Oct 132016

Stridentopolis, by Ramón Alva de la Canal


IN ROBERTO BOLAÑO’S The Savage Detectives, the characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima head north from Mexico City to Sonora in search of Cesárea Tinajero, a forgotten poet from the 1920s. Loosely associated with the post-revolutionary avant-garde movement known as Stridentism, Tinajero had since become a cult figure for the Visceral Realist group led by the book’s young heroes, who are eager to track down any information they can find on her. Anyone who’s read The Savage Detectives, however, knows that their quest is a distraction—one of the characters even says he believes Belano and Lima invented Cesárea Tinajero to justify their trip to Sonora. It’s perhaps fitting, however, that the Stridentists are largely known for their role as a MacGuffin in a novel written some 70 years after the movement’s demise—in real life, as in the world of the novel, they’re primarily conspicuous by their absence.

Though we’re approaching the centennial of the Stridentist movement, there are few signs that they ever existed. Only a fraction of their texts are available from Mexico City’s main public library, and while Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire has gone on hosting poetry readings and art exhibitions to this day, its counterpart in Mexico City—Café Europa, once located in Mexico City’s gentrifying Roma Norte neighborhood—is now a hipster bakery. Mexico’s cultural historians have either ignored the Stridentists—Octavio Paz didn’t think to even mention the movement in the chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude on the post-revolutionary intelligentsia—or they’re brought up simply to be dismissed as a cheap knockoff of the Futurists.

In their heyday, however, the Stridentists were admired across the Americas: their work was praised by a young Jorge Luis Borges and John Dos Passos translated Manuel Maples Arce’s poem Urbe into English in 1929, while the future Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias led the (potentially fictitious) Guatemalan chapter of the movement. They also had a considerable impact at home, with one contemporary work of criticism comparing Urbe and Arqueles Vela’s short story La Señorita Etc. with Diego Rivera’s murals at Texcoco’s Chapingo Autonomous University, arguing that these three works marked a revolution in Mexican aesthetics—but while the work of Diego Rivera is rightly lionized today, Maples Arce and Vela have largely been forgotten. It’s no wonder that the Stridentists obsessed Roberto Bolaño—researching them, even in the Internet age, is an equally frustrating and rewarding experience, involving a great deal of time in the National Library’s Rare Book Room.

So who were they?

First we should set the scene. By the end of 1921, the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution had definitively ended. Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated; Pancho Villa, though retired and living on a ranch with his last remaining followers, would soon suffer the same fate. The first two revolutionary presidents, Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza, had also been killed, the first during a counterrevolutionary coup d’état and the second by a rival group of revolutionaries. Power passed into the hands of a one-armed revolutionary general named Álvaro Obregón, under whose rule Mexico would begin to recover from the ten years of civil war that had left one million dead.

In the view of a young poet named Manuel Maples Arce, however, there was something hollow about this brave new age. “No spiritual agitation accompanied these outward convulsions,” he would later write. “In Russia, the Suprematist poets and painters painfully affirmed the restlessness of the Bolshevik moment. The November Group did the same thing in Germany. But Mexico’s intellectuals remained apathetic. Abroad, they continued to judge us for our endless exportation of literary trifles, sentimental junk and execrable odes sold at laughable prices to publications destined solely for the archives. But the post-revolutionary restlessness, with its proletarian eruptions and tumultuous protests, stimulated our inner agitation. We too could revolt. We too could rebel.”


A strange manifesto then appeared on the streets of Mexico City, posted between advertisements for plays and bullfights. Opening with a declaration of war on Mexico’s national heroes (Death to Father Hidalgo!) and the Catholic religion (Down with the Archangel Raphael, Down with Lazarus!) and freely quoting F.T. Marinetti (“An automobile in movement is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), Maples Arce’s manifesto rejected the Symbolist-influenced poetry then popular in Latin America in favor of an art that would embrace the new: “It’s necessary to exalt, in all the strident tones of our propagandistic pipe organ, the contemporary beauty of machines…the industrial system of great throbbing cities, the blue shirts of explosive workers in this electrifying and poignant time: all the beauty of this century.” Despite the undeniably strong influence of Futurism, Maples Arce distanced himself from that movement’s forward-looking focus: “Nothing of retrospection. Nothing of futurism. The entire world, at rest, marvelously illuminated in the stupendous climax of the present minute…always the same and always being renewed. We shall have presentism.” The manifesto concluded with an index of European and Latin American avant-garde figures from a wide variety of schools; here Jorge Luis Borges appeared alongside Jean Cocteau and Diego Rivera alongside Max Ernst. Other names are more obscure. Like the infamous list of experimental musicians included with Nurse with Wound’s debut album, the manifesto utilized the catalog of influences as a statement of purpose.

Using the manifesto and his first book of poems, Interior Scaffold—which Borges praised “for its torrent of images and the mastery of its form”—as a calling card, Maples Arce attracted a small circle of writers that shared his desire to revolutionize Mexican literature. The first to declare his allegiance to Stridentism was Arqueles Vela, a columnist for the Mexico City weekly El Universal Ilustrado, who was soon followed by the Puebla-based poets Germán List Arzubide and Salvador Gallardo—as well as by Kyn Taniya, the son of Mexico’s ambassador to France, who had already established himself as a poet in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Apollonaire and Romain Rolland. They would be joined by a group of visual artists that included Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Fermín Revueltas, Germán Cueto, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. Together they launched a short-lived magazine, called Irradiador, which published their work alongside that of their counterparts in Spain’s Ultraist movement.

Exterior Scaffolding, by Fermín Revueltas

Much of their early work was given over to a celebration of the new marvels of the 20th Century (airplanes, radio, jazz, urbanism), capturing Mexico’s post-revolutionary optimism despite themselves. When the country’s first radio station was launched in May 1923, the inaugural broadcast featured the reading of a poem by Maples Arce that celebrated the new technology. Their critics lambasted their embrace of modernity as being derivative of Futurism, but this weakness was in many ways also a strength: while European avant-garde figures such as Marinetti and André Breton spent much of their time exploring the respective meanings of Futurism and Surrealism, leaving behind a large store of theoretical writings, the Stridentists simply wrote. With their disdain for theory and dogma, the Stridentists were able to avoid the cardinal sin of high modernism: difficulty. It’s hard to get through Ezra Pound, for example, without outside guidance, but the work of the Stridentists is much more immediate—Arqueles Vela wrote that Stridentism was a “sincere poetry, one that doesn’t organize emotions, which are always disorganized.” As they sought to capture the new sensations of their time without submitting them to an intellectual scheme that would require extensive interpretation on the part of the reader, their work was often playful and highly accessible, as can be seen in the following poem by Kyn Taniya:[1]


All this for no more than a dollar that’s
right just one hundred cents gets you
electric ears to catch the sounds that sway
in the kilometric hammock of radio waves

………………………………………… EO EEEOOO EO…

The Stridentists spent their days at Mexico City’s Café Europa, which was so desolate that they dubbed it El Café de Nadie—Nobody’s Café. “Nobody cares for it or administers it,” Vela said. “No waiters bother the customers, nor does anybody serve them anything… We are the café’s only customers, the only ones who don’t pervert its spirit.” Vela mythologized the café in his short story El Café de Nadie, which centers on two men—evocations of Maples Arce and Vela himself—who haunt the back tables, watching as a woman named Mabelina takes on a series of different personalities to please her rotating cast of lovers. By the end, she’s left writing her name on the café’s tables to remind herself of her identity. Here the engagement with modernity is much more ambiguous than with the Futurists, to whom they were so often compared: if the anonymity of urban life is liberating, allowing us to reinvent ourselves as we please, the danger is that this very anonymity will remake us in its image.

El Cafe de Nadie, by Ramón Alva de la Canal

The Stridentists would take full advantage of the café’s solitude. There they held poetry readings and concerts of “Stridentist music” by Silvestre Revueltas, exhibiting masks by Germán Cueto, photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, and paintings and engravings by Fermín Revueltas, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez, all hung between advertisements for Moctezuma beer and Buen Tono cigarettes.

It was at one of these exhibitions that Maples Arce debuted Urbe, one of the key texts of Stridentism and the poem that marked the movement’s political turn. The inspiration for Urbe came one May Day, when Maples Arce had to return home on foot as the city’s trolleys had been paralyzed by the day’s strike. As he walked through the city’s streets, he mingled with the proletarian demonstrators and reflected on Mexico’s still shaky political situation: “The dissent of the unions, the political agitations and the threats of civil war loomed over us,” he would later write. “In the Chamber of Deputies, speeches were suddenly interrupted by the thunder of pistols. Those who stood in the way of progress encouraged groups of politicians and military officers to try and seize power while the workers demonstrated their state of alert. I observed these spectacles, reflecting on the circumstances and responsibilities of those men who could influence the nation’s destiny. Under these stimulating influences, when I got home I started writing a canto that trembled with hope and desperation. I saw the clear need to give the revolution an aesthetic agenda, and in Urbe I joined my intimate emotions with the clamor of the people.” It’s easy to see what attracted Dos Passos to this poem and led him to befriend its author during his 1927 trip to Mexico. Like Manhattan Transfer, published the same year, Urbe is both a celebration of urban modernity and a longing to redeem its sins through leftist politics:

Here is my poem,
and multiple,
to the New City.

