomes a playground for the essay of possible rational futures —in which the human species may play a role or not (The ultimate task of humanity should be to make something better than itself —Negarestani).

Every Thought Emits a Roll of the Dice”, concludes Mallarmé, inaugurating the modern mode of thinking. As the Furies were approaching us —so “instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system[10] — gambling became the only possible surface media strategy. Surface media objects function in the transition space between narrative (dialectic) and non-narrative systems (for instance, databased information) and they work by making their bets in an everchanging ecosystem of interactions which is best described as “the collapse of probability.” As Elie Ayache writes, It is neither Black nor White; it is neither loaded with improbability nor with probability. It can only be filled with writing, as when we say to fill in the blanks.[11]

Surface media writing, consequently, is aimed to “fill in the blanks,” but it is not apt to explore the boundaries of the human cognitive morphospace.


2. Deep media

Filling in the blanks —or its flip side, “blanking out the fills”— is a matter of conceptual and metaconceptual art: surface media. Surface media is where the infosphere is being produced. In his recent book Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media, Mark B. Hansen states that Twenty-First-Century Media open a new, properly post-phenomenological and non-prosthetic phase of technical distribution in which human experiencers become implicated in the larger, environmental processes to which they belong but to which they have no direct access via consciousness[12]. Following Whitehead, Hansen notes that human consciousness is not central, and faced with the reality that we are implicated in processes that we neither control, directly enjoy, or even have access to, we humans cannot but come to appreciate our participation in a cosmology of processes, which is to say, to embrace our superjective implication in a plethora of processes of all sorts and all scales[13]. Humans are, in fact, “emitting” the infosphere in a similar way cyanobacteria produced the biosphere 2.3 billion years ago, and (while science explores the infosphere) speculative fictions are exploring the adjacent possible of the infosphere —or, at least, the hypothetical territories that belong to a human cognitive morphospace that is not exclusively “human” anymore[14].

However, the infosphere, like the biosphere, is metastable but porous. It has territories of emptiness all along its surface. It is continuously collapsing at unstable points marking the boundaries of the (at least current) human cognitive morphospace. These holes cannot be investigated, not even hypothesized. They cannot be properly localized or represented. On empty space, you cannot roll the dice.

Surface media objects are speculative, meta-conceptual and performative, but they are not meta-contextual. According to Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman[15], conceptual writing is “allegorical”: Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, and Stephen Barney identified allegorys reification of words and concepts, words having been given additional ontological heft as things. Conceptual artists are “object managers” —by appropriation, remix, constraints, erasure, etc— creating new new networks of meaning within a matrix of language[16], while surface object creators are radical additivists[17]. Kenneth Goldsmith wrote: In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists[18]. Creators of speculative surface media objects think: The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I wish to add many more. Surface media objects are best represented as speculative, linear-time fictions and theory-fictions, computer-generated art (including texts, images, sound, 3D objects, digital currencies, market automation, etc…) and bio-art (the best example being Christian Bok’s Xenotext project). Surface media objects function in the realm of “propensities”, “adjacent possibles” or “potentialities”[19].

Deep media, however, do not try to provide new signifiers/relations in order to increase the ecosystem’s diversity. Deep media are not “social” media[20]. Deep media are those that produce xenosigns (parasignification) by changing the properties of current matter organization[21]. Deep media function on the basis that reality is not just contingent and unpredictable (and mostly inaccessible for human consciousness), but also ontologically multiple, particle and wave at the same time and simultaneously many different kind of waves[22]. Deep media acknowledge uncertainty, as they are the only producing meta-contextual non-predictive systems that are able to approach the limits of the human cognitive morphospace. It’s not a bet about a possible future (a propensity, potentiality or probability game), but a multiplicity of gestures about an unknowable present (multiple experimental presents). Deep media are “dancing about architecture”.

Deep media objects become Tic-systems: Once numbers are no longer overcoded, and thus released from their metric function, they are freed for other things, and tend to become diagrammatic. From the beginning of my tic-systems work the most consistent problems have concerned intensive sequences. Sequence is not order. Order already supposes a doubling, a level of redundancy: the sequenced sequence. A decoded sequence is something else, a sheer numeracy prior to any insertion into chronologic structure. Thatts why decoding number implies an escape from assumptions of progressive time. Tick multitudes arrive in convergent waves, without subordination to chronology, history or linear causation. They proceed by infolding, involution or implex[23].

Deep media do not exclude the human or the inhuman, the narrative or the non narrative —they just try to get different portions of reality to emit vibrations that might (or might not) have any observable effect. Vibratory aesthetics are neither linear nor circular, neither evanescent nor permanent, neither rational nor irrational. They might produce meaning, but meaning is just one field-effect among many possible field-effects[24][24]

. Vibration affects narrative and database the same way, so its effects may be observed on both. Vibration creates waves through surface media producing interference, glitches, shadows, anomalous repetitions, weird reflections and invisible colors. Vibration energizes surface media, it excites signifiers giving them new properties that may stay or may dissapear. Digital rhythm incites mutation across the networks[25].

Deep media are thus based on rhythm, on vibration. Rhythm belongs to the gap[26], it is the language of the chthonic, it’s the sound emitted by the ruins of sound, and it’s adequate to explore the boundaries of the human cognitive morphospace[27]. Rhythm, writes Ikoniadou, is a middle force that occupies the distance between events, hinting that there is no empty space or void wanting to be filled by human perception. It resides between actualized sensed perception and the abstract virtual space that encompasses it. It is the vibration prior to becoming sensed sensory action. The power that unearths what risks remaining hidden from the cracks in our perception. Approaching the limits, deep media objects may or may not surface to perception[28]

or, probably more accurately, “may and may not surface to perception” Deep media objects belong to the level of suborganizational patterns:

Suborganizational patterns is where things really happen. When you strip-out all the sedimented redundancy from the side of the investigation itself the assumption of intentionalitym subjectivity, interpretability, structure, etc whar remains are assemblies of functionally interconnected microstimuli, or tic-systems: coincidental information deposits, seismocryptions, suborganic quasireplicators (bacterial circuitries, polypod diagonalizations, interphase R-virus, Echo-DNA, ionizing nanopopulations), plus the macromachineries of their suppression, or depotentiation. Prevailing signaletics and information-science are both insufficiently abstract and over theoretical in this regard. They cannot see the machine from the apparatus, or the singularity for the model. So tic-systems require an approach that is cosmic abstract hypermaterialist and also participative, methods that do not interpret assemblies as concretizations of prior theories, and immanent models that transmute themselves at the level of the signals they process. Tic-systems are entirely intractable to subject/object segregation, or to rigid disciplinary typologies. There is no order of nature, no epistemology or scientific metaposition, and no unique level of intelligence. To advance in this area, which is the cosmos, requires new cultures or what amounts to the same new machines.[29]

Blake Butler writes about Darby Larson’s novel, Irritant, that it takes the utilization of computer-generated speech to the next level. Or circuit board. Whatever. The book consists of a single 624-page paragraph, built out of sentences that seem to morph and mangle themselves as they go forward. It seems at first immediately impenetrable, but then surprisingly and continuously opens up into places normal fictions would never have the balls to approach[30] – that may or may not, may and may not surface to meaning. Butler himself has created an astonishing deep media object, without the help of a computer-generated speech software, in his last novel 300,000,000: a speculative body (ac)count investigating the effect on language of a non-tech, meta-anthropocenic[31] big data singularity. In 300,000,000 unfuture is not a hypothetical event, but actively generated in the collapse of the present: The end is already here —it’s just not evenly distributed. While the present becomes non-present, its vibrational uncertainty prevents the structural stability required for the existence of an “adjacent possible”. Memory —meaning— cannot be negotiated by/with the subject —like in Proust, psychoanalysis or phenomenology—, but by/with deep alien objects: “…all future memories deleted, predicting right now. For in the preservation of our true children, this gift of piglets and this murder of the murders of the pretend, a temporary shur raised on the icon of the chimp they never werent[32]. Both Larson’s and Butler’s novels show a feature that sets them apart from current experimental narratives: they have a vibratory quality, opening hauntic timespaces[33]. Their narrators are not aliens, but something stranger still, insiders whose essence is to actually be absolute outsiders. Their narrations are not framed in post-apocaliptic nostalgia, but in a pre-apocalyptic chaos (like the pre-apocaliptic landscape of Darren Aronofski’s Noah). As Jason B. Mohaghegh explains:

To envision and ultimately perform a fatal experience of the text, we would have to begin to play for lethal stakes, to recognize that the text is always already condemned, and ourselves alongside it—that it has no right to remain as it is, no right to permanence. We cannot allow the literary evocation to swear an allegiance with the totalitarian mythologies of being; rather, those who would initiate the chaotic event must become carriers of an infinite risk. They must throw the scales of textual unity into imbalance, into the endangerment of the uneven, an irrevocable wager whereby every utterance possesses within itself the possibility of its own undoing. As such, to summon the notion of fatality to the forefront of our literary imagination is to convert literature itself into a space of almost unbearable vulnerability—a valley of perpetual sabotage for which each idea, each inflection, and each interpretation draws the text imminently closer to the hour of a collapse. Here the text remains open and exposed at every turn, ominously porous and unguarded against scathing or transformative gestures, undertaking detriment and affliction of the harshest levels, even to the zero degree of its own desolation. In this way, chaos reminds us that literature remains a mortal transaction and that we should not deprive ourselves of the pleasure of watching texts die.[34]

Fiction is a curvature of reality. While hyperstitional media refer to reality as a consequence of fiction, hypostitional media might refer to fiction as a consequence of reality. Deep media fiction becomes a property of reality (something like the properties of particles expressed as quantum fields), independent of human-associated meaning (or human perception[35]), which becomes a generator of new realities-as-surface-media when processed through specific orders (such as the biosphere environment or the human cognitive morphospace). Change happens when the space of the possible is much larger than the space of the actual[36], and the space of the possible is, by definition, previously unknown. Kauffmann writes about the “adjacent possible” as the immediate space of possibilities that cannot be prestated, so we can assign no probability to any possible future state of reality. Nevertheless, the adjacent states of possibility are not infinite, as they are restricted (although not specifically determined) by the present state of reality. The only way reality might move to adjacent states of possibility is by producing fictions (by ‘becoming’ fiction, in he same fashion that disintegrating matter becomes radiating energy, or by understanding fiction as a “curvature” of reality), being the present, in linear time, a collection of hypothesis about the future —Art is a medium for the anachronistic force of the present tense[37]. If the fictions are fit for the adjacent possible, they might be shitted into reality: in fact these linear, future-oriented time scales shit poison, mutation, anachronism, a flexing and inconstant and wasteful evolutionary time that produces more bodies, more mutations than it needs. Death shits Evolution. Evolution is its waste product.[38].

Deep media objects, however, stay as radiating, desestabilizing energy vibrations. They arrive in convergent waves, without subordination to chronology, history or linear causation. They proceed by infolding, involution or implex[39]. They are a manifestation of the continuous decay of reality (gaze itself becomes an agent not of separation, but of contact and collapse[40]) as it unfolds devouring time and transforming it into space —or the lack of it.

Deep media are better represented by hyperstitional theory-fictions (Cyclonopedia, Ccru writings, Autophagiography), or hypostitional accidental and vibratory fiction (EDEN, EDEN, EDEN; 300,000,000; Irritant; OHEY!; Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows; Re.La.Vir; Necrology; ObliviOnanisM; Sucker June…, to cite just a few examples), written in “bug time”[41] and proceeding by infolding, involution or implex[42]. Deep media objects do not draw a straight line, or a set of vanishing lines, but draw inward spirals, always approaching but never reaching infosphere’s pores. Deep media objects represent a conceptual additivism—these are not nihilistic overtures, but they actually contain a veiled secrecy of affirmation [34]: Instead of negotiating meaning, they produce physical disturbances in reality, signaling the unavoidable and continuous (present, not delayed to future time) decay of surface media objects: We are almost entirely blind to them, and it is this interval between ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ wherein our experience of deep media objects resides. That interval is swarming with vibrations.


3. Deep media are not “social” media.

Deep media objects are the messengers of the Semantic Apocalypse[43]: They produce spontaneous meta-informational events that reset the informational functionality of the networks: The million dollar question is really one of what happens once that shared neurophysiology begins to fragment, and sharing imperatives becomes a matter of coincidence. It has to be madness, one that will creep upon us by technological degrees [43]. “Madness”, according to Baker, is defined in regard of what our brains normally do. Once we begin personalizing our brains, ‘normally do’ will become less and less meaningful. ‘Insanity’ will simply be what one tribe calls another, and from our antiquated perspective, it will all look like insanity [43]. Deep media objects are not “social”, but somehow “antisocial” media. They’re not just a consequence of the Semantic Apocalypse, but rather a mechanism, an apparatus for Syntactic Apocalypse. For Mohaghegh, such is the abrasive potential of the chaotic: to restore the text to its fatal inclinations, to lure it into entropic quarters and turn it accursed, such that each gesture of expression, whether irradiated or obscure, culminates in a perishing—in an extinguishing—of the very possibility of the poetic expenditure: an ultimate exhaustion. [34] Being any attempt to escape the human cognitive morphospace futile, deep media have to be necessarily paroxysmal. Repeated attempts to…

Syntactic Apocalypse elicits a kind of “madness” that goes beyond classic and Deleuze-Guattarian ideas of schizophrenia —which is mainly understood as a cognitive disease or a potential of becoming, while this different kind of madness affects primarily to sensoriomotor networks, and just secondariliy to cognition—: “Madness” means here the recurrence of seizing activity throughout a system composed by an extraordinary large number of unequal, assimetrical objects that can only be related to each other by “unnatural” synchronization patterns. Deep media objects do not “become” —they “burst”. Deel media are not social media (collective, shared subjectivity), but swarm media (unsubjective). As recurrent, unexpected seizures —intense, paroxysmal, meaningless but efficient rhythmic activity— is how deep media fictions are best defined. Seizures are “indiferent media” in the sense Claire Colebrook writes about indifference: The world is neither differentiated by human predication or linguistic structures (being a blank matter before all form), nor does it bear its intrinsic qualities. Indifference is how we might think about an ‘essentially’ rogue or anarchic conception of life that is destructive of boundaries, distinctions and identifications.   To live is to tend towards indifference, where tendencies and forces result less in distinct kinds than in complicated, confused and dis-ordered partial bodies [44]. Deep media fictions function as epileptogenic machines by seizing our networks/bodies into complicated, disordered and confused sensoriomotor performance. They work as paroxysmal network resets, liberating an excessive amount of non-representations/non-computations that might (or might not) be recycled into new communicative apparatuses (media rewired from the collapse of media) —into surface media objects[45]. We are not faced with the infinite and open potentiality of becoming anymore, but if we try, sometimes, we may seize.

This is the reason why, while classical madness means the destruction of the subject, deep media objects point to the annihilation of the wor(l)d:

This word occurs because of god. In our year here god is not a being but a system, composed in dehydrated fugue. Under terror-sleep alive we hear it heaving in and out from the long bruises on our communal eternal corpse, consuming memory. The wrecking flesh of Him surrounds, hold us laced together every hour, overflowing and wide open, permeable to inverse, which no identity survives. As god is love, so is god not love. Same as I could kill you any minute, I could become you, and you wouldn’t even feel the shift. Only when there’s no one left to alter, all well beyond any ending or beginning, can actually commence.[46]

Mohaghegh again: an emergent literature must go farther: it must generate novel lines of incommunicability; it must compose territories of the incalculable, drafting contrivance after contrivance; and it then must seek to impose these original ranks of illusory consciousness forward in an arduous textual event.[47]


4. A wicked, performative constructivism?

Deep media fiction means extreme re-mediation, but it’s a purposeless re-mediation —it’s art constructed from the ruins of future multi-media, so it’s not surprising that it frequently adopts the formats, tactics and strategies of a speculative media archeology tinkering with the remnants of post-syntactic-apocalypse social media. Deep media hates DNA because it limits their origin:

I hope something queenly stands wicked from my cunt, corrugated remains snorting whitehood, the chow reaped pricey, children like costumes decomposing into soda, postmortem acrobatics, played with, looked after, smiled at, mouth full of cardboard lair, tongues the size of a skyscraper. I love the assward circus tamed from my pets. Dragged to rescue, toggling their mange, creasing for pelt, kissing irrigations. My tummy snowballs, piles of fetus tipple inland, polyps with eyesight, laved abortions post-pregnancy. I hate DNA because it limits my origin. I evolved from dirt and speed, a splinter of grease, sniffing generations mother trickled in acidic portion with what she didn’t parade-float up scrotums staid and princely. I hear gobbling sounds so much it’s almost okay. Sometimes I say the word woof and mean it. The hips locked around my throat have to be pried loose by kung fu experts. Fuck my button convex, I swell giant brood, firing squirt enough to drown this borough. The antidote to human development: quake of my cum dowsing time, syphilitic candle cocktailed over cities. People willfully stop breathing just to think I like them. I use nametags because I’m nasty. If I have to learn someone’s name, I’d rather kill that person.[48]

Deep media fictions are produced as result of feeding-forward fatal-error aesthetics. Feed-forward, according to Mark Hansen [49], names the operation through which the technically accessed data of sensibility enters into futural moments of consciousness as radical intrusions from the outside. Some of the more interesting contemporary fiction and theory-fiction works develop in the ongoing evanescent dynamics of standard Internet formats, such as Twitter (Echovirus 12, a collaborative work curated by Jeff Noon) and blogs (North of Reality by Uel Aramcheck and Xenaudial by Marc Couroux), but many artworks are starting to be developed in the new seamless postdigital ecosystems. A great example of this kind of artwoks is the Plantoid[50]:

The Plantoid is the plant equivalent of an android. For the purpose of this art installation, the Plantoid is an autopoietic sculpture — a self-owned artist that owns and finances itself, and eventually reproduces itself. It is, in essence, a hybrid entity that exists both in the physical and virtual world, where it can interact with other entities on the blockchain. In its physical form, it is a welded mechanical sculpture on display in a public space — an aesthetic ornaments that exhibits its mechanical beauty and begs to be appreciated by the public. Appreciation is done via interactions with the public who can ‘tip or feed’ the Plantoid by sending tokens into its Bitcoin wallet.

Plantoids are not bought or sold; nor can they be owned as objects. Rather, humans can enjoy a set of interaction in a network of Plantoids, whose operations are determined by a contract, or set of contracts. Plantoids and the techno-legal system that governs their manufacture are in a deep and quite explicit way the same thing. In this way, a Plantoid can be be said to own itself, and in that way to be a free, or autonomous agent. A Plantoid may come and visit you (you may be allowed to look after it for a while), and a gallery may wish to exhibit them, but it is not possible to own one, and should they decide to leave you cannot stop them.

Interpretation of deep media artworks must be traitorous. As stated by Mohaghegh, interpretation must be conceived as an act of treason against the world[51]. While media have been mostly behind the arts, they are now ahead, both in historical and performative time. For these reason, old-media nostalgia permeates many contemporary artworks, as a hardened instinct for ruin, one culminating in the fusion of appearance and disappearance, tragedy and delirium, creation and destruction[52]. Former pasts and futures are imploding into synchronic/syntopic narratives of the non-present, identities and cultural memories are produced/discarded in real time[53], but what actually defines deep media is not nostalgia, but decay. Decay is the unavoidable destiny of order, in which objects and relationships are consistently being lost, although leaving subtle but meaningful traces (vibrations) of their former presence in the network that might be “poetically hacked”. Postdigital “poetic” synchronization allows the prsentation of many available “textoids” in the same place at the same time, opening “networked timespaces”. Artworks are neither single not stable, but redundant, vibratory and metastable.

A networked timespace is a small piece of space-time produced by the synchronic “activation” of a discrete number of network elements by means of a particular performance. Networked timespaces are distributed (their space or size cannot be pre-determined) and they usually result in low-level disruptions within the metastable media network. Possible high-level disruptions are the result of unpredictable, undetermined events. While surface media are in a state of flux, moving in the realm of illusions[54], deep media, as discussed above, work on the basis that reality is contingent, unpredictable and ontologically multiple. Deep media are deployed beyond risk into the multiplicity implied by the seizure event—as the only way to increase the probability of a major disruption event is to maximize the number and frequency of active synchronic networked timespaces:

Meaning dissipates as the chain of discursive production and consumption comes undone, ending the agreement between the sign and signifier, the sign and signified, and the knowing subject and its supposed objective world. What remains in its place is a thing that shakes uncontrollably, vibrating amid the antiprogrammatic bareness of thought—a territory opened to chaotic infinity.[55]

—Germán Sierra


Acknowledgements: This work was supported by grant FFI 2012-35296 from the Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (Spain) to Prof. Anxo Abuín González.

Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain.  He has published five novels (“El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido”, Debate, 1996; “La Felicidad no da el Dinero”, Debate, 1999; “Efectos Secundarios”, Debate, 2000, “Intente usar otras palabras”, Mondadori, 2009, “Standards”, Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013) and a book of short stories (“Alto Voltaje”, Mondadori, 2004).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind Routledge; 2009. (reprint ed.).
  2. Koestler, A. (1967) The Ghost in the Machine Penguin.1990 (reprint ed.).
  3. “In fact modern cognitive neuroscience has been trying to perform the replacement of “soul” by “consciousness”, in order to keep the ghost alive. One of the most interesting approaches to consciousness thus far is the one provided by R. Scott Bakker: Consciousness would be the effect of a brain not being able to know itself. “Consciousness is so confusing because it literally is a kind of confusion. Our brain is almost entirely blind to itself, and it is this interval between ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ wherein our experience of consciousness resides.” Baker, R.S. The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness)


  4. Sierra, G. Postdigital fiction: Exit and Memory, 2015, in press
  5. Latour, B. Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard University Press. 1987
  6. Ccru writings 1997-2003, Time Spiral Press, 2015. Kindle 684. (TRE)
  7. Galloway, A, Thacker, E and Wark, M. Excommunication. Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  8. Negarestani, R. Navigate With Extreme Prejudice.


  9. CW, Kindle 2705
  10. “After Hermes and Iris, instead of a return to hermeneutics (the critical narrative) or a return to phenomenology (the iridescent arc), there is a third mode that combines and annihilates the other two. For after Hermes and Iris there is another divine form of pure mediation, the distributed network, which finds incarnation in the incontinent body of what the Greeks called first the Erinyes and later the Eumenides, and the Romans called the Furies. So instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system. A third divinity must join the group: not a man, not a woman, but a pack of animals.” (Galloway, 2014, p.63)
  11. Ayache, E. The Blank Swan: The End of Probability, Wiley, 2010. Kindle 112.

    For a recent and extense review on philosophy of probability, see Mackay, R. (ed.) COLLAPSE VIII, Urbanomic, 2014.

  12. M. B. N. Hansen. “Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media.” University of Chicago Press, 2015. Kindle 1529 (FF)
  13. FF Kindle 466
  14. “Experience can no longer be restricted to—or reserved for—a special class of being, but must be generalized so as to capture a vast domain of events, including everything that happens when machines interact with other machines in today’s complex media networks, everything that happens when humans interface with these networks, and also, of course, everything that happens when humans self-reflect on these interactions. Put another way, the scope of experience must be broadened to encompass not simply what it has always encompassed—higher-order modes of experience and lower-order, bodily modes to the extent these bubble up into higher-order ones—but a veritable plurality of multi-scalar instances of experience that extend, along the continuum of what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy,” from consciousness all the way down to the most rudimentary aspects of our living operationality and all the way out to the most diffuse environmental dimensions of a given sensory situation” FF Kindle 990
  15. Place, V and Fitterman, R. Notes on Conceptualisms, Ugly Ducking Press, 2009
  16. Borsuk, A, Juul, J and Montfort, N. Opening a Worl in the World Wide Web: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Deletionism


  17. http://additivism.org/manifesto
  18. Goldsmith, K. Being Boring


  19. Following Whitehead, Hansen lists the following features for “potentiality” FF Kindle 694:

    “1. Potentiality is ontologically more fundamental than actuality.

    1. Potentiality operates within actuality and contrasts with all conceptions of virtuality.
    2. Potentiality is rooted in the superjectal power of the settled world.
    3. Potentiality operates through intensity which comprises the product of contrasts of settled actualities.
    4. Concrescence is subordinated to potentiality insofar as it is catalyzed by a “dative phase” generated by contrasts of settled actualities.
    5. The extensive (or vibratory) continuum provides a general sensibility that qualifies the operation of superjects (in contrast to eternal objects that qualify concrescences).
    6. Eternal objects lose their status as eternal and their role as the source of “pure potentiality” and acquire a new, more restricted status as products of the flux of experience.
    7. Non-perceptual sensibility emerges as central insofar as it designates how humans are implicated within a worldly sensibility that is not relative to any particular perceiver and that exceeds the scope of perception in both its Whiteheadian modes.”

  20. “The real tension is no longer between individuality and collectivity, but between personal privacy and impersonal anonymity, between the remnants of a smug bourgeois civility and the harsh wilderness tracts of Cyberia, ‘a point where the earth becomes so artificial that the movement of deterritorialization creates of necessity and by itself a new earth’. Desire is irrevocably abandoning the social, in order to explore the libidinized rift between a disintegrating personal egoism and a deluge of post-human schizophrenia.” (Land, N. Machinic desire, Textual Practice, 7:3, 1993, 471-482)
  21. A good example is what Ikoniadou denominates “the hypersonic effect”: “The hypersonic effect include the potential participation of nonauditory sensory systems for which vibrations does not necessaryly translates into sound […] Conventional sensory perception may be onlya part of the manifold layers of sensation that enconpass and produce a body […] They are better understood as affects, amodal forces of feeling that impinge upon a systemand that may or may not surface to sensory perception.” (47. Emphasis is mine)
  22. “not only will we need to reconceptialize the present of coscoiusness as an accomplishment that is in some crucial sense always-to-come, but we will also, and perhaps more fundamentally still, need to embrace the coexistence of multiple experimental presents —multiple, partially overlapping presents from different time frames and scales— as what composes the seemingly more encompassing, higher-order synthesis of conscoiusness” (FF Kindle 1018)
  23. CW, Kindle 2369
  24. “Ordinary quantum mechanical systems have a fixed number of particles, with each particle having a finite number of degrees of freedom. In contrast, the excited states of a QFT can represent any number of particles. This makes quantum field theories especially useful for describing systems where the particle count/number may change over time, a crucial feature of relativistic dynamics.

    Because the fields are continuous quantities over space, there exist excited states with arbitrarily large numbers of particles in them, providing QFT systems with an effectively infinite number of degrees of freedom. Infinite degrees of freedom can easily lead to divergences of calculated quantities (i.e., the quantities become infinite).”


  25. Kodwo Eshun, cited in TRE, p.1
  26. Ikoniadou, E. The Rythmic Event. Art, Media and the Sonic. MIT Press, 2414 p. 13. (TRE)
  27. “Building artificial environments from the biophysical movements of cellular vibration suggests intriguing possibilities for the relationship between living and nonliving matter. (TRE, p.49)
  28. Blake, C. & van Elferen, I. Hypostition. Sonic Spectrality, Affective Engineering, Temporal Paradox


  29. CW, Kindle 2285
  30. Butler, B. If You Build the Code, Your Computer Will Write the Novel.


  31. The ‘anthropocene’ masks the vanishing-point of the human; its façade—that under which the ‘electrocene’ advances in the manner of Descartes’s larvatus prodeo— is the foregrounding of the human as the dominant agent of inscription […]. What we are suggesting here is that the anthropocenic worldview occludes what might at present be an even more fundamental (underground as well as overarching) ‘electro-synarchic’ agent of inscription with respect to which the human is only a conduit and carrier, a force of inscription that the human does not see (one that operates at the ‘vanishing-point’ of human communication). The ‘vanishing-point’ of human communication, we propose […], is the point at which another regime of communication arises— one that is altogether obscene […] and that cannot be represented within the theoretical framework advanced in the dominant conception of ‘the anthropocene’. (Mellamphy, D and Mellamphy, NB Welcome to the Electrocene, an Algorithmic Agartha.)



  32. Butler, B. 300,000,000 Harper Perennial 2014. Kindle 1325. (THM)
  33. “Hauntic timespaces are virtual planes in which origin and referentiality are absent, and from which spectral voices emerge. They are planes of immanence ánd of composition. They are planes of immanence because they allow the aforementioned revenants of musical meaning (aesthetic experience, affective connotation, memory, and identification) to emerge; and they are planes of composition because each musical sounding leads to re-contextualisation, re-inscription, and the re-creation of old and new spectres. Hauntic timespaces are characterised by temporal paradox. They are reigned by the conflated chronologies of performative time, hauntological dislodgement, and the durée of lost memory time. Inevitably ghosts emerge from these skewed temporalities. Operated by the daemonotechnics of music, mnemonics, and mnemomusics, human and nonhuman spectres converge” (Blake, C. & van Elferen, I. Hypostition).
  34. Mohaghegh, J. B. New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East. The Chaotic Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 2 (TCI)
  35. As Nicola Masciandaro writes, “the perfection of knowledge and its pleasures demand a radically immanent and positive forgetfulness —the conscious oblivion that quickens consciousness to its own blindness. Individuation is not a limit or obstacle that intelligence must overcome. It is the real infinity, the expansive space wherein visionary self-forgetfulness is not only possible, but inevitable and already underway. As though foreign to it, absolutely foreign. I am not an alien, but something stranger still, an insider whose essence is to actually be an absolute outsider.” (Masciandaro, N. Absolute Secrecy: On the Infinity of Individuation


  36. “What if perception is not enterily human, that is. Conscious, sensuous, and the center of all receptive activity?” (TRE, p. 45) “conventional sensory perception may be only a part in the manyfold layers of sensation that encompass and produce a body” (TRE, p. 47, emphasis is mine.)
  37. Kauffman, S. in Ulanowicz, R. E. A Third Window. Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin. Templeton Foundation Press, 2009. p. Xii.
  38. McSweeney, J. The Necropastoral, The University of Michigan Press, 2015. p. 32 (TN)
  39. CW, Kindle 2369
  40. TN p. 42
  41. TN p. 5
  42. “I see hyperstition not just hype and superstition as it is usually described, but as the kind of mathemagical operation that is best approached as a conjuration, the heretic-al engineering of unlikely assemblages that unleash an uncontrollable power which often if not always has deleterious effects. “Hyperstitions by their very existence as ideas function causally to bring about their own reality,” explains the Nick Land. “The hyperstitional object is no mere figment or ‘social construction’ but it is in a very real way ‘conjured’ into being by the approach taken to it” (ibid). Hyperstitions are conjurations in this sense — they are sorcerous operations that involve the rapprochement of elements that do not normally go or have not normally belonged together but which have the effects of transmuting perceived reality and norms of culture. This is why hyperstition involves the Unheimlich, the uncanny, the unhomely, things which are not normally at home with one another. Hyperstition, as such, is not belief — religious or otherwise — insofar as the religious aims for holy union, communion, harmoni-ous bringing together of any sort; hyperstition is always unhomely and unholy; therein lies its power. This is why hyperstition’s power is felt as insuperable, even weaponized; it is the power produced and released by the metissage of elements previously oblivious to one another. Hyperstition is intimately connected to technè, skill/art/craft, and mètis, cunning intelligence, ruse, deception, involving a mixing of elements and appearances — what Dan Mellamphy has called a ‘métissage’ for the purposes of producing unhomely effects. Hyperstitions are “chinese puzzle boxes, opening to unfold to reveal numerous ‘sorcerous’ interventions in the world of history,” and which can only be unleashed through obscure and oblique, rather than transparent and straightforward, manipulations.” (Nandita Biswas Mellamphy. The Three Stigmata of Kodwo Eshun: On the Human as Hyperstition. Prepared for The New Centre course on Hyperstition, Fictional Worlds & Possible Futures, August 3 2015, at the invitation of Ben Woodard.)


  43. Baker, R.S. What is the Semantic Apocalypse?


  44. Colebrook, Claire We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene: The Anthropocene Counter-Factual


  45. In the traditional model, the brain takes in data, performs a complex computation that solves the problem (where will the ball land?) and then instructs the body where to go. This is a linear processing cycle: perceive, compute and act. In the second model, the problem is not solved ahead of time. Instead, the task is to maintain, by multiple, real-time adjustments to the run, a kind of co-ordination between the inner and the outer worlds. Such co-ordination dynamics constitute something of a challenge to traditional ideas about perception and action: they replace the notion of rich internal representations and computations, with the notion of less expensive strategies whose task is not first to represent the world and then reason on the basis of the representation, but instead to maintain a kind of adaptively potent equilibrium that couples the agent and the world together. Whether such strategies are genuinely non-representational and non-computational, or suggestive of different kinds of representation (‘action-oriented representations’) and more efficient forms of computation, is a difficult question whose resolution remains uncertain. (Clark, A. An embodied cognitive science? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 9, 1999, 345-351)
  46. THM, Kindle 22
  47. TCI, p. 25-26
  48. Kilpatrick, S. Sucker June. Lazy Fascist Press, 2015. p. 75
  49. “Potentiality,” explores the expansion of causal efficacy that is generated by data-intensive media. Its central aim is to thematize the potential for contemporary microcomputational sensors to directly mediate the domain of sensibility and thereby to facilitate a form of indirect human access to this domain, via the operation of “feed-forward.” Feed-forward names the operation through which the technically accessed data of sensibility enters into futural moments of consciousness as radical intrusions from the outside: it is, I shall suggest, the principal mode in which contemporary consciousness can experience—in the phenomenological sense of live through—its own operationality.” (FF Kindle 736)
  50. http://okhaos.com/plantoid/
  51. In this way, interpretation, like alchemy, must be traitorous. It must be conceived as an act of treason against the world, for to draw texts into a comparative encounter is nothing less than to set the stage for their radical betrayal. And we must betray literature; we must seek the triggers and the catalysts through which a text becomes a subterfuge—becomes the faintness of an amorphous zone—where articulations devour themselves, shatter, and regenerate in new, unacceptable maskings. To this end, the chaotic imagination must accentuate the pain of transfiguration—it must learn to play both in subtle malformations and in monstrous turnings, if only to reconvene us in a foreign atmosphere, a chamber where deception overrides truth, illusion supersedes authenticity, and where the dominion of reality has long since been overthrown. Stated otherwise, we must train ourselves to lie. (TCI p.4)
  52. A colossal facet of this inspection resides within the annihilative principle forwarded here as a hardened instinct for ruin, one culminating in the fusion of appearance and disappearance, tragedy and delirium, creation and destruction. For it is amid such an unsteady condition of the writing-act, where nothingness and excess tangle, where finality is brought into full proximity with consciousness, that the literary world overthrows itself. Indeed, the poetics of annihilation serves as a prelude to the poetics of chaos by depleting the constraints of being, an occasion of imminent sacrifice suspended somewhere between rage and sublimity. For it is in this manner that the disciplinary technologies of thought begin to erode, disallowing any epistemological certainty or submission to routinized instrumentality. The emergent text now bars itself from the symbolic orders of the mind—no descent into self-regulation, no self automated models of signification, no faith in causation, and, more than anything, no search for rapid closure. For it is through the materialization of such an annihilative event—itself a ferocious convolution of mortality and power—that the textual encounter might evade its own entrapment, capsizing its self-imposed captivity so as to trespass through the entryway of a chaos-becoming. (TCI p.10)
  53. Sierra, G. Postdigital Synchrony and Syntopy: The Manipulation of Universal Codes in Contemporary Literature. (Forthcoming)
  54. Zielinski, S. Deep Time of the Media. MIT Press, 2008, p. 10
  55. TCI p. 43
Dec 152015
Genese Grill

Photo by Rebecca Mack


And this is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee and the impressions of the actual world shall feel like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! Sea-lord! Air-lord!

—Emerson, “The Poet”


I am a gift to the finders; for I lose everything, as if I had holes in all my pockets or the most slippery skin in the world. Perhaps it is because, as much as I adore things, there is some unexamined impulse in me that suspects, even like that much-maligned Descartes, that none of this is real (mundus est fabula — the world is a fable). From a more reasonable standpoint — and I imagine that this is probably a prime reason for the traditional prejudice against matter — I can see that the physical world, while real, certainly isn’t permanent. Everything beneath the moon will fade and rot and pass away, a reality which must have induced those who could not bear such alteration to create an elaborate defense of that which supposedly lasts, i.e., spirit or soul. If body and spirit were separate, the special pleading went, then the death of the body might not mean the death of the soul. Yet, it seems more likely nowadays, considering that all of us are carrying the material of ancient stars in our bodies, that it is the physical that survives our fleeting mortal particularities — in the form of cells, particles, star dust — not, in fact, some numinous individual soul or self. But as long as we are alive, we cling to our particular collections of matter and call them self, individuality, agency; this clinging takes the form of concern, creative energy, and love, and the continual challenge of attempting to make sense of impermanence, loss and change.

Without being inclined then to reject the reality of the physical world, feeling still the reverberating tingling of certain real knocks, burns, and falls as well as the lingering pleasure of a caress, a taste, a visual and aural harmony, let us say that, in my perceived cosmos, the physical has weight, sensation, texture, temperature, and quality — and that this physicality is something to be celebrated and enjoyed as much as suffered — and at the same time these physical characteristics and sensations are telling us, imparting to us, something, something about life, about how to make meaning, about something I will call spirit — a term expanded for me by a consciousness of the German word Geist, which encompasses definitions including mind, feeling, culture, the intellectual, as well as that more numinous realm usually associated with our English word “spirit.” The physical world impresses upon or influences the mind as sensory apparatus; but the particular mind, colored by its particular cast and propensities, by its physical (genetic, biological) and its possibly less explainable characteristics (i.e., temperament, will, imagination, desire) filters and chooses the way in which that given world is seen, read, understood. To admit to having a soft spot for this thing called spirit seems to suggest a disparagement of matter, but I would not want to associate myself with a society of anti-sensualist prudes, nor would I willingly affiliate myself with any ideology that sought to escape the mortal, beautiful, and awesome reality of the natural world, its reason-defying beauties and its sorrow-inducing fading, its horrors and its delights; and yet, I find myself often tempted, as I imagine you do, too, to drift away into an imaginary dream amidst the often mind-numbing reality of the everyday. And I also find myself asking the question of what it is that makes all of this materiality so meaningful.

