Feb 102015
 

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

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Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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River, Stars, and Blessed Failure

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

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

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

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

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

—Sydney Lea

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

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

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Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

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

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

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

The catalog description reads:

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

—Dao Strom

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

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

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

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

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Feb 082015
 

Lawrence Sutin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Lawrence Sutin

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

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Feb 072015
 

Charlie-Hebdo-L-Amour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

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

—Patrick J. Keane

January/ February 2015

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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

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

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

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

— Genese Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immanuel_Kant_3Immanuel Kant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Genese Grill


Genese Grill2

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

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

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

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

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

Michael

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

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

Levi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

PART II (Nov 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

levels-of-life

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

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

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

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CODA

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

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

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

— Michael Bryson [1]

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

 

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

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

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

    Read on.

Jan 072015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benn 2

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

Little Aster

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

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

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

morgue

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

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

Benn2

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

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

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

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

Mossed teeth in pimpled face
Waves to incipient stye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(“Late”)

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

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

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

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

Gladioli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “Par Ci, Par La”)

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

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

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

(“They Are Human After All”)

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

*

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

Cavalli

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

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

Said.

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

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

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

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

patrizia

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

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

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

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

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

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

(translated by Geoffrey Brock)

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

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

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

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

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

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

Patrizia-Cavalli

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

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

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

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

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

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

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

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

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

—David Rivard

.

Rivard 2012 CR 2

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

Jan 022015
 

Author photo by Christine McNair

 

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

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

 

1.

Fiction takes forever. One slow word against another.

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

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

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

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

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

This is about precision.

/

2.

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

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

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

/

3.

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

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

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

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

/

4.

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

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

/

5.

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

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

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

This is something you might already know.

/

6.

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

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

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

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

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

—rob mclennan

 

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

 

 

Dec 062014
 

emily_dickinson_daguerreotype_-large-


1

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

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

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

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

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

William_WordsworthWilliam Wordsworth

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

Wordsworth_Excursion

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

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

iemersr001p1Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

virginia-woolfVirginia Woolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel-BowlesSamuel Bowles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Patrick J. Keane

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

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PAT kEANE

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

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Nov 112014
 

AlastairReidAlastair Reid — 1926-2014

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

Scotland

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

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

QueenApparently, the Union needed Scotland, and vice versa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emigrants

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

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

Whithorn Manse

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

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

Is it never dead, then,
that need of an Eden?

Even this evening,
estranged by age,
I ogle that light
with a child’s greed,
wistfully claiming
lost prerogatives
of homecoming.

Reid understood that what the landscape offered and what the people offered could be radically different things. But he did find a number of places that came closer to what he was searching for, especially in the landscape and language of Spain and Latin America, and in the character of their people. It was this level of comfort that allowed him to focus on learning Spanish – to hunger for it, to eat it up and beg for more – and begin his highly-praised works of translation.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.” In his essay titled “Digging Up Scotland,” published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Reid makes clear that his restlessness had something to do with finding a place where he could “feel one” with his surroundings:

“I have a friend in Scotland, a painter,” he wrote, “who still lives in the fishing town he was born in, grew up in, went to school in, was married in, raised his children in, works in, and clearly intends to die in. I look on him with uncomprehending awe, for although I had much the same origins, born and sprouting in rural Scotland…I had in my head from an early age the firm notion of leaving….He has made his peace with place in a way that to me is, if not unimaginable, at least by now beyond me. ”

Reid seldom stayed in one place long enough to have what he considered a permanent address; his mail was delivered to the offices of The New Yorker, where he let stacks of it pile up for months. His unease with permanence is clearly visible in his poems, where two perceived opposites often pull against each other, interfering with any hope that the tug-of-war will be settled or the people involved come to rest, as seen in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “What Bones Say”:

The skeleton
is hardly a lesson
in human nature.

Similarly, stones
are the bones of landscapes,
and yet trees blossom

in contradiction.
We are much more
than our brittle topography.

In those lines, see how beautifully Reid handles the simple language – in the near-rhyme of “skeleton” with “lesson,” the full rhyme of “stones” with “bones,” and in the echo that chimes between “lesson,” “blossom” and “contradiction” – not overwhelming readers with musicality, but giving us just enough. I admire the courage he has to say something as large as “We are much more / than our brittle topography.” He approaches language the same way in the other poems transcribed here – the abundant alliteration in “Scotland” and its chiming verbs – “shimmer” and “shivered” – the triptych of “idly,” “eyes” and “inside” in “Whithorn Manse,” its full rhymes (“white” and “alight) and near-rhymes (“need,” “Eden” and “garden.”) Reid’s poems seem spoken at first, easy and conversational, but the music on which they rise is carefully and thoroughly composed.

In the same New Yorker essay mentioned above, Reid writes, “The natural world and the human world separated early for me. I felt them to be somehow in contradiction, and still do. The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality, and perhaps in reaction to the changing turbulence of weather, subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt, from the beginning, exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second. Tramps used to stop at our house, men of the road, begging a cup of tea or an old shirt, and in my mind I was always ready to leave with them, because between Scotland and myself I saw trouble ahead.”

He traveled first to Spain; it was during his time in Majorca – six years, off and on — that he met and became friends with the poet Robert Graves (about whom I wrote in my Undersung article about poet-novelists.) Their friendship ended when Reid fell in love with – and ran away with, temporarily – Graves’s muse, Margot Callas. Though Callas eventually returned to Graves, the conversations and apprenticeship Reid once enjoyed with the older poet were finished. In an essay Reid wrote on the occasion of what would have been Graves’s 100th birthday, he chided Graves for having been “mired in domesticity” during his first marriage, but then Reid becomes more conciliatory, saying “The English have always kept Graves at a distance, as if he were an offshore island, out of the mainstream – something they often do with English writers who choose to live elsewhere and are still successful.”

MajorcaThe Majorca home of Robert Graves – “an offshore island, out of the mainstream”

The same might be said of Reid himself – an offshore island in the sea of British literature. His most important books are out of print; these include his poetry collection Oases; Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations; Outside In: Selected Prose; Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner; and Weathering: Poems and Translations. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’re in luck – he contributed articles and poems there for more than forty years, and my quick search of their archives produced 152 hits.

In addition to “Scotland,” Reid’s most anthologized poem is “Curiosity,” about a dog’s and cat’s (but mostly human’s) view of the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat,” with the poet coming down hard in favor of being curious. Click here to hear it read by Reid himself over at The Poetry Archive. Rather than transcribe the poem so you can read it, I hope you will finish this essay and then go over to The Poetry Archive to listen to it.  We’re lucky to have recordings of these poems(as well as three others) in Reid’s own voice, since it was voice that he valued above all other qualities in a poem.

In an essay about translating his friends Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, he wrote, “I realized I couldn’t read a poem of Neruda’s simply as words put down on the page without hearing behind them his languid and caressing voice. The most important thing to me in translating these two poets was the sound of their voices in my memory, since this helped in finding my way in with the appropriate English….The key was voice.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda — from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

He went on to say, “For me, Neruda’s poems were fundamentally voiced – spoken poems of direct discourse – his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.” Describing one lecture he went to at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reid says Neruda’s voice “spread out like a balm over the English crowd; a magical sound, even without the thread of meaning.” [Note: my source for these quotations from the essay about Borges and Neruda was in Spanish – the translations are my own.]

1754-PABLO_NERUDA_5-630x350Pablo Neruda – “…his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.”

It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”

Reid and Borges

Reid (second from left) and Jorge Luis Borges (third from left)

One of Reid’s most interesting observations about Borges focused on his blindness: “After many conversations with Borges, from the most serious to the most entertaining, I came to the profound realization that for him, I existed only as a voice. Maybe this led me to the deep conviction that voice is the most long-lasting incarnation of my existence. Even more, it is in voices rather than photographs that the dead remain alive.”

borges-in-libraryJorge Luis Borges – “…for him, I existed only as a voice.”

At one point, Reid explains Borges’s style: “He spoke English with the respect a language well-known to him deserved, but within which he did not live – that is, with the controlled cadence of literature. On other occasions, in the company of Spanish-speakers, he was more playful, less solemn. Still, I think his bilingual upbringing gave him a sense of the arbitrary and fickle nature of language: a bilingual person is more aware of the gulf that exists between word and object than someone limited to a single language.”

ouncedicetrice

Reid’s awareness of the strange nature of words and his innate playfulness (in Charles McGrath’s obituary write-up, Reid is remembered as “cheerful, funny, and irreverent, with high expressive eyebrows that were frequently squeezed together in amusement”) show up full force in his picture book Ounce Dice Trice, a collection of nonsense – that is, a collection of real but relatively unknown words – tantony, quicklings, moonglade, etc. – revealed to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef might reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish. In the book, Reid creates several imaginative ways of counting from one to ten without numerals (“Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist” and “Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.” The words sound like they come straight off the playground. Of course, the whole point of the book is wordplay, emphasizing that “gulf between word and object” recognized by people who have learned more than one language. Illustrations by Ben Shahn make the book a collector’s item – previously out of print, it’s now available again thanks to the New York Review Children’s Collection.

Ben ShahnReid himself was a gongoozler….

Reid’s origins might have been provincial — even restrictive — but as he grew his poetry and prose became more and more cosmopolitan and expansive. He regarded translation as an act resembling “bewitchment,” and he wrote that the translation of someone else’s work required “not only reading it deeply and deciphering it, but climbing on top of the scenery backstage, up onto the supports and the scaffolding.”

I often wished while getting my MFA that the program I attended had offered a translation track. Translation seems to me one of the best ways – almost acrobatic, according to Reid — to capture and understand how a poem works. Reid understood the way a poem could float out over the reader “without the thread of meaning,” though with his own poetry we are lucky enough to find both meaning and music.

Poem without Ends

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

— Julie Larios

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

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Nov 082014
 

Frank Richardson bio pict 2The author outside a bakery in Bamberg, Germany

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For a long time, as I read, I paid no more attention to the length of sentences than I did to their grammar or syntax. It wasn’t until I discovered Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that I learned to appreciate how long and short sentences can be juxtaposed for emphasis and how syntax can mimic the flow of thought and action. Of course, Proust is famous for his long sentences, some of which extend well beyond 200 words; these sentences intrigued me the most. The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

But why labor to construct a 200-word-long sentence when a dozen shorter sentences can communicate the same information and not task the reader’s attention and patience? A sentence is greater than the sum of its propositions. A sentence’s syntax – the order in which the words of the sentence are arranged – affects its emotional impact, e.g. placing a proposition at the end of a sentence engenders suspense. But the possibilities extend far beyond this simple example. In Artful Sentences Virginia Tufte limns an incredible range of syntactic arrangements that function symbolically. She describes “syntactic symbolism” as when “syntax as style has moved beyond the arbitrary, the sufficient, and is made so appropriate to content that, sharing the very qualities of the content, it is carried to that point where it seems not only right but inevitable” (271). In the following excerpt from the novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard uses repetitive syntax to symbolically represent the protagonist’s mania for perfection, viz. he corrects himself while explaining the process of correction:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification . . . (242)

Tufte cites many examples to illustrate the diversity of emotional and mimetic effects of syntactic symbolism. What Tufte calls syntactic symbolism, David Jauss calls “rhythmic mimesis” and notes that “sometimes the syntax does more than convey the appropriate emotion; sometimes it also rhythmically imitates the very experience it is describing . . .” (70-71).[1] The rhythm of the syntax in Bernhard’s prose conveys the protagonist’s exasperation while simultaneously informs on his character. But the “experience” Jauss refers to can mean movement, whether physical action or the more nebulous movement of human thought. I’ve found these types of motion mimesis to be particularly effective applications of the extended syntax of long sentences.

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

It is important to note that neither Tufte nor Jauss restrict their examples to long sentences; rhythmic mimesis can be conveyed by sentences of all lengths. But given my penchant for longer sentences, I began looking for how they might be used in the manner Jauss and Tufte describe. After surveying a wide range of fiction (different time periods, genres, narrative modes, etc.), I noticed a pattern whereby authors applied long sentences effectively to create a rhythmic mimesis of motion, speech, consciousness, and even character. In the last category a long list can be used to communicate a fictional character’s character, as exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s obsessive memoirist in The Mezzanine. Motion mimesis – using prose to imitate actions – is an excellent use of long sentences with stunning examples found in such diverse works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many of Faulkner’s stories, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Spoken language is no less rhythmic than written, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal demonstrates that long sentences can be used to capture the personality and style of a teller of tall tales in his 1964 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In the depiction of the conscious mind in fiction, James Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses still exemplifies how the syntax of long sentences can mimic the rhythm of thought. Two contemporary writers who answered the challenge of capturing the mind’s stream of consciousness include: David Foster Wallace, who in Infinite Jest takes the reader into the realm of the subliminal, of dreams and drug-induced states; and the French writer Mathias Énard, who pushes the boundaries of what we call a sentence even further than Joyce, with his book-length sentence in his 2008 novel Zone.

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The List

The most obvious reason to add propositional content to a sentence is to increase the amount of descriptive detail, and long sentence constructions often contain lists. But the point isn’t to string together a random catalogue of items just to fill the page: lists can elucidate character.

Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine is a daydream, a meditation on life, on questions large and small. The story, presented as a memoir, is told in first-person point of view by Howie, a thirty-year-old factotum obsessed by his childhood. The novel is short, 135 pages, composed of fifteen chapters, many of which have long, detailed footnotes wherein the narrator indulges his love for digression. Howie’s conflict is with himself. He wants to achieve what he calls a “majority,” that is, a moment when he will have “amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones” – the age of forty, by his calculations – but his obsessive recollections, his seeing the world through the screen of childhood memories, remains his primary obstacle (Baker 58). The novel’s plot is built around a single event – an escalator ride – during an ordinary day five years prior to the novel’s present (its fictional time of writing). At that time, Howie worked at an unnamed corporation and takes us from his lunch break back to his office on the building’s mezzanine, with the escalator ride serving as the focal point. In a narrative where there are more tangents than forward motion, a reader might become overwhelmed with the apparently superfluous anecdotes, but these memories, meditations, and observations – and Baker’s seamless segues between them – are the real magic of The Mezzanine.

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

The story begins as the Howie’s lunch hour is ending and he is approaching the escalator leading to the mezzanine of his office building. Howie is an obsessive, voracious observer of the world around him and delights in sharing his observations in this “memoir.” Mid-way through the second paragraph he digresses to inform us about his activities during his lunch hour, including a two-page-long footnote on the history of drinking straws. Thus, it becomes clear early that this escalator ride is going to take some time to complete; indeed, it will take the remainder of this engaging and richly imagined novel. By chapter five Howie hasn’t even stepped onto the escalator; the story has focused on his past. The first paragraph of chapter five is composed of three short sentences and one long cumulative sentence (341 words) that enumerates Howie’s favorite “systems of local transport” as a child, including rotisseries, rotating watch displays, hot dog cookers, and, of course, escalators:

Other people remember liking boats, cars, trains, or planes when they were children – and I liked them too – but I was more interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those overlapping new moons of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner, neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it; and the fringe of rubber strips that marked the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles and men in blue outfits); supermarket checkout conveyor belts, turned on and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal, with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing; and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic numbered containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries would slide out a flapped gateway to the outside; milk-bottling machines we saw on field trips that hurried the queueing [sic] bottles on curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the machine that socked milk into them and clamped them with a paper cap; marble chutes; Olympic luge and bobsled tracks; the hanger-management systems at the dry cleaner’s – sinuous circuits of rustling plastics (NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY!) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store, fanning sideways as they slalomed around old men at antique sewing machines who were making sense of the heap of random pairs of pants pinned with little notes; laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space and cranked them back in when the laundry was dry; the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth’s that rotated whole orange-golden chickens on pivoting skewers; and the rotating Timex watch displays, each watch box open like a clam; the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turned in the opposite direction to the rollers, blistering; gears that (as my father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent them on their way. (35-36)

Howie follows this long catalogue with a short sentence, telling us that the escalator shared qualities with these systems with one notable exception: he could ride the escalator. This telescopes his childhood obsession into adulthood – he can, after all, still ride escalators – where the escalators stimulate Proustian involuntary memories of childhood including, he tells us, memories of his and his father’s shared “mechanical enthusiasms” and of the specific memory of his mother taking him and his sister to department stores and instructing them on escalator safety. This memory, in turn, stirs his concern that he spends too much time (in the present of his writing, not the time of his riding the escalator) thinking of things exclusively in terms of his childhood memories, an epiphany that sets up the last paragraph, a précis for the novel:

I want . . . to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and worth my adult time to think about . . . I will try not to glide on the reminiscential tone, as if only children had the capacity for wonderment at this great contrivance.[2] (39-40)

True to his digressive tendencies, however, the escalator won’t be mentioned again until chapter eight, and it is not until the midpoint in the novel that Howie actually boards the escalator.

Baker’s long list sentence adds character detail to this dense tale. First, note his eye for specifics: the “blistering” of the hot dogs, the “men in blue” at the airport. Second, he uses metaphor and simile: the “new moons of hard rubber” and watch boxes “like open clams.” Thus, the list not only informs on Howie’s whimsical, yet poetic and reflective nature, but also shows us, by example, his obsessive behavior. Howie acknowledges he likes the things other children liked, only he liked something else more, something odd, something unusual; and then he shows us how much it all meant to him with his detailed recollection. Once Howie begins his recollection, he becomes lost in it; his list goes on and on and he can hardly break free from its hold on him as new things are added and elaborated in fractal-like digressions. Howie spirals into many such lavishly detailed memories and the long sentences convey his sense of being lost in contemplation. Despite his continuing attempts to escape the gravitational pull of his childhood, Howie keeps being drawn deep into memory. A convincing stylistic choice, this long list sentence adds detail while simultaneously revealing character through syntactic symbolism – the long, uninterrupted flow of Howie’s list shows us his obsession with his childhood.

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Motion Mimesis

Syntagmatic extension of a sentence always has one consequence: it keeps the reader in the moment. Except for perhaps sentences that run for pages, most readers will read to the end of a long sentence before making a full stop at the period. Dwelling on the action can have several effects depending on the subject, including heightening the emotional impact of the moment, whether that is grief or joy, ecstasy or terror. When actions are depicted by the sentence, the rhythm of the prose can lend itself to mimicking the character’s movement. An excellent example of such motion mimesis is found in the climax of William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.”

“Barn Burning” is a coming-of-age story set in the post-Civil War American South. The 23-page story has a linear timeline, is written in the past tense, and covers six days, from a Monday through a Saturday. The third-person limited point of view focuses on the thoughts of the protagonist, the ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, youngest of the four Snopes children. The paterfamilias, Abner Snopes, is a violent sociopath, and at the beginning of the story he is a suspect in the burning of a barn. After being found not guilty, he loads up his family for the twelfth time in ten years and moves to the next hamlet to find a work on a farm. The day they arrive Snopes indulges his hatred and jealousy by going to the house of the landowner Major de Spain and deliberately soiling an expensive carpet with horse manure. When asked to clean the rug, Snopes destroys it in the process. In court for the second time within a week, Snopes is fined ten bushels of corn; enraged, that night he sets out to burn de Spain’s barn. When he sees that Sarty is shocked, he becomes worried that his son will thwart his plans and has him held back by his mother. After Snopes and the older son leave, Sarty breaks loose and runs to the de Spain mansion where he bursts in and warns them of the imminent arson. Sarty flees down the road toward the barn and is soon passed by de Spain on horseback. Hearing three shots, Sarty believes his father dead and runs away, leaving his family forever. The primary image of “Barn Burning” is “blood,” which Faulkner uses eight times and always in the context of Sarty and his father or family. In the climax Sarty must choose between his father, his blood, and what he feels is the moral, right choice of warning de Spain.

lg-portrait-of-william-faulkner-896William Faulkner

Young Sartoris has an apparently instinctive sense of right and wrong that jars with his father’s violent, malicious behavior. In the opening scene when his father is before “the Justice,” the boy knows his father is guilty: “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 4); and two days later, after his father is told by Major de Spain that he’ll have to pay twenty bushels of corn for destroying the rug, Sarty, working in the field, hopes that this will mark the end of his father’s reign of terror; he thinks: “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish – corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses – gone, done with for ever and ever” (17). He can’t believe it when his father tells him to get the oil; he knows what his father intends to do. As Sarty is fleeing down the road after warning de Spain, his “blood and breath roaring,” he is in a semi-fugue state:

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” (24)

The motion described by the sentence begins with de Spain’s galloping mare gaining on Sarty and continues with him flinging himself into the ditch. After the stunning pause with the juxtaposition of “furious silhouette” and “tranquil . . . night sky (“stained” as blood stains), the motion then gathers momentum as Sarty resumes his sprint. What follows are sixteen more verbs, mostly action verbs, expressed as present participles[3] (as opposed to the past definite). This creates a sense of simultaneity and continuous motion. Faulkner repeats “running” four times and “run” twice within the second half of the sentence; this emphasis extends beyond the motion it is describing to become a metaphor for Sarty and his future. Following the gunshots, he pauses briefly crying the familiar “Pap! Pap!” – his blood; his blood now severed he resumes his run but now he is running away as he had imagined when his father asked him to get the oil: “I could run on and on and never look back . . .” (21). This horrible moment, the defining moment of Sarty’s life, when the choice he made results in the death (at least as far as he can tell) of his father, this desperate race, is captured wonderfully by the Faulkner’s long sentence. The reader is held in suspense as the Sarty runs toward his father and as de Spain rushes to defend his property and is finally swept along with the boy as he runs and runs, never to look back.

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The Never-ending Story

As anyone who has ever listened to a speech knows, there is a rhythm to the spoken word. A speaker may drone on and on and put the audience to sleep, or he can be dynamic, lyrical, and modulate his tone to keep the audience’s attention. Generally we need pauses in a speech; they are necessary moments of reflection and break the monotony of an unchanging cadence. Aside from soliloquy, fictional characters rarely have unmitigated speech; otherwise the writer, like the droning speaker, might lose his audience. So it is intriguing to find a writer who is willing to take up the challenge of writing a continuous monologue without chapters, without section breaks or line breaks; indeed a monologue as a single sentence that captures the rhythm of language while still entertaining the reader. Such is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

First published in Czechoslovakia in 1964 and in an English translation by Michael Henry Heim in 2011, Hrabal’s single-sentence book defies categorization. His friend and reviewer Josef Sǩvorecký called it a “long short story” (Sǩvorecký 7). Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the introduction for the 2011 edition, called it a “novel in one monologue” (Hrabal viii). Semantics aside, this unique story, or collection of tall tales, is a wonderful example of how a writer can sculpt a very long, yet engaging sentence that mimics the spoken word. Hrabal developed his style of story-telling, what he called páblitelé – which Sǩvorecký translates as “tellers of tall tales” and which Thirlwell translates as “palavering” – based on the free-association rambling of oral story-tellers in his life. But this is not a form of automatic writing or free writing – genuine craft is expressed in Hrabal’s prose; the narrator’s monologue (it isn’t really a speech – speeches are organized logically and are intended to communicate specific information – neither of which applies here) is by degrees whimsical, ribald, lyrical, poignant, and profound.

