May 122015
 

John Malcolm BrinninJohn Malcolm Brinnin 1916-1998

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.”

—Julie Larios

 

Imagine this scene in Florida’s Key West: the sun beats down on a white sand beach,  a hot breeze blows the palm fronds, and six middle-aged men sit around a table playing anagrams. They rearrange the letters of words to make new words; they argue about the rules; they yell a lot. If it sounds to you like these men should be Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza and their friends, I agree. But the group consists of composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist John Hersey, and poets John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Malcolm Brinnin.

Anagrams A Favorite Pastime Among the Literati of Key West

Three or four times a week, depending on how many of them were in town, these men played anagrams and poker together in Key West. Ciardi was the most aggressive of the group and, according to his biographer, expected to win every game. Bernstein, according to the same account, insisted on his own rules. They were all successful and well-known artists – all, that is, but John Malcolm Brinnin, who was described by the literary critic Phyllis Rose this way: “Even some of us who saw a good deal of John Malcolm Brinnin in his later years forgot he was a poet….John was known to us, his friends, for the high drama of his eye glasses, massive horn affairs that were as much a product of his wit and conscious choice as his courtesy, his conversation, his skill at anagrams. A lot of poetic spirit went into his self-presentation.”

Of the several poets presented in the Undersung series here at Numero Cinq, there is not another one among them who could be said to have had his or her poetic reputation subsumed by self-presentation, and I think Rose chose the words of her reminiscence carefully. In it, she implies both affection for Brinnin and criticism of him – she enjoys his elegance and his contribution to the party atmosphere (“He dressed so well one always looked forward to his getup as part of the fun of a party….”) but chastises him for his “conscious choice” of style over substance. To subordinate your talent to self-presentation (though some people might call self-presentation an art in itself) is a puzzle. What Rose seems to be saying is that Brinnin was  – like a good formal poem – elegantly composed, but also  – like a bad poem – overfabricated.

Well, we don’t have to judge poets by their self-regard, nor by how well they dress. We can choose to judge them by the poems they wrote, and Brinnin’s work more than measures up. It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.

La Creazione degli Animali

Here that old humpback Tintoretto tells
Of six day’s labor out of Genesis:
Swift from the bowstring of two little trees
Come swans, astonished basilisks and whales,
Amazed flamingos, moles and dragonflies,
to make their lifelong helpless marriages.
Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells
From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.
The patriarch in that vicinity
Of bottle seas and eggshell esplanades
Mutters his thunder like a cloud. And yet,
much smaller issues line the palm of God’s
charged hand: a dog laps water, a rabbit sits
grazing at the footprint of divinity.

From the largest moments of that poem (Heaven, Hell, Time, divinity) to the smallest (a dog lapping water, a rabbit at the feet of God) Brinnin offers up the “dumb wonder” a person feels in the face of such an ambiguous world, and in the presence of work produced by a master artist.  The poem follows some of the rules of a sonnet – fourteen lines, with a slight turn or refocus after the eighth line. But Brinnin is no stranger to adapting the rules to his own purpose – the rhymes assert themselves clearly but without establishing a conventional pattern (ABCA/DEAA/FGHG/HF.) The couplet which usually closes a conventional Elizabethan sonnet is buried mid-poem (“Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells / From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.”) The full rhyme of “vicinity” and “divinity” still chimes loudly despite being separated by four other rhymed lines – not an easy task.

Tintoretto - la creazione degli animaliTintoretto – la creazione degli animali

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.” Rosten rightly said that “the question of ‘popular’ understanding is very important to a revolutionary magazine.”

So Brinnin was not a poet of the people; his poems are layered and dense and must be worked out slowly. I suspect hearing them aloud would untangle them more quickly than reading them on the page. In fact, when I read Brinnin, I often imagine someone reading his poems to me – someone like Ian McKellen or John Gielgud. Again, his work has a Shakespearean elegance. Being read aloud, the complications of syntax might settle down, while the musicality of them would shine. Brinnin’s sentences are long, which ups the level of difficulty; the verbs sometimes hide within the verbiage, so their narrative thrust – that is, their “sense” — is not immediately discernible. Brinnin’s words will never make their way onto a revolutionary’s placard, and clarity is not their goal. Take this example:

A River

A winkless river of the cloistered sort
Falls in its dark habit massively
Through fields where single cattle troll their bells
With long show of indifference, and through
The fetes champetres of trees so grimly bent
They might be gallows-girls betrayed by time
That held them once as gently as Watteau.

Electric in its falling, passing fair
Through towns touched up with gilt and whitewash, it
Chooses oddments of discard, songs and feathers
And the stuff of life that must keep secrets
Everlastingly: the red and ratlike curios
Of passion, knives and silks and embryos
All sailing somewhere for a little while.

The midnight drunkard pausing on the bridge
Is dumbstruck with a story in his eye
Shuttling like his memories, and must
Outface five tottering steeples to admit
That what he sees pass under him is not
Mere moonlit oil and pods of floating seed,
But altogether an astonishing swan.

The river, I mean, for all is riverine,
Goes slowly inward, as one would say of time,
So it goes, and thus proceed to gather in
The dishes of a picnic, or the bones
Of someone lost contesting with the nations,
Glad in the wisdom of his pity to serve
Though the river’s knowledge, whelming, overwhelms.

This isn’t subject/predicate/object territory; a sadistic high school English teacher could make her students suffer by requiring students to diagram the sentences of it. Each seven-line stanza is a single sentence, nouns often sit quite a way from the verbs they depend on, and lush dependent clauses make readers push to figure out exactly where the sentence goes. The effect of this poem is similar to a cubist painting; like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” we see the movement before we quite understand the figure; we grasp the gestalt before we deconstruct the individual lines. From “fetes champetres” on, we know we’re in for some work. Questions pile up: In what way was the artist Watteau gentle? What does it mean to say that a river goes “slowly inward”? What does the river represent – to me, to other readers – and what did it represent to Brinnin himself? Who exactly, or inexactly, is “lost contesting with the nations”?

Answering or not answering these questions is a matter of personal preference; I’m comfortable being “riverine” and flowing past some of the difficulty, then following up later with a little research. Without much trouble I find images of Watteau’s paintings and realize that many of his people face away from us, just as “the stuff of life that must keep secrets.” I can ponder that for awhile, and isn’t pondering part of the pleasure of poetry? I read the best of Brinnin’s poems again and again, and I understand them better each time; I find new beauties each time. I’ve read the following poem several times and still have questions; to my mind, that’s a plus.

Rowing in Lincoln Park

You are, in 1925, my father;
Straw-hatted, prim, I am your only son;
Through zebra-light fanwise on the lagoon
Our rented boat slides on the lucent clam.

And we are wistful, having come to this
First tableau of ourselves: your eyes that look
Astonished on my nine bravado years,
My conscious heart that hears the oarlocks click

And swells with facts particular to you –
How France is pink, how noon is shadowless,
How bad unruly angels tumbled from
That ivory eminence, and how they burned.

And you are vaguely undermined and plan
Surprise of pennies, some directed gesture,
Being proud and inarticulate, your mind
Dramatic and unpoised, surprised with love.

In silences hermetical as this
The lean ancestral hand returns, the voice
Of unfulfillment with its bladelike touch
Warning our scattered breath to be resolved.

And sons and fathers in their mutual eyes,
Exchange (a moment huge and volatile)
the glance of paralytics, or the news
Of master-builders on the trespassed earth.

Now I am twenty-two and you are dead,
And late in Lincoln Park the rowers cross
Unfavored in their odysseys, the lake
Not dazzling nor wide, but dark and commonplace.

Brinnin was perhaps best known to his generation as “the man who brought Dylan Thomas to America.” As head of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (now known as the 92nd St. Y) from 1949 to 1956, Brinnin founded a series of poetry readings that included some of the best known poets in America and Britain. He acted as Thomas’s “agent” in America, scheduling readings and arranging for places Thomas could stay. During the Welsh poet’s last cross-country tour in America, Thomas fell ill; despite efforts to fulfill his public obligations, he ended up being taken to a hospital in New York City where he died a few days later; Brinnin’s strange lack of response to the emergency (he didn’t come down to New York from nearby Connecticut until several days later, after the poet had died) stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially when Thomas’s doctors assigned the cause of death to pneumonia and Brinnin claimed it was alcohol poisoning. The postmortem showed no signs of alcohol being involved in Thomas’s condition, and doctors insisted it had not been an alcoholic coma that Thomas was in but a severe bronchial condition; nevertheless, Brinnin’s assertions played into the myth of the Poet as Self-Destructive Madman, a myth quite popular at the time (and, possibly, still popular now.)

Even more controversy was caused by Brinnin’s publication of the book Dylan Thomas in America, in which he continued to propagate his assertions about the poet’s death and to paint the poet – not completely undeservedly – as a boozer and a womanizer, out of control, in a self-destructive spiral, and functioning without a strong sense of duty to his professional, collegial or marital relationships. Thomas’s family considered Brinnin persona non grata for failing to attend to the poet’s needs while in America and for spreading gossip about him. One reviewer of the biography had this to say about it: “A fascinating read, even if you are not interested in DT. On the surface, a story of wretched excess and inevitable self-destruction, but even in this entirely one-sided account one senses an anxious, self- serving agenda. It was keenly interesting to later read the accounts of Thomas’ family, who regard Brinnin as an exploitative hanger-on who added character assassination to his almost criminal failure to help the dying poet.” Critics have considered the possibility that Brinnin’s indifference and inattention at that crucial time was due to Brinnin being in love with, but rejected by, Thomas. The fact that Brinnin kissed Thomas full on the lips in public on the occasion of one of Thomas’s departures from America might have contributed to that theory.

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), Dylan Thomas in America sold well, better than Brinnin’s poetry collections had. Brinnin resigned his position at the Poetry Center but continued to spend time with and write about other celebrities in the literary world, many of whom he had met there. He published books about Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Truman Capote (a lifelong friend who, according to Brinnin, abandoned his talent and took on “the role of mascot to cafe society.”) Maybe Brinnin submerging himself in the world of other poets meant withdrawing from that world as a poet himself. As he once told an interviewer, ”I think I’m as well known as I deserve to be.”

In any case, he wrote less poetry after the controversy, publishing only one more collection twenty years later, and he focused on cultivating friendships, editing anthologies, and writing biographical pieces and accounts of travel on ocean liners (a passion of his – he crossed the Atlantic Ocean over sixty times.)  In some way, his role in Key West was that of the leader of a private literary salon, making sure he was a star in that firmament. His book Sextet is full of gossipy anecdotes about celebrities, including some his own friends or the friends of friends. T.S. Eliot, according to Eliot’s roommate, John Howard, was no slouch when it came to self-regard. Hayward told Brinnin “On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover, [Eliot] walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.” Christopher Lehman, who reviewed Sextet for the New York Times, said, “…there’s something about these six easy pieces that makes a reader faintly uneasy in the author’s company – something that makes one feel slightly compromised by having to meet these people under Mr. Brinnin’s auspices.” And Brinnin could be vicious. In a review of one of William Meredith’s books of poetry, Brinnin kills three giants with one stone: “In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the ‘Dream Songs’ of John Berryman.”

I’ve met enough poets and sat through enough lunches with them to know that their personalities are not always in sync with their poetry — affable and upbeat people can write pessimistic and mean-spirited poems; conversely, whiny and egotistical people can write poems that lift our spirits and fill us with wonder. For me, Brinnin the Gossip comes across at times witty, at other times narcissistic; Brinnin’s poetry, on the other hand, is humble and full of wonder. Without wonder (and its co-conspirator, curiosity) poetry cannot exist, and  I agree with Brinnin’s own take on the subject: “Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue.”

The Giant Turtle Grants an Interview

How old are you, Old Silence?
…..I tell time that it is.
And are you full of wonder?
…..Ephemeral verities.
What most do you long for?
…..No end to my retreat.
Have you affections, loves?
…..I savor what I eat.
Do shellbacks talk to shells?
…..Sea is a single word.
Have you some end in mind?
…..No end, and no reward.
Does enterprise command you?
…..I manage a good freight.
Has any counsel touched you?
…..Lie low. Keep quiet. Wait.
Your days – have they a pattern?
…..In the degree of night.
Has solitude a heart?
…..If a circle has a center.
Do creatures covet yours?
…..They knock, but seldom enter.
Have you not once perceived
…..The whole wide world is yours.
I have. Excuse me. I
…..Stay utterly indoors.

Choosing to put Brinnin’s work in front of the readers of Numéro Cinq, I found myself wondering whether we need to admire an artist — the man himself or the woman herself — whose work we admire. The question was raised pointedly in the movie Amadeus — Mozart as a man is a giggling fool but as a composer is a genius, while Salieri the man is serious and committed to his art while the art he produces is mediocre. Some days I find myself thinking that if a poet is a son of a bitch, a bigot, a boozer, a racist, a loud-mouthed fool, a shameless self-promoter and/or a misogynist in real life, I’d rather not read his work, thank you. Other days, I couldn’t care less who the poet is — I just want to see if the necessary element of wonder is present in the poems; if it is, I can relish them and ignore everything else. My conclusion right now is this: John Malcolm Brinnin may, like Capote, have wasted his talent and become another mascot to café society, but he was wrong about himself — he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. I might not choose to play anagrams or poker under a beach umbrella in Florida with someone like him — by many accounts backbiting, gossipy, and self-aggrandizing . But that has nothing to do with how much I enjoy and admire his poems.

Key West Writers“A Day at the Beach, 1984″ – Key West Writers

From top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright. From bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin. Photo by Don Kincaid.

— Julie Larios

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Numero Cinq photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize; her work has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Ecotone and Field, and has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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May 052015
 

Adorno

 

That we live in turbulent times is a matter of consensus. We live in an age where people on one side of the world can engage in the most enthusiastic hedonism imaginable in the name of freedom and people on the other side of the world can shoot up school-buses full of children for that very same ideal. Uneven development is not always an evil of the global situation; more often for competent observers, it is local. It begs the inevitable question: if mankind is not sovereign as a species, what kind of species are we in being mankind? Have we any innate or potential freedom or are we, as the English philosopher John Gray suggests in his upcoming book, merely The Soul of the Marionette? Since the end of the Middle Ages, we in the West have based our entire historical tradition on the notion that we are sovereign beings living in sovereign states that, as history progresses, resolve into the sovereign nations we now constitute. But what if we were wrong in our original assessment, if we have lied to ourselves about our historical situation for centuries, if we have concocted freedom as a philosophical antidote to our real conditions of existence?

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In order to understand our present we must exhume our past. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, the foreman of Western ethics, formulated his philosophy of human autonomy, a quality which he ascribed only to a certain segment of the world: the educated European who alone among the species was endowed with the capacity for pure reason. Kant’s philosophy found an enduring audience in the West, not least for its message of rational freedom and for its insistence on Enlightenment. The Europe of his time was utterly drenched in a presumptive racist and cultural supremacy. Kant’s later successor in German idealism, Hegel, thought that Asia and Africa were ahistorical regions that did not participate in the meaningful currents of history. Exclusion of the particular and inclusion of the general defined high thought in all its aspects. Despite Kant’s anthropological exclusion of the majority of mankind from meaningful history, his paradoxical universalism found a broad audience—and to this day his philosophy, internal contradictions and all, pervades American and European thought and neoconservative policy. The 18th century, with all its innovations in technology and social formations, soon enough ushered in the 19th century, with its nascent capitalism and internationalism, which in turn ushered in the 20th century and its ambition to relieve the world of its suffering only to provoke catastrophe after barbaric catastrophe. The philosophy of that century witnessed mass murder and spoke of it with the reverence it had once reserved for the Absolute Idea. Had Kant witnessed the terror his Enlightenment eventually provoked two hundred years after he wrote his Critiques, he might have enacted the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa’s observation that “could the heart think, it would stop beating.”

Following upon centuries of first ethno-religious and then specifically racist warfare against the Jews in the West, the German philosophers of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their treatise on philosophy Dialectic of Enlightenment during the darkest hours of the Holocaust. They poised this book against their contemporary technological zeitgeist, which placed supremacy upon racial distinction, material domination, and the ruling of nature by a subsegment of mankind who thought themselves abidingly separate from Nietzsche’s reckoning of “the herd.” From the misinterpretation of Nietzsche and the forefathers of German nationalism, philosophy produced the horrors of Nazism and its own best criticism, a criticism Adorno thought equally poised against an America in ascendancy, whose intensive capitalism mirrored Nazi Germany’s own, along with its cultural ideals of law by caveat, family centrism, and international superiority.

Adorno did not locate in particular this parallel between America and Nazi Germany in, say, the alliance between Henry Ford and his model of conveyor-belt capitalism and the focus on efficiency the German wartime economy demanded. He located the parallel in American science and German science, and the cultural value they imparted to their scientific practices. For Adorno, the Holocaust was the dialectical result of technocratic rationality, of what he called “the administered world,” a social sphere completely opposed to egalitarianism or ethical Enlightenment but one rather geared solely to administering law as formatted into being by those who had attained historical power. Whereas Karl Marx, whose critical theory influenced that of the Frankfurt School, had located this power nexus in the European bourgeoisie’s relations to its proletariat, Adorno located it in the managers and the administrators of the world in their relations to those employed unto death.

These powers did not need truth in order to operate. They needed only the will to truth, and as the Holocaust set out to prove, the content of will was more important than the content of cognition when it came to realpolitik. The manifold insanities of Nazi Germany did not depend on the cognitive content of the reflective mind, since all they had in their cultural arsenal was a foundational myth so obviously wrong it could only be taken seriously by the cynical, the desperate, or the naive. “The fake myth of fascism,” Adorno wrote, “reveals itself as the genuine myth of prehistory, in that the genuine myth beheld retribution while the false one wreaks it blindly on its victims.” The Nazi philosophy depended on the administrative method and its ideal of rational conquest of nature, in which realm mankind too was included. Adorno, a Jew by birth if not religion, was expelled by the Nazis, who no doubt lamented that they could not kill him, that they could not, per the peculiar invention of the Nazis, administer the science of death to him and his inconvenient discontent.

The administrators of the Holocaust used the latest methods of social control then available, inverting the formula for human freedom into the formula of human extermination. Sovereignty, like the mythical Uroborus, consumed itself and produced its opposite. If man is not a sovereign species, whose every individual is sovereign, then what kind of species is he? For Kant, mankind was a paradox of freedom, for certain of its members were disbarred from participating in freedom by virtue of their race. Contemporary science, as in Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, has once and for all done away with the biological concept of race and so too with Kant’s more destructive contributions to history. For the fascists, who adored capitalism in its every facet, man was not autonomous but a slave of the state and the necessity of its markets, which thought itself the perfect and utter representation of objective reality. If racism has been revoked by the biological sciences, what of the sciences of capitalism?

Fascism is the loudest boogeyman of history, its outermost dark and nihilistic undercurrent from which we think ourselves now permanently delivered. But for Adorno, that deliverance from fascism was only an illusion. It is not that Ford, the face of American capitalism, thought fascism viable in its mythical assumptions or its focus purely on power itself. Ford thought fascism was viable because of its method — its intentionality toward control, its will to method. The temporary political alliance denounced itself and assumed instead an alliance with its method, which, unlike the name of fascism, might hope to continue its aims nevertheless. In what kind of world do we in the West now live but a world governed by method, by administration? If we are not sovereign, it is because we have seen through the Church Militant, that bastion of medievalism, and replaced it with what we thought was a better form of polity: the secular government. Under its auspices we have prospered in virtually every human sphere imaginable. But, as all things occur in sequences, what has become of our secular government? Adorno might say it has become the godhead of administrative method, a hegemon and its semi-conscious dictates according to which all must live in obeisance. We are ruled not by atomic facts but by the inter-penetrative method of law which, even when liberal, regards all with total purview.

Dictatorship need not have a face provided it has hands. Certain of our actions under liberalism might now be permitted whereas before they might have been condemned by the theory of religious sin, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it in his thoughts on “permissive oppression,” but they are all regulated in their method, by the method of our rational governmentality. In being moral agents we always locate authority not in the God of former ages but in the state and its legalism. It is as though, in launching the governmental method of the classical liberal John Locke and the American Founders in order to free ourselves from our originary monarchy, we have merely subsumed ourselves to the logic of our own abstractions, which have come to rule us all even though we ourselves first invented them. According to Adorno, in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, “number became enlightenment’s canon.” It is now unconventional madness not to conceive of the world quantitatively rather than qualitatively, for all quality has been subsumed by the technocratic rationality of Adorno’s forewarning. If theocracy abused quality in its endless theorizing, secularism has abused quantity in its applied form. Christopher Caudwell, the 20th century English Marxist critic, wrote in his Studies in a Dying Culture that “the unparalleled increase in productive powers has given birth, not to peace, plenty, and happiness, but to war, famine, and misery.” Caudwell had not heard of the Frankfurt School before his death; but such is the outcome of Adorno’s dialectic.

Western philosophy has long been enamored with the debate between human determinism and indeterminism, ranging from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s theodicy of free will to the later natural sciences. These last have for centuries suggested we are but limited points in the progressive logic of the world, not its agents but components of its relations. Wherever philosophy roams, mankind too is supposed to roam free, even when philosophy condemns him to a freedom he dislikes. The behaviorist sciences of the early 20th century, which denied free will completely, petered out into the neuro-cognitive sciences of our modern era. Science is at a crossroads as to the age-old question “are we free or unfree?” But whether such a question is even in the purview of science to answer is, itself, up for debate, for scientists and philosophers continue to claim the domain of human destiny for themselves. The more interesting question to consider is how method influences the questions we ask, a la the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend and his unruly epistemology of scientific inquiry, and the parallels its internal discussions might uncover as to our larger condition. For, where Adorno and Feyerabend intersect, the question of method within the human drama comes to predominate. “Are we sovereign” sounds very much like “are we free,” only it seems much more a propos not of biology but of the structural violence of the state. For Adorno, “enlightenment is totalitarian,” a system proposing complete administration and the abolition of autonomy. The anarchistic aspects of Adorno’s criticism of industrial society sound chiefly like the whimpers of a man who saw mankind’s best hope plunged into its coffin prematurely, only to leave its creators enslaved to circumstance and each other. Under fascism heroism and capitalism were one.

Adorno and Horkheimer are often classified as European pessimists or mere aesthetes preaching doom through critical theory at the dawn and end of fascist Europe. Adorno suffers this indictment in particular, not least for his aphoristic monograph Minima Moralia, a long lamentation for bourgeois European society; though Horkheimer’s anti-Western Critique of Instrumental Reason certainly deserves a mention for his penetrating indictment of modernity. In “The Concept of Man” from his Critique, Horkheimer wrote:

In the historical period after Kant the material conditions for a rational administration of the world improved to a degree undreamt of… In the century of Enlightenment free thought was the force that knocked the solid supports of stupidity from under institutions which bad conscience had driven to adopt terroristic methods; it was the force that gave the bourgeoisie its self-awareness. In our own time, on the contrary, the feeling is abroad that free thought is helpless. Mastery of nature has not brought man to self-realization; on the contrary, the status quo continues to exert its objective compulsion.

Such a mood no doubt stemmed reflexively from postwar European self-criticism. But this philosophical duo was onto something whether or not their pessimism was misplaced: the rebelling students of the 1960s cited them in their chants against authority as surely as they cited the French Marxists, Thomas Paine, and Dr. King. In their angry optimism these students posed the question: “what is method, once it is taken from the realm of pure science, and applied to nature and mankind?” The fascism into which that generation had been born had posed method as the answer to human life, but America, a supposed bastion of liberty, had replied in kind: method is everywhere. Thus Adorno’s hallowed critique of the American culture industry and its paler reflections in the psychology of everyday life under late capitalism. The governors of the administered world “posture as engineers of world history,” spreading first the culture of representative democracy and then its neoconservative and neoliberal dimensions, which convert mankind into “mere objects of administration.” Whether by domination through sheer power, as with the military apparatus of the Nazi state, or through the pro-capitalist propaganda which Adorno thought identical with American cinema, the cultural potentials for subversion are now, as then, shunned to the realm of philosophy where they pose no threat to the status quo. The will to cataclysm has now super-imposed itself over the will to philosophy with the people at its epicenter: although Adorno was a bourgeois, like Marx, he despised the abolition of intellect from any class that could, with persistent theory and action, free itself thereby.

In the 19th century, although it was concerned with emerging markets in the private sector, the apparatus of American government was not quite so solidified as it is now. In America, at least, government simply did not want the purview of all human behavior that its European counterparts had sought to dominate for centuries. From antiquity to the Wars of Religion in the late Middle Ages, Europe had sought to intrude its governmental apparatuses into every sphere of human life, from the social and economic to the moral and private. Its popular history of libertinage was largely a response to its invasive government. America thought it had saved itself from this damning total purview: it was internationally reserved, except for its internal (and brutal) policies of expansion, until the 20th century, when it entered into the World Wars. From that decisive point on, it has sought to develop governmental method to its highest degree, first in its domestic and international markets, with Fordism at the birth of American economic dynamism, and then with our contemporary panopticon of surveillance and our unending series of Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Terror, etc.. Whereas once America left method to nature, it has now fulfilled Adorno’s warning, and turned nature into a method. We have turned ourselves into factota, our species-being into a being of servitude, and the world into an office-space.

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If free will ever existed as a viable metaphysical postulate, the modern world has wiped it out. Postmodern insights have roundly condemned what used to be called “the human being,” after the manner of the humanists from the Renaissance to the 18th and 20th centuries, as merely “the subject,” an entity only biologically human but philosophically conditioned. From Freud to Foucault we have discovered we are not what we appear to be to ourselves — even Freud’s notion of the ego had something of the substantially determinate, if not determined, about it. But we have also lost the ego itself. Now, we have a sum of relations to compose ourselves, which are likewise but social products. The soul has been abolished by the intellect, which in turn was abolished by the condition of the global office-space. Bourgeois idealism, the creator of that office-space, assumes that man is substantially free of the social relations that took their most vicious form in the feudal restrictions but is apparently enslaved to them. Thus, the bourgeois will to freedom is not philosophical but social — in locating himself purely in himself rather than in the social totality, and with himself his laws, sciences, and arts, he wants to remove himself from mankind and exist as though in a vacuum. To be free is to be free from social relations, which throughout the centuries he has mistaken for the return to feudalism. From this he produces his Protestant Christianity and capitalist individualism; but it is an ignorance to assume that man is ever free from man. To even speak it is to acknowledge with a socially-received language that man is always social, never individual or at least not purely so, that man is composed by society which in turn is composed by man. Social relations constitute a man far more than do the private fantasies of not-belonging, of Cartesian and Freudian ego, of the willful alienation from the social into the self. Capitalism is the economic manifestation of this asocial tendency; Protestantism is its religious manifestation; America is its national form. In Adorno’s view, we moderns are administered from without, not determined from within. The ancient philosophical distinction between subject and object has been erased by capitalist relations and their larger, more modern applications.

What an impoverished accountant in Bangladesh does, as his paid labor, affects after a manner one’s own Western phenomenological consciousness — even if it is merely at the level of a two-cent increase in the price of beef. More expansively, what an archivist does in the US State Department affects entire feudal villages in the Middle East, from whether or not they can continue to wear their traditional garb without the imminent threat of retaliation from local extreme moralists to whether or not they can expect to raise children who do not die of starvation by the age of five. Globalization, the manifest destiny of Adorno’s pessimism, affects us all and does so totally — the very nature of the process ensures it affects we in the West as much as it does those more dismally disposed to it in the rest of the world. Between “the West and the rest,” we are composed by our global relations to capital and its desires, and by virtue of that relation, we are also determined: capitalism has never been a humanism. Augustine of Hippo and the other theorists of free will had sought eternal propositions, but it must not be forgotten that our current dilemma is decidedly modern in genesis. Adorno wrote in the Dialectic that:

Even the ego, the synthetic unity of apperception, the agency which Kant calls the highest point, from which the whole of logic must be suspended, is really both the product and the condition of material existence. Individuals, in having to fend for themselves, develop the ego as the agency of reflective foresight and overview; over successive generations it expands and contracts with the individual’s prospects of economic autonomy and productive ownership… The conspiracy of rulers against peoples, implemented by relentless organization, finds the Enlightenment spirit since Machiavelli and Hobbes no less compliant than the bourgeois republic. 

Adorno would locate the roots of this administration in the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rational distribution of both material goods and intellectual goods, such as values and the roles of ethical systems. Originally egalitarian, the enlightening tendency produced its own antithesis: Spinoza and his reason transvalued into Hitler and his myth. Enlightenment directly produced fascism, Adorno thought, because it provided the intellectual underpinnings and global desires of the fascist imperative. Thereafter, it syncretized global capitalism and value-universalism into the current American vision of monoculture, the “end of history” as characterized by the global spread of capitalist relations disguised as liberal democracy. It cannot leave things as they are: it must transform us all until we are on the clock. To be a Westerner is to be always already administered from without. What we used to attribute to the whims of God, we now must attribute to an absurdly impersonal history we once thought individual heroes composed.

To make the general particular, consider your job. It supports your entire material existence, for without it you would soon become homeless and perhaps starve to death. But your job, in turn, depends for its existence on the capricious global market, even if you are a lowly cashier at a franchised local grocery store, or a mid-level insurance agent. If the price of pork and broccoli plummets too low or raises too high, or if the set rate on return clashes with your overhead, you’re the first one downsized — and so your life undergoes a whole revolution involuntarily. Precarity defines your whole existence because precarity defines us all, but this precarity is daily manipulated by consumer price indices and capitalist lobbies in the political sphere. You, and therefore the rest of us, have very little control of your daily life, no matter how contrarily your unreflective thoughts might countenance this fact. Comfort is always a temporary phenomenon under capitalist dynamism. You are administered from the outside, if not by historical market forces, then by individuals expressing their class interests in the market sphere. And so, whether a product you depend on obsolesces into the rubbish bin of history, or the price of your labor specialty nullifies, you come to realize that our materialism is always aleatory, based on chance, and where it is not based on chance, it is administered from above. What you see at eye-level is determined by a constellation of actors far beyond your vision. Sociology, the paranoiac’s science, understands that human beings are always social, from the individual to the sprawling entirety of civilization in which we live without exemption.

Adorno’s philosophy of total administration owes some of its insight to the sociologist Max Weber and his theory of impersonal bureaucracy. For Weber, bureaucratic regimes, whether benign in scope or not, could act as automatic machines once they had access to a labor supply and a formally-rigorous operational system. The IRS is a good example of a Weberian bureaucracy. To be a bureaucrat, for him, was to be a nameless cog, an instrument of the institution rather than its actor. Its work could well be completed by the cyclops Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey who gives his name as No Body. Because administration does not depend on faces but on numbers — the tattooing of the wrist in Auschwitz being most prominent in Adorno’s mind — it can do its far-reaching work without resource to personal morality or the institutions of religious reflection. Speaking of the machinery of civilized man, Horkheimer declared in his Critique that “if the dream of machines doing men’s work has now come true, it is also true that men are acting more and more like machines.” Such is the admittedly pessimistic rendition of administration. It has its better sides, of course. We daily depend on its machinations in our complex civilization, in which literally everything is interconnected, from the maintenance of our streets to wage schedules. There are no islands in a nation-state of 300 million people.

Survival for the vast majority is not possible without administration. What the classical economist Adam Smith called “the hand of God” is now the hand of bureaucratic consensus and scientific management. Hegel himself considered the bureaucracy of his native Prussia a “universal class” removed from the competitive interests of civil society that, through its mediation, ensured a relative peace amidst commercial conflict. But for this abundance, Adorno asked, what resultant cost? We subject ourselves not to a “lordly gaze” but to an administrative network the size of which is now identical with global civilization. Amid such abundance, even the Hegelian slave might be well-fed as civil society directs him this way and that way, though he remains a slave nevertheless. Wage-slavery is not only an analogy but also a synonym for feudal slavery; in its succession of forms, it has only changed the slave’s relation to his directive imperative from the master’s dominance to the dominance of wholly impersonal capital. For the majority of mankind, even for those in the developed world, freedom from methodical determination is as fictitious as the City of God. What the formal relations of bondage encompassed for the medievalist, global Taylorism accomplishes for the modernist: Rousseau’s agony in endless repetition.

As to the philosophical condition in which this leaves us, our end is ambiguous. We are certainly not free, as bound by market forces and government forces and social forces as we are. In being administered, we are also fed and clothed, given as though children all that we need to subsist. We live within a liberal tradition, so at least nominally we try to avert future Holocausts, we try to support human comfort rather than human misery, and we try to use our technocratic methods for the common weal rather than the common woe. Outside of war — in which respect America is particularly adept — our administrations ensure we can count on having enough food to eat, enough adequate clothing to wear, and schools to send our children to in order to receive at least passable educations. Without rational administration of the division of labor, we would be lost, as though blind in the modern wilderness –– what philosophers used to call “man in the natural state.” Only there never has been such a natural state untainted by want and death unmitigated: with or without method, mankind has always lived as though above an abyss.

This rationalized organizing principle is double-edged, however, or as Adorno would declare, dialectical: in being fed, we are also enslaved to administrative circumstance. “Poverty,” he wrote in the Dialectic, “as the antithesis between power and impotence is growing beyond measure, together with the capacity permanently to abolish poverty.” Decades after Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their philosophical treatise on the encroachment of methodical administration, the will to abundance has become the will to impoverish, free will has become the will to governance, and the popular will has succumbed to mumbling resignation. Now that we are all poor we dwell in a worldly paradise so wealthy it “radiates disaster triumphant.” The nightmare of Adorno’s century has through our silent consent found a home in our own 21st, replete as it is with ever-increasing economic disparity, ever-decreasing historical literacy, fundamentalist religion become ascendant, drone strikes dubbed humanitarianism at a distance, and a structural fascism of global aspirations that first introduces itself as the very concept of freedom and which then proceeds to abolish freedom completely.

–Jeremy Brunger


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Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

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May 042015
 

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Six years old in Phoenix, Arizona, and I wanted to sing country. I’d walk to Squaw Peak Elementary by myself; my two sisters too young for school.  There was a house on the corner with a desert yard, a looming saguaro instead of a tree. A low fence kept kids from kicking up the sand. In that sand was something shiny, a glinting by the base of the cactus tree. I’d eye it every day, and every day I wanted it more. Often, walking to school, singing under my breath, I’d practice my twang, the one I thought necessary for a singer. This aspirational twang is forever wed in memory to the shiny, forbidden object buried in the sand.

We are meant to sing. Words want to dive and swoop in the air. A considered tune wants words. I have wanted to sing for decades now, and I’ve sung to myself, quietly, or in closed spaces.

Too, I am drawn to things that need no metaphor. In looking for an invisible thing, my voice, I take singing lessons.

Your voice box sits atop your windpipe, which sits atop your bellowing lungs. Exhale through this apparatus while flexing your vocal cords, and you will make sound. Your head is a maze of boney caves. The notes you make will echo in the passageways and hollows of your body. You can pinpoint the thrum of each pitch. Middle C rings down at the collarbone, the C above by the eyes, High C springs from the top of your head.

HeadAndThroat

The voice is an instrument made of bone, modulated by flesh. It is wind squeezed through a hole. A bone flute.

In Mozart’s Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night sings a famously difficult, unreasonably high aria. She must hit the F more than two octaves up from middle C. Repeatedly. She must do so with trills – and the appearance of ease. She must launch her voice into the stratosphere.

Queen of Night Aria 1Mozart’s Magic Flute, Queen of the Night Aria

A recording of Edda Moser singing this aria is in included in the collection of sounds from Earth on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. This is what the inhabitants of  some future, faraway world will hear. This is what they will know of us.

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But since you are here, and now, listen also to Diana Damrau’s rendition. Watch her mouth.  The shape of the mouth shapes the sound.

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It’s all about holes. Holes through which the world enters, and out of which come babies, words, blood, shit, song.

And it’s about bones, the structure for our living mess.

Or. A bone in the hole. The bone thrust in a hole at the start of a soul.  The baby grows amidst a confusion of metaphors and hypotheses and then, when that song has ended, the clatter of bones lowered into a hole.

People expire when they take their last breath.

Inspiration feels like talking to god, being filled with something beyond yourself.

Spirare, to breathe.

I can’t breathe, I have thought before, in panicked states.

When I lived in the Canadian Rockies, work would sometimes have me driving at night through blizzards. Being tailgated by trucks. I was terrified. The only way I kept calm was by singing to myself.  There is the song, with its own calmative force, and also the deep breathing it requires.

Singing lessons are mostly lessons in breathing.

When I was a girl, my father would bring home discarded x-rays from the hospital. My two sisters and I would cut out the bones and tape together skeletons. You would think I’d know what the inside of a body looks like; I thought the diaphragm was a vague thing shaped like a birth control device, wedged into the rib cage. It is, instead, as I learn in a singing lesson, a huge, thin muscle stretched across the bottom of the rib cage like goat skin across a drum. When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm expands downward. I imagine it like a balloon, and our lungs like balloons-within-balloons.

A diaphragmatic breath is the singer’s breath. You make yourself a loose and empty thing, a vessel. Air rushes in. The space between your gut and your sex expands. You are pregnant with song.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if aliens would see much difference between humans and nematodes, a basic worm type.  We are both bilaterally symmetrical animals, sharing what is called a tube-within-a-tube body plan. We are tubes with holes at the beginning and at the end. Tubes for air and food. When we die, we are worm-food. Alive, worms are bird food.

Songbirds can produce two notes at once. Some can imitate chainsaws, barking dogs, and crying babies. Swooping through the air, they echo the world around them.

Why are angels never described as bird people? They sing and they fly.

My ex-husband believed that some singers were angels and that’s why they were always crashing in planes. It seems to me that angels should stay aloft.

Plague doctors were another form of bird people. Convinced that pleasant aroma would prevent the inhalation of miasma, the foul breath blamed for plague, the men wore bird masks, and would burn sweet herbs in the beak.

The ancient Greeks feared bird women. They knew they were helpless when they heard the sirens sing.  Sappho was described as a nightingale with misshapen wings.

Hypothesis: Angel minus person does not equal bird.

Aviary. Loggerhead Shrike by Sara Angelucci 

When you sing, you can’t hear yourself accurately, the echo chamber in your head distorts your sound. You must learn to feel where the sounds are in your body, how to perceive the sympathetic vibrations. You must imagine that you are opening spaces you didn’t know were there, spaces you thought of as secret. You are a tube of air, a tube with holes that, when closed or opened, makes notes. A wind instrument.

A warm-up exercise has me singing a scale of “kee” sounds. Keys, I think. I might unlock something.  The hard k sound requires breathing into the lower belly and is a voiceless velar plosive. Explosive.

My husband, in his sixties, compares peri-menopausal women to volcanoes. Sappho lived on a volcanic island. I am in my forties, and just learning to sing.

The voice resonates in the chest, in the head, and somewhere in between. There are two breaks in the female voice, one between the chest and the middle voice, and another between the middle and the head voice. A break is where the voice can crack. A break is also known as a passaggio. How you navigate these passages affects the song. I can’t help but think of periods, monthly punctuation. Starting to bleed and stopping are the two passages of the female body. How do you navigate these passages? I was a hot mess of a teen.

Anybody could be in the high school choir, but jazz choir was for the elite. I could read music, sing in tune, and follow directions. I auditioned. The choirmaster rejected me on grounds that I shouldn’t be allowed to have everything I wanted, citing my good grades as proof that I was spoiled. I was a diligent, quiet girl; he was a soft-bodied man in beige slacks the same color as his skin. He wanted to hang out with the cool kids; jazz choir swelled with cheerleaders. I started throwing up. I am not saying that the choirmaster, that unwitting prick, caused my bulimia, but I am saying that if you have a song inside you, it will find its way out, it will erupt. It may no longer be a song, and it may not be beautiful.

The song will find its way out, a distortion. Or you will silence it, an erasure.  For a while, as a teen, I went quiet, I stopped eating. I thought spirit and bone were all that mattered. That flesh, my womanly flesh, was dangerous.

EpiglottisEpiglottis

Ancient Greeks thought the womb wandered around the body, causing a variety of female problems, another way of saying that being female was the problem. Foul odors repelled the womb; pleasant aromas attracted it. And so, a suffering woman would have garlic stuffed into her mouth, sweet herbs up her crotch. The womb could thus be held fast by smells. The wandering womb was described as an animal inside an animal.

The voice is an instrument inside the body, a living thing of and within us.  An animal inside an animal.

A wild boar lays waste to a kingdom; two brothers set out to kill it. The cowardly brother goes to a bar and gets drunk. The brave brother is given a magic spear, and with it, kills the boar. Jealous, Drunk kills Brave.  Drunk claims the prize, the king’s daughter. One of Brave’s bones is found and made into a flute. The bone sings out the story of what really happened. The king hears the song, hears the truth, and orders Drunk’s death. The princess is freed from the boor, and the brave hero, though dead, triumphs, thanks to his singing bone.

Mozart’s Magic Flute, Queen of the Night Aria

The Queen of the Night gives Mozart’s hero a magic flute, somewhat smaller than a spear, but perhaps size doesn’t matter. She wants him to save her daughter. The flute in Mozart’s opera can change men’s hearts, that’s why it’s magic. A skin flute, a meat flute. The hero triumphs, thanks to his melodious pecker.

I could sing about bones.

I could sing about the feeling of quickening desire, of a cock crowing, of a bone bonering against my back as I lie between sheets, embraced.

I would sing of domesticity and the marriage bed.

The echo chamber in our head distorts our sound, we can’t hear our own songs truly. We need each other to be heard.

When I was going through divorce, I listened to Keith Jarrett moaning above his piano notes and Glenn Gould above his.  These raw and moaning men.

When I was going through divorce, I made a film about a singer. The singer loses her marriage, her faith and her voice, in no particular order. She can’t tell the difference between falling and flight, her voice cracks on the high notes. My favorite poem at the time was an ancient lament with many translations. The last line: what was never one is easily split: our song together.

I went to Newfoundland. I’d had dreams about humpbacks, the singing whales, and the high cliffs diving into sharp water.  My heart was broken in several directions. I am a bad guitar player, but I needed to sing, and so I did, shut away in a little rented room. The song was another presence, it made me feel less alone.  One day, my landlady and I went out in a skiff, we were looking for whales. Two soon found us, they swam under and beside us for over an hour. I was over the moon. Blissed out, as in my singing whale dreams. One of the pair lifted its monstrous tail in dripping goodbye as he dove down and away. My landlady said, You’re looking for a whale in the shape of a man. I think what I was looking for was a song together.

Sappho-001Sappho

Sappho was described as a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness. Looking for a song together, I fell in love like crazy, always with writers. I can see myself in scraps of their poems, their stories. A muse’s mirror.

I have settled on an island now, in sight of a volcano. I am married again and we have a boy. I write myself. And, I am learning to sing.

Hypothesis: Volcanoes are to love as sex is to singing.

It is discombobulating and also thrilling to learn that I might be a soprano. In high school choir, I was shoved to the back row of altos, and have thought of myself as alto ever since. My would-be soprano is faltering, fledging. Aspirational. Paper airplane rather than rocket.

To jump, one must push against the ground, against gravity. The deeper the knees bend, the harder you push, the higher you go. Same deal with voice. To sing the high notes, I press down, inside my self, down through my cunt.  Giving birth. At the same time, the high notes feel like flying. I feel them in my head, above my eyes.

The Greeks made much of the mouth/cunt connection, had the same word for them.  When I search the words “vagina” and “mouth” in an effort to learn more about Classical theories of same, Urban Dictionary tells me that “vagina mouth” refers to somebody who’s always talking about vaginas, or a person always down on their knees, open-mouthed and ready.

Classical virgins were open, ready for penetration. When a parthenos finally had sex, she was forever transformed by the man’s sperm and spirit.  All her words were an echo of the masculine presence now inside her, her songs were his.

The Oracle of Delphi, a virgin priestess open to Apollo, would sit astride a crack in the earth, a crack from which hallucinogenic fumes, the breath of god, spewed.  She breathed these vapors in through her cunnus, her cunning, her cunt, and out from her mouth came the word of god. Some say she raved, some say she spoke in poetic meter. Maybe she sang her advice?

The epithet for Echo, a nymph who was nothing but voice, was the girl with no door on her mouth.  She never shut up, and in her conjugal relations with Pan, she had sex with all of nature. No door, indeed. And no words of her own, poor thing. Poor thing.

How to love, and yet be essence as well as vessel, meaning as well as mouth?

Sappho stayed open, she stayed her self, she sang her own words. It didn’t matter whom she fucked.

LaSirenaLa Sirena

The ancient Greeks feared sirens.

In college, my roommates and I had our gimlet eyes fixed upon a lacrosse player, a frat boy with Greek letters on his jacket. There was a rumor that he’d done it in the bushes outside our dorm, and ever after, my roommates and I would tease each other with an ironic slam, well, you do it in the bushes with X. We were virgins; the thought of sex was terrifying and hilarious.  One day, one of us did do it with X.  According to the post-coital report, he emitted high-pitched squeaks as he came.

The sounds we make in sex are often honest,  spontaneous, and I have always loved these sounds almost as much as I have loved the sound of an unencumbered laugh.

The ancient Greeks, those old vagina-mouths, also had a word for a female scream of intense pleasure or pain. Ololyga is described as disorderly and/or divine.

I once heard a story of a woman who’d lost her voice in the range where she would scream. As I remember it, she’d been raped, had screamed, and hadn’t been heard. She wasn’t saved. Ever after, her screams were silent.

An old man steals the Queen of the Night’s daughter. The queen finds her girl, and gives her a knife. The Queen, in her famously high aria, commands her daughter to stab the old lech to death. The name of this fancy, super-femme song is Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart.

The Queen of the Night gives the hero a magic flute, but she gives her daughter a knife.

My singing teacher teaches screaming. She also works with bel canto.  I practice breathing. I practice shaping my mouth. I practice, practice, practice. What we want, after all, is ease. Beauty. The wedding of order to chaos, light to dark, reason to rhyme. The voice made true, the word made flesh.

We are nothing if not memory. We are nothing if not together. We can’t hear our own songs truly.

Singing is a sympathetic resonance of souls across time, across space. We echo each other, with variations.

aviary_curlewAviary. Curlew by Sara Angelucci

The world needs more songbirds, more sirens, more humpback whales. We are meant to sing.

In the beginning, there were three muses. Memory, Practice, and Song.

Then, six more were added, I don’t know why. Nine total.

Sappho was called the Tenth Muse. The Mortal Muse. Her music clings to time-worn fragments like spirit to the bone.

What happens when a muse serves not as inspiration for someone else, but sings her own song?

Hypothesis: She cannot be erased.

—Julie Trimingham

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NOTES & SOURCES:

There are, of course, many interpretations of The Magic Flute / Die Zauberflöte. It is a complex work. Mozart was a Freemason. It is not original to note that the flute is a penis, a creative force; some readings posit the flute as the penis of Osiris, the Egyptian god who looms weirdly large in Masonic culture and in the opera.

Wulf and Eadwacer is an Old English poem, the only copy of which was found in the Exeter Book.  It, like the Queen of the Night’s aria, is famously difficult.  The narrator is presumed a woman; Wulf and Eadwacer might be husbands, lovers, sons, one might even be a dog. You can find a million interpretations. The woman is on an island, and she is speaking for herself. The line quoted above, about our song together, is hers.

Etymologies: Ancient Greeks used stoma to refer to the mouth that eats and speaks and also for the mouth of the uterus. Cunnus is another Latin word for vulva, and has a few possible sources, including Indo-European roots meaning woman, cover, and wedge. Cunning comes from the knowing root that gave us ken and canny. Cunt has tangled and uncertain etymologies, but seems unrelated to the Latin. Germanic in origin, cunt likely comes from a root meaning hollow space.

I construe marriage bed loosely. I like the sound of it, and it means, to me, a bed in which two people who truly love each other fuck, sleep, talk, and hold each other.  I am glad to live in a place where gay marriage is legal.

Laughter is the daughter of uncontained sound: Iambe, offspring of chatty Echo and wild Pan, was the Greek Goddess of Jokes. We get the prosodic term iambic from her, too.

Lyric poetry was meant to be accompanied by a lyre. These words were lyrics, words for a song. Sappho was a lyric poet; she sang.

aviary_fpigeonAviary. Female Passenger Pigeon by Sara Angelucci

Artist Sara Angelucci has created a provocative series of human/bird hybrid photographs, Aviary. Loggerhead Shrike, Female Passenger Pigeon, and Curlew are featured in this essay.

In A Mourning Chorus, women make beautiful birdlike sounds and songs in an elegy for disappearing songbirds.

In the video of the Art Gallery of Ontario performance, Fides Krucker and other bird women keen for vanishing species.

Fides Krucker is a Canadian singer, vocal composer, teacher and writer. She is also a friend and my singing teacher. This essay owes much to long conversations we have had about voice. Her teaching incorporates extended voice techniques, bel canto, and her own philosophies and techniques developed over years of personal experience. In particular, Fides talks about the dropped breath, about the pelvic floor, about effortlessness, about the female body and emotions in a way that is unique to her pedagogy.  The Girl with No Door on her Mouth was an opera Fides commissioned, produced and sang, and was based on Anne Carson’s work. She performs regularly in Canada and Europe. She is part of the Mermaid Collective, which will be staging the opera Dive, based on the Lampedusa story The Professor and the Siren, in summer 2015. The recording of Dive will be released in the spring of 2015. Fides is working on a book about her pedagogy, as well as a memoir.  You can read Documentary Singing, her blog.

Some years ago, I took an intensive and formative voice workshop with Richard Armstrong, who was a student of, and continues work influenced by, Roy Hart. After this workshop, Richard introduced me to Fides, and the three of us worked on Butterfly, a three part project:

Butterfly, a documentary;

Opening Night, a music video;

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and From an Opera Without Divorce, a fictitious opera,

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all on the subject of voice. I also studied briefly with Susan Carr; I first really understood what the diaphragm was in a lesson with her, and her exercise using the “kee” sound are referenced above.

She has produced an extensive app featuring videos and exercises for all levels of students, as well as screaming techniques. Sue coached Seahawks fans on how to scream loudly and safely as they cheered their way to a world record crowd roar, recorded at 137.6 decibels.

Diana Damrau and Edda Moser are both German coloratura sopranos, famous for the their Queens of the Night.

My favorite male singer these days was, I thought, a woman. I am glad for such surprises. He’s no boy soprano, no castrato. He inhabits a female voice, an adopted voice, like an animal within an animal. In his song Bang Bang, Asaf Avidan blurs the line.

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If you are magnetic, the world is yours, is an example of a maxim from Vocal Wisdom, Giovanni Battista Lamperti, transcribed by William Earl Brown, Taplinger Publishing Company. Mostly, though, it’s a primer on breathing, diction, and other bel canto techniques.

Confronting the Classics,  Mary Beard, W. W. Norton & Co.

Glass, Irony, and God (1992) Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound.”

Greek Virginity, Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press.

The fairytale of The Singing Bone was formalized by the Brothers Grimm.

Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated and with a forward by Willis Barnstone, Shambala Press.

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Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer.  Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at www.julietrimingham.com.

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Apr 302015
 

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When members of Jimmy’s family told Jim McQuade, Director of Schuyler Hill Funeral Home, that, at Jimmy’s request, we were having neither priest nor funeral mass, he warned us that we might have trouble getting Jimmy into St. Raymond’s Cemetery. He proved prophetic. Growing up, Jimmy and I had been thrown out of a couple of Bronx taverns, but getting barred from the graveyard was a new experience. In lieu of a priest, I had been invited by Jimmy’s family to give a eulogy. “That would be fine,” said Jim McQuade, as we sat at a table; I could “just briefly sum up Jimmy’s life.” We laughed because, more than anyone I’ve ever known, Jimmy’s life was not one to be glibly summed up. Everyone thought they knew Jimmy; but they knew only aspects of the whole, complicated man. His life, rich and multifaceted, fell into many different, apparently incompatible phases. Yet there was an underlying integrity, in both senses of that word.