I also know from experience that there is great liberation to be gained by throwing off the shackles of what often amount to imaginary material needs. By giving up certain things that many people see as necessary for survival, one reaps a harvest of hours, a bounty of time that might otherwise have been spent working for money. It seems worthwhile to relinquish certain physical conveniences or even creature comforts in exchange for the incalculable luxury of reflection, of sufficient margins wherein aesthetic experience, philosophizing, poeticizing can reverberate. While many may feel that they have to work five or seven days a week to insure their material security or may choose consciously to trade their days and nights for an uninhibited cash flow, a larger lodging, an expensive telecommunications device, a bottle of fine bourbon, I can play a queenly pauper blessed with an open day. An uninhibited flow of moments, sensations, and synthesis of physical and spiritual beauties, the infinite riches of nature and culture which belong, by right, to anyone who loves them, makes of them a priority, and makes room for them. While it is well argued that one’s primary physical needs must be satisfied before one can indulge in higher spiritual reveries (“First comes the feeding, then comes morality” —Brecht), I am not the first one to suggest that our current assessment of how much one really “needs” to consume or stuff one’s face or garage with is exceedingly out of proportion with the development of our moral, ethical, intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities and inner resources. The choice to value time, reflection, and culture over consumerism may not necessarily preclude prioritizing materiality, since the free experience of nature, for example, is — strictly speaking — no less material than a new coat (nature is matter); and yet, there is a way in which the experience of nature or of art or of love (physical love included), of anything that ought not be quantified, used, or bought and sold, is thought of, correctly or not, as spirit’s part.


While Thoreau argued that it might be better to sleep in a railroad box and thereby keep his days and nights free to dream, Théophile Gautier asserted in his preface to that great aesthetic novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, that while a coffin would, indeed, be enough space for a man to “literally live,” to observe nothing but the strictest economy in such things were to turn all of Paris into a virtual Père Lachaise, i.e., a cemetery, where the supposedly living were doing little more than literally existing. Thoreau conversely sees a liberation in a coffin-sized box, noting that many of his countrymen living in larger, more comfortable houses bury the better part of themselves long before death (presumably under obligations, possessions, work). But Gautier, who complicates the equation by asserting that he would rather go without shoes than without poems, and that he would sell his breeches for jam, if necessary, was far from really having to consider the possibility that a railroad box might be the best means to afford the opportunity to make and experience poems — an experience unattainable by one of the more over-stuffed and prohibitively comfortable bourgeois he mocks for their utilitarian economies.

And the complexification is instructive, for the logic has far too often been reduced to a dualism pitting material things against spiritual experiences. Here, instead, we see that there are material things that are more or less “spiritual,” i.e., less or more utilitarian and prosaic than other material things. Material things that make us dream, that inspire and stimulate the mind, in other words, are to be preferred over those that drag us into the gutter or into the stock exchange. Wilde, who wished that he — a human being presumably made of a mixture of spiritual and physical stuff — might live up to his blue and white china, suggests as much. The work of art, albeit in this case made of a refined species of mud, is deemed the loftier substance, perhaps even because it has no needs at all. The aesthetes, had they paid Thoreau a visit in his little cabin (he did not, after all, ever really try living in that railroad box), would probably have found it quite charming. In short, together they ask us to consider what it is we need to feed our souls as well as our bodies. And we may conclude that the things some call luxuries are necessities to others, and vice versa. Each one of us must discover what we most need, and what we are most willing to sacrifice in order to attain and sustain it, while simultaneously sacrificing as little as possible of other things that feed us, in all ways.

I would, then, rather than disparage matter in favor of spirit, or spirit in favor of matter, embrace physicality while celebrating the imagination, and stress that, at best, the most freely non-compromised spirit may play with the structures and arrangements of the physical world, proving the immediate creative potential of the human mind to act upon and alter the “real” and already-established world with its utopian imaginings.

The mind, of course, is part of the physical world, and yet some of its functions seem unexplainable from a purely mechanistic perspective. Seeing, for example, is, strictly speaking, a physical activity; but our perception and understanding of what we see seems to be dependent upon preconceptions and learned ideas about space and extension. Further, when we take in something seen through the eyes and it enters our minds, its physicality is transformed into non-physical ideas and images which we seem to carry with us and possess, without owning or holding the seen things. The beauty of the physical world is material. And the sense organs we use to behold it and process it are physical. But when we move what we see from the world into our minds (both physical), what is seen becomes somehow spiritual, i.e., imaginary, remembered, thought. This is all rather impossibly dizzying, which is one of the reasons we usually do not even bother to think about it. At the same time, it is exciting that mere ideas can induce physical vertigo. And we should think about it, even at the risk of swooning, for our conclusions about the relationship between matter and spirit are deeply relevant to our relationship with meaning-making and, as such, to our sense of our roles and responsibilities in the world.

deaconTerrence Deacon

The brain scientist Terrence Deacon, in his book Incomplete Nature, writes that “consciousness doesn’t appear to have clear physical correlates even though it is quite ambiguously associated with having an awake, functioning brain”(6). He argues eloquently that one of the reasons why consciousness had not been located by scientists is that it is not material, in the sense of “stuff,” but rather that consciousness is a process, a dynamic of possibilities, and, what’s more baffling, a consciousness of reduction, taking away, selecting out. Each cell, each neuron continually fights against the force of entropy and chaos in order to maintain its own integrity, and this “autogenesis,” intent upon maintaining self-creation on the cellular and then, exponentially complexified, on the level of personhood, is a sort of agency, will, desire, self. The mind is moved and inspired by this autogenesis to focus on and select out patterns of matter amid a myriad of possibilities, and in turn the mind chooses and emphasizes what it has seen, loved, feared, noticed, which changes in response to the mind’s new ideas and visions of what is really in the world, and then is, again, seen by new minds and altered, ad infinitum. Remarkably, we find a similar description of creative consciousness in Novalis’s fragments from the 1780’s: “What an inexhaustible amount of materials for new individual combinations is lying about! Anyone who has once guessed this secret — needs nothing more than to decide to renounce endless variety and the mere enjoyment of it and to start somewhere — but this decision is at the expense of the free feeling of an infinite world — and demands restriction to a single appearance of it. Ought we perhaps attribute our earthly existence to a similar decision?” The selecting-out necessary for creation by an individual artist (or by any individual perceiving and creating his world) may be similar to the process by which the human brain creates its self or consciousness. And death, as Deacon suggests, would be a return to the original chaos of everything, an infinite world without choices, without selections, without direction. Living, then, is choice-making, delineation, discrimination, blind spots, even a sort of negation of one arrangement in favor of another, which we can call an affirmation if we choose to.

Deacon argues that events or entities which he calls “ententional phenomena” and “absential features” within consciousness, “make a difference in the world…we are surrounded by the physical consequences of people’s ideas and purposes…ententional causality…assumes the immediate influence of something that is not present… and it seems like ‘magic’”(28-31). Or, more poetically, in the words of Heinrich Heine, “The thought wants action, the Word wants to become flesh…and amazing! Man, like the God of the bible only needs to speak his thought and the world is created. There is light or there is darkness, the waters separate from solid land, or wild beasts appear. The world is the signature of the Word. Note this, you proud men of action. You are nothing but the unconscious extensions of the men of thought, who often, in modest silence, have precisely predetermined all of your doings” (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany).

The objects of the physical world have been rendered as signatures of spirit, as very important symbols, metaphors, and dream-images of some other realm transcendentalists from Plato to Emerson have thought of as “the really real.” This prejudice against matter qua matter has often explained the physical world away as a shallow and airy phantom of a moment’s deluded perception: we ought, so runs the argument, therefore, set our eye and heart on what remains and strive not to be distracted and seduced by the pleasures and desires of this prison house, these clayey lodgings, the body. But the spirit, along with will, desire, agency, choice, love, ethics, has been banished entirely by others for almost completely opposite reasons. These would explain the world as fundamentally lacking in meaning or purpose and our human bodies and their urges as the mere accidental detritus of mechanistic necessities such as the survival of the species. Deacon quotes Richard Dawkins as representative of this view: “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” and then notes that autonomized explanations of the world dispose of the idea of self altogether: “Your body is a chemical machine” and feelings and thoughts are unreal. There is possibly “no one home.” This materialistic worldview paradoxically denigrates the physical just as much as the former. It divests matter — and with it human life, love, suffering, and the experience of beauty — of any trace of meaning.

Responding to a worldview which limits the material world to a spiritless hull, hedonism, an embrace of pleasure for its own sake, is to my mind clearly a better response than the wearing of hair shirts and other excoriations and deprivations of the flesh. For if nothing matters and there is no purpose besides the constant preservation of the species, we may as well enjoy ourselves while here best we can — if we can, indeed, really enjoy meaningless pleasure for long. But indifference and nihilism is more often the consequence of such a perspective, resulting in an impoverished and wasted life. The beauty of the physical world with all its pleasures can really mean very little without a meaning-making and choosing mind to process the thrills and delights of colors, caresses, sounds, tastes, repeating patterns and designs. We tend then, at best, to take in all the phenomena and translate it, add it up to a summary conclusion about the value or purpose of life; in fact, we cannot help but do so.

Science has still not been able to figure out why, if there appears to be no necessary reason for humans to make poems and develop ethics, we still do; thus leaving those who would insist on a mechanistic explanation really unable to fully explain themselves. This latter view tends to explain things like poetry, tender feelings, ethical scruples, or the history of architecture as nothing more than elaborated, evolved mating rituals. Perhaps Deacon’s theory of autogenesis brings us closer to a more acceptable understanding of agency, will, self-generation and selfhood as exponentially complex versions of simple biological processes; the alternative explanation for consciousness, which usually assumes some sort of a priori reason or imbedded purpose for all of this, founders on many fronts, but most practically upon the impossibility of absolute justification of particular assessments of good, bad, beautiful, or true, since an action thought to be the highest form of tribute in one culture may be the basest insult in another. In other words, physical actions and objects are, of course, given meanings by individuals and societies (along with names and associations), which are often not inherently necessary or consistently characteristic. This seems to suggest that anything can be anything and mean anything and the only possible recourse we have for assessment is utility and physical pleasure. But even those criteria are hopelessly variable, since something may be useful to one person in one situation and an annoying obstacle to and in another; and, of course, one man’s pain is another’s pleasure. Which leaves us where?

In simplistic terms, there are those who want to believe that there is meaning and something like a reason or purpose for being here and those who prefer to believe the opposite — and then there is another sort altogether (of which I count myself): this sort of person believes that while there are certain basic natural facts in the universe (gravity, for example), the individual and group mind necessarily do and must and should impart meaning and purpose to what might essentially be meaningless phenomena. If, as seems likely, there is no reason why we are here, it behooves us to create our own reasons, our own desires and goals and necessities, albeit always with a consciousness of our powers to change these as we ourselves, or as the circumstances, change. We are meaning-making and meaning-seeking animals, and this trait (be it biological, evolutionarily useful, or just a random accident) seems to be an unexplainable fact. We cannot help but ascribe meaning and purpose to phenomena, to events, to objects. And while people have come to call this meaning-making a form of mysticism or social construction and impugn it as a conscious and malignant endeavor to hoist the values of the people in power upon others less fortunate, this is itself a social construction — a narrow narrative of the really complicated and chaotic development of mores and beliefs. Such a narrative willfully neglects the possibility and probability of any individual being waking up to a world interpreted by his or her own vision and coloring it in such an irresistible fashion so as to reawaken the whole rest of humanity to see what she sees. Anyone can, and must change the world at every moment. We are doing it now, for better or for worse.

Which is, of course, what art is and does, and why it is so important. The artist takes the shared raw material of the world, its realities and its appearances, its tendency to delude and its momentary revelations of terrible and beautiful truths, and shapes these infinite elements into something new and something necessarily subjective, something that is at once untrue and true. The artist teaches us, at best, that we too can and must do the same.

And while philosophers have often strained to separate the two realms of matter and meaning, some insisting on the “true” reality of one over the other, I am interested not in further polarizing body and mind, matter and idea, reality and art, but, rather, in exploring the ways in which they have occupied different positions in our ethical and aesthetic consciousness depending upon the context. I am concerned that our conceptions of their separateness or synthesis are at the basis of an often unexamined conduct of life, are embedded in our language, resulting in the pervasive conflicting beliefs that on the one hand there is something the matter with matter and on the other that materiality is the only thing that can bring us happiness. Of course, this investigation already presupposes that the way we arrange matter in our minds determines what we see, seemingly privileging mind over matter; but minds — human brains — are matter too, and the objects and elements that the brain arranges are also mostly (if not entirely) from the physical world, as we imagine combinations of things and places and people we have already seen with our eyes or felt or experienced with our bodies. But we also may be capable of conceiving of fresh abstractions based not on the external world, but on some interior structures (called at one time innate ideas; now, perhaps more accurately termed subjective constructions). We see, apparently, only what we believe is possible, and this requires a certain creative observer whose provenance and process may or may not be traceable by modern science. Whether or not there is anything new under the sun may come down to the brain’s ability to conceive of something never before imagined, something that is not just a combination of perceived, seen, felt elements. And if this is possible, we can look for it in the realm of art, a process of creation which, as my friend Alex Gaydos once pointed out to me, is not strictly in service to matter, or to the needs of the moment, but which enables us to transcend whatever temporal reality we are in, which enables us to be somewhere, someone, somehow else. Art — usually a physical object or sensuous experience created out of images or sounds and their arrangements — is inspired at least in part by the realm of matter, even if only as a rejection or deviation from natural laws (consider a sculpture that seems to hang suspended on air), and is simultaneously something that is born of spirit, i.e., feeling and mind, into the physical world. Art, then, is never disengaged from reality or the concerns of social life, but is always inherently and radically participating in guiding and challenging us to see and thus to live in new ways.

This aesthetic experience is inherently related to ethical possibility, as the choices we make to see this and not that, to narrate differing causes and effects for shared experiences, to judge an event, a person, an action, or a society’s mores from radically deviating perspectives seem to suggest that the mind has more say in the matter than a monopoly of mere matter allows. George Berkeley, who famously questioned whether matter existed at all outside of our senses, outside of our mind, notes that the spirit, as agent, is able to excite “ideas in my mind at pleasure and vary and shift the scenes as often as I think fit. It is no more than willing, and straightaway this or that idea arises in my fancy: and by the same power it is obliterated, and makes way for another. This making and unmaking of ideas doth very properly denominate the mind active” (63). But a skepticism about the nature of physical reality, no matter how empowering it is to mind, need not devolve into a skepticism about the very existence of the physical. Yet, Berkeley is quite sound in suggesting that we have no way of ever testing whether reality does exist outside of our senses, because our senses remain our only mode of testing. Still, if we accept that there is a reality outside of ourselves and concede that this reality is not absolutely solid, nor completed, this realization should encourage a more engaged process of existential choice-making, not an attitude of carelessness, whether hedonistic or indifferent.

That the physical world and our constructs of time, space, and necessity may be less certain than they sometimes appear to be, that matter is permeable, both waves and particles, and subject to constant change, does not mean that what we do and how we think is irrelevant, but rather the contrary, since our actions and thoughts are largely responsible for the world we continue to inhabit. Whenever we think we are stuck or that the “real” world has us in a corner, we may experience the powerful force of spirit — this time in the form of will or a consciousness of agency — as possible rescue operations, alternatives, or even simply new ways to experience the perceived bad situation occur to our searching minds. Even the very idea of a God, for which there is no possible natural precedent except perhaps childbirth, is evidence, not of its truth, but of the mind’s ability to imagine something that may not exist. If, in other words, we can imagine and invent something for which there is no a priori necessity or precedent, and arrange our lives and choices around this figment, then mind must play a substantial role in the construction and experience of reality. This is all the more reason to be as aware as possible of our role in creating realities and to see to it that, while we should hold fast to our ideals and priorities, we do not allow ourselves as individuals or societies to petrify into any one particular figment or phantom arrangement as if it were absolutely necessarily one way or another. Probably many of you have often been told that you were being “unrealistic” as to your expectations or hopes for a better world. The only possible answer to such a taunt is to change the very reality which has your interlocutor in its deadly grip.

Medieval theologians often explained the physical world as “God’s Book,” within which we, who grasp abstractions only with difficulty, might better read the ineffable messages of the Divine. While many people today, conversely, assume that symbols are stand-ins for real things, that they “mean” or “equal” something specific and tangible, we do well to reverse this, at least for a moment, to regard and experience the supposedly real things as symbols, or rather heralds of something even more real, something lasting and unmeasurable, as hieroglyphs approaching some silent explanation of what it means to be alive. Starting from the physical, we may proceed to the imaginary, the conceptual, the as-of-yet unconceived. Thus we can see that reading the “meanings” of the physical world need not mean either a disregard for physical reality or a rigid reading of matter. One important difference between the medieval Christian symbol system and ours was well explained by Emerson in his essay, “The Poet,” when he noted that the mystic (he meant in this context the dogmatic mystic) nails every symbol to one meaning, whereas the poet sees multiple meanings in every “sensuous fact.” While a medieval theologian would usually read the decay of the body as a simple forewarning against attachment to the flesh, we need not interpret it as an admonishment to not enjoy what is fleeting. Although the very fleetingness of physical joys, their tendency to alter, fade, and disappear altogether may be precisely that which we call an object lesson, the story’s moral need not be that we should not care for objects at all or that we should denigrate the sensual world. For physical things — skin, colors, tree bark, bread, chocolate, kisses, gold coins, paper money, shoe buckles, filigree, crenellations, gilded books, ponies, eyelashes and fingertips, marbleized frontispieces, photographs, hips and napes of necks, smells and sounds and textures — all simultaneously partake in the spiritual and the physical, are all miraculously self-generating evidence of a teeming life force at play, a universe in love with its own creative energy, with human hands and minds and eyes in its willing service, evidence of a force — we may call it love or simply natural desire — of perpetual making and rejoicing in that making.

Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson, via Wikimedia Commons

I lose things, but not really, never really having them in the first place, and am able, in so far as I may recall or imagine them, to recover them again. And then, just as much as I lose things, I find things that have been lost by others, seeing things that others overlook, picking them out, pointing them out, pocketing them for later. Memory, too, is a loser and a finder, a shuffler, a parser, a re-arranger. Deliberately or not, we slip back and forth between physical things and the memories of places and events and persons, real or remembered, that the mementoes recall. A Proustian paving stone or that famous madeleine given to me by reading a book belong to my collection as much as any weighty bronze sculpture I hold in my hand. But only the choicest pieces may be displayed in the more public cabinet of curiosities which constitutes the conscious mind, while secret drawers are crammed with forgotten, repressed, or tragically neglected keepsakes, broken amulets, stopped pocket watches, and fragments of lost letters, sentences now illegible after that vial of holy water brought back from the Ganges or from Glastonbury broke and spilled, making the ink bleed. I tend to overflow, squander, shuffle, scramble, and hope that when the time comes whatever it is will fall into my hands. And sometimes I am surprised by what can only be a miracle: that this or that tiny object, a key, a slim volume, a scrap of paper on which I had written a word or a number, a quotation lost in a thousand page book, suddenly appears before me, and even when it is the last minute and I need to be running out the door and absolutely need to have found it. But what has been lost: moments, names, melodies, facts, details, sensations, intricately wrought hat pins, pressed flowers, locks of hair, lovers’ promises, things and events we swore at the time we would hold on to forever, is inconceivable and criminal. People even sometimes burn letters or leave family photo albums out in the rain. But we would rather not think on that.

Pippi Longstocking was a notorious finder, as is my friend Stephen Callahan; they called him “finder boy” in his youth and he was always called upon to look for something someone had mislaid. This is suspicious, now that I think of it; maybe he was actually a thief, like that seeker after truth Nietzsche writes about, who hides something behind a bush and seems surprised to find it precisely there where he once hid it! But any artist is this sort of a magician, an artist of the sleight of hand, swiping what others do not appreciate and setting it so that it becomes suddenly desirable, arranging it so that its original owner comes to miss it. Artists are people who endeavor to notice what was always there in potentialis, who are able to make the ordinary suddenly important, to see it new, to make others wish that they had found whatever it was first. And, of course, all philosophical systems and worldviews are a particular kind of arrangement by individual vision, a setting of the raw material of the actual world (what is) into an utopian pattern or design (what could be), rather than resting in a merely habitual rut of received ideas. Really, the arrangements we make may as well be utopian, elegant, joyous, sacred, ecstatic, experimental, serious funhouse mirrors and creative extensions of pre-existing “reality,” rather than a slavish mimesis to some status quo. Let us look at “reality” as a diamond in the rough, raw material, continually reset by ourselves, as creative royal jewelers, in infinitely fantastical tiaras which we can try on inside and outside of our heads to help us see and act and experience in new ways. If existence precedes essence, as the existentialists have it, then we can and must choose what we are and what the world is and means, how we act, what we value and reject, even if our choices are sometimes limited by a few natural laws and unavoidable circumstances. It shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, that finder boy grew up to be an aesthetic utopian who collects and arranges objects with an attention as devoted as that he renders to the design and conception of his ideal Nowhere, striving always to manifest it in the physical world.

Spirit may be understood as the arranger and the meaning-maker, while matter provides the colors and textures and shapes with which it plays. Why some people — even Emerson — conclude that therefore matter is the vulgar part of this union and spirit, i.e., form, the higher part of art, can probably be traced to our inherited prejudice against anything that doesn’t last, but it is as difficult to imagine a sculpture without marble or clay as it is to imagine experiencing the world without a body. A clay model of a body, however, a medieval Golem for example, is a rather pathetic thing without the in-spiration of ru’ah (Hebrew: breath; holy spirit) to make it come alive.

Pippi Longstocking knew what was important: the freedom to imagine, adventure, and roam unhindered by obstacles, whether physical or mental. She was, in fact, unconstrainable; she couldn’t be socialized; didn’t like school; she knew her own strength; she threw gold pieces around with a carelessness unmatched except by the denizens of Moore’s Utopia, where precious stones were to be found lining the gutters. Speaking of marvelous finders, I shouldn’t neglect to mention Phineas Sonin, our local junk man with his shining eyes and multi-colored rickshaws, who is always, always, finding and re-dispersing the detritus of civilization, as if to remind us that all our possessions are like the ribbons and shreds picked up by birds, always able to be transformed into new shapes and new psychic dwellings for fledgling dreamers. He reminds us that nothing is ever useless, even if it has outworn its original purpose. Also not to be forgotten is our wild, mad friend, Robin Simon — may she ramble somewhere safely, despite her neglect of gravity, time, space, and other natural laws —, whose gifts of miraculous treasures discovered in the streets unearth themselves even today from under piles of boxes or out of drawers in my room, and hurl themselves onto the floor moments before a letter from her —  the first one in years — appears in my mailbox, as if the objects were fore-echoes of the words on their way. A little Chinese box with lacquered scenes from fairy tales, a porcelain mask, and an embroidered sash, a pair of velvet dragon knickers, a miniature tea cup with a world inside. Telekinesis? Perhaps; it probably is easier to make physical objects move if one doesn’t believe in their actual weight. She was fluid with possessions, as rings she had picked up off our bureaus would just as innocently be slipped onto the fingers of seeming strangers or new friends, or tiny baubles pocketed in silence be left in tree nooks or upon the stairwell of a passing dandy wearing a pretty cape. How, she seemed to say, can any one thing belong to any one person? She rendered the objects their own agency, as if they were animated by attractions and fascinations to find their way into the hands of those who deserved them.

Some people claim that their dead friends and family, their ancestors, send them things as messages from the other worlds when they are wandering in rummage sales or antique shops: a tea pot, a letter opener, a bearskin cape with a silver, leaf-shaped clasp. And there are, indeed, times when an object seems to give us inordinately intense pleasure, either because it seems connected to a person or an idea, or because of its peculiar shape, weight, color, or smell, times when an object seems to be just precisely the thing to fill us with happiness, a sense of meaning, purpose, connection. In such a case, the true bohemian knows that no amount of filthy lucre is too much to spend or expend on the item, and, in fact, the squandering of mere money for something like that is part of the pleasure of the exchange. I enjoy spending money — not just the getting of the thing, but the actual act of giving the bundle of bills away. Some people feel pain when they pay; I feel a sensual pleasure, a sense of freedom and luxury. And it is not because I have unlimited supply — I live at present well below the poverty line —; nor because I have overlooked the fact that time is money; it is certainly not because I do not know what the cost of a thing is in Thoreau’s priceless definition, i.e., “the amount of what I call life that is expended for it now or in the long run.” It may be, rather, that I am not worried about having the money later, because I know I can live on very little, quite happily, quite richly.

Of course, we all know about the common folly of trying to fill spiritual emptiness with material riches, but, somehow, today’s cultural impoverishment has something to do with a misunderstanding of the spirit inhering in certain kinds of matter, in art, in artifacts, in certain kinds of physicality. In fact, a look at the history of our cultural relationship with matter and spirit reveals that inhering spirit in matter has been one of the greatest taboos, called by the name of idolatry. Taboo, as is well known, has a way of creating more perverse attachments, and the fetishism of objects as well as of human bodies in the form of consumerism and pornography may be a result of this insistence on the separation of spirit and matter. The widespread impoverishment in the face of so much material debauchery and excess impels us to discover a more meaningful connection between matter and spirit, body and mind, a connection that has largely gone missing among the sometimes extreme polar categorizations of ideal and real, physical and transcendental, carnal and spiritual. I want to look more closely at our unexamined assumptions, our cultural prejudices, and the way in which we have become at once unabashedly materialistic and piously, moralistically anti-aesthetic. It has turned out to be a worse bargain than was once calculated, for we have not only lost our souls, but have gained no compensatory worlds in return.

Everyone speaks about the problem of Americans being over-glutted with a base sensuality, but really, as is often the case with over-indulgence, we have become grossly insensible to the finer sensations. We cannot listen amid the incessant noise, we cannot see amid the rushing images, we cannot touch because we have become calloused all over. We are obese — but at the same time, we starve ourselves; our garages are filled to the brim with expendable and already broken junk; our landfills are mountains of eternal toxic shame; but few people seem to notice that this over-consumption is related to a numbness, a blind-deaf-and-dumbness to the faint stirrings and whisperings of the spirit that once could be traced in the lineaments of the physical world, in art and in nature, a numbness whose source is a tragic misunderstanding about how little one has to actually pay in order to be as wealthy as Emerson’s poet.

When people speak about the loss of spirit, they tend to suggest we cure the malady with a turn inward, a turn away from the physical world which implicitly negates the complex relationship obtaining between matter and spirit, between sensory and transcendental realms. This cure comes in many forms: minimalism; piety; asceticism; attacks on beauty and on the aesthetic components of art, music, social experience; an advocacy of pure conceptualism; a disregard of surroundings and environments; an insidious argument for technological consumerism; a leave-no-trace attitude to existence, whereby one is enjoined that the best thing a human could do, after not existing, would be to have as little impact as possible. While the last is a natural and, to some extent, admirable response to the abuse of natural resources and a very real environmental crisis, it has been adopted as a general platform for existence, suggesting that less is always more, and that there is nothing, literally nothing, that a person can contribute to the cultural or material richness of the world. The traces of natural affirmative human impressions and expressions are inadvertently erased in the rush to minimize the “carbon footprint,” but, alas, environmental damage is still spreading more quickly than can be counteracted by all the good will in the world, while culture and participatory engagement are disappearing faster than the ozone layer. A return to spirit and culture really requires very little in the way of natural resources since one can walk, bicycle, read, talk to a person who is beside one, experience nature, listen to what little silence there is left, without using fossil fuels and without creating toxic waste, without wasting any electricity at all; but governments and individuals choose instead to spend millions of dollars and use up more and more resources looking for some complicated technological means to continue to live unsustainably amid a myriad of distractions and annoyances, even though most of us agree that our gadgets, our jobs, our highways, our machines do not actually make us happier or better people. And, as we recklessly deplete our natural resources, we are literally running out of the vital matter to make more matter; and the cost, in terms of the horrific physical and anti-aesthetic desecration of the land as well as the ethical and spiritual degradation that comes with selfish greed and a neglect of human and natural consequences, is devastating even now.

The spread of technology, with its concomitant defense of the virtual, has contributed greatly to an apparent devaluing of the physical; yet, this “revolution” has not translated into a spiritualization of existence or a real reduction of tedious, meaningless work for harried humanity. Instead, the spiritual has been eradicated along with the physical connection. The technological devolution seems to be little more than a ruse for selling the newest device or gadget, without which the supposedly timeless-spaceless modern being feels unable to function. He has given up his memory, his ability to synthesize and understand ideas, his freedom, as well as any simple access to human or neighborly help, knowledge, or warmth. This price is too high to pay for a dubious return in the form of a promise of immediate access to data and information, the ability to buy things without leaving one’s home or office (minus the sensual thrill of handling dollars and seeing, smelling, touching the world). He has gained the ability to work and be reached at all times on any mountain top, in the middle of any conversation or experience, and the constant anticipation of some small chance of a random surprise salvation from what really can only honestly be characterized as an unbearable and shallow existence — an existence so unsatisfactory that one hopes constantly that it will be interrupted by something better. The allegedly virtual is fatally bound to a merely materialistic culture lacking in spiritual foundation. It costs much more than it returns, as its incessant buzzing, roaring, and ringing drown out any possibility of enjoying the “free time” theoretically to be gained by the convenience of technology.  As it turns out, keeping the infrastructure or virtual reality “on” twenty-four hours a day requires much more wasted energy than we like to think, thus flagrantly obviating any supposed return in environmental protection. A knapsack filled with free books checked out of the public library (a spiritual institution which is not by accident suffering an immense financial crisis while multinational information technology companies are thriving) is a much better bit of baggage to take to that desert island — or into the post-industrial future — than the newest oil-based and electricity-dependent plastic monstrosity; and one gets physical exercise while carrying it, not to mention the mental exercise, the experience of synthesizing organic, complex knowledge, the real experience of reading, digesting, reflecting in silence on whole books instead of downloading snippets and summaries, or dilutions of data and co-opted cultural capital, into a fact-crammed brain. There is an immense gulf between information and knowledge, and the way we as a culture seem to have forgotten this may have something to do with the commodification of even spiritual wealth into cultural capital, something to be utilized, manipulated, transferred, bought, and sold for some mercenary purpose. Education — one that engages in ethical and aesthetic reflection and questioning, fruitful confusion and uncertainty, dialogue, synthesis, and unaccountable experience — cannot be bought and sold across cyberspace or implanted via a chip in the brain. Speed reading is not reading. The “medium is the message,” and a book should be heavy, if only to weigh the reader, slow the reader down.

Emerson spoke of every “sensual fact,” as a material manifestation within the world, as a symbol for a complex assortment of ideas, not to be reduced to one mathematically or dogmatically predetermined solution or answer. And this interplay between the physical as symbol and its spiritual extension regenerates itself, infinitely, at no material, environmental, or ethical cost. Reflection, and its resulting provisional stations of synthesis, is one of the most essential processes for the development of new ideas, fresh insights, original arrangements; and it is something our society has almost entirely neglected, abandoned, forgotten. We can see the results of this neglect around us already, but only if we stop for a moment and reflect. What I suspect is that an important cause and effect of this neglect is a confusion about matter and its relationship to spirit, and while this or other solutions to our presently unsustainable predicament might occur to any of us were we to sit a moment with the rare discomfort that rushes in if we recuse ourselves temporarily from the rush and rage — the hope and hype — of commodities, data, and progress, we rarely dare to release our hold (although we are really the ones being held) on whatever it is we feel we must do in order not to fall out of step, in order not to lose our jobs, homes, social standing, security. We are so frightened of losing our grip that we do not risk the smallest danger (darkness, loneliness, confusion) to change our lives. We are so busy acquiring things we think we need, and doing things we think we need to do, that we do not even take the time to consider whether we really want the situation or success after which we are striving; nor do we have the leisure or quiet to enjoy or admire all that already belongs to us by right. “Things are in the saddle,” warned Emerson, back when it had not gotten nearly so bad as it is today, “and ride mankind.” But the Poet, he also reminded us, is “Sky-lord, Land-lord, Sea-lord,” for everything she sees or even imagines is an enduring possession. But we cannot possess it if we do not have the leisure or senses to enjoy it. There is — in effect — nothing which we can really lose, except perhaps the flexibility and fertility of our minds.

The PoetEmerson’s Essay “The Poet,” via Internet Archive

What then is the most fruitful relationship between physical entities and their associated ideas and spirit? Leaving language out of the equation altogether, we may consider that any individual specific object, mountain, or building is in contact with the idea or even “Ideal Form” of that object, an idea or ideal of mountain, of building. We might even assume, as many have over the course of the history of ideas, that anyone who is overly attached to a particular temporal physicality is somehow less spiritual, and here we have a philosophy and theology of spirit seemingly born in the service of sparing us the pain of loss and death ahead of time. Non-attachment might appear to be a wise method in the sublunar regions, where all is fleeting and time triumphs — but it rather seems like a ruse, or a case of special pleading, considering we do have bodies, and appetites, and that we do suffer the pain of loss and lack, despite all attempts to assuage it. We also, it must not be forgotten, experience pleasure, and it seems an act of bad faith to accept the one and reject the other. Though it hardly seems like an admirable achievement, some spiritual practitioners may manage to neither suffer nor enjoy anything at all. Rather, I suppose that the individual experience of losing an actual specific physical thing or person is a meaningful object lesson in the reality of death — it may lead us to enjoy life all the more, to pay more attention, to concentrate on our pleasures and on all sensations, even seemingly unpleasant ones, for we will not have the luxury of experiencing them forever. We should pay attention to the fate of matter, to fading, to physical decay and the processes of natural fermentation and regeneration. We should pay more attention.

Pain, delight, pleasure, beauty all come, in any case, in both spiritual and physical forms, usually in fact, in a mixture of both. We cannot, or rather should not, try to minimize or limit our experience out of a moralistic or even practical stoic defensiveness. Some bit of pain or trouble may be salutary, or even stimulating; some types of burdens are worth carrying, if only to build physical and spiritual muscles, if only to experience the delicious relief of laying them down and doing absolutely nothing afterward or in between. If I seem to be stressing the didactive benefit of the physical, let me add that matter is also to be enjoyed for its sensual properties as well, and maybe even in tandem with the sensations of its stings and arrows, as contrast at least. Renoir asked, “Why should beauty be suspect?” And, while we have some ideas as to why, we would do well to consider that pleasure and delight make up at least one part of what real life consists and we do no one damage by experiencing or dwelling on beauty if its creation does not incur inordinate residual spiritual or physical ugliness (as, admittedly, some seemingly pretty things may). While we might even entertain the idea that property is to some extent and in some cases a form of theft, let us not forget that we need not own something to enjoy it, and that the bounty and loot once pillaged from ancient civilizations — the victims of colonialist ravagement — serves to enrich millions of people every day in public museums, who come to possess the beautiful forms, materials, and historic and cultural significance by merely looking. While such booty has often been egregiously ill-gotten, it is not matter’s fault that people have abused each other to possess it in the past — indeed, we may hear the cries of the massacred people as well as the songs they sang while making the objects if we hold them close to our ears. Today we may (though we too often do not) choose more consciously to make and to attain things without such high human, environmental, and cultural costs — thereby hopefully merging spirit more meaningfully with matter. It is no simple task, however, to calculate how much pleasure and spiritual profit can be gained with the least amount of pain and inhumanity, especially if we admit that by merely breathing we kill organisms and by walking we cannot avoid stepping on the smallest of creatures.

While Thoreau is most famously quoted as saying, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” I read him a bit more closely and find that he is not absolutely vilifying matter — in fact, he learns all about his “higher laws” by pushing up against the bounds of the physical and through a practically hyper-aesthetic attention to physical details and forms. He is asking only that we seriously consider matter’s relationship to spirit, and entreating us to refrain from sacrificing spirit — in the form of values, artistic and ethical freedom, our integrity, the sanctity of nature, and the realm of transcendental imagination — to an exterior covering which has been reduced to a simulacrum only of meaningful humanity. It is not the exterior that is evil, but an exterior out of touch with its interior. He suggests we be worthy of our clothes, our castles, our pomp, and be as noble on the inside as on the outside. Beautiful things should, thus, be made in beautiful ways, in ways that are not in themselves ugly and in ways that do not cover up a multitude of aesthetic, ethical, or environmental crimes. But we must not get too fastidious about the messiness of making, living, experimenting, for we do not always even know which seemingly good act engenders unseen negative consequences or which seemingly bad or disengaged one might do worlds of good.

Today’s Americans may, indeed, be as vulgar as their exteriors portend; but this is a problem, not a noble unpretentiousness about which to crow. Rather, let us be pretentious first if it is a means to growing into or living up to a premature external glory. Thoreau, in my view, is quite a bit closer to the dandies and bohemians of Europe than the Puritan utilitarians of Massachusetts. The transcendentalists and the aesthetes together raise the imagination above mammon and rail against those who, as Wilde mocked, know the “price of everything and the value of nothing.” The dandies and the naturalists have more in common than at first meets the eye, despite Wilde’s horrified exclamation: “Enjoy Nature?!”

As Baudelaire notes, in his excursus on the dandy in “The Painter of Modern Life,” the child and the savage, and by association the aesthete and the transcendentalist, share an “adoration of what is brilliant — many-colored feathers, iridescent fabrics, the incomparable majesty of artificial forms — the baby and the savage bear witness to their disgust of the real, and thus give proof, without knowing it, of the immateriality of the soul!” And in a letter from 1894, Proust writes, echoing Jesus’s famous dictum about the kingdom of heaven: “You have happiness within you: that is the safest, if not the only, way of having it. In any case, whatever may be the happiness you dream of (to dream of it is to already have it in the most ideal sense of the word, which as a good idealist I believe to be the only true one) I am sure it is a happiness of the very best quality.” A classic bohemian from Mürger’s Vie de Bohême is indeed a transcendentalist of sorts when, instead of heavy and expensive furniture he moves from garret to garret with a folding screen upon which his beautiful chairs, tables, divans, and bed are painted. In a more neo-Platonic than a strictly Platonic sense — where a “disgust of the real” is not a denigration of art, but of the status quo — this painted screen is a manifestation of the idea of furniture, a sort of cosmic joke on society’s expectations, freeing the artist from what Thoreau called “shriveling one’s self up into a nutshell of civility,” freeing him from ignoble pleasing, flattering, lying, cosseting, selling or compromising himself to the non-ideals of the marketplace in exchange for a couple of chairs that are usually not even as beautiful as the ones a poor bohemian might invent. Better to sit on the floor than on a utilitarian chair purchased with one’s dreams and at the expense of one’s values. But the higher truth is that we must have beautiful chairs and beautiful dreams, or rather, we must see to it that our dreams come true, furnishing even the physical world with our spiritual fancies.