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

Superficially, the book represents the uninterrupted speech of a septuagenarian shoemaker named Jirka who is regaling a group of sunbathing women with his stories of being a soldier during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, his sexual exploits, his opinions on the church and religion, and his humorous digressions of tall tales. It is told in the first-person, mostly in the past tense, and follows real time in that the amount of time it takes to read the 117 pages approximates the time it would take to actually listen to the narrative. Jirka’s desire is to be listened to, to flirt with the ladies; his conflict is keeping his listeners’ attention. But unlike a random, garrulous old man droning on and on, one who won’t let you go until you hear every variation of the same big fish story, Jirka keeps us listening:

neither Havlíček nor Christ ever laughed, if anything they wept, because when you stand for a great idea you can’t horse around, Havlíček had a brain like a diamond, the professors went gaga over him, they tried to make him a bishop, but no, he chose justice, a little coffee, a little wine, and a life for the people, stamping out illiteracy, only perverse people dream of rolling in manure (better days ahead) or of chamber pots (your future is assured) because the thing is, dear ladies, you’ve got to rely on yourselves, take Manouch, who thought he had it made because his father was a jailer and all he did was drink and pick up bad habits, which leads to fights like the quarrel in the days of the monarchy between the social democrats and the freethinkers and clerics over whether the world comes from a monkey or God slapped Adam together out of mud and fashioned Eve from his insides, now He could have made her out of mud too, it would have been cheaper, though nobody really knows what went on, the world was as deserted as a star, but people twitter away like magpies and don’t really care, I could set my sights on a charmer, a prime minister’s daughter, but what’s not to be is not to be and could even take a bad turn, Mother of God! the crown prince had syphilis and that Vetsera woman shot him, but then she got shot by the coachman, though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle, when I was serving in the most elegant army in the world I told our medical officer, Doctor, I said, I’ve got a weak heart, but all he said was, So have I, boy, and if we had a hundred thousand like you we could conquer the world, and he put me into the highest category, so I was a hero . . . (3-5)

For the purposes of this essay I’ve selected this 340-word excerpt of the 117-page long sentence so that a sense of the rhythm can be appreciated. In the book as a whole, after the comma, the most common punctuation mark Hrabal uses is the question mark, then the dash, then the exclamation point; there are no colons or periods (even at the end) and only one semicolon.

In this relatively short passage there is an astonishing variety of subjects. He begins with philosophizing about the writer Havlíček and Christ (a favorite subject); then makes an aphoristic statement (a common habit); he reflects on Havlíček’s history with clear parallels to his own (Jirka’s) values; he quotes ironic entries from his favorite book of dream interpretations, refers to his audience, and then drops another aphorism. He interrupts himself at one point with the exclamation “Mother of God!” (another habit) indicating that he has just remembered something that he absolutely must tell the ladies right away. Note that Hrabal doesn’t let us forget the scene: more than a dozen times in the book Jirka refers directly to the women he is speaking to, but here he also says “though any young lady will tell you,” an indirect nod in their direction and a preface to his flirting. He concludes this part of his never-ending sentence with a tale of the absurd, a lampoon of his time in the military (another favorite subject).

Sǩvorecký writes that Hrabal’s importance “lies predominantly in this language, in how his stories are told” (8). The book’s forward momentum is carried by Jirka’s engaging voice and the bizarre, often humorous tales he tells. Narrative voice isn’t carried by subject matter and diction alone, but by the order of words, i.e. the syntax with which those words are arranged.

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The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

One of the most elusive subjects in fiction, as in life, is the nature of human consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about how we know (or think we know) what we know and how we know what others know since the emergence of language. Epistemological questions aside, how can a writer convey – or attempt to convey – the nature of human thought?

Methods for representing a character’s thought span the range of narrative modes. Consider first-person. It seems straightforward enough: have the character simply tell us what he is thinking. When addressing another character, this is dialogue, or if alone, a soliloquy. Soliloquy typically follows the rules of grammar and is logically organized. And soliloquy, although spoken alone, is presented as if to an audience, which requires it to be more coherent (Humphrey 35). But what if the language is internal self-address, i.e. the language we “speak” only to ourselves? The narrative mode used to describe this is variously called free direct thought, internal monologue, or autonomous monologue. Interior monologue, in contrast to soliloquy (or dialogue) is more associative; prone to spontaneous, illogical shifts; and is rich in imagery (Cohn 12). The acme of internal monologue in literature is found in the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses is the ur-text for modernism. Published in 1922, this canonical “stream of consciousness” novel is the story of the lives of three principal characters, Leopold Bloom (who works in advertising), his wife Molly (a professional singer), and a family friend Stephen Dedalus (an aspiring poet) on a single day: June 16, 1904. The book is divided into eighteen sections and is organized according to Homer’s Odyssey, with Bloom in the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman myths). Bloom’s journey takes him from home, through his day in Dublin, and then back again; along the way he is joined by Stephen. Almost all of the chapters focus on Bloom, but the last chapter, commonly referred to as “Penelope” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, takes place in the mind of Molly while she tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep after her husband returns home and joins her in bed at approximately two in the morning. “Penelope” is divided into eight “sentences,” although the only reason for designating them thusly are line breaks with indentation; the chapter has no punctuation except for two periods, one at the end of the fourth sentence; one at the end. The run-on nature of the chapter is the point, that thought doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing in an endless stream until you either fall asleep (except for dreaming) or die, i.e. you can’t turn thought off.

james-joyceJames Joyce

Molly has had a singular day: she has had an affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Lying awake in bed, her thoughts roam: she thinks about Boylan and compares his sexuality with Bloom’s; she thinks about her marriage and that she and “Poldy” (whom she suspects has had an affair too that day) haven’t have sex since their son Rudy died shortly after he was born eleven years prior; she thinks about the future and is worried about their finances, she fantasizes about the twenty-something Stephen; and she thinks about her past, including the men she has known, her childhood in Gibraltar, and (famously) when Bloom asked her to marry him and she said yes. The only indication of an external world is a train whistle she hears; the only action, when she gets out of bed to use the chamber pot. Molly’s character is highly nuanced and through her unedited stream of consciousness the reader empathizes with the conflicts she faces in her life. After her fantasy of seducing Stephen concludes, her thoughts turn back to Boylan, then to Bloom as the last sentence of the chapter begins. She is annoyed with Bloom for having kissed her bottom after he crawled into bed. Her annoyance leads to sexual fantasies with other men until she is distracted by Bloom crowding her on the bed; she thinks:

O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee[4] so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn’t be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more . . . (778)

This 392-word excerpt depicts the silent, unmediated self-communication of a fictional mind saturated with thoughts that transition associatively with dizzying speed. She is annoyed at Bloom for hogging the bed; she compares his wheezing (or perhaps snoring) with a song called “The Winds That Waft My Sighs to Thee” (remember, she is a professional singer; she doesn’t “say” to herself “His snoring sounds like X, rather the association pops into her consciousness as she listens to him breathe); she invents an epithet for Bloom; she thinks about the card reading she did for him; she’s aggravated about agreeing to fix him breakfast; she philosophizes about what a better world it would be if “governed by the women”; she reflects that men are ungrateful and then thinks of Stephen, whom she worries about in a maternal way; she speculates that Stephen’s parents don’t appreciate him and that they are ungrateful which leads to her thoughts of her dead son Rudy and that she should have given the coat she knitted for him to a needy child; and she reflects that she and Bloom haven’t been intimate since Rudy’s death, which she then resolves not to be depressed about. She uses the imperative (“O move over”), indicative (“I dont care what anybody says”), and subjunctive (“if he knew”) mood. She uses the past, present, and future tense. And all of these grammatical forms are switched between with the fluid rhythmicity of thought.

The first and most obvious feature of this excerpt that adds to its verisimilitude as internal monologue is the fact that it is uninterrupted; there are no gaps in the text as there are no gaps in our thoughts. Another feature of “pure” internal monologue that makes this example (and the entire “Penelope” chapter) successful as speech-for-oneself is the use of non-referential pronouns, i.e. “he” refers to Bloom, Stephen, and Rudy at different places in the stream of thought, and, significantly, there is no immediate reference to whom of the three she is thinking about. After all, Molly knows who she is thinking about and doesn’t need to explain it to anyone – this isn’t a soliloquy, this isn’t a speech, and this isn’t dialogue. Finally, the thought mimesis isn’t disrupted by Molly reporting her actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. This last quality doesn’t apply particularly to this passage, but it is important to the success of the chapter as a whole. The only action she takes is to use the chamber pot and Joyce is careful to address her kinetic perceptions without action verbs (q.v. sub).

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Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in France in 2008 and in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell in 2010, is a novel that parallels Ulysses in many ways. Like Joyce, Énard borrowed his structure from Homer, this time: The Iliad. Also like Joyce, Énard explores consciousness with internal monologue. With Zone Énard follows the tradition of novel-length sentences such as those by Bohumil Hrabal, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Camilo José Cela. Zone is presented as a single-sentence internal monologue by the protagonist Francis Servain Mirković, a former spy for French Intelligence, now fleeing to a new life aboard a train from Milan to Rome. However, the sentence is interrupted by twenty-four, numbered chapter divisions (loosely reflecting Homer’s epic), and three chapters are devoted to a tale-within-the-tale (a book Francis is reading in which the plot parallels his own). Neither the parallel story, nor the chapter breaks detract significantly from the continuity of Francis’s roaming thoughts, and the stylistic choice of an internal monologue allows Énard great freedom in creating an intricate network of associated images.

The novel begins in media mentum in Francis’s mind as the train is leaving the Milan station: “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing . . .” (Énard 5). Two bronze weapons clashing. Énard’s war imagery begins immediately and doesn’t relent. Francis, Croatian veteran of the Bosnian War, amateur historian, spy, has fled France with a suitcase full of war crimes information. He plans to sell the documents to the Vatican for $300,000, his nest egg for retirement under an assumed identity. The story of a man trying to escape his past, Zone is told from Francis’s point of view in internal monologue, but with the psychic distance shifted toward autobiography and reportage, i.e. with thoughts organized more logically than Joyce presents Molly’s meditations. Francis, in his recollections, tells a story, or many stories, during his trip. Francis never leaves the train, although the locations he passes serve as segues for his mental peregrinations through history (personal and otherwise), especially of wars in the Mediterranean region.

Dorrit Cohn, in her 1978 seminal work Transparent Minds, notes that “unity of place . . . creates the conditions for a monologue in which the mind is its own place . . .” (222) and compliments Joyce on his decision to place Molly in bed where she doesn’t need to address her kinetic perceptions. Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate since Molly does get out of bed to use the chamber pot. Énard also places his character in a position of stasis, the train seat he occupies for the trip, and, like Molly, Francis will get up and move about only briefly. However, Énard gets to have it both ways: yes, Francis is static (most of the time) but he is also on a moving train passing through the Italian countryside and through Italian cities – opportunities for Francis’s thoughts to segue between subjects. Sometimes Francis only notes the city without comment, such as when he passes through Parma and Reggio Emilia, but other times he uses the location as a platform to digress about history, or to facilitate his meditations. As the train pulls out of Florence, Francis thinks:

I’m facing my destination, Rome is in front of me, Florence streams past, noble Florence scattered with cupolas where they blithely tortured Savonarola and Machiavelli, torture for the pleasure of it strappado water the thumb-screw and flaying, the politician-monk was too virtuous, Savonarola the austere forbade whores books pleasures drink games which especially annoyed Pope Alexander VI Borgia the fornicator from Xàtiva with his countless descendants, ah those were the days, today the Polish pontiff trembling immortal and infallible has just finished his speech on the Piazza di Spagna, I doubt he has children, I doubt it, my neighbors the crossword-loving musicians are also talking about Florence, I hear Firenze Firenze one of the few Italian words I know, in my Venetian solitude I didn’t learn much of the language of Dante the hook-nosed eschatologist, Ghassan and I spoke French, Marianne too of course, in my long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior I didn’t talk with anyone, aside from asking for a red or white wine according to my mood at the time, ombra rossa or bianca, a red or white shadow, the name the Venetians give the little glass of wine you drink from five o’clock onwards, I don’t know the explanation for this pretty poetic expression, go have a shadow, as opposed to going to take some sun I suppose at the time I abused the shadow and night in solitude, after burning my uniforms and trying to forget Andi Vlaho Croatia Bosnia bodies wounds the smell of death I was in a pointless airlock between two worlds, in a city without a city, without cars, without noise, veined with dark water traveled by tourists eaten away by the history of its greatness . . . (330-331) [Énard’s italics]

 One of the first things to note is that the internal monologue is more conversational, more dialogic than Molly’s internal speech. Joyce’s style eschews active verbs and punctuation, giving it a less edited and more organic feel. But such a style would be difficult to maintain for the 517-page journey Zone follows; “Penelope” is just over 40 pages. Énard’s more coherent syntax is more readable and more forgiving. Nevertheless, the sentence (fragment) succeeds in capturing the flowing thoughts of the character using many of the same techniques used by Joyce including: omitting punctuation (in places), rapid and spontaneous free association, staccato rhythms, and poetic imagery.

Francis’s thoughts flow in free association when the thought of torture triggers a list of torture techniques including strappado, the use of water, and thumb-screws; here the absence of commas, definite articles, or other grammatical devices helps create the stream of consciousness effect. In this 286-word excerpt Francis then: generalizes ironically about the past (“those were the days”), has doubts, observes his fellow travelers, thinks of the languages he knows and once spoke with a friend and his ex-girlfriend, reflects on the present in generalizations, and finally returns to his past where the names of his fellow soldiers and friends run together with locations, trailing off in poetic imagery.

menardMathias Énard

There are three notable differences between this monologue and the type of pure internal monologue seen in the Joyce example. First, it is broken up with punctuation. Second, Énard uses referential pronouns, e.g. Xàtiva/his and pontiff/his, and people have proper names. Third, the thought mimesis is interrupted by Francis’s declaring his perceptions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun, e.g. “I hear Firenze Firenze” – Molly hears a train, but she never tells the reader. This last difference is significant for action depiction as well.

Both Molly and Francis act in their memories, whether it is Molly musing about her first sexual encounter in Gibraltar or Francis reliving the horror of watching his friend get shot in Bosnia. But for movement in the narrative’s present, internal monologue can be difficult to manage without disturbing the reader’s perception, i.e. if the reader has accepted that they are “listening in” to someone’s thoughts then describing external events can be as jarring as changing the point of view. For example: one of the distinctive features of pure internal monologue is that thought isn’t disrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. In the following excerpt, Molly gets out of bed to urinate and find a sanitary napkin, but we only read her impressions:

O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl wouldnt he get the great suckin the next time he turned up my clothes on me Id give anything to see his face wheres the chamber gone easy Ive a holy horror of its breaking under me after that old commode I wonder was I too heavy . . . (769)

In the first line, where we expect the word “bed,” we find the interjection “pooh” – a word that has spontaneously popped into her consciousness. There is a missing copula in “this damned old bed too jingling.” She never “thinks” she is walking to the chamber pot, only wonders where it has gone. Compare this with the following passage from Zone where Francis describes going to the toilet:

I’d like to go have a drink at the bar, I’m thirsty, it’s too early, at this rate if I begin drinking now I’ll arrive in Rome dead drunk, my body is weighing me down I shift it on the seat I get up hesitate for an instant head for the toilet it’s good to move a little and even better to run warm non-potable water over your face, the john is like the train, modern, brushed grey steel and black plastic, elegant like some handheld weapon, more water on my face and now I’m perked up, I go back to my seat . . . (54)

Note the first-person pronoun and action verb use: “I shift it,” “I get up,” and “I go back.” There are three constructions using copulas (or implied copulas): “it’s too early,” “it’s good,” and “the john is.” As a result of the action verbs and copulas, what should be internal monologue feels like reportage.

Nevertheless, Énard demonstrates the versatility of a long sentence internal monologue. I agree with Mary Stein, who wrote in her 2011 review of Zone: “Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirković’s narrative identity.” The stream of consciousness fluidity of the long run-on sentence mimics Francis Mirković’s disturbed mind, and if some verisimilitude of consciousness mimesis is sacrificed, his narrative identity still supports a web of imagery that rises to the level of great art.

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Altered States

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1996 novel, opens during the Year of Glad (ca. 2008) in an imagined future where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year. Three interwoven plots follow separate groups of characters, including: the protagonist Hal Incandenza and his schoolmates at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, a group of men and women in a drug rehabilitation house nearby, and a Québécois terrorist group.

Most of the action of the novel takes place one year prior to the opening scene and is narrated in the past tense by, arguably, Hal. The novel, told primarily from a third-person point of view, has numerous examples of first-person intrusion, and it is always Hal. Hal is a linguistic prodigy, and his way of interpreting the world is revealed in a stylistic manner consistent with his consciousness, i.e. with elevated diction and complex syntax. Hal is also a drug addict. In fact, many of the characters have substance abuse issues and Infinite Jest is in many regards the epic of addiction. During Hal’s senior year at his private high school he struggles with marijuana addiction while, simultaneously, Joelle Van Dyne struggles with cocaine. Joelle is the ex-girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin and, after her near-fatal overdose, becomes a resident of the rehab house near Hal’s school.

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

Although Wallace depicts the consciousness of his characters almost exclusively using third-person narration, he still achieves a stream of consciousness effect in many scenes. The problem with first-person presentation of characters in drug-induced states of altered consciousness is that, as readers, we neither expect them to speak in coherent language, nor can we imagine any coherence to their thoughts at all. Thus, Cohn writes that “the novelist who wishes to portray the least conscious strata of psychic life is forced to do so by way of the most indirect and the most traditional of the available modes” (56), what she terms “psycho-narration” (or third-person narration). Wallace makes effective use of long sentences to depict altered conscious states in the scenes of Joelle’s overdose and Hal’s nightmare.

Joelle, who has a late-night radio show, was disfigured some years before when acid was thrown in her face. She now wears a veil and is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” Early in the primary timeline, Joelle[5] returns to the apartment she shares with Molly (who is throwing a massive party), locks herself in the bathroom, and proceeds to commit suicide by smoking freebase cocaine. The following 449-word long sentence is from her point of view and takes place after her second dose from her homemade pipe:

The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won’t stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone’s in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that’s three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets’ bottom drawer’s wicked metal knob, through the door and offset ‘Red’ and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel’s cone, the smoke’s baby-blanket blue that’s sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky’s blue that’s left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub’s porcelain, Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she’s holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach-colored titans they’d gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it’s still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow’s best descent, so good she can’t stand it and reaches out for the cold tub’s rim’s cold edge to pull herself up as the white-party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. (239-240)

Joelle’s overdose results in an altered state of consciousness. Wallace begins the descent into her mind with a complete sentence of indirect internal monologue: she hears someone asking if the bathroom is occupied The voice . . . in there”). Rather than ending this sentence with a period, Wallace creates a run-on sentence with several clauses that describe her perceptions using vivid imagery (e.g. adjectives like beveled, warped, steam-softened, raw, and mangled). About halfway through the sentence she thinks of the nickname Orin gave her. The next clause is a complete sentence and internal monologue: “Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue,” followed by a single-word thought (“lacquer”), and then the narration shifts back to third-person (or perhaps indirect internal monologue) with “she’s holding the bottle.” There are memories, then more sensory descriptions (sound is now white noise); she regards her limbs as distant, has lost her shoes, is lost in hallucination (“twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner”), and finally reloads her pipe for another dose. The long, run-on nature of this sentence; the free associations; the irrational switching between perceptions, actions, and thoughts; and the poetic imagery all contribute to creating a stream of consciousness effect in this passage.

Conveying a dream state presents the writer with the same problem of drug-induced states: it is subliminal thought. Hal’s nightmare of finding “Evil” in his dorm room is a tour de force of long-sentence syntax engendering suspense and depicting the process that takes place in a dreaming mind.

A subchapter begins with first-person narration during an indeterminate time, i.e. it could be outside the narrative while the implied author is writing. The narrator feels he is coming to a realization about nightmares. After letting this thought trail off in ellipsis, the narration resumes in second-person (heightening our identification with the character) as Hal (“you”) dreams that he is lying in bed in his pitch-dark dorm room. In the dream, Hal pans the room with a flashlight, listing what he sees:

The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, InterLace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil. (62) [Wallace’s italics]

The five words “the face in the floor” (following “TPs”) are embedded 26 items into the list of things Hal sees in his flashlight beam. The reader is bored when they reach “the face in the floor,” i.e. they pass right by it – as Hal does – only for it to dawn on them later (at word 224, the italicized “no”) that floors don’t have faces. Just as Hal “sees without seeing,” we read without reading. When it dawns on Hal that he has seen something that doesn’t belong, the narration shifts to a fast, frantic pace using polysyndeton and no commas (in stark contrast to the long list of comma-delineated items) as Hal searches the room for what he thinks he saw, and when he finds it, he recognizes it as “Evil.” A pictorial representation of the cat’s eyebrows adds to the subliminal quality of this part of the sentence. A short, eight-word sentence set off as a separate paragraph follows: “And then its mouth opens at your light.” The emphasis placed on this short sentence mimics the shock of being attacked in a nightmare; it is the climactic moment when dread finally becomes acute horror. Again, Cohn reminds us:

the language of . . . psycho-narration is meant to elucidate rather than to emulate the figural psyche. The narrator builds a symbolic landscape as a kind of theoretical correlative for a subliminal stratum that can never emerge on the conscious level or the verbal surface of the figural mind. (55)

Wallace shows that either the third-person or the second-person narrative mode is effective for depicting consciousness; perhaps even more so than first-person, for those modes can stretch to subconscious altered states.

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Are long sentences necessary for every work of fiction? Absolutely not. There are many examples of beautifully written stories containing only short, simple sentences; however, the power of long sentences is undeniable when you consider the numerous ways they can be effectively applied. Capturing the rhythm of motion – whether of actions or thought or speech – using linear prose presents a challenge for every writer. Virginia Tufte and David Jauss describe an elegant solution: use syntax symbolically; allow the syntax to mimic the rhythm. Faulkner, Hrabal, Joyce, Énard, and Wallace, achieve subtle and poetic effects through the syntax of their long sentences. But their achievements with long sentences, and those of writers like Nicholson Baker, also extend to character elucidation and conveying emotional content.