……………………….Oh city all tense
……………………….with cables and labor,
……………………….the sound
……………………….of motors and wings.
……………………….The simultaneous explosion
……………………….of new theories,
……………………….further off.
On the higher plane
……………………….of Whitman and of Turner
……………………….and, a little nearer by,
……………………….of Maples Arce.

The lungs of Russia
are blowing towards us
the wind of social revolution.
The literary pantysniffers
won’t understand
this new beauty
born in the century’s sweat,
……………………….and the ripe moons
……………………….that fell, rotting
……………………….are the stench
…………………….that rises
……………………….from the intellectual sewers.

If Urbe was the first sign that the Stridentists had become tired of shocking the bourgeoisie and longed to overthrow them instead, they would get their opportunity in 1925, when General Heriberto Jara became governor of Veracruz. Jara, a former anarchist, had joined the Constitutionalist Army during the Mexican Revolution but maintained his ties to the labor movement. As governor, he promoted the growth of unions, expanded and modernized the state’s infrastructure, and fought the power of the British and American oil companies that treated Mexico’s oil-rich Gulf Coast as their personal property.

Shortly after Jara’s inauguration, Maples Arce, armed with a letter of introduction, traveled to Xalapa and convinced Jara to make him his right-hand man. List Arzubide soon joined him, as did Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. There they edited a new magazine—Horizonte—which, in the place of the avant-garde texts and theoretical articles of Irradiador, ran translations of Tolstoy, H.G. Wells and Rudolf Rocker beside articles on the initiatives of Jara’s government and the political issues of the day. Their new publishing company, Ediciones Horizonte, printed cheap editions of the classics alongside their latest poems, as well as the first mass-market edition of The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s classic novel of the revolution. During this time, List Arzubide wrote Zapata: Exaltation, the first book celebrating the now-legendary insurgent leader, who was then seen as little more than a glorified bandit. The Stridentists also involved themselves in the founding of the state university and Xalapa’s proto-brutalist athletic stadium. Thanks to the patronage of Governor Jara, they were able to go beyond eulogizing modernity through poetry to working directly to modernize Mexico: they would turn a sleepy provincial capital into Stridentopolis. “Stridentopolis consummated the truth of Stridentism,” wrote List Arzubide. “An absurd city, disconnected from everyday reality, it corrected the straight lines of monotony by developing the landscape.”


This utopian project was not to endure, however. In 1927, Mexico’s post-revolutionary government was facing its worst crisis in ten years. It was fighting on several different fronts—against foreign oil companies, against large landowners and against the Catholic Church, which had been chafing under the restrictions of the 1917 Constitution (article 130 of which placed restrictions on its political rights). Though this last conflict had been festering ever since the constitution was promulgated, the situation worsened in June 1926 when President Plutarco Elías Calles demanded the full application of Article 130. In response, Mexico’s Catholics launched a guerrilla uprising on January 1st, 1927. President Calles needed the support of the United States government in order to win the war, and so Jara—who had been seizing the assets of British and American oil companies that owed taxes—had to be forced from power.

Jara’s fall triggered the disintegration of the Stridentists as a group. The movement’s internal cohesion had already been strained by the move to Xalapa, as not everyone heeded Maples Arce’s call—Arqueles Vela had instead gone to Spain as a correspondent for El Universal Ilustrado, while Kyn Taniya was made Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, where he and Miguel Ángel Asturias proclaimed the formation of the Guatemalan chapter of the Stridentist movement, of which no other trace seems to have survived. Salvador Gallardo, in the words of List Arzubide, simply “went out into the provinces and the provinces swallowed him up.” Both Maples Arce and List Arzubide, meanwhile, were encouraged by their experiences working with Heriberto Jara to focus on politics full-time. Maples Arce grew disgusted with Mexico’s political climate after only one term as a federal deputy, however, and left for a short period of self-imposed exile in Paris before reconciling himself with the post-revolutionary state in the mid-1930s. List Arzubide would remain an outsider. He joined the Communist Party and on one occasion narrowly escaped deportation to the infamous Islas Marías prison colony alongside Fermín Revueltas’ younger brother José, who would later write a celebrated novel about his imprisonment. On another, Sandino—then in Mexico to collect money and weapons for his insurgent army—gave him an American flag that his men had captured from the U.S. Marines and emblazoned with the words “This flag was captured from the imperialist Yankee forces. Fatherland or Death. Cesar Augusto Sandino.” When the U.S. Embassy heard that the flag was in Mexico, they demanded that it be returned to them. List Arzubide then smuggled the flag out of the country, traveling first to New York, where he hung it from the balcony of a friend’s apartment, before taking it to the World Anti-Imperialist Congress in Frankfurt.

xalapa-athletic-stadiumXalapa athletic stadium

In the year following Jara’s downfall, Álvaro Obregón was assassinated by a Catholic extremist and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents began Mexico’s slow drift towards a sui generis totalitarianism. This coincided with a period of silence on the part of nearly all the movement’s writers, a period that gave their rivals the opportunity to write them out of Mexico’s literary history. Yet this fate is what allows us to come to their work fresh today—the fact that the movement fell apart when a popular revolutionary was constitutionally but undemocratically removed from power even gives them a certain aura of martyrdom. If it’s now impossible to think of Marinetti without recalling his association with Mussolini, and if Mayakovsky died a “second death”—as Pasternak put it—when he was eulogized by Stalin and taught to Russian schoolchildren, Maples Arce and his comrades still remain untainted. This was undoubtedly partly what attracted Bolaño to the movement, especially at a time when the old rivals of the Stridentists were cheering on the bloody repression of the 1968 student movement, an event that forms the political background to The Savage Detectives.

In a sense, the Stridentists’ ephemerality is a testament to their success: neither looking forward nor back, they sought to capture a given moment in time, and they succeeded. In the first Stridentist manifesto, Maples Arce quoted Walter Conrad Arensberg’s assertion that a true poem shouldn’t live for more than six hours; Stridentism lasted for six years and then disappeared. “As good revolutionaries, we knew that every revolution that isn’t crushed at the right time will become reactionary when it crystalizes and is forced to uphold what it had fought in the immediate past,” List Arzubide reflected after the movement’s end. “We were the only revolutionaries who were willing to sacrifice our struggle for lack of heirs. And now that the movement has been liquidated, we hand our work over to the historians because from here on out we hope to avoid the discussions of the academics from the year 2941 who will measure, weigh, clean and polish what was born precisely, lived completely and died without an echo.” There is no better epitaph.

— Joshua Neuhouser


Panchito Chapopote by Xavier Icaza
El Movimiento Estridentista by Germán List Arzubide
Poemas Estridentistas by Germán List Arzubide
Las Semillas del Tiempo by Manuel Maples Arce
El Café de Nadie by Arqueles Vela

Secondary works:

Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers
Elevación y Caída del Estridentismo by Evodio Escalante

Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution by Rubén Gallo
El Ruido de las Nueces: List Arzubide y el Estridentismo Mexicano by Francisco Javier Mora
El Estridentismo o Una Literatura de Estrategia by Luis Mario Schneider

[1] All poems translated by Grant Cogswell



Born in Indiana and raised in Seattle, Joshua Neuhouser has lived in Mexico City since 2010, where he works as a freelance translator. His projects have included Rebellion in Patagonia by Osvaldo Bayer (co-translation with Paul Sharkey, AK Press 2016) and The Iguala 43: The Truth and Challenge of Mexico’s Disappeared Students by Sergio González Rodríguez (Semiotexte, forthcoming). He is currently at work compiling an anthology of the Stridentist writers.


Oct 102016

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It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. In both cases, however, the major factors that led to their destruction came from structural tensions outside the buildings, not within, from design flaws in the larger world. And many of the same forces that shaped Pruitt-Igoe, social and economic, direct the design of homes for most of us today and determine where we live and how well.



Most of us know its story, or at least most of us have seen the pictures that left afterimages in our imagination of disaster. At least Pruitt-Igoe brought issues of public housing to the fore. Originally planned as a segregated complex in downtown St. Louis, Pruitt Homes for blacks and Igoe Apartments for whites, the project comprised 33 11-story buildings holding some 2800 apartments on a 57 acre site. It was cause for hope when tenants started moving in, 1954, this at the time of the optimism of the post-World War II boom. The design, with interior pillars supporting an exterior skin of brick and windows, a facade free of ornament and reference, followed principles of Modernism and initially received critical acclaim. To encourage community and give the residents open space Yamasaki placed corridors on the floors, a nod to Le Corbusier’s “interior streets” in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. On a larger scale Pruitt-Igoe echoed Le Corbusier’s utopian desires, as outlined in his book The City of To-morrow and Its Planning and demonstrated in his various designs for an ideal city, where his essential solution to urban crowding was density—high-rise offices and apartments set in a rational grid to allow light, space, natural landscaping, and, supposedly, freedom.