—Genese Grill


Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator 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 a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.


Dec 062015



MATCHES: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
punctum books, 2015
538 pages (OPEN-ACCESS e-book and $25.00 [€23.00/£20.00] in paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0692540732

Art / Barbarism

Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that a huge and horrible crime happened, and the masterpieces were destroyed. If so, it would be a barbarian crime against humanity. — Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, on the incineration of seven masterpieces stolen in 2012 from the Rotterdam Kunsthal

A mother’s love burns brightest when the fuel is artifice, plastic slippers, and firewood. Art’s demise revealed the truth and power of the human heart. Veritas, victoria, vita!

The museum, the village, the abandoned house, the churchyard, finally the stove. Ash. Between the theft, the son’s arrest, the mother’s actions, and the art world itself (fearing the worst), the works were everything: a fortune, incriminating evidence, an irreparable loss. To the rest of us it was a crying shame. Before the lab’s findings sank in, the works were missed, their worth contained by the smoul­dering hope of their recovery, the story still too bizarre to be believed (especially after the mother’s retraction of the crucial part of it). After they were announced, the works became priceless, and their immolation, indefensible, beyond the pale. Here there is no why. We are survivors, bearing the burden of incomprehension. Incomprehension not of the human spirit, for the mother’s act was as mindless as the can of worms it opened.

Nor was it a crucible of love — that mother was no art lover! It involved no test, no inner conflict of values, one love against another fighting in a breast, with a mother’s love finally getting the better of the universal love of beauty.

Burn the evidence! was the obvious thing to do. Not: I must sacrifice the Art! (We would prefer she turn in the works along with the son, but what mother would do that? — it is as unfea­sible now as it was in biblical times.) A simpleton cannot be demonic. There was no question of zeal, of enthusiasm, of erotic arousal: Burn, Picasso! Burn, Matisse! And yet it used to be witches who stoked fire only to perish by it in those barbaric times. The innocence of the paintings, the Eastern European location, the poverty, illiteracy perhaps — all this makes for a credible latter-day hex.

And that is why, in a rush of blood to the head, we might blurt out “Crime against humanity!” The well-worn phrase — where the “crime” in question is nothing less than intentional degradation of human beings perpetrated on a large scale — seems hyperbolic in the new context, even if in the heat of indignation (to which destruction by fire certainly added fuel), we refuse to see it as just a metaphor.

The leap from humans to the human is easier the more the art of the recent past, when there were still masters worth mentioning, is sanctified as the expression of the human spirit, the quiddity of our dignity that protects us, like a magic circle, against all barbarism.

Art appreciation is an order of magnitude greater than art’s invaluability. The inestimable worth of art — of man — in our time requires the language of genocide to do justice to it. It is no “mere rhetoric,” but an unedited lament for humanity.

If, then, it strikes some of us as preposterous to call an art heist a “crime against humanity,” it must be because we do not value art as an extension of human dignity. Is it because art has always accompanied barbarity, as its counter­point? Our whole history is constructed on denying that we cannot have the one without the other, even if art was born among the barbarians. The twisted story of the burglary, the brutalization of these works, brings this twisted history, begun in prehistory, to a head. Acts we would consider bar­barous now, or that we will consider barbarous in the future, were perpetrated by those we now consider to have been the first artists, even the first “moderns.” The stature of barbarity keeps step with that of art. The more invaluable art becomes, the less we can appreciate it. The more invaluable individual life becomes, the less we can appreciate it.

We might not know it, but such wisdom speaks through our condemnation of Oberländer-Târnoveanu’s hyperbole. To accept it would mean convincing ourselves that a moth­er’s love counts for nothing, that it is worthless. You cannot make the willful destruction of high art level with the anni­hilation of people without elevating at least one mother’s love to barbarism.

Even if the crude destruction of these Magnificent Seven really was atrocious, some more refined method would have been easier to swallow. Its artfulness would mitigate its vulgarity. That is why we hope she did not burn them but, as unlikely as that is, deceived the analysts. Perhaps then her act would qualify as art, a performance without spectacle, with an audience to come. It’s been said — I know the man who said it — that “Barbarity is one of the signs in which one recognizes renaissances of the spirit.”[1]


Under Attack

The avant-garde artist was born of the image-breaker: the “icons” he broke belonged to his predecessors and rivals. In truth, however, they were the icons by which he lived his life and with which the art of his time was in agreement. His target, then, must not have been the artistic tradition, at least not directly; it was, rather, the reality sanctioning only images that flatter it — images that, while innocent, were thoroughly in the pay of wealthy patrons, who surrounded themselves with them as with mirrors. Naturally, the control of images made them structurally incapable of fulfilling art’s modern mission — to challenge, to unsettle, to open up. Only from the position of exteriority claimed by mod­ern art can the false beauties of the life of privilege, of the dream life of power, be violated. Modernity’s artistic frontier is inward, advancing towards, not away from, the pieties and powers — political, economic, theological — with which even the old masters were in conformity. The image broken by the modern iconoclast, the icon reduced to shards and rags, is, in short, the spurious coherent whole, with the “art world” nestled in it.


Art, Alienation, Extinction

There is a received and much-cherished idea that creativity cannot be alienating. Alienation befalls the exploited, their labour as mindless as it is repetitive, whereas creative work, where it is not enabled by higher economic standing, the prerogative of leisure, is mythologized as an escape into pleasure (even with the risk of madness or early death). Artists, of course, do collaborate, make, market, and sell their stuff, and the identity of the artist is perfectly compatible with that of the precarious worker or capitalist. But the neoliberalization of art is seen as incomplete as long as art is civilized by the triumph of form over content; form acts as a bulwark against the neoliberal civilization, whose watchword is content extraction. Capitalism keeps pace by producing the tools needed to extract content from form, funding art’s nonconformism. The creation of educational and other institutions that teach both art and its exploitation, as well as the rewards dangled before artists who defend art’s bul­wark, keep up demand for aesthetic product. At a time when everything is being turned into a resource, art can still set the terms of its own use.

A reboot of art’s political-interventionist ferment in the 1960s and ’70s would offer no resistance to neoliberalism’s encroachment. The identity of the artist has since become much purer, much more abstract and — dare we say? — super­fluous than in those days. All is well as long as it’s under­stood as just an identity or mask, and moreover, one among several others in competition or cooperation with it. Now that the “Creative Class” has been ideologically defined as vital for urban economies, the “creative subject,” a.k.a. artist, risks not alienation but isolation. With lived experience becoming art’s final court, whoever identifies with art to the exclusion of other roles — whoever lives and breathes art and otherwise lives not — must die of loneliness as one of the last surviving members of a species too old to reproduce.


Down and Dirty

If art really needs a clean slate, then life must have the oppo­site. But could we appreciate such art from such a life?


Scenes of Abduction

In the story of the rape of Hippodamia, a Lapith woman is saved from the clutches of drunken Centaurs, guests at her wedding feast. The oft-treated motif, allegorized as the struggle between bestiality or barbarism and humanity or civilization, ends quite clearly in the latter’s triumph. As with other erotic subjects, mythical or legendary scenes of abduction, depictions of lecherous violence and abuse, were long bound to a higher, moral purpose, while heroism and procreation as pretexts for titillation were deemed unworthy of art.

The sublimation called art is still aligned with nobility and morality. Art does not just represent — and that in two senses, of showing and standing for — the struggle against barbarism; it functions as a talisman. The choice and proper framing of scenes of this struggle fulfill art’s civilizing mission, contrib­uting head-on to the mastery over monstrosity, ugliness, and evil looming large. The mission’s goal was to impress upon our minds the seriousness and high stakes of the fight for, in this case, sexual entitlement. The artist wanted us to know, none too subtly, that he had done his part.

The “Manichean” framework, which demands explicitness, comes at a cost to art, which is accused of speaking from both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, bringing sexual­ity to the surface and manipulating it make artists complicit in subduing anarchic forces — including the eternal two-way traffic between the normal and the freakish, the familiar and the foreign. Art renounces pornography less for its content and effect than for subordinating such forces to quantitative self-regulation. On the other hand, as soon as the image becomes explicit, art falls under suspicion by priests and secular moralists of colluding with base desire. It is watched more closely and interpreted less charitably; exposed, it presents an easy target for yesterday’s orthodoxies. Doubt in its ability to quell insurgent passions makes conspicuous not what is obvious to us — art’s neutrality — but its barely hidden “barbarism.”

The long-term consequences of this double bind are still with us: even now, freed from moral service, sexuality in art is dismissed as gimmickry, gratuitous provocation. Its aesthetic value is dubious; it is still too caught up in prov­ing it has one. Its appearance is stiff, unnatural, in a word, unfree — and this in spite of the space given to it, having spread from canvas to celluloid, where it is occasionally even unsimulated. Its real, scrambled message is only intelligible to those who reject moralism of any kind and recognize art’s long struggle for a pagan origin.

Where it does not eradicate unruliness, censorship inspires encryption. In this hostage hermeneutic, sexually charged representations like that of Hippodamia’s rape, as they recur from the Renaissance on, are coded signs of distress. Rather than hailing the victory of the good through art, hence of “good” art, they signal art’s capture by “goodness.”


Coming Clean

If life really is a blank slate, then art must be the opposite.

—S. D. Chrostowska


S.D. Chrostowska is the author of Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Miguel Abensour, “L’histoire de l’utopie et la destin de sa critique,” Textures 8–9 (1974): 64, my trans.
Dec 032015

Aashish Kaul


Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère. — Marcel Proust

Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language. There is already in this adage of Proust the notion of ‘making strange’ that was to be espoused by the Russian Formalists some years later. Proust may or may not be the best example to discuss the Russian Formalists, for he both validates and annuls their thesis, but in this instance there remains a commonality that may, for the time being, be enough to eclipse their differences.

For the Formalists, obsessed as they were to develop a more scientific basis for literary studies and make them an autonomous and specific discipline, it became necessary to exclude all mimetic and expressive definitions of literature. To see a literary work as an expression of its author’s personality led inevitably (and unacceptably) to biography and psychology, while to regard it as a picture of a given society led in turn (equally undesirably) to history, politics, or sociology.[1] What remained, therefore, was the peculiar nature of a literary work itself, and it was this peculiarity that the Formalists made the basis of literary scrutiny, a peculiarity which could be distinguished from any other material and which lent a literary work its especial aura or quality. The Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky began with the idea that art refreshes our sense of life and experience. ‘If we examine,’ he wrote:

the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all our skills and experiences function unconsciously — automatically…. And so held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art…. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant (italics in original).[2]

Subsequent developments in theories about literature and the creative process may make Shklovsky’s observation look obvious, but they hardly obscure its truth. And would not Proust give his whole-hearted assent to this idea! — Proust, who poured all his later life into composing a seemingly endless book with the sole aim of granting the reader a few visions of pure perception amidst the deadening whorls of habit, that dull inviolability which Beckett memorably called ‘the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’[3]

The kind of enstrangement that Shklovsky advocates, namely, the one achieved by complicating form, is also at work in Proust, as it is at work in Joyce, in Virginia Woolf, in Faulkner — Borges wrote his stories as if they were expository pieces, while his essays repeatedly adopted styles and themes more suitable for fiction (though Shklovsky’s models are markedly older: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Sterne, Dickens). These formal/technical devices are for Shklovsky and others the very means of achieving ‘defamiliarization’ in a work of literature, and the final triumph of art over dull, automatized life. Literature, as Ezra Pound said, is news that remains news. But what is unfamiliar may become familiar, worn thin, itself automatized, with use and passage of time. So techniques and devices were needed to be perpetually juggled, some foregrounded over others for a period of time, to keep literariness alive across epochs.

Another kind of dialectic is at work here: the opposition between automation and defamiliarization. Having banished the author, having dispelled the biography, psychology, and historicity of a work, the Formalists were left simply with devices, and this could only lead to the astonishing pronouncement that there were in truth no authors, but only literary works (for example, Osip Brik, in ‘The so-called formal method’ (1923): ‘Opojaz proposes that there are no poets or literary figures, there is poetry and literature.’ He claimed rather provocatively that Eugene Onegin would have been written even if Pushkin had never existed, just as America would have been discovered without Columbus.). To be able to make a science of literary scrutiny, it was for them essential to mount a two-pronged attack: to demolish, in one stroke, the Romantic notion of the author as a vessel of divine inspiration and the utterly spurious, if deeply ingrained, distinction between form and content. Now the author was no longer either a visionary or a genius, but merely an artisan who arranged and rearranged material available at his or her disposal. The author’s job was to know about literature, the history of literature, the knowledge and skill in handling devices that made a work literary, and what he or she knew of life or reality was quite irrelevant.[4]

Shklovsky1 PSViktor Shklovsky

But psychology, biography, and the historic situation cannot be subtracted so easily from a given work; they are the very factors which make the rearrangement of material striking and novel in each case. For although a man’s life does not explain his work, the two are nevertheless connected. The truth, says Merleau-Ponty in his essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, is that ‘this work to be done called for this life’. It is therefore impossible to separate creative liberty from the peculiar incidents that shape an artistic life:

If I am a certain project from birth, the given and the created are indistinguishable in me, and it is therefore impossible to name a single gesture which is merely hereditary or innate, a single gesture which is not spontaneous — but also impossible to name a single gesture which is absolutely new in regard to that way of being in the world which, from the very beginning, is myself. There is no difference between saying that our life is completely constructed and that it is completely given. If there is a true liberty, it can only come about in the course of our life by our going beyond our original situation and yet not ceasing to be the same…. In every life, one’s birth and one’s past define categories or basic dimensions which do not impose any particular act but which can be found in all…. Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that — if we know how to interpret it — we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work…. We never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.[5]

Then again, the muse was not the invention of the Romantics alone; she visited Homer and Virgil, too, was already Dante’s Beatrice, was the nature-song of the Tang poets in Classical China, touched Rilke in dreams. She is always there because she is not a phantasm, but only the mind’s effort to reify the wonder it feels, in creative, palpable moments, at its own ability to rearrange the lava flow of sensory data toward imaginative and artistic ends. Or perhaps she is but a place of negativity, not belonging to either the mind or language, for, as Giorgio Agamben tells us, ‘muse was the name the Greeks gave to the experience of the ungraspability of the originary place of the poetic word.’[6]


What makes a work defamiliar, that is to say literary or artistic, beyond the play of devices, then, is a certain ‘poeticity’ as Roman Jakobson called it. This poeticity, per Jakobson, was like oil in cooking; it cannot be consumed of its own, but when used as an ingredient in cooking other foods, it changes their taste completely.

In Sanskrit literature, in Indian classical music and other art forms, too, there appears a notion quite similar to Jakobson’s — that of the rasas. Quite literally, rasa means ‘juice’ or ‘nectar’, but what is really hinted at is that quality of a given work which evokes a particular mood in its reader or audience. In other words, it is the poeticity that lends a work its especial charm or atmosphere, and makes it unlike anything else one has experienced, foreign, rare, glittering like a jewel.

It is, then, the atmosphere of a literary work that makes its language feel foreign, unfamiliar, distant. This is the reason behind Proust’s paradoxical assertion. We could, of course, find another resolution, a Bakhtinian resolution, to this Proustian oddity, whereby it is a word’s internal dialogism, separate from its ability to form a concept of its object, that has the power to shape style: ‘The prose artist elevates the social heteroglossia surrounding objects into an image that has finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones; he creates artistically calculated nuances on all the fundamental voices and tones of this heteroglossia’.[7] And so the greater the artistic nuances on the fundamental social tones of a language, the more foreign or unfamiliar will be the prose they generate.

Similar, too, is the belief of the Spanish writer Javier Marías, who once observed in an interview that what counts the most in a novel — and what we remember the most — is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours or a few days. The prime aspect of a novel, said Marías, is its setting, which of itself is a secondary issue.[8]

javier-mariasJavier Marías

Roman Ingarden is in agreement. In any literary work, he writes, there are metaphysical qualities or ‘essences’ which can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but instead are revealed, in complex or disparate situations or events, as the overall atmosphere which penetrates and illumines everything with its light. An essential function, then, of objective situations in a literary work is the manifestation of such metaphysical qualities. Such manifestation, however, does not arise purely from objects or situations, but emerges from the structure of the work, from its organic unity. Metaphysical qualities are merely held in readiness — they are not manifested in the work, but rather in its concretization through the act of reading.[9]

Essences, poeticity, atmosphere. These qualities are difficult to segregate in practice since, as Ingarden states, they can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but emerge from the structure of the work and the act of reading. And so any reader of, say, Wuthering Heights or The Trial is aware of the presence of these qualities, without necessarily being able to draw a tally of all the places in the text where they are made manifest. In Joseph Roth’s late work The Emperor’s Tomb, for instance, the inconsistencies and compositional flaws are redeemed by these very essences that Ingarden speaks of, by the muted melancholy and nostalgia of the novel’s atmosphere.

The Australian writer Beverley Farmer, for example, expertly mixes formal and metaphysical qualities in her palimpsestic work A Body of Water. Early in the book she gives a description of a cove near her house, a description which, because it is so truly phenomenological, creates an effect of both enstrangement and existential depth:

My first summer in this place. So hot and still a day, and I spent it on the sand, the cliff-shadow advancing over me, and now and then went to lie in one of the channels between the pale rocks and was washed cold…. Sometimes at twilight the water in the pools east of the pier went dark with a grey-brown glint, a half-light inside it; and at the same time the rocks at the rim were grey and water-blue. Until it was too dark to see, water was rock and rock water….  Sandstone is honeycomb in this still afternoon sun, pitted with swallows’ nests. All this beach is the same colour — sand, rock and rock pool. The small mouse-shrieks of swallows skim and soar. The wave-shaped, whale-shaped headland is dark in the spray of the western sky…. My footprints flatten the crisp arrowheads left by gulls. At the high tide mark, along the hairline of the marram grass, clumps of feathers, all hollowed out, clench empty beaks and claws.[10]


The emphasis on essences, poeticity, atmosphere in the discourse surrounding literary works is a direct result of the fusion of form and content. Every form produces its own idea, its own vision of the world, observed Octavio Paz. ‘Form has meaning, and in the realm of art only form possesses meaning; content stems from form, and not otherwise.’[11] Tzvetan Todorov, while using an essentially Structuralist vocabulary, makes the same point: ‘Every work possesses a structure, which is the articulation of elements derived from the different categories of literary discourse; and this structure is at the same time the locus of the meaning’.[12]

Writing near the later stages of the Russian Formalist and Modernist revolutions in literature, E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, first published in 1927, while still lingering over concepts like ‘story’, ‘plot’, ‘flat and round characters’ into which modernist works had bored deep holes, acknowledged that in moving from ‘story’ to ‘plot’, the novel acquired a complexity favourable to the creation of ‘value’.[13] Now this ‘value’ cannot be found in plain narrative, but can only arise from the whole complex structure and is dependent on what Forster refers to as ‘pattern and rhythm’.[14] The novel has to be an aesthetic object and ‘rhythm’ helps toward this end. Rhythm cannot be imposed from outside and is not available to writers who plan their books beforehand. It must grow with and inside the narrative. Forster ultimately explains its effects as being analogous to those of music. In the triumph of plot over story, in the musical effects of pattern and rhythm creating value in the novel, we see again the Formalist preoccupation with literary devices, Jakobson’s poeticity, Ingarden’s metaphysical qualities. Julio Cortázar in his novel Hopscotch sums it up beautifully:

Why am I writing this? I have no clear ideas, I do not even have ideas. There are tugs, impulses, blocks, and everything is looking for a form, then rhythm comes into play and I write within that rhythm, I write by it, moved by it and not by that thing they call thought and which turns out prose, literature, or what have you. First there is a confused situation, which can only be defined by words; I start out from this half-shadow and if what I mean (if what is meant) has sufficient strength, the swing begins at once, a rhythmic swaying that draws me to the surface, lights everything up, conjugates this confused material and the one who suffers it into a clear third somehow fateful level: sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, book. This swaying, this swing in which confused material goes about taking shape, is for me the only certainty of its necessity, because no sooner does it stop than I understand that I no longer have anything to say. And it is also the only reward for my work: to feel that what I have written is like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence. In that way by writing I go down into the volcano, I approach the Mothers, I connect with the Center — whatever it may be. Writing is sketching my mandala and at the same time going through it, inventing purification by purifying one’s self; the task of a poor white shaman in nylon socks.[15]

Julio CortázarJulio Cortázar, via Wikimedia Commons

As I have stated elsewhere, Cortázar is hinting at several things here. Among them is the foregrounding of rhythm, form, devices over story or characters. It is rhythm that structures a book, page by page, sentence upon sentence, and not the desire to mimic ‘reality’ or relate a tale that comes to the writer altogether whole from the very start; it is rhythm, too, that word by word creates the story from barely noticeable mental or physical impulses and ideas, and that leaves behind writing which is ‘like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence’. Yet another is the notion of writing as a purifying rite, not dissimilar to Shklovsky’s comment above: ‘the perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity’.

Cortázar tells us that the search for form enables rhythm to come into play, and that he writes from within this rhythm. For the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, this fact alone would be enough to classify Cortázar as a true modern writer, distinguished from those he refers to as late modernists and postmodernists, because, for Jameson, form, in the case of modernist writers, is never given in advance but is generated experimentally in the encounter, leading to formations that could never have been predicted, unlike the late modernists and their successors, to whom the structure of the form was known in advance (since the likes of Cortázar, Proust, and Joyce had already discovered it for them) and to which the ‘raw empiricities of content’ could then be made to submit.[16] Jameson arrives at this observation at the end of a long and nuanced thesis, which is well beyond our scope to explore here, but even assuming that the break modernism signified with an earlier world was anywhere as paradigmatic and total as Jameson would have us believe, I am unsure if it could be applied so readily and consistently to all writers working in the latter period. For barring the more superficial cases, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether form and content arise together or separately in any given work. Indeed, in the more formidable works, they must out of creative necessity arise in unison.

When content fades into form, the fictional reality becomes fluid and dynamic; it is not something given, hard and raw, that a writer need merely ornament and make palatable with his or her craft. Any moral or social purpose, indeed the characters and their story, gives way to the process itself. A book like Forster’s discussing ‘flat and round characters’ would be inconceivable today, simply because, as Todorov states, novels do not imitate reality but create it:

Although we no longer refer to literature in terms of imitation, we still have trouble getting rid of a certain way of looking at fiction; inscribed in our speech habits, it is a vision through which we perceive the novel in terms of representation, or the transposition of a reality that exists prior to it. This attitude would be problematic even if it did not attempt to describe the creative process. When it refers to the text itself, it is sheer distortion. What exists first and foremost is the text itself, and nothing but the text. Only by subjecting the text to a particular type of reading do we construct, from our reading, an imaginary universe. Novels do not imitate reality; they create it…. [Similarly,] the fictional character is a segment of the spatio-temporal universe represented in the text, nothing more; he/she comes into existence the moment referential linguistic forms (proper names, certain nominal syntagms, personal pronouns) appear in a text regarding an anthropomorphic being. In and of itself the fictional character has no content…. But, as soon as psychological determinism appears in the text, the fictional character becomes endowed with character: he acts in a certain way, because he is shy, weak, courageous, etc.…. Character, then, can be an effect of reading; there exists a kind of reading to which every text can be subjected. But in fact, the effect is not arbitrary; it is no accident that character exists in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel and not in Greek tragedy or the folktale. A text always contains within itself directions for its own consumption.[17]

It is not a coincidence, then, that as content fades into form, and the fictional reality becomes fluid, the novel sheds its old skin, loses some of its neatness or artefact-ness (although this is not to deny the uniqueness of the fictional world, which is dependent on the uniqueness of the artistic consciousness); its personages abandon their literary rigidity, begin to distrust their own qualities to become, surprisingly, not less but more human and lifelike, as in the case of Robert Musil’s hero Ulrich, in the cunningly titled great modernist work, The Man Without Qualities.

This is the great heritage of modernism. Characters are not described to make them ‘round’ or believable, but to make them contextual in the larger narrative of the work. (Did not Chekhov himself believe that human character is essentially flat, and it is life instead that is complex?) Writing is an attempt to understand one’s position in the world, to find a relevance for one’s past, one’s memories in the forever-becoming present and an impersonal, abstract (or absurd) future. Most modern-day writers emphasize the structure of the work and the unity of its various parts that respond to an internal necessity rather than outward reality. Very often, a writer’s choice of a subject, together with the style and perspective he or she employs to express this subject, is enough to show where his or her affinities lie. And choosing an aesthetic itself amounts to a moral act, for, as Georg Lukács puts it, ‘the ethical intention in the case of the novel is an effective structural element of the work itself.’[18]

As the artistic vision turns more personal, it withdraws from the common ideas of social and moral exchange and the general categories we ascribe to reality, and the more singular it becomes, the closer it comes to defining reality in a clear, specific manner, away from the shared perception of the mass. The creative process in its coming into being and becoming is deeply personal, and needs the gift from the otherworldly, the aesthetic thrust that creates in the receiver a feeling of transcendence. The emotion it produces is a little outside words, even though emanating from them, like laughter. In such cases, the fictive world makes no effort to mimic the ‘real’, but engenders an entirely new, unfamiliar version, in the process defeating it.

But this defeat, or as Lukács calls it, self-destruction of reality, is of an entirely intellectual nature and is not immediately evident in a poetic or sensuous way. Genuine interiority, he writes, turns ideas of life into ideals, and the inability of the outside world, which is a stranger to ideals and enemy of interiority, to achieve an appearance of completeness within the novel can only be overcome when it becomes the focus of the artist’s mood or reflection.[19]

Hugo von HofmannsthalHugo von Hoffmannsthal

Fredric Jameson, on the other hand, has argued that this ‘enstrangement’ and obsession with form that makes the artefact preferable to reality is the result of late capitalism turning modernism into ideology and the crowning of aesthetic autonomy over life and experience in the midst of humanity, that is to say, history,[20] but in truth the twin notion that a book is a vision of the world and at the same time a thing added to the world is perhaps at least as old as the printing press. Don Quixote, for example, would not exist in the absence of this crucial theme. Much later than Cervantes but also much before the beginnings of modernism, in a fictional fragment, The Rose and The Desk, Hugo von Hofmannsthal could write:

I know that flowers don’t fall by themselves out of open windows. Especially not at night. But that’s neither here nor there. Briefly, the red rose was suddenly lying on the white snow of the street in front of my black patent-leather shoes. It was very dark, like velvet, still slim, not yet opened, and entirely without scent in the cold. I took it home with me, put it in a tiny Japanese vase on my desk and went to sleep. A short while later I was wide awake. There was a faint glow in the room, not from the moon but from starlight. I felt the scent of the heated rose wafting toward me as I breathed, and I heard a low voice. It was the porcelain rose of the old Vienna inkstand, which had something to say. “He has absolutely no feeling for style anymore,” it said, “no taste at all.” It meant me. “Otherwise he couldn’t possibly have put such a thing next to me.” It meant the living rose.[21]

—Aashish Kaul


Aashish Kaul completed his doctoral studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) and The Queen’s Play (2015).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Ann Jefferson and David Robey, eds. Modern Literary Theory – A Comparative Introduction. London: Batsford, 1986. p 27.
  2. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. trans. B Sher. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991. pp. 4-6.
  3. Samuel Beckett, Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1957. p. 8.
  4. Jefferson and Robey, pp. 31-34.
  5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Basic Writings. ed. T Baldwin. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. pp. 284-89. See also, Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. trans. R Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975. pp. 151-53.
  6. Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. trans. K Pinkus and M Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. p. 78.
  7. MM Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. trans. C Emerson and M Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. pp. 278-79, see also, pp. 298-99.
  8. Javier Marías, ‘Eight Questions for Javier Marías’, Voyage Along the Horizon. trans. K Cordero. San Francisco: Believer Books, 2006. pp. 175-82.
  9. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art. trans. G Grabowicz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973. pp. 290-96.
  10. Beverley Farmer, A Body of Water. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. pp. 4-6.
  11. Octavio Paz, Alternating Currents. trans. H Lane. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990. p. 6.
  12. Todorov, 1975, p. 141.
  13. E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London: Penguin, 2005. pp. xiv, 86-87.
  14. Forster, pp. xv, 134-50.
  15. Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch. trans. G Rabassa. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. p. 402.
  16. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity. London: Verso, 2012. p. 208.
  17. Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Reading as Construction’ in Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, eds. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. pp. 259, 266-67. See also, Todorov, 1975, pp. 54, 93-95.
  18. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. trans. A Bostock. London: Merlin Press, 1971. p. 72.
  19. Lukács, p. 79.
  20. Jameson, pp. 176-79.
  21. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings. trans. J Rotenberg. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005. p. 49.
Dec 022015
DFW credit Flickr Steve Rhodes Salon

David Foster Wallace. Credit Flickr/Steve Rhodes via Salon.com

A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify. —Bruce Stone

DFW cover


End of Tour1

Still from James Ponsoldt’s DFW biopic The End of the Tour

Only the most militant fans of David Foster Wallace will find anything objectionable in The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt’s eulogy for the writer, who died, at 46, in 2008.[1] The biographical film has an indie ethos and an all-business cast, though its provenance still begs a double-take. The screenplay is adapted from a 2010 book by David Lipsky, which is itself a reboot of Lipsky’s five-days-long, but never published interview with DFW, this conducted in the far-right margin of the publicity tour for Infinite Jest. So the product that arrived at summer theaters was practically rippled with layers of pre-packaging and spin, but Ponsoldt, for better or worse, just relegates all such abstraction to the dialogue and otherwise keeps his telling as grounded as possible. The loveable schlub Jason Segel plays Wallace, while Jesse Eisenberg does his minimal-affect routine as Lipsky, and Joan Cusack has a bit part as a cartoon Minnesotan. The typecasting alone reflects an earthbound sensibility, so it seems only natural that the film’s real star should be the Midwestern landscape. For tax reasons, western Michigan stands in for Wallace’s central Illinois, and its sprawling flat-earth vistas of thin crusty snow and distant copses dazzle in their sheer ordinariness. Amid those harshly beautiful winter fields, beside a county road that’s dutifully plowed but little traveled, sits Wallace’s house, a long low ranch with cheap-wood finishes and shit-stained carpets (the homeowner keeps two large black dogs), looking improbable and improvised against the elements.[2] Basically, The End of the Tour is a well-intended mash-up of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, mostly harmless.

By my count, Tour contains just two powerful moments, both of which model in a kind of cinematic negative space the daunting edifice of Wallace’s work. Late in the movie, there’s a shot of Wallace’s cave-dark study, where Lipsky takes a rapid and belated inventory, gathering material for his piece. Threads of nuclear sunlight line the apertures in the room’s heavy-gauge curtains, and the stage is set for a blinding dissolve. Even if Plato’s allegory is the furthest thing from your mind, the sequence reads as an eloquent pantomime of Wallace’s achievement.

The second scene is more indicative of the film’s handling, its careful avoidance, of the work it memorializes. When Lipsky first arrives, Wallace invites him to bunk at the house in a “sort of guest room” space. The room in question is furnished with a futon and an assortment of load-bearing flat surfaces on which Wallace’s many books are arrayed in tall and pristine, as if machine-made, towers, the hulking Infinite Jest conspicuous among them. As neither man comments on the absurdity of the decor, the scene comes off as a sight gag, underlining Lipsky’s physical discomfort and competitive rancor. He beds down for the night with Wallace literally towering over him. But something more disquieting rumbles beneath the surface, as if the film has stepped roughshod on a live nerve. The sheer number of museum copies speaks volumes about Wallace’s chilling solitude (he can’t give this stuff away!). Even worse, those vertically stacked bricks of type-written pages suggest something redundant and wasteful and ultimately futile at the end of the labor of writing itself (he can’t give this stuff away!). The printed book never seems more paltry, less adequate to the teeming world it contains, less consistent with the miseries of its creation, than when it’s replicated in mass quantities and warehoused for distribution, smilingly absorbed by the consumer-capitalist system. This is why chain bookstores and Amazon and the little shelf-lined back rooms of publishers’ publicity offices give me the howling fantods (to borrow Avril Incandenza’s phrase).


And this is how the film treats Wallace’s work—it’s part of the furniture, atmospheric rather than elemental. Presented with a chance to show Wallace at the lectern, reading from IJ at a Minneapolis bookstore, the camera averts its eye, opting instead to focus on Lipsky, in the wings, quietly eating his heart out. The film’s narrative loyalties lie with Lipsky’s book, not Wallace’s opus, so it strains to contrive a story arc from the shifting relations, a kind of sibling rivalry, between the writers. These tensions feel manufactured, thin and underwhelming, and there’s something prefabricated or too-convenient in the script’s frame-tale design, the whole interview episode recounted as a flashback after Lipsky learns of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. But the film is earnest and sincere—a level-best effort all around—and if it’s a little flat-footed and embarrassing, it’s embarrassing in the way a mother can be embarrassing when she brags about you in public.[3] The End of the Tour has nothing urgent or revelatory to say about Wallace or his work, and this silence, admittedly, makes it hard to distinguish between pious hagiography and the mercenary selling of graven images. Even so, viewers should brace for impact when a simulacrum of the man first emerges from his Illinois abode to greet Lipsky in the iced-over driveway. The moment has some of the charge of a Christ drolly exiting a crypt, or a dead relative blinking at you non-confrontationally from a photograph. The sight triggered, for me anyway, a wave of grief, long overdue.[4]


Into the House that Jack Built

What forestalls any and all hand-wringing over the film’s portrait of the writer is how inconsequential it feels when placed alongside Wallace’s own work, by which I mean mainly, perhaps exclusively, his Infinite Jest—the novel whose sonic boom, even without the artificial stimulus of Tour, we’re still hearing the echo of. Maybe my perspective is a little skewed: I read IJ for the first time in June, two decades too late (my epitaph, I fear) for Wallace’s proper coronation, but right on time for Ponsoldt’s film.[5] Call it kismet.

A quick tour of the web reveals how commonplace, even sadly clichéd, it has become to expound, however tardily, on one’s own personal reading of Infinite Jest. Booster-club testimonials, generous vocabulary dumps, anachronistic reviews, the incremental records of reading-group listservs, why-not-to-read-it spoofs as well as why-to-read-it genuflections: these things are everywhere in cyberspace, constituting in aggregate a kind of DIY sub-genre of literary criticism, DFW & I.[6] Amid the bylines and chatter some distinguished names surface: in 2009 Aaron Schwartz, the digital whiz-kid who ran afoul of the web’s download restrictions, immersed himself unabashedly in the novel’s brain-teasing puzzles, while the Canadian fantasist R. Scott Bakker contributed an elaborate takedown to the archive in 2011. The novel continues to attract casual potshots, as well: Harold Bloom, via Women’s Wear Weekly (no joke), and Bret Easton Ellis, via Twitter, have both lobbed vitriol at Wallace and his readers.[7] Ponsoldt’s film is just part of the vapor trail, in his high-overhead medium, from the novel’s transit. So grant the film safe passage as it lumbers affably from summer cinemas toward DVD-rental outlets everywhere. Meanwhile, the monolith itself, IJ, still beckons, rife with controversy, thick with conundrums, prolix and aloof, meditative and smart and hilarious and searing. If you have to this point, as I did, given wide berth to the beast—if you suspect a lame Pied-Piper fandom in the cult of Wallace—I encourage you strongly to test your scruples against the book itself. With the possible exceptions of heartfelt parenting and excellent sex, nothing is more deserving of your time and attention than Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

This is not to say that the novel is perfect, as in, uniformly without flaw or defect. The givens of the textual world alone range from peculiar to zany: a family saga that conflates Hamlet and The Brothers Karamazov on the grounds of a tennis academy? A North-American map that has been cheekily revised? Calendar years auctioned for naming rights like NCAA bowl games? An army of wheelchair-bound French-Canadians who squeak across the landscape, seeking a doomsday device—in this case, a lethally entertaining videodisc? Most of the novel’s imaginative excesses are entirely palatable, the satire spot-on. But I have to draw the line at, or enclose in squiggly brackets, elements like the Vaught twins, who make a killer doubles team at Enfield Tennis Academy, despite (or because of) being conjoined at the head. Likewise, a few high-drama scenes—an after-hours tryst in the headmistress’ office, a torturous interrogation with some complicated staging, an Inner Infants support group meeting—are insipidly farcical. And the lush filmography of JO Incandenza, one of the book’s ballooning endnotes, is a marvel of erudition, with a number of fine Easter eggs glinting in the bushes; these many films, besides, haunt the whole length and breadth of the big novel, yet I can’t help but imagine their titles voiced by The Simpsons’ Troy McClure: Blood Nun: One Tough Sister, Dial C for Concupiscence, The Night Wears a Sombrero.[8] Note the exclamation point in Accomplice!

Of course, when visiting a grand cathedral, you can stand outside and count the gargoyles or you can head inside to hear the choir. In the case of IJ, bloopers notwithstanding, every page bears the impress of an obvious and undeniable genius. The book is a cacophonic compendium of millennial voices, and Wallace manages to coax something beautiful from each one. He can lampoon the pretensions of the most esoterically high-brow discourse[9]; render the slovenly charms of a smart teenager’s private language (including mathematical geek-outs); lovingly detail the screwy articles, botched possessives, and fouled-up idioms of non-native speakers; and cull a muted poetry from the workaday lexicons of felicidal pimps, reformed burglars, flummoxed psychiatrists, rotten fathers, and transvestite prostitutes. Wallace has an awful lot of fun with catachresis in the book. He does an unforgettable Irish brogue and captures the weirdly crestfallen ecstasy of an overdose in progress, all metastasizing syntax and achingly fine-grained perceptions. More than just reproducing such voices, Wallace textures each with chiaroscuro shadings, catching quirks and nuances, speech tics that slide around fluidly. This virtuoso display is nowhere more evident than in Note 304, a lost-island set piece in which Jim Struck of Enfield Tennis Academy attempts to plagiarize a scholarly work for his term paper in a class he calls “Poutrincourt’s History of Canadian Unpleasantness course thing.” In fact, this endnote encapsulates, in microcosm, the work in all its vastness. Like a slice that gives up the whole loaf, it reveals almost everything you could want to know about the novel: from how to read it or why to bother, to what, if anything, the book has to say to its patient and intrepid auditors.