In my search for examples of long sentences, I found sentences greater than 150 words in the work of over fifty authors. Some of them stay within conventional grammar (like Baker and Faulkner), while others depart from those conventions radically. The standard rules of grammar are followed for a reason, they bring coherence to our prose; too severe a departure from these rules and the text’s meaning is lost. Nevertheless, there are justifiable reasons for coloring outside the lines; especially if, in the end, you can create sentences as effective and poetic as those by the writers I’ve surveyed. Jauss counsels that “the more we concentrate on altering our syntax, the more we free ourselves to discover other modes of thought” (68), and building long sentences is certainly a dramatic way to alter our syntax.

Looking back on my meditation on the long sentence, I find it remarkable that I didn’t find a place for the writer who set me on this path, M. Proust. Turning the pages of the volume of À la recherche I’m currently rereading, Proust’s narrator describes the musician Vinteuil as:

drawing from the colours as he found them a wild joy which gave him the power to press on, to discover those [sounds] which they seemed to summon up next, ecstatic, trembling as if at a spark when sublimity sprang spontaneously from the clash of brass, panting, intoxicated, dizzy, half-madly painting his great musical fresco . . . (Proust 233)

A fitting description for the wild exuberance some writers seem to have for their long, “panting,” “intoxicated,” “dizzy,” and sometimes fully-mad sentences – writers like Proust. Too bad I didn’t have more space to write about him. Perhaps next time.

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.

Bernhard, Thomas. Correction. New York: Vintage-Random, 2010. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP., 1978. Print.

Énard, Mathias. Zone. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. Print

Hrabal, Bohumil. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011. Print.

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1959. Print

Jauss, David. On Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. Vol. 5. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002. Print.

Sǩvorecký, Josef. “Some Contemporary Czech Prose Writers.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4:1 (1970): 5-13. Print.

Stein, Mary. “This Ancient World, A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone.” Numéro Cinq 2.18 (2011): n. pg. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.
Nov 032014
 

Collages1

Six Russian soldiers. Young, maybe nineteen. One of them is calling for his mum, all of them are begging for their lives. They are butchered one by one. The way one of them twitches when the blade cuts his neck, the sound of the blade sawing through bone and artery. Or Mihai Antonescu, facing the firing squad in 1946, turning around to get rid of his hat, to throw it behind the pole where he will be shot – a man about to die and yet worried about his hat. Hussein not finishing his rant. The anonymous guy in a hanging video, shitting himself. An American’s politician’s brain dripping through his nose. It’s always in the details, the details always catch you unaware. The punctum of these moving images, the things not necessarily anticipated by the camera. The ones that stay with you.

*

A
short sequence in Antonioni’s The Passenger stands out from the rest of the film. Shot on 16 mm, in saturated colours, the grainy footage depicts a public execution on a faraway African beach. We see the prisoner handled by guards, then tied to a pole by the sea, a priest having his final say, locals gathered to witness the spectacle, a coffin waiting. A firing squad is in charge of taking this man’s life and soon the first volley of shots hits his body. The camera zooms in, to an out of focus close up of his face. In comes a second burst of fire. Clearly in pain he raises his hands, slowly, perhaps trying to stop the bullets. His body shakes, departs. A jump cut takes us away from his death and into a convertible with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, the main characters in the film.

stillStill from the execution scene in The Passenger..

YouTube Preview ImageAntonioni’s The Passenger: The execution clip begins at 2:24.

The Passenger, from 1975, is a work of fiction. Yet this scene has all the hallmarks of the mondo film: brutality, a black body dying on camera, Africa. This genre – quite popular at the time thanks to films like Mondo Cane[1] and Africa Addio[2]– is renowned for its constant flirting with death (forged and real), sensationalism and erotic exoticism. The black body, semi-naked, in pain, dying, already dead, in all its alienness, perceived brutality and essentialist sensuality is one of its main attractions. Perhaps Antonioni was criticising the genre, yet in narrative terms this execution is introduced in The Passenger with the intention of providing a realistic seal and a geopolitical context to the main character’s misadventures during the tumultuous process of decolonisation in Africa. That said, what makes this sequence stand out from the rest of the film is that it is indeed documentary. This is no fiction, this is the real thing, the execution of a Nigerian petty thief fictionalised as the execution of a political leader[3]  – not that it is possible for an execution to be apolitical. Antonioni puts reality in the service of fiction in order to deliver a realistic narrative. It is complex, and problematic.

I have long been haunted by this scene, and not only by the ethical implications of turning death into entertainment. There’s a mechanics of dying on camera that keeps my mind busy. This man is alive, he is being killed, his death is being captured frame by frame. He is always still alive and always already dead. As every photograph, as every film, it reminds me an oft quoted moment in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, when upon looking at the image of Lewis Payne – sentenced to death for his part in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, Seward and Johnson –  he claims: “He is dead and he is going to die”. In the case of film we could perhaps say “he is dead, he is going to die, he is constantly dying”. For as long as there remains a physical copy of the film, every time we press play we kill this unknown Nigerian man. Twenty-four frames per second we kill him. We stretch his unnatural death over time and repeat it at will. Yes, every image is sooner or later the image of death, but there are proximities and intersections – it isn’t the same to film a baby than a man being shot. An image of actual death has a power that no other image can claim for itself. Bare life (Agamben) doesn’t get any barer than this..

pic 2 deathtubeLewis Powell, Lincoln assassination conspirator.

1024px-Execution_Lincoln_assassinsExecution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865. Via Wikipedia.

And how is a celluloid death different from a digital death? I think about film and those twenty-four frames per second. I think about a particular frame in which the victim is still alive. There is a frame afterwards in which the dying person is already dead. If we had the actual film roll in front of us we could easily mark these moments, we could easily perform a cinematic autopsy. Frame 374, the subject is still alive; frame 375 the subject is now officially deceased. Nothing of this sort can be carried out on video. Digital death is a more ambiguous transition, harder to locate. You can freeze the image, yes, but how do you know how many pixels of death and how many pixels of life there are? Digital death is confusing, immaterial therefore deadlier – and yet more common. I guess something of this happens with analogue death transported to digital as well. Adopted by a new medium it becomes ungraspable. One more thing to lament from the digitalisation of everyday life

*

You wouldn’t bump into death on the screen by chance, not too long ago. I had heard about the mondo films and there were rumours of snuff flicks doing the rounds, supposedly shot during the – dictatorial –70s in Latin America, but I had never seen any of these. I had also heard about Vic Morrow, who used to play Sergeant “Chip” Saunders in the series Combat!, about his death on camera together with two child actors, shooting a dangerous scene for a John Landis’ movie, the three of them torn to pieces by a helicopter blade. I used to watch Combat! with my grandpa in the mid 1980s – Morrow’s death was the stuff of legend. For years the thought of his head flying in the air tormented me, and the lack of closure – the lack of an image – was disturbing. All these moments of celluloid were mythical, for death on camera was invisible. I was born before the VHS, cable TV, and the internet; I was born even before colour TV in Argentina. Now you can find Morrow’s death on camera with a simple Google search..

pic 3 deathtubeVic Morrow in Combat.

The execution scene from The Passenger was my first. I might have been fourteen or fifteen when I saw the film. It was a rare, raw, and quite unique experience. Particularly because I saw it at an underground cineclub in my hometown Rosario you couldn’t press pause back then. You never fully owned the image; you were always lagging one step behind, constantly losing your grip over what was playing out on the screen. Was it a real execution or just a very well performed fiction? It was impossible to tell. I trawled the local library trying to find information about this scene; I interrogated my cinephile friends. Yes, it is; no, it is not. The uncertainty remained for a while and then, yes, it was real, some scholar discussed this scene in an obscure film journal. Supposedly Antonioni had decided to use it after receiving some film rolls through the post, sent by who knows who. Patrice Lumumba’s execution was mentioned in the text – apparently the “educated” viewer would connect this murder with that other one. I often wonder if anyone ever made that connection.

It would be years until I saw another death on camera. This time it was an American politician shooting himself in the mouth. It had happened in the 1980s, but in Argentina we only learned about it in the 1990s – death on camera, when visible, used to be a delayed spectacle. This one didn’t take me by surprise, for it came with all the warnings and at 9pm on a very popular caught on camera show. Death on camera was making its first steps into primetime television and then along came the internet. Is there a medium more inhabited by death than the world wide web? You don’t need to stray too far from your familiar territory to dive headfirst into death. The internet is the deathtube. The images are up online while the body is still warm – digital death is immediate. Digital death is also death on demand: you can order a pizza or someone’s beheading, but only the latter is free.

CaptureStills from a video no longer available at islammemo.cc.

pic 4 deathtube

Death documented, filmed, scripted. There’s an aesthetics of digital death born out of repetition: different angles, the recurrence of certain facial expressions, animal howls, pixelation, camera jumps. Different genres: people filming other people being killed for the camera, people killing other people, people filming already dead people, people filming their own deaths. A register of every wound, every shot, every severed head or limb removed from its trunk. Mass produced and streamlined for the audience, who have grown so accustomed to these necroaesthetics that they barely even flinch when someone’s brains end up against a wall. Experts: read the bottom half of any of these videos, the detachment, the lack of empathy, the dark jokes, The Ranking of Shocking Deaths. We haven’t all been that audience but we have all been loitering around the dark side of the internet, asking ourselves how far are we willing to go? How much curiosity is too much? How much can we desensitise ourselves? There you go, someone else has just been beheaded. Are you willing to watch?

From Ciudad Juárez to Raqqa, from New York to South Africa, the corpus of death on camera expands day by day. It would be possible to write an alternative history of the 20th and 21st centuries just by looking at its evolution, at the way its aesthetics have been bumped with the arrival of digital technologies, the way each one of these moments of death are received.  As the cameras multiply, as the catalogue of the visible extends to the infinite, the victims continue to walk into the spectacular abattoir. We are destined to reach the moment where every death has its visual counterpart. Until even digital images turn to dust, or until there is nobody else left to watch.

 —Fernando Sdrigotti

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Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jacopetti, Cavara & Prosperi, 1962
  2. Jacopetti & Cavara, 1966
  3. Walsh, M.(1975) The Passenger: Antonioni’s Narrative Design, Jump Cut, 8, pp 7-10.
Nov 012014
 

Gonzalez Park

 

/

The season of scrambled eggs came upon us on January 6, Three Kings Day. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit–the gifts, the piñata, the candy–that reminded my mother’s younger sisters that it was time to start planning for Holy Week, only three months away. Their appeal, made just when the day’s excitement quieted down over dinner, made my body stiffened because it was an announcement of the labor to come.

“Don’t forget everybody,” tía Luz said. “Start saving eggshells.”

“Please,” tía Chata added.

A few heads nodded in acknowledgment and this seemed to satisfy my aunts. The evening’s meal progressed as if nothing had changed, but in fact it had changed breakfast every morning. No more hard-boiled eggs or eggs served sunny side up until enough shells had been collected for the cascarón sale. My fingers twitched because they still carried the memory of the times the sharp edges pricked their tips.

On the way home I held my bag of candy, too distracted to eat any of it. My mother walked in front of me with a plastic bag over her shoulder, my toys inside. I pictured her standing at the stove, tapping the end of the egg in order to make an opening large enough to coax the contents out yet small enough to insure that the egg preserved its oval shape. Once we had enough of them, my aunts would come over with the art supplies: scissors and construction paper to make the confetti that would be stuffed inside the shell; tissue thin paper to glue over the opening; and food coloring to paint the shells pink or blue or green. Each of the tasks demanded patience and skill that I was too young to handle, but my aunts insisted–cascarones were an Alcalá family tradition, and although I was actually a González first, I was the only grandchild on the Alcalá side so far. My father had objected in the beginning, on the grounds that this was woman’s labor, but my mother didn’t take long to remind him that until I became a man I was under the care of the Alcalá women, who seemed to come around too often and stayed too long–so I heard my father mumble many times.

Making cascarones was just one of the Alcalá women enterprises. In the summers they made bolis–flavored ice, in August they made paper doves for the church’s celebration of the Virgin Mary, in the winters they made tamales and champurrado, a hot cornmeal drink. All of these items they sold at the town plaza, where citizens of Zacapu, Michoacán converged in the evenings, particularly before and after church. My aunts sometimes made commemorative keepsakes for birthday parties and weddings and brought over the materials to our house then too. I half listened to them giggling and gossiping with my mother while I played at their feet. They didn’t ask me to be part of the circle of bodies around the kitchen table and I didn’t miss it. I knew my time would come, and when it did, I wouldn’t like it.

What was more maddening than cutting paper into tiny little pieces to make confetti and then sticking them into the tiny little holes, which is how I hurt myself on the pointy edges, was adding the signature detail to the Alcalá cascarones: at the intact tip of the eggshell, I would have to dab a little drop of glue and then sprinkle just the smallest amount of glitter. Many of the clients who bought cascarones missed this detail because they were so anxious to break them on top of someone’s head–which is why they had been made in the first place. No one held the cascarón in his hand and admired the artistry, the tell-tale signs that this was an Alcalá cascarón, not just one of those sloppy ones that had obviously been made in a rush. I think this is what upset me most of all. That it took so long to make one of these and in one fell swoop it was gone–turned into trash in an instant.

I remember starting to color an eggshell once and tía Luz ordering me to stop doing so immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“The opening is too large,” she explained. “Throw it away.”

“Who’s going to notice?” I said.

“We will. It’s going to look vulgar and cheap. We don’t make vulgar and cheap.”

I looked closer at the opening. Compared to all the others, this one looked like the egg had been cut in half, not carefully tapped open by my mother’s hands. The tissue covering would have to be wide. More glue would have to be used. She was right. It was going to look vulgar and cheap. I set it aside and moved on to another, which now looked elegant with its smaller opening.

I suppose that my aunts were also teaching me pride in my work. And although I still wasn’t looking forward to months of scrambled eggs, I was more comfortable with the idea. By the time my parents and I got home on Three Kings Day, I had all but convinced myself that I couldn’t wait to make cascarones.

/

A few weeks passed and the eggshells were accumulating in a small box next to the stove. I caught a glimpse of it once in awhile when I played near my mother when she was cooking. When my aunts arrived they always entered without knocking, so I was never caught off guard when the front door suddenly flew opened and they burst in with their art supplies.

“We’ve got a cute order, Avelina, wait until you see this,” tía Chata said.

“I’ll help you mop so that you can sit down with us,” tía Luz said.

And in no time the three sisters were sitting around the table, giggling and gossiping like usual.

This time, however, my mother brought the reverie to a halt when she made an announcement about my father that even made me stop to listen.

“Rigoberto’s going to the north to work,” my mother said.

“Really?” tía Chata said. “Leaving you and the babies all alone?”

I only became the baby when someone wanted to highlight my vulnerability. At seven years old with a bicycle that had no training wheels I hardly felt like a baby anymore. My little brother Alex, who still ate from a high chair, was the baby.

“Do you want one of us to move in with you to keep you company?” tía Luz suggested. But I knew even then that this would never happen. If my father tolerated the long visits by my mother’s family, he would definitely not tolerate any of them moving in. It wasn’t so much his objection but pressure from the González side of the family, who didn’t seem to take a liking to the Alcalás–they were too religious and too forthright. The Gonzálezes were drinkers and cussers.

“I’ll be fine,” my mother said. “It’s better this way.” And we all knew what she meant.

In the coming weeks, I didn’t really notice my father’s absence too much, perhaps because I rarely spent any time with him. Once in a while I would dream about him and I would casually ask my mother where he was and what he was doing.

“Working,” is all she would answer.

What I did notice was that my aunts stopped coming around. Suddenly the house did appear too empty and quiet without their laughter. When I asked about them, my mother would look away and make some dismissive remark. But most noticeable of all was that we had stopped having eggs for breakfast. My mother started feeding me farina, which I didn’t like much because it tasted gooey and grainy.

“I want eggs,” I said to her in protest one morning. And so my mother burst into tears.

I didn’t know how to respond. So I ate my farina without further complaints and each morning after that I was careful not to let her see how displeased I was with my breakfast. I caught a glimpse of the box of eggshells and thought longingly about those days when the dreaded scrambled eggs graced my plate. What I wouldn’t give to have them again.

And then the farina ran out and I longed for it as well because now my mother was feeding me tortillas and salsa.

I understood the word “poverty” but I had never experienced hunger. I didn’t realize they came hand in hand. At school, I recognized children who had less than I did. I could tell by their shoes, their notebooks, which were always smaller than mine. But so too I recognized children who had shinier shoes than I did and even thicker notebooks. Suddenly it made sense why my aunts and my mother would gather to make their arts and crafts–they were not just entertainment or excuses to socialize, they were economic necessities, proper ways for god-fearing women to make a little extra money. All those coins in the can they brought back from the plaza paid for staples like bread and milk and eggs. Now that my aunts were not coming around for some inexplicable reason, now that my father was gone, it was just my mother, my baby brother and me, consuming very little or nothing at all. And when something is gone it is eventually forgotten and no longer missed.

/

A group of boys started playing marbles in front of the house one afternoon after school and that was my cue to run into my room to grab my cache. I eased my way into the next round. I played with my lucky white cat’s eye, which other boys coveted. Half way into the game, one of them wanted it enough to cheat, so I called him on it.

“I’m not cheating,” he said. “The cat’s eye is mine now.”

“You leaned in too far,” I said. “You didn’t shoot behind the line.”

“Yes I did,” he insisted.

I picked up my cat’s eye and pocketed it. “I’m not letting it go.”

“Oh, now who’s the one cheating?”

The other boys didn’t step in to defend either one of us. This was the law of the game. Contentious calls had to be resolved by the two parties involved. I held my stance, remaining motionless until his next move, which seemed to be evidence enough of my accusation because the boy withdrew but not before letting out a cruel remark.

“I’m letting you have it,” he said. “Because your father left you.”

I looked around at the other boys’s faces. They seemed to be complicit in this knowledge that up until that moment I didn’t have. Red-faced I ran into the house. By the time I reached my mother, I was in tears.

“What happened?” she said. “Did someone hit you?”

“Where’s my father? Did he leave us? Did he really leave us?”

My mother’s eyes began to water immediately. She had this devastating ability to cry instantly and it bothered me because that excused her from verbalizing her pain. There was nowhere to go but into silence after that. I was seven years old. What did I have to know about our broken home except that it was now as empty as my stomach, something else to get used to.

/

And then my father reappeared. It could have been a few days later or a few weeks, maybe months, certainly long enough for me to push him out of my mind. But there he was, smiling down at me as if he had only gone to town for an errand. And just as easily as I had buried him I unburied him, pleased that his absence could not be used against me on the streets or at school. My mother must have felt the same because she paraded him down the block, their arms locked, for all the neighbors to see. Even the kitchen went back to normal. Even my breakfast plate because there, glorious as gold, were my scrambled eggs again.

No one mentioned my father’s disappearance or subsequent reappearance–not in front of me anyway, and I didn’t ask about it. The more it remained unsaid the more it became undone this painful period of my childhood. And cascarón season came to a close with a successful sale at the plaza during Holy Week. It seemed everything was back in its place, and I even set a few cascarones aside for myself, which I had never done before. I broke one on my father’s head and he laughed as the confetti rained over him. I gave him my second one and he broke it over my mother’s head. At the end of the night I remember my little brother sleeping over my father’s shoulder as I fought drowsiness to watch the highlight of the festivities–the burning of el Castillo de Chuchurumbé, an intricate fireworks structure with firewheels and sparklers that was all whistles and explosions, a castle that shrieked and cried on our behalf so that we didn’t have to.

If happiness had come back to our house it didn’t last longer than three years. Three years later the González family was living in California, squeezed into a single house with our grandparents, my uncle’s family, and my aunt’s–19 bodies in one tiny space–a complete shift from our household arrangement in Mexico, where the possibility of having tía Luz or tía Chata move in with us for a spell was not even an option. But as usual, there was no questioning the why or how of things, there was just surrender and moving forward with the decisions of the grown-ups.

Unlike my older cousins, I was having an easier time adapting, probably because I enjoyed school and learning English. One of my first friendships was with a girl named Eve. She was half-Panamanian, and her mother spoke fluent Spanish, but Eve was monolingual. She also had a little dog named Peanut, which they kept in her backyard.

One summer, Eve went on vacation with her family, so she enlisted me to feed Peanut once a day. All I had to do was unlatch the gate, scoop half a can of dog food into the plastic dish and fill the second dish with fresh water. I accepted the responsibility, not because I cared much for Peanut, who barked too much, but because I liked the idea of a pet. We had dogs in Mexico, but they had functions–to guard the house from the rooftop–Peanut was a fat little critter who couldn’t even guard her own dish. It was an entirely different relationship with animals that intrigued me, yet I had no fantasies that we would ever have a pet, and we never did.

Eve gave me two cans, and Eve’s father gave me money to buy more dog food later in the week. I waved at the family as they drove away and then I sauntered back home. I announced to everyone in the kitchen that I would be storing the dog food in the refrigerator and no one batted an eye.

A few days later, Abuelo opened the refrigerator and asked about the can. I explained my role as animal caretaker and he simply shrugged.

“What’s it made of?” he asked, inspecting the can.

I was surprised by the question. “Meat, I guess,” I said. I read the ingredients more closely and translated what little I could.

“Meat,” Abuelo repeated. He placed the can back into refrigerator and went about his day. As did I.

The next time I took a can over to Eve’s house, I became curious about the dog food. It didn’t smell like any meat I had ever tasted, but this was the U.S., there were foods here I had never smelled or eaten before. As Peanut ate her fill I dared to take a pinch of food out of the can and place it into my mouth. I didn’t swallow it, but the taste lingered. My curiosity satisfied, I knew I’d never do that again, yet I still blushed, embarrassed at my own bravado.

/

Months later, as Christmas season approached, I recognized something familiar was happening in the kitchen. I knew that hollow sound of pots and pans ringing without purpose, of the refrigerator light glaring at its ribs, of the desperation in the voices of the grown-ups as they fought over supplies to feed their young. For dinner Abuelo cooked these greasy stews that filled us up with hot water, but later that night my mother called my brother and me into her bedroom and she sneaked a slice of Spam into our mouths. On those occasions, I only pretended to brush my teeth. I looked forward to going to bed with that taste locked in my mouth, swirling my tongue around and around until sleep defeated me.

School lunch was another reason to look forward to school days, and I don’t remember if we were coached or not but we didn’t reveal to anyone that we showed up without having breakfast. It was all temporary–that’s what we were told at home. No sense letting anyone else in on our shame. It was the same silence we had to keep about how many people were actually living at home. Since many of us were undocumented, we didn’t want to invite any scrutiny from neighbors, teachers, post office workers–any one of them was a phone call away from the immigration authorities. We allowed no one to look in and we certainly didn’t leak anything out.

At about this time Abuela started feeding us vitamins, huge red pills the size of a toy car–or so we joked. It was also a thing of humor to stand in a line with my brother and my eight cousins, each one of us taking our turn as Abuela shoved that monster pill down our throats. “Don’t choke, don’t choke!” the others chanted as Abuela made sure the pill was swallowed.