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Yamasaki’s design is derivative, perhaps, but there has been far worse for public housing, and private for that matter. The major criticism of Pruitt-Igoe and similar projects has been density. Studies have been made examining the deleterious psychological effects of crowding people in small spaces, especially the higher up a building goes. But as in Le Corbusier’s post-World War I Europe, the need for low-income housing in St. Louis was large and pressing, as it is now in urban areas around the world, and solutions have to be large scale and entail simplification and sacrifice. In many urban areas today, given steep real estate costs and increasing population, the only alternative is to go up. As it was, Yamasaki intended a less dense complex with a mix of high- and low-rise buildings, but rigid federal standards mandated the taller buildings, and other cost-cutting compromises were made that reduced space within the apartments and without. Building contractors inflated their bids, straining the budget further. Still, it did have playgrounds and open space, and facilities for communal needs. The buildings were solid and had heating and plumbing, often lacking in the slums. In so many ways Pruitt-Igoe was superior to the housing tenants had before.

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Occupancy began high but plummeted. Attempts to integrate Igoe, after a Supreme Court desegregation ruling, failed. Whites left. The buildings suffered rapid deterioration and became a focal point of gangs, drugs, and vandalism, of neglect, assault, and fear. The corridors turned into a no-man’s-land, avoided and defiled. Hope turned to a pathology so broad and impacted that the only solution authorities could see was to destroy them. Their answer to violence was more violence. Demolition started in 1972 and continued until 1976, when razing of the entire complex was complete.

A quick review of the causes of its demise will not do them justice. They are complex and interrelated, pervasive and ugly. Nor will numbers tell the story persuasively. Rather the conditions have to be experienced, suffered and endured, to understand their magnitude and insidious effects. Still, Chad Freidrichs’s recent film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, now on DVD, built on extensive research from city planners, urban historians, and sociologists, provides a depth of understanding lacking when the project was first conceived.

Start at ground level, before construction began, with attitude and motive. Government funded construction for public housing has never been strongly supported in this country, as was the case in St. Louis in the ’50s. Business interests, however, prevailed, but their desire was to clean up the eyesore of the downtown slums to make commercial and residential developments attractive for the thriving St. Louis metropolis they anticipated, which they wanted to give a modern face. There were other motives, not publicly voiced, that emerged later.

Many facilities were not adequate in the first place, their problems exacerbated by lack of funding for maintenance. Elevators broke down, incinerators overloaded and trash gathered, water pipes broke in winter. Security and other services also got cut. The buildings declined in rapid, downward spiral. Many residents were poor blacks who fled the agricultural South in hope of better opportunities. The assumption that tenants could pay for maintenance was not realistic. It became completely untenable when their incomes fell because the urban boom, the modern, new St. Louis, did not come. Instead the city’s population shrank with the flight of tax-paying residents to the surrounding suburbs, taking with them the commercial and industrial base and jobs from the city’s core.

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Pruitt-Igoe did have mixed income at the start. Soon, however, the residents were overwhelmingly poor, many paying as much as three-fourths of their income on rent, and they were densely packed together. Tenants of high-rises on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, however, manage well enough. Density most affects low-income families. Their circumstances wear at their resolve and they lack the means to change them. Concentration increases pressure on the fault lines. The family is the first circle of the structure of community and the first line of defense in crisis. Welfare laws undermined families by mandating fathers of recipients not be in the home. By 1965 two-thirds of the residents were minors, most in single-parent homes, attenuating the social fabric even further. Residents were constantly surveilled, and other restrictions made them feel isolated from the world and neglected.

The overwhelming factor was race, bound to poverty in intractable and destructive concentration. Segregationist sentiment remained strong, publicly and privately, and blacks, by various tactics and covenants, were barred from the suburbs and the jobs there, and from the jobs that remained near where they lived in urban St. Louis. For so many blacks a project like Pruitt-Igoe was the only option, or the option the welfare authorities pushed on the poor. Public housing became the instrument not to solve social and economic problems but to isolate and contain them, and allow them to fester and erupt. Really, Pruitt-Igoe was a monument to its society’s prejudices, blindness, and failures, and their combined results are what the pictures of demolition we all know so well most represent.


Now, 40 years later

How much has changed? Paul Jargowsky, in “Architecture of Segregation,” reports that concentration of poverty in barrios and slums has returned and again is linked to race, again is the result of policies and attitudes similar to those of the ’50s. It is almost twice what it was in 2000 and falls heaviest on minorities, black and Hispanic poor. We have seen its effects in the police shootings and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis, and Baltimore, as well in reprisals—police slayings in Baton Rouge and Dallas. What we don’t see is what lies beneath the surface of those isolated events, yet all indications are disturbing. Mood is difficult to detect, but we’ve gone from a world that in the ’60s found the need to proclaim Black Is Beautiful to one that tells us Black Lives Matter.

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Next up the economic scale, most of the rest of us. What the chart on the left shows is that income for 80% of us has flatlined while it has soared for the top 1%. More of us are now living with compromises, stagnant pay and diminished benefits in low-level jobs with limited chances for advancement or in contract work that pays even less and is less secure. Or we work longer hours in jobs that do not match our talents, and even hold down two. Or we try to make it on our own with small businesses in an economy that is stretched.

Money is power, and what the chart on right represents is our influence, our ability to make changes for ourselves and in the world at large. It also determines the construction we see in our world as well as gives voice to how we are supposed to see it. Architectural commissions, like money, like land, are limited resources, and the top 1% hold the greatest sway as they hire top architects to build their luxury townhouses or suburban spreads and the most prominent buildings in our urban environment, offices for the corporations they control and institutions where they have influence. These are the buildings that get the most attention in architectural reviews.

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Meanwhile housing, our major living expense, continues to rise steeply. Public-built homes for those of us at the bottom is a moot point as low-income housing is handled through subsidies to private concerns by a ratio of four t0 one, its quality and character determined by lowest common denominator design, its price by whatever the market can make its residents bear. For those of us steps above, an increasing number cannot afford to buy a home but have to rent, and the cost of rentals has kept pace. In its recent report “Out of Reach” the National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates that there isn’t a single state in the nation where workers paid minimum federal wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of their income. On average they need two and a half times that pay. The burden is much, much worse in many areas. The report breaks the numbers down, state by state.

Even as you climb the income ladder, many of us are making still more compromises with homes well below the standards we once had cause to expect. We are moving further away from the cities, from our jobs, and from each other in exurban sprawl, or into infill housing or shared housing or smaller, crowded apartments in the city, homes whose quality and style run from dismal to variations of bland.

What can’t be graphed is the decline in the quality of our lives or the effects the disparity may have years from now, or soon. In the tension of the current environment it is difficult to know whether one is being realistic or alarmist, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Pruitt-Igoe pictures aren’t prophetic in another way.

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“[A] town is pure geometry,” Le Corbusier tells us in City of To-morrow. “When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.” He takes our breath with the clarity, consistency, and comprehensiveness of his vision. And chokes us. Jane Jacobs, who lived in the city and studied its people, found that his open spaces led to isolation and bred crime. It is hard not to believe that the simplicity of his design didn’t mask some psychological drive, hidden. Despite genuine sympathy and the best intentions of planners from Fourier’s Phalanstère in the early 19th century, a response to the crowding and squalor brought by the Industrial Revolution and an influence on Le Corbusier, on into designs of the 20th, so many architectural solutions for mass housing have been marked by isolation, containment, and coherence through abstract regularity in a hierarchy of some sort. And by grimness. They want to clean things up and put them in order, not give them life. The working poor were seen en masse as an abstract problem to solve, not individuals looking for variety and fulfillment. Later reactions to Le Corbusier’s monolithic plan were just that—reactions motivated by reverse sentimentality and abstract theory out of touch. Recent urban designers have shown more knowledge and sensitivity, but one has to wonder how much time planners, past and present, spent learning about the people they were trying to help.

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Le Corbusier should not be singled out for criticism, however, and in many ways he responded to the spirit of his times. The world had become abstract itself, absorbed in process, notably industrialization and technology, which architects embraced, and distant from the beliefs and customs that once gave our lives texture and character. The major abstraction the world has to contend with now is the move to the free market, which is anything but free. Whole systems of values have been replaced with fascination in whatever we can be induced to buy, a theme we play out in endless variation. Government managed economy and public welfare policies of the last century have lost substantial ground. Government designed by political thinkers is dead. The greatest irony of “free enterprise” is that it has led to consolidation and growth of large corporations now worldwide, shrinking our influence and status in this process. Business leaders created monoliths on their own, without the help of architects.