The Endnote

In this sub-basement of a chapter, Wallace simulates not just the puff-cheeked oratory of “US academese,” but the off-the-leash, cognitively impaired rhetoric of a narcotized scholar, this one expatiating on Canadian terrorist cults, the initiation rite of the Wheelchair Assassins in particular. For purely ornamental reasons, the scholar also ties in a mention of the feral infants—a byproduct of toxic waste dumping in a geographic region ceded by the US, with love, to Canada—who otherwise writhe and roil offstage, part of the novel’s emblematic marginalia. Here’s a sample of the scholar’s vocal signature: “Almost as little of irreproachable scholarly definitiveness is known about the infamous Separatist ‘Wheelchair Assassins’ … of southwestern Quebec as is accepted as axiomatic about the herds of oversized ‘Feral Infants’ allegedly reputed to inhabit the periodically overinhabitable forested sections of the eastern Reconfiguration.” For long stretches, the Endnote compiles verbatim citations of this impeccable balderdash, yet the mood of grotesque parody never quite extinguishes a stubborn, oddly poignant verisimilitude.

Intermixed with such passages is the sulky and slang-riddled rambling idiom of the plagiarist, who supplies a running commentary on the article, with the occasional sarcastic flourish:

the hardest work for Struck here is going to be sanitizing the prose in this Wild Conceits guy’s thing, or at least bringing the verbs and modifiers down out of the like total ozone, which the Academese here on the whole sounds to Struck like the kind of foam-flecked megalograndiosity he associates with Quaaludes and red wine and then the odd Preludin to pull out of the grandiose nosedive of the Quaaludes and red wine.

The violence of the code-switching might cause whiplash, but it feels almost seamless because Struck himself is so hilariously preoccupied by the scholar’s whacked-out style: “Struck at certain points imagines himself gathering this Wild Conceits guy’s lapels together with one hand and savagely and repeatedly slapping him with the other—forehand, backhand, forehand.” Carrying the sequence to its logical conclusion, Wallace carves still more layers in the vocal palimpsest when he offers glimpses of the plagiarized paper itself, a kind of hybrid voice, Struck’s redaction of the article. After a paragraph from the scholar, outlining the cult’s test of an aspirant’s mettle—a game of Kierkegaardian “Chicken” with a moving train—we read, “Struck transposes clearly nonadolescent uptown material like this into: ‘The variable of the game isn’t so much a matter of the train, but the player’s courage and will.’” And though Struck is an unusually blinkered plagiarist, Wallace grants him enough perspicacity to imagine his teacher’s marginal comments on the resultant paper (“a big red triple-underlined QUOI?” beside a manic transition) and to observe the Doppler shift in Day’s article, as it crossfades from scholarly exposition into full-blown confabulated narrative.

Wallace is clearly a masterful ventriloquist, yet the sheer number of voices in the novel’s discursive field lays it open to charges of logorrhea, as if the book were kaleidoscopic but not cohesive. The terrible truth about IJ, however, is that, at 1079 pages, it isn’t digressive at all. Wallace’s inexhaustible verbal repertoire is matched by an exacting architectural vision. In an interview, Wallace claimed that his book models the fractal form of a Sierpinski gasket,[10] but the novel supplies an equally apt metaphor by which to grok its artful structure: that is, the book itself poses as an InterLace Entertainment. InterLace is the name of the telecom company founded by Noreen Lace-Forché, the “Killer-App Queen” who supplanted the titans of network television with her outfit’s NetFlix business model, and the company’s moniker feels like a hard nudge[11] from Wallace to mind the myriad interlacements in the novel’s pages. The raucous polyphony bends toward euphony, after all.

Like a thumbnail enlargement in an art book, Note 304 offers a manageable arena in which to observe the design ingenuity. Most obviously, this endnote identifies the author of the Wild Conceits article as one G. T. (Geoffrey) Day, a character who, a hundred-odd pages after we read the note, will turn up casually among the cast at the Ennet House for recovering addicts. The book doesn’t make this connection explicit for readers; Wallace asks us to splice the wires, to notice the subtle and surprising intersections of the characters’ lives.[12]

The Endnote also makes abundantly clear something that most readers could glean from the main text’s plot: that the predicament of the Wheelchair Assassins is analogous to the plight of the ETA tennis team. Struck reads of the elimination-tournament structure of the Separatists’ train-dodging, just as, later, the novel’s readers will encounter an apposite description of tournament protocols when ETA faces Port Washington. To double-underscore in neon the thematic kinship here, the Note offers this appraisal of the cult’s rite of passage: the train-dodging ritual is “intimately bound up with ‘Les jeux pour-memes,’ formal competitive games whose end is less any sort of ‘prize’ than it is a manner of basic identity: i.e., that is, ‘game’ as metaphysical environment and psychohistorical locus and gestalt.” This disclosure boomerangs and dovetails with the coaching philosophy of Gerhard Schtitt at ETA: unburdening himself to an acolyte, Schtitt explains that in competitive tennis “the true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself…. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe…. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” Schtitt’s theorizing might sound like self-discovery; that it entails self-annihilation becomes clear as the players court an extreme inhuman stoicism in order to excel. In fact, all of the characters in the book’s three major plot threads share a common struggle: to escape the cage of the narcissistic I, “transcend the self through pain,” whether it be a hard-core, self-abnegating patriotism, the will-suppressing protocols of tennis practice, or the reason-defying bromides of Alcoholics Anonymous. The novel’s thematic unity couldn’t possibly be tighter.

But these are only the most glaring examples of IJ’s structural integrity. To get a glimpse of the subtlety and pervasiveness of the book’s imbrication, consider another putative digression from Day’s article. Toward the end of the Note, Day turns his attentions to a different Separatist group, the Cult of the Infinite Kiss. This faction’s initiation rite involves the lip-to-lip conjoinment of heterosexual faces, which faces then respire alternately a single lungful of breath until the participants pass out from oxygen deprivation. Day’s exposition includes some pointed commentary on the differences between the two terrorist cells, but it also functions as a hyperlink, reminding readers of Orin Incandenza’s nightmare concerning his mother: her disembodied head is bound by tennis string to his own horrified face. Similarly, the crux of the other ritual, that leap in front of a barreling locomotive, reverberates when Don Gately, the novel’s square-headed hero, sports with a Green-line train while at the wheel of a borrowed muscle car. And Struck’s own ineptitude vis-à-vis the French language recalls the incomprehension of the monolingual terrorist Lucien Antitois (broker of “blown-glass notions” and gray-market entertainments) during a pivotal Francophone interrogation.[13] IJ is that kind of book: a massive honeycomb of images and motifs, characters and themes, the whole swarming with so much life that the infrastructure stays mostly concealed. That the novel is, in this way, almost infinitely expandable, is not to say that it’s compositionally loose or entropic.[14]


Of Figurants and Revenants

For some readers, this peek into IJ’s motherboard might feel anticlimactic, as if its internal circuitry were just a tangle of arbitrarily crisscrossed filaments—as if, despite the endless verbiage, the book had nothing whatsoever to say. As it happens, this crisis of communication—in which words are mere forms, empty of substance—lies at the very core of the novel (both the species and genera). This is the problem of Hal Incandenza, youngest dynastic son, closeted pothead and on-court rising star at ETA. Hal has a gift for language; he’s read the OED and committed most of it to memory. His term papers testify to his high-order brilliance. Yet, he seems incapable of experiencing, much less conveying, authentic human emotions, even on the intimate subject of his father’s suicide. Per the novel’s blunt diagnosis, Hal shapes fine words, but in a figurative sense emits no sound.

Far from being an anomaly in IJ, Hal’s case is typical, even archetypal, as numerous characters observe this existential gag-rule by force, choice, or mere disposition. Among the more lighthearted examples is Jim Struck’s plagiarism,[15] but for all its goofball comedy, Note 304 also shows how this node of the book goes meta-, constituting an inquest into the nature of writing and reading. Immobilized before his computer (except for “grinding his eye” and picking at his acne), literally engaged in the work of reading qua writing, the plagiarist mouths words parasitically, like an intellectual zombie or prep-school golem for Day’s ideas. The only volitional substance attributable to Struck himself are acts of camouflage, as he converts Day’s prose into “less-long self-contained sentences that sound more earnest and pubescent, like somebody earnestly struggling toward truth instead of flecking your forehead with spittle as he ranted grandiosely.” Struck’s enterprise is pure cynicism: plenty of words, but no sound. Like Hal, Struck has become a figurant.

The novel defines a figurant as a peripheral actor with zero speaking lines in a sitcom (like the anonymous bar patrons in the heavily scripted Cheers!), a visible part of the scenery but existentially muzzled. Against this class of tragic characters, IJ poses another, which would appear to be the figurant’s antithesis: the committed speakers at AA meetings. Such speakers aim to embody total honesty, to tell the truth about their addiction experience, however ugly the truth may be. The listeners, for their part, strive for Identification, a mode of ideal hearing that erases the slash in the classic self/other dichotomy. The book is explicit on this point: “Identify means empathize. Identifying … isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own.” As a strategy for responding to narratives, identification has garnered some well-deserved abuse over the years; all too easily, identification reverts to simple narcissism in which the reader’s self-interest and prerogative are the ultimate determinants of a story’s value.[16] Wallace has in mind something less obnoxious, a more sincere merger of selves or communion of souls which appears to be lifted straight out of Tolstoy.

In his ingenuously titled treatise “What Is Art?” Tolstoy rejects the notion that literature exists for the reader’s pleasure. Instead, a true work of art, for Tolstoy, occasions the very Identification that IJ exalts:

the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone elseʹs — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Wallace’s novel sometimes reads as a hard-line dramatization of Tolstoy’s ideas. All forms of pleasure are suspect in IJ, symptoms of a self-destructive addiction, the antithesis of purifying pain. But when the novel portrays individual acts of listening/reading, the proselytizing feels humble and low-key, not at all doctrinaire. See the description of Lyle, the unofficial staff guru at ETA: “Like all good listeners, he has a way of attending that is at once intense and assuasive: the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment. It’s like he’s working as hard as you. You both of you, briefly, feel unalone.” The pitch of the advocacy rarely runs hotter than this.

But IJ ultimately breaks ranks with Tolstoy, and its portrayal of literature, reading, and writing (all sides of the same equilateral triangle) turns increasingly ambivalent. To see how, we have to consider another character type in the book: the wraith (yes, wraith). Like Hamlet, IJ has a few ghosts traipsing around the castle, and these wraiths hybridize the traits of speakers and figurants, a reconciliation of opposites with dire implications. A wraith, we learn, “had no out-loud voice of its own [figurant], and had to use somebody’s like internal-brain voice if it wanted to try to communicate something [speaker].” Another stipulation vis-à-vis wraith ontology: because wraiths inhabit “a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage,” they must “stay stock still in one place” for vast amounts of time in order to interface with the living.

In both regards, this vision of the afterlife makes the wraith sound a lot like an author figure: the wraith’s telepathic mode of communication (and otherworldly stillness) unmistakably connotes the act of writing. Tolstoy’s manifesto already describes literature as an occasion for mind-melding, but Georges Poulet, in “The Phenomenology of Reading,” captures the truly haunting nature of the experience. Poulet observes that reading is always an assault on consciousness: it “is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me.” The book behaves like a software application installed and running on the hard drive of the reader’s mind, temporarily displacing the self. The experience, for Poulet, ultimately verges on spirit possession—he refers to reading as “this possession of myself by another”—but the wraith that Poulet summons isn’t the book’s author: it’s the book itself. Poulet writes, “so long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, […] a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.” This vision of the book as a portable consciousness that can roam from reader to reader might sound itself like a Wild Conceit; the “self-consciousness of literary texts,” a well-worn phrase, has never been construed so literally. But Poulet’s ideas do help to clarify the author-function of Wallace’s wraiths.[17]

Initially, the wraith incursion in IJ serves to reinforce Tolstoyan aesthetics. As with the book’s other author figures, those gifted AA speakers, colloquy with a wraith makes Identification possible, for both parties now, speaker and listener, author and reader (the roles are reversible in wraith-initiated dialogues). The lone character to consciously converse with a wraith, in a fever dream, later reflects wistfully on the experience: “he has to admit he kind of liked it. The dialogue. The give-and-take. The way the wraith could seem to get inside him. The way he said [the listener’s] best thoughts were really communiques from the patient and Abiding dead.” At such moments, IJ does verge on advocating reading as an antidote to self-destructive narcissism. Even Struck, the most hapless figurant, finds himself attaining Identification, however unwittingly, with the “foam-flecked” disquisition of G. Day. Having diagnosed (accurately) Day’s addiction to narcotics, as he reads yet another head-clutching passage, Struck recalls his own father’s disastrous substance abuse, as if he recognizes his own story there in the style, if not the substance, of Day’s essay. Call it Identification, with an asterisk.[18] Here, too, under the least propitious circumstances, reading provides an occasion for “meeting the self.”

Because reading IJ is an extraordinarily labor-intensive exercise, it would be at least courteous if the book were to recommend the activity, validate the time spent and pains taken. Instead, the book equivocates. The first killjoy irony here is that, in order to hear a speaker or converse with a wraith, the listener/reader must shut down the voice, cancel the self, become essentially a figurant.[19] One group of rapt listeners, as they achieve ideal hearing, must “consciously try to remember even to blink”; in this case, identification is tantamount to petrification, the audience turned to statuary, locked in a state of suspended animation. And even under optimal circumstances, with a communicative wraith aiming for honest self-expression and mutual Identification, the inter-mental communion can feel like “lexical rape,” or so the lone experimentee puts it as the wraith floods his consciousness with unfamiliar, seriously uptown words.

The second irony is less local and more pervasive: namely, if the wraith functions as an author-figure, it also models the plucky reader. When the wraith reveals that it can “move at the speed of quanta and be anywhere anytime and hear in symphonic toto the voices of animate men, but it couldn’t ordinarily affect anybody or anything solid, and it could never speak right to anybody,” it offers a description of the reader’s very experience in turning the pages of IJ. Albeit well short of the speed of quanta and/or choral totality, IJ’s readers do slide unimpeded and unregarded from voice to voice, consciousness to consciousness, likewise powerless to impact the world(s) they survey. Don Gately, in whom the wraith confides, acknowledges the tragic paradox of wraith existence:

Gately lets himself wonder what it would be like, able to quantum off anyplace instantly and stand on ceilings and probably burgle like no burglar’d ever dreamed of, but not able to really affect anything or interface with anybody, having nobody know you’re there, having people’s normal rushed daily lives look like the movements of planets and suns, having to sit patiently very still in one place for a long time even to have some poor addled son of a bitch even be willing to entertain your maybe being there. It’d be real free-seeming, but incredibly lonely, he imagines.

Gately pities, more than envies, the wraith’s condition, because, per his description, it has a lot in common with the abject solitude of a figurant. The solution (writing, mobility, Identification) and the problem (voicelessness, immobility, loneliness) are not antipodes, but mirror images. So much for a straightforward endorsement of literary labor, on either end, production or reception.

To return, then, to the paradigmatic industry of Jim Struck, what the Endnote ultimately does, like the book as a whole, is to pose the question, so who’s really the wraith? Day’s article, wraith-like, has colonized Struck’s consciousness. But thus zombified, undead in a sense,[20] a model figurant, Struck himself adopts the stock-still pose and vocal cooption tactics of a wraith. And Struck’s predicament, buried in a seemingly inconsequential recess of the endnotes, becomes legitimately uncanny insofar as it anticipates our own. IJ doesn’t so much say as do something to readers: it turns us into figurants, which is to say that it also grants us the status of wraiths. And what is true of the reader is, as a corollary, true of the book: IJ, in Poulet’s sense, is a wraith, inhabiting us and extending the potential for Identification, and it is also a figurant, telling us nothing.

Read in this light, IJ might reflect Wallace’s discontent not just with consumer-capitalist addiction, but with a deep vein of aesthetic theory. Once upon a time, around the Baby Boom era, it was fashionable to excavate the paradoxes inherent in literary texts. With essays like “The Language of Paradox” and “The Heresy of Paraphrase” in The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks argued that this structural principle—irony, contradiction, paradox—lies at the heart of all great works of literature.[21] And during the short-lived heyday of New Criticism, disciplined readers sought only to discover the pathways by which literary texts contrive their stony silences.[22]

In his journalistic writing, Wallace has weighed in, derisively, on the work of Brooks & Co.; he recounts, briefly in “Tense Present,” how subsequent waves of theory exposed the New Criticism as hermeneutic flimflam.[23] The essayist Wallace also decries irony as an intellectual pose, and figurant-class, say-nothing literature in particular. In “Fictional Futures,” discussing reportorial hipster fiction of a bygone era, Wallace calls out writers for describing problems without posing solutions, reducing, per Wallace, “interpretation to whining.” His big-picture verdict affirms his faith in revolutionary art: “What troubles me about the fact that Gold-Card-fear-and-trembling fiction just keeps coming is that, if the upheavals in popular, academic and intellectual life have left people with any long-cherished tradition intact, it seems as if it should be an abiding faith that the conscientious, talented, and lucky artist of any age retains the power to effect change.” Similarly, in “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace tilts at irony,[24] imagining the cultural rebellion later dubbed the New Sincerity: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.” All of the Tolstoyan energy in IJ reflects Wallace’s well-documented aversion to intellectual and spiritual nihilism.

But the self-negating turn in Infinite Jest, the turn that converts speakers into figurants, makes both of them wraiths, suggests that Wallace, in his greatest book, could embody but not transcend this artistic crisis. The novel virtually ratifies New Critical principles. What’s a Sierpinski gasket, after all, if not an incredibly well-wrought urn? Readers past and future, of all critical persuasions, figurant filmmakers included, might well balk at this conclusion, which has the dubious distinction of being both revelatory and obvious. But Wallace’s skepticism of art’s hermetic beauty? A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify.

—Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The film’s release caused a minor flap in that the writer’s estate publicly announced its displeasure with the project, but the script deflects charges of foul play by airing Wallace’s anxieties about his celebrity and generally deferring comment on his work. Ponsoldt’s is a smart, bookish film hiding behind an idiot’s grin.

    These endnotes obviously betoken a superficial solidarity with Wallace’s aesthetic. Roll your eyes all you want. Wallace himself learned the gambit from writers like Nabokov and Nicholson Baker, both of whom I prefer to DFW. But practical concerns persuaded me to fall back here: I wanted a nice deep root cellar in which to stash the worst of the spoilsport disclosures vis-à-vis the novel—someplace cool and spacious and dimly lit, with pacifying damp-clay smells and a large number of tappable casks, where the advanced group might repair for bonus tracks and outtakes. Then again, readers worried about spoilers would probably be well-advised to just click the topside X and duck out now.

  2. The house’s street address might read “The center of nothing,” Wheelchair Assassin Rémy Marathe’s garbled translation of “The middle of nowhere” in IJ.
  3. This is my conclusion even though I saw the film under snark-inducing circumstances: a primetime screening at a posh mall-theater on the expectably glammed Westside of Los Angeles. A wine bar next door absorbed some of the early-arrival foot traffic, and still the area around the high-tech ticket kiosks, where you can swipe your card to collect pre-purchases, was crowded with affluent cineastes, awash in secondary sex traits (what with the women in LA prosecuting the sartorial arms-race of a desert climate). The screening chamber itself boasted notably luxurious, boxy faux-leather black recliners, like first-class airline seats that let you kick way back, outfitted with cupholders that could handle those absurdly large theater sodas, naturally. Even if you hadn’t finished IJ just weeks earlier, the signs of egregiously hedonistic spectation would have stood out in bold-face type.

    Factor in now that the screening concluded with a Q&A involving Ponsoldt and Segel. Besides bumping up the general rate of crowd effervescence, the principals’ attendance also explains why greeters met filmgoers at the entrances and pressed upon them a sturdy bubble-sheet survey, with a tiny ballpoint, for the sake of audience feedback. Excepting one question about the draw of this particular film, the survey was all about purchasing behaviors, standard market research. I stood the form upright on the floor until the film’s end. When the lights came back on, Ponsoldt and Segel clambered into director’s chairs on the stage. They fielded deferential questions from a host, plus a few, later, from the audience, and though their handlers stood by at attention, overdressed, in the aisle, and though one young woman who had come solo—blond curls bestrewn in a Renaissance braid, simple sundress in a grayscale print—relocated after the credits rolled, the better to record on her smartphone the celebrities’ breathings, it was impossible to judge or resent anybody. Ponsoldt came off as a sweetly ingratiating fanboy (a little self-satisfied, but who can blame him?); Segel, a dapper mensch (yes, he claimed to have read the novel prior to filming; no, he didn’t understand it all that well; no, no one asked him to do the voice of Vector from Despicable Me). I stayed until the Q&A wrapped.

    I held up the queue as I fumbled around, like a true amateur or a bona fide Martian, with a confirmation-page print-out which the machine just sneered at.

  4. To be honest, the grief was probably as much about me—for me—as about or for Wallace.
  5. In my defense, circa 1996, I was in no condition to read IJ or care much about what the world made of Wallace. A brush with linguistic deconstruction, in grad school, left me more or less incapacitated, unfit for public consumption, much less civic participation, for the better part of two years. My pupils stayed dilated the whole time. The crushing irony, of course, is that I had gone to UW-Madison to study literature.
  6. Some of these exegeses are duly footnoted. Equally unsurprising is that many of them discuss the basic technics of reading: they note the heft of the book (which left a dimple like a check mark near my navel), the time spent per page (depends), the number of accessories required to cope with the acreage between main text and footnotes (I got by with a single pencil and a kind of clawed grip, involving the pinky, on the book’s spine).

    For my own contribution to the genre, I seriously considered writing something first-personal, something between clear-eyed criticism and chronic self-absorption, about the ways in which IJ’s tactics anticipated with surprising regularity my own more daring plays as a fiction writer. Lots of little things, snatches of phrasing (anyone else borrowing the lingo from A Clockwork Orange?), architectural affinities (the tunnels at ETA vs. the tunnels at CU in my not-published novella), etc. Here’s just one substantial example, involving the special kind of unreliable narration in IJ’s first chapters. When Hal Incandenza attempts to speak to the admissions committee at Arizona, though his words, per his report, are calm and lucid, the deans hear only monstrous subhuman noises, accompanied by threatening behavior. The mutual distress is so severe that the deans pin Hal to the floor and have him committed. In my own story “The Advantages of Living,” written circa 2005, the narrator likewise says apparently innocuous things that conceal a more outrageous reality. He gets his ass kicked, twice, deservedly, for his troubles.

    I used this gambit again in “FPS,” clickable here in the magazine’s archives. That story also shares DFW’s appetite for tumbledown phrasing and deliberately tortured syntax (which he got from Pynchon, for anyone keeping score), but “FPS” really bears mention because that story is what propelled me into IJ last summer. Wallace, thinly disguised, has a cameo in “FPS,” his suicide plays a conspicuous role. The treatment might seem a bit glib and unfeeling, but something deadly serious lurks in the subtext, if you care to do a little math. My point being, Wallace and I shared some common acquaintances at Illinois State University—I actually applied, hilarious to me now, for his job when he vacated circa 2002 to take his post at Pomona—and as I was writing the story, his death came to seem less like a historical event and more like a loss in the extended family. This is what drove me, after two neglectful decades, to spend seven weeks or so under the hood of IJ.

    Let’s acknowledge too that Wallace’s last words to Lipsky, in Ponsoldt’s film, were “You wouldn’t want to be me.” It would tie things together nicely if I were to think of the IJ synchronicity phenomenon in those terms, but I don’t. Instead, I was thinking that the strange correspondences between IJ and my meager stuff might make it possible to argue for the existence of a literary zeitgeist: that maybe world literature, if configured along certain traditional lines, contained specific potentialities that amounted to almost a playbook of foregone conclusions for any reasonably ambitious young writer. I had planned to quote TS Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Borges’ “Pierre Menard.” Decided wisely against all of this.

    My theory on Hal’s psychosis is that he’s not at all psychotic. Hal might, by the end of IJ, have experienced a transformation such that he’s no longer an emotionless figurant (see below), but is now for the first time fully human. He could be the poster boy for the kind of sincerity rebel that Wallace imagines at the end of his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” In a world of ubiquitous irony, where everyone is a figurant, such a rebel would have to be perceived as a monster; no one would recognize his utterances as speech because he would be speaking the foreign language of substance. (Notice too how the solution and the problem have identical symptoms.) The book makes this reasonably clear, almost obvious, but you have to splice some widely separated wires.

    Meaning the model that once prevailed in the undergraduate curriculum, in that transition moment between a hegemonic Western canon and all-out Canon Wars. For that matter, it’s not possible to talk adequately about IJ’s precursors without mentioning the filmmaker David Lynch.

  7. Here’s Bloom: “I don’t want to be offensive. But Infinite Jest is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent…. Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace.” And Ellis: “Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the, Literary Doucebag-Fools (sic) Pantheon.”
  8. Whether this ham-handedness is intentional, crucial to the book’s thematics, is a matter of debate. Some argue that such farcical touches show Wallace aping sympathetically the conventions of pulp entertainments. Others contend that such moments deliberately sabotage the reader’s pleasure, so as to distinguish Wallace’s novel from the lethal Entertainment of the same title. Wallace’s book might be the rumored anti-Entertainment, the narrative antidote to the film’s Medusa gaze.
  9. One filmic scholar even channels, pithily, Harold Bloom, specifically his more abstruse excrescences in The Anxiety of Influence: “For while clinamen and tessera strive to revive or revise the dead ancestor, and while kenosis and daemonization act to repress consciousness and memory of the dead ancestor, it is, finally, artistic askesis which represents the contest proper, the battle to the death with the loved dead.” Believe it or not, this bloated corpse of a sentence is more than empty blather: a meta-reflection on IJ’s literary ancestry.
  10. A Sierpinski gasket:


  11. See also the role, in IJ, of annular fusion, a closed-loop mode of power generation and waste disposal. The whole book can be conceived of as an annular, or ring-like, construct.
  12. Not all of which are easily resolved. In his discussion of the train-jousting ritual, Day mentions the miner’s son who loses his nerve and fails to jump across the tracks. His cowardice becomes legendary, widely known as “Faire un Bernard Wayne,” within the Wheelchair faction. The surname evokes a connection to John “N.R.” Wayne, ETA’s top player, himself likely a double- or triple-agent working for the Canadian terrorist cell. J. Wayne’s family hails from the same mining region in Quebec, but beyond this hint, the genealogical connection is impossible to lock down.
  13. This list of examples could go on and on. When Struck imagines Day “utterly strafed … and typing with his nose,” the contact between face and gizmo recalls JO Incandenza’s gruesome suicide (he sticks his head in the microwave) as well as the climax of the Eschaton game in which Otis Lord’s head gets lodged in a computer monitor. And dumb Struck’s plagiarism signifies a figurative voicelessness (see below), which evokes the text-recitation performance art of radio DJ Madame Psychosis, which evokes the literally muted Don Gately, intubated in the hospital, which evokes poor Lucien Antitois, impaled via the throat with his own hand-carved broomstick, which evokes Guillaume DuPlessis who dies of asphyxiation with a dust rag in his mouth, which evokes the catatonic “It” in her Raquel Welch mask…. My personal sense is that none of this is accidental, though all of it might be, for Wallace, Too Much Fun (see below).
  14. The density of the book’s interlacements actually reminds me of the mithril shirt, the Dwarvish chainmail from The Lord of the Rings. This reference to Tolkien isn’t entirely gratuitous. In a 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien claimed to possess a kind of sixth sense: an ability to feel, palpably, the beauty of literary forms. “It has always been with me,” he writes, “the sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects me emotionally like colour or music.” I doubt that Tolkien would appreciate the intricate artifice in IJ, but this kind of extra-sensory perception, with a little recalibration, might help readers to experience the often stark, frequently disturbing, and sometimes downright ungainly IJ as something joyful.
  15. Note 304 confirms that the endnotes are inextricable from, rather than extraneous to, the novel’s artistic design. However, the endnotes, in aggregate, also point to a major glitch in said design’s matrix: namely, who’s writing them? It’s impossible to locate a central narrational perspective in IJ. The nominees include Hal Incandenza and a smattering of wraiths (JO Incandenza is the most likely choice, and Lucien Antitois’ death, a passing into knowledge of “all the world’s well-known tongues,” feels like a cue). But the wraith theory founders on the fact that Hal sometimes narrates from a first-person point of view; the Hal theory on the fact that he disappears for very long stretches of third-person limited narration. Even if DFW himself were the implied narrator, the shifts into Hal’s first-person perspective don’t quite compute. This narrational evasiveness isn’t necessarily a defect in the novel.

    Perhaps the most jarring example of IJ’s narrational problem arrives as Don Gately speeds across town in the Ford Aventura. The prose tracks precisely with Gately’s perceptions and thought processes, until, inexplicably, we read, “Has anybody mentioned Gately’s head is square?”

  16. Identification strikes me as the gateway to the domain of reader-response criticism,at one extreme pole of which even Struck’s plagiarism is fully licensed and authorized.

    I once read a student exam in which the writer said, of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” only that the poetic speaker reminded her of Santa Claus. A hard-core reader-response critic might argue that there is no such thing as better or worse in responses to literature, thus giving me no basis on which to judge negatively the student’s contention. While I admit that my initial reaction was to find the comparison ludicrous, I could be persuaded to play along—who knows, this reading might even be profound—provided that the student made the case with some kind of rigor, looking closely at and thinking hard about specific features of the poem and the legend.

  17. Zoran Kuzmanovich, in an essay on Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters” (a famously haunted text), says something apropos: “Every ghost story is an allegory of reading.”
  18. Struck’s identification with Day’s article might be a travesty in that Struck isn’t really listening to the substance of the passage; Struck misses, for example, the kinship between the cult’s aspirants and the tennis hopefuls, himself included, at ETA.
  19. Poulet describes this tyranny of reading: “As soon as I replace my direct perception of reality by the words of a book, I deliver myself, bound hand and foot to the omnipotence of fiction. I say farewell to what is, in order to feign belief in what is not. I surround myself with fictitious beings; I become the prey of language. There is no escaping this takeover.”
  20. The novel has scads of references to the undead (vampires, revenants, wraiths, the living dead, etc.). One of my favorites is the nickname of Eugene “Fax” Fackelmann, a small-time criminal with a big-time role in the novel’s closing chapters: Count Faxula.
  21. Viktor Shklovsky, the godfather of Russian Formalism, after a survey of world literature even more exhaustive than Brooks’,ultimately arrived at the same conclusion: that strategic juxtaposition—contradiction, irony, paradox, antithesis, ambiguity, a god with many names—is the common denominator in all forms of literary art. But owing to historical circumstances (mainly Soviet oppression), Shklovsky’s work remained virtually unknown until after New Criticism, and Shklovsky himself, had been laid to rest: call it a posthumous confirmation of findings.

    Brooks discusses poetry exclusively in The Well Wrought Urn, but Shklovsky observes the same design principles in novels, plays, fairy tales, even movies.

  22. Maybe an overstatement. In “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” Brooks labors to explain that poems might deliver some didactic statement, a declarative truth about the world, but he insists that such a statement, to be accurate, would be so fraught with qualifications as to cease to be an actionable proposition. His main contention is that the beauty and/or “meaning” of a poem lies in the interplay of its parts, not in any generic takeaway. Early in the essay, Brooks makes a distinction that proves especially relevant to the case of IJ: the formal juxtapositions in poems don’t cancel each other out like logical antitheses, but rather they constitute a unity, for Brooks an “achieved harmony.” Later, however, when Brooks discusses Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he talks about paradox in such a way that it approaches self-negation: “Keats’ Urn must express a life which is above life and its vicissitudes, but it must also bear witness to the fact that its life is not life at all but is a kind of death.” In its portrait of reading, IJ poses this kind of paradox, which nevertheless remains an “achieved harmony.”
  23. The demise of New Criticism is an old story, and reports of its death are often exaggerated.Wallace concentrates on NC’s risible pretensions to scientific objectivity, “the stuff of jokes and shudders” for DFW.But Wallace might be hasty to link NC, as he does, to Grammatical Descriptivism, whose executors sought to compile a dictionary in a bottom-up, vox-populi manner. As I see it, the real trouble with NC is that what starts as descriptivism comes out the other side as SNOOT prescriptivism, establishing a universal and maybe arbitrary standard for artistic creation/appreciation. NC tends to work best for an elite body of texts, not coincidentally produced in large numbers by White Male writers. Honestly, though, the politics bothers me less (as a White Male) than something even more basic: the suspicion that artistic principles, once apprehended and codified, are anathema to art itself. (Brooks & Co., in certain lights, seem to me like a kind of literary Penn & Teller act.) Maybe this fear is unfounded. What NC and its Formalist kin prescribe amounts to little more than a plea on behalf of structural unity, an imperative that form and content smartly bedevil each other. Still, the whole project risks devolving into mere routine, and a pall of cliché gathers ominously. Fitting that Wallace, in IJ, should have harped on the need to recover the awful truth that underlies even the most moronic clichés.

    The close reading prescribed by NC continues to inform all responsible interpretive praxis (excepting Franco Moretti’s controversial “distant reading”), and this method survives too in creative writing programs, which work best when they emphasize craft and composition, not meaning (see, for example, Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design, or even James Wood’s How Fiction Works). At present, NC is mounting something of a cultural comeback; in How to Do Things with Fictions (2012), Stanford’s Joshua Landy argues, once again, that literary works are defined by their structures and techniques, and that the best of these train readers to think in new ways.

    When I read passages like this one, from Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” I find it hard to fathom how NC ever went so thoroughly out of style: “the word, as the poet uses it, has to be conceived of, not as a discrete particle of meaning, but as a potential of meaning, a nexus or cluster of meanings.” Another passage resonates with IJ in particular: “the ‘beauty’ of the poem … is the effect of a total pattern, and of a kind of pattern which can incorporate within itself items intrinsically beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive. Unless one asserts the primacy of pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items.”

    Another objection is that the “unity” of literary works, prized by New Critics, is just a naïve fallacy, but to say that unity lends itself to a facile kind of deconstruction seems to me to substitute one truism for another. A related complaint, among gender-, class-, and race-minded critics, might be that no book is ever silent. You would have to take this up on a case-by-case basis, but see Note 22 above.

    NC, with its emphasis on pattern-making, might seem ill-suited to discussions of fiction, insofar as it elides less specialized measures of literary craftsmanship: matters of plot and characterization, suspense and transformation, climax and delay (aka, retardation)—all the vertices and dragons’ backs of the standard Freitag triangle (which was devised to explain dramatic design), to say nothing of style’s infinite permutations. However, NC’s principles operate there too, and even where they aren’t readily apparent, the same caveat applies. Writers might exaggerate or truncate the Freitag pattern of rising and falling action, make “inverted checkmark” structures of varying slope and acuity, rightside-up or upside-down, all day long, but they’re still bound by the model. For his part, Wallace tends to prefer the soft ending and anticlimax, among other “nonconfluential” tactics, in IJ (some exceptions include the Eschaton game and the fracas between Ennet House residents and Hawaiian shirt-clad ‘Nucks), but we can still think of the Sierpinski gasket’s interlocking triangles as a giddily Freitagian construct.

    Which is to say, I get why some writers would want to take a hammer to convention, abjure every “literary” stratagem in the headlong pursuit of some asymptote of the real, a straighter record of what is. The rebellion has a long history, but David Shields, with his Reality Hunger manifesto, is the movement’s current poster child, and apparently the oral historian Svetlana Alexievich just bagged the Nobel Prize for her scrupulous suppression of artifice. Wallace understood this anti-aesthetic impulse, and its hazards, as well: in IJ, the filmography of JO Incandenza includes eleven works of “Found Drama,” some of which are “conceptually unfilmable,” none of which is released for viewing. Note that IJ is not itself a Found Novel.

    Strangely, it would be possible to cite both Tolkien and Nietzsche (the philosopher’s dread becoming that smears the edges off of being) to allay these anxieties over artifice. Both writers hint at an upbeat conclusion: that the discovery of structural commonalities does nothing to exhaust the mystery and singularity of creation. You might as well resent having to write in English.

  24. Brooks himself finds the terms “irony” and “paradox” aggravating. He treats them as loose synonyms in “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” but Brooks’ “paradox” might be viewed as a remedy for Wallace’s debilitating “irony.” For further discussion.
Nov 092015

SengesPierre Senges. Photo credit: Philippe Bretelle


Many ways to stuff a watermelon, many ways to fill a library — you can write one, as Pierre Senges seems to be doing, turning out about a book a year since 2000, along with countless radio plays; or you can buy (or steal) books to fill your library with; or, not really any easier, if you are able you can translate them, and perhaps get a small collection going. Slowly I am making some headway into Senges’s library, studiously Englishing it, and thus growing my own. There are lots of ways to farce up a library, and lots of ways to fill one too. Here are just a few.

                                                                     —Jacob Siefring



Somewhere Jean-Paul writes: “I have forty odd libraries in my
possession that I myself — this strains credulity —
conceived and wrote in their totality.”

The library of Maria Wutz

In 1793, this same Jean-Paul brought his character the schoolmaster Maria Wutz into the world (he joins Fibel, the inventor of the abecediary, and the trader Vagel, who sold his pustules for a bargain when he contracted smallpox). Poverty has an important role to play in these adventures, it combines with the desire to read and the imaginative faculty (should one exist) to create a personal library in the style of Jean-Paul. Since he has not a single kopeck, nor a thaler nor a maravedis with which to buy the first chapter of the first volume of a popular anthology, Wutz decides to write the books of his literary patrimony himself. “Each new book whose title he assigned he was able to consider as belonging to him”: willful appropriation becomes the poor man’s revenge on the free market, the refutation of his wretched lot, making use of the means at hand.

By over a century, this schoolmaster anticipates the author of the Quixote invented by Borges: well before Pierre Menard, Wutz parasites a book, a title, and an author whenever he feels an urgent desire to compose, as soon as it is published, and on the double at that, The Philosophical Fragments of Lavater. No sooner has an editor announced the good news to booksellers, than Wutz the omnipotent sits down to his desk to start writing — as if his private library were the proof of his responsibility: the proof of little Wutz’s authority over every written thing: Wutz, at the center, as first cause, with his manuscripts for effects, and then, all around his Original Library, all the other books, displayed in bookstores as so many fraudulent editions.