I can only imagine what the grown-ups went through to protect us children from really seeing what was happening in that household. If my older cousins understood they didn’t share it with us younger ones. And when I figured it out, I also went to lengths to keep my knowledge a secret from those younger than me. That moment happened when Abuelo prepared a casserole he called lasagna. It was an Italian dish, he bragged, and he was particularly proud of this because he used the oven, which was a feature of the stove none of the women in the family had occasion to operate.

As we gathered in the living room to watch TV the smell wafted among us and that made our mouths water. I thought that perhaps this might be the turning point we had all been waiting for, the sign of better times to come. It was customary for the children to eat first, so all ten of us squeezed around the table to receive a serving of this fancy lasagna dish Abuelo had made.

I didn’t admit it to myself at first but there was a familiar smell on my plate. I couldn’t quite place it so I thought that perhaps it was my mind reaching back to a flavor I had not had the pleasure of enjoying since the kitchen went bare. But when I took the first bite, I remembered: it was Peanut’s food from the can. The others didn’t know this. Their responses to the food were mixed. Some took a few bites and then started to eat around the meat, and others ate the meat willingly. It was lasagna, it was Italian food, it was supposed to taste funny. But the pasta was soft and the tomato sauce was tasty. It would do.

The sound of chewing around me was deafening, and it took me back to that moment I had experienced hunger once before, when my father disappeared. Suddenly it all came back to me–how it felt as if my guts were tying knots around each other, how I came across a candle on my mother’s bureau, the one that released the scent of cinnamon, and how I couldn’t figure out how those teeth marks had gotten there, but now I did. I had always heard the grown-ups say that I would never be able to tell when my body was stretching because it happened gradually. But something inside me grew in an instant and I felt like shattering.

Abuelo was standing at a distance. His face appeared pleased somehow, maybe curious about how effectively he had deceived us. I wanted to detect some cruelty in his gesture but I didn’t find any. Instead, I saw sadness in its pure form for the very first time. It was a look of defeat, as if he had wanted us to reject this food, to spit it out and cry foul, to accuse him with fits of anger that he had fed us dog food. It would be a moment of truth for all of us, to finally admit that this moving from one country to another had not solved our problems, had not delivered on a promise to lift us out of poverty, to satiate our hunger. And that would have meant that all this sacrifice, all this hope we had packed into our bags, all this hiding and secret-keeping, had been for nothing. I could either rip this whole theater apart and end the dream for all of us, or I could triumph over the test that had been set before me. Eat it or beat it back to Mexico.

“Are you going to eat your food?” one of my cousins asked.

I looked down at my plate. I had scarcely touched it. My fork was still buried in the entrails of the dog food lasagna. The moment of reckoning was in my hands. I was no longer the boy who belonged to the Alcalá women, I was now a young man who had joined the hardscrabble lives of the González family. Yet I knew that I had abandoned the stage of innocence even before I left Mexico, I just wasn’t ready to see the impoverished world as it really was, as it would continue to be. And so, without any further fear, I scooped out a generous portion of the lasagna and stuffed it into my mouth.

—Rigoberto González

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Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He won the 2014 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013). He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

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Oct 312014
 

Richard Farrell

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There was no indication that day would be the one, no sign that I was ready, no ceremony or ritual to mark the passage, no warning, no karmic winds blowing, nothing to differentiate the routine of that particular flying lesson from any other. We were forty-five minutes into the hour-long flight, shooting touch-and-goes into a small airfield, when Mark—my taciturn three-pack-a-day instructor pilot, who heretofore had betrayed no confidence in my ability to handle an airplane alone—ordered our next landing to be a full-stop. Under Mark’s watchful eye, I lowered flaps, flared the nose, and squeaked the tires more or less on centerline. We taxied off the runway and onto a parking apron. Mark opened his door and a rush of cool air filled the cockpit. He grinned, slid from his seat, and with one foot on the wing strut, leaned his head back inside and asked if I was ready to try one on my own.

I thought he was joking. I’m quite sure I didn’t answer. I worried that I’d misheard his question. But I must have nodded, or blinked my assent, because a heartbeat later, Mark had closed his rickety door, stepped from the wing’s shadow, and walked away. And for the very first time in my life, I was utterly alone inside an operational airplane, sputtering at the end of a taxiway in Marlboro, Massachusetts. It was 1986 and I was a sixteen year-old boy who did not yet drive a car. I was still a virgin, and would soon likely die as one. I had not, in fact, even kissed a girl yet, but I’d just been handed the controls of a sixteen-hundred pound Cessna, and told to take ‘er up. I’d been put in charge of its ailerons, engine valves and avionics. I’d been given permission to haul it aloft and bring it back to the ground, with the tacit understanding that I wouldn’t kill myself or anyone else along the way.

The Cessna-150 cockpit was thirty-five inches wide and less than five feet front to back. Crammed into a space smaller than an average dining-room table were two sets of flight controls, engine throttle, fuel mixture valve, and an array of instruments, fuses, navigation equipment, radios, lights and compasses. Not an inch of space was wasted. Only moments earlier, I’d sat knee to knee with my flight instructor, whose nicotine and stale-coffee breath provided a comforting if somewhat nauseating reminder that I had competent company. With the sudden absence of a man whose thousands of flying hours were meant to counteract my insipid twenty, that cramped space felt downright lonely.

The cockpit air smelled of low-lead gasoline and panic. I held the plane’s brake pedals with rigid feet. My biggest fear was that the plane would careen off into frost-browned fescue grass that bordered the taxiways. Dotting the surrounding hillsides, sugar maples and Dutch elms had already dropped their leaves and stood bare and gray against the late autumn sky. I pressed harder against the brakes.

~

Earth-bound for some fifty-thousand years, modern man is a recent habitué of the skies. The rapid advancement of flight, from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral, occurred in a flash, though perhaps the real curiosity hides behind how quickly we adapt to such miracles. Hardly anyone notices airplanes zooming overhead, whereas a hundred years ago, such sights would have been a dazzling spectacle. To me, it was still a spectacle. I was a gazer. Countless hours of my youth were spent staring at vapor contrails scratching the sky, or identifying airplane silhouettes, or listening to the bassy whir of a turboprop descending into Logan Airport on a winter’s night. With a lover’s desire, I had dreamed of that moment when I would join the marvelous procession of machines and pilots.

The physics of flight is relatively simple: as an airplane gains speed, pulled or pushed along by an engine, a decrease of pressure builds along the upper surface of curved wings, the famous Bernoulli’s Principle. In a sense, flight is achieved by suction, by a force of low pressure over the wings siphoning the airframe aloft. Given enough wing-surface area and enough speed, a football stadium could fly. The pilot’s job, simplified to its barest bones, is to maintain the right mix of airspeed and attitude. Transitions are the most critical: earth to sky, sky to earth. The greatest danger in flight occurs closest to the ground, during takeoffs and landings.

It is hardly surprising that aviation invented a mythology that evolved alongside its technology. Even the earliest depictions of aviators showed swashbuckling men with scarves, leather jackets and adoring females draped on their shoulders. I admired these mythical heroes growing up, and internalized depictions of pilots in a profound albeit overly romantic way.

In the summer of 1986, when my flying education began in earnest, Top Gun shattered box office records across America. But Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the man I dreamed I might one day become was far from confirmatory. Rather than inspiring me, the movie violated the sanctity of my most private dreams. Flying for me was soul-work. I had wholesale invested my identity and my future in the notion of pilot-hood. Then, overnight, pop culture co-opted my deeply revered ambitions. Thanks to Tom Cruise, everyone wanted to be a pilot, and I felt violated.

Capture

I didn’t realize at the time why I resented that movie so much. But looking back, I see that the movie commercialized and distorted many of the spiritual aspects of my dream. Top Gun also amplified the pilot stereotype. Flying looked glamorous, easy. Jets zoomed against brilliant blue skies without effort or strain. While Maverick and Ice Man dueled across silver screens in their sleek F-14 Tomcats, I spent the summer of ‘86 coming face to face with my own ineptitude as a pilot-in-training.

Though I’d been a diligent student, no amount of book learning could make up for what, in aviation lore, is called a seat-of-the-pants feel for the sky. When I started taking flying lessons, I had imagined I’d be a natural from the get go, a student so adept at the skill of flying that I would zoom through the curriculum and immediately be recognized as the heir apparent to Lindbergh, Yeager and Armstrong. Instead, I struggled with even the most rudimentary of skills. I couldn’t keep the plane straight-and-level. My airspeed control was for shit. I landed long, struggled when pulling the plane out of a stall. My steep turns were never steep enough and my lazy-8’s resembled an asymmetrical snowman in the sky. The only thing I felt in the seat of my pants was clenched terror.

My original goal, to solo on my 16th birthday, the earliest legal age, had come and gone six months before. While teenage boys donned flight jackets and Ray Bans and serenaded teenage girls with “You Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’” and while Tom Cruise buzzed the tower fifty feet off the deck, I came to the clear understanding that I wasn’t much of a pilot.

A previous flight instructor, a grumpy aviator with a fu-manchu mustache, once told my mother that I flew like a doctor. The only thing I gleaned from this strange violation of teacher-student trust was a veiled reference to sloppy handwriting.

Rich Pilot1

Of course I wasn’t supposed to be a good pilot with fewer than twenty hours of flight time. The stumbles, setbacks and mistakes were supposed to teach me. But in the pilot myth, as well as in the movie, difficulties were glossed over. The legend left no room for failure, no room for growth or learning or progress. So every miscue, every clumsy maneuver and failure felt keenly personal. Surely the great pilots didn’t start this way, I told myself, not realizing that they most likely had.

Mark stood on a nearby grassy hillock, smacking a package of Marlboros against his wrist. I waited. I prayed. Climb back into this Cessna and tell me it’s all a big joke. Ha ha, kid, I’ve got the controls. Go back to algebra class. But he didn’t move. In fact, Mark lit up a cigarette, his sandy hair flapping a bit in the breeze. A breeze? Where did a breeze come from? I checked the windsock again, which stretched out into the shape of a Day-Glo ice cream cone, indicating the wind had increased and swung around a bit from the southwest, adding a complicated crosswind to my still-not-so-imminent takeoff. Any attempt to leave the earth just became that much more difficult.

I tried to wrap my head around what was happening while searching for the before takeoff checklist. I pulled the laminated sheets from a door pocket, only to fumble the checklist between the seat cushions. My hands were shaking.

“Jesus,” I said out loud, more curse than prayer. How long had I been sitting there? I needed to act, to do something. The longer I waited, the worse my fear became.

As I fished the checklist from a between the seats, a thought slammed through my brain: I’m going to die. The only question was how, not when. From incompetence? From shame? From failure? With every second passing, the certainty of my untimely end came nearer. I worried I might drop from sheer terror right there, idling on the taxiway. The other possibility seemed to involve a blazing ball of fire at the runway’s end.

Needing to resuscitate my brain, I tried to recall the plane’s takeoff procedures. The checklist was useless now since on top of everything else I’d lost the ability to read. It appeared to tell me that I needed to adjust the trim, set the fuel mixture, and somehow force my hands to push the throttle forward, dumping 80-octane fuel into the plane’s normally-aspirated, direct-drive, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, four-cylinder engine, thereby accelerating the McCauley fixed-pitch propeller to 2,500 RPMs. If I could manage to free my hands to perform these tasks, if I could follow all the steps, in more or less the correct sequence, and release the breaks and speed down the runway without veering off into the grass, if I could summon the strength from my flaccid arms to pull back on the control column, all while tapping rudders to keep the plane coordinated, and if I could remember to check the airspeed, the wind and the engine oil pressure, then, in theory, the plane would fly. I would fly. I would solo.

The first solo is a consecrated ritual—a baptism and wedding rolled into ten minutes of sheer terror a thousand feet over an airfield. Some thirty years have passed and I still remember the disintegrating sensation somewhere southwest of my heart. The fear hollowed me out, an erasure that scoured the insides of my body, leaving only a shell. My skin became acutely sensitive. My mouth went chalk dry.

I remember the way light fell on indifferent hillsides. I remember spinning propeller blades, whirring gyros, a tremble in the wings, perhaps caused by my shaking hands reverberating back through the flight controls. Face to face with reality, the magnitude of fear surprised me. The heroic architecture, so long associated in my mind with brave pilots laughing at danger, came crumbling around me.

A gray cloud deck scattered above the airfield. The runway, scuffed with rubber skid-marks and brake dust, tumbled off into the somber horizon. Behind the controls of that Cessna, alone and uncertain, I searched desperately for a way out.

Once more, I glanced at Mark, hoping for a reprieve. He took a long drag on his cigarette.

I hated him. I hated his parents for bringing him into this world and hated mine for doing the same. I hated Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli and the Wright brothers and Clyde-fucking-Cessna too. The universe had ripped open a hole into eternal darkness, manifest in an empty seat where my instructor belonged. Like in a falling nightmare, the emptiness of that seat, the haunted, horse-without-a-rider sense of a pilot-less plane—unoccupied rudders, uncontrolled control column, unlatched seat belt—these things most surely represented my imminent demise. Except that airplane had dual controls, and my feet rested on the rudders, and my sweaty hands clutched the control column. I was the one strapped into that saddle, a bucking bronco of wires and avionics assembled in Wichita, Kansas, waiting for me to spur it into the air.

The runway was clear, almost mocking me with its emptiness. Fly or don’t fly, the asphalt seemed to say. Live or die. It makes no difference.

For a moment, I thought I might throw up, not an uncharacteristic response from my body when faced with stressful situations (like asking a girl out for a date). The propeller twirled and the fuselage rattled. Only two choices remained: grow a pair and get going or pull the parking brake, open the door and run screaming for the woods. Gasping for breath at the end of the runway, this couldn’t have been how Yeager got started.

Where once strength and bravery seemed embodied in the very word, pilot, the word and the act suddenly lacked meaning, because I could not remember how to do the very thing the word implied, which was to fly the airplane.

Time elongated. Each propeller revolution re-radiated doubt and fear. It felt like an hour passed while I decided. But Mark’s cigarette had barely burned down. I reflected on the absurdity of the scene, my instructor pilot watching me do nothing, the engine whining, position lights blinking, the whole airport on hold, waiting for me. At the same time, there came an awareness that I was not cut out for this sort of thing. Better to survive a coward than die a fool. But what choice did I really have? The way out certainly was no less complicated than the way through.

The metamorphosis that was about to occur was entirely lost on my teenage brain. I didn’t realize what a privilege I was being granted. On that November day, there was no way to foresee the future, or to comprehend how life decouples, like ill-fated box cars, throwing certainty and meaning off a track that then seemed iron-clad. I had no way of knowing that seven years later, my wings would be clipped for good, and that I’d be diagnosed with epilepsy and told I could never pilot an airplane again. I didn’t realize that deep fear often accompanies life’s most extraordinary moments. I had no way to realize that the minutes that terrify and most rattle us are the ones that will stand out. Like a bas-relief of memory, those moments become enshrined by their height and importance: the first girl I would eventually kiss, the first time I would fall in love, the birth of my children, and the so-many unimaginable losses and joys that would mark the path. How could I have even glimpsed a hint of that on the tarmac?

Finally, something inside flickered. The hollow sensation of fear gave way. My body and brain stirred back to life. Was that sensation what bullfighters call the moment of truth? If so, the feeling was not a triumphal one, more like resignation combined with a pinch of anger. Fear yielded to reluctance which surrendered to inevitability. Hardly a heroic procession.

I lowered a notch of flaps and picked up the mike. I called out the plane’s tail number and announced an intention to fly.

“Marlboro traffic, November-seven-one-four, Charlie Pop, ready for departure.”

The intent was for my voice to sound defiant and serious, but the words came out as a barely-whispered squeak, a child’s final desperate plea for help. Then, after a glance heavenward, and one last check of the wind, I advanced the throttle and released the brakes. The engine whirred louder. With a press of right rudder, the plane twirled around and lined up with the runway centerline. My breathing evened out. On the windscreen, the compass lagged before it confirmed my heading. This next part may not have happened, but my memory registers a shaft of sunlight piecing through cloudy autumn skies.

I pushed the throttle to the firewall and the engine revved. Torque drove the nose wheel into the ground and the plane lurched forward. The nose yawed left, which I counteracted with more rudder as the semi-monocoque fuselage reverberated atop rough asphalt with echoes and thumps.

The plane accelerated and the abyss receded. Where did the fear go? What replaced it? I don’t understand how I climbed inside the moment. I don’t quite comprehend how a timid, frightened teenager managed to fly.

I pulled back on the wheel and the wings began to generate lift. The plane entered its transition to flight, where gravity succumbs, a transition not only of the physical machine but also of the body. I may have even felt that sensation in the seat of my pants.

After that, I continued to climb out, the needle steady at 70 knots. My gut wobbled as I pushed the nose over and gained speed, a thousand feet of altitude, the propeller high against the gray horizon, trees and hills falling away. The world shrank. The runway appeared small and distant, the clouds large and close. The temperature cooled. Downwind, I aligned the port wingtip perfectly with the runway margins, and I recognized calmly, in an almost holy way, with a certainty and confidence that was entirely new, that I was actually flying, alone, no longer terrified, ass-unclenched, hands dry and not choking the wheel, and how in those few minutes of flight, all the fear and confusion receded into the background, and all that remained was flight, the pure dream man had yearned to achieve for millennia.

The transcendental feelings ended quickly. There was work to be done. A moment later, abeam the numbers, I lowered the flaps like a real pilot, and throttled back, slowing, descending. I checked the windsock and announced my intentions again—this time with a voice a sixteen year-old boy borrowed from the gods—that I was coming in to land. l turned to base and then to final, scanning airspeed and altitude, nudging the plane’s nose to line up with dashed white stripes painted down the runway, anticipating wind vectors, adjusting for turbulence, steadying the wings. Just over the numbers, I pulled back gently on the controls and cut the throttle. The nose lifted. The plane floated a second or two, caught in the magical buoyancy of ground-effect, that final transition, just before the main landing gear returned to earth, two shudders beneath me, two chirps of rubber kissing earth. Then I caught the plane’s yaw, holding the nose straight and true, and in that final moment, before the nose wheel touched down, in that final instant when the transition from air to ground remained ever so slightly in jeopardy, I realized that I’d done it, that I’ve soloed, and that nothing would ever be the same again.

172-landing

—Richard Farrell

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Rich Gun-001

 Richard Farrell is the Creative Nonfiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

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Oct 092014
 

Biscevic MostarSamir Biščević “Mostar”

In 2004, my first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart. When I returned to the States, I began immersing myself in Bosnian literature and visual arts, and I began seeking the company of Bosnians in the diaspora, in places as far-flung as Boston, Charlottesville, Atlanta, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

This is how, in Chicago in 2008, I came to find the extraordinary abstract expressionist painter Samir Biščević, who saw the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) terminate his formal training at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. As much as anyone, he has helped me understand that Bosnia’s loss is our loss. Years later, on YouTube, I came across the brilliant concert accordionist Merima Ključo and soprano Aida Čorbadžić, performing live in downtown Sarajevo, poignantly marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the siege. Their art, their voices, and their stories accompanied me from afar when I traveled to Bosnia in the summer of 2012 and conceived of this essay. When I read the piece publicly for the first time early in 2013, Merima was there, in person, offering opening and closing music with soprano Ariadne Greif. It was one of the great moments of my life.

This essay is dedicated and addressed to one of my dearest Bosnian friends (you in the essay, unnamed), a fiercely private soul trying desperately, in exile, to put the pieces of his life together again. By implication and extension, it is also for all the Bosnians who have welcomed the stranger, who have sheltered and known me in the darkness. For their unflinching solidarity, for their unfiltered love, I am eternally grateful.

(A quick Bosnian pronunciation guide, oversimplified but providing enough, I hope, to help throughout the essay: for consonants that have a diacritical mark, add an “h” sound to make a soft “ch,” “sh,” or “zh.” A “c” without any diacritical mark is pronounced “ts,” as in “hats.” Each “r” is rolled like a soft “d,” each “j” softened to a “y.”)

—Thomas Simpson

YouTube Preview Image
Merima Ključo

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Sarajevo RoseSarajevo Roses

Springs
Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2012

The steep, narrow streets of Sarajevo are the only way to get to you. I stop at the base, where the cold spring water flows, and it feels like redemption before it evaporates in the summer valley heat. I join the old women walking up slow, their thick forearms carrying fresh bread. Somehow they’re impervious to the traffic that barrels down, past your mother’s roses, your brown metal door.

You say this is how you got fast, running this hill in the siege, your wheelbarrow shuttling jugs of water up from the brewery below. Sweating, heart pounding, flashing in and out of the sniper’s sights. His comrade’s shrapnel had already lodged in you, that first October, inches from your spine. The time you were in a neighbor’s field, snaking just to glean a few potatoes or pears that might have secretly come to term.

Thank God for the brewery, pumping fresh water from the underground, where the earth whispers its resistance: Take. Drink. And come back later, because we’ve got a little beer. Take a bottle down to the nightclub. Pass it to your brothers and sisters, the chalice, a couple of cigarettes the body broken for you.

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Ash

My first time in Bosnia, ten years ago, I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. Ashes to ashes, the relentless headache, hack, wheeze in a fog of second-hand truth. It was worst in Mostar, the desert-dry city with the old stone bridge, the sparkling green river, and the battling sounds of the muezzin, the church bells, and the thumping dance beats pouring out of the riverside cafés.

Stari MostStari Most, the old Ottoman bridge at Mostar.

Now, at Ilidža, at the source of the river Bosna, you light the first cigarette, and I brace myself for a second respiratory hell. Desperate, I wonder if Sarajevo can help me overcome another deep aversion. I remember my smug contempt for the accordion vanishing in a heartbeat last spring, when Merima first got hold of me. She was on streaming video, playing a love song for Sarajevo: Što Te Nema, “Why Aren’t You Here?” Merima on a makeshift, outdoor stage, cradling and wrestling life from the accordion, before an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. I traveled four thousand miles to follow that sound, all lungs and tears and love. So now, I let the smoke wash over me. It fills my lungs, older, suddenly not afraid anymore, lungs that know love is everything and it will kill you quick as hate.

Tunel Spasa InteriorTunel Spasa interior.

We go to the tunnel museum, Tunel Spasa, your only way out during the siege. You tell me that English-speakers get it wrong when they call it the tunnel of hope. It’s the tunnel of salvation. Salvation for the few, crouch-digging underground in the hungry damp cold, trying to survive only for exile, trying to survive only for salvation from the ultra-nationalist Christians who burn, shell, murder, and rape. I think: Jesus, maybe we’re hopeless.