Jimmy had been a hell-raiser and legendary fist-fighter growing up; then a father who raised one son early, and later two young children single-handedly when their mother, Sharon, died young. Professionally, he was chief consulting engineer for the Bronx from 1980, and was in charge of the capital budget program, overseeing money allocated for such construction programs as the Grand Concourse rehabilitation and the parks improvements from Hunts Point to Riverdale. “But he was a lot more than that to me,” said former Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “He was indispensable.” As the go-to person for district leader Michael Benedetto, Jimmy handled housing and zoning issues; in addition, demonstrating Assemblyman Benedetto’s description of him as a “tremendously giving person” who quietly helped many people, Jimmy, each year, did the income taxes, gratis, of more than a hundred seniors who couldn’t figure out the forms or afford to pay a professional.

After retiring in 1995, Jimmy stayed on for almost two decades with the borough president’s office as a part-time consultant. In these years, he also taught physics at Bronx Community College. As engineer and architect, Jimmy created—pro bono—the building now housing the Chippewa Democratic Club, of which he was treasurer for more than 40 years. Still vital, energetic, and physically powerful, Jimmy was, in 2005, diagnosed in a late stage of a particularly horrible form of incurable cancer.  It was in valiantly battling multiple myeloma for ten years (which must be the world’s record) that we all saw Jimmy’s stamina and real courage. So, is there any key that helps explain so varied a life? Not really, but let me make a tentative triple-suggestion that will seem strange to those who didn’t know the “whole” Jimmy: strength, stars—and pigeons.

The pigeons, a group shot.

From the time he was a kid, Jimmy had a coop, and flew pigeons.  Later, residing in Locust Point, he had a flock that numbered almost two hundred. Jimmy and his sons David and Alex lived very near the Throgs Neck Bridge, its under-structure a favorite nesting place for peregrine falcons and hawks. Jimmy flew his pigeons every day and loved how they out-maneuvered the predators, making undulations and quick turns in the air, so that it was almost impossible for a falcon or hawk to kill one. (When many were killed, including Jimmy’s pair of beloved black homers, it was not by a hawk, nor by the family of feral cats Jimmy fed daily, but by a raccoon who got into the cages.)  Once, a frustrated brown hawk pursued some pigeons right into those cages. Jimmy’s first instinct was rage, but he quickly appreciated the magnificence of the hawk and he knew that it, too, had its part to play in the natural order. So he kept it for a day or two, admiring, studying, and photographing it.

As for strength: When we were growing up, Jimmy was himself a hawk, a warrior who never lost a fight even against much larger opponents. I’ll give just two examples, but they represent many stories of Jimmy’s almost mythical prowess as a fighter. My neighborhood, Alden Park, had (laughably enough) a so-called private beach, consisting of a pier and about 50 yards of water. Once, when we were sixteen or so, Jimmy came over to hang out with me. We went down for a swim. An older guy, a blond and brawny 6-foot, 220-pound wire-lather, informed Jimmy, who weighed about 145 at the time, that this was a private beach and that he wasn’t welcome. Jimmy started to leave. But the Big Man couldn’t leave well enough alone: “And don’t come back, you little guinea.” About ten seconds later, Jimmy did leave; but they had to carry the wire-lather home. Jimmy, 75 lbs. lighter and 3 inches shorter, had cut him down with a half-dozen lightning-fast punches that left the would-be hero and actual bigot sprawled and bleeding on the pier.

This is a photo I took myself about 60 years ago circa 1956. Jimmy is standing with two of the girls in our crowd Diane Schleininger and Janet Gartner

On another occasion, a year or so later, Jimmy faced down even bigger odds. In a nocturnal raid, we had snuck into a pool and concession called Bronx Beach and stolen 17 cases of beer. Having “borrowed” a rowboat, we transported our booty to a small cabin cruiser moored off a waterfront stretch called Big Oak. The plan was to return early the following morning and move our goods to a safe location. Unfortunately, when we arrived shortly after dawn the boat was gone. We discovered that the owner and his friends (who must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven) had left for Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island to fish and camp out. A few days later word reached us that they were back and were having a grand time in what was then an orchard that sloped down to our own Bay, not really a “bay” since it opens onto the Long Island Sound. When Jimmy and I arrived and peered through the foliage we saw eight guys and their girlfriends listening to music and enjoying “our” beer. This was a moral outrage, a violation of the code of honor among thieves. We jumped the fence and Jimmy walked right up to the biggest guy, the fellow who owned the boat we’d used for temporary storage. “The party’s over,” Jimmy announced, ordering the leader to pack up the beer, put it in one of their cars (we were carless) and take it to where we wanted it. Even with their girlfriends present as witnesses of their humiliation, he and the others complied. Even at odds of 8-2, they were afraid to tangle with Jimmy.

Back then, he seemed all strength and speed. The first time we ever saw a set of weights, Jimmy, 14 years old and weighing about 140, military-pressed 20 pounds or so above his body-weight, astonishing the older guys who owned the barbell.  He ran the 100 and 220 at Cardinal Hayes, winning at both distances; and once, at a Rice Stadium meet where I was running the 440 for St. Helena’s, Jimmy was asked to substitute for an injured shot-putter. I watched amused as Jimmy, a complete novice at the event, outdistanced the competitors, but was disqualified on all three shots, one of which was so off it actually grazed someone in the audience.

But under all that physical power there were other, deeper qualities. Jimmy had a formidable brain, and dreams. When he and I weren’t getting into trouble, we often sat on the sea-wall, gazing at the opening to Long Island Sound off City Island, looking out at the beautiful green lantern of Stepping Stone Lighthouse, and up to that greater lighthouse, the stars above our heads. In time, Jimmy would know almost everything there was to know about the birth and death of stars, as well as about black holes, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. Back then we would discuss “escape velocity,” the speed a rocket would have to attain to break earth’s gravitational pull: 7 miles a second. And this was long before John F. Kennedy pledged to send a manned rocket to the moon and back.

Jimmy and Alex2Jimmy and Alex

Earlier this week, when Alex invited me to look through his father’s books, I was re-reminded of the range of Jimmy’s interests.  There were books on the Bible, and on Jesus alongside volumes on the universe, on string theory and quantum mechanics; several books on Einstein; on history and philosophy; novels, poetry, books of literary criticism (not all, but most by me, since Jimmy was as proud of me as I was of him). From the time he was a boy, Jimmy was what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called an “Inquiring Spirit,” especially when it came to questioning, from the perspective of science (physics and evolutionary biology) the religion in which we had both been raised and long believed. In later years, he was particularly fond of two passages I’d cited in my book on Emerson. In his essay “Intellect,” Emerson posed a choice between “Truth and Repose.” He who simply accepts the comfortable “creed” he has inherited will find rest,

but he shuts the door to truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as a wall, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

This passage had a momentous impact on the lives of both Emily Dickinson and Emerson’s greatest disciple, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were raised in deeply religious families. Nietzsche, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, echoed Emerson’s thought, and choice, in a youthful letter to his sister. Should we, the twenty-year-old Nietzsche asked rhetorically,

arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable?….Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth….Faith does not offer the least support of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.

Restless (as his sister Barbara told us) from the time he was a colicky baby, Jimmy never, ever sought “repose,” either in his life or in his intellectual inquiries. I should have added that his library included, along (of course) with studies of pigeons, books on aviation. When, after he got out of the Marines, Jimmy was living with his wife Beth and their baby, Jimmy Jr., in a trailer in Moonachie, N.J., he was working full-time and studying for his engineering degree. Yet he somehow found time to learn to fly a plane!  Why?  Well, pigeons fly, don’t they?

Jimmy in the Marines.Jimmy (right) in the Marines

Armed with his engineering degree, Jimmy eventually rose through the ranks of the New York City Highway Department and other positions to become chief engineer of the Bronx, working, as I said, out of the Borough President’s office. Whatever lunacy and law-breaking we engaged in growing up, once Jimmy was in a position of power, he proved incorruptible. As many told me at one of his retirement parties, Jimmy’s word was his bond. His agreement over the phone could be, literally, taken to the bank. Many projects in the Bronx are the visible results of Jimmy’s efforts.  As boys looking up at the stars, we talked about escape velocity; but Jimmy, unlike the rest of our crowd, never wanted to escape from the Bronx. Instead, he wanted to stay and improve it. And he did. As current Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., remarked in his tribute: “James Cerasoli gained the respect and admiration of all through his tireless work in the Bronx. His signature is imprinted on numerous maps; his work and his memory will live forever.”

Jimmy with David as a baby

That most endearing of Jimmy’s qualities—his intense and lifelong love of animals—bore enduring fruit in improvements to the Bronx Zoo.  In charge of the capital budget, Jimmy made sure the Zoo got its share and more of the borough funds. Our close-knit crowd of two dozen, which has kept in touch for six decades, always loved the Zoo as kids; for us it was an oasis, a Magic Kingdom. When Jimmy and I, with my own family, visited it as adults, Jimmy was treated like a king by those who appreciated his support. Why was the Zoo such a priority?  Of course, it was the borough’s main tourist attraction. But for Jimmy, it was personal. The bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer was as famous as Willie himself: “that’s where they keep the money.” For Jimmy, the Zoo was where they keep the animals and, if they had to be in confinement, he wanted to do what he could to insure that they were kept in state-of-the-art comfort and able to enjoy maximum freedom. The big cats are no longer in cages.

Jimmy among the deer at Catskill Game Park.At the Catskill Game Farm

The one photograph his sons submitted for Jimmy’s newspaper obituary shows him, a quarter-century ago and looking much younger than his 52 years, feeding deer at the Catskill Game Farm (closed, sadly, in 2006). As his son David rightly said, the photo exemplifies Jimmy’s love of animals. I think that love of animals, especially his doting on his pigeons, even helps explain Jimmy’s liberal politics; he always championed the underdog rather than the predatory and powerful. His pigeon-skills certainly honed the qualities that made this tough athlete and undefeatable street-fighter a loving and nurturing caregiver when he was left with two young boys to raise on his own. He had learned whatever he needed to master in order to care for his pigeons; now he learned whatever he needed to know to take care of his boys—even learning to cook, and to cook well.

Jimmy’s final decade was incredibly difficult, but he fought this terrible and terminal disease with the same courage and skill that he’d once displayed in fist-fights. (He studied multiple myeloma, and soon knew as much about it as his doctors). In this battle, however, he had the support and love of a close-knit family: his sisters Barbara, Arlene and Pinky, his brothers Hank and John and his young sons David and Alex.  For years every Friday was set aside by Hank and John for lunch with Jimmy at a restaurant of John’s choosing.  When I was visiting from upstate, I was invited to join them.

Jimmy Jr. and his wife and three children lived far out on Long Island, but for Jimmy’s 75th birthday, the whole family got together, and again I was invited. Ironically, Alex, who had been at his father’s side virtually every day since he’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, had to be in Florida. But it was good that the rest of us were there, since, just a year later, young Jimmy suddenly died of a heart attack. This was, in many ways, the last twist of the knife. I came down for the first of two wakes, right here at Schuyler Hill. But Jimmy (burdened with an oxygen tank that embarrassed him and which he relegated to Jim McQuade’s office rather than draw attention to himself) had to endure a second wake and funeral out on Long Island.  When I came over to the house the next day, and asked the stupid but inevitable question as to how it had gone, he said, “Pat, I felt feelings I didn’t know I had.” Alex told me that that was the beginning of the end for Jimmy; that much of the fight—and it had been a long and brave fight—went out of him.  David, Hank, and John agreed, and I sensed it myself, though Jimmy tried to maintain a stoic front. I can’t talk here about David’s and Alex’s own relationship to their father because I will be reduced to uncontrollable tears—as Alex was at Jimmy’s deathbed while David, my godson, tried to hold it together.

Jimmy with his three sons.

Terrible as that death was, it was peaceful, and Jimmy, who we think was able to hear us, was surrounded by those who loved him—no small thing.  It seemed to me at the time, and even more so today, that it was particularly appropriate that when his time came, he died in a hospital named for his intellectual hero, Albert Einstein.  The last long conversation I had in Jimmy’s kitchen (I’ll tell you in a moment about our last phone conversation), we talked about Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein.  I knew why Einstein had (one of his few errors) rejected quantum mechanics; but Jimmy actually understood quantum mechanics! Though Einstein acknowledged that it explained much, he could never bring himself to accept quantum theory because it was random and Einstein was committed to strictly determined mathematical laws of nature. As he famously said, quantum theory “says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the old one [der Alte]. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice with the Universe.”

 That kind of God-talk led many—especially in his adopted country, America, where he was much beloved and had become a pop-culture icon—to conclude that Einstein believed in a personal God, one who cares about us, is accessible to prayer, and promises (for good or ill) an eternal Afterlife. Einstein did not believe in such a deity. In a letter written to a little girl in the sixth grade who wanted to know, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein, endearingly, took her question seriously. He responded that scientists are not likely to be inclined, in a world where “everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature,” to believe “that events could be influenced by prayers to a supernatural being.” Nevertheless, he continued,

Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

His God, Einstein told the New York Times, was “Spinoza’s God,” a divinity inseparable from Nature itself—though he was also convinced, like that sublime and “god-intoxicated” yet “atheistic” 17th-century Jewish philosopher, that no matter how we try to “penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature,” we find that, “beyond all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend, is,” said Einstein, “my religion.” That “humble admiration” and “deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Introduced to the philosophy of Spinoza by his friend Coleridge, William Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” captured that “presence” (the essence of Spinoza’s pantheism) in deliberately vague but deeply moving lines:

MMMMAnd I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

In 1930, Einstein concluded his credo, “What I Believe,” by defining what he actually meant in calling himself “religious”:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead….To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

In that sense, and that sense only, Jimmy, an inquiring spirit in the mode of Spinoza and Einstein, was a devoutly religious man—to the very end of his life and beginning from the time when, as kids, he and I gazed out on the water on moonlit or starry nights and then up to the stars themselves. When we were rummaging through Jimmy’s books, Alex showed me something his father had inscribed on the library wall, and which Alex intends to carve out and save: “My improbable God: before Infinity, there is God; after Infinity, there is God.” If that’s not good enough to get into the “religious” cemetery, to hell with them.

Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years2Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years.

I’ll end with that last phone call, and with the final lines of a Wallace Stevens poem, both of which involve deer and, of course, pigeons.  I phoned Jimmy one day while I was looking out the window at my back yard.  Out on the lawn were three deer, a few squirrels, two mourning doves and two pigeons. “How are they interacting?” Jimmy asked, the old enthusiasm still there despite the pain. “Harmoniously,” I said.  But the peaceable kingdom was interrupted.  There’s a 100-foot spruce in my yard and a huge female goshawk (bigger than the males of the species) often nests there. She swooped down. The deer were unnerved, the squirrels scampered to safety, and the mourning doves ducked into the hedge. But the pigeons took off with the hawk in fierce pursuit. I was disturbed, but Jimmy assured me, “don’t worry, she’ll never get them.”  He was right.

This scene prompted me to quote to him over the phone the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” a poem centered on a woman who does not go to church that morning, but instead seeks her religion in nature.  She finds herself in what the poet calls in the final stanza “an old chaos of the Sun, unsponsored”: a beautiful but perishable universe in which we must all die. This is our mortal condition; what are our consolations? Jimmy loved the ending of the poem, finding in it, along with the appreciation of deer and birds, a beautiful and brave death-image, an image that applies, as my friend Barron Boyd recently remarked, to Jimmy’s characteristically courageous acceptance of his own impending descent:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness,
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Jimmy, who seemed unconquerable, is gone. But nothing can erase, as Borough President Diaz noted, Jimmy’s permanent “signature imprinted” on the Bronx. That “will live forever,” as will the memories that will be preserved—until our own deaths—in the hearts of family and friends who loved and valued this remarkable and many-sided man. And I will think of my brother-in-spirit as inextinguishable in a more profound sense. When, without that funeral mass, we were denied permission for burial in the Catholic cemetery, we decided to have Jimmy cremated. Back in 1957, when he was 19, Jimmy shared with me a now famous essay in which four astrophysicists argued that the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, are the remnants, the ashes, of stars that died in supernova-explosions billions of years ago. When, this summer, we scatter Jimmy’s ashes in Long Island Sound, it will be into water we now know derived in part from a titanic gas cloud older even than our solar system. Out on Hank’s boat, we will be returning Jimmy to the world of nature he loved, and to the cosmos that fascinated him, stardust back to stardust.

Pat Keane/ April 10, 2015

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Afterword: For David and Alex

I returned to Syracuse in time on April 11 to make, I thought, a Curlew Theatre play about W. B. Yeats, for which I’d written an introduction and which was scheduled to be performed at Le Moyne College at 7pm. I didn’t know that while I was in New York City for Jimmy’s death and wake, the time had been changed to 4pm. It was good that I didn’t know, because something rather wonderful happened in my walk over to the college—as I told Kate Costello-Sullivan, Le Moyne’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, in the following email, which I’m now sharing with you.

Dear Kate,

Unaware that the play had already been performed, I left for the college at 6:50. I was walking due west on Salt Springs, thus directly into the setting sun. As I came over the rise in the road, I suddenly found myself looking at 7 or 8 deer: they were just standing there, stopped in the midst of crossing from the college side. I heard two cars coming fast, maybe 100-150 feet behind me. Between the brightness of the sun and the fact that the deer were just over the rise, neither driver could see what was ahead. I jumped out in the middle of the street and started waving. One driver slammed on his brakes, the other swerved onto a lawn alongside the road. The little herd of deer took off. The drivers understood.

When I got to the college, the doors were locked. I tried another possible venue, and that’s when I saw a poster, with the time, 4:00, and featuring a line excerpted from one of Yeats’s finest poems: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” I’d felt pretty good about the deer episode right off. But as I started walking back, it dawned on me that if I hadn’t been precisely where I was at precisely that moment, one or both of those cars would have plowed into the deer.

My friend Jimmy had been cremated that morning. As I’d emphasized in my eulogy, along with being a legendary fist-fighter when we were growing up, Jimmy was, among other things, a deep and lifelong lover of animals. Later, as Borough Engineer of the Bronx, in charge of the capital budget, Jimmy was responsible for many improvements in the Bronx Zoo. He hated the idea of animals in captivity; but if they were to be confined, he was determined to insure that they were comfortable and enjoyed maximum freedom. And they do.

Jimmy kept and flew pigeons from the time he was in grade-school; and on his last visit up to see me, he loved seeing the deer in my back yard. I ended my eulogy with the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” beginning, “Deer walk upon our mountains,” and ending with pigeons, at evening, making “Ambiguous undulations as they sink/ Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

I don’t believe in miracles, but I’d been despondent walking over to see the play—a play that, as it happened, had already been performed. Thus, I had no reason to be on that road at 6:50. You apologized, Kate, for not getting my phone call in time to stop me. I’m obviously delighted that you didn’t. Walking back to my house, the more I thought about having “saved” the deer, the more elated I became. I remembered that little Robert Frost poem, “Dust of Snow”:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. The reminder that we still live “in nature,” with creatures other than ourselves, altered without erasing my sadness at the death of a friend I loved and admired, got in trouble with, and discussed literature and science and religion with, for two-thirds of a century. But last night, going to bed still thinking about those deer, I slept for almost 11 hours—more than the preceding five nights combined. Being on that road at 6:50 was a gift, and it comforts me, even as I’m writing these words, to think, intuitively rather than rationally, that it was a last gift from Jimmy, still watching out for the animals.

—Pat

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Pat Keane and Jimmy.

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

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Apr 122015
 

Last Judgement by Jan van Eyck


“Consider a little, if you please, unmerciful Doctor, what a theater of Providence this is: by far the greatest part of the human race burning in flames forever and ever. Oh what a spectacle on the stage, worthy of an audience of God and angels! And then to delight the ear, while this unhappy crowd fills heaven and earth with wailing and howling, you have a truly divine harmony.” 
Thomas Burnet, De Statu Mortuorum Et Resurgentium Tractatus, (On the State of the Dead and the Resurrection) posthumously pub. 1720

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George Coyne, S. J., former Director of the Vatican Observatory and currently McDevitt Chair at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, recently repeated to me in conversation a question posed to him by the late Carl Sagan, of Cornell and Cosmos fame. Sagan’s more-than-rhetorical question, as fellow astronomer and seeker, was a compelling one: “Why should you be given the gift of faith, and not me?” Coyne acknowledged that he had no full answer, though he surmised that his reception of the gift of faith had much to do with his own actions, specifically his having read Augustine and Aquinas.

So have I, but, alas, that reading gradually but permanently shook rather than bolstered my faith. Listening to Fr. Coyne’s report of his response to Sagan, I recalled being disturbed, as a student at Fordham University, by the insistence of Augustine that since humanity is stained with a primal sin, we are utterly dependent on God’s grace, a position that seemed to severely limit human freedom. As Peter Brown notes in his magisterial biography, Augustine of Hippo (1967, updated in 2000), the idea of an ancient transgression as an explanation for present misery was current in both pagan and Christian thought. And Augustine was, of course, steeped in Paul, especially the Epistle to the Romans, and haunted by Paul’s Adamic argument that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5:12-13). This is a succinct statement of what would become known as Original Sin, a doctrine we associate in particular with Augustine, who, I couldn’t help feeling, spun it, whatever its pagan and Pauline antecedents, primarily out of his own entrails. Convinced that only divine grace could curb a libidinal drive he often felt personally powerless to control, Augustine, on the basis of his own sexual psychology, extrapolated a universal doctrine of primal sin, inherited guilt, and absolute dependence on the grace of God.

Augustine -Jaume_Huguet_Consecration_of_Saint_AugustineConsecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet

The result was a biographical-theological mélange that minimized, without utterly excluding, the role of individual free will. Even when he gestures toward free will, the pessimistic Augustine emphasizes the wrong choice, that of the lower rather than the higher. In a notably Neoplatonic passage in Book 12 of The City of God, he observes that “when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil, not because that to which it turns is evil, but because the turning itself is wicked.” That wicked turning, which began in Eden, reduces the whole of fallen humanity to what Augustine calls a sinful “lump” [massa]. The allusion is to Paul’s Potter-God molding a “lump” of clay (Rom 9:20-21), but Augustine goes beyond Paul, for whom the lump has no right to question its Maker, who chooses willy-nilly to produce “vessels” reflecting his “mercy,” or “vessels of wrath made for destruction” (Rom 9:22-23). Mere clay is not low enough for Augustine, for whom postlapsarian humanity is a collective “lump” of sinful and damnable filth—massa peccata, massa perditionis, massa damnata (Enchiridion, 98-107). In his treatise “On Grace and Free Will” (426-27), Augustine writes that while “God foreknows what we are going to will in the future, it does not thereby follow that we are not willing something freely” (255). But his emphasis is always less on human than divine will, with salvation a free and foreordained gift of God, given gratis and independent of a person’s individual merit. Reading the newly discovered letters Peter Brown printed in the 2000 update of his biography, I was less than fully persuaded by his claim that they substantiate Augustine’s place as the “inventor of the modern notion of the will.”

On Grace and Free WillSt. Augustine by Antonello da Messina

“Those who love [God] are called according to his purpose,” and “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:28-30). This passage from Romans clearly contributed to Augustine’s own version of predestination, which intensified in the later phases of his increasingly furious combat with Pelagius and his followers. When I first read Augustine’s anti-Pelagian tracts, I connected them with another obsessive and sustained assault I was studying at the same time in a Fordham history course: Edmund Burke’s protracted attempt (1788-95, the longest trial in British history) to convict the impeached Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India. In the end, though he was financially ruined, Hastings was not convicted: an acquittal, fumed Burke, who had stressed the “moral” dimension of Hastings’s alleged “corruption,” which redounded to “the perpetual infamy” of the House of Lords.

Augustine’s equally fervid confrontation was with the infamy of Pelagianism, embodied in Julian (380-455), the bishop of Eclanum, and the semi-Pelagian monk John Cassian, both of whom, in responding to Augustine, gave as good as they got. Like the British monk Pelagius and Julian, Cassian, an ardent disciple of Origin, emphasized human capability and responsibility in actively co-operating with God: a mixture of optimism and insistence on human agency that provoked the now elderly and crusty bishop of Hippo into angry responses, including his most extreme assertions of precisely what the Pelagians had accused him of: predestination. Or so I saw it; and though my Jesuit professors at Fordham suggested otherwise, I begged (mostly quietly) to differ. When, two years after I graduated, I read Gerald Bonner’s Saint Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963, rev. 1986), I felt vindicated. Bonner admires Augustine and the best part of his book is his informed and balanced account of the Pelagian controversy (also discussed at length in Part IV of Peter Brown’s biography), which makes his conclusion, a mixture of admission and dismissal, all the more compelling: “Augustinian predestination is not the doctrine of the Church but only the opinion of a distinguished Catholic theologian” (592).

Bonner

Obsessed with the monstrous transgression of Adam and Eve, transmitted as Original Sin, and by his theology of grace, did late Augustine plunge into the heretical pitfall of strict predestination? Certainly his pessimistic view of fallen human nature, darkened by the contemptu mundi perspective he had inherited from the Neoplatonists and the Stoics and by his own idiosyncratic emphasis on the role of sexual reproduction in transmitting Original Sin, led Augustine to claim that our natural proclivity is toward evil and that all our impulses to good are dependent on God’s grace. What makes his position darker still is Augustine’s post-Pauline insistence that the decision on God’s part as to who receives this grace is, as the word itself suggests, gratis—gratuitous, arbitrary.

According to Augustine (and Aquinas after him), while God wills the salvation of all, certain souls are granted special grace that in effect foreordains their redemption. But “why one is called and the other not” has to do with the “inscrutability” of God. “Why God draws this one and not that other,” Augustine admonishes, “seek not to know or to judge.” And later in the treatise I am citing, in a chapter titled “The Difficulty of the Distinctions Made in the Choice of One and the Rejection of Another,” he concludes that we have no right to question God and that “he who is condemned has no ground for finding fault” (De dono perseverantiae, chapter 16). Augustine is alluding to those “called according to” God’s “purpose” in Rom 8:29-30, and to a passage he specifically cites: Paul’s rhetorical question, “who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me thus?’” (Rom 9:20).

Boethius.consolation.philosophyAn early printed version of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy 

In short, Augustine restates rather than responds to the crucial question posed by Carl Sagan to Fr. Coyne: “Why have you been given the gift of faith, and not me?” Though, as with countless others over the past millennium and a half, I found help on this issue in the lucid prose and dialogue form of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, as a sophomore in college, I was hardly equipped to unravel the paradoxical relationship between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. So “Seek not to know”: simply accept the idea that, by means of his mysterious “grace,” an all-foreseeing God—who made his decision before the oceans rolled, indeed before “time” itself— “predestined those he called” to eternal life, leaving others in their sin, but “justly” condemned as a result, paradoxically, of their own “choice.” Wherever one finally comes down on this simultaneously fascinating and repellent issue, Augustine more than flirted with the unspeakably horrible doctrine of predestination as it later culminated in Luther, an Augustinian monk after all, and, especially, Calvin, who claimed he could have written an entire book “out of Augustine alone” to justify his theology, a theology based on the adamant insistence that while “some,” the so-called Elect, are “predestined unto everlasting life,” all “others” are “preordained to everlasting death.” That is to say, hell—about which Augustine himself has much to say.

In The City of God, Augustine distinguished between the Last Judgment and a Particular Judgment (which he illustrates with the story, in Matt. 16:19-31, of poor Lazarus and Dives, the rich man who had turned the beggar from his door and now, dead and suffering in the flames of Hades, begs Lazarus for a drop of water.) There may be hope following the “first death” and the Particular Judgment, but after the “second death” and the Last Judgment, reward or punishment is irrevocable and eternal. Citing scripture, Augustine resisted those who argued, or at least hoped, that hell’s punishment, however fierce, would not be eternal. It would be both, he insisted—basing his position, as always, on the Original Sin in Eden:

Hell, also called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned, whether men or devils—the solid bodies of the one, and the aerial bodies of the others; [for] the evil spirits, even without bodies, will be so connected to the fires as to receive pain….One fire certainly shall be the lot of both…eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that purest and highest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed by that first transgression. (The City of God, Books 10, 21)

Augustine, writing in 426, is more severe than Yahweh himself, who told the perpetrators of that “first transgression,” Adam and Eve, that they would “die” if they ate of the forbidden fruit, not that they were risking eternal torment in hell. To be as literal as the literalists, an eternity of pain cannot be the fate even of their son, the first murderer, since anyone who killed Cain would suffer punishment “seven times greater” than his own. In fact, from Genesis on, there is no clear reference in the Hebrew scriptures to a place of eternal punishment. Christian preachers often allude to, or actually cite, Old Testament passages. But while they habitually turn “Sheol” and the dark valley of “Gehenna” into figurative equivalents of “hell,” no Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into English does so. The most “hellish” text—handled gingerly by Jewish scholars, but seized on with relish by Christian exegetes eager to prove the eternal punishment of the wicked—is the rhetorically magnificent but horrific climax of the Book of Isaiah. There the Lord says that he will make a “new heavens and new earth” for the faithful, who shall “go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (66:23-24).

That final verse, the one Hebrew text on which a doctrine of eternal torment can be based, “is so gruesome,” John Sawyer notes in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993), “that in Jewish custom the preceding verses about ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ are repeated after it, to end the reading on a more hopeful and at the same time more characteristically Isaianic note” (327). Countless Christian theologians and preachers went in the decidedly un-hopeful other direction, harping on, and taking sadistic relish in, Isaiah’s imagery as proof of eternal punishment. As we’ll later see, in the unforgettable Hell-sermon at the center of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s Fr. Arnall not only cites Isaiah’s worm and stench, but takes for granted that they are sensuous aspects of eternal anguish, climaxing in that “quenchless fire.” Yet it could be argued that even in his most “gruesome” image, Isaiah refers to rotting and noxious carcasses, “an abhorrence to all flesh,” not to the rebels’ continuing personality—nephesh, the soul or living being—which alone could be subject to eternal torment.

Augustine’s central ideas often had horrible consequences. In an early public debate “Against Fortunatus” (August, 392), he had declared, “There are two kinds of evil—sin and the penalty for sin” (Earlier Writings, ed. Burleigh [1950], 15). Since we are all allegedly stained from birth with Original Sin, what penalty is to be suffered by infants who die before being baptized? The Church, understandably, has long anguished over this issue—beginning as early as the 4th century, with the treatise on the early death of infants (De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum) by Gregory of Nyssa, an early believer in universal reconciliation. To my dismay, I soon discovered that the dilemma persisted long after Gregory’s attempt to humanely resolve it. A millennium later, the great Council of Trent (1545-65), famed for its lucid definitions, concluded, in its fifth session, that, “Infants, unless regenerated unto God through the grace of baptism, whether their parents be Christian or infidels, are born to eternal misery and perdition [perditionis aeternum].”

Council_of_Trent_by_Pasquale_CatiCouncil of Trent by Pasquale Cati

There have been many intellectual efforts, notably including the desperate if humane hypothesis of the now defunct Limbo (on which the theological doors closed in late 2005), to get the babies out of hell. But even the eminent thinkers subsequently gathered in the Vatican to form, in 2007, an International Theological Commission, though reading the “signs of the times,” could offer only a wistful “Hope”—to cite the final subtitle of the concluding section (“Spes Orans: Reasons for Hope”) of their lengthy and learned final document. Their inconclusive Conclusion was that, “there are strong theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.”

Such are the fruits of the toxic doctrine of Original Sin, as promulgated, above all, by Augustine, whose preeminence as a theological juggernaut eclipsed all rivals until the advent of Aquinas. For the formidable but bleak Bishop of Hippo, no one was exempt from punishment “unless delivered” by an inscrutable God’s “mercy” and by “grace,” which was “undeserved.” And those delivered will be a minority. Jesus himself distinguished between the narrow-gated road that will lead the “few” to salvation and the broad-gated road that will lead the “many” to destruction (Matt 7:13-14). An echoing Augustine, consigning the bulk of humanity to perdition, writes, “Many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it in order”—he adds, setting up damnation as a grim example even for those who made the cut through no merit of their own—“that it may be shown what was due to all” (City of God, Book 22). In short, because of Original Sin, we are all guilty, and deserving of hell. And when that stain has not been cleansed by the sanctifying grace of baptism, it follows, and Augustine unhesitatingly followed that appalling logic—even if the prospect of babies in hell is more hideous than the doctrine of predestination itself— that unbaptized infants must be damned: a singularly atrocious example of what “was due to all.”

The most gifted and persistent opponent of Augustine on infant perdition, indeed on Original Sin root and branch, was Julian of Eclanum, the most prominent second-generation follower of Pelagius. His writings have been preserved, primarily and ironically, by Augustine himself, who quoted freely from Julian’s attack on the doctrine of Original Sin in his own refutation, contra Julianum Pelagianum. In countering Augustine’s dark view of human nature and sexuality, Julian went to the other extreme, his optimism verging on perfectionism. He also set against Augustine’s emphasis on eternal punishment his own version of ultimate reconciliation: a theory of universal salvation (apocastasis) first fully worked out by Origen (c. 185-254), the most brilliant and radical student of Clement of Alexandria. Origen’s belief that through Christ’s sacrifice even Satan might be redeemed (restored by the refining fires to his original angelic state as Lucifer) led the Christian bishops gathered at the Synod of Constantinople in 543 to condemn anyone who said or thought that “there is a time limit to the torments of demons and ungodly persons,…or that they will ever be pardoned or made whole again.” The target was Origen, posthumously excommunicated at this Synod, and, for good measure, at subsequent synods in 553, 680, 787, and 869.

Keane5Nave of Church of the Gesù by Giovanni Battista Gaulli

Julian was himself excommunicated by Pope Celestine in 430, the year of Augustine’s death, for earlier refusing to sign on to Pope Zosimus’s excommunication of Pelagius. But despite the contemporary and historical triumph of his rival, Julian’s rejection of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and his revulsion from the idea of unbaptized infants roasting in hellfire has always seemed to me a welcome alternative to the somber broodings of the Bishop of Hippo. In Book 6 of his contra Julianum Pelagianum, responding to the final Book of Julian’s treatise, Augustine had reasserted his position that, because of collective guilt stemming from the sin of Adam, the inherited “contagion” of Original Sin, “infants who die without the grace of regeneration [the sole source of which is the sanctification of baptism] are excluded from the kingdom of God.” I continue to share Julian’s humane indignation at Augustine’s presuming to speak for God in condemning infants. By an intriguing accident, the theological and ad hominem attack I quote here survives only because it happened to be among the unfinished work on Augustine’s desk at the time of his death:

Tiny babies, you say, are not weighed down by their own sin, but are burdened with the sin of another. Tell me then, who is this person who inflicts punishment on innocent creatures? …you answer God. God, you say, God! He who commanded His love to us, who has not spared His own Son for us…He it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who sends tiny babies to eternal flames….It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far, indeed, from mere common sense, in that you think your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians. (Opus imperfectum contra Julianum, I. 48ff)

As revealed by the final report of the theologians convened in Rome in 2007, the Catholic Church has still not found a definitive way to extricate itself from this grotesque spectacle. The Commission labored, and brought forth a mouse—a “hope” that the babies might be saved, but a hope lacking any “explicit” scriptural basis. What, one wonders, about Jesus, who, indignant at his disciples’ attempt to rebuke those who were “bringing children to him, that he might touch them,” insisted (in all three synoptic Gospels), “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14; cf. Matt 19:14, Luke 18:16). Or, moving beyond scripture, one wishes these male theologians had been moved by the account of the third-century martyr, Perpetua, who envisioned, in her own prison-cell, her younger brother (who had died as an unbaptized child) liberated from a place of heat and thirst, and now, thanks to her prayers, drinking at a pool and “playing joyously as young children do.” Or, finally, why not take into account Julian’s rebuke of Augustine for lacking “religious” or “civilized” feeling, mere “common sense” and “justice”?

But the deliberations of these 21st-century theologians were dominated and (to my mind) warped by Original Sin, much of its obsessive doctrinal burden to be tracked back to fifth-century Hippo. For all his indisputable greatness, this is part of Augustine’s ambiguous legacy. Historically and officially, the Catholic Church may have denied, downplayed, or backed away from, the more extreme of Augustine’s doctrinal obsessions; but because of his sheer intellectual power and the magnitude of his authority, he has cast a shadow over the past 1,600 years of Western Christianity, for me, a remarkably dark shadow. Augustine’s particular pessimistic vision was shaped by his own sexually-obsessed psychology, the theological controversies in which he engaged, and, of course, by his response to the history he witnessed in an age of barbarian invasions, culminating in the Fall of Rome in 410, and the siege of Hippo itself in the final years of Augustine’s life. But one wishes that readers, especially theologians, who have adopted or succumbed to the Augustinian darkness would also have remembered the following sentence: “Here also is a lamentable darkness in which the capacities within me are hidden from myself, so that when my mind questions itself about its own powers, it cannot be assured that its answers are to be believed” (Confessions, Book 10:32).

An admirable questioning of his own certitudes, but hardly enough to make up for the subsequent damage caused by Augustinian “answers” that were “believed” by far too many for far too long. While the Confessions and parts of The City of God remain indelible in my memory, the reading of Augustine certainly failed to bestow upon me—as it did upon George Coyne, to revert to his response to Carl Sagan—the “gift of faith.”

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Whatever his inclination toward predestination and his insistence on the eternity of punishment (even of the little ones Jesus wanted near him), Augustine seems rather dispassionate about the actual witnessing of that punishment. He does remark that those who enter into the joy of the Lord “shall know what is going on outside in the outer darkness” and that the saints, “whose knowledge is great,” shall be “acquainted…with the sufferings of the lost” (The City of God, Books 20, 22). But he doesn’t seem to have taken sadistic pleasure in the torments of the damned. That ultimate form of Schadenfreude, and another pivotal challenge to my faith, was awaiting me in the pages of the other theologian cited by George Coyne as a pillar of his faith: Thomas Aquinas.

Keane2An image from the Winchester Psaltery (c. 1225)

I learned a great deal from working through the Summa Theologiae, my reading of which began in 1958, the very year George Coyne himself graduated from Fordham. Indeed, for a time I re-oriented my thinking, replacing Augustine’s Christianizing of Plato (or, rather, the Neoplatonists) with Thomas’s Christianizing of Aristotle. Then, one fateful day, I came upon a passage in the Third Part of the Summa, Supplement, Question 94, First Article, titled “Whether the Blessed in Heaven Will See the Sufferings of the Damned.” Here, the good Doctor tells us that “Beati in regno coelesti videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat [The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will be allowed to see the sufferings of the damned in order that their bliss may be more delightful to them].

More than a half-century later, I can still recall my shock in encountering words I found morally repellent. In the years to come, I would, like all of us, encounter innumerable examples, ranging from the pettiest to the most malicious, of people taking pleasure in the temporal misfortune, even the suffering, of others. And literature provided still more illustrations. I was struck, in reading The Iliad, by those panoramic scenes of the Homeric gods looking down from Olympus, taking pleasure in the entertainment provided by the spectacular carnage of the Trojan War. I was aware, too, of a famous passage in a favorite text, De rerum natura, where Lucretius captures the emotion of Schadenfreude in an extended image: Suave, mari magno turbanti aequora ventus, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem [It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds]. At the same time I was reading Augustine and Aquinas, I was also deep into the Romantic poets. And so I was familiar with Lord Byron’s moving portrait of the Gothic gladiator, torn from his native land, his children, and his wife, and now about to die in the Coliseum, “Butchered to make a Roman Holiday!” (Though there was a scene outside the Coliseum in the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck film, Roman Holiday, it seems unlikely that whoever titled this delightful and poignant movie had the full Byronic context of the phrase in mind.)

In light of the very different, but Coliseum-related, passage I will soon be quoting from Tertullian, it is worth noting that this butchery to please the bloodthirsty Roman spectators is not the only Schadenfreude-moment in this famous passage from Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The spectacle of the dying German gladiator, a sacrifice that pleased the sadistic Roman crowd safe in their seats, aroused the compassion, and stirred the anger, of the anti-imperialist poet: “Shall he expire, / And unavenged? Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire!” And the passage ends on a final note of commendable Byronic Schadenfreude: a glimpse of “Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill”—a sort of proleptic vision of vengeance Byron empathetically shares with his coerced and slain gladiator.

Lord_Byron_Childe_Harold's_Pilgimage

But in 1958, for all my delvings into theology, philosophy, and literature as a member of the advanced “A” Class at Fordham, I was still an inexperienced naif from the Bronx and a practicing Catholic. To encounter this passage about the bliss of the blessed being enhanced by delighting in the torments of the damned, coming from, of all people, Catholicism’s central philosopher-theologian, stunned me—especially since elsewhere in the Summa (Second Part, Question 74), Aquinas identifies delectatio morosa [morose delectation] as a sin. In fact, I was still disturbed enough a year later to finally seek out a particularly eminent Jesuit on campus, who referred me to literature on what has been called “the Abominable Fancy.”

farrarFrederick Farrar

The term, coined by the 19th-century cleric and writer, Frederick Farrar, refers to what I learned was a long-standing Christian idea that witnessing the sufferings of the doomed intensified the bliss of the saved. Farrar himself was a believer in universal reconciliation, a position he defended at length in Eternal Hope (1879) and Mercy and Judgment (1881). In his 1963 book The Decline of Hell, D. P. Walker remarks that the idea of eternal punishment in hell (a tradition “almost unchallenged” until the 17th century) was often accompanied by the idea that “part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned.” He offered a persuasive double-explanation: “The sight gives them joy because it is a manifestation of God’s justice and hatred of sin, but chiefly because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss.” Nevertheless, echoing Farrar, he describes it as a particularly “abominable aspect of the traditional doctrine of hell” (29).

Advocates of what Farrar and Walker condemn as an abomination cite scriptural roots, some tenuous in terms of eternal vengeance. In Psalms, for example, “the righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance” (58:10) and, in 68:2-3, when the “wicked perish before God,” the righteous shall “be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.” In a favorite phrase of devotees of the abominable fancy, the righteous shall “go forth” to enjoy the suffering of the damned, an allusion to the famous finale (Isaiah 66:24), in which the faithful “go forth and look” on the rotting corpses of the rebellious; as earlier noted, the reference may be restricted to mutable bodies rather than eternal souls. But in the more explicit and far more vengeful New Testament Book of Revelation, we are informed not only that, thanks to an avenging God, the saints and prophets” shall “rejoice” over the fallen city of Rome (18:20), but that the vengeance announced by the Third Angel will be eternal and witnessed by the whole of the heavenly host, including Jesus: a gazing-down scene popular in ancient and medieval iconography. Whoever “worships the beast,” thunders the Apocalyptist, “shall drink the wine of God’s wrath,” and “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:9-11).

This is presumably the passage to which Thomas Burnet was alluding in ironically describing the “divine harmony” produced by the burning of most of humankind in “the presence of an audience of God and angels.” But another text Burnet may have had in mind in satirizing the delight of that “audience” enjoying the agonies of the damned as an infernal “spectacle on the stage,” is the very book to which my Jesuit mentor directed me without further comment: Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, “On the Spectacles,” perhaps the most sustained and sensational illustration of the Abominable Fancy. I repaired to the old Duane Library and found the text, newly translated by Rudolph Arbesmann, and included in Tertullian: Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works (Fordham UP, 1959). Pagan public spectacles, such as those in the Coliseum, are despicable. Thus far, Tertullian and the Byron who elegized the dying gladiator are in agreement. But their versions of Schadenfreude could hardly be more antithetical.

ByronPortrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips

Rebelling against but haunted by Calvinist indoctrination and harangued by a pious mother and scripture-spouting nurses, Byron was simultaneously shadowed by the fear that he was predestined to damnation and appalled, on humane grounds, by the very concept of eternal punishment. In serious works, like his great closet drama Cain, he identified with the title character and even with rebel Lucifer; and in his jocoserious moments, especially in his two ottava rima comical masterpieces, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment, Byron mocked aspects of a religion whose catechism he knew more intimately than most believers, praising Jesus but targeting Christian cant and cruelty. In Don Juan, he dealt with the pitiless but pious burning of heretics in a single wittily-rhymed couplet: “Christians have burned each other, quite persuaded/ That all the Apostles would have done as they did” (I.83). And in stanza 14 of The Vision of Judgment, he displays a universalist tolerance and compassion alien to Tertullian’s relish in the agony of the damned: “I know,” says Byron at his ironic best, “this is unpopular; I know/ ‘Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damn’d/ For hoping no one else may e’er be so….”

TertullianTertullian

Here, at last, is Tertullian on Spectacles. The greatest, and by far the most entertaining, spectacle of all, he gloats in Chapter 30, will be the Final Judgment, when the mighty of the world shall be consumed in flame. (In the extraordinary passage that follows I do not adhere to any single translation):

You are fond of spectacles? Expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs and fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded pupils; so many celebrated poets trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of Christ—a surprise! So many tragedians, more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings, should be worth hearing! Dancers and comedians skipping in the fire will be worth praise! The famous charioteer will toast on his fiery wheel; the athletes will cartwheel not in the gymnasium but in flames….

The scenes in which he exults, taking “greater delight…than in a circus,” are in the future. “Yet even now,” Tertullian concludes, “we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination”—just such a topsy-turvy “picturing” as he has here vividly presented. In this reversal, the pagan gods are supplanted by Christ (as in Milton’s “Nativity Ode”), pagan thought and art by the new religion, present suffering by future bliss. Oppressed by prideful pagan masters who tortured and martyred them in public spectacles, Christians will have the last vengeful laugh, looking down, as it were, from the good seats in the Heavenly Coliseum, at the “greatest of all spectacles,” the fiery Hell of the Last Judgment.

Though Tertullian’s fervid and vindictive rhetoric, a masterpiece of Schadenfreude, was reduced by Arbesmann (in a footnote) to “a colorful description of the millennium,” it had been, I soon discovered, singled out by Edward Gibbon for special censure. In his great history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon notes that early Christian hatred of “idolatrous” pagan spectacles and games embraced all pagan art and scholarship—an eternal condemnation, at the very least of those who persisted in their obstinacy after the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross. “These rigid sentiments,” writes Gibbon, “which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony…[T]he Christians who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.” After citing at length the “stern Tertullian” of chapter 30 of De Spectaculis, Gibbon adds: “But the humanity of the reader will permit me to draw a veil over the rest of this infernal description, which the zealous African [Tertullian is believed to have been born or at least raised in Carthage, in Roman North Africa] pursues in a long variety of affected and unfeeling witticisms.” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 15)

As intended by the Jesuit who had directed me to it, the passage of Tertullian placed Aquinas’s comment in historical and religious context, that of imperial Rome in the 3rd century AD (De Spectaculis was probably written in the second decade of that century, after Tertullian had allied himself with the prophetic Montanist sect). But that context did not make the statement of Aquinas, a millennium later, any less repellent; and Gibbon’s humane rejection of the “resentment and spiritual pride” into which Tertullian had clearly been “seduced” tallied with my own aversion from the echoing passage in Aquinas. Tertullian’s relishing of this one “spectacle” may also be echoed in another passage likely to have influenced Aquinas. The pre-Thomistic scholastic theologian Peter Lombard, in his Sentences (Libri quatuor sententiarum), written in the mid-twelfth century, speaks of the “elect” sallying forth to witness “the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved,” but rather “will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious” (Sentences, IV. 50).

But the more I looked into the abyss, the more I realized the extent to which the retributive hell envisioned in the Sentences and in the Summa had been preceded not only by Tertullian, but, minus an emphasis on the gloating bliss of the saved, by Paul and, with wrath rather than sadistic resentment, by Jesus himself. On eternal punishment, Paul goes into less detail than does Jesus and the author of the Book of Revelation. In the remarkably intense opening chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians, however, Paul foreshadows the apocalyptic fury of Revelation, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire inflicting vengeance” on those “who do not know God” or who “do not obey” Christ’s gospel: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:8-9).

Early in Romans, his longest and most influential letter and the one in which he has most to say about divine wrath, Paul observes that while “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance,” those with hard and impenitent hearts are “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath,” when “there will be “tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (2:6-10). As we have seen, the Potter-God analogy (Rom 9:21-23) imprinted itself indelibly on the rather fevered imagination of Augustine, who turned Paul’s “lump of clay” into a sinful, filthy, and doomed “lump”: massa peccata, massa perditionis, massa damnata. Even though he makes it clear that the clay vessels are preordained for either glory or destruction, Paul strikes a better balance than the Bishop of Hippo:

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and anther for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of his mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…?” (9:20-23)

Paul advises us, still later in Romans (12:17), “Do not repay evil for evil.” But there is a catch; we are to forego personal vengeance in order to “leave room for God’s wrath.” In this way, by refusing to “take revenge” against your enemy, “you will heap burning coals on his head” (12:18-21). Moderate commentators have sought to make the final and most graphic image more palatable, suggesting that it refers to a form of ceremonial repentance or a shaming of one’s enemies. Perhaps. But when, in Paul’s likely source (Psalms 25:21-22), David cries out, “May burning coals fall upon them,” he is not talking about merely shaming his enemies. He is invoking what Paul (in the very epistle in which he has most to say about the subject) has just referred to as “God’s wrath.”

Divine wrath was certainly emphasized by Jesus, who—despite his embodiment of the Love thought to be the very antithesis of the God of Wrath—spoke more, and far more graphically, about Hell than about Heaven. In an unforgettable passage (John 10:7-10), Jesus presents himself as the “door” to salvation, as the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” as he who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” In the light of such moving and redemptive imagery, one wants to repress the darker side of Jesus’ ministry. My heart and head are with nuanced theologians, yet it seems to me that Jesus is speaking (or being made to speak by the Gospel-authors) literally rather than (as many would prefer) figuratively in those passages in which he opens the mouth of hell.

For the “door” swings both ways. In the passage I earlier suggested was echoed by Augustine in observing that “many more” are punished than are “delivered,” Jesus said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14). The road most traveled by (and Jesus does suggest that most of humanity is on the road to perdition) leads to a hell that is a place of both “darkness” and flame, a “fiery furnace” where (in a phrase attributed repeatedly to Jesus, mostly in Matthew, to describe the torments of the damned) there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12, 22:17, 25:30; cf. Luke13:27-28). And when Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41), the departure implies more than separation from God and is obviously permanent. The damned are “cast into eternal fire” (Matt 8:18) its flames “unquenchable” (Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17, Mark 9:43). Thus, the “many” depart to a place of agony both intense and “everlasting”—the Greek word for which, aionios, occurs 71 times in the New Testament.

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That the adjective “everlasting” is applied in the New Testament to Heaven as well as Hell points to the Love/Wrath symmetry that ostensibly reconciles the great paradox: that eternal punishment is not inconsistent with the character of God, who is at once loving and benevolent, but also righteous and a God of justice, who metes out punishment as well as reward. The radiance of Jesus shines through the Gospels, despite such passages. But whether or not the hellfire passages accurately depict what Jesus actually said, they are there, and cannot simply be selectively dismissed by those who want a gentler Jesus—a Savior, but not a Sentencer. A major 19th- century theologian tried to do just that. The moderate and much-admired Anglican F. D. Maurice was dismissed from his position as Professor of Theology and Modern History at Kings College, London, when his Theological Essays of 1853 revealed his growing conviction that the notion of eternal punishment was erroneous, and based on a misunderstanding of biblical passages. Others went farther.

Frederick_Denison_Maurice._Portrait_c1865F.D. Maurice

In accord with their optimistic doctrine of apokatastasis, the idea of eternal punishment was rejected by prominent theologians, from Origen through Gregory of Nyssa, Julian, Scotus Erigena, and George MacDonald, whose 1879 rejection of the idea of eternal punishment cost him his post, as it had Maurice—in MacDonald’s case, his Church of Scotland pulpit. Such universalists, right up to the present, believe that divine Love will conquer all. In the words of Rowan Williams, the controversial former Archbishop of Canterbury, “if salvation is for any, it is for all” (The Truce of God [2005], 30). Yet the idea of universal redemption also reminds me rather too much of the Dodo Bird’s response to Alice’s query about how—since the runners in the race they are watching start when and where they want—a winner can be determined: “Everybody has won,” says the Dodo, unconsciously launching a thousand theses on moral equivalence, “and all must have prizes” (Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 3).