Free enterprise does have efficiencies and provides incentive, but as a system of belief and behavior it offers, by definition, nothing substantial, yet its adherents invest it with a veneration that approaches religious fervor. They have also given it a wild ride. Housing was once the bedrock of the economy and a means of individual stability and expression. In the first decade of this century we had a spree, when mortgages lost their moorings and became instead a source for massive, exotic speculation. Complicated financial instruments were created on top of a huge pool of subprime—dubious—loans that no one understood, not even those who bartered them, resulting in a crash that took the economy with it. It was all exhilarating, really, if you can step back a moment and take it in, a non-euclidean triumph. Perhaps a stretch, but the temptation is to say that our more exotic, risky, even perilous architectural designs of the last decades match this spirit, this abandon.

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Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

So much other architecture now, clean and white, open and transparent, appeals to us with its purity and abstraction. Some of it is classically well-proportioned, some is fanciful, some is funky, some technologically marvelous. But so much of it works within theoretical inbreeding and a narrow set of esthetic assumptions it does not question, assumptions and ideas that give us an ever-diminishing sense of self. Some propels us forward towards a fantastic, abstract future that shows no recognition of the past and has little bearing on our present lives. How well these buildings will stand up to the test of time, how well they will weather the abuse of climate and social and environmental erosion, whether they can maintain their pristine appearance and if so at what cost—all these questions remain open.


Billy Towns

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The most moving and convincing statements in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth come from interviews with a handful of former residents themselves, who were strongly attached to their lives at the complex. At the beginning they experienced joys and a community there that have been overlooked. They speak with clarity and conviction, and reveal the depth of their humanity. They also are not blind, as they understand the motions within and without that strained their lives and led to conflict. One watched his brother die of wounds from a fight as his mother tried to put him back together. But they have endured and come out whole. They represent possibilities missed and lay the groundwork for future construction.

Of special interest is a bonus feature on the DVD, More Than One Thing. It’s a 16mm black-and-white film made by Steve Carver while a graduate student at Washington University that juxtaposes scenes in the life of Billy Towns, a high school student whose father died early and who grew up at Pruitt-Igoe, ever present as backdrop. The ghettoes, he calls it, exposing the stigma attached to such housing, though he goes on to say the projects aren’t that bad. He always tries to make the best of what he has.

Billy is ambitious and wants to make it in life. Most he wants to be somebody and gain respect. The way to do that, he says, is be good at more than one thing, thus the title. He plays two sports, basketball and football, and has dreams, unrealistic, of playing pro. Apparently he can hold his own in the pool room and also plays trombone. At the beginning we hear, in ironic statement, his faltering yet spirited rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” But he is observant and thinks. He is realistic about himself, his world, and his chances.“I don’t think I look that good,” he tells us, “and I don’t think I look that bad.” He knows he will need ability and have to make opportunities himself. He respects the value of education and wants to go to college.

He also understands the ways of the world, and the film shows how they have molded him, unconsciously, imperfectly, and potentially tragically. Against his ambition and efforts, boredom, which he fights. He says there’s nothing to do in the projects, a recurring theme, so he goes uptown, where he sees white stares. If he has to be good at more than one thing, it’s because he knows he will have limited opportunities because he is black. He also knows what is most needed in our world: “Without money what else can you do?”

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His greatest tension and temptation is violence, to which he may have succumbed. Gang pressure is implied and likely is overwhelming. Fighting is stupid, he says, and he sees the insanity and desperation of blacks killing blacks. But violence of some sort simmers beneath the surface of the whole environment. It is the counterpart to frustration. Like the residents in Myth, Billy feels the urge to lash out somewhere, anywhere, at someone, at something, even if it’s just to break a bulb or smash a windshield. The only other alternative is to be passive and just let things go. Billy’s solution is to stay away from connections. Friends get you in trouble, he says, and he has few. It’s not good to trust too many people because he believes closeness can hurt you, as it probably has. He also mistrusts romantic attachment, more than might be expected at his age. His resolve comes at a price—isolation.

Yet he remains upbeat and keeps looking for options and keeps moving on. At the end of the film, hat in hand and thrust forward, he joins a few friends in a loose, bluesy dance on the sidewalk, utterly engaging, all of them in sync.

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Not only should we build housing for people like Billy Towns and the Myth tenants, construction that knows and respects them and gives them space to be themselves and grow, we can also learn from them. In spite of everything, we see Billy’s irrepressible spirit, his desire to reach and move forward and not be defeated. We can learn what it means to be alive and how to stay alive, a lesson that might sustain us all.

And we should construct housing like this film. More Than One Thing is a tremendously successful piece of architecture. It builds for Billy what Pruitt-Igoe couldn’t, a container that gives him recognition and life. Carver finds spirit and complexity where others only see abstract problems, people as abstract types, and pathology. His style is original yet universally compelling, not lapsing into rigid symmetries, sentimentality, or the constraints of esthetic theory and political ideas. Every shot is well composed, with texture, contrast of shadow and light, and compelling spatial variety.

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The film understands context, the world it which it stands, and transforms its facts, its currents, into vital expression.

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Carver can also find the poetry of flight in the barest place.

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Most, the film has rhythm, in the pacing of its shots and a jazz score that links it frame to frame, that lifts the spirits and keeps it, Billy, and all of us moving. Just as important, it is built on a solid base, humanity, empathy, and broad social understanding.

Firmatis, utilitas, and venustas, durability, utility, and beauty, the principles of architecture Vitruvius outlined centuries ago—More Than One Thing succeeds on all counts. It is well made and solid, and should last a long time. It is useful in the ultimate utility, the means to have a life. There are many types of beauty, and many theories of beauty, but all derive from the same source, the human spirit. Carver has found his own that transcends the trendy or merely pretty. It is a gorgeous film. Relevant to the subject, he accomplished all this on a low budget, with limited technical means.



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Manifestos serve a purpose. They make quick, abrupt statement, clear the air, and get attention. Seldom do their authors test their assumptions, however, or even examine them, but there is some value here as they don’t get diluted in qualification. This manifesto is no different, except it has nothing theoretical to state nor anything specific to propose. It only has one maxim: there are no good ideas. Its only corollary, which necessarily follows, is that there are no good designs.

That does not mean there aren’t bad ideas or designs. There have been too many that were too gross or malignant, and we have suffered too much from their effects. Nor that we shouldn’t come up with new theories and test them or try new designs. On the contrary, we must. “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” Keynes warned us at the time of the Great Depression, and we see the result in our free market chaos now. The same applies to politicians and architects. “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back,” he added, anticipating the totalitarian horrors to come.

Explaining why the manifesto is true, and how many different ways it is true, however, would take volumes, and that is the point. To do it would require thorough study of all the partial successes and wholesale failures from the past, of all the theories upon which they were built almost all of which had short half-lives. But those are all we have to work on. The view that we have discovered something new and final, or are going in that direction, that we can make a break and leave the past behind, that we have changed in some fundamental way, that we are moving towards some future progress—is an illusion and a trap we have fallen into too many times. The thought that we can build the perfect society or perfect building is already an act of crippling surgery. Any idea, any design, necessarily, inevitably, will come up short. There is too much much to comprehend, too much beyond our control, too much we can’t predict. Forcing a concept and projecting it globally compounds the deficiencies by accelerating orders of magnitude.

Really, the non-manifesto is liberating. It allows openness and flexibility and provides a check to our impulse to contain, control, and extend. We will always end up with compromises, and understanding that will help us come up with plans that are workable and satisfying. It also encourages us to be tentative and keep close to the world around us and to what most matters.

We have known all along what we most need to know about ourselves. We will always have to observe and explain and try out new ideas, and we will always have to make adjustments. But the things that most define us are the things that most resist definition. At our core, the irreducible fact of our existence. We stray from it at our peril.

“Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms. Living. Changing. Now.” Mies van der Rohe, “Working Theses,” a century ago. The industrial and technological momentum he found attractive and wanted to transform now strains us and drains our will. Anything we build now will have to be durable and protect us. It better be ready to take some hits. But hopefully we will come up with something that is resilient and gives us life.

— Gary Garvin



Notes and Credits

More Than One Thing has recently been restored as part of a National Film Preservation Grant. It is at the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis and will be aired this November at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Special thanks to Steve Carver for his permission to reproduce the stills from his film.

Permission for the photograph of slum housing in St. Louis, near the Pruitt-Igoe site, from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photograph of Le Corbusier’s proposal for a city from ArchDaily.

Pictures of the aerial shot of Pruitt-Igoe, implosion sequence, vandalized corridor, and Phalanstère from Wikipedia Commons.

Income graphs from “It’s the Inequality, Stupid,” Mother Jones.

Housing graph from J. P. Parsons Real Estate Charts. Note the recovery from the last housing bubble and his prediction of another.

Photo of Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health from “Gehry in Vegas,” BoomerReviews.Com.

