Nov 092015

SengesPierre Senges. Photo credit: Philippe Bretelle


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

                                                                     —Jacob Siefring



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

The library of Maria Wutz

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

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


The library of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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

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


The library of Giacomo Casanova

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

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


The Library of the Congress

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


The library of Bouvard and Pécuchet

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

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


The library according to Émile Borel and Arthur Stanley Eddington

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


The library of Thomas De Quincey

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


The library of Thomas Browne

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


The library of Seleucos

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


The library of Don Quixote

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


The library of Aristotle’s inheritor’s inheritors

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


The library of Diodorus

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


The library of Moby Dick

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


The library of Réjean Ducharme

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


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

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

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


The library of Miklós Szentkuthy

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


The other library of Alexandria

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

—Pierre Senges translated by Jacob Siefring

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


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



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



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

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia



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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Hester Prynne2

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

—Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

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


Nov 052015

1 circus closeup 2

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

2 Circus

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

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

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

3 Scaffold 3

4 street scaffolding

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

5 Les Halles 2

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

6 Les Halles Pit

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

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

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

7 vista 3

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

8 vista 2

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

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

9 vista 1

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

11 Cluny thermes

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

12 buttresses 1

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

13 dark church exterior

its followers

14 Apostles chartre?

its overarching beliefs.

15 churchover door

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

16 church dark windows

or was flickering, wavering.

17 candles church 1

Faith’s monsters, though, still interest us.

18 pair of gargoyles

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

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

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

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

19 tour Italie

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

20 vista from park

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

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

21 boatSeineLight

22 blur

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

There are no answers to these questions.

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

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

23 trains

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

24 quai?

or in idle ways to pass the time

25 boules

or in gray repose

26 park fountain

or in random movement without relationship or interaction.

27 Street scene 2

28 Street scene 1

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

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

29 roofs 1

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

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

30 Backyard

about which I have written:

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

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

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

To put yourself in this moment is not an act of humility, or contrition, or the backward arrogance of denial. It isn’t anything, and being there is doing nothing. To try to locate it is to get lost, as it isn’t anywhere and everywhere at the same time, perhaps to realize the error of trying to find, of location.

We could use what this moment reveals to build a philosophy, even a religion, but could just as easily use it to tear apart all thought and faith. It is only by tearing the self apart and seeing what is left, however, that we can start again and rebuild and try once more to think, and wish, and believe.


—Gary Garvin



Some of the cathedral pictures are of Chartres. Parts of the text, the quotation, and several pictures come from my essay “Above the Roofs of Paris, a Non-Memoir,” which appeared in Fourth Genre, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring 2015. It is available at JSTOR, is excerpted at Project Muse, and can be found here.

George Packer, in “The Other France,” The New Yorker, with the Charlie Hebdo slayings in mind, recently provided an update on immigrant dislocation in the suburbs of Paris, specifically Department 93:

For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation.




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.


Nov 042015



“You’re more James Franco than James Franco.”


“Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”

I had, but I let the man keep speaking, and I let the other man to his right keep nodding.

Everyone, in fact, was nodding, shaking, vibrating. Heads, feet under tables, dollar bills, British pounds, seven different mobiles in various degrees of battery life. The blue and gold coat of arms hanging outside the Applebee’s where we’d been sitting, flag flailing in the wind.

We were in Cannes, it was 2011, and earlier in the morning, Lars Von Trier had been forcibly escorted out of the festival. Something about racist comments: Hitler, the Second World War, Jews — something about something.

“And when you are in my film, you won’t be acting,” the nodder, Wiktor, cut in. “You will be reacting. You will have forgotten all about ‘Chris Campanioni.’ You’ll simply be Sam.”

“Duncan,” the other one volunteered. His name was Bob. He was pale and lumpy, and his green golf shirt had sweat marks across his chest and under his arms.

“Really?” Wiktor said. “I pictured him as Sam.”

“You know what?” Bob looked at me. He stopped shaking. Everything seemed to stop. Unless I’m only remembering it in slow motion.

“What?” I asked, genuinely interested. I was holding a half-full highball, and I even put it down, letting the condensation form a halo around the glass’s edge on the fake porcelain table. Pausing to reflect on the image.

“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”

I had to laugh. This was a production, even if none of it was actually being filmed. I had met Bob on Facebook and all it took was a cappuccino at Café Orlin on St. Mark’s a week earlier for him to sell me on the idea of the movie he wanted to bring to Cannes, the movie and me, and the idea of course. It was first and foremost (and forever) an idea — and I’d decided to bring my friend, Eric, along for the ride, or whatever the ride afforded us, because we were as good friends as I could think of. As good friends as friends could be.

Two years earlier, in 2009, we were living together in Hoboken when the power went out across town for a week. There was nothing else to do but go to bars in Manhattan. Bars, restaurants, cafés, anywhere that had light, and preferably, heat. Returning home one night, a block away from our apartment, we had something else to do: each of us staring down the barrel of a gun. I know nothing about guns. It could have been a .357 Magnum or a toy pistol.

It wasn’t dramatic: it just was. The movies, those gunfights, those tense moments, being held up in the movies is always so much more dramatic, so much more real. In real life, everything feels flat. I don’t even think I was afraid. I didn’t have time to think about death, to think about life. I was silent. Maybe I was imagining it happening in the movies, trying to will it into being somehow more poignant. That’s the problem with movies. Unless that’s the problem with real life.

“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”

Bob repeated it, probably considering that I was hard of hearing or just hadn’t understood what he meant. What he meant was that I looked too dark to be a “Sam” — or a “Duncan” for that matter. My agents, past and present, were always telling me to stay out of the sun. Unless I was at a casting that called for Hispanic or Latino, which everyone in the industry used interchangeably.

I felt like I should say something; I wanted to say something; I didn’t know what to say. I only knew I wanted to say, to speak, to utter a few sounds together.

I said nothing. I did nothing, but write in my notepad, which I had been carrying with me since my evenings as a copy editor and reporter at the Star-Ledger. Remnants from a different life, which was the same as this one, just garbed in different clothes.

REPORTER NOTEPAD was etched across the front. Most of the pages were blank, but they were gradually becoming crowded with words. And like many other scenes, I eventually re-fashioned this one into a chapter of Going Down. I didn’t include the bit about Juan. Some names changed, others didn’t. I fictionalized the real in order to make it feel more real to me. It seemed like the best way to approach an investigation into the fashion and newspaper industries, two disparate worlds which meet to mete out fabrication. Manufacture it, sell it, reinvest the profits.

I put my hand around the highball again, lifted the glass, reflected on the image, the imprint of the surface.

“We are talking about creating an art film,” Wiktor interrupted. I was doodling in the notepad now, sketching a vision of Wiktor as Rasputin, because the two looked alike, at least on Google Images, if I looked from one and quickly to the other. Back and forth, from the digital to the physical and vice versa, just like that. “We are talking about bringing this message of consumption to the world.”

Movie-making is the transformation of living beings into dead images that are then given life by being projected on a screen. Movie-going is watching dead images coming out of a projector, twenty-four frames per second. Taking a photograph, at least, implies no such passage. The photograph is already dead.

I had thought that working as a model had transformed time into a circle, a cyclical exchange of repetition and recurrence. The only days that made any sense to me any longer were today and tomorrow. Everything else felt impossible to keep track of, points and spaces that were simultaneously long and short, flowing into and out from one another. But it wasn’t just my experience in the fashion industry that had changed time; it was also our culture, the technological processes we’d adopted. Bought and sold, and sold out to again. Time as it is represented in the world of images — selfies, snapchats, vines, and countless other self-interested glimpses — is instantaneous and fleeting. Quickly forgotten.

The last decade of my life has been filmed, photographed, streamed, and sold back to mass culture. I get paid for it but it isn’t just me who’s doing the buying and selling. It’s all of us; it’s all of our lives.

Authentic experience has been replaced by fetishized experience; existence becomes object. And actual experience is surpassed by talking about it. But not just talking about it, re-distributing it to the whole world, stamped and packaged in a Facebook or Instagram post. A new skill learned on LinkedIn.

We are selling ourselves back to ourselves.

And still—

We are desperate for the next new thing, the thing that feels real enough to touch, in a way that no touch-screen can achieve, not realizing that we ourselves are capable of authenticity, not realizing that we ourselves can become it.

The next new thing.


I remember being in grad school, sitting in seminar, driving home afterward, into the dark and silence and the night, and wondering just how desperate I could become, just how much desperation I could endure. I had the firm conviction that I had no idea what I was doing there, that I wasn’t writing anything worthwhile, or at least anything worth reading, that I had nothing else to look forward to.

I was stupid enough to believe that everything I’d ever done was already past me, that I had outlived my own adventure, that I would not have anything else to look forward to. On these night drives home, I’d turn up the music as I zigzagged through the Bronx, and I probably would think about moments like Cannes, moments like being in the hotel lobby of the JW Marriott on the Promenade de la Croisette, arriving from Buenos Aires[1] in time to see Lars Von Trier escorted out of the Palais. The only time that’s ever happened, someone expelled from the film festival, then and now.

I will never be here again, I thought then. But I was wrong, because I’d said the same thing in 2008, when I made an afternoon stop in nearby Villefranche. My parents and I hiked the stony Nietzsche Path into the village of Eze and then explored the Vieille Ville, taking pictures and tasting cheese we’d neither heard of nor could pronounce. When I made it back, I tried to imagine the differences between Nice in 2008 and Nice in 2011. There were none, not even my breathless proclamation that I would never return, which was probably repeated in the driver’s seat of my Kia as I crossed the George Washington Bridge.

Cannes in 2011 seems like a fitting entry point into thinking about self-commodification in our post-capitalist world of 2015. So much has changed, except everything. Everything at the festival was for sale; everything was a money game. Bob the Producer brought me to Cannes on someone else’s dime and had me meet Wiktor, the Director-To-Be, as well as a couple (nameless) Saudi financiers (Bingo!), and another actor who’d play le second role.[2] All that was missing was the movie. And still, the money was everywhere. We were spending it and shelling it out to anyone who wanted to take a business card and invite us to dinner or a party on the beach — one of many along the Croisette every evening, which always followed the day’s screenings.

The things we value and the things we pay for have always resided on perpendicular roads. But at the festival, everyone seemed to value payment, the ability to pay for things. People and things. Within a few hours of meeting him, Bob had Eric employed as his personal assistant, sending him off on errands (“print more business cards”) but mostly just having him stand there, making sure people could see him. Making sure people could see the role of Personal Assistant to Director — and especially, Director.

Social media capitalizes on our innate insecurities by removing them from the equation. Say hello, ask me out, say, even, you love me. Taking a photo in private to re-present to anyone else without having to look at them in the eye is a way to circumvent self-doubt. Everyone wants to show and be seen, but I never realized our natural inclination toward exhibition until I was the one on display.

And while the news on display, scrolling across flat screens throughout the festival, showed nothing but sloping quarterly reports and rising unemployment, money was being thrown around like it meant everything; like it meant nothing.

It wasn’t the first time we’d passed Go and collected two hundred dollars. The Eighties and Nineties manufactured a reality that everything that exists exists to be bought and sold, traded in and re-produced. Overnight, North American culture[3] became masturbation and Photoshop. But it’s not enough to simply identify the strains of a society of commodities and narcissism; I’d rather we look at the effects this society produces on how we treat each other and ourselves, the relationships we have and the degree of intimacy we allow ourselves to have.

What happens when every part of a life becomes a product to be sold[4] when every person becomes an object?

Rainer Maria Rilke instructed us in the art of being alone, urging his pupil in Letters to a Young Poet to seek solitude to better find the self. Except in 1902, there was no such thing as omnipresence, at least not in everyday life. Everyday life in 2015 means gazing and being gazed, an unremitted act of reciprocal voyeurism. How can we know ourselves if we are never truly alone?

It should be no surprise that so many of today’s Millennials are facing challenges steeped in identity. In an era of surveillance, media misrepresentation, catfishing, cult of celebrity, and wish fulfillment, what sense of self do we have besides one that is not our own?


I was drinking a martini and eating caviar, or at least putting it in my mouth, stainless steel spoon as small as my thumb, trying my best to swallow.

I loathe both of these things. But it was what the scene called for. Dry martini, vat of caviar, a goblet of rocks.

What the scene did not call for was me in my underwear — blue briefs, yellow trimming— but that’s where I was, or at least what I was wearing, staring down a long stretch of dumbstruck waiters and one stern-looking maître d’.

I was never very good at acting, even though I never thought of it as being hard. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good at it. It’s not hard. You just do what the director tells you. They tell you everything to do. In modelling, it is the same, except the photographer is the one calling the shots. Unless it’s the art director. And then things go amiss, just because so many people begin to speak at the same time and no one, no one listens to anyone but themselves.

So in a sense, I knew all about following guidelines, curating an image, radiating it toward an audience that would either consume it or ignore it, or refract it toward their own audience, multiplying and distorting the image the way light floods a prism.

I knew all about what it meant to produce a bid for approval, the same psychological element that is at play whenever anyone commits a photo of themselves to their social network. Like it, share it, pass it on. Take a screen shot and re-tweet it. Or spend your time sorting through hundreds of images for that top shot to compete with the one you’ve just liked, likely not acknowledging the possibility that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing. Alone, or at least in private.

I’ve always just done what was asked of me in public, while in private done what no one ever thought I could do, writing about my desires and fears and feelings, real sensations of everything that when produced in an action or gesture or any sort of physical movement, seems actually to melt or fade or recede. Reality became more like an impression than an imprint, a prism that twists and alters depending on the angle of the curve and the speed of the light. I was watching in the dark of the cinema again. I’d reach out; I’d never know what I might grasp, except for the roles we are obliged to play and the roles we ourselves have created.

As early as 1975, Michel Foucault wrote about the power of surveillance as a disciplinary apparatus, panoptic observatories which would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. But post-global culture is not just about being watched, it’s also about being commanded to perform. The fundamental question of identity: “Who am I?” has been replaced by “Who am I pretending to be?”

It is tenuous; everything is tenuous, and at Cannes, I began to understand that even I had no control over the performance any longer; I had built an image of me that would outlast me. In truth, the image didn’t just outlast me. It replaced me. The same way that today, our carefully curated online presences replace our physical ones. The same way that our generation will look back on our lives in sixty years and there will be plenty to see. Probably we only wish we would have lived it too.

Its all fun and games has become Its no longer fun even if its all a game.

“And for your next magic trick?” Bob asked, turning to me with one arm raised in feigned amazement.

Probably the only great feat I ever achieved was to allow the leisure class to read the kind of literature that affronted their very lifestyle. That’s real subversion, I think. To trick someone into unwittingly contributing to the demise of the culture they love is like using the language of the spectacle to dissolve the spectacle.

But I hadn’t done that then, not then, not yet. So I just smiled like I always do, letting go with another pre-fab long, loud, laugh.

“You do whatever it is you want, right?” Bob returned. Waiters were hovering like goldfish, lips as wide as their eyes. A few feet from my crotch guests were dining on what looked like soufflé. It could have been bread pudding from the box. “Whatever it is you feel like doing at that moment.”

I nodded.

“Always being myself,” I replied, grabbing my towel and trudging off toward the pool, where the sun was starting to pierce the clouds.

“Well,” Bob slurred, following with a martini that spilled, once or twice, on diners’ feet. “It doesn’t count as stripping if you just show up naked.”

“I thought this is part of the performance,” I mouthed, not bothering to turn around, “or is it a free show?”

Bob shook his head and scowled, hands in his pockets, fumbling, I figured, for his wallet.

“We pay to be here, man.”

I nodded. Bob was right about one thing, at least, even if it wasn’t him who actually paid. But payment was permission after all. It was the only password anyone needed, then and now. And for a price, you can have anything, or at least the illusion of it.

You always get what you pay for.


Tracing our fascination with celebrity and our accompanying patterns of narcissism is analogous to bullet-pointing key moments in cinema. First there was movement, then sound, then color. And then things got really definitive in HD. Everything became louder, crisper, more real. Close enough to touch.

Likewise, celebrities were strangers, people the audience could worship precisely because they had the things we did not. They did the things we wanted to do but never would. Maybe they even did the things we do, every day, except even the mundane began to look magnificent in Technicolor and with the right framing Everything, it turned out, was better on screen, even the things that were edited out in post-production to live again as supplementary materials. We were passive worshippers of the cult of celebrity. We adored these strangers not because we wanted to be like them, but because we wanted to be them. Worship and replace. Wish fulfillment.

But really, we don’t want to replace God anymore; we want to replace ourselves.

Close enough to touch.

And our wish is granted through any device with an Internet connection.

When Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979 he could have only guessed at the degree of self-absorption in today’s Millenials. We’re the unique generation. The generation raised to believe we are all very special. One reason why we look up to celebrities, why we worship fame, is because we know it will set us apart. It will make us somehow different, fulfilling the promise bestowed by our parents and the silhouette of a gold star in their hands. But the greatest danger we as humans face is actually thinking we are all very different from one another. The greatest danger we as humans face is perpetuating the myth that “disconnect” is our default setting.

Yet still we curate, sifting and selecting a seemingly singular experience, tailoring the image we convey to the world and also the images we want to see in it, the soundtrack playing on our headphones, the moods and emotions we want to feel through each song, the movie we are producing, directing, and starring in, in our minds. In the age of proliferation and replaceability, is our abundance of content actually saying anything?

When I think about the festival today, I think about the noise and chatter, the constant eruption of action — action for action’s sake. To speak and be seen; what mattered — what always matters — is the eyes. Quantum mechanics calls it the Observer Effect. We act in accordance with the people watching. If no one’s watching, we don’t exist.

Noise and chatter. Periodic eruptions. Everyone speaking loudly and at the same time. Everyone speaking English the way Americans do in Italian films from the Sixties. So loud and boisterous. So boring.

“I can’t tell if you have excellent emotional control or none at all,” Bob once told me. And it was only because I was so often inside myself. It was only because I would often watch and listen, instead of speaking in return. It would take me so much longer to finish writing it all down.

Even the sky began to act in accordance with the principle of noise. The last day of the festival, as everyone was leaving, abandoning the set for another one, the barrage kept coming.

Voluptuous rain. Enter thunder. Enter the great big bowling balls of the gods. Drizzle, drizzle. Eyes like a goat. Everyone would be staring, stunned to stillness — brief as it might be — looking at me as if they were expecting me to say something. Looking at me as if there was actually something to be said.

When I was younger, I used to be afraid of the camera. Not in the way that certain Native Americans and Aborigines are: I didn’t think it stole your soul (I didn’t know any better then); I was just afraid of the sound. Taking a picture was like a small explosion. The bang I expected but which never came the moment I was facing death for the first time.

Nowadays, taking a picture, capturing an image, takes no time at all. Takes no sound either. Silence.

The skylight dimming and shifting. Questions slipping between us and clinging to our waists.

Four years ago, I took a photograph in my camera eye and tried to preserve it, re-work it, turn it into fiction so it could be more real to me; so it could be more real to you.

The rest is rust and stardust.

—Chris Campanioni


Chris Campanioni is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He is also the author of Once in a Lifetime, a book of poems from Berkeley Press. Find him in space at and @chriscampanioni or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Perfunctory five-day detour through South American for pre festival “texture”—or more than likely, a decent tan.
  2. Bob didn’t look far. He cast our server at Café Orlin, right after he asked him for the bill.
  3. And wherever North American culture is available to be consumed.
  4. Pecuniary or otherwise.
Oct 082015

Victoria Best small photo


IN HIS SHORT STORY ‘The Liar’, Tobias Wolff’s narrator is a 16-year-old boy who can’t quite confine himself to the truth. Most upset by this is his mother, a woman who ‘did not consider originality a virtue’ and whose healthy existence is frequently rewritten in her son’s hands. She finds she’s been reported as coughing blood, or suffering from leukemia; there are people ‘stopping her in the street and saying how sorry they were’. The doctor and family friend she turns to tells her he’ll grow out of it. ‘What if he doesn’t grow out of it?’ his mother asks. ‘What if he just gets better at it?’ James is her last son at home, his father has died, his siblings are dispersed, and he makes her feel ‘like a failure.’ So James is sent to his brother, Michael, in San Francisco. Naturally he lies to his mother, and takes a different bus to the one she expected.

This bus goes on a long circuitous route, and when it breaks down, the passengers start to chat. James moves effortlessly into a performance. He says he works with refugees from Tibet (his parents, until their death, being missionaries out there) and, in possession of his audience’s rapt attention, he mesmerises them all with his rendition of the Tibetan language. His lies clean of criminality in the moment, James is transformed into an entertainer, an oracle. The liar has become a storyteller.

The term ‘fiction’ looks two ways at once, its products both legal and illegal. People who make things up compulsively often become writers as often as they become law-breakers. There is a difference, some may insist, between a lie and a story, for with the former there is intent to deceive. And yet, fiction writers often intend to mislead and startle their readers; they play their cards close. The real difference is in reception, with readers seeming to know instinctively that lies in the form of stories are necessary. If we need fiction, it makes more sense to ask ourselves, what’s good about lying?


The Talented Liar

Tobias Wolff is, by his own account, someone who just got a lot better at it. The theme of deceit and its consequences recurs across his works, and is exquisitely elaborated in his memoir of childhood, This Boy’s Life. It’s the story of a young boy who dreams up a life of wealth and adventure to write to his penpal, who refuses the blame for graffiti in the school toilets which he most certainly put there himself, who grows into an adolescent who makes it into a fancy school on the basis of an entirely faked application and letters of support. You can’t help but admire the persistence, the tenacity with which he hones his skills, the innovation with which he finds new outlets for them.

Of course the paradoxical beauty of such a memoir is that it remains transparently honest to the narrator’s dishonesty. The story of a liar’s career can only be told truthfully. The young Tobias (or Jack, as he prefers to be called, after his hero, Jack London) lives with his divorced mother, and he loves her very much, though her bad luck with men frequently gets them into trouble. His father, who we learn elsewhere was a consummate liar himself, is sorely missed by his neglected son, who is forced to make him up ‘out of dreams and memories’. His stepfather, Dwight, is violently abusive. In the midst of this mess of absent and over-active fathering, the stereotypes of the daredevil alpha male lassoe Jack’s imagination. He likes to dress up in the army greatcoat of one of his mother’s boyfriend and lie across the sofa, aiming his rifle through a gap in the blinds. He hangs out with male friends at school, breaking windows, throwing eggs at convertibles, smoking in the toilets and exchanging ‘interesting facts not available to the general public about women.’ He is a stud, a rogue, an outcast, though really, he likes The Mickey Mouse Club.

‘Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me’, Wolff writes. And it’s a common thing, this rehearsal of possible roles, this testing of reality against the imagined options. Jack gains a friend, Arthur, who is ‘a great storyteller’. Arthur ‘refused to accept as final the proposition’ that his ordinary parents were his real parents, attempting to convince Jack he was adopted and descended, in fact, from the followers of Bonny Prince Charles. Jack then decides he comes from Prussian aristocrats. ‘We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.’

But what, then, if he didn’t grow out of it but just got better at it? As he turns adolescent, so he becomes ever more unmoored, unhinged, unanchored. His carefully practised ability to evade the law reflects a world that won’t prevent him from indulging his worst flaws. The idea of faking an application to a prestigious school starts with the ridiculous ease of doctoring his sinking grades. ‘The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.’ And the stakes in the identity games just get higher. As the gap between his reality and his ambitions increases, he finds himself ‘wanting, at any price, the world’s esteem’, and feeling ever more reckless and desperate.

The problem is that he keeps getting away with it. In his essay ‘On Getting Away With It’, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips recalls Freud’s remark that the child’s first successful lie is both the moment when s/he realises that s/he is not in fact the subject of omniscient deities who read minds, a eureka of freedom; and also the point when s/he realises s/he is alone, abandoned, adrift. ‘If you get away with something,’ Phillips writes, ‘you have done well and you have done badly. You are released but you are also unprotected. You have at least provisionally freed yourself from something, but then you have to deal with your new-found freedom.’ What will Jack Wolff do with his? There is a logical progression for those who limbo under the bar of morality, Phillips says: ‘The Good Person would be replaced by the Impressive Person.’ And this is precisely Jack’s aim, and the destination his exquisite memoir confirms. The liar, who must keep his lies a secret to evade punishment, becomes the storyteller, whose command of fiction is both impressive and protected, made viable, worthwhile, enviable. He’s found a way to get really good at it.


The Compulsive Liar

A compulsive liar goes to see his psychoanalyst and recounts to him a typical event. That morning, he had been late for work because of a row with his wife, who was threatening to leave him. When his boss asked him what happened, the liar said he would scarcely believe it. His car was pulled over by the police and he was handcuffed and shoved into the back of a van. From there he was taken to the local precinct and placed alone in a cell, indignant, afraid, but also curious. After about an hour, a plain-clothes detective arrived and apologised for the confusion; he was free to go. Talking to his analyst, the liar is astonished at his boss’s gullibility. ‘I don’t know why I said what I did. I could easily have said I had a flat tyre. But instead I chose this outlandish story. And the poor fool believed me. He believed me. You see, as long as I can do this and get away with it, then I have no worries whatsoever. What is reality if I can do this?’

The analyst is Christopher Bollas, the patient called Jonathan, the case history is called ‘The Liar’, and the question is indeed, what is reality?Yet if the liar has to tell an analyst about his behaviour, there must be some desire to reconnect with the real world, to stop getting away with it quite so convincingly.

Bollas says that Jonathan is more truthful than he at first seems; the trick is to read the lie as a metaphor. Had Jonathan said his journey to work had been like a horrible incarceration, it would have been quite sane and negligible; a story without impact. Instead he said that it was a horrible incarceration, arousing a much more vivid response in his listener, and expressing an encoded truth. Bollas knew that Jonathan was afraid of how he might react if his wife actually left him; in many previous sessions he had expressed fear of his desire to kill her and keep custody of their children. He knew such actions would likely end in his arrest. But in the story he told, although he played with the possibility of arrest, he was then set free, innocent and absolved, by a plain-clothes detective. His fear had been soothed by the fantasy of a different kind of escape. On hearing the story, Bollas understands that the plain-clothes detective, the man to set him free, must be Bollas himself.

The metaphorical lie is a way of accessing a far more powerful and intriguing reality than bald facts suggest. Bollas recounts how: ‘Jonathan’s lying brings him to life and coheres him in a way in which his narration of actual lived events does not. He lies, he often tells me, because lying is living. It is only by lying that he remains alive.’ Jonathan does not like to tell the kind of lies that are the stuff of normal social living, the lie that hides a little secret, that protects another person. Such lies make him almost as anxious as the thought of telling the truth. No, Jonathan likes the big, complex, entirely unnecessary lie, the ongoing saga that can be sustained and exaggerated over weeks. His lies are not to protect his self and his truths, but to create his self and his existence; they are grandiose and extraordinary. He doesn’t want to be a Good Person; he wants to be an Impressive Person.

What could have caused him to behave this way? Jonathan’s background was a secure and moneyed one. His parents were ambitious intellectuals who had met with much success in their careers, and so his early childhood was divided between various members of household staff: a housekeeper, a maid and a rather sadistic nanny, with brief visits from his mother at each end of the day. His father he never knew very well, as he was busy and didn’t have much time for him. It’s not a very impressive genesis for a pathological liar, with no abuse or trauma to awaken a ready sympathy in the listener, nothing, on the face of it, that will explain or excuse. As a story, it lacks impact.

In one ‘particularly intense period’ in analysis, Jonathan asked Bollas about the nature of confidentiality in their relationship. He wanted to know what circumstances would cause him to disclose protected information. After much discussion on this topic, Jonathan admitted that he was planning the murder of someone he knew well. Bollas was not at first convinced, but as Jonathan provided ever more elaborate detail as to his methods and strategies, Bollas began to fear that he might have genuine intent. The situation quickly became intolerable, as he was not sure what to think, what to do. Eventually he took the problem to a colleague who suggested he tell his client that he would certainly inform the police if he did murder anyone. Bollas was relieved to have this solution and then baffled at his own inability to come to it. It was, he felt, because he had been in such confusion over what was truth and what was fantasy.

Having told Jonathan of his intentions, the murder plot was not spoken of again. And Bollas had a particularly provocative experience of how it felt to be on the receiving end of a lie that has been exposed as such. Like others who had caught Jonathan out, he felt betrayed. He wondered if he would ever manage to achieve a proper relationship with him. His trust was shattered. He felt anger at his own gullibility, and sadness that whatever made Jonathan behave this way was not about to stop any time soon. And Bollas realised he was caught up in the experience of a powerful, extended metaphor. He felt, in short, the turbulent and bewildering emotional responses of a child repeatedly abandoned by his parents: the loss of trust, the sense of betrayal, the anger against his own hopeful beliefs, the sadness that he could not prevent it happening again.

Jonathan had created for his analyst a situation that illuminated his feelings of extreme inadequacy and insecurity, and which could help Bollas to understand the ‘crime’ of the lie: here was a child who was never with a parent long enough to create a real relationship, who had to fall back on his own fantasies time and again until the fantasies themselves seemed more solid, more enlivening, more realistic than the truth, which was only anxiety-inducing. Telling the lie gave Jonathan a safe place to be, hearing the lie, when revealed as a lie, put the listener in the place that Jonathan could never find the words to explain to another, in the midst of the emotions that had created him.


The Confused Liar

For just about seven years, between the autumn of 1998 and the winter of 2005, I was a compulsive liar. I gave an account of myself to everyone outside my immediate family that was very far from the truth. I said that I was fine, when in fact I was suffering from a debilitating chronic illness.

I had fallen ill with viral pneumonia over the Christmas of 1997. At that point in my life I had a three-year-old son and an almost-completed doctoral thesis. I also had a post to take up at a Cambridge college in the autumn of 1998. When the illness dragged on for the best part of a year, and there was no explanation for why this should be, or any obvious cure on the horizon, I began to understand that the illness had become unacceptable. I was not cured, yet there was no reason why I was still ill. For this situation, I understood that I was at fault. The term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ did not have much currency back in 1998, and what it did have was of an outlawed and reprehensible nature. There had been cases among the students and I had heard how they were described. They were malingerers, cowards, or just plain lazy. Now this was not someone I wanted to be. I was a hard worker, a reliable friend, and a person who kept her promises; I wanted very badly to be a good mother and an admirable academic. These were truths in desperate need of preservation from an illness with the power to wreck them; I never even felt I was lying, just keeping the faith with what I knew above all else to be true.

About a year after the pneumonia, I found I could appear like my normal self in public for a while. The fact that the symptoms of chronic fatigue – racing heart, low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats, muscle ache – were all invisible was extremely helpful. The trickiest problem was that I felt energetically like a leaky car battery. The longer I acted myself, the quicker my vitality drained away, and in no time at all I would be running on empty and afraid, knowing the symptoms would steadily increase in severity. But no matter how ill I felt, I still got away with it. Does that sound implausible to you? Well, people are ridiculously easy to fool when there’s nothing much to see, and I was good at self-discipline, a natural dissembler.

But I admit I was confused. As the years went by, and I kept on pretending and getting away with it, it became harder and harder to distinguish my own reality. I was strung out between two contrasting images of myself that held mortal sway over me: an Impressive Person, who was good and reliable and held down a demanding job while bringing up a child. Lots of ticks in boxes there. Or a Weak Person, who gave in to a nameless, invisible illness that most people didn’t believe existed. My mother often told me with loving exasperation that I was ‘doing it to myself’. My mother-in-law told my husband it was ‘all in my mind’. I felt like the worst placed person to figure out the truth. Most of the time I was too busy sustaining my façade to have any energy left over for philosophy.

Seven years. Everyone wanted so badly for me to be well; that helped prolong the lie. But what the experience felt like is so hard to explain, I can’t do it without metaphors. When I forced the symptoms out of my way, I could attain a sort of cruising speed, which was a lot like driving without brakes, propelled by momentum itself, exhilarating in its way but fraught with the imminent danger of a crash. In those cruising moments I was alive in a grandiose way, against the odds, but when I crashed and was too ill even get myself out of bed, I wondered what the hell I thought I was playing at. What exactly was I doing to myself? This was an illness where I could never clarify my role as either culprit or victim, but was constantly a mind-bending amalgam of both.

Eventually, I developed a symptom that was non-negotiable. When I struggled through brain fog to recall the details of the texts I was teaching, a moment of reckoning came. I went to see my doctor – something which in its futility I had abandoned as helpful years ago – and described my condition as truthfully as possible. It was the scene for my final lie. ‘How long do you think you’ll need to take off work to recuperate?’ he asked me. And I said, ‘Two weeks.’ It was in fact three long years before I would be well enough to return.

During that time, my perception of myself executed a radical u-turn. Whereas before I had never breathed a word about chronic fatigue, now I told everyone upfront, far too often, that this was what I had. Which meant: this was who I was. In the first year or so, when I spent most of my time in bed, it did indeed wreck the identity I had so carefully – and at such cost! – preserved. I was just an invalid, with an illness that still carried a great deal of stigma. But I was functioning at the level of what was undeniable and issuing a big, bold bring it on. Let them call me malingerer, coward, sloth. I was sick and tired of lying. Finally I could tell the truth and be bad.


The Playful Liar

Readers tend to be picky about the truth content of the memoirs they read, especially after the furore that greeted James Frey’s admission that A Million Tiny Pieces was somewhat embellished and embroidered. So what to do with a memoir that states its intention to be dishonest and tricky from the outset? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, recounts her experiences with an unusual form of epilepsy, unusual in that it may not be epilepsy at all. But to describe what she suffers as epilepsy provides a powerful extended metaphor for the deepest, most twisted realities in her life, and a way into a story that has been ‘eluding me for years.’ The book begins with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy, that is also a warning:

‘[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

Naturally, Hayward Krieger doesn’t exist.

But in the afterword to the memoir, where Slater acknowledges the reader’s desire for the ‘real facts’, she points out that her diagnoses through the years have been ridiculously varied, from borderline personality disorder, to epilepsy, to Munchausen’s, depression, OCD and autism. ‘All I know for sure,’ she writes, ‘is this. I have been ill for much of my life. Illness has claimed my imagination, my brain, my body and everything I do I see through its feverish scrim. All I can tell you is this. Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue as fast as yearly fashions.’ Not that this cuts much ice with some critics. Janet Maslin in her New York Times review said the reader could be ‘forgiven for wanting to throttle the narrator’, and the memoir could be considered as ‘either postmodern fun and games or pure exasperation between hard covers.’ Yet what about that Heideggerian truth of confusion that the fictional Krieger mentions? Is there a better way for readers to understand it than to experience it?

When she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But as puberty comes around, everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. Finally she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. She’s also left with a personality disorder – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. In late adolescence, writing takes on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. When an unhappy affair with her writing tutor ends, leaving her in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, he says, no such operation would be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch. Or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate. Or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth. Or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ And what if ambiguity really is the essence of Slater’s life? What if she is more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections?

What if all our identities were composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? What price truth then? Storytelling and its metaphors would be the only honest expression we had left.


The thing about lies – or we can call them stories if you prefer – is that they are just too essential to our survival to be given up. They hold cherished parts of ourselves that have been driven out of sight; they allow us to express the truth of experiences that no facts can convey; they are often the repositories for realities that no one really wants to face. We want the lie to be a unit of genre fiction, a nice, clear readable chunk of badness, when really it is a highly complex literary construct. A thing of layers and implications and irresolvable paradox. And in the desire to master our lives, to be the people we want to be, and to explain ourselves as best we can, we all get really good at them.

—Victoria Best


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


Oct 032015

MARGRET-OF-ANTIOCHMargret of Antioch

See how slow and
sure I glide. See my organs
wings. And you, little

fish I once plunged for
–nameless invisible fish in
deepest darkest ocean.

 Changing, Richard Berengarten


Breakfast at Nick’s

For several years after returning from Vietnam to the bewildering streets of New York’s lower East Side, I spent hours every morning at Nick’s Diner on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 4th Street recording dreams. The images that I brought back nightly from sleep, embedded in dramas that pointed to meanings I could almost but not quite understand, were irresistible and relentless. The old Greek proprietor in his lightly stained white apron and half smoked cigarette, the pale blue eyes peeking out of thick, black rimmed glasses was a guardian at the gate. At Nick’s I could sink into my dream-world and feel safe. I would later think of the place as an Asclepian incubator, where I could follow the procession of images to their destination as the smell of coffee, home-fries and bacon wafted from the grill.

Now and then, I’d find the diner closed and knew the proprietor had gone to the track. Otherwise I could depend on the white haired man leaning on the counter to nod as I entered. There were seldom more than five or six customers, mostly on the stools, perhaps one or two at a table. But not my table, a small two seater at the window with a view of Café La Mama across the street. One of the regulars at the counter, a man who made random duck noises, bothered no one. In minutes, Nick set my toasted bran muffin and mug of coffee down next to my open notebook. He did it soundlessly, then returned to his post. I ate slowly, seated next to the one piece of nature in the room, a drooping potted snake plant, and began to write what I recalled. At first I felt lucky to remember one or two dreams. Slowly, my ability to retain whole sequences of dreams increased until I was spending as much as three hours every morning at the task. More time than I’d thought possible. Once dreams were recorded, I floated through them, over them like a man in glass bottom boat above a vibrant coral reef. I never felt rushed. Nick appeared to understand that I was fishing for something important in much the same way he handicapped the Daily Racing Form. I did this for three years, until the bleachers at Aqueduct fell on Nick and the diner disappeared and almost instantly, as in a dream, became a bodega.

What started at Nick’s shaped my exploration as a poet, and later my practice as a psychotherapist. In the privacy of my office I worked with clients’ dreams, fishing for images that might yield insight into patterns and impulses that drove their lives unseen. In this respect I think of myself as part of a lineage dating back to the god Asclepius in the 4th Century BC who healed through dreams. Not surprisingly, I picture Asclepius in a white apron behind a Formica counter reading the Racing Form.

Before Socrates died of self-administered hemlock, he asked his faithful friend Phaedo to remember to bring Asclepius a cock in payment for an old debt. I can easily believe that in his search for truth, Socrates recognized this alternate dialectic with the unconscious that occurred in the Asclepian dream-chambers. And the manner of payment, a cock, represented this as a wakeup call.

Nick’s diner was my dream incubator.

Perhaps I’m taking my penchant for reading things symbolically too far, but I believe there are correspondences between Nick and Asclepius. Both Greeks died violently. Asclepius from a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus as punishment for bringing shades back from the dead. Nick, under falling bleachers while calculating the odds on the Trifecta. Socrates as we know died at his own hand in his own time, refusing the opportunity Phaedo offered him to escape the death sentence imposed on him for corrupting the youth of Athens in his pursuit of knowledge. Whatever he had uncovered in this pursuit left him unafraid to cross the threshold. And it was at this point he acknowledged his debt to Asclepius and asked Phaedo to honor it.

In this respect, I believe Nick was Socratic. I’d like to think that in the eternal instant that precedes death as the bleachers fell on him, Nick managed a smile.

I continue to search the dark reaches of sleep for images that fill me with awe and fascination, and to remain in touch with the intelligence that produces them. 

DREAMSs“Dreams” by Douglas Leichter

Trolling these waters, I learned that my nightly dreams constituted a personal myth, but that Mythology functions as our collective dream. Both divulge meaning through symbols and archetypal imagery and serve as portals for information that enlarges waking consciousness. A key function of dream and myth, personally and collectively, is the integration of experience, without which the psyche would split, exist in what might be compared to a schizoid state, “beside itself.” As Carl Jung might have put it, The Spirit of the Times must be informed by The Spirit of the Depths.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell introduced me to Minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century romance, Parzival. Parzival, a Holy Fool searching for the Holy Grail, arrives at the Grail Castle where the wounded Grail Keeper, Amfortas, awaits one who will heal him. Amfortas eases his pain by fishing, and so becomes known as the Fisher King. Moved blindly on his mission, Parzival is allowed a glimpse of Grail and the Castle. It is like a dream from which he wakes. In the morning, the spectacle disappears. Parzival has glimpsed the Grail’s power, but can’t understand the experience. Slowly he becomes aware that the Grail calls out to one who is worthy of it, and only that one will be able to heal Amfortas and the Waste Land that mirrors his condition. Until that time, the Fisher King daily floats his line in the water from the back of a boat to ease his pain.

The myth resonated inside of me from the start. Years after Nick’s diner had disappeared like the spectral Grail Castle, where I had glimpsed the Intelligence that composed and delivered my own dreams, I grasped the central meaning in the myth: in order to heal the wounded Fisher King Parzival must expose his own hidden wounds. Parzival’s journey through the Waste Land echoed my own.

In February 1966 at the age of twenty-six, I disembarked from the S.S. Esparta at Seattle-Tacoma after six months in Vietnam. The journey was from a war ravaged land to one torn by civil strife. I’d watched homeless orphans in Saigon sell mariposas to GIs, while counter-culture children in Haight-Ashbury got high and pinned flowers in their hair.Timothy Leary instructed his audiences to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” as Henry Kissinger advocated carpet bombing and the use of Agent Orange. Protestors chanted to end the war. Vilified soldiers brought the abyss back with them.

Saturn devoured his children.

IMG_2353“The Despot” by Marc Shanker

The cultural nightmare also laid waste to any claim to sanity by those in authority, balance and trust, all required for healing.

The Post-internet Waste Land is even more deceptive because the new technology that can spin any condition to appear to be its opposite. Hyper-stimulation and desensitization walk hand in hand. Pain hardens into confusion, or explodes in acts of terror. Disconnection looms at every intersection of the Information Super Highway. Environmental degradation proceeds in tandem with urban gentrification. The inherent contradiction in this behavior is no less telling than the one in Parzival’s world where knights left children orphaned in the name of love.

It seems to me that the Fisher King is still in pain, floating with his line in the water, waiting for one who can address the disconnection in the human heart.Parzival may be the first tale on record to identify the wound in Western culture as a failure of intimacy.

I’ve worked with countless dreams, my own and others, since Nick perished beneath the Aqueduct bleachers. At the rate of change in our culture, decades register as centuries. We are on a rocket ship, pressed by the G-force and fortified against it by all manner of desensitizing devices. But the basic structure of the human psyche has not changed since our ancestors inscribed their images swimming in the Paleolithic darkness of those great caves.I have no idea how to approach the problem on a massive scale, but as a therapist I try to do it one person at a time. But while the structure of the psyche remains the same, the environment that surrounds it has changed dramatically.Von Eschenbach mythos speaks to me through the mists of time. But it was brought to light eight centuries ago. What do the Fisher King and Parzival look like today and how are they embedded in the particulars of our lives? The messages received nightly in sleep may provide the best clue.


A Case History

chaim-soutine-by-Tekkamaki[68597]“Chaim Soutine” by Tekkamaki

Perry is Parzival, or as closely cut from that physical cloth as anyone today might imagine. At 6’2”, he has linebacker shoulders, blue eyes are set deeply under a ridge of brow that give him the look of an eagle focused on a world of prey below. The warrior aspect is softened by blond hair, and an open smile. Heads turn when he enters a room. A survey of his gifts reveals that he is a discerning collector of folk art, stalwart conservationist and outdoorsman, formidable chef and sommelier, and a canny business man. In the course of fifty years, Perry has made a living as a rock drummer, night club owner, music producer, and currently as a high-end realtor. His version of the Grail mission is contained in his ambition to be the best possible human being he can, which includes helping those he cares for in any way he can.Women are drawn to him as they might be to a knight who will save them from loneliness, disappointment, and a history of trauma.

Perry projects the fantasy lover to many of the women he meets. The question that troubles him most is his own inability to sustain intimacy. Parzival’s confusion upon leaving the Grail Castle after glimpsing the Grail, might describe what Perry feels after a glimpse, followed by the loss of intimacy. It’s the source of great pain and self-doubt. Perry doesn’t understand why the condition exists, or what to do about it.

Perry’s romantic relationships have been mostly short term, fragmented, and hit-and-run. Certain women endure his brief appearances and longer absences in their lives for months, or even years—until it becomes intolerable to one or both of them. Our sessions over five years have focused on Perry’s wounds sustained at the hands of a sadistic father, and an enabling mother. Physical and emotional violence suffuse his earliest memories. As a child, when things heated up, Perry retreated to his room where he beat out rhythms with drum sticks on a practice pad and imagined he was a rock star in silver tights.

When we first met, Perry exuded a strong bonhomie. The traumatic events of his youth appeared to have disappeared into a life rich in friendship, fine wines and gourmet meals balanced by regular workouts at the gym. Only his painful experiences in relationships stopped him from addressing the void left by a sadistic father and sacrificial mother. The most promising preludes led inevitably to feeling trapped in an intolerable domesticity that made him flee in fear. Most attempts to develop a relationship sent him fleeing out the back door in a matter of weeks.

Until he met Cassandra.

gh3 Crowning of the Poet“Crowning of the Poet” by Grace Hartigan

There was something about Cassandra that would not let him go. From the first, he held on to her even when she pushed him away. She was the one who doubted she would be enough to fill his needs. He insisted his roster of friends, parties and shared enthusiasms for folk art and music, would not threaten their closeness. For the first time he felt no desire to run. Six months into the relationship, they’d moved from casual content to talk of commitment. Cassandra balked. Perry insisted they take it slowly, carefully. He wanted to be careful with her, remembering what it felt like to be overwhelmed.

Cassandra had her own unaddressed but elusive wounds. Her early sexual abuse by her step-father, denied until this day by her mother, had not affected her ability to conduct her daily life as an office manager and mother of three cats. Impeccably dressed during business hours, she was happy to lounge around in sweats on weekends.

Perry found her Nordic good looks irresistible.

Cassandra preferred to stay home, and to avoid unfamiliar social situations. Naturally social, Perry tried to accommodate her without giving up what he felt important for his own well-being. Cassie complained when he spent time hunting, fishing, or socializing with friends. Perry invited her to work on their issues in couples’ therapy. Cassandra appeared for several sessions and then declined to continue.

Perry appeared upset at our next weekly session. He’d caught Cassie going through his emails, and cell phone records. She responded by questioning him. He tried to field her suspicion of any communication with another woman, mostly in the course of doing business. Perry could say little to defend himself from her invective. He explained one of the women was an old friend. He assured Cassie that her suspicions were unfounded, but they continued even after he had provided explanations and alibis. This frustrated Cassandra even more. She couldn’t pin it down, but was certain he’d been unfaithful.

“There is no way to reason with her,” he told me.

Perry insisted that he couldn’t continue with her under these conditions. He was unable to fix what’s broken in Cassie. His partner of almost a year was forcing him out. He is full of grief.I try to comfort him, compliment his work on this relationship, regardless of the way it ends. It’s ground gained.

“What ground?”

In drawing close to Cassandra, I tell him, he’s glimpsed what it might be like to be loving and unafraid. While it doesn’t relieve his grief in the moment, this glimpse of who he might become, moves him.


What We Fish For

Blakelock-Corcoran RYDERMoonlight” 1886-1895 by Ralph Albert Blakelock

Parzival finds the Grail Castle at dusk following directions given to him earlier that day by a man he encountered fishing, who later awaits him in the Great Hall.Bathed, unarmed, and wearing a white robe, Parzival follows a maiden similarly robed to the banquet. He is struck by the scale of the hall, and the abundance of the table at which he is seated. The Fisher King, on the divan beside him, engages him briefly, then cries out in pain. As in a dream, Parzival cannot hear or see his host clearly. The procession displaying the Holy Lance and Grail leaves him in awe. He has only a limited awareness of anything else. Under the spell of these numinous objects, the underlying meaning of the spectacle eludes him. He registers the signs of anguish in his host, deepening furrows, compressed lips, but he has been taught as a knight not to question his host. Parzival fails to ask the Fisher King the healing question. In a state of satiety and confusion he is abruptly taken back to his chamber. He has no idea of the disappointed expectations he’s left behind.

Only years later, after Parzival has felt the weight of his own grief would he be able to fully acknowledge the grief of another. Until that time, he remains tongue tied, buried in false assumptions, and burdened by failure.

It’s not unusual at some point to find ourselves dumbfounded at the banquet of life. A few of us glimpse the image of our unique destiny. Though it may not be fully recognizable, it propels us into the larger mystery of the consciousness—the field from which form arises. The Glimpse, however it appears to us, activates feeling and intuition, a drive to grasp what waits to be named before we can name it.


The Glimpse

Parzival, too, has such a glimpse shortly after he first arrives at the Grail Castle. On his way to the banquet hall he stops in front of a small room on his left. The grey bearded elder lying there lifts his head to meet the young knight’s eye.Parzival feels something familiar stir. The old man seems to float on a bed of light. Suddenly Parzival’s heart is filled with tenderness, an emotion he has not encountered before. He wants to find out more about this man, and learns only that his name is Titurel, before the attendants urge him on to the Great Hall, the scene of his epic failure.

fisher_king_detail2“The Wounded Fisher King”

In the morning no one is present in his room or the corridors. His horse awaits but there are no other horses in the stalls. The castle appears empty. He hears jeering from the walls as he rides out. They accuse him of lacking a heart as well as a tongue. The draw bridge closes behind him. Parzival begins to suspect he is the object of derision. Unseen voices mock him from the battlements, ask why he failed to ask the question.

“What question?” he calls back.

What follows is confusion. The nature of his offense eludes him, until after riding for several hours be encounters a women keening over a dead knight. She reveals herself to be his cousin, Sigune. The corpse she holds, and refuses to let go of, is her lover who died in defense of Parzival’s kingdom during his absence. This corpse is just one of many who have died for his sake, some by his own hand. She then makes clear the depth of his failure to ask Amfortas the healing question. Parzival is struck dumb. What he imagined to be a legacy of noble deeds is in fact a list of failure upon failure.

Parzival has failed because he is unconscious. His mission had been a vague thing, and his intervention the consequence of his inherent knightly virtue. He has yet to learn the whole truth about himself, and the role he must play. The fact that he may be part of the Grail lineage has at no time crossed his mind. Not even as he rode away, or registers the truth as Sigune details it to him.He rides away leaving her with her corpse, the Waste Land unchanged.

What he did take with him was the feeling evoked by his memory of the old man on a bed of light in the room off the corridor. That glimpse had been accompanied by an emotion that connected him to the object of his gaze in a way he could not have understood—that he had in that moment made contact with the original Grail King, his great uncle, Titurel.

The importance of The Glimpse must be noted; it’s a crucial milestone in Parzival’s development. The Glimpse activates the process of becoming conscious.  It will take Parzival twenty years of wandering, struggle and disappointment before he will realize his destiny.

What might he have registered upon seeing Titurel through a crack in the door?

For Parzival, this glimpse is accompanied by a compelling new field of emotions. Perhaps it’s what he saw mirrored by that senex, the wise ancestor who has known the end from the beginning. Did Parzival glimpse himself, redeemed, in the loving gaze of the original Grail Keeper, hidden in a room of the unconscious?

My client Perry, as well, might early on have glimpse the possibility of his redemption in the Cassandra’s loving gaze, or projected that potential on to her. Like Parzival, he may have experienced in that moment the promise of a compelling new emotional field offering something he had never experienced before. Both Perry and Parzival felt rather than understood the depth of this connection, though neither could have explained it.Perry, like Parzival, drawn to that part of himself he struggled to imagine, the part that makes one whole, what we fish for, color flashing under the surface, Osiris’ phallus swallowed by a fish.


Enter the Fisherman

Perry is a life-long fisherman. He is at his best on the bank of a trout stream casting out line. His years have taught him to read the water for patterns, flow and bottom. Perry chooses his lure carefully, and knows where and how to place it. In our sessions, we talk about his dreams in the language of fishing. It has made the symbolic references of the exploration easier to understand.

Dreams and lucid visions hit Perry’s line regularly. The catch can be playful, or smart, or if he is not attentive, it can easily snag and break the monofilament.He is however quick to tell me that fishing for dreams differs significantly from what he does at a trout stream in one respect. Fishing for dream content, he is at times repelled, and at others fascinated by what he reels in. But certain things hold true for both.

“I don’t always catch something, or keep what I catch.”

I ask Perry if he ever throws the most remarkable images back.

Perry smiles. Clearly fishing for trout holds none of the potential dangers inherent in fishing his dreams. The sense of utter vulnerability is absent. The variables are inviting rather than confusing. He loves getting lost in the senses. He insists that standing in the stream, knee deep in waders, watching light and shadow shift along the banks, hearing the current murmur, feeling a breeze touch his cheek, make the experience sufficient unto itself. Some of his finest days are those when he doesn’t get a bite.

This may be true for the Fisher King as well.

I read between the lines. The problem arises fishing in psychological space/time, in which the depths rise up. Perry gets scared when a submerged danger is about to break the surface.“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish hook, or tie down its tongue with a rope?” says God in Job 41. When Perry hears that voice his habit is to take a break from therapy, women, and socially uncomfortable gatherings. Even a fleeting glimpse of what might be brought up from the depths, imprinted with the numinous, can be deeply disturbing to one who is unprepared.

Most spiritual traditions warn against it. In the Jewish tradition, Merkabah mystics are warned to avert their eyes, never to gaze directly at the Throne, lest they instantly become a cinder. Only a divinely ordained but clinically mad Ezekiel, or Moses on the mount cautioned where to gaze, can risk drawing close to the ineffable. God warns Job directly not to stare too deeply into the depths where numinous power exists as the Leviathan:

L'Ange_du_Foyeur Ernst“L’ Ange de Foyeur,” by Max Ernst

His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn. Firebrands

stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from his nostrils as from aboiling pot over afire of reeds.


The Fisherman’s Lament

“I feel empty,” Perry opens our session. “Nothing seems to last. Nothing of value.”

I hear Parzival cast back into the Waste Land.

In Perry’s case, the Waste Land is a workshop he participated in along with other real estate brokers who deal in multi-million dollar properties facilitated by a noted motivational speaker. After briefly assuring them all that they were a dynamic group of high achievers, she challenged them to close their eyes and picture what success looked like to each of them. More specifically, she wanted to know how they saw themselves at the height of their success, and what they would choose to do with their money. It was meant to be a goal orienting exercise, a glimpse of their destination, the longed-for reward each worked so hard to realize.

“I started to cry.” Perry flushed.


For him, this was a glimpse of the abyss.

“Unbecoming in a man after forty-five.”

“What do you make of it?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed his chin, a Perry tell expressing stress. “They keep urging us to reject pain, and embrace pleasure. But for some reason, I’m always moving in the opposite direction.”

I repeat Victor Frankel’s contention that for most people the dream of material wealth fills the void left by the absence of meaning. Perry has read Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and agrees. Still, it is hard for him to let go of the material dream. On the other hand, after so much time pursuing it, material success feels meaningless to him. Surrounded by those at the workshop, all of whom are driven by the desire for wealth, he became nauseous, and frightened he’d throw up.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” I offer.

“Easy for you to say. But where does it leave me?”

Perry’s attempt to fill his inner emptiness with intimacy had produced the same reaction. The recent breakup with Cassandra left him almost permanently nauseous. He had been determined not to follow his past pattern to run away when things became difficult. And he had held firm until the accumulated weight of her accusations had forced him out. She had constantly misread his slightest look as flirtation with a waitress or woman on the bus, continued to check his phone and computer logs. At every turn, Perry found himself litigating in his own defense, attempting to show her that she was mistaken, he was not her predatory step-father.

She would not be persuaded.

“I don’t understand how the nurture and trust I offered a partner for the first time in my life, provoked so much anger and suspicion.”

“Focus on her pain for a moment.”

800px-The_Wounded_Angel_-_Hugo_Simberg“The Wounded Angel” by Hugo Simberg

This is the only way he will be able to ask the healing question.

“I can’t!”

“Because your pain gets in the way.”

“Yes,” he nods. “If only I could get rid of this neediness, kill that part of myself…”

“No, no. You don’t want to do that.”

I suggest that killing feelings rather than understanding them is no solution. There is meaning in pain. To deny it invites substitutes like the pursuit of material wealth and power to fill the vacuum.In time he will be able to separate his pain from hers, and at that point see her more clearly

He confesses to drinking too much.

I tell him to watch his dreams.

“Maybe I’ll go fishing.”

“Good idea,” I reply. “There’s something healing about casting that line, just floating the lure.”

Perry knows I’m talking figuratively, about dreams. He nods, then winces—Parzival hearing the castle gate close behind him.

“I’ll call you,” he says.


Dressing the Wound 

Perry calls two weeks later for an appointment.He hasn’t had the energy before this for a session, but is determined not to run away. There is too much confusion surrounding the situation. He’s ready once again to talk about his dreams. And there is one in particular he wants to explore.