Alice_John_Tenniel_Alice and Dodo by John Tenniel

Others, seldom with the resentment-fueled malice of Tertullian, want a judgmental Jesus, since it seems only just that the wicked be punished, if not in this life, then in the next. For those more repelled than awed by the idea of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” the punishment is justified on the basis of the free will minimized by Augustine. Human beings are free to accept or reject Christ’s offer of salvation. C. S. Lewis is emphatic about this choice. But while he bases his argument on freedom to choose, and wishes hell away, its horrors are presented with all of Lewis’s considerable imaginative power. He also grimly notes, in The Problem of Pain (1940), that our final choice is irrevocable and that “the gates of hell are locked from the inside” (127). Free will is also stressed by prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in God and Other Minds (1990), and elsewhere. Free choice was starkly presented in 2005 by Robert Jeffress, in Hell? Yes!—a cleverly glib title synopsizing his Schadenfreude-dripping certitude that “every occupant of hell will be there by his own choice” (85).

hell-yes-book

The smug, stony coldness of that verdict is intensified by the fact that the hell of the secularist-baiting Jeffress (as well as of Lewis and Plantinga) is “everlasting.” Even if punishment of sin is thought justifiable, surely eternal damnation, Augustine notwithstanding, is disproportionate given the brevity of human life; and grotesque in the case of those for whom history and geography ruled out knowing let alone choosing Christ. I am chilled by the thought that the gates of hell are “locked from the inside” and that every inmate “will be there by his own choice.” Nevertheless, as a professor opposed to grade inflation, I am with Alice rather than the Dodo. I also confess to being oddly stirred by the frisson of a remark the poet and Catholic convert Lionel Johnson, “his tongue loosened” by drink, once made in casual conversation with his friend Yeats: “I wish those who deny eternity of punishment could realize their own unspeakable vulgarity.” My response is precisely that of Yeats, who adds, “I remember laughing when he said it, but for years I turned it over in my mind, and it always made me uneasy” (private note, published in T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats [1950], 291). But even in Johnson’s remark we find hauteur and hyperbole rather than the flippant coldness of the author of Hell? Yes!, let alone the sadism and resentment Gibbon condemned in Tertullian’s catalogue of pagans groaning in darkness and liquefying in fire—to say nothing of his other “unfeeling witticisms” at the expense, for example, of the tragic poets now burning in hell, who have grown “more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings.”

There is no dearth of preachers who take an unseemly pleasure in terrifying, or gratifying, their audiences with fire and brimstone. Celebrated theologians, perhaps most prominent among them Jonathan Edwards, have delivered sermons depicting the terrors of the pit of hell to motivate their flocks to repent and be saved. Edwards was, along with the more flamboyant George Whitefield, the key figure in the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in America. Speaking softly, he terrified those attending his classic 1741 Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:

The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive the wicked! The flames do now rage and glow. The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way one hold a spider or some loathsome insect, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. (Works, VII, 499)

And, however intellectually enlightened he may have been, Edwards was an enthusiastic advocate of the abominable fancy. The “view of the misery of the damned,” he proclaims in an April 1739 sermon, “will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven,” for whom the “sight of hell torments will exalt [their] happiness… forever (“The Eternity of Hell Torments”). A close disciple of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), though a humanitarian activist motivated by disinterested benevolence (indeed, an opponent of the slave trade who envisioned establishing colonies in Africa for liberated slaves), was rather less humane in contemplating the divine design involving hell, and the psychological as well as retributive purpose it served. He was even more explicit than his mentor Edwards about the suffering—specifically, the eternal suffering—of others being required to maximize the happiness of the blessed:

The display of the divine character will be most entertaining to all who love God, [and] will give them the highest and most ineffable pleasure. Should the fire of this eternal punishment cease, it would in a great measure obscure the light of heaven, and put an end to a great part of the happiness and glory of the blessed. (Works, 458)

Of course, to “all who love God,” there was also a “world of love” awaiting. Jonathan Edwards concluded his 1738 sermon, “Heaven is a World of Love,” by conditionally assuring his listeners, “if ever you arrive at heaven, faith and love must be the wings which must carry you there.” He would seem to be echoing the 1708 prayer of his fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts, whose hymns were known throughout Protestant Christendom:

Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

But Watts was also capable, enthusiastically if less characteristically, of attributing the “joys” of those “saints above” to the Abominable Fancy. The following quatrain comes from a hymn that presumably once fired up, or terrified, congregations, but which is seldom sung these days:

What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls
In quenchless flames of hell.

And what if the sinners rolling in quenchless flames happen to be the nearest and dearest of the ransomed? When asked if the saved will not be saddened by seeing loved ones tortured in hell, Martin Luther responded, “Not in the least.” And Johann Gerhard, the leading Lutheran theologian of the 17th century, observed that “the Blessed will see their friends and relations among the damned as often as they like but without the least of compassion.” Addressing a series of rhetorical questions—“Can the believing husband in heaven be happy with his unbelieving wife in hell? Can the believing father in heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in hell? Can the loving wife in heaven he happy with her unbelieving husband in hell?”—Jonathan Edwards responded quietly but exuberantly, “I tell you, Yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss” (Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738). In his 1924 collection of essays, The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child, the “Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll, observed of this repudiation of the familial bond, “There is no wild beast in the jungles of Africa whose reputation would not be tarnished by the expression of such a doctrine.”

packer1J.I. Packer photo by Ron Storer

Such heartless theological sentiments persist. As we were recently assured by Canadian minister and theologian J. I. Packer, “love and pity for hell’s occupants will not enter our hearts” (“Hell’s Final Enigma,” in Christianity Today Magazine, April 22, 2002).Two years later, actor Mel Gibson, later notorious for a drunken anti-Semitic rant and various sexual infidelities, surprised an interviewer for the Australian Herald Sun by stating that his wife, Robyn, though “a much better person than I am,” indeed a “saint,” was an Episcopalian, and therefore headed to hell, since he was doctrinally certain that there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church. Gibson, an ultra-conservative Catholic, either didn’t know or didn’t care that the ecumenical post-Vatican II Church had revised the old dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus. In any case, as a Catholic, he was going to heaven, from which perch he would ultimately and eternally be looking down on his wife in hell: a woman almost certainly “a much better person” than he—and, in her pre-infernal existence in the temporal world, remarkably well-off, having received 400 million dollars, the largest settlement in Hollywood history, when she divorced Gibson in 2011, less than a decade after he had consigned her to the pit of hell.

That dogma, and the familial heartlessness that turns, in Edwards and others, from wife, husband, and children in the name of theology, was still operative in the late 19th century, when, writing in Spanish, Cuban Archbishop Anthony Mary Claret composed a series of 35 meditations on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (translated into English in 1955 as The Golden Key to Heaven). Some meditations are admirable, but in addressing the “Pains of Hell,” Claret noted that “for all eternity,” a condemned “wretch” will be abandoned by friends, without a “kind word.” Rather, “they will be satisfied to see him in the flames as a victim of God’s justice. They will abhor him. A mother will look from paradise upon her own condemned son without being moved, as though she had never known him.”

In my junior year at Fordham, precisely a decade after Archbishop Claret was canonized by Pope Pius XII, we had a retreat that employed Ignatian “composition of place” to evoke the physical and spiritual agonies of eternal punishment: a presentation as graphic and horrifying as the hellfire sermon that sends a terrified Stephen Dedalus scurrying off to confession in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The sustained double-sermon in Portrait (it takes up most of Part III of the novel) was delivered by Fr. Arnall, Joyce’s fictional name for the priest, Fr. James Cullen, who led the actual retreat Joyce attended as a Belvedere College student. In fact as in fiction, the retreat was based on traditional Jesuit sermons. The main text Joyce used was Giovanni Pietro Pinamonte, S. J., Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It, first printed in Bologna in 1688, and frequently reprinted in English translations (though fluent in Italian, Joyce used a late 19th-century translation printed in Dublin).

Keane1Four Woodcuts from Pinamonte’s Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It

As I can attest from my own experience, the order, imagery, phrasing, biblical citations, and graphic images to which we were exposed at Fordham in 1960 were virtually identical to the pattern laid down in Giovanni Pinamonte’s uncompromising ur-text, a rhetorical set-piece at once salutary and terrifying. Another model for Fr. Arnall may have been the appropriately-named Fr. Furniss, a sadistic 19th-century Anglo-Irish priest who specialized in terrorizing children with the threat of hellfire. We can catch the flavor of the preaching of both Pinamonte and Furniss in the hell-passages of the sermon in Portrait. Though Fr. Arnall covers in sequence the four “last things, death, judgment, hell, and heaven,” the section of the retreat that struck terror in the soul of Stephen Dedalus, as in mine in 1960, followed the opening of the maw of hell—fusing Pinamonte’s title, Hell Opened to Christians, with the “opening” of the “mouth” of Sheol in Isaiah:

Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits—words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ Jesus, from the book of Isaias, fifth chapter, fourteenth verse….

—Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned to which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke ….By reason of the great numbers of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick…They are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it [echoing, like the coming “stench,” that old favorite, Isaiah 66:24]….They lie in exterior darkness…for the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness…

—The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by the awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scums of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world…Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

But more and worse was to come: namely, the pain, intensity, and eternity of the fire “created by God to punish the unrepentant sinner”—a litany of tortures that out-Dantes Dante. Earthly fire consumes itself,

but the fire of hell has this property that it preserves that which it burns and though it rages with incredible intensity it rages for ever….The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls…And the strength and quality…of this fire is as nothing when compared to its intensity, an intensity which it has as being the instrument chosen by divine design for the punishment of soul and body alike. It is a fire which proceeds directly from the ire of God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of divine vengeance….Every sense of the flesh is tortured… and through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

Fr. Arnall concludes by praying “fervently to God that not a single soul of those who are in this chapel today…may ever hear ringing in his ears the awful sentence of rejection: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels!” (Portrait, 119-24).

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The emphasis of our retreat-master at Fordham was, as with Fr. Arnall, on repentance and salvation. But even their final prayerful citation of Jesus (Matt 25:41) intensified rather than alleviated the terror of being cast into “the everlasting fire.” There was nothing merely figurative about our preacher’s detailed descriptions of the myriad torments of hell, and, though I knew nothing in 1960 of Pinamonte or Furniss, it was sometimes hard to separate the tone and sensuous immediacy of our priest’s Jesuit rhetoric from the vindictive glee of Tertullian relishing the agonies of the damned.

NietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche

Shortly after I graduated from Fordham, in 1961, I read Nietzsche seriously for the first time. I had earlier responded to the excitement of his literary style and to what W. B. Yeats described with remarkable tonal accuracy as this “strong enchanter’s curious astringent joy.” But in reading On the Genealogy of Morals, arguably the most substantial of his works, I discovered that Nietzsche had responded to the very passages in Aquinas and Tertullian that had so troubled me a few years earlier at Fordham. Quoting both passages in Latin, Nietzsche attributed their sadism—as expressed particularly by that “enraptured visionary,” triumphalist Tertullian—to what he repeatedly condemns (always in French) as the ressentiment characteristic of “slave morality”— here, future “blessedness” as Will to Power in disguise (Genealogy of Morals 1:15). Gibbon’s image of oppressed Christians “seduced…by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph,” may have helped generate Nietzsche’s crucial concept, first announced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 and fully developed in the Genealogy, of ressentiment as the driving impulse of “slave morality”: the desire of the weak, the “good”, for vengeance against the strong, depicted not merely as “bad,” but “evil.”

The dubiousness of the doctrine of eternal punishment of those condemned as “evil,” let alone the appalling notion that, far from eliciting empathy, their suffering is a source of glee for the saved, becomes even more repugnant when that pleasure is extended from his creatures to the Creator himself. Some Christians claim that the bliss of the saints, enhanced by looking down on the suffering of the damned, is shared by God—as we just saw in quoting Joyce’s version of the standard Jesuit retreat-sermon as well as the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and his disciple Samuel Hopkins. Whatever the values of its spiritual revival, its influence in effecting social reforms, and its often splendid rhetoric, the Great Awakening seems to me more of a Great Nightmare. The God of Jonathan Edwards, whether the “angry God” who abhors the sinners he holds in his hands, or the “just” God who presides over a system in which the happiness of a father who has made it to heaven is increased rather than diminished by the sight of his “unbelieving children in hell,” is obviously a God to fear, but hardly one we would wish to love or to be coerced into worshiping.

Mills_Examination

I have in mind the conclusion of John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a book more revealing of Mill’s own philosophy. Putting aside the “glad tidings” of Jesus, Mill aligns himself with Hamilton in denying any “immediate intuition of God.” But some claim that the “infinite goodness ascribed to God” is not “the goodness we know and love in our fellow-creatures distinguished only as infinite in degree,” but is, rather, “different in kind and of another quality altogether.” In concluding, Mill, risking hellfire, defiantly rejects this God of transcendent, ineffable morality in the name of the highest form of morality among human beings, fellow-creatures with whom we interact ethically, compassionately, and, at our best, with love. “If,” Mill writes, “I am informed that the world”

is ruled by a being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, except that the highest human morality does not sanction them—convince me of this and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say, in plain terms, that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, then to hell I will go. (Works, ed. John M. Robson (1963-1991), 10:103.

Of course, human beings are not always “good.” We can, though it would fly in the face of centuries of Christian tradition, dismiss the notion (hardly restricted to Puritan or Jesuit hellfire sermonizing) of an angry and vindictive deity as an anthropomorphic projection, a reflection of human rather than divine cruelty, sadism, and ressentiment. And it is true that, in what Nietzsche called “these more humane ages,” most Christians, other than rigid traditionalists and literalist fundamentalists, think and speak less of a God of Wrath than of Love, and of hell (as even Billy Graham thinks) as separation from God rather than a literal “place.” Against the Great Awakening of Edwards and Whitefield may be set a more significant awakening: the dawning of the American Enlightenment, best personified by those two once-bitter political rivals and later great friends among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. “I can never join Calvin is addressing his God,” wrote the deist Jefferson to Adams:

He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be….If ever a man worshipped a false God, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge, the creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. (17 April 1823)

My friend Paul Johnston recently quoted an observation, made five years earlier, by this letter’s recipient. Writing on 14 September 1818 to Jefferson, Adams attacked reliance on miracles and prophecies, the idea of a vain and vengeful deity, and the awful belief that most of humankind is eternally doomed to Hell. He also offered a personal, rational and humane definition of what he believed it meant to be a Christian:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or of any miracle…as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature’s God….Can prophecies or miracles convince you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created, and preserves for a time, innumerable millions, to make them miserable for ever, for his own glory? Wretch!…Is he vain, tickled with adulation, exulting and triumphing in his power and the sweetness of his vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these awful questions. My answer to them is always ready. I believe in no such thing. My adoration of the author of the universe is too profound and too sincere. The love of God and his creation—delight, joy, triumph, exultation in my own existence—though but an atom, a molecule organique, in the universe—these are my religion. Howl, snarl, bite, ye Calvinistic, ye Athanasian divines, if you will. Ye will say I am no Christian. I say ye are no Christians.

After so much hellfire and rejoicing at its torments, we can find respite in the refreshingly unorthodox voice of Enlightenment Reason, blasphemous though it may be to traditionalists. The deist sobriquets for God, civic and civil, have, in contrast to the sound and fury of sectarian conflict and theological hairsplitting, a euphemistic charm. Momentarily setting aside the angry God and loving but wrathful Jesus of historical Christianity, we can join Jefferson in acknowledging the “benevolent governor of the world,” just as we share Adams’s exultation in his own existence, and appreciate his love of the benign “author of the universe.”

Baruch_Spinoza_-_Franz_WulfhagenBaruch Spinoza by Franz Wulfhagen

Jefferson’s insistence on intellectual and democratic freedom from a tyrannous religion, like the skepticism of Adams regarding the reality of “miracles” and his reinterpretation of the nature of “prophecy,” are aligned for me with the earlier and even more profound enlightenment provided by an Amsterdam Jew writing in the 17th-century Dutch Republic: the great Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. Despite being expelled from his synagogue and condemned as an atheist, Spinoza proved to have immense appeal, exerting an influence that crossed sectarian divisions. Fervently and famously embraced as a “god-intoxicated man” by the German Catholic Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich Hardenberg) and—by the English Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth—as a pantheist for whom Nature was indistinguishable from God, Spinoza was also profoundly admired by the atheist Nietzsche, an opponent of all other Idealist philosophers, who rightly venerated Spinoza for his simple and sublime nobility of spirit. As did Einstein, who, because of the “God-talk” in which he expressed his sense of awe and wonder in contemplating the beauty, majesty, and ultimate mystery of the universe, was mistakenly thought, by American admirers in his adopted country, to be a believer in a personal God, one who intervened in human affairs and was accessible by prayer. No, explained Einstein, his “religion” was limited to reverence of the order (since “God did not throw dice”) of the cosmos itself, and his only deity was “Spinoza’s God.”

The first serious philosophy paper I wrote at Fordham was on Spinoza’s Ethics, and I still remember that my Jesuit professor, in grading the essay A+, added a remark more gracious than accurate: that I was “farther along than he on the via illuminativa.” But the work of Spinoza I later wished I’d focused on at Fordham was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), an immensely influential treatise pioneering the argument that the Bible, written by prophets of superior ethics but vivid imaginations, was not to be read “literally.” Authentic religion had nothing to do with “miracles and prophecies,” church authorities, or divisive sectarian dogma. Instead, “true religion” was based on the moral imperatives to seek the truth, to love one’s neighbor, and to be tolerant. The book’s political chapters, as far in advance of their time as those on theology, were a sustained plea for democratic toleration, especially in defense of “the freedom to philosophize” without interference from religious or political authorities.

For such thoughts, Spinoza was driven from his synagogue in the harshest terms. The cherum (or ritual of expulsion and ostracism) reads in part: because of his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” we “excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch Spinoza, with the consent of God and with all the curses…written in the Book of the Law.” The vicious backlash against the Treatise also came from Christians. Within weeks of its publication, it was denounced by a prominent German theologian as “a godless document” that should be banned in every country. One of Spinoza’s Dutch countrymen described it as an “atheistic book full of abominations…which every reasonable person should find abhorrent.” Another, not to be outdone, called the deeply moral and eminently reasonable Tractatus “a book forged in hell,” written not by the ethical thinker toiling as a lens-grinder in Amsterdam, but by the devil himself.

In short, before and after welcome bursts of Enlightenment, Dutch or American, there remains a long, problematic, and continuing history of religious intolerance and induced terror. Despite being surrounded by and taught by smart and compassionate Jesuits, and despite (perhaps because of) the fact that I was in the advanced theology course, and attended that terrifying retreat, I have always found it difficult, after those impressionable years at Fordham, to glibly dismiss the concept of the vengeful deity fearfully accepted, or sadistically embraced, by so many believers for so long. And, like it or not, and however softened or “symbolic” much non-fundamentalist Christianity has become in these “more humane ages,” the doctrine of eternal punishment—and the concept of a God willing to initiate, approve, and even occasionally take relish in such monstrous cruelty—has defined traditional Christian theology for most of its history.

The widespread phenomenon often described as the “decline” or even “disappearance” of hell—a trickle in the 17th century, a stream in the American Enlightenment (including the Divinity School Address of Emerson), and cresting in England and continental Europe in the later 19th century, first among Protestants, somewhat later among Catholics—is, taken as a generalization, a historical fact. But while hell’s heat has been lowered, its flames a mere flicker in comparison to their former raging in incendiary hellfire texts and sermons, the old time religion is still alive and well, among some televangelists, and in much of Bible-belt contemporary America.

As for Catholicism: A tonal and gestural sea-change has recently occurred. The election of Pope Francis, an Argentina-based Jesuit, signaled a dramatic double-shift: from Eurocentrism and from dogmatic harshness to compassion and tolerance. That shift seems decisive, but is it permanent, and how far can tone take us in tempering let alone altering doctrine? It was, after all, just seven years earlier that Francis’s conservative predecessor, Benedict XVI, strenuously reaffirmed traditional Church teaching on hell. Benedict’s own predecessor, John Paul II, had referred to damnation vaguely as an “eternal emptiness.” Reacting to the “decline of hell,” especially in Western Europe, Benedict complained that the place of everlasting torment was no longer much talked about. He went on to describe Satan as a “real, personal and not merely symbolic presence” and proclaimed that hell, far from being a mere state of mind, or a condition of separation from God, is an actual place, one that “exists and is eternal.” We were spared fire-and-brimstone details, but listening to this March 2007 proclamation on the radio, I was transported back almost a half-century to that Fordham retreat.

Having lost my faith while remaining fascinated by the figure of Jesus, attractive despite his apparent consignment of most of humankind to eternal punishment, I sometimes want to cry out with the boy’s father in Mark 9:24: “Help thou my unbelief.” But the theological Problem of Suffering goes beyond the posthumous torments of hell to pain right here on earth, with the undeserved suffering of the innocent presenting the single greatest challenge to my own ability to “believe” in a God simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving. As David Hume has “Philo,” the more skeptical of his two spokesmen, note in Part 10 of his posthumously-published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered”—questions we may apply to the presence of evil and suffering in a world “groaning” for “deliverance” (Rom 8:19-22), or to the groaning of hopeless souls in hell. Simplifying Epicurus, Hume has Philo ask, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then cometh evil? (75).

Nothing I read in Augustine or Aquinas about God’s “justice,” or about the constrained freedom that makes eternal punishment the “choice” of sinners, enabled me to answer those questions. And my subsequent immersion in the pornography of the Abominable Fancy only deepened my alienation from the faith I was raised in, and problematized the beliefs I had brought with me as a Freshman entering Fordham. Beginning college was hardly the time to abandon reason; and, in fact, as my classmate and lifelong friend Bill Baumert has often noted in retrospect, we received a first-rate and rigorous education at Fordham—far superior to what generally passes as education these days at colleges and universities where the canon has been “exposed,” the curriculum softened, and demands on students drastically eased, as their prose deteriorates, tuition costs soar, and the party goes on.

But I’ve also had other thoughts in retrospect. Being shocked into intellectual as well as emotional resistance by my reading of that fateful passage in Aquinas, I may have betrayed my own growing commitment to the Romantic poets by embracing a too-narrow intellectualism when it came to theology. Not that I was willing, then or now, to honor Imagination by a descent into irrationalism, any more than the great Romantics did. Neither, for that matter, despite some of the words by which we best remember them, did Luther (for all his distrust and frequent condemnation of “that whore, reason”), nor even Tertullian, the passionate evoker of that circus-scene in which Christians would posthumously join him, exulting in the spectacle of pagans writhing in hellfire. Tertullian is even more famous for having said he “believed because it was absurd,” but it isn’t quite that simple.

In arguing, in de Carne Christi 5:4, that the resurrection of Christ’s body, crucified and buried, was certain because impossible [credibile est, quia ineptum es, et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile]—Tertullian may not have been relying on blind faith (the fideism of the oft-misquoted tag, credo quia absurdum est), but following, as James Moffatt suggested a century ago, “in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle” (Journal of Theological Studies 17 [1915-16], 170-71). Since, in lines he quotes from the tragedian Agathon, “what is contrary to probability sometimes occurs,” it can be argued, says Aristotle, that “the improbable will be probable” (Rhetoric 2.24.9); even that some stories are so improbable that it can become reasonable to believe them. For Tertullian, the most improbable story is that of the incarnate, crucified, buried, and risen Jesus—which is, paradoxically, what makes it credible. This is the very point made by Shakespeare’s Hippolyta in an exchange in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a riposte to her soon-to-be husband, Theseus, that would have delighted Agathon and Tertullian—and, perhaps, Aristotle.

In the opening of that final act, Theseus, a self-assured rationalist, dismisses (“more strange than true”) the lovers’ tales of their adventures in the moonlit wood. They are “fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends,” and thus to be grouped indiscriminately with the merely imaginary constructions common to “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet.” But we in the audience know to be “true” what Hippolyta shrewdly intuits: that however individually fantastic the tales may be, they are part of an over-all consistency that makes each of them credible. To Theseus’ cool skepticism and reductive characterization of “imagination,” she responds:

But the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy,
But howsoever strange and admirable. (5.1.23-27)

A similar case has often been made, certainly in one of my Fordham theology courses, to demonstrate the “historicity” of the gospels. Tertullian would concur, since those gospels tell the story, “howsoever strange and admirable,” of Christ, a man who is God and a God who is a man, who died in the flesh and rose from the sepulcher: a story “certain” because “impossible.” And yet Aristotle, it is worth recalling, was quoting a playwright, and Hippolyta, though wiser than her betrothed, is, like him, merely a character in a play, even if it is a play by Shakespeare. Tertullian’s central figure, on the other hand, is non-fictional, not only a dying and resurrected God, but a Savior and Sentencer, a loving Good Shepherd and harsh Judge, with the divine power to deliver on his threat: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

That was the “awful sentence of rejection” our retreat-master at Fordham, and Joyce’s at Belvedere, prayed we would never hear “ringing in our ears,” but which has never completely stopped ringing in mine—even years after I had rationally concluded that the real absurdity was the doctrine of eternal punishment itself, to say nothing of the abominable fancy that witnessing the endless agony of “many” of our fellow human beings could enhance the pleasure of the “few.” For Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Archbishop Claret, and, last and least, Mel Gibson, this privileged audience may have been the “blessed,” the “saved,” even the Elect. But if its members were consigning most of humankind to hell, some even taking pleasure in that horrible prospect, it seemed to me—to alter Milton, who also had a few things to day about hell—an “unfit audience though few.” And just to cap my blasphemy: to the extent that the God of infinite Wrath (preached, along with the God of infinite Mercy, by Jesus and Paul) seems eager and willing to act in ways which, however ineffable and transcendent, seem petty, vindictive, and everlastingly punitive—alien, as Mill puts it, to “the highest human morality”—he, too, seems less a Father than a Tyrant.

So, while I am fond, and in part envious, of George Coyne, my final question is not the one posed to him by Carl Sagan (“Why should you be given the gift of faith, and not me?”), but, rather, is this a “gift” I want? And yet, George Coyne is more than a foil in these ruminations. Obviously, we took very different religious paths as a result of our exposure to Augustine and Aquinas at Fordham. But we’ve become friends, and we agree on many things, among others, that Intelligent Design, while an engaging surmise, is not a scientific theory to be taught in biology or physics classes. We agree, too, that kindness and consideration matter crucially, among friends and in the way a professor interacts with students. And we concur on the greatness of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J., a handsome edition of whose poems and letters I gave George in first welcoming him to Le Moyne.

In the month I am writing, November 2014, we participated together in an event, held in Le Moyne’s Panasci Chapel, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Hopkins’s death in 1889. I introduced the keynote speaker, Hopkins expert Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., author of The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008), and the scholar who had, a decade earlier while working in the Jesuit Archives in London, unearthed an unpublished poem written by Hopkins in 1875-76, displaying that “playfulness” and the delight Hopkins took in the companionship of his fellow-Jesuits at St. Bueno’s College in Wales. The poem George read that evening, his favorite, was “God’s Grandeur,” a magnificent, breathtaking celebration of God and God’s Nature. I read the exuberant “Hurrahing in Harvest.” If I were ever to regain my faith, it would have more to do with engaging Hopkins—poems both ecstatically celebrating and darkly “wrestling with (my God!) my God”—than with revisiting the gospels and Paul, let alone Augustine and Aquinas, who led me away from Christianity in the first place.

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Coda

A widely read friend and believer to whom I sent this essay responded that he wasn’t sure what the “story” was primarily “about”–was it autobiographical or theological? about my own “personal loss of faith” or a disquisition on “salvational schadenfreude“? He also asserted that the God in whom I had lost faith was a sadistic deity that “virtually all [my] believing associates would also repudiate.” He further wondered if, in my unbelief, I had become an “atheist,” bereft of all “sense (feeling) of something infusing the material, Hopkins’s glory in dappled things.” He concluded by suggesting that he was “not the right audience” for this essay because he had had spiritual “experiences” that allowed him “to hope that there is something beyond dead, contingent materialism.”

The paradigm for such dramatic spiritual experiences is Saul-Paul’s conversion-moment on the Road to Damascus, which, remarkably enough, Paul himself never mentions (we hear of it in Acts, a particularly corrupt text). Though they’re often life-transforming, I have never had such an experience myself, perhaps because I have not been “given” the “gift of faith,” and thus have no way of judging their ontological, as opposed to their subjective, significance. In thanking my friend for reading the essay and raising probing questions, I assured him that, while I hadn’t had the sort of epiphany he mentioned…

I have had “experiences”—in love, in nature, with animals—that rule out at least “reductive materialism.” Such experiences have long been enhanced by my reading of the Romantic poets and of Hopkins, so I most certainly do have “a sense (feeling) of something infusing the material”—not just Hopkins’s Christ-haunted glory in dappled things, but (in the passage you seem to allude to) Wordsworth’s Spinozistic and (in 1798, when he wrote these lines) non-Christian sublime:

………………………And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man :
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought….

Nor, given the mystery of the universe, am I arrogant enough to label myself an atheist; I’m agnostic, though unconvinced of the existence of a personal God who cares about us.

What is this essay “about”? I’m not sure myself. “Confessional” in both the common and Augustinian senses, it was a convulsive outpouring, written in less than two weeks; and the initial “audience” was… myself: an attempt to lay out the history of, and thus clarify, my individual fall from grace. Eternal punishment, hell, and the accompanying schadenfreude (the sadistic pleasure far too many have taken in relishing the sufferings of the damned), are at the heart of it. But it’s precisely this combination that produced my “loss of faith.” Thus, the “story” is not one of Either/Or, but of Both/And.

The God in whom I lost faith is not simply the God of Augustine or Aquinas, but the God presented to us by the Founders of Christianity: Jesus and Paul. I cite some of the most wonderful utterances of Jesus, as child-loving Good Shepherd and the “door” to salvation. But Jesus also talks more about damnation and hellfire than any person in either testament of the Bible (as I note, the Hebrew scriptures are virtually silent on that subject), and Paul provided the template for the predestined damnation of most humans: the theory of predestination taken up by Augustine (and, to a lesser degree, by Aquinas) and which culminated in the theology of Calvin.

As Calvin himself said, his entire theology is based on Augustine, and much of Augustine (on original sin and on God’s foreordaining of a “few” souls to glory and “many” to damnation) was drawn from Paul, particularly from his longest, weightiest, and most influential epistle, to the Romans. Paul, in turn, was echoing passages of Jesus: the “narrow” gate leading the “few” to heaven, the “wide” gate leading the “many” to hell. And the terrible sentence at the climax of the hell-sermon, in Joyce and at Fordham in 1960–“Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels”–are, of course, the words of Jesus, as reported in Matthew.

As I say in the essay, “the radiance of Jesus shines through the gospels,” often despite those gospels, written decades after his death. But they’re all we have as accounts purporting to have witnessed Jesus in the flesh, and recording what he said. Though written earlier, the letters of Paul are those of a man who never saw Christ—unless we give credence to the conversion-moment on the road to Damascus. Since Jesus is hardly mentioned outside the New Testament (there’s are references to the Jesus cult in Josephus and in Tacitus, though, in the case of the latter, the reference was added much later, by a Christian editor), we have to rely on the New Testament texts: the gospels, the various letters, especially the epistles of Paul, Acts, and the exciting but crazy Book of Revelation: that world-masterpiece of schadenfreude.

Reading these texts led me to the inevitable conclusion that the God in whom I lost faith is not some bizarre and sadistic deity dreamed up in the pessimistic imagination of Augustine or in the darker pages of the Summa. It’s the Wrathful aspect of the God of Love preached by Jesus and Paul: the God who, they both insist, sentences most of us to everlasting fire. Along with most of my “believing associates,” you want to selectively “look on the bright side.” I mention in the essay the historical phenomenon known as the “decline of Hell.” However, while only a tiny percentage believe that they are headed to the pit, a majority of Evangelicals and Catholics still believe in the traditional hell and in a God of Wrath. In fact, the God in whom I lost faith, that “God that virtually all of [my] believing associates would also repudiate,” is one aspect of the God of Jesus and Paul, which, if we follow the logic, you must “repudiate.”

Coming from my own particular background, including the intense reading in my Fordham theology classes, I find it hard to delete the dark bits. I wish it could be otherwise, but, in contemplating the prospect of eternal punishment as well as this temporal world of massive, mostly undeserved suffering, I find scant evidence of a benign God. Given my particular early experiences, I feel cut off from the option of being what used to be called a “cafeteria Catholic.” Instead, I find myself in the absurd but honest position of being fundamentalist in my agnosticism.

— Patrick J. Keane


PAT kEANE

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

a

Apr 072015
 

Agri Ismaïl

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Premise: Four men sit around a giant bottle of vodka, picking at various unappetising appetisers as waiters hurry to bring them an assortment of mixers and pour clumsy blends of vodka and juice. The men raise a toast, welcoming each other, and talk of work, politics, war. One of the men tells the story of when, in 1996, he had saved up and bought his very first portable cassette player after toiling away at the reception desk of a local hotel for months. He describes the specifications of the lost device (auto reverse! 20radio station memory!) with affection between modest sips of his drink. He recounts how when the city was taken, he was sure that his house would be looted due to his political affiliations, so he considered whom among his friends and family members was least enmeshed in the political situation before driving it to his young cousin, sure that his house would be spared. The man starts giggling then, before he has even told the funny part: of course, in the end, the cousins house was the only one in his family to be looted. All the men laugh in recognition. They drink to all that was taken, all that was lost.

§

IMAGINE THAT THIS STORY has roused whatever part of you that is interested in narratives, for whatever reason, and that you are about to undertake the increasingly non-trivial process of deciding what form said narrative is to take.

Imagine, furthermore, that you are a Kurd, that the event takes place in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in Northern Iraq and that the men in the above scenario are all Kurds speaking in a Sorani dialect. The first conclusion presents itself as evident: this should be a narrative in Kurdish.

At first, this seems satisfactory. It pleases the dreadfully lazy part of you to know that minimal effort will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of verisimilitude (dialogue will admittedly need to be polished somewhat to achieve a certain degree of artificiality in order to pass for realism, but can otherwise be reproduced more or less verbatim).

Also, to write in a minor language is to a certain extent its own reward. It is not just about reaching an audience (which for Kurdish literature is minuscule, even if you were to disregard the fact that Kurds use two completely different alphabets; it is also, perhaps even foremost, about preserving and enriching said language. The thought that something you write can, fairly easily, have such lasting power feeds your ego tremendously. You imagine cyborgs in the future attempting a comprehensive account of the extinct human race by reverse-engineering our technology to be able to read today’s hard drives and noting that there was such as a thing as Kurdish literature. This will, you imagine, please the cyborgs.

You think back on the Kurdish novel, a feeble object that has barely been allowed to breathe, kept alive by authors like Sherzad Hassan, Bakhtyar Ali and the dearly departed Mehmet Uzun, in spite of overwhelming evidence that literature is pointless in a society that wants to emulate the capitalist wonderlands of our most generic cities (to echo Rem Koolhaas), our Singapores and Dubais and Heathrow Terminal 5s, while simultaneously fighting off the medieval LARP currently en vogue. A tricky juxtaposition, that. But it has always been thus, literature has never had it easy here: texts were uniformly banned for being written in a language that several governments tried their utmost to eradicate during the 19th and 20th centuries. A novel cannot be written, after all, if the language to write it in does not exist. When novels appeared at all, it was often small editions printed by clandestine presses, an arrestable offence for author and publisher alike. That we then define 1929’s The Kurdish Shepherd by Erebê Şemo, 1961’s Peshmerga by Rehîmî Qazî and 1972’s Jani Gal by Ibrahim Ahmad as some of the first Kurdish novels merely attests to the fortune of these manuscripts to have survived. Indeed, there are no extant copies of the first edition of The Kurdish Shepherd, which was originally published in the Soviet Union and heavily censored. That it has survived is only due to a 1947 Beirut reprint. Similarly, Ahmad’s Jani Gal had to be rewritten twice from memory after the original manuscripts were burned or lost, and it wasn’t until a French translation appeared courtesy of L’Harmattan that the text appeared in its complete state, including geographical locations and the overt references to the regime that had been previously excised. It is indicative of the subjugated state of Kurdish writing that one of the very first Kurdish novels ever to be written appeared in its entirety not in Kurdish, but in French, as late as 1994.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

You fortunately no longer have to worry about censorship, about having to burn your only manuscript in the garden before Baathist police get to it, about having to hide a printing press in your bedroom. Even the Turkish government, which for decades insisted the Kurdish language did not exist (and, in a wonderful display of incoherent logic, that this thing that did not exist should, because it did not exist, be banned) has begun to begrudgingly tolerate texts written in Kurdish.

And yet, there are other obstacles. Such as the invisibility of your work by merely writing in a non-Latin script, where it will be hidden to all but those who can conjure the signs to summon it. You often labour under the belief that everything can be found online, yet forget that in order for this to be even slightly true, you must master alphabets that mean nothing to you, alphabets that your computer is reluctant to write in. The non-Latin text is sealed off, unsearchable by the Latin index, hidden behind the limits of written language. You think of the character in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia who is only known by a non-standard, unpronounceable, symbol (which you cannot reproduce in this text other than as a screenshot: 

and therefore would never be able search for it). You suspect it is not a coincidence that throughout Negarestani’s novel this character is missing.

Another obstacle: Microsoft Word on the Macintosh Operating System cannot use Arabic fonts (let alone Kurdish ones). You could of course use another word processor (e.g. Apple’s own Pages) but the fonts remain often incompatible with other word processors and so e-mailing a file in Kurdish, more often than not, will result in something like this:

☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐.

Now this is perhaps impressive in a formalist kind of way, a uniform representation of thought and language and whatnot, but you doubt that you can convince an audience that what they have before them is the Great Kurdish Novel (to take a silly term from the Americans, because lord knows they’ve taken their fair share from us) when all they are looking at are a series of Unicode squares. The computer was not designed, after all, with non-Western languages in mind, nor was any of the software (though you envy the Chinese who you imagine, by virtue of their logographic writing system, would be able to write entire short stories on Twitter in 140 characters — if China had not banned access to Twitter, that is). The electronic age is upon us and that age was coded using a specific writing system. You would be insane to think this does not matter.

Also, and you’re ashamed to have to mention this but even though Kurdish is your native language you don’t really master it: you are a child of exile with the exile’s unnatural feel for language; you frequently mis-use words and your handwriting is all haunted-house seance scribbles of the dead trying to communicate with the living in crude approximations of letters. You are far more comfortable with English, even though you have no tie to that language other than the fact every book you read and every movie you see is in English. You have not read more than a handful of Kurdish novels because as already mentioned, Kurdish novels are hard to come by. You should, of course, practice your mother tongue; you suspect that you could become a half-decent writer if only you put as much effort into reading and writing in Kurdish as you have done in English but this is a multi-year project, akin to reading Proust. And you have yet to read Proust.

At this point you start doubting yourself: if writing in Kurdish means more effort than writing in English why not just write in English? You also begin suspecting that the above premise may not be interesting to a Kurdish audience as everyone has had their house looted at some point. Everyone has lost a family member to genocide or internecine warfare. For you, the exiled one whose portraits would invariably reek of privilege and Eurocentric notions, to comment on the Kurdish situation to a Kurdish audience can easily become patronising and in bad taste. What can a foreigner possibly have to teach people about themselves? You may instead want to shine a light outwards, towards readers unfamiliar with Kurdish history, and this requires another language. “Texts must experience the condition of exile.” said Emily Apter, and which better way to exile a text than to force it into a language which is not its own?

So you choose English, because, yes, “the Anglicized subject is at once bullied and seduced into accepting the corporal burden of English,” to cite Susie O’Brien & Imre Szeman.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

Though this is the right choice (you hope), problems arise immediately, as they tend to for immigrants pretending to be something they are not. You are suddenly tempted to add explanations for your audience that you would refrain from adding if you were writing about a people to themselves.

For instance:

1. The men would have to be defined as Kurdish, as you suspect merely writing “men” would conjure a group of white people to the reader.

2. A Kurdish reader would understand that the choice of vodka, rather than the traditional arrak, indicates that these men are rather affluent or at the very least cosmopolitan (mostly this cosmopolitism is derived from a life in exile, from refugee camps, from being a foreigner where fluid thoughts have had to be rendered as malformed syllables and broken grammar and have been mistaken for stupidity), so when you lose this element you may well be tempted to linger on other details, the brand of vodka, the logos on their polo shirts, in order to convey the same thing in a much cruder manner.

3. You will have to explain what happened in 1996, a reference that would be evident to Kurdish readers but an obscure historical footnote for everyone else. Also you’ll want to briefly touch on the sanctions, embargoes and the overall financial situation that made the purchase of a cassette player in 1996 – when even CDs were beginning to be replaced by MiniDiscs and Mp3s – something that required significant capital.

Your text is now overwritten, heavy with exposition, and you haven’t even dealt with the question of language.

The dialogue will be laboured, tortured into resembling Kurdish. Perhaps you will try to mirror the cadence of a Kurdish speaker; perhaps you will keep the expressions intact, all the “may I be sacrificed in your honour”-style sentences that seem so clunky when translated. You could also use the trick that all those world lit novels of the 1990s used: sprinkle English dialogue with some non-English words for added authenticity. You try, you try, you fail, you delete.

(All fiction is based on artifice, but for some reason writing non-English dialogue in English often seems like an artifice too far. If only there was some form of literary subtitle, you think. [1])

You also worry, as all translators are wont to do, about the weight of words. You are reminded how for centuries, the French have been misunderstanding Nietzsche because the French “sujet” does not contain the “critique of the effects of subjective submission” that the German “Subjekt” does (cf. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslability and Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles). The Kurdish word for looting, تالان, best transliterated as “talan”, has an inherent weight to it from its frequent use in Kurdish society under various dictatorships and processes of ethnic cleansing that is immediately lost in translation, as the English “looting” has since long lost its primal association to times of war (and is mainly used in times of riots, as a byproduct of temporary capitalist collapse).

What you are left with, then, is a text that panders to its audience in its need to hold the reader’s hand through a history with which she is not familiar, a text infused with exoticism, a narrative forced into a form that is inherently Western, with all the issues that arise when, to cite Franco Moretti, “Western form meets [non-Western] reality”. These texts, as selected by Western publishers, often seem to include an outmoded paean to humanism, as though to comfort a bourgeois reading culture, to ensure that the narrative that we are all the same is heard. Fredric Jameson, in his otherwise unspectacular essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism (wherein he actually states that “Nothing is to be gained by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts. The third-world novel will not offer the satisfactions of Proust or Joyce.”) provides a rare insight when he notes that “Indeed our want of sympathy for these often unmodern third-world texts is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts of the world”. This is echoed by a much-debated editorial in N+1 wherein the editors argue that “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience” and that “the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there”.

Above all, perhaps, it rankles to use English because of the ravages that the British Empire wrought on Kurds and the possibility of Kurdish statehood. If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is accurate in his assertion that “African authors should be clear about the fact that when they write in English they are contributing to the expansion of, and dependence on, the English language.”, then to write in English is a betrayal.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

***

international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one and unequal: with a core and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.i.e. the destiny of a culture [] is intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that completely ignores it’”

(Franco Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature”)

Most novels that you read today seem like relics, as though modernism never happened at all, Flaubertian narratives in which characters hold the latest consumer technology to make you, the reader, realise that it is meant to take place in the now. But it does not feel like any reality you experience on a daily basis, it feels literary: as though what we consider realism is merely what authors convinced readers reality looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, static narratives that embrace the provincial when finance and politics are now global. The very conventions of the realist novel, so daring when they were perfected by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, have now trapped narratives in an individualistic, humanistic world order. After all, how to describe the light-speed flow of capital, the corporations with human rights but without human obligations, the drones killing the anonymous in a form that is structured around individual agency, about self-realisation and a human perception of time? The novel is doomed to fail. If contemporary capitalism and consumer culture are a part of contemporary fiction, it is often as a mere gloss, rather than the actual spine of the constructed reality. Similarly, the challenges of globalisation are reduced to facile exotifications, the non-Western reality forced into a Western form. The novel was not designed, after all, with non-Western cultures in mind.

What you want is the literary future imagined by Bhanu Kapil — an author who has managed to dismantle all the problems listed here with aplomb — namely “a literature that is not made from literature.” The heroine of her novel Incubation: A Space for Monsters is half girl, half machine/cyborg, her identity and culture shifts along with the text, as essential a creation as any archetype. You are heartened by Julius’s dérive in Teju Cole’s Open City where the character maps out a New York of immigrants and asylum seekers before he transforms the 20th century urban dérive into an international one, by travelling to Belgium, to Nigeria. You embrace the aforementioned Cyclonopedia, a dense but fragile text that can barely even carry the categorisation of novel, with its fake translator’s notes (e.g. “The linguistic structure of the original Farsi text is highly inconsistent, to the extent that one assumes it to have been written by more than one author.”) making the reader realise just how many truths a narrative can contain.

We heed the warning in the aforementioned N+1 essay that “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations,” but why should literature not instead revel in these deformations? You realise that English literature always has been “an unsteady amalgam of [the] voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions” (to cite Stephen Greenblatt) and if you are to dissent from Lorde and try to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you could do worse than making English your own Latin, a tool for a vulgar novel. Let there be allusions that remain unexplained, let there be dialogue that is not naturalistic, let there be disregard for the master’s rules, let the work contain the fractured realities as we see them today.

—Agri Ismaïl

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Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in the White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places. He can be found on Twitter.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Yes, of course there is the footnote which has a long literary history: remember how War & Peace began with a long chunk of French dialogue, which Tolstoy then translated (badly, one might add) into Russian in the footnotes. But this does not seem like a very good option: if none of your readers understand the dialogue in the original language, in effect you’re just asking them to do more work. You suspect your readers would hate you after one or two pages of this.
Apr 032015
 

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1924. His seminal magazine Origin was one of the first to publish poets such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. In addition to the magazine, Cid, a poet and translator, organized poetry events around Boston and started the country’s first poetry radio program, This Is Poetry at WMEX featuring readings by Creeley, Stephen Spender and Theodore Roethke amongst others.  In 1958 he moved to Japan where he continued to edit Origin and in 1959 published Gary Snyder’s first collection Riprap. He began to translate Japanese poetry, in particular work by Basho and Kusano Shimpei. A prolific poet, he published over a hundred books and pamphlets. In 1990 he published the first two volumes of his selected poems Of. In all there are five volumes each containing 750 poems. Volumes 4 and 5 were just published in January of this year. Although described as a selected poems, Corman did not necessarily see it that way. He saw it as a single book that told his life in passing. Cid Corman died in Kyoto on March 12, 2004.

cid-corman

I am grateful to Greg Dunne, not just for the extract from his new book but for the wonderful opportunity he gave me back in 2000 to spend an afternoon visiting with Corman in his home in Kyoto. I had been travelling with my wife and young children in China for several months and stopped off in Japan on the way back to visit Greg. Over the years I had heard the story many times of how after moving to Kyoto Greg had stopped in at a coffee shop, CC`s, that sold western style ice-cream and cakes. The shop turned out to be Corman’s and Greg soon joined with a small group that met with him every two weeks for gatherings that lasted five hours or more. Cid read and talked poetry with them, discussed their work.

That afternoon, however, we talked to Corman about his work and his life. I got the feeling that he liked visitors so that he could relate the stories of his past to them, and through those stories reaffirm his true relevance to American poetry. This seemed to me to be borne of disappointment, sadness even – an awareness that his decision to live in Kyoto had left him largely forgotten in his home country. Nevertheless, it was evident that deep-down he knew that the poet’s life was exactly that – a life, a way of living. And he talked that day too of not even wanting his name on his poems at all, at refusing publicity when it occasionally came his way.

He excused himself at one point and left the room briefly returning with a copy of the first issue of Origin. He was proud of it, and rightly so. He spoke then of his writing routine. His morning began by writing letters, long letters to anyone who had taken the time to write to him. “If you write to me,” he told me, “I will write back.” After his letter writing he began work on his poems. He took me in to see his study. It was stacked high with manuscripts, heaps of paper across his desk and all around the room. “I write a book of poems a day,” he said. Most of these pages would probably never see the light of day. The act of writing to him, it appeared, was akin to the act of breathing – a breath in/a breath out, a word given/a word taken. This was not a rushed process; it was not a mountain of first drafts, of beginnings, but an ongoing expression of self.

Cid Corman

Later we took a pleasant walk to the post-office to mail off his letters and then said our goodbyes.  Despite his generous offer, I never did write to him. I regret it enormously of course but, in some ways these feelings of regret seem apt – a more fitting response to our short afternoon together.

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover

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What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. …….~ Homi Bhabha

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.…..~ Martin Heidegger

IN 1990, CID CORMAN PUBLISHED the first two volumes of this five-volume magnum opus book of poetry, of. The work was monumental in scope – each volume consisted of 750 pages of poetry. The book included many translations of poetry from around the world and from many different time periods that stretched from the earliest of times – Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese texts – up through contemporary poetry translations. In an unusual move, Corman left his translations un-sourced, that is, he did not attribute his translations to their original authors openly. Some fellow writers, notably Clayton Eshleman, found Cid’s practice suspect and wrote to Cid concerning it. Eshleman explained his dismay in the following way: “I was shocked to find Cid’s translations here, of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, T’ao Ch’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Basho, Malarlarme, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro, treated as Corman poems. So I wrote to him questioning such appropriation” (Eshleman).

To do justice to the book, a book of this size and scope, and a book that is the culminating event in the life of a significant American poet, more attention is warranted in exploring the act of his incorporating un-sourced translations into the book – how it was accomplished – and what rationale there may have been for the move, assuming the act is not simply one of appropriation. To understand, appreciate, and comprehend more fully what Corman was up to then, one needs to begin with his poetics, with what informs them – his sense of poetry and its role and place in culture, society and life.

Translation came early to Corman and through the activity – within it – he found himself drawn into a larger community of poetry that would sustain his interest and attention throughout his life. For Corman both the writing of poetry and the translating of poetry developed at about the same time when he was in high school. Here he began translating Greek and Latin poetry. Later, during the war years (World War II), when he stayed home from the war due to his youth and illness, he went deeper into translation. In conversation, some years ago (1994), at his home in Kyoto, he told me about his start in poetry and how intertwined it was with his activities in translation:

…The first quatrain I wrote one Sunday two weeks after Pearl Harbor was… (shakes his head in disapproval)… almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time. I had studied Greek in high school, and I was very interested still in Greek literature and read quite a bit at University, mostly on my own, this was not for any course. is was just for my own satisfaction. I had read no translation of Aeschylus that struck me as being accurate or true to the thing…. when I started out… I wanted to know about meter. I wanted to understand how poetry was structured, why they used rhyme, the way poetry moved. (Corman, APR 25)

The translation of poetry affects his poetry. Even as a young man, he was able to see the effect that translation was having on his poetry. The force, or influence, is so strong that he seems to recognize a need to disassociate the two: he is unsatisfied with his own poem because it reads too much like the work he has been translating: “. . . almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time.” The translating of poetry is shaping this poet – the translation work is exerting an influence that Corman recognizes and understands as becoming a part of him. Though he seems to understand the influence can be negative at times, he does not disavow the overall positive influence that the practice is having in teaching him how to become a better poet. In our conversation that day, he went on to make the following points:

By the time I was a sophomore, I was studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. And those poets struck me very strongly. They were new to me, and they were different than American poetry. But, I figured by translating I had a way of getting closer to what they were doing, and by doing that, I could learn.

So… it was the beginning for me. So I translated almost all of Les Fleurs du Mal for myself. They weren’t meant for publication. To learn. So it was for me, my education. (Corman, APR 25)

One sees from these comments that Corman understands his beginnings as a poet to be closely associated with his beginnings as a translator. We see also his passionate interest in non-English poetries, and his interest in translating as a means of education, of educating himself as a poet. In looking at the poetry of others, at other poetries, and translating that poetry into his own language, Corman put himself in conversation with other poets, and more importantly found himself within a conversation of sorts that involved poetry – a community of poets that carried him beyond the borders of language, state, and time. In this community, poetry itself became a unifying force –– a center that actually did hold, at least for Cid Corman.

We see further evidence of Corman viewing himself as working within a tradition and within a community when he collects his prose writings and publishes them as one book in two separate volumes. The first volume, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), contains essays related directly to his own poetry and poetic theory. The second volume, At Their Word/Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow, 1978), concerns itself with translation, and with the work of other writers: “At Their Word.” The two volumes make for a whole; with each volume informing what is said in the companion volume. Corman knows how essential translation has been in helping him to shape and refine his own understanding of poetry and how, in turn, his poetics have informed his translations of other’s poems.

