Jun 092017



In Alice Munro’s work Lives of Girls and Women—billed as a novel, though it is more of a collection of linked stories—“Baptizing” plays Del Jordan, a high school senior seeking sexual initiation, against three antagonists. Two of these encounters end in comic humiliation, while the third is a breathtakingly carnal adventure until she breaks up explosively with her boyfriend.

First, Del meets Clive through her friend Naomi at a trashy bar, but the encounter goes no further than making out drunkenly. Second, she halfheartedly dates her brilliant, socially awkward high school classmate Jerry Storey. And finally, she has a full love affair with a Baptist lumberyard worker named Garnet French. As Glover notes in his essay “The Style of Alice Munro” (from The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro), “this strategy of varying plot structure by using different antagonists in each plot step is also used in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ in which the protagonist Gabriel interacts dramatically with three successive women, Lily, the maid, Miss Ivors, the fellow journalist, and, finally, his wife” (48).


Let us start, then, by examining “The Dead.”

Glover expands on his analysis of the Joyce masterpiece in Attack of the Copula Spiders (27-29). In each encounter, Glover says, Gabriel oversteps by making assumptions about the women, who put him in his place. Each of the three set pieces end with Gabriel miffed, nonplussed, humiliated, and disabused of some modicum of his self-delusions. Gabriel jokes with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter that everyone would be going to her wedding to a fine young man one day. This is harmless banter of the sort Gabriel thinks should brighten the day of any working girl. But Lily has had it with her fine young man—with all men, really—and she holds Gabriel accountable for the failings of his wicked gender. “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you,” she says. Gabriel colors in embarrassment.

Next he crosses swords with Miss Ivors, a patriot who gratuitously insults Gabriel’s honor as an Irishman because he has the temerity to write book reviews for a British paper. (The nerve!) “West Briton!” she calls him. She apologizes passive-aggressively but smilingly repeats her slander, leaving Gabriel embarrassed and angry. She possesses the passive-aggressive’s gift for detecting a tender spot in her interlocutor’s psyche—a place of insecurity, self-doubt, weakness, or shame—and jabbing him there with a well-filed fingernail. Gabriel pettily avenges himself with oblique allusions to a strawman version of Ivors in a toast over dinner—after she has left the party and can no longer respond. So there!

Finally, the shifting fault lines of the party unearth the coffin of a buried conflict with his wife, Greta. She suggests that they go to Galway for a visit. “You can go if you like,” he says coldly. In a later conversation in their bedroom, Gabriel, aflame with lust for Gretta, is astonished when she bursts into tears. Turns out she is crying over a boy named Michael Furey whom she was in love with, and who died in Galway years ago. Though frail in his health, he stood out in a cold rain pining for her, fell sicker yet, and died. “I think he died for me,” she says. Gabriel achieves an epiphany of sorts, a bitter one: he has never really known his wife, and now he sees her as someone whose soul he cannot fathom, who has loved another more deeply than she will ever love him. He cannot forgive himself for his petty preoccupations in the face of his wife’s deep, true grief. His newfound self-knowledge is rendered comical by his fantastical, exaggerated self-lacerations, of a sort familiar to psychologists. If he must fail, Gabriel must do so in a spectacular manner: “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts…” Joyce leaves us with a Gabriel-in-a-hair-shirt who is the mirror image of his former vain self. A few sessions with a good shrink might help him sort out his self-image, even if there is little that can be done about clownish male lusts.

Glover states that in these encounters, “Each woman is more important to Gabriel than the previous one. Each comes closer to threatening and overturning his core psychic constructs. And each woman confronts him with the truth” (Attack, 29).


Similarly, in “Baptizing,” Munro arranges three stories that, individually, are broken up in a series of steps, Glover states, “so that they form a miniature story, a dramatic whole within the larger structure of the story.” Each chapter of this tale ends in Del walking home alone.

In the first set piece of “Baptizing,” Del is an inexperienced newcomer in the grotty Gay-la Dance Hall, which her mother, despite her irreligiousness, compares to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. The man Del is paired off with, Clive, amuses himself faking Dutch immigrant and black accents with his friend.

“Hey, Rastus,” Bert says “spookily” (210—gap-mouthed italics my own). Clive is a fancy, inventive dancer who leaves Del feeling awkward as she tries to match his moves. Back at the table, she “drinks like a fish,” as Naomi approvingly observes. But when the foursome leave and drive about in Clive’s friend’s car, Clive pounces on Del (so drunk she has forgotten she is sitting beside him) and slides his tongue down her throat “like an enormous, wet, cold, crumpled … dishrag” (208). They all end up in a hotel, but after heading down the hall to use the toilet, Del removes her shoes, climbs down the fire escape, and walks off barefooted. In her drunken confusion she first wobbles to Naomi’s home, waking Naomi’s father (who later gives his daughter a belting when she returns home). Del finally ends up in her own bed, alone and hungover, in a dry-mouthed conclusion to this failed romantic evening.

The second set piece likewise ends in failure and with Del fleeing into the night. But it veers even further into slapstick, “something jerky and insane from a silent movie,” she later reflects (226). The story involves the teenage genius Jerry Storey. Student body opinion has paired off Del off with the boy for the sole reason that they are the two top scholars. Almost against their will, they fall into a relationship. Jerry shows a not-atypical masculine preoccupation with himself and his achievements. A science and math prodigy, he is baffled by Del’s areas of giftedness, as in her love of literature. Fairly or not, one is tempted to merge the character Del with a young Munro, yet it is Jerry who daydreams about winning the Nobel Prize in, oh, let’s say ten years or so, maybe twenty (217). Like Clive, Jerry uses fake accents—those of British sophisticates or characters from the comic strip “Pogo,” though this time Del joins in with him in silly dialogues that cover their sense of awkwardness together. As with Clive, their sexual exploration is desultory and amusingly unsexy.

Our hands lay moistly together, each one of us wondering, no doubt, how long in decent courtesy they must remain. Our bodies fell together not unwillingly but joylessly, like sacks of wet sand. Our mouths opened into each other … our tongues rough, mere lumps of unlucky flesh (222).

(Again, those dreadful tongues down the throat.)

The relationship climaxes (in a literary if not physical sense) with Del undressing and lying on Jerry’s bed. Embarrassed, they resort to Pogo accents: “Yo’ is shore a handsome figger of a woman,” he tells her (223). But ludicrously, Jerry hears his mother returning home, and he shoves his naked girlfriend into the basement stairway, leaves her there in the dark. Later he tosses her clothes down the laundry chute. She climbs out a window, and again walks home at night in shame and fury. (They make up the next day.)

As authors must, Munro saves her climactic story—her most affecting and beautiful one—for the conclusion. Del has a love affair with lumberyard worker Garret French. She meets him at a revival meeting that she, a nonbeliever, whimsically decides to attend after a teacher who is a Presbyterian elder gives her a promotional button that reads Come to Jesus. There, Garnet spies Del from across the room and works his way over to her. They don’t even know each other’s name, yet he holds her hand as they listen to a hellfire sermon from an itinerant revivalist. It’s a gorgeous way to create dramatic tension—to have the seduction occur, irreverently and irresistibly, in a religious service. Here Munro nods to another work by Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which recounts a sermon delivered amid Stephen Daedalus’s preoccupation with fleshly depravities. In “Baptizing,” the preacher’s key image, that of the sinner crossing a rope bridge held by a thread over the chasm of Hell, also alludes to Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but in a comic twist, Del and indeed the entire audience do not quake in their seats, like Edwards’ congregation, but are entertained by a threat of damnation from which they consider themselves personally exempt. As the preacher orates, people sing out, “Amen.” Del muses, “Movie stars and politicians and fornicators gone beyond rescue; it seemed, for most people, a balmy comfortable thought” (233). The affair that follows is all-consuming, even before it is consummated. Del lies awake sleepless until dawn, reviewing every kiss and touch. “Sex seemed to me all surrender—not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility” (239—italics mine).

Glover discerns echoes among Munro’s three set pieces. Del and Garnet visit each other’s homes for a meal, just as Jerry and Del do. Garnet’s sprawling, working class family attracts Del in a way that Jerry and his widow mother do not, but there are similarly uncomfortable sexual revelations in each household. Jerry’s mother, ambitious for her boy’s future, warns Del to use birth control when having sex; Garnet carves the names of his conquests into a beam on the porch, Del’s last of all, underscored and surrounded by stars, indicating she would be his wife.

All three relationships implode, the first two comically, while her final, deepest one ends in tragic rage and a kind of betrayal (a betrayal, that is, by Del; she admits this to herself, even though she is a victim of Garnet’s physical brutality). Del and Garnet go swimming together after making love (258 ff). Garnet tells her she must get baptized as a member of his church. Although minutes earlier she has agreed to bear his children, she resists baptism, recognizing that to do so would be to surrender something essential about herself. His half-joking attempt to baptize her himself turns vicious as he realizes the love he has offered is not reciprocated—that “I had somehow met his good offerings with my deceitful offerings … matching my complexity and play-acting to his true intent” (260). He nearly drowns her, but she refuses to give in and manages to escape his clutches. For a third time, the end of a relationship leaves her walking home.

This final set piece provides a revelation to Del, an epiphany, which unites all three panels of the literary triptych. “The scene has the force of a spell being broken: Del speaks of sleepwalking, of waking up,” Margaret Atwood writes in The Cambridge Companion (111). In her encounters with Clive and Jerry, Del was denied not only sexual fulfillment, but the enlightenment of self-knowledge as to where she stands in relation to men. With Garnet, she finds a deeply satisfying sexual relationship—rare in this life, as she is aware—but with a man with whom she has no future. She must give it up to awaken herself from the spell.

—Russell Working

Works Cited

Alice Munro: Lives of Girls and Women
James Joyce: Dubliners
Douglas Glover: Attack of the Copula Spiders
Douglas Glover, Margaret Atwood et al.: The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro




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.



Jun 072017

Childhood in the Brooklyn streets influenced Neugeboren’s work, in particular novels like Big Man and Sam’s Legacy.


Sam left the train at Church Avenue. A few blacks guys got out. “Ours is a neighborhood in transition,” Ben had said, and Sam had to laugh. A neighborhood in transition—that was rich. When he’d been there, growing up, it had been mostly Jews, mixed with some Catholics, Irish and German. Sam didn’t mind though. The blacks never hassled him. Maybe the word was out that he had some kind of business with Sabatini. He touched his side pocket. Some guys—his buddy Dutch was one—said you were crazy to keep a blade on you, that if you got cornered and they went for you and found it on you, you’d get it ten times worse. But Sam did what he wanted. He liked feeling the blade’s weight against his thigh.

From Sam’s Legacy 1973

A little more than ten years ago, I asked novelist Jay Neugeboren to take me on a walking tour of Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood he describes above in Sam’s Legacy. I asked because I’d been reading his novels then, pretty obsessively—as I have been reading them again lately—and wanted to get a closer look at the streets that had inspired them. I was interested, too, in the notion of inspiration. Wondering at that particular time (as I am still wondering) about the proposition that we (as writers, as people) are marked by our first glimpses, by the immediate shadows about the crib, the childhood streets, and all our life is an effort if not to escape then to get a better glimpse.

Neugeboren was widely acclaimed early in his career for his portrayal of urban subcultures: for his Cassavetes-like attention to detail, to off the radar characters. In mid-career, he all but disappeared as novelist—not publishing a novel for 20 odd years—until a recent revival prompted in part by small press Two Dollar Radio. This has brought his older work attention and five new novels into print

Neugeboren is an innovative novelist, conjuring forms that defy easy categorization. His characters leap through multiple identities—racial, familial, sexual. He is master of a particular American prose style, one that owes as much debt to European novels as to the dialect of the immigrant streets. It is a style translucent in its lyricism. There is durational quality: in the accumulation of detail, in the way the writing dwells in the moment, in the naturalistic surface. At the same time there is something else: a wash, a tint, a coloration that makes no pretense to realism at all.


Jay is a Jewish writer, second generation, born Jacob Mordecai Neugeboren. I first met him in 1980, when I was a student of his at the University of Massachusetts. He was just finishing The Stolen Jew: the central novel in what has become known as The Brooklyn Trilogy.

He was somewhere in his forties then, his hair tight, curly (or that’s the way I remember it), just verging toward grey. Thirty years later, that day in Brooklyn, he possessed (and still does) the gait and manner of a man much younger. He is a small man, athletic by nature. He has high cheekbones, tapered features, a cleared eyed smile.

Neugeboren 1973

Flatbush—on that sunny afternoon in April 2006—was a Caribbean neighborhood, West Indian and black, colorful, yes, full of life, but also poverty. The poverty had been there when Jay grew up, though in different ways. Further down Flatbush Avenue— in the heart of the old immigrant hive—the old King’s Movie Palace sat empty and deteriorating, as it had since the mid-seventies. The famed Erasmus High School stood with its gates shuttered and closed.

Flatbush Avenue where we walked in 2006

The streets were crowded. A mother in a hurry pushed her baby in its carriage.  A cluster of young gangsters stood languid on the corner.  Nearby, an old man coughed into his black fist.  It was the old Flatbush, but then it wasn’t. Us, loitering there, no matter our histories, we were, in the midst of the new immigrants, no longer Italian, or Jewish, or whatever we imagined. We were white.

This question of identity, it’s allusive and shifting nature, is very much endemic to the streets.

And is very much at the core of Neugeboren’s work.

We went down Martense Street, to the small tenement where Neugeboren had grown up: a two-story building, four tiny apartments, two up, two down. The building stood alongside a number of similar buildings, all red brick, separated by narrow concrete walkways.

I had some idea of what it had been like in the little apartment. Partly because Jay had told me, but also because I’d read about it in his novels—and in the autobiographical memoir centered on his brother, Imagining Robert.

So I had some notion of his family, or felt I did. Of his beautiful mother, the nurse, who supported the family. Of her dalliances (real or imagined). Of his emasculated father, often unemployed. Of his talented, disturbed brother, who spent much of his adult life in the care of New York’s notorious mental health system.

Jay with his younger brother Robert in Flatbush, circa 1945

As a young boy, Jay told me, he had attended yeshiva nearby. He pointed out the place as we walked (or where it had once been).  Where he’d stood at the morning service at schul, his arm wrapped in the tephillin—a strap wound seven times about the arm, binding him to the word of God. At the heart of that word was the great emptiness of the Jewish God—who at once gave everything (all the lives people lived, all the stories, every word), but promised nothing more, no hereafter, only dust. The recognition of God’s word did not offer salvation—at least not in the Roman Catholic sense that I was raised—but was at same time the source of life, inspiration, human compassion.

The streets were full of noise.

We circled through the neighborhood. Though the old parade ground, past long blocks of ball fields and tennis courts. Down into Ditmas Park (an odd oasis of former wealth, of deteriorating Victorian mansions, awaiting gentrification or further decay, it was hard to know).  Up Nostrand, down Church, past the library on Linden, circling bookie joints that used to be, drug stores and delis long gone, a grocery transformed into a rummage house, used clothing spilling onto the street.

We ended back on Martense.

The Martense Street tenement where Neugenboren was raised

Jay lived in Manhattan now and wanted another look before we went our separate ways. He went around the building, searching for the window where he and his brother—with whom he had shared a bed in the tiny apartment—used to stand with their noses pressed against the glass.



Then cackles the way he does. Oh yeah, I’m in the big time. Me and Louie’s Leapers, we burning up the league, win seventeen games in a row. These last months, between games and Willa and those sessions with Rosen, you want to keep up with me, you got to run, man.

From Big Man, 1966

Italo Calvino, in speaking about his own first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, said he spent the rest of his career trying to write his way out of the maze, the artistic quandary, he’d created for himself in that first book. Italian American novelist John Fante, author of Ask the Dust, once said pretty much the same thing, referring to his fictional alter ego, Arturo Bandini, who haunted his novels until the end.

In similar ways Jay has never moved very far from his existential subject matter: from Martense Street and his Jewish roots. A world populated by outsiders: small time gangsters, low-lifers, school teachers, orphans, widows, aspiring athletes, passing celebrities, people trying to be good (most of them) but running constantly against their own personal and tribal histories.

Jay’s first novel, Big Man, draws from those streets: the story of a young black man, once a college basketball star, caught in a vortex of self-hatred and shame after getting thrown out of the sport for his involvement in a point-shaving scheme. The story is based in part on real events: a 1950’s New York betting scandal, back when Brooklyn was the epicenter of college basketball. As in real life, the victims were not the bookies and odds makers and college officials who benefitted. The people who took the fall—who bore the brunt of the shame: in the papers, on the streets, and in their lives—were the players themselves, mostly black.

The novel is in a mode akin to the old social realism, but with some of the optimism of Dickens: fatalistic—recognizing the social constraints—but with a character who finds a way to survive. Neugeboren’s second novel, Listen, Ruben Fontanez—based around a racially charged murder—has similar socials concerns, though told from the other end of the ethnic divide, narrated by an aging Jewish school teacher, Harry Meyers, who works in the slums of Brooklyn, mostly with Puerto Rican kids.

Meyers is feverishly ill, moving in and out of consciousness, his living quarters (and his imagination) inhabited by his former students, teenage runaways, kids with nowhere to go. The decaying neighborhood is at once a source of sustenance and an inescapable trap. The way out is deeper in.



“In my early books, I used to pride myself on their “objective” quality. I mean, I don’t think I’d ever done an autobiographical novel in a way that even anyone who knew me could feel. My books always seemed to be very much about other things. I think that was one way, in my own life, of not dealing with certain materials, potentially very rich materials, things that I do know about, but also material that I was afraid of, and felt I couldn’t handle. Now, with The Stolen Jew, I’ve found a subject, a subject that comes from deep personal wells with.

Neugeboren, circa 1980

In the late sixties, Neugeboren went to the south of France with his first wife, and stayed gone for the better part of two years. Part of the reason, to recreate those Brooklyn streets, he needed physical distance from the place itself.

Jay examined this paradox in Parenthesis: An Autobiographical Journey. (1970): a piece whose original intention had been to chronicle his own career as a political activist. The result was a manifesto of sorts, a personal one, contemplating the limits of realism but also examining his early life in Brooklyn, his scholarship years at Columbia, a forsaken attempt to join mainstream America as an executive trainee for General Motors.

“I was interested in the experimental work going on at the time, in new novelistic forms ” Jay told me. “At the same time there was this personal material—based in a world I knew—that I wanted to explore in my fiction.  But I didn’t want to lose other things, from Victorian novels, things that I love, like character and story and plot.”

This result was The Brooklyn Trilogy, so-called because of its deep immersion into the psychological terrain centered on a few corners of Flatbush over the course of fifty years.

The first of these novels, Sam‘s Legacy, concerns a small time gambler who has gotten himself in over his head with an Italian bookie. He lives with his aging Jewish father above a clothing store in the heart of Flatbush.

The novel has a naturalistic surface, but there is a postmodernist structure, involving both an outer story and inner one. While the outer story focuses mostly on Sam the gambler—on his hustle, his efforts to save both himself and his father—there is another story, a found manuscript, a book within the book: My Life and Death in the American Negro League: A Slave Narrative

This novel-within-a-novel takes the form of a memoir written by an aging black man in the neighborhood. The man’s name is Tidewater, and the inner novel tells the story of his career as a star player in the Negro Leagues, where he was known as the “black Babe Ruth.”

At the heart of Tidewater’s tale is his own competition with the real Babe Ruth, who—according to Tidewater at least—hid his own bi-racial roots in order to play in the white leagues. The competition between the two men involves a deep admiration, as well as a hatred, a mix of tenderness and brutality that belies the public image of Ruth, casting his amorous affairs and relentless carousing as the veneer of more complicated sexual and racial identity.

In the end, the inner and outer worlds of Sam’s Legacy dovetail in ways that evoke an underlying paradox that is present throughout The Brooklyn Trilogy.

Personal identity rests on a history that is at once total illusion and immutable fact.

The second novel of The Brooklyn Trilogy, The Stolen Jew, is in many ways a much different kind of novel:  a family novel, at first glance—drawing (figuratively if not literally) on Neugeboren’s own family history— a generational tale, part thriller, part meta-fiction, with a ruminative main character, an aging Jewish author in conversation with this brother’s ghost. This is a complex, richly associative novel with multiple plot lines, a formal structure akin to Sam’s Legacy, containing likewise a novel-within-a-novel: this one written by the main character. The book maintains, within its digressions, a forward moving narrative: a romance quest that sends the besieged Nathan from Israel to Flatbush to the old Soviet Union, before bringing him home to his childhood sweetheart.

Along the way, Nathan hatches a plan to recreate one of his own novels in manuscript form: a forgery he hopes to sell on the black market to provide cash for Soviets Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel.

This artistic forgery is very much the kind of thing Neugeboren does in his fiction. Set in an earlier Russia, at the time of czar’s pogrom, it recreates, in part, the family’s own history and a larger social history: a tale reminiscent of Isaac Babel, in which the leading enforcers of anti-Semitism are often the Jews themselves.

With its intricacies, The Stolen Jew achieves the depth, the lulling dreamlike quality of Russian novel. It is a mesh of history and folklore, of literary influence, of rabbinical wisdom, and personal history re-imagined.

The final book in the trilogy, Before My Life Began, starts at the end of World War Two, on the streets of Brooklyn, when the main character, David Voloshin—the son of Jewish gangsters—is twelve years old.

Told in style both translucent and highly colored, it opens like this:

All the men were trying to kiss my mother, so I kept pulling at her dress for us to get away. Pink and blue streamers caught in the dark curls of her hair, and tiny dots of silver, on her bare shoulders, sparkled under the light from the lampposts. In the middle of the street Louie Newman was standing on the hood of Dr. Kaplan’s new Buick, trying to dance with a skinny woman who wore a shimmering black dress, and it seemed to me that the sequins on the woman’s dress glittered like the scales on an enormous fish. I didn’t feel well. I wanted to go home, to be in my own room. I pulled harder and I thought I heard my mother’s dress tear—I stopped pulling at once, scared—but she didn’t seem to notice. Her dress was made of a pale lavender silk-chiffon, dark-purple irises swirling around one another toward the ground. I saw a man’s lips pressed against her lips, but she was laughing too hard for him to keep them there. I’d never seen so many happy people before in my life. Everybody was dancing and singing and shouting and hugging each other and throwing paper into the air. Above the noise and the lights and the stores and the apartments buildings the sky was black. Where was my father? Could I tell him, later, what my mother was doing with the men? Would he see that her lipstick was smeared at the corners of her mouth?

Later, as a young man—caught up in the endless triangles of his family —David ends up killing a man from a rival gang.  He flees Brooklyn, adopting a new identity as Aaron Levine, a teacher and civil rights activist working in the South.

There is more darkness and violence ahead, a struggle towards synthesis, the imaginary moment when David will return him to reclaim his identity. When he will take his children to his old neighborhood and show them where he grew up.   The alley, the concrete courtyard, the four small rooms of the apartment.  In that moment, he sees himself walking through that apartment with his boys, room by room. The rooms are clean, white, empty.  Freshly painted, full of light.

In this vision, if only for a moment (and only in the imagination), the world of the Brooklyn Trilogy—of Martense Street, of familial struggle and racial conflict—is transformed.


After its publication in 1984, Jay wouldn’t publish another novel for more than two decades.

When it appeared, in 2005, this new novel, entitled 1940, was featured in the LA Times Book Review, in a front page article that served to re-introduce Neugeboren to mainstream literary consciousness.

In the decade since, there has followed an intense period of productivity, rare for a writer at any stage of his career, including two collections of stories and five new novels.

None of these is set in Brooklyn.



1940 concerned itself with a woman in search of her lost son, a young man recently missing from a mental asylum. She is aided in her search by a refugee from a different kind of madness, Dr. Eduard Bloch: the Jewish doctor who, in real life, had worked as Hitler’s childhood physician—and whom Hitler allowed to emigrate to the U.S. so that he might escape the death camps.

Hitler’s gesture of kindness, his unexpected humanity, exemplifies the kind of irony that continues to drive Neugeboren’s fiction. He may no longer be writing about Brooklyn, but one recognizes the terrain, the walls of an inescapable maze, as Calvino would have it.


But what about the long period between novels? That gap of twenty odd years?

It’s tempting to regard those years as a kind of prolonged version of that parenthetical time in Southern France. There is some truth to that, I believe, as Jay wrote a good deal of non-fiction during this period, including Imagining Robert, the memoir which captures his brother’s struggle with madness.

I asked Jay if—during that long period between novels—he had given up on the form.

Jay shook his head.

“A novelist’s career is a ragged thing,” he said. “It isn’t a straight line. You disappear for a while (or seem to). Then suddenly, you are in fashion again (or seem to be). Who knows why? . . .  Inspiration, I don’t know . . .  You are given your material, or you find it, by sitting down, by pursuing it . . .  Publishing is a tough business,  a strange business, but ultimately it is what it is.  For me, if I am writing every day—and I’m always writing—I’m a happy guy.”


One of Neugeboren’s most recent novels, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (2013,) is also among his most daring and magical, alternately dark and light, at once innovative in form and highly narrative.

It tells the story of a Jewish family wandering like gypsies about the American countryside—with a horse, a wagon and a hand crank camera—engaged in the making of silent films. The action begins on a frozen lake outside Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1915, and eventually migrates to the orange groves of Hollywood. Set during the silent film era, it has the structure and feel of a silent film itself—and characters with the same kind of eerie luminescence.

The family possesses a psychology not unfamiliar to Neugeboren’s readers. There is the beautiful mother, and the three men who adore her: her son, her husband, her husband’s brother.

The mother is the glamorous star, and Joey, the son, is his mother’s favorite, “born too beautiful to be a boy.”  He takes up cross-dressing, playing the part of a girl in the silent films:  a role he takes on more often (and with increasing pleasure) as he grows older. Eventually he achieves stardom himself, not as a man but as woman.

As in Shakespearean drama, the swapping of gender identities is a foil for romance: in this case a romance where the androgyny of the characters is part of their nature, at once wonderful and dangerous, precipitating—as in the world of silent film itself—sudden and calamitous action.

To our jaded eyes, the abrupt transitions of silent film seem herky-jerky; through the lens of this novel they again appear magical. Sure, these are baroque, post-Victorian plotlines (though their abrupt and startling violence sometimes surpasses Quentin Tarantino), but the author’s point is to prove just how much this consummate artistry can persuade us to accept. The swift and daring transitions in this narrative are like the punches of a welterweight, moving almost too fast for the eye to follow; they give this very short novel the impact of a work twice its length. —Madison Smartt Bell. Boston Globe


Jay’s latest novel Max Baer And The Star Of David (2016) is similarly compact, similarly swift.  It takes the form of a historical document: a handwritten transcript—the deathbed account of a life spent in the shadow of legendary boxer Max Bear Sr. as told by his black sparring partner.

In the novel, as in life, Max Baer Sr. was a paradoxical figure: a brutally powerful boxer with a jovial public persona. Not so jovially, he had beaten an opponent to death in the ring—at Recreation Park in San Francisco—with a half-dozen full-blooded punches to the head. Despite his sorrow, this did not end his career. He was a showman, charismatic, alternately generous and mindlessly selfish, popular with women, handsome, childlike and clownish, as apt to play the joker as the brute. In preparation for a bout with the German boxer, Max Schmeling, he had the Star of David sewn onto his boxing trunks. A publicity stunt, maybe. Or because he was part Jewish (or so he claimed) and wanted to emphasize this fact before he climb into the ring to beat the Third Reich’s favorite boxer.

The real meat of this deathbed memoir, though, is in the off stage moments, the interactions between the black sparring partner and Max Baer Sr., a friendship that starts because of Baer’s interest in the man’s Creole sister. The relationship plays out partly in the bedroom— in an increasingly incestuous ménage a trois—but also in the sparring ring, where the men go after one another in ways both vicious and oddly tender.

All of this, of course, echoes the encounters between Babe Ruth and Tidewater in Sam’s Legacy, examining the dualities of racial and sexual identity, the nature of erotic and familial love, the intertwining of violence and compassion.

The same shadows, the infinite shadows, cast upon the childhood streets.


The last time I saw Jay was in his apartment in Manhattan. I was passing through the city on my way home to California. We drank Jay’s vodka and ate prosciutto and cheese that I had bought earlier in Little Italy. It was the middle of winter and very cold. We talked about books, about family, about writing. Jay was finishing up the Max Baer novel. Myself, I was between projects, in a bit of maze, just having finished what I thought would be the final book of crime series set in North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood in San Francisco.  I wasn’t sure what I would do next, and pretended not to be worried about it.

The phone rang. It was one of Jay’s sons, Eli.

Jay is the father of the three. Divorced in mid-life, he raised his children—two boys and a girl—pretty much on his own. You can see shades of the children in the books Jay has written.

While he talked to his son, I admired on the shelf the outermost figure in a set of Russian dolls: a hollow wooden figurine, painted like a Russian peasant, that twisted open to reveal another smaller but identical doll within, and another within that, and another. There had been reference to these toys inside of one of Jay ‘s novels, I thought—inside one of those stories within stories—and this infinite regression brought to my mind (then or now, it doesn’t matter) the beginning of Sam’s Legacy, the ritual wrapping of the telephin, imagined by Sam when, in that opening sequence, he is surrounded by the crowd at the Garden: fans, gamblers, a collective yearning, a noise rising up out of the nothingness.

I was holding the innermost of these wooden dolls when Jay got off the phone.

“What are you doing?”,

I shrugged.

The way he looked at me—the way it seems to me now —I was the young man in the synagogue. Never mind I was raised in a different religion, on streets far away.

I stood with the doll in my hand.

“Open it.”

I did. Jay smiled.

It was deliciously empty.

—Domenic Stansberry


DOMENIC STANSBERRY is an Edgar Award winning author of ten novels. His most recent,The White Devil, is a sultry, decadent thriller concerning a young American woman in Rome who finds herself implicated in series of crimes dating back to her childhood. The book was just named finalist for both the 2017 Hammett Prize and Foreword’s Indie Book of the Year. Stansberry’s other work includes the North Beach Mystery Series, which received wide praise for its portrayal of the ethnic and political subcultures of San Francisco. Books from that series include The Ancient Rain, named several years after its original publication as one of the best crime novels of the decade by Booklist.  He received the Edgar for The Confession, a controversial neo-noir centered on a Marin County psychologist accused of murdering his mistresss.

First print rights to this article provided to Numéro Cinq from the PFLA Newswire, a project of the Pacific Film and Literary Association, a 501(3c) non-profit.



May 122017

Sombrero Galaxy composite image from Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes


I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand that I have nothing; that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.

—Yeats, Per Amica Silentia Lunae


The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?

—Yeats, “Vacillation,” VII


“Her favorite reading as a child was Huxley and Tyndall,” Virginia Woolf tells us of Clarissa Dalloway. As Yeats was fond of saying, “We Irish think otherwise.” He was quoting George Berkeley, reinforcing his favorite philosopher’s resistance to Lockean empiricism with his own defense of visionary powers. In the section of The Trembling of the Veil covering the period 1887-91, Yeats says he was “unlike others of my generation in one thing only.”

I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions… passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.[1]

Though Yeats was never “religious” in the normative sense, he did seek a world, as he says later in this passage, that reflected the “deepest instinct of man,” and would be “steeped in the supernatural.” That was his own instinct. It was his conscious intention, as well, to offset the scientific naturalism of John Tyndall and T. H. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” and to buttress his rebellion against his skeptical father’s Comptean positivism. In making up his own religion, Yeats relied essentially on art (“poetic tradition,” “poets and painters”), but he included in his “fardel” strands from interrelated traditions Western and Eastern. Seeing them all as a single perennial philosophy, “one history and that the soul’s,” he gathered together elements from Celtic mythology and Irish folklore, British Romanticism (especially Shelley and Blake, whose Los tells us that he “must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”); Platonism and Neoplatonism; Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, Cabbalism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, along with other varieties of spiritualist and esoteric thought, including Gnosticism. Though Yeats was not a scholar of Gnosticism, neither a Carl Jung nor an Eric Voegelin, let alone a Hans Jonas, there are persistent themes and emphases in his thought and poetry that Gnostics, ancient and modern, would find both familiar and congenial. Others, not so much.

William Butler Yeats by George Charles Beresford 1911Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911

After this preamble, I will, in discussing the spiritual dimension in Yeats’s work, focus more often than not on Gnostic elements. But this is an essay on Yeats rather than Gnosticism. Having mentioned Gnostics “ancient and modern,” I should make it clear that, for the most part, I bring in historical Gnosticism and the tenets of certain Gnostic sects only where they illuminate particular poems; for example, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman.” Otherwise, I will have little to say of the religious movement drawing on, but competing with, Judaism and Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries, CE.[2] Instead, I will emphasize gnosis as differentiated from historical Gnosticism, precisely the distinction made at the 1966 international conference, the Colloquium of Messina, convened to examine the origins of Gnosticism. In the colloquium’s final “Proposal,” the emphasis was on the attainment of gnosis, defined as “knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite.”