I look forward to the meeting. Perry’s dreams are fluent. His unconscious is often visionary, personal issues enriched by symbols and archetypal content. Facing me from the couch, his back ramrod straight, he recounts the dream that sent him here.

 I’m standing in front of a green curtain that slowly transforms into a face, one I find frightening. At first it is mostly a large mouth, like a tear in the fabric, except it grows lips. Then the other features press against the surface as if they are trying to fix themselves but can’t. The surface is wrinkled like an old cloth. Then it becomes transparent, and parts. I hesitate, but can’t do anything else than step through it, and find myself in a cave. There’s a waterfall at the far end. It falls into a pool, the kind where wild animals come to drink. There may even by foot prints at the edge. Then I notice a fountain at the center of the cave. Water spills from a circular dish into a catch basin. The sound of water falling surrounds me. Musical, almost harmonic. With so much water and stone, the cave isn’t damp. On the contrary. I can feel a breeze which is surprisingly dry and sweet smelling. I start to relax, even sink into a peaceful state, until I sense something watching me, a powerful presence; it seems to be everywhere. I wonder if it is malevolent, means to do me harm. I’m sacred, but fascinated, wait for whatever is watching me to speak. But it doesn’t. There is only silence. I am stuck to the spot. Can’t move. Finally I summon the courage to call out, “Declare yourself!” As soon as I do, the whole scene fades and I am facing the green curtain. The surface wrinkles, lips form then answers me: “I’m here!”

Perry recalls every detail. He had visited a place where his senses registered changes like seismographs. Hyper-reality, he calls it. It was clearer to him than any other concrete place he had been in recent memory. He wondered if what he experienced had been a form of possession, and the presence he felt there with him a demon.

“What you entered,” I suggest, “is a sacred space. Jung refers to it as a temenos.”

“What’s that?”

A temenos, I explain, is an eternal dimension within the psyche. Reflected in its geometry—the circle squared—the temenos refers to a center of personality. It is a space that contains the realized self. As an archetypal form it’s describes the classic mandala. It is commonly expressed in the design of most plazas, a circular fountain at the center of a square. King Arthur’s Round Table is the temenos at the center of Camelot. In Perry’s dream, it’s presented in its archaic form, a fountain at the center of a cave in which the air smells sweet and without dampness, though full of running water.

Perry’s eyes grow wide, Parzival in the presence of the Grail.

“I was terrified,” recalls Perry. “Like I might die.”

“You had a glimpse of wholeness behind nature’s curtain. The green mask of the Great Mother, which you’ve mistaken for a demon, has assured you from disembodied lips that she’ll be there to receive you again, when you’re ready.”

“I guess.”

“Remember what she said?”

“Sure. She said: I’m here!”


Gone Fishing 

grailtable1temenos“King Arthur’s knights, at Pentecost, see a vision of the Holy Grail’. From Lancelot and the Holy Grail.

Perry cancels his appointment the following week, texts that he’s not “running away,” just wants to spend an indefinite time trout fishing. It’s the start of the season, streams are stocked. His gear is packed. We both understand what this means. I hope that in addition to catching trout, he will pull something else out of the deep pool of his sleep. Maybe the Oxyrhynchus, the fish which the Egyptians believed swallowed the phallus of Osiris.

“’Ripeness is all,’” I text him back.

When I see him two weeks later, he reports the following dream.

I am fly fishing in a stream surrounded by high banks of exposed roots from the trees above. Suddenly I feels a tug at the line, pull back, set the hook, then try to reel in, but the line is heavy and appears stuck on the bottom. I give it a tug. The line becomes free, but there is a significant weight on the other end. It doesn’t fight or run, but requires enormous exertion to move. Eventually I can see a shadow in the water, and then make out this huge brook trout, many times the size of a normal one. As it comes closer I notice there are a lot of little fish attached to it, feeding on it. When I lift him out of the water, the small fish fall away and the trout comes up clean. I see that its nose is slightly bent, which happens to very old fish, and that it has a mouth full of razor sharp large teeth. But I’m not scared to touch it. Maybe because it doesn’t resist in any way. I lay it out gently on the bank. It doesn’t try to bite me. I am confident that it won’t hurt me, and my heart is suddenly full of a mixture of sadness and joy, wide open, raw, with an overpowering emotion I realize is love.

Perry shakes his head, still in the grip of that emotion. The dream unfolds of its own accord. Before he says a word, we share an understanding of this one. What he catches in the dream is no ordinary fish, but his wounded core. This ancient creature has been buried in the sunless depths of his soul all his life. It has grown old inside of him. Because of his determination to confront his pain, and our work together, because he is a fisherman who has kept his line in the water, the fish chose to emerge at this time.

fish“Swordfish,” Brunetto Latini’s  Livre de Tresor

He will always experience it, even as a memory, in the present. It waits in the shadows of the stream, where Perry is likely cast his lure. At first the creature hugs the bottom, low enough to resist being pulled up, but eventually allows it. Perry is struck by an unexpected emotion: he feels tenderly about the creature. The feeling grows stronger as he reels. He is moved by the sight of creature’s bent nose, an indication of its age.

“Very old,” he repeats.

Its eyes are large black holes that glow, like one of those blind fish that live near thermal vents at extreme depths where there is no light, it is a perfect formulation of his woundedness. Clusters of smaller fish clinging like barnacles fall away as Perry lifts it out of the water. These he recognizes as collateral conditions that fed on his pain. The creature, too, seems relieved to shed them, revealing the iridescent hues that were hidden, green and blue, visible in the daylight.

The emergent form and details of his ancient sorrow, what had been shapeless terror now given shape, gives him palpable relief, almost a lightness of being. He spreads his catch on the bank, whole and clean; its razor sharp teeth pose no danger to him. In the light of making so much material conscious, Perry sees through a clear lens.

He admires the fish where it lies, old, venerable, then drops to his knees overwhelmed. What he registers in the creature’s blind eye pierces his heart like blade.As Parzival discovered by “piercing through,” there is no greater intimacy than the gratitude that opens when the hardened accretions that feed on despair fall away like old barnacles. His heart swells like a vessel unable to contain its contents, so full it is about to spill over. Perry is convinced that he will never love anything more than he does this old fish at his feet.


Daedalus Delivers

r6Gypsy’s Diner

I am sitting at Nick’s tasting the last of my toasted bran muffin, getting ready to record last night’s dream in the notebook open beside the coffee mug veined with grime that will never wash out. There are a few regulars at the counter: and ambulance medic named Bob, a beefy man in a blue official jacket; Yuri, the scientific chiropractic Ukrainian masseur, and the old man who makes duck noises. Outside, homeless men fresh from the shelter on 3rd Street make their way slowly down Second Avenue, find empty doorways, talk to themselves in front of the Emigrant’s Bank on the other side of the street.

I remember last night’s dream clearly, a fragment, but as if it were a lived experience—as real as my memories of Vietnam, or my Brooklyn childhood around the corner from Ebbets Field.

 I am looking at a man walking quickly from Gem’s Spa towards Houston Street along 2nd Avenue. He is casually dressed in jeans, and s black sweatshirt on the front of which embossed in white block letters the legend: “Daedalus Delivers.” I note his purposeful walk and repeat the words on his sweatshirt, then conclude that he is a messenger on a mission. I repeat the phrase, “Daedalus Delivers.” Then answer: “And he does.”

It will take me months, maybe years, to understand that the messenger is the message of this dream. As such, the dream possesses an origin and an intention, a way of delivering the message. Everything speaks of an intelligence at work that is independent of our own, what Jung refers to as the Objective Psyche, and the Romans understood to as the Genius. Here, the intelligence alludes to itself as Daedalus, the mythic craftsman who constructed the labyrinth on Crete to contain the Minotaur.

It is a dream that comments on itself and the very archetype of The Dream. In the meta-sense it points to the idea that in its construction a dream is a labyrinth which conceals something at it center that may be monstrous or grotesque, a concealed mystery waiting to be revealed. The indication is that it contains a core-meaning that must not be seen directly, in day light. The creature/meaning in question, sensed, even suspected, lies buried beneath the heart of the city.

Daedalus, the inventor of wings that can simulate those of birds, carry one as in a dream high above the ground over great distances. On the other hand, like the unchecked dream, it offers a perilous power for those like his son, Icarus, who are temperamentally unsuited to flight.

This early dream image flourished in my storehouse of images, and proved so rich it survived three decades undiminished. Attached to it the smell of old urn coffee, and another artificer, Nick, guardian of my morning ritual in the temenos that is his diner. The Racing Form from which he seldom looks up challenges him daily with the riddle of fate vs free-will, what can be calculated and what escapes the scope of probability.

His presence was a secure incubator, a place where the images could emerge from my night-sea journey like companions on the boat I steered into the morning, collaborators in the unfolding of my own hazy destiny. Nick made me feel we shared this purpose. His old watery eyes when I left followed me out the door, and into the room where I practice today with other peoples’ dreams as well as my own.

I have learned patience in this pursuit.

For one thing, my boat is more stable, and the lines steady. I fish for what informs me in science, as well as in the humanities and the arts. My navigation skills have been honed by survival years on the lower East Side, in embattled zones of South East Asia and Central America. But there has been no better place to cultivate the clues to judging depth, or the potentials of a weed line than in a marriage, or parenting a child. And by my every reckoning, as well as those of my clients, I remain convinced we possess a submerged intelligence that generates messages that form and transform the patterns governing our lives.

Which is why the Fisher King addresses his pain by fishing.

squaring-the-circle“Emblema XXI” by Michael Maier, 1618

He demonstrates what it means to float on the unconscious. Just to knowingly touch its vastness brings comfort.This is true for all who troll the field from which form emerges. Sooner or later, those waters will yield what we must see. Many are sustained by that promise. A few, like Perry, fish only to feel the late afternoon breeze, and light on the water.

There’s no faith or institution necessary, nor any need to convince another of the experience of the inner intelligence, what the Roman’s called the Genius, is available to you. It is numinous, and one can use the language of myth to describe it. My dream at Nick’s diner named that intelligence Daedalus, after the Greek artificer. Socrates said he failed to listen to his Daemon to his detriment. European romance refers to it as the Grail, or the Philosopher’s Stone that can confer immortality.Carl Jung referred to it clinically as the Objective Psyche, or the Self. Like the Hindu Brahman/Atman it is embedded in our psyches, and in the universe at cellular and cosmological level. What we may experience in our waking mode is that intelligence can evolve slowly starting with the early wound, separation from the womb/mother, to the possible apprehension of the ground of consciousness itself, a glimpse of which opens the heart as it did for Parzival and Perry.

Thomas_Cole_-_The_Voyage_of_Life_Childhood,_1842_(National_Gallery_of_Art)“The Voyage of Life,” by Thomas Cole

The ancient fish representing Perry’s unconscious suffering spread out on the bank in his dream, is a message from the same Objective Psyche as my Daedalus in his black sweatshirt walking briskly down Second Avenue. Both convey a touch of the numinous. The Grail which sustains the banquet Parzival observes is also a representation of the intelligence that spills dream images into our sleep, as is the stranger in the boat who directs him to the castle. A glimpse of this reminds us that we are everyone in the dream. Each of us is Parzival, challenged to heal the Fisher King; each of us a Fisher King waiting for our Parzival, as well as the fish who has swallowed Osiris’ phallus swimming in the sea of consciousness. Every morning, I write down what I’ve brought back from the dark waters over coffee, absent the toasted bran muffin, and Nick—whom I failed to engage directly, and ask the healing question.

 —Paul Pines


by Jay Hunter

Photo by Jay Hunter

Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He has published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numéro Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.


Oct 022015





I was trying to draw the space between objects; at least half of drawing is letting emptiness define the object. The other half might be looking closely, letting go of your preconceptions of what something is so that you can see what’s actually there. I was trying to see.

This was decades ago, during a disastrous and self-destructive adolescence that had, nevertheless and astonishingly, transported me from a public high school tucked in the far northwest corner of the contiguous United States to Yale University. I had been groomed to be a Math major with a French minor but, being three thousand miles from my childhood home and drunk off my perceived freedom, I decided to major in art.

All students were obliged to take some science, to round us out. I took a class designed for non-scientists, one nicknamed Physics for Poets. Lawrence Krauss was my teacher. He was funny and friendly and kind; he didn’t mind talking to bored teens. He was barely out of his own teenage years, though had impressive credentials and a PhD. He looked then much as he looks now: lean, animated, glasses-wearing, short dark hair, a mouth that is crammed with jokes and big ideas.

I was shy; teachers scared me. But Krauss was approachable. He was teaching mind-bending stuff. I’d go to him with questions, and we’d end up talking about nothing.

Because nothing, the physics of it, is his specialty.

I recently contacted him because I wanted to thank the two teachers in college who had helped shape me. One was the drawing teacher who taught me to look at things clearly; I found that he’d died. The other was Krauss. He and I struck up an email conversation, and he agreed to a Skype interview. When we spoke, he’d just returned from Bolivia, where he’d been playing a villain in a Werner Herzog film.

If you search the library shelves for A Guide for the Perplexed, you will find three books: one by Maimonides, the Sephardic astronomer, scholar and philosopher; one by Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker; and one by Krauss.

The universe is filled with unexpected connections. I am a perplexed filmmaker who turns to astrology in moments of desperation. Lawrence Krauss, Phd, cosmologist, is also now an actor.

KRAUSS: I just have to see if this is… Hello? Hello? Hello? Yes? There’s no Mary Lou here. I’m sorry, you have the wrong number. Okay. Okay, okay, okay.

It was from California, and I thought it might be someone that I was… Okay, anyway.

Krauss has been in front of cameras before, talking about particles, dark energy, and God. Now he’s spinning into fiction. And expecting an important call.

ME: Hollywood?


KRAUSS: What always has intrigued me, and I think it’s from the time I was a kid, is this connection between science and culture. I am a product of popular culture. When I was a kid, I had a TV in my room, and I would not begin my homework, even from the time I was 10, until The Johnny Carson Show was over, at 1:00 in the morning.

Late night TV, back before cable, would end in static. About 1% of old-fashioned static was caused by radiation emanating from the Big Bang. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Those of us watching TV late at night back before cable, young Krauss, could see traces of our origin.

KRAUSS: It’s hard to be divorced from popular culture, which is what academia is. The books, and then the music, and now the films are another way to engage.

Krauss and I could talk about movies all day, and we spend much of our time doing so, but eventually we get to my agenda. I want to know more about nothing, really. What is it? If I can understand the basic scientific concept, perhaps I can craft a lens through which I can look at other forms of nothing.

I am interested in how what we do not see makes us who we are, how negative space defines us.

Rubin VaseRubin Vase, the classic illustration of space/negative space


One of my son’s favorite books is also mine. It is based on a Yiddish song. Joseph had a little overcoat, it got old and worn. So Joseph makes a vest from his overcoat, when that becomes patched and threadbare, he makes a scarf from the vest, then a tie from the scarf, then a button from the tie. Then the button pops off and he loses the button. What is Joseph to do? He makes a story about about the life of his overcoat. The book ends with the moral, you can always make something from nothing.

It’s a great story for writers, facing the blank page.

KRAUSS: The simplest kind of nothing is—which is in fact, I would claim, the nothing of the Bible—is emptiness, is an empty void, space containing nothing, infinite dark. No particles, no radiation, just empty space. But then there’s the kind of nothing which is more deep, which is no space itself and no time itself.

Krauss’s basic thesis, the one that he’s popularly known for, is that the universe could have arisen from nothing. No particles, no radiation, no space, no time. Nothing. Then poof: a universe. A universe as in: everything we can see and measure, a universe filled with energy and stuff. A universe of galaxies and nebulae, gravity and electromagnetism, space and time. A universe of somethings surrounded by nothing, the same kind of nothing there was before the beginning.

We call it nothing because we can’t see it, we don’t understand it, but it is unstable, dynamic. Fertile.


ME: Every animal life starts with a Big Bang (one hopes a loving, consensual one). I’m curious about your beginnings.

KRAUSS: Neither of my parents finished high school. My father’s family is from Hungary, my mother’s came from Europe during the war. Jews during the war. Or before the war, actually. I think my parents, being the way they were, and not having been to school, they decided my brother would be a lawyer and I would become a doctor. That was the plan. As a result, my brother did, unfortunately, become a lawyer. A professor of law, actually, which is worse, ’cause they make lawyers. I became interested in science, ’cause my mother made the mistake of telling me that doctors were scientists.

Around high school, I realized that doctors weren’t scientists. In particular, I took a biology course that was just so boring. Memorizing parts of frogs. So I dropped the course, a traumatic experience for me, and more traumatic for my mother, who was still convinced I was gonna become a doctor. When I went to college, I had a motorcycle and I had to get her to fill out some forms for my insurance and send them up to me, and I discovered that she’d written that I was in premedical school, which my university didn’t even have. When I got my first job at Harvard, which was a very fancy position in the Society of Fellows there, my mother phoned up my then-wife, we had just gotten married, and said, “You gotta talk him out of this. What does he want, chalk on his hands? He’d still have time to become a doctor.” Eventually she got over it and is quite happy now.


Before my interview with him, I skim books by Krauss, watch his videos. I Google “fields” and “particles” and “quarks” and “quantum.”

What I find is this: everything in the universe is composed of particles. Like numbers, the particles also exist in the negative: anti-matter. Every quark has its anti-quark, every life has its death. The same weight and shape, but in opposite.

Particles interact with fields –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear– which are the expression of forces. These forces give the particles mass, and allow the matter to be seen. Fields make particles into matter.

It can be hard to tell where a particle ends and a field begins.

The particles that make up your body come from exploding stars. Krauss has said that the particles that constitute your left hand likely come from a different star than the ones that make up your right. His joke is, Forget Jesus. Stars died so that you might live.

Supernova via The TelegraphDying Star via The Telegraph


Krauss talks about God a lot. Rather, he talks about how God wasn’t necessary for the universe to come into being.

ME: How do you define God? Is it as creator? As author?

KRAUSS: As a purposeful creator. As some intelligence guiding the universe. As if you need some design and purpose, and that the universe was created as a conscious act.

ME: Why is it important to you to argue against the existence of God?

KRAUSS: Hold on, my cat is at the door. Hold on. Okay. Okay, cat, you wanna come in? The door is closed, and therefore you wanna come in? Yeah, okay. Okay. Okay. Come here. Come here. There you go. We have a very vocal cat, so—

ME: I can hear her. Or him.

KRAUSS: Him. And he–well, he doesn’t really come in here, but I think the existence of a closed door, which it normally isn’t, and it’s…

ME: The allure of the forbidden.

KRAUSS: Okay. I don’t argue against the existence of God. What I argue against is people’s insistence that their God should impact our understanding of nature and the way we behave. What I argue against is this notion that religion has anything to do with our understanding of the universe, which it doesn’t.

For many people, religion is an obstacle to accepting the wonders of the universe. People should accept the wonders of reality and be inspired by them, spiritually and in every other way. Arguing the universe is made for us is the opposite of humble. I guess part of what my effort is, is to tear down the walls of our self-delusion. Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong. That’s the great thing about science.

What is really remarkable, what we’ve learned in the last 50 years, is that you can create a universe from nothing without violating laws of physics, even the ones we know, much less the ones we don’t know. And that is amazing.

So all I can say is that you don’t need a God. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but you don’t necessarily need one.

I think a huge problem is that people define themselves as being more than just human beings and they like to be part of in-groups. Religion grows out of tribalism. It doesn’t unify people. It’s designed as us versus them.

Arguing against the necessity of God, arguing for science, it’s political now.

Most of the time people arguing for God are trying to restrict the rights, freedom or livelihood of other people.


We used to think that our world existed in a galaxy that was surrounded by an infinity of nothing.

As we refined our optics, stretched our mathematics, poked around in outer space, we found that we are, in fact, not alone. Our galaxy is one of about 400 billion, all spinning, surrounded by empty space.

Nothing is simply what we don’t see, what we can’t see, what we haven’t measured.

Physicists used to wonder what shape our universe took: was it endless (open), did it loop back on itself (closed), or was it flat (very big, but finite).

The only shape that would allow for the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation to look as it looks is the flat universe.

The flat universe isn’t as bad as it sounds. It is simple and elegant. The total energy in such a place is zero, the positive and negative balance each other out. Light travels in a straight line. It’s not as weird as the other, twisty-turny universes would be.

A flat universe would mathematically require a certain amount of matter. We have measured the mass of everything we can measure in the universe and come up short.

Where is the missing matter?

Where is the matter we didn’t know was missing until we started looking for it?

Turns out, it was nothing.

Nothing is filled with matter and energy that don’t react to the electromagnetic field, it doesn’t emit radiation. It doesn’t shine. So we call it dark.

KRAUSS: We wouldn’t be here, our galaxy wouldn’t be here, if dark matter hadn’t been there. This is the reason that our galaxy was able to form.

Dark matter birthed us.

Dark matter and dark energy are passing through us, undetected, all the time.

Dark matter, dark energy, surround us. We have calculated the amount of darkness, of nothing, and find that it constitutes exactly the amount needed to complement actual matter in a flat universe.


There is a great ragged gap in our society. I once thought it was nothing, but now, looking hard, I see that the emptiness is filled with the shape and weight of souls that should be there.

Field notes: Recently, I was upset when I learned about Misty Upham, a woman who lived a couple hour’s drive from my home, outside Seattle. One night, Misty went missing. Despite pleas for help, the police refused to look for her. Despite her movie star status, she was a Native woman living in a community with a history of deep rooted racism. She was found dead, days later, by a tribal search party. It is unclear whether or not she would have died had she been found right away.

Misty Upham was famous, which is why her story made the news. Her story became a lens for others: Indigenous women go missing like this all the time. Native women suffer, disappear, are killed and otherwise violated, at disproportionately high rates.

More raw data: The other day the State Patrol pulled me over for incorrectly passing a slow-moving excavator on the shoulder. I was not shot, I was not taken into police custody, I was not harassed, I was not given ridiculous fines, I was not scared, I wasn’t even nervous.  I got off with a warning.


Ours is a time in which black men are killed by police for infractions as minor as mine.
The New York Times recently ran a story about the million and a half black men who are, effectively, missing. Prematurely dead or incarcerated, they are missing from the lives that they should be leading.

missingFrom NY Times


Gravity, like love, is a force that brings bodies together. Science now suspects that dark energy is the force pushing stars apart, it is the force making our universe flatter.

KRAUSS: Dark energy is much more, much more complex and much more perplexing than dark matter. Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything, because it’s totally inexplicable.


The country in which I live, the United States, was founded on the idea of people all being equal, founded on principles of essential human dignity and gravitas, on freedom. It is equally founded on, and made possible by, the erasure and bondage of people.

KRAUSS: My friend Noam Chomsky once said to me, “I don’t care what people think, it’s what they do that matters.” But what people think has an impact on what they do. When you believe crazy things, it causes you to do bad things, or do nonsensical things.

Many of us in this country want to believe that we have left our ugly history locked safely in the past, and have come into the present with our freedom and equality intact.

Missing Indigenous women. Shackled black men. Violent ends. How can we say weare done with genocide and slavery? These unconscionable acts echo through time. They occupy the space around us.

Our society’s deliberate unseeing of the damage done, our willful repression of history, is our dark energy. This is a force pushing people apart, a force that is flattening us.

What we don’t see shapes us.


Scientific control: Humans have always killed, colonized, enslaved one another.

Yes. True. But.

This country is a laboratory for how to live with one another, how to reckon with history, how to reckon with difference. We are running an experiment with freedom and equality. If we are to have any measure of success, we can’t do this blindly.

We are starting to see the fields that inform us, that create and support us, the forces of subconscious bias. We are starting to see the violence, the injustice, that we didn’t think was there before.

What has shifted?

In part, is our technology. Our ways of seeing and recording. Dash-cams, body cams, smart phone cameras, everybody can take pictures now. Social media lets loose all this information, all the proof. We can measure, record, and analyze that which has been kept in the dark.

We are refining our optics, our measurements, our ways of communicating.

The Observer Effect: the act of seeing changes what you see.

Ergo: there is hope for us yet.


KRAUSS: The universe is a wonderful experiment. We can run data analysis on it. I was using the universe as a particle physics laboratory initially, because the universe allows us to access scales of time and space and energy that we would never be able to recreate in the laboratory.

The universe is a laboratory. It is confined. We can run experiments, and learn about this place in which we live.

My head is a laboratory for my self.

My great-grandfather was an erratic, energetic enthusiast who lit his arm on fire and wound up crippled, who sold insurance, ran a restaurant, made floats for parades, failed as an inventor, established one of the first wilderness areas in the city where I grew up, and regularly appeared in the small town paper because he was the kind of shiny, needy person that attracted attention. Hot dark matter? Charmed particle?

Here is a family secret, something that was long kept from sight: in middle-age, my great-grandfather pilfered a pearl-handled revolver from his daughter, my grandmother, a sharp-shooter.


The bullet was a particle shooting through his brain, through his field, warping it. That bullet caused a disturbance in the field of his family. I can point to myself, to my relations, and see ripple effects of his suicide, acts of self-erasure in his descendants: depression, eating disorders, bad relationships.

My great-grandfather was, according to family lore, brilliant and loving and funny, if mercurial. He spawned high-achieving children. He had everything to live for. What dark energy, then, propelled that bullet?

People didn’t know from crazy back then. His name was Art, which kind of slays me.


ME: My brain is limited by its neurons, by its chemistry. Aren’t our perceptions, and therefore our theories, always limited by the physical structure of our brains?

KRAUSS: Of course they are. And we have to work with the limitations of our senses and our brains. What science has allowed us to do is extend our senses.

We may be limited, but we know our limitations. That’s one of the great things about science: The limitations are built into the results of science. The fact that there’s uncertainty is an inherent property of science. I’s the only area of human activity where you can actually quantify what you don’t know.

The stories we create are not like religion. The stories we tell are not creations, because we can do experiments.

We have been forced, kicking and screaming, to the physics of the 21st century not because we invented it, but because nature forced us to it. Quantum mechanics led us in directions we never would’ve imagined. Dark energy is another example. No one would’ve proposed that empty space had energy if it didn’t turn out it did.

Art blew his brains out. What dreams, what lies, what loves, what despair splattered out with that gray matter? What exactly did he blow when he blew his mind?

KRAUSS: I tell people that I do physics ’cause it’s easy. It’s just a hell of a lot easier to understand the cosmos than it is to understand consciousness. Physics has hit the low-hanging fruit. The universe is relatively simple, and we are nowhere near understanding the nature of consciousness.


I caught my boy the other day with a knife, trying to jimmy open the pistol box we bought after he gleefully downed a bottle of overly sweet children’s acetaminophen, and in which we now lock all medicine. I understand the instinct to open anything that seems shut, to want something sweet, or something that might cure me. I imagine the soul as a box wedged between heart and lungs. I’m trying to pry mine open. It’s messy work, I have an old crowbar. My hands are calloused. I’ve managed a few dents in the lid. Dreams fly out.

Dreams are data from the subconscious. Dark energy, indirectly measured. My therapist analyses the images. For instance, a malignant, alien wind-up toy is a neurotic (malignant) complex that comes from somebody outside myself (alien) to which I give energy or credence (I wind it up). Almost every week, the night before I see my therapist, I will lay a dream as a chicken does an egg. There have been hundreds of dreams and fragments. Alone, they don’t solve anything, but over time, a picture of my subconscious begins to emerge.

By connecting the dreams to my memories of my life to date and to my experience of life right now, by looking at myself as part of a larger family system, by poking around in unpleasant histories, I start to understand some of the darkness that has plagued me. I am freed from wholly blind reaction. It is exhilarating, this embrace of uncertainty, this state of inquiry and perplexity.

The part of the self that seems unknowable, like a black box, like nothing, is –truly– alive, unstable, dynamic. Fertile. That is the self from which dreams and poetry spring.


One thing I love about science, about physics, is that it is an attempt at perspicacity. It wants to know the world inside and out, it wants to keep learning the world, forever.

Science, like poetry, traffics in wonder.

We are at a moment in time when we can see, measure, and record information about our universe. In the past, we didn’t have the technology to see far beyond our own edges. In the future, the universe will be so spread out, bodies will be so far apart from one another, there’s no way we’ll be able to see and measure anything other than our own galaxy.

We are at the only moment in time where we can have the picture that we have, tell the story, of ourselves at this moment in time.

Science forces us to acknowledge when we’re wrong, tear down the walls of self-delusion. That’s the great thing about science.

The more evidence we gather, the more we see, the more we change our our story.

What science allows us to do is extend our senses.

What happens when we try to see what we have not seen before? When we try to understand where we come from?

How might a person change, how might a society change, once it starts seeing and contending with its shadow, its missing self?

Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything.



As I was writing this essay, I had a dream that I was a teenager looking into the night. The sky was a mess of stars. When I stopped looking so hard, when I looked at a slant, the stars arranged themselves into constellations. Pictures that told stories.

ME: I’d like to check a metaphor.

KRAUSS: Uh-huh?

ME: My understanding is that quarks inside atoms are popping in and out of existence so quickly we can’t see them.


ME: On a very large scale, is that conceivably what’s true of multiverses as well, is that universes just pop in and pop out and…?

KRAUSS: As far as we know, it’s possible. If gravity is a quantum theory, then universes can spontaneously pop into existence for a very short period of time. Might even be virtual, which means they pop into existence and pop out of existence on a scale so short they could never be measured by any, quote, “external observer.” But other universes can pop into existence and stay in existence, and depending upon the conditions. And as far as I can see, the only ones that could do it for a long time are those that have zero total energy. And it turns out our universe does.

If you wanna replace “God” with “multiverse,” that’s fine. The difference is, multiverse is well-motivated; God isn’t.

It is conceivable that universes pop in and out of existence. Krauss has said that a baby universe might, from the outside, looks like a black hole, but on the inside, be infinite.

The soul might be a black box on the outside, and endless within.

I am trying to figure out how I move through space. I am trying to see the space between people, how that seeming emptiness can shape us. How gravity attracts one to another, how what we don’t see can drive us apart.

We pop in and out of existence, as people, as societies. To an external observer, our lives and civilizations are so fleet as to be virtual.

We spin.

We shine.

KRAUSS: What I like about being human is that there are so many facets to being human.We should enjoy and celebrate all of those facets. What saddens me is that many people live their lives without having any concept of the amazing wonders that science has revealed to us.

ME: Well, it can feel religious in a way, or spiritual.

KRAUSS: It certainly can feel spiritual. Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Oh, yes.


A writing teacher once gave me great advice: the end is contained in the beginning.

KRAUSS: It all comes back to our origins. Ultimately what is interesting is: Where do we come from, how did we get here, and where are we going?

Before the beginning, there was nothing.

Something came from nothing; the beginning began.

And this is how we think the universe might end: infinite flatness. Dark energy is driving galaxies apart, stars are accelerating away from each other. Our flat universe is getting flatter all the time. All the protons and neutrons, all the fundamental particles, that make up you, me, energy, space and time, all the laws of nature that govern us, will disintegrate.

Again, we will become ashes, dust. Nothing.

But nothing is fertile.

Something can spring from nothing.

Whirlpool galaxy, Messier Object 51 (M51)

—Julie Trimingham




First: a huge thank you to Professor Krauss. Our lengthy Skype conversation was transcribed; I then took the liberty of editing his responses for length. I also re-contextualized some of those responses, and by no means did I use everything. I am grateful for his playful & creative cooperation.



Lawrence M. Krauss, PhD, is a physicist and cosmologist. He has taught widely: Yale, Harvard, Case Western Reserve, Australian National University. He is currently the Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where he is also director of the Origin Project.

Look for him as the villain in Werner Herzog’s upcoming film, Salt and Fire, to be released sometime in the next year. And then look again: he has a cameo role in London Fields, and may soon be playing other notable malefactors. Hollywood is calling.

The documentary he made with Richard Dawkins, The Unbelievers, is packed with celebrities and good science.

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Krauss is prolific. All the scientific facts in this essay are derived from his books and lectures. Google his name and you will find a profusion of writings and videos. Those that bear most direct influence on this essay are:

A Universe from Nothing, the YouTube video of a Krauss lecture sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

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YouTube Preview Image

Other books by Krauss include:

-Atom: A Single Oxygen Atom’s Journey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond

-Beyond Star Trek: From Alien Invasions to the End of Time

-Fear of Physics

-Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory

-Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science

-Quintessence: The Mystery of the Missing Mass

-The Fifth Essence

-The Physics of Star Trek

Join his 165K Twitter followers @LKrauss1. All Krauss, all the time, at

The tricky thing about blind spots is that it’s hard to know where they are. Tracy Rector (, Nahaan (, and Alicia Roper provided essential readings of, and edits for, this essay. Many thanks to all.

Joseph had a Little Overcoat is Simms Taback’s book based on a Yiddish song.

The writing teacher mentioned in the essay is the magnificent Aritha van Herk.


Version 4

Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. A collection of fictional essays, Way Elsewhere, is forthcoming. She tells stories at The Moth and publishes non-fiction in Numéro Cinq magazine. She is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer on a film about the Salish Sea. Film and performance clips at Julie lives with her husband and young son on a small island.

Sep 152015



(1) Introduction


He kissed her, lay down beside her on the bed, his face to her face, and tenderly and slowly and gently took her, moving to and fro between the two passages offered to him, finally spilling himself into her mouth which he then kissed again.

“Before I go I’d like to have you whipped,” he said, “and this time I ask your permission. Are you willing?”

She was willing.

“I love you,” he repeated.

“Now ring for Pierre.”

She rang. Pierre chained her hands above her head by the bed chain. When she was thus bound, her lover stepped up on the bed, kissed her, penetrated her again, told her that he loved her, then stepped back onto the floor and nodded to Pierre. He watched her writhe and struggle in vain; he listened to her moans develop into screams. When the tears had finished flowing, he dismissed Pierre. From somewhere deep within she found the strength to tell him again that she loved him. Then he kissed her drenched face, her gasping mouth, released her bonds, put her to bed, and left. (Story of O, Pauline Réage 46)[1]

STORY OF O IS OBSCENE. It reminds me I am a prude with respect to certain standards, because the text often saddens and horrifies me. But there is no denying that I love it, that I have fallen in love with it. It is structurally intricate, and it enacts a philosophical concept I am, for whatever reason—since the genealogy of my interests is as opaque as anybody’s—deeply invested in. Assujettissement is a French term which designates both the process of becoming a subject, a self, and the process of becoming subjected. The two processes are bound in the word, synonymous and simultaneous. The two processes, in the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault, are one. In what follows, I would like to track this concept’s presence in the pages of a text which horrifies me and which excites me and which I love. This is an ambivalent essay: It gulps down so much poison in the process of its merrymaking. The poison is a necessary condition of its merrymaking. One loves to hate, but even critique, which is devoted to the object it criticizes, which lavishes it with the most intense of its attentions, which parasitizes it and assumes it as a basis for synthesis, is love.


O is the text’s protagonist. The proper name is visually suggestive. It is a nullity, a zero: nothingness. It is an evacuated figure: ‘empty,’ but also ‘open’ to the outside, a positive feature. It is true that when one considers O, the character, and Story of O, or O, the constitutive text/world that saturates her, allegorically, O’s obscenity eases. In the text, O’s lover presents her for prostitution within the limits of a clandestine, male-run society. O agrees to her prostitution and to the subsequent consequences of her enslavement. Soon torture, which was never supposed to yield pleasure (“[I]f you do tie her up, or whip her a little, and if she begins to like it—then that’s no good either” [Réage 10]), becomes the source of O’s deep subjective satisfaction: “However astonishing it might seem, that she might be ennobled, that she might gain dignity from being prostituted, continued to amaze her. It illuminated her from within…” (Réage 45). It seems as if O’s willed passivity might then be read as having a liberating effect, and that the text could be parsed as an allegory for a liberating form of self-death, or self-overcoming: The self negates itself in order to free itself (perhaps from itself, or perhaps from a power which functions through the self).[2]

It might seem strange to consider self-negation a positive, or necessary, gesture in the first place, but there are a few intellectual frameworks which motivate the idea that it is: Nietzsche, for example, promoted self-death as an anecdote for nihilism; he urged his fellow—though he was loath to call them fellow—nineteenth-century, German subjects to become other than they were, to relinquish their sickliness and become gods. That is to say, he urged them to pull up their pants and make their own values, given that values were nowhere to be found (God was dead, after all). Self-death becomes an even more complicated imperative in light of Foucault’s work.

Foucault, of course, obliterated the difference between the subject and its surrounding social world. The social forces which seem to exist outside the subject actually, in his schema, created its subjectivity in the first place and make use of that subjectivity as a means to their own normalizing ends. No one forces us to behave. We help power along: we regulate ourselves. You are forced to write enough essays as a youth and you might actually come to take pleasure in the process. You begin to write in the absence of an injunction from without. For your own joy. Your joy has been disciplined into you: power enters you and perpetuates itself through you by giving you a skill. In the Foucaultian schema there are different ways that power ‘gets into you’ (though there is no ‘you’ before power generates you, before it sculpts you as an entity with particular capacities and desires).

Disciplinary practices inject themselves into your psyche. For example, in school, you are forced to sit in a certain way, to work in a certain way. You are punished when you deviate from the norms of correctness and appropriateness; you learn how to behave ‘properly,’ which is just to say ‘normally’; you learn how to think ‘well,’ which is just to say ‘normally’; other possibilities are foreclosed.

Social forces are woven into the very texture of selfhood by means of language, or discourse, as well. Language bestows the categories, narratives and logics we use to interpret ourselves and our experience. We are all strangers to language. It precedes us and we ‘pick it up.’ It conditions how we think, what we think, what we can imagine, and in doing so circumscribes what we can be. It was not always possible to be ‘traumatized,’ for example; ‘trauma,’ the category, only came into being at a particular point in history. Sometimes language can pigeonhole us: we need to appeal to a category to be recognized, socially—we need to claim we are ‘depressed,’ say, to get the time off work, to have access to the means of assistance—but the category itself does not quite capture our experience in its particularity and, basically, insofar as we are only what others can recognize or articulate us as, obliterates our particularity (the category is reductive, in other words). My mother was in a rough place, once, and needed help; they wouldn’t let her into the hospital without a diagnosis, without a label of some kind (it’s an administrative thing); they slapped one on (‘bipolar’), and, ever since, my father, who she was in the process of separating from, at the time, has been convinced that she’s ‘crazy’ (at some point, invoking her label, he had convinced all the neighbours to write her off too).

Increasingly, images make up the matter, the texture, of consciousness as well. Think of the anorexic, who experiences her desire for thinness (a social symbol for willfulness and self-control) as the most essential, authentic aspect of who she is. The connections between thinness and willfulness and thinness and self-control have been forged in various cultural documents which are supposedly outside her (glossy advertisements, for example), but she would not be who she is without them; they have laid the ground for the very desires and pleasures which define her, or which she appeals to in order to define herself (these documents are in that sense inside her; they are her).

When the anorexic strives for thinness, understood as a cultural ideal, conformity to which, within certain limits, yields various social rewards, she is acting in ways which further the aims of normalizing social forces; she is subjecting herself to these forces through the very exercise of her agency; social forces have, like a band of bad guys, hijacked her will, have coopted her very pleasures and desires for their own purposes. They can do so because they created these pleasures, these desires, in the first place. Significantly, the anorexic’s agency is nevertheless still her agency. It is precisely because the subject, in Foucault’s story, is thoroughly saturated with subjugating social forces—it is precisely because her agency is just power’s agency—that self-death seems appealing: The anorexic, for example, must literally become another person in order to wriggle out of the particular grip normalizing power has on her: she must stomp out, relinquish, betray her Self, her own desires.

Yet, for Foucault, it is never the case that we fully escape power; power is at all times subjectivity’s necessary condition (if we were not worked over by social forces, we would simply not be selves—we would simply not be). Still, power can function in ways which are more rather than less conducive to flourishing (it might not be so bad, for example, to learn how to write an essay, but it will always suck to starve yourself to the point of death). Social forces, assuming the form of a particular self, manifest as the contents of a particular psyche, mediated and modified by that psyche, can have unanticipated effects. Stated differently, the self, formed by social forces, by power, can, as it exists through time, either sustain these forces or subvert them, can consolidate them or send them swerving off course. Imagine your life as a timeline. You are not the same person over time. You change, and, in the Foucaultian schema (Judith Butler’s version), this means power renovates you, creates you anew. Each time it’s time for a new renovation, each time you die, or teeter on the brink of becoming other than the self you are (or, as Butler would put this, each time you “turn” back on the power that formed you), there is an opportunity: You may come out on the other side of “death” (the self you were is gone, but, biologically, you persist) and it may be the case that you are still power’s bitch, at least as much as you were before. Or it may be the case that you find yourself behaving and experiencing your life in ways which do not seem to simply flow from the self you were or from the particular way you were circumscribed—limited, or delimited, as a subject, a self—by forces beyond you. You’ve swerved. You are still power’s bitch, but to a lesser degree. You’ve hijacked the forces that formed you; they are your calculating and controlling parents and you’ve dashed their dreams, mutilated their vision for you. But, really, it’s not just about you being a rebel (though it doesn’t hurt to be one). Power, mutating as if it had a duplicitous agency of its own, is the same phenomenon—differently described—you’ve reductively recognized as the effect of your will. You didn’t mutilate your parents’ vision; they mutilated their own vision for you. Or: you mutilated it, but they did too.

I mentioned above that Story of O could be read as an allegory for a liberating kind of self-negation (for a subversive kind of assujettissement, or “turn”): O wills her own passivity (or, we might say, dies: she willfully relinquishes her Self); she agrees, at all points in the text, to be a slave, to let her lover’s agency wash over her, and her subjugated state, along with all its accoutrements (pain and more pain), comes to give her great pleasure and satisfaction. On this reading, O “turns” back on the forces that created who she was; she transforms, becoming power’s bitch to a lesser degree. Although I like this idea—Lisa Robertson proposes something like it when, in Nilling, she suggests that O has an anarchic trajectory—in this essay I want to pursue the opposite line of thinking: O still “turns” back on the forces that created her: she “dies” multiple times, or serially becomes a new self, but her transformations do not amount to emancipatory appropriations of power. She comes out on the other side of self-metamorphosis and she’s just as much power’s bitch as she always was. Actually, she’s even more whipped, both literally and figuratively.

As an allegory for a subjugating process whereby selves become selves—as an allegory for a non-subversive kind of ‘assujettissement’—Story of O is meticulously attuned. This is what impresses me about the text, or is the real fulcrum of my fascination with it. I wanted to do a detailed reading that would highlight the ways in which the novel works as such an allegory. My reading hinges on the idea that the presence of pleasure is compatible with the presence of power: Pain might yield pleasure and satisfaction in Story of O, but if power, as a Foucaultian would understand it, produces our very pleasures and desires, then it seems that the fact that we take pleasure in something in no way implies that, with respect to that thing we take pleasure in, we are more, rather than less, free. It is possible to be both perfectly gratified and power’s bitch simultaneously (recall the anorexic, who, after all, is quite pleased with herself; she strives to protect her disease). Pleasure itself, in Story of O, and just in general, is problematic. Agency, in this text, at all points, just is self-subjection. O transforms, again and again, but she transforms stagnantly. That is, O never loses power’s directions; she burns them into her arm and then follows them carefully.



(2) Discourse, Discipline, Subjects, Bodies

 The ‘Always Already’ of Power

We begin at the beginning, which has always already begun. The temporal structure of O’s inauguration into slavery is similar to the temporal structure of Butler’s ‘turn.’ The ‘turn’ is just a figure Butler appeals to in order to shed light on the process of self-formation, which is irreducibly enigmatic: The self only becomes itself when it “turns” back and takes up the power which is said to form it; power only becomes power when the self relates to it. There is, of course, something fishy about how the process is formulated linguistically: A self is said to ‘turn’ back on power, and this turning back is supposed to make power what it is. But the self is not supposed to exist “prior” to the workings of power: power, in the Foucaultian schema, is supposed to produce the self. The way “the turn” is formulated in language, then, implies that a self turns back on power before that self even exists, or that power pre-exists itself, since power is supposed to form the self, but it is the self which supposedly makes power possible in the first place by “turning back.” The ‘turn’ is haunted by a postmodern version of the chicken or egg question; it has a mysterious, ‘chicken or egg’ temporal-structure (it’s not clear what comes first; it seems as if both the chicken and the egg come first and come later). The subject seems to precede itself and power does too. In Story of O, power similarly precedes any instance at which power is imposed.

Story of O, in fact, has two beginnings. The text as a whole begins as follows: “One day her lover takes O for a walk…” (3). Having read the text in its entirety, one cannot, upon arriving at this sentence a second time, fail to recall O’s final abasement, for in the last chapter her pubic hair is removed and she is led about naked on a leash. The leash, fastened to an iron ring that Sir Stephen, her second owner, has had permanently attached through a hole made in her left labium, is in fact a dog’s leash (196). An inscribed disk has been attached to this ring and, together, these ‘irons’ “dangle a third of the way down her thigh” (166). “[W]ith every step, [they swing] back and forth between her legs like the clapper of a bell” (ibid). Yet, even before O is physically fitted with a leash and irons akin to dog tags, she is being taken for a walk…

Reading the first version of the introduction, one is struck with O’s vacated quality, with her passivity. She says very little, and what she does say only appears in the text indirectly, as reported. The rest of the text is saturated with René, her lover and first owner’s, utterances, most of which take the form of commands: “Get in,” he says. O enters a suspicious vehicle that has been waiting for them on the fringe of the park. “Unhook your stockings” (4). “Undo your garter belt” (ibid.). O similarly obeys. It becomes clear that she has already learned to anticipate René’s desires: Initially thinking that he is about to kiss her, she slips off her gloves (3). After she has been inaugurated into slavery—this is done at the prison/chateau ‘Roissy,’ which is O’s destination now that she is in the car—and she is allowed to return home, we learn that O knows, from pre-Roissy life, “that her lover likes to find her in the living room by the fire when he comes home in the evening” (61-2); she thus curls up there accordingly.[3] Presumably, this is pre-slavery behaviour as well, and we know that it is common for those who are oppressed to be familiar, not only with the language and manners, but with the preferences of those who oppress them. Perspicacity, in the context of oppression, is less a virtue than it is a survival method (compare Lorde 114). We learn that, even before being trained to make herself constantly and in every way sexually available to Roissy men—her “primary task,” her “only significant duty” is, she is told, “to avail [herself] to be used” (15)—O would never wear anything but a nightgown to bed, or if pajamas, then never the bottoms; this is because René “always slept to her left and, whenever he awoke, even in the middle of the night, he would always reach a hand toward her legs” (32). In the vehicle on the way to Roissy, O is in other ways anticipatory: she is silent and motionless (4), qualities the rules and disciplinary practices instituted at Roissy are meant to instil. Though in the vehicle O is aware that René has not actually forbidden her to do anything, she “doesn’t dare cross her legs or sit with them pressed together” (ibid). It is no coincidence that these are actions expressly forbidden to her once she officially becomes a slave. O, the unfolding narrative, is just a concretization, a physicalization, of what has already taken place in O, the character, psychically in advance.

In the vehicle in the first version of the beginning, O “rests her gloved hands on the seat, pushing down; bracing herself” (4). She is bracing herself for something outside the limits of her own will and agency, something to come, and yet something which, in coming, will make manifest an otherness that is already intimate, that is already her. The car stops in front of the Roissy mansion and, once it does, O, having been denuded in ways appropriate to the occasion—for one thing, her underwear, which would otherwise inhibit access to her, has been taken—is directed to get out and walk, in the absence of an usher,[4] to the door where she will receive further instruction. In this version, significantly, she is trusted to obey; she is already—has already been constituted as—the sort of subject who will obey, who will guide herself, willingly, along the trajectory power has placed her on; she is, that is, already the sort of subject who will experience and understand her self-direction along such a trajectory as a free act. The imagery in the first version of the beginning is, in this respect, noteworthy: René cuts away O’s brassiere, such that, under her blouse, “her breasts are free and naked, like her belly and thighs are naked and free, like the rest of her, from waist to knee” (5; my emphases). Contrast this with the second version of the beginning, in which O is blindfolded and bound before being led up the few steps to Roissy. The co-existence of these two beginnings is consistent with the ambivalent, or paradoxical, structure of subjection/autonomy on the Foucaultian model. Although the temporal constraints of written text make it such that the two versions do not exist for the reader simultaneously, I want to suggest that, insofar as both versions nevertheless exist as ‘the beginning,’ they are essentially equivalent, or participate in a ‘this AND this’ logic: O’s autonomy (she walks to the door by herself) is just O’s subjection (she is gagged and led) differently described. This can be the case when a sinister but remarkably economical form of otherness creates a self which can do the work of regulating itself, of subjugating itself. But otherness is various: subjugating power is one form it assumes, but the self can also transform—itself and power—salvifically when open to, or when injected with, otherness.[5] What sort of otherness inhabits O at Roissy, then? What revenant rears its head there, having always already reared it, in the car and well before it was time for her walk?

Bodies and Souls

Disciplinary power, that reticulate form of power coursing between nodes that are subjects, institutions, and constellations of practice and discourse, takes as its point of application, and manifestation, the body. Reinstituting the temporally dubious figure of the turn, and following Foucaultian parlance, we can say that the body “first” worked over by power is what “then” gives rise to the self-subjugating, and so body-subjugating, soul. Butler suggests that ‘the soul,’ in Foucault, is something discursively akin to the psyche spoken of in psychoanalytic discourse (85): it is an internal, subjective space, delimited partially as a result of what objects are made viable for its investments, or are conversely prohibited. Linguistic categories and the social norms they steep in condition the field of viable investments and prohibitions; normative heterosexuality, for example, and the categories that shelter it make same-sex love objects taboo, and this gesture makes possible certain forms of subjectivity. Underlying Butler’s speculations is a Freudian conception of melancholy in which the loss of an object fallen from grace is denied: rather than cease to love the object, rather than reject and eject it, the ego draws the object into its own ambit where it is preserved and where the hatred that would otherwise be directed toward it is turned against the self. This melancholy, which, in Butler, becomes another figure for the turn of assujettissement, is more figural than experiential: it figures the dynamic foreclosure on which the subject is founded, and, as such, is indicative of a prior discursive curtailment of the field of possible subjective investments. Story of O, while verbose on the subject of disciplinary power’s productive grip on the body, is seemingly reticent on the subject of how discourse is implicated in the production of subjectivity. We rarely, for example, hear how others speak of O, and though the moments they do speak of her are telling—in the social world, the condition she finds ennobling is reduced time and time again to that of a mere whore—I want to suggest that the bulk of the discursive labour in producing O, in her subjection, has to do with a normative heterosexuality that is never spoken of but follows O, in the course of her reflections, where it exists as the trace of an order that is never problematized. Roissy is the allegorical space, the space that is, in a pseudo-sense, prior to the subject, where this tacit discursivity enters the flesh through its training.


Roissy Panopticon

Bentham’s Panopticon is a model prison and emblematic, for Foucault, of disciplinary power as a functioning mechanism. It is an explanatory model, an allegory for a battery of techniques that, through the distribution of bodies in space, through the control of their time and movements, as well as their visibility, produce docile, self-regulating subjects. The fact of the Panopticon’s existence, or inexistence, is thus superfluous; the Panopticon only figures what has already happened more or less invisibly in the social “outside.” Roissy, which O enters and leaves within the confines of the text’s first chapter, is, likewise, I suggest, superfluous. It is significant that it is situated, as far as the unfolding of the narrative is concerned, and like the Panopticon, “prior” to the subject: O was ‘O’, was subjugated, prior to Roissy and would have been O independent of having gone there, where her enslavement was rendered ‘official.’ Stated differently: before Roissy is Roissy still.

Feminine forms of embodiment, like all forms of embodiment, are produced, only the disciplinary practices that produce them are not identical to those spotlighted in Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon. Sandra Bartky, redressing Foucault’s gender blindness, outlines a handful of practices geared toward producing specifically feminine bodies. The practices she names produce bodies as ornamented surfaces for display, produce bodies of a particular size and configuration, and produce bodies whose gestures and motions are constrained. Roissy avails itself of both these disciplinary practices and those emblematic of the “original” Panopticon, particularly those relating to spatial partitioning and light. Roissy, then, is a torqued panopticon.


1. The Body for Display

Immediately upon being admitted to Roissy, O is ‘done up’ by two female slaves; their express purpose is to teach her how, without their assistance in the future, she is to do up herself. They set her hair “just as hairdressers would have” (6), apply her makeup, redden her sex and nipples, and apply a scent to various bodily crevices. The clothing O receives later on is attached to a set of complicated instructions: skirts are to be folded in particular ways and pulled to different heights at different times (a skirt might be tucked up in the back, for example, when she is strolling outside). O is fitted with a collar and wrist bracelets, as well. These are ornamental and instrumental: they are attachable to chains.


2. Body Re-sized and Re-configured

O’s first body modification comes after one of the Roissy initiates, having plunged himself into her anus, insists that she is too tight. O is subsequently made, “for eight days in succession,” to wear, during a specific interval in the evening, a dildo “held in place by three little chains attached to a leather belt circling her haunches, held, that is, in such a manner that her internal muscles are unable to dislodge it” (43). Once the dildo is no longer required, Réne, her primary owner at this point—other men use O, but, as he explains, they do so only by proxy, as extensions of him—professes that he is happy that she is “doubly open” (44). After O is passed on to Sir Stephen, her waist is also permanently modified via a successively tightened corset. Once she is through with the corset, her waist is so slim that she seems “ready to break in two” (165). Part-way through the tightening process, it is almost possible “to circle [her] waist with…ten fingers” (149), and yet the width of her waist is nevertheless deemed unacceptable (152).


3. The Body Constrained in its Movements and in Space

At Roissy, as I have already mentioned, O is commanded to keep her thighs parted. She must also, for essentially the same reason (she must remain open/available), refrain from sealing her lips. O soon discovers that conforming to these injunctions outside of Roissy is rather difficult and requires “a constant effort of attention…[which] forever reminds her…of what her condition really is” (57-8). In Roissy, the use of her own hands, unless enlisted for male purposes, is denied to her. Men whip her not so much to “make [her] suffer pain, scream or shed tears,” but in order “to confine [her] to [her] bed for several hours every day” (17). When in bed, O is attached to the wall by a chain linked to her neck collar; the length of the chain makes it such that O can “only move to the right or left of the bed, or stand up on either side of the headboard” (23). Iris Marion Young has suggested that women in Western industrialized societies are taught to conduct their activities within an existential enclosure: The space available to them has a greater radius than the space they would typically inhabit; it is as if there is a bubble around them, beyond which they are not permitted to move (see 13). In Roissy we find this lived bubble in the earliest stages of its inculcation.

In the world beyond the text, there may very well be an ambivalence that attends the bubble’s functioning: Young points out that a woman facing perpetual threats of objectification, violation and rape may avail herself of such an enclosure in order to keep others at bay (read: on the outside), that, in other words, the constricting enclosure is precisely where she can remain free (18). There is another impetus to confect the bubble as well: Whereas men are free to walk loose-limbed with long strides, free to leave these limbs agape on park benches when they recline, women luxuriating insouciantly in the same forms of ‘openness’ are purportedly ‘asking for it’ (ibid.). In O, ‘open’ body comportment in women (e.g., open legs, even while sitting, open lips) is likewise a form of so-called ‘asking for it,’ though a mandatory one founded on mandatory feminine complicity. The ‘bubble’ in the text is equally coopted back into the services of subjection: Roissy makes it semi-permeable, such that masculine forces can move in and out, while feminine forces, always already confined within it, can do neither.


4. Discipline and Punish: Space, Light/Visibility, Self-Regulation

In Roissy, both the way space and bodies in space are distributed and the way space is ornamented significantly further disciplinary ends. The chateau is a nested, Russian doll of locked wings and hallways. Entry-ways are guarded. The walls in the Roissy hallways are done in red tile. In prisons, and in accordance with certain findings in psychology, blues and greens are deployed on interior surfaces in order to keep prisoners subdued and calm. Red, conversely, agitates, evolutionary theorists speculate because of the connection the colour bears to shed blood.[6] Roissy’s colour scheme, as a disciplinary tactic, then, follows an unconventional prison’s-logic: A psychologically-grating constant, compared, at least, to blues and greens, it is explicitly oppressive. O happens to have the same red tiles in the rooms in her home, a detail which supports the idea that she was steeping in Roissy before she had ever encountered it; seeing the tiles again when she returns home gives her “a shock and makes her heart beat faster” (56).