The Obama administration has just released the Housing Development Toolkit to tackle issues of housing inequality. Introduction:

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:


Richard Florida breaks down public housing expenditures in “The U.S. Spends Far More on Homeowner Subsidies Than It Does on Affordable Housing,” The Atlantic Citylab. Excerpt:

The U.S. shells out roughly $46 billion a year on affordable housing—$40 billion on means-tested programs and another $6 billion in tax expenditures through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which supports affordable housing investments for low-income Americans. Compare that to $195 billion in subsidies that flow largely to wealthy and middle class homeowners via tax deductions for mortgage interest.

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.


Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.


Oct 022016

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“The same Society [of Loretto] will become, besides, an asylum or shelter for old age, decrepit or useless slaves, and whatever kind of sick or distressed fellow creature may call for their assistance, as far as this poor condition shall permit.”  —Father Charles Nerinckx, 1813

“In America, we’re all immigrants. This land did not belong to the white people till we stole it.” —Ceciliana Skees, Sister of Loretto, 2016

For over two hundred years, the Sisters of Loretto have aspired to sanctify what history books have termed the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky into a home for the Virgin Mary. The first nuns, the daughters and sisters of pioneer farmers, envisioned the bluegrass plains and open skies to be as pure and untouched as the body of their beloved Mary. But the land they chose for the new home of God’s mother was as ancient as the hills of Jerusalem and as bloody as Golgotha. By 1812, when the original five Sisters of Loretto, Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart, began teaching Catholic children the rudiments of their faith, the land on which their motherhouse rested had been mapped, contested, divided, parceled, and sold, with generations of its original inhabitants besieged by epidemics and invasion. After over a century of warfare between natives, colonists, British, and French, the fields of central Kentucky were cluttered with detritus of battles primordial and fresh. The land was holy ground for many different people, but it was also blood land. In fact, the first Mother of the Sisters of Loretto, Ann Rhodes, purchased the land for the convent with the sale of a slave named Tom. This commodification of human flesh is a strangely disturbing beginning for an order of women who hoped to create an enclave for good works and education. How are we to understand women who swore vows of poverty but nevertheless bought and sold other Catholic souls? Such paradoxes of intentions run through the history of Loretto, as they do through the history of America.

Embedded deep into the consciousness of white settlers was the sense that the seemingly limitless fertile acres of America were an untouched Eden, the earth at its most new, its most pure. Perhaps the Sisters rejoiced that they were building Mary’s home in a newly born world, exempted from the sins of their forebears. But they also confronted a land of ruins, of mounds full of bones and the spirits that had once animated them. They were of a vocation and a religion that believed it was possible to converse with heaven, to hear the call of saints and spirits. If there were ghosts in the bluegrass, surely they glimpsed them. What did Mary and Ann Rhodes think when they discovered clay shards and copper medallions while digging in their gardens? How did they respond to the risings and ridges of the earth, the palimpsest of a land that had once teamed with people? I wonder if the nuns had a sense of the age of the land they inhabited, if they tried to fit the relics they found into their story of the creation and redemption of the world.

Loretto itself is named for Loreto, Italy, where pilgrims since at least the later middle ages have venerated a one-roomed stone house as the childhood home of Mary in Galilee. Tradition holds that angels carried the home to Italy to escape the ravages of the invading Turks. The choice of name is telling. The first Sisters hoped to recreate an ancient Judaean dwelling-place on the American frontier. None of them had ever been to Italy, so the Loretto they envisioned must have sprung from sermons, gospel verses, and their own imaginations—a home built of sandstone and flavored with olive oil, a place of simple domesticity where a young girl learned and grew into worthiness and first heard the voice of an angel. This home of Mary’s girlhood represented their hopes for themselves, for the children they would raise and send out into the world, and for those who would join them in their eternal prayers at the foot of the cross.

Society of Loretto buildingsLoretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky.

Yet other people possessed competing spiritual ties to the same fertile floodplains of the Ohio River Valley. The Shawnee believed that the central Ohio Valley was the heart of the world, given to them by Meteelemelakwe their Creator for perpetual sustenance. In recorded origin stories, Meteelemelakwe had lowered the ancestors of the Shawnee to the island of the earth in a basket and instructed them to travel to the river that would be their home for eternity. To them, the land that included Kentucky could never be sold, promised, or bargained away. Since the 1750s, they had fought a series of wars with the British and the Iroquois in order to keep settlers, hunters, and land speculators from encroaching further west. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, as well as the Cherokee, had twice sold the land to speculators, and in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British had ceded it away to the newly formed American government. Despite promises and bargains, the British did not stop the onslaught of eager settlers who traveled on flatboats down the Ohio River or climbed over the mountains through the Cumberland Gap to reach Kentucky. In 1775, there were only about 150 Anglo-Americans. By 1800, there were 220,855. Within ten years the number had doubled to 406,459.

The original Sisters of Loretto may not have been aware of the intricacies of failed treaties and false sales with the Shawnee that precipitated their arrival at Loretto, but they were certainly aware they were not the first inhabitants of their Edenic possession. White settlers had only been present in Kentucky for thirty-seven years, and those years had been rife with blood and conflict. The War for Independence lasted for eight years, but in Kentucky it had turned into twenty. Thousands of people, Shawnee, Lenape, Ohio Iroquois, French, and British, had been killed, taken captive, or died of starvation. The Sisters knew that only thirty years before, other settlers had crowded into forts for protection. They would no doubt have heard the tales that circulated among colonists of women taken captive, disappeared into the dark wilderness. In 1780, only five years before the Rhodes family emigrated to Kentucky, over 700 Shawnee and other warriors, along with British rangers, attacked several forts and captured 300 colonists. The experiences of the captives varied widely, with many, especially women and children, adopted into native families to replace lost members. Many were so pleased with their new lives they had no desire to leave when given the opportunity. But colonists considered the natives akin to demons, and many women feared the threat of sexual assault, true or not. The Old Testament books that made up the bulk of their readings were replete with battles, carnage, and violation. When the Sisters read of the rapes of Dinah and Tamar, did they envision Levantine kingdoms of centuries past or the forts and newly built farms of Kentucky?

It is difficult to get a sense of individual consciousness from the first five sisters—Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart. Any surviving key to their individual personalities has become shrouded in hagiography. According to the legend of Loretto, Mary Rhodes was so disturbed by the lack of schools in Kentucky that she began teaching her nieces and nephews in her brother’s house. She soon banded together with two other single ladies, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern, and the three of them moved into two old log cabins across the creek from Mary’s brother’s farm and invited local children to board with them and learn their letters. After a few months they revealed their joint desire to take the veil and sought the approval of their delighted priest, Father Charles Nerinckx, a Belgian immigrant who was hoping to nurture just such fledgling female communities. On April 12, 1812, the women traveled to the Nerinckx’s home on nearby Hardin’s creek. Kneeling outside the roughhewn church with a statue of Mary imported from Belgium, they received his blessing and he pronounced them the first sisters of the Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were soon joined by Ann’s younger sister Sarah and Mary’s younger sister Ann.

Loretto main buildingMotherhouse main building

According to the early histories of Loretto, the first Sisters were hardworking, courageous, devoted to their students and the survival of their Order. They faced hardship with tenacity and never wavered in their faithfulness to the Virgin Mary. In both their prayers and their actions, they strove to imitate her compassion for the world as well as the suffering of her son. And there is little to contradict or augment that portrait, as only a handful of documents from their own hands exist, and none of those are letters, diaries, confessions, or any of the narratives that indicate character or temperament.

Of course, some of this reverential biography must be true—in order to survive in unfamiliar country without stores and roads, living in split-log cabins, anyone would have had to be courageous and not averse to hard work. One of the original cabins still exists at the Loretto Motherhouse, although it’s been deconstructed and reconstructed several times. A tiny one-room cabin, with wooden shutters blocking most of the natural light, it manages to be at once claustrophobic and cavernous, the testament of an extremely harsh life for the people who crowded into similar such rooms. The rain and snow soaked in through cracks in the walls and the damp rose from the earthen floors. Ann Rhodes died of tuberculosis in a cabin like that. The Sisters and their students crowded into spaces impossibly small and uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. Somehow they managed—folding up the beds during the day to make room for meals and lessons, cooking outside in a lean-to, planting and canning vegetables to get through the winter. All that was true. But they didn’t have to do it alone. And they were hardly as impoverished as the stories would indicate. While the pioneer Sisters defied the elements and renounced all their earthly possessions for the greater treasures of Heaven, they still retained ownership of other humans.

The first document to survive from the sisters is a record of purchase. In that loopy cursive of centuries past, Ann Rhodes recorded that she was selling one bed, two spinning wheels, assorted kitchen furniture, and one negro male named Tom to Father Charles Nerinckx in perpetuity for seventy-five dollars. She used the money to purchase the surrounding land, as well as to pay for repairs on the cabins. Father Nerinckx returned both Tom and the furniture to his spiritual charges and nothing more is written of him in the records.