Such knowledge was individual: one’s “intuition” of revealed truth. For most Gnostics, this intuitive esoteric “knowledge” had nothing to do with either Western philosophic reasoning or with the theological knowledge of God to be found in orthodox Judaism or normative Christianity. For spiritual adepts, such intuition derived from knowledge of the divine One. For poets like Yeats, it was identified with that “intuitive Reason” which, for the Romantics—notably, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson—was virtually indistinguishable from the creative Imagination, which, for Yeats, was most powerfully exemplified in the prophetic poetry of Blake and Shelley.

At the same time, there is no denying the centrality of spiritual quest, of esoteric knowledge, of mysticism and “magic,” in Yeats’s life and work. In July 1892, preparing to be initiated into the Second Order of the Golden Dawn, he wrote to one of his heroes, the old Irish nationalist John O’Leary, in response to a “somewhat testy postcard” the kindly old Fenian had sent him. The “probable explanation,” Yeats surmised, was that O’Leary had been listening to the poet’s skeptical father, holding forth on his son’s “magical pursuits out of the immense depths of his ignorance as to everything that I am doing and thinking.” Yeats realizes that the word “magic,” however familiar to his own ears, “has a very outlandish sound to other ears.” But “as to Magic”:

It is surely absurd to hold me ‘weak’…because I chose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life….If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write….I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance—the revolt of the soul against the intellect—now beginning in the world.[3]

Just as he had emphasized art and a “Church of poetic tradition” in the creation of his own “new religion,” even here, in his most strenuous defense of his mystical and magical pursuits, Yeats inserts the caveat that they were paramount, “next to my poetry.” But this is hardly to dismiss the passionate intensity of Yeats’s esoteric and mystical pursuits. What seemed to W. H. Auden, even in his great elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” to be “silly” or, worse, to Ezra Pound, to be “very very very bughouse” (it takes one to know one), or by T. S. Eliot to be dreadfully misguided, was taken, not with complete credulity, but very very very seriously, by Yeats himself. His esoteric pursuits, in many heterodox guises, remained an energizing stimulus, if not an obsession, throughout his life. In his elegy for Yeats, written just days after the poet’s death in January 1939, Auden says, “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” But it was more than that. What Auden and Eliot and Pound dismissed actually enhanced Yeats’s artistic gift.[4]


I just mentioned the Golden Dawn, which makes it time to briefly fill in Yeats’s esoteric resume, some of which will be familiar to many readers. He was, along with his friend George Russell (AE), a founding member, in 1885, of the Dublin Hermetic Society. It quickly evolved, in April 1886, into the Dublin Theosophical Society. Though, as he tells us in an unpublished memoir, he “was much among the Theosophists, having drifted there from the Dublin Hermetic Society,” Yeats declined to join, believing that “Hermetic” better described his own wider interests as a devotee of what he called the study of “magic.” He did join the Theosophical Society of London, in which, eager to push mystical boundaries, he became a member of the “Esoteric Section.” In 1891, he resigned; he was not, as rumor sometimes had it, “expelled,” let alone “excommunicated.”

Yeats was, of course, for more than thirty years a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in London in March 1890; he stayed with the Golden Dawn until it splintered, then joined one of its offshoot Orders, the Stella Matutina. During its heyday in the 1890s, the G.D and its Inner Order of the Rose of Ruby and the Cross of Gold (R.R. & A.C.) was “the crowning glory of the occult revival in the nineteenth century,” having succeeded in synthesizing a vast body of disparate material and welding it into an effective “system.”[5] Yeats took as his Golden Dawn motto and pseudonym Demon Est Deus Inversus (D.E.D.I.). That sobriquet’s recognition of the interdependence of opposites is a nod to both William Blake and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the 11th chapter of whose seminal text, The Secret Doctrine (1888), bears this title.

's Rose Cross National Library of IrelandYeats’s Rose Cross, Order of the Golden Dawn, photo © National Library of Ireland

The most extraordinary of the many exotic figures that gathered in societies and cults, making Victorian London ground zero in the revolt against reductive materialism, Madame Blavatsky (HPB to her acolytes) was, of course, the co-founder and presiding genius of the Theosophical Society. In a letter to a New England newspaper, Yeats referred to her with wary fascination as “the Pythoness of the Movement.”[6] Unless we accept her own tracing of Theosophy to ancient Tibetan roots, the movement was born in 1875, in part in Blavatsky’s New York City apartment, where she kept a stuffed baboon, sporting under its arm a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species to represent the creeping tide of scientific materialism she was determined to push back—though it should be mentioned that The Secret Doctrine was an audacious attempt to synthesize science, religion, and philosophy.

While he never shared the requisite belief in the Tibetan Masters who supposedly dictated her theosophical revelations, Yeats, without being anti-Darwinian, did share her determination to resist and turn back that materialist tide. And he was personally fascinated by the Pythoness herself, whom he first met in the considerable flesh (she then weighed well over 200 lbs.) in 1887 when he visited her at a little house in Norwood, a suburb of London. She was just 56 at the time but looked older (she would live only four more years). Young Yeats was kept waiting while she attended to some earlier visitors. Finally admitted, he “found an old woman in a plain loose dark dress: a sort of old Irish peasant, with an air of humor and audacious power.” Their first conversation was a whimsical exchange on the vagaries of her cuckoo clock, which Yeats thought had “hooted” at him. On subsequent visits he found her “almost always full of gaiety…kindly and tolerant,” and accessible—except on those occasions, once a week, when she “answered questions upon her system, and as I look back after thirty tears I often ask myself, ‘Was her speech automatic? Was she a trance medium, or in some similar state, one night in every week?’”[7]

Her alternating states were adumbrated in the phases, active and passive, HPB called, in Isis Unveiled (1877), “the days and nights of Brahma.” Yeats had read that book and Blavatsky’s alternating phases tally with, and may have influenced, his lifelong emphasis on polarity, the antinomies: the tension between quotidian reality and the spiritual or Romantic allure of the Otherworld, in forms ranging from the Celtic Faeryland to that city of art and spirit, Byzantium; and, early and late, between things that merely “seem” (Platonic “appearance,” Hindu maya) and the spiritual reality perceived by Western visionaries and Hindu hermits contemplating on Asian mountains. After reading Isis Unveiled, Yeats had delved into a book given him by AE. This was Esoteric Buddhism (1883) by Madame Blavatsky’s fellow Theosophist and sometime disciple, A. P. Sinnett, whose earlier book, The Occult World (1881), had already had an impact on Yeats. “Spirituality, in the occult sense,” Sinnett declared, “has nothing to do with feeling devout: it has to do with the capacity of the mind for assimilating knowledge at the fountainhead of knowledge itself.” And he asserted another antithesis crucial to Yeats: that to become an “adept,” a rare status “beyond the reach of the general public,” one must “obey the inward impulse of [one’s] soul, irrespective of the prudential considerations of worldly science or sagacity” (101). That Eastern impulse is evident in Yeats’s three “hermit” poems in Responsibilities (1914).

A quarter century earlier, three poems in Crossways, his first collection of lyrics— “The Indian upon God,” “The Indian to his Love,” and the lengthy (91-line) “Anashuya and Vijaya”[8]—were written under a more direct and visceral influence. For the lure of the East had another source, also related to Madame Blavatsky. Yeats had been deeply impressed with the roving ambassador of Theosophy she had sent to Dublin in April 1886, to instruct the members of the Dublin Hermetic Society in the nuances of Theosophy. The envoy was the charismatic young Bengali Swami, Mohini Chatterjee, described by Madame Blavatsky, with perhaps more gaiety than tolerance, as “a nutmeg Hindoo with buck eyes,” for whom several of his English disciples “burned with a scandalous, ferocious passion,” that “craving of old gourmands for unnatural food.”[9] Despite his inability to resist the sexual temptations presented to him (he was eventually dispatched back to India), Chatterjee preached the need to realize one’s individual soul by contemplation, penetrating the illusory nature of the material world, and abjuring worldly ambition. His book, published several months later, described reincarnational stages, and ascending states of consciousness. The fourth and final state, which “may be called transcendental consciousness,” is ineffable, though “glimpses” of it “may be obtained in the abnormal condition of extasis.”[10]

Madame Blavatsky photo taken between 1886 and 1888Madame Blavatsky, photo taken between 1886 and 1888

Yeats later said that he learned more from Chattterjee than “from any book.” Hyperbole; but there is no doubt that he was permanently affected by the concept of ancient and secret wisdom being passed on orally from generation to generation, fragmentary glimpses of an ineffable truth. There are distinctions between East and West, but, as in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and Mohini Chatterjee presents an unknown Absolute, from which souls emanate as fragments, or “sparks,” separated from the divine substance, and longing to return to the One from which they came. The principal Eastern variation is that, to achieve that ultimate goal, they have to “make a long pilgrimage through many incarnations, live through many lives, both in this world and the next.”[11]

Many years later, in 1929, Yeats wrote an eponymous poem, “Mohini Chatterjee.” Its final words, “Men dance on deathless feet,” were added (though attributed to various “great sages”), by Yeats himself “in commentary” on Chatterjee’s own “words” on reincarnation. There is no reference to a personal God, and we are to “pray for nothing,” but just repeat every night in bed, that one has been a king, a slave, a fool, a rascal, knave. “Nor is there anything/ …That I have not been./ And yet upon my breast/ A myriad heads have lain.” Such words were spoken by Mohini Chatterjee to “set at rest/ A boy’s turbulent days.” When that boy, almost forty years later, published “Mohini Chatterjee” in The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), he placed it immediately preceding what is certainly his most “turbulent” poem of spiritual purgation and reincarnation:  “Byzantium,” in which impure spirits, “complexities of mire and blood,” are presented “dying into a dance,/ An agony of trance,/ An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.” Yet, like most of the other poems we will examine, “Byzantium” participates, though in this case with unique fury and surging energy, in the dominant Yeatsian agon between Time and Eternity, flesh and spirit.


As we’ve seen, Yeats wondered if, on heightened occasions, HPB’s speech might not be “automatic,” and herself a “trance medium.” But, since he never gave full credence to the “astral” dictations of Blavatsky’s Tibetan Masters, it is ironic that his own major esoteric text had a related genesis. His book A Vision, first published in 1925 and revised in 1937, is based on the “automatic writing” for which Mrs. Yeats discovered a gift when, in the early days of their marriage in 1917, she sensed that her husband’s thoughts were drifting back to the love of his life and his Muse, the unattainable Maud Gonne, and to her lush daughter, Iseult, to whom Yeats had also proposed before marrying his wife. Whatever their origin, psychological or occult, the wisdom conveyed to George by her “Communicators,” and then passed on to her husband, preoccupied the poet for years. Alternately insightful and idiosyncratic, beautiful and a bit bananas, A Vision may not be required reading for lovers of the poetry, even for serious students. As one Yeatsian wittily put it, speaking for many, “a little seems too much, his business none of ours.”[12]

But Yeats’s purpose was serious, and, as always, a balancing attempt to exercise individual creative freedom within a rich tradition. In dedicating the first edition of A Vision to “Vestigia” (Moina Mathers, sister of MacGregor Mathers, head of the Order of the Golden Dawn), Yeats noted that while some in the Order were “looking for spiritual happiness or for some form of unknown power,” clearly Hermetic or historically Gnostic goals, he had a more practical and poetry-centered object, though that, too, reflects the intuitive Gnosticism of poets and other creative artists seeking their own personal visions. Even back then, in the 1890s, he claims, he anticipated what would finally emerge as A Vision, with its circuits of sun and moon and its double-gyre, its tension between Fate and Freedom: “I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of one history and that the soul’s” (A Vision [1925], xi). A few years earlier, T. S. Eliot, though he had no more patience than did W.H. Auden with Yeats’s esoteric pursuits, had memorably described creative freedom operating within a larger and necessary historical discipline as the interaction between “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

If it is not mandatory that those drawn to the poetry read A Vision, it was absolutely necessary that Yeats write it. It illuminates the later poetry, and even provides the skeletal structure for some of his greatest poems, the single best known of which, “The Second Coming,” was originally accompanied by a long note, reproducing the double-gyre, that central symbol of A Vision. Yeats tells us, in the “Introduction” to the second edition of A Vision, that, back in 1917, he struggled for several days to decipher the “almost illegible script,” which he nevertheless found “so exciting, sometimes so profound,” that he not only persuaded his wife to persevere, but offered to give up poetry to devote what remained of his own life to “explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences” which he believed contained mysterious wisdom. The response from one of the unknown writers was welcome news for him and for us: “‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry’.” [13]

Yeats's GyreYeats’s Gyre

Yeats was a man at once credulous and skeptical. His lifelong quest for esoteric knowledge was countered by the circumspection of an intelligent, self-divided man and a notably dialectical poet. But he had no doubt that there was a spiritual realm. He strove to acquire knowledge of that world through any and all means at hand: studying the “perennial philosophy,” but not excluding the occasional resort to hashish and mescal to induce occult visions, and belief in astrology and séances, of which he attended many. A séance is at the center of one of his most dramatic plays, Words upon the Window-pane (1932), which helps explain the emphasis on “a medium’s mouth” in his cryptic poem “Fragments,” written at the same time, and which I will later discuss at some length.

Though it is difficult to track and disentangle intertwined strands of thought and influence, let alone make conclusive pronouncements, two significant Yeats scholars, Allan Grossman (in his 1969 study of The Wind Among the Reeds, titled Poetic Knowledge in Early Yeats) and that titan, Harold Bloom, in his sweeping 1970 study, grandly titled Yeats, both concluded that their man was essentially a Gnostic. The same assertion governs an impressive though unpublished 1992 Ph.D thesis, written by Steven J. Kelley and titled Yeats, Bloom, and the Dialectics of Theory, Criticism and Poetry. My own conclusion is close, but less certain.


There is no question that Yeats was a lifelong Seeker and that the “knowledge” he was seeking, whether poetic or Hermetic, was compatible, often in close alignment, with the quest for gnosis: that internal, intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth believed by Gnostics, ancient and modern, to provide the one path to deliverance from the constraints of material existence, and thus to be essential to salvation.  On the other hand, he wanted, as he told “Vestigia,” to participate in a spiritual tradition that “would leave my imagination free to create as it chose.”  The power and passionate intensity of much of his best poetry derives from Yeats’s commitment to the paradox that the “sacred,” unquestionably valid, was to be found through the “profane,” and in the here and now.

A profound point was made three-quarters of a century ago by a perceptive student of Yeats’s life and work, Peter Allt, later the editor of the indispensable “Variorum Edition” of the poems. Allt argued persuasively that Yeats’s “mature religious Anschauung” consists of “religious belief without any religious faith, notional assent to the reality of the supernatural” combined with “an emotional dissent from its actuality.”[14] In Gnostic terms (which are not Allt’s), Yeats, as a student of secret wisdom, responded, not to the orthodox Christian emphasis on pistis (God’s gift of faith), but to gnosis: the esoteric knowledge derived from individual intuition of divine revelation, often, as in that most formidable of Gnostics, Valentinus, in the guise of myth garmented as philosophy.[15] What Allt refers to as “emotional dissent” illuminates Yeats’s resistance to Christianity, and his occasional need to “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth,” as he does in the final section of “The Tower” in the very act of preparing his “peace” and making his “soul.” But emotional dissent and the making of one’s own soul in an act of self-redemption are hardly alien to the concept of individual gnosis.

Paramount to understanding Yeats as man and poet is recognizing the tension between the two worlds, between what he called the primary and the antithetical, the never fully resolved debate between the Soul and the Self (or Heart). As we will see, that tension plays out from his earliest poems to the masterpieces of his maturity. The theme begins with his first published major work, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), a lengthy quest-poem centering on the debate between paganism and Christianity, between the Celtic warrior Oisin and St. Patrick. The theme continues with his pivotal Rosicrucian poem, “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” (1893), and culminates in the great debate-poems of his maturity: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927) and the condensed, career-synopsizing debate between “The Soul” and “The Heart” in section VII of the poetic sequence revealingly titled “Vacillation,” which appeared forty years after “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time.”

The final section of “Vacillation” ends with the poet blessing, yet—gently and gaily, if somewhat patronizingly—rejecting the Saint, here represented by the Catholic theologian Baron von Hügel, who had, in his book The Mystical Element of Religion, stressed “the costingness of regeneration.” In the last and best of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot aligns himself with von Hügel by endorsing, in the conclusion of “Little Gidding” (lines 293-94), “A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything).” In section 2, in the Dantesque ghost-encounter (seventy of the finest lines he ever wrote and, by his own admission, the ones that had “cost him the most effort”), Eliot respectfully but definitively differentiated himself from the recently deceased Yeats. In that nocturnal encounter with a largely Yeatsian “compound familiar ghost,” Eliot echoes in order to alter Yeats’s poem “Vacillation,” and the refusal of “The Heart” to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!”[16] In the context of the theme of this essay, the contrast between Eliot and Yeats is illuminating; and Eliot is right to perceive as his mighty opposite in spiritual terms, W. B. Yeats, whom he pronounced in his 1940 memorial address, the greatest poet of the century, “certainly in English and, and, as far as I can tell, in any language,” but who was also, from Eliot’s Christian perspective, an occultist and a pagan.

The charges were hardly far-fetched. The final section of “Vacillation” begins with the poet wondering if he really must “part” with von Hügel, since both “Accept the miracles of the saints and honor sanctity.” And yet he must, for although his heart “might find relief/ Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief/ What seems most welcome in the tomb,” he must

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxplay 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 Hugel, though with blessings on your head.

In sending the poem to Olivia Shakespear, his first lover and later most intimate lifetime correspondent, Yeats, having just re-read all his lyric poetry, cited that line, and observed: “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, 790)


In referring throughout to Yeats as a Seeker, I am alluding to a very early, little-known “dramatic poem in two scenes” with that title. Though Yeats later struck The Seeker from his canon, its theme—the perennial quest for secret knowledge, usually celebrated but always with an acute awareness of the attendant dangers of estrangement from “mere” human life—initiates what might be fairly described as the basic and archetypal pattern of his life and work.[17] The “Seeker” of the title is an aged knight who sacrifices the normal comforts of life and shirks social responsibilities in order to follow a mysterious, beckoning voice. In his dying moments, he discovers that the alluring voice he has been pursuing all his life is that of a bearded hag, whose name is “Infamy.” That final turn looks back to Celtic mythology and to Book I, Canto ii of Spenser’s Faery Queen, where the evil witch Duessa, outwardly “faire,” is actually “fowle.”  It also anticipates Rebecca du Maurier’s short story, “Don’t Look Now” (later turned by director Nicholas Roeg into a haunting film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). Of course, Celtic mythology also has instances of reversal. In the most famous modern version (Yeats’s 1902 play Cathleen ni Houlihan, written for and starring the poet’s beloved Maud Gonne), the old hag is climactically transformed into a beautiful woman: “a young girl with the walk of a queen,” who is Ireland herself, rejuvenated by blood-sacrifice.

Maud Gonne in Cathleen Ni Houlihan Project Gutenberg eTextMaud Gonne in Cathleen Ni Houlihan

As in that seminal precursor poem for Yeats, Shelley’s Alastor, this theme, with its tension between the material and spiritual worlds, is at once Gnostic and High Romantic. As such, the Seeker-theme illuminates, along with several of Yeats’s most beautiful early quest-lyrics, two quintessential, explicitly Rosicrucian, poems: “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” and, a poem I will get to in due course, “The Secret Rose.”

“To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the italicized poem opening the 1893 volume The Rose, establishes, far more powerfully than The Seeker, this poet’ s lifelong pattern of dialectical vacillation, of being “pulled” between the temporal and spiritual worlds. In his 1907 essay “Poetry and Tradition,” Yeats would fuse Romanticism (Blake’s dialectical “Contraries” without which there can be “no progression”) with Rosicrucianism: “The nobleness of the Arts,” Yeats writes, “is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy, perfection of personality, the perfection of its surrender; and the red rose opens at the meeting of the two beams of the cross, and at the trysting place of mortal and immortal, time and eternity.”[18]

In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the symbolist poet seeks to “find” the immortal within the mortal; yet there is an inevitable tension between “all poor foolish things that live a day” and “Eternal Beauty wandering on her way.” That mingling, or contrast, concludes the first of the poem’s two 12-line movements. The second part begins by invoking the Rose to “Come near, come near, come near…,” only to have the poet suddenly recoil from total absorption in the eternal symbol. He may be recalling Keats, who, at the turning point of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” suddenly realizes that if he were to emulate the nightingale’s “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy,” by dying, he would, far from entering into unity with the “immortal Bird,” be divorced from it, and everything else, forever: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod.”

Yeats’s recoil in “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” is no less abrupt, and thematically identical:  “Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still/ A little space for the rose- breath to fill!” This sudden recoil, marked by a rare exclamation-point, is a frightened defense against the very Beauty he remains in quest of—like his precursor, the Shelley of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” But Yeats hesitates, afraid that he will be totally absorbed, engulfed, in the spiritual realm symbolized by the Rose. Along with Keats at the turning-point of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” another parallel may be illuminating.

The Latin Epigraph to The RoseSero te amavi, Pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova! Sero te amavi—is from The Confessions (“Too late I have loved you, Beauty so old and so new! Too late I have loved you”), a passage (X, 27) in which St. Augustine, addressing God, longs to be kindled with a desire that God approach him. Yeats would later, in 1901, quote these same Latin lines to illustrate that the religious life and the life of the artist share a common goal.[19] But the plea for “a little space” in “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” may remind us of a more famous remark by Augustine, also addressed to God, but having to do with profane rather than sacred love. A sinful man, still smitten with his mistress, he would, Augustine tells us, pray: “‘O Lord, give me chastity and continency, but not yet!’ For I was afraid, lest you should hear me soon, and soon deliver me from the disease of concupiscence, which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished” (Confessions XIII, 7:7).

Title page of Summum Bonum by Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd 1629Title page of Summum Bonum by Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd, 1629

In pleading with his Rose-Muse to “come near,” yet “leave me still/ A little space for the rose-breath to fill,” Yeats also fears a too precipitous deliverance from the temporal world. Augustine is “afraid, lest you [God] should hear me too soon.” Yeats is afraid “Lest I no more hear common things that crave.” Becoming deaf to the transient world with its “heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass,” he worries that he will “seek alone to hear the strange things said/ By God to…those long dead,” and thus “learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.” The hidden wisdom and eternal beauty symbolized by the Rose is much to be desired. But this quester is also a poet; and “a poet,” as Wordsworth rightly said in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is above all, “a man speaking to other men.” The “rose-breath” is the crucial “space” between the two worlds. Here, as elsewhere, self-divided Yeats is pulled in two antithetical directions. Hence the debates, implicit and often explicit, that shape so many of his poems.


A memorable paragraph in his most beautiful prose work begins, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[20] Almost forty years after he wrote “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” Yeats presented, in section VII of his poetic sequence “Vacillation,” a debate between “The Soul” and “The Heart.” Once again, and more dramatically, the more Yeatsian of the interlocutors resists the option of chanting in “a tongue men do not know.” The Soul offers “Isaiah’s coal,” adding, in an imperious rhetorical question, “what more can man desire?” But the Heart, “a singer born,” refuses to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire,” his tongue purified but cauterized by the spiritual fire of that live coal the rather Promethean angel took from God’s altar and brought to the prophet’s lips in Isaiah 6:6-7. Having just refused to “seek out” spiritual “reality,” the “Heart” goes on, after indignantly rejecting Isaiah’s coal and “the simplicity of fire,” to adamantly spurn Soul’s final promise and threat: “Look on that fire, salvation walks within.” The Heart anachronistically but dramatically responds, “What theme had Homer but original sin?” Though it firmly stands its antithetical ground, the Heart does not deny the lot-darkening concept of original sin, and accepts the notional distinction (Platonic, Neoplatonic, Christian) between spiritual “reality” and material “things that [merely] seem.” But since it is these resinous things of the world that fuel an artist’s fire and provide a “theme,” the Heart emotionally dissents. The tension between contraries, and the titular “vacillation,” persist, as does the desire to merge the antinomies at some “trysting place,” Yeats’s language characteristically “mingling” the spiritual and the erotic.

Before turning to “The Secret Rose,” which appeared in Yeats’s next volume, two other poems from The Rose merit comment: “Who Goes with Fergus?” and, immediately following, “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland.” Both are beautiful, and both embody the tension between the two worlds. The first suggests that the peace promised by an alluring Otherworld is more tumultuous than it appears; the second, like The Seeker and “The Stolen Child,” emphasizes the human cost of seduction by Otherworldly dreams. I intend to return to “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” later in this essay, juxtaposing it with “What Then?,” a poem written almost a half-century later, and which, I believe, amounts to a point-by-point refutation of the earlier poem—except, crucially, for the refrain.

“The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” is a catalog of might-have-beens. The “tenderness” of love; the “prudent years” that might have freed him from “money cares and fears”; the maintenance of “a fine angry mood” leading to “vengeance” upon mockers; and, finally, “unhaunted sleep” in the grave: all have been lost, spoiled by the repeated “singing” of “an unnecessary cruel voice” that “shook the man out of his new ease,” paralyzing him so that he dies without ever having lived.[21] The voice—a variation on the siren call of the faeries in “The Stolen Child” (“Come away, O human child!”) and on the “voice” that beckons and deceives the victim of The Seeker—emanates, of course, from the Otherworld, in this case from a Celtic “woven world-forgotten isle,” where

There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race

Under the golden or the silver skies;

That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot

It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit;

And at that singing he was no more wise.

The poem ends, “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” But that closing line is immediately preceded by a rather cryptic couplet: “Why should those lovers that no lovers miss/ Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?” Presumably, in Faeryland, where the boughs are “changeless” and the waves “dreamless,” all dreams are fulfilled, as are the desires of those perfect lovers, who are together, and therefore do not “miss” one another.[22] Thus, there is no need for further dreaming, “until” (always a pivotal word in poems, and notably in Yeats’s poems) “God burn Nature with a kiss.” Yeats’s early poetry has its apocalypses, among the most dramatic the windblown Blakean conflagration in “The Secret Rose.” But the apocalypse in the Faeryland poem is unexpected, unless one has come across Yeats’s story “The Untiring Ones,” where the faeries dance for many centuries “until God shall burn up the world with a kiss.”[23]

We also have a supposedly perfect world, with the “deep wood’s woven shade” and lovers who “dance upon the level shore,” in “Who Goes with Fergus?” Originally a song in the earliest version (1892) of Yeats’s play The Countess Kathleen, it was a favorite among the early Yeats poems memorized by James Joyce—the song he sang in lieu of the requested prayer at his mother’s deathbed and whose words haunt his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, throughout Bloomsday. Fergus, the king of Ulster who put aside his crown to live in peace and “pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,” invites a young man and maid to join him in his forest paradise, where, he promises, they will “brood on hopes and fear no more”;

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all disheveled wandering stars.

That enchanting final line has sexual precursors; it fuses the “golden tresses” Eve “wore/ Disheveled” and in “wanton ringlets” (Paradise Lost 4:305-6) with Pope’s echo in The Rape of the Lock, which ends with Belinda’s shorn tresses consecrated “midst the Stars”: “Not Berenices’s Locks first rose so bright,/ The Heavens bespangling with disheveled Light.” Those sexual undercurrents are present in all three of the concluding lines. Despite the emotional respite promised by Fergus, the poem’s climactic imagery—“shadows of the wood,” the “white breast of the dim sea,” the “disheveled wandering stars”—embracing earth, sea, and the heavens—extends to this supposedly peaceful paradise all the erotic tumult of “love’s bitter mystery.”


The quest-theme first established crudely in The Seeker, beautifully in “The Stolen Child,” “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland,” and “Who Goes with Fergus?,” and, perhaps most seminally in “The Rose upon the Rood of Time,” also provides the thematic structure for the two Byzantium poems, featuring, first, a sailing after knowledge and, second, a process of purgation, both of which turn out to be simultaneously spiritual and erotic. Looking ahead several decades, therefore, I’m compelled to note that something similar happens in both Byzantium poems, whose subject is the opposition of flesh and spirit, life and death, natural flux and spiritual form, but whose shared theme is that these antitheses are polarities—Blakean Contraries ultimately and inextricably interdependent. The Byzantium poems seem proof of the artistic truth of Yeats’s Golden Dawn name, Demon Est Deus Inversus, and of Blake’s proverb, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” That proverb is from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake’s affirmation of the polar nature of being, privileging, in the dialectic of necessary Contraries, “Energy” and the active “Prolific” over the “Devouring,” the passive and religious.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” a sixty-year-old and temporarily impotent poet, painfully aware that the world of youth and sexual vitality is “no country for old men,” sets sail for and has finally “come/ To the holy city of Byzantium.” Everything, yet nothing, has changed. The opening stanza’s “young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,/—Those dying generations at their song—” are reversed yet mirrored in the final stanza. “Once out of nature,” the aging speaker, his heart “sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal,” imagines that heart consumed away and himself (with what Denis Donoghue once wittily characterized as “the desperate certainty of a recent convert”) transformed into a bird of “hammered gold and gold enameling,” set “upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Yeats later in lifeYeats later in life

In a 1937 BBC broadcast, Yeats glossed the golden bird and Virgilian golden bough as symbolic “of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted to the instinctual joy of human life.” But these golden artifacts are still, however changed, recognizable “birds in the trees,” so that, whatever the ostensible thrust of the poem, the undertow of the imagery recreates—as in the “white breast” and “disheveled” stars of the supposedly tumult-free final stanza of “Who Goes with Fergus?”—the very world that has been rejected. Further, the now-avian poet is singing to “lords and ladies” of Byzantium, the sexual principle surviving even in that “holy city”;  and his theme, “What is past, or passing, or to come,” repeats—in a Keatsian “finer tone,” to be sure—the three-stage cycle of generation presented in the opening stanza: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” “Caught in that sensual music,” those “dying generations….neglect/ Monuments of unageing intellect.” But that golden bird set on the golden bough, however symbolic of unageing intellect, seems still partially caught in that sensual music, singing of the cycle of time to lords and ladies. Nature is the source of art, which, in turn, expresses nature; and the audience will always necessarily be men and women.

I’ve already referred to “Byzantium”—borrowing the adjective from “Mohini Chatterjee,” the poem that immediately precedes it—as Yeats’s most “turbulent” engagement in the tension, marked by conflict and continuity, between flesh and spirit, natural and supernatural, Time and Eternity. Though he admired the first Byzantium poem, Yeats’s friend Sturge Moore expressed a serious reservation: “Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies.” It’s difficult to believe that this was news to Yeats; but, agreeing with Moore to the extent that his friend had shown him that “the idea needed exposition,” he set out to address the issue in a second poem.[24]

The result was “Byzantium,” a poem that complicates rather than resolves Sturge Moore’s intelligent if limited quibble. Holy and purgatorial though the city may be, we are told, as the “unpurged images of day recede,” that the Emperor’s soldiery are “drunken” and “abed,” perhaps exhausted from visiting temple prostitutes, since we hear, as night’s resonance recedes, “night-walker’s song/ After great cathedral gong.” Amid considerable occult spookiness, including a walking mummy, more image than shade or man, two images of the Eternal emerge, the works of architect and goldsmith; both transcending and scorning the human cycle, sublunary and changeable:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities,

The fury and the mire of human veins.

The second emblem of eternity reprises the first poem’s icon of “hammered gold and gold enameling,” the form the speaker of “Sailing to Byzantium” imagined himself taking once he was “out of nature.” This avian artifact,

Miracle, bird, or golden handiwork,

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Can, like the cocks of Hades crow,

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all complexities of mire and blood.

However golden and immutable it may be, that the miraculous bird can be moon-embittered and scornful suggests that it may be “almost as much nature” as the golden bird Moore found insufficiently transcendent in the first Byzantium poem. Even in the overtly primary or soul-directed Byzantium poems, the antithetical or life-directed impulse is too passionate to be programmatically subdued. We remember (as with the Byzantium poems’ precursors, Keats’s Nightingale and Grecian Urn odes) the rich vitality of the sexual world being “rejected” in the first poem, and the ambiguity of the famous phrase, “the artifice of eternity.” And the final tumultuous stanza of “Byzantium,” especially its astonishing last line, evokes a power almost, but not quite, beyond critical analysis:

The multitude of souls (“Spirit after spirit!”) riding into the holy city, each “Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,” cannot be controlled, even though that surging power is said to be broken by the Byzantine artificers and artifacts. The poem ends with a single extraordinary burst, asserting one thing thematically, but, in its sheer momentum and syntax, suggesting quite another:

xxxxxxxThe smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity,

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

The marbled floor is not only the site for the preceding stanza’s ritual of purgation, where the spirits are envisioned “dying into a dance”; the floor itself seems to be “dancing,” the city almost lifted off its dykes under the inundation of the prolific sea of generation. The Emperor’s smithies and marbles, we are twice told, “break” (defend against, order, tame) these “furies,” “images,” and the sea itself. All three are the direct objects of that one verb; but, as Helen Vendler has brilliantly observed, “Practically speaking, the governing force of the verb ‘break’ is spent long before the end of the sentence is reached.”[25] The artistic defenses erected to order and transform the flood end up emphasizing instead the turbulent plenitude of nature, and those spawning “images that yet/ Fresh images beget.”