Roissy also exploits visibility as one of its principle disciplinary techniques, and this despite the fact that the women of Roissy are not scrupulously observed by men at all times. At night, for example, with the exception of a valet who is employed to come in and whip them for a few minutes, they are left chained up alone in their rooms. Even when left to solitariness, however, there is the suggestion that they are, potentially, at any time, being spied on: On page 7, an only quasi-omniscient narrator alerts the reader to the possible presence of peepholes. Peepholes are to Roissy what the central observation tower is to the Panopticon. The observation tower is inhabited either by an all-seeing someone or by no one, though it is impossible, from the prisoner’s location, to determine whether it is one or the other; the prisoner thus finds him/herself pinned to proper comportment: s/he behaves because it is always possible someone is watching. Compared to the Panopticon’s prisoner, the Roissy slave finds herself in an exacerbated predicament: She, like that prisoner, is isolated from other prisoners—she is forbidden to so much as speak to the other women—and she, like that prisoner, is a potential visual constant, positioned so as to never see what is potentially seeing her, and thus located so as to imbibe that potential gaze in such a way that, taken up into her, it forms, “for the first time,” her self-regulating soul or conscience (she behaves too). But there are a number of other ways she is seen without being seen as well: She may be spied on in isolation, is blindfolded when tortured, and, beyond this, is prohibited at all times from looking the men in the complex directly in the eyes. In Roissy, a slave’s gaze is not only directed negatively via prohibition: its range of motion and its corresponding capacity to ‘see back’ is further limited, stream-lined, as it were, toward male members. Literally: The Roissy masters wear ridiculous tights that leave their genitals exposed, O is told, “for the sake of insolence, so that your eyes will look there and nowhere else, so that you will come finally to understand that there resides your master, your lord, to whom all of you is destined, above all your lips” (16).

As Bartky notes in her analysis, the feminine subject produced by power often engages in rituals that produce feminine bodies—she does her makeup, diets, etc.—voluntarily. This is just another way of saying that she has become a self-regulating subject, that her consciousness itself has taken on the structure of the Panopticon: “In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: They stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. Woman lives her body as if seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” (72). Reading O, one gets the perpetual sense that, conversely, O is regulating herself in the presence of an actual, rather than internalized other, and that, though O does make some effort to refrain from ‘gazing back’ and from crossing her legs—though she is a hopeless recidivist in these regards—for the most part, it is an external agency that is imposing disciplinary rituals on O’s body. Her subjection, in this limited sense, is never converted into an ‘always already subjected,’ and thus vexed, form of agency.

There is a certain sense, then, in which O, the narrative, considered from beginning to end, remains in the allegorical, conditioning space “prior” to the subject, a sense in which Roissy reaches through the text in its entirety, just as the Panopticon, though it is only a figure, is said to permeate society in its entirety. It is no surprise, then, that the Roissy-red tiles show up throughout the text, not only in O’s home, but also in a villa in southern France, where Sir Stephen, once she has passed into his ownership, brings O to vacation, and where the visual economy characteristic of the Panopticon is reinstituted as well[7]: The villa is piece to a larger ploy on the part of both René and Sir Stephen to secure fresh blood for Roissy. They have O bring Jacqueline—a model/actress O knows through work (O is a photographer), whom she also finds irresistibly attractive—so that Jacqueline may be observed and, ultimately, ensnared. Jacqueline’s presence at the villa is also supposed to serve as a means of satisfying Sir Stephen’s desire to see O caress a woman. In line with this, the bedroom O occupies at the villa, and in which she engages sexually with Jacqueline, is separated from Sir Stephen’s “by a partition which looks full but which, behind a trompe l’oeil latticework and trellis, is transparent: by raising a shade on his side, Sir Stephen [is] able to see and overhear everything that [goes] on in the room as if he were standing right next to the bed. Jacqueline, caressed and kissed by O, [is] in full view…” (178). O, in the room, is also fully visible to Sir Stephen, seen by him without seeing (though she hears, senses), and, already invested in her subjection, feels “fortunate indeed to be constantly exposed…constantly imprisoned by his gaze” (194).


To be sure, a mix of disciplinary power and sovereign power is at work in Roissy. Or perhaps sovereign power is just enlisted in the service of articulating the allegory of assujettissement via disciplinary power. Sovereign power is a reified power wielded by a subject or some set of subjects over life: it is power to end life. Disciplinary power, in contrast, is faceless, un-wieldable and shelters life, actively producing its signs: if it makes bodies docile, it does so through investiture: it improves them, makes them useful, and in doing so makes them more obedient. We have already come across the suggestion that, in a Roissy-tempered world, the phallus is sovereign; O, subject to this sovereign (through whatever master or owner), dispossessed of her self, is not only, as she insists, “[given] to love,” but also, perhaps, “brought…very close to death” (40). The punishment O is made to suffer (mainly in the form of whip lashings) seems, in some respects, moreover, of the kind a sovereign would mete out: a king quarters the would-be regicide or leaves threatening bodies alive, perhaps lashing them, at any rate marking them publicly so that others know he has the power to bring death, though he refrains from it now. We would expect disciplinary forms of punishment to capacitate rather than scar the body, and although it is true that O and the other slaves are subjected to a ‘corrective’ micro-economy of punishment[8] it is not obvious that they become more efficient, or more skilled, as a result: O tells us that at Roissy she learned “not to be in a hurry” (68). The non-sexual duties women at Roissy perform—“sweeping, putting the books back in place, arranging flowers, or waiting on table” (15)—are, moreover, minimal and undemanding, and this is because their primary, utterly exhausting, and, in the end, ‘only significant duty’ is to make themselves sexually available. Whereas in a Panoptic society a body’s compliance is positively correlated with the level of its induced usefulness, in a Roissy-governed society a body’s compliance increases with use: a docile body, there, is less useful than it is usable. Whatever skill a Roissy slave is imbued with by dint of having to learn new rituals of dress, by dint of having to perfume the body and apply makeup to it, by dint of having to habituate to unfamiliar and uncomfortable modes of bodily comportment are subsidiary to rendering the body visually consumable and physically penetrable. And again, these women, tortured, are possibly brought close to death, and not only the death of the self, “the delirious absence from herself” O insists she is brought close to, in her ecstasy (40). There is a sense, then, in which the power at play in Roissy is negative, annihilating, and yet, it is also conceivable as disciplinary power proper, that is, as productive. It is productive power insofar as it institutes an obedient, self-subjecting, desiring self.[9] This will become apparent as we track O in her subjective development.



(3) Love and Order

If the subject is made possible by subjection, if subjection is, as it were, the subject’s sinew, does it follow that the subject desires its subjection? If the subject is invested in itself, in perpetuating, in iterating itself—these sinews—as a consistency, is this the same as desiring subjection? It is possible that the subject does not conceive of each iteration, of power’s renewal, as self-subjugation, but then, it might come to. It is possible that some other sociality might be scooped up in the subject’s rolling forward, confecting in the subject some other desire, one to sit alongside and antagonize those always already formed. How else might “the subjection of desire require and institute the desire for subjection” (PL 19), and how else might we think the site, the pseudo-fissure in which this requirement might be discontinued? Butler names another desire—the desire for social existence—as a desire exploited (also created?) by power in its institution of the desire for subjection, particularly the kind of subjection accomplished under the banner of an identity category. Perhaps the peculiar relation of attachment one might have to an acquired skill—peculiar because there is a sense in which we are not attached to our skills but are them—is similarly implemented to be exploited (see Bartky 77). Susan Bordo suggests that culturally-concocted anxieties (such as those having to do with weight or body-image) play a similar role: the subject engages, not in what it sees as frantic attempts to regulate itself or maintain its subjection, but in what amounts to the same: frantic attempts to reduce its anxiety. In the logic governing Réage’s text, it is ‘love’ that functions to keep the subject bound, to bind the subject’s desires to the very notion of being subjugated.


Love Logic

O, whipped senseless, then left alone at Roissy, thinks of those engravings in history books in which long-since dead prisoners, having been whipped already, are shown chained to walls. The narrative voice bleeds with her thoughts: “[O] did not want to die, but if torture were the price she was to pay for her lover’s love, then she only hoped he was happy because of what she endured” (27). “Since she loves him,” she has “no choice but to love whatever emanates from him” (33). Since she loves him, she wants whatever he wants, only because he wants it (112). Since he loves her, she consents to torture: “since he loves her, she trembles, acquiescent” (33). These disturbing formulations deserve to be unpacked; they imply that O’s will, O’s consent, though properly her will, her consent, has already been colonized. Her consent is impelled by love, but what is love, and in what respect is it in turn chosen, or not chosen?

René tells O upon her return from Roissy that she must not begin to think of herself as free, “[e]xcept in one sense: she is free to stop loving him and to leave him immediately. But if she does love him, then she is no longer free” (56). This formulation is repeated with an important transmutation at another point in the text: Some time after O is passed on from René to Sir Stephen, the latter tells her: “if you’re mine you have no right to refuse my commands. But you also know you are always free to refuse to be mine” (171). At this point in the text, O does not refuse his commands, for she has come to love him. But between the moment René utters ‘you are free to stop loving me’ and the moment Sir Stephen claims ‘you can refuse to be mine,’ we learn that, within the text’s logic, ‘being owned’ is just what it means for a feminine subject to love: one may not love initially, but once one is owned, one will love. If love is what binds one to one’s ‘being owned,’ then ‘being owned’ is what, in a vicious circle that is not quite tautological, binds one: Not only ‘I am owned, therefore I’m owned,’ but also ‘I am owned therefore I want to be owned.’ ‘I love; I’m owned.’ ‘I’m owned; I love.’ For the masculine subject of Réage’s text, to own, rather than be owned, is what induces love. The narrator reports that René “had so often told [O] that what he loved about her was the object he had made of her, the absolute disposition of her he enjoyed, the freedom that was his to do with her what he wished” (84). In line with this, Sir Stephen, who does not initially love O, comes to love her after he’s abused her body for a time; the more he ‘personalizes’ her body, the more his love grows: he actually only begins to vocalize his love, which O has already detected in non-verbal cues, after he has had her branded with his initials and fitted with custom irons (see 167). The more he loves her, moreover, the harsher his treatment becomes: “insofar as his love and desire for her were increasing, so his demands on her were becoming more extensive, more exacting, more minute” (139). O does not initially love Sir Stephen either, and so when he tells her that she is going to obey him without loving him and without him loving her (89), this gives rise to “a storm of revolt” (89). O fights him, screaming, when he takes her. Resistance to Sir Stephen is possible at this point in a way that, because of the workings of love, it is not possible with René, precisely because she does not love Sir Stephen. And yet, the more he possesses her, the more she finds surrendering to his orders “completely fulfilling” (139) and the more she comes to love him—she is murmuring as much by page 190. By the time René stops loving her—an event that, significantly, caps the gradual cessation of his use of her body (see 147), and a possibility that, before Sir Stephen colonized her body, had caused O great anguish—O no longer cares. O, used all the more brutally by Sir Stephen, has been affectively transferred to him as well:

What was René compared to Sir Stephen? So many ropes of straw, anchors made of cork, so many paper chains: such were the veritable ties by which he had bound her to him…But what reassurance, what delight, this iron ring which pierces the flesh and weighs eternally…the master’s hand which lays you down ruthlessly on a bed of rock, the love of a master who is capable of taking unto himself that which he loves without pity. (185)

In the text, then, it seems masculine love is voluntary in the sense that the masculine subject can choose what it owns, or choose what it wants to own; feminine love, no more the effect of the feminine subject’s will than of her whimsy, is taken. Before Roissy, O was in love with René, and this is because “René threw himself at her like a pirate” (95). More than this, O “revelled in her captivity, feeling…far down into her heart’s and body’s secret recesses, bonds subtler, more invisible than the finest hair, stronger than the cables with which the Lilliputians made Gulliver prisoner” (ibid.), bind her to this pirate. O’s subsequent trajectory with Sir Stephen, then, is only a more torturous recapitulation of O’s trajectory with René, who owns her already but, upon prostituting her for the first time, is “delighted to discover that the pleasure he reaped from [hurting, humiliating, and debasing her] was even greater than he had dared hope, and had increased his attachment to her, as it did hers to him” (33; my emphasis).


Melancholy Miasma

‘Love’ in O is thus a vicious circle looping through what I’ve called masculine domination, on the one hand, and what I’ve called feminine submission, on the other. It ropes these poles together, since a vicious circle self-perpetuates its tightening. Recasting Butler’s account of melancholy gender formation, I would now like to contradict myself slightly, to suggest that love, in O, plays out against a mute backdrop of compulsory heterosexuality, but heterosexuality conceived strangely, so that it is bears no salient, or at least straightforward, connection to either sex or gender categories.


1. Sex, Gender, Proprietors and Property

Less than the idea that male bodies consort with female bodies, and vice versa, invariably, and less than the idea that masculine subjects consort with feminine subjects, and vice versa, invariably, ‘heterosexuality’ in O implies that dominant subjects relate to submissive subjects, and vice versa. It implies that, invariably, owners, who, with respect to the owned, are only (as in exclusively) owners, relate to the owned, who, with respect to their owners, are owned only. I have been calling ownership ‘masculine love’ and the state of being owned ‘feminine love,’ but the text gives us reason to contest these terms. This is because it confuses stereotypical sex-to-gender designations, and does so partly through a second confusion: it beclouds the very terms ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ sometimes with the help of sex-categories.

O seems ambiguously feminine. She is bisexual—her desire for women is described as “strong,” “real,” and “profound” (100)—and though she engages in stereotypically masculine behaviour with her female lovers, her actions are “carefully calculated” and stem “from a certain childishness [rather than] her conviction” (ibid.). When she courts her female friends, she doffs her beret, helps them out of cabs (99), and, in general, displays “tough-guy manners” (95). Beyond this, she relates to women, when she relates to them sexually, as a hunter—her desire for women, we are told, doesn’t “go a great deal further that the thirst for conquest” (95). She admits that she loves “the perfect freedom” she experiences when she pursues women (ibid.), and that what she enjoys about Jacqueline—that is, once the latter has become her lover—is “the use of a girl’s body, a body with no strings attached” (193). Despite all this, she frequently repeats that what she sees in the women she loves is a reflection of her own submissive self (194). Scrutiny can juice this text: Is it a feminine self that sees a submissive reflection, and is it also a feminine self that engages in carefully calculated dominating behaviours, while at the same time feeling subjectively at odds with them? What is the relationship between the subject, its identifications and its overt behaviour, if identification and overt behaviour are equally performance, and the subject is precisely what is performed? What are the relations these terms bear to the subject’s sexed-body? O dis-identifies with the stereotypically masculine behaviour she executes; she is thus not quite dragged into the field of stereotypical designations that open around her behaviour. She is not quite rendered masculine. But if we take performance theories of self seriously, then her masculine behaviour is not quite controvertible, and O is not quite rendered feminine either.

For deconstructive purposes, say that, before she is prostituted, the O we are given access to through O’s recollections does cling to a certain femininity—or at least, to the obverse side of an uneasy masculinity—when she possesses women. If this is so, then it is not exclusively through owning, it seems, that one becomes masculine; nor is it through being owned that, in the text, one becomes feminine. When O concedes that she loves Jacqueline, that she is “no more and no less” in love with her than she has been with many other women, she is adamant that the term ‘love’ is “the correct one…also a strong one” (102). Love is no doubt the correct term, only it must be qualified: it reflects a “thirst for conquest” (quoted above), and so it is love in the form of domination, ownership; it is the same form René’s love for O, and then later Sir Stephen’s, assumes. Thus, in a way, O, as feminine, owns in the text—she sexually possesses women—both before and when she is owned: both before and during the time she is sexually possessed and ‘actually’ owned by René and Sir Stephen. There is a sense in which she is also owned in her capacity as masculine, since she is a slave but simultaneously carries on with Jacqueline in a ‘masculine’ style. Anne-Marie, the head of Samois, the all-female version of Roissy, also owns women: she literally owns at least one girl, Claire. Anne-Marie is harsher than the men at Roissy, and we are given no reason to think that she is not Sir Stephen’s equal. She is an older woman with grizzled hair; in the culture outside the text-world this might signify that she is somehow ‘less feminine,’ and it is true that the gender-sex confusion performed by the text relies largely on meanings primed ‘outside’ the text (though this is a false exterior). In bed, her short hair pushed up by a pillow, Anne-Marie takes on “the look of some mighty nobleman in exile, some dauntless libertine” (162). Insofar as her appearance, her age, her harshness, her power, and her alignment with Sir Stephen superimpose masculinity, they buttress ‘masculine ownership’ in the insufficiently nuanced sense that I use it above; they seed it with purchase. But Anne-Marie is no more bluntly masculine than O; in some respects, she is also stereotypically feminine: She is “tender and gentle with O” in bed (163), and she is also beautiful (159). In Anne-Marie, then, we find both a form of feminine ownership and, unlike in O, a femininity that is at all times cleaved from states of being owned.

Although it seems that female characters can adopt what we can, for explanatory purposes only, call a masculine subject position (e.g., they can ‘own’ in the broad and strict senses of the verb), it is unclear whether they can adopt this subject position with respect to men. It is true that Sir Stephen relates to Anne-Marie as his equal, though he never relates to her as her subordinate. There is perhaps a sense in which male-sexed bodies function as trumps to the ‘gender’ configurations in the text: The freedom O loves when she is pursuing and engaging with women is not the freedom she possesses in her relationships with men: With women, “[s]he control[s] the game, and she alone,” whereas with men, she “never” controls the game, unless she does so “on the sly” (100). But although O controls the game with women, she also, again, sees in them a reflection of her submissive self: “The power she acknowledged her girlfriends had over her was at the same time the guarantee of her own power over men. And what she asked of women (and didn’t return, or so little), she was happy, and found entirely natural that men should be desperate to demand of her” (101). Irrespective of the fact that she dominates women, men seem to weasel their way past O in the power hierarchy, such that it is unsurprising that she is unable to “conceive of giving herself to a girl, the way a girl gave herself to her” (194), but puzzling that other girls are able to give themselves this way to O. O, unlike her girlfriends, can only conceive of giving herself this way “to a man” (ibid.). And yet, she does give herself to Anne-Marie while staying at Samois, albeit perhaps not in the same way that she would give herself to René or Sir Stephen: Anne-Marie does not own her. But then, could we say she is, like any other man affiliated with Roissy, a proxy for O’s owner(s) (see, e.g., 32)? Does O become fused to submission as soon as she enters into a relation with a male-sexed body (even if only through one of its mediators)? Is she also a gendered body when she is so fused? Or is O fused to submission simply when she enters into a relation with a body that owns? How to account, then, for who owns whom in what situation, given that O, too, has the capacity to own? After she is prostituted, O claims “that the girls she caresse[s] belong…by right to the man to whom she belongs…and that she [is] there only by proxy” (ibid.). The corollary might seem to be that a male-sexed body is at the top of the totem pole again, that women own only by proxy, but then Anne-Marie does not own Claire by proxy; rather, the men who violate Claire when she is sent to Roissy will violate her by proxy, in place of, without supplanting, Anne-Marie


2. Culturally Doomed

Sex-to-gender-to-owner/property assignations in O prove unfruitful. In Réage’s book, female bodies can own female bodies and ambiguously feminine bodies can possess ambiguously feminine bodies, but whereas in the non-text world a woman-woman relationship that is also parsed as a ‘feminine subject’-‘feminine subject’ relationship might function to confound the dominant, heterosexual regime (i.e., by proposing a homosexual alternative; Butler PL 165), in the text-world a relationship consisting of a feminine subject owning a feminine subject, since it remains premised on a stringent heterogeneity (that between ‘owner’ and ‘slave’), does not, to that extent, gesture towards an alternative erotic paradigm.

In Butler’s account of melancholy gender formation, which she intentionally hyperbolizes, one becomes feminine to the extent that one blocks women as potential love objects and masculine to the extent that one blocks male love objects. The field of possible erotic attachments becomes constricted in accordance with (heterosexual) cultural proscription—such that one desires precisely what one is not—and the ego forms in and through the process of mourning the loss of these possible attachments. Mourning, in this instance, is neither before nor after the ego: it participates in the very ‘turn’ of assujettissement, constituting the ego it at the same time presupposes. Because the prohibition of possible attachments occurs “prior” to the subject’s inception, the subject’s mourning is not properly experiential.[10] Hence a heterosexual-identified woman may not lament the fact that she does not love a woman, may not be able to imagine herself ever loving a woman, and may experience the paucity of her imagination in this regard as ‘natural,’ rather than as a cultural effect. Culture as an effecting agent disappears at the site of the subject’s emergence: ‘I could never love a woman; that is just the way I am’ (see 181 and 138).

This bizarre, affectless melancholy, ‘gender melancholy,’ exists against a backdrop of compulsory heterosexuality: it is symptomatic of the latter, is enforced by, and also enforces it (140). A specific conception of heterosexuality likewise supports and is supported by ‘love’ as it is configured in Réage’s text, or, more specifically, by the subject-positions that underlie ‘love’: O is unable to relate to, to love, or even imagine loving, ‘a dominant subject’ from anything other than a submissive subject position. She is likewise unable to love, or even imagine loving, ‘a submissive subject’[11] from anything other than a dominant subject position: she wants to pin Jacqueline “to the wall like a butterfly impaled” (104). To love in the text one must either own or be owned, dominate or submit. Attachments that assume a form other than ‘submissive-subject’-to-‘dominant-subject’ are foreclosed by the logic governing the text-world and O is culturally doomed in advance: she is a melancholic subject who does not feel ripped off in light of the fact that love, whether with men or with women, has only the one configuration.



(4) Clinamen

O’s Consent

So love is rigid and love compels. The ‘monstrous logic’ Robertson refers to in her discussion of Story of O is precisely the continuous solicitation, on the part of her masters, of O’s consent, but ‘consent,’ in this context, is necessitated by a impelled love, and so we must rethink ‘consent’ outside a paradigm in which the will, the self, and otherness are kept tidy and separate. The boundaries between what is internal and external are fraught. Roissy, as a metaphoric space concretized in the text, is caught up in this chaos; it functions within the subject while simultaneously looming on the horizon as a force that could, but need not necessarily, subdue it: There is an O before O is actually taken to Roissy and Jacqueline might be taken to Roissy, or not.

Can O refuse to be Sir Stephen’s? Not if she is Sir Stephen’s; not if she loves him. Is O free to end her slavery? Once she has entered into the contract she has already been entered into, anyone who finds her uncooperative will bring her back to Roissy (17), a stipulation which seems redundant: There is in fact no need for a return to Roissy, since Roissy is embedded in the subject as love (the very state of being owned) and love’s corollary: compliance. The text, then, leaves very little room for uncooperativeness. O tells René that Jacqueline would never agree to go to Roissy, to which he simply replies, “No? Well then,…they’ll end up taking her there by force” (148). Sir Stephen has already told O that, once Jacqueline is in Roissy, “if she wants to leave, she’ll leave” (124); what troubles this formulation, though, is the notion that Roissy (read: being owned) makes it such that the subject would not want to leave, the notion that “once inside, there would be enough valets and chains and whips to teach Jacqueline obedience” (177). In the text, being caught means it is already too late for resistance. Consistent with this, shortly after coming to own her, Sir Stephen tells O that, in all likelihood, she had not understood what she had agreed to when she consented to be his slave, but that “by the time he taught her it would be too late for her to escape” (90). By the time he teaches her it is indeed too late, for, of all abominations, she has fallen in love.[12]

The formulation ‘if you don’t agree, we’ll force you’ only ceases to be redundant at those junctures in the text in which it is the body that resists. O is asked at various points in time to agree, though the disagreeable details of what she is agreeing to are kept from her: because her body will not be able to endure what is to be done to it, consent becomes superfluous. At Roissy, René informs her: “It’s because it is so easy for you to consent that I want something you can’t possibly agree to, even if you agree in advance…You won’t be able to keep yourself from saying no when the time comes…When it does, it won’t matter what you say, you’ll be made to submit” (33). Sir Stephen similarly asks her to consent to wearing his irons, though he keeps her in the dark about how these are to be applied (120), and concedes beforehand that there is no real question of whether she will or will not wear them: “these were still orders, which there wasn’t the slightest question of O disobeying” (120). Of course, O does agree, for she is already bound in a way that compels agreement; refusal does not even cross her mind (see 74). Still, a rift evolves between what she wants for herself and her body’s responses: her body’s memory of the whip—physical fear of the whip that René had not used but Sir Stephen promises, though without specifying how often—makes it impossible for her to consent to the latter’s ownership immediately (78).


Subjective Developments: The Subject Develops

Although at no point in time does O embrace the feeling of the whip, her attitude toward the whip gradually changes. Sir Stephen is the pivot on which O as already-subjugated-subject turns, the textual threshold that streamlines this attitudinal change, along with other major subjective developments. O’s enslavement to Sir Stephen makes Roissy continuous with her everyday life: After Roissy, but before Sir Stephen, O’s life seemed to carry on as usual in the sense that there were no other men who took advantage of her, only René, and in the sense that she was not subjected to regular corporeal torture. With Sir Stephen’s appearance, however, Roissy, understood as a nocturnal dream-world—or as “reality in a closed circle,” “a private domain”— threatens to “contaminate all the habits and circumstances of her daily life, both upon and within her” (77; my emphasis). At Roissy, though O “agreed” to do as René wished, it was nevertheless simultaneously true that she was chained to her bed, chained to various stations, kept naked, whipped unwillingly and subjected to torture. O, at Roissy, was “the lucky captive upon whom everything was inflicted, of whom nothing was asked” (81). In the ‘outside world,’ and even more so with René’s solicitation of her consent to be Sir Stephen’s, O, conversely, experiences herself as fully complicit in her subjection: “Here it was of her own free will that she remained half-naked” (ibid.). Power, at this point in the allegory, is not just power applied to the body; it is power concentrated as consciousness, power that has produced the self-regulating consciousness it is manifest as. As O’s enslavement to Sir Stephen becomes further entrenched, this subjected consciousness becomes increasingly concentrated. The narrative’s unfolding only corroborates O’s premonition upon being asked to belong to him: “What had formerly only been reality in a closed circle…was no longer to be content with outward signs—naked loins, laced-up bodices, the iron ring—but to require the thoroughgoing accomplishment of an act” (77).

Before she has agreed to belong to Sir Stephen, O recoils at the prospect of being whipped, even enjoins the men to spare her from being whipped: “Oh, have pity,” she says, and, “not again, no more of that” (79). Within pages of belonging to Sir Stephen, however, she finds it “necessary, and agreeable, to be beaten” (109). By the time she has gone to Samois to have his irons applied to her, she admits that she likes “the idea of torture,” that, even though she would give anything to escape torture while being tortured, after the fact of torture she is “happy to a have undergone it, and happier still the more cruel and prolonged it has been” (155).

O’s consolidation as a subjected subject is equally manifest in O’s changing relation to Jacqueline. Upon initially being requested (ordered) to coerce Jacqueline into coming to Roissy, O is mortified. She tells Sir Stephen that it can’t be done. Without quite identifying with Jacqueline, O is nevertheless loyal to her, so much so that she is upset when René regards her as he regards any of the Roissy women: O “views as insulting to Jacqueline an attitude she finds perfectly correct and natural when it comes to [herself]” (129). She feels herself “a traitor, a spy, the envoy of a criminal organization” (134), moreover, while attempting to persuade Jacqueline’s mother to allow her to move out, into her, O’s, apartment, from which it’s one step to Roissy. Upon returning from Samois, pierced with irons and cauterized with Sir Stephen’s initials, the noble O has a change of heart. We might say, recapitulating the fictive temporality that the allegory requires,[13] that by the time she returns she has fully internalized the terms of the master’s world: She “enjoys…thinking about how she is going to betray Jacqueline,” having been “insulted by the scornful manner in which Jacqueline had eyed [a condition of which she is proud, that of] a branded and flogged slave” (178). Whatever anxiety, whatever anguish, whatever shame her condition is initially said to give rise to (see 117) has either dissipated entirely or is simply no longer referred to in the nether parts of the text. O’s “secret pride,” the “harrowing pleasure” she initially experiences as a slave (ibid.) is, conversely, carried over; it is perhaps intensified: she becomes “an ecstatic slave” under Sir Stephen (185).


Doublings and Uncanniness

1) The Beginning as End

In a way, Sir Stephen’s injection in the text figures a transition point between a body acted upon by power and a body that, having become the prison of the soul, is also a soul that imprisons the body. There are, as I’ve also argued, other respects in which O is always already a subjected subject, or is a subjected consciousness all along, and yet it still makes sense to say that she is a subject whose subjection becomes increasingly intensified as the narrative progresses. The text, in this, and in many other respects, is one of incessant (uncanny) doublings; these doublings nourish the idea that the subject exists iteratively, the idea that it takes up its subjection repeatedly, whether by diverging from it or, as in O’s case, by consolidating it, though in a new, or different way, again.

Roissy, the Panopticon, likewise returns in physical, psychological and phantasmagoric forms to be ‘taken into’ O in new ways, as if it had not been taken into her before: It resurges with Sir Stephen. It resurges with Samois. It resurges in the final scene in which, after midnight, Stephen drives O to ‘the Commander’s’ party, where she is to be put on display: “At Roissy [O] felt herself to be lost as one is at night, lost in a dream one has dreamed before and which begins all over again” (77); en route to the Commander’s party, she passes through yet another nocturnal dreamscape: “there was nothing real in this countryside which night made imaginary” (198). It is not enough, moreover, that she arrives at the party in an owl mask; O must instead metamorphose fully, becoming, in seeming actuality, a mute creature from another world (200-1). The atmosphere at the party is equally oneiric; at the party it is by candlelight that she is ogled at and probed.

The dream space breaks with dawn without breaking, just as Roissy, in the inaugural section of the text, is broken with (O leaves) though it nonetheless sweeps through the rest of text: The men lay O out on a table and possess her “one after the other” (201). Similarly, the narrative does not end. Its ending is instead iterated, perpetually, each time transformed. It is explicitly signalled for the first time midway through the text, with the arrival of Sir Stephen: “Well, here was the end, right here, just where you would have least expected it, and in the most unexpected of all imaginable forms (assuming, of course, as [O] now said to herself, that this was indeed the end and that there wasn’t some other end hidden behind it, or perhaps still a third ending hidden behind the second one)” (76-7), which, as the reader comes to see, there is and are: Beyond the two alternative endings Réage has included, there is an ending each time Roissy resurges, each time O is consolidated: “What distinguished this end [Sir Stephen’s appearance as a potential master] was the way it made recollection topple into the present; and the way, also, that what had formerly only been reality in a closed circle, in a private domain, was all of a sudden about to contaminate all the habits and circumstances of [O’s] daily life” (77). ‘The end,’ it turns out, is, in O, just another figure for ‘the turn.’


2) Who is Jacqueline?

As O is—indeed, as ‘the end’ is—successively iterated throughout Réage’s text, it seems O is only further consolidated in her subjection: each iteration only institutes a subjugated state even more grotesque and abominable than the last: there is always another ‘low’ hidden behind the ‘low’ the reader, at the time, might well conceive as ‘the all time.’ One hardly even registers that one has given up hope for O—if there had ever been hope for O, and if one had ever even thought to hope for it—so excessive is the doubling over of endings performed by the text, and so habituating this excess is. As a result, the narrative engine in the latter part of the text is transferred onto Jacqueline: what will become of her? I found myself, in my readerly subject- position, wanting her to be spared, spared the humiliations imposed by Roissy, and spared the pain and abasement afforded by a condition like O’s (some, conversely, might have been titillated to see her ensnared). And yet there are problems with, or at least ambiguities that surround, the formulation of Jacqueline as one who might be spared, as one who has not already been ensnared, as a figure, in other words, of freedom, or of an agency that has not already been compromised.

In some respects, Jacqueline, as a figure of freedom, as the swerve away from a trajectory determined by power, or as the clinamen, understood as a deviation from the rule, intersects the figure of Kristeva’s foreigner. ‘Jacqueline’ is, in fact, only a professional name, “a name for forgetting her real name [Choura] and, along with her real name” (132), her dwelling space, a “sordid and heartbreaking gyneceum” (132), in which she is confined, when she is home, with a “tribe,” or “horde” of women: her family (131). Jacqueline abhors these women (she “would [give] half her life” to forget their ‘hissing’ language [132]); hence she abandons them at the first opportunity: O invites her to move in. Kristeva’s foreigner is similarly one who has abandoned her origins and one who, additionally, though there may be a sense in which Jacqueline does this as well, reinstitutes this abandonment over and over: The foreigner remains perpetually transient (TF 4). “Free of ties with [her] own people,” the foreigner feels “completely free” (12), and also—not unlike O whipped to the point of delirious ecstasy at Roissy—dispossessed of herself: “Settled within [herself], the foreigner has no self.” (8). “Available, freed of everything, the foreigner has nothing, [s]he is nothing” (ibid.). It is not entirely the case that Jacqueline has nothing, for she is “passionately attached to whatever belongs to her—to her rose-colored pearl ring, for example—but absolutely indifferent to what [isn’t] hers” (O 136); the notion of ‘complete’ freedom embedded in this initial construction of the foreigner, moreover, needs, as we by now know, to be nuanced, though in a way that is not radically inconsistent with Kristeva’s analysis: Whatever swerving Jacqueline accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, is nonetheless made possible by power, and, as a result, is never completely divested of its historicity (see Butler PL 195). In a sense, Kristeva rhymes with this thought when she insists that the foreigner is fundamentally melancholic, a “lover of a vanished space, [who] cannot, in fact, get over [her] having abandoned a period of time” (9).

Melancholy is reconfigured in the foreigner; it does not align in a perfect way with melancholy of the kind Butler discusses, which is premised not only on ontological and erotic foreclosure, but on a tacitly negative form of affect. In Kristeva’s text, melancholy is connected to the subject’s formative and (in some ways) insurmountable history, and is also characterized in terms of a happiness that is itself happiness newly conceived, newly articulated: The foreigner cultivates an ethos of indifference and detachment, such that, while unable to fully relinquish the past, she nevertheless “retain[s]…of the past only the game” (TF 38). The affective state that emerges out of this ethos, and that reveals the self as ‘unessential,’ ‘a simple passer by,’ is “[a] strange way of being happy, or of feeling imponderable, ethereal, so light in weight that it would take so little to make us fly away” (TF 38). The foreigner is thus one who lets go, and one who is let go of. O experiences herself as relinquished, but the subjective forms she assumes (the self she was, as well as the self she does, in fact, and to the contrary, become) remain tethered to, informed, determined and limited by, a cultural formation premised on dominance and submission all the while. We have seen that this formation also, within the novel’s logic, thoroughly colonizes ‘love,’ so much so that love can only assume, from a ‘masculine’ position, the form ‘I love you because I own you: what I love is the owned object I’ve made you’ and, from a ‘feminine’ position, the form ‘I love you, therefore I’m yours,’ the equivalent of which, as O’s possession by Sir Stephen attests to, is ‘I’m yours, therefore I love you.’ It is precisely love which Jacqueline, as aloof and insensitive as Kristeva’s foreigner (see TF 7), is shielded from.

Jacqueline is fundamentally narcissistic: she has no need for the kind of reassurance O is, in the initial stages of the text, perpetually seeking out in René: reassurance of his desire for her—O is happy he is so hell-bent on exacting proof for himself of “the degree to which he possesses her” (56), and perhaps this is because his actions afford precisely such reassurance. Jacqueline, conversely, relies on no one: all she needs is a mirror (103). As Butler notes: “Narcissism continues to control love, even when that narcissism appears to give way to object-love: it is still myself that I find there at the site of the object” (PL 187). Consistent with this, Jacqueline takes pleasure in being desired if it is someone useful that desires her, or if it flatters her vanity (129): She receives O’s attentions because she derives narcissistic and physical pleasure from them and does not bother to reciprocate. When she begins to engage sexually with René, she remains similarly self-immersed: “She had never behaved like someone in love with him,” and O cannot help thinking that, even if, as is likely, Jacqueline is as abandoned with René as she is with her, “[her] surrender does not involve her emotions” (184). If love, in the text, is what traps, then it seems the possibilities that fall outside of entrapment can only be animated for one who refuses love (or at least the rigid configuration ‘love’ as it appears throughout Réage’s text). It does seem as if Jacqueline’s aloofness inoculates her, to a certain extent, from what we might call the Roissy-effect: For O, torture eventually just becomes a matter of course: necessary and even agreeable, a source of pride. Once Jacqueline, however, learns of O’s markings and lash-marks, and learns of their source, she is horrified (176). As she sees it, if she does consent to going to Roissy, it will only be to have a look, to observe the freak show (see 177).

There is another moment in the text that counterbalances O’s ‘normalized’ response to her condition as well (O is a freak, but in a Roissy-governed world, perhaps freaks are the norm?): The woman who removes her pubic hair for the Commander’s party also reacts to her scars with horror: she is “scandalized” and “terrified” (197). Is Roissy ubiquitous and normal, then, or is it localized and perverse? The text leaves the answer ambiguous: Even Jacqueline’s adolescent sister becomes enchanted with the idea of enslavement, and, at the Commander’s party, a ‘normal’ young couple approaches O, the owl, O the naked, lacerated, perforated spectacle: The “very young girl” is in a “white dress” that has “two tea roses at the waist”; she is “wearing gilded sandals” (201). She is dressed, in other words, to exude middle class innocence, and yet she listens quietly to ‘the boy,’ who tells her he will have her body desecrated in the same way O’s has been. The girl does not appear upset (ibid.). An inebriated American also approaches O at the party, fondles her, and reacts to her irons with “horror and loathing” (200). It is of course slightly odd to ask ‘What are these ‘normals’ doing at a Roissy affiliate’s party?,’ since Roissy itself is populated by ‘normal people,’ and the population is replete, one deduces, with Roissy members. In this, and other ways, the text insists, if not on the strict identity of, then on continuity between, the ‘normal’ and the ‘perverse.’ Is there, as a result, any room for Jacqueline to manoeuvre, or does the possibility of a swerve hinge on something beyond or outside of these poles, as well as the spectrum between?

Jacqueline is one who reacts to Roissy with horror and disgust. Unlike, O, she does not feel bound to René (and so cannot be bound, through him, to Roissy); she falls in love with a man who is directing a film she is in, and makes plans with him without informing René of these (she has abandoned her origins, and now she is shedding another constitutive influence). As far as she is concerned, it is none of O’s business whether or not she is in love with this man, and she tells her as much when she inquires. O purportedly inquires because Jacqueline’s being in love concerns René, but Jacqueline refuses this claim, volleying with: “What also concerns René and Sir Stephen and, if I’ve understood it correctly, a lot of other people too…is that you are badly seated” (187). O is sitting on her dress, whereas she has been commanded to sit bare-assed forevermore. How are we to read Jacqueline’s retort? Is the ‘what also’ component of the phrase to be taken seriously?: ‘Yes my being in love concerns René, but you are being disobedient, too, so shut up.’ But then, it seems that Jacqueline’s being in love would not concern René in the same way that O’s transgression would, for Jacqueline keeps him at arm’s length, whereas, as long as O loves a Roissy affiliate, as she now loves Sir Stephen, she must act in accordance with its members’ wishes. Jacqueline concerns René insofar as she can break his heart, but it does not seem as if she is owned. Should we read her retort as a refusal, then?: ‘René has no claim to me; the only thing that concerns René is what he has proper dominion over, namely, you and the other slaves.’ And yet, Jacqueline has, by this point in the text, also fallen in love. No longer narcissistically aloof, at least, to her new object of affection, does she risk being carried back (carried forward) to Roissy? In this ‘normal’ world in which she has fallen in love with a film director, a normal boy, is she just another unmarred girl at the Commander’s party?

We can pose the question in a different way if we consider that, in the text, Jacqueline functions as O’s uncanny double. Uncanniness, as Kristeva articulates it, is “a destructuration of self that may either remain as a psychotic symptom [think: repetition/stagnation] or fit in as an opening toward the new, as an attempt to tally with the incongruous [think: swerve]” (MNUB 188). The encounter with the uncanny is an encounter with an Other that is nevertheless familiar and shakes the self in the policing of its own boundaries: it is in fact an otherness in the self that has been ejected through the work of the self’s self-sculpting identifications, such that an encounter with it invites a broadening of these identifications, an expansion of the self’s purview (see MNUB 188-9). The uncanny may refer the subject “to an improper past” (MNUB 183). Before falling in love with René, O was Jacqueline: “indifferent and fickle,” she had merely “amused herself tempting the boys who were in love with her” (94). Her fully narcissistic desire to be desired not only shielded her but actively inflicted pain: it was a weapon (ibid). Subsequently, O’s indifferent and fickle behaviour is referred to, by a guilt-stricken O, as part of her ‘wantonness,’ and as such, as part of the constellation of justifications for her (present) punishment: an improper past, it has been ejected from the subject’s identificatory ambit. It is Jacqueline, then, since she is the representative of this past, who has been ejected from this ambit, and it is no surprise when O, by this time fully sympathetic with René (read: Roissy’s world and its order) and with the vision of sexual relations in which he ought not be love-stricken and desperate, but be dominant, comes to hate Jacqueline for the pain she might cause him.

In Freudian melancholy, the rejected object, again, is not actually ejected; it is rather subjected to a fissioning: it is brought into the ego where the hating energies once directed toward it (by the ego) are broken off from it and redirected toward the self. In Butler’s account, in which melancholy is assujettissement, the trace of the Other as feelings of worthlessness (or self-hatred, or even, calling to mind O, guilt) must be read as a “dissimulated sociality” (181): the various foreclosures performed in and through the cultural delineation of the realm of the possible are actually what occasions “the internal violence [and voice] of conscience” (183). O is guilt-ridden—guilty for prior fickle indifference, guilty for continuing wantonness, guilty for something, at one point we find out, she cannot quite put her finger on: “It…seemed to her that her nakedness was an atonement for something…but for what?” (103). Is her guilt, then, with its ambiguous content, precisely the trace of something foreclosed, something uncanny that, in (re-)erupting, might open O toward the new? And, if it is, then why should this something be ‘fickle indifference,’ as embodied by O’s uncanny double, Jacqueline?

For now, I would like to bracket the fact that ‘fickle indifference’ is not a possibility radically foreclosed in the world of the text[14] and simply ask: Does ‘fickle indifference’ nevertheless swerve? On the one hand, it seems to shield Jacqueline from Roissy. In other ways, it does not, however, and perhaps this is because it does not shield her from the desire to be desired: there are social norms that govern what constitutes a proper object of desire, and we might wonder if, within the domain that is the text, these are always already Roissy-inflected. Jacqueline already knows how to behave like a ‘desirable’ (submissive) subject: “No one would ever need to teach this woman anything: neither to be silent, nor to arch her head halfway back” (103-4). So acquainted is she with ‘the rules of the game’ that she warns O about the danger of wearing garters without a garter belt (“you’re going to ruin your legs” [63]) long before Anne-Marie informs her of the same (e.g., in the form of an indirect prohibition) (143). It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that one of the gowns Jacqueline dons at work, and which O photographs her in, is a gala gown “such as brides wore in the middle ages” (64) and such as only Roissy slaves continue to wear (65). Jacqueline’s fixation on O’s ring even causes O to think it is possible that “Jacqueline had been at Roissy,” and then, significantly, to wonder “why didn’t she too have a ring?” (75). Of course, O did not have a ring (read: iron sign of enslavement) prior to Roissy either: it was only bestowed once she had arrived there, and yet this did not stop René from…taking her for a walk…

Jacqueline is O’s uncanny double, an unfamiliar return of the familiar, to be sure, but if she were to interrupt O’s insularity, this “destructuration of self”—a return to fickle indifference—would perhaps best be thought of in terms of repetition/stagnation, or in terms of, as Kristeva puts this, a psychotic symptom (quoted above): an otherness that is more, rather than less, more of the same. If Jacqueline is not, then, finally, a good candidate for the figure of the foreigner, for the clinamen, then what else could serve as such a candidate? What else could swerve? O fills me with despair precisely because the logic inscribed by the text seems impervious to interruption, to change. The configuration of love itself in the text is inflexible, assuming, as it does, the one form. Our consideration of Jacqueline has revealed that resistance, within the logic of the text, likewise assumes a single form: ‘I love only myself: I do not love at all.’ What makes the text depressing, then, is that it not only forecloses the possibility of alternative configurations of love—positive attachments and forms of influence/interruption/inflection that are not founded on the existence of objects with owners, or on the discursive insistence on ‘intruders’ and the ‘intruded upon’— but also points to stagnation as the only model for a sorry and ultimately self-deceived resistance: narcissism: ‘I am never interrupted, for I do not love at all.’ One’s very existence implies that one has been, in some way, interrupted; one’s narcissism may keep one soldered to what one has always already been made into.


The Swerve

If there is an opening in O, then it is an untapped opening at the point of the text’s closure. The narrative voice marooned in white space on a final, un-paginated page reports:

In a final chapter, which has been suppressed, O did return to Roissy, where Sir Stephen abandoned her.

There exists a second end to O’s story. In that version, O, seeing that Sir Stephen was on the verge of leaving her, preferred to die. Sir Stephen gave his consent.

Recall that the text’s beginning is forked as well: either O is blindfolded and marshalled up to the chateau, or she walks to the door herself. These beginnings are equivalent, for an already subjected self’s autonomy is its subjection all the same. Is a similar equivalence to be found in the proposed “endings”? When O is abandoned, does this mean she is no longer owned, and, if so, in what sense does this signify that she is dead? ‘Death’ is dangerous, a vacuous word: The self dies without dying to become another; the self is said to die at the height of pleasure just as much as at the pinnacle of its debasement; O believed she had lost herself, but instead a subjugated self was only being further consolidated. What reason do we have for reading death at this point in the text as signifying new news? No reason at all. No reason: thus it is appropriate that Kathy Acker taps into the text here and veers.

In Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker provides her own version of O’s narrative. Acker’s O ends up in China, a name for any city, following W, her lover, who prostitutes her. W inadvertently sells weapons to a band of revolutionaries who undermine patriarchy/capitalism, his enterprise; they also beat him up severely, nearly killing him. (This is power making possible what from power strays.) W has abandoned O. Réage’s premise: ‘If Sir Stephen’s not around, then I want to be no more.’ Acker’s premise: “O speaks: If W’s not around, I don’t want to be a whore” (17). Once the revolutionaries storm the English embassy, O’s ‘health’ returns: she learns that W was part owner of the whorehouse, and thus tells us: “I no longer cared what W felt about me: all I wanted was for him to be absent from me” (21). The patriarchal order crumbles and O “[stands] on the edge of a new world” (23).

In another version (same book), O is in Alexandria and catalyzes the revolution herself: “a revolution of whores” (30) to begin “[t]he only thing in the world that’s worth beginning: the end of the world” (27). Acker’s perseveration, throughout the text, on the prospect of a new world order is significant, given, as we have seen, that it is a rigid discursive/ontological order that fortifies a subjugating form of power in Réage’s text. Acker busts open the order consolidated in that text, displacing the phallus—in Acker’s text ‘Pussy’ is king, pirate, O, treasure—displacing, in fact, many things: reason, identity, certainty, consistency. She populates her text with characters and actions that befit the ambiguity of any brink: patriarchal women, decapitated/castrated fathers, bloodthirsty freedom fighters, graveyard dwellers, men who seem to have overcome themselves, readying themselves for the new order, but who are nevertheless insidious, girl pirates who are just as, perhaps even more insidious, vicious, complicit with power… Acker resolves nothing. Instead, she locks the reader into a bemusement that is also a bewonderment: does everything change, or does nothing? Yet the canny whore-pirates of Acker’s text are one step ahead of the melancholic subject confined to Réage’s pages, since they realize that an ontological order constrains what is possible, and therefore must be interrogated: “The weight of culture: questioned and lost” (31).

Part of this interrogation is discursive: “the whores learned that if language or words whose meanings seem definite are dissolved into a substance of multiple gestures and cries…then all the weight that the current social, political, and religious hegemonic forms of expression carry will be questioned. Become questionable. Finally lost.” (ibid.) Elsewhere, the text gestures toward the transformative potentiality of disjunction: “words apocalyptic and apostrophic, punctuations only as disjunctions, disjunctions cut into different parts of the body or of the world” (36). Disjunction: not just the ‘or’ of alternatives as in Réage’s text, for Acker’s text makes use of narrative disjunction, the occasional Steinean period,[15] and, again, a crafty skewing of logic. The pirate/whores’ insight, then, is not only that they must think, or attempt to think, the very order they’ve issued from, but that thinking might involve linguistic rearrangement.

The whores become pirates precisely to perform this interrogation, to pursue the origin of whoredom (the order it’s emerged from) and to change its course (27). In a way, then, Acker’s text offers another formulation of Foucault’s ‘thought thinking itself’:

Thought does exist, both beyond and before systems and edifices of discourse. It is something that is often hidden but always drives everyday behaviours. There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits. Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts that are now too easy. (SIIITT 172)

Criticism does not settle things once and for all, but problematizes a subject’s previously un-problematical proceedings. The subject engaging with criticism is a troubled, dissatisfied, confused, but nonetheless active subject—a fizzing subject, even zealous, and vertiginous, falling, falling ever short of knowledge. In Réage’s text, the otherness that interrupts the self is concretely cultural; in Acker’s text, the otherness the girls quest for, where ‘quest’ is ‘criticism,’ is an otherness beyond the cultural, or at least an otherness under-determined by the cultural. This otherness is ‘thought.’ Thought is figured once in Acker’s book as a red rat named Ratski, who, elsewhere in the text, interrupts as menstrual blood. It is perhaps the pursuit of this other otherness—‘thought’—it is perhaps thought’s opening to thought—that holds out the possibility of a swerve away from Roissy and what it enables. This pursuit, significantly, occurs beyond the border of O’s original story. Story of O, it seems, has inspired the very myths which seek to double back and destroy it, and which, in doubling back, invest it, preserve it. For their very life, they depend on it. Some of us have never aspired to do anything more than pervert and corrupt, to be anything more than bastards and degenerates.

Ratski is fat because everything in the world sits inside her belly because she never sits inside any belly because, if she did, she’d tear right through it. Her fur is red…

No one ever finds Ratski: she lives inside the interstices of the world. Located between red flowers. The name of each interstice is “intellect.”

Ratski’s always on the rag.

…and so the reign of girl piracy began… (Acker 208)

 —Natalie Helberg




Acker, Kathy. 1997. Bodies of Work: Essays by Kathy Acker. London: Serpent’s Tail. Print.

_____. 1996. Pussy, King of the Pirates. New York: Grove. Print.

_____. 1993. My Mother: Demonology. New York: Pantheon. Print.

Andrews, Betsy. 2004. “The Real Story of ‘O.’” Biting the Error. Ed. Gail Scott, Mary Burger,

Robert Glück, Camille Roy. Toronto: Coach House. 216-19. Print.

Bartky, Sandra. 1990. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge. Print.

Bök, Christian. 2002.‘Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston: Northwestern UP. Print.

Bordo, Susan. 2003. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P. Print.

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP. Print.

_____. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. California: Stanford UP. Print.

Crozier, W. R. 1996. “The Psychology of Colour Preferences.” Review of Progress in Coloration and Related Topics. 21.1: 63-72. Primo. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1988. “A New Cartographer.” Foucault. Trans. Seán Hand. Minneapolis; London: U of Minnesota P. 23-44. Print.

_____. 1988. “Foldings, or the Inside of Thought (Subjectivation).” Foucault. Trans. Seán Hand. Minneapolis; London: U of Minnesota P. 94-123. Print.

Foucault, Michel. 2006. Psychiatric Power. Trans. Graham Burchell. Ed. Jacques Lagrange. New York: Picador. Print.

_____. 2003. “So Is It Important To Think.” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and Nicolas Rose. New York: New Press. 170-73. Print.

_____. 2003. “The Thought of The Outside.” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and

Nicolas Rose. New York: New Press. 423-41. Print.

_____. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage. Print.

Giordana, Simona. 2005. Understanding Eating Disorders: Conceptual and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP. Print.

Heyes, Cressida J. 2007. Self Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. 1991. “Might Not Universality Be…Our Own Foreignness?” Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP. 169-92. Print.

_____. 1991. “Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner.” Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP. 1-40. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2006. “The I and Totality.” Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-other. Trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. London; New York: Continuum. 11-33. Print.

_____. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP. Print.

Lorde, Audre. 2007. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing. 114-23. Print.

McWhorter, Ladelle. 1999. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington: Indiana UP. Print.

Réage, Pauline. 1993. Story of O. Trans. John Paul Hand. New York: Book-Of-The-Month Club. Print.

Robertson, Lisa. 2012. Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias. Toronto: Bookthug. Print.

Young, Iris Marion. 1980. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment and Spatiality.” Human Studies 3.2: 137-56. PRIMO. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.


helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Pauline Réage is of course a pseudonym.
  2. Lisa Robertson reads Story of O as a similar type of allegory: the self’s agency, in her reading, is accomplished by means of the very passivity it wills for itself. Her essay on Story of O was, in fact, a catalyst for my own thinking on the subject (see Nilling).
  3. I’ve tinkered with tense here, as I have in other phrases drawn from Réage’s book.
  4. “Here is where I leave you,” René says (Réage 5).
  5. In Giving an Account of Oneself, for example, Judith Butler suggests that subjective interruptions of this kind are the crux of ethics, that “our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human” (136).
  6. See Crozier.
  7. Mirrors are scattered throughout the text as well and signal Roissy’s seepage into O’s everyday existence, where they consistently function to maintain her in her status as ‘object for an Other’: “She saw her reflection: she was naked except for the leather clogs…not much darker than the clogs she had worn at Roissy…and the ring…[S]he was alone, her sole spectator. And yet she had never felt so totally subject to a foreign will, never so a slave” (Réage 60).
  8. Disciplinary power renders and subsequently functions on the premise that a whole series of behaviours—“latenesses, absences, interruptions of tasks…inattention, negligence, lack of zeal…impoliteness, disobedience… idle chatter, insolence…‘incorrect’ attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness,” and so on (Foucault DP 178)—are punishable. At Roissy, the women are punished “at night for any infraction of the rules during the day. That is, for thoughtlessness, for being slow to oblige, for having raised [their] eyes on whoever speaks to [them] or takes [them]” (Réage 16), and for speaking to other women (Réage 16 and 36-7),
  9. Notwithstanding the aforementioned idea that, within the allegorical space which is O and which belongs to the pseudo-time of a ‘before subjectivity,’ there is another dimension to the text in which it seems that forces act, continuously and throughout the narrative, on O from without. The text’s various allegorical layers co-exist with, rather than contradict, one another.
  10. In fact, in Butler’s text, the degree to which melancholy is experiential is ambiguous, since she also makes something of the thought that the ego retracts negative, object-directed affect, turning it back on itself.
  11. It is troubling to pre-formulate, or pre-posit ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ subjects this way, if, in fact, they only come to be dominant and submissive relationally.
  12. The phrasing here is revealing: “Nothing obliged her to remain a slave, nothing except her love and slavery itself” (Réage 123; my emphasis).
  13. The language of internalization implies that something to be internalized pre-exists the subject, and that the subject pre-exists the act of internalization.
  14. It is a possibility O, in fact, lived: She lived, we can say, ‘fickle indifference’ once, if only to reject it—or if only, through her love for René, to have it stolen (see Réage 94).
  15. Andrews quotes Gertrude Stein on periods: “They could begin to act as they thought best and one might interrupt one’s writing with them that is not really interrupting one’s writing with them but one could come to stop arbitrarily in one’s writing and so they could be used…” (218).
Sep 082015
Mistral 7

Gabriela Mistral – Nobel Prize Ceremony – 1945

Icame to the poetry of Gabriela Mistral through the back door – that is, through her poems for children. As a teacher of graduate students who wanted to write for children, and as someone writing poems for children myself, I was drawn to her cradle songs, her “round dances” and “Tell-a-World” poems, and her “trickeries,” especially the ones that offered up strange images or that went directions that contemporary American rhymes for children do not  often go.


A Tasso de Silveira

Dame la mano y danzaremos;
dame la mano y me amarás.
Como una sola flor seremos,
como una flor, y nada más.

El mismo verso cantaremos,
al mismo paso bailarás.
Como una espiga ondularemos,
como una espiga, y nada mas.

Te llamas Rosa y yo Esperanza;
pero tu nombre olvidarás,
porque seremos una danza
en la colina, y nada mas.


For Tasso de Silveira

Give me your hand and give me your love,
give me your hand and dance with me.
A single flower, and nothing more,
a single flower is all we’ll be.