Bill of sale of slaveBill of sale for Tom and assorted household goods (used with permission of the Loretto Archives)

Tom would be joined by others within a few years. Within the lifetime of Father Nerinckx (who died in 1824), there were enough slaves to merit two separate kitchens. An early set of copybooks from one of the Sisters recorded that Father Nerinckx had ordered that strangers were not permitted in either the white or the colored kitchens. In 1860, there were 70 slaves at the Motherhouse. In March of 1853, upon the death of Mary Rhodes, there were altogether 170 Sisters living at the Motherhouse and eight other schools and convents in Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and New Mexico. Since the other convents were smaller, there may have been as many slaves as Sisters at the Motherhouse.

The presence of those 70-some slaves places the stark purity of Loretto’s early mythos in further context. The brief references to Tom add another story, of more than 70 other stories stitched into and around the central narrative of early Loretto. But those stories are shadows, lost on the edges of old diaries, fallen in between the ripped creases in letters. We know the occasional name, the occasional number, but we don’t have any written memories relating what life was like for those who lived, worked, prayed, and died in the service of the Sisters at the Motherhouse.

Everything is conjecture, based on comparisons and built around blank spaces. But Loretto rose from two cabins in 1812 to a sprawling estate that was both a school, a house of worship, and a fully functioning self-sustaining farm community, and slaves were responsible for much of that achievement. Their labor also contributed to the flourishing of the larger Catholic community in Kentucky—owning slaves gave the Sisters the free hours to teach Catholic children, which was their central goal. They could not have fulfilled their mission without slaves to till their grounds and tend to their laundry, harvest their corn crop, milk the cows, and see to the never-ending labor of an extensive farm.

The Sisters of Loretto bought and sold slaves, and some received them as inheritances from family members. According to her father’s will, Mary Rhodes received “a boy named George, a girl named Anna, and one feather bed and other furniture.” New postulants also brought slaves along when they joined, as part of their dowries to the institution, such as the four women who joined in 1817, bringing ten slaves with them. Many of their transactions’ records were destroyed in a fire, but at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, a convent of similar size, an entry for the annals in 1840 records that “they bought five negro men; two women, two girls and two boys . . . . The prices of hire were also very high; and the Council decided it was better to buy servants for the farm etc., then pay so much for hire and often get bad ones.” In the same year, Catherine Spaulding, the foundress of the Charity convent, sent money back to the Sisters for the purchase of two girls. She was the same woman who had declared that, “our Community must be the center from which all our good works must emanate.”

One of the hallmarks of slave experiences was a marriage of Christian religion with native African practices, memory, and experience merged into a distinctly African-American creation. This was true regardless of denomination. How do we understand the lived moments of spirituality for individuals enslaved in a religious house? Throughout Kentucky, masters and slaves worshipped in the same churches, with slaves in the back or up on a balcony. Father Nerinckx had insisted that the slaves in his parishes, which included Loretto, receive the sacraments so if they believed in the teachings of the church they served, they knew their souls belonged only to God. They were washed with the same water at birth and departed their bodies to the same rites. Regardless of whether slaves accepted their status or rebelled in their hearts, they participated in the rituals of their masters. And judging by the numbers of African-Americans who remained Catholic after emancipation, they imbibed the meaning of those rituals. African-American Catholics didn’t split off into their own congregations, unlike Protestants who formed specifically black denominations, historically spoken of as the Black Church. Catholics insisted on communion within the larger body of Christ.

Living as a slave in a house of education may have provided opportunities, even if only grasped in stolen moments. Another scribbled statement, from Father Nerinckx, copied in a notebook by an anonymous hand: “Permission is given for the sisters to instruct colored women and girls, but they may not converse with them without the superior’s permission, and the superior should be vigilant that no disorder occur through her negligence.” Unlike other states, it was never illegal to teach slaves to read and write in Kentucky.

Given that some slaves in Loretto were literate, it’s hard not to wonder what they may have read and how their reading affected their identities. It’s tempting to imagine slaves at Loretto developing subversive ideas through books. Abolitionist literature existed in Kentucky, and it’s not impossible (although impossible to prove) that some of it made its way into the kitchens, laundry, and slave quarters of Loretto. Beginning in 1822, the Kentucky Abolition Society regularly published a newspaper, and of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold 300,000 copies the first year of its publication. Even if none of these works ever reached the confines of Loretto, however. there was no shortage of bibles, and biblical stories, with tales of Israelites yearning to be free from bondage and the Lord hearing their prayers, were among the most subversive in a slave-holding society. The religion of the Sisters preached equality before God, equality among the members of the body of Christ, however they may have practiced it. And slaves and Sisters alike must have recognized this contradiction. If black women were the ones more likely to be literate, as Nerinckx’s memo suggests, than the spiritual hypocrisy they faced was even more baffling. The lessons they learned in the bible as well as those they received during the liturgy directly contradicted social dictates about the worth of both their souls and their bodies.

The female slaves occupied a strange space at Loretto. According to historian Deborah Gray White, in popular imagination, the black female body was oversexed, as ripe for exploitation as it was devoid of virtue. The same society that prized white female chastity valued black women as objects of male lust and as breeding sows to provide more property. Owners had no stake in preserving black virginity. At a convent, the contrast between the different conceptions of womanhood could hardly have been more starkly apparent. The nuns possessed the privilege of control. In the days before effective birth control, monastic vows offered women a socially approved alternative to dangerous and potentially tragic cycles of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and childrearing. Vowed women controlled their bodies, tempering them with fasting and long hours of prayer, but never ceding physical or legal control to a man.

Black female slaves, however, were not the owners of their own bodies. They could hardly make decisions about their virtue when they could be married off and sold away at another’s whim. In 1837, at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, the Sisters, “resolved that the black girl Matilda be sold for $550 to a catholic who will not send her down River.” “Down River” referred to the Mississippi River, the main conduit into the deep South. Slaves sold down the river faced separation from their families as well as increasingly brutal labor conditions on cotton plantations.

Female slaves also faced sexual violence from white men and black slaves alike. And yet the female slaves at Loretto found themselves serving other women whose flesh had been demarcated as not only privileged, but sacred. A young black woman could wonder, surveying the untouched bodies of her communal mistresses, am I not a virgin too? And yet that virginity was somehow a less perfect offering for the God whose waters had baptized them both.


Dolors of Mary

Loretto was meant to be the home of the Virgin Mary, but Kentucky is not Nazareth, and its landscape bears the scars of its twinned worlds. A biography of Mary’s sorrows, rendered in marble, lines the path to the cemetery at the Motherhouse. The Dolors of Mary, as they are known, trace the holy family from the flight into Egypt through the tortured steps of the Passion. Artistic tradition limits the sculptures to seven, but each tangle of stone limbs bespeaks a lifetime of maternal care, from the loss of her child in the Temple at Jerusalem to her final harrowing witness. At the fourth station, Mary meets Jesus in the streets as he carries the cross on his back. They lean into each other in an embrace, the sun and the wind driving against them, the temple as their sky. She helps him bear the cross just for a moment but knows she must relinquish him to his fate and its weight.

If you follow the path of the Dolors to the end, you find yourself at a rough stone slab about the height of a tall person that rises above the gravestones of deceased Sisters, a memorial decorated with a handsome brass plaque featuring a relief row of African-featured profiles—women in headscarves, an old man with a worn expression, a young child with round cheeks. It has stood there since 2000, bearing all the known names of the slaves at Loretto, names gleaned from archives, from contracts, handwritten in faded ink, slanted antiquated handwriting, catalogued in acid-free boxes numbered on shelves in the archives. Clearly the names listed on the stone are just fragments of memories, brief references in bills of sale— “Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, The Drury Family of Ten slaves, Anna and George, the slaves inherited in 1838 by Sister Laurentia Buckman . . . And all those whose names have been forgotten.”

Loretto Memorial

The placement of the Dolors and the memorial stone together perfectly encapsulates the paradox of slavery at Loretto. The Sisters of Loretto sorrowed with Mary and suffered with Jesus. That moment existed eternally and defined their entire identity, including their prayer life and their earthly mission. To that end, they created their own forms of suffering to emphasize with Jesus—asceticism in food, sleep, dress, separation from friends and relatives, and obedience to the rule and will of superiors. But who embodied sorrow and suffering more than their slaves? Tom, Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, and all the other men and women of Loretto enacted the torments of the Cross on a daily basis, with their forced labors and subjugated wills. In the reminders of their inferiority, whether in the form of cruel taunts, harsh censure, or gentle explanation, they lived out the experiences of Jesus, tormented and insulted on the road to Calvary. And they bore a Cross from the moment of birth. One African-American spiritual, with clear Catholic overtones, equates the affliction of slavery—the hollering and scolding of masters—with the burden of the Cross.

I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
Done wid driber’s dribin’ …
Done wid massa’s hollerin’ …
Done wid missus’ scoldin’ …
I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary hail!
To help me bear de cross.

The sufferer cries out to Mary, who, in Catholic literature and liturgy, is the archetype of sorrow. How many sorrowing mothers watched their children sold away from them? Watched the children left to them broken in body, in the fields, at the whipping post? While the Sisters sorrowed with Mary, did the slaves hope that Mary sorrowed with them?