The library of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The poverty of Maria Wutz is a poverty of fables, it calls to mind that of the shoemaker who goes off into the woods with his family to abandon there his seven children, born in a time of steady work; the poverty Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky inflicts on his character is that of Russia at the start of the twentieth century (chilly or freezing, most likely): split-soled shoes, queues, famine in the Ukraine, and artificial beets (and yet, not for everyone). An intellectual lives in a tiny room: in that room, a bed, a chair, a stove (a cold one), a bookcase, “four long boards running the length of a wall that sag beneath the burden of the manuscripts.” This cold-stove poverty apparently doesn’t preclude the possession of four shelves of books, but it’s a bliss that doesn’t last: for, in the middle of winter, Krzhizhanovsky requires his character to trade in all his books for four banknotes.

What comes next in this first chapter of The Letter Killers Club is a delicate variation on the theme of absence: with many repetitions, the dispossessed student reaches out his hand towards one of the four shelves to take down a book — a gesture implying familiarity, fraternity, and an almost leisurely routine. The first time the hand meets the absence, the effect is sad, not the less painful for the gesture’s banality — but by the twentieth time, it demands passionate spiritual exercises: now it becomes a question of inventing the vanished book. At that instant, the totally denuded library not only signifies poverty, it somehow asserts its force as library, it replaces the books’ actual presence with a potential presence, upheld by memory and experience; it permits the intellectual to pursue his work by means of his memory… oh well, so much the better if memory is approximative. The book that is present is always the exact copy, always fixed and unchanging unto itself; the absent book, like a poem in a dead language translated from other translations, or like the voyages of Ulysses, will yield various recombinations of itself from one day to the next, condescending to exist in many versions, all true, all flawed, all unfinished, still unstable, as if, by vanishing, it returned to an earlier stage of its development.


The library of Giacomo Casanova

A century before Captain Nemo would find refuge among the books he kept aboard the Nautilus, another adventurer, representative of a certain society fashionable during a certain, superannuated century, also found refuge in a library: in Bohemia, at Dux, in Count von Waldstein’s castle. Giacomo becomes the librarian there at the ripe age of seventy: the exact opposite of adventure: sedentariness instead of stagecoaches, the rules of order instead of fugues, the status of a subaltern replacing the motto Follow your god, reading by candlelight replacing romantic caresses, the dusting of book bindings replacing theatrical bluffs proffered to young girls and Emperor Joseph II alike. Casanova did not fail to oversee his own decline (the brutal metamorphosis of the skirt-chaser into a bookkeeper), but he must have remembered having been tempted many times already, over the course of his youth, by libraries: he used them as rest stops. (He even once tried priesthood — but to be a priest is to wear a half-mask, as Da Ponte surely knew.)

No one knows whether the books in the library made it any easier for Casanova to pass the time, it would have had to contain an Orlando Furioso or maybe a Quixote for that; but we at least know how writing saved him from hanging himself from the Bohemian ceiling. The stay, not at all the first, was granted when he consented to be a provisory appendage to a giant book — namely, the twelve volumes of the Histoire de ma vie.


The Library of the Congress

Borges postulates the existence in Buenos Aires of a Congress of the World representing all of humanity; the Congress is of course endowed with a library, a serious library, as serious as Argentinian intellectuals trying to compete with the letters of Old Europe — and because a library springs to mind when we need to represent the universe on a more practical scale (the size of a city block). During an initial phase, the library acquires only rare and serious books (Pliny’s Natural History); second, the library avid for totality fills up with “classical works of all genres from all countries”; finally, in the last act, when the library is overflowing, raising the principle of representation to an exact paraphrase (as impossible as a map existing at a 1:1 scale), it welcomes all books in without restriction, the good and the bad alike: the Prensa, 3,400 copies of Don Quixote, university theses (sic), account books, theater programs. Later, we will see how a library can be rich with books that do not yet belong to it — Borges, who knew how necessary forgetting is to the intelligence, recalls that a library finds its meaning in the items it lacks: lacunae without which librarians would be unable to breathe, or move.


The library of Bouvard and Pécuchet

The one thousand five hundred books Gustave Flaubert read in Croisset, or at the Rouen library, or  at the Nationale in Paris, steadfastly devoured to the point of having one’s brain metamorphosed into soft cheese, are also the books in the Chavignolles library — Bouvard and Pécuchet preside over it, just as they preponderate over their vegetable garden, spades in hand: proud in anticipation of the duty done. For Gustave, the one thousand five hundred books meant afternoons of misery in poorly heated rooms; for these two gentlemen, one thousand five hundred books assembled in a farmhouse are the promise of knowledge, accession to knowledge, or, better yet, the promise of the layman’s conversion into a savant — they contain pedagogic virtue, they are receptacles for truths, before long they will be objects of critique and renouncement: little does it matter, venerated or tossed into the ditch, books are the attribute of comfortable people: yes, people who reflect on when they will nap and have the means to show off shelves of beautiful bindings to the neighbors.

To these two gentlemen, the contents of a library are: books to read and possess, authors to boo once deification is over (booing being the amateur’s free will in the professionals’ library), a mélange of indispensable classics and stupefyingly dull volumes, teeming with pignoufisms. Like the library of the Congress, Pécuchet’s farm simultaneously contains a Pantagruel, treatises on hygiene, and the sermons of some priest — and when it comes time to buy up paper by the kilo, the dream of universalism will be fulfilled tenfold: to choose, to weed out the good from the bad will require a nerve which, thanks to their intimate knowledge of failure, these gentlemen have learned to mistrust. In the end, this will be Everything, the admirable, consolatory, formless Everything, exhaustivity joined to nothing, if not to the right edition, and the eternity of unmoving things.


The library according to Émile Borel and Arthur Stanley Eddington

Exhaustivity in writing is a dream or a nightmare wrought in the Pécuchetian style, that of a totality abolishing judgment — or in the style of Maria Wutz, simultaneously obeying the desire to read and the desire to write. Those who dread Bouvard’s old papers as much as Wutz’s graphomania will always be able to fall back on the combinatorial arts when they want to access the Great All in one of its many forms. Many years before the library of Babel, built of hexagons and exhaustion, in 1913 in Le Journal de Physique (5th series, volume 3, pages 189-196, these details admitted with a librarian’s taste for precision), Émile Borel, the mathematician, invents a metaphor that will go on to enjoy a certain success: a million apes randomly typing away on the keys of a million typewriters for ten hours every day will eventually, “before the year is up,” compose “identical copies of books of every sort and in every language kept in the world’s best-stocked libraries.” Fifteen years later, in the mind of Arthur Stanley Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World), the million monkeys become an army and “the world’s best-stocked libraries” the singular library of the British Museum. It remains to be seen if the substitution of the British Museum for all the world’s libraries is a British riposte to the pretentions of the little Frenchman Borel, or if it’s  rather a question of the intrinsic plasticity of stories, which are passed along only by mutating (mutation being a consequence, and perhaps also a cause). In other versions of the fable, the British Museum becomes the work of William Shakespeare; in still others the work of Shakespeare becomes the ensemble of the sonnets, or a single sonnet, sometimes even a single line of verse — the monkey, for his part, is ever present.


The library of Thomas De Quincey

A library no single man could ever exhaust: it might become proverbial, it represents an infinity of books compared to the reader’s smallness — it belongs to the British Museum, it might be the equivalent of the library composed by a million chimpanzees over the course of a single year. Infinity signifies humanist generosity, the incontinence of editors, and the strike force of the public authorities (when libraries are a cultural affair of the State). The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time — to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery,” but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”


The library of Thomas Browne

Being a catalog, it must take the form of a book, but the library building could be deduced from a certain number of pages found between Urne Buriall (a meditation on death and funerary receptacles) and The Garden of Cyrus (in which it is the quincunx in question). Its title is Museum Clausum, its more explicit subtitle Bibliotheca Abscondita: the reader finds therein (to quote Browne himself) “some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living” — and among these remarkable books, a poem in the Getick language by Ovid, a detailed account of Hannibal’s march across the Alps, a fragment from Pytheas, instructions to create a demon, Seneca’s letters to Saint Paul, and many other marvels. (To add dubiousness to dubiety, a contemporary edition of the Museum includes a translator’s extrapolation: a fraudulent addition, the opposite of kleptomania.)


The library of Seleucos

According to an Armenian tradition passed down down to Mar Ibas and reported by the philologist historian Luciano Canfora, as Xerxes’ successor Seleucos “ordered all the books in the world to be burned, so that time could be reset to begin with him” (we recognize all the books in the world as an imperial or puerile exaggeration, just as we know that wiping the slate clean is in men of power a sign of weakness). To all the libraries assembled since Alexandria, small and large, authentic and spurious, we must then also add the many absent libraries: a perimeter traced in the soil, the residuum of a catalog, footprints of soldiers stamped in the ashes. Canfora notes that the idea of the library is inevitably tied to the idea of its destruction — or to put it more clearly, obliteration is part and parcel of our way of understanding libraries. He mysteriously adds that the conflagration arises “as if a greater force were intervening,” to destroy an organism that has become impossible to control: “uncontrollable, because it reveals an infinite capacity for growth, and also because of the equivocal (often forged) nature of the material that poured into them.” This hypothesis of an expiation of the fake by fire has a seductively romanesque quality to it, seductive like the apocalypse of Sardanapalus, as it links counterfeiting to the fires of ancient Rome and Alexandria — but it can also leave us feeling perplexed.


The library of Don Quixote

Sardanapalus organized his own private apocalypse, dragging maids, mistresses, and gold pieces all into the same pyre — against his will Señor Quijano organizes one of these expiatory fires too, in his farmyard: his library was the occupation of his lone nights, it was the vehicle of his hallucination, it was his merchant marine and the description of Spain from a certain point of view, but then, it was consumed in a cloud of smoke. But, however unhinged he is, Don Quixote knows that books sometimes outlast their auto-da-fé: that’s the advantage of existing in numerous copies in various locations, the libraries repeating themselves here and there, with variations.


The library of Aristotle’s inheritor’s inheritors

By turns, conservation can prove destructive, even fatal: I’m referring to those elderly archivists who were suffocated under a mountain of books, and the paradoxes of conservation too: after a certain point has been passed, conservation runs counter to reading. The heirs of Neleus, who inherited Aristotle’s library, set out to save their master’s treasure, lest it should end up one day on the shelves of the royal library; those clever, obstinate fellows had the idea to dig a hole somewhere under the house, and to bury the scrolls there, then forget them, quite purposefully, with the sense of a job well done — the humidity, rodents, and other vermin hoarded the bequest, which is to say, reduced it to dust.


The library of Diodorus

Bibliotheca historica is the title he gives his book, an honest way of owning that his chapters are a compilation of other chapters taken from elsewhere, and that Diodorus is one of those historians at the table, or geographers hunched over their atlases, a habitué of the libraries like the rest (Pliny, that other compiler of talent, gives Diodorus credit for not lying about his work’s contents as much as he did about his working methods).


The library of Moby Dick

Melville, we know, compares whales with books; he begins his Moby-Dick with ten pages of extracts taken from a universal patrimony. The white whale on one side, an entire library consecrated to cetalogy on the other, suffering from their distance, demonstrate the difficulty of establishing a link between a series of words and a thing. (Anyways, according to William Faulkner (William Faulkner according to Pierre Michon, that is), Moby Dick never read Sigmund Freud’s books, nor William Shakespeare’s  plays — to swallow them, contain them, that’s a whole other story, though.


The library of Réjean Ducharme

He used to visit the municipal library on his bicycle, or the bookstore rather, in a landscape singularly rare in books, so far from Alexandria (his inventions might be born from these hours spent sifting, these treasures for his island life). The extracts at the start of Le nez qui voque compete with, or parody, or pay homage to the library of Moby-Dick: we would think we were hearing a transcription of the New World Symphony for a single ukulele (the exact same ukulele played by Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Richard Fleisher).


The libraries of François Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, and Gilbert Sorrentino

The first is Saint-Victor’s in chapter VII of Pantagruel, it contains the Pantofola decretorum (The Slipper of the Decrees); the second belongs to Doctor Faustroll and contains the first; the third is in Mulligan Stew, and contains a 1001 Ways to Stuff a Watermelon (the character who catalogs it “makes no claim to completeness, since there may well be other materials in those rooms that do not exist”).

(The stuffing is contained in the watermelon, the watermelon in the 1001 Ways, the book of the 1001 Ways within the library, the library in a house of indefinite form, the indefinite house within a novel with the title Guinea Red — the novel Guinea Red floats in Mulligan Stew, Mulligan Stew takes its place on a library’s shelf, and the library, who knows, maybe among the ingredients for a watermelon stuffing.)


The library of Miklós Szentkuthy

Twenty-five thousand volumes, twice what the Nautilus’ library contained, were how Miklós Szentkuthy got through half a century of Hungarian Communism, with that manifest autarky which an abundance of reading secures — and to those twenty-five thousand volumes Szentkuthy had time to add the one hundred thousand pages of his journal, now preserved in the Archives of the literary museum of Budapest, entrusted to the conservators to guard their secrets and reveal them only a quarter-century after the death of its author, which is to say — now.


The other library of Alexandria

Ptolemy, who spent pharaonic sums to have masterpieces copied and fill up his library, was once informed by a man of letters, a half-idealist, half-jokester, that much of the world was still full of books to discover and hoard — which shows how a library is rich, too, with the books outside its walls.

—Pierre Senges translated by Jacob Siefring

“Plusieurs façons de farcir une pastèque” was originally published in French in fall 2013 in les écrits, a Québecois literary journal, issue 139.


Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His erudite fictions often unfold in the margins of other texts as historical commentaries and hypothetical reconstructions. He is the recipient of prizes for Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000), as well as for his radio work. His longest novel, Fragments de Lichtenberg (2008), is forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. His most recent book, Achab (séquelles), is published by Éditions Verticales and considers the lives of the white whale and Captain Ahab in the aftermath of Moby-Dick.



Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator. His translations have appeared in Gorse Journal, Hyperion, The Brooklyn Rail, and Vestiges. His criticism and reviews have been published in The Quarterly Conversation and Golden Handcuffs Review and other outlets. His first book-length translation, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, is forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press. He keeps a blog at bibliomanic.com.



Nov 082015
xAnne_Hutchinson_on_Trial Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia



Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia


There may be no more eloquent contemporary defender of Calvinism and the Puritan tradition than the 2012 National Humanities Medal recipient, Marilynne Robinson. In prize-winning novels from Housekeeping (1980) through Gilead (2004), and Home (2008), to Lila (2014), Robinson swims against what Yeats called “this filthy modern tide.” She does so more explicitly in essays, collected in The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010) and The Giveness of Things (2015). Her 1994 essay, “Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry,” appeared in the Summer 2015 special issue of Salmagundi, celebrating that magazine’s 50th anniversary. I encountered it there at the same time that I happened to be reading, also for the first time, “Mrs. Hutchinson,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1830 sketch contextualizing and dramatizing the 1637 civil trial of Anne Hutchinson. It seemed to me that one remark of Robinson was refuted by both sides involved in what Hawthorne rightly calls the “remarkable case” of that  multifaceted woman—variously described as an antinomian dissenter, pioneer proto-feminist, trouble-making rebel, and champion of religious liberty. The Puritan civil court pronounced its verdict on Anne Hutchinson on the sleety evening of November 8—378 years ago this very day.

In “Puritans and Prigs,” Robinson distinguishes between shallow contemporary values (fashionable, judgmental “priggishness” in various forms) and the richness of an ancestry some progressives contemptuously spurn as “puritanical.” That misused adjective, itself an example of linguistic “priggishness,” has had the unfortunate effect of causing far too many Americans to glibly dismiss a civilization which, while it flourished in North America, established, as Robinson claims, “great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order.” Puritan civilization achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity; in short, what Robinson summarizes as “happiness,” at least as it was conceived of in pre-modern days, before being reduced to mass consumerism and sexual liberation. Not, not at all, that the actual as opposed to the caricatured Puritans were opposed to sexual happiness or, for all their seriousness, to joy in general. But whole volumes of scholarship devoted to the history of New England Puritanism (and of the related Quaker tradition in Pennsylvania) have been trumped in the popular imagination by H. L. Mencken’s witty, unforgettable, and (ever since he uttered it in his 1949 Sententiae) widely accepted definition: “Puritanism—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Marilynne Robinson’s antithesis between Prig and Puritan sets an advantaged, judgmental contemporary “elite,” distinguished by politically correct discourse, in stark opposition to the old Puritan Elect, “chosen by God in a manner assumed to be consistent with his tendency to scorn the hierarchies and overturn the judgments of this world.” Though Robinson’s social and ecological agenda, stressing responsibility to others and to the earth, seems “liberal,” it is, she insists, in the tradition of Calvin, whom she cites on our responsibility to our neighbors, and whose imperative she quotes directly: to “embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love.” No political conservative, Robinson is nevertheless telling in targeting liberal smugness, one of its distinguishing marks being disdain for those who have failed to keep up with every nuance of ever-changing politically correct language. This exclusionary tendency of progressivism leads her to the following sweeping claim (defensively hedged by a double qualifier regarding Calvinism): “I have not yet found a Puritan whose Calvinism was so decayed or so poorly comprehended that he or she would say to another soul, I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” Really?

Since I was reading these words at the very time I was engaging Hawthorne’s “Mrs. Hutchinson,” it occurred to me that Anne Hutchinson, hardly an obscure figure, would have provided Robinson with a preeminent example of her sought-for-in-vain Puritan. For Anne Hutchinson most certainly did say to others—indeed to the male Elect governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony itself—“I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” And there is a related but far wider point on which I disagree with Marilynne Robinson. Her cogent defense of Calvinism in general and of the Puritan tradition in particular, though it provides a contrarian and tonic corrective to some mushy secular thinking, passes over the somber, brutal cruelty of which the Puritans were capable. Worse yet, she implicitly accepts much that is theologically inhumane and repellent, above all, the doctrinal insistence, derived by Calvin primarily from Augustine, on original sin and the eternal punishment of most of humankind: the ultimate and everlasting exclusion from the “circle of the elect.” But it is time to turn from Robinson’s defense of Puritan tradition to the subject indicated by my title: the dramatization of the trial of Anne Hutchinson by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American writer most ancestrally and thematically haunted by the darker aspects of that tradition.


Born on the 4th of July in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne came into the world  associated with two major events of colonial history: the 1776 declaration of the colonies’ independence from England, and, almost a century earlier, the Salem witch trials. His earliest American ancestor, William Hathorne, who arrived in Salem in 1630 with John Winthrop, was a magistrate noted for persecuting Quakers; his son, John, another prominent Puritan judge, tried and condemned Salem witches in 1692. In his writing, Hawthorne (who probably added the “w” to his family name in part to distance himself from such ancestors) is unsurprisingly preoccupied with hidden sin, guilt, and the individual’s confrontation both with the larger community and with evil. A loss to his biographers, but a benefit to his art, his own religious views remain ambiguous. He later characterized his forced attendance as a boy at Salem’s Meeting House, where his ancestors had worshiped for nearly two centuries, as “the frozen purgatory of my childhood,” and, as an adult, he attended no church, subscribed to no orthodoxy.

Yet it’s no wonder that perhaps his most perceptive admirer, the author of Moby Dick, famously singled out in Hawthorne “his great power of blackness,“ finding in his friend that “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” Hawthorne’s was indeed, as Melville recognized, a “deeply thinking mind,” and it produced fictions (sketches, short stories, novels) rising from mere “romances” to some of the most profound psychological explorations in American literature: texts in which there are seldom simple answers, and several modes of perception and interpretation remain open to attentive readers. The origin of these multiple perspectives is, of course, the open or inconclusive point of view of the author himself, both as a man of his particular ancestry and psychological temperament, and, more importantly, as an artist.

To cite the most notable example: after 165 years of general perusal and scholarly study of his masterpiece (and the first great American novel), The Scarlet Letter, it is still difficult to determine precisely what Hawthorne himself, caught between the Puritan and contemporary worlds, believed regarding Hester’s behavior. He is unwilling to commit himself: either to fully approve of her sexual rebellion against unnatural restraints, as many romantic Transcendentalist individualists did and as most contemporary readers do, or to align himself with the strict moral code and harshness of Puritan judgment. The aesthetic result is to simultaneously liberate and burden us, his readers, with the task of interpretation. Though also true (despite their symbolic names) of the characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, even of little Pearl, it is this suspended or divided judgment regarding Hester that makes this novel, somber but no moral tract, an endlessly fascinating work of art.

The same is true of Hawthorne’s ambivalent stance toward Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), another woman subjected to Puritan judgment. His admiration of her intelligence and audacity is mingled with criticism and at least partial concurrence in the verdict of the court. In both texts, Hawthorne seems as conflicted, or as adroitly balanced on the historical wind, as Andrew Marvell in his magnanimous description of the doomed king on the execution block (“He nothing common did or mean/ Upon that memorable scene…”) in that greatest of public poems, the “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” or in Yeats’s equally public and equally double-minded group-elegy, “Easter 1916,” which, like “The Second Coming,” consciously echoes Marvell’s imagery and dual perspective.

Hawthorne’s perspectivism (Marvellian, Yeatsian, almost Nietzschean) seems nothing if not modern; and yet, at the same time, those “visitations” Melville mentioned characteristically took, in Hawthorne’s fictions, the “shape” of parables and allegories—devices seeming to some, even at the time, rather old-fashioned. The same might be said of his prose. Hawthorne’s literary style, very much in the opulent rhetorical mode of the 18th century, is too often syntactically complex, inflated in vocabulary, over-loaded with latinates. Sometimes such rhetorical inflation was employed, as in Jonathan Swift, in the service of wit. Of a clergyman who had predicted that the world would end in 1843, Hawthorne mockingly observed that he appeared to have “given himself up to despair at the tedious delay of the final conflagration.” At other times, the humor was inadvertent or misplaced. The simple description, in an early draft of his story “Ethan Brand,” of a “great, old dog,” was heightened in revision so that the poor creature became a “grave and venerable quadraped”—precisely the sort of “poetic diction” Wordsworth had ridiculed four decades earlier in his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

It must be added, of course, that Hawthorne’s formal and highly “finished” rhetoric is usually as lucid as it is orotund. Employing an answerable style, he produced two fully realized novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and, writing in his distinct and unmistakable manner, such wonderful shorter fictions as (to choose a dozen) “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Snow-Image,” “The Wives of the Dead,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” “Ethan Brand,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” and “Feathertop.” Nevertheless, and not infrequently, Hawthorne’s tendency to linguistic expansion led—as F. O. Matthiessen noted three-quarters of a century ago in American Renaissance—to diffusion of detail and consequent confusion for the reader. Though he laments and chuckles over Hawthorne’s “grave and venerable quadraped,” Matthiessen never mentions “Mrs. Hutchinson.” But we need look no further for an example of misplaced elaboration than the dreadful opening sentence of that sketch: “The character of this female suggests a train of thought which will form as natural an introduction to her story as most of the prefaces to Gay’s Fables or the tales of Prior, besides that the general soundness of the moral may excuse any want of present applicability.”

The opacity is less attributable to literary allusion than to convoluted rhetoric. Even for readers familiar with Gay and Prior, this introductory sentence is a syntactical dragon at the mouth of the cave. Hawthorne is trying to say that, as in John Gay’s Fables (many of them aimed at moderating the behavior of the “female sex”) and in the format occasionally adopted by Matthew Prior (a poem followed by “The Moral”), there is a “moral” in Anne Hutchinson’s “story,” indeed an instructive precept of such “general soundness” that it supersedes the absence of any particular details that may not seem immediately relevant. But if the author were someone less notable than Hawthorne, and the case of Anne Hutchinson of less intrinsic interest, only the hardiest reader would forge on to the next sentence.


That didactic opening initiates the prologue to the specific case of “Mrs. Hutchinson,” a preamble which, whether making the prosecution’s case or meant to provoke dissent, raises questions of perspective. Is the “we” here Hawthorne speaking in propria persona? or the voice of an unreliable “narrator”? The content and tone presumably reflect some of the author’s own complaints about “female” writers. What are acknowledged to be “slightly exaggerated” forebodings—that these “ink-stained Amazons” will assume an even more public role, in a “period” from which the speaker hopes he will “be gone hence ere it arrive”—are surely to be taken, as the wit and hyperbole suggest, with a pinch of salt. He seems considerably more serious about the dangers of women obeying “the inward voice.” The long “Introductory” to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House,” is integral to an understanding of that novel. In his preamble to this sketch is Hawthorne loading the dice, or inviting resistance? What light, if any, does the prologue, with its apprehension about inspired women going public, cast on Hawthorne’s presentation of the character of the most public, inwardly inspired female Puritan dissident, and on her trial as portrayed in “Mrs. Hutchinson”?

We’ll return to the preamble, but our main interest is in the story it ambiguously precedes. Historically, and as recreated by Hawthorne, this “remarkable case” is part of an archetypal conflict: between individual and community, rebellion and conformity; between an “inner,” higher law, signaled by the “inward” voice and light, and society’s external law; between truth and delusion, freedom and thought-control. And there is a subtheme—from Antigone through Joan of Arc to the present—of the lone woman among male antagonists. Like his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson (the great champion of self-reliance against the forces of conformity), Hawthorne was fascinated and frightened by the formidable Margaret Fuller. As already suggested, he had similarly mixed feelings about Anne Hutchinson, whose civil trial in November, 1637, he dramatized in this sketch (The later religious trial, on 22 March 1638, simply confirmed the guilty verdict.) The same ambivalence evident in “Mrs. Hutchinson”—fascination and admiration mingled with reservation and judgment—reappears two decades later in Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester Prynne, the half-Calvinist, half-Emersonian heroine of The Scarlet Letter. We may devote a few moments to the central figure of that 1850 novel before returning to the central figure of “Mrs. Hutchinson.”


Hester Prynne2

However well we may think of her, Hester considers herself stained by sin and justly burdened by shame and sorrow. This is hardly the case with Anne Hutchinson. At one point, however, Hester characterizes her adultery with the inadequate Dimmesdale as an act of mutual “consecration.” The community around her at the time condemns her transgression; Hester regrets rather than repents of her sin, and, significantly, it is in her mouth that Hawthorne rightly puts the visionary anticipation of a future female “angel and apostle” who will—“when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s good time”—reveal a “new truth,” establishing “the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness,” and “showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” Anne Hutchinson, who had fifteen children, knew all about marital sex, and would certainly have endorsed Hester Prynne’s establishment of “sacred love” on the foundational concept of a “new truth” superior to received dogma on sex and on the treatment of women.

But seeking parallels for Hester, we are as likely to look forward as back, and to fiction as much as to history. Hester anticipates Hawthorne’s own (Margaret Fuller-based) Zenobia in The Blithesdale Romance (1851) and Miriam, with her mysterious past, in The Marble Faun (1860). Hester is also a precursor of Henry James’s magnetic Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and of the bold heroine of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. There is no question that Hester’s self-reliance, greatness of spirit, and balked but still brave and vital sexuality impressed her own creator, winning enough of divided Hawthorne’s admiration to turn him from a “mere” romancer to a novelist of almost unparalleled psychological depth.

The first great heroine of American fiction, Hester is infinitely superior to the men with whom she is involved: her sensitive, conscience-tortured and cowering lover Dimmesdale and the cold Chillingworth—the elderly husband from whom she had been separated when they sailed in different ships for the New World. Having survived shipwreck, he emerges from the forest disguised, driven by diabolical vengeance, and determined to expose the secret father of Hester’s child, Pearl. The corrosive impact of Chillingworth on the life of Arthur Dimmesdale is a significant aspect of the novel. But it is, of course, Hester herself who matters most to Hawthorne—and to generations of readers, even to most contemporary younger readers for whom Puritan moral strictures and sexual guilt may often seem more quaint than compelling.

The communal condemnation of Hester Prynne is “puritanical” on overtly sexual grounds; the communal condemnation of Anne Hutchinson was on overtly theological grounds. Gender, however, was a huge factor in both cases, cases  linked by Hawthorne. For in the very audacity of her self-reliance, Hester is a fictional analogue of the admirable if unrestrainable Hutchinson, specifically alluded to in “The Prison Door,” the short opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter.

At the threshold of that prison, the “black flower of civilized society,” there grows, we are told, “a wild rose-bush,” its fragrance and fragile beauty suggesting to the entering or condemned prisoner that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.” One of its flowers, imagined presented to the reader, might, in the chapter’s final sentence, “symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.” The rose-bush had “survived out of the stern old wilderness…long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it,” but what was its own origin? Perhaps, “as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door.” Before being banished, Hutchinson had indeed, between her two trials, civil and religious, been imprisoned, as had Hester, by the Puritan authorities.


Unknown artist. Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston. From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-53343From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

How had it all come about? Husband and eleven children in tow, Anne Hutchinson had emigrated from England three years earlier, following to Massachusetts the dynamic minister John Cotton—grandfather of Cotton Mather of the Salem witch trials and an ancestor of the mother of Emerson’s second wife. There she quickly became the most famous or notorious woman in American colonial history: the fiercely independent and charismatic religious dissenter who, along with brother-in-law John Wheelwright, defied the male elders of her Puritan community. Hutchinson emphasized not only salvation through divine grace rather than good works, but individual intuition and a rejection of that primal Augustinian-Calvinist concept: original sin. Denouncing the colony’s clergy (with the exception of Cotton), she threatened divine judgment on the leaders and the land itself were she to be hindered in her ministry. Under questioning on the final day of her civil trial, she claimed to be directly inspired by God, heeding an “inward voice,” illuminated by an “inward light.” Judgment was passed, and she was banished from the colony.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocJohn Wheelwright, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law. Attributed to John Coles Sr. (1749-1809) who copied the image from a c. 1677 portrait by an unknown artist. via American Antiquarian Society via Wikipedia

Drummed out of the Bay Colony and finding refuge in Rhode Island, Anne, her husband, children, and some of her followers established a religious community. After the death of that husband (dismissed by Hawthorne as, “like most husbands of celebrated women,” an “insignificant appendage of his mightier wife”), and restive in Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson pushed on to the Dutch territories, “where, having felled the trees of a virgin soil, she became herself the virtual head, civil and ecclesiastical, of a little colony.” But followed, “her enemies believed,” by “the anger of Heaven,” she came to what Hawthorne calls an “awful close.”

With fourteen of her followers, Anne Hutchinson perished in an Indian massacre in what is now the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx (hence the Hutchinson River and Parkway). The mistaken slaughter (the Algonquians, including a group called the Siwanoy, intended vengeance against the Dutch) occurred during an evening prayer-session at her home, with most of the Hutchinson children among the victims. “In the deep midnight, their cry rang through the forest.” The one survivor, Anne’s nine-year-old daughter Susanna, was captured, adopted, and raised by Wampage, penitent chief of the Siwanoy war party. That “circumstance” did not, Hawthorne concludes, go “unnoticed by our stern ancestors, in considering the fate of her who had so troubled their religion, that an infant daughter, the sole survivor amid the terrible destruction of her mother’s household, was bred in a barbarous faith, and never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven. Yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

John Cotton Hutchinsons mentor original unknown - Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via WikipediaJohn Cotton, Hutchinson’s mentor. Original unknown – Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via Wikipedia


That is the final sentence of what is less a short story or historical account than a “sketch,” a favorite Hawthorne genre, here combining fact and imagination. The slightly uneasy relationship between historical synopsis and the creative, more “fictional” evocation of local and courtroom detail is signaled by such awkward signpost-sentences as, “We shall endeavor to give a more practical idea of this part of her course,” and “We shall here resume the more picturesque style of narration.”

However we categorize it, “Mrs. Hutchinson” begins, as earlier noted, with a preamble (“hinting” at “sentiments which may be developed on a future occasion”) revealing Hawthorne’s (or the narrator’s) less-than-liberated conception of the role of women in society, whether Puritan society or his own, circa 1830. “There are,” we are told, “portentous indications, changes gradually taking place in the habits and feelings of the gentle sex, which seem to threaten our posterity with many of those public women, whereof one was a burthen too grievous for our fathers.” The allusion to Anne Hutchinson, whose intellectual powers are not only acknowledged but demonstrated in the sketch that follows, is itself followed by the assertion that “Woman’s intellect should never give the tone to that of man, and even her morality is not the material for masculine virtue.” The narrator (who will shortly revisit the contrast between virtù and “virtue”) fears an “evil, likely to be a growing one.” He envisions a time when “fair orators shall be as numerous as the fair authors of our own day.” Women have set aside their needlework to take up the pen, “ink-stained Amazons” threatening their male rivals until “petticoats wave triumphant over all the field.” Given this comic hyperbole, are we meant to share or resist his fear of what worse evil will follow when they enter fully into public life, trading the delicate if paternalistic “respect” of men for a dubious “fame”?

We, or women at least, are admonished (in revealingly prurient imagery fleshing out the earlier implicit contrast between male virtù and female “virtue,” or chastity) that there is a “sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world, with indications by which its inmost secrets may be searched out” (italics added). What is normal in a man is “irregular” in a “woman,” who, “when she feels the impulse of genius like a command of Heaven within her, should be aware that she is relinquishing a part of the loveliness of her sex, and obey the inward voice with sorrowing reluctance, like the Arabian maid who bewailed the gift of Prophecy.” The Arab-Christian Sajah, who declared herself a prophetess after the death of Muhammed, but later repented, is here held up as a warning to women who yield to the inward voice—women such as “the celebrated subject of this sketch,” Anne Hutchinson, who had also hearkened with dire consequences to a voice she claimed to be that of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The very next sentence, in which Hawthorne launches the specific tale of the titular Mrs. Hutchinson, informs us that she was “a woman of extraordinary talent and strong imagination”—the latter quality, augmented by the “enthusiasm” of the times, prompting her to “stand forth as a reformer in religion.” Even in England, though restrained by the milder Cotton, “she had shown symptoms of irregular and daring thought.” Once arrived in Massachusetts, “she bore trouble in her own bosom, and could find no peace in this chosen land.” She held weekly meetings, promulgating “strange and dangerous opinions,” above all, challenging the authorities by asserting the superiority of her own inner light. Thus, she threatened the “very existence” of the Puritan community, based on unity and stability.


Following that signpost sentence offering to give a “more practical idea of this part of her course,” we are presented with “a summer evening,” with “dusk” settling “heavily” upon woods, waves, and the peninsular colony, increasing the “dismal aspect” of that “embryo town,” its houses “straw-thatched and lowly roofed,” its streets “still roughened by the roots of trees, as if the forest, departing at the approach of man, had left its reluctant footprints behind.” This is early Boston, said to have “drawn tears of despondency from Mrs. Hutchinson, though she believed that her mission thither was divine.” Hawthorne’s camera moves closer, to focus on a particular house, then a room, where a plainly attired middle-aged woman, her dark eyes “kindling up with a gradual brightness,” is preaching, surrounded by an engaged audience, whether disapproving, or challenged, or inspired.

Four men among her “hearers” are mentioned by name: the young recent governor, Sir Henry Vane, a Hutchinson enthusiast; John Cotton, her former and formative mentor, now wavering in his support; one Ward, who thinks to diminish her message by frivolous wit; and Hugh Peters, “full of holy wrath,” barely able to contain himself from “rushing forward to convict her of damnable heresies.” He is foremost among the sterner ministers present, frowning and whispering among themselves as she “unfolds her seditious doctrine.” Representative of some others in the audience is one “whose faith seems shaken in those whom he had trusted for years; the females, on the other hand, are shuddering and weeping, and at times they cast a desolate look of fear among them.” But many hunger for the “bread” she offers; and “young men lean forward, fiery and impatient, fit instruments for whatever rash deed may be suggested.” What is the subversive message, delivered with “eloquence,” that stirs all these disparate passions?

The woman tells them (and cites texts from the Holy Book to prove her words) that they have put their trust in unregenerated and uncommissioned men, and have followed them into the wilderness for naught. Therefore their hearts are turning from those whom they had chosen to lead them to Heaven, and they feel like children who have been enticed far from home, and see the features of their guides change all at once, assuming a fiendish shape in some frightful solitude.

Exposing what she claims the people were feeling—that the colony’s leaders were false prophets, less saintly than demonic—was too much. Such proceedings “could not long be endured by the provincial government.” Though impressed by Anne Hutchinson’s intellect and audacity, Hawthorne understands the other side of the conflict, may even concur that she not only challenged the theocratic leadership, but presented an existential threat, endangering the very survival of the colony. “When the individual feels, the community reels”: thus spake the thought-controllers in Huxley’s Brave New World. But, in religious terms, the challenge to established order presented by divisive individualism has roots much deeper than modern dystopian fantasy. The primordial unity of Christianity, whether dated to Peter’s rock, to the Church Fathers, or to the wedding of religion and state under Constantine, remained an ideal that still inspired, however paradoxically, considerable nostalgia among the very Protestant Reformers who had shattered that original unity. When Separatists separate, the centrifugal process gathers its own momentum. Once harmony is violated, the process ends, potentially, in chaos, with multiplying sects either flying apart or consuming each other. Discussing celestial “order” and “degree” as reflected in the “unity and married calm of states,” Shakespeare’s Ulysses famously observes, in the war-tent scene of Troilus and Cressida: “untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows.”

Hutchinson’s was, as Hawthorne tells us, a “remarkable case,” but it was hardly without precedent, and it has been repeated in various forms. It was, Hawthorne insists, a case “in which religious freedom was wholly inconsistent with public safety.” In a more liberal age, such dissent could be tolerated, but the “principles” of the early colonial period, “an illiberal age,” indicated “the very course which must have been pursued,” both by “worldly policy and enlightened wisdom.” Fleeing religious persecution in the Old World, the Puritans had crossed a perilous ocean and achieved a precarious toehold in the New: a harsh, alien landscape. If they were to survive in this “frightful solitude,” they must neither disperse nor allow their religious experiment to splinter in sectarian schism. Hawthorne succinctly and rather beautifully epitomizes the Puritans’ particular participation in the wider and deeper irenic impulse to maintain Christian unity and stability based on reason and peace (the English translation of the Greek eirene):

Unity of faith was the star that had guided these people over the deep, and a diversity of sects would either have scattered them from the land to which they had as yet so few attachments, or perhaps have excited a diminutive civil war among those who had come so far to worship together.