And as it turns out, the first two essays in the second volume take up the topic of translation. Here, in the first essay, Corman offers five translations and commentary upon those translations: “translator’s notes.” The poems he offers are from Rilke, Baudelaire, and Montale. In his prefatory comments at the start of the essay, he offers the following explanation:

The versions here offered (my emphasis) are representative of different approaches possible. In all cases, however, the poems are pieces that have been savored and put into English originally for no other purpose than to prolong the translator’s own pleasure and perhaps to discover some possibility in them for his own tongue. Only where the results seem felicitous poems too (my emphasis) have offerings (my emphasis) been made to a larger audience. (Corman, ATW 10)

Corman’s use of the term “offer,” underscores his sense of giving – or gifting – the translations to the reader with humility – he makes no claim that the translations are definitive. They are offered – the reader can take them, or leave them: “The versions here offered . . .” They are being offered because the original poems were poems that he appreciated so deeply that he was moved to translate them, poems he “savored and put into English to prolong his own pleasure.” His versions of the poems, and only those versions that have become poems in English, and thus deemed worthy of being shared, become “offerings” to a wider audience. Corman’s explanation, particularly his use of the word “offerings,” implies both his giving something of himself to the reader – his work as a translator – and also – and more to the point here – his gratitude for the gift of the original poems. In this gesture and use of the word “offerings,” he implies his awareness of being part of a community that has involved many others over time.

He shows this attitude of gratitude towards the original poets and those who have translated the poem when he speaks of titling one of his translations, in this case the Baudelaire’s poem, “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie.” Unlike other translators who have tried to approach the untitled poem by translating the poem’s first line as the title and coming up with titles such as “The Servant” or the “The Kind-Hearted Servant of Whom You Were Jealous,” Corman titles his translation simply “after Baudelaire.” In his “translator’s notes,” he explains that “’After’ . . . is quite honest, for countless versions over many years achieved this result – which is finally a sort of homage to feeling shared.” The word “homage” as in the case of the word “offering” suggests an awareness on Corman’s part of being involved in a community – a world poetry – and a world that can be shared across time, space, and culture. Here is Corman’s version of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie:”

after Baudelaire

The bighearted nurse
you envied, buried
sod, merits flowers.
The living thankless
rest between warm sheets
while the poor dead feel
all alone, no one
to bring them fresh trash.

If, at the good fire,
I saw her sitting,
some December night
found her in my room
crushed from the long bed
gazing at this child,
what cold worlds tell her
tears filling those eyes?
(Corman ATW 10)

Corman felt a need to translate, as well as a need to share his translations of poetry with others: To make “offerings” to a larger audience. We see further evidence of this in the story of his coming to translate the poetry of Paul Celan and to publish that poetry in his magazine Origin.

After leaving the University of Michigan, and after a few years back in Boston where he hosted a weekly poetry radio program, Corman was awarded a Fulbright and traveled to France to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Cid wrote poetry and immersed himself in translation. During this time, in 1955, he met the poet Paul Celan, virtually unknown in North America at the time, and began translating his work into English. Some years later, when Corman wanted to publish his Celan translations in his magazine Origin, he contacted Celan to ask permission. Celan refused to give permission and threatened litigation against Corman if he pursued publication. After some consideration, Corman went ahead and published the poems in Origin and, as promised, Celan wrote an angry letter to Corman threatening “persecution” – an ironic typographical error, as Corman would later remark to me, considering Celan’s persecution by the Nazi’s during the Second World War. Celan had meant to write “prosecution,” of course.

In 1994, when I asked Corman how he first meet Paul Celan, he told me the following story:

My friend. I was living with her at the time: 1955, in Paris. Edith Aron (German, but reared mostly in Argentina, of Jewish descent too) who had helped Paul Celan get a job with UNESCO introduced me personally to him one day. He seemed very dour to me and they did most of the talking. Both near my age – early 30s. And she gave me his first two books and suggested we translate from them together. We did. And I did the first English versions ever and a few were published in Toronto by Ray Souster at once. I didn’t like those first two volumes as much as what followed. And I bought each of his books as they occurred thereafter and translated each – with someone native to German assisting. I met him just as he was really coming into his own. And I have translated all his work – much of it still unpublished.

I asked Corman what specifically attracted him to Celan’s work, and he answered in the following way:

His depth of language use – not as technics (cf. Zukofsky) but as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me. I couldn’t /wouldn’t be as obscure and “difficult” as he allowed himself/his language to be, but I could feel the truth of what he was doing, or trying to do. And that moved me. To want to share that work – despite his challenging me. (Corman, APR 26)

Corman speaks in terms of feeling “moved” to translate the work, feeling compelled to share the work of Celan with others. He decided to publish the translations despite Celan’s “challenging” him. His rationale being, in so many words, that he felt compelled to share it – that he could feel “the truth” of what (Celan) was doing: “His depth of language use . . . as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me.”

One might find fault with Corman’s rationale as stated here. Is his desire to share the work reason enough to publish his translations without Celan’s permission? But in questioning Corman rationale, one would also do well to consider Corman’s passion and sincerity to share the work. Every- thing about Corman’s life in poetry suggests that his reply to Celan was sincere. Of course, I do not mean to assert that passion and sincerity, in and of themselves, make Corman’s actions right or absolve him of honoring the wishes of Celan. What I do want to point out is that Corman was deeply motivated to act in the way that he did act, and that his action speaks to his understanding of poetry in the world, and per- haps also to questions of ownership of it.

Corman felt Celan’s work should be shared – that it needed to be shared. This desire to share poetry has remained consistent throughout Corman’s life: his poetry radio program in Boston was a way for him to share poetry with a wider community. It was a way of creating a community around poetry, for poetry. His founding of the magazine Origin was another way in which he worked to share poetry with a larger community: he wanted to get poetry into the world, particularly the kind of poetry that mainstream poetry magazines were not taking seriously, at least not taking seriously enough to publish.

Written correspondence was a further way in which Corman shared poetry with others. Correspondence, i.e. letter writing, was a central part of his life as a poet. In conversation once, he referred to it as his “life-line.” When I asked him if there was anything that stood out in the letters that he received – anything remarkable? He told me, “Everything. Every letter is my news. Is poetry” (Corman APR 26). At the time, I didn’t think he meant that the letters were themselves really poetry – but over the years I have come to doubt that first understanding – maybe he did mean it, literally. After all a letter, like poetry, involves the experience of one person sharing news, to use Pound’s word for poetry – news that stays news with another. Letters and poetry are correspondences, if you will, that share an experiential quality about them: the words of the writer being shared with the reader in an intimate way. So for Corman, this idea, of letters being “poetry,” is not as far fetched as it might at first sound. Perhaps his feeling on this accounts for his publishing letters right alongside poetry in his magazine Origin. In the first series of Origin (1951-1957) Volume XIV/Autumn, for example, he published the following section of letter by the Canadian poet Irving Layton:

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
Quebec
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

In all these poems I’ve tried to express the idea “in the image,” for although as a rule I leave theorizing about poetry to others, there are one or two work-a-day rules I try to govern myself by when writing verse. For me, rhythm and imagery usually tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words. If I want sociology, economics, uplift, or metaphysics; or that generalized state of despairing benevolence concerning the prospects of the human race which seems to characterize much of present-day poetic effort, I know my way around a library as well as the next man. Catalogues are no mystery to me. I regard the writing of verse as a serious craft, the most serious there is, demanding from a man everything he’s got. Moreover, it’s a craft in which good intentions count for nil. It’s how much a man has absorbed into his being that counts, how he opens up continuously to experience, and then with talent and luck communicates to others (my emphasis) without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply …

Yours, Irving

This letter appeared in Origin alongside Layton’s poems. It was not set off as a prefatory statement of any kind but appeared on the page as if a poem, in the flow of the poems presented there, with several poems preceding it and several poems following it.

Poetry is a craft, according to Layton, that demands much of the poet: “demanding from a man everything he’s got.” It is also a craft that demands the poet open up “continuously to experience,” a craft that calls upon the poet to communicate to others “without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply . . .” These ideas are all in sympathy with Corman’s own poetics, as editor and as poet. Certainly, an open- ness to experience, and a direct form of communication/address are characteristic of Corman’s poetry. Here, Layton’s letter may be seen to be a poem in Corman’s eyes in so far as it achieves a rhythmic liveliness in its prose while communicating in a direct, unaffected and sincere way. A piece of writing that opens up to experience and communicates with others. In publishing the letter, we see Corman, the publisher, opening up to the experience of the letter and sharing that experience with others. In placing poes and letters in the magazine in such away, Corman seems to ask, “Why can’t a letter such as this be read as a poem?” Corman opens himself to the possibility of the letter being read in such a way – opens himself to that experience. In publishing the letter, Corman participates then in a reciprocal gesture of gift giving, and communicating with others – he shares Layton’s letter with a wider audience.

Corman’s active life as a correspondent is legendary, and the books of correspondence that have been published over the years indicate this – no doubt more books will follow.  The many letters between Corman and Charles Olson, for example, were edited and published in 1987 and in 1991 (Charles Olson & Cid Corman, Complete Correspondence 1950 –1964 Volume 1 and Volume II. Ed. George Evans, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine Press); Olson’s letters to Corman were published earlier in 1970 (Charles Olson, Letters for Origin, Cape Goliard [London] and Grossman [New York] Ed. Albert Glover); a collection of Lorine Niedecker’s letters to Corman was published in 1986 (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 – 1970, Ed. Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke University Press); a more recent volume of Corman Letters was published in 2000 (Where to Begin, Selected Letters between Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, Ed. Keegan Doyle. Ekstasis Editions).

The contemporary American poet and translator, Andrew Schelling provides a telling and instructive story of his coming into correspondence with Corman through the aegis of Clayton Eshleman, who had known Corman in Kyoto years earlier and knew first-hand of his approachability, and his willingness to help younger poets. As Schelling recalls in a tribute that he wrote after Corman’s passing in 2004, he was a “fledgling poet . . . just beginning to publish . . . in the early to mid eighties” when he first corresponded with Cid Corman. Clayton Eshleman told him he had “to get in touch with Cid Corman.” Eshleman’s suggestion was a piece of “true counsel,” and not simply “a piece of advice.” Schelling listened to Eshelman and contacted Corman and they began corresponding. In short order, Schelling and Corman became correspondents. Corman replied “to every letter instantly,” Schelling says, expressing wonder at Corman’s generosity and attentiveness: “his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside.” (Schelling)

As a poet living far from the American scene, one might expect Corman to have less to offer Schelling than an elder poet based in the U.S. and familiar with contemporary American poetics. Schelling however did not find this to be the case. While it was true, Schelling concedes, that Corman was not always up to date on the latest developments on the American scene, and that poetry news reached him “in curiously winnowed ways,” Schelling felt that Corman had something special to offer. According to Schelling, Corman’s “expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.” Corman was in his own curious way at the center of things – his correspondence had him in touch with poets around the world. For a young poet like Schelling, a poet interested in translation, Corman’s international contacts and his active engagement with translation had much to offer Schelling.

Corman wrote tens of thousands of letters to contacts around the world during his lifetime. His correspondents included friends, family members, and poets, as well as politicians, philosophers, artists, and religious figures. His correspondence with others was something that he wanted to share, that is, he wanted not only to connect with others through correspondence, but he wanted to connect others to others through correspondence. If he thought that one of his correspondents would benefit from getting to know another of his correspondents, he would try to put them in touch with one another. Through his correspondence then, Corman tried to introduce different writers to each another. When I first began corresponding with Corman on a regular basis, he frequently went out of his way to send me contact information about writers he thought I should connect with.

When one looks at the sum of Corman’s life then, one feels convinced that Corman felt poetry was, in large measure, about sharing and community. He felt that one of the most fundamental qualities of poetry was found in its ability to bring two individual lives together – to create a community of two: a conversation between the reader and the poet. This sentiment is found throughout his oeuvre. Here are four poems that demonstrate some of this:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.
(Corman, ND 86)

Assistant

As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?
(Corman, APR 23)

The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!
(Corman, APR 21)

There’s only
one poem:
this is it.
(Corman, ND 121)

In elegant and conversational language, Corman asserts the primacy of poetry in human relations in these poems: “Poetry becomes / that conversation we would / not other- wise have.” Poetry is unique and solitary in what it offers – nothing else is quite like it.

In the second poem we see a humorous and yet quite serious invitation for the reader to participate actively in the reading of the book. It is as though Corman himself were reaching out through the poem to make contact with the reader and participate in the reading of the book: “Would you mind turning the page?” The poet shows up and speaks directly to the reader – let’s the reader know that he, the poet, has thought of him. The poet has envisioned the reader one day finding himself on the page and reading. This is the community that Corman values – the interaction of one person conversing with another through the medium of poetry. Corman moves through time and space in doing this, he is aware of the poem’s ability to transcend time and space and remain relevant – to still speak. Here he quietly alludes to times’ passing and to the ephemeral nature of life: “As long as you are here.” This conversational line, a line we commonly hear, is brought to bear its full measure of import within the poem: the weight of intonation and stress falls precisely on the word “are:” “As long as you are (my emphasis) here.” If Corman were not the poet that he is, he might have written “you’re” instead of “you are.” Corman wants the reader to sound “are:” “As long as you are . . .” In other words, as long as you are here, and alive, will you turn the page?

This subtle gesture points to one of the enduring qualities and strengths of poetry: the poem speaks to the reader even when the poet is gone. It speaks to the movement of time, the movement within a lifetime, to the human condition of being here now and knowing we will not always be. The poet after all, is not really with the reader on the page in the present moment of reading. He has passed on. The reader in reading the poem understands this, feels it through the poem.

The final two poems cited above get at similar notions as the first two poems. “The Call,” again announces the primacy of poetry, equating it with life itself: “Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O.” And the final poem makes the playful and, at first glance, seemingly audacious statement, that “There’s only/one poem:/this is it.”

Of course, in a real sense, Corman means exactly what he says, and that is, that the impulse behind the writing of a poem, the engine of the poem, the origin of any poem, of all poems, is the same at its source – it is the impulse to speak, it is the “O” of breath and being – the reaching out of one to another through language – the poet and reader together – the song that brings one to another. It is at base a connectivity, and communication, a form of communion, or community: ”the conversation/we could not otherwise have.” Seen in this light, we understand the claim that the poem makes: there is one poem and it resides in our very breathing and breath. It is life.

This poem, this last one, is an especially helpful poem to consider in relation to Corman’s book of and his questionable act of incorporating un-sourced translations into the book alongside his own poems. I say this because in this poem, we see a clear statement which may be seen as supporting what Corman has done in the book; that is to say, he makes his poems and his translations one book, one unified book, one poem: “There is /only one poem:/ this is it.”

***

Of is, at first glance, a strange title for a book. How many books can one think of that contain a preposition for a title? Strange as it is, it is a title that is precise and telling, and one meant to draw attention. When one opens the book, one finds a preface that immediately addresses the rationale behind the titling of the book:

for those who find themselves here
and sounding the words care to be

this is a book of a life as exacting as any
other, not in chronological order, but
through as for all time: a small proportion of
what has occurred to me and to which the work
unseen is complementary

the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics:
the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the
genitive case: to which we are all beholden and
within which we remain hopelessly particular

and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems
articulate it – which humbly (meaning – aware
of there being no choice) reveals transparently,
whatever else may be felt, I trust (trust implying
you), wonder, gratitude, pain, and love.

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

The Preface begins by immediately engaging the reader: “for those who find themselves here/and sounding the words care to be.” The reader is said to be “sounding” the words, suggesting that the reader is actively involved in both sounding the depth of the words – the depth of their various and associative meanings – as well as physically making the sound of the words in their mouths – “sounding” them. The words themselves are said to be things that “care to be,” underscoring Corman’s emphasis on our appreciating “words” as having an existence beyond the individual’s control – emphasizing, reminding the reader that words exist independent of the individual speaker – that they are thus shared within a larger community. If words did not possess this characteristic capacity, of what use would they be? To the extent that words are shared, they carry meaning and significance for us, and they bring us together, allow us to communicate with each other. Readers can “find themselves here” (my emphasis) precisely because the words on the page belong to the reader as much as they belong to the writer.
 As Corman says, “The title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics,” that is, it attempts to underscore the existent relationship between the individual and the world beyond the individual to which the individual is both separate from and a part of: “the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and/within which we remain hopelessly particular.” Language is thus the bridge, or the “connectivity,” as the post-colonial scholar Inderpal Grewal refers to it (Grewal 236).

Corman continues to elaborate upon this theme on the following page of the book with another epigraph. Here he translates the Greek of Philo of Alexandria (20 B. C. E. ~ 50 C. E.). It is salient to note that Philo himself was writing a literary work in Greek that was based on the older Hebraic writings of the Bible (Genesis), namely the Old Testament. Thus Philo too, like Corman, was involved in translation – the crossing of linguistic borders. Corman translates the epigraph as follows:

The soul of the most perfect is fed by the word as a whole; we may well be content should we be fed even by a portion of it.

PHILO: Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis. III, Ixi, 176.(Corman, of, Vol. I. 1)

In this epigraph, Corman once more alludes to there being a whole to which we belong: “the word as a whole.” With my layman’s knowledge of ancient texts, I cautiously interpret Philo in the following way: I take the “most perfect” as referring to God. Following upon this, I understand God is fed “by the word as a whole.” I read “the word as a whole” to refer to the whole of humanity, and that humanity’s offering God prayers, songs, poetry – praise feeds God. If the word as a whole is what God – “the soul of the most perfect” – is nourished by then we lesser ones might be sustain by, and should be “content” with, even a portion of it, the word: our own individual languages. The divine world and the human world are bound by, and through, the word. For Corman then, poetry is nothing less than manna – an essential thing – meant to be shared. Further, it is the diversity of languages that Corman is signaling as being of importance. It is not one particular language but the word as a whole – all poetries contributing to the whole that feeds the most perfect.

With this title, preface, and epigraph, Corman makes the case, rhetorically, for including un-sourced translations from many different languages and time periods into the book. His gesture is to say that we are OF this material – that the poetry of the world belongs to all of us. Moreover, he means to suggest that we are shaped by our inheritance of these languages, poetries, and cultures. We are of them – born into a scene and situation that we did not ourselves wholly create. He honors the inheritance.

In 2000, Corman responded to the charge of appropriation – whether or not his use of un-sourced translations in of was a form of appropriation. Did he deliberately leave the names of the original authors of his translations off the page? In his characteristically frank way, he acknowledged that he had done so while emphasizing that he did so with a purpose:

Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very – have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize… Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who’s really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself designed without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there’s nobody else that ever has done this and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all…

(Corman, ICPR 1)

“But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced.” Corman doesn’t want the names introduced because he wants the work, of, to be that whole that he alludes to in the epigraphs. His own poems will be part of the book, but they will find themselves within a community of poetry – his poems will be at home within a greater whole.

While I think it is understandable how the charge of appropriation could be leveled at Corman – for he does incorporate translations of others’ poems into his book – I believe under close analysis the assertion of appropriation does not stand up. “Appropriation” doesn’t adequately come to terms with the nuanced complexity of Corman’s gesture, and it is in the nuance and carefully balanced aesthetic manner in which the translations are brought into relationship with Corman’s own poetry that matters. The manner in which the translations are incorporated allows for them to be felt as translations, known as such, while not overtly crediting them as translations nor naming the authors.

Corman asserts in the interview that anyone really interested in finding out the source of a poem can easily do so because the poems are well known, or they are tagged in a way that allows them to be identified: “But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize . . . Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is.” In other words, Corman maintains that the translated poems remain in some fashion distinct and particular, in some way known and sourced.

This is in keeping with what he announces in the Preface and through his use of epigraphs. In some measure, “a precisely physical metaphysics” is enacted in the book: the translated poems remain particular within a constellation of other poems, including Corman’s own. The ability of Corman to translate poems and incorporate them so that they become both distinct and a part of the whole is one of the signal achievements of the text. And in so much as readers experience the poems as translations within the book, that is, poems different from Corman’s own poems, a multitude of voices are allowed to enter the book and circulate through and between Corman’s own poems.

For Corman to insert the names of the original authors on every page where a translation appeared would be to break (brake) the resonant play of the poems echoing off each other. It would be, in short, contrary to the aesthetic intentions suggested in the titling of the book. This is to say that the listing of sources would break the text into discrete parts and detract from the whole that Corman is trying to create.

When readers encounter translations in the text, the readers should understand that the poetry is other than Cor- man’s own. When Corman’s friend and fellow poet, Clayton Eshleman read the book, he had precisely this experience – he recognized certain poems as translations despite their lack of citation. The first poem, for example, is entitled Shingyo; as such, it immediately signals a foreign language – in this case Japanese. The poem is actually a translation of an ancient prayer, a sutra that comes from India. Just as Philo’s use of the Genesis story demonstrates his awareness of precedent, Corman too chooses a work that demonstrates his awareness of precedent, and the way in which languages and ideas cross borders and are shared among and within communities. The sutra, which is well known in Asia and in- creasing in the West, was written in Sanskrit at around 350 C. E. Later, Buddhist monks brought the sutra to China where it was translated into Chinese. Then the Japanese brought the sutra to Japan, and translated it into Japanese. Here, the sutra, known in English as “The Heart Sutra” is a work that has passed over and through many national borders, languages, and cultures to be shared anew through further translations. Interesting to note, and apropos to what Corman has said about his own wish for anonymity in poetry, the poem he begins the book with – his magnum opus – is an anonymous work, a poem that has been chanted by many different people of various cultural backgrounds for ages.

Beginning the book with this poem amplifies the theme struck by the epigraphs and the Preface, that is to say, the poem moves us to confront the paradox that we find ourselves in – we are particular and yet each exists within a community – in relationship with others – our shared language tells us as much: no one person invented the language, and no one owns it. It is shared. Shingyo speaks to a condition of enlightenment, which would have us acknowledge being both a part and a whole, a poem that celebrates non-duality:

SHINGYO

Seeing reflecting sense nonsense
Friend – here is emptiness here is form
Unborn undying – untainted
unpure – no more no less – therefore
Friend – nothing to know or not to
to come to this – the suffering
reaching where it is and is not
Come – body – and go – body – no
body – gone to the other – gone.
(Corman, of, Vol. 1. 5)

The poem speaks to a sensibility that is unified, a non- dualistic sensibility – one that recognizes both the part (“body”) and the whole (“gone to the other”). It reaches through both – goes beyond opposites – to locate a site of commonality in a singular word of compassion “Friend.”

It is not only by titling the poems carefully then, as in the case of “Shingyo,” and by including well-known translations that Corman indicates which poems are translations: Corman also employs other techniques that quietly signal translation. The entire first section of the second volume of the book, for example, is indexed in the back under the title “Offered,” echoing the title of the book, of. Indexing the poems in this way, suggests that the majority of the poems in the section are translations, as they indeed are.

And it is not only by his unobtrusively marking the poems as translations that Corman succeeds in building the polyphonic quality of the text; He also succeeds through skillful translation. Corman is careful to honor the text, to honor the rhetoricity of the original. This is to say that his translations are distinguished by what the post colonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “fraying,” a manner of translating that eschews the long searched-for equivalency between the original and the target language in favor of acknowledging qualities of the original that may be better left un-translated, giving the text a frayed or roughened feel. As Spivak puts it, “The task of the translator is to facilitate love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”

Corman’s translations leave the text open and rough with possibility. When balanced between the translator’s agency and the reader’s expectation, Corman honors the rhetoricity of the text. In 1964, long before the term of fraying came into use in translation studies, Corman spoke about his willingness to retain Japanese words in his translations. For example, in the Preface to his translation of Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi, (Back Roads to Far Towns, Munjinsha 1964) he and his fellow translator decided to retain original Japanese words in the translation. Corman expressed their decision this way:

If the translators have often not accepted Western approximations for particular Japanese and/or Chinese terms, it is not to create undue difficulties for readers, but rather to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible. As a result, notes may be needed in greater profusion than before. (Basho, BRFT 10)

Corman is not going to smooth the text out so that it reads comfortably in English if that means compromising too much of the complexity of the original. The original words, rich in associative meanings, may offer a complexity that the English words cannot adequately represent, that is, the English equivalent is not accurate enough. This decision on the part of translators (Corman and Kamaike Susumu), make it is necessary for them to use original Japanese words in the translation. In translating Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi, Corman and Kamaike retain original Japanese words in both the prose and the poetry. Here is some of their translation work – the poetry following the prose:

Afterwards off to the Sesshoseki on horse sent by
the kandai. Man leading it by halter asked for a
tanzaku. Beautiful he wanted one:

across the meadow
horse take your lead now from the
hototogisu
(Basho BRFT 25)

In this brief passage, Corman and Kamaike retain four Japanese words. Their notes in the back of the book relate the following:

kandai: Castle overseer
Sesshoseki: Still exists, though fenced about. The legends associated with it are told in Noh of the same name.
tanzaku: Narrow strip of fine paper to write poetry on; a poem
hototogisu: Japanese cuckoo, whose name is its song.
(Basho BRFT 122)

In using original words the translators intend “to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible.” They bring the Japanese flavor of the original in – they “admit” it – because English does not have similar words that are reliably precise. By retaining the Japanese words the translators allow the shadow of the original to be felt and appreciated. By “shadow” I mean to suggest that Corman and Kamaike’s translation emphasizes that while it is not the original it does retain some of the original’s defining qualities. Hototogisu, for example, is the Japanese cuckoo, but more to the point – and the point Corman and Kamaike want the reader to experience – is the fact that the name of the bird IS the bird’s song. When the reader reads “hototogisu” the reader hears what the Japanese themselves believe the bird sounds like when it calls. And it just so happens that this has a further meaning (or possibility of meaning) – the sound of the song is imaginatively thought to be the sound of a Buddhist sutra. Thus, the bird is thought to be, figuratively speaking, chanting a sutra. The bird and its call are steeped in the folklore of Japan, and its literary history and culture. The reader gets the onomatopoetic sound that the Japanese themselves feel best represents the sound of the bird. The reader is thus connected in this way with Japan: its animals, culture, language, and people.

Corman frays many of his translated texts in of in similar ways. When he translates Catullus, for example, he uses the Latin title of the poem and translates the poem in the following way:

IUCUNDUM, MEA VITA

Happy, my life, to me you propose love
This ours between us perpetual be.

Great gods, see that she really can promise
And she say so honestly and from heart,

So that it be ours all life to continue
Eternal this trust of blest affection.

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

Encountering a poem such as this would lead any observant reader to conclude that she is indeed reading a translation. Why else would the poem be titled in Latin? If this doesn’t wake the reader to the fact of the poem being a translation, the reader could Google the title and find the poem ascribed to Catullus. In other worlds, the poem calls out to be understood – read – as a translation. The fraying one finds in the translation makes this even more abundantly clear. This translation is not rendered in Corman’s contemporary American English, but in a distinctively textured, tonal, and syntactical manner quite foreign to it, resulting in a poem that sounds ancient. Some of the ancient sounding qualities of the translation come from Corman’s mining the possibilities of the original Latin poem. Corman draws our attention to the word “ours:” “Happy, my life, to me you propose love/this ours between us perpetual be.” Here, “ours” functions as a noun and retains its Latin sense of something not only as something shared between people but something alive and living, and “ours” that is, “perpetually to be, a love that comes “honestly” and “from heart.” The word “ours” is struck again in the penultimate line with stress and weight – “So that it be ours all life to continue.”

Beyond the polyphonic and the symphonic qualities that the book achieves by bringing in such a rich variety of voices from various cultures, languages, and time periods, Corman’s book, of, reminds us that we come from this stuff – from this poetry – and that our languages and poetries have played a role in shaping the world we live in – the way in which we see and understand ourselves and the world.

Homi K. Bhabha, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, in commenting upon the contemporary Mexican American musical artist Guillermo Gomex-Pena, who travels between Mexico and American to sing songs on both sides of the border, both old and new songs – a man who sings to different audiences – Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences, may provide us with the clearest lens yet by which to discern and appreciate what Corman achieves in his own crossing of boundaries – the boundaries of time, space, languages, cultures, and poetries – not to mention his crossing back and forth between his own poems and his translations.
 According to Bhabha, Gomez-Pena’s actions of performing songs in both languages on both sides of the Mexican and U.S. border – songs that are traditional as well as new – creates a generative “inbetween space” that allows for the artist to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity . . .” This “inbetween space,” he asserts, is a site of “collaboration, and contestation.” (Bhabha LC 336) Corman’s work too creates such an inbetween space. It also creates a site of collaboration and contestation in so far as we see him collaborating with other poets through the act of translation, taking their poems and translating them into English. We can see the contestation in terms of his own voice, his poems, asserting themselves through the surrounding poems, many voices vying, if you will, to be heard.

In fact, Bhabha prefaces the above comments by saying that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of “originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is precisely this activity that opens up what he terms “the inbetween space which leads to new signs of identity . . . in the act of defining society itself:”

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of sellfood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (Bhabha, LC 337)

Corman’s inclusion of poems from many languages – translations – poems both old and new – creates an “inbetween space” that is at once familiar and de-familiarizing – Corman’s own poems written in vernacular contemporary American English sound familiar to the American ear, whereas the translations, such as a poem like “Shingyo,” sound much less familiar because they are sourced in different languages, time periods, or cultures and because Corman’s renderings in English of those translations tend to be deliberately marked or frayed, creating a degree of dissonance between his own poetry and the translated poetry. In this way, Corman creates a gap, a space, and in-between, that allows, admits, a larger world of poetry to enter. He gets beyond, as Bhabha would have us do, “originaries and initial subjectivities” and allows the reader to experience a larger world of poetry by allowing her “to focus on moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is through this performance, this act, that Corman succeeds in initiating “new signs of identity,”which would lead to “the act of defining the idea of society itself ” (337).

The new identity that Corman wants us to embrace says that WE are OF this stuff, this material, this poetry. It is an identity that includes others – other languages, other poetries, other stories, and it accepts them graciously and identifies with them as human stories, familial stories. The new identity implies that the poetry of the world is gifted – offered – in the way that language itself is gifted to each of us, that is, handed down to us by our mothers and fathers, freely given. Corman’s move is deliberate and provocative – an insurgent act – and we should understand it as such and appreciate it as such. Rather than apologize or become defensive in responding to Eshleman’s question regarding appropriation, he becomes more assertive: “. . . the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous” (Corman, ICPR).

In placing translation directly beside his own poems, Corman forces us to ask questions about poetry and poetry’s role and place in the world at a time when cultures and languages are crossing borders more rapidly than ever before. He asks us if we are ready to hear what a world of poetry has to tell each of us about the nature of our existence on the planet. Do we understand the generous loving gesture that the poem itself is offering each of us? Can we approach not only poetry but each other with a larger sense of gratitude, or, as he would say in another poem, can we listen to the poem and each other?


Listen.
What is it – you ask?
I keep telling you:
Listen.

(Corman, ND 64)

Corman wants us to understand that poetry is as important now as it’s ever been in helping us through the night in helping us understand who we are, and what we are – even if poetry is nothing but cry in the night, even if it’s simply one person reaching out to another. Corman is not concerned with copyright issues, or questions of appropriation. It is as though he deliberately pushes these concerns aside in order to get at something more elemental and vital, and that is to remind us that poetry bring us together into a conversation – that language itself comes before ownership, that it is held in trust and commonly constructed. What ever it is that compels a person to write a poem, or for a person to read a poem, gestures toward shared community.

Corman’s magnum opus, of, by combining both translations from other poetries and placing them beside his own poems in a single book allows us to think beyond boundaries into new spaces that allow for a world of poetry to open up, a large world we find ourselves a part of. In doing this, the book reminds us that poetry, to be worthy of the name, to remain vital in our lives, must remain within the community as something offered and shared.

Family

We know it is love
Because we are – as
The stars are – because

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

Who never leave us
Alone – light shining
Under the closed door.

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne

§

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Locations of Culture.” The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. Ed. Peggy Levitt. New York: Routledge, 2007. 233-237. (Print)

Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California. Black Sparrow. 1978. (Print)

Corman, Cid. Back Roads to Far Towns. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 2004. (Print)

Corman, Cid. “Cid Corman in Conversation.” Interview with Philip Rowland. Flash Point Magazine, 16 Sept. 2000. (Web) 06 May 2013. <http://www.flashpoint mag.com/corman1.htm>.

Corman, Cid. Interview. “An Interview with Gregory Dunne. “American Poetry Review. (July/August 2000): 25. (Print) Corman, Cid, Mike Doyle, and Kegan Doyle. Where to Begin: Selected Letters of Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, 1967-1970. Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2000. (Print) Corman, Cid. Nothing Doing. New York: New Directions,

  1. (Print) Corman, Cid. of. Vol. 1 and 2. Venice, California: Lapis. 1990.

(Print) Corman, Cid. The Gist of Origin, 1951-1971: An Anthology.

New York: Grossman, 1975. (Print) Dunne, Gregory. “Getting the Secret Out of Cid Corman.” Poetry East: 44 (Spring 1997): 9 – 23. (Print) Eshleman, Clayton. “Cid,” Cipher Journal. 12 June 2004. <http://www.cipherjournal.com/html/eshleman_cid_ii.

html> (Web) Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America. Durham and London: Duke. 2005. (Print)
Heidegger. Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper Colophon Books, New York:1971.

(Print) Niedecker, Lorine, Cid Corman, and Lisa Pater Faranda. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 1986. (Print)

Olson, Charles, Cid Corman, and George Evans. Charles Olson & Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence 1950- 1964. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, Univer- sity of Maine, 1987. (Print)

Schelling, Andrew. “Schelling CC Death Notes.” Web log post. Schelling CC Death Notes. Cipherjournal, 28 Mar. 2004. (Web) 03 May 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Destabilizing Theory. Eds. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips. London: Polity Press, 1982. (Print)

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Gregory Dunne is the author of two collections of poetry: Home Test (Adastra Press, 2009) and Fistful of Lotus (a handmade book by Canadian printmaker Elizabeth Forrest, 2000). He has contributed to Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeneys and the Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Manoa, Poetry East, and Kyoto Journal. He lives in Japan and teaches in the Faculty of Comparative Culture at Miyazaki International College. Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman was published by Ekstasis Press in 2014.

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Mar 112015
 

r f langley 2 copyR. F. Langley 1938-2011

“By the end of my time spent with Langley’s work that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice.” —Julie Larios

 

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LIKE SEVERAL OF THE POETS I’ve written about for Undersung, Roger Francis Langley (known as R. F. Langley) was seriously unprolific. Seventeen poems were gathered together for one book, twenty-one poems for another. Apparently eight other poems appeared uncollected in The London Review of Books and PN Review. But unlike most other poets I’ve written about, Langley has not been a secret favorite of mine for years. In fact, I just heard about his work this January, when a friend mentioned a memoir titled H is for Hawk by the British writer Helen Macdonald. Macdonald, whose book recently won both the Costa Book Award for Biography and the Samuel Johnson Award for Non-Fiction, mentioned in an interview for The Guardian that, among a few other influential books which “opened her eyes to nature,” she had enjoyed a collection of diary entries by a poet I’d never heard of: R. F. Langley. Her description of that book, titled simply Journal, hooked me:

“These journals, Langley wrote, are concerned with ‘what Ruskin advocated as the prime necessity, that of seeing’, and pay ‘intense attention to the particular’. They speak of wasps, of thrips, grass moths, stained glass, nightjars, pub lunches and church monuments, everything deeply informed by etymology, history, psychology and aesthetic theory. The prose is compressed and fierce, and its narrative movement is concerned with mapping the processes of thought, the working out of things. It is founded on careful, close observation of things that typically pass unnoticed through our world.”

Being a fan of all things which pass unnoticed (or rarely noticed) I figured Langley’s journal might be worth looking through. Macdonald’s list of subjects (from thrips –thrips? – to pub lunches) intrigued me, and I was betting that Langley’s attention might be both focused and digressive, a combination that often produces fine essays. First, though, I had to see what kind of poetry he wrote.

I don’t own any of Langley’s books, and I couldn’t find individual poems anthologized in anything on my shelves. His work is not in my public library, and a search of databases produces not much more than basic biographical material (born in Warwickshire, England, 1938, educated at Cambridge, studied with poet Donald Davie, taught high school, retired to Suffolk, died 2011) and obituaries in major newspapers. Reviews and articles are few and far between, most of them simply remembrances. The obituaries warn that Langley did not produce a large body of work, having only begun to publish seriously in his sixties when he retired from forty years of teaching literature and art history to high school students.

There are only a few links to his poems online. Over at Amazon, his earlier out-of-print books/chapbooks are listed as “Unavailable at this time.” Later books listed there “may require extra time for shipping” which is code for any book that takes weeks to arrive from the U.K. and is obscure, published probably by a small European press. Luckily, I found two of Langley’s books (Collected Poems – 2002 – and The Face of It – 2007 – both still in print, published by Carcanet) at the university library near me and spent a slow afternoon reading them. The 2002 edition of Collected Poems (nominated for a Whitbread Book Award) contains only seventeen poems. It would be better titled Selected Poems; fortunately, a new edition is forthcoming from Carcanet in September of this year, and it is the definitive collection. It contains everything from the 2002 edition plus previously uncollected poems and supplementary material — I believe the total number of poems is 48.)

By the end of my reading that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice. Langley’s poem “To a Nightingale” was awarded the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem:

To a Nightingale

Nothing along the road. But
petals, maybe. Pink behind
and white inside. Nothing but
the coping of a bridge. Mutes
on the bricks, hard as putty,
then, in the sun, as metal.
Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
hoary, with their seed-capsules
uncurling. Red mites bowling
about on the baked lichen
and what look like casual
landings, striped flies, Helina,
Phaonia, could they be?
This month the lemon, I’ll say
primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
along the hedge then turn in
to hide, are Yellow Shells not
Shaded Broad-bars. Lines waver.
Camptogramma. Heat off the
road and the nick-nack of names.
Scotopteryx. Darkwing. The
flutter. Doubles and blurs the
margin. Fuscous and white. Stop
at nothing. To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine. Mites which
ramble. Caterpillars which
curl up as question marks. Then
one note, five times, louder each
time, followed, after a fraught
pause, by a soft cuckle of
wet pebbles, which I could call
a glottal rattle. I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

In this poem, Langley opens directly onto the physical world, minimizing the human presence, unlike “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, where the speaker (all agony, in the Romantic mode) dominates the first forty lines of the poem. Nature is somewhere out there in Keats’s poem; his speaker says, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,” though he’s willing to take a few guesses. Langley’s poem, on the other hand, goes down to the ground immediately and sees clearly the non-human world: petals, burls, mites, lichen, flies, lemons, moths. The speaker of Langley’s poem is present only in his desire to name correctly what he sees and hears (a flower, “Helina / Phaonia, could they be?’ and a color “I’ll say / primrose-coloured” and  a sound “which I could call a glottal rattle.”) Human involvement in the scene comes quietly:

               Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine.

He does not romanticize nature, as Keats does when he compares the bird’s “full-throated ease” to a man’s being half in love with Death. Instead, Langley celebrates what is mysterious and even nervous about the natural world (“Caterpillars which / curl up as question marks” and the “fraught pause” of the nightingale, the bird finally making its appearance at the very end of the poem. The man in the scene stands still , but nature is in motion; for Langley, the speaker’s role is that of a careful observer of an active, natural world.  William Wordsworth’s “Ode to a Nightingale” also begins with a man on a bridge and involves a nightingale’s song in the distance (no coincidence there – Langley is surely building on the English tradition of ornithological poems) but the center of that poem is also, as with Keats’s poem, clearly Man, not nature. Langley’s hidden subject might turn out to be the same upon careful observation, but his poetic trick is indirection. Langley, like many good poets, uses the tools of a good magician.

Look, too, at the subtler technical details of Langley’s poem, beyond the large idea it offers. It starts by saying “Nothing on the road.” Then, structurally, the poet unfolds his long list of everything that is actually there. He slows down after the opening four words and takes another look. And the poem come back structurally to that “nothing” by the end; the design of the poem is curvilinear, almost like the little caterpillar’s question mark.

                                          I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems (and like the quantitative verse of ancient Greece) this poem is built on counted syllables, with seven syllables per line, but without the lines feeling unnaturally stunted. Langley’s inspiration for this attention to the syllable was Charles Olson’s essay on “Projective Verse,” in which Olson says, “It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets [that] objects share.” Olson goes on to say that the syllable is “king and pin of versification” and describes what syllables do as a dance. “It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose.”

Counted syllables are not in and of themselves what a poet wants a reader to be aware of – the counting is simply part of the puzzle-making challenge the poet sets himself in order to see what kind of words will fill the particular vessel of the poem. Peter Turchi discusses a poet’s delight in this kind of challenge in his book A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, reviewed in the January issue of Numero Cinq. Turchi also talks about nursery rhymes in that book; several of Langley’s poems involve nursery-rhyme rhythms:

You grig. You hob. You Tom, and what not,
with your moans! Your bones are rubber. Get back
out and do it all again. For all the
world an ape! For all the world Tom poke, Tom
tickle and Tom joke!

(excerpt from “Man Jack”)

Meter established by syllable count is not the only technical tool used in the poem; there is also a generous amount of internal rhyme:

To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff.

A light touch with alliteration also plays its part in the appeal of the poem: petals/pink, hairy/hoary, bridge/burls/bowling/baked, shells/shaded, nick-nack of names…alliteration runs through the poem, as does near-rhyme (“the soft cuckle/ of wet pebbles….”) With such a tight syllabic count, the choice of words that manage to chime off each other like that is especially difficult.

Then there’s the specificity of the Latin names, countered with the goofy sound of giff-gaff and chiff-chaff (which is actually a type of bird.) Langley had a naturalist’s command of information, a linguist’s command of etymology, plus good comedic timing and a modern voice in the style of Wallace Stevens. Some of his phrases in this poem seem non-sensical on first reading, until you look up the less-familiar meaning of a familiar word – the “coping of a bridge,” for example, refers to the architectural detail of its capped wall; “mutes on the bridge, hard as putty” are bird droppings.

Retired in 1999 at the age of 61 and able — finally — to turn his full attention to writing, Langley might have anticipated two decades to do so. But “To a Nightingale,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in November of 2010, was his last published poem; he died in January of 2011. As Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote in his remembrance of Langley for the Cambridge Literary Review, Langley managed to personify Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” that is, the state of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In one poem about a medieval church in the moonlight, Langley says, “There are no / maps of moonlight. We find / peace in the room and don’t /ask what won’t be answered.” In “To a Nightingale,” there are no blunt answers, no overt message, nor is there any clear metaphor-making to draw lines between speaker and scene, yet we feel the mystery and melancholy in both, and we understand Langley’s play on the double-entendre of the word “coping” as it relates to both man and bridge, and the slight rise (of hope?) for both road and man as the poem ends. Daniel Eltringham summarized Langley’s skill in his article “‘The idea of the bird’: Bird Books, the Problem of Taxonomy, and Some Poems by R.F. Langley,” when he said, “Roger Langley’s writing lies between two worlds: the certainty desired by the amateur naturalist and its implications for artistic and taxonomic records, poised against the uncertain, plural, deferred, evasive character of an experimental artist. But poised without explicit tension: he is not a tense writer, more curious and exploratory, content to allow contradictions to remain contrary.”

Here is one more poem, offered up without commentary, other than to mention the character of Jack, who makes his appearance (like John Berryman’s Henry) in many later poems. There is also a noticeable use of end rhyme in this poem in addition to the internal rhyme, and the use of counted syllables (ten to the line.)  You’ll see the same sensibility at play, the same fine control of sound, the barrage of images, the refusal to straighten it all out and over-explain. Some of the work, Langley seemed to believe, belongs to the poem’s readers.

Jack’s Pigeon

The coffee bowl called Part of Poland bursts
on the kitchen tiles like twenty thousand
souls. It means that much. By the betting shop,
Ophelia, the pigeon squab, thuds to
the gutter in convulsions, gaping for
forty thousand brothers. So much is such.
Jack leans on the wall. He says it’s true or
not; decides that right on nine is time for
the blue bee to come to the senna bush,
what hope was ever for a bowl so round,
so complete, in an afternoon’s best light,
and even where the pigeon went, after
she finished whispering goodnight. Meanwhile,
a screw or two of bloody paper towel
and one dead fledgling fallen from its nest
lie on Sweet Lady Street, and sharp white shards
of Arcopal, swept up with fluff and bits
of breadcrust, do for charitable prayers.
The bee came early. Must have done. It jumped
the gun. Jill and the children hadn’t come.

How hard things are. Jack sips his vinegar
and sniffs the sour dregs in each bottle in
the skip. Some, as he dumps them, jump back with
a shout of ‘Crack!’ He tests wrapping paper
and finds crocodiles. The bird stretched up its
head and nodded, opening its beak. It
tried to speak. I hope it’s dead. Bystanders
glanced, then neatly changed the name of every
street. Once this was Heaven’s Hill, but now the
clever devils nudge each other on the
pavement by the betting shop. Jill hurried
the children off their feet. Jack stood and shook.
He thought it clenched and maybe moved itself
an inch. No more. Not much. He couldn’t bring
himself to touch. And then he too had gone.
He’s just another one who saw, the man
who stopped outside the door, then shrugged, and checked
his scratchcard, and moved on. Nothing about
the yellow senna flowers when we get home.
No Jack. No bee. We leave it well alone.

Jack built himself a house to hide in and
take stock. This is his property in France.
First, in the middle of the table at
midday, the bowl. Firm, he would say, as rock.
The perfect circle on the solid block.
Second, somewhere, there is an empty sack.
Third, a particular angry dormouse,
in the comer of a broken shutter,
waiting a chance to run, before the owl
can get her. The kick of the hind legs of
his cat, left on the top step of a prance.
The bark of other peoples’ dogs, far off,
appropriately. Or a stranger’s cough.
His cows’ white eyelashes. Flies settled at
the roots of tails. What is it never fails?
Jack finds them, the young couple dressed in black,
and, sitting at the front, they both look up.
Her thin brown wrist twists her half open hand
to indicate the whole show overhead.
Rotating fingernails are painted red.

Who is the quiet guard with his elbow
braced against the pillar, thinking his thoughts
close to the stone? He is hard to make out,
and easy for shadows to take away.
Half gone in la nef lumineuse et rose.
A scarlet cardinal, Jack rather hoped.
A tired cyclist in a vermillion
anorak. Could anyone ever know?
Sit down awhile. Jill reads the posy in
her ring and then she smiles. The farmer owns
old cockerels which peck dirt. But he is
standing where he feels the swallows’ wings flirt
past him as they cut through the shed to reach
the sunlit yard, bringing a distant blue
into the comfortable gold. How much
can all this hold? To lie and eat. To kill
and worry. To toss and milk and kiss and
marry. To wake. To keep. To sow. Jack meets
me and we go to see what we must do.
The bird has turned round once, and now it’s still.

There’s no more to be done. No more be done.
And what there was, was what we didn’t do.
It needed two of us to move as one,
to shake hands with a hand that’s shaking, if
tint were to be tant, and breaking making.
Now, on the terrace, huddled in my chair,
we start to mend a bird that isn’t there,
fanning out feathers that had never grown
with clever fingers that are not our own:
stroking the lilac into the dove grey,
hearing the croodle that she couldn’t say.
Night wind gives a cool hoot in the neck of
Jack’s beer bottle, open on the table.
Triggered by this, the dormouse shoots along
the sill, illuminated well enough
for us to see her safely drop down through
the wriggling of the walnut tree to find
some parings of the fruit we ate today,
set out on the white concrete, under the
full presentation of the Milky Way.

Though Langley’s work is new to me, I want to put his name in front of readers here at Numero Cinq and to recommend that we all make the effort to find his work and read it. I’ve purchased his Journal and now wait for it to wing its way across the Atlantic and into my mailbox. If your library responds to World Cat requests, you might find copies of his books through that resource. Meanwhile, listen to the wonderful audio recordings he made for The Poetry Archive – he has a perfect reading voice, not melodramatic but full of feeling, which is no small accomplishment. There are two recordings available: first, the odd and interesting “Cook Ting” and then his compelling “Blues for Titania, ” which you can read along with as he reads it – it’s a complicated and masterly poem, four stanzas long, nineteen lines each stanza, eleven syllables per line, and swoon-worthy.

—Julie Larios

 

With Jackson at Mo's 2

Julie Larios’s Undersung essays for Numéro Cinq have highlighted the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Mar 062015
 

StaffordWilliam Stafford via the Poetry Foundation and others

 

At the library of Congress in 1994 there was a memorial tribute to William Stafford, the brilliant American poet who, in 1970, had been what is now called the Poet Laureate of the United States.

There were the usual accolades: Bill Stafford was a poet whose plain language fitted his flatland Kansas sensibility. He was a man who thought peace (Stafford was a conscientious objector during World War Two) was good; war was wrong. There were other kind words. About the self-evident and the oblique stories in his poems. About those poem’s gifted reticence. Then something extraordinary was said. One of his children, his daughter Kit I think, told us of her father’s repeated advice to them as they were growing up: “Talk to strangers.”

By chance I was Bill Stafford’s student in the sense that I learned from him about writing and life: Do it all and do it all now. The threshold is never so high as you imagine. The beginning may not be the beginning. The end may not be the end. These aphorisms applied not only to his craft and mine, but to the way we lived. And there was a sense in what I learned from Bill Stafford that the two might not be easily separated.

Not far where I live in Kansas (and about the same distance from where Bill Stafford grew up) there is a high school in a town of roughly a thousand that has a video security system of which they are especially proud. I had been asked to be part of a literary program there (my talk was on Bill Stafford), and came to know about the surveillance cameras because I saw one posted in the room where I was speaking. Later, I saw the black and white glow of the monitors in the school’s office. I watched as the system projected pictures of the gymnasium (empty on this autumn Saturday); various hallways (also empty); our meeting room (adults milling around drinking coffee and eating donuts); and finally a shot outside the school: the wide Kansas prairie as background, a small Kansas town in the foreground.

One of the school’s officials and a parent stopped to say that you couldn’t be too careful these days, what with Columbine and Amber alert. Bad things happen in schools. And out of schools. Better to be vigilant than be sorry. When they left, I could see them on the monitors as they walked across the buffalo grass lawn to where they were parked. They talked for a moment over the bed of a pickup truck, and then drove off, safe, I suppose, in the knowledge that someone might have been watching them.

Over the years Bill Stafford and I wrote back and forth: letters, post cards, copies of our work sent to one another with inscriptions. As he was one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, I got plenty more of the latter than did he. But no matter how far apart we were, Bill in Oregon and me in Kansas or in Europe, he would sign off with something like “Adios” or “Cheers”, and then, as if we were just across the pasture, he’d note: “And stop on by.” My sense now is that when I’d get to him, windblown and dusty from the walk over, he’d want to know if I’d met any strangers on the way, and what stories they had to tell.

Have we become an America where it is stupid to give the same advice to our children that Bill Stafford gave his, and where stop on by means please don’t? Have we come to believe that surveillance cameras in the high schools of tiny prairie towns will teach our students the eternal vigilance they’ll need to live in towns beyond their own? Or in their own? What with Columbine and Amber alert. Or is the answer from Bill Stafford’s poem Holcomb, Kansas?

Now the wide country has gone sober again.
The river talks all through the night, proving
its gravel. The valley climbs back into its hammock
below the mountain and becomes again only what
it is: night lights on farms make little blue domes
above them, bring pools for the stars; again
people can visit each other, talk easily,
deal with real killers only when they come.

Or are we all real killers?

There may be no reclaiming Bill Stafford’s vision of America, but once upon a time, in his plain voice, didn’t he speak for you?

— Robert Day


Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

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Feb 102015
 

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

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Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014

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My wife says we’ll be eternally close to Tink and Polly, old-time Vermonters, that vanishing stock, and best of neighbors. To me, she seems like some madwoman, talking about how we should stipulate a bench instead of a headstone to stand at this grave she bought yesterday, when I was out of town. A bench, she explains, will enable our children and grandchildren to sit, have picnics, enjoy the scenery. As they take in the panorama, she adds, they can think of us, and in this setting their thoughts will necessarily be happy ones.