Loretto came of age alongside the state of Kentucky and indeed, the entire United States, so to get lost in its grounds and to dig through the extensive archives is to confront the paradox of American history. And when we study that history, when we read the names on memorial stones or dig into the sinews of the earth, we learn that we are a species of dark hearts and infinite cruelties, with conflict woven in our souls. We also long for salvation, whoever we are, and have composed an infinite variety of paths back to the sky or into the ground, myths of suffering and redemption, and stories of sin and forgiveness. Our first hope for atonement, for the bodies broken and displaced on a multitude of crosses, for the voices disappeared and the records lost, is acknowledgment. And once we have built the memorial stones and reached the ends of the records, what then?

Sisters of Loretto Graveyard

Many thanks to the Sisters of Loretto and their co-members, especially Eleanor Craig, Susan Classen, Antionette Doyle, and Ceciliana Skees, for their candor and their generosity.

— Laura Michele Diener

Works Consulted

Barnes, Mary Matilda SL. One Hundred and Fifty Years. Loretto Motherhouse Archives, Nerinx, KY.

Boles, John B. Religion in Antebellum Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. Print.

Butler, Anne M. Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Campbell, Joan SL. Loretto: A Early American Congregation in the Antebellum South. St. Louis: Bluebird Publishing, 2015. Print.

Joan Chittester, Ed. Climb along the Cutting Edge: An Analysis of Change in Religious Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1977. Print.

Copeland, M. Shawn, Ed. Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

Gollar, C. “Catholic slaves and the slaveholders in Kentucky.” Catholic Historical Review [serial online]. January 1998;84 (1 ):42. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 8, 2016.

Harrison, Lowell R. and Clotter, James C, Eds. A New History of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Hogan, Margaret A. Sister Servants: Catholic Women Religious in Antebellum Kentucky. Diss, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008.

I Am the Way, Constitutions of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Nerinx, KY, 1997. Print.

Lakomäki, Sami. Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.

Lewis, R. Barry, Ed. Kentucky Archaeology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Print.

The Loretto Community. A Century of Change: 1912-2012, Loretto’s Second Century. Point Reyes Station, CA: Chardon Press, 2012. Print.

Suenens, Leo Joseph, Card., The Nun in the World: Religion and the Apostolate. Westminster, MI: Newman Press, 1963. Print.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985. Print.

Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.



Oct 012016

fiveravensFive Ravens



Over the course of recorded history, many profound intellectuals have contemplated the nature of mathematics. Albert Einstein believed that math was nothing more than “a product of human thought,” which caused him to wonder how its principles could seem “so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality.” In contrast, Johan Kepler believed that mathematics was an inherent feature of the Universe, famously stating, “geometry existed before creation.” But regardless of one’s philosophical leanings, it’s obvious that, from the curious perspective of a human mind, Nature seems to be “written in the language of mathematics” (Galileo Galilei).

A few million years before Einstein, Kepler, and Galileo mused about the Universe, the concept of mathematics likely originated from an evolutionary breakthrough that happened before modern humans ever walked the earth. When hominids emerged from their primate ancestors, they gained a powerful ability to recognize patterns in the natural world, which allowed them to comprehend cause-and-effect in a way that had never been achieved by any other species. Their ability to understand and predict patterns of behavior in wildlife allowed hominids to become effective hunters and trappers, despite their relatively weak and slow physiology; their ability to recognize patterns of physical correlation allowed them to manipulate different materials to create novel technologies (e.g. tools, clothing, housing, etc.); and their ability to understand and predict seasonal patterns would eventually lead to the development of agriculture. All of these examples illustrate that hominids’ pattern recognition fostered a myriad of practical evolutionary benefits. But along with these utilitarian advantages, this ability also provided a cognitive foundation for creative expression and this would eventually lead to the earliest known forms of visual art.

In 2014, the Leiden Museum carbon dated a collection of prehistoric cutting utensils found on the Indonesian island of Java. The tools were constructed from mussel shells by Homo Erectus, a primitive species of hominid that is closely related to modern humans. While this technology was relatively typical for the time period, researchers noticed that there was something quite atypical about these tools: some of them were engraved with zigzagging lines and the arrangement of the patterns demonstrated a high degree of intent. With no reasonable inference regarding their practical value, the researchers had to assume that the lines were made for aesthetic purposes. When the tools were tested, the results indicated that the shells were roughly 500 000 years old (300 000 years older than any previously discovered artwork); this suggested that hominids developed conceptual thought much earlier than previously believed. But with regard to mathematics, since these artifacts were made roughly 400 000 years before any known stone figurines or cave paintings, it also suggested that geometry – not figurative images – inspired the first aesthetic creations.

When hominids evolved into modern humans, they developed an ever-growing fascination with Nature. And undoubtedly, as they explored, examined, and experienced their environment, they would have noticed, even before the concept of geometry was developed, that the Universe often structures itself in aesthetically balanced forms. The circle, the pinnacle of balance in geometry, was likely the first shape to capture their attention. The sun and the moon were (and still are) omnipresent features of life on earth, and I imagine that our ancestors would have frequently gazed skyward to appreciate their seemingly perfect form. But Nature’s creations go far beyond the circle: from the radial symmetry of flowers, to the logarithmic spirals of mollusk shells, to the fractal scaling of succulents – geometry pervades the Cosmos. To early humans, these elaborate arrangements must have represented an underlying order, a guiding spiritual force that created and organized the Universe. So unsurprisingly, mathematical arrangements played a significant role in early religious art .

As humans moved out of Africa and spread across the globe, they split into numerous civilizations, all with unique beliefs and practices. But despite their profound diversity, all cultures had some form of visual art, with the vast majority incorporating mathematical arrangements. Some symbols, such as the “flower of life” (a series of overlapping circles arranged to form a floral pattern) and the Pentagram (a five-pointed star made of a continuous line), were found on artifacts from pre-classic Greece (and in all likelihood were developed by earlier tribal civilizations); other symbols are still in use today: Taoism’s “yin yang” (2-fold rotational symmetry), Judaism’s “star of David” (3-fold radial symmetry) and the “Caduceus” (1-fold reflection symmetry) are all ancient geometric forms that have survived through the ages into modernity.

But these techniques were not limited to the “Old World,” and, in the Americas, many indigenous cultures used geometry in their art work – including my Salish ancestors. While Coast Salish culture didn’t create semiotic symbols like many European civilizations, they did create visual art (spindle whorls, rattles, house-posts, etc.) with animal and floral forms that utilized the same geometric techniques found around the world. These design elements have been carried into modern Salish art and have been expanded upon by the contemporary master, Susan Point, and subsequently, by the newest generation of Salish artists, such as lessLie , Maynard Johnny, Chris Paul, and myself.

As I began to study Salish design, I became enamoured with the geometric techniques used by my ancestors. This inspired me to widen my research, and I engaged in an expansive study of traditional geometry in other cultures. In this exploration, I became particularly fond of two styles: the Asian mandala and Islamic tessellations.

Mandalas are geometric images that represent the Cosmos, which are used as a meditation tool in some Buddhist and Hindu cultures. They traditionally consist of a circle that is enclosed in a larger square with four t-shaped gates, all structured using 2-fold reflection symmetry. Some of these designs show characteristics of fractal geometry – meaning shapes that show similarity at every scale (such as a mandala within a mandala within a mandala etc.). Modified versions of these techniques became an integral part of my artistic style – a style that would eventually lead to the works in Sacred Geometry.

Islamic art has had an equally strong influence on my creative development. Unlike Christianity and Judaism – whose worshippers have a long history of producing depictions of religious figures (e.g. Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” or the Tzippori Synagogue Mosiac), idolatry is considered blasphemous in Islam. As a result, their cultural art diverged from the other Abrahamic religions, and Muslim artists created many unique art forms, such as calligraphy and tessellations. Tessellations are infinitely repeatable patterns consisting of a series of identical shapes (called tiles) that fit together to form a larger design. A checker board is one of the simplest forms of tessellation (a series of identical squares), but Muslim artists took the concept to a remarkable level of complexity. From the 7th century through the entire Middle Ages, in South Asia, The Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, Muslim artists decorated rugs, ceramics, architecture and much more with these awe-inspiring patterns. Using little more than straight lines (a detail that would play a significant role in the development of my exhibit), Muslim artists created intricate designs with interlacing and overlapping polygons and circles that often unite to create star and floral forms. The symbolic value of these tessellations adds the sacred element to the geometry: the circular shapes represent the paradoxical unity and diversity of existence, and the pattern’s infinite nature (i.e., its geometric ability to expand forever) represents the boundless possibilities of the divine realm.