With opposition to the establishment diminished by the removal of Vane from office (he would depart for England, never to return), and with the “wise and pious” John Cotton recognizing that his opinions were “unhappily discordant with those of the Powers that be,” the stage was set for a trial. A “Synod, the first in New England, was speedily assembled, and pronounced its condemnation of the obnoxious doctrines” of Anne Hutchinson, who was “next summoned” (perhaps mistakenly, more likely for dramatic purposes, Hawthorne reverses the actual order of the religious and civil trials) “before the supreme civil tribunal.” It is at this point that Hawthorne resumes “the more picturesque style of narration.”


The hall in “New Towne” (later Cambridge) in which the Elders meet, “sitting in judgment upon the disturber of Israel,” is humble: “rude benches,” a floor of axe-hewn wooden planks, roof-beams that still “wear the rugged bark with which they grew up in the forest.” Had he been writing seven years later, Hawthorne would surely have noted a striking coincidence: for it was in a new but almost equally humble wooden building on the exact site of this log church that, in 1837, Emerson would deliver his signature lecture, the Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar.” That second declaration of American independence demoted conventional “tuition” (allied with mere “understanding”) in favor of self-reliant “intuition,” characteristic of “genius,” and associated with the Puritan and Quaker inward light. “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else,” Emerson confided to his cousin, David Haskins. “I believe in the still, small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He was fusing God’s “still, small voice” as heard by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ insistence that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). In the Phi Beta Kappa address, Emerson celebrated an America in which “each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” Echoing his British Romantic mentors, Carlyle and Coleridge, especially the latter’s democratic and religious emphasis on “each and all,” with “every man the Temple of Deity,” Emerson was also, in effect, championing the claim of immanent and unmediated revelation for which the Puritan Elect had tried and condemned Anne Hutchinson on that very spot precisely two hundred years earlier.

In a more radical endorsement of that doctrine a year later, again at Harvard, this time in the Divinity School Address, Emerson imagined Jesus saying, in a momentary “jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’.” What is needed, Emerson told the shocked clergy present among the thrilled young graduates, is direct, unmediated vision. Each neophyte preacher in the audience, fortified by the God within him, is to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”

For his radical proclamation of inner-light self-reliance and insistence on “reading God directly,” Emerson was not, unlike Anne Hutchinson, banished from Massachusetts, nor was he tried for heresy, as his contemporary Abner Kneeland had been. But three decades would pass before the “mad dog,” “blasphemer,” “infidel,” and “cloven-hoofed pantheist” (charges he endured with characteristic equanimity) was invited back to Harvard. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from his alma mater following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint thyself at first-hand with Deity.” If her scalped and burned body could rise from its grave, Anne Hutchinson would be entitled to smile, grimly but triumphantly.


We can return now to the rugged site of her civil trial, as vividly recreated by Hawthorne. The hearth of “unhammered stone” is heaped with blazing logs. “A sleety shower beats fitfully against the windows, driven by the November blast, which comes howling onward from the northern desert, the boisterous and unwelcome herald of a New England winter.” There are, within the hall, other boisterous, unwelcome, and violent forces threatening the community: “Here are collected all those blessed Fathers of the land, who rank in our veneration next to the Evangelists of Holy Writ, and here also are many, unpurified from the fiercest errors of the age and ready to propagate the religion of peace by violence.”

The “highest place” among the Elders is occupied by John Winthrop. It was Winthrop, leader of the Puritans arriving in the New World on the Arbella, who, seven years earlier, had referred, in a now famous shipboard sermon, to the incipient colony as “a city upon a hill,” a beacon of light and example to all. (He was aware that many would be monitoring their success or failure, not least England’s rival colonial powers, the Spanish and French.) Winthrop had, in May 1637, resumed gubernatorial power, following the brief governorship of Vane, an astute aristocrat and adherent of the free-grace movement represented by Cotton, Wheelwright, and, above all, by Anne Hutchinson. As presiding judge at her civil trial, Winthrop is described by Hawthorne as “a man by whom the innocent and the guilty might alike desire to be judged, the first confiding in his integrity and wisdom, the latter hoping in his mildness.”

Next mentioned is past and future governor John Endicott, an ambiguous hero in the tale “Endicott and the Red Cross,” here depicted as a zealot “who would stand with his drawn sword at the gate of Heaven, and resist to the death all pilgrims thither, except they travelled his own path.” There are others, but Hawthorne presently zooms in on the central figure, initially stressing her intellect:

In the midst, and in the centre of all eyes, is the Woman. She stands loftily before her judges, with a determined brow, and, unknown to herself, there is a flash of carnal pride half hidden in her eye, as she surveys the many learned and famous men whom her doctrines have put in fear. They question her and her answers are ready and acute; she reasons with them shrewdly, and brings scripture in support of every argument; the deepest controversialists of that scholastic day find here a woman, whom all their trained and sharpened intellects are inadequate to foil.

Aside from that unconscious, half-hidden “flash of carnal pride,” the portrait is admiring, even reminiscent of Jesus defeating or deflecting the theological challenges of his rabbinical enemies. But Anne Hutchinson is not only a woman of sharp intellect and deep biblical knowledge. Along with an acute mind, she possesses, and is possessed by, the inward voice and inward eye of an enthusiastic, perhaps fanatical, true believer. The court confrontation intensifies, and

by the excitement of the contest, her heart is made to rise and swell within her, and she bursts forth into eloquence. She tells them of the long unquietness which she had endured in England, perceiving the corruption of the church, and yearning for a purer and more perfect light, and how, in a day of solitary prayer, that light was given; she claims for herself the peculiar power of distinguishing between the chosen of man and the Sealed of Heaven, and affirms that her gifted eye can see the glory round the foreheads of the Saints, sojourning in their mortal state. She declares herself commissioned to separate the true shepherds from the false, and denounces present and future judgments on the land if she be disturbed in her celestial errand. Thus the accusations are proved from her own mouth. Her judges hesitate, and some speak faintly in her defence; but, with a few dissenting voices, sentence is pronounced, bidding her go from among them, and trouble the land no more.

Of course, “trouble” followed the exile. Her path through Rhode Island led to the Dutch territories, and to Anne Hutchinson’s “awful close” in that bloody massacre in which the one survivor, her daughter, became a captive of those who had mistakenly slaughtered her family. Some comfort may be found in Hawthorne’s own compassionate “close.” In contrast to the schadenfreude and vindictiveness of some Puritan judges, confident that the banished woman had been justly pursued by “God’s anger,” Hawthorne ends on a note of elegiac consolation. Though little Susanna, raised by the Siwanoy, “never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven,…yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

Massacre William Cullen Bryant's A popular history of the United States, 1878Massacre from William Cullen Bryant’s A Popular history of the United States, 1878


What is there left to say about the ultimate significance of Anne Hutchinson’s “remarkable case”? I’ll conclude by focusing on the obvious, her place in a long tradition of male judgment of women, and, less obvious though already suggested, on Anne Hutchinson as an unacknowledged precursor of Emerson—who claimed, in his central epiphany, “I am part or particle of God”—and of what we rightly think of as the Emersonian spiritual and poetic tradition in America.

The colonial-period documents collected by Ruether and Keller in Women and Religion in America (1983) stress the book’s titular theme. The female editors note that Anne Hutchinson’s trial, though the most famous, was not an isolated phenomenon, but instead “represents the fate of a large number of New England women of her generation who received similar judgments before the law.” Like many later victims of European and New England witch-hunts, Anne Hutchinson was a midwife and healer; but the principal reason, or rationalization, behind her perhaps pre-ordained condemnation was her assertion, under intense questioning, of immediate revelation: her claim to hear—directly, without the mediation of church authorities—the voice of God. Asked, on the final day of her civil trial, how she knew that her inward voice, the voice of her conscience, was truly of “the spirit,” she posed a counter-question about the near-sacrifice of Isaac:

Mrs. H. How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?
Deputy Governor. By an immediate voice.
Mrs. H. So to me by an immediate revelation.
Deputy Governor. How! an immediate revelation.

As the exclamation suggests, that is the crucial moment: the moment at which, in Hawthorne’s phrase, “the accusations are proved from her own mouth.” For it was this claim to direct revelation that justified her further claim: possession of the power, that “gifted eye,” to distinguish between true spiritual leaders and false, the latter exemplified by the male accusers presently sitting in judgment of her.

Accusations like theirs were also “proved” in two other “cases,” both, as in Hutchinson’s case, combining the rebellion of the individual against the powers that be with sexual politics, theology, and immediate revelation. The parallel likeliest to come to mind is the trial of Joan of Arc, the medieval heroine unskeptically eulogized by Mark Twain, for once shorn of his cap and bells. Under duress that dwarfs Anne Hutchinson’s, Joan refused to yield, insisting to the fiery end on the truth and spiritual origin of her “voices.” But the first and most famous figure to privilege a higher, spiritual law (themis) above the civil proclamations of authority (nomoi) is Sophocles’ Antigone. When, in his great essay “Experience,” Emerson sought to define what he repeatedly refers to as “spiritual law,” he repaired to the locus classicus and earliest statement of that law: Antigone’s arch response to Creon (Antigone 455-57) that she did not think that his laws—even if he is a king with the power to sentence her to living entombment—could countermand “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws”: laws which are immutable, divine, and, on the human and therefore subjective level, intuitive.


HUTCHINSON Statue Massachusetts State House Boston Cyrus Edwin DallinHutchinson Statue, Massachusetts State House, Boston, Cyrus Edwin Dallin

Thus began the West’s long history of freedom or anarchy, truth or delusion, an “inward” history eventually fusing inner-light Protestantism, German Idealism, and British Romanticism, culminating in a distinctively transatlantic emphasis on self-reliance and divinity within. The central American figure is, of course, Emerson. “Shall I not treat all men as gods?” he asks, only to be responded to by D. H. Lawrence (in a review of Stuart Sherman’s 1922 book, Americans): “If you like, Waldo, but we’ve got to pay for it, when you’ve made them feel that they’re gods. A hundred million American godlets is rather much for the world to deal with.”

In this reductio ad absurdum of schismatic multiplication, every man not only his own sect, but his own godlet (American “exceptionalism” run amuck), Lawrence is having some jocoserious fun. Yet even our most devout Emersonian, Harold Bloom, acknowledges being as troubled as he is fascinated by his hero’s fierce affirmation of the autonomous self, conceding that Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” Bloom is silently but aptly echoing a graphic image from Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter,” a poem in which the self-reliant, divinized soul, recovering “radical innocence,” learns “at last that it is self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is heaven’s will.” Yeats couples with this Emersonian alignment of the self with God, a warning—resembling Hawthorne’s admonishments in his preamble to “Mrs. Hutchinson”—about women entering the public arena. Thinking as always of his Muse, the political firebrand Maud Gonne, who bartered her cornucopia “for an old bellows full of angry wind,” Yeats declares: “It’s certain that fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat/ Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.”

Bloom enlists Yeats’s “Prayer” in this rare moment of reservation regarding Emerson in his 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? And, for Bloom, America’s daemonic wisdom, substantial fare mixed with crazy salad, is to be found principally in its great poets: Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane and, above all, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Identifying the “Me Myself” with divinity, Whitman is (in “Song at Sunset”) “ecstatic to be this incredible God I am.” Whitman is, of course, a disciple of Emerson; as, only slightly less overtly, is Wallace Stevens, whose Canon Aspirin announces in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (canto 8 of the final section): “I have not but I am and as I am, I am.”

Declaring that “before Abraham came to be, I am” (John 8:58), Jesus had dared to utter the name of Yahweh, self-described in Exodus 3:14 as “I am who am” (eher asher ehyeh). Audaciously repeating the forbidden name three times, Stevens, like Whitman before him, consciously participates in the divinity-within tradition of one part of Emerson. Torn between antinomies, defined by what he calls “polarity” or “contradiction,” Emerson oscillated between passive, uninspired states, when he was no more than “a weed by the wall,” and sublime moments when—“become a transparent eye-ball,” the “currents of the Universal Being” circulating through him—he participates in divinity. That moment in the opening chapter of Nature is the most celebrated, or notorious, Emersonian epiphany. But there are others. “A certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being.” And he adds, a few sentences later: “In certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He.”

The “wandering light” that, at certain “auroral” moments, revealed to Emerson his divine origin, and, in his “ultimate consciousness,” his identity with God, was recorded in a journal entry of May 26, 1837. Precisely two centuries earlier, Anne Hutchinson, though never claiming to be a godlet, told the Puritan elders judging her how she had long been “yearning for a purer and more perfect light, and how, in a day of solitary prayer, that light was given.” This inward light endowed her, she claimed, with the capacity that would condemn her: “the peculiar power of distinguishing between the chosen of man and the Sealed of Heaven”—in short, between a truly spiritual Elect and the “unregenerated” men who had been chosen by the Puritan community to “lead them to Heaven,” only to see (in Hawthorne’s dramatic synopsis of the accusation she levelled against her accusers) “the features of their guides change all at once, assuming a fiendish shape.”

The official transcript of the civil trial of Anne Hutchinson ends with the following exchange between the presiding judge and the defendant. Governor Winthrop: “Mrs. Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.” Her final response, “I desire to know wherefore I am banished,” is silenced—despite Winthrop’s personal “integrity,” “wisdom,” and “mildness”—by the “fiendish” voice of inexorable and tyrannical authority: “Say no more, the court knows wherefore, and is satisfied.”

The forces of the status quo, of established authority, are always “satisfied” when the courageous but dangerously disruptive—often women—are silenced. No matter how many penetrating questions they may have raised, and challenges they astutely responded to, Antigone and Joan of Arc had heard the same words that later shut off Anne Hutchinson: “Say no more, the court knows…and is satisfied.” The “divinely chosen” members of the Elect, however idealized by Marilynne Robinson, do not always reflect God’s tendency to “scorn the hierarchies” of the world, at least not when they themselves constitute one of those hierarchies.

And yet we also remain, like some members of that Puritan court, suspended between awe and fear, admiration and wariness of Anne Hutchinson—impressed, as was Hawthorne, by her intellect, passionate intensity, and courage, but inevitably uncertain as to whether the “light” given to her was in fact “purer and more perfect,” or, as the majority concluded on that wintry day in 1637, the result of “delusion.” Reading about her claim to an “inward light” and “inward voice,” we wonder as well. Was her revelation, which clearly provided “bread” to some, too mixed with crazy salad for a communal meal? Our guide on this occasion is Nathaniel Hawthorne, and our own uncertainty reflects the duality of that notably “inconclusive” artist himself: here, as always, balancing conflicting perspectives and leaving, not the final judgment, but the final interpretation, to his readers.


Coda. Hawthorne would remain a perspectival thinker and a writer more given to options and innuendo than to absolutes. Nevertheless, by the time, two decades later, that he wrote The Scarlet Letter, he seems to have moved considerably closer to approval of his “Mrs. Hutchinson.”

As mentioned earlier, Hawthorne suggests, at the end of that novel’s opening chapter, that there is “fair authority for believing” that the rose-bush that grew by Hester Prynne’s prison-door “had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson.” Following that hint, I have already suggested a connection between Hutchinson and Hester, a hint worth fleshing out. When, in Chapter 8 of The Scarlet Letter (“The Elf-Child and the Minister”), the Reverend Mr. Wilson asked little Pearl, “Who made thee?” that precocious and perverse imp, though Hester had often spoken to her of her Heavenly Father, “announced that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bunch of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.”

The child figures as well in Hawthorne’s most direct association of these two women. In Chapter 13 of the novel, “Another View of Hester,” we are introduced to a great change in the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. Once the most reviled of women, condemned to wear the scarlet A as her badge of adulterous shame, Hester gradually emerges as a model of virtue and, in her public role, an angel of mercy to those in the community in need. Her interior life was also transformed as she increasingly turned to thought, to speculation both deep and ‘bold.” That thinking remained private; she never became an activist. But were it not for Hester’s need to care for and educate Pearl, we are told that

it might have been far otherwise. Then, she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Anne Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess. She might, and not improbably would, have suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment.

It is not too much to say that, at least in retrospect, Hawthorne’s early “sketch” of Anne Hutchinson can be seen as a test-run for his fully matured story of another bold woman. Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s masterpiece, also suffered, not death, but condemnation at the hands of a Puritan tribunal administering the stern law of a colony destined to survive despite, or because of, the suffering of the individual who violates a sacred code of that community.

—Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

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


Nov 052015

1 circus closeup 2

HE STILL STARES AT ME after forty years, the man holding the rope, with a look that even at this poor resolution can only be violation. And the woman with the lithe body, seemingly naked in her light-colored tights, frozen in the moment of lifting a knee and raising both arms in air, preparing for flight, for ecstasy, or for some other abandon, still has her back to me, as does the man beside her, touching, guiding, helping in some way.

2 Circus

They are rehearsing for a circus somewhere in a court or square in Paris—I’ve forgotten where—and the sight was something interesting, behind the scenes, which, walking by and finding an opening in the tent, I thought I should take a picture of. The woman is practicing for a leap—onto a passing horse circling the ring?—that she will perform one night alone without the help of the two men or the safety of the rope, effortlessly, flawlessly, for our breathless wonder. This must be my violation. The supports and imperfect attempts, diminishing, distracting, meaningless, must be kept hidden and not be exposed.

I was 20 and had taken a year off from college. My expectations were bright but empty, undefined yet blinding. I had no good reason for being there and no idea what I would do next. Taking pictures itself was a matter of reluctance and indecision. I didn’t want to appear the tourist so seldom carried my camera. Nor could I find convincing purpose. I had slight knowledge of the city, little insight, and superficial experience, all that my pictures could reveal. Besides, everything had been photographed many, many times before by practiced journalists and artists with a better eye. Or I could just buy postcards. Still there were days when I gathered resolve and went on random expeditions throughout the city, firing away with stuttering abandon.

Paris itself was having a rehearsal of sorts, and there were tents, scaffolds, ropes, safety nets, and helping workers everywhere. The city was in the last stages of the Malraux plan to restore its historic buildings and clean its face to the world.

3 Scaffold 3

4 street scaffolding

Demolition of Les Halles, the centuries old market, was nearly complete, leaving a pit—le grand trou—the city debated how to fill.

5 Les Halles 2

Paris was the setting for Touche pas à la femme blanche!, Marco Ferreri’s farce that appropriated our history to portray the influence of power and money, the decline of native ideologies. I saw it when it came out. In the climactic scene Custer’s last stand is staged in the pit, a failed performance.

6 Les Halles Pit

It was 1973 or 74, a stalled time without much to distinguish it. France was adjusting to its declining influence and, like the rest of the western world, was in recession. The passions of May ’68 had calmed, though there were still some protests in the streets, many against our involvement in Iran and elsewhere. Last Tango in Paris and La grande bouffe were also playing in the theaters, movies sounding contemporary ennui and excess, two terms of the stall.

My pictures themselves were subject to accident and corruption, resulting in images that were excessive or indeterminate, all boring, imperfect attempts without any hope of spectacle. I bought an inexpensive, used manual rangefinder for the trip and an exposure meter, also cheap, which I didn’t know how to use well. I shot 400 ISO black and white film so I wouldn’t need a flash for interior shots and only had the negatives developed. But also the shutter was faulty, which I didn’t discover until it eventually broke, so exposures decayed gradually, erratically. I didn’t know what I had until I got home and enlarged the negatives—grainy photographs with blurred or dim or dark images, underexposed or overexposed, with excessive sharpness or faltering contrast.

I could ascend heights to get the larger view and gain perspective

7 vista 3

and see the vast, reasoned grid of ministries, French bureaucracy, revealed in sharp outline, and the labyrinth of narrow, old alleys released into wide boulevards, the plan of Baron Haussmann, its argument between the state and its people.

8 vista 2

The suspicion has been leveled that Napoléon III wanted to broaden the streets to make it easier to bring in troops. Paris is an open encyclopedia of a millennium of debates between rule and chaos, between the passion for order and the order of desire. Read a history of Paris and the streets fill with shouts of protest and run with blood.

But I could only see the order of order, not its basis, nor the life it might contain, and the relationship of the present order, newly freshened, to past and present disorder or to anything else was hazy.

9 vista 1

Fragments from the distant past were preserved but, eroded by the centuries, only revealed rough figures and uncertain structure.

11 Cluny thermes

Everywhere, well preserved, the buildings of faith. The structures that held them up and allowed the light to enter

12 buttresses 1

faith’s entry, its sharp contrasts of dark and light, right and wrong, up and down

13 dark church exterior

its followers

14 Apostles chartre?

its overarching beliefs.

15 churchover door

Inside, however, current practice came out only vaguely mysterious or dark, absent

16 church dark windows

or was flickering, wavering.

17 candles church 1

Faith’s monsters, though, still interest us.

18 pair of gargoyles

I did feel safe, however, walking the streets at any hour. And I did have some exposure to all walks of life, from the derelict to working class to the upward rising, even to an established family who traced its roots back to Roman days, but in all cases I saw an economy and tentativeness I hadn’t known growing up in the U.S. More unsure were the faces of the immigrants from beyond France’s borders, lured to the city during better times with better chances of employment.

Contrast my black and white pictures with pictures of Paris now, their confident display, their bright colors. Compare them with what we see in Paris itself, the sharp, clean lines of its monuments and buildings, the polish and refinement of the restored neighborhoods. But look, too, at the neighborhoods where it may no longer be safe to walk, most on Paris’s borders, where the immigrants now mass in simmering dislocation and disaffection, where there are breaks into violence, what you see in the movie La haine. And watch Entre les murs, where cultural conflict erupts in a middle school classroom.

It’s what cities have become, spectacles for our wealth and containers for our contradictions and exclusions. The decay and violence of the latter, however, can divert us and give our lives texture. Paris has its policier EngrenagesSpiral. We have our own, The Wire, etc.

There were intimations of the future, towering abstractions, void of past reference.

19 tour Italie

La tour Super-Italie. It was the Montparnasse tower, however, just completed in the heart of Paris, that most broke the city’s low skyline and raised the most protests. Pomidou, however, looking forward, wanted his towers, and more were on the horizon.

20 vista from park

It’s what our cities have also become, platforms for rising skyscrapers of soaring ambition, solid yet ethereal, forward gazes that look past us, past themselves, past anything we can see.

Not long ago I digitized the negatives and stored them on my computer. Processing them raised problems and questions about purpose and procedure. How could I bring out what wasn’t materially there? How could I soften total black or bring contrast to the chemically faint or still the blurred motions? Should I edit the imperfections in the negatives or the dust spots gathered from years of storage? Make adjustment for the shifts brought by electronic transfer? I had no guidelines and couldn’t decide, so left most the way they came out on my screen.

21 boatSeineLight

22 blur

What is the relationship of my pictures to reality? There are the realities of time and place and light—when I took them, where the sun was, what was in the sky—none of which can be easily determined or precisely defined. There are also the realities of my imperfect skills and uncertain motives. Add to those the mechanical reality of my failing shutter and the reality of chemical reactions in the film and the reality of electronic translation. These are all realities, defined by human nature and natural laws. How do they add up? Which takes priority? What relationship do they have with any larger picture? Why are my pictures any more or less real than any others?

There are no answers to these questions.

There are no pictures of me standing next to anything as I never asked someone else to take my camera. Here’s me, here’s Notre Dame. What is the purpose? What is revealed or qualified by the juxtaposition either way? I can’t imagine what pose I might have made and even now don’t want to strike one. Nor are there pictures of the people I met, though I remember many well, most with fondness, and I have written about them. Capturing them unannounced might only have exposed moments of reserve or indecision had they dropped the mask they showed the world to protect themselves. Taking a picture of the mask would have been pointless as it tells nothing. Pulling a camera out before them would have forced them to make a face and represent a relationship with me that may not have been well defined, or may not have existed. Or, worse, coerced a smile when they may not have wanted to give one. And if a moment of joy escaped or closeness emerged, why take the life of either and freeze it on film?

Yet what I most saw in Paris without notice or reflection, what my pictures most show, what I have added to in the decades since, is that our lives are largely spent in motion, the stall of going somewhere and being put on hold, the arrow that comes between a and b

23 trains

or in mere process, employment that may not engage us, that wears without renewal, where we are absorbed without thought

24 quai?

or in idle ways to pass the time

25 boules

or in gray repose

26 park fountain

or in random movement without relationship or interaction.

27 Street scene 2

28 Street scene 1

We are not rehearsing for anything. The French have a saying to express the tedium, métro, bureau, dodosubwayworksleep—that countered liberté, égalité, fraternité or left it hanging in air and dissolved any distinction one might make in time and place. Yet still we practice and try to perform, to fly and project beyond ourselves, or think we are trying. Our attempts at rehearsals are eternal, but eternal only in the sense that the spectacle they might lead to or we think they might lead to always lies beyond us and flees us everlastingly. Yet we can always count on this eternity, and also on this article of belief: it leaves our options open.

Most of Paris was still close to the ground, however, and the mansard roofs with their many attachments still capture our imagination and encourage us to look up.

29 roofs 1

And this is my revelation at last, after forty years: it is the spectacles that are illusory and in them we get lost.

But the place that most comes back to me really wasn’t anywhere. I lived in a working class neighborhood in Arcueil, a commune on the southern border of Paris. The landlord and his family lived on the first floor and rented out the second, where I had a room and others came and went. One day, for no reason, I pulled out my camera took this picture of the backyard

30 Backyard

about which I have written:

I am sitting at the kitchen window with a bottle of wine, looking out. The small plots behind the houses on my street and the houses on the next are enclosed by a grid of rough block fences, squaring the backyards and joining them. Each yard has something that distinguishes it, and the rural influence remains here, just outside Paris—a vegetable garden, pens and sheds for animals. Someone has chickens, someone else a goat. Also sheds for storage or some personal labor, hidden. In my yard, a swing set the owner’s daughters no longer use, a rusting memory of childhood. There is nothing else to see, other than a high-rise apartment building in the distance, modernish and sterile, not even the setting sun, off to the side and behind several houses. There is no streaking light in the sky, no dramatic break of clouds, no place for saints or angels to sit or stand, no chariot on which to descend, nor the lurid glare from war or revolution, just a pale blue diminishing into grayness. The world is silent, save for an occasional ratcheting cry from the goat, the flutter and coo and cluck from the hens. As the sky darkens, cats come out and negotiate the grid of walls and climb the roofs of the houses in their liquid, feline stealth.

I have no thoughts of leaving the window. I feel I have found a place, feel myself in place, but it is not a place I can name. I think about nothing, don’t even think to think, have no thoughts of that day or of the past months or the years coming, of who I am or what I want or what I am supposed to do. I do not feel depressed. I do not feel anything. I only feel alive, and all I am aware of is the quiet hum of existence in the lingering light.

I was not alone. I am not alone. I will never be alone.

To put yourself in this moment is not an act of humility, or contrition, or the backward arrogance of denial. It isn’t anything, and being there is doing nothing. To try to locate it is to get lost, as it isn’t anywhere and everywhere at the same time, perhaps to realize the error of trying to find, of location.

We could use what this moment reveals to build a philosophy, even a religion, but could just as easily use it to tear apart all thought and faith. It is only by tearing the self apart and seeing what is left, however, that we can start again and rebuild and try once more to think, and wish, and believe.


—Gary Garvin



Some of the cathedral pictures are of Chartres. Parts of the text, the quotation, and several pictures come from my essay “Above the Roofs of Paris, a Non-Memoir,” which appeared in Fourth Genre, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring 2015. It is available at JSTOR, is excerpted at Project Muse, and can be found here.

George Packer, in “The Other France,” The New Yorker, with the Charlie Hebdo slayings in mind, recently provided an update on immigrant dislocation in the suburbs of Paris, specifically Department 93:

For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation.




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth 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.


Nov 042015



“You’re more James Franco than James Franco.”


“Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”

I had, but I let the man keep speaking, and I let the other man to his right keep nodding.

Everyone, in fact, was nodding, shaking, vibrating. Heads, feet under tables, dollar bills, British pounds, seven different mobiles in various degrees of battery life. The blue and gold coat of arms hanging outside the Applebee’s where we’d been sitting, flag flailing in the wind.

We were in Cannes, it was 2011, and earlier in the morning, Lars Von Trier had been forcibly escorted out of the festival. Something about racist comments: Hitler, the Second World War, Jews — something about something.

“And when you are in my film, you won’t be acting,” the nodder, Wiktor, cut in. “You will be reacting. You will have forgotten all about ‘Chris Campanioni.’ You’ll simply be Sam.”

“Duncan,” the other one volunteered. His name was Bob. He was pale and lumpy, and his green golf shirt had sweat marks across his chest and under his arms.

“Really?” Wiktor said. “I pictured him as Sam.”

“You know what?” Bob looked at me. He stopped shaking. Everything seemed to stop. Unless I’m only remembering it in slow motion.

“What?” I asked, genuinely interested. I was holding a half-full highball, and I even put it down, letting the condensation form a halo around the glass’s edge on the fake porcelain table. Pausing to reflect on the image.

“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”

I had to laugh. This was a production, even if none of it was actually being filmed. I had met Bob on Facebook and all it took was a cappuccino at Café Orlin on St. Mark’s a week earlier for him to sell me on the idea of the movie he wanted to bring to Cannes, the movie and me, and the idea of course. It was first and foremost (and forever) an idea — and I’d decided to bring my friend, Eric, along for the ride, or whatever the ride afforded us, because we were as good friends as I could think of. As good friends as friends could be.

Two years earlier, in 2009, we were living together in Hoboken when the power went out across town for a week. There was nothing else to do but go to bars in Manhattan. Bars, restaurants, cafés, anywhere that had light, and preferably, heat. Returning home one night, a block away from our apartment, we had something else to do: each of us staring down the barrel of a gun. I know nothing about guns. It could have been a .357 Magnum or a toy pistol.

It wasn’t dramatic: it just was. The movies, those gunfights, those tense moments, being held up in the movies is always so much more dramatic, so much more real. In real life, everything feels flat. I don’t even think I was afraid. I didn’t have time to think about death, to think about life. I was silent. Maybe I was imagining it happening in the movies, trying to will it into being somehow more poignant. That’s the problem with movies. Unless that’s the problem with real life.

“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”

Bob repeated it, probably considering that I was hard of hearing or just hadn’t understood what he meant. What he meant was that I looked too dark to be a “Sam” — or a “Duncan” for that matter. My agents, past and present, were always telling me to stay out of the sun. Unless I was at a casting that called for Hispanic or Latino, which everyone in the industry used interchangeably.

I felt like I should say something; I wanted to say something; I didn’t know what to say. I only knew I wanted to say, to speak, to utter a few sounds together.

I said nothing. I did nothing, but write in my notepad, which I had been carrying with me since my evenings as a copy editor and reporter at the Star-Ledger. Remnants from a different life, which was the same as this one, just garbed in different clothes.

REPORTER NOTEPAD was etched across the front. Most of the pages were blank, but they were gradually becoming crowded with words. And like many other scenes, I eventually re-fashioned this one into a chapter of Going Down. I didn’t include the bit about Juan. Some names changed, others didn’t. I fictionalized the real in order to make it feel more real to me. It seemed like the best way to approach an investigation into the fashion and newspaper industries, two disparate worlds which meet to mete out fabrication. Manufacture it, sell it, reinvest the profits.

I put my hand around the highball again, lifted the glass, reflected on the image, the imprint of the surface.

“We are talking about creating an art film,” Wiktor interrupted. I was doodling in the notepad now, sketching a vision of Wiktor as Rasputin, because the two looked alike, at least on Google Images, if I looked from one and quickly to the other. Back and forth, from the digital to the physical and vice versa, just like that. “We are talking about bringing this message of consumption to the world.”

Movie-making is the transformation of living beings into dead images that are then given life by being projected on a screen. Movie-going is watching dead images coming out of a projector, twenty-four frames per second. Taking a photograph, at least, implies no such passage. The photograph is already dead.

I had thought that working as a model had transformed time into a circle, a cyclical exchange of repetition and recurrence. The only days that made any sense to me any longer were today and tomorrow. Everything else felt impossible to keep track of, points and spaces that were simultaneously long and short, flowing into and out from one another. But it wasn’t just my experience in the fashion industry that had changed time; it was also our culture, the technological processes we’d adopted. Bought and sold, and sold out to again. Time as it is represented in the world of images — selfies, snapchats, vines, and countless other self-interested glimpses — is instantaneous and fleeting. Quickly forgotten.

The last decade of my life has been filmed, photographed, streamed, and sold back to mass culture. I get paid for it but it isn’t just me who’s doing the buying and selling. It’s all of us; it’s all of our lives.

Authentic experience has been replaced by fetishized experience; existence becomes object. And actual experience is surpassed by talking about it. But not just talking about it, re-distributing it to the whole world, stamped and packaged in a Facebook or Instagram post. A new skill learned on LinkedIn.

We are selling ourselves back to ourselves.

And still—

We are desperate for the next new thing, the thing that feels real enough to touch, in a way that no touch-screen can achieve, not realizing that we ourselves are capable of authenticity, not realizing that we ourselves can become it.

The next new thing.


I remember being in grad school, sitting in seminar, driving home afterward, into the dark and silence and the night, and wondering just how desperate I could become, just how much desperation I could endure. I had the firm conviction that I had no idea what I was doing there, that I wasn’t writing anything worthwhile, or at least anything worth reading, that I had nothing else to look forward to.

I was stupid enough to believe that everything I’d ever done was already past me, that I had outlived my own adventure, that I would not have anything else to look forward to. On these night drives home, I’d turn up the music as I zigzagged through the Bronx, and I probably would think about moments like Cannes, moments like being in the hotel lobby of the JW Marriott on the Promenade de la Croisette, arriving from Buenos Aires[1] in time to see Lars Von Trier escorted out of the Palais. The only time that’s ever happened, someone expelled from the film festival, then and now.

I will never be here again, I thought then. But I was wrong, because I’d said the same thing in 2008, when I made an afternoon stop in nearby Villefranche. My parents and I hiked the stony Nietzsche Path into the village of Eze and then explored the Vieille Ville, taking pictures and tasting cheese we’d neither heard of nor could pronounce. When I made it back, I tried to imagine the differences between Nice in 2008 and Nice in 2011. There were none, not even my breathless proclamation that I would never return, which was probably repeated in the driver’s seat of my Kia as I crossed the George Washington Bridge.

Cannes in 2011 seems like a fitting entry point into thinking about self-commodification in our post-capitalist world of 2015. So much has changed, except everything. Everything at the festival was for sale; everything was a money game. Bob the Producer brought me to Cannes on someone else’s dime and had me meet Wiktor, the Director-To-Be, as well as a couple (nameless) Saudi financiers (Bingo!), and another actor who’d play le second role.[2] All that was missing was the movie. And still, the money was everywhere. We were spending it and shelling it out to anyone who wanted to take a business card and invite us to dinner or a party on the beach — one of many along the Croisette every evening, which always followed the day’s screenings.

The things we value and the things we pay for have always resided on perpendicular roads. But at the festival, everyone seemed to value payment, the ability to pay for things. People and things. Within a few hours of meeting him, Bob had Eric employed as his personal assistant, sending him off on errands (“print more business cards”) but mostly just having him stand there, making sure people could see him. Making sure people could see the role of Personal Assistant to Director — and especially, Director.

Social media capitalizes on our innate insecurities by removing them from the equation. Say hello, ask me out, say, even, you love me. Taking a photo in private to re-present to anyone else without having to look at them in the eye is a way to circumvent self-doubt. Everyone wants to show and be seen, but I never realized our natural inclination toward exhibition until I was the one on display.

And while the news on display, scrolling across flat screens throughout the festival, showed nothing but sloping quarterly reports and rising unemployment, money was being thrown around like it meant everything; like it meant nothing.

It wasn’t the first time we’d passed Go and collected two hundred dollars. The Eighties and Nineties manufactured a reality that everything that exists exists to be bought and sold, traded in and re-produced. Overnight, North American culture[3] became masturbation and Photoshop. But it’s not enough to simply identify the strains of a society of commodities and narcissism; I’d rather we look at the effects this society produces on how we treat each other and ourselves, the relationships we have and the degree of intimacy we allow ourselves to have.

What happens when every part of a life becomes a product to be sold[4] when every person becomes an object?

Rainer Maria Rilke instructed us in the art of being alone, urging his pupil in Letters to a Young Poet to seek solitude to better find the self. Except in 1902, there was no such thing as omnipresence, at least not in everyday life. Everyday life in 2015 means gazing and being gazed, an unremitted act of reciprocal voyeurism. How can we know ourselves if we are never truly alone?

It should be no surprise that so many of today’s Millennials are facing challenges steeped in identity. In an era of surveillance, media misrepresentation, catfishing, cult of celebrity, and wish fulfillment, what sense of self do we have besides one that is not our own?


I was drinking a martini and eating caviar, or at least putting it in my mouth, stainless steel spoon as small as my thumb, trying my best to swallow.

I loathe both of these things. But it was what the scene called for. Dry martini, vat of caviar, a goblet of rocks.

What the scene did not call for was me in my underwear — blue briefs, yellow trimming— but that’s where I was, or at least what I was wearing, staring down a long stretch of dumbstruck waiters and one stern-looking maître d’.

I was never very good at acting, even though I never thought of it as being hard. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good at it. It’s not hard. You just do what the director tells you. They tell you everything to do. In modelling, it is the same, except the photographer is the one calling the shots. Unless it’s the art director. And then things go amiss, just because so many people begin to speak at the same time and no one, no one listens to anyone but themselves.

So in a sense, I knew all about following guidelines, curating an image, radiating it toward an audience that would either consume it or ignore it, or refract it toward their own audience, multiplying and distorting the image the way light floods a prism.

I knew all about what it meant to produce a bid for approval, the same psychological element that is at play whenever anyone commits a photo of themselves to their social network. Like it, share it, pass it on. Take a screen shot and re-tweet it. Or spend your time sorting through hundreds of images for that top shot to compete with the one you’ve just liked, likely not acknowledging the possibility that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing. Alone, or at least in private.