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Salt

We drive north to Tuzla, the city of salt mines and salt lakes. Mima and Zilka meet us at Vive Žene, the center where women counsel tortured, shell-shocked sisters. We sit in a circle, taking small comfort in coffee, fresh cherries, and wordless understandings. It conjures a line from Žalica, the filmmaker: the microsurgery of the soul.

In the evening, we feast with a family preparing to send a son to Phillips Exeter Academy where I teach. On the back patio, the bread of life—burek, ćevapi—the stunning flowers, the setting sun. Then we walk to the town square. It’s sinking—watch your step—there’s been too much extraction and now the salt of the earth is gone. We come to the memorial, where Edina draws me close and translates the poem for the night in May, 1995, when shelling hit the square and cut down seventy-one, mostly youths. We cry. Yet it is beautiful here tonight, the teenagers striding through the square. We start to walk again, and Edina’s baby lets me hold her a little while. She seems to know I need to hold her a little while.

Tuzla Square 1

I remember a tip from a friend back home: go to the Phillips Exeter school archives, he said, and get the transcript of a talk that a young Bosnian, Vedrana Vasilj, gave in the chapel back in 1997. We were transported, he said. I find it, Vedrana in late spring, revealing that she was there that awful night in Tuzla, working at the hospital, receiving the bodies of her friends. She said, in perfect and plain English, that it was the night Tuzla’s hope died. And the crowd cried, my friend told me, a little salt from their souls for Tuzla.

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Grounds

I tell you I have to tour Srebrenica. You must wonder what I want to do with ghosts—you want to live. We make the slow drive from Tuzla, hugging the Drina, that river of blood. You’re as tough as they come, but when we arrive the tour guide’s talk, all those names carved in stone, it’s all too much. You have to leave. I go on earnest, reverent with the tour, the talk, the film, the photographs, the hush, the sacred remains, the thousands of graves. I fight the hallucinations: all the Muslim men and boys running for their lives, there, through those forests, over those hills, trying to make it, somehow, to Tuzla. The hallucinations that Samir still paints in Chicago—their nightmares, their steps, their path. His Guernica.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial

When I have seen everything, I find you. You’re back from the dead, sipping coffee and charming the old widows who run the little souvenir stand at Srebrenica, in head scarves and long skirts, the women who endure only to mourn. You’ve been sitting with them for hours, enfolding them with your eyes, letting them remember their sons and grandsons a little, strong, funny, fierce, tender. They’re in love. They help us find a gift for my wife, Alexis, a scarf, dazzling pink set against pure black. We thank the women, choking back tears, and we get the hell out of Srebrenica.

When we arrive Sunday in Bihać, on the other side of the country, Zehra and Almir are waiting for us with the same coffee, the good, strong Bosnian coffee, Turkish like espresso in small cups with the grounds thick and dark as tar. The apartment building is tall, socialist grey, and all these years later you, Zehra and Almir, you still have to live within the shelled walls and cracked glass, and it makes me hate them so much. But you don’t want to talk about that—the flowers in your window box tell me all I need to know. You have kept watering the soil. It is so clear I am lost.

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Ink

A couple of days later Almir notices, over coffee at the sidewalk café. He says I should stay longer, that I’m just a few days away from being a real Bosnian. He means it, and I think I know what he means. The night before, we stayed up for hours at the neighborhood pub and tattoo parlor, joking like idiots, throwing darts. But by two in the morning, I was exhausted. I really wanted to leave, but you were my ride, and you were already home. So I started imagining myself stretched long on the tattoo bed by the bar, knowing that to be a real Bosnian I’d have to do some time there, and in that haze getting a tattoo started to seem like a fantastic idea. But soon we left, I slept, and it was gone.

Back in Sarajevo, we sit by the river Bosna, at the source, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, feta, and beer, Sarajevsko, straight from the brewery. You laugh at me when I tell everyone I fell in love with Bosnia the first time I tasted the garden tomatoes, but I swear it’s true, you have no idea what the American tomato has become. Then I flash to that feast eight years ago, with Jasmina’s aunt, up near Banja Luka in the house the Chetniks had occupied and trashed during the war. It was restored now, and there we gathered, fifteen of us, the heavenly banquet, everything fresh. I was falling in love with it all when I noticed Jasmina’s uncle wasn’t saying much. Then I remembered he had been in the camps, where someone’s needled concentration left numbers on his arm. And hate was seared to the skin of my love.

We were supposed to meet Nermina, the art critic, Samir’s friend, but it’s almost 100 degrees and it’s too hot for anyone to walk to us. So we go for a drive up Mt. Trebević, one of the Olympic mountains, where bobsledders once screamed down a track that’s already in ruins. The graffiti is spellbinding. We keep going, all the way to the top, and up there what must have been a beautiful restaurant is wrecked, burned out, graffiti-tagged, no hip urban art just the scattered signatures of death.

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Tile

When I look all the way down Trebević, I finally see how easy it was for them, fish in a barrel, firing down at the millions of terra cotta tiles, roofs burnt orange against blue summer sky, those perfect illusions of shelter.

Sarajevo Terra CottaSarajevo Terra Cotta.

Trembling, I step back from the edge. You’ve taken a phone call, so I’m on my own. I decide to head into that restaurant, shards of tile and brick crumbling under my feet as I move with my camera toward shafts of warm sunlight. When I come back, you hang up and say shit, man, stay out of the shadows, there could’ve been landmines. I lose my breath, thinking of the killers’ deranged hospitality. Killers high like gods with artillery made to take planes out of the sky, but they, they liked aiming it down at the city that has always been a place for travelers to rest.

Trebevic Restaurant

Back in your apartment, where your father laid red tile for you, I toe a depression in the kitchen floor. I ask if I did something wrong, and you say no, that’s where a little while ago your ex-wife dropped a heavy pot. Crash, the pot falling, your wife falling so out of reach and shattering the tile of your heart. You tell me that was rock bottom, and it was peacetime in Sarajevo.

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Pulse

You want to live. And if you know anything in Bosnia it’s that we can’t be afraid to be alive. So we talk, listen, laugh, cry and crank the music loud—Dubioza, EKV, Kultur Shock—yes, we rock and groove all over Bosnia in Sasha’s beast of an old red Ford station wagon that tells the mountains to bring it on and says who’s the stupid American always in the passenger seat who can’t drive a stick?

And the young women stride through Sarajevo with their eyes on the latest fashion, their hair highlighted smooth bronze, blonde, or indigo against brown. I remember Zehra telling us where to get some of that dye for Alexis, whose hair is dark like Zehra’s, her favorite color purple. So we walk into a pharmacy and I grab the box before I realize how ridiculous I’ll look holding this stuff in line. You say give me a break, just be confident, so I do it, and like magic, the American woman next to us starts to flirt with me a little. She says wow, that’s gonna look great on you. I look at you, and we laugh like we’re seventeen.

Then we step out into the mid-afternoon sun, and I see my God, we’re on the street where Merima played her song for Sarajevo, last April, twenty years since the beginning of the siege. Merima’s accordion and her inexhaustible, sweet embrace of the survivors, the sorrow, and our broken, beautiful lives, our lives with all we have left.

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Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić

—Thomas Simpson

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Simpson author shot

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Oct 062014
 

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“We wait for a thing, and when we come upon it, it is already in the process of turning.”

                                                         —Nathalie Stephens, At Alberta

 

 

Introduction

 

How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it, as Charles Bernstein says, by repeating it exactly? The Obituary (2010/12) is the most challenging and enigmatic of Gail Scott’s works to date. It borrows a little something from each of her previous works, exhibiting an array of experimental techniques that are visible in her earlier work back to her first novel, Heroine:

The Obituary incorporates multiple perspectives, or multiple speakers which merge with one another (the protagonist and speaker R—or ‘I/R,’ or ‘Rosine,’ or ‘Rosie’—is both continuous and discontinuous, for example, with I/th’ fly, another speaker, and with ‘The Bottom Historian,’ yet another speaker). The subject, or self, The Obituary depicts is in this way porous; it is not unlike the protagonist of Scott’s Main Brides (1993), Lydia, who, as Jennifer Henderson points out in an insightful analysis, is never rendered in any depth, but is only accessible through the portraits she provides of the other women at whom she gazes, portraits ‘she,’ as a self presented, ultimately blends with (Moyes 72-99).

The self The Obituary depicts is also obviously fragmented (it splits off into multiple perspectives), a fact that is enhanced by Scott’s use, in the novel, of the sentence fragment as a main building unit. Scott’s use of the present participle—“Increasingly I am slipping. Yesterday, riding bicycle down sidewalk…sticking middle finger straight up…Trying by slightly bending th’ digital…Turning right + driving, still on sidewalk…” (7)—is intended to serve the same end: to allow the subject, literally absent from many of the fragments, to fritter away. These techniques become visible in Scott’s oeuvre with My Paris (1999).

The jarring syntax in both My Paris and The Obituary takes effort to acclimatize to; the language making up Scott’s prose in these two works actively draws attention to itself. Because it takes getting used to, it delays the reader’s—depending on the reader—absorption into narrative (though not forever).

Scott’s novels have all, in one way or another, attempted to reinvent narrative; they can be said to exist as part of the rich and motley tradition of so-called non-narrative.[i] The Obituary, in particular, reimagines narrative structure as an improvised structure which exhibits recurring elements (in this case, tropes and specific questions) without seeming to head anywhere (while keeping a running commentary on the fact that it seems only to meander): Plot—at least understood in conventional ways: promise and the deferred fulfillment of promise; desire, thwarted, then navigated; conflict and the unfurling of its consequences—has a minimized place here and, as a result, the book does not lend itself to blow-by-blow summary.

‘What happens’ in the first section (“R, Negative”) continues to happen in each of the text’s remaining major sections (“The Triplex,” “Venetians That Even Private Eyes Have Trouble Sleuthing,” and “A Clue in R Case”), though of course not in the same way:

A face peers from the window in her Montréal, upper-floor apartment (her city is a fictional Montréal that, in many ways, has real-world resonance); the face is noted by different passersby, whom the narrative voice describes in excessive detail (conceptually-motivated excessive detail). Sections in which the face is present, gazing out, are intercut with sections in which R/protagonist, who is both continuous and discontinuous with the face, is moving through the city streets, either by bike or by bus, or is lying on her bed in the middle of her dark-centered apartment. In the sections in which she is described as lying on her bed, R might be dead, a corpse, or she might be masturbating, or she might be reflecting upon her family history (or on her lover, the absent addressee ‘X’): each of these possibilities is suggested. The Obituary refuses to decide between them.

The sections in which R is actively traversing the city occur in the fall, whereas those in which she is bed-bound tend to be set in the winter (there is ice on the sidewalks, for example). By the winter, specifically by November 2003, the face in the window, R, has been reported missing; two cops—a young, Québécois aspiring-actor who can’t seem to handle his food (he is highly flatulent) and an older Parisian virtuoso—have set up inside the stairwell outside her apartment. The Parisian peers in through her peephole and can perhaps see her there, on the bed; the younger gendarme sits a few steps down with a computer; at different moments he seems to succeed at hacking into her files. I/th’ fly is also in the stairwell, flitting about on the old cop’s shirt collar (“essayin’ little samba…I/th’ fly stickin’ backside out + swivellin’ to left, pirhouettin’ to right…” [76]). This fly/speaker is nearly omniscient: able to “see” into the apartment with the recumbent Rosie, or R, notwithstanding the apartment’s walls and closed door, and is also able to narrate the cops’ backstories.

The rest of the text in which the above ‘set-up’ is embedded, and repeated, reads like a collage of memory and history (the prose is densely reminiscent). As R rides about, either by bike or by bus, or simply reflects, the speaker, at times coincident with her, documents the city’s current process of transformation, the people in its buildings and streets, the hybrid languages and politics found there, as well as the play of events which helped shape the city into what it is (the labouring ‘Shale Pit Workers!,’ a smallpox epidemic, and the conflagration of the historical Crystal Palace building are recurring points of focus). As the narrative voice roves, it also documents the more encapsulating history of a country founded on genocide. Creative footnotes contribute to The Obituary’s historical enterprise, supplementing the main text with critical reflections, questions, and counter-memories (from “the margins of perception” [55]) which give the lie to dominant historical narratives. A footnote in the voice of The Bottom Historian reads, “What leads generation after generation of new arrivals in the Americas to endlessly iterate that everyone here an immigrant? From earliest fresh-faced settler boys enlisting, for economic reasons, soon leaning over pits + bayonetting every copper skin that moved…” (82).

R finds that the violent effacement of the Indigenous population is not even noted in the supposedly comprehensive Book of Genocides (on loan from her landlord), which she subsequently rips up, allowing the yellowing pages to scatter on the streets below her window (they become a recurring motif). Whether she is out and about or on her bed, R is haunted by this violence, particularly insofar as it permeates her personal and familial history: She herself is Indigenous, but her ancestry is spotty: it has been downplayed and, in some cases, actively concealed; she is unsure of the details. In the final section, “A Clue in R Case,” R addresses an absent grandfather with a few of the questions which agonize her:

Grandpa: on the subject of marrow. Was your paternal grandma Maria’s lack of family name meaning she Indigenous? Was the Canuck Maria marrying somewhere au nord du Québec mixed? Or pure laine? Was your father the Shale Pit Worker! fleeing smallpox epidemy, really marrying an Ojibwa somewhere in Ontario? Whose offspring [you, Grandpa] marrying [but why only saying after she dying?], the Métis, Pricilla Daoust… (158; brackets in the original)

These questions are not answered; they exist as instances or examples of hauntings and elaborate on the novel’s central preoccupation: R tells us early on that she is posturing as a woman of “inchoate origin” (we might read: an origin not formed, but forming and hence unknown) in order to “underscore how we are haunted by the secrets of others” (6). The text proceeds as a sort of sustained meditation on this subject: R, returning again and again, in different contexts, to the question of her origin, is not the only one haunted in the text: The passersby are haunted by R’s face in the window; the cop’s in the stairwell and her psychiatrist are haunted by the fact of her absence; those who have qualms with R, her neighbours, including her landlord—the latter because R set her sex toys out on the balcony one day, where they were plainly visible to children—“Dildo like a stallion’s!” (89)—are antagonized by the secret of what she gets up to in the privacy of her own home.

Scott has used the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ or of ‘roundness’ to describe the structure of her novel Heroine (1987), which proceeds in a similarly repetitious, meditative way (with the protagonist returning again and again to the question of whether her creative practice should be subordinated to political engagement, and to the somewhat masochistic ‘open’ relationship she is engaged in with a political leader, which is deteriorating). Heroine, as Scott discusses in her collection of essays, Spaces Like Stairs (1989), is supposed to enact a feminist politics of form while gesturing through its content and structure toward a conception of the self as, not only fragmented, but unfixed (the self could be or become anything). The Obituary enacts a similar politics and gestures toward a similar conception of the self, or subject. And yet it is also a text which actively resists reductive interpretations. It may seem impossible to have it both ways: to both inscribe the novel with a politics and to shun the idea of fixed meaning (this is one of the reasons postmodernism, a champion of unfixed meaning, has seemed so incompatible with, and has even seemed like such a threat to, feminism). In what follows, I examine the ways in which The Obituary, continuous, as a text, with other texts outside it, treads precisely this hard, paradoxical line. It is a feminist, postmodern novel if there ever was one.

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A Politics of Form versus the Dead Author

It will be helpful to examine Scott’s poetic, as well as the feminist politics it implies, and the problem this politics might be said to pose for postmodernism, in greater depth before exploring the respects in which it plays out—in a way that is actually compatible with postmodernism—in The Obituary (at the level of the novel’sthemes, as well as at the level of its structure).

A poetic is typically understood as theoretical writing pertaining to an actual poetic practice, though poetry and poetics can intersect at times. Scott’s works have been marketed for the most part as fiction (novels, stories), though perhaps this term, in Scott’s case, is best reduced to a marketing label. Elsewhere she refers to her works as ‘prose experiments,’ and, in general, her writings refuse the sort of dichotomized mindset that would sever fiction from poetry. Why, Scott asks, quoting Ann Lauterbach, “should only poetry [be]…about the way language works (rhythms and sounds and syntax—musical rather than pictorial values) as much as it is about a given subject?” (The Virgin Denotes). In her collection of (at times also structurally and linguistically innovative) essays, Spaces Like Stairs, Scott expresses a desire for both poetry and the cultural legitimacy bestowed by ‘story’; at no point does she forsake fiction, though she does reconfigure it in order to better create, as she says, “stories ‘shaped’ like me” (67).

Her desire in this regard—to create stories “‘shaped’ like me”—is deeply indebted to the communal feminist/aesthetic practices that were specific to late twentieth-century Montréal. These practices, in which Scott herself participated, were informed by European French feminist philosophy and what we might call postmodern writings (writings by thinkers like Foucault and Barthes), which, given the absence of a language barrier, could find their way into that context independent of translation and mediation via academia. La Théorie, un dimanche (Theory, A Sunday) is a collection of essays by the writers working in that context and imbibing these European writings (Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré and Scott herself contribute essays). Its content reflects the conversations that transpired between these writers in a formal discussion group initiated by Nicole Brossard in 1983: meetings on different topics were held every two months, and the fruits of this sustained form of thinking were published in French in 1988. The English translation, Theory, a Sunday was only recently published—2013—by the American experimental press Belladonna.

There are several themes which recur in this text and which carry over into Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs, which was published a year later (in 1989). The possibility of a ‘feminine subject’ is a central concern. For these thinkers—though we can see the idea in the French feminist writings which were influencing them, particularly Hélène Cixous’ influential essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa”—“the feminine” expresses a gap, or black hole in patriarchal culture: it is something that has been misrepresented, distorted, and even actively occluded in a patriarchal setting, particularly by language as it is deployed according to the (patriarchal) norms and conventions (including literary norms and conventions) that govern this setting. The question for these writers is then how to score “the feminine” in culture through creative work that does not use the very language and literary forms that are deployed to obstruct it. This is a difficult task because, as they say, the patriarchal imagination not only governs the way in which women are represented (say, within works of fiction, or even within cultural narratives), but also preserves for itself the power to either validate or discredit works of literature—praising those which conform to its aesthetic and consigning those which do not to the proverbial gutters as either ‘green’ or ‘garbage,’ effectively exiling the author from prize culture and other avenues of legitimation.

The critique here is deep: It challenges the very criteria of literary valuation, which it recognizes is not neutral, demanding that its governing conception(s) of excellence be reassessed, and that we allow a descriptive rather than a prescriptive ethos to inform our engagement with new texts. As Louky Bersianik points out in her contribution to Theory, A Sunday, “a number of critics seem far too busy telling authors, especially female authors, what they should be doing instead of taking an interest in what they are actually doing” (64).

Scott’s Spaces casts light on the functional conception of the patriarchal aesthetic that serves as a backdrop for these writers’ thinking: In it, she suggests that linear narrative (with its linear time and cause-effect logic) and conventional sentences (which hammer subjects to verbs—in a later interview she also suggests that they “sentence” in a juridical sense, deciding things, definitively [Moyes 221-2]) may hinder the expression of “the feminine.” She also articulates a suspicion of the value of ‘action’ in narrative and conventional (possibly anti-intellectual) notions of accessibility, favouring writing which follows the ear, or lets language, lets poetry specifically, “take the lead in making ‘sense’ of the socially fragmented female ‘core’” (67). Those who care deeply about creating linguistically interesting sentences, or, even more generally, linguistically interesting text, may be more likely to appreciate the tension that exists between language that titillates the ears and is visually pleasing on a page and a focus on language as communication: It is hard to both control the direction of the prose and resist falling into ‘language as usual.’ As Nicole Markotic says, speaking as a writer of prose poetry, “[a]s soon as I take a step toward the horizon, the horizon reconfigures—itself and me” (“Narrotics” par. 5).

Consistent with this, some of Scott’s early critics claimed her prose consisted merely of “a whole lot of images going nowhere,” or, if they acknowledged a through-line in a given piece, claimed it was too distracted (Spaces 67). These qualities, of course, are not inherently negative (though the claim that Scott’s images go nowhere is overstated). Nothing in art is inherently negative, and these qualities in particular make sense within Scott’s theoretical framework, which suggests that “the feminine” might be best achieved in writing through the pursuit of poetry and the temporary suspension of plot, character, form, and “reasonable” writing more generally (reason has historically been associated with masculinity—femininity, conversely, has cultural associations with madness, chaos, emotion and puerility). “The more one transgresses,” Scott writes, “the more one distances from law and order” (73).

As I mentioned earlier, Scott has used both the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ and the metaphor of ‘the sphere,’ or ‘roundness,’ to speak of the structure of this alternative mode of writing she is engaged in, which, as she sees it, is conducive to creating stories ‘shaped like her.’ A story shaped like her, a particular female self who exists and writes from within a community of other critical female selves with whom she is not exactly uniform (since no self is), is, according to the theoretical framework she is working in, a story which bears the imprint of “the feminine” (“the feminine” therefore admits of no generic template). Scott’s politics of form—which is committed to bringing “the feminine” into view in a culture which has covered it over—insists that this imprint should be present: “the writing subject is not neutral, gender coding cannot be absent from the text” (Spaces 49).

This insistence on the trace of the author on the text at first seems to stand in opposition to a postmodern way of thinking—Barthes concluded his infamous essay “The Death of the Author” with the claim that the text (namely, the postmodern text) and the birth of the reader would have to come at the expense of the author: To attribute the text to an author in terms of whom the text could be read—the text could be read as a manifestation of the author’s psychology, or history, or could be read in the way the author ‘intended’ it to be read—was seen as a gesture which limited the number of ways it could be read: the meanings linked to an Author-God, rather than existing alongside other meanings, would eclipse all other possible meanings—they would, in other words, ‘close’ the writing. The postmodern mindset, reflected in pieces like Derrida’s “I have forgotten my umbrella,” is one, conversely, which values the proliferation of meaning, encouraging readers to promote this proliferation and to eschew reductive readings by relating to words, sentences and texts in a way which does justice to the nature of language—a system of signs whose meanings, according to this mindset, are always potentially infinite and have more to do with the way signs, or words, mingle with each other than they have to do with connections between words and the things in the world, to which they are usually said to refer.