Now I’ll admit she’s always been uncannily good at knowing what our children, and now their children, may need or want, but I’m skeptical of this rosy vision of hers. Our kids aren’t as needy as many I’ve known in any case. Even when they were small, they often proved delightfully resourceful.

The two youngest daughters dreamed up sisters for their games: Sharlee was the bright one, Sally the drunken fool. They had Bunnum the rabbit too, and the younger girl often took on the role of Moodyhawk, an odd, mean character who claimed to rule the world. She came, as I recall, from Guam.

An older brother conceived and played the part of a dog named Ruffy. He would school his father or his mother, or often both at once, in their lines of dialogue with Ruffy, often scolding us for faulty inflection or body language. “Not like that!” he’d snap. (When he became a teenager, his grief at the death of his real dog, a sweet Labrador bitch called Plum, would keep him home from school one day.)

The eldest daughter, at four years old, reported, lisping the plural, that she’d found two slugs on a pumpkin. There was gusto, even mirth, in her description of how the orange of the mollusks and the orange of the fruit “didn’t go together.” She was visibly disappointed when she led me out to the garden; she couldn’t find the slugs themselves, merely the pale paths they had left on descending and heading who knew where?

The firstborn child was obsessed with Jeeps, and in bumbling, nightly drawing lessons, I guided his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen. He’d whistle between his teeth in concentration, his breaths turning to small clouds in that frigid space, no matter the ancient Round Oak woodstove glowed red in the corner. Draft after draft after draft. He wanted perfection. Who doesn’t long for that?

Standing on my grave, I start mourning, because I’ll lose these moments and others accrued over so many years. In short, my own vision is far less cheery than my wife’s. Is this a matter of gender? I’ll never know. I can’t speak for motherhood. But can anyone have been a father and conjured such random memories without some inward weeping?

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous.

Meanwhile, and as always for no palpable reason, my mind makes its oblique jumps. I suddenly think of a check I left this morning for a woman who comes now and then to clean house. She bore a child in her teens, and might have gone on to harm, misery, or dependence; but her boyfriend stood by her, married her, helped her to raise that daughter. I admire that woman greatly: her industry, her constantly upbeat mood, whatever a given day’s circumstances and despite her rheumatoid arthritis.

I scribbled a thank you note to her along with the payment. Typically broody, I think just now how the note resembles so much I’ve put my hand to: a note is no more than a note, and still it’s one more thing that will disappear for good.

Those children’s children: how could I ever have known how much I’d love them? You see, it’s not the abstraction death that daunts me; it’s the leaving behind of all the beloved, particular creatures with whom I’ve walked the earth that will cover my ashes, and all the places on earth that have proved so dear to us. And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me that an apter feeling might be gratitude. I have had so much to lose in the first place.

I should study that. Maybe the bench is a fine idea after all.

 

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River, Stars, and Blessed Failure

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I pause in my drive back home from a reading, unknotting my legs and back, which have stiffened while I’ve sat at the wheel. It’s a joy to behold the moon as it breaches the mountain, though I feel even slighter than one of the beads of froth down there in the rapids, which are winking back at more stars than I’ve ever seen in New England. How can there be so many? They rob my breath and speech.

I could almost read my poems out loud again by that moon and those stars. But I’m not in the least inclined to do that. I’m banishing words for the moment, as if by strange instinct – not just my own words, but all. I find it more than peaceful out here to articulate nothing, to feel myself on the farthest edge of conscious thought.

Over the river’s crackle, I catch the lyrical calling of a coyote, and from it can imagine ones nearer to home, their sopranos mixed with the altos of owls and the lilting descant of a freshet. I picture my wife in our house. Perhaps she pauses by a certain window just now, the big one through which at this time of year we watch the deer glide in to browse our night-black lawn. Against that darkness, their bodies show ashen, ghostly, elegant.

Our children are all grown and gone. And yet in this moment their distance feels slight. No longer are we at the exact center of a family constellation, but even so –or is it therefore?– we still know this thing we crudely call joy.

Of course, as one who always longs for the freshest and rarest expression of feeling he can muster, I might easily wince at so paltry and common a noun as that – joy indeed! if I didn’t find this a time, precisely, for rhetorical failure, no words quite apt for what shimmers out there above any one person’s construals of meaning.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

The essays published here will appear in a collection forthcoming this spring by Green Writers Press.

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Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

dg

The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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(Click the images to make them larger.)
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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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Feb 082015
 

Lawrence Sutin

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I hate this question because it admits of many answers that each have some sense, if not certainty, to offer.

There are persons who feel that it’s morbid to think about it, a hindrance to engagement with life. There are persons who feel the exact opposite—there always are, on any question, and we as a species could do better at seeing this as a sign of hope rather than a signal for war—and pointedly face their fear of mortality, become devoted to risky behaviors from climbing mountains to snorting coke because you’re going to die anyway, deal with it by using the fear for what it’s good for, fuel. There are persons who have had their dearly loved ones die and their answer is that there’s no hope of their ever thinking about anything else. Others see death as cosmic drama—the gateway to eternal salvation, damnation or reincarnation. Others look forward to death because they’re convinced it’s lights- out oblivion, a blissful rest from life. Still others say that we’re all dead already and just don’t know it, the afterlife is here and now and you can call it heaven, hell, the bardo, the liminal, the astral, the timeless dream in which the universe become us and us it. A sizable subgroup avoids thinking of their own deaths but relishes thinking of the deaths of those they hate.

All of these views are thoughts I’ve had, but none of them quite answer the question I’ve posed with its focus on when. No one would seriously hold that any person who has come of age could manage never to think about death, so we all would agree that we have to think about it sometimes. To what standard shall we set our mental clocks so that we might devote ourselves efficiently to the task? But what do I mean by efficient and what has it to do with when? I mean by efficient that sort of thinking—and I include feeling as a particularly wrenching sort of thinking—that enables us to live well with the knowledge of death. Now, as just what so enables us is intertwined with our time of life, we return to when as the crucial point. When? For how long and how often? And should it ever stop?

By seeing the complexity of the question I am trying to spare myself the problem of answering it. The complexity itself is the answer, I could say. As few of us know when we are going to die and those few—the terminal and the condemned—who do know are likely to think of death without wondering if they’ve found the proper time, that leaves the feckless majority of us not knowing or wishing to know when we will die and not knowing when we should start or stop thinking about it.

But I think that many of us think about it incessantly without knowing we do, if not unconsciously than implicitly, and always with a mind to how we should spend the time we have, a sack of coins that seems never to empty when we are not thinking of death. Joy and boredom both make time burgeon. So we choose certain jobs, certain loves, even certain sorrows, because given the time we have we naturally choose what we can’t escape.

I recently visited my daughter Sarah in Seattle, where she is living with her fiancé–they are both in their early twenties–and wondering where their lives might best lead. When she goes about her day she sometimes has to drive over Lake Union upon the venerable, girded and cantilevered Aurora Bridge—six tight lanes of two-way traffic with no central barriers to take the brunt if a driver happens to wander into the opposite flow.   One spacy swerve in any of the lanes of the Aurora Bridge—on which if you head south will lead you to the Pacific Highway and ultimately all the way to Mexico—when traffic is moderate or heavy which is every day and cars would crush each other one by one for hundreds of yards. I should add that, since its construction in 1932, it has been a favored site for suicides—over 230, second amongst U. S. bridges only to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

But the old Aurora Bridge with its rattling compression can make you think about death even if you hope to stay alive. That’s the effect it has on my daughter Sarah, who would avoid the Aurora if she could, but given the algae-like spread of the Seattle streets the lost time she put into avoidance would haunt her as the silly cost of fearing to think about death. Sarah does not want to be driven by fear and so she drives the Aurora and does her time thinking.

I have gone along with her on this ride—it’s just the two of us—expressly to watch her and talk with her as she makes the crossing. She’s material to keep my hand moving over this page you now read. She has my brown curly hair only lots more of it. She also has my penchant for anxiety and I would not have wished that for her. I ask how this bridge-drive is impacting her and she says she has to concentrate on her driving to keep her nerves from setting her on fire.

Does she think there is life after death? She does not. What she wants when she is dying is to be able to say that there is nothing left to be done, her design projects completed, her loved ones protected. But she acknowledges the paradox that, were someone she loved dying, a solace to her would be if they would ask her to do something yet unfinished for them. That would take her out of missing them for the time it took to do it.

Suicide?   She doesn’t want to commit it. I breathe again. But in her young crowd the question of preferred method comes up now and then—it’s their way of thinking of death, I’m guessing, with the fantasy of control over their own demise without yet having undergone the agony that makes you yearn for an end—and she felt she needed to come up with an answer. Helium seemed to be easy as such things went. All the while Sarah’s face is serious, her espresso eyes fixed and galactic, the mask of a goddess of life and of death who has no choice but to dwell and rule in both realms.

How afraid are you of death? How often do you think of it when you’re not on this goddamned bridge? Finally I put these questions point-blank and she senses my fear along with hers. She says she tries not to think about it but she does, not a lot, but it never goes far away, she doesn’t think it does for most people.

We have crossed the Aurora Bridge and I am now far more unsettled than Sarah because, at my bidding, my daughter has talked about death to me and I feel I have spurred her to show fear that I wanted to see for the tawdry sake of answering the question of when. But I don’t want Sarah to have any fear of death, none. I want her to be free from every mental crevasse I have fallen into, death’s certainty being an especially deep one. I also don’t want to lie to her when she reads this by hiding the fact that I often imagine happily a future world in which she is vibrant and I am gone. I meditate to accept impermanence but I pray that Sarah’s death will come after I’m gone. I would love it if we could see each other in the afterdeath realm or reincarnate as puppies in the same litter, but I suspect what will ensue is a chain of genetics that will dance through descendants as it has through us. And all of them will think about death and none of them solely when they chose.

So the answer to when might as well be never once you’ve thought about it hard. How else to avoid crossing lanes by recalling we’re tiny sacs of life knocking about without and within, a car or a heart valve could veer and kill us. Our souls would have no idea if they were staying or going as death happened, they would have expected us to have thought about that but we haven’t, not clearly, nothing we have ever thought about seems to answer to this death we will find ourselves dying when there is still a great deal to do and our loved ones need us, loved ones always do. Think of them and not death while you can.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West.  In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com.  He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Feb 072015
 

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In comments made aboard the papal plane en route to the Philippines in early January, Pope Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks. According to the AP, he defended “free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good,” and he condemned the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Such horrific violence “in God’s name,” far from being justified, was an “aberration” of religion. In fact, he said, “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity.” Perhaps; but we also know that, absurd or not, killing in the name of God accounts for many of the more irrational streams of blood staining what Hegel famously called the “slaughter-bench” of history.

Francis is aware of the paradox. His very insistence that when it comes to religion “there are limits to free expression,” anticipates his overt conclusion that a “reaction of some sort” to the Muhammad cartoons was “to be expected.” If not inevitable, a response was hardly unlikely. Most Muslims consider any representation of Muhammad, even the most benign, image-worshiping and therefore blasphemous. And radicalized Islamists, a small but virulent minority of Muslims, have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence when they feel their Prophet has been offended. The pope was not speaking ex cathedra, not pronouncing authoritatively on faith and morals. Still, he was talking about “faith,” insisting that it must never be ridiculed. “You cannot,” he declared, “insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Though these “Shalt Nots” go too far for some, many will be inclined to agree with the pope. In a gentler world I would myself. But this is decidedly not that world.

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This seems counter-intuitive. Surely in the post-9/11 world, a world in which the blood-dimmed tide of theological passion has been loosed, it would make all the more sense not to intensify those passions. One strand of the Enlightenment interprets free speech as universal tolerance, including the acceptance of everyone’s right to practice his or her own religion on its own terms, with its own codes and beliefs. But another strand of the Enlightenment—reflecting the same reaction to the preceding century or more of religious conflict, obscurantism, and superstition—is radically secular, and therefore more likely to be dismissive than tolerant of religion in general, especially those creeds whose adherents cling to what seem to secularists atavistic mores—which is to say, counter-Enlightenment values.

That’s our Enlightenment, of course: European and then transatlantic. But, as everybody knows or else should know, Islam had its own sustained enlightenment. During that 500-year period, a unique Islamic culture flourished, while, simultaneously, Muslim scholars became the saviors and conduits of much of Greek philosophy, literature, and science: a rich deposit that eventually resulted in the European Renaissance. The Islamic Golden Age, beginning in the Abbasid caliphate of the great Harun-al-Rashid (789-809) and stretching beyond the 13th century, occurred during a half-millennium when Europe was mired in what, at least in comparison with contemporaneous Muslim culture, actually were the fabled “Dark Ages.” Benjamin Disraeli once squelched in Parliament an Irish MP who had alluded to the Prime Minister’s Jewish heritage by reminding the unfortunate Celt that while “the honorable gentleman’s ancestors were living in caves and painting their bodies blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.” Disraeli’s contrast might be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the contrast between European and Muslim civilization between, say, the 8th and the 12th centuries.

But that Golden Age of Islam is long past, replaced by a post-colonial world of vast petro-wealth for the few and abject poverty for the many. The current Muslim Middle East is beset by fundamentalist versions of Islam, protracted violence, widespread illiteracy, lack of opportunity, and the growing sense of parents that neither they, nor their children nor their grandchildren, are likely to develop the skills required to function in a modern global economy. Their region is multiply afflicted by authoritarian despotism in the oil-rich states; sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia; tribal and civil chaos; and the rise of ever-more zealous and brutal jihadists, with ISIS in particular now trying to slaughter and terrorize its way to a grotesquely distorted version of the long-lost Abbasid caliphate.

Western secularists understand, may even admire, Muslim rejection of our often sordid materialistic culture. But from the perspective of enlightened reason, fatwas and jihad are another matter. Bans on images of the Prophet can fall into the same dubious category. Such prohibitions, even if they seem excessive, are understandable to most Western observers. This likely majority would include believers, who, having their own religious faith, have no wish to insult an article of Muslim faith. It would also include secularists committed to the thread of Enlightenment thought that stresses tolerance and a respect for the beliefs of others, even those we may consider idiosyncratic.

There are, however, secular defenders of free speech for whom these prohibitions regarding images of the Prophet become intolerable when reinforced by the threat of violence. That is the camp in which I find myself, awkwardly caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can those of us defending freedom of expression in the name of secular values avoid falling into a binary opposition pitting “us” against “them? Yet what are we to do if our response to Islamist terrorism is to insist, in this matter of banned images, that our secular faith in freedom of thought and expression requires us to insult the religious beliefs not only of Islamist fanatics but of virtually all Muslims? There is no easy answer, and perhaps no middle ground, for those of us who might wish, in the name of amity and mutual respect, to honor such a ban, but resist being bullied into it by the threat of violence and death if we do not.

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Pope Francis, though adamant in condemning violence in the name of religion, advocates tolerance and respect for the “faith of others,” both as an intrinsic value and because he is the world leader of a faith he also wishes to see respected by others. One reason his recent comments received such worldwide attention is that, quite aside from being, for Catholics, the Vicar of Christ, this charismatic pope has quickly become a popular celebrity in the secular world. As such, it might be argued, his observations to intimates on a plane should be taken as just another instance of the unscripted utterances that have charmed those who share this remarkably informal pope’s vision of a less pompous pontificate—though these same spontaneous observations unnerve the Vatican Curia and send church officials scurrying to preempt any potential fallout. Forget it. Given Francis’ immense personal appeal and his spiritual prestige as pope, his comments cannot be reduced, as they were the day after by a Vatican PR spokesman, to merely “casual remarks.” His utterances all carry significant weight.

The troubling aspect of his remarks on the plane—for those who were troubled—had to do not only with those “cannots” regarding religion, but with the immediate political context in which they were pronounced. I applaud his effort to bring together rather than divide. But to condemn, as Francis did on this occasion, “insults” or “fun” directed at “faith” suggests—in the context of the politically and religiously motivated slaughter of cartoonists who did not share that reticence—a partial misreading of events, and of the issues at stake. Some, even admirers of this pope, of whom I am one, have been disturbed by what struck us as a less than full-throated condemnation of religiously-inspired violence, even if the killings in Paris represent, as they do, an “aberration of religion,” in this case, of Islam.

In his remarks on the plane, the pope—reaching out, as always, to what he calls “the peripheries”—was advocating tolerance and mutual respect rather than engaging in a debate about freedom of speech. The complicating factor, as recently noted by Timothy Garton Ash—Isaiah Berlin Fellow at Oxford and leader of the Oxford-based Free Speech Debate project—is that in our contemporary world, a world where writers and cartoonists can be murdered for engaging in religious satire, “the argument for ‘respect’ is so uncomfortably intertwined with fear of the assassin’s veto.” But there may be safety in anonymity. Writing on January 22, Ash proposed, as a way of “Defying the Assassin’s Veto” (New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015), the establishment of a “safe haven”: a website “specifically dedicated to republishing and making accessible to the widest readership offensive images that are of genuine news interest, but which, for a variety of reasons, many journals, online platforms, and broadcasters would hesitate to publish on their own.”

Fully aware of the “no-holds-barred French genre of caricature as practiced by Charlie Hebdo,” Ash does not expect widespread endorsement of the often grossly outrageous satirical attacks the magazine has long launched against a wide spectrum of religious and political figures. Nor does he glibly charge with “cowardice” those editors around the world who, dealing with genuinely difficult choices, elected not to republish the Charlie Muhammad cartoons. But he does applaud Nick Cohen’s refreshingly frank observation, made during a panel discussion at The Guardian (which did not reprint the original cartoons though it did publish, a week later, Charlie Hebdo’s memorial cover, depicting a weeping Muhammad saying “all is forgiven”). Cohen said: “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.” As if in response, the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote the following day, “I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.”

“I am not Charlie” prose quickly became, as Ash remarks, a “subgenre.” In his January 9 NY Times column, “Why I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” conservative commentator David Brooks made several characteristically sensible points; but not, it seems to me, when it came to what he thought the “motivation” behind the French people’s “lionizing” of Charlie Hebdo. The mass response in Paris and elsewhere had to do, not so much with approval of the offending cartoons; nor even with approval of Charlie Hebdo’s laudable exposure (one of the traditional targets of satire in Rabelais, Molière and Voltaire) of the use and abuse of religion by hypocrites and fanatics. The marchers were “motivated” by a felt need to defend freedom of expression, to champion liberté, rightly seen as under direct assault by the forces of ignorance, religious bigotry, and militant fanaticism.

The perspective of the pope, as of David Brooks, seems to be shared by most media outlets, which had, until recently, refused to reproduce the “inflammatory” cartoons for the general public. True; free speech is not unlimited. There are considerations of sensitivity, respect for the feelings or beliefs of others. And there is the question of public safety: one mustn’t, to cite the usual cliché, shout “fire” in a crowded theater. In addition, especially in the U. S., many—left, right and center—are quite willing to sacrifice freedom of expression when it comes to voices they disagree with, ranging from speech codes on campuses and college committees disinviting controversial speakers, to attempts to ban flag-burning. And, to cite an example mingling outrage, bias, politics, and self-censorship, there is about as much chance of hearing a favorable word about Israeli policy in the UN General Assembly as there is of hearing a disparaging one in the U. S. Congress.

The crucial question posed by the onboard remarks of Pope Francis has to do with his specific defense of religion set in the specific context of a contemporary world threatened, not by Islam, but by radicalized Islamists ardent to participate—as organized terrorists, as affiliates of al Qaeda and its various offshoots, or as lone wolves—in some form of jihad. Religion’s defense of itself against freedom of speech is nothing new, as attested to by the pitiless but pious burning of “heretics” at the stake; the cherum (ritual of expulsion) pronounced against the noble Spinoza, cursed, damned and driven from his synagogue; the imprisonment of writers and thinkers charged with “blasphemy.” The old lethality resurfaced dramatically in 1989. In the year the Soviet Empire collapsed (fittingly, the 200th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution), Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the irreverent (but brilliant and very funny) chapter on Muhammad’s wives in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.

Though they joined in deploring the death-sentence against the author, the Vatican of John Paul II, the archbishop of New York (John Cardinal O’Connor), the archbishop of Canterbury, and the principal Sephardic rabbi of Israel also united in taking a stand against “blasphemy.” Pope Francis, not given to dogmatic pronouncements, did not use the word “blasphemy.” But, like Francis now, all these leaders insisted in 1989 that “there is a limit to free expression” when it comes to religion. I may seem to be having it both ways: acknowledging that Francis did not refer to “blasphemy” and at the same time making him guilty by association with those who have employed this term. Not quite.

But the pope does seem to me guilty of mixing messages and muddying the waters by using the occasion of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo to inform us all that we must always be respectful, and “never make fun” of anyone’s “faith,” at the very moment he is also telling us (listen up, ye cartoonists and satirists!) that we and they have to “expect” retaliation of some sort when we violate that taboo. The pope was speaking off-the-cuff and with the best intentions. Nevertheless, this is a taboo he shares, in however benign a form, with most orthodox Muslims and, alas, with Islamist terrorists. In a more formal imprimatur of the “casual” assertion of Francis that “you cannot insult” or “make fun of the faith of others,” there has been a recent joint declaration by leading imams and the Vatican strongly urging the media to “treat religions with respect.”

That may seem reasonable and civilized, but in our particular historical-political context, such respect, normally to be encouraged and embraced, presents a threat to both reason and civilization. Conscious of the secular challenge to Christianity as well as to Islam, but fully realizing that a robust defense of freedom of expression (in practice rather than mere theory) virtually requires secularists to risk insulting Muslims, Pope Francis insists that religion must invariably be treated with respect. Like Timothy Garton Ash, I attribute the self-censorship seen in most media around the world less to a decent respect for the faith of others than to fear of violent retaliation. Despite the polarization it simultaneously reflects and intensifies, my own position, succinctly stated, comes down to this: a conviction that it’s precisely the threat of terrorism that makes it incumbent on the West to refuse to sacrifice its deepest value, freedom, to uncritically “respecting” religion—especially when the particular religion in question seeks to blackmail the rest of the world into “respecting” (under some “only-to-be-expected” threat of death) its own ban on images of the Prophet. That prohibition derives, by the way, not from the Qur’an, but from the Hadith, posthumous tales of Muhammad’s life. Ironically enough, Muslim scholars often cite a passage in the Hebrew Bible in which Abraham (whose father, Terah, was a manufacturer of idols) declares the worship of “images” a manifest “error.” The further irony is that the Islamic ban, intended to discourage the worship of idols, has turned the prohibited images, these absent presences, into another and potentially lethal form of idolatry.

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Current Muslim resentment and, in its most toxic form, Islamist terrorism, have been fueled by Western colonialism and, more recently, by U. S. military intervention in the Middle East. The colonialist legacy has been, for the most part, unambiguously negative, culturally and politically. In economic terms, the victims of colonialism had imposed upon them an imported labor market management model that encouraged a race to the bottom in pursuit of comparative advantage in cheap labor. Through conquest, and with the strokes of various pens, Western colonialism created states that were less “nations” than multi-cultural entities, subject to authoritarian despots in varying degrees initially subservient to Western interests: kings and shahs and presidents-for-life propped up by the oil-thirsty West, and who, even when they asserted their independence, tended to brutally oppress their own people. In several Middle Eastern states, people ripe for revolution rose up in the exhilarating but tragically short-lived Arab Spring. That revolution, like so many others (notably including the great French Revolution itself), consumed its own idealistic children, and what emerged, or re-emerged, was military dictatorship, Islamic extremism, and another wave of emigration from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. And some of those immigrants, especially but not only in France, became a fifth column: poor, unassimilated, embittered, and therefore susceptible to the siren call to jihad. From their ranks came the killers who lashed out at the “blasphemous” cartoonists in Paris.

In a Le Moyne College open discussion of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, four faculty presenters explored “issues behind and exposed by the murders,” murders “no one could accept.” As the organizer, history professor Bruce Erickson, rightly insisted: “we do not defend the terrorists, or justify the murderers, or reject the Enlightenment, if we ask questions about how to integrate the multi-cultural world and nations that we created through colonialism.” Though most Muslim immigrants to the United States have assimilated well, many living in France and other Western European countries have not, some choosing to self-segregate. Though the “no-go zones,” alleged Muslim enclaves governing themselves under Sharia law, turned out to be a myth, subsequently recanted by its perpetuators at Fox News, this hardly diminishes the problem, nor does it sever the connection between the colonialist past and the terrorist present. The French failure to integrate the children and grandchildren of immigrants generated just the sort of recruits who became the murderers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

As an explanation of Islamic radicalism, these recent colonial developments, though crucial, may be more symptomatic than causal. The deep roots of jihad (whether interpreted as internal struggle or as external battle against the infidel) are to be found in the “sword-passages” of the Qur’an; and the historical expansion of Islamic extremism came with the transformation of large elements of a once relatively open and intellectually dynamic faith, the Islam of the Golden Age, into puritanical sects—primarily but not exclusively Wahhabism. That, of course, is the narrow-minded brand of Islam (a main source as well of much of the treatment of women and gays deplored in the West) globally disseminated through madrassas funded primarily by our “moderate” friend and supposed ally in the region, oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

To trace Islamic radicalization exclusively to Western provocations would be to “infantilize” Muslims, to hold them utterly blameless for their own actions. In saying that past European colonialism and more recent U.S. intervention have “fueled” Muslim resentment, my point (to flesh out the metaphor) is that these Western phenomena have fed, fanned, and intensified the flames of radicalization and reactionary terrorism. Hardly a complete explanation, let alone an excuse, for Islamist extremism, the impact of this history seems incontrovertible. I have already referred to the cumulative, corrosive legacy of the old colonialism; but here are examples of obvious Islamic reaction to Western provocations.

The original Muslim Brotherhood was reacting to colonialist secularization in Egypt. The Iranian theocracy established in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini sealed the revolution against the secularist Shah, installed in 1953, after the coup against the legitimately-elected Mossadegh government: a coup engineered by petroleum-protecting British Intelligence, and orchestrated with a reluctant but still complicit American CIA. Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in reaction to the presence of U. S. troops in “holy” Arabia in preparation for the first (for many of us, the “justifiable”) Gulf War. And over the past decade and a half thousands of jihadists have specifically attributed their radicalization to U.S actions, whether in actual conflict and the carrying out of drone strikes, or in response to the pointless atrocities of Abu Ghraib and to the more systematic employment of torture in CIA “black sites.” The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 preceded the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but came after our first Gulf War. And jihadism intensified and metastasized in the wake of our duplicitous, inept, and counterproductive 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld has proven to be prophetic. In one of his myriad “snowflake” memos, the then Secretary of Defense feared that we “might generate more terrorists than we could kill.”

Given the role of the West in, not creating, but certainly exacerbating, Islamic extremism, it is worth noting that the ban on images of the Prophet intensified during the early period of European colonization when Muslims were most anxious to differentiate their religion from “image-worshiping” Christianity. The prohibition is particularly stressed by Saudi Wahhabism and Iran’s clerical theocracy. Because of the impact of these most puritanical forms of Islam, what is for most Muslims anti-iconic “respect” becomes, for many of us in the West, an idiosyncratic, irrational, regressive, and intolerant shibboleth regarding “images of the Prophet.” And yet it is a ban we are to “respect,” not on the moral grounds of sensitivity to the beliefs of others, but under compulsion: the “assassin’s veto,” the clear and present danger of retribution, including fatwa and death.

Many, probably most, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus wish to be respectful of the beliefs of others and tolerant of difference. When the stakes are as high as they are now, however, this misplaced “tolerance” gives at least the appearance of justifying ignorance and barbarism by labeling religion’s satirists disrespectful, for some, blasphemous. With the advent of contemporary Islamist extremism, the old tensions between the religious and the secular and between freedom and limitation of expression have taken on a new urgency, becoming, literally, matters of life and death. Making fun of faith can put you in the grave.

The pope’s point about predictable retaliation, given the history of the past few decades, is non-controversial. But instead of stating the obvious, that some sort of reaction was “to be expected,” he ought to have questioned how things have come to this pass. Such a discussion would have included the background (Western colonialism), but should also have made it clear that, whatever the oppressive historical circumstances in which it evolved and to which it is reacting, Islamist extremism in its current militant form deserves to be criticized, and needs to be resisted. However flawed the West may be, civilization is preferable to barbarism.

Of course, resisting religious extremism can produce, as unthinking backlash, its own form of religious extremism. To shift from the charge that criticism of religion is “blasphemous,” consider the following manifestation of religious fanaticism, this time Christian, from a Fox News radio host and Fox News TV “contributor.” In recently attacking critics of the box-office blockbuster American Sniper, dramatizing the 160-kill exploits of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in Iraq, Todd Starnes announced that “Jesus would love” the film and would personally thank snipers for dispatching “godless” Muslims to the “lake of fire.”[1]

Far from invoking Jesus to justify violence against Muslims, Pope Francis called for “respect” toward Islam, and, indeed, all religions. In defending religion, theirs and others, from criticism, some Christian and Jewish leaders have invoked the specter of “blasphemy.” To his credit, as earlier mentioned, Francis did not employ that incendiary term, and he was right to refrain. Rather than join them in leveling the charge, we should leave such labeling to the thoughtless defenders of their particular faith, to God-and-country jingoists and to Islamist fanatics.

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It’s not necessary to applaud the often scurrilous Charlie Hebdo cartoons in order to defend the cartoonists’ freedom of expression. Unlike American satire (aside from two of its greatest practitioners, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken), French satire has a long history of being anti-religious and anti-clerical, as well as being offensive—savagely and equally—across the board, skewering every sacred cow in sight. French satire, like the French state itself, is fiercely secular, as is most of post-World War II Western Europe. This is precisely why the previous pope, the conservative Benedict XVI, was so determined to re-Christianize Western Europe. And this is why the French people and their leaders came out in such numbers in the immediate aftermath of the lethal assault on Charlie Hebdo. Aside from expressing outrage against these particular religiously-inspired murders and this specific assault on free speech, the French marchers were defending their twin, and notably secular, heritages: the Enlightenment and the Revolution—at least the Idea of the Revolution, stain-free, the bloody guillotines of the Jacobin Terror conveniently repressed.

But despite the heartening response in the streets of Paris and elsewhere, rallying in support of Charlie Hebdo (like many others, I wondered where President Obama was, or at least Biden or Kerry), the Islamists have already won to the extent that almost everybody else in the world was, at least initially, too “terrified” to even reproduce the Charlie Muhammad cartoons—just as they were too afraid of violent retaliation to reproduce the famous “Danish cartoons” in 2005. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about the threat of lethal violence. Though many Danish papers republished the Charlie Hebdo images, they were, significantly, not reproduced in Jyllands-Posten, where the original “Danish cartoons” had appeared. Citing the paper’s “unique position,” and concerned for employees’ safety, the paper’s foreign editor, Flemmings Rose—hardly a coward, indeed, the very man who had commissioned those Muhammad cartoons a decade earlier—candidly admitted to the BBC: “We caved in,” adding that “Violence works,” and that “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.” One understands his caution, and the dangerous alternative. But there is an even greater danger in surrendering the pen to the sword. Islamists, whose preferred method of terrifying infidels and recruiting fresh jihadists is the publicly exhibited decapitation of prisoners (or, most recently, burning them alive), may, paradoxically, have made it necessary to be religiously offensive in order to defend the Western concept of freedom, now faced with a challenge as theocratic as it is political.

Not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or labeling them offensive, insulting, or, worse yet, “blasphemous,” is no longer simply a matter of “good taste” or “respect for others.” In the context of a growing threat by Islamist extremists—ranging from self-appointed jihadists to organized armed forces aiming to establish by the sword a new Islamic caliphate—such normally laudable sensitivity becomes, instead, a caving-in to intimidation by fanatics. The momentarily most ruthless of them (ISIS or ISIL) is determined, in God’s name (Allahu akbar!), not only to forcibly install an “Islamic State” in the heart of the Middle East, but to repeal the Enlightenment and the modern world.

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One can make nuanced arguments against both the Enlightenment and modernity, but NOT when the alternatives are irrationality, atavism, and—for unbelieving secularists—superstition. In the end, in the view of skeptics, the leaders of organized religions, Francis included, are in the business of defending their vested interests, their own particular accumulations of doctrine, tradition, and (for agnostics and atheists) “superstition.” But believers who are not fanatics have a particular responsibility to be unequivocal in condemning religious fanaticism.

No one in the world is better positioned to do so than this deservedly popular pope. The emphases and values that dominate his papacy were forged in the 1970s. When, in 1973, Jorge Bergogli became Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he distanced himself from a Catholic hierarchy that had acquiesced in the brutal repression by the military junta; intensified his compassionate and Jesuit commitment to the poor; and, while avoiding direct confrontation of the military regime, struggled (in the words of Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge) “to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to save Jesuit lives” (the later accusation that he betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta is baseless slander). As cardinal, he exercised the same wise leadership and again stressed compassionate concern for the poor.[2]

As pope, taking his name from Francis of Assisi (a notably humble saint cherished for his protective love of the earth and of animals, and for his ministry to the poor), the former provincial and cardinal has, true to both his Jesuit heritage and to the spirit of his chosen name, continued his own focus on the poor and wretched of the earth. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the joy and true meaning of the gospel, he pointedly denounced, to the annoyance of many conservatives, the “economics of exclusion.” He has also emphasized the dangers to the environment presented by global climate change, and even speculated that there might be a place in heaven for animals: a charming thought of which the original Francis might approve, but which doctrinally-concerned Vatican spokesmen felt the need to quickly walk back. In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis performed the solemn Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony not, as usual, in the Lateran Basilica but in an institution housing young offenders. He washed and kissed the feet of a dozen prisoners, one of them (though this was, traditionally, a males-only ritual) a Muslim woman, a gesture that, as Eamon Duffy notes, “predictably scandalized the liturgists and canon lawyers.”

As practiced by this pope, the imitatio Christi, following the example of Jesus, differs from the emphasis of sin-obsessed Augustine, and even from the focus on the interior life and withdrawal from the world of Thomas à Kempis in his 15th-century devotional book Imitatio Christi. This Francis follows his namesake, stressing the path of Jesus, born in a manger, preaching to the poor, practicing humility. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who tended to treat opposition as “dissent,” Francis has been humble and conciliar in conducting meetings, encouraging a frank expression of views. In opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014, he told the bishops that, in discussing what were certain to be controversial issues, no one should be silent or conceal his true opinion, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, deviation from the official line had courted reprimand, even removal. Thus, as Eamon Duffy emphasizes: “For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.” [3]

Given that attitude, one might have expected, if not quite “encouragement,” at least greater “respect” for the “fearless public outspokenness” exhibited by the massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. At the very least, the pope, a remarkably empathetic man pastorally sensitive to suffering, might have displayed greater tact by mourning the dead a bit longer, before admonishing us, with the bodies not yet buried, to always “respect” religion and never “make fun of the faith of others.”

But here, the admirable Francis fell short. At least as viewed from the perspective of a secularist committed to virtually uninhibited freedom of expression—not least when it comes to religion. But that is not the only perspective, and not—as is hardly necessary to add—one shared by Francis. As pope, he is necessarily a man to double business bound, at once a condemner of violence and a defender of religion—any religion, since, in his view, none deserves to be insulted. That includes, of course, his own religion. Just as he had protected the Argentinian Jesuits in his care in the 1970s, so it is his duty now, though a reformer critical of some of its salient shortcomings, to protect the church as a whole.

On that papal plane, in responding to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and to the retaliatory murders that followed, Francis was talking common sense, decency, civility, and mutual respect. That’s all to the good. In a chaotic world of already inflamed religious-political passions, his intention was obviously to condemn the murders in Paris without adding fuel to the fire. But his equanimity was not altogether disinterested. In asserting his own ban—“You cannot make fun of the faith of others”—the pope was also defending the Company Store: the Roman Catholic branch of a global theological enterprise. In that sense, and to that extent, he was aligning himself, not with the massacred humorists, but with their murderers: fanatics who had killed the cartoonists precisely for “making fun” of the fanatics’ own distorted version of Islam.

Like politics, theology can make strange bedfellows. But far more than this momentary convergence of interests would be required to bridge the moral abyss stretching between Pope Francis and murderers. That would be especially true of murderers who violate his own deeply-held conviction that “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity. ” For him, what happened in Paris was the commission of a supposedly religious act that is, in fact, an “aberration” of the religion and of most of the teachings of the Prophet in whose name they claim to act.

Acknowledgment

Though I learned from the previously-mentioned Le Moyne open forum on the roots of, and responses to, the Charlie Ebdo murders, this essay was originally generated by a casual but serious email exchange with three friends, all Le Moyne graduates: Scott, Jack, and Markus. Some reservations of the latter about the initial draft were incorporated in the revised version. My thanks: to Jack in general, and, on this particular occasion, to Scott, for sending along the AP item that started us off. I’m particularly grateful to Markus, for critically reading the first draft and helping to sharpen and clarify my thoughts, not all of which he will endorse. The same is true of Bruce Erickson, the organizer of the Le Moyne forum, who, along with the four faculty presenters, enriched my understanding. Bruce also responded to my penultimate draft, thoughtfully, graciously, and productively challenging my position.

—Patrick J. Keane

January/ February 2015

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I have two problems with the well-made American Sniper, one political, one cinematic. Once we are in Iraq, we see Chris Kyle skillfully picking off targets, all of whom, he is certain, are “terrorists” and (as described in his book) “savages.” They were enemies, and in killing 160 of them, Chris Kyle saved the lives of countless American troops; he is a “hero.” Yet many of those he killed do not fit into either of Chris’s categories. But back up: how do we get to Iraq? That political quandary is solved by cinematic legerdemain. In an early domestic scene, Chris and his wife are watching on TV the collapse of the smoldering Twin Towers. A sudden cut, and we are instantly transported to combat, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq! The effect, intentional or not on Clint Eastwood’s part, is to “fuel” (there’s that verb again) or, rather, refuel, the myth (peddled above all by Dick Cheney) that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11 and was also harboring al Qaeda. In short, the invasion of Iraq, whatever our fears about WMD, is still being sold to a gullible or manipulated public as justified retaliation for 9/11. If it’s good enough for a hero like Chris, it should be good enough for us.
  2. Duffy, “Who is the Pope?” New York Review of Books (February 19, 2015), p. 12.
  3. The most celebrated demotion by Francis has been that of Raymond Cardinal Burke, removed as head of the church’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. A conservative American traditionalist and harsh critic of the “confusing” doctrinal views of the new pope, Burke had been especially “outspoken” at the Synod on the Family, and had certainly violated protocol in describing the church under Francis as “a ship without a rudder.” But he may have been sent off to a largely ceremonial post in Malta at least as much for a sartorial extravagance utterly alien to the humble spirit of this papacy. Though it was long out of favor, even before the advent of Francis, Burke habitually sported the capa magna, a twenty-foot-long train of scarlet watered silk.
Feb 022015
 

WittgensteinandMusilRobert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist, philosopher, student of mathematics, physics, behavioral psychology and engineering with mystical tendencies, and the author of the great unfinished experimental novel, The Man without Qualities. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian philosopher whose thoughts on logic, mathematics, language and ethics have been extremely influential in both philosophical and artistic circles. He is the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and many unfinished works, including Philosophical Investigations.

Disclaimers: 1. I do not pretend to be an expert on Wittgenstein. These, my observations, come from a mere few years of study of a philosopher who deemed that even his closest peers did not understand him. By comparing my interpretation of his ideas to those of Robert Musil, I am merely suggesting connecting strands, and possible shared concerns, and generally avoiding here (in the interest of space and time) the very real and complex differences between their world views. 2. Since I have spent decades studying and writing about Musil, I have concentrated mostly on Wittgenstein in this essay, assuming a general knowledge of Musil which is probably quixotic at this point in his ill-fated English-language reception. Hopefully the hints and references to his ideas and works will lead the reader back to the primary sources and also to my more thorough treatment of things Musil in my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s &c.,&c. . 3. This essay could only be “completed” if I allowed it to be just that—an essay, or “essai,” a trial, and not at all a finished work of writing. It is an attempt to pull together many, many related but still insufficiently synthesized ideas. It will take a lifetime to get all of this into some truly presentable shape.

— Genese Grill

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“Necessity is nothing but Existence, which is given through the Possibility itself.” — Immanuel Kant,
The Critique of Pure Reason

“It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their direction, and he awakens them.” — Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

“It is clear that however different from the real one an imagined world may be, it must have something—a form—in common with the real world.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“Thought is surrounded by a halo—Its essence, logic, represents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought…prior to all experience [this order] must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to effect it—it must rather be of the purest crystal…” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

One of the most troubling challenges of living in what is nowadays assumed to be a relativized subjective universe is never knowing for sure whether what one sees, understands, or experiences is the same as what someone else sees, understands or experiences. What once was conceived to be solid shared reality, describable with definable words and measurable by standardized tools, has, since Kant (and, over the next century, in the wake of Einstein, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud), been deemed increasingly fragmented, uncertain, and relative. After philosophers spent centuries wrestling with the question of what could be known about the world and the related question of what, in fact, reality is, with or without the intervention of the subjective experiencer, the so-called “linguistic turn” in twentieth century philosophy took this question a step further by concentrating on the role played by language in describing, creating, delimiting, or expanding our experience and knowledge of the real. Modernist art and literature wrestled with these problems of knowing and communicating and earnestly strove to find ways to build bridges between the individual alienated person and the shared world of nature and culture. To put it simply, Kant was looking at the limits of thought; Wittgenstein at the limits of language. But both were concerned with the way philosophy had hitherto claimed to know or say certain things (of a metaphysical sort) that in their opinion could not be known or spoken of with certainty. Despite these reservations about the possibility of knowing or speaking certain things, neither Kant nor Wittgenstein rejected the realms of ethics or metaphysics as valuable aspects of experience.[1] And Musil made it even more clear than Kant and Wittgenstein (through his experimental fiction; through showing, not theorizing or merely saying) that aesthetics was the realm wherein one could begin to know, experience, and articulate those things which could not be grasped otherwise. He called this realm the realm of essay, of the ethical, of the aesthetic, of the other condition, and, despite his training as a mathematician and scientist, despite his tendency toward philosophical precision, he valued this realm above all others, choosing to write a novel rather than a scientific treatise for reasons with which Wittgenstein would probably have concurred. But the philosophical question of what could or could not be known of the shared world of phenomenon, and, thus, expressed in language (what kind of language became a heated question in Modernist poetics) haunted writers in the early twentieth century.[2]

Another philosophical conundrum discussed by Kant and then revisited by Modernist thinkers was the related question of ethics and the nature of the willing, determining self. For Kantians, as Anthony J. Volpa notes in his biography of Fichte, “At issue was whether selfhood as autonomous agency was an illusion and indeed whether the very notion of an integral self dissolved if the individual was merely one more object in a web of causes” (46). A hundred years later neo-empiricists like Ernst Mach (whom Musil critiqued and praised in his doctoral dissertation) were definitively denying the nature of the integral self and casting doubt on the individual’s ability to determine his or her shared reality—for quite other reasons and with quite other consequences than earlier thinkers. While in Kant’s time the debate was one between a divine determinism and the free will of the ethical individual, in contemporary philosophy the debate is between a random chaos or a mechanistic universe and a treacherous social construction wherein the individual plays no meaningful role. What exercised Musil and Wittgenstein was the quest for some direction for individual ethical behavior; and the search for some conduit to meaning amid the increasing fragmentation and uncertainty. In contrast to the abstract philosophizing of many logicians, Musil and Wittgenstein were, like the transcendentalists before them and the existentialists to follow, engaged in exploring philosophical questions that could help human beings figure out how to live.

320px-Klagenfurt_-_Musilhaus_-_Robert_MusilDepiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt

According to Allen Tiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil, “Musil saw no place for human concerns in Mach’s limited positivism…in critiquing Mach he was already thinking of science’s uses for humanity…[Musil was] troubled by Mach’s idea of truths as mere fictions…” (34). Tiher goes on to say that Musil’s critique of Mach in many ways works as a critique of Wittgenstein’s belief that language could only depict the substance (not the core) of reality (“propositions mirror the exact part of facts, though nobody could ever point to exactly what they might be…all that can be meaningfully said is what can be mirrored in propositions in language”) (Tiher 42). Musil wanted to at least consider the possibility of knowing the thing in itself, whereas Wittgenstein may have been more skeptical about such certainty. Yet Tiher also points to commonalities between Musil and Wittgenstein, noting that both “yearned for a reality beyond the limits of positivist propositions and functional relations” (42). Both Wittgenstein and Musil “reacted to Mach’s limitation of knowledge to the realm of functional relations” (42). Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus, 6.52 “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all”. Tiher concluded that “Both conceive of aesthetics as a ‘showing’ of ethics, and of ethics as the realm where values are as real as any other aspect of reality” (43).

Early twentieth century Machian positivism inspired a new set of concerns for contemporary artists, writers, and philosophers, who were struggling with what they called a crisis of language (like the Kantkrise of an earlier generation of artists) amid a greater crisis of values. Did the breakdown of some certainties mean that anything was possible? Or rather nothing? Or were there natural parameters or boundaries, some sort of a priori order to things?[3] In the wake begun so long ago, today many heirs of two generations of skeptical inquiry err on the side of a radical openness and relativity of values to which Kant, Wittgenstein, and Musil would not have subscribed.

Many 20th century thinkers and artists, following the spirit if not the law of Kant’s ethical aesthetic imperative, believed earnestly in the possibility of redemption through art and an ethical conduct of life born of the friction between experimental empirical assessment and some sense of essential but shifting truths, between personal and shared reality, between repeating patterns and new arrangements, and between established archetypes or forms and new metaphors and synthesis—in short, in a kind of proto-aesthetic existentialism, whereby the artist and thinker expands the possibilities of the real (through seeing for the first time what was always there)without denying reality’s concrete parameters. These thinkers and artists were dealing with a struggle between necessity and arbitrariness, a priori truth and creative agency, asking such question as: What do we have agency over, what not? And how do language and art function in this interchange between what is necessary and what is possible or even merely constructed? How does the word or image “make” the world (as Musil and Wittgenstein suggest repeatedly), how does language respond to the world, answer the world? Is it like a call and response? A mirror, a warp, a description or re-creation? A betrayal, a social construction, a deception? Are certain facets of reality best described by showing, not naming, as Wittgenstein suggested and Musil modelled? Or is it impossible to know, and then impossible to describe or communicate at all?

While it has been the fashion for the last half century at least among sophisticated theorists and artists to maintain that nothing whatsoever can be determined, communicated, named, or delimited, past masters of precision and soul were capable of carefully examining what in fact still remained in the shared universe that could be established to be repeatable, certain enough, objectively measurable, and to what extent language could in fact be used to communicate not only what was solid, but even those more tenuous shifting internal subjective states that made up so much of the content of the art and literature of the psychologizing 20th century. The distinction between a world where nothing at all can be determined and one in which only certain things can be has been too often slurred over. The difference between a world wherein language means nothing and one in which language can approximate and approach meaning is considerable; and it takes patience and daring to dwell in this uneasy borderland, exemplified by Robert Musil and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

ludwig-wittgenstein-nacido-en-viena-austria-1889-fallecido-en-cambridge-reino-unido-1951-125700_w1000Ludwig Wittgenstein

These two thinkers lived almost side-by-side on Rasmofskygasse in Vienna for about a year sometime between 1920 and 1921, possibly without ever making each other’s acquaintance. They were both snobs who craved discourse; both were scientists who had more faith in art than in philosophical logic; both were individualists who were suspicious of collectivism and resisted joining groups or being categorized into positions or ideologies[4]. They both rejected externally-imposed morals and social judgments in favor of a personal rigorous ethics and conduct of life. They both had ambivalent relationships with the scientific positivists of the Vienna Circle. In contrast to the members of this circle, both wanted to connect philosophy and science with aesthetics and ethics and make it meaningful for human life[5]. Both resisted theory in favor of experimental empiricism. Both had mystical experiences as soldiers in World War One, leading to puzzling relationships with something they both sometimes called “God”; both were mathematicians suspicious of mathematics; both were engineers and inventors; empiricists and idealists; pragmatists and utopians. Both looked to anthropology to present alternative possible ways to live; both loved Dostoevsky; both worked and wrote in a non-linear,[6] inter-disciplinary fashion; both liked to go to the movies. Both of them were obsessed with using language precisely; but both rejected language skepticism, while acknowledging the limits of language and knowledge; and both saw metaphor as the best possible mode of expressing certain experiences and truths. Both were so committed to the experimental method and a resistance to closure or final solutions that they were almost pathologically unable to finish their works. They are exemplars of a special breed of idealist-realists—a group of people who throughout history have simultaneously hugged the surface of the real “what is” while reaching for the ideal “what could be”; thinkers who have labored to establish what can and cannot be known or spoken, thinkers who have eschewed what Musil called “Schleudermystik” (wishy-washy mysticism) and Wittgenstein called “transcendental twaddle,” and, at the same time, kept at bay a nihilistic relativism or void of all values. (Other thinkers in this cadre include Thoreau, Blake, Novalis, and Nietzsche).

(c) Bridgeman; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe Rasumovsky Palace, Vienna, Corner of Rasumofskygasse and Geusaugasse, by Carel Victor Morlais Weight

To harbor some belief in a repeatable recognizable shared reality and a language that serves well enough to communicate what we think, want, and care about is to fundamentally take responsibility for our place and agency in the world. The opposite tends toward an adolescent “whateverism” wherein everything cancels itself out and wallows in bankrupt cynicism. In contrast to this hollow sophistication, Wittgenstein and Musil are related to the transcendentalist age of self-improvement and both earnestly struggled with determining what was the right way to live. Their “sense of possibility” (Musil’s phrase) and skepticism about social conventions and abstract propositions about right and wrong was not the same as absolute license, total openness, or self-indulgence. Looking back to Wittgenstein and Musil, we find an alternative to the total relativity of values and vacuum of meaning—a veritable model of existential responsibility and an ethics grounded in a complex analysis of what can and cannot be known, expressed, or experienced—an ethics, in short, grounded in aesthetics. Ironically, the refusal to accept any shared reality today in some philosophical circles has led to a situation similar to the age of faith. While in the latter the realm of truth was found in scripture or metaphysics, in both cases truth is not recognized in the real exigencies or material experience of life. In both cases truth is an abstraction, although in one this abstraction is to be mistrusted while in the other it is to be uncritically believed. High Modernism marked out a middle zone between skepticism and non-critical acceptance of abstract generalities and ideals. This middle zone is difficult to navigate, but it is imperative that we abide here in uncertainty to catch the shirt tails of agency as reality flies past our subjective indifferent gaze.

We have come so far from that comfortable pre-Kantian world of shared beliefs, and we have heard so much skepticism about shared reality that we have almost become blind to the palpable real that is right in front of us, to the facts of our shared existence—birth, death, seasons, dusk, bodies, beauty, the night sky. Many contemporary theorists would have us scoff at the possibility of experiencing anything real at all, or at the possibility of using words to describe what we feel or see. But they must be blind themselves, and lacking fundamental sense organs, to arrive at such a bankrupt state of existence wherein nothing at all is real and no combination of words can resonate with an external or internal event. I have a young friend, so steeped in the allurements of this “philosophy” (it should be called love of no-truth, not love of truth, since, according to its basic tenets there is no truth to love) that he feels the need to create a new mythology, a trumped-up mythological meaning, since there is, he fears, no real one anymore. But wait! There is still meaning, there is still a real world, and words can still be used to celebrate and lament it! And this meaning will come from our sensual, aesthetic, experiential contact with the real, mediated through the mind, the senses, language, and images, the only tools that we have. Herein we may have some glimpse of the meaning behind the pronouncement (which we find in both Musil and Wittgenstein) that “ethics and aesthetics are one”. For aesthetics does not merely connote fantasy and fiction but sense experience, a living palpable conduit between the abstracted mind or pen and the real breathing, smelling, scintillating, churning world. How we see and experience and the way in which we formulate what we see and experience depends on sensations, formal arrangements, and the process and poetics of space, time, and shifting perspectives. And these perceptions determine our actions and judgments about how to live.