We are left—in one of the most remarkable single lines in all of English literature—with “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” Along with the images that yet fresh images “beget,” that final line recalls but overpowers the teeming fish and flesh—all that is “begotten, born, and dies,” the “salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas”—of “Sailing to Byzantium.” The dolphin is at once the mythological savior and transporter of souls to paradise and kin to us, who share its complexities of “mire and blood.” Inversely, the “gong,” though emblematic of Time, also, since it recalls the semantron of the opening stanza, the “great cathedral gong,” has to be seen and heard as tormenting the surface of life, yet pulling the sea of generation up, to the spiritual source of life’s transcendence. Once again, though more powerfully than usual, we are caught up in the dialectical conflict between Time and Eternity, sexuality and spirituality, Self and Soul.


We will shortly be returning, at long last, to the second of the Rosicrucian poems earlier mentioned. “The Secret Rose” (1896), the last of his explicit Rose poems, appeared in Yeats’s next collection, the autumnal The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). This fin-de-siècle and symboliste volume (his friend Arthur Symons’s influential The Symbolist Movement in Poetry appeared the same year), evokes a fallen world, soon to be visited by a longed-for apocalyptic wind. This volume includes what may be Yeats’s most beautiful early poem, the exquisite “Song of Wandering Aengus,” which projects ultimate union between the temporal and eternal as a “trysting place,” sexual and, in its mingling—as in that dreamt-of “Faeryland,” where “the sun and moon were in fruit”— of lunar apples of silver and solar apples of gold: a marriage of alchemy and Deuteronomy. The long-sought immortal, transformed from fish to a woman of the Sidhe, and Aengus, a notably human god, will meet in Eternity, an earthly Paradise where he will

xxxxxxkiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

Less entrancing poems in The Wind Among the Reeds feature a world-weary speaker who, to quote the longest-titled poem in a volume of many long titles, “mourns for the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World.” That consummation devoutly to be wished is far more dramatic in “The Secret Rose.” The poem begins and ends, “Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose”: a rondure suggesting that all is now enfolded (the verb “enfold” appears twice in the poem) within the petals of the symbolic flower. The speaker, and Seeker is among those questers who “have sought thee in the Holy Sepulchre,/ Or in the wine-vat,” a questing alternately Christian or Dionysian. Wandering Aengus sought his elusive beauty (the “apple-blossom in her hair” allying her with Maud Gonne, associated from the day Yeats met her with apple blossoms) “through hollow lands, and hilly lands.” The Seeker in “The Secret Rose” also, over many years, “sought through lands and islands numberless…/ Until he found”—unsurprisingly since this poem, too, was written for Maud Gonne—“a woman of so shining loveliness” that one desired consummation suggests another. No sooner is the beautifully-tressed woman of shining loveliness “found” (a state  projected in “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” where “I will find out where she has gone…”) than we are told:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI, too, await

The hour of thy great wind of love and hate.

When shall the stars be blown about the sky,

Like the sparks blown out of a smithy, and die?

Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,

Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?

This apocalypse, with its approaching “hour” and final questions, looks before and after. That “surely” anticipates (“Surely some revelation is at hand,/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”) Yeats’s most powerful, terrifying, and yet longed-for apocalypse, in the most-quoted poem of the past hundred years. The “vast image” of the sphinx-beast that rises up from “sands of the desert,” coming “out of Spiritus Mundi,” in “The Second Coming” had its occult (as opposed to literary) origin in an 1890 symbolic-card experiment conducted with Yeats by MacGregor Mathers, head of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Yeats suddenly saw “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones,” changed in its published version to “a desert and a Black Titan.”[26] And “The Second Coming,” like “The Secret Rose,” also terminates in a mysterious question mingling breathless anticipation with ambiguity, an uncertain certitude. “But now I know,” Yeats began the final movement of “The Second Coming,” but the poem ends with a question, the mark of the terrified but excited reverie that defines the Sublime. Intriguingly, whatever gnosis (‘now I know…”) the visionary poet claimed in the final version of “The Second Coming” was reserved, in the drafts, to the apocalyptic “rough beast” itself: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.”[27]

But I said that the apocalyptic “hour” of “The Secret Rose” looks before as well as after; and just as “The Second Coming” had a genesis both occult and literary, so too with the apocalypse of “The Secret Rose.” In both cases, the primary literary source is Blake. The slouching rough beast of the later poem fuses (among other creatures) Blake’s sublime Tyger with his striking illustration (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and elsewhere) of bestial Nebuchadnezzar slouching on all fours. In the earlier poem, the precursor passage is Blake’s description of “The stars consumed like a lamp blown out” (The Four Zoas, IX: 826), which reappears as Yeats’s “stars…blown about the sky/ Like the sparks blown out of a smithy.” Even Yeats’s substitution of a smithy for a lamp pays tribute to Blake’s great creative figure, the blacksmith-god, Los (in Eternity, Urthona).

William Blake Nebuchadnezzar (Tate copy)William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar

The Blakean echo is hardly accidental. Of the three Rosicrucian short stories Yeats wrote in the 1890s (“Rosa Alchemica,” “The Tables of the Law,” and “The Adoration of the Magi”), “The Secret Rose” is, as the titles alone suggest, most closely related to the first. The world-traveling hero of “Rosa Alchemica,” the magician Michael Robartes, is a student of comparative literature, especially drawn, as was Yeats himself, to the prophetic poems of William Blake.  Blake’s epic The Four Zoas (originally titled Vala, and abandoned in manuscript in 1807) was rediscovered and published in 1893 by none other than Yeats (and his co-editor, Edwin Ellis). In the finale of The Four Zoas, from which Yeats lifted the lines about the “stars” being “blown” about the skies like “sparks,” redeemed Man, having finally purged all the evil in himself, can look at infinity unharmed.  Los “rose in all his regenerative power”; the hour of transformation arrives:

The sun has left his blackness & found a fresher morning,

And the mild moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night,

And Man walks forth from midst of the fires, the evil is all consumed:

His eyes behold the angelic spheres arising night & day;

The stars consumed like a lamp blown out, & in their stead, behold:

The expanding eyes of Man behold the depths of wondrous worlds.

Here we have the potentially divine Man envisioned by so many Gnostics, Hermeticists, Cabbalists, and Rosicrucians: Valentinus’s “new man…more noble in his glorified state” than he was before “the conflagration”: a Man fully human, liberated from all imprisoning limitations, whether of materialism, the merely bodily (Lockean/empiricist) senses, or political tyranny. In the final lines of The Four Zoas, Urthona, the eternal form of Los (and, of the four, the Zoa least in need of redemption) “rises from the ruinous walls/In all his ancient strength.” According to one of Yeats’s (and Joyce’s) favorite phrases of Blake (from an 1800 letter to William Hayley), “The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity.”  In Blake’s anything-but-static Eternity, Urthona, though still ready for combat, is now armed to wage “intellectual war,” the “war of swords” having “departed.” In his single most famous and concise appeal for an imaginative art prophetically inspired and intended to achieve individual and societal redemption, Blake says his “sword” will not “sleep” in his hand. But the weaponry (“Bow of burning gold,” “Arrows of desire,” Spear, and “Chariot of fire”) is to be employed in ceaseless “Mental Fight.” He has, Gnostics would say, achieved gnosis.[28]


Gnosis takes many forms. I have already noted what the visionary poet of “The Second Coming” claims to “know,” and mentioned the very different assertion in the drafts, where the rough beast, “knowing its hour come round,” possesses whatever gnosis there is to go round. In “Leda and the Swan” (1925), the sonnet that begins the three-part cycle that ends with “The Second Coming,” we have another annunciation of a new historical era, beginning with a birth, and a hint of gnosis. Did Leda, raped by the swan-god Zeus, “put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” Here is another poem, like “The Secret Rose” and “The Second Coming,” ending in a question, the mystery-marker of the Sublime. There is, of course, no question about the brutality of the sudden rape, and the indifference of the God following the “shudder in the loins,” which, impregnating Leda, completes Zeus’s mission.

For in fathering Helen of Troy, he also “engenders there” the Trojan War (depicted in imagery at once military and sexual: “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower”) and its sequelae (“And Agamemnon dead”), initiating an historical cycle destined to last until, two thousand years later, another lady, the Virgin Mary, would be visited by the Holy Spirit: another divine bird, his “great wings beating about the room” in Yeats’s “The Mother of God” (1931), a dramatic monologue spoken by the terrified village girl singled out to bear “The Heavens in my womb.” The question raised at the end of “Leda and the Swan” is not merely rhetorical. Did Leda, “her thighs” rather tenderly “caressed/ By the dark webs,” so intrigue the swan-god that he inadvertently held her just long enough (“Before the indifferent beak could let her drop”) for her to participate momentarily in “his knowledge,” the divine gnosis of Zeus himself?

Leda and the Swan by Jerzy Hulewicz 1928Leda and the Swan by Jerzy Hulewicz, 1928

Gnosis also figures in the cryptic poem, “Fragments,” which features, like its  far better-known cousin, “The Second Coming,” a strange birth, and a revelation derived from counter-Enlightenment intuition, gnosis. Written between 1931 and 1933, this epigrammatic poem is in two short parts. Here is the first:

Locke sank into a swoon;

The Garden died;

God took the spinning-jenny

Out of his side.

In this parody of Genesis, the role of sleeping Adam, from whose side God took Eve, is usurped by a swooning John Locke, whose empiricist epistemology and distinction between primary and secondary qualities seemed to Yeats, as to George Berkeley and Blake before him, to have fractured the organic unity of the living world, and thus destroyed not only nature but its archetype, the Edenic “Garden.” That the resultant birth, that of the “spinning-jenny,” bears a woman’s name accentuates the irony, and the horror. It was not altogether to the benefit of humanity and a sign of progress, Yeats once mordantly observed, for the home spinning wheel and the distaff to have been replaced by the robotic looms and masculinized factories of the Industrial Revolution. Blake’s god of the fallen world, Urizen, presides over an Enlightenment world-machine perceived as “the Loom of Locke” washed by the “Water-wheels of Newton,” all “cruel Works” with “cogs tyrannic” moving each other “by compulsion” (Jerusalem 15:15-19)

Yeats is never closer to Blake than in this first part of “Fragments,” where he emulates not only his mentor’s attack on Locke (and Newton), but also his genius for epigram and crystallization, Blake being “perhaps the finest gnomic artist in English literature.” In Yeats’s gnomic vision in “Fragments” (I), which has been called “certainly the shortest and perhaps not the least comprehensive history of modern civilization,” the Enlightenment is revealed as a nightmare for the creative imagination; and the monster that rides upon this spirit-sealing sleep of reason is the mechanistic conception of matter, indeed the whole mechanistic rather than organic way of thinking (a crucial contrast Yeats knew from Coleridge, who had borrowed it from A. W. Schlegel), here symbolized by the invention that epitomizes the Industrial Revolution.[29] Yeats replaces the divinely anesthetized flesh of Adam with Locke’s imaginatively inert body (sunk into that fall into division Blake called “Single Vision & Newton’s sleep”), and substitutes for Eve, the beautiful embodiment of Adam’s dream, a mechanical contraption, a patriarchal cog in the dark Satanic mills of which it is proleptic.

Spinnng room in cotton mill 1916Spinning room in a New England cotton mill, 1916, photo courtesy National Archives

But how does Yeats know all this, and know it to be the “truth”? It wasn’t only from absorbing Blake. Or only from reading Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1925), a chapter of which, “The Romantic Reaction,” Yeats synopsized with a related variation of the Genesis 2 creation-metaphor, jotting in the margin: “The dry rib (Pope) becomes Eve (Nature) with Wordsworth.”[30] Yeats answers his own question in “Fragments” II:

Where got I that truth?

Out of a medium’s mouth,

Out of nothing it came,

Out of the forest loam,

Out of dark night where lay

The crowns of Nineveh.

Is this mere occult mumbo-jumbo, intended to twist the tail of positivists and empiricists? Well, yes and no. But before coming to conclusions, let’s pause to appreciate the wit of the lines, alive with reversals and allusions. Yeats’s ironic reversal of the birth “out of” the side of Locke takes the form of a counter-“truth,” born “out of” (repeated four times in succession) a variety of sources. The anaphora is Whitmanian— “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,/ Out of the mocking bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,/ Out of the Ninth-month midnight.” And Whitman’s birth-images may have suggested Yeats’s equally fertile sources: the female “medium’s mouth,” the “forest loam,” and “dark night,” all in organic and fecund contrast to the mechanical, sterile “birth” of the spinning-jenny.

Yeats deliberately begins with what rationalists would dismiss as among the least reputable sources of “truth”: “Out of a medium’s mouth…” Even Madame Blavatsky, whose own experiments had been discredited, told Yeats, who reported it to John O’Leary in a May 1889 letter, that she “hates spiritualism vehemently—says mediumship and insanity are the same thing” (Letters, 125). In “Fragments” (II) Yeats is having some fun, but it is worth mentioning that the poem was written shortly after the first production of one of Yeats’s most dramatic plays, The Words Upon the Window-pane, which centers on a séance, climaxing with our shocked recognition that the female medium is authentic. The one scholarly skeptic who had attended, a specialist in the life and work of Jonathan Swift, is refuted once the post-séance stage is bare except for the female medium, who is suddenly revealed, not to be faking it as he had been sure all along, but to be channeling the tormented ghost of Swift, and thus speaking the sort of spiritual truth Yeats, half-skeptic himself, sought all his life. “All about us,” he concludes his Introduction to the play, “there seems to start up a precise inexplicable teeming life, and the earth becomes once more, not in rhetorical metaphor, but in reality, sacred.”[31]

The second source is philosophically and theologically scandalous. Subverting the venerable axiom, ex nihilo nihil fit, employed by metaphysicians from Parmenides on and by theologians arguing for the necessary existence of God, Yeats boldly declares that the “truth” revealed to him came “Out of nothing,” only to instantly add details that deepen the mystery and sharpen his thrust against the Enlightenment. Coming “Out of the forest loam,/ Out of dark night…” Yeats’s “truth” is generated from fecund earth, once more become “sacred,” and teeming with inexplicable “life,” replacing or restoring the “Garden” earlier said to have “died.” It also comes, out of a mysterious, or occult, “dark night.”

If the spinning-jenny epitomizes the Industrial Revolution, Alexander Pope’s intended epitaph for Isaac Newton epitomizes the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,/ God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.” Pope’s couplet, like Yeats’s opening quatrain, plays off Scripture, with Newton now assuming God’s role as Creator by verbal fiat: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Pope avoids blasphemy; after all, it was God who said “Let Newton be!” Until the advent of the principal scientific genius of the European Enlightenment, the universe existed, but “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.” Adopting that darkness, and reversing the “laws” that prior to Newton “lay hid in night,” Yeats tells us that his Counter-Enlightenment truth came “Out of dark night where lay,” not Nature’s scientific laws, but “The crowns of Nineveh.”

Nineveh image by archaeologist Henry Layard CC 4.0Archaeologist Henry Layard’s image of Nineveh

Why Nineveh in particular? For one thing, Yeats loved Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” celebrating poets as music-makers and prophets. The famous final stanza (and these are the lines Yeats always cited) begins: “We, in the ages lying/ In the buried past of the earth,/ Built Nineveh with our sighing,/ And Babel itself with our mirth.” When, in “Fragments,” the golden crowns of Nineveh flame up “Out of dark night,” what is evoked is more O’Shaughnessy’s city of the poetic imagination than Ashurbanipal’s capital, majestic as that may have been. For Yeats was looking, not merely back to old Nineveh, but cyclically ahead, to the resuscitation of the ancient—a past buried, dark, chthonic, and, here, female. For, as Yeats seems to have known, the Assyrians named their capital city Nin-evah—after “Holy Mother Eve,” the Mother-womb, or Goddess of the Tree of Life in their mythology. Displaced by a machine in the withered Garden of the first part of “Fragments,” Eve, in a return of the repressed, is restored, re-surfacing in the final word of part II, in the disguised but detectable form of the city named for her. Recalling the role of Sophia, often opposed to the male Logos in esoteric tradition, including Gnosticism, I’m reminded as well that gnosis is a Greek female noun.

At his most winning, Yeats reminds us of Hamlet’s rejoinder to his skeptical and scholastic friend: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But we are right to be wary when Yeats crosses the threshold into the occult. Though concurring in, in fact shaping, Yeats’s cavalier dismissal of Locke and Newton as Enlightenment icons, Blake would be appalled by his disciple’s delving into the occult darkness. Though Yeats tended to mystify and occultize him, Blake in fact condemned the heathen “God of this World & the Goddess Nature/ Mystery, Babylon the Great” (Jerusalem 93: 22-25). But what Blake rejects here are the very things his prodigal son celebrates as the matrix of vision: the forest loam and the mysterious dark night where lay the crowns of ancient Nineveh, repository of Assyro-Babylonian mythology.

Of course, Yeats’s recourse to the occult is one measure of the intensity of his need to expedite what he called in that earlier-cited 1892 letter to John O’Leary “the revolt of the soul against the intellect” (Letters, 211). That is, somewhat reductively, a description of the Romantic Revolution, the noble attempt to beat back, through restored wonder at a re-enchanted nature and the transformative power of the creative imagination, the passivity of mind and mechanistic materialism that had reigned (Yeats insists in introducing his 1936 anthology of modern poetry) since “the end of the seventeenth century” down to the present. With, he emphasizes— as had Alfred North Whitehead, though his Romantic hero was Wordsworth rather than Blake or Shelley—“the exception of the period beginning at the end of the eighteenth century” and ending “with the death of Byron”: that is to say, the “brief period” of the Romantic revolt, a span “wherein imprisoned man beat upon the door.”[32]

That compelling metaphor was repeated the next year in “An Acre of Grass,” Yeats’s late poem (a companion of “What Then?”), in which he prays to be granted the creative “frenzy” and “old man’s eagle mind” he had read of in Nietzsche’s Daybreak. He also specifically invokes “That William Blake/ Who beat upon the wall/ Till truth obeyed his call”—a “truth” related to, but not identical to, the “truth” Yeats claimed in “Fragments” (II) came to him “Out of” Counter-Enlightenment sources both Romantic and, most dubiously, out of a mysterious “dark night” whose counter-Enlightenment frisson will be offset for many readers by resistance to the dangerous irrationality of the occult.


Night was not normally privileged over day in Yeats’s thinking. Blake and Nietzsche, his great mentors, were both celebrators of daybreak, of Blake’s “glad day.” In 1902, enthralled by his “excited” reading of “that strong enchanter, Nietzsche,” Yeats drew in the margin of an anthology of selections from the German philosopher a diagram crucial to understanding much if not all of Yeats’s subsequent thought and work. He grouped under the heading NIGHT: “Socrates, Christ,” and “one god”— “denial of self, the soul turned toward spirit seeking knowledge.” And, under the heading DAY: “Homer” and “many gods”—“affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.”[33] Reminiscent of Madame Blavatsky’s alternating “days and nights of Brahma,” that  diagrammatical skeleton, anticipated by the pull between eternity and the temporal in such early poems as “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” is later fleshed out by Yeats’s own chosen exemplar in “Vacillation”—“Homer is my example and his unchristened heart”—and Self’s choice of Sato’s sword wound in “embroidery” of “Heart’s purple”: “all these I set/ For emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Ultimately, they are the emblems of a life-seeking Poet who, without “denial of self,” attempts to transcend the antithesis set up a quarter-century earlier in that Nietzsche anthology, usurping Soul’s role by also being oriented “toward spirit seeking knowledge,” or gnosis.

“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is in many ways Yeats’s central poem since its ramifications reach before and after, and it features perhaps the greatest of Yeats’s fused symbols: the “ancient blade” (the gift of a Japanese admirer, Junzo Sato) scabbarded and bound in complementary “female” embroidery. That sword and winding silk are not only “emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Fusing the sacred and the profane, war and love, the phallic and the vaginal, the sheathed and silk-wound sword becomes Yeats’s symbol of gyring life, set against the vertical ascent urged by the Neoplatonic Soul. What Gnostics put asunder, body and spirit, Yeats unites. And yet, as we will see, Self’s final act of self-redemption, magnificent but heretical, is as Gnostic as it is Nietzschean.

In the opening movement of the poem, the half in which there is still a semblance of actual dialogue, hectoring Soul repeatedly demands that Self “fix” every thought “upon” the One, “upon” the steep ascent,  “upon” the occult Pole Star, “upon” the spiritual quarter where all thought is done. But the recalcitrant Self remains diverted by the Many, by earthly multiplicity, by the sword wound in embroidery replicating the windings of mortal nature. In unpublished notes, Yeats describes “Dialogue” as “a variation on Macrobius” (the “learned astrologer” of “Chosen,” the central poem of A Woman Young and Old). Yeats had been directed by a friend (F. P. Sturm) to Macrobius’s Neoplatonic Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. In Cicero’s text, despite the admonition of Scipio’s ghostly ancestor, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and contemn what is mortal?,” young Scipio admits he “kept turning my eyes back to earth.” According to Macrobius, Scipio “looked about him everywhere with wonder. Hereupon his grandfather’s admonitions recalled him to the upper realms.” Though the agon between the Yeatsian Self and Soul is identical to that between young Scipio and his grandfather’s spirit, the Soul in Yeats’s poem proves a much less successful spiritual guide than that ghost.[34]

Turning a largely deaf ear to Soul’s advocacy of the upward path, Self (revealingly called “Me” in the drafts of the poem) has preferred to focus downward, on life, brooding on the consecrated blade upon his knees with its tattered but still protective wrapping of “Heart’s purple.” Its “flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound” makes the double icon “emblematical” not only of “love and war,” but of the ever-circling gyre: the eternal, and archetypally female, spiral. When Soul’s paradoxically physical tongue is turned to stone with the realization that, according to his own austere doctrine, “only the dead can be forgiven,” Self takes over the poem. He goes on to win his way, despite difficulty, to a self-redemptive affirmation of life.

Winding stair in Thoor Ballylee tower c Jacket2 CC 3.0Walt Hunter viaWinding stair in Thoor Ballylee tower, photo by Walt Hunter via Jacket2 CC 3.0

Self begins his peroration defiantly: “A living man is blind and drinks his drop./ What matter if the ditches are impure?” This “variation” on Neoplatonism, privileging life’s filthy downflow, or “defluction,” over the Plotinian pure fountain of emanation, is followed by an even more defiant rhetorical question: “What matter if I live it all once more?” “Was that life?” asks Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “Well then! Once more!”[35]  But Self’s grandiose and premature gesture is instantly undercut by the litany of grief that Nietzschean Recurrence, the exact repetition of the events of one’s life, would entail—from the “toil of growing up,” through the “ignominy of boyhood” and the “distress” of “changing into a man,” to the “pain” of the “unfinished man” having to confront “his own clumsiness,” then the “finished man,” old and “among his enemies.” Despite the Self’s bravado, it is in danger of being shaped, deformed, by what Hegel and, later, feminist critics have emphasized as the judgmental Gaze of Others. Soul’s tongue may have turned to stone, but malignant, almost Archon-like ocular forces have palpable designs upon the assaulted Self:

How in the name of Heaven can he escape

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?

This would be, as Yeats says in “Ancestral Houses” (1921), to lose the ability to “choose whatever shape [one] wills,” and (echoing Browning’s arrogant Duke, who “choose[s] never to stoop”) to “never stoop to a mechanical / Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call”: Yeats’s rejection of “slave morality” in favor of Nietzschean “master morality.” The centrality of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is enhanced by its repercussions in Yeats’s own work and its absorption of so many influences outside the Yeatsian canon. Aside from the Body/Soul debate-tradition, from Cicero to Milton and Marvell, and the combat between Nietzsche on the one hand and Neoplatonism on the other, this Yeatsian psychomachia incorporates, among other poems in the Romantic tradition, another Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which supplies those “malicious eyes” that cast upon Self a distorting lie so powerful that he temporarily falls victim to it, and Blake’s feminist Visions of the Daughters of Albion.[36]  Self’s eventual victory, like Oothoon’s, is over severe moralism, the reduction of the body to a defiled object. In Yeats’s case, Self’s victory is a triumph over his own Neoplatonism. Though Gnosticism, too, seeks liberation from the body, the heterodox Gnostic emphasis on self-redemption makes it compatible with Blake, Nietzsche, and Yeats. “Dialogue” represents Nietzschean Selbstüberwindung, creative “self-overcoming,” for, as Yeats said, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”


Since “Dialogue” is a quarrel with himself, the spiritual tradition is not simply dismissed, here any more than in the Crazy Jane or Woman Young and Old sequences. For Yeats, the world of experience, however dark the declivities into which the generated soul may drop, is never utterly divorced from the world of light and grace. The water imagery branching through Self’s peroration subsumes pure fountain and impure ditches. There is a continuum. The Plotinian fountain cascades down from the divine One through mind or intellect (nous) to the lower depths. As long, says Plotinus, as nous maintains its gaze on and contemplation of God (the First Cause or “Father”), it retains the likeness of its Creator (Enneads 5.2.4). But, writes Macrobius (Commentary 1.14.4), the soul, “by diverting its attention more and more, though itself incorporeal, degenerates into the fabric of bodies.”

Viewed from Soul’s perspective, Self is a falling off from the higher Soul. When the attention, supposed to be fixed on things above, is diverted below—down to the blade on his knees wound in tattered silk and, further downward, to life’s “impure” ditches—the Self has indeed degenerated into the “fabric,” the tattered embroidery, of bodies. And yet, as usual in later Yeats, that degradation is also a triumph, couched in terms modulating from stoic contentment through fierce embrace to a casting out of remorse, leading to self-forgiveness and redemption:

I am content to live it all again

And yet again, if it be life to pitch

Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,

A blind man battering blind men;

Or 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.


I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

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.

Following everything to the “source” within, Self spurns Soul’s tongue-numbing Neoplatonic doctrine that “only the dead can be forgiven.” Instead, having pitched with vitalistic relish into life’s filthy frog-spawn, Self audaciously (or blasphemously) claims the power to forgive himself. In a similar act of self-determination, Self “cast[s] out” remorse, reversing the defiling image earlier “cast upon” him by the “mirror of malicious eyes.” The sweetness that “flows into” the self-forgiving breast redeems the frog-spawn of the blind man’s ditch and even that “most fecund ditch of all,” the painful but productive folly that is the bittersweet fruit of unrequited love.

That sweet flow also displaces the infusion (infundere: “to pour in”) of Christian grace through divine forgiveness. It is a claim to autonomy at once redemptive and heretical, and a masterly fusion of Yeats’s two principal precursors. “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” Yeats claimed. If, as he also rightly said, Blake’s central doctrine is a Christ-like “forgiveness of sins,” the sweetness that flows into the suffering but self-forgiving “breast,” the breast in which Blake also said “all deities reside,” allies the Romantic poet with Nietzsche. He had been preceded by the German Inner Light theologians, but it took Nietzsche, the son of a Protestant minister, to most radically transvalue the Augustinian doctrine that man can only be redeemed by divine power and grace, a foretaste of predestination made even more uncompromising in the strict Protestant doctrine of the salvation of the Elect as an unmerited gift of God. One must find one’s own “grace,” countered Nietzsche in Daybreak, a book read by Yeats. He who has “definitively conquered himself, henceforth regards it as his own privilege to punish himself, to pardon himself”—in Yeats’s phrase, “forgive myself the lot.”  We must cast out remorse and cease to despise ourselves: “Then 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 yourselves!”[37]

But, as I earlier suggested, this is as Gnostic as it is Nietzschean. The most formidable of the historical Gnostics, Valentinus, claimed that the person who received gnosis could purge himself of the ignorance associated with matter. He describes the process in the “Gospel of Truth,” a Valentinian text unearthed at Naj Hammadi in 1945. In stark contrast with the orthodox Christian doctrine of salvation through the grace of God, Valentinus declared that “It is within Unity that each one will attain himself; within gnosis he will purify himself from multiplicity into Unity, consuming matter within himself like a fire, and darkness by light, death by life.” In the best-known Valentinian formulation, “what liberates us is the gnosis of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereunto we have been thrown; whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.” Here (Excerpts from Theodotus) and elsewhere in Gnostic literature, salvation is defined, as it is in Romanticism (from which Gnosticism often seems less a deviation than a precursor), as an escape into the self, where, through introspective private vision, we find true knowledge, gnosis. The spiritual quest is solitary. When Sturge Moore, who was designing the book cover for the volume containing “Byzantium,” asked if Yeats saw  “all humanity riding on the back of a huge dolphin,” Yeats responded, “One dolphin, one man” (Yeats-Moore Correspondence, 165). There is no real need for any Other; the individual who has attained gnosis is the whole and sole agent of redemption.[38]

In the now-famous Gospel of Thomas, the most audaciously heterodox of the Naj Hammadi texts, the Gnostic Jesus of Thomas tells us, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am.” The central teaching, again, is internal salvation, redemption from within: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If Emerson hadn’t been speaking more than a century before the Gospel of Thomas had been rediscovered, he might have been accused of plagiarizing from that long-suppressed text in his Divinity School Address, the bombshell he exploded at Harvard in 1838. Emerson celebrated Jesus not as divine, nor even as Lord, but as the religious thinker who first realized that “God incarnates himself in man.”  He informed the shocked ministers and thrilled graduating students in the audience: “That is always best which gives me to myself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” As heterodox as Thomas’s, Emerson’s Jesus is imagined saying, in “a 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.’” [39]

It is primarily under the twin auspices of Blake and Nietzsche, as manipulated by Yeats, that the Self finds the bliss traditionally reserved for those who follow the ascending path. But that heretical self-redemption is also Gnostic. Whatever its various “sources,” Yeats’s alteration of the orthodox spiritual tradition completes Blake, who considered cyclicism the ultimate nightmare, with that Nietzsche whose exuberant Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into the “golden-emerald delight” of self-redemption and Eternal Recurrence, exultantly embraced as the ultimate affirmation of life in the “Yes and Amen Song” that concludes part III :

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?[40]

We might say that Zarathustra here also “jumps” into a cluster of images and motifs we would call Yeatsian, remembering, along with Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, “Among School Children,” where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know/ The dancer from the dance”; the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems; and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero, both in The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted,” into a singing bird.

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the Yeatsian-Nietzschean Self, commandeering the spiritual vocabulary Soul would monopolize, affirms Eternal Recurrence, the labyrinth of human life with all its tangled antinomies of joy and suffering. In subverting the debate-tradition, Yeats leaves Soul with a petrified tongue, and gives Self a final chant that is among the most rhapsodic in that whole tradition of secularized supernaturalism Yeats inherited from the Romantic poets and from Nietzsche. In a related if somewhat lower register, it is also the vision of Crazy Jane and the Woman Young and Old.

Of course, Self and Soul are aspects of the one man, and, as Yeats jotted in his 1930 Diary, “Man can only love Unity of Being.” The internal “opponent” we debate with “must be shown for a part of our greater expression” (Essays and Introductions, 362). This resembles the Valentinian Unity “each one will attain himself,” overcoming “multiplicity.” Yeats’s friend, AE (George Russell) to whom he sent a copy of The Winding Stair, said that of the many superb poems in that remarkable volume he liked “best” of all “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Acknowledging his friend’s gift, he wrote, “I am on the side of Soul, but know that its companion has its own eternal claim, and perhaps when you side with the Self it is only a motion to that fusion of opposites which is the end of wisdom.”[41]

Having astutely synopsized the central Yeatsian dialectic, Russell was tentatively noting its reflection in the poem’s impulse, beneath the manifest debate of opposites, toward fusion. We seem to achieve fusion in the secular beatitude of Self’s final chant. But Yeats was not AE, the “saint,” as Mrs. Yeats described him, to her husband’s “poet,”[42] and the poet in Yeats, the Self, gives us—in the whole of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and particularly in this magnificent final affirmation—an overcoming of Christian and Neoplatonic dualism and defilement of the body by way of a heterodox, “heretical” self-blessing at once Blakean, Nietzschean, and Gnostic.