Keeping time in the dance together,
singing the tune together with me,
grass in the wind, and nothing more,
grass in the wind is all we’ll be.

I’m called Hope and you’re called Rose;
but losing our names we’ll both go free,
a dance on the hills, and nothing more,
a dance on the hills is all we’ll be.

[unless otherwise noted, translations are all by Ursula LeGuin from her book, Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.]

Mistral’s rhythms (especially as translated by LeGuin, who catches both sound and sense perfectly) remind me of the work of Walter de la Mare (“I must go down to the sea again, / to the lonely sea and the sky….”), another writer whose poems for children can inhabit and haunt us.

Most of Mistral’s children’s verses were published in a book titled Ternura (Tenderness); I found a dusty copy among her poetry for adults (and literary criticism about her work) at the graduate library of the University of Washington – my public library didn’t have it. I searched that volume out because I wanted to study how Mistral did it, how she managed to make the leap and bring a certain oddness to her verses for children. While teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to try to “strange it up” in order to make their work less thin and Seuss-like, more haunting, less Hop-on-Pop. Mistral knew how to do that; it’s a worthy goal for people who think, as Maurice Sendak did, that children can handle more than we give them credit for.


Una rata corrió a un venado
y los venados al jaguar,
y los jaguares a los búfalos,
y los búfalos a la mar…

Pillen, pillen a los que se van!
Pillen a la rata, pillen al venado,
pillen a los búfalos y a la mar!

Miren que la rata de la delantera
se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido
y con el vestido me voy a casar.

Suban y pasen la llanada,
corran sin aliento, sigan sin parar,
vuelan por la novia, y por el cortejo,
y por la carroza y el velo nupcial.


A rat ran after a deer,
deer ran after a jaguar,
jaguars chased buffalo,
and the buffalo chased the sea.

Catch the ones who chase and flee!
Catch the rat, catch the deer,
catch the buffalo and the sea!

Look, look at the rat in front,
in its paws is a woolen thread,
with that thread I sew my gown,
in that gown I will be wed.

Climb up and run, breathless run,
ceaseless chase across the plain
after the carriage, the flying veil,
after the bride and the bridal train!

We can almost see the children’s game being played out on the playground there, but the poem has the combination of eeriness and sing-song cadences that Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and James Fenton’s “Out of the East” have. Mistral’s poems for children are not always sweet and catchy, nor are they hyper-kinetic with wordplay. They might be called quirky and – at their darkest points – unsettling. That’s true, too, of the oddest and most haunting nursery rhymes we have in English (think “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”)

Mistral 1

Gabriela Mistral – Her First Communion


Que sopló el viento y se llevó las nubes
y que en las nubs iba un pavo real,
que el pavo real era para mi mano
y que la mano se me va a secar,
y que la mano le di esta manaña
al rey que vino para desposar.

Ay que el cielo, ay que el viento, y la nube
que se van con el pavo real!


What if the wind blew and bore away the clouds,
and there was a peacock flying in the clouds,
what if the peacock came to my hand
and my hand is going to wither,
and this morning I gave my hand
to the king who came to be married;

O for the sky, O for the wind and the cloud,
all gone with the king’s peacock.

That poem has something of Wallace Stevens in it (“The palm stands on the edge of space. // The wind moves wind in the branches. / The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”) and something of George MacDonald (author of the classic At the Back of the North Wind.) There are folkloric elements, fantasy elements, and a strong flavor of the fabulous.

When Mistral published Ternura in 1922, she had already been teaching for twenty-two years but was only thirty-six years old. She had been supporting her mother and siblings since she was fourteen, managing to write and publish poetry while she did. A tragic love affair (her lover killed himself over accusations of embezzlement) led to the publication of a book of sonnets (Sonetos de la muerte / Death Sonnets) that won the Chilean National Poetry Prize and established her reputation throughout Chile, all this when she was barely twenty-five years old.

mistral 2

Some critics consider those sonnets her best work, and though they are technically accomplished and passionate, I find her later work more precise, more secular, less sentimental, less florid, and so more connected to the world of senses than to emotional abstractions or questions of religious devotion. After the publication of Ternura, she moved to Mexico, where she tried to help the new Obregon administration establish a post-revolutionary education and library system nationwide. She never again returned to Chile to live, though she represented it as a diplomat in many countries. Neruda studied under her at one point, and both of them, though well-known for their attachment to Chile, spent long years abroad. Though Neruda’s exile was forced, Mistral’s was voluntary. She died in New York in 1957.

Mistral 10
As I say, I came to Mistral through the back door. Knocking on the front door, I would have encountered a steelier poet, a more complicated Mistral: Nobel Prize winner, self-styled exile but world citizen, diplomat and activist (the proceeds of the sale of one of her books went to help Basque children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War), renowned educator, and fierce guardian of her personal privacy. “Gabriela Mistral” was not actually the poet’s name – it was used as the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, born in 1889 in the Elqui Valley of Chile’s Andean Mountains, in the small farming community of Vicuna. Lovely as the more poetic explanation of her pseudonym is (referring to the Archangel Gabriel and to the mistral wind which blows across France toward the Mediterranean Sea), most biographers suggest that the name was chosen to honor the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the French poet and philologist, Frederic Mistral, also a Nobel Prize laureate.

Choosing an alternate way to approach her work allowed me to detour around some of her earlier sentimental work and arrive at what I think her strongest poems for adults are, those published later in her life. The series of poems called “locas mujeres” (crazy women), which includes some of my favorites, was published in Lagar (Winepress), Mistral’s last book of poems. By then, she had lost not only her lover but several friends and a well-loved adopted son to suicide. I have an unpublished manuscript of poems for adults titled “The Madwoman”; it’s only natural I would be drawn to those poems of Mistral’s. Looking at a woman’s perspective on the ordinary objects and routines of this world, once she has some kind of emotional and mental dislocation, is intriguing to me, though not quite as personally motivated as it was for Mistral. Randall Couch, author of the book Madwomen: The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (he translates the poems – a few of them uncollected at her death – as well as introducing them and addressing the task of translation, both in general and in particular) says that these poems are among Mistral’s most complex and compelling, written “at the height of her powers.” I agree.  Couch goes on to say that Mistral “bends the bow of poetry, a frail weapon against the unhinging of consciousness, into strange new forms.”


Para nadie planta la lila
o poda las azaleas
y carga el agua para nadie
en baldes que la espejean.

Vuelta a uno que no da sombra
y sobrepasa su cabeza,
estira un helecho mojado
y a darlo y a hurtárselo juega.

Abre las rejas sin que llamen,
sin que entre nadie, las cierra
y se cansa para el sueño
que la toma, la suelta y la deja.

Desvíen el agua de la vertiente
que la halla gateando ciego,
espolvoreen sal donde siembre,
entierren sus herramientas.

Háganla dormir, póngala a dormir
como al armiño o la civeta.
Cuando duerma bajen su brazo
a avienten el sueño que sueña.

La muerte anda desvariada,
borracha camina la Tierra,
trueca rutas, tuerce dichas,
en la esfera tamborilea.

Viento y Arcángel de su nombre
trajeron hasta su puerta
la muerte de todos sus vivos
sin traer la muerte de ella.

Las fichas vivas de los hombres
en la carrera le tintinean.
Trocaría, perdería
la pobre muerte de la granjera!


For nobody she plants the lilac,
prunes the azalea,
for nobody carries buckets
of water that reflect her.

Turned towards someone taller
who casts no shadows,
she pulls up a wet fern frond,
plays at giving and taking back.

She opens the shutters though no one calls,
no one comes in, she shuts them,
and wears herself out in the dream
that takes, and frees, and deserts her.

Turn aside the water of the spring
that finds her groping blindly,
scatter salt where she sows,
and bury her farm-tools.

Make her sleep, put her to sleep
like a stoat or a weasel.
when she’s asleep lower her arm
and blow way the dream she dreams.

Crazy Death goes reeling
across the world, drunk,
changes paths, twists fates,
makes earth his dream.

Wind and Archangel of her name
brought to her door
the death of everyone she loved,
and did not bring her own.

Living human poker chips
jingle as he runs.
He must have lost it on a bet,
the poor farm wife’s death.


We all know that a poet, no matter how well his or her books sell in America, will be under-read. The readership for poetry in this country is so small and fiercely segmented, so specific to individual tastes and trends, that we assume a meeting of any poet’s fan club will be sparsely attended (relative to the loyal fan clubs of Stephen King or Barbara Cartland.) This is as true for Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, whose books sell well considering they are full of poems, and whose fans include people who don’t normally read poetry, as it is for a “poet’s poet”  like James Merrill or Elizabeth Bishop. Poetry, no matter how well it sells, is not a best-seller in America. So the idea of poet-as-beloved-symbol-of-her-people and “Mother of the Nation” is a bit hard to comprehend.

In 1945, Gabriela Mistral became the first South American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was cited by the prize committee for “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idyllic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” Or, as The Poetry Foundation puts it, “[Mistral] will always be seen as a representative figure in the cultural history of the continent.” Scholarly books of criticism, written by critics who are well aware of the need to be politically correct, still use the slightly objectifying term “la Mistral” when referring to Gabriela Mistral (imagine Pablo Neruda being called “el Neruda”!) and she is often referred to simply as “Gabriela” in the Hispanic communities where her children’s poems are sung as lullabies and read in school, and her reputation as an important educator is sustained.  In some segments of Latin American society, Mistral’s reputation paints her with such a saintly or other-worldly brush that she is basically desexualized, not unlike the “mistral” wind her name conjures up, strong but cold. In truth, very little is known about her private life, despite many poems and a large body of personal letters having been poured over for decades by scholars.

What we also know about Mistral is that in South America, at least, she is not undersung; in fact, she’s ubiquitous. Schools are named after her, songs are sung in her honor, festivals and prizes (for poets and teachers) are named after her. Her image was placed on the 5000-peso Chilean bank note (now affectionately called a “gabriela”) in 1981; it has also appeared on stamps throughout South America. When she died and her body was returned to Chile, the Chilean government declared three days of national mourning, and hundreds of thousands of people attended her memorial.

Mistral 5

Mistral 6

Mistral 8 _1957_Ecuador_stamp

Mistral 9

How can a poet born in the Western hemisphere, one who received the Nobel Prize for Literature mid-century, one whose work has been well-translated and reliably kept in print in English, one whose work still reads as modern and relevant, one whose gender might serve as a point of pride for feminists — how can she remain not only undersung among general readers of poetry but among American poets themselves? On the other hand, when I told my sister that I was working on an essay about the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and that I was worried, as I had been about a previous essay in the Undersung series about Eugenio Montale,  whether Nobel laureates could actually be labelled “undersung,” my sister reminded me that 25% of all Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth. I guess it’s no surprise Gabriela Mistral is not a household name from Maine to California. Assuming that a large percentage of practicing poets actually know which heavenly objects orbit which, it’s still true that many American poets have never read Mistral’s work  – certainly not in its original language.

We’re a lazy bunch here in America, second-language-wise, despite the fact that whole sections of the government now print their official documents in Spanish and English. We’re a bilingual country without a bilingual population – bilingualism is taking its own sweet time to catch on.  Hurry up, I feel like saying to my compatriots, learn Spanish and be ahead of the crowd! The benefit of doing so would be not only the ability to converse with and stand together with a growing portion of our fellow countrymen, but the ability to read Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Vincente Aleixandre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Camilo Jose Sela, Jose Saramago, Miguel Angel Asturias (all nine are Nobel Prize winners) and yes, Gabriela Mistral, in the language their work was written in. The current state of affairs seems to suggest that since Robert Frost said (I’m paraphrasing) that poetry is what gets lost in translation, we’ve given ourselves permission not to read translated poetry. After all, if Frost was right, what would be the point? Translated poetry would be an oxymoron. Thank God a few poets – oxymoronic, slippery fish – manage to reach our shores from time to time and make a contemporary splash: Wislawa Szymborska springs to mind, as do C.P. Cafavy and Czeslaw Milosz. But it’s not the feast we might enjoy if we were less Anglocentric. We have an unfortunate history of undervaluing anything  — or anyone — that is outside the mainstream, as Langston Hughes understood when he translated this poem by Mistral:



The green and yellow parrot,
the saffron and green parrot,
called me “ugly,” squawking
with his devilish bill.

I am not ugly, for if I am ugly,
then my mother who looks like the sun is ugly,
the light that is part of my mother is ugly,
and the wind is ugly that sounds in her voice,
and ugly is the water that reflects her body,
and ugly is the world and He who created it…

The green and yellow parrot,
green and shimmering parrot,
calls me “ugly” because he has not eaten,
so I take him bread and wine,
for I am getting tired of looking at him
up there always posed, always shimmering.

—Julie Larios



Julie Larios writes poetry for both children and adults; several of her poems have appeared in the pages of Numero Cinq but she is proudest of her faux-translation “A Cow’s Life,” submitted five years ago to NC’s First Ever Translation Contest. 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. Her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq has previously highlighted the work of R.F. Langley, George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid, John Malcolm Brinnin, Ernst Jandl and The Poet-Novelist.

Sep 062015
Secretariat via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia


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Kentucky Derby 1973

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Preakness 1973

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Belmont Stakes 1973


TRIPLE CROWN WINNER American Pharoah’s recent loss in the 2015 Travers Stakes has, I’ve noticed, occasionally been accompanied by the erroneous remark that the greatest of all Triple Crown champions, the incomparable Secretariat, had also lost that race in Saratoga, the fabled “graveyard of champions.” This misstatement, coupled with the off-hand comment by Donald Trump a week earlier that “Secretariat wasn’t one of the best,” have combined to propel me back to the summer of 1973, to recall at least some of my memories of Secretariat, and to finally record something of the impact he’s had on my life.

In terms of direct, visceral experience, my relationship to Secretariat is reducible to a furtive touch and a mere breath. Yet a similar experience with the great California-bred Swaps—winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby (his owner ignored the other two Triple Crown races) and 1956 Horse of the Year—so affected Bill Nack that it led him to a career that resulted in, among other accomplishments, the writing of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the basis of the widely-viewed 2010 film. Bill and I have become friends, discovering that we have at least two things intensely in common. He is, I quickly learned, an informed appreciator, and public reader, of poetry, not least the poetry of Yeats, the poet whose work I happen to know most about. But Bill is also, of course, not merely enamored of Secretariat, but the world’s leading expert on the horse. That brings us back, again, to that annus mirabilis, 1973.

Though Secretariat had been the phenomenon of that summer, just as The Donald has been the rather-less-glorious phenomenon of the summer of 2015, Big Red had competition for the nation’s attention in 1973. That was also the summer of the Watergate hearings, which I watched on television in the recreation room of Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University. At the time, I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar taught by Harold Bloom, already as spectacularly outstanding, indeed unique, in the world of literary criticism as Secretariat had swiftly become in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The national malaise attending Watergate and the dismal winding-down of the tragedy of the Vietnam War had, for many in the country and not only sports fans, been alleviated by the brilliant performances of “the People’s Horse.” It was not only his power, dazzling speed, and breathtaking come-from-behind style that made Secretariat so popular. He was extraordinarily intelligent and curious, with a playful personality almost as noticeable and appealing as his sheer physical beauty. Magnificently muscled, the “perfect horse” or “horse that God made” had a chestnut coat that shimmered like copper in the sunlight. The photos of him that appeared on the covers of three national magazines in a single week have become collectors’ items. The June 11, 1973 Time cover, one of four framed portraits of Secretariat hanging in my home, shows him looking directly at us, eyes alert, ears pricked. The words to the right of the picture say it all: SUPER HORSE.

Time cover

In a curious parallel on the personal level, my despondency in the summer of 1973 over the painful breakup of the most passionate relationship of my life had been relieved by the exhilaration of working with Harold Bloom and, even more, by the thrill of watching Secretariat win the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century. Of course, he not only won; he set records in all three races. Those records still stand more than four decades later; and his culminating performance in the last and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes—winning by 31 lengths in an almost miraculous 2:24 flat—is almost impossible to imagine ever being matched let alone beaten.

But back for a moment to those remarks made in 2015, first Trump’s.

The author of The Art of the Deal brazenly claims that his exaggerations and outright falsehoods are “innocent” utilitarian untruths; the end justifies the means, he argues, and hyperbole is effective salesmanship. His art of the deal continues in the current presidential campaign, with the media-savvy huckster playing fast and loose with facts, while touching, with uncanny insight and precision, more than a few nativist nerves and appealing to a much larger Washington-weary constituency, alienated and frustrated by political polarization and dysfunction.

But, to extend to Trump the fairness he seldom extends to others, his remark about Secretariat was not directed at the horse’s legendary performances on the track but at his lesser performance as a stallion: a testosterone-centered category in which the supermodel-collecting billionaire has always flaunted his own prowess. At the overflow August 21 rally in Mobile, Alabama, where Trump made the casual reference to Secretariat, it was in the context of his characteristic boasting about his own brilliance. On this occasion, referring to his “family’s intelligence,” he announced to the crowd that he “believes in the gene thing.” It was thought, he continued in his usual teleprompter-free stream of loose association, that Secretariat “couldn’t produce slow horses. But Secretariat wasn’t all that great, if you want to know the truth.”

YouTube Preview ImageFrom the documentary Penny & Red: the Belmont Stakes extended cut

The slur, as usual with Trump, was a half-truth. It’s true that Secretariat never produced a horse of his own caliber (what sire could?), thus disappointing the unrealistic expectations of some who had invested in that expensive $6 million syndicate and were dreaming of miraculous progeny. But he did in fact sire some stakes-winning colts and a series of remarkable daughters, most notably, the 1986 Eclipse Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret, who won many Grade 1 races and dominated the field in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. She is one of the few fillies ranked among the 100 top thoroughbreds. Another of Secretariat’s daughters, Terlingua, became the dam of Storm Cat, the most successful sire (his breeding fee at the peak of his stud career was $500,000) in thoroughbred history.

Though it is as a broodmare sire that Secretariat has left his most enduring mark on breeding, he did produce several fine colts as well. His son Tinner’s Way had lifetime earnings of over $1.8 million. Another, Risen Star, was beaten (along with all the other boys) in the 1988 Kentucky Derby by the sensational filly, Winning Colors, who ran wire-to-wire. But he came back in the remaining Triple Crown races, taking The Preakness and then romping to victory in the Belmont, in what was then a time second only to that of his daddy. Another son of Secretariat, General Assembly, won a number of stakes races, most dramatically the 1979 Travers, in which, on a sloppy track, he set a new record, 2:00 minutes flat: a mark that still stands, both for the Travers and for that distance, 1¼ miles, at Saratoga.

I was there that wet day, cheering on General Assembly in the performance of his life, but also in what I saw as an act of poetic justice: payback for the medical fluke that, a half-dozen years earlier, had prevented his father from adding to his Saratoga legacy following his Triple Crown triumph earlier that summer.

YouTube Preview Image



I had been in love with Secretariat from the first time I saw him in the flesh and, in fact, actually touched him. That was in Saratoga in early August, 1972, in the minutes leading up to the Hopeful Stakes. I was at the paddock rail when a man standing to my immediate right pointed his camera at Secretariat. With Ronnie Turcotte in the saddle, the beautiful two-year-old, already a camera-conscious star, strode to the rail. I instinctively raised my hand, then thought better of it; after all, he would be on the track competing in just a few minutes. However, Turcotte, with a resigned and understanding nod, gave me the green light. When I stroked that muscled crest of a neck, Secretariat turned and looked right at me with those intelligent eyes. I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare forearm.

YouTube Preview Image1972 Hopeful Stakes

The young colt then went out and ran the most dazzling Hopeful Stakes in the history of a race often thought of as a preview of the following year’s Triple Crown competition. He broke languidly, then, in a sudden, breathtaking move, surged past eight horses, exploding from dead last to first in little more than a furlong. He would do the same thing the following year, in The Preakness, making the other horses look as if they were standing still as he rocketed by. But by then he was a mature three-year-old. When he made that huge move in the Hopeful, I was jumping up and down, yelling to everyone near me that we were watching the future Triple Crown champion. My friends laughed at my premature enthusiasm, but I wasn’t just responding to that unprecedented burst of speed; I was still conscious of having stroked him, still feeling his breath on my arm. Bill Nack has said that he can still remember the life-changing moment when Swaps, the first horse he loved, breathed on his hand as he was stroking him. From the day I touched Secretariat and he breathed on me, I was similarly smitten for life.

The other half-truth I referred to was a claim made in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s failure on August 29. Secretariat, too, we were told, had lost at Saratoga, with the implication sometimes explicit: that he had “lost” the Travers.

American Pharoah did indeed lose the Travers. Bill Nack, recently asked to contribute to a special American Pharoah issue of the horse magazine Equus, told the editor that he was not the right contributor since he could not bring himself to rank the horse among “the greatest in history”; the editor invited him to write instead about a few of those he did so rank. Pharoah’s performance in the Travers may confirm Bill’s skepticism, conveyed to me in an email full of wonderful anecdotes about the golden age of racing.

Prior to the Travers, not even that email could steer me off Pharoah. I was at the track and noticed, from about 40 feet away, that he was sweating as he headed out for the big race, and it seemed clear, even though he led for almost the entire trip, that he was running tired. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, observed even as he graciously complimented the winner, his horse “did not bring his A-game.” No wonder—having been flown back and forth across the country in a matter of three weeks. Following his Belmont win, capping the first Triple Crown in 37 years, Pharoah had won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth handily, with his jockey, Victor Espinoza, coasting in the final stage of the stretch, saving his horse for what we all hoped would be the Travers. It was well known that Baffert didn’t like Saratoga, whose track-surface he considers deep and demanding; and Saratoga’s reputation as the “graveyard of champions” had been painfully demonstrated to him in past attempts to win the Big One at the Spa. Baffert had saddled five strong horses in previous Travers Stakes, winning only once, in 2001, with the great Point Given.

It was probably the combination of a dazzling work on August 22 at Del Mar, Pharoah’s home track in California, coupled with the NYRA decision to sweeten the Travers purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million in an attempt to lure the colt back across the country, that convinced the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and a more reluctant Baffert to run their horse in the Travers.

On top of the cross-country travel, Pharoah was not given sufficient time, less than three days, to acclimate himself to Saratoga. In the race, even in the lead, he did not seem his usual smooth self. Challenged at the head of the stretch by Frosted, he struggled, but regained the lead. That was the moment to close the deal, and many of us thought he was about to. But having beaten back the challenge by Frosted, Pharoah could not hold off the late rush of Keen Ice, who had also closed on him in the Haskell, cutting his lead from 5 to 21/2 lengths. But, with that race won, Espinoza had eased back. In the Travers, in sharp contrast, he was whipping Pharoah hard. But the horse was spent; Keen Ice passed him in the final seconds, to win by a full length.

His schedule may have been mismanaged, but the 2015 Triple Crown champion had his shot at the Travers and was beaten fair and square. In 1973, Secretariat had never gotten his chance. After easily winning the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, Secretariat was scheduled to run in both major races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Travers, and was overwhelmingly expected to win both. Coming back to the scene of his triumphs as a two-year-old in the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes, the Triple Crown champion was welcomed as a returning hero. The Saturday of the Whitney Stakes, August 4, was declared Secretariat Day; the town was festive, draped in his blue and white colors, and—he lost!

In an astonishing upset, he was beaten by Onion, trained by Allan Jerkins. When those of us watching in growing dismay finally realized that Secretariat, who came in second, wasn’t going to storm past Onion in the stretch, a shockwave of disbelief spread through the grandstand, stunning an adoring crowd that had come to see the triumph, on his way to the Travers, of the greatest thoroughbred since Man o’ War—whose only defeat came as a two-year-old in the 1919 Sanford at (of course) Saratoga, losing to a 100-1 longshot unbelievably but aptly named Upset.

In the eerie silence that followed my hero’s defeat, I left the track in tears. It turned out that Secretariat had not simply been the victim of Jerkins as “giant killer” or of Saratoga as the graveyard of champions, however well-earned both those reputations were. Secretariat had failed to fire in the stretch because of a virus he had been incubating, a low-grade fever that—salt in the wound—also prevented him, as he further sickened, from competing in the Travers.

His son would help make up for that by winning the Travers in the fastest time ever recorded. But that would be six years in the future. The immediate compensation for the numbing disappointment of the Whitney came just a month later, and I was there to see Secretariat’s astonishing recovery. What was originally intended to be a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, had been cancelled when both horses unexpectedly lost. Instead, a star cast was assembled for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational.

Along with Riva Ridge and Onion, the talented field included Annihilate ‘Em (the actual winner of the 1973 Travers), Canadian champion Kennedy Road, and the 1972 three-year-old champion, Key to the Mint. I was at Belmont on that September day when, with his stablemate coming in second, Secretariat galloped to victory in 1:452/5, setting a new world record for 11/8 miles on dirt. Once again, I left the track after the feature race—again in tears, but this time tears of joy.

Secretariat via Zenyatta

YouTube Preview ImageSecretariat in retirement, running for the fun of it



Such tearful reactions may seem excessive to those who don’t share the passion some of us have for truly great horses. So let me try one more story involving tears and Secretariat. This one takes place not long after 1989, the year Secretariat, suffering from incurable laminitis, was humanely euthanized (yes, I wept that day, but that’s not the tale of tears I’m about to tell). I was visiting Saratoga, to see friends and to take in some races. Walking on Union Avenue, I noticed that one of the great houses was serving temporarily as a museum. I went in and was immediately struck by a splendid bronze in the middle of the room.

Secretariat statue

Perhaps two-thirds life-size, it depicted Secretariat immediately after winning the Kentucky Derby. Having just broken the old Derby record (Secretariat’s 1:592/5 still stands), the horse is pumped. Turcotte is in the saddle, gripping the reins, but one feels the strength pulsing under him. Even Eddie Sweat, his groom and the man who knew “Big Red” best, can barely restrain him. Fluent in bronze, Secretariat’s muscles are sharply delineated, his eyes dilated with excitement. The sculptor had caught perfectly the stunning surface beauty of the horse and the flexed power throbbing beneath that rippling coat.

via Horseguru

Noticing me admiring it, the curator walked over and asked if I had a minute for a story involving the sculpture. Unsurprisingly, I did. She told me that the piece was not commissioned but a labor of love, begun by the artist on a much smaller scale, but gradually possessing him until this seemed the minimum size to convey his sense of the horse. When it was exhibited, the sculptor arranged for Eddie Sweat to be flown up from Florida, where he was still working with horses.

When Eddie arrived, the sole black man in a white world of brie and chablis, he walked directly to the sculpture. He proceeded to circle it, slowly and repeatedly, without saying a word and with no discernable facial expression. At last the sculptor, concerned (the curator told me) by the lack of overt response on the part of the man who knew Secretariat most intimately, walked over to him.

“What’s the matter, Eddie,” he asked nervously, “You don’t like it?”

His eyes never leaving the sculpture, Eddie said simply:

“That’s him; that’s him.”

The sculptor, so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room, later told the curator that lavish praise from the most distinguished art critic in the world could not have meant as much to him as those four words from Eddie Sweat.

Eddie Sweat and SecretariatEddie Sweat and Secretariat

The artist was internationally renowned equine sculptor Edwin Bogucki, who had first conceived of a tribute to Secretariat after seeing the horse in retirement at Claiborne Farm, just months before his death. Later, to reproduce the horse in his prime, he examined photos, made sketches, and took measurements. Ron Turcotte was always to be included in the piece. But when Bogucki saw a photograph of Eddie Sweat, alone and in tears, having just surrendered his beloved “Red” to Claiborne to begin his retirement, he knew that no depiction of Secretariat would be complete without the man who knew and loved him best.

The magnificent life-size version of this sculpture is now on permanent display in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, the entrance to which is guarded by a statue of Man o’ War, its pedestal resting on the transposed grave of the only horse in thoroughbred racing history that can be considered Secretariat’s equal.

Secretariat’s own grave is nearby, at Claiborne Farm. Traditionally, even a champion thoroughbred’s body is cremated; only the symbolic head, heart, and hooves are buried. Secretariat was given the rare honor (shared only, as far as I know, by Man o’ War and the greatest of all fillies, beautiful, doomed Ruffian) of being buried whole. Even the oxygen-crunching organ that powered him to records—revealed in the necropsy to be the largest equine heart ever measured—was returned intact to his body. Visitors to that grave who also happen to love poetry may be reminded of the opening and closing lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet evoking immense power at rest: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty…/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

YouTube Preview ImageLast video of Secretariat

—Patrick J. Keane

September 2, 2015


Patrick J Keane 2

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


Sep 042015
Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation


Traditionally, novels tend to have a single central character, the focus of the action — the protagonist. All other players in the drama are ancillary, even peripheral. The trajectory happens to — and centers upon — a single person.

Yet in this quickened era — the epoch of text and email and social media — events affect many people simultaneously, en masse and all at once.

By and large, fiction has not kept up with the contemporary change of pace. Music and the visual arts have been more advanced in this regard. Since Marcel Duchamp and Cubism, painting and sculpture have sought to represent — and to not represent (e.g. abstraction, conceptual art, etc.) — the multiple cacophonies of the rapid world. As far back as 1952, John Cage’s “4’33″” represents the apotheosis of radical music, stemming from the dissonant and atonal movements of the earlier 20th Century, not to be outdone by jazz or rock.

Despite the radicalism of other art forms, most contemporary literature, especially American literature, remains rooted in the forms of the 19th Century. Seemingly skipping glibly by the advances of Beckett and Jean Genet, Donald Barthelme and Pierre Guyotat, Ron Sukenick or even John Dos Passos, writers such as Jonathan Franzen (and most others atop the literary bestseller lists) revert to the forms of Flaubert and Balzac and Henry James. Perfect perhaps for 1900; less fitting for 2015.

Meanwhile, many other current writers (usually published by the small presses) now seek a new form for new times, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet and others did more than 50 years ago with the nouveau roman.

I am by no means alone, but I am certainly among those writers looking for new ways and means to reflect our times.

I have published five books of fiction in the U.S. – three have been translated into French and published in France, with my 4th due out there in 2016. Not a single one of my books has a single narrator or even a solo protagonist. I’m not sure this is on purpose, really; but a choral voice is what comes out of my pen.

Urban life seems to me to be marked by a multitude of occurrences, of discontinuous incidents and syncopated rhythms. Traditional narrative arc works well for certain kinds of portrayals. But not necessarily for the jumble of urban living, especially living on or close to the streets. Indeed there a lot of unintended consequences in contemporary life on both large and small scales. I try to approximate the discontinuity with short, stark vignettes that I hope, when taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I don’t want to write in a trendy way or to mimic social media conventions, but I do want to try to find new means to communicate.

In a French review of my first novel (Angry Nights in English; Sur Les Nerfs in French), critic Frederic Fontes called the book an “unidentifiable literary object.” The description was a compliment, and I took it to be so.

In English language reviews of my second book, Common Criminals, novelist Barry Graham wrote: “…this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.” (Detroit Metro Times) …. and Matt Roberson, in an insightful essay for The American Book Review, called the texts: “… Shocking and shockingly strong pieces.”

Stories and pieces — but what is the book as a whole?

When pressed, I describe myself as an “experimental realist.”

What I mean by that term is that I try to write in the rhythm of my times — in the way that the gangster rap group NWA depicted Los Angeles and Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in musical idiom that matched their reality.

In other words, I am trying to find new forms. In a sense, it harks back once again to Duchamp — the found object, objet trouvé. Now — in words, not pictures — that means hard, fast, and staccato.

In a Rain Taxi review of Unintended Consequences (my 4th book), Canadian novelist Jeff Bursey wrote that the texts told the tale of Everyman, limning the stories of the seldom-heard, and often-neglected “Greek Chorus,” rather than the well-known stories of Oedipus or Antigone.

In yet another review of the (same) book, Tony Rodríguez wrote: “… (Fondation) doesn’t level the playing field with books found in a similar genre. Plainly stated, (he) aggressively razes the genre (crime writing, literary) and seemingly creates something new.” (East Bay Examiner)

In my view, these critics get it. Indeed they nail it dead on. I am not trying to write traditional — or even “postmodern” — novels, and I am not writing “short stories.”

The idea that animates my work is the notion of a “collective novel” — in French, “un roman du collectif.” From my vantage point — in the inner city of Los Angeles — the “new, new novel” should not be the story of a single protagonist, not the tale of one man or woman — but rather the fictional “biography of a place,” a tale of a tribe, the Iliad more so than the Odyssey — Las Meninas, by both Velasquez AND Picasso.   Not either/or; rather both/and.

In my view, the post-realist book of fiction is an “ensemble novel” — a collage, owing more to Alberto Burri and Robert Rauschenberg than to Henry James.

Twentieth century French novelist Raymond Queneau opined that all Western literature was derived from either The Iliad or The Odyssey. Despite the fact that we are so clearly now living in an Iliad world, our literature largely ignores the vast number of ordinary men and woman playing at the corners of the stage.

The contemporary British poet Alice Oswald has written a book of poems based on The Iliad – only she has removed the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and retained only the stories of the lives and deaths of the bit players. In The Guardian (U.K.) review of Oswald’s book (Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad), critic Sarah Crown writes: “In [Oswald’s] version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the foot soldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.”

In a time of historic economic inequality and the deaths of countless poor people in worldwide wars, both civil and international, it is indeed time for the chorus to have its say. To paraphrase Barry Graham, it’s life as we live it now.

—Larry Fondation


Mass Migration of the Homeless (Novel Excerpt)

They packed up their tents and their cardboard boxes and everything they owned, all now and all at once, and they began to move. They put their things in shopping carts and in backpacks and in anything else mobile and nothing else changed except they were on a march. The dirt brown smog still blocked the San Gabriel Mountains and there was of course still no way to see the sea.

“Who said for us to go?”

“It is time to go.”

Later, no one could say where those voices came from.

Yet no one ceased to follow the sourceless command.

Dare is an awkward word, one destined to ambiguity and the ash heap. Doubt fares better. Nonetheless doubt in complete abeyance causes stirrings still.

At each step something was left behind: a shoe, a blanket, a memento mori, gravestones at Old Granary. Samuel Sewall is my hero.

From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust is no more than the 1st Law of Thermodynamics and vice versa.

But the shopping carts continue to roll.

The Army of the Ragged crosses Central Avenue and soon approaches Main, barricades at the gates, barbarians hard to find.

The trucks full of immigrants dispatched to gather back the stolen shopping carts meet resistance around Broadway and have no choice but to turn around.

The dreadlocked blonde girl is cuter than most. We stop along the route, pause along the pathway.

“What prompted this march?” I ask stiffly.

Through one bend of earshot and through the same refraction of the honeybee’s eye, she says, “We must move on.”

Another listen, ears bent 90 degrees, and she says, “I don’t know.”

Either way, the caravan approaches Main Street.

People are drinking Veuve Cliquot at Pete’s Café. The widow watches warily.

Time stops.

The LAPD intervenes.

But there is no time to go home, no turning back.

Godel is triumphant.

The parking meters are full of remnants, stuffed with memorabilia.

Soon to be capped, the contents captured for all time.

The migrants do not get to Flower Street, let alone Figueroa. They magically turn up at MacArthur Park.

Shopping carts are unpacked, tents are reassembled.

Police presence vacates as the sun sets, officers off to greener pastures.

We de-camp.

Clara Bow dances at the Park Pavilion.

We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.

Nothing changes.

Little changes.

Everything changes.

The tent I pitch is not my own.


Though not studied by Darwin to my knowledge, crows are said to be the smartest birds. I rarely fear the ravens that gather on the electric wires and perch on the telephone lines. O’Casey’s crows steal hen-house eggs with impunity. Is it blue or rose, Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow” of 1904? Or right in between? Crows crack open nuts using traffic, deploying signals — stop, go, walk, don’t walk. This in Sendai, Japan. While across a thousand seas, Betty bends a wire. Not to mention New Caledonia.

Gleb returns home, to Dasha, but all is gone, all has changed, everything gone to shit. Livestock roam the streets, factories barren, most men dead, all life ravaged. I want to live in Pleasant Colony. I know what I am talking about, dammit!


The Eviction (Short Story)

The house
It’s the last night
She has a bottle of wine
Helicopters fly above us
Let’s fuck
She says
I worry and struggle to respond
The bank and the realtor
Lawn signs
Elections and evictions
No difference
Revolution deferred
Sand scrapes my face
In the last night in my backyard
I love her
Tonight is different
Divorce shows on TV
Watching intently
Looking at the news
I hear your point
Earlier she’d gone to the salon
Nails sharp
The Exodus from Saigon
Better than now
She comes close to me
The Abbot in full control
We did not prepare
The Marshals arrive in the morning
I cannot get hard
Monks and morning
Stars require night
She persists
We will not live here anymore
Limits approach zero
I drink her wine
Light dawns over darkness
No reason the night should end
She has my cock in her mouth
I try to prolong
Not the moment but the history
My mother says we can stay with her
Mother’s nails are long
She has her price
Sequester is approaching
I can pay her bill
The Borgias didn’t last
Real estate in the desert
Value lost
I love my mother
I love my wife
The Ganges is an end game
I stagger to the stereo
Lou Reed, the Gap Band, Tame Impala, Cody Chrdnutt
Will the pawn shop pay?
She pulls her pants down
She takes off her bra
She talks dirty about my mothers fingernails
I cannot help myself
The truck comes in the morning
Eight o’clock
I can’t come prematurely
A Catalogue of deaths in the desert
I’ve always hated sand
Sleeping in the truck
Both looking at the sky
The stars invisible
Streetlights blurring light
Next steps
Is she mine?
I have books and plants
I’m sad about the Children’s Crusade
Savanrola was not all bad
History sucks
She makes love to me
We have a home no more.


Mistaken, misbegotten (Short Story)

Mistaken, misbegotten —
They gather in the parking lot.

The streetlights flicker on and off,
The power almost gone.

She looks at me like Circe;
I chew the plant leaves of my own accord.

She tells me the victory at Plataea still weighs heavily on her mind;
I let her know that I have stopped thinking about it .

The flavors are all pungent now;
Everybody here has wished for adoption —

At one time or another,
Or evermore.

We move inside to darkness,
Then some lights turn on, though darkly, dimly.

I once was lost at sea, she says;
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

As a soldier, I never surrendered.
Perhaps my time has come.

She will drink with me but I can never touch her;
I tap her glass with mine.

Out there: the sounds of gunfire;
Here it seems quiet perhaps.

The band begins to play.
She pulls out a knife.

“Will you die for me?”
“Yes,” I say.

We are not in Spain or France, but the music is basque:
Alboka, Txistu and tambourine.

She motions me to stand and I do;
She dances beside me without touching me, and I follow her lead.

Time is decades earlier;
I don’t want to know where I am.

Her dark hair is much shorter than mine;
Her long nails glisten in the inconsistent light.

I believe in infinite divisibility, the definition of atom notwithstanding —
She has me now.

I try to find things to say;
We order another bottle of wine.

“You know that you’re remanded to me tonight?” She says.
“I know,” I say.

I pay our bill;
We leave into darkness and night.


Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar.

Sep 012015

V0048935 Women wearing crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860, lithograph Crinolines on fire, 1860, Creative Commons Image


THIS STORY HAPPENED when I was in my mid-twenties. Like most sensitive young men I was full of romantic notions about all sorts of things. Especially famous writers: most fascinating to me at the time was Oscar Wilde. I was also curious about my family roots, in this case in Ireland. Given these preoccupations I was in the completely wrong place (the cornfields of Iowa), doing the wrong thing (studying for an interminable degree in god-knows-which obscure American modernist poet). I was feeling isolated and claustrophobic in the fishbowl of Iowa City – which was pretty enough and even cool enough thanks to the Workshop students, but which was neither sufficiently old nor charming. Added to this my father had just died unexpectedly at 49. I mourned his death by making rash, unpredictable choices.

So one frosty Iowa spring morning, seized by the desire to abandon my sensible, funded graduate program and pursue my unfunded obsession with Wilde in Ireland, I acted. I withdrew from all my courses and forwarded my small inheritance to the financial department of Trinity College, Dublin. I remember having in mind a particular epigram of Wilde’s, something about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Even the gutter part sounded romantic. I was confused, as I say, and overrun by the fever of romance. But that’s how I found myself enrolled the next autumn at the university attended by Wilde (and Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, and many other writers I admired), specializing in Wilde, at a research centre bearing Wilde’s name, in the very house where Wilde was born. (Let’s forget for a moment what happened later: when Ireland and I, having squandered all our money, were subjected to the meanest form of austerity.)

My first term at Trinity had its highs and lows. Academically speaking, it was an inauspicious start: mostly spent in smoky Northside pubs, listening to moody Irish ballads, falling prey to infatuations, drinking too much, lying spread-eagled among the cigarettes and broken glass on the pub floors of Nighttown – that sort of thing. I was attending very few lectures, and still fewer sober.

Yet somehow I soaked up, along with the beer and whiskey and gin, more literature than I ever knew existed. I read voraciously, either in my green leather nook at the back of the Stag’s Head or, like the feckless student narrator in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in bed all day while I nursed a hangover: not only Wilde but Joyce and Behan and O’Casey and Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston and Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly (who was one of my teachers). I waded through the mystical mire of Yeats’s A Vision and read the notorious Black Diaries of Roger Casement, the colonial civil servant turned human rights activist and gay Irish revolutionary, who was caught running guns from Germany to Ireland and executed by the English for treason in 1916. My blood ran black and white, and my eyes puffed up from the strain of reading fifteen hours a day.

It was a grand time and I was enjoying myself immensely. But something still nagged: I wanted to stake a formal claim on my ancestry. So I went down to the Passport Office in Molesworth Street near the National Library to obtain my hereditary citizenship. A kind and maternal woman in her fifties named Maebh took my case. She told me what to do and I brought her all the necessary documents, culled from the detritus of my dead relatives and carried across the Atlantic: certificates of birth, marriage, and death. There was one yellowed piece of parchment written in a calligraphic hand that predated the Irish Republic itself. She stamped all her stamps and scurried back and forth from her window to the ancient photocopier while I stood by and watched. Then my application was complete: the last thing she said before she rang the bell to call the next in line was “Welcome home, son.”

By that time St. Patrick’s Day was drawing near, and feeling now exceptionally Irish I decided to write to my great aunt and arrange a visit. Edna, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, was an ancient woman from Sligo whom I’d never met and who lived alone on a farm in County Monaghan just south of the border. I wrote her a proper letter, straining to remember my cursive script, and a few weeks later she wrote back. She invited me to come up for the long weekend. Leaving the party behind I walked down to the Bus Éireann station on Friday morning and caught a bus going to Belfast. I got off a few hours later in the small town of Clones – where Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy was filmed – and found the place respectable enough, if a bit cold and grey. My first thought was: No wonder they left. But one of my grandfather’s brothers had stayed, and now his wife Edna, a robust widow in her eighties with thick glasses and gumboots, was standing there waiting for me. She said hello without offering a hug, and drove us in a battered Mercedes back to the farm at Smithboro, the place where my grandfather was born.

I knew by now not to expect much of the legendary family farm, and in this lack of expectation I was not disappointed. There had once been a larger house, Edna told me, the one where my grandfather lived until he was nineteen, but it had been torn down in the sixties. In its place was a small and sensible two-storey stucco house. There were a few crumbling outbuildings to add a bit of romance, several sheep on the front lawn that Edna called “pets,” and some large enclosures behind the house which held five bulls and two or three horses. Edna said that although she lived alone there were a couple of local men who worked the farm, and her niece Ruth, my father’s cousin, stopped by almost every day. Inside the house was a mix of the very old – sombre furniture that, having survived the long journey, would never leave – and the strikingly new, including a huge television positioned directly opposite a sleek black leather lounger.

On Friday night Edna served fish fingers and boiled potatoes and milk for dinner. Since it was just the two of us we ate in the kitchen, and afterwards we retired to the living room. There we sat, Edna in her lounger and me on the lace-covered sofa, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne and saying very little to each other. I was beginning to realize that, unlike the Dubliners I had met, Edna was a woman of few words. I remember trying to ignore the silence by focusing on the film, and noticing that John Wayne’s trousers were pulled up higher than any trousers I’d ever seen on a man.

But eventually during a long advertising break we started to talk. She told me the history of my family, once prosperous “gentlemen farmers” now reduced by emigration and economic crisis to this lonely widow living in a few rooms of a modest country house. We touched on education – Edna surprised me with the news that she had attended Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school once situated on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green – and then about particular Irish authors (Shaw was a graduate of Wesley). I asked Edna if she had seen any famous productions of the plays of Wilde or Yeats or Shaw or Synge at the Abbey or the Gate. She indulged me as much as her failing memory would allow: she had definitely seen something scandalous by Shaw.

But I also learned another, more shocking family history – one that was loosely tied up with my own. It was the story of Oscar Wilde’s two illegitimate half-sisters. Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a notorious philanderer, and he had children hidden away in houses up and down the country. Two of these children, Mary and Emily, had lived on the farm, or “estate,” next to ours. They had died together – shortly after Oscar’s seventeenth birthday, though it is unclear whether he even knew of their existence – in a tragic fire in that very house. On October 31st, 1871, during the last dance of a country ball, the hem of one sister’s – Emily’s – crinoline evening gown had suddenly burst into flames. Crinoline was notoriously flammable: so much so that this sort of death was not uncommon. Hundreds of young women seem to have died in similar fires during the nineteenth century. In this case the other sister, Mary, tried to rescue her, but she was also wearing a crinoline gown; both sisters received mortal burns. William Wilde, Edna told me with a sideways glance, had been spotted at the graveside in the weeks after the funeral, wailing openly in his grief. He never recovered, she said. He died a few years later, a broken man. Not unlike his son after prison, I thought. What a tragic family.

The story came up completely by accident. Not long after I arrived, I had noticed a dust-jacketed copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde sitting primly on a doily-covered china cabinet. Ellmann, the American son of a Jewish Romanian immigrant father and a Ukrainian mother, was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University from 1970 to 1985. (He also passed through Trinity College, Dublin.) Ellmann wrote the definitive biography of James Joyce in 1959 and a dozen other books on famous Irish authors. He also published an anthology in the 1960s that strongly influenced the study of literary modernism – especially its slant towards Irish writers. Along with The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a fellow Yale graduate and Hibernophile, Ellmann’s The Modern Tradition shaped the modernist canon for decades afterwards.

I had taken down several of Ellmann’s books from the stacks at Trinity library during my first two terms. In particular I recalled spending a week in bed around Valentine’s Day, sick with a humiliating case of adult chicken pox, reading his edition of Joyce’s fascinating and filthy letters. I guessed he might have written about Wilde reluctantly, being unsure what to do with him: Wilde was modern, but not exactly a modernist; he was gay, which Ellmann seemed to have difficulty talking about; and unlike Joyce or Yeats, he seemed to have left his Irishness behind when he left Ireland. In fact, as I later learned, Ellmann struggled with the biography through the last two decades of his life. As fate would have it, Wilde was not only Ellmann’s last subject, but also his crowning achievement. Ellmann died in 1987, the same year the book was published, and Oscar Wilde was posthumously awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. (The book was later used as the basis for Wilde, the biopic with Stephen Fry giving his uncanny performance as Oscar incarnate.)

I knew most of this at the time, and I was delighted to find an object of common interest, so I asked my aunt about the book. Edna was dismissive at first, saying it had been sitting there for a decade gathering dust. After some gentle prodding, however, she told me the story of how the book had found its way into the house. Ellmann had come to Ireland to research the book, and one of his stops was Monaghan to investigate the story of Wilde’s sisters. As Edna told it, he had lain in wait outside the local church on a Sunday, and when the congregation emerged Ellmann started asking if anyone knew the story of the sisters’ death. Someone pointed to my great uncle and said, “Ask him, he’ll know.” So Ellmann interviewed my uncle about it, and when the book came out he sent a signed copy as thanks. And there it sat, long after Ellmann and my uncle had gone.

The story of Wilde’s sisters that my uncle told Ellmann is a sensational one, reminiscent of something Gwendolen Fairfax would read on the train. The first published account of the story appears in a biography of William Wilde by T. G. Wilson in 1942. Yeats’s father recalled the sisters’ death in a letter in 1921 – so the story was probably familiar to the small world of Dublin society. At the same time, some of the obscurity surrounding the events stems from discretion on the part of the authorities when dealing with sensitive matters involving people of significant social standing. From reading several accounts, including the one my great uncle gave to Ellmann, I learned that the births of Mary and Emily Wilde were indeed out of wedlock (that antiquated yet evocative phrase) but they predated the marriage of Oscar’s parents. At the time of their death Mary and Emily were wards – like Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest – of William Wilde’s eldest brother, the impeccably named Reverend Ralph Wilde. The Reverend Ralph, who christened Oscar, was rector of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat: the parish church that my family attended in Monaghan. The neighbour’s house, where the party took place, belonged to a local bank manager named Andrew Reid. Reid was the man who had taken the last dance with Emily and then tried in vain to extinguish both sisters when their dresses caught fire.

The night itself, October 31st, seems to have been a party to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain in Ireland. It was most likely attended by the well-to-do landowning families in the area, from neighbouring estates like ours. (I asked whether it was likely that anyone from our family had been present, but Edna just shrugged indifferently.) There was plenty of alcohol, and the party went on late into the night. Accounts of the event differ, with some even calling it a Christmas party. Some accounts also describe there being snow on the ground: Reid is said to have rushed Emily outside and rolled her in the snow to put out the flames, while Mary ran around screaming frantically until she collapsed. There is no mention of snow in the official inquiry, but then the inquiry also gives the family name not as Wilde but “Wylie.”

The aftermath of the tragedy was, if possible, even more gruesome than the terrible accident itself. The sisters remained in the house, as was the custom at the time, where they were treated for the severe burns they had both suffered. To die on Halloween night would have been merciful: instead they lingered on for days and weeks at Drumaconnor. Mary, the younger sister who had tried to help, died first, on November 9th. Her death was kept a secret from Emily, who was also near death, to spare her the shock; nevertheless, three weeks after the accident, on November 21st, Emily also died.

Oscar Wilde, that pioneer of camp sensibility, was not one to respond to tragedy with too much sentiment. One of the most famous remarks attributed to him is the one about the death of Nell Trent, the angelic child in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Wilde is said to have quipped: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” (The child’s death in the popular serial story took everyone by shock: before it was revealed, people were said to have lined the docks in New York, shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive?”) In The Importance of Being Earnest, the supremely unsentimental Lady Bracknell, on hearing that Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing is an orphan, declares: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The same could be said of sisters.

It is hard to say with any certainty what happened that Halloween night, at the end of the party when most of the guests had left. Events were intentionally covered up, and details were kept to a minimum to avoid scandal; the story that was passed down in the neighbourhood, and that my great uncle told Richard Ellmann outside the church, was likely filled in and smoothed around the edges with the passing of time. Was there really snow on the ground in Ireland on October 31st? Was it Emily who danced with the host, or Mary? Who else was in the room? How much had been drunk?

The story ends in the tiny churchyard of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat parish, two miles from Smithboro, County Monaghan, where I drove with Edna that Sunday to visit the graves of our ancestors before catching the bus back to Dublin. In the car on the way Edna repeated a story I had already read in Ellmann’s biography. It was the local legend of the “woman in black” – thought to be the girls’ mother – who visited the graves regularly for twenty years after the tragedy. Oscar Wilde also used to tell the story of a woman in black. Wilde, who was still a teenager at the time, recalled an unknown woman’s visits to his house during his father’s last illness. The woman would come into the house and kneel by William’s sickbed, while Oscar’s mother stood by watching without interfering, apparently knowing that her husband and the woman, who shared a tragic bond, had loved each other deeply.

We entered the churchyard through the wrought iron gate and explored separately in silence. Edna’s hands were clasped behind her back, her head bowed. Right away I noticed that among the names on gravestones that I could read – Arthur Brady; Henry and Anne Finnegan; Robert John Bole and his wife Charlotte, who had emigrated to Alberta and whose bodies had been returned for burial here; Martha Brown, Ruth’s mother – at least half were marked by my family name. There was Thomas Hanna, and Stephen, who died in 1835, and his brother James, and their sister, whose name I couldn’t read. Edna pointed out the grave of another great aunt, Amy Elizabeth, whom my sister was named after. I knelt in the grass and took some pictures. The grave of Mary and Emily was there too, and I photographed it. In contrast to their younger brother, whose famous tomb I had seen once in Père Lachaise cemetery, the sisters were all but anonymous, their gravestone untended and overgrown and lost to time.

Years later I went back to Smithboro and the churchyard of St. Molua’s. Things had improved. The Oscar Wilde Society had erected a new monument beside the old one to mark the Wilde sisters’ final resting place. The simple stone read:

In Memory of
Two loving and beloved Sisters
MARY WILDE aged 22
who lost their lives by accident
in this parish in Nov 1871.
They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their death they
were not divided
(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)

Emily & Mary - half sisters of Oscar Wile. Original stone on right.Julian Hanna photo

—Julian Hanna



Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

Aug 132015



For a man with such little ears, Friedrich Nietzsche heard a multitude of deep pulses within the heart of European culture. The great despiser of liberalism and humanitarianism was also no less than the great despiser of conservatism and capitalism. As is the case with many important thinkers in the Western canon, Nietzsche’s dislikes greatly outnumbered his likes, just as the contradictions in his thought served to develop them all the better. Adoring power, he hated the powerful of his time for their unearned privileges. Adoring culture, he hated the cultured milieu of his time for its abiding philistinism. Adoring the sanguine bigotry of nineteenth-century society, he hated anti-Semites and the Darwinian biology that Herbert Spencer would later develop into a lethal social philosophy. His reputation in the popular consciousness is inaccurate as often as it is unflattering.

Nietzsche has been called the philosopher of a Hell that would put any of Dante’s to shame; he has also been called the original entrepreneur of the self-help genre. Who can say that most of this popular genre doesn’t boil down to “how to be what you already are?” The majority of humankind sickened him—“suffering from solitude…I have only ever suffered from ‘multitude…’”—even as his own sanity famously deteriorated during his final productive years. The overman himself was a botched invalid, internally contradictory, eloquent even in his madness. It is this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought that proves the most interesting of all his many interesting thoughts. For the epistemological break[1] in Nietzsche, from his relatively sane years to the period in which his syphilis destroyed him, is the hinge of his oeuvre, the unhinging of which provided the world with its own worst reflection.


There is, first, a need for some biographical context. In life, Nietzsche was a soft-spoken, gentle man. Like Schopenhauer before him, he detested the animal vivisection of his time and the Christian dogma which supported it. Descartes had taught that animals were only machines: only humans could say cogito ergo ego[2]. The beaten horse of Thus Spake Zarathrustra, saved by the anti-Christ himself, is probably the most famous beast in Western philosophy. Nihilism mingled with antihumanism when it came to Nietzsche’s view of war, however; he saw in war a great synthetic process that improved humanity for all its loss of life. This is a paradox, considering he considered himself totally opposed to nihilism in all its forms[3]. All of life was a battleground, power was the world’s skeleton, and whoever could not gain power was rightfully doomed to serve those who could. Nietzsche went far beyond a basic philosophy of “sink or swim” in his preachments—he taught that swimming in the ocean was a belittling affair compared to declaring oneself its personal god. He was a thoroughgoing sexist[4], too, although most men, even Christian men, were sexists in the deeply religious nineteenth century. Had he been more progressive on the sexual question, Nietzsche might have retained more relevance after the sexual turn of contemporary philosophy. Some of his flaws, it must be said, caricature him even at his most solemn.

The timid bachelor held that morality was a mechanism spun into culture in order to enslave mankind to its lower orders and that, once the Victorian liberalism became ascendant over the old feudal regime, the slaves had won the game. Of course, Nietzsche’s view of slave morality was rather idiosyncratic: he thought the rich were slaves, the skilled workers were slaves, and homeowners were slaves par excellence. For Nietzsche, the overman, the man who was himself, the man who had transcended both culture and contingency, had not yet been born. In this respect he thought himself the foe of determinism and the very midwife of a new aristocracy freed from every circumstance save those that were worthy of the next evolution in human ethics. Whether he invented modernism or postmodernism, he invented.