Wittgenstein is thought to have changed his ideas on the relationship between language and reality in between his writing of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, maintaining later that language is not necessarily a picture of the world, but, rather, that language determines what we see and, in effect, makes our world. But neither position is based on a radical separation between the mind as language-maker and the reality that it attempts to describe. Instead, it is a matter of interpreting, and expanding or limiting (waxing and waning, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology), our perspectives. According to David Pears, Wittgenstein, “abandoned the idea that the structure of reality determines the structure of language, and suggested that it is really the other way around: our language determines our view of reality, because we see things through it” (13). As my friend Dharman Rice put it, Kant’s theories suggest that the mind is not a camera simply recording what is out there, but rather has something to do with choosing, selecting, and arranging the phenomena it encounters. According to Kant, phenomena are transmitted or filtered through transcendental schema or structures of the mind (space, time, etc.); according to Wittgenstein, this arranging occurs through the process of language use. I scoured Kant in vain to find an answer to the question of whether this means that what the mind sees is an illusion, I could find no definitive answer (probably because it is the wrong question. Kant is not concerned with what is or is not there, but rather to what extent we can determine it). It seems to me that he does not assume that the filtered view is false. It is merely filtered. The same seems to be true for Wittgenstein. What changes in between the Tractatus and The Philosophical Investigations then is not Wittgenstein’s conclusion about a priori reality, but his process of arriving at a conclusion at all. In fact, one could say that there are really no conclusions, only a process. While in the Tractatus he relied heavily on what he came to see as a priori givens or logical abstractions, in the Investigations he is modelling a process of experimental empiricism, a method quite close to Musil’s aesthetic of experimental essayism, one which resists theory and final conclusions in favor of what Musil would call “partial solutions” or the “utopia of the next step”.

According to Ashok Vohra in his Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mind, this process is not a refutation of realist philosophy, although a realist might consider it to be. Wittgenstein,

[M]aintains that acceptance of any proof is an act of ratification which is independent of any previous acts of ratification. Nothing that we have done in the past forces us to ratify, or to withhold ratification from the proof which we are now being offered. This sounds absurd, because we naturally assume that the meanings of the terms used in the proof of the would-be theorem or equation must have been fixed in advance. But what Wittgenstein is suggesting is that their meanings were not completely fixed in advance, and that their full meanings accrue to them bit by bit when the later ratifications are made or withheld. (136)

In other words, the human mind continually participates in making and acknowledging a shifting changing world. This is an alternative to the chicken and egg question of whether the mind makes the world or the world the mind. The answer to the riddle is that the mind and the world constantly work together to fashion a meaningful approximation of reality. Further, of course, the mind is a part of the world, a part of nature, and thus should not be so very different from what it sees and records as to prohibit correspondence!

Immanuel_Kant_3Immanuel Kant

C. N. Wilson explains in his book, God’s Funeral, that Kant “was trying to marry the twin truths: namely, that by the very process of perceiving and knowing, we invent our world; and also that this world has a reality of its own.” In a note, Musil summarizes the paradox: “Kant: Concepts without observation are empty. Observation without concepts is blind” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1820). In another formulation he explores the question of how the phenomenological world interacts with the human mind: “In truth, the relationship between the outer and the inner world is not that of a stamp that presses into a receptive material, but that of an embosser that deforms itself in the process so that its design can be changed into remarkably different pictures without destroying its general coherence” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1435). In a conversation about ideality and reality with some high school students from The Walden Project here in Vermont, two of them came up with a marvelously helpful image: the ideal is like a light shining on the real, but it has to be plugged in to the real to shed light in the first place. The real, without imagination, ideas, dreams, or light, is nothing but a mechanical mass; the ideal, without the real, would have nothing to shine on.

In answering the related questions of what is determined and what determinable, or what is essence and what existence, what transcendental and what existential, or how much do our perceptions contribute to shared reality (beyond doubts about knowing the thing in itself), both Musil and Wittgenstein were pragmatists of sorts, who believed that we know the world well enough to avoid burns, bumping into tables, walking into walls, and well enough to understand basically the words others use. They also, as scientists, must have seen that the mind was not separate from Nature in some Cartesian sense and that such a natural structure or lens would probably see in a fashion more or less consistent with the reality of nature. As David Pears writes, describing Wittgenstein’s general perspective, “When the field [of observation] is extended to the limit, there does not seem to be any possibility of discovering that thought and reality might fail to fit one another[…]. [T]he fact is that in certain general ways thought and reality must fit one another”.[7]

Prop 5.6—5.641 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus states: “The world is my world’, ‘I am my world. (The microcosm)” and “The subject does not belong to the world; rather it is the limit of the world’. But this need not contradict his emphasis on what Thoreau would call “fronting the real”. This is, in effect, the same paradox of Emersonian Self-reliance and the Kantian categorical Imperative and its subsequent iteration in existentialism: what is true for me is true for all men; what I do determines what others do; existence precedes essence. Our actions change the world; our perceptions expand and contract it; reality waxes and wanes depending upon the words we use to describe it; but that doesn’t mean that we change the basic coordinates of nature. Proposition 3.032 states: “One can depict something that contradicts logic in language just as little as one can present a figure in geometry whose coordinates contradict the laws of space; or give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.” And, again, in proposition 3.033, we read: “One used to say that God could create anything except something that contradicted logical laws— in other words, we couldn’t say what an illogical world would look like.” And yet, certain strictures, like grammar and some mathematical rules, are arbitrarily limiting. And there are socially-constructed morals and prejudgments that inhibit a fresh experience of the real. These must be resisted and continually tested. Musil wrote: “The period and the semicolon are symptoms of stasis. We don’t make them because we learned to, but because that is how we think. And that is the danger in them. As long as one thinks in sentences with end stops, certain things cannot be said; at most they can be vaguely felt. Infinite perspectives (moving inward) would have to be expressed like infinite rows” (Notebooks II, 822). As such, the way we use language to talk about our world can limit or open up what possibilities we see in it.

Perhaps the answer to the alleged problem (Wittgenstein would probably say that there is not even a problem to begin with!) is that knowledge of reality does not comes solely from empirical experience (as opposed to a priori essence), but that it comes from a process of synthesis and the constant creation of fresh, repeating—not rigid and unexamined—metaphor. A metaphor which, chez Wittgenstein, always points outside itself by virtue of its very nature as metaphor. Both Wittgenstein and Musil repeatedly make the distinction between living language and dead cliché, and this distinction is linked to their common cause of experimental empirical ontology and the processes called, respectively, the utopia of the next step (Musil) and re-ratification (Wittgenstein), whereby nothing is certain until one takes into consideration what comes next, or, until one re-tests it within new circumstances. Musil writes: “Living word full of meaning and correspondence in the moment, bathed in will and feeling. An hour later it says nothing although it says everything that a concept contains.” And Wittgenstein writes in his Philosophical Investigation, “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?–In use it is alive. Is life breathed into there?—Or is the use its life?” (432e).

Instead of adhering to one polarization of the empiricist/Platonist spectrum, Wittgenstein (like Musil and Nietzsche too) posits another kind of process of world-making (one that acknowledges a reality outside of abstraction, language, and theory), one which involves a conscious awareness of our use of language and image to create a good deal of what we consider reality and truth. The trick, as Nietzsche explains in his “On Truth and Lying in a Supra-Moral Sense,” is to never forget that the metaphors which we invent to describe and see the world are not rigid absolutes in themselves, but rather living, self-generating, shifting approximations or, to use Wittgenstein’s term, “family resemblances” rather than exact representations— likenesses, overlapping commonalities.

Although there are multifold possibilities of how language may be used to describe reality, there are not infinite possibilities. There are limits; and these limits are the limits of logic, reality, nature, experience and shared human and social life. And these limits have very important consequences in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s world views for determining a conduct of life. In fact, both of these individualistic—one might even say anti-social—thinkers, were deeply concerned with questions of society and the problem of solipsism. Wittgenstein’s rejection of the idea of a private language is one answer to the Modernist question of artistic solipsism, and touches on a central problem never solved by Musil: how might the mystical experience of “the other condition” depicted in his unfinished novel expand from the private specialized realm of two people to become a social utopia for the many? And how do his insane characters (Clarisse and Moosbrugger) serve to both destroy and invigorate common language with their private idiolects (Clarisse, in one very Wittgensteinian scene in the Nachlass chapters of the novel, tries to remove the meanings from words by taking them out of their natural order, by repeating them, by underlining them). One of Wittgenstein’s answers to the problem of solipsism is his conclusion that, as Vohra writes, “the real relationship between words and physical phenomena is not contingent but essential, and that language is not the product of one person, but has evolved with human life” (6). Although we do have private (i.e., nontransferable) sensations, they are stimulated by public, shared phenomena (the objects of observation) (Vohra 16-17). The necessity of communicating with others is served by a union of aesthetics and ethics, requiring an awareness of reality taking the special case into consideration rather than an abstract impersonal morality. Individual responsibility is born in each new moment— in concert with others. As opposed to an alienated despair or nihilism about the ability to ever share values, ideas, goals with others, Kantian, Wittgensteinian, Musilian individualism breeds ethical consciousness when it includes other-directed awareness. Anti-individualistic collectivism, on the other hand, can be the seedbed of a lack of self-responsibility. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that the problem with the idea of private language is its lack of practical social consequences. A private language is like one’s right hand giving one’s left hand money (80) or the absurdity of a person giving “himself a private definition of a word” (80). What would understanding be, what consistency? It would be, Wittgenstein writes, like “… a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism” (81). “Imagine,” he continues,” someone saying: ‘But I know how tall I am!’ and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it” (82).

There is a real world outside of or in correspondence with the mind, and its parameters do limit and guide what can and cannot be correctly said. Wittgenstein “holds the view that one who attempts to use a private language not only fails to communicate his meaning to others, but also does not have a meaning to communicate even to himself; in other words, he does not succeed in saying anything at all” (Vohra 38). Sensations, while they can be kept private, are communicable (Vohra 52). A private language is category mistake, according to Wittgenstein, that ignores the social nature of language. Language is a set of activities, and practices, defined by certain rules, and uses, “a form of life” (Vohra 66). As such, the individual has a social and ethical responsibility to use language in a way that corresponds to a shared social reality. While today some theorists might see this as a treacherous crime, or a sort of social coercion applied to the idiosyncratic non-contingent mind, Wittgenstein and Musil probably saw it as a pragmatic and workable means to attempt to communicate ideas and feelings. People who imagine Wittgenstein as the patron saint of silence and the impossibility of communication may be surprised to read this rather characteristic statement from the Philosophical Investigations: “The sign post is in order—if, under normal circumstances, it fulfils its purpose” (35 e). Inexact, he suggests, does not mean unusable.

And while Musil too (following Nietzsche’s metaphor theory in On Truth and Lying) is clear about the fact that metaphors are inexact, that, in fact, every time we make a metaphor we are perpetrating a sort of crime against the true differentiation of each entity or idea, he is equally clear that this process of inexactitude and imprecision is just what humans must do in order to bring “beauty and excitement” into the world. Making metaphors is a form of human-generated, reality-generated meaning-making which continually resists ossification, cliché, and fixed ideas. It is an ethical and aesthetic process of existential engagement in expanding (without denying) the boundaries of the real, of nature, of truths in their varied, shifting relativity. And this expansion of boundaries—what Wittgenstein called waxing—works in tension with the constriction of the already known and accepted, the already established conventions (a waning), as well as with the eternally reverberating archetypal and naturally recurring realities of shared human life (trembling aliveness of ancient energies). In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes: “6.43 If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language…. In brief, the world must thereby become quite another. It must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.”

All philosophical theories are rooted in pictures (metaphors); and every already-known picture must be continually uprooted by the introduction of a new picture, a new metaphor: once a simile or metaphor has been accepted, it is too often taken for granted, no longer seen as a picture but taken as a reality or an exact representation. The creation of new metaphors is necessary not only for the successful creation of new meaningful art objects, but, moreover, for the enlivening and generation of ethical life through living language and living forms. Wittgenstein writes: “The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy” (qtd. in Monk, 302). Monk glosses: “In understanding ethics, aesthetics, religion, mathematics and philosophy, theories were of no use” (304). In lieu of theories then: art, the realm of the individual case.

Each poetic pronouncement or artistic expression is at once a free act, individual voice, new note, an addition to and a conversation with, response to, answer to what has already been. And it can only be understood within such a linked context of history, cultural discourse, and shared experience of the world and its cultural products. Rampant skepticism, anti-intellectualism, and obfuscation lead only to careless, speechless, inarticulate grunts and irresponsible confused beings. Art, again, is often the best medium for communicating what cannot be shared otherwise and it models a process of generative re-visioning and a creative tension between what is and what can be, between the abstracted whole and the individual unique non-repeatable experience. Wittgenstein writes: “We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by another. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.) In one case the thought in the sentence is something that is expressed only by the words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)” The use of poetic language, the ongoing conversation of form and image is a fruitful correspondence between particular individualized once-in-a-world empirical experience and a store of family resemblances, likenesses, and shared cultural and natural reverberations.

While sometimes the most valuable aspects of these human experiences (shared or alienating as the case may be) cannot be easily imparted, what can be shown but not said (in art rather than logic) is nevertheless sometimes stammered (one tries to say it, denotes it, suggests it, points to it) before it disappears. As Kafka wrote, “Truth is the light on the shrinking grimacing face”. We try to bring the wordless phantoms up from the depths or catch the rush of a flying experience of nature with words that are all too clunky, all too general. But they serve. They have to serve. And sometimes they serve brilliantly.

Wittgenstein apparently saw himself as “a disciple of Freud because of Freud’s use of similes: ‘It’s all excellent similes’, he said in a lecture on Freud’s work; and of his own contribution to philosophy: ‘What I invent are new similes’” (Monk 357). And Wittgenstein’s late philosophical technique even seems a bit like the technique of modernist fiction. The playing of “language games,” according to Monk, was a “method of inventing imaginary situations in which language is used for some tightly defined practical purpose. It may be a few words or phrases from our own language or an entirely fictitious language, but what is essential is that, in picturing the situation, the language cannot be described without mentioning the use to which it is put. The technique is a kind of therapy, the purpose of which is to free ourselves from the philosophical confusions that result from considering language in isolation from its place in the ‘stream of life’”(330). Wittgenstein’s anthropological approach has a good deal in common with the process by which fiction helps us to think about ourselves and our social assumptions by presenting alternative or slightly oblique visions of reality. This is, of course, a technique which Musil utilized expertly. Monk’s description of Wittgenstein could be a description of Musil the possibilitarian whose protagonist Ulrich was always imagining how things could be different; who was working on a utopian novel imagining all sorts of different ways to live; and whose short prose piece “Cannibals” describes a society of flesh eaters in a way that mirrors our own moral justifications for things that might be seen as aberrations: “By imagining tribes with conventions or ways of reasoning different to our own, and by constructing metaphors different to ones commonly employed, [Wittgenstein] tries to weaken the hold of certain analogies, certain ‘similes that have been absorbed into the forms of our language.’ He attacks, for example, the Platonism that regards logical propositions as analogous to factual propositions. ‘Isn’t there a truth corresponding to logical inference?’ he makes his interlocutor ask. ‘Isn’t it true that this follows from that?’ Well, replies Wittgenstein, what would happen if we made a different inference? How would we get into conflict with the truth? […]The point here is that the criteria for correct or incorrect reasoning are not provided by some external realm of Platonic truths, but, rather, by ourselves, by ‘a convention, or a use, and perhaps our practical requirements’” (Monk 381).

Wittgenstein’s new method in Philosophical Investigations rejected the earlier essentialist method of the Tractatus as metaphysical. His theories, he deemed, did not match real language or real experience (Pears 105-7). The generalizations arrived at intuitively were not results of empirical investigations…and, “he had wrongly assumed that the multifarious uses of language must have a high common factor [a generalized abstraction]. The truth was more complex: each resembled each other in many ways [family resemblances]” [and thus, he] “turned his investigation onto the multifarious differences” (107). Wittgenstein’s new method mirrors Musil’s:  “[I]t is empirical…it shows great respect for the particular case and …it is more like art than science, because the nuances of particular cases are not caught in any theory, but are presented in careful descriptions of actual linguistic practices…”(105).

Such an experimental method is actually a conduct of life—one requiring an open-endedness resistant to closure or absolute solutions. Demanding, in fact, a constant new re-visioning of fresh circumstances and combinations and a radical skepticism about received ideas and established categories. Wittgenstein’s work method was quite a lot like Musil’s, whose Nachlass is thousands of pages of versions, alterations, notes, sketches, and cross-references. Wittgenstein, according to Monk, would begin by writing remarks in a notebook; then he would select the best of these, write them out, “perhaps in a different order, into large manuscript volumes. From these he made a further selection, which he dictated to a typist. The resultant typescript was then used as the basis for a further selection, sometimes by cutting it up and rearranging it—and then the whole process was started again. Though this process continued for more than twenty years, it never culminated in an arrangement with which Wittgenstein was fully satisfied, and so his literary executors have had to publish either what they consider to be the most satisfactory of the various manuscripts and typescripts…” (Monk 319).

The work of philosophy, the work of the artist, in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s sense, is a job with no end. One can never arrive at a conclusion. Monk explains: “This conception of philosophy, which sees itself as a task of clarification that has no end, and only an arbitrary beginning, makes it almost impossible to imagine how a satisfactory book on philosophy can be written. It is no wonder that Wittgenstein used to quote with approval Schopenhauer’s dictum that a book on philosophy, with a beginning and an end, is a sort of contradiction” (326). Musil, who never finished his magnum opus, would have concurred. In fact, as long as one lives, the work of being a human being is likewise an open experiment. We can never rest, but must always strive for the utopia of the next step, ever re-ratifying what we thought we once knew. “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”

— Genese Grill


Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Wittgenstein speaks of a certain kind of experience, similar to Musil’s mystical “other condition,” in which “I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’…another experience…the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’”. Monk writes that Wittgenstein “went on to show that the things one is inclined to say after such experiences are a misuse of language—they mean nothing. And yet the experiences themselves ‘seem to those who have had them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value’. They cannot be captured by factual language precisely because their value lies beyond the world of facts” (qtd. 277).
  2. In my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities,” I wrote:

    Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to the modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for articulating individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (that is, metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language. What philosophy and science could not describe or explain might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the inherent inaccuracy and generalization of rational and scientific conceptualization or logical abstraction. On the other hand, the selection process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony. Marjorie Perloff, in her book Wittgenstein’s Ladder, wrote: “Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of ‘philosophy’ as if it were ‘poetry’ dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death)” (i)

  3. In The World as Metaphor, I wrote: “Wittgenstein wrote that the central question that exercised his entire life’s work was: “Is there, a priori, an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?” What, in other words, is the nature of the order of the world and what is the role of the human subject in maintaining, producing, destroying, or rebuilding our shared reality? And while the easy answer is that Wittgenstein negated the possibility of an a priori reality, declaring instead that humans construct their shared reality out of language and perception, the fact remains that in many pronouncements he suggests that there might actually be such an “essence of the world,” one that we simply cannot access or express. “What belongs to the essence of the world,” he writes, for example, “cannot be expressed by language” (31). Making meaning of the world, whether through discovery of, or invention of, patterns and recurring forms, seems to be a requirement for survival, an aesthetic operation conducted upon possible random chaos to make life bearable. Gunter Gebauer explains, quoting Wittgenstein: “Only if we see the world in the proper perspective are we filled with ‘enthusiasm . . . (But without art, the object is a piece of nature like any other’); this occurs through a particular method of description. With the help of the art of description, the wonderful side of the world can be grasped” (35). Conversely, Gebauer continues, “Wittgenstein also knows the moments in which he loses this vision of the world,” when he has, “‘done with the world,’ he has created an amorphous (transparent) mass, and the world in all its variety is abandoned like an uninteresting junk closet” (34–35). This description is eerily reminiscent of many of Musil’s descriptions of a world miraculously flooded with, and just as suddenly drained of, meaning. In keeping with Musil’s constant allegorical comparison of world and word, this process of meaning and meaninglessness is most often described by him as the difference between living and dead words. The living word, like the living world, does not mean anything definite or fixed, but is imbued with meaning by the creative subject. The dead word, or “concept,” like the petrified world of received ideas and unexamined “facts,” is always the same word/world, no matter what one brings to it”.
  4. “The search for essences is, Wittgenstein states, an example of ‘the craving for generality’ that springs from our preoccupation with the method of science…’The tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness”…”Wittgenstein’s avoidance of this tendency—his complete refusal to announce any general conclusions—is perhaps the main feature that makes his work difficult to understand, for without having the moral pointed out, so to speak, it is often difficult to see the point of his remarks”. Ray Monk. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 338.
  5. Wittgenstein gave this explanation of the anti-positivist intentions of his Tractatus in a popular lecture to the “Heretics” club: “My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk on Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics, so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it…” (qtd. in Monk, 277).
  6. Philosophical Investigations. Foreword: “My thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination—and this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought crisscross in every direction…The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made…” (ix).
  7. David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Viking Press, 1970, 31.
Jan 112015
 

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

Two years ago I wrote an essay on returning to reading following the death of my wife. She was forty-four. We’d been married four years and nine months. She had breast cancer for twenty-one months. She left me with two kids (eight and eleven) and an ex-husband to negotiate. More accurately, she left her ex-husband with two kids and a second husband and step-parent to negotiate.

I intended to follow up my essay a year later with another on reading through grief, but I couldn’t manage it. The flow of grief left me unsettled to the extent that I never felt secure enough to speak. Never felt grounded, is what I mean. How could I write an essay on anything when every time I tried to put my thoughts together they shifted? Also, I had wanted to write how, one year later, I had “read through” grief, and about how I was now on the other side looking back. Except I wasn’t on the other side. Not only did I feel nowhere near the other side, I felt increasingly in ever deeper, ever more tumultuous water. For eighteen months, I felt concussed. And when those symptoms relieved, I felt something worse.

The grieved get used to people asking, “How’s it going? Better?” Things are supposed to get better. We have clichés for that. Time heals all wounds. We all know about the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. As a grieved person, you are granted a certain leeway to be crazy. Emotionally overloaded. Out there. Behaving irrationally, unpredictably, outside the norm. And then you are supposed to “get over” all of that. You are supposed to acknowledge that folks have “allowed” you this period of disrupted expectations. You are supposed to be grateful how everyone has been “there for you,” which they have been, on the whole, even if it really seems that all anyone has really done is try to wait you out. Wait for you to declare, “I’m back.”

Early on I decided I was never going back. In my wife’s final months, I read The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan A. Berger and I’d absorbed the message that grief was transformative. You may respond to it in any number of ways, but you will not remain unchanged. After my wife died, I read Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended to me by one of my wife’s friends who’d lost her only son at age four to cancer. The transformation message was reprised there and to it was added a second: feel your feelings. Do not fear the darkness. Open your heart and mind and let the grief process carry you on its current. Healing will come in stages, and you will experience unexpected gifts.

I did experience unexpected gifts. Many involved suffering a rainbow of unremitting pain. All the better to teach you resiliency, my dear. Off in the distance a witch cackles. Ah haha. That I can write this now shows that I am released from this spell, which as I said was concussion-like. After my wife died, I chose to read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf was my wife’s favorite author, and Mrs. Dalloway was her favorite book. I’d never read it, and I chose it to honour her. Waiting for Godot called to me. I felt I was caught in an absurd, Beckettian situation. I had spent so many hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms with my wife (waiting! rooms), so many months waiting for the disease to progress or not, so many weeks, then days, then suddenly minutes at the end, waiting for death. I felt I had confronted the void, and I felt I needed Beckett. Woolf, too. (And I did.) But what next?

Michael

I once made a list of the ten to twelve books I read that first year. It’s still around the house somewhere, but I’m not going to search for it. There were as many books, likely more, I started and set aside. I fell into no rhythm, felt no progression, struggled against despair. I believed in prescribing myself books. I felt I could self-medicate with literature and get through my hard times, but while some books clicked, in general I felt myself slipping downward. Of course, downward is a literary journey, too, but I decided against attempting Dante. Early on I tried Hamlet, a tale of grief and madness, and I thought it fantastic. I read it about the same period of time after my wife’s death as the period of time between the death of Hamlet’s father and the re-marriage of his mother. Too soon! Holy smokes! I also re-read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet and thought (again) that he was full of it. The capture of Hamlet by chaos and his urgent need for sense, pattern and meaning gripped me as perfectly sensible. Order had been overthrown, and what was it now?

In my own life, I had lost my role as husband and my role as a step-father became severely ambiguous. The children continue to spend time with me, but half what they spent before. The three of us were the ones closest to their mother, and we have a bond that has been forged in fire and is unbreakable, and my separation from them terrified me. If we can make it through seven more years, and get the youngest one out of high school, then we will have achieved something remarkable. It once seemed barely plausible. Now it seems more likely.

Levi

I decided to read Primo Levi. I started with The Periodic Table. I loved it. I wanted to stay with him forever. I thought, “This is what you do when you confront the void. You turn it into something like this.” Years earlier I had read Philip Roth’s interview with Levi. That was my only previous exposure to him. One of my wife’s friends had also told us a story about professional advice she’d received to help her deal with a toxic work environment. The advice was: read Holocaust literature. The premise was: it will make your toxic work environment seem less severe. At least that was her interpretation. I said, “Maybe it means your work is comparable to a concentration camp.” Except, of course, no mass murder. I had both interpretations in my mind when I started reading Levi. I had found the cancer period Beckettian, and the death administration equally so. Again and again I was confronted with the absurdities of our bureaucratic modernism. Trying to deal with my wife’s estate, I tried to process a cheque through the bank, but they wouldn’t do it. I complained to customer service, and got a lecture on the phone from a woman who explained to me that bank policy trumped the law. “We need to protect our customers,” she said. I explained to her that her customer was dead, and I was her husband and executor and that I WAS THE ONE who was responsible for protecting her, and the she was in fact thwarting her customer’s interests. No dice. I lost. I had to find another way of cashing the cheque.

Now that, it’s clear, isn’t a concentration type problem. No. Never. But the gift of Levi is his incredible ability to classify behaviours and identify sub-strata of groups within groups. Even in this darkest of dark environments, the concentration camp, the lager, Levi shows how meaning can be made and maintained, and how victims can create victims. As he notes, the survivors survived because often they were the ones who were able to find an advantage. An extra bowl of soup. An extra piece of bread. Avoiding beatings. Levi himself survived because of his chemistry training. He was put to work in a lab, and even then barely made it out alive. The Periodic Table is framed around chemistry. Each chapter is named after an element. It tells the story of his early life, his chemistry training, the rising anti-Jewish restrictions in Italy, his budding romances, his radicalization, capture and transport to the camp. The camp itself, and later liberation, his return to professional chemistry, and his interactions with Germans, both through his work at a paint factory and through his writings. What a profound life. What a profound contribution to humanity.

After reading The Periodic Table, I read The Drowned and the Saved, which I also found moving, but not as brilliant as The Periodic Table. I started to read Survival in Auschwitz, but put it down after a couple of dozen pages. My interest had shifted. I felt that Levi had given me as much as I could get from him at that time. I reflected on the horrible bureaucracy of the camps, the savage efficiency they implemented, and the homicidal logic they represented. Going through the healthcare system with my wife, we had often remarked, “You’re just a number.” When sit in the waiting (!) room, anticipating your five minutes with the world class specialist, lining up your questions, and wondering what koan he’s going to drop on you for the next week or three until you see him again, you remind yourself that he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know your life, your ambitions, your dreams, or anything more about you than the list of numbers he sees on your chart, your blood work results, your hormone levels, your this and that and you don’t even know what because they won’t tell you. In the camps, though, you literally were a number, and it was tattooed on your arm, and the purpose of the camp was to kill you, while the purpose of the hospital is to save you. Except for many, they don’t. For my wife, they didn’t. After her mastectomy, back in her hospital room, she said, “I wonder where my breast is now,” and I said, “I know where it is. It’s in the lab.” Because that’s where the doctor had said it would be, to analyze the cells, and include the results in their database and research project. They had asked her permission to do this, of course, but that didn’t make her any less a statistic and a research subject. Catch-22. As a patient you want the benefit of that research, but as a patient you also want your doctor to see you as a human being. Sometimes this happened, and other times, not so much.

For eighteen months I felt concussed, but when that lifted, I felt worse. What was going on? Emotionally over-whelmed. Exhausted. I had survived the cancer period with the help of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, blood pressure meds, extra strength Tylenol, beer, wine, gin of increasing proportions. Little by little, I let go of those. The anti-depressants first, then the blood pressure meds. The need for Tylenol diminished. I cut the sedative dose in half. I tried to cut back on the drinking. I kept the anti-anxiety pills in reserve. I went to grief counselling. “Remember you have a body,” the counsellor said. You can’t think your way out of this. Like Miriam Greenspan said, feel your feelings. I wrote a blog throughout this period. I tried to chart my changing emotions. I felt I was getting better. I’m not sure I was getting better, only changing. I couldn’t convince myself that my wife was gone. I knew she was dead, but she felt present. I cried daily, often in sharp painful jags. They were just about the only thing that offered any relief.

What was going on? I had absorbed a blow so powerful, the bruise was taking months and months to work its way out. My head was a cloudy mess. I couldn’t anticipate a future. I tried to write new fiction, but I couldn’t. I could barely read, and often I couldn’t. Television struck me as trivial and dull. The news attracted me not at all. In her final months, my wife had spent a lot of time playing Scrabble on the ipad. I couldn’t even open that application, but I sat most evenings and weekends (when the kids weren’t here) plugging away at various online strategy games. And then I downloaded Candy Crush Saga. The distance between The Periodic Table and Candy Crush Saga, I’m here to tell you, isn’t as vast as it first seems. The attraction, in fact, was similar. At least in my case. Each both excited and calmed my mind, took the random and chaotic and led it into patterns, filled up the time on the clock. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says. Not so, but wounds do need time to heal. Some lots of time, months, even years. As I am relieved from one wound, I seem to confront yet another and then another. Through the cancer period, we looked only forward, never back, and it was a horrible time that we filled with much joy (because we were alive and together and it was our mission), and at first I thought my wound was her death, but after eighteen months I realized that it was also the way she had died. Just the other day, while I was at work in the office, I found myself asking: “Dear God, Why? If you had wanted to take her, why didn’t you just take her? Why did she need to suffer so first?” Thinking like this, makes me think the comparison to the concentration camps isn’t so misplaced. Except one is an act of God, and the other an act of Man.

In March 2014, I felt violent palpitations remembering her mastectomy surgery in March 2011. The memories came upon me suddenly, unexpectedly. I tried to puzzle out why. I had violent images of her scar and “drainage tubes” and her pain and struggle to overcome the loss of muscle under her arm also removed. At the time, we had remained calm, focused, constructive, forward-looking. In 2012, we hadn’t been looking back. Things for her we so much worse. In 2013, I had only been thinking about 2012, her last months, the process of her dying. In 2014, my memory took me back to 2011. I felt ill. I took a couple of days off work. I felt violently shaken with disbelief that they had cut her breast off. Oh my fucking God! What savagery is that!? And we had just let it happen. We had been glad that it happened. We had praised the good work of the surgeon. What a clean, beautiful scar line! All of this seemed impossible to me now. No way. How horrible all of that was. How abnormal. How perverse. What knots we tied ourselves in to make it all seem permissible. No. It was brutal and horrible and a lasting terror. And then, as quickly as they had come, those dark feelings lifted.

I read three J.G. Ballard novels in the first year after my wife died, and one more in the second. First three: Concrete Island, The Day of Creation, Super-Cannes. The forth: Millennium People. I had read Cocaine Nights previously, and some of his short stories. I had a sense that Ballard would be good to read, and he was. Why?

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PART II (Nov 2014)

It is now over four months since I wrote the first part of this essay, and I have not written a word towards answering that one word question. Life intervened, and also writing the first part of this essay exhausted me. Reading it recently, I was surprised by the anger it contains. I remembered it as “cool” and “dispassionate,” but it is nothing of the sort. I had written about my wife, Kate, without naming her, a distancing strategy. Coming to terms with grief requires a distancing strategy. It is a distancing strategy. Letting go of the past. Trying to get up some momentum for the future.

In September I attended a three-day “Camp Widow” conference in Toronto. Organized by Soaring Spirits International, a California-based grief support organization, this event brought together 120 widowed individuals (110 women, 10 men) and offered a variety of workshops, seminars and peer support opportunities. I wasn’t sure I would like it. I wasn’t sure I would get anything out of it. But I did like it, and I did get a renewed sense of vigor and momentum out of it. Primarily, it helped me realign my heart and my head, accept that I am a widower now, and a widower forever, and understand, perhaps for the first time, that moving on does not require letting go.

I mean, I knew that. I was living that. But this is where the peer support was so important. In my life, I have no peers. I know no one my age who has lost a spouse. People my age tell me things like, “Divorce is like a death.” And they tell me how horrible it was to lose a parent. These events are horrible, and painful, but these people are not my peers. I go to work day after day and try to be a productive person, but my sense of belonging in my life is shattered. Everyone wants me to get “back to normal,” but there is no normal to go back to. If I have a new normal, it will be something I need to build out of the shattered remains of my former life. “Camp Widow” made that crystal clear.

J.G. Ballard was a widower. His wife died in 1964, suddenly from pneumonia, leaving him to raise three children. Of course, he had also spent part of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. His novels chart the shattered remains of the (post-)modern world. Life after the catastrophe. If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.

I told these thoughts to a friend, and he told me about Walter Benjamin and his Angel of History:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I believe I had said to my friend that Kate’s death had freed me into a land of infinite choice, and yet I felt powerless. The world rumbled on, and I watched it in horror, wondering why it was full of shit. Violence. Madness. Degradation of such variety it was impossible to keep up. None of this was necessary, and yet none of it could be stopped. I seemed to have a front row seat and an awareness heightened beyond anything I had ever experienced. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Ballard

Concrete Island (1973) is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, except the island is a traffic island lost in a sea of traffic lanes and overpasses. It’s a slim book, and if I wasn’t specifically interested in Ballard I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it gripped me. A middle-aged man on his way home from a rendez vous with his mistress goes over the barrier in his fancy car, rolls down a hill and is trapped in an odd parallel universe, which is within reality and also outside of it. He discovers the island has other denizens, a self-supporting ecosystem, and no way to escape. His expectations of life are fundamentally and suddenly altered, and he must adjust, or die. I identified with that.

The Day of Creation (1987) is also an “after the end” novel. The action takes place in Central Africa, a parched and desert-like place. An Englishman, Doctor Mallory, goes on a Heart of Darkness-type quest after a mysterious river is suddenly sprung free from the earth. In a chaotic world, ruled by paramilitaries, bureaucrats and a freelance television crew, Mallory brakes free and leads all and sundry upriver, seeking its source. There’s some high adventure in this one, but also lots about a world under stress from capitalism, militarism, technological expansion and, let’s just say it, men. The mystery of the natural world is set against all of this. The power of women and girls, too. The new great river. The land mass of the African continent. A wild, post-pubescent, silent girl, who enters carrying a gun, and is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. The novel quickly reveals the foolhardiness of those who think they “know” anything about anything. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Super-Cannes (2000) takes us into a world of ultra-capitalism and a different kind of desert, a kind of intentional community, though it is built for Forbes 500 companies, not 1960s back of the landers. It is also a post-catastrophe novel, in this case a murder rampage which had disturbed the perfectly controlled, micro-managed village just before the arrival of the protagonists, a husband and wife. She is the new doctor (replacing the doctor turned mass murderer), and her husband is the narrator, who has a lot of free time to investigate the goings on of his new surroundings. The genre explored here is whodunit? Or more precisely, whydunit? The plot thickens and thickens, as our hero is introduced to the reigning psychiatrist, who explains the theory and practice of the super village. It is designed to take care of its residents’ every need, so that they can be as productive as possible, and rake in the dough for the multinationals who are paying all of the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs leads to an unexpected result. Folks are bored. All work and no play, it turns out, isn’t healthy, and the dark side of the soul needs to be exercised. So the folks organize under-the-cover-of-darkness vandalism brigades. Plus much more. I didn’t identify with the plot here, not in a “post-grief” way. But the undercurrent of swirling chaos felt very real. It made me think of the cancer period. It made me think of the dark truths hidden by systems.

Millennium People (2003) continues down this path. The action is set in contemporary England. A bomb has gone off at Heathrow, in the arrivals luggage area. The protagonist is a senior psychologist and his ex-wife is among those killed by the bomb. Through his job, he becomes involved in the investigation, but he begins his own independent research as well, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a shadowy world of domestic terrorism and anti-capitalist rebellion. The book contains an enlarged critique of big money and the faux surface “realities” of consumer culture and mass media. As with Super-Cannes, the plot plays with the idea that violence leads to a truer engagement with life, an idea that Ballard has returned to for decades. See, for example, Crash (1973), where characters stage car accidents for sexual pleasure. I found Millennium People to be the least satisfying of the four Ballard novels I read in this sequence. Some of the ideas felt recycled. The protagonists were starting to blur together. But the insights about an outer shell of mass media images obscuring and inner crust of essential “being” expressed what I felt to be intuitively true in my post-grief blurriness.

Being in a “liminal” world, is something Kate spoke about, as she lived with terminal cancer. Liminal = in between, life and death, here and there, fear and hope. And so on. I often felt in that space, too. Outside the main flow of life. And as I watched her die I felt as close as you can get to the other side without slipping into the void. Kate had spoken to a friend about the writing of Stephen Jenkinson, a palliative care specialist. She seemed to like what he had to say, but we didn’t talk about it much. She didn’t like to talk about dying, at least with me. She wanted us to just life, stay in our groove. But one of the things Jenkinson focuses on is fear, confronting fear, specifically. One story he tells is how most people when they confront death, aren’t actually confronting death; they’re too lost in the fear. He says that meeting death is like meeting love. You meet a new lover and at first you confront feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Is this going to work out? Can I actually connect with that person? And you go through those emotions, and then you connect with love. Connecting with death is the same, he says. And that describes what I felt, waiting, watching Kate get sicker, knowing that death would come soon, but never really sure when. Months, then weeks, then days. Imminently.

Five days before she died we were at the hospital for the last time, and her bloodwork was terrible. The numbers were not good, and she knew what that meant. She said, “I guess this is it.” Later, she asked me what my biggest fear was. I said it wasn’t that she was going to die. I wasn’t afraid about that. Now, reflecting on then, I’m stunned. We were there with death and we were both, “Oh, well. I guess it’s really going to happen.” The fears I had were about what would happen after she died. I told her that, but I also told her that I knew she didn’t want to discuss any of that with me. She didn’t. We sat in the sun outside the hospital, and I told her I wished we could just stay there forever. It wasn’t the disease that was the problem; it was time. We said some other things to each other also. It was really beautiful. Then we had to go home and re-enter reality and play the drama out. Three days later she was no longer speaking. She died two days after that.

Have I made it clear how Ballard’s multiple levels of reality felt just right to me? I hope so.

Just recently I recounted Jenkinson’s story about going through fear to get to death to my psychologist. I wanted to make the point to him that nobody told me I would have to go back through the ring of fear to get back into ordinary life. For a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with ordinary life. I liked being in the liminal space. I wanted to just stay there. It was a place full of insight, and a level of quiet peace that was sustaining, even if not fully real. But you can’t stay there. At least, I couldn’t. It’s that infernal engine of time again (another of Ballard’s obsessions, also; there’s some fantastic short stories that attack time savagely, but that’s for another…well…). Time wouldn’t let me drift in a void-like space for long, and getting back to a sense of normalcy was very, very painful. Ballard didn’t help with that. Levi, not so much, either.

I didn’t seek out novels about grief. I tried to read Murakami’s nonfiction about the sarin gas attack. I couldn’t get into it. I thought I would feel an “after the end” connection to it, but I didn’t.

On the first Valentine’s Day after Kate’s death, I bought Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). God, I hated this book when it came out. Everyone who told me about it made it sound horrible. I found the title unforgiveable. I had tried to read a number of different Eggers titles and found them unwelcoming to my tastes. But Kate liked his stuff. And this was a novel about grief and moving through it and past it, and in a moment of perversity I bought it, then devoured it quickly. I then put it on the shelf with Kate’s other Eggers titles (her books are still separate from mine). I felt, in a way, that I had read it for her. I know that sounds weird. There was more than a little magical thinking going on. I really hated the “Dave” character, pretty much all the way through, but I also got what he was doing, and I knew that I only got it because I was going through something so, so similar. I felt that I was in a place that only I could understand, and I was having visions that were like x-rays, but I knew none of this was because of genius, and also that it was heartbreaking in a quotidian way. It was pretty simple. My wife had died when I was 43. I had been 38 when we married. Eggers was in his early twenties when both of his parents had died from cancer in short succession, leaving him with custody of his much younger brother. Holy fuck, I thought. Now that’s a raw deal. And the novel is often raw, and sometimes it’s just plain stupid, but it is a song of pain that is staggering, heartbreaking, and even, yes, at times, genius. But it still left me trapped in Jenkinson’s wall of fear.

levels-of-life

Julian Barnes lost is wife in 2008, suddenly to cancer. In 2013, he published Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief. In 2011, he published The Sense of an Ending, a novel deeply reflective of the mysteries that haunt our lives. I read both of these books in close succession in the past year, and they are each remarkable and each marked, I believe, with the sharp pain and clarity of vision that grief can bring. Levels of Life is specifically about Barnes’ own grief and he tells of hard, hurting moments, but he also gives us a magical story about balloons. It’s really amazing, how he grounds the reader with enormous weight, and also makes us feel lighter than air. This is an incredible book, and it lifted my heart. The Sense of an Ending is also an incredible book, and now that I think about it it has grief at its core also. The protagonist is an older man, reflecting on the death of a close friend when he was young. Recent events draw him back into the past, and he discovers that things he thought were so, weren’t at all. He wonders if he has made a mess of his life, but he is not without opportunities to correct it, at least partly. I bought this book at Heathrow on a visit to London, and read it in the lounge and on the plane, completing it before landing in Toronto. Both of these Barnes titles are about transition, and in the past two-and-a-half years that has been my life, over and over. Will this bloody transition ever end?

I was already feeling a new sense of something when I went to “Camp Widow,” but that experience broke open emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. It made me realize and articulate, finally, that Kate would never leave me and that I would also move on past her, and that these two facts weren’t in contradiction. She will always be with me, but I can’t stay here, in the now, which is the past. What is that thing, that sense of an ending? Is it a different level of life? I will have my own, new future, and she will be part of it, but she also won’t be part of it. Is that what happens when you get old? You realize that the past is always with you, and nothing ever really ends?

I said to my psychologist, “Returning to ordinary life is fucking horrible. Ordinary life is fucking horrible.” I meant this in an Angel of History way, but also just: my magical powers are fading. Grief is an extraordinary emotion, and living deep in grief is an extraordinary experience. At “Camp Widow” I heard of others who had contemplated suicide, others who had succeeded. Going back through the ring of fear and re-entering ordinary life is a risky period of “time.” To let go of the magic of the grief: hard. To let go of the dreams of being with the loved one: hard. To accept the new reality of here/not here: hard. Some don’t make it. Eggers’s older sister didn’t make it. Barnes muses about suicide as an option. Levi either killed himself or died in an accidental fall. Ballard’s vision includes violence as a kind of release. I was never suicidal, but one question pounded in centre of my mind: why should I go on? Why, without her? As I have gone on, I’ve realized again and again that I’m not without her. I don’t know how to explain that, except I have a glowing certainty that it’s so. And my PTSD pain, the memories of her suffering, etc., fades, too. The soul is lighter than air, it rises like a balloon.

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CODA

Okay, the PTSD pain. Yes, it fades, but it also comes and goes. The concept of “trigger warnings” is growing in common usage, and I was initially skeptical. I’m naturally skeptical. But the first week of November, the date I’m writing this, is the week Kate had her first chemotherapy. I’m self-conscious of anniversaries, and careful. Better to anticipate feeling crappy than to have it sneak up on you. Well, this week snuck up on me. Yesterday I felt like utter crap. Not as bad as I have often in the past, but worse than I’ve felt in a while. What happened at this time? I asked myself, and then I knew.

Here’s the thing about that first chemotherapy. We took a video camera. I have about a dozen video files of Kate from that day after various stages of the process. I had forgotten that entirely and then a while back found these files. We must have been crazy. We were crazy. Kate was adamant, however, that the disease wasn’t going to change her. She is seen plugged up to the machine and laughing. She is seen at home in bed, towel on her head, complaining of a headache and laughing. In one video she has the camera and she points it at me. I make a funny face. Looking at her doesn’t automatically make me sad any more. Looking at myself, was shocking.

I want to be that guy again, but I cannot. Nor can I tell him, buddy, hold on. You are in for a wild ride. If there was one thing I could tell him (me), it would be that the strategy of laughing your way through cancer will fall apart. You may think, dude, that cancer was bad; and it was; but losing her, this will be worse. (You will not laugh your way through grief, though your step-daughter will expect it of you. So like her mother, she will say, “I don’t like to see you cry.”) To put it in terms of this essay, I read and wrote through the cancer period. I clung to my reading (as did Kate) like a life raft. I read in many hospital waiting rooms. I wrote a book review weeks before she died. All of that fell apart in the tunnel of grief. This essay has been about putting my reading life back together. I have piles of books scattered all over the house, as I did before she died. I am reading widely and randomly, as I have always liked to do. On this good news, I will end.

— Michael Bryson [1]

Link to Kate’s Photos: http://kateorourkephotos.blogspot.ca/

 

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Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. In 2011, he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication in 2011. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Here’s a short list of some books I’ve read recently that I’m enthusiastic about:
    Mad Hope, Heather Birrell
    How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
    Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms
    Interference, Michelle Berry
    Polyamorous Love Song, Jacab Wren
    Bourgeois Empire, Evie Christie
    The Desperates, Greg Kearney
    You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, Donato Mancini
    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi
    Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Cambell Scott, Mark Abley

    Here’s some books I hope to get to soon:
    Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
    What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman
    Come Back, Sky Gilbert
    Stories in a New Skin, Keavy Martin
    All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
    I know you are but what am I?, Heather Birrell
    Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
    The Outer Harbour, Wayne Compton
    Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
    Life is about losing everything, Lynn Crosbie
    Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson
    Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
    In the Language of Love, Diane Schoemperlen
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
    Boundary Problems, Greg Bechtel
    All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
    The Incomparables, Alexandra Leggat
    Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Jacob Wren
    Professor Borges, Borges
    Rap, Race, and Reality, Chuck D
    The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig
    Tobacco Wars
    , Paul Seesequasis
    Voluptuous Pleasure, Marianne Apostolides
    Sophrosyne, Marianne Apostolides
    Consumed, David Cronenberg

    Read on.

Jan 072015
 

covers“slipped almost totally under the radar…” (David Rivard)

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The recent passing of Mark Strand brought many things to mind—not least his important role, along with Charles Simic, in expanding the impact of European and South American poets on American poetry through their groundbreaking 1976 anthology Another Republic.

American poetry, it’s true, had already been seriously altered by an influx of work from “abroad” in the 60’s.  The so-called “Generation of ‘27”—in particular, Bly, Levine, Merwin, Kinnell, and Wright—all of whom had come of age under the strictures of New Criticism, suddenly found a new set of formal means and opened-up subject matter when they started reading the poetry of the French and Spanish surrealists, classical Chinese writers like Tu Fu and Li Po, the German Expressionist Georg Trakl, and a young Swedish psychologist named Tomas Transtromer.  Their work as translators, and the subsequent startling changes in their own poetry, created—for better and worse—all sorts of new vectors and undercurrents, some of which coalesced around the allied schools that came to be known as “Neo-surrealism” and “Deep Image.”  Bly, in particular, was a tireless enthusiast for this new poetry, a theorizer and propagandist in his essays, and a publisher through his press and magazine, The 60’s.  Through wonderful books like Leaping Poetry, a book whose insights about neurology and anthropology are debatable, if not unhinged, at moments, he helped lead an inspired loosening up of language and perception in American poetry.

Others made less dramatic, more indirect contributions: the fingerprints of the Surrealists and other European modernists were all over the New York School, if one knew where to look, absorbed into an American idiom by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara long before the work became more generally available in this country.  How many young American poets must have gone to the cubist poetry of Pierre Reverdy simply because O’Hara had ended “A Step Away from Them” by writing “My heart is in my pocket,/it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

In Another Republic, Strand and Simic brought together a much wider range of poets in translation than had been previously available, with generous selections by seventeen poets.  More ethnically and aesthetically diverse (though, inexplicably, all men), the poets in Another Republic were largely the inheritors and adapters of High Modernism—sometimes combining modernist techniques with the more fabular and allegorical impulses found in folklore traditions; sometimes focusing literary cubism on the apparently banal and everyday, endowing ordinary people and places with strangeness and mystery; almost always deploying a self in the poem that was both mordantly comic and humanly vulnerable.

Paul Celan, Yehuda Amichai, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Drummond De Andrade, Zbigniew Herbert, Fernando Pessoa, Czeslaw Milosz, Yannis Ritsos, Jean Follain, and the others were largely unknown to American readers at the time.  Many, if not all, had experienced exile and/or the violence of mid-century history.  They often wrote with far more nuanced consciousness of the political than Americans were used to in their poetry.  They were also highly tuned to the absurdities that historical fate has increasingly had in store for all of us.  The variety of their approaches to writing a poem was stunning.  For those in two generations of American poets who have read Another Republic, the influence has been profound I suspect.

Another Republic

That the book is no longer as well known as it should be, and that the poets included in it have mostly passed into the oblivion of the canonical, speaks volumes about contemporary American poetry.  Solipsistic, driven by social media and the marketing campaigns of publishing companies and academic trade groups like AWP, ensconced in print and digital affiliations that function like gated-communities, monetized by the promotional efforts of well-meaning institutions such as the Academy of American Poets and bien-pensant congregations like The Dodge Festival, American poetry no longer seems as open to the influence of work in translation, despite the fact that more of it is being published than ever.

Is it possible that at this point there’s so much translated poetry available that it’s actually taken for granted?  Perhaps no one is exercising the sort of editorial selectivity that Mark Strand and Charles Simic did in 1976, so the impact of great and idiosyncratic writers can no longer be felt.  Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris’s recently published Ecco Anthology of International Poetry is huge (592 pages), an admirably comprehensive survey of 20th century world poetry—but perhaps it does a disservice by implying that all the poets in its pages are of the same value?  I feel a little churlish in the face of their good work just in asking the question; but a kind of leveling out occurs with a huge book like this.  Perhaps a little more curatorial pressure would have helped direct readers to the best of translated poets?  Maybe not. It isn’t the fault of Kaminsky and Harris that a faith in “American Exceptionalism” rules writers here just as strongly as it does our political leaders.  Translated poetry seems like just another marketing niche, easy enough to avoid if one is intent on maintaining ignorance and preserving one’s assumptions.

Inattention or indifference or distraction, whatever the case, some recently published books by major figures, books bringing world-class writers into English in a comprehensive way for the first time, have been largely ignored.  Two in particular, both issued in 2013—by the long-dead German Expressionist, Gottfried Benn, and the very-much alive Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli—slipped almost totally under the radar.  Oddly enough, both were published in handsome editions by Farrar Strauss Giroux—a house whose reputation and promotional reach would, in another time, have guaranteed a thoughtful, widespread reception.  Neither seems to have found the notice and readership it deserves.

Both Benn and Cavalli offer approaches that might shake up some of the smug assumptions of the current period style.  One senses in reading them that, for Benn and Cavalli, the act of making poems, of sounding their idiosyncratic music, is exhilarating—no matter the mood of the work, or the troubled waters sailed by its makers at any particular moment. Best of all, the distinctiveness of each poet’s music has largely carried over, so that a reader can feel as if he or she is encountering a poet of complex formal mastery in English.

In very different ways, both Cavalli and Benn are poets whose intelligence is often registered in the body, immersed as they are in the physicality and oddness of sensation.  Their complex formal processing is often abstract, non-linear, deployed in elliptical narrative and scene building; but it is carried out with an improvised, full-contact immediacy of the sort implied by the painter Philip Guston when he spoke of certain artists who have a desire to achieve “this release where their thinking doesn’t precede their doing.”  As Guston might have put it, neither Benn nor Cavalli is interested in using language merely to “illustrate” their thinking—each seems to enter the poem without preconceptions about what it’s going to become.