I’ve always just done what was asked of me in public, while in private done what no one ever thought I could do, writing about my desires and fears and feelings, real sensations of everything that when produced in an action or gesture or any sort of physical movement, seems actually to melt or fade or recede. Reality became more like an impression than an imprint, a prism that twists and alters depending on the angle of the curve and the speed of the light. I was watching in the dark of the cinema again. I’d reach out; I’d never know what I might grasp, except for the roles we are obliged to play and the roles we ourselves have created.

As early as 1975, Michel Foucault wrote about the power of surveillance as a disciplinary apparatus, panoptic observatories which would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. But post-global culture is not just about being watched, it’s also about being commanded to perform. The fundamental question of identity: “Who am I?” has been replaced by “Who am I pretending to be?”

It is tenuous; everything is tenuous, and at Cannes, I began to understand that even I had no control over the performance any longer; I had built an image of me that would outlast me. In truth, the image didn’t just outlast me. It replaced me. The same way that today, our carefully curated online presences replace our physical ones. The same way that our generation will look back on our lives in sixty years and there will be plenty to see. Probably we only wish we would have lived it too.

Its all fun and games has become Its no longer fun even if its all a game.

“And for your next magic trick?” Bob asked, turning to me with one arm raised in feigned amazement.

Probably the only great feat I ever achieved was to allow the leisure class to read the kind of literature that affronted their very lifestyle. That’s real subversion, I think. To trick someone into unwittingly contributing to the demise of the culture they love is like using the language of the spectacle to dissolve the spectacle.

But I hadn’t done that then, not then, not yet. So I just smiled like I always do, letting go with another pre-fab long, loud, laugh.

“You do whatever it is you want, right?” Bob returned. Waiters were hovering like goldfish, lips as wide as their eyes. A few feet from my crotch guests were dining on what looked like soufflé. It could have been bread pudding from the box. “Whatever it is you feel like doing at that moment.”

I nodded.

“Always being myself,” I replied, grabbing my towel and trudging off toward the pool, where the sun was starting to pierce the clouds.

“Well,” Bob slurred, following with a martini that spilled, once or twice, on diners’ feet. “It doesn’t count as stripping if you just show up naked.”

“I thought this is part of the performance,” I mouthed, not bothering to turn around, “or is it a free show?”

Bob shook his head and scowled, hands in his pockets, fumbling, I figured, for his wallet.

“We pay to be here, man.”

I nodded. Bob was right about one thing, at least, even if it wasn’t him who actually paid. But payment was permission after all. It was the only password anyone needed, then and now. And for a price, you can have anything, or at least the illusion of it.

You always get what you pay for.


Tracing our fascination with celebrity and our accompanying patterns of narcissism is analogous to bullet-pointing key moments in cinema. First there was movement, then sound, then color. And then things got really definitive in HD. Everything became louder, crisper, more real. Close enough to touch.

Likewise, celebrities were strangers, people the audience could worship precisely because they had the things we did not. They did the things we wanted to do but never would. Maybe they even did the things we do, every day, except even the mundane began to look magnificent in Technicolor and with the right framing Everything, it turned out, was better on screen, even the things that were edited out in post-production to live again as supplementary materials. We were passive worshippers of the cult of celebrity. We adored these strangers not because we wanted to be like them, but because we wanted to be them. Worship and replace. Wish fulfillment.

But really, we don’t want to replace God anymore; we want to replace ourselves.

Close enough to touch.

And our wish is granted through any device with an Internet connection.

When Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979 he could have only guessed at the degree of self-absorption in today’s Millenials. We’re the unique generation. The generation raised to believe we are all very special. One reason why we look up to celebrities, why we worship fame, is because we know it will set us apart. It will make us somehow different, fulfilling the promise bestowed by our parents and the silhouette of a gold star in their hands. But the greatest danger we as humans face is actually thinking we are all very different from one another. The greatest danger we as humans face is perpetuating the myth that “disconnect” is our default setting.

Yet still we curate, sifting and selecting a seemingly singular experience, tailoring the image we convey to the world and also the images we want to see in it, the soundtrack playing on our headphones, the moods and emotions we want to feel through each song, the movie we are producing, directing, and starring in, in our minds. In the age of proliferation and replaceability, is our abundance of content actually saying anything?

When I think about the festival today, I think about the noise and chatter, the constant eruption of action — action for action’s sake. To speak and be seen; what mattered — what always matters — is the eyes. Quantum mechanics calls it the Observer Effect. We act in accordance with the people watching. If no one’s watching, we don’t exist.

Noise and chatter. Periodic eruptions. Everyone speaking loudly and at the same time. Everyone speaking English the way Americans do in Italian films from the Sixties. So loud and boisterous. So boring.

“I can’t tell if you have excellent emotional control or none at all,” Bob once told me. And it was only because I was so often inside myself. It was only because I would often watch and listen, instead of speaking in return. It would take me so much longer to finish writing it all down.

Even the sky began to act in accordance with the principle of noise. The last day of the festival, as everyone was leaving, abandoning the set for another one, the barrage kept coming.

Voluptuous rain. Enter thunder. Enter the great big bowling balls of the gods. Drizzle, drizzle. Eyes like a goat. Everyone would be staring, stunned to stillness — brief as it might be — looking at me as if they were expecting me to say something. Looking at me as if there was actually something to be said.

When I was younger, I used to be afraid of the camera. Not in the way that certain Native Americans and Aborigines are: I didn’t think it stole your soul (I didn’t know any better then); I was just afraid of the sound. Taking a picture was like a small explosion. The bang I expected but which never came the moment I was facing death for the first time.

Nowadays, taking a picture, capturing an image, takes no time at all. Takes no sound either. Silence.

The skylight dimming and shifting. Questions slipping between us and clinging to our waists.

Four years ago, I took a photograph in my camera eye and tried to preserve it, re-work it, turn it into fiction so it could be more real to me; so it could be more real to you.

The rest is rust and stardust.

—Chris Campanioni


Chris Campanioni is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He is also the author of Once in a Lifetime, a book of poems from Berkeley Press. Find him in space at www.chriscampanioni.com and @chriscampanioni or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Perfunctory five-day detour through South American for pre festival “texture”—or more than likely, a decent tan.
  2. Bob didn’t look far. He cast our server at Café Orlin, right after he asked him for the bill.
  3. And wherever North American culture is available to be consumed.
  4. Pecuniary or otherwise.
Oct 082015

Victoria Best small photo


IN HIS SHORT STORY ‘The Liar’, Tobias Wolff’s narrator is a 16-year-old boy who can’t quite confine himself to the truth. Most upset by this is his mother, a woman who ‘did not consider originality a virtue’ and whose healthy existence is frequently rewritten in her son’s hands. She finds she’s been reported as coughing blood, or suffering from leukemia; there are people ‘stopping her in the street and saying how sorry they were’. The doctor and family friend she turns to tells her he’ll grow out of it. ‘What if he doesn’t grow out of it?’ his mother asks. ‘What if he just gets better at it?’ James is her last son at home, his father has died, his siblings are dispersed, and he makes her feel ‘like a failure.’ So James is sent to his brother, Michael, in San Francisco. Naturally he lies to his mother, and takes a different bus to the one she expected.

This bus goes on a long circuitous route, and when it breaks down, the passengers start to chat. James moves effortlessly into a performance. He says he works with refugees from Tibet (his parents, until their death, being missionaries out there) and, in possession of his audience’s rapt attention, he mesmerises them all with his rendition of the Tibetan language. His lies clean of criminality in the moment, James is transformed into an entertainer, an oracle. The liar has become a storyteller.

The term ‘fiction’ looks two ways at once, its products both legal and illegal. People who make things up compulsively often become writers as often as they become law-breakers. There is a difference, some may insist, between a lie and a story, for with the former there is intent to deceive. And yet, fiction writers often intend to mislead and startle their readers; they play their cards close. The real difference is in reception, with readers seeming to know instinctively that lies in the form of stories are necessary. If we need fiction, it makes more sense to ask ourselves, what’s good about lying?


The Talented Liar

Tobias Wolff is, by his own account, someone who just got a lot better at it. The theme of deceit and its consequences recurs across his works, and is exquisitely elaborated in his memoir of childhood, This Boy’s Life. It’s the story of a young boy who dreams up a life of wealth and adventure to write to his penpal, who refuses the blame for graffiti in the school toilets which he most certainly put there himself, who grows into an adolescent who makes it into a fancy school on the basis of an entirely faked application and letters of support. You can’t help but admire the persistence, the tenacity with which he hones his skills, the innovation with which he finds new outlets for them.

Of course the paradoxical beauty of such a memoir is that it remains transparently honest to the narrator’s dishonesty. The story of a liar’s career can only be told truthfully. The young Tobias (or Jack, as he prefers to be called, after his hero, Jack London) lives with his divorced mother, and he loves her very much, though her bad luck with men frequently gets them into trouble. His father, who we learn elsewhere was a consummate liar himself, is sorely missed by his neglected son, who is forced to make him up ‘out of dreams and memories’. His stepfather, Dwight, is violently abusive. In the midst of this mess of absent and over-active fathering, the stereotypes of the daredevil alpha male lassoe Jack’s imagination. He likes to dress up in the army greatcoat of one of his mother’s boyfriend and lie across the sofa, aiming his rifle through a gap in the blinds. He hangs out with male friends at school, breaking windows, throwing eggs at convertibles, smoking in the toilets and exchanging ‘interesting facts not available to the general public about women.’ He is a stud, a rogue, an outcast, though really, he likes The Mickey Mouse Club.

‘Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me’, Wolff writes. And it’s a common thing, this rehearsal of possible roles, this testing of reality against the imagined options. Jack gains a friend, Arthur, who is ‘a great storyteller’. Arthur ‘refused to accept as final the proposition’ that his ordinary parents were his real parents, attempting to convince Jack he was adopted and descended, in fact, from the followers of Bonny Prince Charles. Jack then decides he comes from Prussian aristocrats. ‘We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.’

But what, then, if he didn’t grow out of it but just got better at it? As he turns adolescent, so he becomes ever more unmoored, unhinged, unanchored. His carefully practised ability to evade the law reflects a world that won’t prevent him from indulging his worst flaws. The idea of faking an application to a prestigious school starts with the ridiculous ease of doctoring his sinking grades. ‘The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.’ And the stakes in the identity games just get higher. As the gap between his reality and his ambitions increases, he finds himself ‘wanting, at any price, the world’s esteem’, and feeling ever more reckless and desperate.

The problem is that he keeps getting away with it. In his essay ‘On Getting Away With It’, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips recalls Freud’s remark that the child’s first successful lie is both the moment when s/he realises that s/he is not in fact the subject of omniscient deities who read minds, a eureka of freedom; and also the point when s/he realises s/he is alone, abandoned, adrift. ‘If you get away with something,’ Phillips writes, ‘you have done well and you have done badly. You are released but you are also unprotected. You have at least provisionally freed yourself from something, but then you have to deal with your new-found freedom.’ What will Jack Wolff do with his? There is a logical progression for those who limbo under the bar of morality, Phillips says: ‘The Good Person would be replaced by the Impressive Person.’ And this is precisely Jack’s aim, and the destination his exquisite memoir confirms. The liar, who must keep his lies a secret to evade punishment, becomes the storyteller, whose command of fiction is both impressive and protected, made viable, worthwhile, enviable. He’s found a way to get really good at it.


The Compulsive Liar

A compulsive liar goes to see his psychoanalyst and recounts to him a typical event. That morning, he had been late for work because of a row with his wife, who was threatening to leave him. When his boss asked him what happened, the liar said he would scarcely believe it. His car was pulled over by the police and he was handcuffed and shoved into the back of a van. From there he was taken to the local precinct and placed alone in a cell, indignant, afraid, but also curious. After about an hour, a plain-clothes detective arrived and apologised for the confusion; he was free to go. Talking to his analyst, the liar is astonished at his boss’s gullibility. ‘I don’t know why I said what I did. I could easily have said I had a flat tyre. But instead I chose this outlandish story. And the poor fool believed me. He believed me. You see, as long as I can do this and get away with it, then I have no worries whatsoever. What is reality if I can do this?’

The analyst is Christopher Bollas, the patient called Jonathan, the case history is called ‘The Liar’, and the question is indeed, what is reality?Yet if the liar has to tell an analyst about his behaviour, there must be some desire to reconnect with the real world, to stop getting away with it quite so convincingly.

Bollas says that Jonathan is more truthful than he at first seems; the trick is to read the lie as a metaphor. Had Jonathan said his journey to work had been like a horrible incarceration, it would have been quite sane and negligible; a story without impact. Instead he said that it was a horrible incarceration, arousing a much more vivid response in his listener, and expressing an encoded truth. Bollas knew that Jonathan was afraid of how he might react if his wife actually left him; in many previous sessions he had expressed fear of his desire to kill her and keep custody of their children. He knew such actions would likely end in his arrest. But in the story he told, although he played with the possibility of arrest, he was then set free, innocent and absolved, by a plain-clothes detective. His fear had been soothed by the fantasy of a different kind of escape. On hearing the story, Bollas understands that the plain-clothes detective, the man to set him free, must be Bollas himself.

The metaphorical lie is a way of accessing a far more powerful and intriguing reality than bald facts suggest. Bollas recounts how: ‘Jonathan’s lying brings him to life and coheres him in a way in which his narration of actual lived events does not. He lies, he often tells me, because lying is living. It is only by lying that he remains alive.’ Jonathan does not like to tell the kind of lies that are the stuff of normal social living, the lie that hides a little secret, that protects another person. Such lies make him almost as anxious as the thought of telling the truth. No, Jonathan likes the big, complex, entirely unnecessary lie, the ongoing saga that can be sustained and exaggerated over weeks. His lies are not to protect his self and his truths, but to create his self and his existence; they are grandiose and extraordinary. He doesn’t want to be a Good Person; he wants to be an Impressive Person.

What could have caused him to behave this way? Jonathan’s background was a secure and moneyed one. His parents were ambitious intellectuals who had met with much success in their careers, and so his early childhood was divided between various members of household staff: a housekeeper, a maid and a rather sadistic nanny, with brief visits from his mother at each end of the day. His father he never knew very well, as he was busy and didn’t have much time for him. It’s not a very impressive genesis for a pathological liar, with no abuse or trauma to awaken a ready sympathy in the listener, nothing, on the face of it, that will explain or excuse. As a story, it lacks impact.

In one ‘particularly intense period’ in analysis, Jonathan asked Bollas about the nature of confidentiality in their relationship. He wanted to know what circumstances would cause him to disclose protected information. After much discussion on this topic, Jonathan admitted that he was planning the murder of someone he knew well. Bollas was not at first convinced, but as Jonathan provided ever more elaborate detail as to his methods and strategies, Bollas began to fear that he might have genuine intent. The situation quickly became intolerable, as he was not sure what to think, what to do. Eventually he took the problem to a colleague who suggested he tell his client that he would certainly inform the police if he did murder anyone. Bollas was relieved to have this solution and then baffled at his own inability to come to it. It was, he felt, because he had been in such confusion over what was truth and what was fantasy.

Having told Jonathan of his intentions, the murder plot was not spoken of again. And Bollas had a particularly provocative experience of how it felt to be on the receiving end of a lie that has been exposed as such. Like others who had caught Jonathan out, he felt betrayed. He wondered if he would ever manage to achieve a proper relationship with him. His trust was shattered. He felt anger at his own gullibility, and sadness that whatever made Jonathan behave this way was not about to stop any time soon. And Bollas realised he was caught up in the experience of a powerful, extended metaphor. He felt, in short, the turbulent and bewildering emotional responses of a child repeatedly abandoned by his parents: the loss of trust, the sense of betrayal, the anger against his own hopeful beliefs, the sadness that he could not prevent it happening again.

Jonathan had created for his analyst a situation that illuminated his feelings of extreme inadequacy and insecurity, and which could help Bollas to understand the ‘crime’ of the lie: here was a child who was never with a parent long enough to create a real relationship, who had to fall back on his own fantasies time and again until the fantasies themselves seemed more solid, more enlivening, more realistic than the truth, which was only anxiety-inducing. Telling the lie gave Jonathan a safe place to be, hearing the lie, when revealed as a lie, put the listener in the place that Jonathan could never find the words to explain to another, in the midst of the emotions that had created him.


The Confused Liar

For just about seven years, between the autumn of 1998 and the winter of 2005, I was a compulsive liar. I gave an account of myself to everyone outside my immediate family that was very far from the truth. I said that I was fine, when in fact I was suffering from a debilitating chronic illness.

I had fallen ill with viral pneumonia over the Christmas of 1997. At that point in my life I had a three-year-old son and an almost-completed doctoral thesis. I also had a post to take up at a Cambridge college in the autumn of 1998. When the illness dragged on for the best part of a year, and there was no explanation for why this should be, or any obvious cure on the horizon, I began to understand that the illness had become unacceptable. I was not cured, yet there was no reason why I was still ill. For this situation, I understood that I was at fault. The term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ did not have much currency back in 1998, and what it did have was of an outlawed and reprehensible nature. There had been cases among the students and I had heard how they were described. They were malingerers, cowards, or just plain lazy. Now this was not someone I wanted to be. I was a hard worker, a reliable friend, and a person who kept her promises; I wanted very badly to be a good mother and an admirable academic. These were truths in desperate need of preservation from an illness with the power to wreck them; I never even felt I was lying, just keeping the faith with what I knew above all else to be true.

About a year after the pneumonia, I found I could appear like my normal self in public for a while. The fact that the symptoms of chronic fatigue – racing heart, low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats, muscle ache – were all invisible was extremely helpful. The trickiest problem was that I felt energetically like a leaky car battery. The longer I acted myself, the quicker my vitality drained away, and in no time at all I would be running on empty and afraid, knowing the symptoms would steadily increase in severity. But no matter how ill I felt, I still got away with it. Does that sound implausible to you? Well, people are ridiculously easy to fool when there’s nothing much to see, and I was good at self-discipline, a natural dissembler.

But I admit I was confused. As the years went by, and I kept on pretending and getting away with it, it became harder and harder to distinguish my own reality. I was strung out between two contrasting images of myself that held mortal sway over me: an Impressive Person, who was good and reliable and held down a demanding job while bringing up a child. Lots of ticks in boxes there. Or a Weak Person, who gave in to a nameless, invisible illness that most people didn’t believe existed. My mother often told me with loving exasperation that I was ‘doing it to myself’. My mother-in-law told my husband it was ‘all in my mind’. I felt like the worst placed person to figure out the truth. Most of the time I was too busy sustaining my façade to have any energy left over for philosophy.

Seven years. Everyone wanted so badly for me to be well; that helped prolong the lie. But what the experience felt like is so hard to explain, I can’t do it without metaphors. When I forced the symptoms out of my way, I could attain a sort of cruising speed, which was a lot like driving without brakes, propelled by momentum itself, exhilarating in its way but fraught with the imminent danger of a crash. In those cruising moments I was alive in a grandiose way, against the odds, but when I crashed and was too ill even get myself out of bed, I wondered what the hell I thought I was playing at. What exactly was I doing to myself? This was an illness where I could never clarify my role as either culprit or victim, but was constantly a mind-bending amalgam of both.

Eventually, I developed a symptom that was non-negotiable. When I struggled through brain fog to recall the details of the texts I was teaching, a moment of reckoning came. I went to see my doctor – something which in its futility I had abandoned as helpful years ago – and described my condition as truthfully as possible. It was the scene for my final lie. ‘How long do you think you’ll need to take off work to recuperate?’ he asked me. And I said, ‘Two weeks.’ It was in fact three long years before I would be well enough to return.

During that time, my perception of myself executed a radical u-turn. Whereas before I had never breathed a word about chronic fatigue, now I told everyone upfront, far too often, that this was what I had. Which meant: this was who I was. In the first year or so, when I spent most of my time in bed, it did indeed wreck the identity I had so carefully – and at such cost! – preserved. I was just an invalid, with an illness that still carried a great deal of stigma. But I was functioning at the level of what was undeniable and issuing a big, bold bring it on. Let them call me malingerer, coward, sloth. I was sick and tired of lying. Finally I could tell the truth and be bad.


The Playful Liar

Readers tend to be picky about the truth content of the memoirs they read, especially after the furore that greeted James Frey’s admission that A Million Tiny Pieces was somewhat embellished and embroidered. So what to do with a memoir that states its intention to be dishonest and tricky from the outset? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, recounts her experiences with an unusual form of epilepsy, unusual in that it may not be epilepsy at all. But to describe what she suffers as epilepsy provides a powerful extended metaphor for the deepest, most twisted realities in her life, and a way into a story that has been ‘eluding me for years.’ The book begins with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy, that is also a warning:

‘[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

Naturally, Hayward Krieger doesn’t exist.

But in the afterword to the memoir, where Slater acknowledges the reader’s desire for the ‘real facts’, she points out that her diagnoses through the years have been ridiculously varied, from borderline personality disorder, to epilepsy, to Munchausen’s, depression, OCD and autism. ‘All I know for sure,’ she writes, ‘is this. I have been ill for much of my life. Illness has claimed my imagination, my brain, my body and everything I do I see through its feverish scrim. All I can tell you is this. Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue as fast as yearly fashions.’ Not that this cuts much ice with some critics. Janet Maslin in her New York Times review said the reader could be ‘forgiven for wanting to throttle the narrator’, and the memoir could be considered as ‘either postmodern fun and games or pure exasperation between hard covers.’ Yet what about that Heideggerian truth of confusion that the fictional Krieger mentions? Is there a better way for readers to understand it than to experience it?

When she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But as puberty comes around, everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. Finally she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. She’s also left with a personality disorder – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. In late adolescence, writing takes on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. When an unhappy affair with her writing tutor ends, leaving her in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, he says, no such operation would be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch. Or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate. Or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth. Or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ And what if ambiguity really is the essence of Slater’s life? What if she is more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections?

What if all our identities were composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? What price truth then? Storytelling and its metaphors would be the only honest expression we had left.


The thing about lies – or we can call them stories if you prefer – is that they are just too essential to our survival to be given up. They hold cherished parts of ourselves that have been driven out of sight; they allow us to express the truth of experiences that no facts can convey; they are often the repositories for realities that no one really wants to face. We want the lie to be a unit of genre fiction, a nice, clear readable chunk of badness, when really it is a highly complex literary construct. A thing of layers and implications and irresolvable paradox. And in the desire to master our lives, to be the people we want to be, and to explain ourselves as best we can, we all get really good at them.

—Victoria Best


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).


Oct 032015

MARGRET-OF-ANTIOCHMargret of Antioch

See how slow and
sure I glide. See my organs
wings. And you, little

fish I once plunged for
–nameless invisible fish in
deepest darkest ocean.

 Changing, Richard Berengarten


Breakfast at Nick’s

For several years after returning from Vietnam to the bewildering streets of New York’s lower East Side, I spent hours every morning at Nick’s Diner on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 4th Street recording dreams. The images that I brought back nightly from sleep, embedded in dramas that pointed to meanings I could almost but not quite understand, were irresistible and relentless. The old Greek proprietor in his lightly stained white apron and half smoked cigarette, the pale blue eyes peeking out of thick, black rimmed glasses was a guardian at the gate. At Nick’s I could sink into my dream-world and feel safe. I would later think of the place as an Asclepian incubator, where I could follow the procession of images to their destination as the smell of coffee, home-fries and bacon wafted from the grill.

Now and then, I’d find the diner closed and knew the proprietor had gone to the track. Otherwise I could depend on the white haired man leaning on the counter to nod as I entered. There were seldom more than five or six customers, mostly on the stools, perhaps one or two at a table. But not my table, a small two seater at the window with a view of Café La Mama across the street. One of the regulars at the counter, a man who made random duck noises, bothered no one. In minutes, Nick set my toasted bran muffin and mug of coffee down next to my open notebook. He did it soundlessly, then returned to his post. I ate slowly, seated next to the one piece of nature in the room, a drooping potted snake plant, and began to write what I recalled. At first I felt lucky to remember one or two dreams. Slowly, my ability to retain whole sequences of dreams increased until I was spending as much as three hours every morning at the task. More time than I’d thought possible. Once dreams were recorded, I floated through them, over them like a man in glass bottom boat above a vibrant coral reef. I never felt rushed. Nick appeared to understand that I was fishing for something important in much the same way he handicapped the Daily Racing Form. I did this for three years, until the bleachers at Aqueduct fell on Nick and the diner disappeared and almost instantly, as in a dream, became a bodega.

What started at Nick’s shaped my exploration as a poet, and later my practice as a psychotherapist. In the privacy of my office I worked with clients’ dreams, fishing for images that might yield insight into patterns and impulses that drove their lives unseen. In this respect I think of myself as part of a lineage dating back to the god Asclepius in the 4th Century BC who healed through dreams. Not surprisingly, I picture Asclepius in a white apron behind a Formica counter reading the Racing Form.

Before Socrates died of self-administered hemlock, he asked his faithful friend Phaedo to remember to bring Asclepius a cock in payment for an old debt. I can easily believe that in his search for truth, Socrates recognized this alternate dialectic with the unconscious that occurred in the Asclepian dream-chambers. And the manner of payment, a cock, represented this as a wakeup call.

Nick’s diner was my dream incubator.

Perhaps I’m taking my penchant for reading things symbolically too far, but I believe there are correspondences between Nick and Asclepius. Both Greeks died violently. Asclepius from a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus as punishment for bringing shades back from the dead. Nick, under falling bleachers while calculating the odds on the Trifecta. Socrates as we know died at his own hand in his own time, refusing the opportunity Phaedo offered him to escape the death sentence imposed on him for corrupting the youth of Athens in his pursuit of knowledge. Whatever he had uncovered in this pursuit left him unafraid to cross the threshold. And it was at this point he acknowledged his debt to Asclepius and asked Phaedo to honor it.

In this respect, I believe Nick was Socratic. I’d like to think that in the eternal instant that precedes death as the bleachers fell on him, Nick managed a smile.

I continue to search the dark reaches of sleep for images that fill me with awe and fascination, and to remain in touch with the intelligence that produces them. 

DREAMSs“Dreams” by Douglas Leichter

Trolling these waters, I learned that my nightly dreams constituted a personal myth, but that Mythology functions as our collective dream. Both divulge meaning through symbols and archetypal imagery and serve as portals for information that enlarges waking consciousness. A key function of dream and myth, personally and collectively, is the integration of experience, without which the psyche would split, exist in what might be compared to a schizoid state, “beside itself.” As Carl Jung might have put it, The Spirit of the Times must be informed by The Spirit of the Depths.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell introduced me to Minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century romance, Parzival. Parzival, a Holy Fool searching for the Holy Grail, arrives at the Grail Castle where the wounded Grail Keeper, Amfortas, awaits one who will heal him. Amfortas eases his pain by fishing, and so becomes known as the Fisher King. Moved blindly on his mission, Parzival is allowed a glimpse of Grail and the Castle. It is like a dream from which he wakes. In the morning, the spectacle disappears. Parzival has glimpsed the Grail’s power, but can’t understand the experience. Slowly he becomes aware that the Grail calls out to one who is worthy of it, and only that one will be able to heal Amfortas and the Waste Land that mirrors his condition. Until that time, the Fisher King daily floats his line in the water from the back of a boat to ease his pain.

The myth resonated inside of me from the start. Years after Nick’s diner had disappeared like the spectral Grail Castle, where I had glimpsed the Intelligence that composed and delivered my own dreams, I grasped the central meaning in the myth: in order to heal the wounded Fisher King Parzival must expose his own hidden wounds. Parzival’s journey through the Waste Land echoed my own.

In February 1966 at the age of twenty-six, I disembarked from the S.S. Esparta at Seattle-Tacoma after six months in Vietnam. The journey was from a war ravaged land to one torn by civil strife. I’d watched homeless orphans in Saigon sell mariposas to GIs, while counter-culture children in Haight-Ashbury got high and pinned flowers in their hair.Timothy Leary instructed his audiences to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” as Henry Kissinger advocated carpet bombing and the use of Agent Orange. Protestors chanted to end the war. Vilified soldiers brought the abyss back with them.

Saturn devoured his children.

IMG_2353“The Despot” by Marc Shanker

The cultural nightmare also laid waste to any claim to sanity by those in authority, balance and trust, all required for healing.

The Post-internet Waste Land is even more deceptive because the new technology that can spin any condition to appear to be its opposite. Hyper-stimulation and desensitization walk hand in hand. Pain hardens into confusion, or explodes in acts of terror. Disconnection looms at every intersection of the Information Super Highway. Environmental degradation proceeds in tandem with urban gentrification. The inherent contradiction in this behavior is no less telling than the one in Parzival’s world where knights left children orphaned in the name of love.

It seems to me that the Fisher King is still in pain, floating with his line in the water, waiting for one who can address the disconnection in the human heart.Parzival may be the first tale on record to identify the wound in Western culture as a failure of intimacy.

I’ve worked with countless dreams, my own and others, since Nick perished beneath the Aqueduct bleachers. At the rate of change in our culture, decades register as centuries. We are on a rocket ship, pressed by the G-force and fortified against it by all manner of desensitizing devices. But the basic structure of the human psyche has not changed since our ancestors inscribed their images swimming in the Paleolithic darkness of those great caves.I have no idea how to approach the problem on a massive scale, but as a therapist I try to do it one person at a time. But while the structure of the psyche remains the same, the environment that surrounds it has changed dramatically.Von Eschenbach mythos speaks to me through the mists of time. But it was brought to light eight centuries ago. What do the Fisher King and Parzival look like today and how are they embedded in the particulars of our lives? The messages received nightly in sleep may provide the best clue.


A Case History

chaim-soutine-by-Tekkamaki[68597]“Chaim Soutine” by Tekkamaki

Perry is Parzival, or as closely cut from that physical cloth as anyone today might imagine. At 6’2”, he has linebacker shoulders, blue eyes are set deeply under a ridge of brow that give him the look of an eagle focused on a world of prey below. The warrior aspect is softened by blond hair, and an open smile. Heads turn when he enters a room. A survey of his gifts reveals that he is a discerning collector of folk art, stalwart conservationist and outdoorsman, formidable chef and sommelier, and a canny business man. In the course of fifty years, Perry has made a living as a rock drummer, night club owner, music producer, and currently as a high-end realtor. His version of the Grail mission is contained in his ambition to be the best possible human being he can, which includes helping those he cares for in any way he can.Women are drawn to him as they might be to a knight who will save them from loneliness, disappointment, and a history of trauma.

Perry projects the fantasy lover to many of the women he meets. The question that troubles him most is his own inability to sustain intimacy. Parzival’s confusion upon leaving the Grail Castle after glimpsing the Grail, might describe what Perry feels after a glimpse, followed by the loss of intimacy. It’s the source of great pain and self-doubt. Perry doesn’t understand why the condition exists, or what to do about it.

Perry’s romantic relationships have been mostly short term, fragmented, and hit-and-run. Certain women endure his brief appearances and longer absences in their lives for months, or even years—until it becomes intolerable to one or both of them. Our sessions over five years have focused on Perry’s wounds sustained at the hands of a sadistic father, and an enabling mother. Physical and emotional violence suffuse his earliest memories. As a child, when things heated up, Perry retreated to his room where he beat out rhythms with drum sticks on a practice pad and imagined he was a rock star in silver tights.

When we first met, Perry exuded a strong bonhomie. The traumatic events of his youth appeared to have disappeared into a life rich in friendship, fine wines and gourmet meals balanced by regular workouts at the gym. Only his painful experiences in relationships stopped him from addressing the void left by a sadistic father and sacrificial mother. The most promising preludes led inevitably to feeling trapped in an intolerable domesticity that made him flee in fear. Most attempts to develop a relationship sent him fleeing out the back door in a matter of weeks.

Until he met Cassandra.

gh3 Crowning of the Poet“Crowning of the Poet” by Grace Hartigan

There was something about Cassandra that would not let him go. From the first, he held on to her even when she pushed him away. She was the one who doubted she would be enough to fill his needs. He insisted his roster of friends, parties and shared enthusiasms for folk art and music, would not threaten their closeness. For the first time he felt no desire to run. Six months into the relationship, they’d moved from casual content to talk of commitment. Cassandra balked. Perry insisted they take it slowly, carefully. He wanted to be careful with her, remembering what it felt like to be overwhelmed.

Cassandra had her own unaddressed but elusive wounds. Her early sexual abuse by her step-father, denied until this day by her mother, had not affected her ability to conduct her daily life as an office manager and mother of three cats. Impeccably dressed during business hours, she was happy to lounge around in sweats on weekends.

Perry found her Nordic good looks irresistible.

Cassandra preferred to stay home, and to avoid unfamiliar social situations. Naturally social, Perry tried to accommodate her without giving up what he felt important for his own well-being. Cassie complained when he spent time hunting, fishing, or socializing with friends. Perry invited her to work on their issues in couples’ therapy. Cassandra appeared for several sessions and then declined to continue.

Perry appeared upset at our next weekly session. He’d caught Cassie going through his emails, and cell phone records. She responded by questioning him. He tried to field her suspicion of any communication with another woman, mostly in the course of doing business. Perry could say little to defend himself from her invective. He explained one of the women was an old friend. He assured Cassie that her suspicions were unfounded, but they continued even after he had provided explanations and alibis. This frustrated Cassandra even more. She couldn’t pin it down, but was certain he’d been unfaithful.

“There is no way to reason with her,” he told me.

Perry insisted that he couldn’t continue with her under these conditions. He was unable to fix what’s broken in Cassie. His partner of almost a year was forcing him out. He is full of grief.I try to comfort him, compliment his work on this relationship, regardless of the way it ends. It’s ground gained.

“What ground?”

In drawing close to Cassandra, I tell him, he’s glimpsed what it might be like to be loving and unafraid. While it doesn’t relieve his grief in the moment, this glimpse of who he might become, moves him.


What We Fish For

Blakelock-Corcoran RYDERMoonlight” 1886-1895 by Ralph Albert Blakelock

Parzival finds the Grail Castle at dusk following directions given to him earlier that day by a man he encountered fishing, who later awaits him in the Great Hall.Bathed, unarmed, and wearing a white robe, Parzival follows a maiden similarly robed to the banquet. He is struck by the scale of the hall, and the abundance of the table at which he is seated. The Fisher King, on the divan beside him, engages him briefly, then cries out in pain. As in a dream, Parzival cannot hear or see his host clearly. The procession displaying the Holy Lance and Grail leaves him in awe. He has only a limited awareness of anything else. Under the spell of these numinous objects, the underlying meaning of the spectacle eludes him. He registers the signs of anguish in his host, deepening furrows, compressed lips, but he has been taught as a knight not to question his host. Parzival fails to ask the Fisher King the healing question. In a state of satiety and confusion he is abruptly taken back to his chamber. He has no idea of the disappointed expectations he’s left behind.

Only years later, after Parzival has felt the weight of his own grief would he be able to fully acknowledge the grief of another. Until that time, he remains tongue tied, buried in false assumptions, and burdened by failure.

It’s not unusual at some point to find ourselves dumbfounded at the banquet of life. A few of us glimpse the image of our unique destiny. Though it may not be fully recognizable, it propels us into the larger mystery of the consciousness—the field from which form arises. The Glimpse, however it appears to us, activates feeling and intuition, a drive to grasp what waits to be named before we can name it.


The Glimpse

Parzival, too, has such a glimpse shortly after he first arrives at the Grail Castle. On his way to the banquet hall he stops in front of a small room on his left. The grey bearded elder lying there lifts his head to meet the young knight’s eye.Parzival feels something familiar stir. The old man seems to float on a bed of light. Suddenly Parzival’s heart is filled with tenderness, an emotion he has not encountered before. He wants to find out more about this man, and learns only that his name is Titurel, before the attendants urge him on to the Great Hall, the scene of his epic failure.

fisher_king_detail2“The Wounded Fisher King”

In the morning no one is present in his room or the corridors. His horse awaits but there are no other horses in the stalls. The castle appears empty. He hears jeering from the walls as he rides out. They accuse him of lacking a heart as well as a tongue. The draw bridge closes behind him. Parzival begins to suspect he is the object of derision. Unseen voices mock him from the battlements, ask why he failed to ask the question.

“What question?” he calls back.

What follows is confusion. The nature of his offense eludes him, until after riding for several hours be encounters a women keening over a dead knight. She reveals herself to be his cousin, Sigune. The corpse she holds, and refuses to let go of, is her lover who died in defense of Parzival’s kingdom during his absence. This corpse is just one of many who have died for his sake, some by his own hand. She then makes clear the depth of his failure to ask Amfortas the healing question. Parzival is struck dumb. What he imagined to be a legacy of noble deeds is in fact a list of failure upon failure.

Parzival has failed because he is unconscious. His mission had been a vague thing, and his intervention the consequence of his inherent knightly virtue. He has yet to learn the whole truth about himself, and the role he must play. The fact that he may be part of the Grail lineage has at no time crossed his mind. Not even as he rode away, or registers the truth as Sigune details it to him.He rides away leaving her with her corpse, the Waste Land unchanged.

What he did take with him was the feeling evoked by his memory of the old man on a bed of light in the room off the corridor. That glimpse had been accompanied by an emotion that connected him to the object of his gaze in a way he could not have understood—that he had in that moment made contact with the original Grail King, his great uncle, Titurel.

The importance of The Glimpse must be noted; it’s a crucial milestone in Parzival’s development. The Glimpse activates the process of becoming conscious.  It will take Parzival twenty years of wandering, struggle and disappointment before he will realize his destiny.

What might he have registered upon seeing Titurel through a crack in the door?

For Parzival, this glimpse is accompanied by a compelling new field of emotions. Perhaps it’s what he saw mirrored by that senex, the wise ancestor who has known the end from the beginning. Did Parzival glimpse himself, redeemed, in the loving gaze of the original Grail Keeper, hidden in a room of the unconscious?

My client Perry, as well, might early on have glimpse the possibility of his redemption in the Cassandra’s loving gaze, or projected that potential on to her. Like Parzival, he may have experienced in that moment the promise of a compelling new emotional field offering something he had never experienced before. Both Perry and Parzival felt rather than understood the depth of this connection, though neither could have explained it.Perry, like Parzival, drawn to that part of himself he struggled to imagine, the part that makes one whole, what we fish for, color flashing under the surface, Osiris’ phallus swallowed by a fish.


Enter the Fisherman

Perry is a life-long fisherman. He is at his best on the bank of a trout stream casting out line. His years have taught him to read the water for patterns, flow and bottom. Perry chooses his lure carefully, and knows where and how to place it. In our sessions, we talk about his dreams in the language of fishing. It has made the symbolic references of the exploration easier to understand.