Despite Self’s triumph in this central poem, Yeats remained torn between what he called in “Vacillation” (echoing Kant) “the antinomies” of soul and body, by antithetical longings for the Otherworld and, on the most autobiographical level, for Maud Gonne: that extravagantly beautiful but never fully attainable femme fatale, the Muse that haunts the life and work of the twentieth century’s greatest love poet. His occult speculations were always entangled in his emotional life. “His aim,” Graham Hough concludes, “was to redeem passion, not to transcend it, and a beatitude that has passed beyond the bounds of earthly love could not be his ideal goal” (The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats, 119). Unsurprisingly, then, in the alembic of Yeats’s paradoxical imagination, the search for hidden spiritual knowledge is often merged with carnal knowledge. Even then, however, the beloved proves to be ultimately unattainable, even if physical consummation has been briefly attained, as it was, in December 1908, with the elusive Maud. Yeats was both impressed and deeply moved (responding to both human tragedy and Latinate rhetorical majesty) by a resonant phrase he encountered—“The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul”—in reading John Dryden’s translation of Lucretius, one of whose arguments in De rerum natura is that sexual union can never provide complete satisfaction.

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

In a 1931 conversation with John Sparrow, then Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford, Yeats cited and expanded on Lucretius’ famous lines from the end of the long passage (1030-1237) on sexual love concluding Book IV of De rerum natura. In glossing Dryden’s translation of the Roman poet, Yeats seems to echo the Gnostics’ doubly radical dualism, a dualism between man and nature, but also between nature and the transmundane God who is utterly Other, Alien, and unknowable—except through gnosis. Yeats’s citation and commentary also seem worth quoting because he appears to me to be looking back to four of his own poems, three of them written in 1926-27, the fourth in 1931. Two of them, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Among School Children,” are indisputably major. The other two, lesser lyrics but closely related to those major texts, are “Summer and Spring,” from Yeats’s Man Young and Old sequence, and, the most splendid of the Crazy Jane lyrics, the poignant yet triumphant “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman,” written in 1931, the same year as his conversation with John Sparrow. But here, finally, is what Yeats told Sparrow:

The finest description of sexual intercourse ever written was in John Dryden’s translation of Lucretius, and it was justified; it was introduced to illustrate the difficulty of two becoming a unity: “The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” Sexual intercourse is an attempt to solve the eternal antinomy, doomed to failure because it takes place only on one side of the gulf. The gulf is that which separates the one and the many, or if you like, God and man.[43]

In “Summer and Spring” (poem VIII of the autobiographical sequence in which the poet is masked as an anonymous “Man Young and Old”), two lovers grown old reminisce “under an old thorn tree.” When they talked of growing up, they “Knew that we’d halved a soul/ And fell the one in t’other’s arms/ That we might make it whole.” We recall, as we are meant to, “Among School Children,” written in the same year. In transitioning from the first to the second stanza of this great poem, we shift abruptly from Yeats’s external persona as senator and school inspector, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” to the private, inner man, the poet himself reporting an incident Maud Gonne once related from her childhood:

I dream of a Ledaean body bent

Above a sinking fire, a tale that she

Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event

That changed some childish day to tragedy—

Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent

Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,

Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,

Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

In “Summer and Spring” there is gnosis; the lovers “Knew that we’d halved a soul.” The tragedy in this stanza of “Among School Children” lies in the qualifying “seemed” and in the need “to alter Plato’s parable”—a “Lucretian” alteration, since the blending here is empathetic and partial (yolk and white remain separated even within the unity of the “one shell”) rather than the full sexual union of Aristophanes’ haunting fable in Plato’s Symposium. It is precisely this “whole” union that the old man claims in “His Memories” (poem VI of A Man Young and Old)[44] and in “Summer and Spring,” which concludes with a sexual variation on the Unity of Being symbolized by the dancer and “great-rooted blossomer” of “Among School Children”: “O what a bursting out there was,/ And what a blossoming,/ When we had all the summer-time/ And she had all the spring!”

But even here, despite that “fecund” blossoming, it is all memory and heartache. Two decades later, that night in December 1908, no matter how fleeting, remains paramount among the “memories” of Yeats’s “Man Old.” In “real life,” however, after their night of lovemaking in that Paris hotel, Maud had quickly put the relationship back on its old basis, a “spiritual marriage,” informing Yeats in a morning-after note that she was praying that he would be able to overcome his “physical desire” for her. In a journal entry the following month (21 January 1909), Yeats referred despairingly but realistically to the “return” of Maud’s “old dread of physical love,” which has “probably spoiled her life….I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poison.”

Gonne1Maud Gonne

William Butler Yeats and Wife GeorgieYeats and his wife Georgie, late 1920s

Hence, those “others,” including Yeats’s wife, destined to become “friends,” or sexual partners, if never a fully satisfactory replacement for “that one” (as he refers to her, namelessly and climactically in his poem “Friends”).  Since Maud was, ultimately, “not kindred of his soul,” Yeats sought complete union, if only in memory, in poetry, and masked as “A Man Young and Old” or, empathetically switching genders, in the vision of Crazy Jane. Partly based on an old, crazed Irish woman, Jane is not merely promiscuous. Yeats’s occult experiences had led him to a belief in feminized, often sexualized, spirituality, early embodied in the beautiful, highly-sexed actress Florence Farr, one of the most gifted women visionaries of the Golden Dawn (and, briefly, his lover). Such female adepts, whose powers he admired and envied; women of “second sight” (his own sister, “Lily,” his uncle George Pollexfen’s servant, Mary Battle); his experiences at séances, where the mediums were almost invariably women: all convinced him of a female and erotic dimension in spirituality. The artistic result was the two powerful poetic sequences, A Woman Young and Old and the Crazy Jane poems. The third poem in the Jane sequence, “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment,” begins:

“Love is all


That cannot take the whole

Body and soul”:

And that is what Jane said.

It ends with Jane still holding forth, now emphasizing her version of gnosis, but one that would certainly resonate with most Gnostics. While mystical experience was possible during life, virtually all Gnostics believed that the true ascent, in which (in Jane’s phrase) “all could be known,” took place after death, with the return of the spirit to its divine origins, the spark of life redeemed and reunited with the One from which it had been severed and alienated by its immersion in the material, temporal world. For most of the Crazy Jane sequence, unconventional Jane, making the most of her time on earth, will take a decidedly unorthodox Itinerarium mentis ad Deum. But here we find her, yearning for Time to disappear and gnosis to be achieved:

“What can be shown?

What true love be?

All could be known or shown

If Time were but gone.”

Jane’s male interlocutor—responding, “That’s certainly the case”—might be Yeats himself, who thought Lucretius remained “justified” in insisting on the “failure,” in this life, to bridge “the gulf,” the insuperable “difficulty of two becoming a unity.”

The poem that immediately follows Jane’s thoughts on the Day of Judgment, “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman,” responds more personally, magnificently, and certainly more audaciously, to Dryden’s Lucretius-  and Epicurus-based assertion that “The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” Writing in 1875, the Victorian essayist J. M. Symonds qualified what Dryden before him and Yeats after him designated a “tragedy,” though Symonds goes on to emphasize, even more than Yeats, the Lucretian, Epicurean—and, I would add, Gnostic—bleakness and frustration of lovers whose immaterial souls are entrammeled in the flesh: “There is something almost tragic,” writes a sympathetic but austere Symonds, “in these sighs and pantings and pleasure-throes, and the incomplete fruition of souls pent up within their frames of flesh.”[45] Symonds seems to reflect, along with the frustration described by Lucretius (and Platonism and Neoplatonism in general), the dualism of the Gnostics, concerned above all with freeing the spirit dwelling within (to quote two passages from Genesis well known to Gnostics) that “coat of flesh” imprisoning “the spark of life” (3:21, 3:78).

In the beginning (in what Shelley would later call “the white radiance of eternity”), we were “in the light,” uncreated, fully human, and also divine. What makes us free, in the present and future, the Gnostics insisted, is the gnosis of who we were back then, when we were “in the light.” Crazy Jane, returning to the One, “Shall leap into the light lost/ In my mother’s womb.” That Blakean infant joy marks the exuberant climax of her vision. But she had begun by asserting her own gnosis, shaped by earthly experience:

I know, although when looks meet

I tremble to the bone,

The more I leave the door unlatched

The sooner love is gone,

For love is but a skein unwound

Between the dark and dawn. …

Her knowledge of the transience of sexual love has not driven Jane to abstinence, despite the hectoring of the Bishop (her antagonist in this sequence) that she should “Live in a heavenly mansion,/ Not in some foul sty.” In that poem, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” (sixth in the sequence), Jane tells the Bishop, a “religious” Soul-spokesman nevertheless fixated on “those breasts,” where her God—neither Jehovah nor Jesus, but Eros—has “pitched” (temporarily set up as one would a tent) his mansion. It is not up among the stars as a “heavenly mansion” (Yeats has the Bishop borrow that lofty sty-disdaining phrase from Platonism and Christianity, from Pietro Bembo and the Gospel of John, 14:2). Love’s mansion is “pitched” (with, I suspect, a pun on darkened), not up but down, inter urinam et faeces, “in/The place of excrement.” And her final, definitely punning but serious news for the Bishop, is that “Nothing can be sole, or whole/ That has not been rent”: a sexual/spiritual variation on the archetypal cycle of original unity, division, and reunification and completion.

Despite the graphic nature of her language here, Jane is no more a simple materialist than is Augustine, or Swift, or Blake, whose excremental yet visionary vocabulary Yeats has her echo. What Jane insists on is the beauty of both the physical and the ideal world, with “Love” the tertium quid mediating between them. Love is the “great spirit” or “daemon” celebrated by that Sophia-figure, Diotima, presented in the Symposium by Socrates, whose simplistic dualism between good and evil, “fair” and “foul,” she corrects by presenting Love as “a mean between them,” a yoker of apparent opposites, a creator of unity out of division. (Symposium 202-3).

Statue of Diotima at University of Western Australia

Whatever its other parallels and sources, Jane’s vision is also Gnostic, at least reflective of some aspects of Gnosticism, which is, in general, hostile to “law,” especially to Old Testament law and the sort of puritanical strictures the Bishop wants to impose on Jane. Historical Gnosticism ran the ethical gamut from extreme asceticism to, at its most unconventional, robust promiscuity. The charges, by early Christian opponents, of Gnostic orgies were exaggerated (or at least unsupported by evidence). However, two Gnostic sects (the Carpocrations and the Cainites) held that, in order to be freed from the power of the Archons, the world-creating angels who would “enslave” them, men and women had to “experience everything.” No one, said Carpocrates, “can escape from the power” of the Archons, “but that he must pass from body to body until he has experience of every kind of action which can be practiced in this world, and when nothing is any longer wanting to him, then his liberated soul should soar upwards to that God who is above the angels, the makers of the world.” By “fulfilling and accomplishing what is requisite,” the liberated soul will be saved, “no longer imprisoned in the body.”[46] This is certainly in accord with Jane’s notably embodied theory of illumination through a sexual liberation that is ultimately spiritual and salvivic:

A lonely ghost the ghost is

That to God shall come;

I—love’s skein upon the ground,

My body in the tomb—

Shall leap into the light lost

In my mother’s womb.


But were I left to lie alone

In an empty bed,

The skein so bound us ghost to ghost

When he turned his head

Passing on the road that night,

Mine must walk when dead.

Most readers of Yeats, even Yeatsian scholars familiar with the finale of the Enneads of his beloved Plotinus, misread the central and crucial stanza, a misreading based on an understandably negative response, when the word is taken out of context, to the adjective “lonely.” It is in fact an ultimate affirmation. Jane will come to God as a “lonely ghost,” the climax of her “flight of the alone to the Alone.” These, the final words of the Enneads, are also memorably recalled by Yeats’s friend Lionel Johnson at the climax of “The Dark Angel,” a poem Yeats rightly admired: “Lonely unto the lone I go,/ Divine to the Divinity.”

Jane’s transcendence is earned not (to echo the final stanza of “Among School Children”) through a body-bruising, soul-pleasuring abstinence, but (since nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent) by utterly unwinding, through experience, what Blake called (in The Gates of Paradise) “the sexual Garments.” Though “love is but a skein unwound/ Between the dark and dawn,” if left unwound, it would bind her to the earth, condemning her ghost, like that of her true lover, Jack, to “walk when dead.” That skein fully unwound, we are to go to our graves (to use a Miltonic phrase, but hardly his meaning), “all passion spent.” Yeats told an interviewer at this time, “If you don’t express yourself, you walk after you’re dead. The great thing is to go empty to your grave.”

To be liberated from those world-making angels who would enslave us, we must, Carpocrates and some other Gnostics insisted, “experience” every action possible on earth; then, with nothing left to be experienced, the liberated soul will “soar upwards to that God who is above the angels,” those makers of the fallen world. Yeats confided to Olivia Shakespear, “I shall be a sinful man to the end and think upon my deathbed of all the nights I wasted in my youth.”[47] He was fond of quoting a passage from Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgment: two sentences which, with their emphasis on both the “realities of intellect” and the need for the passions to “emanate” in a way alien to Plotinus, would appeal to some Gnostics: “Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governed their passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion, but realities of intellect, from which the passions emanate uncurbed in their eternal glory.”[48] The Gnostic Carpocrates would endorse that vision of the Last Judgment. Whatever he might have thought of Crazy Jane’s promiscuous theology, Blake himself saw no puritanical line demarcating the human heart and loins from the human head and spirit.


Finally, the Seeker-theme, the quest for gnosis, informs a number of late, great poems. I’m thinking of “Lapis Lazuli,” and of three death-poems:  “Cuchulain Comforted,” “Man and the Echo,” and the seemingly colloquial debate-poem, “What Then?” If I had to select just one last testament of Yeats, aside from Self’s chant at the end of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the choice would narrow to the final movements of “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo.” In their own ways, each of these poems constitutes wisdom writing, a quest for gnosis, or the acknowledgment that it may not be attainable in this life. That is true as well of the apparently more casual, but no less momentous, “What Then?”

Written in July 1936, “Lapis Lazuli” was published with war imminent. Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe, unaware of the deep truth—known to Hindu mystics, to Nietzsche, and to Arthur O’Shaughnessy, whose creative artists “built Nineveh” and Babel out of their own “sighs” and “mirth”—that “All things fall and are built again/And those that build them again are gay.” To counter the consternation of those who are “sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,/ Of poets that are always gay,” women dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents Shakespearean figures who—like Ophelia, Cordelia, and (by implication) Cleopatra—“do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian joy (“He who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness”), the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,

Are carved in lapis lazuli;

Over them a long-legged bird,

A symbol of longevity;

The third, doubtless a serving man,

Carries a musical instrument.

Aside from the obvious resemblance to the Grecian urn, the repeated “or” in the lines that follow seals the connection, with description yielding to a stunning exercise of the creative imagination, worthy of its precursor, the fourth stanza of Keats’s ode. Since the place of origin of the figures in the sacrificial procession is not depicted on the urn, Keats speculates: “What little town by river or seas-shore,/ Or mountain-built….” Yeats ups the ante to four repetitions:

Every discoloration of the stone;

Every accidental crack or dent,

Seems a water-course or an avalanche,

Or lofty slope where it still snows

Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch

Sweetens the little half-way house

Those Chinamen climb towards, and I

Delight to imagine them seated there;

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.

Yeats turns every discoloration and “Every accidental crack or dent”[49] into a feature of the mountain landscape. But the even greater creative leap in this exquisite final movement is the setting of those sculpted figures, frozen in lapis as Keats’s were on the marble urn, into motion, with the poet delighting to “imagine” them having attained the prospect of the gazebo half-way up the mountain. That the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis; that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision. To that extent, the Chinese sages’ mountain-vision may not achieve the gnosis attained by the naked hermits caverned on another Asian mountain, in Yeats’s 1933 sonnet, “Meru.” Those hermits, aware of the “manifold illusion” of one passing civilization after another, “know/ That day brings round the night, that before dawn/ [Man’s] glory and his monuments are gone.” Yet the affirmation of the Chinese sages of “Lapis Lazuli” is also registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene.” The eyes of these Yeatsian visionaries, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability, glitter with a tragic joy lit by the poet’s own creative “delight,” and by something resembling the Gnostic “spark.”

's lapis lazuli carving c. National Library of Ireland

Yeats’s lapis lazuli carving, (photo above courtesy National Library of Ireland)

's lapis lazuli carving

The end of mutability is death. The ancient Chinese sages’ gaiety in the face of tragedy may remind us of Yeats’s central mythological figure, Cuchulain, the hero of several Yeats poems and a cycle of five plays, ending with The Death of Cuchulain. The poet’s final encounter with his Celtic Achilles takes place in a ghostly poem completed on January 13, 1939, two weeks before his death.[50] The magnificent and eerie “Cuchulain Comforted,” composed, appropriately, in Dante’s terza rima, finds the nameless hero, wounded in battle and slain by a blind man, in the Underworld among “Shrouds that muttered head to head,” and “Came and were gone.”  He “leant upon a tree/ As though to meditate on wounds and blood.” He is among his polar opposites— “convicted cowards all,” according to one “that seemed to have authority /Among those birdlike things,” and who informs the still armed hero: “Now must we sing and sing the best we can.”

The poem ends with the hero’s apotheosis imminent. Having joined these spirits in a kind of communal sewing-bee, making shrouds, he is soon to undergo their transformation, described in haunting final lines reminiscent of Zarathustra’s vision of evil absolved by its own bliss so that all that is “body” becomes “dancer, all that is spirit, bird”:  “They sang 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.” That uncanny final line, the pinnacle of the Yeatsian Sublime, is also a final fusion. Marrying the posthumous continuation, as in “Sailing to Byzantium,” of a bird-like poet’s need to sing with the transformation and liberation of the soul, it should thrill Romantics and Gnostics alike. According to Valentinus, “what liberates is the knowledge [gnosis] of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereunto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.”

Cuchulain's death illus by Stephen Reid 1904Cuchulain’s death, illustration by Stephen Reid, 1904

This, the best-known Valentinian formula of salvation, is cited by Harold Bloom as a “good motto” for “Cuchulain Comforted,” which Bloom considers “Yeats’s finest achievement in the Sublime.”[51] The triumph of this mysterious and yet revelatory death-poem is that it discloses, along with an unexpected aspect of the solitary hero, Yeats himself: the man under the many masks, “one that,” in yet another bird-image, “ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”). It recalls the similar if more personal triumph-in-defeat of “Man and the Echo” (1938), a poem that comes, like the ghost of King Hamlet, “in a questionable shape,” and, appropriately, borrows the questioning and tetrameters of Coleridge’s confessional “The Pains of Sleep.” A “Man” halted in a rock-cleft on the mountainside shouts “a question to the stone.”

All that I have said and done,

Now that I am old and ill,

Turns into a question till

I lie awake night after night

And never get the answers right.

Did that play of mine send out

Certain men the English shot?

Did words of mine put too great strain

On that woman’s reeling brain?

Could my spoken words have checked

That whereby a house lay wrecked?

It is unclear what Yeats might have said to save Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, or have not said to preserve the sanity of Margot Ruddock, the infatuated and crazed girl memorialized in “Sweet Dancer” (1937). That “play of mine” is, of course, Cathleen ni Houlihan, the ostensible celebration of blood-sacrifice written for and starring Maud Gonne as Ireland herself. It did send out men that were shot in the Easter Rising; in fact, the first to die was an actor cast in a revival of the play. The “terrible beauty” born that Easter had many causes, but Yeats, fingering the “links in the chain of responsibility,” wondered “if any link” was forged “in my workshop.” Here, his responsibility for its impact is the first “question” that causes him to feel guilt and to “lie awake night after night.”[52]

Here is Coleridge, as sleepless and anguished as Yeats: “All confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered or I did: / For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe.” Yeats concludes his questioning in the same perplexity: “And all seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.” Echo: “Lie down and die.” But that, Man responds, would be “to shirk / The spiritual intellect’s great work.” There can be no thought of ending life until he can “stand in judgment on his soul.” Once “all’s arranged in one clear view,” and “all work done,” he will be ready to “sink at last into the night.” But, given Echo’s sardonic repetition, “Into the night,” that prospect only 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?”), until all cerebral self-centered thoughts stop together, interrupted:

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.

“Take physic, pomp,” cries a chastened Lear out on the storm-beaten heath, finally exposing himself to feel pity for life’s naked victims. The greatness of “Man and the Echo” has to do with a similar intervention from the existential physical reality outside Yeats’s own self-absorbed thoughts about death and the fate of his soul. Gnostics would not approve of this external interference that “distracts the thought” of the thinker. But Yeats is not only philosophizing, he is writing a poem, and the poem’s triumph lies in the old man’s setting aside, as in “Cuchulain Comforted,” of the “heroic mask”— of Swiftian arrogance or Nietzschean master morality, of the perspective of the predatory hawk, of Cuchulain, that “great hawk out of the sun”—in order to fully and humbly accept common mortality: the radical finitude he shares with human rags and bones, with cowards, with the pitiable death-cry of a rabbit, struck down by hawk or owl.

At the end of “Man and the Echo,” amid uncertainty (“joy or night,” “hawk or owl” dropping out of “sky or rock”), the one certitude is death. “Mortality touches the heart,” epitomized by what Virgil (Aeneid 1:462) calls the “tears that are in things” (Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). Yet here the tears are unshed from “an eye” that has “kept watch oe’r man’s mortality.” Like Wordsworth at the end of the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Yeats is touched by the human heart’s “tenderness, its joys, and fears.” Responding to the death throes of a humble, transient creature of nature, he is left, as Wordsworth was, with “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Both of these great poets end, not crying, but thinking. Having registered “all the tragic scene,” they achieve, amid uncertainty, at least a limited gnosis, though Yeats’s question, “What do we know?” continues to resonate.


Two years before his death, Yeats received a request for a “representative” poem for The Erasmian, the magazine of his old Dublin high school. He selected “What Then?” (1937), which lays out for the Erasmus Smith students a planned life of disciplined labor, aimed at achieving what Yeats’s “chosen comrades” at school believed to be his destiny: the conviction, in which he concurred, that he would “grow a famous man.” Writing intimately though in the third person, “he” tells the young students and us that he “crammed” his twenties “with toil,” and that, in time, “Everything he wrote was read.” He attained “sufficient money for his need,” true friends, and that predestined yet industriously sought-after fame. Eventually, “All his happier dreams came true”: house, wife, daughter, son; “Poets and wits about him drew.”

But this self-satisfied rehearsal of accomplishment has been challenged by the refrain ending each stanza: “‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’” As in “Man and the Echo,” despite best-laid plans, an ultimate uncertainty attends the certainty of death. In the fourth and final stanza, as the litany of achievement mounts in passionate intensity, the opposing challenge from the world beyond earthly accomplishment also reaches a crescendo:

“The work is done,” grown old he thought,

“According to my boyish plan;

Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,

Something to perfection brought”;

But louder sang that ghost, “What Then?”

In “The Choice,” written a decade earlier, Yeats had declared that “the intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.”  The “something” brought to “perfection” in “What Then?” is clearly the second choice. Must “he” therefore, as in “The Choice,” “refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark”? Momentous in import despite its casual tone, “What Then?” revisits the “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” with the spiritual spokesman, despite being restricted to two words, at last mounting a potent challenge. The refrain Yeats places in the breathless mouth of that formidable ghost— “What then?”—fuses the Idealism of that “Plato,” who (in “Among School Children”) “thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things,” and the Hindu tatah kim (you may have gained glory and accomplished all your desires: what further?), with the question raised in the synoptic gospels: what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his immortal soul?

That relentless question, “what then?,” also tallies with the Gnostic insistence that the liberating spirit within, the “divine spark” of which most remain ignorant all their lives but which alone constitutes true humanity, was the sole agent of salvation. That inner spark of divinity, once ignited, redeems the “inner” spiritual man, freeing him from the Archon-imposed limitations of an alien body in an alien world, from enslaving attachment to earthly things. However, powerful though the Otherworldly challenge is in “What Then”,” here as always—beginning with the crucial “The Rose upon the Rood of Time”—dialectical Yeats is not quite succumbing to the spiritual, a realm at once alluring and demanding. “His” litany of achievements, in the poem Yeats himself chose to represent his life-work to the students of his former high school, are triumphs of the imagination even more than they are flauntings of material success; and, given the massiveness of Yeats’s poetic achievement, “his” is far from empty boasting. “Plato’s ghost” gets the last word, but “What Then?” consists of more than its refrain. Taken as a whole, the poem presents Yeats once again vacillating “between extremities” or “antinomies” (“Vacillation,” I), and, in the process, making poetry out of the quarrel with himself. It was Nietzsche—Yeats’s chosen counter-weight to Plato and Christianity, that “Platonism for the people”—who said, “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[53]

Nietzsche’s prophet famously advises us, at the outset of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to “remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes.” In “What Then?,” Yeats seems in part to be following Zarathustra’s imperative; but he had not yet been introduced to Nietzsche when, almost a half-century earlier, he wrote “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland,” a poem to which “What Then?” responds almost point for point. As we have seen, in that earlier poem every earthly pleasure and achievement had been spoiled by a repeated, cruel “singing” whose theme was a golden and silver Faeryland, an Otherworld of immutable, but unattainable beauty. Everything lost in the early poem, including the “fine angry mood” required to rebut mockers, is re-gained in this late poem, where the speaker, his work done, cries out, “Let the fools rage, I swerved in  naught,/ Something to perfection brought.” The mature, accomplished man has “succeeded” beyond his dreams, and thus exposed the folly of the man who wasted his life away by fruitlessly dreaming of Faeryland. And yet, that “singing” from the Otherworld persists: “‘What then,’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’”—a “singing” that grows “louder” the more the speaker rehearses his accomplishments. The tension between the two worlds persists.




Harold Bloom, who has over the years come to half-accept the Gnostic vision he once rejected, most harshly in his 1970 book Yeats, ended the essay he wrote a half-dozen years later—“Yeats, Gnosticism, and the Sacred Void”—by contrasting Yeats to his own formational  precursor, Shelley, and to Schopenhauer. Though Bloom doesn’t get into the lineage, Schopenhauer was an “educator” of Nietzsche, “that strong enchanter” whose “curious astringent joy” allied him in Yeats’s mind with Blake, and so helped transform the Irish poet from a lyricist of the Celtic Twilight into the most powerful poet of the Twentieth Century. But here is Bloom:

Shelley and Schopenhauer were questers, in their very different ways, who could journey through the Void without yielding to the temptation of worshiping the Void as itself being sacred. Yeats, like Nietzsche, implicitly decided that he too would rather have the Void as purpose, than be void of purpose.[54]

Though Bloom does not mention it, Yeats seems to me to have been thinking of the Gnostic vision when he ended one of his final letters by declaring, “The last kiss is given to the void.”  Some context is instructive. No more a believer in linear progress than Nietzsche (for whom the “theory of progress” was a “modern” concept, “and therefore vulgar”), Yeats, under Indian influence, came to consider cultures and civilizations a succession of provisional illusions: that “manifold illusion” or maya, seen through by those who, in “Meru,” realize that “man’s life is thought,” its ultimate destructive/creative goal to “come/ Into the desolation of reality.” As earlier noted, such seers as the ascetic hermits caverned on Mount Meru or Everest, “know/ That day brings round the night, that before dawn/ [Man’s] glory and his monuments are gone.”

Bhutanese thanka of Mount Meru and the Buddhist universie 19th centuryBhutanese thanka of Mount Meru and the Buddhist universe, 19th century

Those who have, after “Ravening, raging, and uprooting,” finally “come/ Into the desolation of reality,” have come far, but—despite the gay farewell to civilizations, “Egypt and Greece good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!”—they may not have attained the state of “bliss” attained by Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, who describes climbing Meru in The Holy Mountain, read and introduced by Yeats shortly before writing “Meru.” In that Introduction, Hamsa is quoted describing his attainment of ineffable “bliss’—all merged in the Absolute Brahma!”[55] Yeats’s sonnet registers the strenuous mental steps to the Absolute, but does not culminate in the merging joy expressed by Hamsa. Nevertheless, Yeats’s hermits, by coming to “know” the truth underlying illusions, have achieved a considerable degree of gnosis.

In the letter I began with, Yeats insists that there is “no improvement, only a series of sudden fires,” each fainter than the one before it. “We free ourselves from delusion that we may be nothing. The last kiss is given to the void.”[56] Commenting on this letter, the great Irish critic Declan Kiberd perceptively observed that, for Yeats, “the only hope of humanity was to break out of this diminishing series of cycles by recasting life on an altogether higher plane of consciousness.”[57] Kiberd does not dwell on the “void,” or connect this “higher plane of consciousness” with gnosis, but those familiar with Gnosticism well might. I believe Yeats himself did.

The memorable paragraph in Per Amica Silentia Lunae that begins, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry,” ends: “I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand that I have nothing; that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.” Practical men are committed to the world and to social conventions symbolized by the marriage bell. By contrast, the Poet must concentrate on what is scarcely attainable. The soul achieves its “hymen” or marriage when it forsakes the gratifications of this material world, a forsaking symbolized by the “passing bell,” or death knell. Again, we “free ourselves from delusion that we may be nothing. The last kiss is given to the void.” A lifelong Seeker, Yeats seems at times as much a Gnostic Quester as he is a Romantic Poet.

In his last letter, written to Elizabeth Pelham on January 4, 1939, three weeks before his death, Yeats concluded:

I am happy, and I think full of an energy, an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put 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. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence. (Letters, 922)

One has no wish to resist let alone refute this gay farewell. But Harold Bloom, in his 2004 book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? resisted that Yeatsian emphasis on embodiment by choosing, in keeping with his title, to focus on wisdom rather than that “truth” Yeats said could not be “known” but could be embodied. “Of wisdom,” writes Bloom—and he thought his reversal of Yeats important enough to place in splendid isolation on the back cover of his book—“I personally would affirm the reverse. We cannot embody it, yet we can be taught how to learn wisdom, whether or not it can be identified with the Truth that might make us free.” His final, somewhat skeptical allusion is to the Gospel of John (8:32), but Bloom’s emphasis on being taught how to learn wisdom would appeal to all Seekers, certainly Gnostic Seekers.