It would be no travail to produce a fruitful thought experiment concerning the man in the flesh. Imagine the phenomenology of being one of Nietzsche’s friends, of knowing him, of having been at first repulsed by his eccentricity and then inevitably drawn into its orbit. He would either entice you or estrange you. Who can say that Ignatius J. Reilly, of Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, was not modeled on Nietzsche’s physical appearance: a lumberman’s mustache, slicked-back hair, and lunatic eyes? Given that the nineteenth century was a bit less normative than our own—most periods in history respected eccentricity more than our own, in fact—he might have struck a social note less strange than any of the illiterate handiworkers of his day. But if one had the benefit of hindsight, it must have been an event bordering on the uncanny not only to have met Nietzsche, but to have known him for what he was: a world-historical creep, an unsound man, a profound critic of the everyday, a scholar steeped in far-flung days, an iconoclast who couldn’t keep a friend anymore than he could keep a lover. Had he been alive today he would be brushed off as a mouth-breather, or a gloomy diarist, or cast aside as an unsocialized loner incapable of integrating into the status quo[5]. Of course, Nietzsche expected this expelling of singular persons from respectability, writing in Daybreak[6] that

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

The only cure for the unqualified sameness of human civilization was eccentricity, then. Behaving like the mass was to be equivalent to the mass, and this, for Nietzsche, was a sin greater than any concoction of the Christian gospel.

Given his valuation of difference, what would Nietzsche say about the sane-insane dichotomy which was only coming into scientific discourse during his lifetime? Unenlightened society often calls its outliers insane, and even enlightened society has no limitation of names for psychological deviations. Much of Nietzsche’s writing sounds bipolar, or schizophrenic, or amoral (to this last accusation he would yelp an astounding yes). A more anti-social philosophy the nineteenth century never produced. But it is a mistake of psychological prejudice to denounce him as merely insane, and therefore fit only to be ignored[7].

When he wasn’t a crank, he spoke truths so frightening they hardly bear countenance; when he was a crank, he still provided insights of more worth today than that of most of our credentialed moralists. To be an atheist in the nineteenth century was to count oneself a member of the Ship of Fools. Today, we would sooner declare insane the man who declares his personal affinity with God than the village atheist, who would look incomparably more normal, a veritably endowed member of consensus reality. Nietzsche himself taught that conventions and customs change over time, borrowing this from the German higher biblical criticism of his era. Were it not for the empirical understanding of his venereal disease and its effects on the brain, we would have little evidence of his insanity, except that Der Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, and Zur Genealogie offend us.

If, as Peter Sloterdijk has it[8], Walter Benjamin universalized the category of prostitution in his critique of capitalism, then Friedrich Nietzsche universalized the category of the godforsaken in his critique of Christianity. The modernist Christianity of today bears almost no resemblance to the Christianity of Nietzsche’s era—it was very much the nihilist construction he painted it to be. If it affirms earthly life today, it is only because it denied it in the past; it preached asceticism to the “factory slaves” (Nietzsche’s term, as well as Karl Marx’s) and reserved praise and pleasure for the powerful alone. He thought Christianity had smuggled weakness into the former majesty of Western culture and, in preaching the essential equality of practically unequal people, vulgarized all that existed. To defend the botched was to condemn the perfected. Of course, Nietzsche’s failure to recognize himself among the botched was a lasting error of his philosophy, which even H.L. Mencken, the journalist who introduced him to the English-speaking world, pointed out in a humorous essay condemning the pseudoscience of Jazz Age eugenics[9].

Prescience eludes even the most astute of prophets, at times. Nietzsche was weak and preached the demise of the weak, or their enslavement; perhaps the one remnant worth preserving from this particular labyrinth of power relations is his insistence that race did not determine the worth of a man. Nietzsche was many unsavory things, but he was not a racist. Such a construct as race could only be inherited, and was therefore below the status of the self-made man no longer all too human. While he did not view race as modern biologists do—that is, he did not think it was purely a myth, as post-racial biology insists it is[10]—he did think it was an anxiety of influence the overman deserved to shed. It is a historical quirk that European fascism found a hero in Nietzsche, since he would not have supported totalitarianism[11] or the embrace of capitalism. Such atmospheres, in abolishing solitude, would stifle the Nietzschean overman. He probably would not have deplored the war casualties of the second World War—he was overjoyed at the prospect of Europe depopulating by a fourth-measure after the turmoil of his own mid-century—but he would have deplored the idea of philistines winning the game of international politics. National Socialism was as far removed from the core of Nietzsche’s existential thought as American liberal democracy or Europe’s vying theocracies of the Middle Ages.


What to make, then, of the elder Nietzsche’s lunacy? Did it inform his philosophy and thereby disqualify it, or did it oust him from the confines of mere convention and therefore render his worldview absolute? Hating the world as it was, he denounced Christianity for preaching the same, that the mundane was only a pathetic reflection of the platonic Heaven. Proving unfit for war, he preached war and the death of able-bodied inferiors. Flitting from one antimony to the next, Nietzsche’s existence contradicted his philosophy in almost every respect possible. Like the individualist Emerson with his wife’s financial support, Nietzsche lived off a university pension for most of his authorial life—on the nineteenth-century equivalent of welfare. He himself could not have survived in a Nietzschean universe. Every site of his contradiction devalues his philosophy in the abysmal concrete.

But philosophy, as Kant said, is the science of concepts. The Nietzschean concept is beautiful, if terrifying; even if it is not practicable for the uppermost portion of human beings, it inhabits a special place in the imagination that yearns for betterment of self and world. His books were not his body. That his own mind was split in twain by a biological infestation is immaterial in relation to his philosophy, which exists beyond the carnal body. His demon of the “loneliest loneliness” that preaches the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence is a valuable thought experiment anyone and everyone should perform in their private introspection. That this life, being the only one we have, ought to be as perfected as possible is surely not the stuff of sin. It exemplifies the American ideology better than any belief system concocted in America. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, he writes

It is not impossible to conceive of a society whose consciousness of power would allow it the most refined luxury there is—that of allowing those who did it harm to go unpunished.

What statement better exemplifies the American maxim that it is better to travel the high road than the low when confronted with adversity? What better display of power than the power that goes unused? If only the American government’s foreign policy followed such advice as Nietzsche’s—not the Nietzsche of the fascist parody, but the aristocratic Nietzsche who sees warfare as a means to a peaceful end rather than the indefinite extension of the military-industrial complex, or the global hegemony of a single statehood. Against modern capitalist dynamism, which can enslave as much as it can emancipate, and against the medieval Great Chain of Being that inhibited social mobility completely—like it or not—Nietzsche posed his formula of amor fati. Even if one is unable to navigate the world, to bend it to his will, he nevertheless must love that he is in it, be he the hangman or the hanged.

With his decade-long period of invalidity in his sister’s care, he even portrays mankind at its most vulnerable: in him, the brutality of competition melds utterly with the essential impotence of the human experience in this vale of tears. If Nietzsche was insane, his insanity was more valuable to the human race, which he despised, than the sharpest clarity of an Emerson, a Spinoza, a James, a Niebuhr, or a Wittgenstein. We have his books precisely because he could not live up to their ideals[12], because his esoteric and idiosyncratic epistemology was so problematic that it could only be birthed through the medium of text. Few today would recognize that he originated the adage “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Modernity—right or left[13]—owes to him its viable atheism, its insistence on individual progressive striving rather than collective cow-towing, and the relativist morality that bolsters its liberal achievements. The disease that devoured his unfortunate brain, in turn, enlightened and enriched our own thinking, however much the man himself was damned in the process. Where would we be without Friedrich Nietzsche but lost and raving in the intellectual gutters?

— 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

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In treating Nietzsche’s 1889 “epistemological break,” I borrow the concept from Louis Althusser’s symptomatic reading of Karl Marx in Reading Capital (Verso, 2009), since Nietzsche is, no doubt, better treated by philosophy than psychiatry.
  2. Descartes, the founder of modern Western philosophy, dissected cats in his spare time. Although Nietzsche was morbid, he never was so morbid as that, and hesitated to harm a fly. It is odd that Descartes is remembered as a positive influence and Nietzsche as a psychopath.
  3. See Heidegger, Martin. “The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Perennial, 1977.
  4. See Nietzsche. “First Part, 14: On the Friend.” Thus Spake Zarathrustra. Oxford, 2005. Pg. 50. This section, among others, explains the subtleties of Nietzsche’s sexism. In it, he condemns women as essentially still being slaves, and therefore incapable of friendship—even calling them birds and cows—but at the same time he condemns most men for being in the same debased state. It must also be remembered that the narrator is an ambiguous conceit exemplifying madness.
  5. Once a full professor, Nietzsche benefited from his later estrangement from the German academic establishment. His alienation from scholarship solidified his audience, who were still reeling from the revolutionary movements and institutional storms and stresses of 1848. In fact, had he been a more normal man with the same ideas, it is unlikely he would have been remembered by posterity. See also Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer. “Nietzsche as Educator.” American Nietzsche. The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pg 169.
  6. See Kaufman, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin, 1982. In this definitive anthology, Kaufman translates Daybreak as Dawn.
  7. In contrast to his earlier demand for sober aesthetics, Nietzsche exhorts in Twilight of the Idols that “for there to be art, for there to be any kind of aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” The Dionysian worldview is the quintessence of what lay psychology would call insanity. See also Ronell, Avital. Crack Capitalism. 1992.
  8. See Sloterdijk in the 2010 film Marx Reloaded , a short philosophical documentary concerning the re-emergence of Marxist philosophy in the light of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. It is also worth noting that, contrary to some popular opinions concerning Nietzsche and laissez-faire capitalism, he would in all likelihood detest elite capital as much as he detested the common man. He would sooner have been impressed by a breath-controlling yogi than by a financial magnate.
  9. See Mencken, H.L.. “Dives into Quackery.” Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series. Library of America, 2010. Mencken introduced the Nietzschean philosophy to America with his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but given that he did not have access to the mountain of scholarship on him now extant, Mencken’s book now reads rather superficially.
  10. See Sussman, Robert. The Myth of Race. Harvard UP, 2014.
  11. See Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”. Picador, 2003. “Here we have the beginnings of the famous great portrait of the ‘barbarian’ which we will go on finding until the late nineteenth century and, of course, in Nietzsche, [for whom] freedom will be equivalent to a ferocity defined as a taste for power and determined greed, an inability to serve others, and constant desire to subjugate others…” (149). Foucault’s portrait of Nietzsche was apolitical, whereas totalitarianism demands over-arching political structures that, in the philosopher’s view, could only limit the individual in his quest for overman status. If, as he aged, he revered a strong state, it was only to keep the masses from limiting the liberated overmen, not as an end in itself. He is also notorious for despising hero-worship as embodied by the proto-fascist Carlyle’s historicist great man theory.
  12. See Nietzsche. “Why I Write Such Good Books.” Ecce Homo. Oxford, 2007. “I am one thing, my writings are another…I myself am not yet timely; some are born posthumously.” Pg.36.
  13. See Berman, Marshall. “Marx, Modernism, and Modernization.” All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin, 1988. Pg 100-01. While Berman’s book is ostensibly more about Marx’s relation to modernity than Nietzsche’s, in this chapter he thoughtfully links Marx to Nietzsche’s attack on nihilism to the whole administration of contemporary capitalist-bureaucratic society.
Aug 072015

15th Cen. St Brenden, stranded whale, B. Museum15th Cen. St. Brenden & The Stranded Whale, British Museum


There shines in us, though dimly in darkness, the life and the light
of man, a light which does not come from us, which however is in
us, and we must therefore find it within us.
Gerhard Dorn – Philosophia specuativa



“As the dead prey upon us,
they are the dead in ourselves,
awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,
disentangle the nets of being!”
Charles Olson

1 – Pedrolino

WOKE THIS MORNING in the house where the poet Vincent Ferrini lived and wrote for decades, now the Gloucester Writers Center.August 17th, 2014, at 7:30 AM, newly risen light washes purple drawstring shades, which I keep half-shut. Perched on the shoulder of East Maine Street, a two lane coastal road that runs between downtown Gloucester and Rocky Neck, traffic up and down the hill sets up a constant rush of sound. The front door opens on a gas station/ convenience store at the far side of a parking lot. In back workmen level ground to pave a narrow alley. People walk close to the windows. There’s a small kitchen at one end, and a bathroom off the main room. I’ll be the poet-in-residence here for a week, which ends with a reading from my latest collection, Fishing On The Pole Star.

Last night, after a chicken/vegetable stir-fry dinner, I turned on the overhead fan, moved a lamp to the side of the vintage pull-out bed and perused a book case lining the wall stacked with copies of Vincent’s collection, Know Fish. Among them I found a copy of Charles Olsen’s Collected Works and fell asleep reading his signature poem, “The Kingfishers.” This morning I dimly remember a dream in which I’m standing in a rowboat fishing from the stern with a child’s rig. I understand the implication that I am still developing as a fisherman, but have no doubt that knowing fish has brought me here.

Framed poems hang on white walls beside images of Ferrini and his friend, larger than life poet Charles Olson, who mythologized Gloucester as Joyce did Dublin. Standing 6’8”, aka Maximus, and former rector of Black Mountain College, Olson played a major role in the dynamic changes that drove mid-20th Century American poetry. Ferrini appears small beside him, but no less haunting.

Vincent & MEVincent Ferrini, (monoprint) by Jain Tarnower @ The Gloucester Writers Center

I work on a table facing a print of Ferrini outlined in white on a black field—an image dominated by his white face and hands. He wears a domed hat, like a novitiate in an obscure Italian order, but might as easily be Pedrolino, the moon-faced dreamer out of the comedia dell’arte. His smile is enigmatic. It reads like a confidence, an intimate whisper in my ear:  Pay no attention to what is going on outside and around you. Do as I did. Listen for what comes through the inner doors and windows.

I follow the instruction, submit to the inner sensorium.

What enters is as much shape as sound, ideas like iron filings on a magnetic field. The field becomes an ocean, the magnet a star. Fish swim below or break the surface. Constellations in space dance without touching. This ghost in the room I think of as Pedrolino has awakened a ghost in me. I see myself standing beside Amfortas, the Fisher King, in the Pole Star watching a king fisher dive. How did Amfortas end up in my boat, both of us in the stern waiting for Parzival or his equivalent? Olson’s poem, “King Fishers,” which influenced me as a young poet, has set up an inexorable call to the obsession of my later years, the wounded Fisher King!

Amfortas drops his line next to mine, and with it the orderly content of my inner world breaks down. I can’t predict what will emerge from this matrix, what looks like a massa confusa, but is possibly the first stage of important work.

Pedrolino nods.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I accept.”

I’ll take the risk, go where the currents lead. I am a navigator with faulty maps and a ragged compass. But there is a mystery on the tip of my tongue waiting to be revealed, a series of linkages I had not suspected before that will pull valuable information out of the shadows into the light of day—if only I will engage the journey.

Pedrolino is pleased. His smile deepens.

I let him know that in addition to my reading I will give a talk, because the title just popped into my head like a mackerel: “Trolling With The Fisher King.”

That is, after all, what this about. Whether alone in the boat, or with Amfortas trailing in Charles Olson’s wake, fishing is what connects us. It is as though now all three of us were working the same line after the catch we were all hoping for—the wisdom that whispers, “What wounded thee will make thee whole.”

I email my host Henry, old Ferrini’s nephew, proposing the talk and its title and suggest it immediately follow my reading.

Almost instantly, I get a reply: “You’re on!”

Pedrolino likes this.


2 – Spreading the Net

The Fisher King figure in its present form appears prominently in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century epic, Parzival, set in a landscape devastated by war. Armies returning from the Crusades, and mercenaries hired by expansionist nation-states, have pillaged the countryside. Against this backdrop, knights governed by the archaic laws of chivalry kill each other in the name of love and honor, leaving a trail of widows and fatherless children in their wake. Parzival’s mother, stricken by the loss of her heroic husband, takes their son into the woods vowing he will not perish in this way. She raises Parzival in a state of nature ignorant of his lineage and his real name, which means piercing through. One day at an age when most young men leave home, he sees a brace of knights in armor riding through the woods and mistakes them in their shining armor for gods. Parzival follows them to King Arthur’s court, where he gains entry by killing the Red Knight who blocks the entrance with a lucky throw of his lance through the eye-slit in the seasoned warrior’s helmet. Still innocent (unconscious) but triumphant, the fledgling sets out to prove himself, and becomes what his mother feared most, a man who kills in the name of love and honor.

Riding past a lake one evening at dusk Parzival spies a man fishing from a dingy who directs him to a castle where he can spend the night. He doesn’t recognize that the fisherman is Amfortas (without strength), keeper of the Grail. Under the banner of AMOR, Amfortas killed a Saracen warrior in single combat, and ever since that time has carried a piece of the Infidel’s lance in his groin. Because his pain is greatest in the presence of the Grail, Amfortas can no longer function as Grail Keeper. He now sits with a line in the water to ease his pain waiting for one pure in heart to ask the question that heals his wound, and restore the Waste Land.

In some versions, the question is, “Whom does the Grail serve?” in others, “What ails thee?”

The innocent (unconscious) Parzival doesn’t recognize himself as the one for whom Amfortas and all attendant on the Grail are waiting.He follows directions to the Castle and is welcomed by attendants who bathe and dress him. In the Great Hall he witnesses the procession of the Grail that once held Christ’s blood, and the lance used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce His side. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus for burial was said to have brought these sacred objects to England.

Galahad_grailGalahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.. Wool and silk on cotton warp, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

From his divan in the Great Hall, Parzival watches robed acolytes parade with the spear that pierced Christ’s side. After this another set of acolytes carry the Grail, which fills the tankards, bowls, goblets, trenchers, platters and baskets with all manner of delicacies, from fowl, and mutton to cheeses, fruits, breads and wine until everyone at the banquet is provided for. There appears to be no limit to what nourishment the Grail can bestow. In the right hands, such abundance might feed the world.Seated across from him Amfortas writhes in pain waiting to hear the question that will deliver him. But Parzival has been taught that it’s impolite for a guest to question his host, and so he fails to ask the question. He wakes next morning to find the Castle empty except for spectral voices jeering from the battlements. The drawbridge slams shut behind him. Slowly, it dawns on Parzival that he has failed to recognize this opportunity.

It’s a bitter pill.

All of his assumptions, the received wisdom given by those in authority, dissolve in the first light of consciousness. He will spend the next twenty years wrestling with this failure. In the end, confronting his own wounded pride, he is able to “pierce through” to the recognition of his true identity as heir in that lineage as Grail Keeper.

Two details must be noted: after recognizing his role, Parzival rejoins his wife in true union, a Holy Marriage (heiros gamos); and, finally, he encounters his dark brother, Fierfize, (piebald), the son their father, Gahmuret, sired with the black Moorish Queen Belcane, in the North African Kingdom of Zazamanc, on his way home from the Crusades. Concealed by their armor, they face off without knowing the identity of the other. Just before delivering the death blow Parzival sees his brother’s face free of the helmet, recognizes him, and the once embattled knights embrace.It begins as a reprise of the battle in which Amfortas was wounded, and ends with a resolution. Parzival welcomes his dark Muslim brother as a part of himself. He can heal the wounded Fisher King by asking the question which he now embodies. Amfortas, free from pain, dies in peace. may be a cipher and a prescription for our own time..


3- Mare Nostrum

The reading at the Gloucester Center for Writing from Fishing On The Polestar is scheduled for later this week. The poems record my experience trolling the out islands of the Bahamas, exploring obscure inlets, crossing the section between Eleuthera and Columbus Point known as “the tongue of the ocean.”

What would the tongue of the ocean say if it could speak?

I recall last night’s dream, and reel it up from my store of memories.

As a child I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park. In the 70s , I hauled in snapper on a hand-line from a dugout off the coast of Belize. Later, I trolled for bill fish in a 42’ Bertram from Ft. Lauderdale to Crooked Island. In time it dawned on me that as a poet and psychotherapist drawn to the unconscious, my lures were set to bring up something concealed in my own depths. I have come to understand the Fisher King wound and why a line in the water brings relief.

Olson’s Collected Works lies on my bed open to “The Kingfishers”. I read: What does not change / is the will to change…

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
Remembered only one thing, the birds, how
When he came in, he had gone around the rooms
And got them back into their cage, the green one first,
She with the bad leg, and then the blue,
The one they had hoped was a male.

Since the poem was published in 1949, no one has been able to give “The Kingfishers” a definitive reading. Those who engage it are drawn or repelled; few are indifferent to its movement. Some critics call it a dreamscape, and there is reason to treat it as such. Others cite it primarily as a response to post-Holocaust trauma.But what’s most haunting about it is less historical than psychological. “The Kingfishers” occupies a limbic space, that threshold between sleeping and waking where the conscious and unconscious are open to each other. This is also where we locate the Grail Castle that appears and disappears, a quantum space beyond fixed coordinates. Here, Charles Olson drops his lures.

MarillDialogue at Five (Provincetown) – Herman Maril

Lines from “The Kingfishers” float through dream-time into morning light trailing brightly colored green and blue feathers from two caged birds. Still in bed, I hear seagulls outside squawk and cry. Sea-birds have trailed in my wake for hundreds of miles, like my golondrina. As a merchant seaman crossing the Pacific I watched a tiny swallow hitch a ride from the Golden Gate to Subic Bay on our United Fruit ship. Even through the roughest storms. When I thought it had been blown away, there it was the next morning perched on a boom. Long after I returned from the South China Sea, the swallow haunts me. Like Olson’s kingfishers, my golondrina, exists as an ache in the present—an unhealed wound.

I follow my ghost bird into the poem.

Neither “The Kingfishers” nor the Fisher King is primarily concerned with the act of fishing, but each links deeply wounded cultures, lacking coherence, to fishermen, fish and fishing birds. A lost but crucial piece of psyche must be restored. I fish for the clue in Olson’s paradox: everything changes but the will to change.

What is the lure attached to this line?

unnamed paul pinesWayne Atherton – Mounting The Bounty

It isn’t change that carries the charge, but the “changeless will,” and what that implies.We are drawn to what is concealed in changeless will. Calculations will not reveal it. Otherwise discourse—words, ideas and numbers alone would heal the Fisher King wound.Better to follow the kingfisher into limbic space, watch it circle, dive, and emerge with a fish in its beak. Reason will not tell us what lies beyond it, like the sublime—or how to locate “changeless will” in the wound, the fisherman, or the fish.

Better to follow a ghost bird.


4 – Fixing the Colors

Olson’s narrator wakes fully clothed from a dream. Seated at my computer, under Pedrolino’s watchful eye, I recall that seabirds following a school will mirror the behavior of the fish, then feel a tug, rock back and forth as if I were in the fighting chair. What I bring to light surprises me, a dream fragment from last night. I enter a room where people dressed in blue and green are waiting to hear my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King”. Olson’s birds are blue and green. This is not insignificant. He quotes 16th Century Belgian alchemist/psychologist Gerhard Dorn: “Color/ is the evidence of truth.”

I agree. Color is important.

As an eight-year-old fishing for crappies in Prospect Park, I watch my cork bob on a bed of light that splinters when the float sinks. As I reel in a sunfish, brightness falls from the air (a line James Joyce borrowed from Thomas Nash). The brilliance of its scales fires my imagination. These sparks are evidence of an underwater rainbow I might pull up whole as all those other kids marvel. It will give me super powers, change my life by calling forth the power inside of me.

Years later, at sixteen, reading Freud’s Future of an Illusion, I understand that fishing my dreams is more likely to yield that life-changing catch. The flashes of color I glimpsed as a child were aspects of myself yet to be identified.I’m still waiting for a vision to break the surface like a marlin.

Color…fixes the statement,” (Olson via Dorn).

What shall I say about “The Kingfishers” to my dream audience in kingfisher colors?

We trail lines defined by the color of our lures.”

ArthurDoveSunSun, Arthur Dove, the Smithsonian

The first thing Olson does in “The Kingfishers” is to pluck color from dream-water, the green female bird “with the bad leg,” and the blue male returned to their cage by someone named Fernand who “ had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat,” and subsequently leaves the party that is taking place…

When I saw him he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he
who said, “The Kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers

Fernand dissolves like a shadow in “some crack of the ruins.” He points to what we otherwise can’t see, and seeing, turn away. No wonder the poet regrets that it should have been Fernand who poses the question: who cares? The shadow’s voice, peripheral to awareness,delivers a message that draws us down, even as it hangs in the air like an accusation. The poet wishes the question had been his to ask.

Parzival also begs the question; the part of him that would ask it remains buried in his split-off shadow. He must become fully conscious to ask the healing question: What ails thee?

Fernand’s question points to, rather than discloses the disconnection, and so rings both as desperate and ironic: Who cares?

Outraged, Olson raises a more pressing question: Who is Fernand anyway, this shadow that speaks what must be said, then vanishes, leaving behind him a cloud of regret? Fernand’s question, “Who cares?” exists as a statement yet to be understood by those at the party, including the poet.This Post-Parzival situation finds us in stagnant waters.

Bright blue and green sparks in the kingfisher feathers at the opening of the poem disappear into the rapidly deteriorating natural world. Observing from the shadow’s point of view, Fernand comments.

His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool the kingfisher’ feathers were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

Those at the gathering are confronted with the degraded pool at their center, evidence of unconsciousness. They are unmoved, look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear—remain in a peculiar state of indifference, partying in a Waste Land. Part one of “The King Fishers” ends here, with Fernand’s unanswered question.

It was then he left.


5 – Consciousness / The Wound

How did we become deaf to the voice that reminds us to wake up? Mother earth calls from the depths, warns us to pay attention. This was the purpose of the Great Mysteries. The Dying and Reviving Gods like Tammuz, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Ba’al and Jesus demand we remain conscious. Their myths and ceremonies of wounding and healing model the birth, death and resurrection of consciousness, a transformative experience open to those who understand it. In her study The Language of the Goddess (1989), Marija Gimbutas points out that wine and bread were revered as sacraments in Neolithic cultures because they represented the inherent potential for transformation produced by fermentation and yeast. Early Egyptians drank beer and tasted Osiris wafers to partake of an eternal blood and body. The Pyramid Text, dating back to the 5th Dynasty (2,400 BCE), instructs the king to rise from his tomb

Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not

unnamedUnnamed, Matt Daly

The same text, perhaps the world’s earliest known religious document, records the worship of Osiris, Egyptian lord of the Underworld. Depicted with green skin, a pharaonic beard and ostrich feathers on either side of a conical crown in later hieroglyphs, Osiris is the poster boy for death and resurrection. Dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, and re/membered by his sister/wife, Isis, Osiris knits worlds above and below into a seamless whole, just as the wounded Fisher King embodies the potential to restore the Waste Land. But there is a shift in this mythos between Dynasty V and the 12 Century AD, and again into our Post-Internet culture. The drama is no longer the provenance of the Gods. The transformation requires human participation. Parzival must become conscious of his own wound before he can heal Amfortas and accomplish his mission.

We are dealing in symbolic terms with human development, the ordeal through which split off material in the unconscious is brought to light and integrated. Carl Jung found in Alchemy a compelling description of transformation applicable to the totality of the psyche. For him, the writing of adepts like Gerhard Dorn revealed in symbolic language the relationship of the unconscious to the conscious as the agent of psychological transformation. Jung recognized in Alchemy an intuitive iteration of Psyche’s drive to realize itself. Olson also quotes Dorn suggestively: “Color is important.”

the blackeningCombat, Marc Shanker

The Alchemical Work broadly speaking unfolds in four stages, the first of which is a condition of decay, the “blackening” known to practitioners as nigredo. It is analogous to the initial wounding, the early call of the unconscious to become conscious. Olson’s poem locates it in Fernand’s recognition of the pool become slime. He points it out to those gathered but no one hears him. Only when there is some acknowledgment of the condition can the Work move on to stages known by their colors, white, yellow and the reddening, rubedo. Here, the transformation is realized in the body of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, or as Parzival beholds it, the lapis exilies, another name for The Holy Grail.

Olson’s poem can be read as the search for materials in anticipation of the Alchemical Work, which is increasingly difficult as we are blinded by distractions. Psyche’s drive toward transformation, the hidden telos in Olson’s “will to change,” calls out to us. His poem, “The King Fishers” is an attempt to hear it, a plea for us to open our ears or suffer the consequences. Riding the stern of his work, feathered lures in the water, I see Charles Olson become the Fisher King. It’s not the nigredo alone he fears, but that he (we) will get stuck in it, and stay that way—trapped in

a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest

Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: the principle states that each of us in our development recapitulates the evolution of the species, and possibly the entire universe, from chaos to cosmos. If true, there is a moment when that movement becomes conscious of itself, a shift (or fall) from undifferentiated “time before time” into time as we experience it—antiphonal, polarized, and fleeting. In a number of myths, the creation of cosmos from chaos involves horrific violence, a wounding and dismembering that becomes embedded in nature.

For the Aztecs creation begins with a many armed female monster, a hungry mouth at the juncture of each arm. In this myth, the agents of “the will to change”, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, become serpents, wrap themselves around the insatiable matrix and twist until she comes apart. From her parts they construct the ordered world which remembers the pain and exacts tribute in blood. Sumerian hero-god Marduk does the same to the complaining sea-serpent Ti’amat. The mother of us all, pre-conscious chaos incarnate, must be torn apart. This process, essential to creating and sustaining order, also produces the consciousness that re/members that pain.

The wound requires appeasing. Host cultures enacted blood rituals of reparation to a matrix that might exact revenge if disregarded. If we forget or cease to feel the pain inherent in becoming conscious, degradation of the psychological and natural worlds follow as surely as slime on the pool. Numbed and disconnected, we dismiss Fernand’s warning, whisperings from the shadow in the wings.

kingfisher-3Kingfisher hovering, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds


6 – Re/member Me

In Greek mythology the wind god, Aeolus, intervenes when his daughter Halcyon attempts to follow her mortal husband drowns in a storm. Aeolus prevails on Zeus to turn them into birds. Zeus does this, but requires that she nest on the shore for two weeks in mid-January ever year during which he stays the waves and winds to let her young hatch in safety. These become known as Halcyon Days; we know these birds as kingfishers.

It is true, it does nest with the opening year, but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There,
six or eight white and translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds.

I have observed riverine kingfishers nesting in the muddy banks of the Sibun River in Belize. We steered our canoe through an uncharted stretch that flowed between the Pine Ridge and jungle low-lands. I noted anhinga, heron, hummingbird and toucan—among other exotic avian life—but the kingfishers where most memorable. They darted in and out of tunnels in which they built their nests. I think of them as I read Olson’s description of that process, how they construct those nests of decomposed fish bones—evidence of which was visible and odiferous as I passed them on the river bank.

Mostly it was the sea-birds I followed.

swallowHieroglyph Swallow,

E.H. Gombrich tells us in his Little History of the World: “If you want to know where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow.” That’s where they fly every autumn, over the Alps to Italy, across the sea, to the Nile valley. My golondrina: the swallow, for centuries the talisman of seamen—square riggers manned by seamen with barn swallow tattoos on their arms and chests. The swallow delivered a lost sailor’s soul safely to the Underworld. A Pharaoh tells us in the Pyramid Texts he has “gone to the great island in the midst of the Field of Offerings on which the swallow gods alight; the swallows are the imperishable stars.”

Poems in my book, Fishing On The Pole Star, describe birds circling or diving into weeds banked on shoals where small fish are feeding, larger ones under them, and at the bottom tier great creatures with silver fins that break the surface, incarnate beams of light. Aloft on the tuna tower of our boat, a small seat on top of a ten foot ladder rising from our bridge, I admired the weave of worlds from Bimini to the Planas. For years the sun drenched waters appeared to be as they had always been. Then the veil fell from my eyes. I’d been like those Fernand addressed at the pool-party, unaware of the slime.

The Waste Land referred to in Parzival, and revived as a theme by T.S. Eliot, links the mythic to the ecological narrative. The state of the physical world is a reflection of the psychological one in which we live. Our willingness to read and understand it depends on our ability to tolerate the pain in that recognition, and our desire to heal it.

Changes in Bahamian and Caribbean waters have been incremental, but can be measured in bleached reefs, diminishing schools of tuna, the paucity of local catch, and marlin moving further south to Piñas Bay. Sea birds—cormorant, frigate, pelican, heron, and kingfisher—that dive with satellite precision, are the unifying connection of above to below. What becomes of them as the fish populations dwindle? “Who cares for their feathers now?”

Changes in temperature provide a breeding ground for stinging mites that make it impossible to swim in certain locations without a wet suit.

Cays with white sand beaches that held no footprint are now virtual stages where Bahamians set up a fake village for Holland American Line cruise ships, where tourists buy folk art, drink rum punch, and dance to a reggae band before cruising on, unaware they’ve been in Disneyland. It might’ve been a protected beach for halcyon birds to hatch their eggs, but who can protect them from cruise ships?

We’ve come a long way from the Pharaoh’s great island tenanted by imperishable sparrows. All assumptions about endlessly resilient Mother Nature are no longer tenable. NASA photos reveal we live on a frangible sphere wrapped in atmospheric lace. We are now cognizant of five previous extinctions.
Where does the extinction of our species fit in?

In addition to species, we are also aware that words and feelings can become extinct, the once rich chords on the emotional scale reduced to simple notes. Awe, a word once a referring to a transformative experience, has been reduced to a trivial response in every day speech.

What happens to us, and to the natural world when we remain unconscious and therefore unable to address the wound?

Olson puts it another way: What happens when only the feathers are left?

Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, ca. 1350 BC, British Museum


7 – Focusing on the Feathers

Olson’s emphasis on the bird and its feathers makes me think of ancient Egypt. In the Ur-myth Isis re/members the severed parts of her husband Osiris thrown into the Nile by his jealous brother, Seth. With the help of Ibis-headed Toth, she retrieves all but his phallus, swallowed by a fish. This doesn’t prevent Osiris from fathering an only begotten son, Horus, his representative on earth. We might call Horus, the falcon: Consciousness Fathered by the Wounded One.

Osiris takes his place as Lord of the Underworld (Duat) where he presides over the fate of souls after death, depicted in hieroglyphs as birds that fly into the underworld. Osiris guides the soul, dis/membered by death, in a transformation through which the wound is healed and the soul restored in the body of Osiris—fulfilling what will be articulated in the Great Christian Mystery: “my father and I are one.”

baNerfertari as Ba, Tomb Painting, 3,200 BC

The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom clearly tell us that souls in the Duat are “regularly and continually” challenged to undergo transformation.  The union of the ba (embodied soul) and the ka (vital spark), form a third, the akh (the effective one). The akh, as the pure light of consciousness, is represented in hieroglyph by a crested ibis, bird of the wise god Toth. The Pyramid Text stipulates that should the ferryman refuse to transport King Unas’ soul to the other side: He will leap and sit on the wing of Toth.

Papyri and tomb walls exhibit images of birds and feathers everywhere. For the world’s oldest high culture, birds embodied distinct intelligences essential to specific gods and goddesses. Amon, the “hidden source” or uncreated creator is a feathered crow.  Amentet, the setting sun, who prepares souls for rebirth, appears with wings and holding a hawk’s feather. Shu, god of the atmosphere, wears ostrich feathers. Isis, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, sports a vulture head dress and the rainbow wings of a kite. Horus is a falcon. Osiris wears white feathers on either side of his crown. Ra, the Sun and first Pharaoh, has a hawk’s head. Kephri, at sunrise, becomes the Bennu, or risen Phoenix. A single feather belonging to Ma’at on the scale in the Hall of Two Truths determines the fate of all souls. Souls lighter than her feather become Akh and are welcomed to paradise. Those less fortunate are devoured by the crocodile jaws of Ammit.

ostrich wingsGoddess of Balance, Ma’at spreads her ostrich wings over gods and humans.

Sea-birds also link the world above to the one below. Their feathers are talismans. Olson’s kingfishers vanish into the shadows. Their feathers are evidence of a forgotten unity that calls to us unheard. Birds, visible by day, accompany Ra’s solar barc on its Night Sea Journey through the underworld, as did the golandrina, which I failed to recognize as my ba-bird. Birds, especially the swallows, become the vehicles for souls in the underworld, and for their transformation. The Bennu, the Egyptian phoenix, rises and sets with the sun.

The Osiris Mystery, as both myth and ritual, marks the early intuition of an objective intelligence in the unconscious. The drama of transformation in the Underworld describes the potential that takes place in our own psychological depths. Olson’s representation of the soul as kingfisher, a force precipitating the unchanging will to change, and its loss, constitutes more than his own gloss on the old myth, but a new one for our time. Perhaps the de-potentiation of mythology itself, the loss of any symbolic narrative that gives culture coherence and the way of enlarging individual consciousness.

Parzival’s healing question can only be asked by one who has been weighed in the balance of Ma’at and become an akh. Olson’s poem, “The Kingfishers,” is an 11th hour cry for help!

“The pool the kingfisher’s feather were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

When the symbolic links disappear, we are left with lassitude. Anything more is difficult to grasp, certainly the world as a coherent whole. Fernand speaks from the shadows about the devalued kingfisher feathers. He addresses those who sit mindlessly around the stagnant pool full of slime. In the end what he asks is rhetorical, not so much a probe as a hook.

Drawn by the potential for transformation, the changeless will to change, Parzival becomes an embodied soul and asks the healing question. But what happens when Parzival, the Fisher King and the Grail itself disappear from consciousness altogether?


8 -Rubedo, The Reddening

Olson loved to dig among stones. Indecipherable Mayan Glyphs spoke to him of buried intelligence in images of serpents and birds, heads dressed in woven feathers, the rise and fall of a high civilization incised on clay tablets. These elusive messages held valuable if undisclosed information: how do advanced systems decline into devalued plumage, slime in the pool.

I pose you your question:
Shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among the stones

In the coastal Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, and rubble of “Dogtown”, the Gloucester settlement abandoned after 1812, Olson was drawn to the haunt of civilizations that carved the clues to their demise in stone. He knocks on the door of the unconscious.

b8899ccb1dcf17ffe1cdcfddad9775edCourage, Dogtown, Gloucester/Cape Anne

Olson asks, Shall we find honey where maggots are? He might be speaking of the alchemical work which begins in the decomposing nigredo. He may be referring to the condition of mythological structures that once supported these high civilizations now sinking into the earth, and our own, on the way to becoming a Waste Land.

Olson begins Section 2 of “The King Fishers” with the self-mythologizing Mao, who forbids the centuries old custom of binding women’s feet, while proclaiming the risen sun, la lumiere,” as the symbol of a mythless society. In 1934 he will lead his followers on a long march toward l’aurore, and later, in 1949, as leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China, mount a cultural revolt outlined in his Little Red Book to entirely erase the past. After considering Mao’s position, the man who hunts among the stones weighs in.

He thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said

la lumiere”
mmbut the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
mmbut the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
mmhe got the color of his breast
mmfrom the heat of the setting sun!

In search of a myth for a mythless world, Olson’s avian avatar flies west, redness baked into its breast. He invites us to ride Ra’s Sunship into the underworld accompanied by swallows. In the Egyptian narrative the sun is totally eclipsed and for a moment faces the danger of total extinction. This happens every night. It appears to be what Olson wants us to consider.

8892_originalRa in the Sun Ship, Egyptian tomb painting, 1,200 BC

There are twelve houses one must pass through on the Egyptian Night Sea Journey corresponding to hours between sunset and sunrise. Each hour presents its own dangers. A Coffin Papyrus shows three ba-birds in the 5th hour there to protect Ra against devouring chaos, the serpent Apophis.

Temple at OptetRa uniting with Osiris, Temple of Optet, 1,200 BC

Ra grows darker and weaker as the hours pass; even his guardians are afraid. There is no guarantee that chaos will not at some point swallow Ra’s light. At the darkest hour, when it appears all may be lost, Osiris, “the Hidden Soul”, meets Ra face to face. In that moment, the high-voltage transformation takes place. In the Mystery of the Two become One, both are renewed. In the Duat souls are continually transformed into enlightened akh.

light_core_darkness_jungLight at the core of darkness, The Red Book, C.G. Jung

On a cosmic level this takes place nightly when wounded Ra consciousness is united to the Osiris intelligence in the unconsciousness. The union gives birth to a third in Kephri, the newborn Sun. This is also the end result of the Work, the red which alchemists call the rubedo. The transformation which starts with the blackening nigredo, moves through the bright white albedo, to Kephri’s light. Both the Egyptian Night Sea journey and the Alchemical phases can be viewed as the movement from despair, through understanding, to enlightenment.

A Hymn to Osiris states: “Thou risest in the horizon, thou givest light through the darkness…”

220px-Theatrum_Chemicum_Vol_I_page_1Theatrum Chemicum, Gerhard Dorn, 1661

Gerhard Dorn, the 16th Century alchemist prized by Charles Olson and Carl Jung, speaks of a “hidden third” arising from the two as “the medium enduring until now in all things…” Jung refers to this as a “synthesis of the conscious with the unconscious,” as a unio mystica. Ra’s transformational connection to Osiris can be compared to Parzival’s to the Fisher King; both describe this underlying unity in the alchemical marriage. Ironically, this was also observed by Chinese alchemists in antiquity and recorded in The Secret of the Golden Flower, which survived Mao’s “cultural revolution.” What the Egyptians called Akh, Western alchemists like Dorn the “philosophical stone,” the Chinese text refers to as the “Diamond Body”.

warhol-maotse-tung-seriesChairman Mao, Andy Warhol

Mao wasn’t interested in hieroglyphs or alchemy. Symbolic thought of any kind became anathema. His demythologized Revolution reduced civilization to a simple surface. Hence Olson’s open question: What happens when only the feathers are left?

He answers it in “The King Fishers” by attempting to re-mythologize the wounded cultural psyche, to locate the place in which the archetypal transformation enshrined in the sacred traditions of all cultures can occur. Even so, Olson feared that it might be beyond reach at the beginning of a period which he was the first to call “Post-Modern.”

Olson asks: Where do we find what we have lost?

“The Kingfishers” is a fragmented psychological treasure map missing that piece where X marks the spot. We are given clues: the changeless will to change, the king fishers, and in the absence of the seabirds, their lore and feathers—representations to challenge us in the absence of a living mythology. Of course there is always the possibility that what Mao did by coercion in China, we are doing in a Post-Internet world by attrition. We may be losing the ability as a species to bring the latent intelligence to light.


9 – The Alchemical Nest

Chaos stalks our hi-tech lives more powerfully than ever; one inspired hacker-child could send our infrastructure into a tailspin. The same holds true of our personal infrastructure. The Underworld is no longer the place in which souls are weighed or balance restored by Ma’at’s feather. Our psychology is haunted by forces denied, degraded, or disguised as ideologies, religious and political, that set us at odds. Fundamental religious beliefs fused to nationalist politics are fueled by thanatos, an unconscious death-wish. The ecology deteriorates while gods past and present disappear beneath the waves.

untitled colourPacal Descending to Xibalba, Tomb at Palenque, Mexico

In his study The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden Robert Johnson paraphrases Jung: “We no longer have Zeus but we have headaches instead. We no longer have Aphrodite and her noble feminine realm but we have gastric upsets. To dethrone anything from consciousness to unconsciousness is to diminish it in stature to a symptom.” Just so, the wounded Fisher King, split off from ourselves, becomes a hive of symptoms. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is inhabited by hollow men.

Will you leave it there? Pedrolino’s question is rhetorical. What will you tell them?

From his post on the wall, this black figure in his domed hat outlined by a white line on a black field gazes down from a moon face that glows like polished silver. He is the soul of old Ferrini, author of Know Fish. His words crawl through my mind.

“Tell whom?” I protest.

Pedrolino doesn’t answer, but I know. He is referring to those who will come to hear me read from Fishing On The Pole Star, directly followed by my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

It occurs to me that when only feathers are left, we must use them as lures.

Olson does just that; he uses feathers and stones the way a shaman employs a single bone to re/constitute the entire body. He builds the poem as king fishers do their nests with the remains of rotting fish bones. By gathering the “rejectamenta,” decaying bone splinters of myth, personal, and historical memory he builds to re/member.

it does nest with the opening year but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There
Six or eight white or translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
Not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds

I’ll describe to my audience the scene I witnessed on a bank of the Sibun River. I could smell the rotting fish bone chips from my canoe. Warmed by the heat of that decaying mass kingfisher eggs hatch on the bones of their prey. Future generations will rise from this matrix of remains. From its heat, words are born, take flight, hover and dive. It suddenly strikes me that Olson’s poem about the process is itself a nest of decaying bone chips.

Pay attention, whispers Pedrolino. “You’re close.”

I stop and listen. An idea comes in an open inner window—an insight. Not simply a piece of information, but an epiphany. I must instruct my audience not simply to see what is being described here with the mind’s eye, but to bring all the senses to bear—to hear the birds chatter, feel the river flow beneath the craft, touch the oars, the gunnels, smell the decaying bone chips, let the sulphurous odor of the nests sting the nostrils. Instead of solving the mystery he presents in the opening of “The Kingfishers”, Olson gradually shifts the emphasis from product to process. We must be in it totally to realize what is going on here. The question of what happened to the kingfishers is never answered in the poem—but by the poem. What fledges from it dives like a sea-bird into the unconscious.

Contemplating-the-Origin-of-Thought-An-Exercise-from-The-Secret-of-the-Golden-FlowerContemplating Mind Before Thought, Secret of the Golden Flower, 1668


10 – Parsing (Parsivalizing) the Question

In his Holocaust memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel describes the secret teaching received by his young alter-ego, Elie, before the entire shtetle was transported to Auschwitz. Bare-foot Moshe the Beadle, who cleans the synagogue, instructs his young protégée, “At the end of your life God measures you by the depth of your question.”

In this teaching, authority isn’t captured by the answer. The deepest question answers itself by deepening. The mythos lies too deep for words but can be alluded to in a myth. Such is the wisdom imparted at the beginning of Wiesel’s narrative that portrays the naked depravity under the veneer of civilization capable of destroying ancient cultures and turning cities into rubble.

Olson asks, “The Kingfishers! / Who cares/ For their feathers/Now?”

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in The Rye, wants to know, “Where do ducks in winter go?”

Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval inquires, “Who does the Grail serve?”

Von Eschenbach’s Parzival wants to know, “What ails thee?”

From Isis to Olson, we are challenged to re/member what has been left to languish in the dark. In every case, the healing power of the question is measured by the depth of the one who asks it. But what if the question itself is forgotten, lost, out of reach—or, more to the point, there is no

one to bring it full voice into the world?

25Parzival on journey lighter72_900Parzival, from the Feirefiz Project, Liz Neilson


11 – Spreading the Word

Olson’s vanished kingfisher constitutes a loss of myth, and with it our connection to the unconscious, its potential to transform fragmented souls, the ka and ba of us, into an akh, “the effective one” or pure light of consciousness. As a consequence, something has slipped from our grasp that once linked atoms to the stars and bound existence into a unified whole.

“The Kingfishers,” begins with a comment that might easily go unremarked: He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He / remembered only one thing, the birds

I might have disregarded it entirely had I not been for my encounter with the spirit of place, the essence of old Ferrini caught by an etching on the wall. No sooner had I named him Pedrolino, than he spoke to me, as he does three days later, after I wake from the same recurring dream. I’m in a room full of folding chairs. They are empty at first, then people file in to fill them. They’ve come to hear my talk. I smile at them. They smile back. Everyone is dressed in blue and green: my ba-birds. I wake in cold sweat.

osiris_nefertariOsiris, Tomb of Nefertari

There has to be something I can tell them about “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

Listen, counsels Pedrolino.

I just need a little more time to tie things together. These are my two thoughts and perhaps from them a third will follow. 1) Olson fishes the imagination for something born on a nest of decaying bones, that voice from the underworld speaking through him, the poet, telling us to hear in this moment what “was differently heard// as, in another time…” and 2) birds guide dead souls in the underworld, and shield Ra in the 5th hour of his Night Sea Journey from the devouring maw of Apophis, which would extinguish the light. Then it comes to me, out of the tension of the two, a third suggested in von Eschenbach’s Parzival 3) that the lapis exilies, or Holy Grail was delivered to us by “the neutral angels” while a war between opposing camps raged in heaven. This may be an expression of the unchanging potential inherent in our psychic structure, a constant that binds our atoms to the stars; our mission is to apprehend what we already contain, the numinous as the thing in itself.

The message I will convey to my audience of ba-birds, is this: each one of us is a wounded Fisher King trolling uncertain waters. We must keep our lines in, follow the sea-birds. The voice we listen for is equally uncertain. It comes through us, “heard differently//as in another time,” but is not our own. The fate of the world from which it rises depends on it.

ad7c4-olson-birdseye2cjpg“O city of mediocrity…”, Olson is Gone, But We Are Here, Peter Anastas, 12.24.14


12 – Epilogos

Charles Olson sought out Carl Jung when the latter spoke at Harvard in 1938, and engaged him in conversation about Herman Melville. The fever dream of wounded Ahab’s obsession with the whale pales in anticipation of the world driven to the brink of the abyss. Olson published “The Kingfishers” in 1949, long after public knowledge of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima had redefined civilization, and the year that Mao established the Peoples’ Republic of China. Jung was also putting together the connection between the transformations described by the Sun’s journey through the underworld, the Alchemical Work and his own theory of individuation as a transformative relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

The Belgian alchemist Gerhard Dorn summed up the situation in his Theatrum Chemicum: “The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are of one and the same sun.” Olson and Jung were drawn to Dorn, a fellow Fisher King.

Olson plaquePlaque on Fort Street, Paul Pines, 8.2014

I feel Olson this afternoon as I walk through town to Fort Street to find the modest multiple dwelling house facing the bay. A plaque affixed to the peeling white wall is a tribute to the insistence of Henry Ferrini, as much as it to Charles Olson. My host at the Gloucester Writers Center, and Vincent’s nephew, Henry petitioned the city fathers for the installation until they relented. It remains the only physical evidence that locates Olson where he lived, looking out at the channel between the Inner and Gloucester Harbor.

Today, Gorton’s huge plant that hugs the shore along Roger’s Street facing the State Fish Pier processes frozen catch from foreign waters. The depleted local fishing grounds, and the plant that packages fish for export echo the missing kingfishers in the poem. I marvel that it was Olson who coined the term that defined such an age: Post Modern. And that he found in Gloucester material to create a mythic monument to what had been lost.

In Parzival the question is asked and answered; at the end, the Fisher King is healed and the land restored. In our time, we have yet to frame the question.

We fish to bring it to light. This is the theme of my book, Fishing On The Pole Star.

There’s a moment in my book, after weeks on the troll, just beyond Concepcion Island, when I hook a three hundred pound marlin, fight him for almost two hours, then bring him to the starboard side of our boat. Our mate holds him in place to “swim him.” The idea here is to quiet the creature and move him slowly until the water circulating through his gills restores color depleted after our struggle.

Color is important.

No shark in the ocean can best a marlin in full bloom. Dimmed, he is doomed.

Our big boy allows us to swim him until bands of green and blue blossom the length of his body. Then he bites down gently on the hand of the man who is holding him to signal he’s ready. The power in his great jaws could take the arm of his handler off at the shoulder with little effort—but the touch is delicate, almost reverential. Upon release, he rides up over the gunnel to meet our eyes with his large circular orb, full of an intelligence so balanced, so complete, I glimpse in it the Divine Child, and also The Grail. I think, Here is the constant which links the atom to the stars, and binds existence into a whole.

And then he is gone.

surrealist-art-2-by-artist-vladimir-kush-on-desartsSunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

—Paul Pines



PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He had published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numero Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend

Aug 052015

Janice Galloway via The ScotsmanJanice Galloway via The Scotsman


I.In the eponymous story from her most recent collection, Jellyfish, Janice Galloway shows her genius for the ‘ouch’ principle: the wince-inducing collision of something exposed and over-sensitive with something brutal and sadistic.

We feel it coming; harbingers and hints surround Monica and her four-year-old son, on an outing to the beach as a last hurrah, the day before school starts. Alert to the impending separation, Monica sees danger and careless indifference all around her: in the mother who chats to a friend, unaware that her toddler in his buggy hangs over the kerb, too close to the wheels of a passing lorry; in the angry father swearing viciously at his little boy. She worries too much, she wants to protect. Somewhere between the wild beauty of the coast and the unsavoury piles of rubbish dumped by locals, they come across a parliament of stranded jellyfish. Transparent and ‘gummy’, out of their natural environment, one of them is little more than viscous pulp, object of blunt force trauma by human hand. How is the mother to explain this act of random violence on something so exquisitely vulnerable? ‘Maybe they hurt it – her voice faltered – they hurt it just because it can’t stop them.’ Ach, the jellyfish, so hopelessly undefended, not even a skin to mask its insides; the stupid jellyfish, out of its element and asking for trouble. The sight is painful because Monica – and through her eyes, the reader – knows how it feels, recognizes how easily one might end up in its place, how a cherished child might end up in its place. Characters in Galloway’s books are often alive to their inner jellyfish, and aware of – even enduring – the myriad situations in which the hammer may fall.

The recent Guardian review of Jellyfish suggested that these stories held new departures for Galloway in their focus on the parent-child relationship and the natural world. But both make fine provocations for the sort of catastrophic thinking typical to her work; thinking that has flowed and been repressed so many times it creates a carboniferous pragmatism. In the story that intrigued me perhaps the most, Eric Blair (otherwise known as George Orwell), is living with his young son on the Scottish West Coast island of Jura after the death of his wife, Eileen. It’s a hardscrabble existence in a place with no amenities and only the most basic of resources, and Blair is in denial over the diagnosis of his own soon-to-be-fatal tuberculosis. ‘You don’t fight an illness by fighting it; it gives not a hoot about your stoicism,’ the doctor tells him. But Blair is nothing if not stubborn: ‘Rest was not an appropriate response to encroaching lack of breath, lack of power. They had no idea what they were asking.’

Jellyfish - Janice Galloway

Inside his mind, two concerns breed fear; his belief that another war is coming, and his determination to ‘toughen up’ his young son. Excessive fear promotes a formidable fight response, but Blair cannot allow himself anything as weak as emotions; they must harden into ideologies. The story follows his trip to the general stores where he asks whether his parcel – a firearm – has arrived (it hasn’t), and then he begins the twenty mile return trip on his motorbike. The sound of a gunshot from the hills unsettles him so much he comes off the bike, but he’s okay ‘after a fashion’. Menace and machismo shadow box across the pages. He continues hoping for another five years in which to finish his novel and form his son: ‘He’d ruddy well achieve it by means of will alone.’ He was to die less than two years later. But his novel, 1984, the crystallisation of sadism and denial of feeling into a society in which only the broken would survive, lived a dark and splendid life after him.

It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist, from an artist who grew up in what seemed to be a sort of Scottish working-class family microcosm of 1984. Love in the form of brutality, the grim reckoning that the worst would be likely to happen and the best would be to face up to it, deprivation of all kinds, were basic elements of Galloway’s upbringing that transmuted into her writing. But her literary imagination tempers its casual cruelty with tenderness and a cautious optimism. Critics use the word ‘visceral’ a lot, but note the glittering seam of black humour. The New York Times Book Review memorably claimed her work ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy rewritten by Sylvia Plath’, which we might reasonably take to mean that she is an original. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989) won the MIND/Allen Lane award, and was followed by two more novels, two short story collections and, before Jellyfish, two extraordinary memoirs that took the reader deep into the phenomenology of childhood whilst advising caution towards a simple overlap of reality and narrative. There were prizes all around. Not bad for a woman who claimed that an artistic vocation was unimaginable for her as she ‘thought writers were wealthy people who just wrote things out of the goodness of their heart and gave them as gifts.’



Janice Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Scotland, to a mother who ‘thought I was the menopause’. In the mythic version Galloway tells in her memoir, This Is Not About Me, which might be the true one for all she knows, her mother was unaware of the pregnancy until her waters broke, perhaps in denial of the freedom-busting, life-ending truth. The young Janice is never in doubt about her status as nuisance. ‘If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d just bloody known.’ Galloway’s father makes scant appearance in the pages, dying when Janice is only six, though when he’s there, he makes his mark felt. By throwing supper out the back door in a fit of temper, locking Janice inside and making her play chequers with him while her mother is locked out, knocking pitifully on the windows. And finally, setting fire (he was drunk and smoking) to the cigarette stand they owned but had not insured. Just over fifty pages in, she and her mother move into a tiny attic flat above the doctors’ surgery where her mother finds work as a cleaner.

This relative idyll does not last, for Janice’s older sister, Cora, joins them. Cora is seventeen years older and has left behind a husband and son of her own, and once her loud-voiced, gleefully selfish, hard-hitting, pan-sticked presence erupts into the pages, she stalks them like the fifty-foot woman of a B-movie. Galloway calls her Cora, though her real name was Nora, some sort of psychological distance being necessary even in a memoir. Cora takes up all the oxygen in their family and is dangerously jealous if her space, status and rule are in anyway infringed upon. ‘Delight to spite took seconds: there was no middle ground,’ Janice recalls. ‘She’ll be found dead up a close with her stockings around her neck one of these days, my mother said. Too bloody cheeky by half.’