*

It might be over-stating the case to say that Gottfried Benn’s reputation in this country has largely had the status of a rumor.  As Michael Hoffman, the translator and editor of Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, puts it in his astute introduction, it would probably be hard to fill a room here with people capable of having a serious conversation about Benn, despite the wide acknowledgment in Germany of his being “the greatest German poet since Rilke.”  One slender book of translations has previously appeared of Benn’s work, in print from New Directions since the late 1950’s despite suffering from its translator’s stodgy approach.  In the United States at least, Benn’s posthumous existence has been subjected to a neglect even more encompassing than what he experienced while alive.  One couldn’t even say that he’s a poet’s poet exactly.

Benn 2

If Benn is known here at all, it is for one poem in particular, that archetypal, foundational piece of early 20th century Expressionism, “Little Aster.”

Little Aster

A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest
with a long knife
under the skin
to cut out tongue and gums,
I must have nudged it because it slipped
into the brain lying adjacent.
I packed it into the thoracic cavity
with the excelsior
when he was sewn up.
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!

Appearing in Benn’s first collection, a 1912 chapbook called Morgue and Other Poems, the poem can hardly surprise in the way it did a hundred years ago—for one thing, the radical approach and fresh subject matter of Expressionism has been so unconsciously diffused into the postmodernist landscape that a piece like this can almost seem a cultural cliché: the granddaddy of undergraduate punk/goth shock tableaux.  And like certain other products of the early Modernist effort to sweep away the crapola of late Victorian furniture and sentiment—say Pound’s “In A Paris Metro”—the poem feels as if it’s a bit of a one-trick pony.

The poem’s true power, one that would only amplify as Benn continued to write, is its straight-forward precision in making and arranging observed detail, as well as its economy of action, all of which seem part and parcel of a tonal restraint that saves the scene from melodrama.  The poem’s real shock lies in the calmness of the narrator—a calm that has ironic distance in it, but is not without undercurrents of empathy.  Like all of Benn’s work this early poem has a sort of double-vision.  In Hoffman’s masterful translation, Benn makes us aware in the very first line of his utterly physical sense of the human body—“hoisted onto the slab,” this corpse is as thingy as the cargo the living drayman must have hauled.  The verbs and nouns all have a matter-of-fact tangibility that avoids exaggeration, but the spare exactness of description somehow turns the physical gestures of the speaker and the plotted scene itself into a sort of ritualized activity.  The speaker’s very alertness to what he is doing implies respect of an almost primal sort for the body.

morgue

“Little Aster” has the clinical detachment of the doctor that Benn was—a clear-eyed, discomfiting, anti-Romantic sense of what a body is made of, and what happens to it once its purpose is finished—but no matter how sardonic the poem’s final exclamation is, I’ve never felt more certain than I do in Hoffman’s translation that a kind of spell of departure has been cast, a primitive, raw performance with a hint of the shamanistic about it.  Benn is both utterly cold and utterly caring, a world-class pessimist and cynic with tenderness and longing still partially intact.  No wonder Hoffman calls him “both the hardest and the softest poet who ever lived.”

In his intro, Hoffman reduces Benn’s biographical character to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek summary: “the military man, the doctor, the poet, and the ladies’ man.”  True enough to the facts.  Benn was born into a minister’s family in a small village between Berlin and Hamburg in 1886, had completed his medical training by the time his first book came out in 1912, and served in the German army during WW I (he once wrote that he’d served his duty in Brussels, as “a doctor in a whorehouse”).  On mustering out, he went into practice in dermatology and venereology.  His first wife, from whom he was separated, died in 1922, and a Danish couple subsequently adopted their daughter.  By 1935 Benn had reenlisted, driven apparently by a combination of financial need and a sense that a garrison might be the place he was most comfortable in life (“Nothing so dreamy as barracks!”).  By 1938 he had remarried, a marriage that would last until 1945, when his wife killed herself, fearful of what might happen to her once the advancing Russians arrived.  Another marriage followed WW II, at which point Benn was living in West Berlin, where he remained until his death in 1956.  The occupying Allies forbid publication of his work immediately following the war, because of his perceived Nazi sympathies; but a Swiss publisher, Arche, issued Static Poems in 1948, with a Collected Poems arriving in 1956, the year of his death at 70.  In between, in 1951, his work had won him the Georg Buchner Prize, one of the two most important literary prizes for writers in German.  Neither publication nor prizes seem to have afforded Benn anything resembling a comfortable life.

Benn2

Of Benn’s brief, troubling travels on the edges of the Nazi orbit in 1933-34, Hoffman has a number of interesting things to say, none of them in defense of Benn exactly, more in scrupulous accounting for how this “fleeting appearance of compatibility” might have come to pass.  In any case, as Hoffman points out, “mutual detestation” set in quickly.  Benn was first deleted from the medical register as a suspected Jew; then in 1938 he was banned from writing and publishing altogether, his work labeled “degenerate” for its expressionist elements.  That work—as Hoffman is at pains to point out—is so pessimistic about human life in general as to make political ideologies like National Socialism seem fraudulent by implication: to Benn “human existence was futile, progress a delusion, history a bloody mess, and the only stay against fatuity was art, was poetry.”

If you are unfamiliar with Benn’s work, and think that last sentence sounds hyperbolic, be assured that it is not.  Not at all.  Benn makes such notable cynics as Catullus or the Japanese Zen master Ikkyu or the misanthropic Philip Larkin sound like village good folk with relatively sunny outlooks.  In American poetry of the last fifty years, perhaps only Alan Dugan or Frederick Seidel (in their very different ways) come close to such a dark estimate of human behavior.  That Benn was inclined by psychological character toward such a view is outweighed by the fact that life gave him plenty of grim evidence to confirm his pessimism.  That he wanted to make this evidence into poetry suggests something not so much heroic as desperate and compellingly mysterious.  There’s little solace in Benn’s work, but there is plenty of an endangered (and endangering) sublime.

If the early work sometimes feels as if it’s straining for an effect, it is no less bracing for its honesty.  Immersed in body knowledge, it possesses certain formal gestures that intensify Benn’s raw physicality, gestures that he would develop and use later in his career to build complex collages of image and statement—in particular, a telegraphic style of sentence-making that emphasizes his clipped and fragmented sense of personal observation.  As a result, the voice has a terse manner that is both nervy and incisive.  The opening of “Night Café”—a poem that owes a debt to Rimbaud’s “To Music”—brings the medical man’s eye to a common social scene:

 824: Lives and Loves of Women.
The cello takes a quick drink. The flute
Belches expansively for three beats: good old dinner.
The timpani has one eye on his thriller.

Mossed teeth in pimpled face
Waves to incipient stye.

Greasy hair
Talks to open mouth with adenoids
Faith Hope Love around her neck

Young goiter has a crush on saddlenose.
He treats her to onetwothree beers.

Benn’s writing is living proof that description always reflects attitude—behind these words and images is an acerbic, knowing speaker who may be one of the most laconically fierce creatures in all of world literature.  But not just.  The ending of the poem shows that other current that ripples through Benn: a susceptibility to lyric intoxication, especially in the presence of women and flowers:

The door melts away: a woman.
Dry desert. Canaanite tan.
Chaste. Concavities. A scent accompanies her, less a scent
Than a sweet pressure of the air
Against my brain.

It really is remarkable the way the metaphorical transformations and rhythmic shifts communicate the young Benn’s physical intoxication here.  (And like a lot of early Modernism, one feels what might be the syntactical influence of cinema at work, the editing and framing lessons already available in silent films.)  Then Benn does something that also turns out to be prototypical for his work: he undercuts the longing, compromising it with this final observation: “An obesity waddles after.”

*1886-1956+Schriftsteller, Arzt, DPortr„t mit ZigaretteFoto: Fritz Eschen

The snapped speech; the quick-cutting method of sketching a scene; the physicality (both raw and lyrically intoxicated); the richness of diction, precise and energizing but never decorative or fussy—all of these amplified as Benn developed, especially in the 1930’s when the work evolved a more digressive, complicating movement, ranging more widely over time and space.  He never, ever loses his physicality and quickening energy, or his inventive phrasings.  His patented mix of erotic longing, calm pastoral alertness, and hardboiled cosmopolitan outlook only intensify:

…the park,
and the flower beds
all damp and tangled—

autumnal sweetness,
tuffets of Erica
along the Autobahn,
everything is Luneburg
heather, purple and unbearing,
whins going nowhere,

introverted stuff
soon browned off—
give it a month
it’ll be as if  it’d never flowered.

(“Late”)

And this, from another poem of the 1950’s, called “No Tears”:

Roses, Christ knows how they got to be so lovely,
Green skies over the city
In the evening
In the ephemerality of the years!

The yearning I have for that time
when one mark thirty was all I had,
yes, I counted them this way and that,
I trimmed my days to fit them,
days what am I saying days: weeks on bread and plum mush
out of earthenware pots
brought from my village,
still under the rushlight of native poverty,
how raw everything felt, how tremblingly beautiful!

During the Second World War, and after, Benn increasingly found ways to let his thinking/feeling consciousness expand out of the originating scene, in poems both long and short—without conclusion or solution.  Unlike so many poets, he doesn’t seem to feel that he’s here to solve a problem, either for himself or the reader.  The later work becomes more epigrammatic in intelligence (“aversion to progress/is profundity in the wise man”) and stoically self-knowing (“my compulsion to shadows”) and, at the end, more generous and tender (“it’s only the ephemeral that is beautiful”).  Nonetheless, Benn seems only to have wanted to intensify the contradictory character that lay behind the words, not “cure” his suffering as if were a disease:

Gladioli

A bunch of glads,
certainly highly emblematic of creation,
remote from frills of working blossom with hope of fruit—
slow, durable, placid,
generous, sure of kingly dreams.

All else is natural world and intellect!
Over there the mutton herds:
strenuous ends of clover and daggy sheep—
here friendly talents,
pushing Anna to the center of attention,
explaining her, finding a solution!

The glads offer no solution:
being—falling—
you mustn’t count the days—
fulfillment
livid, tattered, or beautiful.

Most wisdom in poetry feels stagy, self-conscious, but “you mustn’t count the days” is the real thing: a simple, clarifying knowledge that feels earned among the living: the maximum advice, with the minimal exaggeration, given in the face of a terrible sense of meaninglessness, the most literal death threat anyone can imagine.  Benn doesn’t have any answer, other than doing his work.  He has only his contradictions, and they just lead to questions:

Even now in the big city night
café terrace
summer stars
from the next door table
assessments
of hotels in Frankfurt
the ladies frustrated
if their desires had mass
they would each of them weigh twenty stone

But the electricity in the air! Balmy night
a la travel brochure and
the girls step out of their pictures
improbable lovelies
legs up to here, a waterfall,
their surrender is something one doesn’t even begin
to contemplate.

Married couples by comparison disappoint,
don’t cut it, fail to clear the net,
he smokes, she twists her rings,
worth considering
the whole relationship between marriage and creativity,
stifling or galvanizing.

Questions, questions! Scribbled incitation’s
on a summer night,
there were no Gainsboroughs in my parents’ house
now everything has gone under
the whole thing, par ci, par la,
Selah, end of psalm.

(from “Par Ci, Par La”)

Towards the end, Benn seems to have found some measure of—what?  Acceptance? Equanimity?  Open-heartedness?  There doesn’t seem to be word in English for what comes across in his late poems, the contradictions undiminished, but it has an un-deluded tenderness and compassion in it.  A passage from a very late visit to a scene inhabited by characters quite similar to those in the earlier “Night Café” illustrates the change:

Truly, the grief of hearts is ubiquitous
and unending,
but whether they were ever in love
(outwith the awful wedded bed)
burning, athirst, desert-parched
for the nectar of a far-away
mouth,
sinking, drowning
in the impossibility of human souls—

you won’t know, nor can you
ask the waiter,
who’s just ringing up
another Beck’s,
always avid for coupons
to quench a thirst of another nature,
though also deep.

(“They Are Human After All”)

Michael Hoffman’s translations in Impromptus seem by and large flawless to me.  He appears to have lived in Benn’s poems for a very long time, and to have a natural affinity for rendering the music of Benn’s German into English.  The poems have integrity, in every sense.  Hoffman also provides a selection of Benn’s prose—it is every bit a match for the poetry in alacrity, intellect, wryness, passion, honesty, and textured observation.  We should be extremely grateful for the whole package.

*

If Gottfried Benn exists for American poets as a village rumor (if he exists at all), Patrizia Cavalli might be said to be a whisper on a windy side street.  Prior to FSG issuing My Poems Won’t Change the World in 2013, a small Canadian publisher had brought out Cavalli’s single previous collection in English, a selected poems with the same title that appeared in the late 90’s.

Cavalli

You’d have to have known exactly what you were looking for in order to find that book.  Perhaps the only way you might have wondered about her then was if you had read the late Kenneth Koch’s marvelous “Talking with Patrizia,” from One Train.  That longish, obsessive, dialogue-driven poem purports to capture a late-night conversation between the two poets, a moment when Koch seeks advice from Cavalli about how to get back together with a woman who has sent him packing.

…I thought
You might be the best
Person to talk to Patrizia since you
Love women and are a woman
Yourself. You may be right Patrizia

Said.

It’s a performance full of Koch’s madcap, bittersweet romanticism, as well as the lively affection of two friends, true believers who are experienced travellers in the land of disappointed longing.  In the acknowledgments to the FSG edition, Cavalli reports that she had provided Koch with “technical advice on how to seduce” the woman.  She thanks him for his friendship and his longtime support of her work—“if the dead can be thanked.”  It’s an aside that typifies the mordant, skeptical wit that runs throughout her work.

Cavalli’s biography is far easier to summarize than Benn’s.  Born in 1949 in the small Umbrian city of Todi, she came to Rome in the late 60’s to study philosophy, started writing poems, and fell in with some American ex-pats who introduced her to the Italian novelist Elsa Morante, an early encourager of her work.  Her first book of poems appeared in 1974, also titled My Poems Won’t Change the World.  Subsequent books have appeared at regular but extended intervals, all from the Italian publisher Einaudi: The Sky (1981), The All Mine Singular I (1992), The Forever Open Theater (1999), and Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate (2006).  Cavalli appears to have made a living in Rome as a translator of plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, and Wilde, as well as from her poetry and readings, both of which are highly popular in Italy.  The editor (and co-translator) of the FSG book, Gini Alhadeff, reports of Cavalli that “once upon a time she used to play poker and sell paintings on the side (or the other way around).”  You can take Alhadeff’s comment as her way of signaling Cavalli’s charismatic personal energy, evidence of which abounds on You Tube, where there are various clips of her reciting her poems, not to mention singing in performance with Italian “folk-rock” groups.

Beyond their urbanity and minds saturated by physical sensation, Cavalli and Benn share a manner of detached self-observation more typical of certain European poets than American (Louise Gluck might be its primary avatar here, and, in a more baroque, performative way, Frederick Seidel).  There’s shrewdness in this stance toward the self: its calculations allow for moments of romantic, lyric feeling without melodrama or maudlin effect.  This shrewdness is linked in both poets’ work to a contradictory quality: beneath the impulsive, improvisational lyricism that fuels the making of the poems are self-conscious intensities of will and character.

In Cavalli, in particular, there is often an attractive note of irritability beneath her impulsiveness—she can be charmingly resistant at moments, in a way that might remind a reader slightly of the early William Carlos Williams.  I mean the Williams of “Danse Russe” and “To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies,” among other poems.  This irritability—sometimes bemused, sometimes annoyed or exasperated—gives Cavalli’s voice a freshness of attitude: a witty, breezy confidence and curiosity compounded with something darker, more introverted and warily expectant, even anxious.  Almost none of Cavalli’s poems is titled, one implication of which might be to signal an impatient immediacy.  This goes hand-in-hand with her conjectural assertiveness—I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more decisively speculative or conclusively ambivalent poet.

patrizia

The short poem that begins the collection and gives it its title provides a perfect example of this utterly considered but quick-witted responsiveness:

Someone told me
of course my poems
won’t change the world.

I say yes of course
my poems
won’t change the world.

As in so many of Cavalli’s poems, one comes away refreshed by how the speaker—with a simple, almost Zen-like flip—has turned the situation inside out. The shift in tense from past to present, and the slight relining of the phrases, generate a surprising power and adamancy, a vocal inflection at odds with the overt statement: a big, complex “so what?”  The implication being that Cavalli has a lot more on her mind than changing the world.

Early and late, Cavalli’s great subject is how we live inside our expectations and desires, endless as they are, entertaining and tormenting, so determinant of our psychological character, but necessary as well for breaking out of our bounded selves.

But first we must free ourselves
from the strict stinginess that produces us,
that produces me on this chair
in the corner of a café
awaiting with the ardor of clerk
the very moment in which
the small blue flames of the eyes
across from me, eyes familiar
with risk, will, having taken aim,
lay claim to a blush
from my face. Which blush they will obtain.

(translated by Geoffrey Brock)

The combination of romance and self-irony on display here is a Cavalli trademark, one that finds expression in all of her work through perceptual inversions and reversals of perspective.   Alhadeff writes in her introduction that “innocence” is Cavalli’s main preoccupation—it may be that what she is referring to are moments when Cavalli feels free of those boundaries (the “strict stinginess”) that make the self.  It’s an ongoing struggle in her work, an irresolution signaled by how frequently—as here—the poems seem to begin in medias res.  There’s a drama in the swerving of her syntax as it flows through the elongated first sentence, a drama that’s underlined when she cuts back against the fluidity of the first sentence with the much shorter, punchier second one.  It’s one of Cavalli’s prototypical moments of speculative imagination, built out of guesses and notions, but strangely adamant despite being suppositional.  Even the “we” form of address adds to the vibe here, adding a projective ambivalence—it seems both a more general reference to the reader and a way for the speaker to talk to and about herself.

For a poet as physically and psychologically intimate as Cavalli often is, she rarely seems autobiographical or confessional.  She is, for example, quite matter-of-fact in the poems about being a lesbian, but at the same it could hardly be said to be the foregrounded subject.  There is something compellingly oblique in the elliptical way this poem develops from the scene it renders, with so much information and context left out:

Eating a Macintosh apple
she showed me her crumpled lips.
And afterwards she didn’t know what to do
she couldn’t even discard
the small mangled thing that more and more
turned yellow in her hand.

And daylight’s the time to get drunk
when the body still waits for surprises
from light and from rhythm,
when it still has the energy
to invent a disaster.

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

The first stanza is quietly astonishing.  With its vibrant, precise handling of physical detail, it’s almost Chekhovian in the way it renders both the character’s physical presence and the speaker’s psychology.  The second stanza works just as indirectly, its implications created via a commentary that seems to be located in the present moment of the speaker’s mind, not in the narrative moment of the past.  It combines a playful wit with the darker, more implicating knowledge that arrives from experience.  The same, thrilling sense of nuance exists in all of Cavalli’s work.

Patrizia-Cavalli

Cavalli is most interested, as she writes in one poem, in “a dallying in the possible,/suspended between too/little and too much, but/always out of place.”  The fluidity of her poems is almost the opposite of Gottfried Benn’s more angular, abrupt, and hacked out movements through juxtaposition, but both are masters of changeability, driven by impulsiveness and irritability.  Admittedly, Cavalli often comes off as more spirited than Benn.  Hard to imagine very many poets who would begin a poem, a complaint about the singularity of identity, like this: “Chair, stop being such a chair!/And books, don’t you be books like that!”  But there is also in Cavalli’s work a bracing self-honesty and a fearlessness about putting on display some of the less attractive parts of speaker’s ego—it’s rather wonderful how matter-of-fact she is about this too, without an ounce of phony piety or regret, managing to be charming at the same time she is brutally direct about her own carelessness and contempt at such moments, before giving way to a vulnerability all the more convincing because not overcooked or dramatized.

I walked full of myself and very strong
crossing the bridge disdainfully
tough diamond
sculpting the looks
taught tight black cruel
why should I care, I told myself, and you,
don’t you dare even touch me!

Behind two crazy old women I slowed down
and overtaking one discovered myself
between a woman weighed down by talking
and another silently walking.
Then with untouched fury I went forward
past those lost lurching impediments.
Suddenly a girl appeared
at the streetlight across from me—a beggar.
One in front of me, the others behind,
the light wasn’t green so I looked at them.
I complicated my sight.  I was in the distance,
but weakness made my legs go white.

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

               Something like a phenomenological reduction, a “bracketing,” takes place in moments like these—a witnessing of consciousness, with a suspension of judgment.  Fortunately, Cavalli’s wit, often a byproduct of her obsession with romantic love, makes her work something other than a phenomenologist’s dry digest.  As she writes of desire at the end of one poem, “it’s the remedy that makes the illness.”  For Cavalli, this paradox is rooted in the body at some cellular level:

… But in me physiology
still reigns intact, and forces me to dream:
the cure: an offer of endorphins
from you who are my pusher.
… Why should one want you
for a remedy? Why if your lips
part when, lying down, you opt
for the good and in double vowels say
I love you, no longer proudly chaste but
all absorbed in drinking up my fervor,
why does my blood decide to flow then
harmonious and smooth along the veins
carrying honey to my orphan head.

(from “The sky is blue again today,” translated by Gini Alhadeff)

As with so many Cavalli poems it’s hard to say if this scene is happening in reality or is being imagined by the speaker.  The “real world” and the imagination tend to work on each other as reagents in her poems.  The subsequent chemical reaction produces a lot of torque in either direction, an energy that is sometimes densely figurative, though oddly fluid, mercurial in temperament—her syntax surging in the direction of whatever surprised space of insight or feeling opens up.

Cavalli’s marvelous syntactical energy, with its steep changes in perceptual scale and altered perspectives and its sudden bursts of metaphoric radiation, are largely rendered successfully into an American idiom by the extended group of her translators, an estimable bunch that includes Mark Strand, Rosanna Warren, Kenneth Koch, Jorie Graham, Judith Baumel, J.D. McClatchy, and Jonathan Galassi, besides Alhadeff, Brock and Shapiro.  Occasionally, there are missteps and infelicities in this effort, and one wonders if these might have been avoided under the consistent work of one hand.  These missteps seem to occur when the translators try to stick slavishly to the original Italian.  “I those isotopes don’t want to drink/my thyroid I do not want to lose” is just awkward sounding in American English, regardless of how close it comes to the syntax of the Italian idiom.   Luckily, this kind of thing is rare in My Poems Won’t Change the World, and shouldn’t stand in the way of anyone reading Cavalli’s fresh, nuanced, energizing work—like Benn’s, her voice implicitly challenges the complacencies of American poets.  It has been almost thirty years since the last poet in translation to have a widespread effect on American poets: the Slovene Tomaz Salamun.  Given a chance, the work of Gottfried Benn and Patrizia Cavalli might have just as strong an influence, at a moment when we could surely use it.

—David Rivard

.

Rivard 2012 CR 2

David Rivard’s new book, Standoff, will appear from Graywolf in early 2016.  He is the author of five other books of poetry: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.  Rivard’s poems and essays appear regularly in APR, Ploughshares, Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry London, Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and other magazines and anthologies. Among his awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review and the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching.  Rivard is currently the director of the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire.

Jan 022015
 

Author photo by Christine McNair

 

Life is too short for a long story.
—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (15 May 1689 – 21 August 1762)

Writing is a passion in the language that will never fit into the world, into lived experience, words. Afterward: birth.
—Chus Pato, trans. Erín Moure, Secession

 

1.

Fiction takes forever. One slow word against another.

Tales are told of writers who spend a day to add a single word, as the subsequent day might just be spent removing it. Yes, this happens. Others write in concentrated bursts, and very little after; at least, until the next burst.

The most important writing lesson: patience. The second: learning to recognize what works best for what it is you think you want to do. How to do the writing you do, and do it best. I think my own work a combination of the day spent adding and removing, and the productive, compressed burst. The slow, repeated carve.

But then: the rare compression so dense it explodes for days, or even weeks, leaving a wake of drafts and finished works. A writing big bang.

I’ve a single short story I’ve been poking at for more than two years, less than one hundred words in length. I haven’t yet figured out the hinge on which to hold two semi-connected thoughts. The one phrase that makes it perfect.

Aiming for sentences you could bounce a quarter off. Tight.

This is about precision.

/

2.

First drafts come in fits, and starts. In rushes. Longhand scraps grafted to the flesh of earlier drafts. Stitch and scratch and scrape. One word, and another. Move or remove sentences, whole paragraphs. Let it sit and sink in the head awhile.

Each story akin to an image that shifts, and moves about, before coming into focus. Ah, yes. This. However long this takes.

Afternoons in pubs or coffeeshops away from laptop, during those periods my mother-in-law enables childcare. What my days have shifted into, and my next few years. During bursts of baby-sleep I rush to office desk and tinker. Move another set of words, aside. Attempt to figure out what else the story requires.

/

3.

As scientists tell us: life is, in fact, imaginary. Not what occurs, but our responses, perceived and stewed inside a chemical meat. We might mention narrative. This, too, is invented.

It’s a complicated weave. Stories patched together via stitches of imagination, overheard or half-remembered phrases, images and instigations, queries, stolen half-memories, family secrets, all of which evolve into a single work that makes sense on its own terms. Somehow. Through craft and care and steady work.

Description should not exist for its own sake. Nor should anything else.

I’ve a character with a dead mother; I recall the emotion, ascribe the same to her, but in entirely different circumstances. Everything I write is true, but might never have happened, and not necessarily in that order.

/

4.

Kill your darlings, they say. I’m not convinced. You don’t excise the extraordinary to smooth or soothe the mundane. It should force the text as a whole to be stronger. Kill, instead, the weak. A strong roof will collapse beneath poor walls and foundation. A strong roof on the wrong house will seem out of place.

Akin to extracting grey hairs as they surface. You can’t help but end with nothing.

/

5.

The Nihilist Spasm Band: “I Have Nothing to Say / But I can say it very well.”

Writing not to tell what it is already known, but instead, to problem-solve. To troubleshoot. We create problems for the sake of unraveling, to figure out. Explore. Not the idea of nothing to say.

George Bowering once wrote: Don’t write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Otherwise, you might never learn.

This is something you might already know.

/

6.

Fiction is something built, constructed out of parts, not out of thin air. Between empathy and experience, we speculate, articulate and guess. What would happen if? What would that character do, or not do? And what might happen then? Who are you, really? We slip our own thoughts and curiosities within. We slip in other things we’ve heard, or only read about. Invent, at times.

Who was it, said of writing: we battle laziness and lies, in our search for the truth.

Not that such a thing exists: truth, at least in terms of absolute. Even objectivity is subject to bias. IQ tests taken by smarter apes, who answer that the safest place during a lightning storm is in the branches of a tree. We would be wrong, but they are not. Discuss.

Sketch out, and if by chance, impart. Sometimes a clarification, a shift in perception, an alternate point-of-view. Other times, a warning. If you’re lucky, the occasional wisdom.

This whole piece, an invention. Perhaps none of this has happened.

—rob mclennan

 

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

 

 

Dec 062014
 

emily_dickinson_daguerreotype_-large-


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Given the magnitude of her achievement, it is hard to believe that Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not presented in an accurate text until 1955, almost seventy years after her death. And since those poems (almost 1,800 in number) continue to surprise and dazzle us with their linguistic ingenuity and psychological penetration, it is even harder to believe that Emily Dickinson was born 184 years ago!—on December 10, 1830. Famously, she spent much of her later, secluded life in her garden or writing in her room in the family house in Amherst. Yet, on Keatsian “wings of poesy,” she traveled the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic. Her penchant for privacy far exceeded that of Thoreau, who had augmented Nature, the seminal work of his mentor Emerson, with Walden, the record of a temporary retreat to the woods, to live and write in solitude. Emily Dickinson’s only rivals for creative eminence in later nineteenth-century America were notably expansive: world-famous, globe-trotting Mark Twain, sea-voyaging Herman Melville, and that “kosmos,” Walt Whitman, who spread himself amply, in line-length and in the panorama of his Democratic vistas. In contrast, reclusive Emily Dickinson’s genius was in scrimshaw-like concision, economy, distillation. Yet her reach matched theirs in capaciousness. She took “For Occupation—This—/ The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise—” (657).

But what did Emily Dickinson think of when she imagined “Heaven” or “Paradise”? More often than not, she clung to Emersonian and Thoreauvian “nature.” Her poems and letters on death and paradise, in which the human and the floral are often conflated by this gardener-poet, provide examples of what Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, termed “natural supernaturalism,” a phrase made part of Romantic criticism’s permanent vocabulary with the publication of M. H. Abrams’s landmark study of the secularization of the sacred—Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971). In an August 1856 letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson’s natural supernaturalism and her pervasive human/floral analogy are explicit, with a fortunate exception: “I’m so glad you are not a blossom, for those in my garden fade, and then ‘a reaper whose name is Death’ has come to get a few to help him make a bouquet for himself.” This follows a passage that assumes the analogy, claiming that this earth would be Paradise enough were it not for frost and that Grim Reaper. This paragraph begins (Dickinson’s letters often combine prose with poetry) in modified ballad meter: “If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not awaken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below, and if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess he would think His Paradise superfluous” (Letters, 329).

The relatively open-minded Christianity of Elizabeth Holland and her husband may have freed Dickinson to confide such thoughts. A few years later, she would put this fusion of Nature and Heaven, of the physical and spiritual senses, into poetry. What we see, hear, and know is Nature: a harmonious Heaven whose simplicity is superior to our supposed wisdom:

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity. (668)

Dickinson’s Romantic vision of an Earthly Paradise, its minute particulars as cherished as its sublime manifestations and all the more beautiful because it is under the shadow of death, is reminiscent of Wordsworth, before he froze over, and of Dickinson’s beloved Keats, who never froze over. Keats told a religiously conservative friend, Benjamin Bailey, that his own “favorite Speculation” was that “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone, and so repeated” (Letters of John Keats, 1:184-86). In one of the most beautiful passages ever written by Emily Brontë, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter (the second “Cathy” in Wuthering Heights) describes her “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” She would be “rocking” at the heart of the natural world, “in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side,…grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy….I wanted all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee” (Wuthering Heights, Norton Critical Edition, 198-99).

William_WordsworthWilliam Wordsworth

Such passages explain Dickinson’s reverence of “gigantic Emily Brontë” (Letters, 721), one of whose poems (“Last Lines,” also known as “No Coward Soul Was Mine”), a favorite of Emily Dickinson, was appropriately read at her funeral service. Wonderful as it is, Brontë’s description of a naturalized “heaven” or “paradise”—a world in motion, in which the speaker actively and joyfully engages in her surroundings—is both Keatsian and Wordsworthian. The final gathering (waves, breeze, woods, water, the whole world awake and joyous), especially Cathy’s wanting “all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee,” unmistakably recalls Wordsworth’s (and Dorothy’s) “host of golden daffodils,/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Those flowers, which outdo “the sparkling waves in glee,” comprise “a jocund company” in whose presence a “poet could not but be gay,” a joy recalled whenever “They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.” (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”)

Wordsworth_Excursion

Wordsworth’s head-“tossing” flowers are personified in a delicately pagan manner, their “sprightly dance” allying them with sprights or sprites: elfin supernatural beings. That disciple of Wordsworth and mentor to Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was also attuned to the sort of earthly paradise that appealed to both Emilys. He began his famous or infamous 1838 Address to the Harvard Divinity School by fusing the “gladsome pagans” in what was his as well as Keats’s favorite Book of Wordsworth’s epic poem, The Excursion (those pagans who “looked” and “were humbly thankful for the good/ Which the warm sun solicited, and earth/ Bestowed” [4:932-38]), with the “pagan” of “The World is Too Much With Us.” Quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, Emerson shocked his pious audience from the outset by declaring that he, too, would rather be “A pagan suckled in a creed outworn” than a Christian impoverished by being cut off from a vital, fecund nature sacrificed to both an austere religion and a crass materialism of “getting and spending.” Accordingly, he began the Divinity School Address with his own deeply responsive evocation of nature’s vital, sparkling, floral beauty. In “this refulgent summer,” it has been “a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold” (Essays and Lectures, 75). Those meadows were alive with flowers aglow with the light of Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils,” and sharing the pagan vitality of their “sprightly dance.” Emerson, like early Wordsworth, would have concurred with Emily Dickinson’s speculation in the letter to Elizabeth Holland: Had God “seen the things that I have seen” this summer, he would—Dickinson boldly or blasphemously surmised—“think His Paradise superfluous.”

It seems a shame that Emily Dickinson, who knew and admired Emerson’s essays, stayed in her room when, in 1872, the great man, after a lecture at Amherst College, visited her brother and sister-in-law, living just next-door. With his acute eye, Emerson would surely have recognized genius, just as he did when he first laid eyes on Whitman’s then-unpublished poetry. There are many passages in which Emerson, a peculiarly grounded Transcendentalist, evokes an earthly paradise. In his essay on Swedenborg in Representative Men, Emerson claimed that the only thing “certain” about a possible heaven was that it must “tally with what was best in nature.” It “must not be inferior in tone…agreeing with flowers, with tides, and the rising and setting of autumnal stars.” “Melodious poets” will be inspired “when once the penetrating key-note of nature and spirit is sounded,—the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which makes the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood, and the sap of trees.” (Essays and Lectures, 686-87)

iemersr001p1Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like Keats’s “a finer tone”—descriptive both of the unheard music in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and of the repetition of earthly happiness “here after”—Emerson’s “not…inferior in tone,” and stress on key-note, melodiousness, and tune, echoes a text familiar to both Keats and Emerson: Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the Solitary’s reference in Book 2 to “Music in a finer tone” (2:710). Even later Wordsworth, tamed-down and religiously orthodox, never ceased to be a lover “of all that we behold/ From this green earth” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 104-5), a poet who found his “Paradise, and groves/ Elysian”—provided the human intellect was “wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion”—to be a “simple produce of the common day” (“Prospectus” to The Recluse,” lines 43-55). Even in revising from a more conservative perspective his account of his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, Wordsworth never recanted the desire initially expressed, to exercise his skill, “Not in Utopia” or some other ideal place, “Heaven knows where!/ But in the very world, which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all!” (The Prelude [1850 version]), 11:140-44).

“Oh Matchless Earth,” Emily Dickinson exclaimed in a one-sentence letter, “We underrate the chance to dwell in Thee” (Letters, 478). She was borrowing from the “Prologue” to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell. Having sailed into the heavens in his little boat in the shape of a crescent moon, and having described the constellations and planets, the speaker asks rhetorically, “What are they to that tiny grain,/ That little Earth of ours?” And so he descends: “Then back to Earth, the dear green Earth…See! There she is, the matchless Earth!” (Peter Bell, lines 49-56). Dickinson herself might be “glad” that others believed they were, in the opening exclamation of her early poem, “Going to Heaven!” But, for herself,

I’m glad I don’t believe it
For it would stop my breath—
And I’d like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth! (79)

There is yet another parallel to Emily Dickinson’s thought that “Nature is Heaven,” or that Heaven would be superfluous, if only our earthly Paradise were free of frost and death. In a passage familiar to Wordsworth, Keats, Emerson, and Dickinson, Milton’s archangel Raphael offers a speculative analogy. Explaining to Adam the mysteries of celestial warfare by likening spiritual to corporeal forms, he adds: “Though what if Earth/ Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein/ Each to the other like, more than on earth is thought?” (Paradise Lost 5:573-76). Emily Dickinson echoed and altered this passage in an 1852 letter to “Dear Susie” (her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert). Reversing Raphael’s “therein,” Dickinson locates love “Herein,” and concludes by taking literally the angel’s rhetorical but intriguing question: “But that was Heaven—this is but Earth, Earth so like to heaven that I would hesitate should the true one call away.” (Letters, 195; italics in original). Milton himself may have been open to the idea of Heaven as a projection of earthly happiness complete with a terrestrial landscape. In his fusion of the Classical and Christian in “Lycidas,” the pastoral elegist leaves us free to imagine the risen man as either “saint” in Heaven or as the “genius of the shore,” drowned, but now, through the power “of him that walked the waves,” mounted to a place “Where other groves and other streams along,/ With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves” (lines 172-75).

In a jocoserious, life-affirming poem looking back to Romantic and Emersonian “nature worship” and ahead to the earth-centered female persona of Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning,” Dickinson rejects religious ritual, a formal “church,” and an other-worldly Heaven in favor of an earthly paradise, a God immanent rather than transcendent, and salvation as a daily process rather than a static end-state:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard for a Dome—

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of rolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton—sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along. (324)

In an 1863 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in which she describes herself as “not reared to prayer,” Dickinson pronounces “the ‘Supernatural’…only the Natural, disclosed” (Letters, 423-24). In a poem written that year or the year before (Johnson dates it 1862, Franklin 1863), dawn and noon seem symbols of what she calls “Heaven.” The skepticism implicit in the setting of “Heaven” in quotation marks is confirmed in the final two stanzas:

The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “Paradise”—

Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see— (575)

In two letters of 1873, Dickinson subverts Paul’s text (“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”) about the dead being raised and changed as a consequence of Christ’s Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52-53). In the first letter (April 1873), she pronounces the novelist George Eliot (whom she knew to be a woman, Marian Evans) a “mortal” who “has already put on immortality,” adding that “the mysteries of human nature surpass the ‘mysteries of redemption,’ for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite” (Letters, 506). Later that year, in a letter to Elizabeth Holland, Emily notes that her sister Lavinia, just back from a visit to the Hollands, had said her hosts “dwell in paradise.” Emily declares: “I have never believed the latter to be a supernatural site”; instead, “Eden, always eligible,” is present in the intimacy of “Meadows” and the noonday “Sun.” If, as Blake said, “Everything that lives is holy,” it is a this-worldly truth of which believers like her sister and father are cheated: “While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’—it has already done so and they go defrauded” (Letters, 508). In a notably legalistic affirmation of earth, included in an 1877 letter to a lawyer, her increasingly skeptical brother Austin, she goes even further:

The Fact that Earth is Heaven—
Whether Heaven is Heaven or not
If not an Affidavit
Of that specific Spot
Not only must confirm us
That it is not for us
But that it would affront us
To dwell in such a place— (1408)

Wallace Stevens, who, in “Sunday Morning,” imagines his female persona asking if she shall not “find in comforts of the sun,” in any “balm or beauty of the earth/ Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?” insists elsewhere that “poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns” (“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” section 5); that we must live in “a physical world,” the very air “swarming” with the “metaphysical changes that occur,/ Merely in living as and where we live” (“Esthetique du Mal,” section 15). Stevens seems to be recalling Wordsworth’s “Prospectus” and Emerson’s seminal book Nature, along with that ardent disciple of Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche. He might as well have been thinking of Emily Dickinson, and her audacious, even blasphemous preference for the tangible things of this earth, to be cherished above thoughts of an otherworldly Heaven, an abstract place offensive to our nature. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s beseeches us in his Prologue to “remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak…of otherworldly hopes!” She never accepted the Nietzschean premise, the Death of God, but, when she was only fifteen, Emily confided in her friend Abiah Root that the main reason she was “continually putting off becoming a Christian,” despite the “aching void in my heart,” was her inability to conceive of an existence beyond this earth as anything but horrible: “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you?….it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity.” Two years later she tells a friend that, while she regrets that she did not seize a past opportunity to “give up and become a Christian,” she won’t: “it is hard for me to give up the world” (Letters, 27-28, 67). She is not referring to that material “world” of getting and spending that is “too much with us,” but to this “matchless Earth” indistinguishable from, and perhaps preferable to, Heaven.

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The problem, of course, is that this Earth, however “matchless,” is not free of frost and death, so often almost indistinguishable in Dickinson. The invasive force in her Earthly Paradise was less the worm than the frost. The link between the fading and freezing-by-frost of her flowers on the one hand, and the death of those she cannot waken on the other, becomes a dominant motif. Her cherishing of a Heaven-like Earth is sometimes connected with the pain inflicted from above. In one poem, while noting the “firmest proof” of “Heaven above,” she significantly adds that, “Except for its marauding Hand/ It had been heaven below” (1205; my italics). In another letter to Elizabeth Holland and her husband, Heaven’s “marauding Hand” seems both a grim Reaper and a cruel Leveler. Writing during a period (autumn, 1858) when an epidemic of typhoid fever had struck Amherst, she cries out, not in concluding but in opening the letter: “Good-night! I can’t stay any longer in a world of death. Austin [her brother] is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week—our man, Dick, lost a little girl through scarlet fever….Ah! Democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden,—then deep to his bosom calling the serf’s child” (Letters, 341).

virginia-woolfVirginia Woolf

This letter has become controversial. The admittedly jarring reference to the “serf’s child,” both “politically” and historically incorrect, has been described as insensitive, shocking, an indication of casual snobbishness at best and class-conscious callousness at worst, compounded by (in the phrase of Albert Habegger) her “equating ‘the serf’s child’ with her frost-killed flowers” (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson [2001], 363). We may be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses than for” such human but distant “victims of cruelty and injustice” as those who perished in the Armenian genocide (Mrs. Dalloway [Norton Critical Edition], 88). But the best response to the attack on Dickinson’s “callousness” in this letter seems to me that of Judith Farr. After acknowledging the “insensitivity it projects,” she reminds us that “Austin’s [serious] illness and the coming of winter are also equated” in the letter. She then makes her central point, one I would emphasize as well:

To begin with, it is simply the case that Emily Dickinson loved flowers quite as much and as if they were human; her implicit comparison was…not intended to diminish the “little girl,” as she is rather tenderly called….With the cadences of Ecclesiastes and the Elizabethans always vivid in her ear, it was only natural that Dickinson should express the communion and equality of all living forms in death. Indeed, her letter’s zinnia and child commingling in Death’s grasp calls up such lines as Cymbeline’s “Golden Lads, and Girles all must,/ As Chimney-sweepers come to dust.”….Not snobbery, but the power of the aesthetic impulse to which she was subject is chiefly manifested in Dickinson’s much-discussed letter. (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson [2004], 56)

I would add only that Dickinson’s equation, not limited to the influence of Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare, also had Romantic auspices. Between Death’s “grasp” on a proud flower in her royally purple garden and the death of the little child of a servant there is no more gap than we find in “Threnody,” Emerson’s elegy for his little boy, Waldo. Also a victim of scarlet fever, dead at the age of five, that “hyacinthine boy” and “budding man” was never to blossom, though his father prepares for him, in the conclusion of the elegy, an appropriate Heaven: not “adamant… stark and cold,” but a rather Wordsworthian or Keatsian “nest of bending reeds,/ Flowering grass and scented weeds” (“Threnody,” lines 15, 26, 272-75). In a less-discussed but similar letter to Elizabeth Holland, whose child had suffered a crippling injury, Dickinson notes that “to assault so minute a creature seems to me malign, unworthy of Nature—but the frost is no respecter of persons.” In other letters, starting in the 1850s, Dickinson assumes this floral/frost/human analogue, making explicit what is implicit in poems like “Apparently with no surprise,” where “the Frost beheads” the “happy Flower” (1624): namely, her pervasive connection of flowers and frost with human life and death. At times at least, she includes a vision of transcendence for believers, the hope of spiritual resurrection.

Even when “the frost has been severe,” killing off flowers and plants that try in vain “to shield them from the chilly north-east wind,” there can be an imperishable garden. I am quoting from a touching letter of October 1851, anticipating the arrival of Austin. She had “tried to delay the frosts,” detaining the “fading flowers” until he came. But the flowers, like the poor “bewildered” flies trying to warm themselves in the kitchen, “do not understand that there are no summer mornings remaining to them and to me.” But no matter the effect on her flowers and plants of the severe frost brought by the “chilly north-east wind,” she can offer her brother “another” garden impervious to frost. The theme kindles her prose into poetry, minus the line-breaks (in fact, Johnson prints it as a poem, #2). She offers a bright, ever-green garden, “where not a frost has been, in its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; prithee, my Brother, into my garden come!” (Letters, 149). As Judith Farr remarks, such a garden—which “could never exist, except in metaphor”—is “the garden of herself: her imagination, her love, each of which, she says, will outlast time.” As much as any poem in her canon, this early letter-poem, probably written when Dickinson was twenty-one, “discloses the rapt identification she made between herself, her creativity, and her flowers….‘Here is a brighter garden’ instinctively focuses on the garden of her mind, with its loving thoughts that transcend the ‘frost’ of death.” (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, 56)

A third of a century later, we have a remarkably similar letter in which, at least for her beloved brother, there is an autumnal harbinger of a spiritual as well as a natural spring to come. In this late letter of autumn 1884, the same year she wrote “Apparently with no surprise,” she tells a family friend, Maria Whitney:

…………...Changelessness is Nature’s change. The plants went into camp last night, their tender
armor insufficient for the crafty nights.
……………That is one of the parting acts of the year, and has an emerald pathos—and Austin
hangs bouquets of corn in the piazza’s ceiling, also an omen, for Austin believes.
……………The golden bowl breaks soundlessly, but it will not be whole again till another year.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………(Letters, 848)

Anthropomorphizing (as in the 1851 letter, where the flowers try to “shield them[selves]” from the autumn wind), she presents the “tender armor” of her flowers as inadequate to protect them against the autumnal frost. So, alert to their needs, she brings them indoors, into the “camp” of her conservatory. She ends by quoting the admonition from Ecclesiastes, that we are to remember God before the body disintegrates, before “the silver cord be loosed or the golden bowl be broken” (12:6). But Emily differentiates herself from her brother Austin, a closet skeptic who, for the purposes of this letter, “believes”—has faith, that is, not only in the seasonal rebirth of corn from seeds, but in the spiritual resurrection of the body. His sister, adhering to a seasonal form of natural supernaturalism, confines her hope to a natural spring; her “golden bowl” will “not be whole again till another year.”

Two of Emily Dickinson’s most beautiful, and most Keatsian, poems, mark her major seasonal transition, from summer to autumn. In “As imperceptibly as Grief,” summer has “lapsed away,” a beloved season that can’t quite be accused of “Perfidy” since she was always a “Guest, that would be gone.” The poem ends with summer, like Keats’s nightingale, having “made her light escape/ Into the Beautiful,” a Platonic realm beyond us, leaving behind only the memory, which is to be cherished here on earth (1540). In “Further in Summer than the Birds,” which has been described, by Charles R. Anderson, as “her finest poem on the theme of the year going down to death and the relation of this to a belief in immortality” (Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway to Surprise [1966],169), Dickinson employs liturgical language to commemorate, as in Keats’s “To Autumn,” the insects’ dirge for the dying year. “Pathetic from the Grass,” that “minor Nation celebrates/ Its unobtrusive Mass,” their barely noticeable requiem nevertheless “Enlarging Loneliness.” The music of the crickets, coming later in the summer than the song of birds, is a “spectral Canticle.” Their hymn typifies—in the transition from summer to autumn, with “August burning low”—the winter sleep to come, a “Repose” perhaps implying eternal rest on another level.

In the final stanza, Christian and Hebraic vocabulary yields to pagan. At this moment of seasonal transition, there is, “as yet,” no “Furrow on the Glow” of sunlit, burning August, “Yet a Druidic difference/ Enhances Nature now” (1068). That final religious image, whether we take the Druidic reference as stressing primarily the sacrificial or the animistic element in Celtic nature-worship, powerfully reinforces Dickinson’s own reverence for Nature, its beauty enriched and intensified less, perhaps, by what Anderson calls a “belief in immortality” than—again, as in the ode “To Autumn”—by time’s evanescence and the pathos of mutability, the deeply moving contrast between seasonal return and human transience. That transience extends to all animal life. This poem, written in late 1865 or early 1866, was enclosed in a laconic January 1866 note to her epistolary semi-mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom she had not corresponded for eighteen months. Referring to her beloved dog and constant companion, Emily Dickinson restricted herself to a single statement, and a wry question, less pleading than ironic, perhaps bitter: “Carlo died….Would you instruct me now?” (Letters, 449).

Samuel-BowlesSamuel Bowles

Though of course haunted by the thought of immortality, Dickinson was also dubious. In an 1858 letter to Samuel Bowles, she adopts an ironic, pretension-mocking tone. Distinguishing between nature and “us,” she at once anticipates and deflates modern “species chauvinism,” wondering, tongue-in-cheek, how it is that we mere humans, described by her pastor as a “worm,” should also be the very species singled out for a majestic and special end: a resurrection allegedly obviating any need for mourning, including mourning the death of what would seem to be paradise enough for us: summer with its cherished fields, its bumblebees and birds:

Summer stopped since you were here. Nobody noticed her—that is, no men and women. Doubtless, the fields are rent by petite anguish, and “mourners go about” [Ecclesiastes 12:5] the Woods. But this is not for us. Business enough indeed, our stately Resurrection! A special Courtesy, I judge, from what the Clergy say! To the “natural man,” Bumblebees would seem an improvement, and a spicing of Birds, but far be it from me, to impugn such majestic tastes! Our pastor says we are a “Worm.” How is that reconciled? “Vain, sinful Worm” is possibly of another species. (Letters, 338-39)

By this time, the 1730s’ thunderings of Jonathan Edwards against the moral ills of New England’s sinners in the hands of an angry God had lost some of their resonance, even in Calvinist Amherst. But in his debasement of man as a “worm,” Dickinson’s pastor may (the trope is hardly restricted to Edwards) have been echoing the great Puritan’s description of man as “a vile insect,” a “little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing” (The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners [1634]). Edwards himself—whose “Martial Hand” of “Conscience” Dickinson presents threatening “wincing” sinners with hellfire, the “Phosphorus of God” (1598)—was echoing Bildad, the second of Job’s false comforters. From the outset, he had advised the innocent sufferer to abase himself. In his final discourse (Job 25:2-6), Bildad wonders if it is even possible for man to “be righteous before God.” To this fear-instilling God of “dominion,” even the moon and stars are unclean; “how much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm!” How indeed, as Emily sardonically inquires, is that abject status reconcilable with our potential for “stately resurrection”?

Man’s biblical genesis and Fall seemed to put that glorious end in doubt. Prior to ejecting guilty Adam and Eve from Eden, the “Lord God” tells them, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19). For Hamlet, man is “the paragon of animals.., how like a god,” and yet, to him, “what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2.305-7); Wordsworth, in the opening book of The Prelude, tries to “reconcile” the contradiction: “Dust as we are, the immortal Spirit grows/ Like harmony in music” (1:340-41). Dickinson can engage this tension in the grand tradition, observing that “Death is a Dialogue between/ The Spirit and the Dust,” with Spirit triumphant, “Just laying off for evidence/ An Overcoat of Clay” (976). But she takes a different tack in a couplet-poem she opens by ironically addressing God as “Heavenly Father”:

“Heavenly Father”—take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband—
Though to trust us—seem to us
More respectful—“We are Dust”—
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity—(1461)

So much for Bildad-like groveling! Like the image of the worm, that of dust reflects the Calvinist estimate of human worthlessness. But here the “worm” turns, with the “sinful” creature finding fault with the Creator. Despite his seeming straightforwardness, God committed a dubious act (an inconsistency emphasized by the alliterated candid and contraband). In fashioning us as he did, he set up, between dust and immortal spirit, not so much a creative tension as a radical contradiction. He thus stands accused of double-dealing, and any “apology” we make to so duplicitous a God will be less an acknowledgement of our own guilt, or a seeking of pardon, than a self-justifying defense—an apologia in the form of j’accuse directed against a divine adversary. That vindictive God himself supplied the right word. “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 20:5). Dickinson, who, like Mark Twain, cherishes the role of lawyer for the plaintiff when it comes to amassing evidence against God’s supposedly benign providence, has the children of Dust visit the charge of injustice upon an anything-but-paternal Heavenly Father, accusing him—blasphemously, though appropriately, given his supreme power—of “the supreme iniquity.”

Emily Dickinson 2

If this reading is accurate, our apology to God for his “own Duplicity” allies the poem with the most blasphemous of Omar Khayyám’s quatrains addressed to God, at least as adapted by Edward Fitzgerald in a translation the Victorian world accepted with a shock of recognition:

Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
……….For all the sin wherewith the face of Man
Is blackened—Man’s forgiveness give—and take!