—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 (2008).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yeats, Autobiographies (London, 1956), 114-15. For Clarissa Dalloway’s reading, see Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Ontario, 2013), 106-7.
  2. Even that Gnosticism is syncretist and complex, steeped not only in Hebrew and early Christian writing, but with roots in India, Iran, and of course in Greece (Orphism and Pythagoreanism, Platonism and Neoplatonism). That kind of cross-fertilization simultaneously enriches the tradition, from the mysterious Simon Magus to the formidable Valentinus, and complicates analysis. In addition, the various sects were secret. Because of its value as the way to break out of our imprisonment by the flesh and the material world, and thus the path to salvation, the knowledge was kept hidden, reserved for the spiritual elite capable of achieving and exercising gnosis.
  3. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London, 1954), 210-11.
  4. A very different response to Yeats’s apparent possession of mysterious wisdom is registered by Virginia Woolf. When she met Yeats in November 1930, at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s, Woolf knew little of his thought and not all that much of his poetry, but she was overwhelmed by his personality and by an immediate sense of a body of thought underlying his observations on life and art: “I perceived that he had worked out a complete psychology that I could only catch on to momentarily, in my alarming ignorance.” When he spoke of modern poetry, he described deficiencies inevitable because we are at the end of an era. “Here was another system of thought, of which I could only catch fragments.” She concludes on a note seldom found in Bloomsbury self-assurance: “how crude and jaunty my own theories were besides his: indeed I got a tremendous sense of the intricacy of his art; also of its meaning, its seriousness, its importance, which wholly engrosses this large active minded immensely vitalised man.”  The Diary of Virginia Woolf.  5 vols. Volume 3 (London, 1980), 329.
  5. Ellic Howe, The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (New York, 1972), ix. The ceremony of admission to the R.R.& A.C., based on the legend of Christian Rosenkreuz, required an initiate to commit him- or herself to the “Great Work,” which was, with divine help, to “purify and exalt my Spiritual nature,” and thus,”gradually raise and unite  myself to my Higher and Divine Genius.” In 1901, Yeats wrote an important pamphlet titled “Is the Order of R.R. & A.C. to Remain a Magical Order?” His main point—that frivolous “freedom” is inferior to “bonds gladly accepted”—illuminates his own philosophy in A Vision, and the tension in his poetry between freedom and traditional forms.
  6. Yeats, Letters to the New Island: A New Edition, ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer (London, 1990), 84. The volume collects pieces Yeats sent between 1888-92 to The Boston Pilot and the Providence Sunday Journal.
  7. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil (1922), in Autobiographies, 173-74, 179. An almost Yeatsian mixture of fascination and skepticism was evident in the report issued on Blavatsky by Richard Hodgson, a skilled investigator employed by the Society of Psychical Research. Though the SPR report assessed her claimed activities in India to be fraudulent, it concluded that she was “neither the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor…a mere vulgar adventuress. We think she has achieved a title to a permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters of history” (cited in Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru [London, 1993], 83). Yeats, writing in 1889, and still registering Blavatsky’s magnetism and skills as an eclectic magpie, found that conclusion simplistic, noting, with his usual mixture of skepticism and credulity, that “the fraud theory” at least at its most pronounced, was “unable to cover all the facts.” Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (New York 1973), 281.
  8. The latter, though, poetically, a false start, anticipates Yeats’s debate-poems as well as two powerful late poems: the sonnet, “Meru” (1933), centered on Hindu hermits caverned on Mount Meru, and “Lapis Lazuli,” that marvelous poem based on a Chinese sculpture ending in a blessing and mountain vision. In the Crossways poem, the young priestess Anashuya compels Vijaya to swear an oath by the gods “who dwell on sacred Himalay,/ On the far Golden Peak; enormous shapes,/ Who still were old when the great sea was young;/ On their vast faces mystery and dreams” (lines 66-70). Like Meru, Golden Peak is a Himalayan sacred mountain.
  9. Quoted in Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, 88-89.
  10. Chatterjee, Man: Fragments of a Forgotten History (London, 1887).
  11. The quoted phrase is from the succinct synopsis of Graham Hough, The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats (Sussex, 1984), 39. Consisting of three Northcliff Lectures given in London in 1983, fleshed out by a fourth chapter on A Vision, Hough’s short book offers an illuminating introduction to the subject. But while he provides a humane counter-weight to the learned but crabbed studies that were threatening to bury Yeats in esoteric commentary, Hough, though a fine reader, discuses very few of the poems, and none at length.
  12. William York Tindall, W. B. Yeats (New York, 1966), 27. With a few notable exceptions, preeminently the late, great George Mills Harper, the best guides to A Vision are not the occultist commentators, but two brilliant literary critics: Helen Vendler (Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays, 1963) and Harold Bloom (Yeats, 1970).
  13. “Introduction” to A Vision, 2nd ed. (London, 1937), 8. It’s hard not to imagine that Yeats was relieved when advice arrived, conveniently, that he should relax, and recall that he was, above all else, a poet.
  14. Peter Allt, “W. B. Yeats,” Theology 42 (1941), 81-99.
  15. Valentinus’s “revelation” came when the Greco-Christian Logos appeared to him as a child. Unsurprisingly, his greatest disciples Ptolemaeus and his pupil, Heracleon, both interpreted the Gospel of John as a Valentinian text.
  16. Both the drafts and the final version of the passage, riddled with echoes of “Vacillation,” “Man and the Echo,” and  of Yeats’s Dantesque death-poem, “Cuchulain Comforted,” make it clear that the ghost is primarily that of  Yeats, an identification confirmed by Eliot in letters to John Hayward, Maurice Johnson, and Kristian Smidt. For details, see Helen Gardner, The Composition of Four Quartets  (New York, 1978), 64-67, and Terence Diggory, Yeats and American Poetry (Princeton, 1983), 115-17, 239. That Jonathan Swift is also part of the compound ghost only reaffirms the dominant presence of Yeats, since Eliot’s reference to “lacerating  laughter at what ceases to amuse” echoes Yeats’s poem, “Swift’s Epitaph,” and nods toward the presence of Swift’s own ghost in Yeats’s play The Words upon  the Window-pane.”
  17. A lengthy text for Yeats (91 lines, like “Anashuya and Vijaya”), The Seeker appeared in 1885, in the Dublin University Review, and was re-printed in the poet’s first book, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889).
  18. Yeats, “Poetry and Tradition,” in Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, IV: Early Essays, ed. Richard J. Finneran and George Bornstein (London, 2007), 186.
  19. Essays and Introductions (London, 1961), 207.
  20. The paragraph, the conclusion of which I will return to in  my own conclusion, occurs in the Amina Hominis (“The Soul of Man”) section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae,  its Virgilian title (“through the friendly silence of the moon”) taken from Book II of the Aeneid.
  21. In a jauntily bleak poem written twenty years later, “Miniver Cheevy,” the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson gave us another frustrated Romantic dreamer (as chivalry-intoxicated as Don Quixote) who, wasting his life, “sighed for what was not,/ And dreamed, and rested from his labors.”
  22. Much in “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” is reminiscent of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” reminding  me that, many years later, the old woman of “Her Vision in the Wood” (poem VIII of A Woman Young and Old) asks a Keatsian question of other immortals: “Why should they think that are for ever young?”
  23. Yeats, Mythologies (London and New York, 1959), 78.
  24. W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence, 1901-1937, ed. Ursula Bridge (London, 1953), 164.
  25. Vendler, Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays (Cambridge, Mass, 1963), 118. The floor is ambiguously “marbled.”  Yeats originally envisioned a marble pavement, but another draft, referring to the emperor’s “bronze & marble,” suggests statuary, as in in the statues of “Among School Children,” that “keep a marble or a bronze repose.”
  26. Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (London, 1972), 71; Autobiographies, 180.
  27. The photocopied drafts of the poem (in the Yeats Archives at SUNY, Stony Brook) have been transcribed by Jon Stallworthy, Donald Torchiana, and myself; here, I cite my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition, 100, italics added.
  28. In the Preface to his epic poem Milton, Blake, having  requested his prophetic weapons (“Bring me my Bow of burning gold,/Bring me my Arrows of desire,/ Bring me my Spear,/O clouds, unfold!,/ Bring me my Chariot of fire”), pledges, in the final quatrain, that “I will not cease from Mental Fight,/ Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In  England’s green and pleasant Land.” The passage earlier quoted from the apocalyptic Ninth “Night” of The Four Zoas includes lines IX:798, 822-27, and 849-51. Valentinus is quoted from the “Fourth Key”: “At the end,…the world shall be judged by fire,” and “After the conflagration, there shall be formed a new heaven and a new earth, and the new man will be more noble in his glorified state than he was before.” The Hermetic Museum, trans. from the 1678 Latin text, ed. A. E. Waite, 2 vols. (London, 1893), I, 331.
  29. For Blake’s “gnomic” genius, see Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Boston, 1962 [1947]), 5. For the remark on Yeats’s synopsis of modern civilization in “Fragments” (I), see Douglas Bush, Science and English Poetry: A Historical Sketch, 1590-1950 (New York, 1950), 158.
  30. Edward O.Shea, A Descriptive Catalog of W. B. Yeats’s Library (New York, 1985), item 2258.
  31. Reprinted in Explorations (New York, 1962), 369.
  32. Yeats, “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (London, 1936), xxvi-vii. For Whitehead, in his similar account (in Science and the Modern World) of the Romantic reaction to the limitations of the Enlightenment, the principal figure was Wordsworth, as influenced by Coleridge on Imagination and Organicism.
  33. The diagram was drawn on p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (1901). Given to Yeats as a gift in 1902 by attorney and patron of the arts John Quinn, it is now in the Special Collections of the library at Northwestern University. First mentioned by Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats), these annotations were transcribed for me many years ago by another late, great scholar, Erich Heller.
  34. For these unpublished notes, connecting Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and Macrobius’s Commentary with Balzac’s Swedenborgian novel Séraphita and Paul Gaughin’s Intimate Journals, see my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (London and Columbia, 1987), 142-47.
  35. Thus Spoke Zarathustra  III.2:1, in The Portable  Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann  (New York, 1954), 269.
  36. In the opening stanza of Browning’s quest-poem, Childe Roland first thought was that he was being “lied” to by that sadistic cripple, “with malicious eye/ Askance to watch the working of his lie/ On mine.” (The earlier allusion, to Browning’s Duke, refers of course to “My Last Duchess.”) Even closer to Self’s temporarily mistaken belief that that “defiling” shape “cast upon” him by mirroring eyes “must be his shape” is the initially deluded, masochistic cry of Blake’s Oothoon (2: 36-39) for her “defiled bosom” to be rent away so that she “may reflect/ The image” of the very man (the moralistic sadist, Theotormon, who, having raped her, now brands her “harlot”) whose “loved” but unloving “eyes” have cast upon her precisely this “defiled” shape—one of Blake’s, and now Yeats’s, grimmest ironies. But both recover.
  37. Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, 1982), 186-87, 48 (§437, §79).
  38. Theodotus was a leading Valentinian of the Eastern school. The 2nd-century Excerpts were quoted and thus preserved by Clement of Alexandria.  In his 1970 study, Yeats, Harold Bloom viewed Gnosticism as the pessimistic opposite of Romantic affirmation, especially in Blake and Shelley. Within a half-dozen years (hardly the span of “light years” he jocoseriously refers to), he no longer saw Gnosticism as a “deviation from Romanticism.” Indeed, it “could be argued that a form of Gnosticism is endemic in Romantic tradition without, however, dominating that tradition, or even that Gnosticism is the implicit, inevitable religion that frequently informs aspects of post-Enlightenment poetry.” “Yeats, Gnosticism, and the Sacred Void,” in Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven, 1966), 212.
  39. Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York, 1983), 81; italics added. The Divinity School Address evoked a ferocious controversy that shook New England. Condemned as a “pagan,” an “infidel,” and a “cloven-hoofed” pantheist who had defiled the sacred citadel of Unitarianism, Emerson was ostracized from his alma mater for thirty years. For the “bringing-forth” passages, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York, 2003), 49, 32. As Harold Bloom is right to say, “there is little in the Gospel of Thomas that would not have been accepted by Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.” Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York, 2004), 260.
  40. Thus Spoke Zarathustra III.16:6, in The Portable Nietzsche, 342.Yeats read the work in the 1896 Alexander Tille translation and, excerpted, in the Thomas Common anthology given him by Quinn.
  41. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard Finneran, et al, 2 vols. (London, 1977), 2:560.
  42. Yeats quotes George in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, written shortly after Russell’s death in July, 1935:  “My wife said the other night, ‘AE’ was the nearest thing to a saint you and I will ever meet. You are a better poet but no saint. I suppose one has to choose.” (Letters, 838).
  43. Quoted in A. Norman Jeffares, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London, 1961), 267.
  44. Aside from “To a Young Girl” (1915), addressed to Iseult Gonne, “His Memories” is the only poem where Yeats claims that his passion for Maud was sexually reciprocated. Readers, used to the Maud /Helen association, would know who “The first of all the tribe” was who lay in the speaker’s arms, “And did such pleasure take—/ She who had brought great Hector down/ And put all Troy to wreck—/ That she cried into this ear,/ ‘Strike me if I shriek’.”
  45. “Lucretius,” Fortnightly Review 17 (1875); in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (Cambridge, 2007), 12.
  46. The Carpocratian doctrine is synopsized in Against Heresies (§2952), by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon. Though his motive was to condemn Gnosticism, which at the time (174-89 CE) was spreading in Gaul, this work of Irenaeus has been invaluable to modern scholars studying the beliefs of various Gnostic sects.
  47. Letters, 790. W. B. Yeats: Interviews and Recollections, ed. E. H. Mikhail, 2 vols. (London, 1977), 2:203.
  48. Yeats: Essays and Introductions, 137-38. Blake continued by excoriating those who, “having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other peoples’.” Yeats’s Bishop comes immediately to mind, especially since Blake is thinking of “the modern church,” which “crucifies” the “true” imaginative Christ “upside down.”
  49. Damage to which I very nearly contributed in 1995, when I almost dropped the piece of lapis I’d been invited to examine during a visit to the home of Michael and Gráinne Yeats.
  50. A week later, dictating to his wife days before his actual death, Yeats wrote “The Black Tower,” in which he resumes the heroic mask shed in “Cuchulain Comforted” and “Man and the Echo.” Here, “the men of the old black tower,” though down to their last provisions and faced with a relentless, sordid enemy, remain “all…oath-bound men;/ Those banners come not in.” Their final exclamation—“Stand we on guard oath-bound!”—echoes an assertion Yeats liked to quote from his favorite Anglo-Irish hero. Defending the merits of the Ancients against the Moderns, Jonathan Swift pronounced himself a man “appointed to guard a position.” “The Black Tower” has its own merits, but we are right to regret its place of honor as Yeats’s very last poem.
  51. Bloom, Poetry and Repression, 230, 228.
  52. Along with pride at its popular success, Yeats felt guilt in having produced a patriotic but propagandistic play that was, at heart, a love-offering to his own terrible beauty, Maud Gonne, and a betrayal of his own better judgment. We cannot simply dismiss some of later Yeats’s ranting and his theatrical waving of Sato’s sword, and cry for “war,” in responding to an Indian visitor’s request for “a message for India.” But Yeats, like Joyce, was opposed to the rabid nationalism embodied in the crude and violent “Citizen” in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses. That one-eyed Fenian, a reincarnation of Homer’s Polyphemus, may also be a male equivalent of Ireland’s own one-eyed Morrigu, the overtly dark side of Cathleen ni Houlihan. I have a suspicion amounting to a conviction that Yeats thought “that play of mine” not really his (in fact, most of the dialogue, though not the lyric passages, was written by Lady Gregory), and that, when he wasn’t basking in its popularity, sometimes wished it had been omitted rather than committed.
  53. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. III.3. J. M. Kennedy, the first translator of Nietzsche’s Die Morgenröte (Dawn or Daybreak), also translated, in the same year (1913), the Satakas (or Wise Sayings) of the Hindu hermit-poet, Bhartrahari, one of whose texts (Vairagasataka §71) I paraphrased in glossing tatah kim.
  54. Bloom, “Yeats, Gnosticism, and the Sacred Void,” in Poetry and Repression, 234.
  55. Yeats, “Manduka Upanishad,” in Essays and Introductions, 479-81.
  56. W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence, 154.
  57. “W. B. Yeats—Building Amid Ruins,” in Kiberd’s Irish Classics (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), 454.
May 032017

Donald Breckenridge

Herewith, my introduction to Donald Breckenridge’s extraordinary new novel And Then just out with Black Sparrow, the venerable experimental/indie press now an imprint of David R. Godine in Boston. The introduction is included in the book and is reprinted here by agreement with Breckenridge and Black Sparrow/Godine. This isn’t a review; it’s an elucidation of the genius of form.


“We walk about, amid the destinies of our world-existence, encompassed by dim but ever present Memories of a Destiny more vast — very distant in the bygone time, and infinitely awful.”  Poe, Eureka

Donald Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself, possibly mundane, but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. His language is matter of fact, the unsentimental plain style used subtly and flexibly. The only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the narrative sentences. His settings are Carverish, bleak and constrained; his characters are the stubborn, alienated authors of their own melancholy fates; they persist in a panoply of failed habits and attitudes, gestures of a wounded self they refuse to give up because it is their own, a refusal that is by turns defiant, sordid, heroic, grotesque, and tragic.

But this novel’s triumph is in its rich architecture, its surprising splicing of genre and quotation, its skillfully fractured chronology, and the deft juxtaposition of alternating story lines. The result of this combinatorial panache is to create an arena of systemic implication, in which the sum is greater than the parts. Nothing here is what you expect; in fact, some of this text is nearly indescribable in terms of genre and form. What do you call a piece of fiction that is a narrative transcription of a real movie that is itself a fiction? Answer: Don’t even try. It’s a logical wormhole. It will turn your brain inside-out like a sock.

I will elucidate: And Then is, like most novels, a story about a character. Let’s say a nondescript loser robs a mom and pop store in some out of the way town and gives the money to his girlfriend so she can escape the mean and derelict provincial life she is destined for. She heads to New York with the cash, finds an apartment share, and has a love affair with a photographer, but the police (somewhere) are after her, and she falls among bad companions under the sign of hard drugs, who love her for her money. When that stake runs out, so does her string, and she disappears, probably dead, floating in the river.

But Breckenridge, the symphonic composer, takes this narrative theme, his melody, and works magic upon it by adding a half-dozen further elements.

1) A second, parallel plot involving a young male student who, a dozen years later, agrees to cat sit for one of his professors away on sabbatical. In the apartment he discovers the photograph of a beautiful woman, his professor’s mysterious former lover and/or roommate, a woman who simply disappeared. The student obsesses on the woman in the photograph; he becomes a sleuth, collecting stray bits of information about her. He finally tracks down the photographer who took the picture. But no one knows what became of her.

These two plots, the young woman plot and the student plot, leapfrog each other in the text, fragmented and uncanny. At a certain point the young woman, apparently waking from a drug stupor (only she is dead), finds her way back to the apartment, ascending the stairs just as the young student is descending. At the climactic moment, he feels her ghost passing through him.

2) An epigraph from Ionesco’s Present Past Past Present, an important influence for Breckenridge who takes epigraphs for all his novels from this text. The passage presents a character unfree, chained down, but conscious that he has the key to freedom, which he hardly ever uses.

3) An overture, or introductory passage, that consists of a prose transcription/narrative summary of Jean Rouch’s film Gare du Nord (1995, one of six short films by leading New Wave directors under the title Paris Vu Par). The film splits into two parts. The first follows a young married couple quarreling over the dissolution of their relationship; they are fed up with each other, disappointed in their mistakes, tired of their lives. In the second half of the film, the wife meets a handsome, brooding fellow who offers transcendence, offers her the chance to run away to a life of adventure. But she’s too bourgeois, timid, and polite to take him up. His response is to climb the bars of a railway bridge and jump to his death.

But what is going on? A novel disguised as a summary of a film? A quotation, as it were? A meta-commentary, or a work of art based on a work of art or in dialogue with a work of art? And the story itself is iconic, presenting the enormous ennui of modern life in the pressure cooker of a young marriage. But then the young man in the suit offers liberation. Is he a con, is he the devil, is he an angel? And the girl can’t contemplate running away from the life that is grinding her down. She hurries back into the trap. She doesn’t trust freedom — well, who would trust a man you had just met, who talks crazily about adventure, who looks too good in that suit? What is she going to do now? The message loop Breckenridge creates is convoluted and mysterious and yet firmly within a novel-writing tradition starting with Cervantes who, after all, wrote a great novel about a man trying to imitate another book.

4 & 5) The last quarter of the novel text is actually Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying: stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. Here again there are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging and dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated and cannot turn away.

Curiously, embedded in the memoir we find a scene in which Breckenridge tells his father about the suicide of a woman who lived in an apartment above him and how, he is sure, that one day he encountered her ghost in the stairwell. (The reader himself encounters a frisson of combinatorial delight.)

6) But even more curiously, embedded in the memoir we find also a few paragraphs in italics quoted from Théophile Gautier’s romantic horror story “The Tourist” (originally published as “Arria Marcella: A Souvenir of Pompeii” in 1852), a ghost story of sorts, in which a young traveler becomes obsessed with a woman’s figure preserved in the ash of Pompeii only to find himself translated that night to ancient Pompeii where he falls in love with the very woman. The story has the air of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” or Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The young traveler, sent back to his own time without the ghostly lover, never falls in love again, never fully engages with life.

And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.


And Then is beautiful, artful, an elaborated system of repetitions, motifs and juxtaposed narratives. Without wishing to be reductive, one can say that the three ghost stories relate to the theme of co-presence of temporal periods signaled in the Ionesco quotation, the way the past haunts existence. And they are balanced with three stories of characters who cannot change their behavior when change is the only way to redeem themselves (the young Parisian woman who cannot leave her job and marriage, the girl who runs away to New York with her stash, and Breckenridge’s father who cannot get himself the treatment that would save his life). And these in turn are refracted in three observer stories: the Brooklyn student who falls in love with photo of a missing woman, the youthful traveler in Gautier’s horror story, and Breckenridge watching his father die.

And Then is a contemporary ghost story, full of horror and unremitting melancholy, heir to the romantics, to Gautier and to Poe (yet also, stubbornly unsentimental in affect, reminiscent of the Nouveau Roman), a vastly literate work, engaged in its own conversation with the bookish past. Everything here is doubled and redoubled, echoed, mirrored, and reflected, and the dead do not die. The dead turn into ghosts or memories or words on the page, all of which are the same perhaps, at least in a book. And the effect in this novel is to create a mysterious intimation of a larger reference, a world beyond the book, a teeming yet insensible world that is yet no consolation.

Douglas Glover


May 022017

Michael Carson



“An artist always incites insurrections among things,” says the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “The Structure of Fiction.” This is a grand claim. It makes art seem like the exception to everything else in experience—the things. I can’t speak for all aspiring writers, but I imagine this is what draws many would-be writers to literature in the first place: the impression that art is exceptional in its relationship to experience, that literature, unlike every other endeavor, allows the writer to shake things up, to rescue the magical from the mundane. So how do we make Shklovsky’s declaration less abstract? How do beginning writers—and here I very much include myself—accomplish this radical transformation and shake up the world around them to the point of insurrection?

Simply put: Artists shake things up through conflict and the primary vehicle of conflict is plot. While at first glance this response might seem reductionist or even crude when speaking of something exceptional like art, it is actually crude and reductionist for beginning writers to ignore what is in some respects the most difficult aspect of craft. A writer can do little with his or her brilliant ideas, characters, sentences or settings (much less start an insurrection) unless they appreciate what plot is and how effective stories require plotting.

Douglas Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story,” in his Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, describes a short story as a “narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs B).” This conflict, he argues, “needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.” He describes this conflict as “a desire-resistance pattern.” A character desires something and another character resists (sometimes this can take place internally too, within a single character). According to Glover, this “central conflict is embodied once, and again and again, such that in the successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.” These articulations give a story “a rhythmic surging quality,” and they make possible the aesthetic space for the writer to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual implications of the conflict.”

This essay examines how three canonical writers—Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and John Cheever—arrange a conflict between two poles to systematically draw the reader deeper into the “soul or moral structure of the story.” Through the course of the essay, we will see that even though each selected story possesses a unique conflict and writing style, all three possess congruent desire-resistance patterns, and each of these patterns provides its artist the aesthetic space necessary to incite insurrection.


Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” begins when a bull wakes up Mrs. May. The next morning Mrs. May enlists the help of Mr. Greenleaf, her farm foreman, to remove the bull from her property. She finds out from her sons, Wesley and Scofield May, that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf. She lets Mr. Greenleaf know this and reminds him of her order to get rid of the bull. She goes to the property of O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf to let them know their bull is on her property. She cannot find them and tells the boys’ foreman to give them a note telling them about the bull. Back at her farm, Mrs. May’s boys mock her. She cries. The boys fight each other, upending the kitchen table. Mr. Greenleaf appears at the door, asks if everything is alright, and Mrs. May reminds Mr. Greenleaf to get rid of the bull. The bull returns to her window that night. The next morning, Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf to get into her car. They drive to the pasture and Mr. Greenleaf leaves the car to kill the bull. He and the bull disappear into the forest. Mrs. May follows him into the pasture and then gets out of the car to wait. She falls asleep on the hood of her car. She wakes up to the sight of the bull charging at her. The bull gores her. Mr. Greenleaf appears and shoots the bull in the eye four times.

Flannery O’Connor

“Greenleaf” is a 9,500 word story related in the close third person. O’Connor divides the text into three sections, the first relatively short and the next two very long. Unlike the other authors we will look at, O’Connor’s section breaks do not denote a jump forward in time, or, more precisely, there is no chronological pattern to her section breaks: she has no problem jumping forward in time—like say to the next morning—within a section as well as between them. This is all to say the logic of the section breaks is different in O’Connor. The first short section details her first confrontation with the bull. Only in the second section does she confront Mr. Greenleaf and begin the desire-resistance pattern in earnest. Mrs. May wants the bull off her property and Greenleaf does not want to remove the bull from the property. He resists her desire through the second section. In the third section she takes active measures to remove the bull herself (but, interestingly, not actually do the work herself), first by going to O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf’s property and then by picking Mr. Greenleaf up in her car and forcing him to go the pasture with her.

O’Connor delays the actual conflict—the literal back and forth between antagonist and protagonist—until the second section. And yet O’Connor definitively establishes the conflict’s parameters through both backfill and the conditional tense. After being woken up by the bull, Mrs. May reflects on how for “fifteen years” she “has been having shiftless people’s hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows.” She blames Mr. Greenleaf, her foreman, for this ongoing oppression, and then imagines what would happen if she went to wake Mr. Greenleaf up just then and what he might say. “If hit were my boys,” says the imagined Mr. Greenleaf, “they would never have allowed their maw to go after hired help in the middle of the night.” This not only helps frame the conflict but marks the first iteration of a curious form of “recycling” where Mrs. May imagines the desire-resistance pattern and the different ways she might end it by telling Mr. Greenleaf what she really thinks of his wife (an eccentric religious enthusiast).

After this two-page section—again, much shorter than the other two sections—O’Connor places her two characters in the same room, establishing and clearly delineating the desire-resistance pattern: “The next morning as soon as Mr. Greenleaf came to the back door, she told him there was a stray bull on the place and that she wanted him penned up at once.” Mr. Greenleaf immediately begins his resistance, which takes a shape of a denial that there is any kind of conflict at all: “Done already been here three days.” Much of the story’s comedy derives from this passive–aggressive (or, in Mrs. May’s eyes, just plain aggressive) refusal by Mr. Greenleaf to admit to a problem. The scene’s internal calculus plays with this too, as Mr. Greenleaf, standing on her back porch, speculates, “He must be somebody’s bull,” rather than answer her questions. The reader also waits for Mr. Greenleaf to simply admit there is a problem.

The scene moves inside to an “off-angle” interaction, this time between Mrs. May and her two sons, each boy uniquely horrible. They are, in a sense, active manifestations of Mr. Greenleaf’s reproof, his resistance, which boils down to the fact that no matter how lazy or troublesome he might be, at least he’s not as bad as her two sons. Inside the house, they threaten to marry a woman like Mrs. Greenleaf when Mrs. May dies and gleefully let her know that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. This is a long careful delay—note that the Russian formalist writer Shklovsky considers digression the essential component of narrative art—with much backfill on how Mr. Greenleaf was hired and a fleshing out of the two worthless sons, but the scene ultimately returns back to Mr. Greenleaf outside the house (never in the house) and Mrs. May ordering Mr. Greenleaf to put the bull “where he can’t bust out.” Mr. Greenleaf resists, comically, given the desire-resistance pattern, stating the obvious—“he likes to bust loose”—not answering, and not clearly saying whether or not he will follow her order.

At this point of the story the conflict and plot has consisted of the single—if prolonged and disjointed—interaction, this resistance on Mr. Greenleaf’s part to admit there is a problem with the bull or do anything about the problem. The first battle is undecided thanks to Mr. Greenleaf’s refusal to admit a conflict. Given the amount of characters involved—Mr. Greenleaf, Mrs. May, the two pairs of sons, and Mr. Greenleaf’s wife—a less experienced reader might get distracted here by not only the characters, but also the pervasive and pronounced symbolism. Does the derelict bull represent faltering class hierarchies in the post-World War II United States’ South? Is the bull emblematic of Mrs. May’s denial of Christ, her faux-Christianity and unacknowledged hubris? Why did O’Connor create doubles of the antagonist—the successful Greenleaf sons—in her own unsuccessful sons? Yet all of these questions should be put aside: they are reformulations of the basic conflict between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf over the literal fate of the bull. The conflict is the story. It is dangerous to mistake ancillary material and symbolic implications for the backbone plot (though these too are crucial); if we do, we risk missing the central narrative importance of the interactions between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf.

Thus we should take Mrs. May’s movement in the second scene, her journey over to the modern farm of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, as a plot-step variation, a delay and reformulation of the actual conflict between Mr. Greenleaf and Mrs. May (Douglas Glover calls this movement a “stepping out,” a delay in an event by creating steps within the event). That the Greenleaf boys are not home (we never meet them in the story) frustrates again Mrs. May’s desire to get rid of the bull; yet only when she returns to her own house, and after getting in another fight with her own boys, does Mr. Greenleaf appear on her back porch. What follows is the second tangible iteration of the conflict—remember that these plots almost always come in threes—and Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf again to get rid of the bull, this time threatening to shoot the bull, upping the ante really and signaling conflict-driven change and development in Mrs. May’s character. Mr. Greenleaf resists first by pushing the climax off, “Tomorrow I’ll drive him home for you,” and, when she shuts that down by repeating her order, through silence (this seems to be the go-to resistance reformulation in the modern short story: all three authors examined in this paper resist through silence in the second iteration of their respective desire-resistance pattern).

Mr. Greenleaf only breaks this silence not by discussing the bull, but by interrupting Mrs. May’s self-pity “quick as a striking snake” (a favorite O’Connor simile) to point out that she has two boys to do what she is asking him to do (again, the unstated assumption that Mrs. May can’t get rid of the bull herself, or without the help of a man, allows for the basic conflict and forces the reader to wonder if there is a sexual element to this conflict). The scene moves again to her bedroom and the nighttime and the bull munching away just outside the window. There is no line break here like the line break after the last nighttime interaction with the bull. This would possibly imply that O’Connor sees this entire scene, from the movement to the boy’s house to the next morning and the climatic confrontation with the bull, as one dramatic unit. The next morning Mrs. May arrives at Mr. Greenleaf’s house, “expressionless,” ordering him to “go get your gun.” Mr. Greenleaf reluctantly retrieves the gun and Mrs. May smiles at the thought that he would like “to shoot” her “instead of that bull.”

The third and final instance of the conflict, the climax, takes place in a secluded environment; the protagonist and antagonist are alone in a new story setting where the antagonist forces the desire to its conclusion. The bull must die. Mr. Greenleaf, characteristically, avoids the problem and runs the bull off into the woods. Determined to make this the climax of their long-running fifteen-year war, Mrs. May exits the car and waits on the hood. She falls asleep (again—she sleeps a lot in this story) and with the sleep comes the impression of a sun like a bullet bearing down on her head (the third instance of this image in the story). Also in these final moments we have more speculation from Mrs. May where she imagines the climax and resolution turning out differently, with Mr. Greenleaf gored by the bull and her being sued by Greenleaf’s sons. She calls this “the perfect ending.”

It is not in fact the “perfect ending.” It is the perfect ending for Mrs. May, who sees her entire life as one perceived injustice after another, an endless series of insults against her, her race, her class and her work ethic. The actual perfect ending, the ending necessitated by the story O’Connor constructed, immediately follows the imagined ending: the bull crosses the pasture toward her ‘in a slow gallop” and “buries his head in her lap” like “a wild tormented lover” (a deft reformulation and return the “uncouth country suitor” outside her window in the story’s first pages, and the ongoing “courtship” between her and Mr. Greenleaf). “Here he is, Mr. Greenleaf!” she shouts just before the goring, remaining “perfectly still, not in fright, but in freezing unbelief.” Her unbelief dooms her in a literal sense—I can’t help but feel this a joke from the Catholic O’Connor here—but the conflict has already been settled earlier, when Mr. Greenleaf runs the bull into the woods (the sight of Mr. Greenleaf’s wife’s ecstatic religious rituals).

What always fascinates me about this story’s ending is the way Mrs. May’s literal perception is changed by the bull’s horns. The horns lift her up and she continues to stare “straight ahead” but “the entire scene in front of her changed”; the tree line becomes “a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky,” and Mrs. May has the look of “someone whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the sight unbearable.” She then, from this upside down position, and even though she doesn’t face Mr. Greenleaf, watches Mr. Greenleaf approach with the gun, “outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet.” This marks a return to Mr. Greenleaf’s earlier trait, his sullen-shy tendency to create an invisible circle around those to whom he speaks. (Also fascinating is Mrs. May’s imagined switch to Mr. Greenleaf’s point of view in this ending where he witnesses her “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.”)

Sometimes when reading O’Connor I feel overwhelmed by the “on-the-nose” nature of her symbolism and thematic pretensions. This bull must then be another moment of that “grace” peculiar to the Catholic imagination, right? The scenario seems to have all the subtlety of a symbol for Truth or Unresolved Issues running up and attacking the protagonist (which is exactly what happens). But this reading willfully and lazily misses the carefully detailed desire-conflict resistance pattern that makes up the actual story. In a book review of William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo, O’Connor herself defines “genuine tragedy and comedy” as the place where “the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight.”

The key word here is “definite,” and with the definite comes a refusal to let one habit of perception—or urge to reduce the story to one meaning or another—dominate the other levels, levels of structure and craft O’Connor worked very hard to make definite; it is to ignore the desire-resistance pattern that actually frames the story and makes it a story at all. Though new writers often claim to resist detailing the specifics of plot out of a fear of unfairly “reducing” the story to the banal and everyday, the temptation to reduce a story to a certain reading or moral is actually strongest when we dismiss the importance of craft in the articulation of a writer’s vision. In other words, the awful vision of grace in “Greenleaf” is created not by the fact that O’Connor set out to write about the awe-filled vision of grace but because she found an interesting desire-resistance pattern and followed this desire gracefully through to its awful conclusion.