This being said, the trace of “the feminine” can be thought in relation to the postmodern in a few ways: As the insisted-upon trace of the author (a gender coding which cannot be absent), it might be thought to threaten the text’s capacity to ‘mean’ in an unlimited number of ways (it might be thought to provide a lens for the text which, treated as the exclusive lens through which the text can be explored, will hinder a reader’s exploration of the work’s myriad other possible significations ). Alternatively, the trace of “the feminine” might be conceived as a harmless pseudo, or merely supposed, trace, since fixing “the feminine” as an imprint on the text would be, according to a certain postmodern way of thinking (there are, in fact, a few different postmodern ways of thinking), an impossible task to begin with:

This postmodern mindset insists on understanding the text as a network of words which not only do not gesture to a world beyond language, but also, in mingling with each other in an infinite number of ways, perpetually posit meaning, “but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6). The text, viewed from within this mindset, cannot actually possess an ultimate meaning, let alone an ultimate feminist meaning. Because the language that makes a text up is not supposed to refer to an outside world and the things within it (words merely refer to other words), it is supposed to be impossible to discover “society, or history, the psyche, or freedom” behind it (Barthes, DA par. 6). This particular postmodern mindset also makes the more extreme suggestion that there is in fact no society or psyche (let alone a feminist psyche) behind the text: All is text. Simply. As Christian Bök puts this in “Getting Ready to Have Been Postmodern,” “the play of the postmodern goes on to display a new atopia of humanist cancellation in a world without any certified existence” (89-90; in Stacey).

I would like to defer discussion of whether “the feminine” as a fact of existence “beyond” the text is actually incompatible with a postmodern perspective (a kind of postmodern perspective) until the final section in this essay. For now, I would simply like to examine the ways in which the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are dwelling within and acknowledge the postmodern perspective as outlined above, while also exploring the respects in which “the feminine” as an imprint on a given work may actually be compatible with this perspective.

For one thing, the thinkers of Theory acknowledge that it is impossible to limit what a text can mean; they profess a desire to create works which refuse singular meanings, as well. Louise Dupré writes that “[t]exts written by women cannot be reduced to a feminist reading, even a well-intentioned one. They constantly resist such a process” (Theory 101). Even Scott is explicitly devoted to creating texts that remain ‘open.’ In Spaces Like Stairs, she insists that “[w]here there is closure (firm conclusions) in ‘straight writing’ there are spaces, questions in hers. Even her anecdotes point to other possible representations, leave themselves open for reader intervention” (102)—‘her’ in this instance refers to a writer of “the feminine.”

As far as “the feminine” goes, moreover, it is in many ways bereft of content. True, expressed as a gap in patriarchal culture, something covered up or distorted, the term seems to point toward something pre-existing, specific and perhaps ‘essential’ (an ‘essence’ usually implies content of some kind: it is the key trait or set of traits that makes something what it is). In Spaces, Scott recounts, for example, how at a colloquium a writer asked her what she meant in using the language of “listening to the animal inside her” (presumably while speaking about how “the feminine” might be accessed): “I had to admit I meant listening to something essentially ‘feminine’—perhaps to a part of ‘self’ (i.e., self-as-woman) not quite integrated into the law, closer to ‘nature.’ In [postmodernist] terms this was heresy” (52). Yet elsewhere in Spaces, she describes “the feminine” as having a changeable meaning: it could be or become anything (47). This shift in Scott’s vocabulary speaks to a kind of intellectual flexibility and provisionality on her part; it is also in keeping with the idea that the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are consciously engaged, not in an act of making feminist ideology—they are not telling a story about an essential “feminine”—but in an ongoing, open-ended, critical process of thinking:

Taking risks. That’s what fiction does when in uncovers a woman-consciousness that goes beyond the feminist superego. In this moment when it seems that theory is spinning its wheels, when young girls see feminism as a form of ideology, a strict doctrine that accuses them for what is actually imposed upon them from the outside, writing allows for a conception of feminism that would be a space of discussion, questioning, change. In short, a conception of feminism as it actually is: a territory in motion, open, polymorphous. A movement. (Louise Dupré, Theory 101)

“The feminine,” like the feminine subject, or self, and like the thinking that takes her as a subject, or topic, and that articulates her in different ways, is difficult to pin down in terms of content precisely because it is always “in process.” It does not necessarily find expression in female characters as they are represented or in feminist themes, and, as a result, as Scott points out, writing which inscribes “the feminine” may not necessarily lend itself to “content-focused” feminist analysis: its feminism, in keeping with a literary tradition particular to Québec, instead plays out more as a “radical contestation of language and form” (Spaces 39). I would add that, if it is registered on a thematic level, it is registered more during those meta-moments when a given text (we will see that this is true of The Obituary) has the opportunity to explicitly reflect on what it is doing (compare Spaces 47).

What is “the feminine” then? If it is, in the ways I’ve been describing, content-less, it is not clear in what sense, inscribed in the text, it would limit, like the looming Author-God Barthes criticizes, the field of a given work’s possible meanings. We still might ask how “the feminine” might be understood. I stumbled upon a passage that is illuminating in this regard while reading Rob Halpern on the topic of New Narrative. ‘Community’ as Halpern discusses it—as a concept which denotes a content that is only ‘potential’—is in some ways analogous to “the feminine” in the sense that we’ve been discussing it:

[P]otentiality characterizes New Narrative’s approach to community not as something replete with self-present or transparent content, but as a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what it is given…This suggests the temporality of the future anterior…In other words, what will the present’s incoherence look like from the vantage point of the transformed future our story will have ushered into being…” (89)

Interestingly, the future anterior does crop up as a theme in The Obituary—perhaps it is the trace-mark of a larger conversation, since Scott does have ties to the New Narrative tradition in the States (they developed after she became established as a writer through her initial engagement with Québec’s writing scene in the seventies and eighties), or perhaps it is not. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t, the future anterior, as a tense that is a metaphor for a future vantage point, helps us make sense of “the feminine” as something which might be both politically effective (it may usher in a new way of thinking, a new world because, proposed as a ‘blank’ or ‘opacity,’ “the feminine” poses the gendered social world as a question, suspending its assumptions) and non-ideological and in this sense non-reductive: Hindsight may show it to have a discernible content, but until then, it is without one (unless its content is its dearth of content), and by then the world and “the feminine” within it will once again be transforming.

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The Feminine Subject-in-Process in The Obituary’s Themes and Structure

 “A sphere: a nice feminine shape to take off from, a shape that gives us the latitude to avoid linear time, that cause-and-effect time of partriarchal logic. Yes, the sphere is precisely the kind of shape, of movement, that permits us to leave reasonable prose behind. It’s a shape that abets (my) departure from a horizontal plane of writing, the better to decipher a memory blocked by silence, to leap from my discoveries towards a future not yet dreamed of. Twisting, altering in the process, the sphere itself…” — Gail Scott, Spaces 73

The prose making up The Obituary seems to meander. The text, which proposes a mystery and in many ways incorporates the tropes of film noir and the detective novel—we have R in the center of her dark apartment (though she may also be missing) and the two cops in her stairwell, who may see her or may not, and who are trying to solve the case of her disappearance, her possible murder—also gestures toward a direction the prose could take: It could move toward demystification, a denouement, toward the case resolved. And yet the novel only gestures toward this direction in a superficial way: it gestures toward the detective novel, toward crime fiction as a genre, only in order to subvert its conventions (particularly ‘the reveal,’ as well as the underlying assumption that there is a truth to be obtained); in doing so, the novel defines itself via a negative model (this is what I am not). Recurring themes and questions (which themselves are subject to variation as they are iterated) lend the text a degree of constancy without furthering the text along the path of knowledge. In this sense, the text’s structure is circular rather than linear (events do not unfurl and characters are not shunted along towards an endpoint, or the realization of a goal).

“The feminine,” I suggest, manifests in The Obituary, not only through the novel’s various repetitions, but also as a kind of digressiveness: as what seems at times to be the text’s improvised or haphazard, as opposed crafted, structure. ‘Digression’ takes the text afield of what is conventionally understood as good (reasonable) writing, in which all elements are supposed to serve some function (though it is never the case that every element in a text serves a function, and though it is always the case that every element, whatever it is, can be read back into a text so that it seems to). The Obituary’s seemingly improvised structure is also framed, in the text’s running commentary on itself, as an intentional and hence crafted structure, and the coexistence of these two possible meanings (such that the text can be read as both ‘improvised’ and ‘crafted’) functions to ‘open’ the text in a way that is consistent with a postmodern framework.

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The Novel as Improv

The Obituary is typographically unconventional and a reading which focused on its visual presentation—a reading which paid attention, for example, to its plus signs and brackets, the line breaks which at times interrupt prose paragraphs, reconfiguring the space on the page, as well as the text’s playful lapsus linguae (its reference to Breton’s “great novel Najda” [100], among many, many others)—attempting to articulate its implications for the set of the novel’s possible readings would be valuable. Here, I will only point out that the inconsistency of its visual presentation—frequently varied spellings of “identical” words, the line-breaks I mentioned, the novel’s irregular abbreviations of ing- to in’-endings, and its irregular use of the hyphen along with the plus sign (as in “hurrying blue- + white-collar workers” [37] compared to “filth-+-vice-ridden city” [13] compared to more regular, unhyphenated combinations, as in “switching back + forth” [60])—seems to support the idea that there is no rule to this text, that it follows the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment (or that, more specifically, its “writer”—the writer the text implies, if not its actual author—was following the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment and for some reason chose to forgo editing).

Some of the text’s stricken words also belie the idea that there is any necessity behind its narrative direction: “Reeef, smiling rakishly, alongside Veeera his precocious little beauty Rosie. Already showing more leadership in her little finger than most” (121). ‘Veeera,’ the initially proposed focus, being Reeef’s wife. Rosie, swapped in, being his daughter. The text could have gone one way, but it went another. If we were to interpret the text’s omnipresent plus sign, which frequently takes the place of the conjunction ‘and,’ as a literal addition sign, then we could take its presence to suggest that the narrative progresses additively and is able to append whatever it happens to encounters to itself:

We are informed repeatedly, in different ways (which, taken together, make up the text’s meta-commentary) that the novel’s ambulation is and will continue to be that of the flâneur: random and indiscriminate, “subject to countless deviations” (25). In a footnote, the voice of The Bottom Historian tells us that, “Little by little revealing why we meandering in speaking. As disparate in associations as a voyageur on a train”; then, leaping off from her mention of the voyageur on a train, goes on in the same self-consciously meandering, free-associating way: “Hallucinating on various angles of the sunset, unless distracted by fussy table linen, or fancy brickwork or stations of the early era. When this still new, therefore allegorical, mode of transport advancing in winter night over ‘empty’ prairie…” (33).

Similarly, the “future novel space” is said to be opening “[w]ide as the legs of a porn queen” (24)—perhaps this can be taken to mean that it will admit much and admit anything.On page sixty, the novel absorbs and details a Cuban it confesses has “no future in R story.” Even one of the text’s major motifs, Hitchcock’s film Dial M for Murder, is introduced, or is presented as introduced, to the text in an aleatory manner:

A nobody in a bar R frequents notes that the washroom is “right out of Dial M for Murder” (24). The narrative voice goes on to describe his observation as “A serendipitous error. To use to our benefit,” then claims “Peter has served his purpose: / Dial M for Murder” (24). In other words, Peter, initially introduced, like the Cuban, haphazardly, and not because he had use-value, has come, it just so happens, to have use value: he has inadvertently provided The Obituary with a frame that it may now roll with; he has sparked an idea. It is illuminating, for example, to watch the film and to hear Mark Halliday, the crime-fiction writing character, explain to both Margot and her murderous husband why he believes in the perfect murder, but only on paper: “Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life they don’t—always.” And, in the film, of course, the husband’s plan goes wrong, and Margot destroys her would-be assassin with a pair of scissors. The Obituary chooses to shirk Halliday’s claim about stories and the relation authors bear to control and proceeds, conversely, as life in the film does.

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The Novel as Crafted

If The Obituary does in some ways identify with Hitchcock’s film, however, it also collides with it, or contests it. The novel may suggest that it proceeds, not in the way of a novel, but as life does, and yet it also unsettles this idea: As much as the Dial M for Murder motif seems to be introduced haphazardly, it is also the case that it is presaged: it appears, dripping with intentionality, six pages before Peter in the bar, when R suggests that her apartment is “awkward as 3-D set of Dial M for Murder” (18).

The Obituary, moreover, despite its labyrinthine way of proceeding, despite its indiscriminate curations, its descriptive excesses and digressions, also remains puzzlingly on task. At least compared to a work like Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. Dies is anchored with a basic, recurring narrative frame—in this case, two people in different ways limbless, in a trench, awaiting onslaught, preparing soup—which, as Susan McCabe points out in her introduction to the work, freely recedes so that all manner of events and language can surge up, over and around it (xvii). The work lends itself to comparison with The Obituary because it, too, is a poetic experiment with narrative and is in similar ways friendly to digression and excess. However, whereas Dies tolerates sea-beasts bursting from ‘sea-sacks’ (see 43) and epic dungeon battles, The Obituary refrains from straying into the (overly) implausible or phantasmagoric. And yet The Obituary is, like Dies, intensely linguistic, sonic, odd: It is more than realistic (it is so linguistically specific it is less than realistic), only, unlike Dies, it is so without ever quitting a world whose historical and political valences resonate, uncannily, with our own. The following excerpt is in this way illustrative. ‘The face’—which is both continuous and discontinuous with R—has just streaked by the apartment’s peephole. It is

Ancilliarily coated in same dusky, near horizontal light penetrating inner stairway. Via Bottom oeil-de-boeuf door. Rendering our surveillants as splotches of miasma in corrupted stairwell air. Nitrogen. Methane. Ammonia from stagiaire J-F Jean’s [the young cop’s] steamy hotdog lunch. Dust mites. Scattered neurons. Dead ketones. Whorling swarms + electrons. Odour o’ p-p-p-patchouli from neighbouring sex trade worker. On whose scarlet salon wall hookers in blouses, long skirts, wooden trunks held over heads, themselves on way out West, ca. 1910. Crossing rocky steam in little boots. Walking walking toward red disc of a timepiece perched atop a craggy peak… (53)

The text suggests that this seemingly all-encompassing resonance, the way the novel, digressing, as towards the prostitutes above, remains so puzzlingly on-task, results from the fact that experience itself is over-connected (66). The novel, like the city in which its happenings are anchored, is saturated with history; any digression into history or memory, very capacious categories, moreover, is no digression at all, but aligns with the novel’s preoccupation with origins and genocide. In one possible reading, then, it is history, particularly but not exclusively the history of Indigenous erasure, which ‘over-connects’ experience, thereby giving rise to “th’ paranoia any citizen by definition trying to deflect” (ibid.). R/protagonist is, conversely, not a “citizen”; she is paranoid: She is trying to resist assimilation into a society of ‘better lawns’ and willed-ignorance, and, finding everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, goes missing herself. “Are not all paranoids,” her psychiatrist says, “self-fulfilling prophecies?” (ibid.).

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A Gap in Lieu of Truth

R, as a character, is fractured; as a narrative voice, she blends with other narrative voices: those of I/th’ fly and The Bottom Historian, for example. She is also fractured in the sense that the novel refuses to make a decision about whether she is living and present, living and missing, or dead (murdered). She is also, like “the feminine,” or the feminine subject as we discussed her above, in her own way content-less. The mystery of her ancestry, of her origin, is at times presented as a major obstacle to identity (see 52). And yet ‘the truth’ regarding her ancestry, like ‘the truth’ regarding her disappearance, is tied, on a thematic level, to the novel’s (seemingly) improvised structure: the truth (whether regarding her ancestry or regarding her disappearance), the novel seems at times to suggest, is a mere improvisation as well.

I mentioned above that The Obituary subverts the conventions of the detective novel and the film noir, particularly by doing away with the requirement of a denouement; doing away with denouement is one way the novel subverts the premise that there is actually a fact about, for example, what happened, or about who murdered whom, or who attempted to murder whom (in Hitchcock’s film, the husband attempts to have his wife murdered), or even about R’s ancestry. The text is consistently ambiguous in this regard; different possibilities surface as R ruminates, but they are always framed in a way which calls their accuracy into question: “I/R [angry]: — I’m more Autochtone [exaggerating peut-être]. Than anything!” (59-60; brackets and italics in the original; “peut- être” meaning “a little”). Later, R states that, in school, “[n]o one teaching anything Algonquian.” (153).

The novel leads the reader on, perpetually making promises of a denouement (of answers) and gesturing toward a mode of arriving at it (them) which seems more suspect, more whimsical and jubilantly ineffective, every minute: “For a story, to be feasible, must be moving forward. Which is why I/R daily boarding avatar of public transport” (48). “Reader, in interest of dénouement, let us follow silhouette dégageant from wind-battered crowd” (125). Again and again, the text seems only to posit narrative direction as a pretext for its own persistence: “Is not our future narrative to keep us moving forward?” [9]yetwhatever it decides to say or turn its eye on, no matter how tangential, will sustain the forward motion. Oh! it seems to say, in its various addresses to the reader, ‘Let’s do this because we can. I mean, trust us, we are heading somewhere.’ At various points in time, a voice surges up and claims to be setting the novel back ‘on track’ (“But let us stick to the path of our intrigue” [28]; “Here, it behooves I/Basement Bottom Historian, to surface. Encore. For purpose of resetting intrigue on path to dénouement” [115]); the novel’s meta-statements concerning its own self-reflexive aimlessness, however, work tirelessly to corrode a reader’s faith that this is actually what’s happening.

The recurring, repeatedly re-contextualized, somewhat enigmatic idea that “we are moulded by circumstantial evidence” also vexes the idea that, in the novel, there is a truth to be had, specifically a historical truth beyond history’s various tellings, which are themselves sculpted by the vagaries which weave the context from which they issue: “But we are moulded by circumstantial evidence, so for th’future…no visible dénouement [again, no interval during which truth will be ousted]” (55). “R little surrogate,” moreover, is at a loss to “secrete th’Méta Physique under th’ Topo Logic of reality [or, we might say, though there are multiple ways the phrase might be interpreted, the (non-extant) truth under a linguistic surface]” (144).

Even the young cop—a knowledge-constructor—sitting, once R has gone missing or has been murdered, or has simply barricaded herself in her apartment, a few steps down from her keyhole, working away on his computer, decides to assemble his final police report—the hard evidence, as it were—using a “hazardous selection method” inspired by Breton’s “Najda” (100). He collects: E-mails. Word Doc diary entries. “Chat logs. Police cams in trees. Phone tabs. Whatever. Gleanings he ideally formatting into little rotating loops, disappearing/appearing in no fixed order. Creating nifty multi-flash effect” (ibid.). Truth here is merely the clash of random documents, which, taken together, remain enigmatic and uninformative.

We could read the young cop’s random assemblage, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel’s penultimate section, as a mise en abyme, a small-scale version of what is going on in the novel on a larger scale: The Obituary in this way insinuates that its parts have likewise been haphazardly selected, while rendering the idea that we might glean from it, from them, through our readerly efforts, any kind of knowledge or clarification concerning R—that is, knowledge which exceeds the idea that she is a missing center—suspect.

The text’s final section (where its denouement would be placed, if there was one) takes a similar form: it is a motley gathering of flashbacks, epistle-form reminiscences, and sharp, sometimes sad images (I am thinking of an image of Veeera, R’s mother, who is dead; R remembers her “expiring on divan. Tummy swollen from sugar + wheat. Very pale from refusing in summer to let tanning sun fall, even on back of little finger” (162); she refuses to be dark, and there is a racial meaning here, since the text also suggests that she was raised unaware of the fact that she was iBndigenous.)

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The Future Anterior in Poe’s “Ligeia” in The Obituary: Two Readings

To be sure, The Obituary is not a lighthearted novel. It depicts a self, a subject, with a gap at her core. It deftly confuses the truth of the subject with its own ludic way of unfolding, proposing, perhaps, that there is no truth below the surface of a narrative that just happens to happen as it happens. In a sense, it favours the reach toward knowledge (the act of questioning) over the possibility of attaining knowledge (the answer). The former, it sustains; the latter, it suspends indefinitely. At the same time, it showcases other ideas and features (like its meta-commentary) which trouble this reductive reading. Perhaps, it suggests, for example, the text’s structure is not improvised after all.

In a sense, the novel also suggests that R’s history, far from absent, is lodged in her in a way that is so concrete it could actually be related to her eventual murder. I would like to trace this tension in the text between the thought that R is, like “the feminine,” content-less and the thought that she is overdetermined by her history (the thought that her ancestry determines her destiny). The Obituary refers to many outside texts—among these: Breton’s Nadja, Hitchcock’s film, which we discussed, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as Romeo and Juliet, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia.” It uses these texts to frame its own preoccupations. It is “Ligeia,” in particular, that can be read alongside Scott’s novel in a way which brings out the idea of an oppressively present past, or origin.

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First, A Note on the Ghost of the Author

So far, I’ve been reading The Obituary largely in terms of the framework provided in Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs and in the collaborative work Theory, A Sunday, so I provide this new reading (making use of Poe’s “Ligeia”) partly as a way to deviate from that framework. Contra Barthes when he claims that “[t]o give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing” (DA par. 6), I want to examine the way in which the thought of a feminine-subject-in-process, possessing a content which might only come into sight retrospectively, exists as only one lens among others through which the work might come into focus. Yet, I want to insist that, in this case, a reading that hews (in a way certain postmodernists would find dubious) to what Scott, or The Author, has said about her own work is a necessary supplement to the alternative reading I outline below: it keeps this alternative reading from having what postmodernists should find even more dubious: a monopoly on meaning (the text’s possible meanings are supposed to be infinite).

As far as the question of whether “the feminine,” which I have suggested is inscribed in various ways in The Obituary,[ii] refers to something “beyond” the text goes…The extreme version of postmodernism suggests that everything is text, that there is no world and no self “outside” of the text, never mind a feminine subject which might be inscribed in the text for political purposes, namely, in order to bring that subject into view in a culture which has ignored it. And yet postmodernism is also a perspective that refuses hard and fast distinctions between opposites; it is in this sense a way of thinking which in theory should actually resist the idea that texts and selves, or even texts and the world, could be thought in any way other than in relation to each other: The thought that ‘all is text’ is too one-sided for this way of thinking.

In writings like Of Hospitality and “Violence and Metaphysics,” for example, Derrida collapses ‘self’ into ‘other’ and ‘inside’ into ‘outside’—he writes these concepts out in a way which allows us to see that these so-called opposites actually participate in each other, and that they wouldn’t be what they are if they didn’t. The subject, or self, that Foucault theorizes (from different angles in his early and late works) is likewise saturated with what is sometimes conceived as its “outside”: cultural norms as well as the writings and categories which make up the available means of self-interpretation. Foucault’s subject is, in many ways, just this “outside” in the sense that such texts make up what Foucault wouldn’t but what we might call its psychology.

This idea does not have to be taken to imply that the self is “only” text. The philosopher Seyla Benhabib goes this route when she argues that the self cannot be understood as both language, or text—as part of “the chain of significations of which it was supposed to be the initiator”—and as a political agent: If the self is only a “position in language,” then, she supposes, it cannot reflect on and alter language, let alone the world through language (a situation which leaves postmodernism and feminism looking pretty irreconcilable). Judith Butler’s works Giving an Account of Oneself and The Psychic Life of Power, conversely, encourage us to rethink the self, and its ability to act, as a paradox: as consistent with the idea that the social world’s normalizing categories and practices make up the self’s proverbial tissue, while at the same time making agency (mainly in the form of self-change) possible.