Though it’s Janice whose life seems daily endangered. Cora is ‘handy’, which seems to mean useful for violence. She slaps, punches and headbutts her little sister, locks her in a cupboard, sets fire to her hair. Their mother is too tired and too defeated to intervene, and she loves Cora and cannot escape her thrall. The potency of the daemonic, the Greek concept of an unstoppable force of energy that could be turned either to good or evil, is Cora’s superpower. ‘Even wedged into a chair, Cora charged the air with electricity. Something around her crackled fit to kill flies and drop them at her feet in crispy little packets. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.’ She’s mean, but she’s fearless and vividly sexual. Janice is allowed to watch, enthralled, as Cora paints her face on, pours herself into a too-tight bodice and seamed nylons. A trip to the fair with her is high-octane stuff, all thrills and reckless spending. As Janice staggers dizzily off the walzer, Cora ‘walked in a straight line with her hands on her hips to prove it. Nothing beats me, she said. I could stay on that thing all night and not turn a hair.’ But one minute Jekyll, the next Hyde. When their mother has the chance to work full-time, her concern about Janice being all right alone in the two-bed council flat (they moved back in once her father died) becomes Cora’s decision she won’t get in at all. ‘You give her a key and she’ll let people in. Either that or somebody will take it off her. She can wait in the fresh air. It’s good for her.’

this is not about me

In fact, Janice likes the peace in the garden, and there’s the coal-shed if it rains or snows. Although Galloway would later say in interview with Stuart Kelly that ‘The expectation of brutality used to be a commonplace part of most [Scottish] upbringings’, there is a particularly intense quality of disenfranchisement about young Janice, a too-stark awareness of her lack of value, except as emotional punch-bag. The drama in her small household, ruled by Medusa and the Furies, turns her inward, gives her the obsessive good-girl mentality of someone who knows she does not simply deserve the oxygen she breathes. The memoir displays the close-grained hypervigilant powers of observation that come from the traumatised, or as Gareth McLean in The Guardian puts it, ‘her eye for detail comes from having watched life occur while maintaining not so much a dignified silence as a petrified one.’ We’ve been told from the start that this is not about her, and the key to understanding Janice’s story is to recognise the myriad truths in this statement. Her mother’s suicide attempt, her sister’s disappearance, from which she returns bruised and close-lipped, the screaming rows, all the crucible of disturbing events in which Janice is forged, stem from a history that predates her.

‘Watching their faces as they hurled half-understood insults at each other, the feeling of being in the way while most of it raged over my head was letting something else dawn as well. This wasn’t about me…. This was about Cora and mum; mum and Cora doing something they’d done since Cora left Glasgow behind and turned up at the attic… Longer even than that. Weans, my mother said. As though there had been more than one baby Cora had left behind. If I’m man-daft, where did I learn it? I’ve dealt with my troubles. My troubles. It was always the same in our house. Nothing you knew was solid.’

If the young Janice is obliterated by the emotional warfare carrying on around her (in a way that psychologists would suggest is the basis for most severe neuroses), she finds some comfort in knowing she is not its cause. Her place in the world is formed before she ever entered it, by a cross-hatching of fierce emotional currents, the legacy of ancient events, bitter disappointments and sacrifices, in the lives of those who supposedly care for her. Galloway is clear that there is love, that her own childish spirit, even if oppressed, still finds ways to slip free, but the climate and the conditions in which love and freedom find form are not in her control. This is the reality of all childhoods, but most children feel guilty and responsible anyway. The extreme weather of Galloway’s young life may stunt her growth, but it liberates her perspective.

If This Is Not About Me was about the origins of that ‘ouch’ principle, the collision of Janice’s innocence and vulnerability with her sister’s ruthless violence and her mother’s tough love, the next volume of memoir, All Made Up, is about putting Janice together again from the scraps of self left over after the carnage. As a child, she was good at schoolwork and liked singing. As she becomes an adolescent, music will take an ever greater role in her life. Latin will become an unexpected love. And there will be boys, of course, and inevitably. It’s not that conditions change much – within a couple of pages of the start of the book, Cora has broken her nose. And at the end, when Janice is dressed up in borrowed finery for an evening out with her fiancé, Cora takes one look before launching a plate of stew at her. So no change there, then; but Janice grows into her hardiness, her ability to flourish on very little soil and sunshine, and despite her family’s injunction to cultivate shame and self-doubt. ‘I think it’s part of the Scottish temperament: always waiting for something to cut you down to size,’ she later said in an interview.


The memoir races through the key points once Janice has left home for Glasgow university and a degree in music. Her mother died when she was 26, Cora died of a smoking-related illness in 2000 (and the sisters had barely met since Janice left home). This means that when Galloway sat down to write her memoirs, the main characters of her cast were not breathing over her shoulder. She was aware of writing exactly the sort of truthful account of their living conditions they would have hated, but Galloway had come to understand that old, uncomfortable need to pretend was motivated by working-class shame. When she gave her mother a telephone, she would only speak on it in a Yorkshire accent: ‘Even her voice wasn’t good enough to expose,’ she said. But in all the interviews she gave about her memoirs, Galloway is insistent that the mother and sister who appear within their pages are not direct transpositions: ‘I am a writer. You’re not writing people, you’re writing versions of people that fit into a story version of something universal as well as something ideosyncratic.’ But I have to wonder whether this barrier is not there to protect the dead, but to keep Galloway safe from their ghosts. In an article she wrote in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, she admitted that her sister had tracked her down once she realised she was ‘writing stuff’. ‘She phoned me. How she got my number I haven’t an idea. I recognized the voice immediately, however: if I thought I was It I had another think coming, she said. Do you hear? Pack it in. I felt 11 again and almost wept.



Janice Galloway’s first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is an unruly narrative of a distressed and disobedient mind. The ironically named Joy Stone is a teacher in her 20s whose chaotic love life has tipped her over the edge of breakdown. The married man she has been living with – enough of a scandal in itself – drowned on a holiday abroad they took together and Joy’s grief is all the more unwieldy for being that of a mistress, socially unrecognized and unpermissable. She lives in Michael’s house (subject to further legal battles) on a sterile estate with poor transport links, while her own jerry-built house is slowly rotting away. Joy has no one to turn to. Her best friend, Marianne, has emigrated to America, her family consists of a sister, Myra, who ‘could just stand and scare me to death.’ Health care professionals are worse than useless. Joy imagines saying to her weary and indifferent GP: ‘Ok, let’s talk straight. You ask me to talk then you look at your watch… Can’t you send me to someone who’s paid to have me waste their time? You don’t know what to do with me but you keep telling me to come back.’ And all the time she is sinking deeper into bulimia and depression. She is the prototype jellyfish; a quivering wreck of exposed nerve endings.

Or you could read her as a 20th century version of Job, a woman crumbling under an onslaught of calamities specific to being an abandoned Scottish woman in the late 1980s in poor mental health. This is not a story that begs our sympathy, though, despite the rigors of Joy’s plight. Her exquisite vulnerability, which we readers are invited to witness as intimately as possible, from a ringside seat within Joy’s psyche, is played out on the page as an innovative typographical display that’s entirely distracting. There’s a cordon around Joy’s pain that comes from her own lack of lack of sympathy towards herself and the velvety-black humour that springs irascibly from her narration, as well as the experimental features of the text, attention-grabbing features of a verbal energy that ricochets around the pages, out of control, the underside of a too-tightly held persona masking inner collapse.

‘o yes
when I was good I was very very good but
there was more going on below the surface.
There always is.’

In the fragmentary text, words jump out from unexpected places and bleed into the margins, sentences trail unfinished, white space marks missing time and emotional dislocation, italics indicate the presence of memories that remain unintegrated. There’s no order to the story, and no neat boundaries either in the form of orthodox chapter divisions or quotations marks around speech. There’s just an uneven torrent of words acting out, or else a parodic inclusion of conventions: play scripts, for instance, marking cliched conversations, lists, excerpts from magazines spouting cultural commonplaces, and marching imposingly across the narrative, the dreaded mantras of mental health:

The More Something Hurts, the More it can Teach Me…
I write:
…..Persistence is the Only Thing That Works.

I forgot to write:
…..Beware of the Maxim.
…..Neat Phrases hide Hard Work.
…..Everything Worth Having is Hard as Nails.’

A beautifully unarticulated paradox rises up from all this verbal play, in which the insufficiency of such mantras is almost insulting in comparison to the depth of Joy’s disorientation and pain. But such inadequate linguistic supports are all that exist as a bridge back to normal life. Galloway is nothing if not respectful to the reality of her protagonist’s state, and little is resolved by the end of the narrative. But there are the earliest hints of healing; tiny shards of optimism that stud the conclusion with welcome precursors of light.

Talking of cautious optimism, her second novel proved that her characters were at least ready to risk travelling abroad again. In Foreign Parts (1994), Rona and Cassie are friends of long-standing, and mildly mismatched travelling companions who have come to spend their precious fortnight off work in France. Short of cash and feeling unworthy of culture, they know ‘that proper holidays are for proper people with proper money and that real travellers, in denim bermudas of uneven leg length, travel to real faraway places in search of real poor people enduring real life in the raw. We are neither real nor proper: just fraudulent moochers in other people’s territory, getting by on the cheap.’ Cassie, source of the narrative voice though it floats, according to Cassie’s mood, between first, third and even second person, is sensitive, observant, moody and questing for something real and meaningful. Rona is stolid, calm, accepting and happy to tick the vacational boxes. Their differences come to a crunch mostly over the guidebook they have brought with them, entitled ‘Potted France’, whose injunctions to notice historical features enrage Cassie with their vapidity.

foreign parts

Threaded in between the stages of their journey are descriptions of photographs from holidays Cassie has taken with boyfriends in the past and the memories they evoke. Not that these holidays have been any better than the one Cassie is currently on. Holidays fall into a similar category to horoscopes, magazine articles and self-help books for Janice Galloway’s main characters: they are places where the commonplace fantasy of achieving something splendid cracks under the weight of recalcitrant reality. Rona, Cassie tells us, at times when they are sleeping in the car, or in some terrible 50 franc-a-night dive, ‘loves games of not admitting hellishness is hellish.’ But Cassie, like Joy Stone, is in no mood to pretend. And more than that, there is an unspoken but deep-rooted belief in both books that anything revelatory, real, valuable or significant, can only come from an unflinching scrutiny of the situation. When Cassie does transcend the ordeal of pointlessness that is tourism – in Chartres cathedral, playing house in a gîte they hire, standing on the beach at Veulettes before taking the ferry home – these moments have a full-bodied poetry about them that can only come from patient attendance on the authentic.

As such, this is a novel wilfully rejecting a number of conventions; it is not the buddy road trip or travel novel that we might be expecting. Cassie’s sharp edges puncture any such glib journeying. More confusing to its readers (if Goodreads reviews are any indication) is Cassie’s conclusion as the end of the trip nears, that she is no longer interested in a heterosexual relationship, but considering the possibility of moving in with Rona. Cassie and Rona may squabble and bicker, but there is a mutual understanding and recognition between them that is missing, as far as Cassie is concerned, from a relationship with a man: ‘They don’t have the same priorities, to be able to organise their priorities in a compatible way with ours,’ she explains. Cultural fantasy rears its head again, to be cut down to size: ‘The knight on a white charger is never going to come, Rona. You know why? Because he’s down the pub with the other white knights, that’s why.’ If there are generalisations going on here, then they belong to a Scottish culture that lags behind the times (‘There are real gender problems in my country,’ Galloway said once in interview). But what Cassie wants is something free from all sexual and domestic norms. The life she envisages with Rona has no recognisable, culturally-approved shape, resists all labels and orthodoxies.

Right at the start of the book, the first sign Cassie and Rona see when they get off the ferry says: BRICOLAGE. This is a common sign in France, indicating a D.I.Y. store, but its original meaning is one of Heath Robinson-type construction, using bits and pieces of other things to create something new. For this reason it was borrowed by the nouveaux romanciers in the 50s and 60s to describe a kind of literary experimentalism that took apart the nuts and bolts of narratives and put the pieces back together in innovative ways. It stands as a fine sign to hang across Foreign Parts, too, in which the patchwork of travel guides, lists, overheard conversations, street signs, flashbacks and letters correspond at a technical level to the unorthodox ways of experiencing travel and building relationships that are its themes. The disparate and the heterogeneous are more playful, less threatening than in Trick, the anxiety and anger about a dissatisfying present are soothed in this novel into something forward-looking and hopeful.

Galloway’s third novel, Clara (2002), was in some respects a departure, a long, lyrical account of the life of Clara Schumann, child prodigy, world-famous concert pianist and composer. Clara passes from the tyrannical hands of an overbearing father, a piano teacher whose love for her resides in her responsiveness to his teaching and who basks in her reflected glory, to those of her husband, Robert Schumann, mad, melancholy, ambitious in his own right and unequal to tolerating a more famous and successful wife. It’s essentially a study of the discipline, the strategems and the sacrifices a woman like Clara must make in order to stay in touch with her musical creativity. Concerns about gender, freedom and madness abound, tethered to historical and biographical realities.

There is still experimentation, but what’s intriguing is that it is so seamlessly incorporated into the narrative it’s oddly harmonious, rather than disruptive. There are phrases from musical scores, poems, lists (of course) and the use of different font sizes. The latter are easy to decode, for they range from the huge beetling-black words of fortissimo, to the smaller fonts of diminuendo. Lists are staccato, poetry is cantabile, all is effortlessly woven into a smoothly flowing, wordy andante narrative. The voice nimbly skips between the heads of Clara, her father and her husband, able to pick up on a wide variety of moods, constantly singing.


In her interview with Stuart Kelly, Galloway denies that her use of experimentation in the early novels was ‘politically motivated’, saying instead that she ‘just didn’t know how to write a story’. Whispering in her ear, perhaps, was the shade of her sister, telling her that if she thought she was It she should just pack it in. The experimentation, in all probability instinctual, reveals a sophisticated understanding of the landscape of the mind when functioning in a state of extreme fear, duress, or misery. Those fragmented, discontinuous texts showed how words could perch unabsorbed upon the mind’s surface, how other voices within might be heckling from the sidelines, how memories repeatedly broke through any stable crust in the present with unwelcome or alien messages. But over the years there is a distinct progression in Galloway’s novels, one that has the appearance, not of anything as facile as healing, but of steady incorporation, acceptance of the ‘hellishness’ for what it is, a breaking down of old parts in order to put them together again, economically, in something new. After Clara came her memoirs, her darkest and her funniest works, the most revealing and the most accessible. Galloway had always been a formidably innovative storyteller; now the novelty was that the story could tell itself straight.



In the final tale in Jellyfish, ‘distance’, Martha is all alone on a trip to Jura, site of George Orwell’s last days. Many years ago now, when she was an insecure young mother, her small son cut his head open on a glass table and the accident unleashed some reckoning with the arbitrary and inevitable nature of catastrophe that has never been resolved. Her solution back then was to divorce her husband and allow him custody, afraid that her own fears would prove contaminatory to her child. Since then, Martha has cut herself off, taking only supply teaching work so she should never be lulled into the responsibility of relationships. Though the invisibility begins to tell. Attempting to teach Orwell to a class of resistant children, she tells them about the time he saved his four-year-old son from drowning in a sailing incident. ‘Sometimes, she said, there’s more to people than meets the eye. Repressed and paranoid and dying is not a whole picture of anyone.’

And maybe Martha is dying; in her forties now, with an burgeoning disease that is gynacological, possibly serious, possibly not, she decides to take this solo trip to Jura. The freedom feels easeful, at night watching the waves she understands: ‘There was no hidden code, no message, no meaning. What happened out there was random, wholly without blame or favour. In the end, nothing hinged on human decisions, nothing demanded retribution or just deserts: what happened was just what happened.’ Then, driving back to her lodgings in the darkness, listening on the car radio to Mozart’s Queen of the Night, she runs over a deer. Martha staggers over to the beast, longing to comfort it, afraid her touch will terrify it further. ‘Dislocated bars of Mozart were gusting like feathers in the night air,’ as she tends to the animal and her own relentless blundering in the world. ‘I’m here, she said, her words bouncing off the surrounding rocks and rising, furious, into the solid dark. I’m here. I’m here.’

And here Galloway’s voice remains, holding fast to its lament of risk and vulnerability, innocence and brutality that cannot be resolved. Instead, the elements are left suspended in uneasy harmony together, awaiting conclusion, a perfect augmented chord.

—Victoria Best


Victoria Best

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

Jul 032015



My grandmother, Yoeum Preng, passed away recently at the age of eighty-six.  At the funeral our family came together, along with saffron-robed monks from temples in Revere, MA, and Utica, NY. Also present were white-clad nuns from the local community, to help mourn our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  Earlier in the week my uncle, the oldest child, and his cousin went to the temple in Revere, had their heads shaved by a monk, knelt in front of a row of monks, and were given robes and instructions in Pali.  They were becoming honorary monks following our Cambodian Buddhist custom.

I wondered what my uncle was thinking when he knelt and listened to Buddhist chanting. He was becoming a monk to honor and pay respect to his mother, whom he had been taking care of twenty-four seven for the past five years.  Eyes closed, face focused, determined, he was handed a bright orange-yellow robe.  The next day, the seventh and last day of our funeral rites, when, according to our belief, my grandmother’s spirit woke to discover that she was no longer of this world and needed us to guide her to her proper place, my uncle was asked by the head monk to speak.  He rose slowly and deliberately.  One hand clutching the microphone, he thanked the community of monks, nuns, and friends for their show of support and for their kindness.  But when it came to speak about Lok-Yiey (i.e. “ grandmother” in Khmer), all he could muster was, “I have no more words.”

Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006

My crying came hard. I was inconsolable.  Like a possession, my shoulders shook, chest heaved, body convulsed.  The world became bleary.  After my uncle said what he could say, which meant that the suffering he was experiencing was beyond language, the head monk asked if anyone else would like to speak.  I felt the silence hang heavily in the air and my family turning to me, the most educated in the family, a college professor whose job was to speak clearly and intelligently in front of people.  When my aunt looked at me and saw what I was going through, she said, “Leave him alone.  He’s in no shape to give a speech.”  I walked backwards until my back was against the wall, found a seat, and sat down, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably.

IMG_1752BK and his aunt, Bunyien Prak, who had her head shaved to become an honorary nun (in honor of BK’s grandmother) in front of grandmother’s picture. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

I am a writer.  I use words to tell stories.  And I love writing.  It’s my way to control the chaos of life, make sense of it, and share my thoughts and feelings with the world.  But when it comes to real-life events, when I come face-to-face with another human being or surrounded by people, I fumble, mumble, and falter.

Writing is a private activity through which my inner world connects with the external world of family, friends, and strangers.  But on that seventh day of our mourning, words failed me and, by extension, I felt I had failed my family when they needed me the most.  I couldn’t find the words, any words, to encapsulate the hurt, loss, and suffering I felt that day.  All I did was sob like a child.  On that day I understood the limits of language and felt utterly helpless and alone.  I lost my faith in the power of words, as I couldn’t console my family, who turned to me for words to comfort, guide, and heal.  They also looked to me because I had a special relationship with Lok-Yiey, with whom I shared a common loss: the death of my mother.

IMG_1870BK’s uncle, Bunyonn Tuon, and his cousin Bunpak Tuon becoming honorary monks.  This was their way of honoring his grandmother. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

My family wanted me to express what she stood for, what she meant to all of us, what we should tell the younger generation about her—in short, how we should remember and honor her.

When I was in graduate school, I began collecting my family’s stories.  I was in my late twenties and didn’t know the story of my life; I had never sat down with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother to ask them about my deceased mother and father.  So, one year, I returned home during the holidays, armed with a list of questions and a tape recorder.  Naturally, I started with the story of my birth.

According to family’s legend, my birth brought everyone together.  To celebrate the birth of the eldest son of the family, my father’s family came from Khmer Krom, now in Southern Viet Nam, crossing the Mekong by boat and riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang in Western Cambodia, where my mother’s family had lived for many generations.  But this family celebration was marred by my constant crying.  I cried and cried so much that even my parents didn’t want to hold me.  It was Lok-Yiey who held me, fed and cared for me, while everyone else slept through the night.  It was Lok-Yiey who took me to see lok-gru (i.e. a village elder), who explained that my spirit mother missed me and wanted me back with her in the spirit world.  His solution was to trick this spirit mother into not recognizing me by changing my name.  After my name was changed to Bunkong, which means “endurance” and “longevity,” I stopped crying.

On one of my visits home, I heard a story about how Lok-Yiey risked her life to keep me alive.  It was late afternoon, after a family barbecue to celebrate a niece’s birthday, and the guests had already left.  My uncle, his friend, and I were cleaning up.  I was sweeping the driveway; my uncle and his friend were picking up the numerous soda cans and beer bottles that had been strewn about after the party.  For some reason, the subject of survival came up.  Maybe it had to do with the flies swarming around the grilled chicken wings, skewered beef, and papaya salad left on the table, the wastefulness of American wealth that made them quiet, and got them thinking about hunger under the Khmer Rouge regime.  During those times people ate whatever they could find to stave off death: leaves that resembled the light-green vegetable they used to eat, larva worms for protein, and crickets, bugs, and insects that jumped and crawled about while they dug irrigation ditches and carried mud on their shoulders.  Like two million other people, my mother fell victim of the Khmer Rouge regime when she died from sickness and hunger.  It was at this point that Lok-Yiey became my mother.  As before, she cared for me, made sure I was fed.  But unlike before, her love for me battled against the Khmer Rouge law.   She stole a few grains of rice from sahak-gor, the collective kitchen of Angkar, so that she could make rice gruel, barbor, for me to eat.

My uncle’s friend said, “She risked her life to feed you.  If the Khmer Rouge had found out, she would have been ‘disappeared.’  That’s how much she loves you.”

“I didn’t know any of this.”  I then asked, “Do you remember what I said about the gruel?”

My uncle answered, “You say, ‘What’s this?  It’s better than chicken curry.’”

Even to this day, I have no memory of hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that more people died from hunger and sickness during that time than from execution.  I only remember my grandmother’s love.


During the couple of years before her passing, Lok-Yiey was in and out of the hospital.  When she was first taken to Mass General Hospital, in Boston, my uncle, the one who took care of her, didn’t call to tell me what had happened.  Whenever I called home, my uncle only said, “She’s doing fine.  Everything’s fine.  How’s your job?  Are the students and professors treating you well?  Are you done with your book yet?”  He didn’t want me to be distracted, knowing that I was going up for tenure the following year, so he kept asking me questions about my job to keep me focused on achieving my American dream.  It was a cousin who texted me, “Grandma is in the hospital.  Liquid in her heart.  Come home if you can take time off.”  At one point, this cousin confronted this uncle, “He’s an adult.  Treat him like one.  He needs to know the truth about his own grandmother.”  My cousin said to me afterward, “I know the old generation wants to protect you from the truth.  But they need to trust us.  We know about America more than them.  They have to learn to rely on us, especially when they are getting old and will need to be cared for.”  Caught between my uncles’ and aunts’ way of dealing with difficult subject matters in our lives and my cousin’s American way, I called my uncle and told him what I needed: “I have to know what’s going on with Lok-Yiey, so that I can decide what I need to do with work and my classes.  My department is extremely understanding and supportive.  Knowing myself, not knowing the truth will drive me crazy.  Do you understand what I mean?”

There was a long silence on the other end.  Then he said, “Okay, boy.”

Somehow Lok-Yiey was able to pull through and survive these harrowing experiences.   I remember one time the family was given an ultimatum: either she was to have surgery or she would live out her last few days at the hospital.  My uncles and aunts drove home, sat down in the kitchen, and discussed their plan.  “She can’t have surgery at her age.  It’s too much for her body to handle,” an aunt said.  “But without surgery,” an uncle countered, “she doesn’t have long to live.  At least with surgery, there is hope.” So they decided on the surgery. However, when the nurses were prepping grandmother, they discovered her blood pressure and heartbeat had returned to normal.  They kept her overnight for observation and let her leave the next day without any other explanation except to say that she was “a medical miracle.”  When I got home a few days later, Lok-Yiey was resting in her room.  My uncle heard my voice, said to Lok-Yiey, “Your medicine is here.”  Lok-Yiey turned her head, asked, “Who?”  “He’s here, standing at the door, your grandson,” my uncle pointed at me and laughed.  Lok-Yiey smiled, called out to me, and asked if I had eaten anything.

What forces in the universe drew us together and made us the kind of grandmother and grandson we were to each other? Was it fate?  Was it history?  Was it a combination of the two?  I don’t know.  An uncle who usually refused to talk about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime told me this story during one of my holiday visits.  “Before we left for the refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, Lok-Yiey went up to your father and told him she was going to take you with her.”  He spoke while cutting the red and green peppers for the stir-fried steak he was making.

Horrified, I asked: “What did my father say?”

“I don’t know.  I know that a week later in the camp, we met someone from the village who told us that your father came to our old home looking for you.”

My heart sank when I heard this story. I wonder what compelled Lok-Yiey to walk up to my father and tell him she wanted me to be with her?  Was it because my father had taken another wife?  Did she sense that my father would have children with this woman?  Was she then afraid that I might be abused by my stepmother and neglected by my father?  And what did my father say to her?  What was he thinking when he was told that I was leaving him?  Why didn’t he come after me sooner?  Why didn’t he come with me and leave Cambodia?  Did he talk to his new wife about it?  What did she tell him?

Or did the reason Lok-Yiey took me with her have something to do with my mother?  Did I remind her of her oldest daughter?  Was it my round face and almond-shaped eyes?  By this time, Lok-Yiey had lost so much already. Her youngest brother, who worked as an interpreter and tour guide in Siem Reap, had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.  Her oldest child, who went to study in Phnom Penh, had also disappeared.  No one heard from him after the great purging of the capital.  Still, Lok-Yiey held onto hope, believing that he was still alive somewhere, since no one had seen him taken away by soldiers and his body was never found.  Then, in 1978, a year before Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and liberated it from the Khmer Rouge, Lok-Yiey watched my mother, her oldest daughter, wither away, her body shriveled and dried, as she was slowly dying from starvation and sickness.  She saw pus oozing from her open wounds.  Was Lok-Yiey determined to keep me, what was left of her daughter, to replace what was taken from her?

I held no resentment towards Lok-Yiey.  Without her decision to take me with her, I wouldn’t be here, in the United States, teaching American students about the Cambodian Genocide.  It was the working of life’s great mysteries, a kind of poetic, cosmic justice, where Cambodia was shrouded in mystery under the regime, kept in silence, until survivors broke their silence and told the world about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was Lok-Yiey’s quick and heart-felt decision on that day that allowed me to talk to today’s students about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and share it with the world in my poetry and prose. But still, somewhere in my mind, a thought flashed to my father: that moment when he came to Lok-Yiey’s thatch-roofed house and found it empty. No trace of me, his son, to be found. In my throat, I ached a little.

I carry the following memory with me: It was in 1979, and we were crossing the Cambodian jungles for what seemed like at least a week to my undiscerning consciousness.  Too young to walk on my own, I was carried on Lok-Yiey’s back.  We walked in single file.  My uncles and aunts were ahead of us.  Trailing behind was Vanna, the surviving daughter of Lok-Yiey’s youngest sibling, the one who disappeared as soon as the Khmer Rouge captured Siem Reap, guilty of the crime of being educated.  I remember the rain falling hard over our heads, making our path muddy and slippery.  A few years older than me, Vanna walked behind us until, too tired to see the puddle in front of her, she slipped and fell.  When she got up, her face was covered with dark, earthy mud.  All I could see were the whites of her eyes.  From my perch on grandmother’s back, I pointed and laughed.  Vanna was fuming, angry at me.  Thus began years of childhood bickering between the two of us.  But I relate this incident to illustrate how I was shielded from suffering, protected from life’s horrors, both large and small, by the love of my Lok-Yeay.  People in my family, especially Vanna, say I’m lucky that I had a grandmother so loving, so kind, and gentle.  I think they are right.

In America my uncles and aunts got married, had children, and took jobs.  After a few years of working, they pooled their savings to purchase a three-story Victorian house in Malden, Massachusetts.  Over twenty of us lived in that house, but Lok-Yiey wouldn’t want it any other way.  While my uncles and aunts were busy working, Lok-Yeay took care of us all,  her grandchildren.  She cooked and cleaned; she bathed and fed us.  She woke us up for school.  In her bell-bottom pants and puffy winter coat she took from the clothes bin at our sponsor’s church, she walked my little cousins to school.  I have no idea how she found her way home. Did she ask other parents for directions?  But how was that possible?  She spoke very little English.  All she could do was point and smile. And when we got home from school, fried fish or Chinese sausages appeared, like magic, on the table, with cooked jasmine rice in a pot on the stove, just in case we couldn’t eat American food or we got hungry after a day of studying.  That was her magic: No matter how poor we were, none of us ever felt hungry under Lok-Yiey’s watchful eye.

But it wasn’t really magic. Whenever I think of Lok-Yiey, I always see her in our kitchen preparing food. She is in her red-and-orange sarong and light blue shirt, hair dark and curly, wearing large round orange-rimmed glasses. She is either sitting on the floor with a huge meat cleaver in hand mincing pork for the prahouk, crushing garlic, red and green chilies, ginger and galangal in a mortar and pestle for sralauw, or standing in front of the stove stirring a hot pot full of boiled potatoes, onion, and beef curry. Lok-Yiey was five feet tall, sturdy, with broad shoulders and powerful forearms, a frame strong enough to bear the tough life she led. I remember one evening in Revere. I held her hand while she slept, studied it, turned it over, traced the grease surrounding her life line and touched the calloused bulbs at the beginning of each finger. Then I looked at my own hand, soft and tender, a baby’s hand. I remember her snoring. I reached out to touch her shoulder, shaking it. She opened her eyes, told me to go to sleep, and resumed her snoring. I lay there in her arms, feeling her breath on me, and tried to breathe in synchronicity with her.

Family 1980 in refugee camp in ThailandFamily 1980 in refugee camp in Thailand

At the funeral, Vanna, who took a red-eye flight from Arizona, whispered to me, “She was so strict with me.  I couldn’t go out at night.  No boys whatsoever.  We butt heads, of course; I was a teenager, after all.”

I didn’t say anything.  I sat watching Lok-Yiey lying peacefully in the coffin.

Vanna continued, “You know what?  Looking back at it now, I realize she was doing the right thing, teaching me to be good.  Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.  She was like a mother to me.”  Then she sobbed.

Lok-Yiey was a mother to all of us.  While my uncles and aunts worked at lumber companies and factories in cities and towns throughout the Greater Boston area, she became our Great Mother.

When my aunt, grandmother’s youngest child, bought a house in Wakefield, a twenty-minute drive from our family’s home in Malden, Lok-Yiey was worried that her family, which she had built and nurtured throughout the years, would spread out and be like other American families whose members only see each other during the holidays.  She knew that, if we were to survive in America, we had to stick together.  That was her lesson for all of us.  But our family never became distant, and my aunt learned well the lesson of her mother.  She continued visiting Lok-Yiey every day.  When Lok-Yiey passed on, my aunt shaved her head, donned a white robe, and became an honorary nun.  For a week she attended services at the temple in Revere each morning and evening.  She didn’t shed her material possessions (hair, clothes, makeup, etc.) out of blind obligation.  She did it out of love for her mother—the mother who continued to care for her even after she got married.  When my aunt and her husband decided to pursue the Cambodian-American dream by leaving Massachusetts for Southern California to buy a donut shop, Lok-Yiey went with them.  She cooked and cleaned while my aunt sold donuts in her store in Bell, California, and my uncle slept in the upstairs room, exhausted after a night of making donuts.

Looking back through the years, I have no memory of Lok-Yiey saying to me, “I love you.”  But not once in my life did I ever doubt her love for me. Like the old generation in my family, who came from a culture of polite modesty, she expressed her feelings through actions rather than words. Her love was in the food she made food for me, such as prahouk with minced pork or salor srae or tirk kreoung. Whenever I came home from college, she would prepare Khmer dishes she had known all her life, peasant food for farmers. I don’t know what it was, but the flavor she created seemed magical.  When I came home one day from college armed with pen and paper to document these recipes, she laughed and told me I was foolish. Like others from the old country, she didn’t use measuring spoons and cups, had no book of famous recipes, and didn’t consider her cooking worth preserving. Lok-Yiey learned to cook from her mother who learned it from her own mother, and so on. Everything related to food was passed down through memories of loved ones.  And when Lok-Yiey couldn’t cook anymore, she had my aunts make food for me. I’m sure Vanna would say I was “spoiled.” But I would say simply that I was lucky to be loved by my grandmother.

We were all loved by Lok-Yiey.  For her, nothing was more important than family.  When her first husband died, Lok-Yiey was in her thirties, a single mother with six children, the oldest in his teens and the youngest, the aunt who would later shave her head, too young to remember her father’s funeral.  She cared for them by getting up at dusk, putting wood in the stove, making fried rice and noodles to take to the train station in Battambang and sell to businessmen and travelers with her daughters’ help.  She would run after the train when a customer forgot to return empty bowls and plates.  After the morning rush hour, she would walk to the field and help her teenaged son farm the land.  By afternoon, she would return home and cook food for businessmen arriving at the train station after work.  When there wasn’t enough money to feed her children, she smuggled spices, eels, and fish across the Thailand-Cambodian border.  One time, she was caught by the police at the train station in Poipet, but they took pity and let her go when she told them she did what she had to do for her hungry children.

Lok-Yiey put her children above everything.  The truth is, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and their children wouldn’t be here without her love.  In refugee camps, she continued to barter goods with Thai people through the fence surrounding our lives, risking beatings from the military police.  In America, she sold fried rice and stir-fried beef at her daughter’s donut shop as a way of expanding the business.  Lok-Yiey was a survivor, an entrepreneur, a fighter.  And she did it all in the name of family.

Lok-Yiey didn’t receive a doctorate from Harvard or a business degree from one of the top universities in the States.  She was the wife of a farmer; her children are the sons and daughters of farmers in a small village in Battambang.  She didn’t use big words to impress people. But what she lacked in vocabulary, she made up for with a heart as big as the world.  That is her lesson for all of us: family love.

Grandma and her family todayGrandmother and the family picture taken recently. Note the contrast with the picture taken in Thailand.

It’s been three weeks now since Lok-Yiey left us.  I am still sad.  We have lost an era; a way of life where goodness comes from hard work, commitment to do the right thing, and love for family and friends; a worldview where the self is intricately connected to community, where a person’s actions are more valued than her words.  She is gone now, and I don’t know how to fill that void, that emptiness, in my life.  How do I keep Lok-Yiey with us and honor her memories?

I remember teaching In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo at my college and asking the same question during class discussion.  At the end of the novel, the protagonist loses his grandfather, the one who had given him emotional support and moral guidance ever since his parents lost their lives in a plane crash.  “How do you honor the memory of such a loved one?”  I asked my students.  They were quiet for a moment, then one raised her hand, another followed, and so on.  Of course, I had my own answer, which I shared with them.  For me, it’s maintaining the values she stood for and the ideas she cherished.  For Lok-Yiey, it could be as simple as cooking the food that she made for us when we were young, eating and sharing her favorite dishes with family and friends.  More importantly, it is the symbolic value such culinary space represents: working hard, expressing love through actions, sharing what you have with others, and, ultimately, understanding the importance of family and friends.  It is more important than ever for our family to uphold this value system.  No matter what happens, we must not undo what Lok-Yiey had worked so hard to build.  We must stick together as a family, forgive each other, care for and love one another, the same way that Lok-Yiey cared for and loved us.

To the younger generation in my family, it is now our turn to carry what Lok-Yiey and your parents have carried all their lives.  We know the language and culture of the United States, as if they were our own, that’s because they are; we must therefore help the older generation navigate with dignity its social and political systems.  We are, after all, Americans with a Cambodian accent.  The first generation have carried us this far, and now we, the 1.5 and second generation, must carry them.  It is the way of life, a cyclical pattern of the karmic order of things.  It is Buddhist; it is Cambodian; it’s the human thing to do.


On that day when the head monk asked family members to speak their last words about Lok-Yiey, I wish I could have mustered self-control to speak from the heart.  If I had, this is what I would have said: “Lok-Yiey, I know that in our Cambodian culture, we don’t speak directly and openly.  But I’ve been in America for too long and have picked up some of its wayward customs.  So let me speak from the heart.  Thank you for all you have done for us, Lok-Yiey.  We are gathered here to show our respect and deep love for you.  Thank you for everything.  I love you.”

—Bunkong Tuon


Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. His recent publications include Nerve Cowboy, Más Tequila Review, Chiron Review, and Patterson Literary Review. Gruel, his first full-length collection, is recently published by NYQ Books:

Jul 022015

Lefer by Robin Gibson (2)Diane Lefer by Robin Gibson

One morning in October I waited at the gate of the Air Ground Combat Center Marine training base in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA. I’d been invited with a community group about to take a public tour of what is essentially a grad school for combat. Marines from around the country–units 1,000 members strong–who’ve already completed basic training and are almost ready to deploy come here for 35 days of intensive work, including live-fire training and urban warfare practice in “Little Iraqi villages.”

The mockup of an Iraqi village for trainingMockup of an Iraqi village for training.

“I don’t care if you learn anything today,” said the retired Marine who would lead our tour. “I’m here to keep you entertained. At the end of the day, if you don’t have fun, it’s my fault.”

But first, our drivers licenses were collected. Quick identity checks “just to make sure you’re not a terrorist.”

We waited. A woman near the front of the parking lot stared, scrutinizing me.

For a few years, my emails carried an automatic tag at the end: I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide financial support to State-sponsored terrorism and torture. I don’t remember when I deleted the statement, but it occurred to me my past might have caught up with me.

The woman beckoned to me. “Are you a writer?”

Well, yeah, but I wasn’t there on assignment. A nonprofit I’m associated with was interested in doing outreach to vets and active service members in the area.

“You’re media.” Her definition turned out to be rather encompassing: Anyone with a blog. “You’re not allowed on this tour.”

I hadn’t planned to write about the day but I let her know I would damn sure write about being left outside the gate.

During the 4-hour drive home, I realized what I really needed to write about was the loaded word fun.

Warning sign at 29 PalmsWarning sign at 29 Palms.


Does any culture have as much of it as we do? When I try to find “fun” in other languages, I can’t seem to come up with a true equivalent. I find terms I would translate as amusement, diversion, joke, prank, leisure. None of which to me quite conveys the same meaning as fun.


A few days later I’m at one of the monthly workshops on nonviolent action led by civil rights hero Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. We’re considering violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and why governments see no alternative to war. Why is military force the default position? Why isn’t the peace movement effective?

I brought up the Marine base. What did the nonviolent movement for peace and social justice have to equal the promise of fun? To get people’s attention these days, so we have to compete with pulse racing, adrenaline-pumping excitement? The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most successful examples of nonviolence, and I dared to say it drew people to it through the promise of risk and adventure.

I knew the words were wrong, but I was trying to figure something out. What elements made it possible for the Movement to mobilize a whole nation, cutting across lines of race and class and gender?

Two of the Black participants in the group caught me at the break. Maybe it was an adventure for white kids who went to Mississippi for a month or two, they said, but for the Black people who actually lived there, there was no adventure. There was the same violence and oppression they had always lived under.

Of course they were right. And forgive me, insensitive, offensive, I kept talking. Instead of thinking aloud I should have just kept my mouth shut. Instead, I knew they were right so I stopped listening and kept trying to figure out what I meant, trying to account for the difference between suffering the constant threat of violence versus choosing to put your life on the line. There was something galvanizing in the Civil Rights Movement. Something made people embrace the cause and the risk. Wasn’t there excitement at the idea that through people claiming their own agency things might actually change?


Rev. Lawson doesn’t often focus on what’s happening overseas. He’s said we must confront the culture of violence here, not over there. The road to peace is justice. Dismantling racism and poverty, stabilizing families by good employment, by health care in the United States–that’s what is critical for the security and wellbeing of the nation. “Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront militarization of our land.”


“Our job is to engage and go through the enemy. Our job is not to take and hold territory,” said Mike, the ex-Marine tour guide.

I was back at the gate. See, after I gave up and drove home, Barbara Harris, who leads tours in the Joshua Tree area, wrote a complaint about how I’d been treated. The response came from public affairs officer Captain Justin Smith. I had his personal guarantee that I could tour. And he made no objection when I said I would, after all, write about it.

Mike said, “We kill everything that we see and let them (the Army) hold it.”

Mike wears a cap from Disneyland.


1200 square miles of desert. Even for someone like me who loves the desert, this barren landscape is hard to love. Marines here are housed (when not out in the field) in small K-Spans, structures that used to be called Quonset huts. Concrete floors, no cell phone reception, no A/C, no heat for the freezing desert nights.

60# of gear.

But foodie-inspired MRE’s? I spot a pouch labeled “Chicken and Pasta in Pesto Sauce”–a far cry from what my father said the mess hall served during WWII: DVOT (Dog Vomit on Toast) and SOS (which I later learned–because he always refused to tell us–stood for Shit on a Shingle). Then I try to picture that grainy green sauce and imagine today’s Marines, too, have come up with a suitable acronym.


Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. “Don’t shoot people that are not shooting at you,” Mike warns. “If you shoot the noncombatants they get cranky and everyone will be your enemy.” The whole room becomes a 360-degree video game projected on the walls. We can see the other vehicles. We can see “Iraq” all around us.

video view of Iraq highway created for trainingVideo view of Iraq highway created for training.

Captain Smith hands me an M16 and I hold onto it awkwardly as I try to put my camera and notebook away. “Here.” He takes it from me and replaces it with an M4– “the girl version.”

The rifles in the simulator fire compressed gas, making a sound like live gunfire. The recoil is just like real.

We’re the first vehicle in a convoy of three. I’m guarding the left side of the Humvee, watching for bad guys as video images move across the wall, and while I know I’m not as strong and fit as a young Marine, I’m still shocked at how much the weapon weighs, how my heartbeat speeds up and adrenaline surges from the mere stress of holding it in ready position.

We drive past market stalls where locals eye us, past fields where men move with their flocks, past kids on bicycles. Mike tells us to watch out for anything that might be a roadside bomb. Watch for people running towards us. They’re the insurgents. You don’t shoot at people running away.

Inside the Combat Convoy SimulatorInside the Combat Convoy Simulator.

My group wiped out some insurgents and didn’t kill any civilians. One of the other groups was too trigger-happy. In the end, we’re blown up by a roadside bomb.

Even after the exercise ends and I relinquish the M4, my hands are still shaking.


Humvees are obsolete. Too vulnerable to IED’s. Defense contractors came up with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle–the MRAP. The thing is, to make the vehicle adequately protected, it’s so top heavy that it will roll over even on an incline as gentle as 15-17 degrees. If it does, 8-10 Marines and sailors, with all their bulky gear, have to be able to open the 18″ x 18″ escape hatch and get themselves out, evaluate anyone who is wounded, and establish a 360-degree security perimeter. In 90 seconds.

Eight of us climbed in, fastened (with difficulty) our 5-point harnesses, held tight to our possessions as the MRAP tilted over on its side, and then the other side, back and forth and almost upside down as we screamed with shock and dizziness and delight.

We weren’t asked to escape. We climbed out, disoriented and shaken, asking How on earth do they do it?

Equipment waiting for us at the MRAPEquipment waiting for us at the MRAP.

Captain Smith smiled and told of other impossible feats the Marines are trained to accomplish. As we walked on, I thought, but of course! It’s not a race. It’s not every man for himself. It’s about preplanning and teamwork. At least I think it must be. That’s what the training was for, so the men already know who opens the hatch, who climbs out (or gets boosted out) first, and how or if they help others, and where they stand in the perimeter and how the plan adjusts if someone is wounded and can’t perform his role. It would have been interesting to hear how men learn to cooperate. Instead, we had a Disneyland ride.


90 seconds to egress an MRAP. 60# of gear.

A young man my niece dated for a while joins the Marines. He wants to serve and I insist he should have joined the Air Force where you get treated better. I don’t understand that being treated better isn’t what some young people look for.

How on earth do they do it?

First the sheer physical and mental endurance, the brutality of basic training. Then Twentynine Palms. I come to appreciate the thrill and the pride that must accompany the challenge of accomplishing acts that seem impossible until you actually accomplish them. Even before they’ve faced threats to life and limb, they’ve had to prove themselves in ways I can hardly fathom.

What do I do–what have I ever done?–that demanded so much of me, that was so worthy of stunned respect?

For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as  committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice? In the Civil Rights Movement, people knew they might be injured or killed. Those who were Black were in constant danger of being injured or killed with or without a Movement.

But there’s something Sisyphean about the young Marines.

What is the point of pushing men and women to the breaking point, training them to perform superhuman feats if all we’re going to do is send them off to kill and risk life and limb in unjust, ill-conceived wars? Wars we cannot win.


World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and a century later historians still can’t make sense of it. Millions of lives lost, carnage, destruction, suffering and no one can give a good reason why. The Great War was so horrific, humankind was supposed to have learned its lesson. Instead it turned out to be merely the prelude to more death, more suffering, more war.

To mark the centennial, the Goethe Institut-Los Angeles offered Make Films, Not War, a series of screenings, lectures, and workshops. When Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and his colleague Michael Robert Stevenson presented their work on video games, I was there.

Please credit Chaudhary, Stevenson, and the Institut when I refer to gaming as prior to their workshop, I had never played a video game. I had never watched anyone play, none of which had ever stopped me from talking about how terrible the games are.

My only experience was this: Before Antioch University-LA moved to its campus in Culver City, when I taught there, classes were held in a modest building in Marina del Rey. The floor above us was occupied by a defense contractor developing video war games. A student might be reading her work aloud or we might be translating Chinese poetry or doing a rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, our words punctuated with explosions coming through the ceiling and walls.

More than 2,000 video war games are on the market. Some of the most violent games young people play for entertainment–for fun–were developed with funding from the Department of Defense.


Do violent video games lead to violence? Chaudhary says the studies are contradictory and inconclusive. Wouldn’t they have to be? Every individual reacts in his or her own way.

Years ago I’m sitting in the auditorium at the New York Public Library for a free screening of Buñuel’s film, Un chien andalou. Insects emerge crawling from the hole in a hand and a man in the audience rises to his feet. “That’s what happens!” he cries. “I told them! It’s true!”

This year, while writing this essay, I rush to see American Sniper, sure that it will bolster my argument about fun and entertainment. I don’t even mention it in the early drafts. No point in talking about the politics of the film, I thought, when in spite of the violence, it’s really pretty dull. Such an mediocre movie won’t get much attention, I thought. Shows you how much I know.

While in the meantime, ISIS posts online graphic video of beheadings. Most people are appalled. Some are thrilled. Some conclude ISIS should be destroyed. Others, drawn by the display of raw power, want to join.

Do we have to think about how every conceivable person will react to every conceivable content?

Specially designed video games are being used experimentally, I’ve read, to treat combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Virtual reality puts them back into the extreme situations that caused the trauma. The hope is to desensitize, to let the veteran relive the experience but in safety and with the ability to stay in control. Virtual violence that heals.

We watch a little boy as he plays Call to Duty, his hands flying, his body moving rhythmically with the first-person shooter action. The scenery changes at high speed and the kid is shooting and killing. A dog appears on the screen and for a moment, the little boy stops and just looks. “Dad,” he says, “can I have a dog?”

The game, the fantasy of the game, doesn’t change who you are.

Or does it? You get to choose your weapons. There’s a whole array with all their technical specs. The game can develop some serious expertise about military arms and it seems to me that expertise is something a person wants to use, and using it to play a game may not be enough. When you become confident and expert, won’t you identify with the endeavor? Are these video games excellent recruitment tools for militarization and war?


There’s a powerful resistance to killing deep in our moral structure, maybe even in our genes. Up until the time of the US war in Vietnam, most soldiers refrained from firing their weapons or intentionally fired above the heads of the enemies. So, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by the time we charged into Vietnam, the military had developed psychological methods to improve the kill ratio by breaking down this natural resistance. But what happens afterwards? For some soldiers returning to civilian life, violence may no longer be taboo. For others, this sense of moral injury, of having become something he or she cannot even recognize as the self, remains an open wound. We can break down a person’s character. How do we build it back up?


Can peace be fun? Well, the Sixties. Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll. Make Love Not War. But did that bring peace?

How do we compete with kicking down doors and blowing things up?

Video war games have extraordinary production values. They put you right into the action. They are expensively produced, sometimes with funding coming right from the Department of Defense. Many of the pro-peace games I saw use comparatively low-budget graphics. Little more than cartoons. And instead of adrenaline-pumping excitement, they offer earnestness.

We Come in Peace, more sophisticated, uses 3D satellite imagery but apparently only a trailer is now available. It’s designed so that when you play you see our earth. The goal is to move in on location after location and eliminate the stockpile of weapons. I see how a player can get involved in the task, but you can’t compare it to the excitement of a first or third-person shooter game. Instead it resembles more closely the experience of a drone pilot. Except the pilot is eliminating human beings.

The drone pilot may learn days later that he or she hit a wedding party or a funeral and will have to live with that knowledge. But it’s not quite the same as the player of Spec Ops: The Line who has a mission to accomplish in the Middle East. As the game progresses, you find yourself on a killing spree, women, children. By the end of the game, you realize you are not a military hero but a psycho killer.

Will some players smile with satisfaction? Embrace the identity of a psychopath?


I strike up a conversation at the workshop. The guy is Israeli and he tells me about Peacemaker, a game which challenges you to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and win the Nobel Prize. You can play as the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister. You are called upon to make decisions in response to events and you then see the consequences of your decisions.

When he played the Israeli side, he told me, it was relatively easy to choose actions that led to peace. But he was entirely unable to imagine his way into the role of the Palestinian president. “Why?” I asked, bristling. I thought he was suggesting that “they” don’t have the same mentality “we” do. No, he explained. From the Palestinian side, he found himself frozen. There was pressure and influence and problems coming from all directions. He’d never before appreciated how difficult and precarious is the situation of a Palestinian leader.


If you’re going for true realism, much of military life is boring. Mike tells us that the Convoy Simulator, such fast-paced fun for us, is very boring for the Marines and sailors who use it for training. For 6-8 hours at a stretch, the Marines drive and drive and drive as they practice keeping their Humvees a set distance apart. It’s bad enough if a bomb takes out one vehicle. If you’re driving too close together, it could be two. Drive through the village and back to the base. No insurgents appear on the screen. Hold your weapons ready though most of the time you won’t have any reason to fire. Spot a possible roadside bomb? Stop and call for a security perimeter. Wait.

Staying awake–let alone staying alert–that’s a big part of going to war.


The wind howls. The scene is bleak, black and white, and a soldier trudges head down through the snow in the aftermath of a terrible battle.

You are that soldier. Men lie dead and wounded across the field. Some whisper pleas for help. There are bombed out buildings. There’s shelter in the distance and a fire–the warm orange flames the only color in the scene–and your mission is to comfort the suffering, to get survivors to that warmth before they freeze to death. Before you freeze to death with them.

The game, The Snowfield allows you to walk and to pick up objects. That’s all. You can pick up a bottle of whiskey. A rifle (but it seems you can’t fire it). Your movements grow slower and slower and more labored, your footsteps drag the further you get from the fire.

The SnowfieldThe Snowfield.

The action is slow. Very little happens. I couldn’t stop watching.

The scenes are sad, horrific, but the game is created with such an eye to aesthetics, it all has a strange and compelling beauty.

Would a young male used to Call to Duty appreciate The Snowfield?

Could an action game include segments where to advance to the next level you have to slow down, you have to experience boredom, you have to face the ugly aftermath of killing? Of course such a game could be designed but who would bother? Who would market it?

The Call of Duty franchise has sold 139,600,000 games through the year 2013. Admittedly, sales have dropped. In 2013, only 14,500,000 copies of that year’s most recent game were sold.

That’s ten times as many people as actually serve in the US military today.

I look at the empirical study about civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013. Looking at nonviolent social movements worldwide, Chenoweth she found that none failed “after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Doesn’t sound like much. OK, take the US population of approximately 316 million. They means you only have to mobilize a bit over 11 million people. A lot, but fewer than bought the new Call of Duty game in 2013.

3.5% can bring down a dictatorship. What can it do in a country where many people don’t recognize their own oppression?


We’ve always known we can’t bomb our way to peace. We have to win hearts and minds. We just can’t figure out how to do it, even here at home.

When I bring up the violently misogynistic content of some games. Ajay Chaudhary suggests the greatest danger is when video games “reproduce social inequalities” by reinforcing stereotypes about identity, race, gender that are part of our daily lives.

The Stolen Lives Project documents cases of people killed by law enforcement agents. From 1990 to 1999, they collected over 2000 reports from public records. Most of the dead, people of color.

How much patience can we (of the up until now majority community) ask of people who’ve been waiting centuries for equal protection and equal rights and justice?

I want to get rid of the word “waiting,” as though African Americans have stood by passively. They have not been waiting, but rather working for justice, dying for their rights, struggling for centuries.


In the year 2000, I had just begun working on a theater project with a Black actor and director named Anthony Lee. A week later, a police officer shot and killed him. A tragic mistake. I was horrified, heartbroken, angry. But I also believe the officer was devastated.

I attended the trial of Johannes Mehserle who shot and killed Oscar Grant. I saw no remorse. There was not a trace in the statements of Darren Wilson. Is it possible they really felt none? Self-appointed security guard George Zimmerman showed us only self-pity. Do our legal system and our polarized society encourage self-justification and the angry refusal to accept responsibility?

When you take a life–justified or not–if you’re not a sociopath, you suffer a moral injury. How can it heal if you are not allowed to feel the guilt and to grieve?


At Twentynine Palms, Marines drive through the desert terrain, slowly, 15-35 mph on the alert for roadside bombs. Roads signs are in Arabic as they approach and enter one of three mock Iraqi villages.

At the height of training for combat in Iraq, the Marines hired 1,000 roleplayers– men and women of Middle Eastern nationality or descent–whose identities were closely guarded to protect them and their families from reprisal. They were just intended to be warm bodies providing local color. They were given scripts to follow, but according to Mike, it soon became clear they were needed for much more: to teach cultural competence.

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raidsFurnished Iraq interior for practising raids.

A Marine goes into a meeting with the town mayor and local notables and within minutes offends all of them.

A Marine passes an Iraqi woman in the street and greets her with a courteous “Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He’s immediately surrounded by a group of hostile Iraqi men, disturbed that an unrelated man has dared speak to a woman.

Surely it’s better to know something than nothing, but how much good did this training do when we were clearly in way over our heads? Marines learn a few words in Arabic, but Mike explains that in Afghanistan there are so many different languages, the military doesn’t even try.

I think of Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living. US misreading of situations and people in Afghanistan had us paying huge sums to dishonest informants, sending innocent men to Guantánamo, jailing Afghan allies because of false reports. However bad you thought it was, read the book and learn it was much much worse.


So where do we (the nonviolent movement for peace and justice) find 11 million people?


We love action. Video games with cars racing, weapons discharging fire and explosions all happening faster than you can blink. We love kicking down doors and blowing things up.

(But the little boy didn’t ask his father for a weapon!)

This essay is not concise. It meanders. On and on. Will anyone keep reading as I try to think my way forward?

We are addicted to the quick fix. Violence is instant gratification. When you want results NOW, with violence you can cut through the crap, the bureaucratic red tape, the naysayers, the law. But maybe not.

Shock and awe–the bombing of Baghdad by US forces–began on March 19, 2003, the strategy known as “rapid dominance.” We are still there.

Torture. Get a quick answer when faced with an imminent threat. Only the ticking time bomb scenario never actually occurred and torture yielded horrific injustice when we interrogated innocent people with no information to offer and yielded lies and misinformation when we tortured terrorists.


CIA apologist Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. has justified torture again and again by repeating the imminent threat and ticking time bomb scenario. But in his self-serving memoir (Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives)  here’s what else he says. Of course they knew that people being tortured will say anything. That’s why, he says, they never asked a single question of the prisoners while they were being waterboarded. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” were intended just to break their spirits. Then, during the months that followed, interrogators hung out with the prisoners. Rented DVDs and watched movies and shared popcorn with them, building rapport and garnering bits and pieces of information over the course of months. His own words then acknowledge there was no ticking time bomb. No imminent threat. No justification.


Peaceful methods take patience and time and skill. Violence is the quick fix when a person feels bullied, disrespected, ignored. When a person feels sad.