William Trevor’s “Teddy-bears’ Picnic” begins with an argument between a newlywed couple, Edwin and Deborah Chalm. Edwin, a stockbroker, does not want to go to a Teddy-bears’ Picnic, a get-together Deborah and her childhood friends attend every few years at the home and gardens of an elderly couple, the Ainley-Foxletons. Due to planning the Teddy-bears’ Picnic, Deborah forgets to cook Edwin dinner. Deborah attempts to make dinner. They argue more. Edwin drinks excessively. Edwin apologizes the next morning. They drive out from London to Deborah’s childhood neighborhood on a Friday, spend Saturday with Deborah’s parents, and attend the picnic at the Ainley-Foxletons’ on Sunday. At the picnic, after Deborah thanks Edwin for attending, Edwin excuses himself from the garden picnic to go to the bathroom. He drinks excessively in the house. He remembers a time from his youth when he made a spectacle of himself at a party. He goes outside and pushes Mr. Ainley-Foxleton over the edge of the lawn and the old man cracks his head on a sundial. Edwin returns to the picnic. Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton discovers her husband’s body. Edwin leads the picnickers over to the corpse, declares Mr. Ainley-Foxleton dead, and takes charge of the proceedings.

William Trevor book cover image

“Teddy-bears’ Picnic” is about 9,000 words long and told through the close third person, switching from the consciousness of Edwin to Deborah and then back to Edwin again, with occasional rare moments of non-POV-dependent authorial summary. There are five sections to the story, each divided into substantial chunks of backfill and dialogue. Trevor’s “Picnic” features a protagonist who resists the action of the antagonist. But here it is Edwin, the husband, who resists his wife Deborah’s desire to go the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. The story’s first section, the longest, initiates this confrontation; the second provides backfill on the couple’s relationship and a short dialogue confrontation; the third, the shortest, escalates the conflict between the couple (if in a somewhat indirect way); the fourth consists of an extended memory/backfill from Edwin and the climatic action; the final scene provides aftermath by detailing the consequences of the already settled desire-resistance pattern.

Trevor registers Edward’s resistance to his wife’s desire to go to the Teddy-bear Picnic in the story’s very first line: “I simply don’t believe it,” Edwin asks, “grown-up people?” She tries to explain the Teddy-bears’ Picnic tradition, to continue to push her desire, in a way that hints at the fundamental miscommunication between the two personalities, which will surface again and again in the story. “Well,” she says, “grown-up now, darling. We weren’t always grown up.” This disconnect between Edwin’s understanding of maturity and his wife’s frames the desire-resistance pattern. Edwin’s next response—“I’ll absolutely tell you this. I’m not attending this thing”—makes obvious Edwin’s violent resistance to what Deborah sees as a perfectly harmless desire.

Through the course of the apartment scene—snippets of dialogue followed by a paragraph or two of summary, both of the principles drinking more and more—the desire-resistance pattern surfaces again and again. Deborah cannot understand why her husband would refuse to have “a bit of fun” while Edwin cannot understand how mature adults could “call sitting down with teddy-bears a bit of fun.” The idea of maturity pops up again and again, expertly “loaded”—to reference another Douglas Glover analytical term—through significant history, juxtaposition and word splintering, but the reader does not lose sight of the plot due to the recursive dialogue exchanges, all of which circle around whether or not they will go to the Teddy-bear’s Picnic. The scene ends with a silent truce. We are told that the next morning Edwin apologized, the implication being the first round of combat has gone to Deborah rather than Edwin.

In the next scene, Trevor’s continues his deft POV switches, showing, somewhat comically, how one side does not see this conflict as a big deal while the other views sitting down with teddy-bears as an existential insult. Because Deborah finds “the consideration of the past pleasanter than speculation about the future,” she spends much of the scene providing relationship backfill and seeing “little significance” in their quarrel over the picnic. Edwin, for his part, thinks about the future, his persistent anger, and how he can give the marriage “a chance to settle into a shape that suited it.” Yet only at the end of the scene, on the way to the weekend getaway—and in yet another admirably concise dialogue exchange—does Trevor push the conflict to the surface again. Deborah interrupts Edwin’s story about the stock exchange to tell him the story of Jeremy’s “Poor Pooh,” her adult male friend’s teddy-bear. Edwin “didn’t say anything.”

This silence constitutes the second movement in the conflict. Edwin’s passive resistance, his stony agreement to attend yet not substantively interact with others at the Picnic (a sort of adult pout really), colors both the second scene and the third. It persists through his arrival at the elderly couple’s house and as they sit down for the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. Edwin drinks heavily through this scene and privately rejoices that he “smelt like a distillery” during his introduction to the elderly Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton. He internally mocks the ridiculousness and ugliness of all of Deborah’s friends. He only breaks this silence at the end of the third scene, when he tells Deborah, he has “to go to the lav,” after Deborah whispers, “thank you.” (Interestingly Edwin makes no comment about and does not seem to have an opinion of the elderly Ainley-Foxleton, who will ultimately bear the brunt of Edwin’s rage.)

Edwin’s interpretation of his wife’s thank you is of course couched within his understanding of the desire-resistance pattern, which is to say Deborah sees Edwin’s attendance as a nice gesture, a moment of loving appreciation and give-and-take between understanding spouses, while he takes her words for a sinister reminder of his earlier humiliation. It also provides for the movement toward the third stage of the desire-resistance plan and the story’s climax; Edwin has in a very literal sense left the Teddy-bears’ picnic. It does not matter that he is just going to the bathroom and that this would seem a perfectly natural thing to do; within the framework of the short story this movement constitutes a definitive and provocative action, yet another resistance on Edwin’s part, and the necessary plot step that brings about the third, climatic confrontation.

After an extended reverie on Edwin’s part, where he drinks the Ainsley-Foxton’s whiskey and reflects on a time in his youth when boredom, anger, and a need to come out on top pushed him to ruin a perfectly pleasant garden party—“within minutes it had become his day”—Edwin goes out to the lawn and tells Mr. Ainsley-Foxton that he sees fungus on the lawn below the rockery. He then murders Mr. Ainsley-Foxton. Deborah is not present in this scene but Edwin’s action cannot be interpreted as anything other than a violent resistance to her original desire. They are still within the same “room”—the sentimental and, to quote Edwin, “gooey,” world of the Ainsley-Foxton’s, Teddy-bears, and Deborah’s childhood (and, by implication, perpetual childhood, the antithesis of Edwin’s stockbroker “manliness”). Whatever the aftermath’s specifics, the consequences, the Teddy-bear Picnic will come to an end and no one will ever again—at least within Deborah’s circle of friends—be attending any Teddy-bears’ Picnics.

Trevor’s final section details the moments following the violent act of a protagonist, moments where he waits for the consequences of his actions. Trevor becomes hilariously mordant (and also philosophical) expertly juggling the juxtaposition of nostalgia and fear, violence and maturity, and innocence and experience in Edwin’s reflections on the blissfully unaware picnickers. And yet even though action does occur—Edwin and everyone else hear Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton scream and Edwin takes “charge of the proceedings,” becomes the grown-up in a world defined exclusively by death—this Teddy-bear’s Picnic has already technically ended because Edwin has already categorically and triumphantly resisted his wife’s desire.

The problem for readers like me is that we tend to mistake these endings for the heart of the story, which they are, in a sense. One leaves Trevor’s story impressed not by the conflict between actors, but by the profound emotional effect and intellectual questions the conflict allows. The effect is never simple; it inverts assumptions and resists explication. In a sense that is the “conflict” of literature. Most readers desire human experience be explicable within some heuristic; literature resists, heroically so. These stories are remarkable artifacts of that resistance; and yet they are nothing at all and mean nothing at all without their perfectly explicable internal desire-resistance pattern. All talk of heart and soul and transcendence aside, these stories—to quote Edwin—would be simply “gooey” without a plot to help substantiate them.


John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” tells the story of Lawrence (Tifty) Pommeroy’s visit to Laud’s Head, a summer place on the shore of one of the Massachusetts islands. Lawrence’s family—including the middle brother and story narrator—awaits the brother’s arrival with some trepidation, as Lawrence, the youngest brother, has not visited the family in four years. Lawrence shows up with his wife and two boys, begins complaining about the summer home’s proximity to the shoreline, and refuses to drink with the family. His mother gets drunk. Lawrence goes to bed and the rest of the family goes swimming. The next day Lawrence refuses to play tennis doubles with the narrator and the family goes swimming to escape Lawrence. That night, Lawrence disapprovingly watches the family play backgammon. Later in the week the narrator and his wife help plan a costume “come as you wish you were” dance at the boat club. The narrator tries to convince Lawrence to enjoy himself and attempts to physically force him into the dance. Lawrence resists. Everyone at the party goes swimming. The next day the narrator goes swimming and finds Lawrence on the beach. Lawrence agrees to walk to Tanner’s Point with the narrator along the beach. The narrator confronts Lawrence about his bad attitude. When Lawrence insults the narrator and walks away, the narrator hits him on the back of the head with a root. The narrator goes swimming. A bloodied Lawrence returns to the summer home and tells his family he is leaving. Lawrence leaves.

John Cheever

“Goodbye, My Brother” is about 8,000 words and is told in the first person, from Lawrence’s brother point of view. Cheever breaks up the story into six sections using line breaks. The major conflict—Lawrence (or Tifty) wants to show his disdain for his family; his family resists—takes places in sections three, four, and five. These major conflict sections take place chronologically, over the course of the two-week family vacation. The first section provides backfill, summary of the family’s history. The final section imagines and reflects on Lawrence’s leaving (aftermath rather than plot). It is important to note that of three stories examined, Cheever’s possesses the most complicated plot structure. Not only is the story told through a narrator who is physically implicated in the desire-resistance pattern only in the story’s second half, but the desirer—Tifty—also expresses his disdain for specific family rituals as well as specific characters. This creates a more elegantly algebraic plot pattern, less A vs B in three different rooms, than A vs X1, and then A vs X2, and then A vs X3. Further, each of these X variables is subdivided into a somewhat consistent pattern of smaller plot iterations—a1, b1, and b3.

The story’s conflict takes a definitive shape about a page into the story’s second section. This scene is defined almost exclusively as a confrontation between Lawrence and his mother, with the other family members watching on. Initially, there is “a faint tension” in the room at Lawrence’s arrival, but Lawrence does not press his disdain on the family and no one actively resists this disdain until Lawrence reappears from a visit to the beach. Here, in a short dialogue exchange, Lawrence’s mother asks Lawrence what he thought of the beach and if he wants a Martini: “’Isn’t the beach fabulous, Tifty?…Isn’t it fabulous to be back? Will you have a Martini?’” She calls him Tifty—one of two family nicknames for the youngest brother; the other is “Little Jesus”—and essentially answers the question she asks for her son, rhetorically providing him an “out,” what he needs to say to elide his four-year separation. Lawrence response—“I don’t care…Whiskey, gin don’t care what I drink. Give me a little rum”—makes clear that he will not fall back into the family banter and habits and has arrived not to rejoin but has come to disapprove of the family. “We do not have any rum,” says the mother with the “first note of asperity.” The narrator then goes on to provide more backfill, to explain Lawrence’s original separation from the family after their father’s death, when Lawrence originally disapproved, when he decided that his mother was “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.”

Unlike the other stories examined, Lawrence’s initial attack seems misdirected. He first gets into a fight with the mother, then makes a snide comment about the sister’s promiscuity, and finally ridicules the dead father’s “damn fool idea to build a house on the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline.” The scene concludes with the mother getting “unfortunately” drunk and declaring that if there is an afterlife, she “will have a very different kind of family,” one with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children.”

Because Cheever’s story is narrated by a character who has no direct exchanges with Lawrence in the first plot scene, the reader might conclude that this long first family interaction with Lawrence is not plot. This reader would be wrong. Lawrence’s disdain here addresses a particular family pastime—getting together to have drinks—and—with this—the process of coming together, of reuniting after a long separation. Lawrence’s challenges—which come in three neatly forceful dialogue exchanges with the mother—represent an assault on the family’s “delight at claiming a brother,” their efforts “to enjoy a peaceful time,” and, most importantly, their ritualistic drinking, which refreshes “their responses to a familiar view.”

Douglas Glover, in an essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung,” argues that Munro is “almost always precise and transparent in terms of her desire-resistance patterns” because “her story organization is heterodox.” In other words, the more complicated the plot structure, the more important a precisely delineated desire-resistance pattern. This holds true in the first scene of Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother.” Because Lawrence is in conflict with an idea or family ritual rather than a specific person and knowing that Lawrence will be conflict with another ritual in the following scene, Cheever must guide the reader carefully through the scene, expertly modulating the conflict’s pressure, insistently reminding the reader of what is in fact at stake. We have seen in the other stories that a desire-resistance pattern tends to work best in three iterations. Cheever knows this, so he gives the reader this three-pronged pattern within the scene itself (think back to the “stepping out” observed in the O’Connor story). Lawrence’s rejection of the family’s ritualistic drinking comes three times—remember the three almost parallel dialogue exchanges?—that leads to the mother drinking too much and insulting the family. The scene itself could be a story. It has its own desire-resistance arc (a+b+c=A (Tifty) vs X1 (family drinking)), one that the consequent scenes (where A will be in conflict with new rituals, new X variables) will reformulate and expand upon.

In the third scene we finally have direct story interaction between the narrator and Lawrence. The narrator asks Lawrence if he wants to play tennis. Lawrence, through indirect dialogue, says “no thanks,” and the narrator excuses Lawrence’s decision because “both he and Chaddy play better tennis than I,” but then, just a few lines later, “Lawrence disappears” when family doubles are about to begin, which makes the narrator “cross.” This frames the later direct confrontation with the narrator and Lawrence—which will be the climax of the story—while carefully and consistently perpetuating the desire-resistance pattern established in the previous scene. Here Lawrence shows his disdain of family tennis doubles, then comments on the house’s specious gentrification—“Imagine spending a thousand dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck”—and finally the family’s eating habits. We have again the three iterations, but this time of three separate family rituals; and yet—since we just had this in the last scene and the key to quality plotting is reformulation, as Viktor Shklovsky says in his Energy of Delusion, plotting requires “inversion and parody”—these three expressions of disdain function as a prelude for the scene’s central dissatisfaction, that is, Lawrence’s disdain for family backgammon (the X2 in the basic plot pattern).

Unsurprisingly, given Cheever’s previous patterning, the backgammon scene-let can be further subdivided into three iterations also (a+b+c) that blooms from the climax of the original three iterations (tennis, house, food):[1] Lawrence watches on with disdain as the narrator plays his other brother’s wife (a), the narrator plays his other brother (b), and finally the other brother plays their mother (c). As the games proceed, the narrator is sure that Lawrence “finds an inner logic” to this innocent family ritual, and “it will be sordid.” He will, according to the narrator, see each loss and victory as evidence of “human rapaciousness,” that they battle not for money, for fun, but for “one another’s souls.” It’s also important to note here that all of this is filtered through the narrator brother, who, importantly, not only internalizes his brother’s criticisms but also interprets and voices them. While one might think that this distancing might mitigate the intensity of the desire-resistance pattern (why not just have Lawrence verbalize these accusations?), the fact that this interior monologue of disdain comes from the narrator’s imagination of Lawrence actually increases the conflict’s intensity. The disdain Lawrence feels for the family is bottled up by the narrator and fermented, and the narrator “resists” Lawrence’s disdain by trying to articulate it, trying to frame it, which again foreshadows his eventual failure.

Lawrence wins this scene’s desire-resistance pattern. He effectively expresses his disdain for this family ritual through silence (which the narrator verbalizes) and then, in the final paragraph, actively states, “I should think you’d go crazy” and “I’m going to bed.” Here, about halfway through the story, we have a seeming break from the desire resistance pattern, as the narrator makes a point to avoid Lawrence over the next few days, to enjoy his vacation and plan for the “Come as You Wish You Were” dance. But this is not an actual break in the plot. Like Mrs. May’s decision to go look for the Greenleaf boys and Edward’s pouting, this is an attempt to resolve the conflict by a new form of resistance (escape). It is another plot step, but one accomplished in the form of a delay (remember Shklovsky on digression and delay). Lawrence might not be physically present or even mentioned through the majority of the scene, but the reader waits for his return, which roars back at the end of this fourth scene with the same puritanical disapproval, this time of the dance party ritual (A vs X3). The narrator resists by pushing Lawrence into the party—the first physical resistance of the story—and Lawrence fights back limply, asking, “Why should I? Why should I?” The narrator returns to the party without Lawrence and they all dance and drink and “chase balloons”—another attempt to escape the conflict, and also the satisfying and logical climax to that scene’s desire-resistance pattern.

The fifth and climatic scene follows the pattern established in the previous scenes, but Cheever adjusts the movement, reformulates it in a way that speaks to the increasing pressure of Lawrence’s disdain on the narrator specifically. It might be useful to think of this in cinematic terms. The first part of the story has a distant shot of the desire-resistance pattern and Cheever moves in closer and closer until the conflict becomes a physical one (a close-up) between Lawrence’s disdain for the family and the narrator’s resistance. This is not to say Lawrence in this final section does not despise a family ritual too. He very much does—he despises the very idea of a beach vacation. After Lawrence’s wife’s vacation laundering affronts the narrator—her “penitential fervor,” iteration “a”—he goes to swim and finds Lawrence at the beach (iteration “b”). He swims with Lawrence watching. Upon exiting, the narrator imagines Lawrence’s criticisms—this again comes in a neat three-iteration cycle; remember that Cheever constantly has the third iteration give birth to a subset of three iterations, like algae blooms of conflict—and the narrator confronts the way Lawrence “kept his head down” as they walk along the beach (iteration “c”). Lawrence responds with the first explicit expression of disdain: “I don’t like it here.”

Following this blunt description of the desire-resistance pattern, the narrator resists verbally by repeating, “come out of it, Tifty.” Lawrence then insults the narrator physical appearance. The narrator strikes Lawrence from behind with a “sea-water heavy” root. This violence comes fast and is surprising, yet at the same time it is expected; through the successful cycles of desire-conflict exchanges, how Cheever reformulates each in their movement toward this particular confrontation, and the fact that the narrator has been verbalizing Lawrence’s disdain for the family through the entire story, it only make sense that the narrator would end up committing violence on a family member and, by extension, on the family.

Why? Because this is the exact pattern established in the first confrontation with the mother and the drinking— her afterlife with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children”—where Lawrence’s disdain for the family produces a disdain for the family from the family itself. This action is a plot twist and yet is also firmly within the established pattern. So too the narrator’s actions after the violence—his binding of the wound, his silence about the action, and his decision to go swimming yet again, to throw himself into that baptismal font, that “illusion of purification,” the one place in the family’s world that Lawrence “neglected to name,” and thus the one place resistant to Lawrence’s powers of “diminution” (one gets the sense that the narrator cannot name it either, and that is what keeps it redemptive and viable even after the events of the story; it is also, of course, where their father drowned—ironic conflict means syntactic excitement!).

In the next scene, the narrator imagines his brother leaving and reflects on the morning’s intensity and wonders whether anything can be done with “a man like that.” He then looks out his window to see the women of the family emerging naked from the water. In terms of story, the sublime imagery and wordplay are ancillary (though no less important). The plot has already ended. The conflict itself came to a conclusion on the beach. Likewise, the narrator’s philosophical ruminations, all the varied reasons he gives for Lawrence’s disposition and disdain, are tempting to privilege (as they come at the end), but this misses the fact that the actual story, the plot, would not work at all if not for Cheever’s determination to follow the original conflict—that of Lawrence’s puritanical disdain for the family—through the course of the story and to let them play out in three similar yet distinct scenes. This nuts and bolts craft substantiates the lyrical prose and philosophical digressions to follow. Missing this craft does not mean we miss the point of the story; it simply means we will likely have a good amount of trouble writing one.

In his Theory of Prose, Shklovsky argues that “art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced, or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence it is to be experienced through the senses.” Each of these three stories has a pronounced musicality to them, and it certainly feels at times that the reader is carried along through the background music alone (whether that comes in the form of syntax or theme or psychology). But this is not what makes a story. As E.M Forster declared in his Aspects of the Novel, a story qua story has but one single merit: that it “makes the audience want to know what happens next.” This merit exists only in an author’s capacity to create a “walking dance to be experienced,” a determination to follow with “the body,” an investment with “the senses.”

We have seen this play out in the three stories analyzed. Each takes a specific character’s desire and invents a situation where another character or group of characters resists this desire. It then takes this conflict and reproduces it at least three times in at least three distinct scenes, and each iteration is reformulated to provide a sense of syntactic excitement, irony and elaboration without ever abandoning the original desire-resistance pattern. This steadfast commitment to the original conflict creates the aesthetic space for the “movement of the body” because this plotting is, ultimately, a commitment to the senses on the part of the author and the reader, to exploring—to quote O’Connor again—“the definite to its extremity.”

Culturally Americans tend to treat literature as an unknown quality, unique with respect to other art forms and disciplines, both urgent and enduring precisely because it cannot be planned, described, and compartmentalized. But this isn’t quite true. The urgent and enduring qualities of literature extend directly from the fact that literature is, as Douglas Glover says, “a process of thinking with its own peculiar form.” Contrary to popular belief—a romanticized and lazy understanding of what art accomplishes and is—this peculiar and specific form provides literature its unknown quality. Writers create interest through, as Glover argues, “variation of form, surprising turns or denials of expectation, dramatic action and emotional resonance”; writers move readers through a walking dance, never for a sentence forgetting that there would be no dance without conflicting bodies and no interesting bodies without this formulaic dance.

—Michael Carson

Works Cited

Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: First Vintage International, 2000.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Glover, Doug. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Ontario: Biblioasis, 2012.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Compiled by Leo Zuber and edited with an introduction by Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Energy of Delusion. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2007.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 1990.

Trevor, William. The Collected Stories. Penguin: New York: Penguin House, 1992.

Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A note here on syntax: Cheever actually reproduces this exact plot pattern on the sentence level in much of his writing. He likes to use the three-beat pattern and then lightly disrupt it, extending the sentence into a six-beat pattern. Here is a particularly strong example from the ending of “Torch Song”: “Jack emptied the whiskey bottle into the sink./ He began to dress./ He stuffed his dirty clothes into a bag. He was trembling and crying with sickness and fear. He could see the blue sky from his window, and in his fear it seemed miraculous that the sky should be blue,/ that the white clouds should remind him of snow,/ that from the sidewalk he could hear the shrill voices of the children shrieking,/ “I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain.”
Apr 122017


In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s 1915 story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens not as a cockroach struggling to escape his bed but as an interpellated black man struggling to escape the Western hemisphere. I preface my interpretation with an admission that I offer the critical reader a conceit to rival Kafka’s own, the enduring weight of which has, in peculiarity of both interest and insight, propelled his writing from his century into ours. Consider  the human Gregor according to what he becomes: a dark-carapaced, living symbol of decadent biology, hidden away from and by the dominant culture, victim of an original sentence, mere animal bereft of the speech act, an innocent much abused by his social relations. Even Gregor’s heterosomatic blood is brown. For blood is the site where all racism makes its nest in the biological episteme of 1915[1] . I contend that Gregor goes to sleep a white bourgeois “commercial traveler” and wakes up a lumpenproletarian black man (Kafka 75).

Subaltern, for he cannot speak to authority without “a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which [leaves] the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then [rises] up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one [can] not be sure one [has] heard them rightly” (77). Lumpen, too, for he cannot engage in industry, Gregor the cockroach reveals in relief the relationship of productivity to whiteness and of the parasitic to blackness. This fallen, racialized modality of being I term Homo vermes, the most maligned product of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that physical arm of ideological racism which is a racism without a human face at all.

Interpellation as a method of metamorphosis: to the specific mechanism of his fictive, anti-humanist-by-other means interpellation of the body that enforces Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka pays no textual attention. In the text Gregor simply wakes up on his fateful day and that is it. Gregor’s “hard, as it were armor-plated, back” as “he lift[s] his head a little [so] he [can] see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments…His numerous legs, which [are] pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, [wave] helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka 75). Gregor’s body, nearly dead, is also newly racialized, reborn under the domination of racism. There exist subtle hints in Kafka’s story which refer to the racial dimension as that which separates the real life of men from the fatal myth of cockroaches along racial, existential, and class grounds, which I examine in turn.

Upon his metamorphosis, Gregor develops a sort of rash on his carapice, an “itching place which [is] surrounded by many small white spots,” discolored manifestations of the racial apparatus imparted by whiteness onto a white man no longer white, “the nature of which he [can] not understand” (Kafka 76). I consider Kafka here at his most anti-racist and as one such thinker par excellence. In his story, the evaluative site of race assumes the form of a radical anti-humanism which he, desperate to impart to the reader the insidious effects on body and mind of the racial apparatus, equates to a dehumanizing force so enormously powerful it abolishes the whole charactery of human species-being.

Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa, the man become less than nothing, is less than that if he is not the twentieth century’s prime conceit of the dehumanized person in literature. Here Kafka’s depiction ad absurdum of the descent of man from the racial to the carapacial exemplifies his understanding of contemporary anti-humanist and anti-Semitic propaganda[2] , which advised white people that other people were subhuman or of a different species entirely. That such a radical interpellation could overcome a hard-working commercial bourgeois, a devoted employee who supports his whole family by his labor alone, whose material practices prior to metamorphosis repeat the demands of capital willingly and slavishly, whose family surname, a Hungarian derivation of the the Hebrew Shemu’el, means literally “the name of God,” reproofs interpretations of The Metamorphosis as an undifferentiated  allegory for alienation. The “name of God” here does not refer to the ancient tribes of Israel whose descendants lived, like Kafka, in a diasporic state in Prague. It refers to a formerly white man failed by counterfeit humanism.

The Metamorphosis is not, then, a literary example of the process of alienation in a vacuum; it is not a springboard for discussing the concept of alienation in itself, for Kafka wrote the other majority of his ouvre in regards to alienation qua alienation. Such is why we still read even the isolated paragraphs of Kafka today, in which his left and right hands have a wrestling match, and men become sensuous, hunted beasts. Which striking image, plot twist, or characterization of the unfortunates in the narrative of Gregor Samsa beyond Kafka’s whispered lacuna of the racial could possibly alienate the well-adjusted, self-sufficient salesman prior to his transformation? Gregor’s metamorphosis is representative of alienation, but it is representative of a specific type of alienation coded primarily by the racial apparatus of which the ethnically Jewish Kafka was, beyond a doubt, all too well aware[3].

Racial anti-humanism is that theory of the human which denies all humanism owing to race. The carapacial is that subject-position which has fallen below the sunken threshold of mere, familiar racism, as deadly as it is. The carapacial is that ontological status below the most maligned victims of the most vicious racism imaginable. My argument that Gregor becomes a Western black man may meet with the counter-reply that he devolves from a Jew into a vermin of popular racist caricature and so contextualizes a commentary not on blackness but on the so-called Jewish problem from below. Criteria of the alienation of Homo vermes from the social and familial totality for both demographics at the time were, admittedly, similar in tone, and both were certainly thought of as subhuman, which criterial dehumanizations feature, I think, important exceptions in their discursive contours.

The Jewish and the black man alike were, by and large, despised in Kafka’s century. Jean-Paul Sartre writes in Anti-Semite and Jew that “there is a disgust for the Jew, just as there is a disgust for the Chinese or the Negro among certain people…it is not from the body that the sense of repulsion arises…rather it is something that enters the body from the mind. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complete that it extends to the physiological realm” (11). But that involvement of the mind “only serves [the anti-Semite] as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” (54). Although alternate translations of the term Kafka uses to describe Gregor Samsa, Ungeziefer, render forth the words insect, cockroach, and vermin differently—vermin may be insect, rats, or other pests—a rat does not have feelers, nor can a rat crawl on a ceiling how Gregor does in latter parts of the story. Neither does the black man as an object of racist criticism possess enough use-value to satisfy the anti-humanist racial apparatus (for he is always and obviously human, too): he must become ever lesser until he is something which even moral men may stomp upon beneath their feet, something so abject and carapacial no one in Gregor’s family cares about him once he plunges into physical grotesquery, something to be first looked after and then eventually discarded.

The viciousness of anti-humanism stretches throughout the centuries. Voltaire, the anti-Semitic idol of the Enlightenment, writes in his Philosophical Dictionary that “I have never been in Judea, thank God! And I never will go there… Frederick II, when he saw this detestable country, said, loudly enough to be distinctly heard, that Moses must have been very ill advised to conduct his tribe of lepers to such a place as that” (263-64). The premier derogatory stereotype of the Jewish persona contemporary to Kafka’s time was that of a rat—such an anti-humanist theme would later rage forth in the propaganda of the Nazis but is, in fact, much older a theme than Hitler’s doctrine[4]— rather than a cockroach, while stereotypes of the black man in the margins have long riffed on elements of the pestilential and the insectal. Kafka admits he wrote of an Insekt[5]. For instance, compare the brutalization apparent in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale,” in which Jews living in their isolated ghetto slit the throat of a Christian child, to the historical likes of Cotton Mather’s treatment of the human status of “The Negro Christianized” or his sermon on the state-ordered death of the slave Joseph Hanno he entitled Tremenda: The Dreadful Sound with Which the Wicked are to be Thunderstruck.

Discursive themes on black pestilence have a history in the West almost as long as that of the facts of anti-Semitic pogroms[6]. It predominated even in the New World discourse of the seventeenth century, when Cotton Mather penned execution sermons like Tremenda  in efforts to convert the condemned and “miserable African” before his summary hanging, while conflating via his fundamentalist religion the diseases spread by unplanned urban living prior to germ theory with the possession, if not its proprietary ownership, of black skin enslaved under the regime of whiteness[7].

Frantz Fanon

The black and insectal appear in reaction even in the exploding bombs of anti-colonial discourse. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon offers a tantalizing image of the racial, in which Fanon, “little by little, putting out pseudopodia here and there, I secreted a race” (92). If Kafka wanted to write about an alienated Jew in Europe, he would have written about such a subject-position without insisting on its silence. Instead, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a story about a white man become black who, in consequence of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, becomes inhuman and carapacial.

The prevailing ethno-racism of the social thought of Kafka’s brief life, were he to reflect it back on itself in the ethical mirror of literature, would have bade him write Gregor as a character who sniffs the air of his apartment with his large, furry nose and who literally squirrels away fresh cheese, if Gregor were merely the caricature of the socially problematic Jew in Kafka’s critical imagination—not as a character radically alienated by the racial, who naturally consumes a diet of the rotten and degenerated food his sister Grete scatters to the floor of his bedroom, whose epidermis is replaced entirely with his uncanny carapice (Kafka 95). Interpellated Gregor has feelers but has neither a tail, fur, whiskers, nor any teeth at all. He is a carapacial rendition of the final product of the dehumanizing, hierarchizing discourse of racism, an animal ontologically beneath the lowliest of mammals under the regime of Western racism, a black man whose subject-position is more subordinate than that of the Jew less than a decade after the conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair and within a year of the Great War, which eventually unfolded its various crimes against humanity into Hitler’s racial doctrine writ gigantic.

The carapacial hide that covers Gregor’s racialized body bears little of the historical assaults on the chosen people or the propagandistic, bitter taints of blood libel. What constitutes his body is a reflective criticism—the shining carapice of a cockroach is itself reflective of the racial gaze—of those who criticize the humanism of blackness from the standpoint of whiteness weaponized entirely against blackness, whose author is ethnically Jewish, but who does not take here in The Metamorphosis the specter of Jewishness in particular as his urgent object. For here Kafka writes urgently. How, and why, does Gregor Samsa, if not quite his subjectivity as his capacity for sentience is not immediately impacted by his metamorphosis, become a cockroach? Kafka provides no specific explanation. The answer to this riddle of the racial apparatus, I think, lies mid-way between Martin Heidegger, who published his Being and Time in 1927, thirteen years after the publication of The Metamorphosis, and the 1970 theory of interpellation put forth by Louis Althusser. Kafka read neither Heidegger nor Althusser as he wrote his story, of course, but he was not unaware of the themes they would bring up as to how the human agent is summoned to become the living form of its opposite.

Martin Heidegger

Kafka’s story can be understood in the light of Heidegger’s investigations of “the call” and Althusser’s conception of material interpellation via ideology. Happy, normalized Gregor is called—interpellated ideologically and thus materially—into his overnight devolution from one life-form of existence to another. Below I examine the mechanism of his metamorphosis via two philosophical anti-humanists, one a Nazi and the other a Marxist, and posit the universal significance of that mechanism for Kafka’s engagement with the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that wicked arm of the ideological which continues to haunt our culture as much as it haunted Kafka’s. In The Metamorphosis, even the universal is problematized as descending from the racial to that which produces and reduces Homo sapiens to Homo vermes, in whose body a virulently racist episteme comes home to roost.