Postmodernism’s “dead” author can be thought of, then, in a way that is perfectly consistent with postmodernism, not as an instance in which the writer, or self, and world are abolished, but as just another instance in which self and other, and inside and outside, blend. When Barthes claims, for example, in “The Death of the Author,” that if the writer “wants to express [read: insists, naively, on expressing] himself [sic], at least he should know that the internal ‘thing’ he claims to ‘translate’ is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” (par. 5), this claim in itself does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject (rethought), in the world (rethought) beyond (even the idea of ‘being beyond’ must be rethought) the work. It also does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject, leaving a trace on the text, or participating in the work as a frame which sits alongside and only sometimes inflects its many other meanings: Writing, as Barthes says, “ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6)—why couldn’t a novel, then, posit “the feminine” in the way it posits any other kind of meaning: ephemerally?

All this being said, I should acknowledge that “the feminine” I’ve read into The Obituary has been relayed through another text (a book of Gail Scott’s theory): All I’ve truly done is read one book in terms of another by the same author. The above discussion has not been fruitless though, because, having read the “novel” in terms of the “theory,” we would still have to wonder whether a form of culturally-downplayed feminine experience could be said to exist “outside” of these paired works,and we would still have to wonder if articulating the feminine, whether in theory-form or fiction-form or via some inter-genre, such as Scott tends to work in, is both, even from within a postmodern way of thinking (since I am attempting to read The Obituary as a specifically feminist postmodern novel), possible and meaningfully political. If all is text, brute text (as opposed to text as the nuancing folds of Judith Butler’s mind make it out to be: text can take the form of a living self), then it is hard to see how anything other than the “new atopia of humanist cancellation” Christian Bök associates with postmodernism could be possible.

Reading The Obituary alongside Scott’s Spaces is a (postmodern) fair move. Any piece of writing is an entity with questionable boundaries, after all (remember that strict distinctions like ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ lapse from within a postmodern perspective). To speak metaphorically, a book extends into, or takes in, the other works to which it refers. It can also be joined, through a reading, with any number of other texts. (And the author is perhaps just a text of a different sort.)

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“Ligeia” (R/protagonist as Rowena)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” is a more conventional sort of text embedded in The Obituary. The young Québécois cop siting in R’s stairwell is also a drama enthusiast and is planning to audition for a night-school performance of a play based on Poe’s story. Other details strewn about The Obituary also serve to connect it to “Ligeia.” A brief summary here, so that I can draw these connections out:

In the tale named for her, Ligeia is a woman of angelic beauty and unsurpassed intelligence; her dark eyes, “orbs [of] the most brilliant black” (570) (which pop up at various places in Scott’s novel), according to her husband, the narrator, are her defining features. She falls ill, then passes. After losing her, the narrator purchases a gloomy abbey in England, where, in one of its decadently ornamented, though strangely moribund, chambers—perhaps it is the presence of vertical sarcophagi that does it—he takes another wife: Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, though he continues to suffer his memories of Ligeia, mourning what, to his mind, had been an ideal marriage.

After their second month together, Lady Rowena takes ill. She summons her husband to her bedside on the night she is sure to die; she appears to be fainting, and so the narrator leaves her side to procure, from elsewhere in the chamber, the same chamber in which he had married her, “a decanter of light wine which had been ordered by her physicians” (576). But as he goes to fetch the wine, he feels “some palpable although invisible object” pass lightly beside him and notices “upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect—such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade” (ibid.). He also becomes aware of “a gentle footfall upon the carpet” (ibid.). He returns to Rowena and gives her the wine, but as she drinks, he notices a few drops of ruby fluid spring, “as if from an invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room” (ibid.) into the goblet. Rowena’s condition immediately worsens.

Soon afterwards, she dies. Around midnight, the narrator, who has stayed with the body, hears a sob. In fact, Rowena is not dead, he determines: there is colour in her cheeks; he hastens to resuscitate her. But all is in vain, for the colour drains off and a “repulsive clamminess and coldness” (577) colonizes the body. The narrator returns to his wake, sitting in the ambient dreariness, eyeing the corps. The clock rolls on and once more he hears something: a sigh, this time. The corps nearly grins: the lips disclose “a bright line of pearly teeth” (ibid.). There is “a slight pulsation of the heart” (578). The narrator responds again with all of his impotent urgency, but the corpse, once more, becomes corpse-like. Until the grey dawn, we are told, the narrator navigates, again and again, this “hideous drama of revivification” (ibid.)—until, finally, the corpse is committal: Its stirrings become more vigorous than previous stirrings; it stands and advances “boldly and palpably into the middle of the apartment” (ibid.). The shrouds loose off, and the narrator knows, by its indisputable eyes, that it is Ligeia.

In The Obituary, mention of ghosts is frequent. Early on, R, during one of her excursions into history, speaking of British officers, tells us that “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. / This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The stricken word ‘dead’ is, of course, because stricken, ambiguous, but the novel also suggests, at various points, that R might return as a ghost (47 and 115) (at any point in time, it is unclear, of course, whether she is dead or alive). At one point, as the young cop hunches in the stairwell, working on his computer, a “[w]hite light spot bob[s] back out 4999 Settler-Nun casement” (150)—4999 is R’s apartment number. Ligeia’s disembodied shadow on the carpet in Poe’s tale, as well as the narrator’s ghostly rubbing and the soft patter of footsteps he mentions, resonate with The Obituary at this moment in particular.

A few of The Obituary’s subtitles as well as the title given to the novel’s last section also link Poe’s dreary bridal chamber, which is also a death chamber, to R’s shadowy bedroom (the center, we are repeatedly reminded, is dark, and that is where she, or possibly her corpse, lies). These are “The Crypt’s Tale,” “Her Little Shelf a Cemetery,” and “A Clou in R Case,” respectively (“a clou in R case” sounds like “a clue in our case,” and can take on that meaning, but once the French word “clou” is translated, it literally becomes “a nail in R case,” which might be taken to mean something like “a nail in R’s coffin”). The “hideous drama of revivification” Poe’s narrator witnesses, moreover, finds an echo in The Obituary’s back-and-forth between autumn scenes in which R is out, roaming about the city, and winter scenes in which she is (possibly) dead in her apartment.

The most striking connection between Scott’s novel and “Ligeia,” however, is the absence of R’s shadow in a vision her fortune-reading grandfather somehow conjures in a teacup: “Black eyes [remember Ligeia’s], blonde curls, skating on future ice of big dark city. Something happening but winter keeps her warm. Entirely my sentiments, old man thinking. When beholding, in bottom of cup, time going on back. Out Room door. Stairs. Yellow leaves, also exiting court. What alarming Grandpa most: his little Rosie casting no shadow” (119-20). R’s absent shadow is, of course, the inverted figure of the shadow Poe’s narrator observes on the carpet, which is not attached to a body (but which may be attached to a ghost), yet both details stand out because they are curious. R’s absent shadow is suggestive of Ligeia’s unaccountably-present shadow because it is equally curious.

In all of the ways just outlined, The Obituary self-consciously aligns itself with “Ligeia”; because it does so, it becomes possible to read “Ligeia” in terms of The Obituary’s themes; it also becomes possible to read The Obituary in terms of the “Ligeia” which emerges when Poe’s text is read in terms of The Obituary’s themes: The Obituary, relayed through “Ligeia,” embellished there, returns to The Obituary. The character Ligeia can be read figuratively, specifically as a representation of R’s history, ancestry, or what she terms her origin, and this reading has consequences for the way we might read The Obituary.

Ligeia, the narrator’s former wife—her life has, quite literally, passed, such that she, and the narrator’s former life with her, are things of the past—readily lends herself as a figure for the past, or history. In Poe’s tale, however, she is fully restored, if the narrator is to be believed, to the present through the body of the hapless Rowena. It is possible that she even destroys Rowena or abets her illness so that she can take her place (red drops spurt, as if from an invisible spring, into Rowena’s cup, and we might associate this event with Ligeia, whose presence as a ghost has just been implied, and conclude from the fact that Rowena’s condition, once she has had her drink, immediately worsens, that the drops were a poison of some kind.)

Linking this reading back to The Obituary, we can note, once more, that R, noticing everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, herself goes missing. “Did not Auntie Dill,” R ruminates, “sitting on her scooter outside Starby’s in Kelowna…reply when asked what colour Grandma’s hair was, hint of panic beneath her perfect curled lashes:/ —N-O-T N-O-I-R [not black, or not dark]” (16). The fact that R’s is Indigenous, though she does not know the particularities of her ancestry, is significant. When speaking of the British officers mentioned above, she says, “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians.” Of course, ‘girls like me’ could, given what we know about R, also mean girls who happen to be Indigenous. This interpretation makes sense in light of the way R finishes her thought/verse: “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The pronoun ‘we’ in this last sentence is ambiguous, however it does include R: if R is Indigenous, then the British (a figurative stand in for a more general cultural force perhaps) will kill her like they killed the other “Indians” they hated.

The origin which obsesses R, in a sense, and on a figurative level, in the way Ligeia overtakes Rowena, does her in. She cannot escape it: “Do not skyscrapers bear, deep within, straw huts? The person, her ancestors?” (115). She perhaps, the novel insinuates, in the past, even attempted to escape her origins (she has a dream about her mother, who is accusing her of lying about her origins [ibid.]; in the text’s final section, in an address to her grandfather, she also explains a move across the country as a way of attempting to become authentic, a state of being she associates, with having origins, with being either able, or willing, to remember them, all of which implies that at some previous point in time she was ‘inauthentic,’ either unable or unwilling to affirm them [see 152]). In the end, however, R does not escape her ancestry: she still goes missing, as if her Indigenous blood has marked her, such that she cannot be an exception to the genocide she has trained her eye on. “It is so easy to be murdered” (157), she tells us.

Read against the backdrop of Poe’s story, R’s ‘origin’ comes into sight, not as a gap, but as a concrete, future-determining presence. As such, it gives us an alternative way to understand ‘the future anterior’ at those moments it surfaces in the novel (we already encountered Rob Halpern’s version). ‘The future anterior,’ as a grammatical tense, signals the idea of a past which is not yet a past, but will be a past at a future point in time (‘she will have returned by tomorrow’). In other words, it is a future past, or, stretching things (figuratively again), it is a past lodged in the future (like Ligeia is lodged in Rowena’s body). (In the novel, the future anterior is presented as the figurative location at which “all stories are told” [46], a domain which is, according to R, “the realm of the ancestors” [152].) But this past lodged in the future is also described as a monstrous one: R refers to “th’ future [+ th’ anterior within it]” as a “monstrosity” towards which she is “obliged to keep movin’” (145; brackets in the original). The fact that it is described as monstrous is consistent with and supports a reading in which “th’ anterior” within “th’ future” is understood as one representation of R’s origin, or ancestry, which, pitted against an enduring cultural hatred, ensures her annihilation. Again, it is no coincidence that she goes missing: she is Indigenous, and her ancestry haunts, and governs, her future, which it expunges, much like Ligeia blots out Rowena. Her ancestry, on this reading, both provides and exhausts her ‘content.’

This take on the future anterior is, of course, markedly different from the one Halpern provided us with in suggesting that the ‘community’ New Narrative writing sometimes takes as its focus is always only a potential community: it is posed as “a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what is given,” rather than inscribed with a specific content. Above, following Halpern, I took the future anterior to imply that retrospection from a not-yet-existing (future) vantage point alone can make sense of what, at present, may seem to be a given novel’s chaos or nebulous ambiguity. “The feminine,” in Scott’s work, like New Narrative’s community, might come into sight as having a specific content from this vantage point, but, until then, remains a gap. Of course, ‘the future anterior’ might be interpreted in a more extreme way as well: It can be taken to mean that what a given novel—and whatever it preoccupies itself with, whether a community, as in Halpern’s case, or “the feminine,” in Scott’s—never means anything (any one thing) in particular and always only will have taken on a particular meaning, since a future tense remains a future tense (it does not, like the non-grammatical future, become the present, and then the past), and since this implies that the future vantage point the tense implies, not to mention the ‘content’ visible from that vantage point, is one which never arrives.

The future anterior, a theme in Scott’s novel, taken in this last way, dovetails with the idea of a (content-less) feminine-subject-in-process expressed in the work, where it is manifest partly as a structure that seems to wander, repeat itself and, ultimately, head “nowhere”—a structure which is the possible effect of an unconventional and, perhaps in many contexts, culturally disavowed approach to writing—a “feminine” approach, to use Scott’s terminology—which eschews logic linearity, knowledge and fixed endpoints, and instead pursues poetry in a way which allows the writer “to leap from [her] discoveries toward a future not yet dreamed of” (Spaces 71). It also resonates with the postmodern attitude which understands a given work’s meanings as open-ended and infinite (meaning only congeals at a never-arriving vantage point). It is in this strange way fully compatible with the alternative interpretation of ‘the future anterior’ which emerges when we read The Obituary alongside “Ligeia,” though the reverse is not true, since the version that emerges through this joint reading points towards the thought of an origin as the self’s—as R’s—fixed content, and also as a guarantor of death (her fixed end), which itself would depend on a fixed interpretation of the work.

Yet both meanings (and many more) emerge in the work, where they trouble each other. In fact, many of Scott’s sentences and sentence fragments have been crafted in such a way that they maximize possible interpretations and minimize situations in which one interpretation could become dominant: “By the end of our tale,” R tells us, “we may likewise be dead” (7). The word ‘dead,’ stricken, I mentioned above, is ambiguous. Because “dead,” in this sentence, is stricken (not absent, but still implied under the strike mark), the sentence might be read conventionally: “we may likewise [like the “Indians” the previous sentence refers to, and whom the British officers despised] be dead” (my emphasis; “may,” here, introduces another element of ambiguity, since it indicates a possibility, not a necessity). Or it might be understood in an opposite way (since ‘dead’ is, for all that, crossed out): “we may not be dead” or, more specifically, we may not, like the “Indians” the British officers despised, be dead: in one sense, they are not dead because they continue to haunt R. And a ghost—which R may or may not be—is itself an ambiguous figure: it is both dead and present, both dead and, in a sense, living.

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The Obituary posits meanings constantly, but only to evaporate them. Interpreting the novel is part of the pleasure of engaging with it, and because of the way the novel is written, it will remain perennially interesting. The first time I read this book, about two years ago by now, I read it quickly, and not for meaning at all: it was poetry, sound, weird, refreshing language I was after. My particular reading here has depended on many other essays and creative pieces I was reading while encountering the novel for a second time: encountering it as a reader hoping, also, to write an essay—hoping to lock myself into a deeper kind of engagement with the work, hoping even, maybe, to ‘get something’). The Obituary absorbed these other texts, but it is not limited by them. It is forever a work that will have been. You must read it now. And forget everything this essay claims.

—Natalie Helberg

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Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill & Wang. Print.

_____. “The Death of the Author.” Aspen (No. 5 + 6) (UbuWeb). Web. June 4. 2014.

Benhabib, Seyla. “Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance.” Marxist Internet Archive. Web. July 1. 2014.

Bernstein, Charles. 1992. A Poetics. Cambridge; London: Harvard UP. Print.

Bersianik, Louky, et al. 2013. Theory, A Sunday. Brooklyn: Belladona. Print.

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

_____. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford UP. Print.

Dial M for Murder. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Bros., 1954. Film.

Halpern, Rob. “Realism and Utopia: Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative.” Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (2011): 82-124.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 2002. “Ligeia.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. Edison: Castle Books. 569-79. Print.

Markotic, Nicole. “Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue One). Web. 10 July. 2014.

Moyes, Lianna, ed. 2002. Gail Scott: Essays on Her Work. Toronto; Buffalo; Chicago; Lancaster: Guernica. Print.

Place, Vanessa. 2005. Dies: A Sentence. Los Angeles: Les Figues. Print.

Scott, Gail. 2012. The Obituary. Callicoon: Nightboat. Print.

_____. 2002. “The Virgin Denotes:Or the Unreliability of Adverbs To Do with Time.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue Three). Web. 10 July. 2014.

_____. 1999. My Paris. Toronto: Mercury. Print.

_____. 1993. Main Brides. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1989. Spaces Like Stairs. Toronto: Women’s Press. 65-76. Print.

_____. 1987. Heroine. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1981. Spare Parts. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

Stacey, Robert David, ed. 2010. Re: Reading The Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P. Print.

Stephens, Nathalie. 2008. At Alberta. Toronto: Book Thug. Print.

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Gail Scott is one of Canada’s most eminent experimental writers. Between 1967 and 1991, she worked as a journalist and eventually as an instructor of journalism in Montréal; during this time she also participated in Anglophone and Francophone feminist circles which deeply influenced her writing practice. She is the author of four novels, or ‘prose experiments’—Heroine (1987), Main Brides (1993), My Paris (1999), The Obituary (2010)Spare Parts (1981), a collection of short stories, and Spaces Like Stairs (1989), a collection of essays. In 1979, she founded the French language cultural magazine Spirale; in the eighties, she co-founded and worked as an editor for the bilingual journal Tessera. More recently, alongside Mary Burger, Camille Roy and Robert Glück, she founded and edited the online journal Narrativity, whose express purpose was to supply a form of “missing nutrition” in articulating “ideas about theory-based narrative”; she co-edited the experimental narrative anthology Biting the Error (2004; shortlisted for a Lambda award in 2005) alongside the same writers.

Scott’s French to English translation of Michael Delisle’s Le Déasarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award in translation in 2001. The Obituary was a finalist for the Montréal Book of the Year (Grand prix du livre de Montréal) in 2011. Her own work, the sentences which make it up, make much out of the bilingual and even multi-lingual language-contexts out of which they arise—they are clamorous, unique for their musicality. Scott has lived in a variety of places, including Paris, Grenoble, New York, and Stockholm, but her base continues to be Montréal.

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 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 InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is working on a hybrid novel.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Scott’s writing grew out the experimental feminist writing scene localized in Montréal in the seventies and eighties; in Canada, around that time, bpNichol and Steve McCaffery were also toying with the idea of non-narrative narrative through their work on the book as a machine. This work emphasized the book’s materiality (some dimensions of which would be the look of words and letters used in a work and the use of white space on a page—the presence of suspect smirches on a particular copy’s page would count as well) and also attempted to dismantle the hierarchy between writer and reader, since the sort of texts they were theorizing were supposed to promote the reader’s participation in ordering the text—in choosing the sequence in which the text is read—among other things.
  2. Through its structure, when that structure seems improvised, through the running commentary it keeps on that structure, which gives the lie to the idea that it is fully improvised, and through the novel’s repetitious concern with what it means to be haunted, as R is, by the secrets of others, which I mention in the introduction.
Sep 092014
 

Fernando Sdrigotti Fernando Sdrigotti at Shakespeare and Co, Paris

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When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.”
Costica Bradatan,
Born Again in a Second Language

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In his film Tangos: El exilio de Gardel, Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas narrates the misadventures of a group of Latin American exiles in Paris during the early 1980s. They are a motley crew of musicians, dancers, and intellectuals. They want to put on a tango-ballet-opera about their plights, the people they have left behind, the political situation in the continent that expelled them, their present in an alien place. To sum up (albeit abruptly) a remarkable film, it could be said that their project collapses when they fail to find an artistic language that is authentic yet legible enough to garner the interest of the French public. I have no knowledge of any other film that captures the situation of the displaced Latin American intellectual or artist better than El exilio de Gardel. And the film’s characters are in Paris, in a city that due to cultural affinities, and a common history of movement in both directions, is familiar with Latinamericanness. And what if this story had taken place in London? I am of the impression that in this city Latin Americans are even more illegible. Illegible, for it is always about reading—about reading and writing, and about literature. Not that I was always aware of this. It took some time for me to realise it. And it took displacement.

When I moved to London, ejected from my country by an economic crisis (and not by a dictatorship), an entire literature to which I had previously related became nonsensical. Until then I had a very clear impression of who I was and how to read myself—or so I thought. My biography was clear: Argentinean, middle-class, of European descent like many of my fellow-countrymen, one more book among others, easy to read. Changing my surroundings to an alien place involved a process of becoming unfamiliar, of becoming illegible to myself and others. In this new context I realised the falsity of my biography, the artificiality of myself. And writing became necessary and unavoidable. If your biography is revealed as a fallacy, then why not write yourself anew? Not to arrive at any truth, but to feel in command, to exist on the safety that a gerund provides: writing, becoming, becoming through writing. Every biography is a forgery. You might as well be the author.

It is always about literature, yes. About histories, documents, application forms, legal documents. They provide you with a personal narrative or they deny you one. Back in Argentina I was (I embodied) a major literature. Soon after arriving in the UK, I was written as an immigrant and a white, other—I was minored. This was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and the most perplexing too: a whole set of certainties came crashing to the ground. What does it mean to be a white, other? Can it really explain my experience of displacement? How is an Argentinean perceived abroad? Are we really perceived as white, others by the other whites who are not others? Does it matter? How do other cultures perceive us, the others who aren’t white? And more importantly, how do we—Latin Americans—perceive ourselves—our different cultures—here? How do we read ourselves here? Do we read ourselves with the bullet points that we passively receive? I hope that we don’t. For none of the narratives that aim to crystallise reterritorialised people are in place to help them read themselves. They are in place to facilitate readability by others, a bit like a footnote in a literary translation: “X in this context means Y”. Processed or illegible—translatable or authentic.

It is always about literature. And when it comes to writing literature my experience is always the same, it is about juggling legibility and authenticity. How can I write for people who can’t pronounce my name? Should I write from the point of view of an immigrant, a white, other? An other, non white? Should I write from the point of view of one of them, those who are not others? Who am I? Where am I when I am writing? Who and where are they? How legible and authentic should my characters be? What would be the right balance? And so on. It is always about that process of negotiating authenticity and legibility and it is always most certainly a failure, because the seminal question at the end of the day is always “who is writing?”. I can’t answer this question. And that makes me feel a bit like a ghost.

Because I am a ghost myself I get the impression that I am writing for a ghost readership…“The people are missing,” says Deleuze of modern political cinema, minor cinema. For Deleuze the problem faced by postwar auteurs is that the idea of a people collapsed—postwar auteurs don’t have the safety net provided by a people, they have to invent them one frame at a time. This applies to minor literature too. The people are missing, the people as readers, the people as writers. The invisibility of the people persists, even today. And the people are not there yet, they are being written, one paragraph at a time. Maybe some people have been invented while I wrote these paragraphs. Maybe I have invented myself in these paragraphs. Maybe I am already a bit here now, a bit less of a ghost. Or maybe I erased myself even more. I can’t tell.