The work of such writers as Carlyle, Tennyson and Arnold, and, later, Hardy and Housman, all responding in their different ways to Darwinian and other scientific and rationalist challenges to religious belief (including Biblical Higher Criticism) places an imprimatur on the judgment that Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubáiyát “reads like the latest and freshest expression of the perplexity and of the doubt of the generation to which we ourselves belong.” That acute observation was made, however, not by a British Victorian but by an American—the scholar and man of letters Charles Eliot Norton, writing in 1869, a decade before Dickinson wrote “‘Heavenly Father’—take to thee.” Not only the “doubt,” but the “perplexity” as well, is reflected in Dickinson’s poem, for the syntax of her opening lines suggests petition even more than protest. James McIntosh (Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown [2004]), identifying “humankind” as “the supreme iniquity,” takes these lines to mean: “Father, take humans, who are the supreme iniquity, to thee” (47). Perhaps; but what, then, of the poem’s final lines? My own reading is closer to that of Magdalena Zapedowska, in her 2006 American Transcendentalist Quarterly essay, “Wrestling with Silence.” She argues that, in this poem, Dickinson focuses, not on the Fall as original sin,

but on the subsequent expulsion from Paradise, which she blasphemously construes as the original wrong done to humankind by a God who first offered people happiness, then distrustfully put them to the test, and finally doomed them to suffering. Undermining the dogma of God’s benevolence, Dickinson contemplates the terrifying possibility that the metaphysical order is different from Calvinist teaching and that the human individual is left wholly to him/herself, unable to rely on the hostile Deity against the chaos of the universe. (“Wrestling with Silence,” 385)

At such moments, Emily Dickinson sounds like her considerably more public contemporary, Mark Twain, who made no secret of his religious skepticism, but who nevertheless refrained from publishing his most vitriolic attacks on the Judeo-Christian God, a divinity he described, even before his dark final decade, as both duplicitous and cruel. As the examples of Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain illustrate, for all our immortal longings, we are haunted, and angered, by the death implicit in our originating dust—in the case of both Dickinson and Twain, what Byron called “fiery dust.” And if the “Heavenly Father” who presides over this beautiful but doomed world really is an indifferent and “Approving God” (1624), Emily Dickinson seems to care less for him and for a posthumous, perhaps empty Heaven, than for this Earthly Paradise—the perishable beauty that must die, everything she wishes could “transcend the ‘frost’ of death,” but which she strongly suspects will not.

“Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” That haunting question was posed by W. B. Yeats in one of his greatest poems, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” He was not suggesting anything so trite as that we love things and then they disappear. He was reminding us that we love beautiful transient things because they are mutable, doomed to vanish. That is precisely why we cherish them so, recognizing, as Wordsworth poignantly acknowledged even in the great Ode in which he claimed intimations of immortality, that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” These splendors and glories are part of a “supernaturalism” that is “natural.” That great enemy of otherworldly hopes and cherisher of the earth, Nietzsche, referred in a December 1885 letter to irretrievable beauty. In a floral image that would have appealed to Emily Dickinson, who would die shortly after this letter was written, he spoke of Rosengeruch des Unwiederbringlichen: the faint rose-breath of what can never be brought back.

Of course, with Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson as her precursors, we do not really need Emerson’s disciple Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s disciple Yeats to explain why Emily Dickinson’s Earthly Paradise is not only beautiful but death-haunted. I quote Yeats and Nietzsche (and Emily would, I think, approve) for the poignant beauty of their language in commemorating the pathos of mutability, what Wordsworth—deeply moved by the humblest “flower” that blossoms and blows in the breeze—called, in the final line of the Intimations Ode, “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

— Patrick J. Keane

Author’s Note: Though most Dickinson scholars prefer the three-volume edition of R. W. Franklin (Harvard U.P., 1998), Emily Dickinson’s poems are here cited by number from the one-volume Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown, 1957, and often reprinted). Her letters are cited from the three-volume but continuously-paginated The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Harvard University Press, 1958). Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson, are cited from: Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (Yale UP, 1981); The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Harvard UP, 1958); Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983).

.

PAT kEANE

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

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Nov 112014
 

AlastairReidAlastair Reid — 1926-2014

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Scottish poet Alastair Reid died on September 21st of this year at the age of 88, just three days after the naysayers for an independent Scotland won the day and the sunstruck madmen of Reid’s poem “Scotland” crawled home in defeat. It seems fair to say Reid’s poem — with its direct title, its landscape in high relief, and its dour fish-shop matron — stands as one of the poet’s definitive takes on the culture of his homeland.

Scotland

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

In the referendum of September 18th, good money was bet that Reid’s woman represented Scotland well enough to prevail — her brow bleak, her ancestors raging, her misery ancient — and that the optimistic Home-Rule voters would not prevail. They did not go down in flames; perhaps their failure was more sodden. Certainly “We’ll pay for it” was the rallying cry for those who urged a No vote and who implored Scottish voters to stick by the Queen.

QueenApparently, the Union needed Scotland, and vice versa.

But what of the Scottish landscape, in contrast to the taciturn Scottish character? “…the air shifted with the singing of actual angels. / Greenness entered the body. The grasses / shivered with presences, and sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” Reid  celebrated landscape.  How a poet capable of writing those lines can fade into the background on the stage of British poetry is a puzzle to me. In 1954, Selden Rodman wrote an introduction to Reid’s work for Poetry magazine in which he said, “There are echoes of Dylan Thomas and Auden….[Reid] stands among these gifted contemporaries as an equal, one of the few poets writing in English to promise a continuance of their original affirmation.”

ScotlandA view of the Scottish hills: “Greenness entered the body….”

Could it be that since much of Reid’s mid-career energy was spent on the translation of poets who wrote in Spanish — Borges, Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Pacheco, Padilla — his relative obscurity as a poet in his own right was guaranteed? As with other poets in this Undersung series, Reid was not completely invested in his identity as a poet; his output of poetry was high-end but sporadic, his interests were broad, his wanderings wide, and his abilities as both essayist and translator loomed large enough to cast a shadow over his own talent as a poet. On the other hand, it might just be that Reid’s early ascendency was interrupted by something more sanguine, something described this way recently by the columnist Daniel Mendelsohn (himself a translator) in the June 3rd New York Times’ Book Review column, “Book Ends”:

As a critic, I’m often struck by the way in which so many successful writers settle into a groove by midcareer: Whatever marked them as special, new, or distinctive when they started — the “thing” that set them on their path — becomes, with time, a franchise; at worst, a straitjacket. By the end, most of us repeat ourselves. Very few — perhaps only the greatest — continue to grow.”

Over the years, Reid did not settle for a straitjacket; he wandered the world and grew as a writer, seldom repeating himself, accepting few of the categorical limitations that certain genres (and upbringings) usually insist upon us. He was restless, and his writing reflected it. He moved between poetry and prose, between memoir and travel writing and translation work and articles about sports — he even wrote two picture books for children.

He was born – his father a minister, mother a doctor – near Whithorn in the Galloway region of southwest Scotland in 1926, the year of Scotland’s debilitating General Strike, during which soldiers and tanks were used in the streets of Glasgow to disperse angry crowds of union men. The entire decade of the 20’s was one of mass emigration from Scotland, with families leaving behind high unemployment and miserable living conditions in order to head out for better highlands and lowlands in “the colonies”; the vision of so many people leaving home, longing to find a more comfortable life, might have contributed to Reid’s famously itinerant lifestyle.

Emigrants

“What drew me to writing was its portability,” he once wrote; “it requires essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere….”

His poems often explore the pull away from, and eventual push back towards, home:

Whithorn Manse

I knew it as Eden,
that lost walled garden,
past the green edge
of priory and village;
and, beyond it, the house,
withdrawn, white,
one window alight.

Returning, I wonder,
idly, uneasily,
what eyes from inside
look out now, not in,
as once mine did,
and what might grant me,
a right of entry?

Is it never dead, then,
that need of an Eden?

Even this evening,
estranged by age,
I ogle that light
with a child’s greed,
wistfully claiming
lost prerogatives
of homecoming.

Reid understood that what the landscape offered and what the people offered could be radically different things. But he did find a number of places that came closer to what he was searching for, especially in the landscape and language of Spain and Latin America, and in the character of their people. It was this level of comfort that allowed him to focus on learning Spanish – to hunger for it, to eat it up and beg for more – and begin his highly-praised works of translation.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.” In his essay titled “Digging Up Scotland,” published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Reid makes clear that his restlessness had something to do with finding a place where he could “feel one” with his surroundings:

“I have a friend in Scotland, a painter,” he wrote, “who still lives in the fishing town he was born in, grew up in, went to school in, was married in, raised his children in, works in, and clearly intends to die in. I look on him with uncomprehending awe, for although I had much the same origins, born and sprouting in rural Scotland…I had in my head from an early age the firm notion of leaving….He has made his peace with place in a way that to me is, if not unimaginable, at least by now beyond me. ”

Reid seldom stayed in one place long enough to have what he considered a permanent address; his mail was delivered to the offices of The New Yorker, where he let stacks of it pile up for months. His unease with permanence is clearly visible in his poems, where two perceived opposites often pull against each other, interfering with any hope that the tug-of-war will be settled or the people involved come to rest, as seen in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “What Bones Say”:

The skeleton
is hardly a lesson
in human nature.

Similarly, stones
are the bones of landscapes,
and yet trees blossom

in contradiction.
We are much more
than our brittle topography.

In those lines, see how beautifully Reid handles the simple language – in the near-rhyme of “skeleton” with “lesson,” the full rhyme of “stones” with “bones,” and in the echo that chimes between “lesson,” “blossom” and “contradiction” – not overwhelming readers with musicality, but giving us just enough. I admire the courage he has to say something as large as “We are much more / than our brittle topography.” He approaches language the same way in the other poems transcribed here – the abundant alliteration in “Scotland” and its chiming verbs – “shimmer” and “shivered” – the triptych of “idly,” “eyes” and “inside” in “Whithorn Manse,” its full rhymes (“white” and “alight) and near-rhymes (“need,” “Eden” and “garden.”) Reid’s poems seem spoken at first, easy and conversational, but the music on which they rise is carefully and thoroughly composed.

In the same New Yorker essay mentioned above, Reid writes, “The natural world and the human world separated early for me. I felt them to be somehow in contradiction, and still do. The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality, and perhaps in reaction to the changing turbulence of weather, subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt, from the beginning, exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second. Tramps used to stop at our house, men of the road, begging a cup of tea or an old shirt, and in my mind I was always ready to leave with them, because between Scotland and myself I saw trouble ahead.”

He traveled first to Spain; it was during his time in Majorca – six years, off and on — that he met and became friends with the poet Robert Graves (about whom I wrote in my Undersung article about poet-novelists.) Their friendship ended when Reid fell in love with – and ran away with, temporarily – Graves’s muse, Margot Callas. Though Callas eventually returned to Graves, the conversations and apprenticeship Reid once enjoyed with the older poet were finished. In an essay Reid wrote on the occasion of what would have been Graves’s 100th birthday, he chided Graves for having been “mired in domesticity” during his first marriage, but then Reid becomes more conciliatory, saying “The English have always kept Graves at a distance, as if he were an offshore island, out of the mainstream – something they often do with English writers who choose to live elsewhere and are still successful.”

MajorcaThe Majorca home of Robert Graves – “an offshore island, out of the mainstream”

The same might be said of Reid himself – an offshore island in the sea of British literature. His most important books are out of print; these include his poetry collection Oases; Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations; Outside In: Selected Prose; Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner; and Weathering: Poems and Translations. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’re in luck – he contributed articles and poems there for more than forty years, and my quick search of their archives produced 152 hits.

In addition to “Scotland,” Reid’s most anthologized poem is “Curiosity,” about a dog’s and cat’s (but mostly human’s) view of the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat,” with the poet coming down hard in favor of being curious. Click here to hear it read by Reid himself over at The Poetry Archive. Rather than transcribe the poem so you can read it, I hope you will finish this essay and then go over to The Poetry Archive to listen to it.  We’re lucky to have recordings of these poems(as well as three others) in Reid’s own voice, since it was voice that he valued above all other qualities in a poem.

In an essay about translating his friends Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, he wrote, “I realized I couldn’t read a poem of Neruda’s simply as words put down on the page without hearing behind them his languid and caressing voice. The most important thing to me in translating these two poets was the sound of their voices in my memory, since this helped in finding my way in with the appropriate English….The key was voice.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda — from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

He went on to say, “For me, Neruda’s poems were fundamentally voiced – spoken poems of direct discourse – his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.” Describing one lecture he went to at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reid says Neruda’s voice “spread out like a balm over the English crowd; a magical sound, even without the thread of meaning.” [Note: my source for these quotations from the essay about Borges and Neruda was in Spanish – the translations are my own.]

1754-PABLO_NERUDA_5-630x350Pablo Neruda – “…his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.”

It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”

Reid and Borges

Reid (second from left) and Jorge Luis Borges (third from left)

One of Reid’s most interesting observations about Borges focused on his blindness: “After many conversations with Borges, from the most serious to the most entertaining, I came to the profound realization that for him, I existed only as a voice. Maybe this led me to the deep conviction that voice is the most long-lasting incarnation of my existence. Even more, it is in voices rather than photographs that the dead remain alive.”

borges-in-libraryJorge Luis Borges – “…for him, I existed only as a voice.”

At one point, Reid explains Borges’s style: “He spoke English with the respect a language well-known to him deserved, but within which he did not live – that is, with the controlled cadence of literature. On other occasions, in the company of Spanish-speakers, he was more playful, less solemn. Still, I think his bilingual upbringing gave him a sense of the arbitrary and fickle nature of language: a bilingual person is more aware of the gulf that exists between word and object than someone limited to a single language.”

ouncedicetrice

Reid’s awareness of the strange nature of words and his innate playfulness (in Charles McGrath’s obituary write-up, Reid is remembered as “cheerful, funny, and irreverent, with high expressive eyebrows that were frequently squeezed together in amusement”) show up full force in his picture book Ounce Dice Trice, a collection of nonsense – that is, a collection of real but relatively unknown words – tantony, quicklings, moonglade, etc. – revealed to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef might reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish. In the book, Reid creates several imaginative ways of counting from one to ten without numerals (“Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist” and “Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.” The words sound like they come straight off the playground. Of course, the whole point of the book is wordplay, emphasizing that “gulf between word and object” recognized by people who have learned more than one language. Illustrations by Ben Shahn make the book a collector’s item – previously out of print, it’s now available again thanks to the New York Review Children’s Collection.

Ben ShahnReid himself was a gongoozler….

Reid’s origins might have been provincial — even restrictive — but as he grew his poetry and prose became more and more cosmopolitan and expansive. He regarded translation as an act resembling “bewitchment,” and he wrote that the translation of someone else’s work required “not only reading it deeply and deciphering it, but climbing on top of the scenery backstage, up onto the supports and the scaffolding.”

I often wished while getting my MFA that the program I attended had offered a translation track. Translation seems to me one of the best ways – almost acrobatic, according to Reid — to capture and understand how a poem works. Reid understood the way a poem could float out over the reader “without the thread of meaning,” though with his own poetry we are lucky enough to find both meaning and music.

Poem without Ends

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

— Julie Larios

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Julie Larios has contributed seven previous essays in her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq, highlighting the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Nov 082014
 

Frank Richardson bio pict 2The author outside a bakery in Bamberg, Germany

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For a long time, as I read, I paid no more attention to the length of sentences than I did to their grammar or syntax. It wasn’t until I discovered Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that I learned to appreciate how long and short sentences can be juxtaposed for emphasis and how syntax can mimic the flow of thought and action. Of course, Proust is famous for his long sentences, some of which extend well beyond 200 words; these sentences intrigued me the most. The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

But why labor to construct a 200-word-long sentence when a dozen shorter sentences can communicate the same information and not task the reader’s attention and patience? A sentence is greater than the sum of its propositions. A sentence’s syntax – the order in which the words of the sentence are arranged – affects its emotional impact, e.g. placing a proposition at the end of a sentence engenders suspense. But the possibilities extend far beyond this simple example. In Artful Sentences Virginia Tufte limns an incredible range of syntactic arrangements that function symbolically. She describes “syntactic symbolism” as when “syntax as style has moved beyond the arbitrary, the sufficient, and is made so appropriate to content that, sharing the very qualities of the content, it is carried to that point where it seems not only right but inevitable” (271). In the following excerpt from the novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard uses repetitive syntax to symbolically represent the protagonist’s mania for perfection, viz. he corrects himself while explaining the process of correction:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification . . . (242)

Tufte cites many examples to illustrate the diversity of emotional and mimetic effects of syntactic symbolism. What Tufte calls syntactic symbolism, David Jauss calls “rhythmic mimesis” and notes that “sometimes the syntax does more than convey the appropriate emotion; sometimes it also rhythmically imitates the very experience it is describing . . .” (70-71).[1] The rhythm of the syntax in Bernhard’s prose conveys the protagonist’s exasperation while simultaneously informs on his character. But the “experience” Jauss refers to can mean movement, whether physical action or the more nebulous movement of human thought. I’ve found these types of motion mimesis to be particularly effective applications of the extended syntax of long sentences.

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

It is important to note that neither Tufte nor Jauss restrict their examples to long sentences; rhythmic mimesis can be conveyed by sentences of all lengths. But given my penchant for longer sentences, I began looking for how they might be used in the manner Jauss and Tufte describe. After surveying a wide range of fiction (different time periods, genres, narrative modes, etc.), I noticed a pattern whereby authors applied long sentences effectively to create a rhythmic mimesis of motion, speech, consciousness, and even character. In the last category a long list can be used to communicate a fictional character’s character, as exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s obsessive memoirist in The Mezzanine. Motion mimesis – using prose to imitate actions – is an excellent use of long sentences with stunning examples found in such diverse works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many of Faulkner’s stories, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Spoken language is no less rhythmic than written, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal demonstrates that long sentences can be used to capture the personality and style of a teller of tall tales in his 1964 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In the depiction of the conscious mind in fiction, James Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses still exemplifies how the syntax of long sentences can mimic the rhythm of thought. Two contemporary writers who answered the challenge of capturing the mind’s stream of consciousness include: David Foster Wallace, who in Infinite Jest takes the reader into the realm of the subliminal, of dreams and drug-induced states; and the French writer Mathias Énard, who pushes the boundaries of what we call a sentence even further than Joyce, with his book-length sentence in his 2008 novel Zone.

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The List

The most obvious reason to add propositional content to a sentence is to increase the amount of descriptive detail, and long sentence constructions often contain lists. But the point isn’t to string together a random catalogue of items just to fill the page: lists can elucidate character.

Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine is a daydream, a meditation on life, on questions large and small. The story, presented as a memoir, is told in first-person point of view by Howie, a thirty-year-old factotum obsessed by his childhood. The novel is short, 135 pages, composed of fifteen chapters, many of which have long, detailed footnotes wherein the narrator indulges his love for digression. Howie’s conflict is with himself. He wants to achieve what he calls a “majority,” that is, a moment when he will have “amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones” – the age of forty, by his calculations – but his obsessive recollections, his seeing the world through the screen of childhood memories, remains his primary obstacle (Baker 58). The novel’s plot is built around a single event – an escalator ride – during an ordinary day five years prior to the novel’s present (its fictional time of writing). At that time, Howie worked at an unnamed corporation and takes us from his lunch break back to his office on the building’s mezzanine, with the escalator ride serving as the focal point. In a narrative where there are more tangents than forward motion, a reader might become overwhelmed with the apparently superfluous anecdotes, but these memories, meditations, and observations – and Baker’s seamless segues between them – are the real magic of The Mezzanine.

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

The story begins as the Howie’s lunch hour is ending and he is approaching the escalator leading to the mezzanine of his office building. Howie is an obsessive, voracious observer of the world around him and delights in sharing his observations in this “memoir.” Mid-way through the second paragraph he digresses to inform us about his activities during his lunch hour, including a two-page-long footnote on the history of drinking straws. Thus, it becomes clear early that this escalator ride is going to take some time to complete; indeed, it will take the remainder of this engaging and richly imagined novel. By chapter five Howie hasn’t even stepped onto the escalator; the story has focused on his past. The first paragraph of chapter five is composed of three short sentences and one long cumulative sentence (341 words) that enumerates Howie’s favorite “systems of local transport” as a child, including rotisseries, rotating watch displays, hot dog cookers, and, of course, escalators:

Other people remember liking boats, cars, trains, or planes when they were children – and I liked them too – but I was more interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those overlapping new moons of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner, neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it; and the fringe of rubber strips that marked the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles and men in blue outfits); supermarket checkout conveyor belts, turned on and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal, with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing; and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic numbered containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries would slide out a flapped gateway to the outside; milk-bottling machines we saw on field trips that hurried the queueing [sic] bottles on curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the machine that socked milk into them and clamped them with a paper cap; marble chutes; Olympic luge and bobsled tracks; the hanger-management systems at the dry cleaner’s – sinuous circuits of rustling plastics (NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY!) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store, fanning sideways as they slalomed around old men at antique sewing machines who were making sense of the heap of random pairs of pants pinned with little notes; laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space and cranked them back in when the laundry was dry; the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth’s that rotated whole orange-golden chickens on pivoting skewers; and the rotating Timex watch displays, each watch box open like a clam; the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turned in the opposite direction to the rollers, blistering; gears that (as my father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent them on their way. (35-36)

Howie follows this long catalogue with a short sentence, telling us that the escalator shared qualities with these systems with one notable exception: he could ride the escalator. This telescopes his childhood obsession into adulthood – he can, after all, still ride escalators – where the escalators stimulate Proustian involuntary memories of childhood including, he tells us, memories of his and his father’s shared “mechanical enthusiasms” and of the specific memory of his mother taking him and his sister to department stores and instructing them on escalator safety. This memory, in turn, stirs his concern that he spends too much time (in the present of his writing, not the time of his riding the escalator) thinking of things exclusively in terms of his childhood memories, an epiphany that sets up the last paragraph, a précis for the novel:

I want . . . to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and worth my adult time to think about . . . I will try not to glide on the reminiscential tone, as if only children had the capacity for wonderment at this great contrivance.[2] (39-40)

True to his digressive tendencies, however, the escalator won’t be mentioned again until chapter eight, and it is not until the midpoint in the novel that Howie actually boards the escalator.

Baker’s long list sentence adds character detail to this dense tale. First, note his eye for specifics: the “blistering” of the hot dogs, the “men in blue” at the airport. Second, he uses metaphor and simile: the “new moons of hard rubber” and watch boxes “like open clams.” Thus, the list not only informs on Howie’s whimsical, yet poetic and reflective nature, but also shows us, by example, his obsessive behavior. Howie acknowledges he likes the things other children liked, only he liked something else more, something odd, something unusual; and then he shows us how much it all meant to him with his detailed recollection. Once Howie begins his recollection, he becomes lost in it; his list goes on and on and he can hardly break free from its hold on him as new things are added and elaborated in fractal-like digressions. Howie spirals into many such lavishly detailed memories and the long sentences convey his sense of being lost in contemplation. Despite his continuing attempts to escape the gravitational pull of his childhood, Howie keeps being drawn deep into memory. A convincing stylistic choice, this long list sentence adds detail while simultaneously revealing character through syntactic symbolism – the long, uninterrupted flow of Howie’s list shows us his obsession with his childhood.

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Motion Mimesis

Syntagmatic extension of a sentence always has one consequence: it keeps the reader in the moment. Except for perhaps sentences that run for pages, most readers will read to the end of a long sentence before making a full stop at the period. Dwelling on the action can have several effects depending on the subject, including heightening the emotional impact of the moment, whether that is grief or joy, ecstasy or terror. When actions are depicted by the sentence, the rhythm of the prose can lend itself to mimicking the character’s movement. An excellent example of such motion mimesis is found in the climax of William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.”

“Barn Burning” is a coming-of-age story set in the post-Civil War American South. The 23-page story has a linear timeline, is written in the past tense, and covers six days, from a Monday through a Saturday. The third-person limited point of view focuses on the thoughts of the protagonist, the ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, youngest of the four Snopes children. The paterfamilias, Abner Snopes, is a violent sociopath, and at the beginning of the story he is a suspect in the burning of a barn. After being found not guilty, he loads up his family for the twelfth time in ten years and moves to the next hamlet to find a work on a farm. The day they arrive Snopes indulges his hatred and jealousy by going to the house of the landowner Major de Spain and deliberately soiling an expensive carpet with horse manure. When asked to clean the rug, Snopes destroys it in the process. In court for the second time within a week, Snopes is fined ten bushels of corn; enraged, that night he sets out to burn de Spain’s barn. When he sees that Sarty is shocked, he becomes worried that his son will thwart his plans and has him held back by his mother. After Snopes and the older son leave, Sarty breaks loose and runs to the de Spain mansion where he bursts in and warns them of the imminent arson. Sarty flees down the road toward the barn and is soon passed by de Spain on horseback. Hearing three shots, Sarty believes his father dead and runs away, leaving his family forever. The primary image of “Barn Burning” is “blood,” which Faulkner uses eight times and always in the context of Sarty and his father or family. In the climax Sarty must choose between his father, his blood, and what he feels is the moral, right choice of warning de Spain.

lg-portrait-of-william-faulkner-896William Faulkner

Young Sartoris has an apparently instinctive sense of right and wrong that jars with his father’s violent, malicious behavior. In the opening scene when his father is before “the Justice,” the boy knows his father is guilty: “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 4); and two days later, after his father is told by Major de Spain that he’ll have to pay twenty bushels of corn for destroying the rug, Sarty, working in the field, hopes that this will mark the end of his father’s reign of terror; he thinks: “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish – corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses – gone, done with for ever and ever” (17). He can’t believe it when his father tells him to get the oil; he knows what his father intends to do. As Sarty is fleeing down the road after warning de Spain, his “blood and breath roaring,” he is in a semi-fugue state:

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” (24)

The motion described by the sentence begins with de Spain’s galloping mare gaining on Sarty and continues with him flinging himself into the ditch. After the stunning pause with the juxtaposition of “furious silhouette” and “tranquil . . . night sky (“stained” as blood stains), the motion then gathers momentum as Sarty resumes his sprint. What follows are sixteen more verbs, mostly action verbs, expressed as present participles[3] (as opposed to the past definite). This creates a sense of simultaneity and continuous motion. Faulkner repeats “running” four times and “run” twice within the second half of the sentence; this emphasis extends beyond the motion it is describing to become a metaphor for Sarty and his future. Following the gunshots, he pauses briefly crying the familiar “Pap! Pap!” – his blood; his blood now severed he resumes his run but now he is running away as he had imagined when his father asked him to get the oil: “I could run on and on and never look back . . .” (21). This horrible moment, the defining moment of Sarty’s life, when the choice he made results in the death (at least as far as he can tell) of his father, this desperate race, is captured wonderfully by the Faulkner’s long sentence. The reader is held in suspense as the Sarty runs toward his father and as de Spain rushes to defend his property and is finally swept along with the boy as he runs and runs, never to look back.

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The Never-ending Story

As anyone who has ever listened to a speech knows, there is a rhythm to the spoken word. A speaker may drone on and on and put the audience to sleep, or he can be dynamic, lyrical, and modulate his tone to keep the audience’s attention. Generally we need pauses in a speech; they are necessary moments of reflection and break the monotony of an unchanging cadence. Aside from soliloquy, fictional characters rarely have unmitigated speech; otherwise the writer, like the droning speaker, might lose his audience. So it is intriguing to find a writer who is willing to take up the challenge of writing a continuous monologue without chapters, without section breaks or line breaks; indeed a monologue as a single sentence that captures the rhythm of language while still entertaining the reader. Such is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

First published in Czechoslovakia in 1964 and in an English translation by Michael Henry Heim in 2011, Hrabal’s single-sentence book defies categorization. His friend and reviewer Josef Sǩvorecký called it a “long short story” (Sǩvorecký 7). Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the introduction for the 2011 edition, called it a “novel in one monologue” (Hrabal viii). Semantics aside, this unique story, or collection of tall tales, is a wonderful example of how a writer can sculpt a very long, yet engaging sentence that mimics the spoken word. Hrabal developed his style of story-telling, what he called páblitelé – which Sǩvorecký translates as “tellers of tall tales” and which Thirlwell translates as “palavering” – based on the free-association rambling of oral story-tellers in his life. But this is not a form of automatic writing or free writing – genuine craft is expressed in Hrabal’s prose; the narrator’s monologue (it isn’t really a speech – speeches are organized logically and are intended to communicate specific information – neither of which applies here) is by degrees whimsical, ribald, lyrical, poignant, and profound.

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

Superficially, the book represents the uninterrupted speech of a septuagenarian shoemaker named Jirka who is regaling a group of sunbathing women with his stories of being a soldier during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, his sexual exploits, his opinions on the church and religion, and his humorous digressions of tall tales. It is told in the first-person, mostly in the past tense, and follows real time in that the amount of time it takes to read the 117 pages approximates the time it would take to actually listen to the narrative. Jirka’s desire is to be listened to, to flirt with the ladies; his conflict is keeping his listeners’ attention. But unlike a random, garrulous old man droning on and on, one who won’t let you go until you hear every variation of the same big fish story, Jirka keeps us listening:

neither Havlíček nor Christ ever laughed, if anything they wept, because when you stand for a great idea you can’t horse around, Havlíček had a brain like a diamond, the professors went gaga over him, they tried to make him a bishop, but no, he chose justice, a little coffee, a little wine, and a life for the people, stamping out illiteracy, only perverse people dream of rolling in manure (better days ahead) or of chamber pots (your future is assured) because the thing is, dear ladies, you’ve got to rely on yourselves, take Manouch, who thought he had it made because his father was a jailer and all he did was drink and pick up bad habits, which leads to fights like the quarrel in the days of the monarchy between the social democrats and the freethinkers and clerics over whether the world comes from a monkey or God slapped Adam together out of mud and fashioned Eve from his insides, now He could have made her out of mud too, it would have been cheaper, though nobody really knows what went on, the world was as deserted as a star, but people twitter away like magpies and don’t really care, I could set my sights on a charmer, a prime minister’s daughter, but what’s not to be is not to be and could even take a bad turn, Mother of God! the crown prince had syphilis and that Vetsera woman shot him, but then she got shot by the coachman, though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle, when I was serving in the most elegant army in the world I told our medical officer, Doctor, I said, I’ve got a weak heart, but all he said was, So have I, boy, and if we had a hundred thousand like you we could conquer the world, and he put me into the highest category, so I was a hero . . . (3-5)

For the purposes of this essay I’ve selected this 340-word excerpt of the 117-page long sentence so that a sense of the rhythm can be appreciated. In the book as a whole, after the comma, the most common punctuation mark Hrabal uses is the question mark, then the dash, then the exclamation point; there are no colons or periods (even at the end) and only one semicolon.

In this relatively short passage there is an astonishing variety of subjects. He begins with philosophizing about the writer Havlíček and Christ (a favorite subject); then makes an aphoristic statement (a common habit); he reflects on Havlíček’s history with clear parallels to his own (Jirka’s) values; he quotes ironic entries from his favorite book of dream interpretations, refers to his audience, and then drops another aphorism. He interrupts himself at one point with the exclamation “Mother of God!” (another habit) indicating that he has just remembered something that he absolutely must tell the ladies right away. Note that Hrabal doesn’t let us forget the scene: more than a dozen times in the book Jirka refers directly to the women he is speaking to, but here he also says “though any young lady will tell you,” an indirect nod in their direction and a preface to his flirting. He concludes this part of his never-ending sentence with a tale of the absurd, a lampoon of his time in the military (another favorite subject).

Sǩvorecký writes that Hrabal’s importance “lies predominantly in this language, in how his stories are told” (8). The book’s forward momentum is carried by Jirka’s engaging voice and the bizarre, often humorous tales he tells. Narrative voice isn’t carried by subject matter and diction alone, but by the order of words, i.e. the syntax with which those words are arranged.

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The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

One of the most elusive subjects in fiction, as in life, is the nature of human consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about how we know (or think we know) what we know and how we know what others know since the emergence of language. Epistemological questions aside, how can a writer convey – or attempt to convey – the nature of human thought?

Methods for representing a character’s thought span the range of narrative modes. Consider first-person. It seems straightforward enough: have the character simply tell us what he is thinking. When addressing another character, this is dialogue, or if alone, a soliloquy. Soliloquy typically follows the rules of grammar and is logically organized. And soliloquy, although spoken alone, is presented as if to an audience, which requires it to be more coherent (Humphrey 35). But what if the language is internal self-address, i.e. the language we “speak” only to ourselves? The narrative mode used to describe this is variously called free direct thought, internal monologue, or autonomous monologue. Interior monologue, in contrast to soliloquy (or dialogue) is more associative; prone to spontaneous, illogical shifts; and is rich in imagery (Cohn 12). The acme of internal monologue in literature is found in the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses is the ur-text for modernism. Published in 1922, this canonical “stream of consciousness” novel is the story of the lives of three principal characters, Leopold Bloom (who works in advertising), his wife Molly (a professional singer), and a family friend Stephen Dedalus (an aspiring poet) on a single day: June 16, 1904. The book is divided into eighteen sections and is organized according to Homer’s Odyssey, with Bloom in the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman myths). Bloom’s journey takes him from home, through his day in Dublin, and then back again; along the way he is joined by Stephen. Almost all of the chapters focus on Bloom, but the last chapter, commonly referred to as “Penelope” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, takes place in the mind of Molly while she tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep after her husband returns home and joins her in bed at approximately two in the morning. “Penelope” is divided into eight “sentences,” although the only reason for designating them thusly are line breaks with indentation; the chapter has no punctuation except for two periods, one at the end of the fourth sentence; one at the end. The run-on nature of the chapter is the point, that thought doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing in an endless stream until you either fall asleep (except for dreaming) or die, i.e. you can’t turn thought off.

james-joyceJames Joyce

Molly has had a singular day: she has had an affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Lying awake in bed, her thoughts roam: she thinks about Boylan and compares his sexuality with Bloom’s; she thinks about her marriage and that she and “Poldy” (whom she suspects has had an affair too that day) haven’t have sex since their son Rudy died shortly after he was born eleven years prior; she thinks about the future and is worried about their finances, she fantasizes about the twenty-something Stephen; and she thinks about her past, including the men she has known, her childhood in Gibraltar, and (famously) when Bloom asked her to marry him and she said yes. The only indication of an external world is a train whistle she hears; the only action, when she gets out of bed to use the chamber pot. Molly’s character is highly nuanced and through her unedited stream of consciousness the reader empathizes with the conflicts she faces in her life. After her fantasy of seducing Stephen concludes, her thoughts turn back to Boylan, then to Bloom as the last sentence of the chapter begins. She is annoyed with Bloom for having kissed her bottom after he crawled into bed. Her annoyance leads to sexual fantasies with other men until she is distracted by Bloom crowding her on the bed; she thinks:

O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee[4] so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn’t be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more . . . (778)

This 392-word excerpt depicts the silent, unmediated self-communication of a fictional mind saturated with thoughts that transition associatively with dizzying speed. She is annoyed at Bloom for hogging the bed; she compares his wheezing (or perhaps snoring) with a song called “The Winds That Waft My Sighs to Thee” (remember, she is a professional singer; she doesn’t “say” to herself “His snoring sounds like X, rather the association pops into her consciousness as she listens to him breathe); she invents an epithet for Bloom; she thinks about the card reading she did for him; she’s aggravated about agreeing to fix him breakfast; she philosophizes about what a better world it would be if “governed by the women”; she reflects that men are ungrateful and then thinks of Stephen, whom she worries about in a maternal way; she speculates that Stephen’s parents don’t appreciate him and that they are ungrateful which leads to her thoughts of her dead son Rudy and that she should have given the coat she knitted for him to a needy child; and she reflects that she and Bloom haven’t been intimate since Rudy’s death, which she then resolves not to be depressed about. She uses the imperative (“O move over”), indicative (“I dont care what anybody says”), and subjunctive (“if he knew”) mood. She uses the past, present, and future tense. And all of these grammatical forms are switched between with the fluid rhythmicity of thought.

The first and most obvious feature of this excerpt that adds to its verisimilitude as internal monologue is the fact that it is uninterrupted; there are no gaps in the text as there are no gaps in our thoughts. Another feature of “pure” internal monologue that makes this example (and the entire “Penelope” chapter) successful as speech-for-oneself is the use of non-referential pronouns, i.e. “he” refers to Bloom, Stephen, and Rudy at different places in the stream of thought, and, significantly, there is no immediate reference to whom of the three she is thinking about. After all, Molly knows who she is thinking about and doesn’t need to explain it to anyone – this isn’t a soliloquy, this isn’t a speech, and this isn’t dialogue. Finally, the thought mimesis isn’t disrupted by Molly reporting her actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. This last quality doesn’t apply particularly to this passage, but it is important to the success of the chapter as a whole. The only action she takes is to use the chamber pot and Joyce is careful to address her kinetic perceptions without action verbs (q.v. sub).

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Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in France in 2008 and in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell in 2010, is a novel that parallels Ulysses in many ways. Like Joyce, Énard borrowed his structure from Homer, this time: The Iliad. Also like Joyce, Énard explores consciousness with internal monologue. With Zone Énard follows the tradition of novel-length sentences such as those by Bohumil Hrabal, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Camilo José Cela. Zone is presented as a single-sentence internal monologue by the protagonist Francis Servain Mirković, a former spy for French Intelligence, now fleeing to a new life aboard a train from Milan to Rome. However, the sentence is interrupted by twenty-four, numbered chapter divisions (loosely reflecting Homer’s epic), and three chapters are devoted to a tale-within-the-tale (a book Francis is reading in which the plot parallels his own). Neither the parallel story, nor the chapter breaks detract significantly from the continuity of Francis’s roaming thoughts, and the stylistic choice of an internal monologue allows Énard great freedom in creating an intricate network of associated images.

The novel begins in media mentum in Francis’s mind as the train is leaving the Milan station: “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing . . .” (Énard 5). Two bronze weapons clashing. Énard’s war imagery begins immediately and doesn’t relent. Francis, Croatian veteran of the Bosnian War, amateur historian, spy, has fled France with a suitcase full of war crimes information. He plans to sell the documents to the Vatican for $300,000, his nest egg for retirement under an assumed identity. The story of a man trying to escape his past, Zone is told from Francis’s point of view in internal monologue, but with the psychic distance shifted toward autobiography and reportage, i.e. with thoughts organized more logically than Joyce presents Molly’s meditations. Francis, in his recollections, tells a story, or many stories, during his trip. Francis never leaves the train, although the locations he passes serve as segues for his mental peregrinations through history (personal and otherwise), especially of wars in the Mediterranean region.

Dorrit Cohn, in her 1978 seminal work Transparent Minds, notes that “unity of place . . . creates the conditions for a monologue in which the mind is its own place . . .” (222) and compliments Joyce on his decision to place Molly in bed where she doesn’t need to address her kinetic perceptions. Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate since Molly does get out of bed to use the chamber pot. Énard also places his character in a position of stasis, the train seat he occupies for the trip, and, like Molly, Francis will get up and move about only briefly. However, Énard gets to have it both ways: yes, Francis is static (most of the time) but he is also on a moving train passing through the Italian countryside and through Italian cities – opportunities for Francis’s thoughts to segue between subjects. Sometimes Francis only notes the city without comment, such as when he passes through Parma and Reggio Emilia, but other times he uses the location as a platform to digress about history, or to facilitate his meditations. As the train pulls out of Florence, Francis thinks:

I’m facing my destination, Rome is in front of me, Florence streams past, noble Florence scattered with cupolas where they blithely tortured Savonarola and Machiavelli, torture for the pleasure of it strappado water the thumb-screw and flaying, the politician-monk was too virtuous, Savonarola the austere forbade whores books pleasures drink games which especially annoyed Pope Alexander VI Borgia the fornicator from Xàtiva with his countless descendants, ah those were the days, today the Polish pontiff trembling immortal and infallible has just finished his speech on the Piazza di Spagna, I doubt he has children, I doubt it, my neighbors the crossword-loving musicians are also talking about Florence, I hear Firenze Firenze one of the few Italian words I know, in my Venetian solitude I didn’t learn much of the language of Dante the hook-nosed eschatologist, Ghassan and I spoke French, Marianne too of course, in my long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior I didn’t talk with anyone, aside from asking for a red or white wine according to my mood at the time, ombra rossa or bianca, a red or white shadow, the name the Venetians give the little glass of wine you drink from five o’clock onwards, I don’t know the explanation for this pretty poetic expression, go have a shadow, as opposed to going to take some sun I suppose at the time I abused the shadow and night in solitude, after burning my uniforms and trying to forget Andi Vlaho Croatia Bosnia bodies wounds the smell of death I was in a pointless airlock between two worlds, in a city without a city, without cars, without noise, veined with dark water traveled by tourists eaten away by the history of its greatness . . . (330-331) [Énard’s italics]

 One of the first things to note is that the internal monologue is more conversational, more dialogic than Molly’s internal speech. Joyce’s style eschews active verbs and punctuation, giving it a less edited and more organic feel. But such a style would be difficult to maintain for the 517-page journey Zone follows; “Penelope” is just over 40 pages. Énard’s more coherent syntax is more readable and more forgiving. Nevertheless, the sentence (fragment) succeeds in capturing the flowing thoughts of the character using many of the same techniques used by Joyce including: omitting punctuation (in places), rapid and spontaneous free association, staccato rhythms, and poetic imagery.

Francis’s thoughts flow in free association when the thought of torture triggers a list of torture techniques including strappado, the use of water, and thumb-screws; here the absence of commas, definite articles, or other grammatical devices helps create the stream of consciousness effect. In this 286-word excerpt Francis then: generalizes ironically about the past (“those were the days”), has doubts, observes his fellow travelers, thinks of the languages he knows and once spoke with a friend and his ex-girlfriend, reflects on the present in generalizations, and finally returns to his past where the names of his fellow soldiers and friends run together with locations, trailing off in poetic imagery.

menardMathias Énard

There are three notable differences between this monologue and the type of pure internal monologue seen in the Joyce example. First, it is broken up with punctuation. Second, Énard uses referential pronouns, e.g. Xàtiva/his and pontiff/his, and people have proper names. Third, the thought mimesis is interrupted by Francis’s declaring his perceptions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun, e.g. “I hear Firenze Firenze” – Molly hears a train, but she never tells the reader. This last difference is significant for action depiction as well.

Both Molly and Francis act in their memories, whether it is Molly musing about her first sexual encounter in Gibraltar or Francis reliving the horror of watching his friend get shot in Bosnia. But for movement in the narrative’s present, internal monologue can be difficult to manage without disturbing the reader’s perception, i.e. if the reader has accepted that they are “listening in” to someone’s thoughts then describing external events can be as jarring as changing the point of view. For example: one of the distinctive features of pure internal monologue is that thought isn’t disrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. In the following excerpt, Molly gets out of bed to urinate and find a sanitary napkin, but we only read her impressions:

O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl wouldnt he get the great suckin the next time he turned up my clothes on me Id give anything to see his face wheres the chamber gone easy Ive a holy horror of its breaking under me after that old commode I wonder was I too heavy . . . (769)

In the first line, where we expect the word “bed,” we find the interjection “pooh” – a word that has spontaneously popped into her consciousness. There is a missing copula in “this damned old bed too jingling.” She never “thinks” she is walking to the chamber pot, only wonders where it has gone. Compare this with the following passage from Zone where Francis describes going to the toilet:

I’d like to go have a drink at the bar, I’m thirsty, it’s too early, at this rate if I begin drinking now I’ll arrive in Rome dead drunk, my body is weighing me down I shift it on the seat I get up hesitate for an instant head for the toilet it’s good to move a little and even better to run warm non-potable water over your face, the john is like the train, modern, brushed grey steel and black plastic, elegant like some handheld weapon, more water on my face and now I’m perked up, I go back to my seat . . . (54)

Note the first-person pronoun and action verb use: “I shift it,” “I get up,” and “I go back.” There are three constructions using copulas (or implied copulas): “it’s too early,” “it’s good,” and “the john is.” As a result of the action verbs and copulas, what should be internal monologue feels like reportage.

Nevertheless, Énard demonstrates the versatility of a long sentence internal monologue. I agree with Mary Stein, who wrote in her 2011 review of Zone: “Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirković’s narrative identity.” The stream of consciousness fluidity of the long run-on sentence mimics Francis Mirković’s disturbed mind, and if some verisimilitude of consciousness mimesis is sacrificed, his narrative identity still supports a web of imagery that rises to the level of great art.

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Altered States

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1996 novel, opens during the Year of Glad (ca. 2008) in an imagined future where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year. Three interwoven plots follow separate groups of characters, including: the protagonist Hal Incandenza and his schoolmates at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, a group of men and women in a drug rehabilitation house nearby, and a Québécois terrorist group.

Most of the action of the novel takes place one year prior to the opening scene and is narrated in the past tense by, arguably, Hal. The novel, told primarily from a third-person point of view, has numerous examples of first-person intrusion, and it is always Hal. Hal is a linguistic prodigy, and his way of interpreting the world is revealed in a stylistic manner consistent with his consciousness, i.e. with elevated diction and complex syntax. Hal is also a drug addict. In fact, many of the characters have substance abuse issues and Infinite Jest is in many regards the epic of addiction. During Hal’s senior year at his private high school he struggles with marijuana addiction while, simultaneously, Joelle Van Dyne struggles with cocaine. Joelle is the ex-girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin and, after her near-fatal overdose, becomes a resident of the rehab house near Hal’s school.

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

Although Wallace depicts the consciousness of his characters almost exclusively using third-person narration, he still achieves a stream of consciousness effect in many scenes. The problem with first-person presentation of characters in drug-induced states of altered consciousness is that, as readers, we neither expect them to speak in coherent language, nor can we imagine any coherence to their thoughts at all. Thus, Cohn writes that “the novelist who wishes to portray the least conscious strata of psychic life is forced to do so by way of the most indirect and the most traditional of the available modes” (56), what she terms “psycho-narration” (or third-person narration). Wallace makes effective use of long sentences to depict altered conscious states in the scenes of Joelle’s overdose and Hal’s nightmare.

Joelle, who has a late-night radio show, was disfigured some years before when acid was thrown in her face. She now wears a veil and is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” Early in the primary timeline, Joelle[5] returns to the apartment she shares with Molly (who is throwing a massive party), locks herself in the bathroom, and proceeds to commit suicide by smoking freebase cocaine. The following 449-word long sentence is from her point of view and takes place after her second dose from her homemade pipe:

The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won’t stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone’s in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that’s three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets’ bottom drawer’s wicked metal knob, through the door and offset ‘Red’ and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel’s cone, the smoke’s baby-blanket blue that’s sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky’s blue that’s left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub’s porcelain, Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she’s holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach-colored titans they’d gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it’s still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow’s best descent, so good she can’t stand it and reaches out for the cold tub’s rim’s cold edge to pull herself up as the white-party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. (239-240)

Joelle’s overdose results in an altered state of consciousness. Wallace begins the descent into her mind with a complete sentence of indirect internal monologue: she hears someone asking if the bathroom is occupied The voice . . . in there”). Rather than ending this sentence with a period, Wallace creates a run-on sentence with several clauses that describe her perceptions using vivid imagery (e.g. adjectives like beveled, warped, steam-softened, raw, and mangled). About halfway through the sentence she thinks of the nickname Orin gave her. The next clause is a complete sentence and internal monologue: “Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue,” followed by a single-word thought (“lacquer”), and then the narration shifts back to third-person (or perhaps indirect internal monologue) with “she’s holding the bottle.” There are memories, then more sensory descriptions (sound is now white noise); she regards her limbs as distant, has lost her shoes, is lost in hallucination (“twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner”), and finally reloads her pipe for another dose. The long, run-on nature of this sentence; the free associations; the irrational switching between perceptions, actions, and thoughts; and the poetic imagery all contribute to creating a stream of consciousness effect in this passage.

Conveying a dream state presents the writer with the same problem of drug-induced states: it is subliminal thought. Hal’s nightmare of finding “Evil” in his dorm room is a tour de force of long-sentence syntax engendering suspense and depicting the process that takes place in a dreaming mind.

A subchapter begins with first-person narration during an indeterminate time, i.e. it could be outside the narrative while the implied author is writing. The narrator feels he is coming to a realization about nightmares. After letting this thought trail off in ellipsis, the narration resumes in second-person (heightening our identification with the character) as Hal (“you”) dreams that he is lying in bed in his pitch-dark dorm room. In the dream, Hal pans the room with a flashlight, listing what he sees:

The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, InterLace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil. (62) [Wallace’s italics]

The five words “the face in the floor” (following “TPs”) are embedded 26 items into the list of things Hal sees in his flashlight beam. The reader is bored when they reach “the face in the floor,” i.e. they pass right by it – as Hal does – only for it to dawn on them later (at word 224, the italicized “no”) that floors don’t have faces. Just as Hal “sees without seeing,” we read without reading. When it dawns on Hal that he has seen something that doesn’t belong, the narration shifts to a fast, frantic pace using polysyndeton and no commas (in stark contrast to the long list of comma-delineated items) as Hal searches the room for what he thinks he saw, and when he finds it, he recognizes it as “Evil.” A pictorial representation of the cat’s eyebrows adds to the subliminal quality of this part of the sentence. A short, eight-word sentence set off as a separate paragraph follows: “And then its mouth opens at your light.” The emphasis placed on this short sentence mimics the shock of being attacked in a nightmare; it is the climactic moment when dread finally becomes acute horror. Again, Cohn reminds us:

the language of . . . psycho-narration is meant to elucidate rather than to emulate the figural psyche. The narrator builds a symbolic landscape as a kind of theoretical correlative for a subliminal stratum that can never emerge on the conscious level or the verbal surface of the figural mind. (55)

Wallace shows that either the third-person or the second-person narrative mode is effective for depicting consciousness; perhaps even more so than first-person, for those modes can stretch to subconscious altered states.

***

Are long sentences necessary for every work of fiction? Absolutely not. There are many examples of beautifully written stories containing only short, simple sentences; however, the power of long sentences is undeniable when you consider the numerous ways they can be effectively applied. Capturing the rhythm of motion – whether of actions or thought or speech – using linear prose presents a challenge for every writer. Virginia Tufte and David Jauss describe an elegant solution: use syntax symbolically; allow the syntax to mimic the rhythm. Faulkner, Hrabal, Joyce, Énard, and Wallace, achieve subtle and poetic effects through the syntax of their long sentences. But their achievements with long sentences, and those of writers like Nicholson Baker, also extend to character elucidation and conveying emotional content.

In my search for examples of long sentences, I found sentences greater than 150 words in the work of over fifty authors. Some of them stay within conventional grammar (like Baker and Faulkner), while others depart from those conventions radically. The standard rules of grammar are followed for a reason, they bring coherence to our prose; too severe a departure from these rules and the text’s meaning is lost. Nevertheless, there are justifiable reasons for coloring outside the lines; especially if, in the end, you can create sentences as effective and poetic as those by the writers I’ve surveyed. Jauss counsels that “the more we concentrate on altering our syntax, the more we free ourselves to discover other modes of thought” (68), and building long sentences is certainly a dramatic way to alter our syntax.

Looking back on my meditation on the long sentence, I find it remarkable that I didn’t find a place for the writer who set me on this path, M. Proust. Turning the pages of the volume of À la recherche I’m currently rereading, Proust’s narrator describes the musician Vinteuil as:

drawing from the colours as he found them a wild joy which gave him the power to press on, to discover those [sounds] which they seemed to summon up next, ecstatic, trembling as if at a spark when sublimity sprang spontaneously from the clash of brass, panting, intoxicated, dizzy, half-madly painting his great musical fresco . . . (Proust 233)

A fitting description for the wild exuberance some writers seem to have for their long, “panting,” “intoxicated,” “dizzy,” and sometimes fully-mad sentences – writers like Proust. Too bad I didn’t have more space to write about him. Perhaps next time.

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.

Bernhard, Thomas. Correction. New York: Vintage-Random, 2010. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP., 1978. Print.

Énard, Mathias. Zone. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. Print

Hrabal, Bohumil. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011. Print.

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1959. Print

Jauss, David. On Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. Vol. 5. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002. Print.

Sǩvorecký, Josef. “Some Contemporary Czech Prose Writers.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4:1 (1970): 5-13. Print.

Stein, Mary. “This Ancient World, A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone.” Numéro Cinq 2.18 (2011): n. pg. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.