Only violence can resolve matters in an instant. Only it doesn’t.

After 13 years, the US leaves Afghanistan. Mission unaccomplished.


You’ve heard of brainwashing. What if brains aren’t washed, but poisoned? By war, exile, oppression. By toxic stress when family members are killed, incarcerated, deployed, deported; by surviving violence, including the violence of poverty and of racism, the mother’s stress hormones flooding over the fetus during pregnancy. The pain of sexual violence, of torture, of being trafficked and sold. The list goes on and on in endless cycles of pain and abuse, pain and retribution. Can we at least stop contributing to the cycle?

Children growing up in some Los Angeles neighborhoods show levels of PTSD comparable to children in Baghdad during the worst violence of the war. But understand: Not every person who’s been traumatized will grow up violent, without impulse control, likely to self-medicate through substance abuse. Can we maximize resilience instead of vulnerability?

We’re talking about millions of people.

Can we re-humanize our society? I talk about nonviolence and compassion but lose my temper on the phone after 40 minutes on hold trying to resolve a simple problem with the bank. What happens when frustration has left many of us numb and deadened till the rage breaks through?

Know Justice, Know Peace.


According to Commander John Perez, police officers in Pasadena feel really bad when they have to kill a dog–an attack dog which is also a family pet–in the process of making an arrest. So they tried alternatives. Foam didn’t work. Pepper spray didn’t work. One officer made a suggestion and was laughed at. He tried it anyway. Turns out at least some of the time, a Milkbone will tame an angry pitbull.

Our culture allows–even expects–police to express remorse over dogs. Out of remorse comes the search for solutions. If officers could be as open with their regret over taking human life, would they learn ways to de-escalate situations instead of relying solely on the gun?


If we can get rid of “waiting,” I’d also like to get rid of “police brutality.” Certainly we have too many examples of just that, but going after brutal and sadistic cops won’t stop the tragic mistakes, the deaths of Black men like Anthony Lee and like Akai Gurley, gunned down in a Brooklyn stairwell. Or Kendrec McDade, killed by Pasadena police responding to a 911 call that turned out to be false.

The word “brutality” won’t help us correct a culture in which Michael Brown’s family was treated with offhand disrespect, and which teaches central nervous systems to respond instantly, signaling “Danger!” when a Black man comes into view.

Instead of turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio, officers of the NYPD should thank him. By teaching his son how to conduct himself when faced with the police, the mayor protected his son but also made it less likely that a cop will have to carry the lifelong burden of a “tragic mistake.”


“Tragic mistake” = the least damning phrase I can offer for the US bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.


From the immigrants rights movement I learned a principle, expressed in a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. The people most affected must be heard. If we’re going to reform policing, communities of color must be at the table. So must the people who best know what the job requires of them: the police.


Gandhi wrote, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”


Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all. Every step is one crack in the edifice of unjust power. In the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties, mass marches raised awareness and spirits, created solidarity, forged alliances and suggested the power that might lie behind such numbers. If many white consciences remained untroubled by racism, they were still shocked by the brutal repression of peaceful and dignified resistance. (In those days, unlike now,  mainstream media coverage advanced the struggle.) Local campaigns targeted local issues–buses, lunch counters, voter registration. Each local demand was focused but part of something bigger. Each victory, no matter how partial, advanced the larger goal of equal rights and justice without regard to race.


Wait a minute. Isn’t that what’s been happening?


May Day 2006, millions of immigrants and some of their allies took to the streets in nonviolent protest. No legislation passed. It seemed nothing changed, but as people came out of the shadows, the marches helped organize and mobilize local grassroots organizations and find new supporters for groups that had struggled for decades all over the country. Local groups championed the cause of specific immigrants and convinced judges to use discretion and cancel deportation orders. The young people who became known as DREAMers won executive action that protected them from deportation and allowed them to work. Undocumented immigrants are gaining valid drivers licenses. Some are about to win temporary protection.

Slowing down doesn’t mean waiting. It’s not that sort of patience. It’s about moving forward, step by step.


At the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, panelists spoke about considering everyone a “client”–including the government agencies and entities often seen as adversaries. Instead of fighting them, educate them.

The system won’t come to you. You must go to the system. Department by department, person by person.

I’ve seen examples here in Los Angeles. Here’s just one: Community-based organizations that offer an alternative to incarceration won over people from the D.A.’s office after they gave tours of their facilities and programs to show their effectiveness and share information about what they do. Of course it helps that we elected a new, very receptive D.A. Now Jackie Lacey’s office plays a role in educating hundreds of prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys who’ve had no idea what might be possible.

Vote in local elections. D.A., Sheriff, School Board may matter to you more than Congress or even the President.


On Monday evenings, leaders from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network bring Latino musicians to the street in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center. They serenade the immigrants locked up inside the building awaiting deportation proceedings, offering solidarity and a little joy while commuters, watching the scene from the elevated Gold Line, learn just what is going on in that strange edifice downtown.

YouTube Preview Image

So, music. I remember the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rhythm is the heartbeat. Voices raised together in song create a force.


At the grassroots, people agitate. Allies in law, the faith community, professionalized nonprofits don’t take the lead, but stand in solidarity, lobby, negotiate.


I’m sick and tired of marching. There are other ways I can offer my support. No more shifting from foot to foot for an hour or more waiting for the damn thing to get underway. Of the self-anointed leaders shouting through bullhorns and giving each other adulatory introductions. Of every fringe group in existence showing up to push every conceivable agenda.

But then I’m on the phone with Laurie Cannady, educator, Army vet, and author whose memoir of girlhood in the ‘hood–Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul–will be published this year. We’re talking about Ferguson and about Eric Garner and she is convinced this is the tipping point. There’s a new Movement now and we’re going to see change. I’m skeptical. Where was the change after Trayvon? Oscar Grant? Anthony Lee? And now, months later, will we have reached that elusive tipping point with Walter Scott?

I Can't Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric GarnerI Can’t Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner.


Laurie came to mind when I heard through social media about a nonviolent march scheduled for December 27th in the streets of LA to protest the killing of unarmed Black Americans. I’d never heard of the organizers. Turns out they keep a low profile not because they have anything to hide but because they are committed to an organization based on We, not Me.

At the Millions March LAAt the Millions March LA.

The march starts with thousands of people, on time, at the scheduled hour of 2:00. The 500 of us who want to join in conversation arrive at noon, seated in an amphitheater, not shifting foot to foot. It turns out to be a youth-led movement, almost everyone under 35. We meet each other, listen to poetry and spoken word and song, not speeches, though we are given rules: No aggressive language, no F the police. No leafletting, no soliciting, no outside organizations. We’re here, said a speaker to “promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger and turn it into effective action.”

I wish Laurie could see this. I can see 3.5% now within reach.

We set off, chanting, and I think I’ve gone about this all wrong, looking for excitement, adrenaline. Having fun is just one way to feel alive. There’s something about fun and games–purposeless frivolity–that breaks through the constraints and tedium that weigh us down and trap us in so much of daily life. But purpose–being engaged and interested, committed and active–is every bit as enlivening.

Hands up! Don’t Shoot!

Millions March LA.

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it till we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.


When you play a game, I think, anything can happen. Same with being part of a Movement. You can’t predict the outcome but you play to win.

—Diane Lefer



Diane Lefer‘s latest book is the novel, Confessions of a Carnivore, an antic romp through the minefield of recent US history. With her colleague Hector Aristizábal, she wrote and produced Second Chances, a play in which torture survivors and their family members, now rebuilding their lives in Los Angeles, performed their own stories. She is currently posting survivors’ oral histories–as they give permission and remove details that could put them or their families in danger–and she invites readers to visit


Jul 012015

Pierre JorisPierre Joris


IN THE BEGINNING WERE THE WORDS. And the words were double from the word go: the cool black on white words in the book, & the loud, fast & hot words on the radio. To begin with the word on the radio let me cold, while the word on the page was what asked me to light up my nights with a flashlight under the covers. This happened, age 5: I remember the room – it was dark & thus I do not remember what was in it except for the bed in which I lay with covers drawn up, trying to read. Later on, in daylight, this room became or had become a living room, & I sat on the daybed & I watched the green eye of Nordmende, the box from which the hot words came. But first the cool ones, black on white, a book grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings in it, ink drawings in a multitude of lines that made up faces, scenes, thin, scraggly ink lines, like very square handwriting writing a picture, “modern” in a fifties sense (& this was 1951). The book I took I could read the title of: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Feodor Dostoiwski. But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. And I did manage a few sentences, a paragraph, half a page, maybe, before my parents discovered me & took this precocity as a good sign & hired a retired school teacher to teach me to read a year before I could officially go to grade school.

I read laboriously no doubt, and in secret to begin with, this book I remember only physically: a white hardcover with black print & black ink drawings. The Idiot. Chapter One, paragraph one – so this are the first sentences I deciphered, the first silent written language that traversed me:

Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine oclock in the morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.

Some of the passengers by this particular train were returning from abroad; but the third-class carriages were the best filled, chiefly with insignificant persons of various occupations and degrees, picked up at the different stations nearer town. All of them seemed weary, and most of them had sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appeared to have taken on the color of the fog outside.

But these were not the words I read – the book I had with me under the covers was in German, was a translation, i.e. something I would spend the rest of my life getting in & out of.


Is there life before reading? I am not certain — & grow less certain as time passes, as I grow old & memory, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. So if you ask me what it was like to be a child, I will have a hard time answering — and not just because I do not remember it as being the best time of my life. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in finding out for myself. But how to be a historian of one’s own past, if istorin — the Greek word for history — means for the one historian I trust (because I love to read him) to find out for oneself. How can I go there from now? Maybe I can write myself there, i.e. activate dreaming and reading and come back forward?

And thus the earliest state of childhood — supposedly paradisiacal, even if, or maybe exactly because, forgotten — I cannot help but associate with non-reading, so that “prelapsarian” always rhymes with preliterate in my mind. Where was I? Rue Glesener, in the southern quartier de la gare of Luxembourg (the capital city of the eponymous country). When was I? Not yet, not yet. I lack photos of that time, cannot see myself, and the google map doesn’t get me closer than 200 meters for an inch. The street was maybe 300 meters long, that much I can make out; it started from the Avenue de la Liberté and ended in the rue Adolphe Fischer.

We lived — but this I was shown later, it is not my memory, just something I was told — we lived for awhile in the last house on the North side of the street, the one giving onto the large open space used by civil engineering company Karp-Kneip as depot for its construction materials and as parking lot for its caterpillar tractors, steam rollers, and asphalt laying and paving machines. I must have looked down on that machinery from an upstairs window, or tried to get glimpses through slits in the wooden barrier surrounding the site. But I do not remember the specific occasion of doing this, or, better, all I remember is the shared fondness of children and grown men to peek with mouths agape through any available opening into construction sites where big machinery moves about.

The only thing I do remember from that house — because in the next house we lived in I already remembered it and its location in a room I furthermore remember every detail of, especially the daybed in the corner upon which I taught myself to read — the only thing I do remember from that first house is a large Mahogany radio set with built-in record-player on top and box to keep the old shellacked 78s and later the first “long-playing” 33-rpm records at the bottom. A Nordmende, I think, but who knows, it could just as well have been a Phillips, Telefunken, Grundig or Saba. Sleek, elegant, probably taller than I was the year my father bought it. It stayed that size, I kept growing. I like to think that for some time we saw eye to eye — for what has remained with me always was the magic green eye that, cat-like, would widen or narrow its pupil in relation to how good the signal was. I would press my blue eye to its green & with one hand play with the tuning button to make the eye twitch.

But I would have my hand gently slapped for playing with the tuning button because father didn’t like me to un-tune the one station he listened to — long-wave Radio Luxembourg. Not much stays with me beyond the fascination of the green eye, except for two auditory memories, though these must be from the second house. The first of these is the opening soundtrack and half-screamed title of the 12:50 p.m. radio-drama: Ça va bouillir, Zappy Max! Although French was always an available language, I don’t remember anything of the story lines, except for Zappy Max’s breathless voice, and the fact that the weird nasty bad guy was called “le tonneau” — the barrel. What made the show for me were the incredible variety of noises, screams, screeches & other sound-effects that pushed whatever story line there was ahead at breakneck speed.

What has stayed with me more essentially was something else: a sequence of sound I couldn’t make sense of but were the most seductive, the most wondrous and mysterious language-sounds I had ever heard. And that inscribed itself immediately and forever in my brain. This sound sequence would come over the radio in the program my father listened to after Zappy Max, the one o’clock news. Later on I translated the music the vocables made into semantic meaning: it turned out to be a name, much in the news at that time: Krim Bel Kacem. I can still hear it in the singing French inflections of the news announcer – returning, repeated, over and over: Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem.

With no semantic referent to attach to the sound sequence, I was utterly seduced by its sheer musicality, from the repetition of which I drew an immense pleasure I recall to this day: first, the initial hard, nearly explosive consonantal rub of “r” after “k” followed by the elongated high vowel sound of the “i” and down into the calm “m” — a peaceful “om” after the crime-evoking sounds of the first three letters. Then the high bell-sound of “bel” a clear peel, short but echoing loudly and in its very clarity hiding or making me forget the reference to the obvious (but misplaced) French semantic meaning. This was followed by the alliteration of the “k” sound, though this time with the variation of the “a” vowel replacing the “are” of krim, a descent in pitch from the “e” of “bel,” but a widening of the scope of sound, a deepening into that initial and initiating sound of human language, the long “a” that can carry pain, pleasure, surprise, exhilaration and so on. After the “c” planes down and alleviates the harshness of the two initial “k”s, the sequence finishes on a second alliteration, that of the final “m,” easily drawn out to bring it even closer to the calmness of the seed syllable “om.”

Maybe father did tell me that it was a name, no matter, I don’t remember if he did, and if he did do so, I must have forgotten instantly, or else willfully worked on forgetting, as I do remember that “Krim Bel Kacem” was my favorite word sequence for that marvelous childhood play consisting in repeating a sequence of words without pause or interruption until any semantic meaning is rubbed out and all that’s left is the pure jouissance of a sound that now arises from the very chora of language.

Now you may say that the foregoing answers my initial question: clearly, there is life before reading, and it is the life of sound….But how do I know? Much of the time listening to Radio Luxembourg in that room with the green eye gleaming were spent on the daybed at the other end of the room with … a book in my hand. The first such book was a tome grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings. I could read the title: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I wanted to read & I read or looked at the first page of print & taught myself the letters, with whose help I don’t remember. A year later I was put immediately into second grade, given that I could read — & just as immediately proceeded to exchange the Dostoyevsky for the first fifteen issues of “Akim,” the Tarzan wanna-be character created in 1950 by the script-writer Roberto Renzi, with artwork by Augusto Pedrazza in the handy Piccolo strip-series. They were the perfect size to read in school under the desk, or on the daybed out of the parents’ sight and under the protection of the cool, unphased green eye of the Nordmende, while “Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem” would eventually echo through the other words, “Akim, Akim, Akim” and I would make up new names for new heroes I dreamed I would later write about or draw strips for or put on the radio and I could already here the announcer in Zappy’s voice breathlessly screaming: “Ça va bouillir, Kim Akrim Bel Kacem.”


—Pierre Joris


Pierre Joris has published some 50 books of poems, essays & translations, most recently Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014) & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (coedited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press 2014). Previous books include Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced and translated by Joris (Black Widow Press), & Cartographies of the In-between: The Poetry & Poetics of Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh came out in 2012. When not nomadizing, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte.


Jun 132015

W B YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald


Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth….(“The Tower,” II)

The genesis of this essay was a talk I was invited to give as part of Le Moyne College’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. B. Yeats. I’d been asked to say a few words, in the Bernat Special Events Room of the Library, about three of the books to be displayed, and then, widening the gyre, to try to present what I took to be the “quintessential” Yeats: the Identity of the Man beneath the many Masks (to fuse the titles of Richard Ellmann’s two pioneering Yeats studies). To prepare for the next event in our anniversary celebration (the Curlew Theatre production, The Muse & Mr. Yeats), I was also asked to recite some poems to and about his principal Muse, the improbably beautiful and never fully-attainable Maud Gonne. She is the “woman lost,” the “great labyrinth” that fascinated Yeats and from which, he admits in the surprising lines cited in my epigraph, he somehow “turned aside.” I’ll return to this point.

Of the three first editions I discussed, the first was my copy of the pamphlet, On the Boiler (1939). The other two are rare volumes: my signed copies of the Fountain Press edition of The Winding Stair (1929), and of the Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats (1957). What follows begins with, but goes far beyond, what I said in the library, though I’ve retained some of the talk’s casual tone. Taking advantage of the essay format, I’ve added many poems to those I quoted in the library, most related to Maud Gonne. That is true even of the major poem on which (to borrow Soul’s language) I have most “fixed” my “attention”: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the dominant poem in both versions of The Winding Stair. I focus primarily on Self’s life-affirming emblem, the ancestral sword wound in embroidered silk, and on Self’s peroration, affirming that most painful yet “most fecund” experience of Yeats’s life, his unrequited love for Maud Gonne. Finally, here as in the talk, I try, at some risk of “reducing” the poetry to autobiography, to get beneath the various Yeatsian masks in order to reveal, as he himself did in several late poems, the man at his most human, the poet who moves us most.[1]


In the final movement of “A Bronze Head” (1938), the last Maud Gonne poem, Yeats seems to use her as his mask, imagining her “supernatural,/ As though a sterner eye looked through her eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall,/ On gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry, / Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty.” In On the Boiler, also written in 1938, Yeats comments on what he saw as the current decline of European civilization. He had earlier employed female personae, “Crazy Jane” and the “Woman Young and Old,” as masks through which he could speak with remarkable sexual candor. The considerably less appealing mask in On the Boiler is male: the persona of an old seaman (the depiction on the cover is from a design by the poet’s artist-brother, Jack) Yeats once heard ranting from atop a ship’s boiler. Ill, cranky, but energized by what he called (in “An Acre of Grass,” a late fusion of Blake and Nietzsche) “an old man’s frenzy,” Yeats vents some of his least inhibited notions about preserving aristocratic values threatened by cultural, intellectual, and physical “degeneration.”

He had been reading about eugenics, a pseudo-science that infects the final stanza of “A Bronze Head,” as well as “Under Ben Bulben,” too often taken as his last testament (I will conclude by suggesting other candidates for that honor, including Yeats’s own surprising preference). Coupled with the nightmare aspect of Nietzschean Recurrence, eugenics also figures prominently in the remarkable play Purgatory, first published in On the Boiler (along with three previously unpublished poems, one, “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” featuring the reappearance of his best-known female persona, now commenting on politics). Eugenic theory is most notoriously prevalent in the section of the pamphlet titled “To-morrow’s Revolution,” where Yeats laments biological and cultural “degeneration” and calls for war as a preferable alternative.[2] Though Yeats, a man of the theater after all, is being theatrical, flamboyant, and hyperbolic, there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough daylight between the poet himself and that old seaman ranting from atop the boiler.

But it must be added that Yeats, attracted to Fascism, was repelled by National Socialism. Nor, despite his praise of the most skillful of the German submarine commanders of World War I, could he have foreseen the full horror of the Second World War, let alone the most rancid and horrific fruit of eugenic theory in practice: the genocidal extermination carried out in the Nazi death-camps. Like James Joyce and his own “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, Yeats was resolutely opposed to anti-Semitism (the same cannot be said of Maud). Like many others, he underestimated the threat presented by Hitler when he first came to power. But, for all his reckless talk about a coming revolution and salvation through destruction, the sole substantive reference he makes to the Führer has to do with cruelty. As he reports in a February 1934 letter to his most intimate correspondent, Olivia Shakespear, Blue Shirt neighbors had put to death a collie Mrs. Yeats believed (mistakenly as it turned out) had eaten her prize white hen. After quoting the neighbor’s brutally brusque response, “have done away with collie-dog,” Yeats comments: “note the Hitler touch.”[3]


We can turn now from lesser to greater Yeats and to those two signed editions. In the library talk, I discussed the provenance of both, and, taking up the teaser in the flyer that had been distributed, explained how it was that I came to own a signed copy of a book published in 1957, almost two decades after the poet’s death. It takes no ghost from the grave to explain that posthumous signature. Shortly before he died, Yeats signed 825 sheets to be bound into selected volumes of the long-delayed Edition de Luxe of his complete works, to be published, finally, in 1940. Two events intervened: Yeats died in January 1939, and, eight months later, World War II broke out. The deluxe edition was cancelled, and the signed sheets disappeared. Until they were discovered in a vault in the mid-1950s, just in time to be bound into selected copies of the much-anticipated Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, published eighteen years after his death. Precisely eighteen years after that, I was married, and my best man gave one of these signed copies (No. 49) to my wife Ann and me as a wedding present. That was in 1975. Much has changed since then; but I’ve hung on to the book, which has appreciated tenfold in value from the $300 paid forty years ago.[4]

Yeats’s signature in the Variorum requires no ghostly explanation. But is it true (as the poet prophesied in September 1938) that “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head/ In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid”? I’m no fan of the poem where that dramatic announcement was made, just four months before Yeats died but ten years before his headstone was erected. For decades, “Under Ben Bulben” was printed at the end of the Collected Poems, not Yeats’s intention, as we know from a list he prepared shortly before his death. He meant it to open his final volume, so that everything else in what we know as Last Poems would seem, as it were, spoken from beyond the grave.[5] We should all be loath to accept as Yeats’s final testament a poem whose occasional magnificence is tainted by bombast about “the indomitable Irishry” and Anglo-Irish “Hard-riding country gentlemen” accompanied by a picturesque “peasantry,” not to mention (On the Boiler versified) the eugenic revulsion from “Base-born products of base beds.” And yet the poem rises from its detritus at several points, certainly in the final funereal drumbeat, ending with the “unconventional” and enigmatic epitaph:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

…………Cast a cold eye
…………On life, on death.
…………Horseman, pass by!


The famous epitaph should be read, as should most of Yeats, as an interaction with tradition. The epitaph becomes less cryptic when we interpret it as a vital equestrian and notably pagan response to morose admonishments to travelers to stop (Siste, viator) and reflect that, as the dead are, so shall we be. Instead, Yeats’s “unconventional” advice for visitors to his grave is to look on life and death with equanimity, then, energized rather than enervated, to “pass by,” getting on with our own lives. It should be added that “cold” for Yeats is often an exhilarating adjective. He speaks of the “cold and rook-delighting heaven” (“The Cold Heaven”), hopes to someday write a “Poem maybe as cold/ And passionate as the dawn” (“The Fisherman”), and presents the girl in the opening poem of “A Woman Young and Old,” less responsive to ethical demands and village morality than to aesthetic impulses, as thrilled that her young man’s “hair is beautiful,/ Cold as the March wind his eyes.”

The epitaph’s mystery can be illuminated. The mystery still surrounding precisely what is buried beneath it is less easily resolved. The poet died in southern France on January 28, 1939. “He disappeared in the dead of winter,” Auden begins his great elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and that wasn’t the end of the disappearances. Yeats was buried in Roquebrune cemetery, near the French-Italian border. When a friend and late lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, who had attended the funeral, visited the cemetery in 1946, the marker was still there. But the following year, when she returned, the marker was gone and she was told that the remains had been moved to a common area. The cemetery records were ambiguous. In September 1948, three years after the war’s end, the poet’s supposed remains were exhumed, shipped to Ireland, and reinterred under the great mountain he had made even more famous. The Sligo Chamber of Commerce, benefiting from the thriving Yeats Industry, doesn’t want to hear about it, but the truth is that we’re not altogether certain what “is laid” under Ben Bulben and beneath that commanding epitaph. One thing that is certain is Yeats’s posthumous literary reputation. Despite shifts in styles and sensibility over the three-quarters of a century since he died, Yeats continues to be generally considered the major poet of the 20th century—“certainly,” as T. S. Eliot said in commemorating his rival in the first Yeats Memorial Lecture, in 1940, “the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language.”


I want now to distinguish the 1929 Fountain Press The Winding Stair from the 1933 Macmillan The Winding Stair and Other Poems, Yeats’s longest volume and, along with The Tower (1928), his greatest. I purchased the Fountain Press edition for $225, after phoning the leading expert in the world, my friend the late George Mills Harper, to confirm my decision. That was in 1979, precisely a half-century after its publication. It’s a slim volume, containing two very short poems (“Death” and “Oil and Blood”) and four major texts, beginning with “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” its beautiful first lines, “The light of evening, Lissadell,/ Great windows open to the south,” establishing the volume’s mixture of elegy and affirmation. Then come “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Blood and the Moon,” and the volume ends with the eleven-poem sequence, “A Woman Young and Old.” Despite the many “other poems” later added, both the 1929 and 1933 volumes begin with an elegy for two women (recalled as “Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful”) and end with a concentrically-structured sequence spoken by a woman, its final framing poem an elegy for Antigone.[6]

And that rondure is continued beneath the surface since that concluding elegy, “From the Antigone,” was drafted at the same time as the volume-opening elegy for Eva and Con; we know because the ink has leaked through the manuscript page. As suggested by the titles alone, as well as the omphalos-structure of “A Woman Young and Old,” the 1929 and 1933 editions of The Winding Stair are “female” in orientation, countering the preceding, essentially “masculine” volume The Tower—though the fact that, in Yeats’s actual Norman tower, the inner spiral staircase is, of course, part of a unified structure, suggests that the poetic as well as architectural tower and winding stair are ultimately complementary rather than antithetical. The same is true of the relationship between the sword and the silken embroidery wound about its sheathe in the crucial symbol in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” a poem that figures centrally not only in both editions of The Winding Stair, but in Yeats’s work as a whole.

The “Dialogue” also interacts with the whole canon of Body-Soul “debates.” That tradition, going back to Plato and to Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (“The Dream of Scipio”), can be traced in Middle- English debate poems and, in the 17th-century, among others, George Herbert’s “The Collar” and Milton’s masque, Comus. Though wit complicates the tension in Marvell’s “A Drop of Dew,” “A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure,” and “A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body,” Yeats stands the whole venerable tradition on its head, affirming life and human sexuality in the struggle with soul’s commands and demands. In “Father and Child,” opening the Woman Young and Old sequence concluding both versions of The Winding Stair, Yeats echoes “The Collar” in order to alter it. Herbert’s rebellious speaker, who “struck the board and cried, ‘No more!” grows ever more strident, proclaiming himself to be “free as the wind.”

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
…………………….At every word
Methoughts I heard one calling, Childe!,
…………………….And I replied, My Lord.

Whereas the Childe in Herbert’s poem ultimately submits to divine authority, the Yeatsian Child remains quietly defiant, oblivious to Father’s ranting. Unmoved by what troubles him (conventional morality reflected in village gossip), she affirms instead beauty and the dangerous, liberating wind of sexual awakening:

She hears me strike the board and say
That she is under ban
Of all good men and women,
Being mentioned with a man
That has the worst of all bad names,
And thereupon replies,
That his hair is beautiful,
Cold as the March wind his eyes.

The victor in the “debate” between “Father and Child” is clear because Yeats makes it so, the poet in him overcoming his own paternalism (the poem is based on a breakfast-table exchange between Yeats and his daughter Anne, a child he advances to puberty for the song’s sake). We may turn now to the related but more momentous agon between opposites in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”


Some critics have thought The Winding Stair a book misleadingly titled. Presumably because, influenced by the Soul’s opening line: “I summon to the winding ancient stair,” they have taken the book’s emphasis to be on the transcendent ascent rather than the cyclical winding. But the “winding stair” of this volume, the spiral staircase within Thoor Ballylee—that “winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair” which Yeats declares, in the opening movement of “Blood and the Moon,” to be his “ancestral stair,” still bearing the “Odour of blood”—is not only, or even primarily, a scala coeli or Jacob’s ladder by which we mount to spiritual vision.[7] Soul would have it so, of course, in “Dialogue”; but the protagonist, the antithetical Self, is not to be bullied into submission. Imperiously commanded to fix his “wandering” attention “upon” spiritual ascent and “ancestral night,” Self remains diverted by the greatest of Yeats’s fused symbols: the “ancient blade” (given Yeats as a gift by a Japanese admirer, Junzo Sato) scabbarded and bound in complementary “female” embroidery. That sheathed and silk-wound sword—“emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night,” fusing the sacred and the profane, war and love, the phallic and the vaginal—becomes Yeats’s symbol of gyring life, set against the vertical ascent urged by the Neoplatonic Soul. And the sword’s winding embroidery is associated, as we shall see, with the labyrinthine Maud Gonne.

In the opening movement of the poem, the half in which there is still a semblance of actual dialogue, hectoring Soul repeatedly demands that Self “fix” every thought “upon” the One, “upon” the steep ascent, “upon” the occult Pole Star, “upon” the spiritual quarter where all thought is done. But the recalcitrant Self remains diverted by the Many, by earthly multiplicity, by the sword wound in embroidery replicating the windings of mortal nature. In unpublished notes to the poem, first printed in full in 1987 in my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition, Yeats describes “Dialogue” as “a variation on Macrobius.” The reference, here as in “Chosen,” is to the Neoplatonist to whose Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis Yeats had been directed by his friend F. P. Sturm. In Cicero’s text, despite the rhetorical admonition of Scipio’s ghostly ancestor, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and contemn what is mortal?” young Scipio admits he “kept turning my eyes back to earth.” According to Macrobius, Scipio “looked about him everywhere with wonder. Hereupon his grandfather’s admonitions recalled him to the upper realms.” Though the agon between the Yeatsian Self and Soul is identical to that between young Scipio and his grandfather’s spirit, the Soul in Yeats’s poem proves to be a considerably less successful spiritual guide than that formidable ghost.

Yeats and Tower

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

Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ 14th century Norman tower house.

Self begins his peroration defiantly: “A living man is blind and drinks his drop./ What matter if the ditches are impure?” This “variation” on Neoplatonism, privileging life’s filthy downflow, or “defluction,” over the Plotinian pure fountain of emanation, is followed by an even more defiant rhetorical question: “What matter if I live it all once more?” “Was that life?” asks Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “Well then! Once more!” (Zarathustra 3.2). But Self’s grandiose and premature gesture is instantly undercut by the litany of grief that Nietzschean Recurrence, the exact repetition of the events of one’s life, would entail—from the “toil of growing up,” through the “ignominy of boyhood” and the “distress” of “changing into a man,” to the “pain” of the “unfinished man” having to confront “his own clumsiness,” then the “finished man,” old and “among his enemies.” Despite the Self’s bravado, it is in danger of being shaped, deformed, by what Hegel and, later, feminist critics have emphasized as the judgmental Gaze of Others. Soul’s tongue may have turned to stone, but malignant ocular forces have palpable designs upon the assaulted Self:

How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?

This would be, as Yeats says in “Ancestral Houses” (1921), to lose the ability to “choose whatever shape [one] wills,” and (echoing Browning’s arrogant Duke, who “choose[s] never to stoop”) to “never stoop to a mechanical / Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call”: Yeats’s rejection of “slave morality” in favor of Nietzschean “master morality.” The centrality of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is enhanced by its repercussions in his own work and its absorption of so many influences outside the Yeatsian canon. Aside from the Body/Soul debate tradition, and the combat between Neoplatonism and Nietzsche, this Yeatsian psychomachia incorporates, among other poems in the Romantic tradition, another Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and Blake’s feminist Visions of the Daughters of Albion.[8] Self’s eventual victory, like Oothoon’s, is over severe moralism, the reduction of the body to a defiled object. In Yeats’s case it seems, above all, a triumph over his own Neoplatonism or Gnosticism: an instance of Nietzschean Selbstüberwindung, creative “self-overcoming,” for, as Yeats said, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (Mythologies 331).


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

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

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Following everything to the “source” within, Self spurns Soul’s tongue-numbing doctrine that “only the dead can be forgiven.” Instead, having pitched with vitalistic relish into life’s filthy frog-spawn, Self audaciously (or blasphemously) claims the power to forgive himself. In a similar act of self-determination, Self “cast[s] out” remorse, reversing the defiling image earlier “cast upon” him by the “mirror of malicious eyes.” The sweetness that “flows into” the self-forgiving breast redeems the frog-spawn of the blind man’s ditch and even that “most fecund ditch of all,” the painful but productive folly that is the bitter-sweet fruit of unrequited love. It would violate decorum—and is hardly necessary—for Yeats to name the “proud woman not kindred of his soul,” but I will return to her at the end.

That sweet flow also displaces the infusion (infundere: “to pour in”) of Christian grace through divine forgiveness. It is a claim to autonomy at once redemptive and heretical, and a masterly fusion of Yeats’s two principal precursors. “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” Yeats claimed. If, as he also rightly said, Blake’s central doctrine is a Christ-like “forgiveness of sins,” the sweetness that flows into the suffering but self-forgiving “breast,” the breast in which Blake also said “all deities reside,” allies the Romantic poet with Nietzsche. He had been preceded by the German Inner Light theologians, but it took Nietzsche, the son of a Protestant minister, to most radically transvalue the Augustinian doctrine that man can only be redeemed by divine power and grace, a foretaste of predestination made even more uncompromising in the strict Protestant doctrine of the salvation of the Elect as an unmerited gift of God. One must find one’s own “grace,” countered Nietzsche in Daybreak, a book read by Yeats. He who has “definitively conquered himself, henceforth regards it as his own privilege to punish himself, to pardon himself”—in Yeats’s phrase, “forgive myself the lot.” We must cast out remorse and cease to despise ourselves: “Then you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourselves!” (Nietzsche, Daybreak §437, §79)

In 1902, enthralled by his “excited” reading of “that strong enchanter,” Yeats drew in the margin of a Nietzsche anthology a diagram crucial to understanding much if not all of his subsequent thought and work. He grouped under the heading NIGHT: “Socrates, Christ,” and “one god”— “denial of self, the soul turned toward spirit seeking knowledge.” And, under the heading DAY: “Homer” and “many gods”—“affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.”[9] That diagrammatical skeleton, anticipated by the pull between eternity and the temporal in such early poems as the crucial “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” (1892), is later fully fleshed out by Yeats’s own chosen exemplar in “Vacillation” (1932)—“Homer is my example and his unchristened heart”—and Self’s choice of Sato’s sword wound in “Heart’s purple,” flowers “from I know not what embroidery”: “all these I set/ For emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” While Yeats could never bring himself to endorse Nietzschean atheism, the final chant of Self in “Dialogue”—“We must laugh and we must sing/ We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest”—is clearly the product of Yeats’s brilliant in-gathering of Nietzsche and Blake, whose Oothoon cries out climactically, “sing your infant joy!/ Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!” To be sure, Self’s final lines are riddled with other echoes.[10] But the critical figures remain Blake and Nietzsche. It is under their twin auspices, as manipulated by Yeats, that Self finds the bliss traditionally reserved for those who follow the ascending path. Yeats’s alteration of the spiritual tradition completes Blake, who considered cyclicism the ultimate nightmare, with that Nietzsche whose exuberant Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into “golden-emerald delight”:

In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer, all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3:16)

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

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the Yeatsian-Nietzschean Self, commandeering the spiritual vocabulary Soul would monopolize, affirms eternal recurrence, the labyrinth of human life with all its tangled antinomies of joy and suffering. In subverting the debate-tradition, Yeats leaves Soul with a petrified tongue, and gives Self a final chant that is among the most rhapsodic in that whole tradition of secularized supernaturalism Yeats inherited from the Romantic poets and from Nietzsche. In a related if somewhat lower register, it is also the vision of Crazy Jane and the Woman Young and Old: the female embodiments of the often anguished but ultimately life-affirming vision that dominates, first, The Winding Stair, and then— four years later, when the volume was fleshed out by Words for Music Perhaps, beginning with “Byzantium” and concluding with the Crazy Jane sequence—The Winding Stair and Other Poems.


One purpose of the original library talk had been to prepare the audience for a more formal celebratory event: the Curlew Theatre production of The Muse & Mr. Yeats, written and produced by Irish poet Eamon Grennan. I therefore said a few poems I had by heart, centering, inevitably, on the poet’s only-once-named but known-to-all Muse, Maud Gonne—according to George Bernard Shaw, not an easy man to awe, “the most beautiful woman in the British Isles.” I began with an early, mythologically-disguised Maud poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), originally and reductively titled “A Mad Song,” which at least clarifies the action-initiating “fire” in the speaker’s “head.” The speaker and seeker in this almost miraculously beautiful lyric is the Celtic god of poetry, love, and youth, though here he ages in his eternal quest of the transfigured beauty, palpable but elusive, he had once glimpsed in the evanescent form of one of the shape-changing women of the Celtic Sidhe:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl,
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

That “glimmering girl with apple blossom in her hair,” however magically transformed (even that is connected to Maud by the self-pitying “The Fish,” in this same volume), [11] will remind us that when Yeats first saw Maud, in 1889, “she seemed,” he recorded in 1922, “a classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation ‘She walks like a goddess’ made for her alone. Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window.” By then he had described her in a poem, “The Arrow” (1901), as “Tall and noble but with face and bosom/ Delicate in colour as apple blossom.”[12] Nevertheless, the exquisite “Song of Wandering Aengus” is cloaked in mythology. An earlier, even more covert Maud poem, “The Cap and Bells” (1893), was accompanied by an evasive note when it was published in The Wind Among the Reeds. Describing it (as Coleridge had described the genesis of “Kubla Khan”) as coming to him in a dream or vision, Yeats concludes, “The poem has always meant a great deal to me, though as is the way with symbolic poems, it has not always meant quite the same thing. Blake would have said, ‘The authors are in eternity,’ and I am quite sure they can only be questioned in dreams.”[13]

He had reason to deflect the curious. For him, “The Cap and Bells” was, in retrospect, a counter-poem to the beautiful but abject “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” which he described as “the way to lose a woman.” Being “poor” (the nonce word in this poem “Enwrought with golden and silver light”), he cannot afford “the heaven’s embroidered cloths,” and so “I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”


This is to invite the female response Nancy Sinatra threatened a half-century ago: “These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do. / One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” as well as the recent pictorial spoof by Annie West.

tread softly2Annie West cartoon from her series “Yeats in Love”

If he was not engaging in either massive repression or sardonic irony in describing the even more beautiful and even more masochistic “The Cap and Bells” as “the way to win a woman,” Yeats must have believed that Maud Gonne was to be won only through total sacrifice.

In a chivalric scenario set in the evening in a garden beneath the palace-window of a young, beautiful, and aloof queen, a lovelorn jester bids his blue-garmented soul, “grown wise-tongued by thinking” of her “light foot fall,” to rise upward to her window-sill. Unresponsive, she decisively “drew in the heavy casement/ And pushed the latches down.” He then sends her, in a “red and quivering garment,” his heart, “grown sweet-tongued by dreaming/ Of a flutter of flower-like hair.” It “sang to her through the door.” But the dismissal of the heart is even more painful because so nonchalant: “she took up her fan from the table/ And waved it off on the air.” With soul and heart, thought and dream, both rejected, he sends the young queen what is most quintessential, at once the symbol of his occupation and (it takes no Freud to tell us) of his manhood: “I have cap and bells,” he ponders; “I will send them to her and die.” And, “when the morning whitened/ He left them where she went by.”

She laid them upon her bosom,
Under a cloud of her hair,
And her red lips sang them a love-song
Till stars grew out of the air.

In the original draft, “She took them into her chamber/ Her breast began to heave,” less in grief than triumph. Though Yeats deleted these lines disturbing the poem’s ethereal tone, their morbid eroticism (which would flower perversely in his late dance plays where lowly fools are decapitated to appease haughty queens) offers a psychological glimpse into the poem’s human, all-too-human origins. When, at last, the queen lets in soul and heart, they set up a “chattering wise and sweet,/And her hair was a folded flower/ And the quiet of love in her feet.” But it seems too little too late. Soul and heart had “grown” through suffering. Now her “red lips” sang his final offering “a love-song/ Till stars grew out of the air.” Grew, because, in a variation on the mythic origin of the constellation Coma Berenices,[14] her star-making song’s genesis lies in his lethal self-sacrifice. Here as “always” in Yeats, a “personal emotion” has been “woven into a general pattern of myth and symbol” (Autobiographies [1955] 151). But on the “personal” level of this medieval Poet/Muse drama, the belle dame sans merci to whom the lowly jester gives “all” is unmistakably Maud, “that one” who (in “Friends”) “took/ All till my youth was gone/ With scarce a pitying look.” “The Cap and Bells” ends with “the quiet of love in her feet”; but they are the very “feet” under which he had “spread my dreams” in the abject poem supposedly rebutted in a ballad of terrible beauty, lyrically lovely but psychologically rooted in a symbolic act of self-castration.

These are covert Maud poems. The most overt, the only poem in which Yeats claims, in his own name, that his passion for Maud was reciprocated, is “To a Young Girl” (1915) in The Wild Swans at Coole.[15] The girl addressed is Maud’s daughter Iseult (not adopted, as she publicly claimed, but the fruit of her liaison with the French activist, Lucien Millevoye). Like many of Yeats’s middle poems, this one is short and “thin”: a single sentence, one syntactical unit spun out over eleven three-beat lines. In another irony, Iseult had come to Yeats, of all people, for advice in love. His response contains perhaps more than Iseult needed to know:

My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

He acknowledges his own intensity in “Friends,” written four years earlier. “Now must I these three praise—/ Three women that have wrought/ What joy is in my days….” Naming no names, he begins with Olivia Shakespear, praised because, over fifteen “troubled years,” no thought “Could ever come between/ Mind and delighted mind.” Next is Yeats’s friend and patron, Lady Augusta Gregory, whose steady “hand” had the strength to unbind “Youth’s dreamy load, till she/ So changed me that I live/ Labouring in ecstasy.” But the third and climactic figure to be praised presents a challenge. Yeats poses two questions, and answers them:

And what of her that took
All till my youth was gone
With scarce a pitying look?
How could I praise that one?
When day begins to break
I count my good and bad,
Being wakeful for her sake,
Remembering what she had,
What eagle look still shows,
While up from my heart’s root
So great a sweetness flows
I shake from head to foot.

That image will be repeated in the “Dialogue,” where “So great a sweetness flows into the breast” that it absorbs and absolves the “folly” the Self “does or must suffer” if he loves a “proud woman not kindred of his soul”: that most painful yet “most fecund” ditch of all. If there were no Maud Gonne, Yeats would have invented her, requiring, like most poets in the Romantic and Celtic traditions, a Muse, an enchantress, a femme fatale who is a life-giving yet destructive goddess. But there was a Maud Gonne, a pre-Raphaelite “stunner” who combined all three roles, along with being a committed and passionate Irish patriot. The impact on Yeats as a man and as a poet is attested to by innumerable shorter lyrics, and she figures in major poems as well—in “The Tower,” II, as the “woman lost,” and in the “plunge…/ Into the labyrinth of another’s being.” And she is at the heart of one of Yeats’s indisputable masterpieces, “Among School Children.”

Maud serves as warning and counter-example in the paternalistic, conservative, but nevertheless beautiful “A Prayer for my Daughter.” The protective father prays that Anne, “half-hid/ Under this cradle-hood and coverlid,” yet born into the violent world and “rocking cradle” evoked in the immediately preceding poem, “The Second Coming,” will be granted moderate rather than excessive, troubling beauty and “natural kindness” free of rancorous political hatred. For “Have I not seen the loveliest woman born/ Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,” because of her politics and “opinionated” mind, “Barter that horn and every good/ By quiet natures understood/ For an old bellows full of angry wind?” I’ll later propose a relationship between “Among School Children” and the final Maud Gonne poem, “A Bronze Head.” But for now let’s browse through some earlier Maud lyrics.


Beautiful as many of them are, most of the poems to his “Beloved” in The Rose (1893) and even in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), are too “heavy” with dream and dew, too perfumed with fin-de-siècle “lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream” (“The Travail of Passion,” 1896), too filled with languor and dim hair, to move most modern readers. My favorite poem in The Rose—the song James Joyce sang in lieu of the requested prayer at his mother’s deathbed and that haunts Stephen Dedalus throughout Bloomsday—is “Who Goes with Fergus?” The king of Ulster who put aside his crown to live in peace and “pierce the deep wood’s woven shade” invites a young man and maid to join him in his forest paradise, where they will “brood on hopes and fear no more”;

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.

Maud Gonne

But despite the emotional respite promised, the poem’s imagery—“shadows” of the wood, the “white breast” of the sea, the “disheveled” stars –extends to this supposedly peaceful paradise all the erotic tumult of “love’s bitter mystery.” That phrase alone might summon up Maud, but the beautiful final line suggests a deeper connection. “All disheveled wandering stars” fuses Eve’s “disheveled hair” (Paradise Lost 4:306) with Pope’s echo in The Rape of the Lock, which ends with Belinda’s shorn tresses consecrated “midst the Stars”: “Not Berenices’s Locks first rose so bright,/ The Heavens bespangling with disheveled Light.” A year after writing the Fergus poem, Yeats would have his young queen, a medieval version of Maud, place her lovelorn jester’s cap and bells under “a cloud of her hair,” and “her red lips” would sing “them a love song/ Till stars grew out of the air.

Stars reappear in the most familiar poem in The Rose, “When You Are Old,” which departs from its original in Ronsard. As Maud grew older, Yeats obsessively summoned up her youthful beauty; here, he imagines her, at the age of twenty-five, “old and grey and full of sleep,/ And nodding by the fire.” Then, he tells her, take down “this book,” written by the “one man” who “loved the pilgrim soul in you”;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

But the first Maud poem in Yeats’s more naked style is “The Arrow” (1901), which opens the Maud-cluster in In the Seven Woods (1904), poems addressed to a Muse now in her ‘thirties. The enjambed lines of “The Arrow,” in tension with its taut couplets, are all in “feminine” or double rhyme, a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable, a falling pattern established with the title-word itself :

I thought of your beauty, and this arrow,
Made out of a wild thought, is in my marrow.
There’s no man may look upon her, no man,
As when newly grown to be a woman,
Tall and noble but with face and bosom
Delicate in colour as apple blossom.
This beauty’s kinder, yet for a reason
I could weep that the old is out of season.

In the next poem, a “kind” friend (in fact, Lady Gregory), counseling “patience,” suggests that “time” and the diminution of Maud’s extravagant youthful beauty should “make it easier to be wise.” But

…………………………….Heart cries, “No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.”

O heart! O heart! If she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

He has, he tells Maud and us in “Old Memory,” thought and written about her “Through the long years of youth, and who would have thought” that it would all have “come to naught,/ And that dear words meant nothing? But enough,/ For when we have blamed the wind we can blame love.” In “Never Give all the Heart,” he advises us to “never give the heart outright” to passionate women. For they

Have given their hearts up to the play,
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

In the next poem, the plangent “Adam’s Curse” (1902), Maud sits silently by while her sister Kathleen and the poet discuss on a late summer evening various forms of “labour.” They include the poet’s quest, even if a line “takes hours” to write, to “make it seem a moment’s thought,” and Kathleen’s intuitive knowledge that a woman “must labour to be beautiful.” It’s certain, he responds, that “there is no fine thing/ Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.” There have been

……………..“lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

So much for the courtly love tradition. This same year, Yeats had put Maud on stage as Ireland herself in Cathleen ni Houlihan. That “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland” was her favorite Yeats poem is unsurprising. Written in 1894 but now incorporated in this sequence, it makes Maud indistinguishable from Cathleen as Ireland. Most readers are thrilled by the couplet on one queen’s mountain cairn: “The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,/ And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.” But it was surely this stanza’s final lines—echoing “the quiet of love in her feet” from the finale of “The Cap and Bells,” written a year earlier—that appealed to Maud, servant of another queen: Angers like “noisy clouds” may have “set our hearts abeat;/ But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet/ Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.”

The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) opens with a cluster celebrating Maud as a Helen of Troy redivivus. He has dwelt on and written about her for so long that he dreams he has “brought/ To such a pitch my thought/ That coming time can say/ ‘He shadowed in a glass/ What thing her body was.’”

For she had fiery blood
When I was young,
And trod so sweetly proud
As ‘twere upon a cloud,
A woman Homer sung,
That life and letters seem
But an heroic dream.

Now that he has “come into my strength,/ And words obey my call,” he hopes, in the next poem, “Words,” that, “At length,/ My darling understands it all.” Yet “Had she done so who can say/ What might have shaken from the sieve?/ I might have thrown poor words away/ And been content to live.” But Yeats does not really believe that the poetry was a mere substitute for life and sex. Even if it is in part sublimation, the poetry itself matters. It is in a poem, after all, that he speculates that, had his love been requited, he “might” have “thrown poor words away.” It wasn’t; he didn’t. The poet in him “turned aside” from Maud to “words.”

“Words” is followed by the more famous “No Second Troy,” consisting of two five-line rhetorical questions, followed by two more, each distilled to a single line. We are initially seduced into sharing the poet’s complaint; he had abundant reason to “blame” her, she having “filled” his days, not with joy, but “with misery.” But Yeats is setting us up; his rhetorical strategy reveals our own pettiness faced with a Helen born out of phase, a classic figure living in a modern age unworthy of her.

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

With no Troy to burn, her incendiary energy had to be directed to what was at hand: whether Ireland or Yeats himself, both, perhaps, lacking “courage equal to desire.” But she could do no other. In acting as she did, she was being true to her quintessential being: “what she is.” What is to “blame,” outrageously enough, is not the terrible beauty of Yeats’s magnificent heroine, “high and solitary and most stern,” but the low, gregarious, and ignoble modern world itself, for not being (as Richard Ellmann once wittily remarked) “heroically inflammable.” The question of “blame” is also raised in the opening line of the next poem in the sequence.

During a public lecture in 1903, Yeats was suddenly informed of Maud’s marriage. The unexpected news struck him like a thunderbolt. “Reconciliation,” the poem immediately following “No Second Troy,” records that reaction. The background includes her subsequent separation from John MacBride (later an Easter Rising martyr, but at the time a drinker abusive to Maud and, perhaps, Iseult), and the reunion of Maud and Yeats, at long last, if briefly, sexual (in Paris in December 1908).[16] Like “No Second Troy,” “Reconciliation” is twelve lines of iambic pentameter, though this time in couplets:

Some may have blamed you that you took away
The verses that could move them on the day
When, the ears being deafened, the sight of the eyes blind
With lightning, you went from me, and I could find
Nothing to make a song about but kings,
Helmets, and swords, and half-forgotten things
That were like memories of you—but now
We’ll out, for the world lives as long ago;
And while we’re in our laughing, weeping fit,
Hurl helmets, crowns, and swords into the pit.
But, dear, cling close to me; since you were gone,
My barren thoughts have chilled me to the bone.

The sequence ends with “Peace,” depicting her fascinating and oxymoronic mingling of “charm” and “sternness,” Scripture’s lion and the honey-comb (“All that sweetness amid strength”), and concluding, “Ah, but peace that comes at length,/ Came when Time had touched her form.”

Gonne2Maud Gonne

Responsibilities (1914), much more focused on public issues, contains only a handful of Maud-related poems toward the end; but the volume is prefaced by intimately personal untitled lines directed to his ancestors, asking their “Pardon that for a barren passion’s sake,” he has no child, “nothing but a book,/ Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.” The little cluster of Maud poems begins with “A Memory of Youth.” Reminiscent of “Adam’s Curse,” it records moments of play and wit, until “A cloud blown from the cut-throat north/ Suddenly hid love’s moon away.” Praise of his beloved’s body and mind had brightened her eyes and brought a blush to her cheek, “Yet we, for all that praise, could find/ Nothing but darkness overhead.” They sit in stony silence, knowing, “though she’d said not a word,/ That even the best of love must die.” They had been “savagely undone,” but for a sudden burst of emotion-revivifying illumination, when “Love upon the cry/ Of a most ridiculous little bird/ Tore from the clouds his marvelous moon.”

Gonne1Maud Gonne

The next poem, “Fallen Majesty,” records “what’s gone.” Although “crowds gathered once if she but showed her face,” now one might gather, and “not know it walks the very street/ Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud.” Following “Friends,” cited earlier, come two somewhat mysterious, almost apocalyptic poems, “The Cold Heaven” and “That the Night Come.” The latter presents a woman who so “lived in stir and strife,” that her soul, desiring what “proud death may bring,” could “not endure/ The common good of life,” seeming “To bundle time away/ That the night come.” The thrilling but enigmatic “The Cold Heaven” requires A Vision to be fully explicated, but no mumbo-jumbo about the posthumous “Dreaming Back” stage of the “Spirit” is needed to explain why

…………….imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.

The next volume, the autumnal The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), is haunted by the memories of a man in his fifties, but feeling older. He is thinking of Iseult in “The Living Beauty” (“O heart, we are old;/ The living beauty is for younger men:/ We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears”); but the heartache in the volume’s title poem mingles echoes of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” with memories of Maud and of his own lost youth. In autumn, at twilight, he has looked on the swans, paired lovers, “And now my heart is sore.”

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

The swans seem changeless, but “All’s changed” with him, not only because the “nineteenth autumn has come upon” him since he first counted those wild and “brilliant creatures,” but because he is writing in the immediate aftermath of Maud’s recent rejection of yet another proposal of marriage. Perhaps that is why there are “nine-and-fifty swans,” one unpaired and solitary.[17]

Five poems in The Wild Swans at Coole focus on Maud herself (“Her Praise,” “The People,” “His Phoenix,” “A Thought from Propertius,” and “Broken Dreams”); and the poem preceding them, “On Woman,” is a Maud poem in biblical disguise. Since “Her Praise” and “The People” pay tribute to her work on behalf of the Irish people, they are not quite Muse poems.[18] The lighthearted “His Phoenix” ticks off, in jaunty hexameters, a “crowd” of women “through all the centuries,” starting with Leda and including the famed dancers Ruth St. Denis and Pavlova. “And who can say but some young belle may walk and talk men wild/ Who is my beauty’s equal,” though that his “heart denies.” For none could reproduce her “exact likeness”: the “simplicity of a child,/ And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun,” as well as that “shapely body” with not the slightest detail “gone astray./ I mourn for that most lonely thing; and yet God’s will be done:/ I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.”

In “A Thought from Propertius,” echoing the second Elegy of Sextus Propertius, Yeats imagines Maud “fit spoil for a centaur/ Drunk with the unmixed wine,” yet “so noble from head” to foot that she might have “walked to the altar/ Through the holy images/ At Pallas Athena’s side.” (In 1938, enumerating “Beautiful Lofty Things,” images of “Olympian” nobility impressed on his memory, Yeats concludes with “Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train,/ Pallas Athena in that straight back and arrogant head”—the single reference to her by name in his poetry.) The Propertius poem, eight tight lines, is followed by “Broken Dreams,” 41 lines of artfully rambling reverie, rhymed but written in a semblance of free verse to match its almost free associations. Maud was now in her early fifties, a fact registered in the poem’s opening lines: “There is grey in your hair./ Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when you are passing.” Yet

For your sole sake—that all heart’s ache have known,
And given to others all heart’s ache,
From meager girlhood’s putting on
Burdensome beauty—for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.

He imagines some young man asking an old man, “Tell me of that lady/ The poet stubborn with his passion sang us/ When age might well have chilled his blood.” In a desperate certainty reflecting his reading of Plotinus and Swedenborg, he is confident that “in the grave all, all shall be renewed,” and that “I shall see that lady/ Leaning or standing or walking/ In the first loveliness of womanhood,/ And with the fervor of my youthful eyes.” And yet, though she is “more beautiful than anyone,” she had a flaw; her small hands were not beautiful, and he is afraid that she will run, and “paddle to the wrist” in “that mysterious, always brimming lake/ Where” the blessed “Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged/ The hands that I have kissed,/ For old sake’s sake.” The “last stroke of midnight dies,” ending a day in which he has “ranged” from “dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme,” in “rambling talk with an image of air:/ Vague memories, nothing but memories.”

This Maud-cluster is preceded by “On Woman” and framed by two short lyrics to be discussed in a moment. Written in May 1914, “On Woman” anticipates the 1918 “Solomon to Sheba” and “Solomon and the Witch.” But unlike those poems, composed after his marriage and addressed to his wife, this Solomon and Sheba poem has to do with Maud. We are told that Solomon “never could,” although “he counted grass,/ Count all the praises due/ When Sheba was his lass.” The sexual “shudder that made them one” anticipates “Leda and the Swan,” but the lines that immediately follow (and conclude the poem) anticipate Self’s choice, in the “Dialogue,” of eternal recurrence, with its “fecund” intermingling of joy and pain. The thought might make you “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth,” says Nietzsche’s demon in the passage introducing the thought-experiment or ordeal of Eternal Recurrence. But have you, even “once,” experienced a “moment” so “tremendous” that you “fervently craved” it “once more” and “eternally”? (The Gay Science §341). The speaker in “On Woman” prays that God grant him, not “here,” for he is “not so bold” as to “hope a thing so dear/ Now I am growing old,”

But when, if the tale’s true,
The Pestle of the moon
That pounds up all anew
Brings me to birth again—
To find what once I had
And know what once I have known,
Until I am driven mad,
Sleep driven from my bed,
By tenderness and care,
Pity, an aching head,
Gnashing of teeth, despair;
And all because of some one
Perverse creature of chance,
And live like Solomon
That Sheba led a dance.