Dreams and lucid visions hit Perry’s line regularly. The catch can be playful, or smart, or if he is not attentive, it can easily snag and break the monofilament.He is however quick to tell me that fishing for dreams differs significantly from what he does at a trout stream in one respect. Fishing for dream content, he is at times repelled, and at others fascinated by what he reels in. But certain things hold true for both.

“I don’t always catch something, or keep what I catch.”

I ask Perry if he ever throws the most remarkable images back.

Perry smiles. Clearly fishing for trout holds none of the potential dangers inherent in fishing his dreams. The sense of utter vulnerability is absent. The variables are inviting rather than confusing. He loves getting lost in the senses. He insists that standing in the stream, knee deep in waders, watching light and shadow shift along the banks, hearing the current murmur, feeling a breeze touch his cheek, make the experience sufficient unto itself. Some of his finest days are those when he doesn’t get a bite.

This may be true for the Fisher King as well.

I read between the lines. The problem arises fishing in psychological space/time, in which the depths rise up. Perry gets scared when a submerged danger is about to break the surface.“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish hook, or tie down its tongue with a rope?” says God in Job 41. When Perry hears that voice his habit is to take a break from therapy, women, and socially uncomfortable gatherings. Even a fleeting glimpse of what might be brought up from the depths, imprinted with the numinous, can be deeply disturbing to one who is unprepared.

Most spiritual traditions warn against it. In the Jewish tradition, Merkabah mystics are warned to avert their eyes, never to gaze directly at the Throne, lest they instantly become a cinder. Only a divinely ordained but clinically mad Ezekiel, or Moses on the mount cautioned where to gaze, can risk drawing close to the ineffable. God warns Job directly not to stare too deeply into the depths where numinous power exists as the Leviathan:

L'Ange_du_Foyeur Ernst“L’ Ange de Foyeur,” by Max Ernst

His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn. Firebrands

stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from his nostrils as from aboiling pot over afire of reeds.


The Fisherman’s Lament

“I feel empty,” Perry opens our session. “Nothing seems to last. Nothing of value.”

I hear Parzival cast back into the Waste Land.

In Perry’s case, the Waste Land is a workshop he participated in along with other real estate brokers who deal in multi-million dollar properties facilitated by a noted motivational speaker. After briefly assuring them all that they were a dynamic group of high achievers, she challenged them to close their eyes and picture what success looked like to each of them. More specifically, she wanted to know how they saw themselves at the height of their success, and what they would choose to do with their money. It was meant to be a goal orienting exercise, a glimpse of their destination, the longed-for reward each worked so hard to realize.

“I started to cry.” Perry flushed.


For him, this was a glimpse of the abyss.

“Unbecoming in a man after forty-five.”

“What do you make of it?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed his chin, a Perry tell expressing stress. “They keep urging us to reject pain, and embrace pleasure. But for some reason, I’m always moving in the opposite direction.”

I repeat Victor Frankel’s contention that for most people the dream of material wealth fills the void left by the absence of meaning. Perry has read Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and agrees. Still, it is hard for him to let go of the material dream. On the other hand, after so much time pursuing it, material success feels meaningless to him. Surrounded by those at the workshop, all of whom are driven by the desire for wealth, he became nauseous, and frightened he’d throw up.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” I offer.

“Easy for you to say. But where does it leave me?”

Perry’s attempt to fill his inner emptiness with intimacy had produced the same reaction. The recent breakup with Cassandra left him almost permanently nauseous. He had been determined not to follow his past pattern to run away when things became difficult. And he had held firm until the accumulated weight of her accusations had forced him out. She had constantly misread his slightest look as flirtation with a waitress or woman on the bus, continued to check his phone and computer logs. At every turn, Perry found himself litigating in his own defense, attempting to show her that she was mistaken, he was not her predatory step-father.

She would not be persuaded.

“I don’t understand how the nurture and trust I offered a partner for the first time in my life, provoked so much anger and suspicion.”

“Focus on her pain for a moment.”

800px-The_Wounded_Angel_-_Hugo_Simberg“The Wounded Angel” by Hugo Simberg

This is the only way he will be able to ask the healing question.

“I can’t!”

“Because your pain gets in the way.”

“Yes,” he nods. “If only I could get rid of this neediness, kill that part of myself…”

“No, no. You don’t want to do that.”

I suggest that killing feelings rather than understanding them is no solution. There is meaning in pain. To deny it invites substitutes like the pursuit of material wealth and power to fill the vacuum.In time he will be able to separate his pain from hers, and at that point see her more clearly

He confesses to drinking too much.

I tell him to watch his dreams.

“Maybe I’ll go fishing.”

“Good idea,” I reply. “There’s something healing about casting that line, just floating the lure.”

Perry knows I’m talking figuratively, about dreams. He nods, then winces—Parzival hearing the castle gate close behind him.

“I’ll call you,” he says.


Dressing the Wound 

Perry calls two weeks later for an appointment.He hasn’t had the energy before this for a session, but is determined not to run away. There is too much confusion surrounding the situation. He’s ready once again to talk about his dreams. And there is one in particular he wants to explore.

I look forward to the meeting. Perry’s dreams are fluent. His unconscious is often visionary, personal issues enriched by symbols and archetypal content. Facing me from the couch, his back ramrod straight, he recounts the dream that sent him here.

 I’m standing in front of a green curtain that slowly transforms into a face, one I find frightening. At first it is mostly a large mouth, like a tear in the fabric, except it grows lips. Then the other features press against the surface as if they are trying to fix themselves but can’t. The surface is wrinkled like an old cloth. Then it becomes transparent, and parts. I hesitate, but can’t do anything else than step through it, and find myself in a cave. There’s a waterfall at the far end. It falls into a pool, the kind where wild animals come to drink. There may even by foot prints at the edge. Then I notice a fountain at the center of the cave. Water spills from a circular dish into a catch basin. The sound of water falling surrounds me. Musical, almost harmonic. With so much water and stone, the cave isn’t damp. On the contrary. I can feel a breeze which is surprisingly dry and sweet smelling. I start to relax, even sink into a peaceful state, until I sense something watching me, a powerful presence; it seems to be everywhere. I wonder if it is malevolent, means to do me harm. I’m sacred, but fascinated, wait for whatever is watching me to speak. But it doesn’t. There is only silence. I am stuck to the spot. Can’t move. Finally I summon the courage to call out, “Declare yourself!” As soon as I do, the whole scene fades and I am facing the green curtain. The surface wrinkles, lips form then answers me: “I’m here!”

Perry recalls every detail. He had visited a place where his senses registered changes like seismographs. Hyper-reality, he calls it. It was clearer to him than any other concrete place he had been in recent memory. He wondered if what he experienced had been a form of possession, and the presence he felt there with him a demon.

“What you entered,” I suggest, “is a sacred space. Jung refers to it as a temenos.”

“What’s that?”

A temenos, I explain, is an eternal dimension within the psyche. Reflected in its geometry—the circle squared—the temenos refers to a center of personality. It is a space that contains the realized self. As an archetypal form it’s describes the classic mandala. It is commonly expressed in the design of most plazas, a circular fountain at the center of a square. King Arthur’s Round Table is the temenos at the center of Camelot. In Perry’s dream, it’s presented in its archaic form, a fountain at the center of a cave in which the air smells sweet and without dampness, though full of running water.

Perry’s eyes grow wide, Parzival in the presence of the Grail.

“I was terrified,” recalls Perry. “Like I might die.”

“You had a glimpse of wholeness behind nature’s curtain. The green mask of the Great Mother, which you’ve mistaken for a demon, has assured you from disembodied lips that she’ll be there to receive you again, when you’re ready.”

“I guess.”

“Remember what she said?”

“Sure. She said: I’m here!”


Gone Fishing 

grailtable1temenos“King Arthur’s knights, at Pentecost, see a vision of the Holy Grail’. From Lancelot and the Holy Grail.

Perry cancels his appointment the following week, texts that he’s not “running away,” just wants to spend an indefinite time trout fishing. It’s the start of the season, streams are stocked. His gear is packed. We both understand what this means. I hope that in addition to catching trout, he will pull something else out of the deep pool of his sleep. Maybe the Oxyrhynchus, the fish which the Egyptians believed swallowed the phallus of Osiris.

“’Ripeness is all,’” I text him back.

When I see him two weeks later, he reports the following dream.

I am fly fishing in a stream surrounded by high banks of exposed roots from the trees above. Suddenly I feels a tug at the line, pull back, set the hook, then try to reel in, but the line is heavy and appears stuck on the bottom. I give it a tug. The line becomes free, but there is a significant weight on the other end. It doesn’t fight or run, but requires enormous exertion to move. Eventually I can see a shadow in the water, and then make out this huge brook trout, many times the size of a normal one. As it comes closer I notice there are a lot of little fish attached to it, feeding on it. When I lift him out of the water, the small fish fall away and the trout comes up clean. I see that its nose is slightly bent, which happens to very old fish, and that it has a mouth full of razor sharp large teeth. But I’m not scared to touch it. Maybe because it doesn’t resist in any way. I lay it out gently on the bank. It doesn’t try to bite me. I am confident that it won’t hurt me, and my heart is suddenly full of a mixture of sadness and joy, wide open, raw, with an overpowering emotion I realize is love.

Perry shakes his head, still in the grip of that emotion. The dream unfolds of its own accord. Before he says a word, we share an understanding of this one. What he catches in the dream is no ordinary fish, but his wounded core. This ancient creature has been buried in the sunless depths of his soul all his life. It has grown old inside of him. Because of his determination to confront his pain, and our work together, because he is a fisherman who has kept his line in the water, the fish chose to emerge at this time.

fish“Swordfish,” Brunetto Latini’s  Livre de Tresor

He will always experience it, even as a memory, in the present. It waits in the shadows of the stream, where Perry is likely cast his lure. At first the creature hugs the bottom, low enough to resist being pulled up, but eventually allows it. Perry is struck by an unexpected emotion: he feels tenderly about the creature. The feeling grows stronger as he reels. He is moved by the sight of creature’s bent nose, an indication of its age.

“Very old,” he repeats.

Its eyes are large black holes that glow, like one of those blind fish that live near thermal vents at extreme depths where there is no light, it is a perfect formulation of his woundedness. Clusters of smaller fish clinging like barnacles fall away as Perry lifts it out of the water. These he recognizes as collateral conditions that fed on his pain. The creature, too, seems relieved to shed them, revealing the iridescent hues that were hidden, green and blue, visible in the daylight.

The emergent form and details of his ancient sorrow, what had been shapeless terror now given shape, gives him palpable relief, almost a lightness of being. He spreads his catch on the bank, whole and clean; its razor sharp teeth pose no danger to him. In the light of making so much material conscious, Perry sees through a clear lens.

He admires the fish where it lies, old, venerable, then drops to his knees overwhelmed. What he registers in the creature’s blind eye pierces his heart like blade.As Parzival discovered by “piercing through,” there is no greater intimacy than the gratitude that opens when the hardened accretions that feed on despair fall away like old barnacles. His heart swells like a vessel unable to contain its contents, so full it is about to spill over. Perry is convinced that he will never love anything more than he does this old fish at his feet.


Daedalus Delivers

r6Gypsy’s Diner

I am sitting at Nick’s tasting the last of my toasted bran muffin, getting ready to record last night’s dream in the notebook open beside the coffee mug veined with grime that will never wash out. There are a few regulars at the counter: and ambulance medic named Bob, a beefy man in a blue official jacket; Yuri, the scientific chiropractic Ukrainian masseur, and the old man who makes duck noises. Outside, homeless men fresh from the shelter on 3rd Street make their way slowly down Second Avenue, find empty doorways, talk to themselves in front of the Emigrant’s Bank on the other side of the street.

I remember last night’s dream clearly, a fragment, but as if it were a lived experience—as real as my memories of Vietnam, or my Brooklyn childhood around the corner from Ebbets Field.

 I am looking at a man walking quickly from Gem’s Spa towards Houston Street along 2nd Avenue. He is casually dressed in jeans, and s black sweatshirt on the front of which embossed in white block letters the legend: “Daedalus Delivers.” I note his purposeful walk and repeat the words on his sweatshirt, then conclude that he is a messenger on a mission. I repeat the phrase, “Daedalus Delivers.” Then answer: “And he does.”

It will take me months, maybe years, to understand that the messenger is the message of this dream. As such, the dream possesses an origin and an intention, a way of delivering the message. Everything speaks of an intelligence at work that is independent of our own, what Jung refers to as the Objective Psyche, and the Romans understood to as the Genius. Here, the intelligence alludes to itself as Daedalus, the mythic craftsman who constructed the labyrinth on Crete to contain the Minotaur.

It is a dream that comments on itself and the very archetype of The Dream. In the meta-sense it points to the idea that in its construction a dream is a labyrinth which conceals something at it center that may be monstrous or grotesque, a concealed mystery waiting to be revealed. The indication is that it contains a core-meaning that must not be seen directly, in day light. The creature/meaning in question, sensed, even suspected, lies buried beneath the heart of the city.

Daedalus, the inventor of wings that can simulate those of birds, carry one as in a dream high above the ground over great distances. On the other hand, like the unchecked dream, it offers a perilous power for those like his son, Icarus, who are temperamentally unsuited to flight.

This early dream image flourished in my storehouse of images, and proved so rich it survived three decades undiminished. Attached to it the smell of old urn coffee, and another artificer, Nick, guardian of my morning ritual in the temenos that is his diner. The Racing Form from which he seldom looks up challenges him daily with the riddle of fate vs free-will, what can be calculated and what escapes the scope of probability.

His presence was a secure incubator, a place where the images could emerge from my night-sea journey like companions on the boat I steered into the morning, collaborators in the unfolding of my own hazy destiny. Nick made me feel we shared this purpose. His old watery eyes when I left followed me out the door, and into the room where I practice today with other peoples’ dreams as well as my own.

I have learned patience in this pursuit.

For one thing, my boat is more stable, and the lines steady. I fish for what informs me in science, as well as in the humanities and the arts. My navigation skills have been honed by survival years on the lower East Side, in embattled zones of South East Asia and Central America. But there has been no better place to cultivate the clues to judging depth, or the potentials of a weed line than in a marriage, or parenting a child. And by my every reckoning, as well as those of my clients, I remain convinced we possess a submerged intelligence that generates messages that form and transform the patterns governing our lives.

Which is why the Fisher King addresses his pain by fishing.

squaring-the-circle“Emblema XXI” by Michael Maier, 1618

He demonstrates what it means to float on the unconscious. Just to knowingly touch its vastness brings comfort.This is true for all who troll the field from which form emerges. Sooner or later, those waters will yield what we must see. Many are sustained by that promise. A few, like Perry, fish only to feel the late afternoon breeze, and light on the water.

There’s no faith or institution necessary, nor any need to convince another of the experience of the inner intelligence, what the Roman’s called the Genius, is available to you. It is numinous, and one can use the language of myth to describe it. My dream at Nick’s diner named that intelligence Daedalus, after the Greek artificer. Socrates said he failed to listen to his Daemon to his detriment. European romance refers to it as the Grail, or the Philosopher’s Stone that can confer immortality.Carl Jung referred to it clinically as the Objective Psyche, or the Self. Like the Hindu Brahman/Atman it is embedded in our psyches, and in the universe at cellular and cosmological level. What we may experience in our waking mode is that intelligence can evolve slowly starting with the early wound, separation from the womb/mother, to the possible apprehension of the ground of consciousness itself, a glimpse of which opens the heart as it did for Parzival and Perry.

Thomas_Cole_-_The_Voyage_of_Life_Childhood,_1842_(National_Gallery_of_Art)“The Voyage of Life,” by Thomas Cole

The ancient fish representing Perry’s unconscious suffering spread out on the bank in his dream, is a message from the same Objective Psyche as my Daedalus in his black sweatshirt walking briskly down Second Avenue. Both convey a touch of the numinous. The Grail which sustains the banquet Parzival observes is also a representation of the intelligence that spills dream images into our sleep, as is the stranger in the boat who directs him to the castle. A glimpse of this reminds us that we are everyone in the dream. Each of us is Parzival, challenged to heal the Fisher King; each of us a Fisher King waiting for our Parzival, as well as the fish who has swallowed Osiris’ phallus swimming in the sea of consciousness. Every morning, I write down what I’ve brought back from the dark waters over coffee, absent the toasted bran muffin, and Nick—whom I failed to engage directly, and ask the healing question.

 —Paul Pines


by Jay Hunter

Photo by Jay Hunter

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 twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He has published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numéro Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.


Oct 022015


via http://www.osacr.cz/

via http://www.osacr.cz/


I was trying to draw the space between objects; at least half of drawing is letting emptiness define the object. The other half might be looking closely, letting go of your preconceptions of what something is so that you can see what’s actually there. I was trying to see.

This was decades ago, during a disastrous and self-destructive adolescence that had, nevertheless and astonishingly, transported me from a public high school tucked in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States to Yale University. I had been groomed to be a Math major with a French minor but, being three thousand miles from my childhood home and drunk off my perceived freedom, I decided to major in art.

All students were obliged to take some science, to round us out. I took a class designed for non-scientists, one nicknamed Physics for Poets. Lawrence Krauss was my teacher. He was funny and friendly and kind; he didn’t mind talking to bored teens. He was barely out of his own teenage years, though had impressive credentials and a PhD. He looked then much as he looks now: lean, animated, glasses-wearing, short dark hair, a mouth that is crammed with jokes and big ideas.

I was shy; teachers scared me. But Krauss was approachable. He was teaching mind-bending stuff. I’d go to him with questions, and we’d end up talking about nothing.

Because nothing, the physics of it, is his specialty.

I recently contacted him because I wanted to thank the two teachers in college who had helped shape me. One was the drawing teacher who taught me to look at things clearly; I found that he’d died. The other was Krauss. He and I struck up an email conversation, and he agreed to a Skype interview. When we spoke, he’d just returned from Bolivia, where he’d been playing a villain in a Werner Herzog film.

If you search the library shelves for A Guide for the Perplexed, you will find three books: one by Maimonides, the Sephardic astronomer, scholar and philosopher; one by Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker; and one by Krauss.

The universe is filled with unexpected connections. I am a perplexed filmmaker who turns to astrology in moments of desperation. Lawrence Krauss, Phd, cosmologist, is also now an actor.

KRAUSS: I just have to see if this is… Hello? Hello? Hello? Yes? There’s no Mary Lou here. I’m sorry, you have the wrong number. Okay. Okay, okay, okay.

It was from California, and I thought it might be someone that I was… Okay, anyway.

Krauss has been in front of cameras before, talking about particles, dark energy, and God. Now he’s spinning into fiction. And expecting an important call.

ME: Hollywood?


KRAUSS: What always has intrigued me, and I think it’s from the time I was a kid, is this connection between science and culture. I am a product of popular culture. When I was a kid, I had a TV in my room, and I would not begin my homework, even from the time I was 10, until The Johnny Carson Show was over, at 1:00 in the morning.

Late night TV, back before cable, would end in static. About 1% of old-fashioned static was caused by radiation emanating from the Big Bang. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Those of us watching TV late at night back before cable, young Krauss, could see traces of our origin.

KRAUSS: It’s hard to be divorced from popular culture, which is what academia is. The books, and then the music, and now the films are another way to engage.

Krauss and I could talk about movies all day, and we spend much of our time doing so, but eventually we get to my agenda. I want to know more about nothing, really. What is it? If I can understand the basic scientific concept, perhaps I can craft a lens through which I can look at other forms of nothing.

I am interested in how what we do not see makes us who we are, how negative space defines us.

Rubin VaseRubin Vase, the classic illustration of space/negative space


One of my son’s favorite books is also mine. It is based on a Yiddish song. Joseph had a little overcoat, it got old and worn. So Joseph makes a vest from his overcoat, when that becomes patched and threadbare, he makes a scarf from the vest, then a tie from the scarf, then a button from the tie. Then the button pops off and he loses the button. What is Joseph to do? He makes a story about about the life of his overcoat. The book ends with the moral, you can always make something from nothing.

It’s a great story for writers, facing the blank page.

KRAUSS: The simplest kind of nothing is—which is in fact, I would claim, the nothing of the Bible—is emptiness, is an empty void, space containing nothing, infinite dark. No particles, no radiation, just empty space. But then there’s the kind of nothing which is more deep, which is no space itself and no time itself.

Krauss’s basic thesis, the one that he’s popularly known for, is that the universe could have arisen from nothing. No particles, no radiation, no space, no time. Nothing. Then poof: a universe. A universe as in: everything we can see and measure, a universe filled with energy and stuff. A universe of galaxies and nebulae, gravity and electromagnetism, space and time. A universe of somethings surrounded by nothing, the same kind of nothing there was before the beginning.

We call it nothing because we can’t see it, we don’t understand it, but it is unstable, dynamic. Fertile.


ME: Every animal life starts with a Big Bang (one hopes a loving, consensual one). I’m curious about your beginnings.

KRAUSS: Neither of my parents finished high school. My father’s family is from Hungary, my mother’s came from Europe during the war. Jews during the war. Or before the war, actually. I think my parents, being the way they were, and not having been to school, they decided my brother would be a lawyer and I would become a doctor. That was the plan. As a result, my brother did, unfortunately, become a lawyer. A professor of law, actually, which is worse, ’cause they make lawyers. I became interested in science, ’cause my mother made the mistake of telling me that doctors were scientists.

Around high school, I realized that doctors weren’t scientists. In particular, I took a biology course that was just so boring. Memorizing parts of frogs. So I dropped the course, a traumatic experience for me, and more traumatic for my mother, who was still convinced I was gonna become a doctor. When I went to college, I had a motorcycle and I had to get her to fill out some forms for my insurance and send them up to me, and I discovered that she’d written that I was in premedical school, which my university didn’t even have. When I got my first job at Harvard, which was a very fancy position in the Society of Fellows there, my mother phoned up my then-wife, we had just gotten married, and said, “You gotta talk him out of this. What does he want, chalk on his hands? He’d still have time to become a doctor.” Eventually she got over it and is quite happy now.


Before my interview with him, I skim books by Krauss, watch his videos. I Google “fields” and “particles” and “quarks” and “quantum.”

What I find is this: everything in the universe is composed of particles. Like numbers, the particles also exist in the negative: anti-matter. Every quark has its anti-quark, every life has its death. The same weight and shape, but in opposite.

Particles interact with fields –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear– which are the expression of forces. These forces give the particles mass, and allow the matter to be seen. Fields make particles into matter.

It can be hard to tell where a particle ends and a field begins.

The particles that make up your body come from exploding stars. Krauss has said that the particles that constitute your left hand likely come from a different star than the ones that make up your right. His joke is, Forget Jesus. Stars died so that you might live.

Supernova via The TelegraphDying Star via The Telegraph


Krauss talks about God a lot. Rather, he talks about how God wasn’t necessary for the universe to come into being.

ME: How do you define God? Is it as creator? As author?

KRAUSS: As a purposeful creator. As some intelligence guiding the universe. As if you need some design and purpose, and that the universe was created as a conscious act.

ME: Why is it important to you to argue against the existence of God?

KRAUSS: Hold on, my cat is at the door. Hold on. Okay. Okay, cat, you wanna come in? The door is closed, and therefore you wanna come in? Yeah, okay. Okay. Okay. Come here. Come here. There you go. We have a very vocal cat, so—

ME: I can hear her. Or him.

KRAUSS: Him. And he–well, he doesn’t really come in here, but I think the existence of a closed door, which it normally isn’t, and it’s…

ME: The allure of the forbidden.

KRAUSS: Okay. I don’t argue against the existence of God. What I argue against is people’s insistence that their God should impact our understanding of nature and the way we behave. What I argue against is this notion that religion has anything to do with our understanding of the universe, which it doesn’t.

For many people, religion is an obstacle to accepting the wonders of the universe. People should accept the wonders of reality and be inspired by them, spiritually and in every other way. Arguing the universe is made for us is the opposite of humble. I guess part of what my effort is, is to tear down the walls of our self-delusion. Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong. That’s the great thing about science.

What is really remarkable, what we’ve learned in the last 50 years, is that you can create a universe from nothing without violating laws of physics, even the ones we know, much less the ones we don’t know. And that is amazing.

So all I can say is that you don’t need a God. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but you don’t necessarily need one.

I think a huge problem is that people define themselves as being more than just human beings and they like to be part of in-groups. Religion grows out of tribalism. It doesn’t unify people. It’s designed as us versus them.

Arguing against the necessity of God, arguing for science, it’s political now.

Most of the time people arguing for God are trying to restrict the rights, freedom or livelihood of other people.


We used to think that our world existed in a galaxy that was surrounded by an infinity of nothing.

As we refined our optics, stretched our mathematics, poked around in outer space, we found that we are, in fact, not alone. Our galaxy is one of about 400 billion, all spinning, surrounded by empty space.

Nothing is simply what we don’t see, what we can’t see, what we haven’t measured.

Physicists used to wonder what shape our universe took: was it endless (open), did it loop back on itself (closed), or was it flat (very big, but finite).

The only shape that would allow for the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation to look as it looks is the flat universe.

The flat universe isn’t as bad as it sounds. It is simple and elegant. The total energy in such a place is zero, the positive and negative balance each other out. Light travels in a straight line. It’s not as weird as the other, twisty-turny universes would be.

A flat universe would mathematically require a certain amount of matter. We have measured the mass of everything we can measure in the universe and come up short.

Where is the missing matter?

Where is the matter we didn’t know was missing until we started looking for it?

Turns out, it was nothing.

Nothing is filled with matter and energy that don’t react to the electromagnetic field, it doesn’t emit radiation. It doesn’t shine. So we call it dark.

KRAUSS: We wouldn’t be here, our galaxy wouldn’t be here, if dark matter hadn’t been there. This is the reason that our galaxy was able to form.

Dark matter birthed us.

Dark matter and dark energy are passing through us, undetected, all the time.

Dark matter, dark energy, surround us. We have calculated the amount of darkness, of nothing, and find that it constitutes exactly the amount needed to complement actual matter in a flat universe.


There is a great ragged gap in our society. I once thought it was nothing, but now, looking hard, I see that the emptiness is filled with the shape and weight of souls that should be there.

Field notes: Recently, I was upset when I learned about Misty Upham, a woman who lived a couple hour’s drive from my home, outside Seattle. One night, Misty went missing. Despite pleas for help, the police refused to look for her. Despite her movie star status, she was a Native woman living in a community with a history of deep rooted racism. She was found dead, days later, by a tribal search party. It is unclear whether or not she would have died had she been found right away.

Misty Upham was famous, which is why her story made the news. Her story became a lens for others: Indigenous women go missing like this all the time. Native women suffer, disappear, are killed and otherwise violated, at disproportionately high rates.

More raw data: The other day the State Patrol pulled me over for incorrectly passing a slow-moving excavator on the shoulder. I was not shot, I was not taken into police custody, I was not harassed, I was not given ridiculous fines, I was not scared, I wasn’t even nervous.  I got off with a warning.


Ours is a time in which black men are killed by police for infractions as minor as mine.
The New York Times recently ran a story about the million and a half black men who are, effectively, missing. Prematurely dead or incarcerated, they are missing from the lives that they should be leading.

missingFrom NY Times


Gravity, like love, is a force that brings bodies together. Science now suspects that dark energy is the force pushing stars apart, it is the force making our universe flatter.

KRAUSS: Dark energy is much more, much more complex and much more perplexing than dark matter. Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything, because it’s totally inexplicable.


The country in which I live, the United States, was founded on the idea of people all being equal, founded on principles of essential human dignity and gravitas, on freedom. It is equally founded on, and made possible by, the erasure and bondage of people.

KRAUSS: My friend Noam Chomsky once said to me, “I don’t care what people think, it’s what they do that matters.” But what people think has an impact on what they do. When you believe crazy things, it causes you to do bad things, or do nonsensical things.

Many of us in this country want to believe that we have left our ugly history locked safely in the past, and have come into the present with our freedom and equality intact.

Missing Indigenous women. Shackled black men. Violent ends. How can we say weare done with genocide and slavery? These unconscionable acts echo through time. They occupy the space around us.

Our society’s deliberate unseeing of the damage done, our willful repression of history, is our dark energy. This is a force pushing people apart, a force that is flattening us.

What we don’t see shapes us.


Scientific control: Humans have always killed, colonized, enslaved one another.

Yes. True. But.

This country is a laboratory for how to live with one another, how to reckon with history, how to reckon with difference. We are running an experiment with freedom and equality. If we are to have any measure of success, we can’t do this blindly.

We are starting to see the fields that inform us, that create and support us, the forces of subconscious bias. We are starting to see the violence, the injustice, that we didn’t think was there before.

What has shifted?

In part, is our technology. Our ways of seeing and recording. Dash-cams, body cams, smart phone cameras, everybody can take pictures now. Social media lets loose all this information, all the proof. We can measure, record, and analyze that which has been kept in the dark.

We are refining our optics, our measurements, our ways of communicating.

The Observer Effect: the act of seeing changes what you see.

Ergo: there is hope for us yet.


KRAUSS: The universe is a wonderful experiment. We can run data analysis on it. I was using the universe as a particle physics laboratory initially, because the universe allows us to access scales of time and space and energy that we would never be able to recreate in the laboratory.

The universe is a laboratory. It is confined. We can run experiments, and learn about this place in which we live.

My head is a laboratory for my self.

My great-grandfather was an erratic, energetic enthusiast who lit his arm on fire and wound up crippled, who sold insurance, ran a restaurant, made floats for parades, failed as an inventor, established one of the first wilderness areas in the city where I grew up, and regularly appeared in the small town paper because he was the kind of shiny, needy person that attracted attention. Hot dark matter? Charmed particle?

Here is a family secret, something that was long kept from sight: in middle-age, my great-grandfather pilfered a pearl-handled revolver from his daughter, my grandmother, a sharp-shooter.


The bullet was a particle shooting through his brain, through his field, warping it. That bullet caused a disturbance in the field of his family. I can point to myself, to my relations, and see ripple effects of his suicide, acts of self-erasure in his descendants: depression, eating disorders, bad relationships.

My great-grandfather was, according to family lore, brilliant and loving and funny, if mercurial. He spawned high-achieving children. He had everything to live for. What dark energy, then, propelled that bullet?

People didn’t know from crazy back then. His name was Art, which kind of slays me.


ME: My brain is limited by its neurons, by its chemistry. Aren’t our perceptions, and therefore our theories, always limited by the physical structure of our brains?

KRAUSS: Of course they are. And we have to work with the limitations of our senses and our brains. What science has allowed us to do is extend our senses.

We may be limited, but we know our limitations. That’s one of the great things about science: The limitations are built into the results of science. The fact that there’s uncertainty is an inherent property of science. I’s the only area of human activity where you can actually quantify what you don’t know.

The stories we create are not like religion. The stories we tell are not creations, because we can do experiments.

We have been forced, kicking and screaming, to the physics of the 21st century not because we invented it, but because nature forced us to it. Quantum mechanics led us in directions we never would’ve imagined. Dark energy is another example. No one would’ve proposed that empty space had energy if it didn’t turn out it did.

Art blew his brains out. What dreams, what lies, what loves, what despair splattered out with that gray matter? What exactly did he blow when he blew his mind?

KRAUSS: I tell people that I do physics ’cause it’s easy. It’s just a hell of a lot easier to understand the cosmos than it is to understand consciousness. Physics has hit the low-hanging fruit. The universe is relatively simple, and we are nowhere near understanding the nature of consciousness.


I caught my boy the other day with a knife, trying to jimmy open the pistol box we bought after he gleefully downed a bottle of overly sweet children’s acetaminophen, and in which we now lock all medicine. I understand the instinct to open anything that seems shut, to want something sweet, or something that might cure me. I imagine the soul as a box wedged between heart and lungs. I’m trying to pry mine open. It’s messy work, I have an old crowbar. My hands are calloused. I’ve managed a few dents in the lid. Dreams fly out.

Dreams are data from the subconscious. Dark energy, indirectly measured. My therapist analyses the images. For instance, a malignant, alien wind-up toy is a neurotic (malignant) complex that comes from somebody outside myself (alien) to which I give energy or credence (I wind it up). Almost every week, the night before I see my therapist, I will lay a dream as a chicken does an egg. There have been hundreds of dreams and fragments. Alone, they don’t solve anything, but over time, a picture of my subconscious begins to emerge.

By connecting the dreams to my memories of my life to date and to my experience of life right now, by looking at myself as part of a larger family system, by poking around in unpleasant histories, I start to understand some of the darkness that has plagued me. I am freed from wholly blind reaction. It is exhilarating, this embrace of uncertainty, this state of inquiry and perplexity.

The part of the self that seems unknowable, like a black box, like nothing, is –truly– alive, unstable, dynamic. Fertile. That is the self from which dreams and poetry spring.


One thing I love about science, about physics, is that it is an attempt at perspicacity. It wants to know the world inside and out, it wants to keep learning the world, forever.

Science, like poetry, traffics in wonder.

We are at a moment in time when we can see, measure, and record information about our universe. In the past, we didn’t have the technology to see far beyond our own edges. In the future, the universe will be so spread out, bodies will be so far apart from one another, there’s no way we’ll be able to see and measure anything other than our own galaxy.

We are at the only moment in time where we can have the picture that we have, tell the story, of ourselves at this moment in time.

Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong, tear down the walls of self-delusion. That’s the great thing about science.

The more evidence we gather, the more we see, the more we change our our story.

What science allows us to do is extend our senses.

What happens when we try to see what we have not seen before? When we try to understand where we come from?

How might a person change, how might a society change, once it starts seeing and contending with its shadow, its missing self?

Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything.



As I was writing this essay, I had a dream that I was a teenager looking into the night. The sky was a mess of stars. When I stopped looking so hard, when I looked at a slant, the stars arranged themselves into constellations. Pictures that told stories.

ME: I’d like to check a metaphor.

KRAUSS: Uh-huh?

ME: My understanding is that quarks inside atoms are popping in and out of existence so quickly we can’t see them.


ME: On a very large scale, is that conceivably what’s true of multiverses as well, is that universes just pop in and pop out and…?

KRAUSS: As far as we know, it’s possible. If gravity is a quantum theory, then universes can spontaneously pop into existence for a very short period of time. Might even be virtual, which means they pop into existence and pop out of existence on a scale so short they could never be measured by any, quote, “external observer.” But other universes can pop into existence and stay in existence, and depending upon the conditions. And as far as I can see, the only ones that could do it for a long time are those that have zero total energy. And it turns out our universe does.

If you wanna replace “God” with “multiverse,” that’s fine. The difference is, multiverse is well-motivated; God isn’t.

It is conceivable that universes pop in and out of existence. Krauss has said that a baby universe might, from the outside, looks like a black hole, but on the inside, be infinite.

The soul might be a black box on the outside, and endless within.

I am trying to figure out how I move through space. I am trying to see the space between people, how that seeming emptiness can shape us. How gravity attracts one to another, how what we don’t see can drive us apart.

We pop in and out of existence, as people, as societies. To an external observer, our lives and civilizations are so fleet as to be virtual.

We spin.

We shine.

KRAUSS: What I like about being human is that there are so many facets to being human.We should enjoy and celebrate all of those facets. What saddens me is that many people live their lives without having any concept of the amazing wonders that science has revealed to us.

ME: Well, it can feel religious in a way, or spiritual.

KRAUSS: It certainly can feel spiritual. Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Oh, yes.


A writing teacher once gave me great advice: the end is contained in the beginning.

KRAUSS: It all comes back to our origins. Ultimately what is interesting is: Where do we come from, how did we get here, and where are we going?

Before the beginning, there was nothing.

Something came from nothing; the beginning began.

And this is how we think the universe might end: infinite flatness. Dark energy is driving galaxies apart, stars are accelerating away from each other. Our flat universe is getting flatter all the time. All the protons and neutrons, all the fundamental particles, that make up you, me, energy, space and time, all the laws of nature that govern us, will disintegrate.

Again, we will become ashes, dust. Nothing.

But nothing is fertile.

Something can spring from nothing.

Whirlpool galaxy, Messier Object 51 (M51)

—Julie Trimingham




First: a huge thank you to Professor Krauss. Our lengthy Skype conversation was transcribed; I then took the liberty of editing his responses for length. I also re-contextualized some of those responses, and by no means did I use everything. I am grateful for his playful & creative cooperation.


via www.worldreligionnews.com

Lawrence M. Krauss, PhD, is a physicist and cosmologist. He has taught widely: Yale, Harvard, Case Western Reserve, Australian National University. He is currently the Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where he is also director of the Origin Project.

Look for him as the villain in Werner Herzog’s upcoming film, Salt and Fire, to be released sometime in the next year. And then look again: he has a cameo role in London Fields, and may soon be playing other notable malefactors. Hollywood is calling.

The documentary he made with Richard Dawkins, The Unbelievers, is packed with celebrities and good science.

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Krauss is prolific. All the scientific facts in this essay are derived from his books and lectures. Google his name and you will find a profusion of writings and videos. Those that bear most direct influence on this essay are:

A Universe from Nothing, the YouTube video of a Krauss lecture sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

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Other books by Krauss include:

-Atom: A Single Oxygen Atom’s Journey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond

-Beyond Star Trek: From Alien Invasions to the End of Time

-Fear of Physics

-Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory

-Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science

-Quintessence: The Mystery of the Missing Mass

-The Fifth Essence

-The Physics of Star Trek

Join his 165K Twitter followers @LKrauss1. All Krauss, all the time, at https://www.youtube.com/user/LawrenceKrauss.

The tricky thing about blind spots is that it’s hard to know where they are. Tracy Rector (www.clearwaterfilm.org), Nahaan (https://www.facebook.com/TlingitTattoo), and Alicia Roper provided essential readings of, and edits for, this essay. Many thanks to all.

Joseph had a Little Overcoat is Simms Taback’s book based on a Yiddish song.

The writing teacher mentioned in the essay is the magnificent Aritha van Herk.


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Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. A collection of fictional essays, Way Elsewhere, is forthcoming. She tells stories at The Moth and publishes non-fiction in Numéro Cinq magazine. She is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer on a film about the Salish Sea. Film and performance clips at www.julietrimingham.com. Julie lives with her husband and young son on a small island.