Being and Time seeks to interpret two axes of universal experience. It is not Gregor’s notion of time that is appealed to by the racial apparatus; for all his newly-grown limbs and abilities to crawl upon his ceiling and consume degenerated food, his time spent among the social remains a grinding constant for him, however much his apartment becomes prison-like as his body becomes heterosomatic. His time remains very much the time of the family, though his phenomenology slides downward into ignorance—he forgets even that the seasons pass in the world beyond his apartment. Rather, it is his very being that is called to become carapacial by the appeal of the racial apparatus. I iterate how, via Heidegger, one can understand Gregor’s position. He falls into being by being called as a white man into the insectoid nether-realm of a racist society. How some people experience the call—as though awakening with one’s face in a water basin—Gregor falls ontologically, his face become, toothlessly, quietly, a symbol of the anti-human whose every social relation denounces him.

Heidegger writes in Being and Time that the “call ‘says’ nothing which might be talked about,” and which “gives no information about events,” much how Kafka is silent about Gregor’s devolving mechanism, and which “points forward to Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being,” that is, being another species below even what the racists refer to as the lowest race, “and it does this as a call which comes from [the] uncanniness” of “thrown individualization” (325). Is this not Gregor’s real instantiation of the racial, thrown into being a cockroach, in his uncomfortable, uncanny carapice? Gregor did not study the hardy texts of existentialism to become a cockroach; nor did he proof the ancient Heraclitus against his thesis that all things exist in fluxual metamorphosis. But Heidegger continues:

When the call gives us a potentiality-for-being to understand, it does not give us one which is ideal and universal; it discloses it as that which has been currently individualized and which belongs to that particular Dasein… Whatever the ways in which conscience is experienced or interpreted, all our experiences ‘agree’ on this ‘Guilty!’. Because Dasein has falling as its kind of Being, the way Dasein gets interpreted is for the most inauthentically ‘oriented’ and does not reach the ‘essence’; for to Dasein the primordially appropriate ontological way of formulating questions remains alien… this ‘Guilty!’ turns up as a predicate for the ‘I am’” (326).

Enough ink has been spilled about the relationship between Kafka and affective guilt—his father has probably been written about more than any other father excepting the celestial father of Christianity. “’Being-guilty’ also has the signification of ‘being responsible for’—that is, being the cause or author of something, or even ‘being the occasion’ for something,” according to Heidegger (327). Gregor’s metamorphosis is Kafka’s occasion to discuss guilt but it is also an occasion to discuss something else.

Of more importance is his relationship with Homo vermes, those who come to be defined by not the affect of guilt but the very ontological status of being-guilty of being Homo vermes. Cockroaches, after all, are guilty of nothing: they act on the world solely according to their nature. But the nature of men is manifold, capable of every emotion, and capable likewise of every dehumanizing transformation. So, too, with those assaulted by the ideology of the hardcore racists like de Gobineau and his followers. The Metamorphosis can be understood not as offering a projection of universal doom to those called into racial hierarchy but as a universal state of being, Homo vermes, who are not taken as the subectal object of the hated Jew but rather as the black man. It is at once a place for all to fall into the uncanny inhuman and a specifically designed reservoir of those most hated by the hegemonic sphere of culture. “In uncanniness,” writes Heidegger, “Dasein stands together with itself primordially. Uncanniness brings this entity face to face with its undisguised nullity, which belongs to the possibility of its ownmost potentiality-for-Being” (333). Gregor becomes a nullity where previously he was a full man integrated into the social life of the industrial West. This generous interpretation of the family, the productive enemy of all uncanny individualism, also has its problematic, which even through Kafka does not deliver freedom to those haunted by blackness.

So-called existential freedom under the umbrage of race offers stranger miseries than are usual in the course of human life. “Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility—that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them” (Heidegger 331). The call to the carapacial is not universalist in scope, according to Heidegger: it calls only the absolute minority. Of course, the most absolute minority is “that which is individualized,” that is, the individual who “has falling as its kind of Being” (326). Every man is potentially and thus universally such material for metamorphosis, and so every calling develops into the universal via particularity. Every person is potentially Homo vermes according to one’s particular regime of episteme, depending on which kind of persons it casts aside and which kind it lets live; but every person is not individually threatened by being called into such a state of being as Homo vermes in Kafka’s episteme.

This horror of being Homo vermes is reserved for the black man in Kafka. “’Making oneself responsible’ by breaking a law…can indeed also have the character of ‘coming to owe something to Others’. This does not happen merely through law-breaking as such, but rather through my having the responsibility for the Other’s becoming endangered in his existence, led astray, or even ruined” (Heidegger 327). A more complete ruin than that of Gregor Samsa has not been written about except perhaps for the ruin of Job. The specter of racism, which always already references the most inauthentic mode of being human (the racial misrecognition of biology) to which humanistic critique is completely opposed, does not threaten everyone, at least not in Kafka’s sense. It threatens the carapacial who once upon a time were racial. In short, the human being, as utterly human as any other example of the species, becomes utterly less than that once he is called into being an example of Homo vermes.

The absolute minority is the individual Gregor Samsa who falls—I might term this waking up—into another level of species-being. I shall say more of his race and carapace. Gregor the salesman is white, but Gregor the cockroach is not: he has fallen into being a black man, the lowest scale of being according to the racist evaluation of his time, whose missionary impact Kafka seeks to deflect and re-humanize from head to hue. That is, Gregor transforms from the white universal into the black particular, whose instance must necessarily exist in a state of guilt so profound he grows insectal feelers, the uncanny ability to crawl on ceilings, and the capacity to put like with like in his diet of consumption—a rotten body able only to enjoy rotten food. Human beings typically do no such thing no matter their race; nor should any of us, save the racists, ever live in such a state of guilt. Only interpellated Homo vermes can exist in such a state, and at that, only when imagined by an author consumed by the notion that race dehumanizes a man called by anti-humanist racial apparatus.

But Homo vermes here is an imaginary object. No human being is a vermin. Racists rarely know they operate in the realm of the imaginary, that Homo vermes offers hope for humanism even when Gregor’s abused, humiliated body flattens unto his death, when he dies unmourned in a  story written onto paper by the anxious fingers of a Prague Jew writing of the black man as an epitomic object of humanist criticism, or when the failed strategies of racists aim to build a master race but only offer posterity a long and painful laughter. Racial hatred is as absolute and boundless as the human. For the racists who developed Nazism, Kafka could be hated twice; the problematic Jew thrice over; but the black man has been hated ad infinitum even by those who offered theories that rendered humanism solute and replied still in 1915: but, he, the human, is still the aspect of the “miserable African.”

Kafka’s racists hated the Jew who wrote of blackness and so indirectly produced, via the medium of Kafka’s agency, the narrativa exemplum of anti-racism that defined their own century, equal in misery as the plodding century which howled of the plight of Cotton Mather’s “miserable African.” Yet this newer pessimism was confined to the domain of the racist, whose thinking was also novel for all its destructive faults; for, I think, the first true racist was born alongside the first cosmopolitan (consider the sea-faring Portuguese entry into the slave trade). Kafka, anti-racist, prevails against the racial apparatus all the more hopefully because he disproves the critical field of racist attention as living on fallow soil. We see more of Kafka’s defense of Homo vermes in the light of Althusser’s long essay On the Reproduction of Capitalism now that the race-thinking Heidegger inverts himself.

Louis Althusser

For Althusser, every man, woman, and child alive and active in modern society is recruited by that ideology which reproduces the status quo—“the State”—which “recruits them all” to its immanent demands (190). The state is not co-incident with the figureheads of government. It is co-incident with the state of economy and culture which rules a particular society. In other terms, what nineteenth-century Marxists called false consciousness is consciousness itself defined by material practice imposed from birth onward by the directive, reproductive needs of how things always already are and need to keep on being. It is this form of consciousness which, for Althusser, “recruits them all” into being subjects. But Gregor is not recruited into the economistic mold of the state, which tells its workers what to do and when to do it. He is recruited into a debased subjectivity even while maintaining sentience of such, which apparatus tells the racialized worker how to labor (or, in this instance, how not to labor); and more importantly, how to perform that lacunic labor which compares a dignified man to a man who relinquishes all dignity of the self. “We,” writes Althusser, “know what that means: these apparatuses operate apparently ‘all by themselves,’ without recourse to violence. In fact, they function thanks to means other than violence, namely, on ideology, or rather, ideologization” (79).  The status quo of which Althusser writes needs people to die quietly. One such ideologized person is Gregor, who becomes an instance of Homo vermes, a vermin incapable of any speech act in consequence of the racial apparatus.

Kafka’s observation proves true as it metamorphoses from the realm of pure idea to the realm of materiality, material repetition, and material embodiment of which the recruited Gregor is a short-lived example. “We shall go on to suggest ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way to ‘recruit’ subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) through the very precise operation that we call interpellation or hailing” (Althusser 190). If guilt becomes an Insekt then Homo vermes is personal false consciousness become blackness entirely assumed. “This is a strange phenomenon, after all, one that cannot be explained by ‘guilt feelings’ alone, despite the large numbers of people with ‘something on their consciences” (Althusser 191). Prior to Gregor’s racial guilt, who, as a former bourgeois white man, did not know he could interpolate into blackness, and so was never aware of a false consciousness which is not false at all, Gregor was only a white man engaged in labor. In fact, it seems Gregor did very little else but work for the capitalist system prior to his metamorphosis; and prior to this event, Gregor was not carapacial and was probably not even racial in the sense that he was blind to his whiteness by virtue of being white. I say more of Althusser’s theory of interpellation before I say more of Kafka’s most tragic and carapacial character.

In his essay on ideology, Louis Althusser, in explaining his theory of material interpellation, rarely concerns himself with false consciousness, for such is the orthodox form of the enslavement of the workers with which he takes especial issue. Neither does Kafka much concern himself with false consciousness, for he, like the later Althusser, understands that the concept of the human is at odds with theories of the racial, the biological misrecognition of man, and those dehumanizing theories of the carapacial which he depicts at their harshest materialization in The Metamorphosis. For Kafka, the metaphorical is material. False consciousness is as false as race—the black man under realism’s regime is never Homo vermes and is always as human as Kafka, as you, or as I—but it does offer local criticism of the gigantic monster of the racial apparatus, whose form of praxis is racial anti-humanism.

That a Nazi like Heidegger or a Marxist like Althusser offer a fresh locus of criticism for Kafka’s work, even from the standpoints of two opposing totalitarian tendencies, exclaims his righteous demonization of all that is racial and all that tends towards the monstrous and the carapacial, which, as evidenced by his story, are exactly identical in critical orientation. Kafka supports the universal as much as anti-humanist thought supports the merely particular. The racial apparatus is as “repulsive” and “bound to go on being repulsive ” as Gregor (Kafka 101). A well-adjusted man like Gregor should worry that he might become, in the course of one dark night of the soul, an “Insekt.” Materially successful by Kafka’s account, keen on his nuclear family, happily individual, Gregor  awakens, via no recognizance of his own, in the being-toward-death of a cockroach who loses his job, who slaved for capital and family through his own will and becomes a parasite without will, who integrates the sin of knowledge into a wound in his back—a book could be written about the apple lodged into his carapice and the sort of horrible knowledge its imposition represents as it rots—who whistles through his jaw, for he no longer has access to the Logos which is universally constitutive of the human being.

Gregor is the first cockroach who has a neocortex but no tongue. He dies as black and fallen as the Fanonian[8]subject whose will to revolution is killed under colonialism. Fanon writes of the colonized subject that “in plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of of the colonized he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements…to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations” (7).  Kafka seems to have noticed such a process in his own time, writing of Gregor that “hardly was he down [from his formerly upright posture] when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand” (89).  If Gregor wakes up in the bed he has peacefully slept in all his life as a cockroach against whom society must be defended[9], so may anyone, for such caprice of the carapacial “final relief” informs Gregor with the knowledge of that insidious operation by which the awful genius of anti-humanism operates its racial apparatus.

…Gregor realized that the lack of of all direct human speech for the past two months together with the monotony of family life must have confused his mind, otherwise he could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? (104)

The racial apparatus reduces everyone to Homo vermes not collectively but one by one. It reduces them all from a human background to a background that must not be spoken of in polite company, which reminds one of the rotten, the degenerate, and the dying whose death is not even a human sort of death.

I hope here to write the obituary of Homo vermes although Gregor’s death warrants no funeral. No one cares that he has died where in boyhood he used to sleep in peace—indeed, his family cared much more about Gregor when he paid all their bills. Kafka writes, “They had simply got used to [his employment], both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling” (98). Now that he is black and poor, no one fixes for him the final funereal suit which clothes the dead until they look as they were at their best in life, replete with rosy cheeks, meditative features, and business attire. Born Homo sapiens, Gregor exits this world Homo vermes, nuder and somehow more vulnerable than the day he was born. The Samsa family’s charwoman, a simple proletarian not much removed from economic slavery, sweeps away his carcass, now “completely flat and dry, as could only now be seen when it was no longer supported by the legs and nothing prevented one from looking closely at it,” as though his carapacial body were as ephemeral as his memory (Kafka 125). What use does the capitalist society of 1915 Europe, edging into the long race war whose end we refer to as World War Two, have for the racialized and the socially damned?

The West’s current multiculturalism, which is both historically nascent and yet already dissolves in its hopeful adolescence, is a long reaction to the parasitic specter of Kafka’s Homo vermes. Western thought thinks of black men and vermin as occupying the same ontological territory: one of “streaks of dirt stretched along the walls” and “here and there” “balls of dust and filth” (Kafka 114). It considers these categories of the anti-human under a dismal gaze that identifies eternally the black with the pestilential and announces that this foul identity is acceptable, required even, for the maintenance of the social whole. The West needs its cockroaches as upon a century it needed its slaves. Kafka writes, “The decision that [Gregor] must disappear was one that [Gregor] held to even more strongly than his sister…The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath” (124). Gregor, worn down by the slow death of his metamorphosis, wants at last to die, and finally, quietly does. He can bear no longer his interpellation from a happy man into a hated brute, of living a grotesque rendition of social death, removed from all possibility of communication with those who formerly shared even his blood, of being called into being poor and black.

Western society, a fantastically brutal example of the battle between the human and the racial in which the racial is often victor, must be defended against the carapacial specter. I declare this warning admittedly as a white man who is recognized as such by our society and who has largely escaped the suicidal call of the racial apparatus. For, we in the West, whether we adhere to the liberal register or the fascist, continue to think in terms imposed by our defining history of anti-humanism. We who defend the liberal imperative reproduce these categories and their moral lots as a matter of course, whose real and active course of thought we tend to neglect because it often does not affect our bodies or our subject-positions. For even Gregor’s sister, Grete, who loved him deeply before his metamorphosis, winds up declaring to her family that Homo vermes, once her brother, so thoroughly dehumanized he crawls around in his own filth, is not a victim of larger circumstance, but a “creature” who “persecutes us” (122). Franz Kafka, whom the social theorist of Theodor Adorno once called “the solipsist without ipseity,” is a hero to match the villainy in his stories and, indeed, a hero to counter our own hypocritical villainy which calls the very victims of the hegemonic racial ideology of whiteness our persecutors in turn (237). We persecute those who have been persecuted when we say, “Look, a cockroach!”

We have failed to enact in practical terms our ideals of the essential equality of Homo sapiens. Our failure does not surprise me, for even the heirs of Hitler think of themselves as heroes of the social order. Fascism, I suspect, is the insectal answer to our failing liberalism. Everywhere, Homo vermes lives outside of our sight, and everywhere he lives within our borders: who cannot think of one’s neighbors as potentially harboring some miserable Gregor Samsa, right next to one’s own house, looking forlornly beyond his window at those who have abandoned him in his hour of need?

Western abuse of world history and subsequently of every individual living within its course, if by this point the West still has a course, is a moral lesson against our anti-humanism, which we continue to reproduce even in our most liberal praxes. No one loves Gregor at his most vulnerable. Those who should be kindest to him throw him away as though he were the same trash they fed him. Race is where the hopeless go to die; it is the ontological means by which they are disposed of. It is my hope, now that we know its embodied horrors from our feelings to his feelers, that anti-humanism is selfsame with the realm of the racial, and that its meanest imposition onto blackness is the carapacial imposition, finds its grave-site sooner rather than later, and, furthermore, that this deadly manner of thinking and acting alongside our fellow human beings is buried near wherever it was the devitalized Ungeziefer found his resting place, as the word “nigger” was buried, if Kafka ever did bury Gregor.

—Jeremy Brunger


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “In nuce.” Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005. 236-238.

Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso, 2014. 74-191.

Bernofsky, Susan. “On Translating Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” New Yorker, 2014.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prioress’ Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Penguin, 2003. 170-76.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008.       89-119.

—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 2004. 1-62.

Foucault, Michel. “Eleven. 17 March 1976.” Society Must be Defended! Picador, 2003. 239-264.

Frasetto, Michael. “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” Misconceptions About the Middle      Ages. Routledge, 2009. 76-82.

de Gobineau, Arthur. “The Meaning of Degeneration” and “Racial Differences are Permanent.” On the   Inequality of Human Races. 1853. 23-140.

Haraway, Donna. “Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture: It’s All in the Family. Biological Kinship     Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Modest Witness @ Second Millennium.        Routledge, 1997. 213-315.

Heidegger, Martin. “Understanding the Appeal, and Guilt.” Being and Time. Harper & Brothers,1962.          325-35.

Herman, Arthur. “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism.” The Idea of          Decline in Western History. The Free Press, 1997. 53-60.

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Collected Stories. Knopf, 1993. 75-128.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Schocken, 1995. 1-54.

Voltaire. “Judea.” Philosophical Dictionary. Barnes & Noble, 2006. 263-64.

Wiener, Mark. “Let Us Make a Tryal.” Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste. Vintage, 2006. 33-50.


Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy Brunger, originally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Donna Haraway’s article in which she delineates the genealogy of race-thinking according to a temporal, triadic conception of social thought, beginning with the thinking of the “blood,” passing through “population” theory, and ending with an account of the “genetic” cognizance of the human (219). Kafka wrote his story in 1912, three years prior to publication, but this period of writing is congruent with the “blood” episteme of contemporary social thought on race.
  2. Such propaganda was inspired to the last by the declinist racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau who, to his small credit, did not think such a degeneration as Samsa experiences was possible. For the anti-bourgeois de Gobineau, the differences between races—for him these differences were very real and world-historically meaningful—were permanent and immutable. The Inequality of Human Races explicitly denounces two progressive ideas: the improvement of the races towards equality, and the mutable nature of race. A minority race could not actually descend to the level of the insect even for this hardcore racist, albeit his curiously ill-informed observations made little impression on the half-educated racists of Kafka’s era, who took the theories of de Gobineau to their extreme logical conclusions. See Arthur Herman’s “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism” in The Idea of Decline in Western History for Herman’s account of the nineteenth-century transition of race meaning lineage to race meaning biology.
  3. See Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, in which the infernal machine, a literal apparatus, inscribes one’s sin on one’s skin.
  4. See Michael Frasetto’s article “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” He writes, “In the thirteenth century, the blood libel emerged, which held that the Jews killed Christians and used their blood in Passover ceremonies. The notion that they were subhuman also developed. Jews were depicted in animal forms, with horns and tails, crooked noses, and were thought to give off a foul odor” (79). Black Death Europe, it seems, had no cockroaches, but plenty of rodents.
  5. See Berfosky’s New Yorker article on the difficulty of translating Kafka’s German “hazy focus” into English.
  6.     Even the hyper-egalitarian Karl Marx, himself of Jewish origin, was not above referring to another man, Lassalle, as “the Jewish nigger” in private correspondence, a contrary apotheosis of race-thinking if ever there was one.
  7. See Mark Wiener’s chapter “Let Us Make a Tryal” from Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste in which he examines the conflation of the black with the parasitic in the discourse of Cotton Mather.
  8. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon has nothing to say about Kafka’s story but much, I imagine, to say about its outcomes regarding Hegelian recognition and the suicidal diminution imparted by racism. He does not often touch on the theme of anti-humanism and cannot be characterized as such a thinker; his criticism tends always to focus, like a rounded glass beneath the sun, on those most in agreement with him whose theories on race and Africa disagreed with his own. Hegel famously writes that Africa has no history; Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hated Hegel’s dialectics, and yet Fanon synthesizes both in a clinical diagnosis of the racial apparatus. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” even resembles the description of the concept of interpellation in Althusser: “Look! A Negro!” (89).
  9. See Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended!, his 1975-76 lecture on the development of racism in Europe and in particular his theory that the state requires the racial apparatus in order to go on functioning (254-58).
Apr 112017


This is the story, I said, looking at the blank page, and she said to me she knew it was written for her, but I knew I had not written it for anyone.

This is the story, I said, listening to the blank page, and she said she’d heard it before, and I said it is not possible because it is being told still.

This is the story, I said, can you hear it? Silenced it wants to be told, so the screen can crack.


I want to tell you of reading The Blank Page, the short story by Isak Dinesen in which a storyteller tells the story of the blank page.

I have been reading the story repeatedly, over the last few months—not to interpret its mysterious parable: I’ve been reading The Blank Page as an echo chamber, listening to the voices that speak to me through it, and through me to it and to you.

Today I’m not reading The Blank Page: I’m looking at a photocopy I made of the first page of the story.

The photocopy is not quite so blank, and I’m reading the notes I wrote on it during my repeated encounters with it, some of which appear obscure to me since the thoughts that prompted them have been lost, while others continue to generate further thinking. I am looking at this photocopy of the first page of The Blank Page as a record of past beginnings, disorderly poured into the ever-present of each repeated reading, return, rewind, da capo.

I am listening to and reading into this blank page as volume.



My eyes linger for some time on the title, and soon they move around my nearly illegible handwriting as they try to reconstruct in vain the sequence of these incomplete writerly incursions. I can’t resist the temptation of starting from the least obvious connection, from the most remote one.

Turquoise capital letters, on the left: PIZARNIK 139. Three turquoise thick lines around it. An arrow on the right: look at this, it matters.

How promising. My reading of The Blank Page begins with a diversion that precipitates me straight into another book.

I open Alejandra Pizarnik’s collected poems, Extracting The Stone Of Madness, page 139, and I remember the sense of urgency I perceived at the time, in finding an echo while reading Pizarnik during the same days as I read Dinesen:

Here is how I can go about reading this heavily annotated photocopy, entitled The Blank Page and anything but blank: with two eyes looking at the frenzied absence of the blank page, in ferocious void, listening. And, following Pizarnik’s suggestion on the page before, to let there be language where there ought to be silence.


Pizarnik’s blue handwritten name actually appears slightly off the page, although in close vicinity to it: on a rectangular scrap of paper that I glued onto the photocopy. There’s ambiguity between foreground and background, between the told and the teller, between who writes and who is being written, what is held and what holds: it enwraps the entire operation of Dinesen’s story and, inevitably, of my words with it.

Or: the glued scrap of paper that holds a specific instance of reading could be an attempt at staying very close to the material of such reading, while performing those small gestures of variance from which writing always rebegins.


Top right corner: CARMELITES. In a convent in Portugal, for centuries, Carmelite nuns have been keeping a collection of framed linen sheets, each one holding the trace, in blood, of the first nuptial night of a princess. One of these sheets is completely white, shows no trace of blood, and continues to attract pilgrimages of people who stare at it and interrogate its enigma: it is the blank page that gives the title to the story.

Why the sheet is blank, it is not told.

How the sheet in the story becomes a page in the title of the story, it is not told.

It is not told because it’s not what is expected to be heard, so I try to hear through its absence: something more, and something else than words, Pizarnik suggests to me. Like in Scheherazade’s 1001 blank nights (‘one more than a thousand,’ Dinesen wrote, I underlined) so much happens outside the frame. The blank page continues to compel readers who, like the procession of pilgrims described in the story, couldn’t resist the riddle of the blank sheet that it is generated from, and that it perpetually generates.

A strange and silent museum keeps the collection of bodily inscriptions framed by the stillness of gold, framed in turn by the telling of the story by the old woman at the gate of the town, framed by Dinesen’s own telling although, I’d underlined in red, ‘they and I have become one’. Dinesen haunts her stories, becomes one with them.

I want to hold on to this sense of porosity allowing the told and the teller to become one, rather than to the staccato of the framing devices. I’m drawn to the merging. Rather than considering spatial arrangements I want to think through time, and transmission. Scheherazade as transmitter, Scheherazade who continued speaking and being spoken through, Dinesen as transmitter, Dinesen who said she was not a writer but a storyteller, Pizarnik as transmitter, Pizarnik who wrote I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices.

At the bottom of my photocopy, after reading the story once, I wrote in capital letters:

“WHAT HAS GONE UNHEARD”. And untold, I add now. The blank page is the site where a more silent tale can be found, through the unheard and unspoken weaving that makes its material. The storyteller disappears in the story yet is present in it, as channel and substance.

I keep staring at The Blank Page through Pizarnik’s eyes and through her inner ears, to hear the place where silence is formed.


Have you read The Blank Page yet? Or perhaps you remember it from long ago? And if not, what do you think it is, beyond the first photocopied page? Are these words very abstract? What have you been reading so far in these words: a chronicle of blank, or a chronicle of engagement? Are you more drawn to what is missing, or to what is here? What holds the story, what emanates from it, and why this one? The story unfolds its charms and chances. You read the words and beyond them, something more and something else. Can you tell, now?


Top left, in red, thin marks:

POROSITY (not quite “resistance”)

GERMINATION (plough-writing)


I read again Dinesen’s story in the aftermath of Elena Ferrante’s ‘unmasking’. Today the lack of blood on the sheet bears a defiant statement: to be materially present within words does not call for a bodily mark, the material presence of a telling does not need to be legitimated or verified by a trace of the teller. I am tempted to read the storyteller’s disappearance into the blank page not as a symptom of hiding, but as a deliberate gesture that gives space to what Ferrante calls the truth of language, present and significant without the need for biographical evidence. Further down my photocopy I read: IS WRITING ALWAYS WOUNDING/BLEEDING? I wrote these while reading Susan Gubar’s acute analysis of Dinesen’s story in relation to female creativity, in which she refutes the claim that the evidence of a body is the only way for women to be recognised in art. The blank page is not a retreat: it holds meaning whose form is its truth. Along the left border, in red capital letters and referring again to Gubar: ‘Does writing always have to reflect / be a trace of the movements and motions that produce it?’


There is no way to enter the page because you are already there, and there are many ways of being there: I learned this from Teresa of Avila. The storyteller is there, through the blank page and its story, in absentia. Her presence is porous, it enables and hosts fabulatory activities as transmissions, and transmissions can be spurious. That’s how I read Dinesen’s storyteller’s / Dinesen-as-storyteller’s statement, ‘silence will speak when the narrator is faithful to the story’: the silence of the blank page is the storyteller’s poiesis, and the words it generates exceed the page: can you hear them? The people in the story keep watching, and I keep listening while watching, with Pizarnik’s eyes looking for the place where silence is formed.


In the lower centre, a mark in capital letters, red pencil: FRANTUMAGLIA 72. I recall, but shall not quote, the words of another invisible storyteller, Ferrante, in La frantumaglia, page 72 (Italian edition), discussing the truth of the story as keeper of its own truth, literary truth, with no need for external legitimisation—writing, later on, that the more effective story is the one which allows to gaze out at everything that’s been excluded from it, outside of the frame.


THE BLANK PAGE: I look at the title on the photocopy and beneath it, handwritten in red: THE IMMORTAL STORY. Outside of the frame I see Orson Welles, who’d once declared to be in love with Dinesen and who directed The Immortal Story as a homage to her eponymous tale of a rich man at the end of his life, who can’t believe that a story he hears and knows never actually took place, and who makes it happen: at the end, the protagonist of the story realises that, because he has actually been inside the story, he will no longer be able or willing to tell it.

That silence is the story’s porous boundary.

In the inversion of foreground and background, the blank is the material of muteness that exceeds the page. A telling, a spinning of a nothingdense: the truth of that form of silence, sounding with stories passed on, and with voices streaming into the volume of the blank page.


I turn the page:

‘Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence…. Who then… tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all—where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.

‘We,’ she says at last, ‘the old women who tell stories, we know the story of the blank page.’

In the previous page, the woman’s voice is introduced by ‘she said’.

She says, she said.

She says, she said, I read. This is happening now, it happened before, I’m stuck in the looped timing of da capo.


Sometimes the photocopy of the blank page can be disappointing, opaque. It’s a material of time. It doesn’t always have to hold meaning. It allows a germination whose movements are slow and difficult to perceive. I can’t exhaust the blank page. Some days it’s impenetrable and I’m drawn to this relationship that doesn’t always have to be meaningful but allows me to drift, or stay still, and nothing changes and its material does. I can’t extract too much from these marks. Only reread them and repeat them, and I’ll be able to hear something then: a troubling urge. This reading is not to find purpose, but to look with a purposive eye, and listen. I hear the sound of a spinning. That is the material of The Blank Page today. In the story, the fabric of the linen is spun from flax grown in the fields surrounding the convent. The making of the linen through spinning is the invisible/inaudible activity of every day which leaves no mark, but makes the material of silence possible. The blank page is dense with unseen work, its silence full with the sound of spinning.


I wrote of the linen of the blank page but I want to misspell it as limen, border.

And then I want silence to erode those gilded frames and see them rot.


On the border of my photocopy, bottom left: SPIN SPIN SPIN SPIN —— The urge to spin words in a succession of da capo. On the back of the photocopy, my words in cursive sound much like a curse:

On a page, not too different from this one. Out of sync but no. But the attempt. But the gestures. I know I’m writing, but I do not feel I’m in the place where my hands are. These words came before me. They inhabit the page from outside. The voice of the storyteller, that never stops beginning, torments these words, I hear in them what they apparently do not tell. Language is disturbed. The blank page beyond language. These words never finish leaving. Their beginning is absent. I wasn’t there. The muted perturbation of the copied page is the interval between the words I can’t remember. It shakes them but they are muted and cannot say what shakes them. Maybe it will never be named but it moves, shakes them. They gently shake by way of the specific quality of silence the surrounds them. A beginning doesn’t know how or what: it senses its where. It’s impetus before content. An absolute volitive. The space of the blank page transgresses the order of facts to affirm a rebeginning. A small variance allows writing to begin. Not pleasing, orderly and smooth but as disturbance, scratch, crack.


A desire for enchantment. I remember a voice from elsewhere:

These thoughts of mine… I have fetched them from far far away.

You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again.

She said. She says. I write. Will I tell? Is reading another way of telling the story of the blank page?


There is not a grand plan in my reading of the photocopy, but a daily engagement with its marks as interruptions, a sustained silent conversation with the page as material, and with the thoughts I hear through it: material. This is where syntax breaks, as it must attend to the rhythms of such material, not to a plan. This is how The Blank Page becomes a blank page and mine, through stillness. The blank page is the unnameable, yet visible and audible medium, that amplifies, transmits, echoes, extends, connects voices between interferences and unsteady unison. To lay it bare would be absurd. And to read it is not attached to the privilege of having certain doors opened, to the privilege of access: it is not tied to the ‘discovery’ of new material, but to the thrill of working through what is on the page, available as opaque substance, and rediscover its density and its excess.


Isak’s actual name was Karen. Isak means laughter. I think Karen meant some laughter too: at the thought that anyone might claim for the enigma of the blank page to be solved. Today I hear Karen’s laughter across the decades, defiant and distorted, against solutions, spinning more and more words, da capo.


There is no blank page as an absolute condition, no purity marked by bleeding: the blank page, loaded with the marks of its making, calls for the presence of more marks, voices, other copies, and screens, many more notes and scratches: the teller disappears into the story so more stories can be heard through her and through it while generating more. Silence holds the excess of words: anything that occurs off the page, and yet wouldn’t be there without it, states of stillness, and rewind, and mishaps, and sometimes nothing happens.

But, still, there. There I can disappear too: in listening, in channelling. I try to read the marks on the photocopy but the marks aren’t the only bearers of meaning: the whiteness is as dense. The blank becomes manifest as the material of muteness that exceeds the page.

I close my eyes. I too have something to tell, it’s not a story: a spinning of silenced motions in and out of languages, made of the debris of stories passed on, and half-forgotten voices. Reading the canonical from a partial view, placing the opaque in a position of prominence.

I look again at a snapshot of my photocopy of The Blank Page on my iPad, it’s full of noise, the screen is cracked, a telling in writing can rebegin.

—Daniela Cascella

List of References

Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert, Extracting the Stone of Madness. Poems 1962-1972, New York: New Directions, 2016.

Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma: Edizioni e/o, 2003

Isak Dinesen, The Blank Page and Echoes, in Last Tales, London: Putnam, 1957.

Isak Dinesen, The Dreamers, in Seven Gothic Tales, London: Penguin, 2001 (1934).

Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story, in Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, London: Penguin, 2013 (1958).

Orson Welles (dir.), The Immortal Story, 1968.

Susan Gubar, ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, ‘Writing and Sexual Difference’ (winter 1981), 243-263.


Daniela Cascella is a London-based Italian writer. Her work is concerned with impossible silences, their residues and disturbances. She is the author of F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015) and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Her texts have been published in Gorse, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wire, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, minor literature[s]. She is a Contributing Editor at minor literature[s]. Her next book, a hybrid text prompted by a reflection on rebeginnings and the transmission of knowledge, is entitled Singed: A Transmission of Muted Voices, After the Fire. Twitter: @enabime www.danielacascella.com


Apr 072017

Abby Frucht


If she weeps, maybe then they won’t find her amusing.

But she doesn’t, so they do.

“We got a lady here who… a lady with a… only maybe you better see for yourself,” fake-whispers the attendant from her desk in Mercy Hospital’s ER lobby, phoning news to the staff about the 2 a.m. patient with the bat bite, not. The big doors swing open on oiled hinges, a smell of coffee ghosts out as the patient slips in, the blended odors of sterile gloves and unrolled gauze featuring so sharply in the patient’s recognition of prior ER visits as to be either actual, resurrected by nostalgia or conjured by dread. The nurses all wear Crocs and the creak of those soles across laminate flooring is likewise as real as it is conjectured. The doctor wears saddle oxfords, the patient sham Uggs, Chuck lies barefoot at home sleeping off the night’s tantrum. In pigtails and bangs like Abby Sciuto’s on NCIS, the ER attendant enquires of the chairs in the now-vacant lobby, “Why would someone of driven to Mercy at 3 in the a.m. wanting rabies vaccine when there wasn’t a bat? What’s wrong with ’em?” A large scrap of frayed burlap pinned with a message on notebook paper – Don’t Touch This Curtain God Forbid – blocks entry to her cubicle.

“Tell us why you believe you were bitten by a bat if you saw no bat,” says the ER nurse.

“Tell us what you were doing when you think a bat bit you,” the doctor says.

“I think kayaking,” the patient says.

She thinks she was kayaking? Or she was kayaking? Or maybe she only thinks she thought she was kayaking? The doctor keeps such fulmination to himself, since the patient is of his mom’s generation. Even her chart, indicating decades of medical predicaments causing him to surmise she might have Munchausen Syndrome but which on random scrutiny reveals breast cancer detected, pin-pointed, aspirated, evaluated, differentiated, operated, irradiated, abbreviated, eliminated, PET scanned, overlooked, and once again investigated, might as well be his own mom’s medical history, all co-paid promptly with a Venture card. Hoping someday to globe trot on credit card miles himself, he pictures both women’s, his mom and this patient’s, Experian scores:

Payments: Never Late.
Responsibility: Individual.
Potentially Negative Items: Blank.

Miles, thinks the doctor. Lima, Prague and Hanoi subsidized by infiltrating carcinoma. Like Mom, tonight’s patient jets off between crises, bucket list in hand. It’s not unlikely the two almost oldish ladies were once or twice seatmates on a plane somewhere. NOOK Books, Bloody Marys, and neither one of them abashed on rising yet again to make her way to the toilet. Also a shared hubris at being unequipped to master the inflight entertainment system.

Fifty-eight and proud of it, the doctor sees of his patient, just like Mom. College professor two grown sons one divorce three pregnancies tobacco use never plus a smart smartass boyfriend with a baseball cap lousy pectoral muscles but mind-blowing arms. The doctor’s mom once smoked too but when her premiums jumped, she too stopped admitting to it. Her divorce went through when the sons were mere boys. As for the abortion, if it would have been the doctor’s now grown-up sister, he grieves for her.


The bat likely was roosting inside the storage hatch of the hard yellow plastic sit-on-top kayak. Atop the hatch a lid hangs sideways, threads stripped from being opened and shut too often although she never stores things there since only air, only buoyancy belong in there. Since new, the lid never screwed up right, allowing leaves spiders rainwater and snowmelt to find their way in, plus a squirrel must have nested in there one spring hence the cracked apart nuts that spilled out of the hatch when she flipped the boat over to hose off gunk. She shuts the lid with a swift hard thwack of her amphibious shoe, flicks twenty spiders onto the lake then swivels to see if she’s paddling hard enough to leave their hundred and sixty legs behind. On some days the flicked spiders skate alongside for a couple of strokes but on others they’re towed by cobwebby muck. Fishes glide past pulling tangles of algae and once, mid-winter on ice so thick there are roads plowed for driving, she hiked right past a hand without registering it there amid dormant bubbles then lurched backward for a double take at the cold dead fingers that turned out to be a glove not black exactly but colorless, glassine, suspended in ice like a glove paperweight. She thwacked it hard with her boot. It remained unmoved.

Because of the whole of Lake Winnebago sloshing at her crotch when she’s kayaking, she’s in the habit of peeing freely while paddling, declining to use the bathroom before setting off so that her pee might commingle with duck pee goose pee fish pee cormorant pee fisherman pee kid pee heron pee pelican pee fly pee turtle pee frog pee swan pee gull pee and worm pee, then be rinsed and cleansed anew as if the lake were a Kohler Memoirs® Vertical Spray Bidet with four faucet holes. Bat colonies, if you have ever built a house for one like Chuck has in hopes of rescuing a mating pair from white-nose syndrome, prefer to roost on scored wood slats within narrow vented chambers with precisely measured landing strips. The unscrewed hatch of the kayak isn’t ideal but it’ll do in a pinch if the bat scooches forward into the nose and remains well hidden, as it really must have done since she never once saw it, like sometimes when her doctors ask where she hurts, she answers, “Everywhere. Nowhere.”

“It’s safer to assume it’s a bat if it’s not, than that it isn’t if it is,” had warned the nurse at Nurse Direct on the phone at 1 a.m. although the patient was already certain of this from reading WebMD, “since you’ll die if you have rabies but you won’t if you don’t. So drive to the hospital and get the vaccine. Don’t go to bed and don’t wait until morning. Only how did it bite you if it stayed well hidden?” the nurse at Nurse Direct had kept wanting to know.

“If you didn’t see the bat and you don’t remember being bitten and you’re not feeling sick dizzy nauseous or feverish and since your blood pressure is only moderately elevated, then why do you believe you were bitten by the bat if there’s nothing apparently wrong with you?” the doctor went on.

“My blood pressure’s only elevated because I’m at the hospital,” she says, noting “a” has changed to “the” as if to signify a shift in the doctor’s credulity even as the nurses gather close enough to hear while pretending to make themselves occupied. “Besides there was nothing apparently wrong with me the day before I learned I had cancer either except a nightmare I had about monsters on Amtrak throwing gobs of diarrhea at passengers. Doesn’t everybody’s body know they’re sick before their minds know it? Haven’t I read something sort of about that on Mayo Clinic MD?”

Understanding she brainstorms too many questions and is governed by too many bursts of indignation but drinks way too little booze to have booze, like Chuck does, to blame them on, she wilts for a minute before revving up again, recalling her complicity in recent, shared tantrums such as by waking Chuck up accidentally on purpose by phoning Nurse Direct at 1 a.m. this very morning from her desk down the hall eleven footsteps from their bedroom, where she had known she was mistaken he wouldn’t hear. Like other of their fallouts it boggles her brain how small the offense and how far-flung its imputations, these seeming to pertain to some man-poet, maybe, someone Chuck dreamed up from her teaching job and now appeared to believe she was chatting it up with since that’s how wounded he was, how enraged she might waltz out without saying goodbye and “quit raising my blood pressure quit complaining so much” quit wrecking his Type-B existence here at home with the dogs who unconditionally revere him … except there is no poet, only Chuck’s distinctive intellect, his grasp of U.S. and world political history, his adorable grocery shopping addiction, and those dazzling forearms to keep in mind. To all males since grade school the patient’s least composed responses come from glimpsing those least guarded planes of their bodies, although the forearms she’s familiar with from snippets of love poems – when you emerge from the bedroom in a clean cotton shirt sleeves pushed back over forearms scented with the rains I hurried thinking of you your far away lover your forearms decked with bangles old companion of your arms beautiful again the slipping bracelets stay in place now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face – are never stand-ins for battered male ego but perfumed, starlit, bedazzling, and becalmed.

“Who the fuck are you talking to at one in the morning do you think I like waking up to your crap?” Chuck shouted, his love handles jiggling when he slapped at the door jamb.

“Oh for God’s sake Chuck at least put on a shirt.”

The nurse gathered her wits to ask a third time, “Only why would you suppose you were bitten by a bat if you saw no bat?” making the question sound philosophical, which meant it had no answer.

Atop the desk chair was draped the gift of a shawl from the patient’s younger sister a preposterous pink purple velvet flounce that looked sexy on the furniture but if she wore it made her look like a Musketeer. She pulled it closer around when Chuck loomed at the threshold overplaying his unease about her nonexistent man-poet, mainly because she really should have a poet, a beatnik, her beatnik, especially since the hottest she and Chuck ever get is when waltzing to ‘The Thrill is Gone’ in a loft in a barn at a friend’s yearly Halloween party, Chuck dressed as a rabbi and she as a dog.

Chuck bellowed he was sick of her. She reminded him he’d been sick of her since the day they fell in love if you could call it that. He told her you couldn’t. She promised to pack her suitcase and be out of there by noon so he had nothing to worry about “except I’ll never pay you back the money I owe you I’ll donate it to Wildlife Conservation Society which gets four of four stars on Charity Navigator.” He said, “the dogs stay here.” Their loss, she conveyed, without needing to speak it, since he already knew. Nurse Direct went quiet, stupefied, while the patient shrugged the shawl back onto the chair as if removing the armor that wouldn’t protect her in favor of the bare skin that wouldn’t, either. Chuck prefers to forget all their hullabaloos since they’re all about nothing. Next day, he’ll forgive all row and invective. He’ll ask, “How’d you sleep, Hon?” when they wake in the morning. He’ll ask does she have laundry she needs him to do since he’s doing his anyway and should they drive to the Sturgeon Trail in New London to watch the dinosaur fishes spawning along the Wolf River or would they rather stay in bed and watch George Stephanopoulos while waiting for the flocks of Indigo Buntings to finally arrive at the freshly filled feeder, to which she’ll answer “Fuck you,” “Maybe,” “Probably,” and “Yes.” Such hangovers – Chuck’s clemency and her acquiescence– is the price they both pay for their anger mismanagement, though if he looks away for long enough she’ll give him the finger. “Oh for fuck’s sake give it a rest, Hon,” he’ll scold, which means he really does remember, remembers all the crap they fling at each other and even some of the rage they hang onto for later, like when she’s driving them home from some party or other along dark wooded roads unfamiliar to her. How loud he gets, when she is designated driver. And how she wilts in return then flares up again.

“Shut up don’t call me Hon when you’re angry at me it doesn’t work like that you’re so ignorant when you’re drunk you’re cerebrally challenged you don’t know it but that’s part of it and by the way it’s getting worse with old age,” she taunts, then changes her tack and asks for a lecture since teaching always calms him down. “Tell me again why President Adams defended the Boston Massacre soldiers,” she offers, getting part of her question deliberately wrong just so Chuck can correct her: “Adams wasn’t president just an attorney we weren’t even a country the revolution hadn’t started, Hon, don’t you remember?” Her feet in strappy gold sandals all but skidding off the brake because the truck is too big the night dense and surreal no matter how many times she has driven them home through a forest so dark that when there’s a deer, the deer looks like two storm lamps launched at the windshield. Then sober or not the truck veers nearly into the trees, just missing a sofa someone propped in the dark at the edge of the road for whoever likes plaid enough to haul it away. The times she doesn’t fight back it appears she’s a dupe, but only if there’s someone around to hear.

“Do you wear sunscreen while kayaking?” the doctor asks the patient. Like her sons’, the doctor’s eyes remain fixed on hers when he and she are speaking as if he’s practicing taking his own mom seriously like on a beach with her once when he was a kid they found a grave in the sand: the lamination shredded on some British tourist’s driving license and underneath it as they dug further down to search, a basket of gnawed-on chicken bones.

“Not always,” she concedes, exposing for his perusal her shaven leg on which the bat bite waits to be further examined. “I took a photo of the fang marks in case they disappeared before I got here, it looks just like the one on publichealth.gov,” she says, but here the pinpricks still are, two markings, like fangs, and around them a welt with no burn no itch no numbness no ooze and on that scale of one to ten they use for triaging pain, zero. The doctor aims his stylish flashlight as if to funnel the markings onto a map that might reveal to him her actual reason for being here. It appears he keeps the flashlight at all times on his person for how naturally he avails himself of it, flinching at the sight of the radiation scarring on what might otherwise be a still halfway admirable if matronly cleavage not unlike Mom’s. He requests she repeat the details of her most recent image-guided core needle biopsy, to ascertain how much her plotline varies with each inquisition. The combed top of his head, what if she reaches to tousle it the way she does her sons’ curls but never Chuck’s pate under the baseball cap, the scrooge of leftover hair? Frowning she examines the fang marks again, recalling yet another rabies symptom from healthexperts.com: a fear of water so strong you can’t swallow your saliva, your slop pail of tears. There’s a cousin she’s met of Chuck’s too many times who makes cum jokes at weddings and to funerals brings a lady friend who reminds her of herself when she and Chuck are squabbling – wild and sweet from a hillside away like a possum she saw once in snow in Ohio but up close there’s the snout like a mutant hyena’s and the cutthroat tail.

“You’ve been through a whole lot,” the doctor offers, slapping the file with the palm of one hand.

“I know but lucky for me I don’t mind too much being in hospitals. My dad was a doctor I enjoy spending time with medical people the very worst of it is I can’t donate plasma any longer because of the meds I used to love giving plasma you just lie there read novels and get paid twenty dollars, thirty on Thursdays.”

She straightens her posture, proud to bear scars that leave her feeling so fine as to push off on her kayak Saturday mornings only to be done in by a bat. That is, if it’s rabies, of which according to PatientSymptoms.net the incubation period lasts anywhere between a week and seven years but which you don’t know you’ve got until the symptoms appear, at which point you die. She might be lying around with Chuck watching George Stephanopoulos three hundred and seventy Sundays from now and all at once be drooling, terrified of light, scared stiff by the noise of the telephone ringing and then convulsing gagging passed out dead. Bowing his head as if to make it appear a world weary sigh the doctor reminds her of cradle cap, the way new mothers swab their newborns’ fontanels with cotton batting soaked in baby oil, the yellow scales rubbed free as if releasing the newborns from the eons of fishes that via ontogeny are still turning into them. Unlike the doctor with his red mites of hair, Chuck is balder than most babies on the day of their births. A dull forensics show on television pleases Chuck for moving so slowly as to forestall aging, his and hers.

“Is there anything else wrong that’s troubling you maybe even that last biopsy but by the way that’s terrific news on the cancer I see it’s been five years with no recurrence?”

“Not quite five,” she corrects him. “Four and three quarters.” She can tell what the doctor hopes to suggest: that it’s the cancer she’s scared of, the cancer that bites, not some waterlogged rodent with forlorn wings. More patient than she, he gets the lay of her karma, taking her temperature minus the usual choice of thermometer. Rather he employs only filial tact and the discretionary slender trendsetting flashlight. She doesn’t mean to be flip. It must be nice to own a torch you can switch off and on according to what you wish or have no wish to find.

“The thing about this abrasion it could be practically anything,” the doctor concludes. “We see this kind of abrasion from minor falls kitchen mishaps the kind of incidental trauma no one thinks twice about unless it ends up here. Now, that isn’t to say it’s not possibly a bat bite. There’s nothing about this scratch here that tells me it’s a bat bite, but then again there is nothing about it that tells me it’s not. But if a bat chomped down on you, that’s a sizable animal. A bat might look tiny compared to you but it’s a hundred times bigger than a biting fly and when a biting fly bites you, you feel it, right? Add to that the chances of a bat biting anyone are all but practically nil. Then, too, less than one percentage of bats even carries rabies virus. That’s less than one in a hundred,” he says.

Frowning she plucks at the fang marks again recalling something else Nurse Direct had to say or was it QuackWatch.com, that there are two kinds of rabies: Furious and Dumb.

“You call this a scratch?” she asks.


The drive home from Mercy takes place in the dark, dawn not having risen or broken yet like at dinner last night when she and Chuck were at their fancy friends Bob and Harriet’s dinner party eating cake at the table beneath the pergola, an opulence for which you might pay extra at resorts although to sit underneath the tall ribbed beams is like being digested by a whale. Dinner is always a five-star affair at Harriet’s, but though the patient is always shooed from the stove, she’s allowed to help out with the serving and clearing like by ferrying mugs of Harriet’s coffee across the lawn to the pergola. The door she kneed open while wielding the tray had swung heavily shut on the hem of her skirt, leaving only a scratch and a couplet of pinpricks of blood on her thigh she forgot all about until home from the hospital, climbing in bed where Chuck lies sleeping, all curled up.

You didn’t bite me, she transmits, it wasn’t you after all the doctor thought it was the cancer but it was Harriet’s door he might of cured us otherwise God forbid.

She holds her face to a smudge on Chuck’s cool bare lavender-tinted arm, urging her burnt-out scrap of breast upon slackened fingers. He hasn’t showered but he never stinks, and instead of her waking him up on purpose, she lets him snore like a baby. It’s not so terrible fighting it’s just how we do things how we get by we knock our commas around we knock out our connections. In some languages birth isn’t passive like in English but active and intransitive. She learned this from the elder of her two sons: You’re not born, you born. You simply skid into somebody else’s arms, together in darkness rather than moonlight but you can’t have everything.

— Abby Frucht


1. Title: modified lines from the poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

2. when you emerge from the bedroom in a clean cotton shirt sleeves pushed back over forearms scented with: Deborah A. Miranda, “Love Poem to a Butch Woman,” from The Zen of La Llorona, Salt Publishing, 2005.

3. the rains began I hurried thinking of you your forearms decked with bangles your faraway lover old companion of your arms beautiful again the slipping bracelets stay in place: modified lines from the poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

4. now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face: Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” from New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, Beacon Press, 1992.


Abby Frucht is the author of two short story collections, Fruit of the Month, for which she received the Iowa Short Fiction Prize in 1987, and The Bell at the End of a Rope (Narrative Library, 2012). She has also written six novels: Snap, Licorice, Are You Mine?, Life before Death, Polly’s Ghost, and A Well-Made Bed (Red Hen Press, 2016), on which she collaborated with her friend and colleague Laurie Alberts. Abby has taught for more than twenty years at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has served as a judge for the Pen Faulkner award for Fiction. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Apr 042017

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The first thing one might remark about Harry Mathews is that it is virtually impossible to describe his writing in a really satisfactory manner. For his writing is utterly particular, emphatically its own thing rather than any other thing. It is moreover elusive, interrogative, sleek, and agile. The best way to account for it, I suppose, would be to reproduce it in its entirety, from first word to last. That would be a most interesting and illuminating exercise, without a doubt; but it is clearly impractical (and undoubtedly illegal) here.

One can say that he was an experimentalist, someone who was committed to exploring the boundaries of his art, continually putting those boundaries to the question in order to demonstrate that the vital horizon of literature is far broader than one might have imagined it to be. In that sense, Mathews takes his place in a tradition of twentieth-century American prose experimentalists, among people such as Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, William Burroughs, William Gaddis, David Markson, William Gass, Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth, Walter Abish, Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Rikki Ducornet. Like many (if not all) of those figures, Mathews was an internationalist, someone who felt as at home in Paris or Venice or Dorset or Lans-en-Vercors as he did in New York, his birthplace. The fact that he died in Key West makes a great deal of sense, because Key West, as everyone knows, is located at the very edge of the world.

Quintessentially American but at the same time deeply internationalist: where many people might see contradiction, Harry Mathews found complementarity. It is safe to say that he learned as much about his craft from Proust, Joyce, and Kafka as he did from Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. And it also should be noted that those two traditions, the European and the American, broadly conceived, cohere and enrich each other in Mathews’s work, in the kind of “infinite conversation” that Maurice Blanchot points toward as the highest function of literature.

Harry Mathews was a writer’s writer—and if that term seems a little bit belated in our vexed and dithering present, it is no less apposite. He was surely influenced by two French writer’s writers, in the first instance at some remove, in the second far more closely. I’m thinking of two “Raymonds,” Raymond Roussel and Raymond Queneau. Today, Roussel is virtually unknown to most general readers, as obscure now as he was during his own lifetime (1877-1933). He is nevertheless a giant of the French avant-garde, the living link between Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Jarry on the one hand, and Dada and Surrealism on the other. His writing is elaborate, intricate, often arduous, always invigorating. Roussel is perhaps best known for his novel Locus Solus (1914), and it is not by chance that Harry Mathews borrowed that title for a literary magazine that he founded, along with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, in the early 1960s. Roussel was a patrician figure who lived off a private income. He was famously eccentric. Both an accomplished pianist and a champion marksman, he designed what must be understood as the ancestor of the recreational vehicle; he imagined a reading machine that would make his own books more understandable; he filed a patent on the use of emptiness. Though not as obviously extravagant as Roussel, Harry Mathews was also a patrician figure, especially among constitutionally impoverished writers. Always well turned out, he was also something of a dandy, and a boulevardier—and once again, one might note just how belated those two terms may seem, right now.

Mathews never met Roussel, of course (he died just three years after Mathews’s birth); but he did come to know Raymond Queneau. Indeed, in 1973, at the invitation of his friend Georges Perec, Mathews joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Oulipo,” a group that Queneau had cofounded with François Le Lionnais in 1960. From then until Queneau’s own death in 1976, he would see the writer at the group’s monthly meetings, in the company of other young people like Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Bénabou, and Paul Fournel. His association with Queneau and the Oulipo served to confirm a taste for formal rigor that is already apparent in the novels that Mathews wrote prior to joining the group, such as The Conversions (1962), Tlooth (1966), and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971-72). Crucially, the Oulipo provided Mathews with a theoretical logic for formalist experimentation, one that was firmly based in both tradition and innovation. For if the Oulipo, under the guidance of its elders, was committed to the elaboration of new literary forms, in an aspect of its work the members called “synthesis,” it was no less committed to another aspect called “analysis,” which involved research into the history of formalist expression, and the identification of precursor figures whom the Oulipians wryly identified as “plagiarists by anticipation.”

Another element in the Oulipo’s aesthetic that would be crucial for Mathews was the rejection of inspiration in favor of hard work. The notion of inspiration was firmly entrenched in Romanticism, but is was massively appropriated by the French avant-garde, most notably in Surrealist thought, as the latter is articulated in André Breton’s manifestos. Raymond Queneau has been a member of the Surrealist group as a young man, but he broke with them in 1930; and indeed in that same year he was one of the signatories of  “A Corpse,” a pamphlet denouncing Breton’s dictatorial leadership style. The lessons Queneau learned would come to shape the nascent Oulipo in key ways, mostly by counterexample. Thus, where Breton was the undisputed pope of Surrealism, the Oulipo’s leadership model was far more diffused and broadly shared. Thus, while Breton took perverse delight in excommunicating dissident members, the Oulipo explicitly outlawed exclusion, insisting that members always remain members—even after their death. Thus too did the Oulipo take the idea of inspiration out of the creative equation, viewing it as capricious and unforeseeable, a notion that handicaps rather than helps an artist. They replaced it with “perspiration,” with the principles of artisanship and craft. One can see those principles at work in a lot of Harry Mathews’s work, but perhaps most obviously in 20 Lines a Day (1988). His title is borrowed from Stendhal, who famously said, concerning the difficult work of a professional writer: “Twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Mathews took him at his word, and applied that maxim to his writerly practice during what he described as a difficult time in his life, a moment when he had to attend to a great many family preoccupations, while at the same time trying to finish his novel Cigarettes (1987) and struggling to come to terms with the premature death of a man whom he described as his closest friend, Georges Perec.

That friendship, between a French war orphan and an American who had enjoyed both fortune and privilege, was in many ways a curious one. But clearly it was a powerful, rewarding relationship for both Mathews and Perec. They translated each other (Perec translated both Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium into French); armed with cigarettes and drink, they spent whole days listening to Wagner’s Ring cycle; and beyond a doubt, each made the other a better writer. By his own account, Perec’s death from lung cancer at age 45 hit Mathews very hard indeed. Working through his mourning over a period of several years, Mathews remembered his friend in a text entitled Le Verger (1986, translated two years later as The Orchard), as moving an elegy from one writer to another as one is likely to find. In that text, Mathews borrowed a technique that Perec himself had borrowed from an American writer named Joe Brainard, which consists of prefacing each utterance with the phrase “I remember.” The vignettes that Mathews are brief, laconic sketches—but they are no less pungent because of their formal concision. One of them, near the end of this short book, serves to put on display the impulse that animated the project as a whole: “I remember experiencing great happiness on the day in June, 1975, when I realized I loved George Perec without reservation.”

That moment is a startling one in which Mathews focuses closely and largely without embellishment on raw truth. It is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that such moments are relatively rare in his work. That is not to say that Mathews was uninterested in “truth”; but it is legitimate to point out that he was skeptical of it—or at least of the easy ways in which we commonly understand it. In the penultimate chapter of Tlooth, for instance, he causes a saturnine doctor to declare: “My dear, in medicine the truth is a goal one cannot attain.” Rather than truth itself, Mathews was interested in the construction of truth, the transformation of truth, the translation of truth—and perhaps indeed more interested in those very principles themselves than in the way they inflect “truth” or the “real” or “life” or “experience.” For those latter things belong to the domain of things that are, whereas construction, transformation, and translation are all matters of becoming, and Harry Mathews was far more interested in becoming than in simple being.

One of his Oulipian texts illustrates that point nicely. Entitled “Mathews’s Algorithm,” it outlines a process whereby given elements of a literary text (alphabetical letters, or words, or phrases, or even paragraphs) are arranged in a table, whose order is then subjected to predetermined permutations, furnishing new kinds of textualities. The claims that he stakes for his literary machine are strikingly bold ones: “The algorithm can make use of existing material as well as of material specially invented for it [. . .]. It can be used both to decompose (or analyze) texts and to compose (or invent) them. [. . .] It is capable of dealing with fragments of letters, either graphic or phonetic. as well as their component parts, not to mention amoebas, molecules, and quarks. It can juggle not only episodes of fiction [. . .] but entire books, indeed entire literatures and civilizations, planets, solar systems, galaxies—indeed anything that can be manipulated either in its material or its symbolic form.” It is important to recognize, however, that Mathews’s purpose is centered upon the theoretical rather than the practical dimension of his machine. That is, his principal concern is not the texts that can be derived from it, but the model itself, its combinatorial potential, its power to transform, and thus its consequences for the way we understand literature and its crucial process of becoming.

In a similar perspective, one should note Mathews’s skepticism of the sign, and most especially the literary sign. “But whut do you dou with the significant?” muses a character in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. “A road sign say, Miami 82 mile. What re-ality do this indicate? Miami? The distans be-tween the sing and the sity? The location of the sign? The semi-ottic (?) re-ality, the mmediate realita, posit a structsure . . .” Mathews was certainly not alone in questioning the sign during the early 1970s, but I feel that his skepticism is more radical than that of many of his contemporaries. It was certainly more sustained, and the fact is that he found ways to turn that skepticism to immediate artistic purpose in his writing. Throughout his career, he put the very idea of meaning on stage, causing it to perform in different ways, following a variety of scripts, in order better to understand both what is essentially reliable in that notion and what is demonstrably hollow.

In regard to translation, Harry Mathews might be described as a fundamentalist, a true believer and a crusader. In “The Dialect of the Tribe,” a text included in Country Cooking and Other Stories (1980), he has this to say: “The longer I live—the longer I write—the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm of all writing. To put it another way: it is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift.” Once again, quite patently, it is a matter of becoming: the very idea of translation suggests that things may be articulated in different ways, that signification is dynamic rather than static, that what we are is less important than what we do. The lesson is a welcome one, not least by virtue of what it suggests about our status as readers, and about the way we ought to come to literature, as active participants in the construction of meaning, rather than as passive consumers.

For my own part, I feel that such insistence on mobility lies at the very center of Harry Mathews’s particularity. He is a mercurial figure, an artist constantly on the move, and thus largely unseizable in any definitive way. Rereading him is a pleasure—and, at times, a revelation. It obliges one to think of him kinetically, putting literature to the question again and again, always taking literature seriously but at the same time pointing out its ludic vocation. It is bracing to see the way he mocks the conventional boundaries between fact and fiction in a text like My Life in CIA (2005). It is amusing to watch him speculate about literature and its uses in Singular Pleasures (1999). It is bedazzling to see him juggle the small and the large, the subject and the object, the momentous and the trivial in The Journalist (1994). It is agreeable to imagine him traversing literary space in the broad, easy stride of a fictional character like Larbaud’s Barnabooth or Perec’s Bartlebooth, an individual who stoutly refuses to be confined to the world in which he was conceived.

—Warren Motte


Warren Motte 2016

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




Mar 132017

riiki-ducornet-resizedRikki Ducornet



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

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

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

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

That… Quickening.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rikki Ducornet

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


Mar 052017

Ruth Lepson
Ruth Lepson



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

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

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

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

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

are we done[3]

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

the switchmen sleep with newspapers
across their chests

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

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

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

from the green questions the questions
that are green

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

are we done[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Consider “Collage,” from Dreaming in Color:

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

Maybe they still are
and do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

really, creeley?



were you alive


at one time



who visits your burial site


I do so do



lots of others were you


merry – impossible query –



complex as a bee


and a flower simultaneously



you had it all still


lingering in sadness sometimes



only one eye with it


saw like a salamander



with your existential why


bye bye I say it over and over



I ask if you enjoy
the english landscape in



mt auburn cemetery


where we walk and where



they put you on tour


even in death


you’re on the tour


my my[11]



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

— Timothy Ogene



Timothy Ogene
Author photo by Claire MacKenzie

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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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

Yannis-Livadas 480px


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Yannis Livadas

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

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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ιnversion of the organic antithesis.
Mar 022017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dixie Dugan comic stripLater Dixie Dugan strip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is very fond of people who resemble him.

He saves unused return postal cards.

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

He is unable to part his hair.

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

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

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

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

He has a picture of his wife in every room.

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

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

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

He hates to see people in wet bathing suits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dislikes all the Hungarian Rhapsodies from number one to twelve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

J P McEvoy with Shirley TempleMcEvoy with Shirley Temple, 1938

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

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

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


“Get hot!”: The Dixie Dugan Trilogy

Show Girl cover image

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

Show Girl title pageTitle page for Show Girl

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

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

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

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

Show Girl sample pages 1Pages from Show Girl

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

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

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

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

Show Girl sample pages 2Pages from Show Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from movie Show Girl starring Alice White 1

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

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


Hollywood Girl cover image

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

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

Hollywood Girl sample pagesPages from Hollywood Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Girl in Hollywood pagePage from Hollywood Girl, Liberty serialization

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

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

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

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


Society cover image

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

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


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

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

Title page of SocietyTitle page from Society

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

Pages from Society

Pages from Society 2Pages from Society

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fade to Black: The Final Novels

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

Denny and the Dumb Cluck cover image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHIC: I know, but they aren’t funny.

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

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

An Inquiry into the Irrefragable Tenuities
(From the Editorial Page of the New York World)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages from Are You Listening 1

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

—Steven Moore


STeven Moore

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



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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




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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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




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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

—Erika Mihálycsa

Erika Mihalycsa

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


Feb 102017

Dan Green




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

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

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

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

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

—Daniel Green


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


Feb 022017

Version 6


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Utopia literally means no place. An impossible thing.



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

And, the (white) Ecotopians love Indians:

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

This, despite the presence of any real Native Americans.

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

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

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

eftelingthemeparktalkingtreeEfteling Theme Park Talking Tree



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

And. What we lock in the basement.



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



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

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

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

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

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

kuhikuguKuhikugu archeological complex

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

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



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

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

mapofutopia1Map of a Utopia



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

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



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

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

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

islandofcaliforniaIsland of California

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

Morning, and we woke to beauty.

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

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

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

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

The pool had mermaids mosaicked on the bottom.

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

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

inbajaIn Baja

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

mycorrhyzalnetworkMycorrhizal Network

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

Consider the trees.

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

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

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


—Julie Trimingham


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

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

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

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

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

Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach, Bantam Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Jan 152017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thumbs up pic


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

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

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

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

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

What do we know we know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



America stands against and will not tolerate torture.

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

Exterminate all the brutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Gary Garvin



Notes and Selected Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note also the view of business:

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited picture of Rumsfeld from The Huffington Post.

Picture of Sabrina Harman via The New York Times.

Man on a box picture via Wikipedia.



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