'The_Visit_of_the_Queen_of_Sheba_to_King_Solomon',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Edward_Poynter,_1890,_Art_Gallery_of_New_South_Wales‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’, oil on canvas by Edward Poynter, 1890.

Here, as in “Broken Dreams” and, a decade and a half later, in “Quarrel in Old Age,” Yeats invokes renewal beyond the grave. “All lives that has lived,” he announces in “Quarrel” (1931); “Old sages were not deceived:/ Somewhere beyond the curtain/ Of deceiving days/ Lives that lonely thing/ That shone before these eyes”: Maud, who seemed armed like a goddess and “Trod like Spring.” It is a recurrent hope, compounded of Plotinus, Swedenborg’s vision of frustrated lovers posthumously united, and the embrace, by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, of the eternal recurrence of passion and joy, no matter the attendant and inevitable suffering. And “all because of one/ Perverse creature”—“that one.”

The two short framing lyrics I referred to both consist of six trimeter lines rhymed abcabc, and both emphasize the indelible imprint of the One among the many. Again, she is unique; there are all the “others,” and then there is Maud. The title of the first, “Memory,” could refer to all the Maud Gonne poems:

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm.
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

What better image for the impress of memory than the crushed grass where the elusive mountain-rabbit has lain? She is gone, but the “form” remains forever.

Maud told Yeats she would never marry him, and that he should be “glad,” since “you make such beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness.” But she also swore she would marry no one else. She did. “A Deep-sworn Vow” registers that broken oath and its sexual consequences for him. Yet he has been faithful in his fashion; for “always,” at intense moments of truth, when the defense mechanisms are down, there is a sudden return of the repressed:

Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.

However expected, the revelation is sudden. As in the discovery of true love in Poem IV of “A Woman Young and Old”—“And now we stare astonished at the sea”—Yeats is here recalling the sestet of the sonnet in which Keats compared his discovery of Homer to the awed moment when the ocean’s Spanish discoverers “stared at the Pacific,” and the conquistador and his men looked at each other “with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” In “A Deep-sworn Vow,” Yeats does not fall asleep; instead, he vigorously “clambers” to its visionary “heights.” He also repeats (heights, excited, wine) the long i of Keats’s wild, surmise, silent. And both poems end with a double-caesura preceding the abrupt revelation: in the case of “A Deep-sworn Vow,” Maud’s “face” looming up from the subconscious. It is a chthonic apparition; the highly unusual exact rhyme makes her “face” indistinguishable from the “face” of death, as befits a femme fatale.


Since the death’s-head image culminates in the last and most somberly impressive of the Maud Gonne poems, “A Bronze Head” (1938), I will move directly to that poem, deferring comment on two Maud-related poems (“An Image from a Past Life” and “Under Saturn”) from Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), the volume that follows The Wild Swans at Coole. I have already noted the presence of Maud in the 1921 volume’s “A Prayer for my Daughter.”

As mentioned earlier, “A Bronze Head” is related to “Among School Children.” Just as Purgatory is the dark twin of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” animating the terror implicit in Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence (the enactment “again, and yet again,” ultimately embraced in the “Dialogue”), so “A Bronze Head” seems a darker reexamination of the relationships explored in “Among School Children” between unity and division, the One and the Many, underlying substance and its various manifestations. The crucial philosophic question and speculation in the later poem is restricted to Maud, ever a shape-shifter: “who can tell/ Which of her forms has shown her substance right?/ Or maybe substance can be composite….” This would be no less at home in the poem in which the Yeatsian old man walks through the long schoolroom “questioning,” dreaming of a “Ledaean body,” Maud’s, and what came before and after: the beloved as “child” and in her “present” form, feeding on the insubstantial, her image (visually Dantesque, verbally Shakespearean) “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind/ And took a mess of shadows for its meat.”[19]

That is the image, though even further time-ravaged, sculpted in the plaster of Lawrence Campbell’s bronze-painted bust in the Municipal Gallery. But not even the titular sculpture could permanently fix the protean image of his beloved for Yeats. She is an artifact, but also something “Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,/ Everything else withered and mummy-dead.” Though now a “great tomb-haunter” sweeping the “distant sky” and terrified by the “Hysterica passio” of her “own emptiness,” she was “once” a “form all full/ As though with magnanimity of light.” Yet she is also “a most gentle woman.” And there is more. As the poet first saw her, she was an unmanageable filly—“even at the starting post, all sleek and new,/ I saw the wildness in her”—and a vulnerable human creature, her animal wildness transferred by empathy to the protective poet-lover, who “had grown wild/ And wandered murmuring everywhere, ‘My child, my child!’” Finally, returning to the “bird’s round eye” of the opening stanza, Yeats describes her in her anything but vulnerable aspect: “Or else I thought her supernatural;/ As though a sterner eye looked through her eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall….”

Dispensing round his magnanimity of images, Yeats goes beyond the triads of “Among School Children”—though there too Maud had been evoked as child, beautiful woman, and aged crone, even as bird (a Ledaean “daughter of the swan”) and animal (a wind-drinking chameleon). “Among School Children” questions the chestnut-tree of the final stanza: “Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” It is of course all three since we can no more break down the organic unity of that “great-rooted blossomer” than we can “know the dancer from the dance,” or isolate Maud as child from Maud as “Ledaean body,” or from her “present image” as hollow-cheeked but still voracious crone. Yet it is as a crone that Yeats compels us to envisage Maud Gonne in “A Bronze Head”—compels us by ending his poem in a repetition and intensification of that “present image.” The birdlike “sterner eye” looking through Maud’s eye—that “mysterious eye” that, Yeats reports with fascination and dread (Memoirs, 60), British journalists felt “contained the shadow of battles yet to come”—seems not only Yeats’s own eye, as I suggested at the outset, but that of the Morrigu, the one-eyed “woman with the head of a crow.” It seems to be that Celtic war-goddess who presides here, as in The Death of Cuchulain, her “sterner eye looking through [Maud’s] eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall,” and wondering “what was left for massacre to save.”

The Morrigu, the Celtic demoniac bird of the dead who haunts corpse-strewn battlefields, is the dark side of the Old Woman, Cathleen ni Houilihan, who demands “all” of her devotees in the passages Yeats wrote for Maud in the 1902 play in which she personified the oppression and resurrection of Ireland: the old crone transfigured into “a young girl” with “the walk of a queen,” rejuvenated by blood-sacrifice. That climax was anticipated, reports Stephen Gwynn, present on opening-night, when Maud’s Cathleen rose, “still bent and weighed down with years or centuries; but for one instant, before she went out at the half-door, she drew herself up to her superb height; change was manifest; patuit dea.” Gwynn’s Virgilian allusion is apt; though she is disguised as a Spartan huntress, Venus was revealed to Aeneus as she walked away, vera incessu patuit dea, “the true goddess revealed in her step” (Aeneid 1.405). But Gwynn also “went home asking myself if such plays should be produced unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot.”[20] As we will see, Yeats asked himself that very question preparing for his own death. Maud, too, comes full circle: from the beautiful woman, bent and hidden under the rags of the Old Woman of Cathleen ni Houlihan, to an actual old woman: the literal terrible beauty of “A Bronze Head.”


No wonder there were “others,” none as magnetic as Maud, yet minor Muses. Olivia introduced him to sexual love, but could not uproot Maud. “I had a beautiful friend,” he mourns in an 1898 poem, “And dreamed that the old despair/ Would end in love in the end:/ She looked in my heart one day,/ And saw your image was there.”[21] Despite the tearful parting that followed, lovely Olivia remained his lifelong friend and most intimate correspondent. In one late letter (December 18, 1929), Yeats sent her the moving “After Long Silence,” its heartache distilled in the single word “young” hovering at the end of the penultimate line:

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

Olivia ShakespearOlivia Shakespear

The late marriage to his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, in 1917 (he was 52, she half his age) ushered in Yeats’s most creative period. Her interest in the visionary and occult matched his, her gift of automatic writing generating his book A Vision (1925, 1937). In “Under Saturn” (November 1919), he asks “how should I forget the wisdom that you brought,/ The comfort that you made?” But he has to ask the question in the first place because, having “grown saturnine,” he fears she might “Imagine that lost love, inseparable from my thought/ Because I have no other youth, can make me pine.” Like Olivia, George (as Yeats preferred to call her) saw Maud’s image there. In “An Image from a Past Life,” the immediately preceding dialogue-poem, She, possessed like George of occult powers, senses that

A sweetheart from another life floats there
As though she had been forced to linger
From vague distress
Or arrogant loveliness,
Merely to loosen out a tress
Among the starry eddies of her hair
Upon the paleness of a finger.

William Butler Yeats and his wife Georgie in the late 1920s.

He reassures her that any such image, “even to eyes that beauty had driven mad,” can only “make me fonder.” Unconvinced, She does not know whether the uplifted arms of the spectral figure intend to “flout me,” or “but to find,/ Now that no fingers bind,/ That her hair streams upon the wind.” What she does know is that “I am afraid/ Of the hovering thing night brought me.”

Given the context of the ghostly and mysterious wisdom brought to the poet through Mrs. Yeats’s occult “Communicators,” it is unsurprising that his greatest “love poem” to his wife should occur in the Browningesque dramatic monologue, “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” (1924). The “gift” the great Caliph gives to his friend and learned treasurer Kusta Ben Luka is a woman who “shares” his “thirst” for “old crabbed mysteries, “yet “herself can seem youth’s very fountain,/ Being all brimmed with life” (85-90), Whatever the “Voice” of the Djinn she heard, Kusta comes to realize that his young wife is not simply a conduit; that that mysterious voice has drawn

A quality of wisdom from her love’s
Particular quality. The signs and shapes,
All those abstractions that you fancied were
From the great Treatise of Parmenides;
All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.
And now my utmost mystery is out. (179-87)

But this revelation is followed immediately by the poem’s concluding lines, in which Kusta-Yeats insists that, while “A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner,” he is neither “dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost / In the confusion of its night-dark folds.” Within the poem, this imagery echoes the opening lines about the “banners of the Caliphs” hanging “night-coloured/ But brilliant as the night’s embroidery” (6-7). However, in the context of the full canon of Yeats’s love-poetry, the image inevitably recalls “the heaven’s embroidered cloths”— “Enwrought with golden and silver light,/ The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/ Of night and light and the half-light”—the young, Maud-infatuated poet wished to “spread…under your feet.”

Now, a quarter-century later, he is no longer “dazzled” by the storm-tossed and night-dark but brilliant embroidery because, ostensibly, he is choosing wisdom over beauty—autobiographically, George over Maud. This is what he had actually done in January 1919, when he turned Maud from the door of her own house, 73 St. Stephen’s Green, which she’d rented to the poet and his wife. Returned from London to relish the Sinn Fein victory in the December 1918 elections, Maud was in Ireland illegally. George was not only pregnant with Anne, but gravely ill of the influenza that killed millions in the aftermath of World War I. Fearing the police might burst in during such a crisis, Yeats, soon accused of cowardice by Maud and her supporters for his threshold rejection, “turned aside” from her, choosing the Vesta of hearth and family over his storm-tossed night-visitor and Muse.[22]

Still, as we’ve seen, and as suggested by the intrusion of the embroidery-image on the heels of Kusta-Yeats’s tribute to his bride, Yeats’s genuine feelings for his wife did not preclude ghostly visitations by past images of Maud—and present images of Iseult, to whom Yeats, in September 1917, having been rejected yet again by Maud and before approaching George, had proposed marriage. Like mother, like daughter. As Yeats’s “Heart” tells him in a poem written the following month: “How could she mate with fifty years that was so wildly bred?/ Let the cage bird and the cage bird mate and the wild bird mate in the wild.” This poem, “Owen Aherne and his Dancers,” was saved for The Tower, where it leads directly into the sequence “A Man Young and Old,” autobiography masked as Everyman. The emotional/ erotic tensions involving Yeats and his new wife, Maud and Iseult, also play out symbolically in The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), the most lyrical of the Cuchulain plays. That play opens with the First Musician’s “Song for the folding and unfolding of the cloth,” in which the “loveliness” of “a woman’s beauty” is compared to that of a “white sea-bird alone/ At daybreak after a stormy night,” and to an “exquisite” sea-shell the “vast troubled waters bring/ To the loud sands before day has broken” : a beauty-producing violence “imagined within/ The labyrinth of the mind,” an autobiographical maze intricate enough to enfold three women barely detectable beneath the otherworldly mythology.

Iseult Gonne

There were more palpably intimate post-marital relationships,[23] including a late liaison, following others with Margot Ruddock and Ethel Mannin, with Edith Shackleton Heald, who, as we’ve seen, visited Yeats’s grave in Roquebrune cemetery. His relationship with Lady Dorothy Wellesley was poetic (they collaborated on “The Three Bushes” and its attendant lyrics, and talked much of poetry) and, though passionate, was non-sexual; she was lesbian. But she did inspire the eerie and rather overwrought “To Dorothy Wellesley” (1936), in which he imagines her stretching her hand “towards the moonless midnight of the trees,” and, “Rammed full/ Of that most sensuous silence of the night,” climbing to “your chamber full of books.” The poem strains toward, and attains, a final sublimity:

……………………..What climbs the stair?
Nothing that common women ponder on
If you are worth my hope! Neither Content
Nor satisfied Conscience, but that great family
Some ancient famous authors misrepresent,
The Proud Furies each with her torch on high.

But, to state the obvious, there can be no doubt that it was, above all, Maud— “that one”—who simultaneously broke Yeats’s heart, fascinated him, and inspired the greatest love poetry of the twentieth century. Harold Bloom, an anything but uncritical admirer, has rightly said of Yeats as a love poet: “one can wonder if any poet of our century enters into competition here with him.”[24] She also transfigured him in the process. I’m alluding to “First Love,” the opening poem of “A Man Young and Old,” which concludes The Tower just as “A Woman Young and Old” concludes The Winding Stair.

Here, Yeats’s mask as Everyman slips from the outset, and the lunar figure is clearly based on Maud. “Though nurtured like the sailing moon/ In beauty’s murderous brood,” she “walked” and “blushed” awhile and “on my pathway stood/ Until I thought her body bore/ A heart of flesh and blood.” But since he “laid a hand thereon,/ And found a heart of stone,” he realizes that “every hand is lunatic./ That travels on the moon.” She “smiled and that transfigured me/ And left me but a lout,” wandering aimlessly, “Emptier of thought/ Than the heavenly circuit of its stars/ When the moon sails out.” And this final stanza of the first poem leads directly to the lunar opening of the next in the sequence: “Like the moon her kindness is/ If kindness I may call” what has no “comprehension” in it, “But is the same for all/ As though my sorrow were a scene/ Upon a painted wall.”

It should be mentioned that, in contrast to most of this man-centered sequence, poem IV, “The Death of the Hare,” expresses unexpected empathy for the female in the love-hunt. The Man’s “heart is wrung,” when he remembers her “wildness lost.” He experiences the “yelling pack,” and, finally, the death of the pursued animal. “The Death of the Hare,” looking back to “Memory,” anticipates the “stricken rabbit” whose death-cry “distracts” Yeats’s “thought” in “Man and the Echo.” It also anticipates the empathy with the female perspective expressed throughout “A Woman Young and Old.”

The poems that follow in the “Man” sequence emphasize the tragedy at the heart of the Yeats-Maud relationship. Poem VI, “His Memories,” and VIII, “Summer and Spring,” allude even more unmistakably to that relationship. In the guise of an anonymous old man, his body “broken,” Yeats can claim, even more graphically than in the poem addressed to Maud’s daughter, “To a Young Girl,” that the relationship with his Helen was sexually consummated. His “arms” may be “like twisted thorn/ And yet there beauty lay”;

The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take—
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck—
That she cried into this ear,
“Strike me if I shriek.”

Two decades later, that night in December 1908, no matter how fleeting, remains paramount among the “memories” of Yeats’s “Man Old.” In “real life,” after their night of lovemaking in that Paris hotel, Maud had quickly put the relationship back on its old basis, informing Yeats in a morning-after note that she was praying that he would be able to overcome his “physical desire” for her. In a journal entry the following month (21 January 1909), Yeats referred despairingly but realistically to the “return” of Maud’s “old dread of physical love,” which has “probably spoiled her life….I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poison.” Hence, those “others.” Since Maud was, ultimately, “not kindred of his soul,” Yeats sought complete union, if only in memory, in poetry, and specifically, masked as “A Man Young and Old.”

In “Summer and Spring,” poem VIII of the sequence, two lovers grown old reminisce “under an old thorn tree.”

And when we talked of growing up
Knew that we’d halved a soul
And fell the one in ‘tother’s arms
That we might make it whole.

We recall, as we are meant to, “Among School Children,” written in the same year. In transitioning from the first to the second stanza, we shift abruptly from Yeats’s persona as senator and school inspector, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” to the inner man, the poet himself reporting an incident Maud once related from her childhood:

I dream of a Ledaean body bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

The tragedy lies in the need “to alter Plato’s parable,” since the blending here is empathetic and partial (there remains a separation between yolk and white even within the unity of the “one shell”) rather than the full sexual union of Aristophanes’ haunting fable in The Symposium. It is a “whole” union the old man claims in “His Memories” and in “Summer and Spring,” which concludes with a sexual variation on the unity of being symbolized by the dancer and the “great-rooted blossomer” of “Among School Children.”

O what a bursting out there was,
And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!

Even here, however “fecund” the bursting out and blossoming, it is all memory and heartache. As in most of the poems having to do with Maud, “Love,” mingling strength and sweetness, is at once vulnerable—that “bitter sweetness,/ Inhabitant of the soft cheek of a girl”—and immensely powerful. I am quoting “From the Antigone,” the final poem in both editions of The Winding Stair. Echoing Sophocles’ choral ode, but also expanding on “No Second Troy,” where Maud would have “hurled the little streets upon the great,” Yeats calls on Love, “O bitter sweetness,” to “Overcome the Empyrean; hurl/ Heaven and Earth out of their places,” that in “the same calamity,” brothers, friends, and families, “even “City and city may contend,/ By that great glory driven wild.”

In “No Second Troy,” Yeats tells us that Maud could not have “done” otherwise, “being what she is.” And, from “No Second Troy” to “A Bronze Head,” what she is or was, under all her myriad “forms,” is a Helen reborn. As Yeats reminds us in “The Tower,” II, “The tragedy began/ With Homer that was a blind man,/ And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.” That establishes the pattern for both Maud and Yeats, whose Self in “Dialogue” is “a blind man,” plunging into “a blind man’s ditch,” especially “that most fecund ditch of all,” the folly one does or “must suffer” if one falls hopelessly in love with a woman fated to reenact the role of Homer’s Helen. “No Second Troy” and, even more, “From the Antigone” (altered with the help of his friend Ezra Pound) suggest that, like Pound in Cantos II and VII, Yeats was fully aware of the punning epithets on her name in the choral ode in the Agamemnon where Aeschylus calls her helénaus, hélandros, heléptolis: destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities. Maud, mythologized by Yeats as a reincarnation of the Greek Helen, is not only the paragon of beauty, but of a terrible beauty at once destructive and inspiring.


That is her quintessence, at least as Muse. If we are to locate the “quintessential” Yeats, it will have to be he who could not have “done” other than be what he is, a poet, and a poet both cursed by and blessed with an incomparable Muse. But what is it about his poetic legacy that compels most of us to judge him the greatest poet of the 150 years since his birth in 1865? As Auden noted in his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” writing shortly after Yeats’s death and thinking of some of his less respectable dabblings in the occult and politics: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” Auden’s threnody proper begins:

Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry….

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

Though that last line recalls the tragic joy of Yeats’s sages in “Lapis Lazuli” and Self’s final chant in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Auden’s meter and couplets here, in the final section of his elegy, echo the tetrameter couplets of “Man and the Echo” and, most obviously, the final movement of “Under Ben Bulben.” That was, perhaps, inevitable; but, in terms of the whole of that poem, we should follow the poet himself in rejecting “Under Ben Bulben” as his “last word.” If we must choose a final poetic “testament,” we might consider, along with the final chant of Self in “Dialogue,” a handful of very late retrospective poems, beginning with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” completed in September 1938.

In “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” looking on the images of his life’s companions, men and women who shaped modern Ireland, Yeats concludes: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,/ And say my glory was I had such friends.” One of those images in the Gallery was Campbell’s bronze head of Maud, who also plays a central role in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Here the poet and playwright, enumerating “old themes,” focuses on the early work; and the “heart mysteries there,” though “Covered with embroideries/ Out of old mythologies” (“A Coat”), are mostly associated with Maud. That “sea-rider,” the hero of The Wanderings of Oisin, had been “led by the nose” by the goddess Niamh; “But what cared I that set him on to ride,/ I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.” Its “counter-truth,” his play The Countess Cathleen, dealt with physical starvation. The mythical Countess’s benignly Faustian sacrifice of her own soul to save her starving people reflects Maud’s actual efforts to feed the populace in famine-struck Donegal; but, intensifying Maud’s bartering of the horn of Plenty for an “old bellows full of angry wind” in “A Prayer for my Daughter,” Yeats cries out: “I thought my dear must her own soul destroy/ So did fanaticism and hate enslave it.” These “heart mysteries” were transformed into “masterful” images, “complete” images that “grew in pure mind but out of what began?”

Having deconstructed his early work to reveal its partial genesis in the unrequited love of Maud Gonne, Yeats audaciously gives us, as his mature genetic material, the lowest, most profanely debased matrix-forms of the central icons of his greatest poetry: the starlit or moonlit dome of Byzantium revealed as, or reduced to, “a mound of refuse,” the ancestral sword wound in silken embroidery, to “old iron…old rags.” The Muse herself becomes “that raving slut/ Who keeps the till,” tallying up the loss and gain in the transformation of pain into poetry. (That is true even of that “changeless sword” covered in “embroidered dress,” which lay, in Part III of “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” in Sato’s house five hundred years, “Curved like new moon, moon-luminous.” Yet, “if no change appears/ No moon; only an aching heart/ Conceives a changeless work of art.”) In the end, the old man, deprived of his means of ascent, both Platonic and phallic, must return to the place of origin: “Now that my ladder’s gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” The drafts of the poem reveal that all references to the “heart” were added late in the process of composition; but the Maud-inspired creativity that rose from Yeats’s “heart’s root” and “aching heart” was always already implicit. In what was also a very late addition, in this case to “Two Songs from a Play,” we are told that “Whatever flames upon the night/ Man’s own resinous heart has fed.”[25]

5Lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats

And yet, if I had to select just one last testament, aside from Self’s chant, the choice would narrow to the final movements of three of the last poems: “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo.” Written in July 1936, “Lapis Lazuli” was published with war imminent. Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe. To counter their consternation, dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents Shakespearean figures who—like Ophelia, Cordelia, and (by implication) Cleopatra—“do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian joy (“He who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness”), the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli;
Over them a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Aside from the obvious resemblance to the Grecian urn, the repeated “or” seals the connection, with description yielding to a stunning exercise of the creative imagination, worthy of its precursor, the 4th stanza of Keats’s ode. Since the place of origin of the figures in the sacrificial procession is not depicted on the urn, Keats speculates: “What little town by river or sea-shore,/ Or mountain-built….” Yeats ups the ante to four repetitions:

Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.

Yeats turns every discoloration and “Every accidental crack or dent”26[26]into a feature of the mountain landscape. But the even greater creative leap in this exquisite final movement is the setting of those sculpted figures, frozen in lapis as Keats’s were on the marble urn, into motion, with the poet delighting to “imagine” them having attained the prospect of the gazebo half-way up the mountain. That the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis, that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision: an affirmation, registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene,” in which the eyes of Yeats’s sages, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability, nevertheless glitter with a tragic joy lit by the poet’s own creative “delight.”

The end of mutability is death. The ancient Chinese sages’ gaiety in the face of tragedy may remind us of Yeats’s central mythological figure, Cuchulain, the hero of several Yeats poems and a cycle of five plays, ending with The Death of Cuchulain. The poet’s final encounter with his Celtic Achilles takes place in a ghostly poem completed on January 13, 1939, two weeks before his death.[27]The magnificent and eerie “Cuchulain Comforted,” composed, appropriately, in Dante’s terza rima, finds the nameless hero, wounded in battle and slain by a blind man, in the Underworld among “Shrouds that muttered head to head,” and “Came and were gone.” He “leant upon a tree/ As though to meditate on wounds and blood.” He is among his polar opposites— “convicted cowards all,” according to one “that seemed to have authority /Among those birdlike things,” and who informs the still armed hero: “Now must we sing and sing the best we can.” The poem ends with the hero’s apotheosis imminent. Having joined these spirits in a kind of communal sewing-bee, making shrouds, he is soon to undergo their transformation, described in haunting final lines reminiscent of Zarathustra’s vision of evil absolved by its own bliss so that all that is body should become dancer, “all that is spirit, bird”:

They sang but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before,
They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

The triumph of this mysterious and yet revelatory poem is that it discloses, along with an unexpected aspect of the solitary hero, Yeats himself: the man under the many masks, “one that,” in yet another bird-image, “ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”). It recalls the similar if more personal triumph-in-defeat of “Man and the Echo” (1938), a poem that borrows the questioning and tetrameters of Coleridge’s confessional, “The Pains of Sleep.” A “Man” halted in a rock-cleft on the mountainside shouts “a question to the stone.”

All that I have said and done,
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?

It is unclear what Yeats might have said to save Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, or have not said to preserve the sanity of Margot Ruddock, the infatuated and crazed girl memorialized in “Sweet Dancer” (1937). As for “that play of mine”…. Cathleen ni Houlihan, the ostensible celebration of blood-sacrifice written for and starring Maud Gonne as Ireland herself, did send out men that were shot in the Easter Rising; in fact, the first to die was an actor cast in a revival of the play. The “terrible beauty” born that Easter had many causes, but Yeats, fingering the “links in the chain of responsibility,” wondered “if any link” was forged “in my workshop.” Along with pride at its popular success, he felt guilt in having produced a patriotic but propagandistic play that was, at heart, a love-offering to his own terrible beauty, Maud Gone, and a betrayal of his own better judgment.

We cannot simply dismiss some of Yeats’s late and irresponsible ranting (as in On the Boiler), and his theatrical waving of Sato’s sword, and cry for “war,” in responding to an Indian visitor’s request for “a message for India.” Nevertheless, a tame, double-minded Yeats was no less opposed than Joyce to the blinkered, rabid nationalism most memorably embodied in the crude and violent “Citizen” in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses. That one-eyed Fenian, a reincarnation of Homer’s Polyphemus, may also be a male equivalent of Ireland’s own one-eyed Morrigu, the overtly dark side of Cathleen ni Houlihan. I have a suspicion amounting to a conviction that Yeats thought “that play of mine” not really his (in fact, most of the dialogue, though not the lyric passages, was written by Lady Gregory), and that, when he wasn’t basking in its popularity, sometimes wished it had been omitted rather than committed. In “Man and the Echo,” his responsibility for its impact is the first “question” that causes him to “lie awake night after night.”[28]

Here is Coleridge, as sleepless and anguished as Yeats: “All confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered or I did: / For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe.”[29] Yeats concludes his questioning in the same perplexity: “And all seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.” Echo: “Lie down and die.” But that, Man responds, would be “to shirk / The spiritual intellect’s great work.” There can be no thought of ending life until he can “stand in judgment on his soul.” Once “all’s arranged in one clear view,” and “all work done,” he will be ready to “sink at last into the night.” But, given Echo’s sardonic repetition, “Into the night,” that prospect only raises more, and more metaphysical, questions (“Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?”), until all cerebral self-centered thoughts stop together, interrupted:

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

“Take physic, pomp,” cries a chastened Lear out on the storm-beaten heath, finally exposing himself to feel pity for life’s naked victims. The greatness of “Man and the Echo” has to do with a similar intervention from the existential physical reality outside Yeats’s own self-absorbed thoughts about death and the fate of his soul. Above all, the poem’s triumph lies in the old man’s setting aside, as in “Cuchulain Comforted,” of the “heroic mask”— of Swiftian arrogance or Nietzschean master morality, of the perspective of the predatory hawk, of Cuchulain, that “great hawk out of the sun”—in order to fully and humbly accept common mortality: the radical finitude he shares with human rags and bones, with cowards, with the pitiable death-cry of a rabbit, struck down by hawk or owl. At the end of “Man and the Echo,” amid uncertainty (“joy or night,” “hawk or owl” dropping out of “sky or rock”), the one certitude is death.[30] “Mortality touches the heart,” epitomized by what Virgil calls the “tears that are in things” (Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). Yet here the tears are unshed from “an eye” that has “kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” Like Wordsworth at the end of the Intimations Ode, Yeats is touched by the human heart’s “tenderness, its joys, and fears,” but, registering the death-throes of one of the humble, transient things in nature, he is left with “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”[31]


“The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo,” are deeply moving retrospective poems, the fully-ripened fruit of an aged but major poet working at the height of his undiminished creative power. Two other retrospective poems, less formidable than occasional, should also be discussed in rounding out Yeats’s life and career, the second of them the poem he himself chose to be his final word.

Two years before his death, Yeats received a request for a “representative” poem for The Erasmian, the magazine of his old Dublin high school. He selected “What Then?” (1937), which lays out for the Erasmus Smith students a planned life of disciplined labor, aimed at achieving what Yeats’s own schoolmates, his “chosen comrades,” believed to be his destiny, a belief in which he concurred: that he would “grow a famous man.” Writing intimately though in the third person, “he” tells the young students and us that he “crammed” his twenties “with toil,” and that, in time, “Everything he wrote was read.” He attained “sufficient money for his need,” true friends, and that predestined yet industriously sought-after fame. Eventually, “All his happier dreams came true”: house, wife, daughter, son; “Poets and wits about him drew.” But this self-satisfied rehearsal of accomplishment has been challenged by the refrain ending each stanza: “‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’” As in “Man and the Echo,” despite best-laid plans, an ultimate uncertainty attends the certainty of death. In the fourth and final stanza, as the litany of achievement mounts in passionate intensity, the opposing challenge from the world beyond earthly accomplishment also reaches a crescendo:

“The work is done,” grown old he thought,
“According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought”;
But louder sang that ghost, “What Then?”

In “The Choice,” in the 1933 Winding Stair, Yeats had declared that “the intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” The “something” brought to “perfection” here is clearly the second choice. Must “he” therefore, as in “The Choice,” “refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark”? Momentous in import despite its casual tone, “What Then?” revisits the “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” with the spiritual spokesman, despite being restricted to two words, at last mounting a potent challenge. The refrain Yeats places in the breathless mouth of that formidable ghost—“What then?”—fuses the Idealism of that “Plato [who] thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things” and the Hindu tatah kim (you may have gained glory and accomplished all your desires: what further?) with the question raised in the synoptic gospels: what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his immortal soul? Here as always, dialectical Yeats is not quite succumbing to the spiritual; “his” litany of achievements is essentially imaginative rather than material, and it is warranted. Instead, Yeats is vacillating “between extremities” or “antinomies” (“Vacillation,” I), and, in the process, making poetry out of the quarrel with himself. It was Yeats’s chosen counter-weight to Plato and Plotinus, Nietzsche, who said, “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[32]

Yeats himself wanted to end his canon on a lighter note, “seduced” to flesh-and-blood “existence” from the outset (and confirmed in the conclusion) of a poem even shorter and more occasional than “What Then?” Apparently frivolous, even irresponsible or unseemly on its surface, the little poem “Politics” (May 1938) responds to its epigraph, a recent comment by Thomas Mann: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.”[33] Yeats’s response, anticipating the modern cry to make love not war, looks before as well as after:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Why would Yeats choose this seemingly offhand poem rather than the portentous “Under Ben Bulben” to be his final word? In part, I think, because under its colloquial surface, “Politics” resonates with poetic tradition. Even in the midst of political turmoil and looming war, Yeats is affirming the primary theme of lyric poetry, epitomized in the old and anonymous cri de coeur petitioning the Western Wind to blow so that the lover can return home: “Christ, if my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again!” But the seemingly minor “Politics” also, like “What Then?” and “Vacillation,” echoes the major poem at the heart of this essay.

In their “Dialogue,” Soul commanded Self to “Fix every wandering thought upon” the spiritual; to keep the mind, which should be focused on the One, from “wandering/ To this and that and t’other thing”—especially (in the case of “a man/ Long past his prime,” who should “scorn the earth”) to things emblematical “of love and war.” Yeats, as we saw, was echoing Cicero’s dream of Scipio, whose ghostly grandfather had asked rhetorically, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and condemn what is mortal?” But young Scipio “kept turning my eyes back to earth,” just as the Yeatsian Self turns his eyes down to the blade “upon my knees” wound in female embroidery, choosing, not to be delivered from “the crime of death and birth,” but to plunge into life’s ditch, and “that most fecund ditch of all,/ The folly that man does/ Or must suffer if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.” In “Politics,” in a variation on Soul’s imperious command that Self “Fix every wandering thought” on the One rather than wander to the Many, the restrictive one (“politics”) is actually many (Roman, Russian, Spanish), while the One is “that girl” upon whom the aged, lovelorn poet—as “distracted” from “larger issues” as the speaker was by flesh-and-blood immediacy at the end of “Man and the Echo”—cannot help but “fix” his “attention.”[34]

Yeats arrives in New York in 1932 for the American premiere of The Words Upon the Window Pane.

The ribald old man may be cavalierly abdicating his responsibilities in a world of war and war’s alarms, but his own instinctual and poignant cry from the heart is a hard-to-resist affirmation of life and an acknowledgement that lust can still spur him into song. For Yeats, as for the enthralled warrior in Antony and Cleopatra and Thomas Hardy in “The Annals of War,” star-crossed romantic love is simply a more profound poetic theme than war and politics: a theme that had haunted him from The Wanderings of Oisin on, certainly as meditated on in retrospect. And, whether or not we see the last line of “Politics” as looking back to The Wanderings of Oisin and so “giving a circular, reincarnative shape to the ‘book’ of Yeats’s poems,”[35] the opening and closing lines of “Politics” bring us, in Yeats’s version of Joyce’s inevitable vicus of recirculation, back to Maud Gonne.

For even here one wonders if “that girl standing there”—“not a real incident, but a moment of meditation,” he told Dorothy Wellesley—is not one more “form” of Maud (“Which of her forms has shown her substance right?”). In “Among School Children,” having just recorded that “tale” his “Ledaean” Maud “Told of a harsh reproof or trivial event/ That changed some childish day to tragedy,” the poet and senatorial school inspector looks out at the Many, one child or the other in the classroom, wondering “if she stood so at that age—/ For even daughters of the swan can share/ Something of every paddler’s heritage”; and “thereupon my heart is driven wild:/ She stands before me as a living child.” If “that girl standing there” in “Politics” is in any way a “form” of Maud, it would clarify both the old man’s distraction from war and war’s alarms, and the climactic placement of “Politics” as Yeats’s poetic farewell, a last kiss given to the void.[36]

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” that central text radiating out to so much else, Maud may also seem a vivid presence that disappears. Even the folly that man does or must suffer in unrequited love seems absolved in the final blessing, and subsumed by the all-inclusive symbol of Sato’s sword wound in silk. Crucial as that double-icon is, such Romantic symbolism may seem both antiquated and unrelated to that “proud woman not kindred of his soul.” But sword and embroidery might be illuminated by juxtaposition with three earlier Maud Gonne poems. In 1899, the poet wished to spread at his beloved’s feet “the heaven’s embroidered cloths.” As we’ve also seen, when, four years later, Maud “went from” Yeats, he “could find/ Nothing to make a song about but kings,/ Helmets and swords, and half-forgotten things/ That were like memories of you” (“Reconciliation,” 1909). In the title phrase of a poem written between these two, in 1905, he advises us, “O do not love too long,/ Or you will grow out of fashion/ Like an old song.” Returning to “Dialogue,” we can finally name the “proud woman not kindred of his soul,” and find, in that poem’s sword and silk, half-forgotten and out-of-fashion things that were like memories of Maud.

Yet, the lovelorn heart, the place “where all the ladders start,” is not where they end. For in the end, says Yeats in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” it was the playwriting and the poetry that “took all my love,/ And not those things that they were emblems of.” It was in this sense, even more than in his marriage and intimate relationships with “others,” that Yeats “turned aside” from the “great labyrinth” of Maud Gonne. Fergus had falsely promised a haven where frustrated lovers would “no more turn aside and brood/ Upon love’s bitter mystery.” But Yeats could turn aside from Maud Gonne only, paradoxically, through the power of his own words written for her: not even she could triumph over the poetry she inspired and which then absorbed its genesis. Unsurprisingly, given that Yeats intensified polarities for dramatic effect, “all” is by far the most frequent word in his vocabulary, as it was in that of his mentor, Blake, who declared that “without Contraries” there could be “no progression.” Yeats had asked in 1911, “What of her that took/ All till my youth was gone?” In old age he counters with another hyperbolic more than half-truth: the poems and plays “took all my love,” not those things that they were emblems of.[37]

Finally, what of his central “emblem,” that “male” sword wound in “female” silk? The sword’s “flowering, silken, old embroidery…round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound,” may have personal associations with the “heaven’s embroidered cloths” he once wished to spread under the feet of Maud Gonne, her beauty at once palpable and “imagined within/ The labyrinth of the mind.” But that embroidery has emblematic reverberations beyond Junzo Sato’s gift, and exceeding autobiographical connections with Maud Gonne. Here, as always in his mature work, Yeats has woven a “personal emotion…into a general pattern of myth and symbol.” For that labyrinthine, wound embroidery replicates the archetypally female, ultimately life-affirming spiral. Not only the gyring stair in Yeats’s Norman tower and in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” but in the overarching design—rondural and “feminine” —of The Winding Stair as a volume, both in 1929 and as expanded in 1933.

—Pat Keane/ April 2015

Patrick J Keane smaller

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

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson reminds us. In pursuing my particular theme on this occasion, I’ve neglected much of the other poetry on which Yeats’s claim to preeminence rests. Even being highly selective, I need mention only “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”; the two Byzantium poems; the two “Songs from a Play”; the two Coole Park poems; the great triad of world-transforming annunciations: “Leda and the Swan,” “The Mother of God,” and “The Second Coming”; the two splendid sequences added to The Winding Stair, “Vacillation” and the Crazy Jane poems; and, above all, the two sustained political sequences: “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and (arguably Yeats’s single greatest masterpiece) “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” In self- justification, I would insist that, if what I’ve said here is only part of the truth, it is part of the truth
  2. Having donated it to the library, I had been asked to say something about On the Boiler, which, reluctantly, I did. In this pamphlet, Yeats deplores the replacement of “the better stocks” by the “stupider and less healthy.” Culturally, too, the best is being driven out by “the inferior.” There “was once a stock company playing Shakespeare in every considerable town”; but now the signs of civilizational decline “are already visible in the degeneration of literature, newspapers, amusements.” Three-quarters of a century later, it is hard to disagree. But few will want to follow Yeats, who elsewhere longs for “minds strong enough to lead others,” when he calls upon “the educated classes” to take “control” before the “uneducatable masses” multiply. In his most reckless and fascistic romanticizing of violence, the man on the boiler dreams of civil war, “with the victory of the skillful, riding their machines as did the feudal knights their armoured horses.” He even praises the skill of the “twenty-four” among the 400 German “submarine commanders” who accounted for 60% of the shipping damage in World War I. “The danger,” in 1938, he says, “is that there will be no war, that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilization, like those other civilizations that saw the triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.”
  3. What Yeats calls in the letter “our most recent event” included the killing of five additional dogs by these neighbors. He notes that his wife “hates ‘blue shirts’,” the nationalistic-fascistic movement with which he himself flirted, though he is clearly appalled by “the Hitler touch.”
  4. My best man, Bill Baumert, was resourceful as well as generous. His wife, who was ill, had not come to the wedding. She’d packed the book, but not his trousers!—a discovery he made an hour before the ceremony. Bill drove frantically into Hartford, a city he did not know, found a suit (the inseams were shortened by gluing the material), and got back just in time for the wedding.
  5. The list was discovered by Curtis Bradford. See his “Chronology of Composition” and “The Order of Yeats’s Last Poems,” in Yeats’s “Last Poems” Again, Dolmen Press Yeats Centenary Papers (1966), ed. Liam Miller.
  6. The sequence is an example of ring-composition. Flanked by two framing poems (I and XI), the others lead up to and away from the still center, Poem VI, “Chosen,” in a concentric pattern, with II paired with X, III with IX, IV with VIII, and V with VII. In “Chosen,” the “lot” chosen by the old woman is the same “lot” chosen and “forgiven” by Self in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” When the old woman is questioned about her “utmost pleasure with a man,” she takes “That stillness for a theme/ Where his heart my heart did seem/ And both adrift on the miraculous stream,” a stream “Where—wrote a learned astrologer—/The Zodiac is changed into a sphere.” Yeats borrows his stanza structure from John Donne (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”) and his astrology from Macrobius, the same 4th-century Neoplatonist whose Commentary on Scipio’s Dream helped define the debate in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and shaped (or deformed) the occult musings of the opening four lines of stanza V of “Among School Children.”
  7. “Odour of blood” echoes the lines, written a year earlier, in which Yeats brilliantly synopsized the logic-defying god-as-man miracle that disrupted the rational classical world: “Odour of blood when Christ was slain/ Made all Platonic tolerance vain/ And vain all Doric discipline.” In The Winding Stair, “everything” connected with “power” and “life” has “the stain of blood,” though —according to the final lines of “Blood and the Moon”—“no stain/ Can come upon the visage of the moon/ When it has looked in glory from a cloud.” The short poem, “Oil and Blood,” immediately following “Blood and the Moon” grotesquely simplifies its antithesis. In contrast to holy men and women entombed in gold and lapis lazuli, under loads of trampled clay “Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood,/ Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet.” The only poem in the volume, both in 1929 and 1933, more theatrically blood-drenched is Poem VIII of “A Woman Young and Old,” in which a woman “too old for a man’s love,” to “find if withered vein ran blood,” tears “my body that its wine might cover/ Whatever could recall the lip of lover.” This act of sexual mutilation evokes a vision of her slain Adonis-like counterpart, her “heart’s victim and its torturer”—“That thing all blood and mire, that beast-torn wreck.”
  8. The gleam of the “malicious eyes” that cast upon Self a distorting lie so powerful that he falls victim to it is borrowed from the opening stanza of Browning’s quest-poem, in which the first thought of Childe Roland was that he was being “lied” to by that sadistic cripple, “with malicious eye/ Askance to watch the working of his lie/ On mine.” (The earlier allusion, to Browning’s Duke, refers of course to “My Last Duchess.”) Even closer to Self’s temporarily mistaken belief that that “defiling” shape “cast upon” him by mirroring eyes “must be his shape” is the initially deluded, masochistic cry of Blake’s Oothoon (2: 36-39) for her “defiled bosom” to be rent away so that she “may reflect/ The image” of the very man (the moralistic sadist, Theotormon, who, having raped her, now brands her “harlot”) whose “loved” but unloving “eyes” have cast upon her precisely this “defiled” shape—one of Blake’s, and now Yeats’s, grimmest ironies. But both recover.
  9. The diagram was drawn on p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (1901). Given to Yeats as a gift in 1902 by attorney and patron of the arts John Quinn, it is now in the Special Collections of the library at Northwestern University. First mentioned by Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats), these annotations were transcribed for me by another late, great scholar, Erich Heller.
  10. To mention just the three most salient: along with Shakespeare’s chastened Lear (“We’ll live,/ And pray, and sing, and…laugh”) and the Wordsworth of “Tintern Abbey” (sure “that all which we behold/ Is full of blessings”), there is, minus his orthodox “kind saint,” Coleridge’s watersnake-blessing Mariner, who tells us that, having perceived the previously “slimy” creatures in all their iridescent vital beauty, “A spring of love gushed from my heart,/ And I blessed them unaware.”
  11. This poem, long titled “The Fisherman,” precedes the Aengus poem in The Wind Among the Reeds. The fish-woman “may hide in the ebb and flow/ Of the pale tide when the moon has set,” but people in time to come will know how the poet cast his net, “and how you have leaped times out of mind/ Over the little silver cords,/ And think that you were hard and unkind,/ And blame you with many bitter words.”
  12. The Trembling of the Veil (1922): Four Years, 1887-1891, §V. In the unpublished version, he writes of that first encounter: “I was twenty-three when the troubling of my life began. I had never thought to see in a woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past” (Memoirs [1973], 40). Though Maud thought they had first met in 1887, at John O’Leary’s house, Yeats, as the more thunderstruck, is likelier to be right about the date: January 30, 1889. That meeting was at Bedford Park when Maud came, bearing an introduction from O’Leary, to visit Yeats’s artist father. That was the ostensible purpose; but, as Yeats’s sisters surmised, she may have been more interested in meeting the young poet who, having just published The Wandering of Oisin, seemed a promising talent to be enlisted in Ireland’s cause.
  13. In an 1803 letter to his friend Thomas Butts, Blake said he was able to praise his epic poem Milton, “since I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary; the Authors are in Eternity.”
  14. For a Berenice-related Yeatsian fusion of Eve’s “disheveled hair” in Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s earlier combining of Milton and the Berenice myth in The Rape of the Lock, see the discussion, below, of “Who Goes with Fergus?” The myth is straightforwardly adopted in Yeats’s much later poem, XIII in “Words for Music Perhaps,” in the 1933 Winding Stair. A woman dreams “That I had shorn my locks away/ And laid them on Love’s lettered tomb:/ But something bore them out of sight/ In a great tumult of the air,/ And after nailed upon the night/ Berenice’s burning hair.” (“Her Dream,” 1929)
  15. A decade later, in “His Memories,” the Man of Poem VI of “A Man Young and Old” (in The Tower) claims that, while his aged body is now broken, he can remember when the “first of all the tribe”—“She who had brought great Hector down/ And put all Troy to wreck”—lay in his arms and “did such pleasure take/…That she cried into this ear,/ ‘Strike me if I shriek’.” Readers would know, of course, that any reference to Helen of Troy was to be read as meaning Maud.
  16. To Yeats’s immediate grief, though it triggered a mature reassessment on his part, Maud quickly reverted to their previous, intimate but non-sexual relationship. See below, discussion of “A Man Young and Old.”
  17. Along with the odd number of swans, there is another anomaly in the poem: lines 1 and 3 of each stanza are unrhymed. From the time of his first visit to Coole Park, in 1897, Yeats had associated Maud with swans. He told her in an unpublished poem written that year, “it is/ of you I sing when I tell/ of the swan in the water.” In this volume, even a creature of change–the charming yet mysterious replicator of the lunar phases who, in “The Cat and the Moon,” creeps through the grass, “Alone, important and wise,/ And lifts to the changing moon/ His changing eyes”—is related to lunar Maud. Referred to by name, Minnaloushe was her black male Persian.
  18. In “the old days,” we are told in “Her Praise,” because of her beauty and revolutionary energy, “she had young men’s praise and old men’s blame.” But “Among the poor both old and young gave her praise.” In the second, Yeats, defending art from philistine attacks, complains of being unappreciated by the Irish people. But then he recalls remarks made by Maud, who—even when the “dishonest crowd I had driven away…set upon me” those she had “served” and sometimes “fed”— never, then or ever, “Complained of the people.” He responds that she has “not lived in thought but deed,” and so has “the purity of a natural force,” while he finds it hard to hold his “critical tongue.” And yet, “because my heart leaped at her words,/ I was abashed, and now they come to mind/After nine years, I sink my head abashed.”
  19. Yeats is fusing images from Hamlet and King Lear. “How fares our cousin Hamlet? asks Claudius. “Excellent, i’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish,” quips Hamlet; “I eat the air, promise crammed. You cannot feed capons so.” In addition to drinking the air, the voracious image of Maud “took a mess of shadows for its meat.” When he foolishly casts his child Cordelia from him, Lear makes his “sometime daughter” as alien to him as “he that makes his generations messes/ To gorge his appetite.” The closeness disclaimed by Lear, “propinquity,” is echoed by Yeats in “A Bronze Head,” an even more richly Shakespearean poem. Yeats borrows from King Lear not only that rare word, “propinquity,” but, obviously, the “hysterica passio” of Maud’s inner “emptiness.” Most importantly, when Yeats wonders which of Maud’s “forms” has shown “her substance right,” he is echoing Sonnet 53, where Shakespeare wonders about the beloved’s Platonic essence and its relationship to her accidental attributes, her external appearances: “What is your substance, whereof are you made,/ That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”
  20. As noted earlier, Yeats was remembering the same passage of the Aeneid in recalling his first glimpse of Maud. She seemed to him a “classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation ‘She walks like a goddess’ made for her alone.” Gwynn was a Protestant constitutional nationalist. For his vivid description of the electrifying impact of Cathleen ni Houlihan, see his Irish Literature and Drama (1936), 158-60.
  21. The poem is “The Lover mourns for the Loss of Love” (1898), in The Wind Among the Reeds. Privately, Yeats quotes Olivia directly: “There is someone else in your heart” (Memoirs, 88-89).
  22. Maud had been arrested on suspicion of complicity in the non-existent “German plot.” The splendid “On a Political Prisoner,” written in January 1919 (published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer) is about Con Markiewicz; but, as Yeats wrote to George “I’m writing [a poem] on Con to avoid writing one on Maud. All of them in prison…” After her release, Maud was living in London, forbidden to return to Ireland, when she suddenly showed up at 73 St. Stephen’s Green. She was furious at being turned away from her own door, and, as Denis Donoghue remarks, “it took several years for the wounds to heal, if they ever healed” (We Irish, 224).
  23. Prior to his marriage, among other affairs with Abbey actresses, there were a few nights with the gifted and sexually-sophisticated Florence Farr, who remarked, “I can do this for myself.”
  24. Bloom, Yeats (1970), 459.
  25. The rest of the poem, songs to open and close the curtain of the play The Resurrection, was written in 1926; this final stanza was added in 1931. For the late addition of the “heart” references to “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” see Curtis Bradford, Yeats at Work (1965), 164.
  26. Damage to which I very nearly contributed in 1995, when I almost dropped the piece of lapis I’d been invited to examine during a visit to the home of Michael and Gráinne Yeats.
  27. A week later, dictating to his wife days before his actual death, Yeats wrote “The Black Tower,” in which he resumes the heroic mask shed in “Cuchulain Comforted” and “Man and the Echo.” Here, “the men of the old black tower,” though down to their last provisions and faced with a relentless, sordid enemy, remain “all…oath-bound men;/ Those banners come not in.” Their final exclamation—“Stand we on guard oath-bound!”—echoes an assertion Yeats liked to quote from his favorite Anglo-Irish hero. Defending the merits of the Ancients against the Moderns, Jonathan Swift pronounced himself a man “appointed to guard a position.” “The Black Tower” has its own merits, but we are right to regret its place of honor as Yeats’s very last poem.
  28. “Can you give me a message for India?” Professor Bose asked Yeats at the end of their 1936 interview. Insisting on “the antinomy,” Yeats’s “message” was war. “He strode swiftly across the room, took up Sato’s sword, unsheathed it dramatically and shouted, ‘Conflict, more conflict’.” (Quoted in Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats [1943], 491). There may also be a hint of melodrama in the more important question Yeats asked himself: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” No, according to the irreverent Paul Muldoon, who has W. H Auden respond (in the “Wystan” section of Muldoon’s long, many-voiced poem, “7, Middagh Street”): “‘Certainly not.//If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead/ would certain men have stayed in bed?’” Muldoon’s point, appropriately placed in the mouth of Auden (who had declared in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen”), is that history is the “twisted root,” and poetry, “art,” its “small, translucent fruit//and never the other way round.” On balance, I think Yeats’s question is sincere.
  29. Coleridge’s language here (uncertain whether “I suffered or I did,” with all seeming “remorse or woe”) was earlier echoed and altered in the “Dialogue,” where Self “cast[s] out remorse” regarding “the folly that man does/ Or must suffer, if he woos” a woman like Maud Gonne.
  30. The repeated “or” seems to me to echo not only Coleridge’s “whether I suffered or I did,” “remorse or woe,” but, more importantly, as in “Lapis Lazuli,” the repetition in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In all three cases, the description is of things not seen, but vividly imagined.
  31. Virgil, Aeneid I.462. Wordsworth, final lines of “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood.”
  32. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. III.3.The young editor of The Erasmian who phoned Yeats for a submission and first printed “What Then?” was A. Norman Jeffares, who went on to become a biographer of Yeats and a pioneering scholar of his work. Essays in his memory have recently been published in a special issue (#18) of the Yeats Annual. J. M. Kennedy, the first translator of Nietzsche’s Die Morgenröte (Dawn or Daybreak), also translated, in the same year (1913), the Satakas (or Wise Sayings) of the Hindu hermit-poet, Bhartrahari, whose Vairagasataka §71 I paraphrased in glossing tatah kim.
  33. Mann’s remark was quoted in Archibald MacLeish’s spring 1938 Yale Review article, “Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry.” Yeats was pleased by the article’s praise of his work. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley (DWL, 163), he revealed the immediate stimulus of his poem: MacLeish’s remark that because of his “age” and relation to Ireland, Yeats was unable to use this “public” language on what was “obviously considered the right public material, politics.”
  34. Roman, Russian, Spanish: did German politics, even responding to Thomas Mann, a prominent opponent of Nazism, play no part in Yeats’s thoughts in 1938 about impending war? In lines intended for “Under Ben Bulben” he presented a different triad, wondering about “the odds if war must come/ From Moscow, from Berlin, or Rome?” Having declined to nominate for the Nobel in Literature an anti-Nazi German writer, Yeats explained to Ethel Mannin (in an April 1936 letter) why, despite her urging, the prize should not be politicized. He cited “The Second Coming,” a 1919 poem that “foretold what is happening” in 1936, as evidence that “he has not been silent,” and that he is not now “callous”; that “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.”
  35. A suggestion advanced and retracted by Warwick Gould, in his appendix to Yeats’s Poems, edited and annotated by A. Norman Jeffares (1989). In Appendix Six, 749n76, Gould finds the suggestion “tempting,” but suspects it may be “too neat to accord with Yeats’s last days.” Perhaps; but, as evidenced by the rondural design of The Winding Stair and the concentric structure of “A Woman Young and Old,” Yeats was fascinated by such circularity.
  36. As just noted (n.31), “Politics” was the poet’s direct response, as he reported to Dorothy Wellesley, to MacLeish’s reference to Yeats’s “age” and the question of “politics.” He also told her that the poem’s subject matter—the distraction from discussion of potential war caused by “that girl standing there”—was “not a real incident, but a moment of meditation.” Who better to meditate on than “that one.”
  37. The Concordance reveals that Yeats used “all” twice as often as its nearest competitor, “old.” There are some double-“alls,” almost all Maud-related. “Never Give all the Heart” (1905) ends: “He that made this knows all the cost,/ For he gave all his heart and lost.” A decade later, in “Broken Dreams,” he is certain that “in the grave all, all shall be renewed,” and that he “shall see” Maud again in her “first loveliness.” In “The Cold Heaven” (1912), he assumes all the guilt for love’s failure, then instantly takes it back: “And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason.” In a forthcoming essay on ‘The Cold Heaven,” Denis Donoghue refers to this line as “the line I most dislike in Yeats’s poems.” He adds that “its only competitor for me in that regard is the line in ‘The Tower’ about Mrs. French, ‘Gifted with so fine an ear.” I seldom disagree with Denis Donoghue on Yeats, but I can think of lines more bombastic than “And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,” and I have to confess that I actually like the black humor of the line on Mrs. French, especially the outrageous pun on “gifted.” Donoghue’s essay, “Reading ‘The Cold Heaven’,” will appear in Yeats 150, a volume of essays (including one of my own) compiled by Declan Foley to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.
Jun 052015

New Mexico landscape



THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.


We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm


Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.


Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.


Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.



In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.


While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?


American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.



Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.


The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.



The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.


Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.


American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.


I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.


Kate McCahill



Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at