*

Some form of biography, something forged, any forgery that grants an illusory form of self-identity, is necessary. Forgery. It is always a creative process and my way of partaking in it has always been through writing. I know of much more creative people than I: those who choose to come up with a whole different persona; those who need not explain themselves-in-displacement to anyone; those happy to become a carnival, nomad chameleons, always ready to change for the audience. They are their own works of art, their own Elmyr de Hory—the uberforger—and no less of a fantasy than any of my words. I see them clinging to this or that other stereotype. I see them rejecting stereotypes. I see them tactically shedding skins. And this is no criticism. For it is possible to live in a state of fantasy, to rewrite oneself completely anew, forge oneself as many times as required. Being a good forgery is always better and more honest than being a mediocre original. It is always more desirable than assuming some of the identities you are forced into.

I was reading the paper yesterday when I accidentally fell head-first into a football article. I am not interested in sports, nor in the genre of sports journalism. Sportsmanship bores me to death and sports journalism—most of the time—confirms that it is perfectly possible to put words on a sheet of paper whilst remaining quite distant from thinking. In this article the author was “analysing” regional idiosyncrasies whilst providing a pop-anthropological account of the phenomenon of Argentineans travelling en masse to Brazil during the World Cup. The thing was a rehash of many recurrent stereotypes: that Argentineans are arrogant, that they are hated all over Latin America, that they are belligerent, that they envision themselves as more European than the rest of Latin America, and so on. Stereotypes might be popular because they contain an element of truth, however diminutive it might be. But more often than not they just provide an empty vessel, a lazy signifier through which to misread the stereotyped party (through whichever lens the reader might have at hand). It went on and on and I kept reading because I wanted to figure out whether I was reading an article written by someone incredibly myopic or cynical—it is of course possible to be both. The piece ended with full colours: “For the time being, the Argentines are making the most of what is their most emphatic annexation since Goose Green.” This line made my blood boil: I never felt like launching a naval war in the South Atlantic.

Is this the idea the British have of Argentineans? Are we perceived as a bunch of violent warriors? Is it fair to reduce a culture to the delirium of a military junta that ruled the country over 30 years ago? (This is the same junta that killed thirty thousand Argentineans, by the way). Perhaps these kinds of mindless statements shouldn’t be taken seriously. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many people swear by this kind of essentialism. This is the type of narrative that the mass media excretes on a daily basis. The only antidote, I believe, is to balance things out, to reject any imposed biography in order to forge our own identity, however artificial and Quixotesque this endeavour might be. To write a literature of oneself and in that way to summon the people who are still missing. To bring them one step closer. To hope that, in the act of writing ourselves, we will also write readers able to read us on our own terms. The alternative is leaving the gaps open for anyone to write us into this or that reductive stereotype.

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One of the most interesting effects writing in a second language has had on my life is that of English dripping into my mother tongue, affecting the way I write in Spanish, the way I think in Spanish, the way I talk. I haven’t become legible in two languages—my relationship with the word is now accidental even in the language I call my own (not that I ever really owned it). In other words, I am never at home anywhere—other words, other words. It is always about those other words that can’t be summoned when you need them. How can I explain the insulting familiarity of the Argentine word boludo to a British person? How can I explain the insulting distance of mate to an Argentinean? The page of myself is full of footnotes. And nobody reads footnotes.

Going back home also demands that I become readable. It entails that I take notice of parts of my own biography that I have deleted or edited. It entails that I acknowledge the existence of pages that have been ripped, rewritten, or written over. Back home I am always a translation of a translation, an existential palimpsest, a mess of a text. I imagine that if I ever resettled back home permanently I would have to erase and rewrite myself all over, that I would be intervened and questioned by a completely new literature, read by different eyes, and that I would write and edit myself again and again, to the point of exhaustion. And perhaps even to the point of silence.

What is it like to always live, write, think, exist in the same language? Is this even possible? Are there people out there who are always legible? Perhaps it is about different modes of illegibility—perhaps we are all illegible to an extent and for a certain audience. Aren’t we all writing ourselves all the time? Aren’t we all failing all the time? For writing is always impossible, and if it is not it might as well be unnecessary, and we should get rid of all the typewriters, word processors, and use pens and pencils only to scratch our ears or fill-in our Lotto tickets. Screw all literature—screw everything ever written. Nothing but sorrow comes from all these documents, books, application forms. Why do we insist in writing when the reader is missing? The ghost readership gets to me.

Deep inside I know that I write these words in order to bring the people to come a step closer. But I also know that I write them for myself. Not to understand myself, but to become myself, to produce myself, to keep on living, to forge myself into another forgery, the gerund I was speaking about above. Writing, becoming, becoming something through my writing, forging, fabricating, and fabulating.

— Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti: is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Sep 082014
 

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The Austrian novelist, Robert Musil (1880-1942), who was trained as a mathematician, physicist, and behavioral psychologist, spent most of his career working on his magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, which, despite the thousands of pages completed, remained unfinished at his death while in exile in Switzerland. But he also wrote many essays, a few plays, a good deal of criticism, many philosophical and sociological essays, and many shorter prose pieces, including a novella and a number of longer short stories, published during his lifetime in book form and in numerous journals and newspapers, not to mention endless unpublished drafts of his novel, and for other literary, essayistic, and theatrical projects. Musil’s short prose pieces, which are a mixture of different sorts of experimental stories, of period vignettes, feuilletonistic sketches, and glosses on social and cultural issues, situate Musil within the literary, social, and philosophical concerns of his times, and show him struggling with incomparable wit and insight with problems, such as the commodification of art and culture, the sloppiness of language, the tension between individualism and conformity, and the decline of critical thinking, still very much unsolved today. These two short glosses, from the mid-twenties, which were published in 1926 and 1927 in a number of journals and newspapers, address the question of modern art, commodification, and the imprecision of metaphoric language. They are part of a collection of translations of previously untranslated Musil stories, glosses, and literary fragments I will be publishing with Contra Mundum Press in 2015.

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

—Genese Grill

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Speed Is Witchy!

It is always good to use words as one should, without thinking about it, that is. One can easily go on for ten sentences before a word pops up that needs to be thought about. This is doubtless a freewheeling kind of style that has about it an air of speeding traffic over long distances, and it seems that the intellectual tasks of the day can only be mastered with its assistance. But if one pays niggling attention to details, one will go flying into a hole in the language. Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.

Consider for example the phrase, “head over heels”; what an important and much used phrase in a time which depends so much on tempo! How many people use this phrase in a rush without considering how many difficulties it creates for speed? For to fall head over heels toward somewhere would be to develop such a frantic acceleration that your body would seem to be wheeling over your feet, and your feet over your head; speed grabs you by the cuffs of your pants, the law of inertia shuts down in your head, and you are torn out of yourself like a rabbit out of his hide. But when was a person ever in such a mad rush? God yes, as a child, when one ran with unsteady legs. As a boy when one rode one’s bike down a steep hill. Maybe as a knight when one didn’t really know how the quest would end. At a paltry speed of ten to twenty miles per hour! If a car or a train wanted to drive head over heels they would have to creep!

Head over heels does not express a speediness then, but rather a relationship between the quickness and the danger of the conveyance or between the quickness and the excitement of extreme exertion. The streamers have to fly, the eyes have to lather, and the flanks must cramp. But then even a snail rushes along head over heels, in an utterly accelerated snail tempo, mad cap, in peril. Secondary observations are once again always the decisive ones. It is said that a small car speeds faster than a large wagon, and the more worn down the rails are, the faster a train speeds. Even romping is a matter of habituation. We have neighbors who think it means carefully gliding along through life as if on waxed floors.

One looks around in language for more solid expressions. How would it sound, for example, if one said: “He stuck the dagger in her heart head over heels?” Even the most daring novelist wouldn’t bring that over his quill. He doesn’t know why. But he makes the dagger thrust like lightning. Quick like a thought would not quite be the correct speed for it. But a lover is with his beloved as quick as a thought and never suddenly like lightning. These are mysteries.

A general always charges in forced marches. Someone who has finally been found falls into your arms, but runs to greet you. A general director storms around; his office employee, on the other hand, enters breathless; the speed of movement has, for each of them, the opposite effect on their breath. Perhaps it also should be mentioned that one always comes flying, but is gone in a flash.

One can see that these are difficult problems. But the worst of it is that modern life is filled with new speeds for which we have no expressions. Remarkably, speeds are described using the most conservative expressions that exist. Despite the train, the airplane, revolutions per minute, slow motion, the outermost limitation of speed expressions is the same today as it was in the Stone Age; nothing in language has gotten any faster than a thought or lightning or any slower than a snail. That is a devilish situation for a time period that has no time and that believes itself called to give the world a new speediness; the apples of quickness are dangling in front of us, but we cannot seem to open our mouths.

But maybe the future will be totally different. Classically experienced speeds still do exist today, but only in places where one would least expect them, like for farmers in the country. There lightning still flies through the air, the passing car blasts through the chickens, and there are paths where one can fall on one’s nose for rushing. In the city, the only speed one still senses is that of the connection that has to be made, the haste of disembarking and the uncertainty about getting somewhere at the right time. Without the blessing of neurasthenia we would have already lost this kind of speed too, since, in the worst case scenario, the person in a hurry, instead of wheezing and perspiring vapors, relinquishes a buck fifty for a car that will do this for him. And the higher one rises in the realms of power, the quieter it gets. A turbine factory with fifty thousand volts of horse power hums almost silently, and the most monstrous speeds of technology are still only a gentle rocking. Life becomes more prosaic and practical the larger it gets. A boxing match between two masters makes a lot less noise than a street fight between two laymen, and an explosion is not as dramatic as a knifing. The great new intensities have something that our feelings cannot grasp, like rays of light for which an eye does not yet exist. But it won’t be very long before we say relaxing-train instead of express and only use the phrase head over heels when we want to describe or depict something like the evening stillness, when far and wide nothing stirs, and the rare quiet rushes over us like an ocean.

(1927)

 

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Intensivism

Don’t waste too much time on art! Find yourself without further ado on the pinnacle of expertise! All you need is two rules.

Always declare that a picture that does not please you or that you do not understand is old-fashioned. Don’t include anything that will let on whether you have taken it to be second or twentieth century, a watercolor or a woodcut. For one can argue about those things.

Secondly, maintain, if people ask you for the reasons for this judgment, that the painting style of the future is Intensivism. And if they ask you what this is, refuse to answer and say, that’s self-explanatory.

This is, after all, how it is always done. This is how Impressionism did it and Expressionism. I will not tell you, of course, what these two words mean; happily, that no longer concerns you. And if I tell you a bit more about Intensivism, it is not with the intention of giving you an idea of it—because, if the adherents of a movement had a clear conception of it that would paralyze their momentum —, but so that you can get a feeling about how this coming art will become the nerves, the will, and the vitality of painting; stick to this resolution, forget everything else.

In the old days people painted larger pictures than today. That was because the living areas were larger. You see how simple the rules of art are.

When we lived in castles, we covered whole walls with a single picture. Later, when we lived in a house, the pictures were 5 x 6 ½ feet at their largest. Today even massive people can only afford apartments with a few rooms, rooms only half as high as they were before, and the pictures correspondingly have a format of only 3 ¼ feet; and if, as is to be expected, the building activity in Europe stagnates for much longer, the pictures will get even smaller.

But they have not become correspondingly less expensive. From this follows that the ground and surface of the picture has gotten more expensive, the ground rent of the canvas per square inches has become larger and the same spiritual profit requires an intensivist economizing. That is the root of Intensivism.

Secondly, it demands psychic energy. Look at a landscape, and you will usually find a third, if not a half of the picture covered with air or water. Such pictures are more or less fallow land. It cannot be contested that a quarter inch of painted blue or an explanatory note are quite sufficient to let us know whether sky or water was meant; every person knows what they look like, there is nothing new about it to depict, it is just a matter of habitual waste of going through the motions. Naturally, you discover the same thing when you look at a portrait. The painter does not fill the whole picture with it, but spares himself with a background, which fills at least half of it.

I could, for example, paint you two times, or you and then after you your rival while you step on his neck, the great day when all paper securities skyrocketed, or the black day when everything collapsed. Don’t be afraid of such demands; all truly original epochs of art came about quite naturally. Consider that one can paint many pictures inside each other; but I won’t jump ahead, this art is already developing on its own. Just keep a firm hold on the wish that painting will soon turn to race horses, hunting scenes, automobiles, airplanes, and whatever you find truly beautiful, and tentatively demand that we put an end to all these underutilized spiritual surfaces.

Intensivistic life in the smallest portion of a picture, nervous surfaces, introduction of the victorious energy of modern life into the frame of the picture: that is Intensivismus! If you see something that already seems to tend toward it, then say nothing more than: but is that ever intense! If this is too hard for you, then bring your wife along, she will get it right.

(1926)

—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

All original texts taken from Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009.

Intensivism. “Intensismus”. Berliner Tageblatt (1926), Der Tag (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1978), pp. 681-683, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte Kleine Prosa.

Speed is Witchy! “Geschwindigkeit ist eine Hexerei”. Vossische Zeitung (5.28.1927), Prager Presse (7.6.1927), Magdeburgische Zeitung (7.29.1927), Der Tag (9.20.1927), Vierzehn Federn (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1957), pp. 542-544, Frisé (1978), pp. 683-685, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte: Kleine Prosa.

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Genese Grill

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

 

 

Aug 072014
 

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The sky is all taunt and taskmaster, even though I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. Or maybe because I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. The air is thrilling, illusive, a blade that sings without a sound. I and my sister trekkers gulp it down as we climb well before dawn—4 a.m., to be exact—to reach the highest point of our eight-day trek and be rewarded, hopefully, by the most spectacular in a week of spectacular views before the day’s usual clouds set in.

We camped last night at over 14,000 feet, after five days of almost steady climbing, although we took one day off to rest and acclimate when we reached 12,500 feet. We made our way through dense vegetation at first, tall trees lining our paths and the rivers we crossed. Then rhododendrons, a whole day of them, their leaves deep red in the early October sun. Plant life thinned as we climbed, trees turning to bush which then turned to scrub. The tree line is very high in this part of the world, Sikkim, a little sleeve of India, once a separate country tucked between Bhutan and Nepal.

When the sun peeks through the almost constant cloud cover, especially in early mornings, we are surrounded by white peaks, whole walls of white  that make me feel I’m at a remote northern reach, even though Sikkim lies at a latitude similar to that of central Florida, closer to the equator than most of the United States. Now, as we trek through the dark in our good hiking boots and headlamps, there is scant vegetation to interfere with our climbing. But the step-like rocks give us enough to work with, as does the air itself, an odd mixture of presence and absence that keeps me focused on my breathing the way I’ve never managed to do in a yoga class.

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I have skied and hiked in high places, but this is the first time I’ve experienced the altitude as a personality, as something to negotiate. I’m not uncomfortable, exactly; rather in something of an altered state, aware of what every muscle is doing, and focusing on one rock at a time. I place my each foot just so, not wanting to waste any energy regaining my balance. And then there’s the fatigue, a feeling of being packed in cotton, all excess tamped down. For once, none of us have social energy to spare, even though we are eight women from Moab, Salt Lake City, and Taos, middle-aged athletes and power-shoppers who normally have plenty to say.

We climb silently through darkness that begins to lift now, only to reveal thick mist and cloud cover. Not a good sign. Normally dawn is clear in this part of the Himalayas, and already we have gotten a few early-morning glimpses of Mt.Pandim, the third highest peak in the world, a mass of blinding white that is sacred to the Buddhists of Sikkim and said to be unclimbable. Our goal today, and perhaps the goal of our entire eight-day trek, is to get an unprecedented view of this mountain whose presence all week has beckoned and then disappeared into mid-morning clouds.

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The dawn grows brighter, but not bright enough. We have arrived at our lookout point at 16,500 feet, the light grey around us and rain beginning to sprinkle, then fall with conviction. Our guide Namgayl pulls on a bright blue poncho, and our Sherpa helpers don their own red, yellow, grey, and blue rainwear before handing around mugs of tea, hardboiled eggs, apples, and brown breadlike slabs of something thick, sweet, unrecognizable and sustaining, which they baked the night before. Never has an egg tasted so good. And the tea, lemony and sweet. As for the apple—by now I trust that it has been washed in thoroughly boiled water, and I take a huge, thirsty bites, feeling none of my earlier fears of contracting something ugly.

We are all bent over our breakfasts like this, chattering again, energized and even happy while the rain pelts down, when one of the women suddenly gives a cry and points behind us. The clouds have broken just over Mt.Pandim, and now it hovers larger than I could have imagined, so close it seems to be breathing over us. We feel held in something like a kind hand made of air and sky, a hand that has parted those clouds just for us, just for these moments, as we stand in the rain three miles above the earth’s floor. The mountain seems to bless us, dwarfing us and then offering all of its calm self, its whiteness, its unconquerable splendor. We offer back our silence. And our tears.

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—Leslie Ullman

 

Leslie Ullman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity published by University of New Mexico Press in 2013. Her awards include the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and two NEA Fellowships. Now professor Emerita at University of Texas El Paso, where she taught for 27 years, she continues to teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. For the past eight winters she also worked as a full-time ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico.

 

Jul 102014
 

Robert Graves, Poet and Novelist…and Playwright…and Scholar

Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please….And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.

 

“I am a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” So said a fine novelist you might have heard of: William Faulkner. He knew a thing or two about writing, but his sense that every writer longs to be a poet can’t possibly be true, not if MFA programs around the country are any indication. The fiction track students hoot and holler at poets and mock them at every turn. The poetry track students do the same right back. At one reading, the poets might emote earnestly while the fiction writers snore; at another, the fiction writers read on and on and on while the poets pass around derisive notes in the form of double dactyls. Looking down on the proceedings, the gods would never guess there were prose writers lusting after poetry’s compression, nor poets longing to try out a novel’s expansive narrative thrust.

That said, there are a surprising number of novelists who started out as poets. Thomas Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life and considered himself a poet despite the fact that he published no poetry until he was 58 years old, having gained fame with his novels – Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure – long before that. After the publication of his first collection of poems, he did not write another novel. James Joyce first published poetry; some might even make a case for sections of Ulysses and all of Finnegan’s Wake reading more like poetry than prose. D.H. Lawrence was a poet before he turned to fiction. Vladimir Nabokov published four books of poetry before ever attempting a novel. John Updike’s first book was a collection of poems, as was one of his last, published posthumously. In between, he published six other volumes of poetry, a fact which surprises quite a few of those MFA students mentioned earlier.

The list of poet-novelists is a long one and includes Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, Randall Jarrell, Czeslaw Milosz, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels, Fred Chapelle, Russell Banks….I’m sure you can think of more. Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please. Some continue to think of themselves as poets first, novelists second, no matter what the sales figures or their publishers tell them. Some are definitely better fiction writers than they are poets and admit it, but continue to write poems; some are in denial and their publishers don’t want to antagonize them by saying, “Enough” – those poems get published despite their poetic failures. And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.

Both Robert Graves and James Dickey fall into the troubling category of poets whose reputations rest on a single novel that the wider public embraced – Deliverance for Dickey, I, Claudius for Graves. These men considered themselves primarily poets, but today few people read their poetry. It’s not just time and changing taste that accounts for that.  Maybe Hollywood contributed to the switch – it’s hard to fault Sir Derek Jacobi for delivering Graves’s Roman emperor to us in a way that burned him into our consciousness forever. Ditto the talent of director John Boorman when taking four men on a fictional hunting trip down a river in Dickey’s northern Georgia.

James Dickey at his desk…

There’s no doubt at all that James Dickey deserves to be remembered as a poet. After a late start with his writing (he worked for an advertising agency until he was thirty-seven), he produced five books of poetry in just five years (1960 to 1965), won a Guggenheim Fellowship, won the National Book Award and was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (equivalent to today’s Poet Laureate.) But his reputation now seems to rest on dueling banjos, Georgian hillbillies, and a down-on-all-fours-pig-squealing rape scene in his novel-turned-film, Deliverance. The novel was a bestseller and the film brought national attention to Dickey (who made a cameo appearance in it as a Southern sheriff.) His adapted screenplay of the story even brought him a Golden Globe. But Dickey’s accomplishments as a poet suffered for it (he never again had a collection of poems that was a critical success, despite more than twenty volumes of poetry in the three post-Deliverance decades before his death.) The New Georgia Encyclopedia says “His misbehavior at public events, his disorderly personal life, and his self-destructive alcoholism only enhanced his public image as a masculine, burly poet and man of American letters,” but it’s more likely that Dickey’s wonderful work as a poet will get dusty on academic library shelves, and Burt Reynolds will take home the honors for masculinity.

…and on the set of Deliverance with Burt Reynolds

Dickey’s style involves a precise ear for the rhythm of the words – his poems might not adhere to rules of form, and there is no formalized rhyme in the poem that follows, but Dickey definitely constructed it with a spoken cadence in mind. Reading it aloud, you hear the often eight- or nine-syllabled lines distinctly, you hear their three strong beats carried through to the final line. As the poet and Orange-Prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore said, “Maybe it’s because the first things I wrote were poems – and very likely the last things will be poems too – that I’m convinced work has to grow into its own rhythm, inside the head.” Dickey, too, as a poet first and last, hears the rhythm of words. His sometimes violent imagery (in his poetry as well as in his novels) made many people squirm – it engaged “nature,” but not Mary Oliver-style, not as a source of inspiration and self-awareness; rather, Dickey’s nature (both poetic and – from what I can tell – personal) was primitive, full of blunt force, and sometimes theatrical. He once said, “I want a fever, in poetry: a fever, and tranquility.” The fever more often than not trumped the tranquility, but I think he managed to capture both in my favorite Dickey poem, “In the Tree House at Night.”

In The Tree House at Night

And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,
Their fist without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots
To sing back at light when they feel it.
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth
That move with the moves of the spirit.
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.
Step after step he has brought me,
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,
Till the pine cones danced without wind
And fell from the branches like apples.
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

As for Robert Graves, how sad it will be if his poetry fades into the background and the light only shines on his fiction.  Yes, he wrote plays, he wrote literary criticism, he was a consummate scholar, he wrote I, Claudius, but he was also a poet’s poet, with a command of so many formal poetic devices that reading his poems is akin to alchemy – base metal into gold.

robert graves 1A young Robert Graves

The best example of his thoughts on the nature of poetry is found in his poem, “Flying Crooked.”   Substitute “poet” for “butterfly” and you’ve got a perfect description of what a poet does.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has- who knows so well as I?-
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

I hope you will go back, read the poetry of Dickey and Graves, read the poetry of  Atwood, Carver, Hardy, Nabokov, Ondaatje or any of the others I mentioned. There is something addictive about flying crooked, that’s for sure. And the plain truth is that few writers with a knack for it ever stop.

—Julie Larios

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Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.

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