The modern master of mathematical art, M.C. Escher, credited Islamic geometry as the inspiration for his renowned woodblock prints. In 1936, he visited a Moorish mosque in southern Spain and was enthralled by its tessellated architecture. Escher (and at his request, his wife) feverishly tried to sketch the various patterns for later imitation. After this visit, Escher engaged in years of study and practice, until eventually he was ready to reveal his unique twist on the tessellation. But he believed that “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” would hold “little meaning” for his audience and that his tessellations would only be appreciated if they were recognized as “clear symbols of people, animals, [and] things…” But this is where my artistic intentions diverge from the master.

Considering the artistic era that Escher lived in, it’s not surprising that he had a deep passion for figurative art, which had been a nearly universal convention for centuries prior. But while Escher was developing his geometric style in the 1930s, Modernists were shouting, “make it new,” and developing an aesthetic world space that would transcend the fetters of artistic tradition. The Modernists would, in time, essentially change the definition of fine art, but at the beginning of Escher’s career, these new creative movements were still quite divisive. Taking into account the divided nature of the zeitgeist, mixed with Escher’s formal training in illustration (an extremely figurative medium), it’s easy to understand why his art took its specific form – a form that I’m forever grateful to have known and studied.

But since the 1930s, artistic culture has traveled through a vast range of movements, which, during Escher’s development, had yet to be imagined – one of which being Minimalism. Following the Modernist currents towards Post-Modernity, some artist drifted further and further from the verisimilitude that had dominated art for most of recorded history. And in the early 1960s, some New York City artists – such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly – were creating abstract paintings with simple geometric forms that lacked any notion of figurative imagery. Since these artists weren’t overly concerned with imitating objective reality or even representing objective reality through a unique perspective, they were able to focus on the subtle aesthetic aspects of their paintings (such as contrast, weight, balance, orientation, etc.), which created works with an understated but powerful effect. Considering the enduring legacy of these artists, I believe that their work has demonstrated that, contrary to Escher’s opinion, “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” can be meaningful, if they exist in an appropriate artistic atmosphere. And by abandoning the religious, naturalistic, and humanistic meanings of the past, Minimalist art carries a meaning that, in my opinion, is at the pure center of all creative endeavors, a meaning that has slowly become my primary artistic focus – which is to represent that mysterious and elusive quality known as beauty.

As I continue my studies of visual art, it seems as though the more I learn about aesthetics (i.e. the nuanced details create and emphasize beauty), the less I intellectually understand the concept; this is likely because beauty doesn’t operate on the intellect and is, by nature, not rational. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to call beauty irrational either. A far more accurate term, one used by the philosopher Ken Wilber, is trans-rational, because it seems to operate on something much deeper than the intellect, what some might call the heart or soul or spirit. In my experience, beauty only fully manifests when the intellect subsides, when the mind goes quiet and all “hows” and “whys” disappear. There’s no rational value in gazing at a midnight sky punctured with mysterious light from distant worlds or the radiant spread of red hues rising in a twilight fade from the horizon – but, for me, only the trans-rational aspects of life can give meaning to existence. Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “We have art so we may not perish by truth.”

My growing devotion to aesthetics helped me set the parameters for this exhibit: I decided to let my intuitions about geometric beauty guide every creative decision. This meant prioritizing aesthetics over the figurative elements (i.e., animal forms) that I was accustomed to using in my traditional Salish art. Although animal images do appear in a few pieces, those specific designs developed organically – meaning they only took a figurative shape if, in the designing process, it seemed to happen on its own. The appearance of figurative art among these images might be due to some quasi-Pavlovian impulse that developed from years of Salish designing – illustrating that artistic habits, like all habits, also die hard. But regardless of their origin, I’m happy with the results.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed the puzzle-like challenge of arranging animals to fit my aesthetic vision and taste. But the designing process for Sacred Geometry was a refreshing change in my practice. I surrendered control to the mathematics, and with nothing more than a little refinement, the designs essentially built themselves based on the geometric processes I applied. This manner of working felt much more natural than any designing I had done previously – so natural that, more often than not, I hardly felt involved. While the idea might seem cliché and is often perceived as pseudo-spiritual hyperbole, I (and numerous people I have talked to) know firsthand that, in those purest moments of expression, art seems to be created through you, not by you. And I can say, without a hint of exaggeration, that these experiences are the sacred aspect of creating art.

The other constraint I set for myself was to design using only straight lines and circles, a style that I serendipitously discovered while sketching. I loved the idea of creating art with such simple structures – so simple, in fact, that they are almost always the first structures that a child learns to draw. Take, for example, a toddler’s stick figure: it generally consists of a circle head, circle eyes, a half circle mouth to form the obligatory smile, with straight lines creating the torso and limbs. But what, I wondered, would be possible if I restricted myself to these fundamental aesthetic tools? When I first started working with the constraint, I thought that the possibilities would be limited; at most, I hoped to get a small series of designs from the concept. But to my surprise (and ecstatic delight), I found that the potential was much greater than I anticipated. As I experimented, more and more avenues for creation presented themselves, with a surprising range of diversity. Within a month or so, I knew that I had the concept. And, more importantly, I knew that I had discovered a new creative world space that I could return to for the rest of my life.

Some might consider the art in Sacred Geometry more contemporary than my other work, and, in a way, it certainly is. But in another sense, this work is more traditional than anything I have done before – because it draws on a tradition that started before my Salish ancestors ever carved a spindle whorl on the Pacific Coast, a tradition that started before the first human crafted a symbol to honor the earliest conception of God, a tradition that even started before Homo Erectus carved that first pattern into a mussel shell. It’s a tradition that started in the big bang (and according to Kepler, even before), that first moment of creation when, in a mysterious Cosmic exhalation, Spirit took a three-dimensional form and started building the Universe according to timeless laws of geometry.

—Dylan Thomas

brave-new-whorlBrave New Whorl






tipping-pointTipping Point




Born in Victoria, in 1986, Qwul`thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation, originally from Valdes Island. Dylan was exposed to the art at a young age because his family continues to participate in their culture and tradition. He has trained in jewelery with Seletze (Delmar Johnnie) and has apprenticed under Rande Cook in all mediums of the art. Rande has also been a major help in the development of Dylan`s design. His other artistic influences have been late Art Thompson, Susan Point and Robert Davidson.

The images reproduced here were originally produced for Thomas’s first solo show at the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, which opened in August.


Aug 102016

Ben Lerner is seen in Brooklyn, New York on Monday September 14, 2015. Adam Lerner / AP Images for Home Front Communications

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” — Ben Lerner


The Hatred of Poetry
Ben Lerner
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016.
Paperback, 86 pages, $12.


Ben Lerner’s monograph, The Hatred of Poetry, is an extended meditation on the nature of poetry (or, Poetry) and its relationship to the reader. Lerner first broached this topic in his 4000-word essay for the London Review of Books in 2015, in which he concludes, “You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.”  While much of The Hatred of Poetry is derived from thoughts shared in this essay, the revised version is subtler, cannier, and ultimately claims, if only in passing, “a place for the genuine.”

The essay can be read as a tribute to Lerner’s teacher, Allen Grossman, the late poet and critic, and Grossman’s influence on this writing is found everywhere. Only a few pages in, Lerner recollects Grossman’s retelling of the story of 1st century Caedmon, the earliest known Anglo-Saxon poet. The illiterate cowherd was, according to the account rendered by the Venerable Bede, transformed through a dream into a poet; the poem with which he awoke, however, was never as good as the one in his dream, “for songs, be they never so well made, cannot be turned of one tongue into another, word for word, without loss to their grace and worthiness.” From Bede’s rendition of Caedmon’s dream comes Grossman’s characterization of the poem as “necessarily a mere echo” of the truer poem, the “virtual poem” existing just out of reach for the poet. “In a dream your verses can defeat time,” Lerner writes, “your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.”

From this apocryphal beginning, Lerner deftly sketches a characterization of poetry as a long-beleaguered medium, wearily defended and just as wearily attacked for millennia. Lerner himself, of course, is a poet, author of three volumes of verse. His first collection, The Lichtenberg Figures, won the Hayden Carruth Prize; his second, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two novels, both of which feature self-reflexive narrators (the first, Leaving Atocha Station, is told by a successful poet [Adam] abroad on Fellowship money; his second novel, 10:04, is told by Ben, a poet in the wake of a surprisingly successful first novel) have been widely acclaimed. Born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas, Lerner has already been awarded a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has every logical reason in the world to rest comfortably, yet his work brims with self-abnegation, a “self-subverting whisper” which persistently threatens to spill over into self-pity, but never actually does.

The Hatred of Poetry may be Lerner’s answer to his own unspoken questions. Of poetry – “I, too, dislike it,“ he asserts in the well-known words of Marianne Moore –Lerner writes, “Sometimes this refrain (which Lerner has made of Moore’s words) has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.”

The rest of Moore’s poem, quoted on Lerner’s opening page, reads, in its entirety: “Reading it, however, with a perfect/contempt for it, one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.” In order to reserve such a place, however, a great deal must be cleared away. In Lerner’s telling – harking back to Grossman’s “virtual poem” – poetry itself is used as a means to provoke negative capability, poetry meaning poetry showing what poetry is not, i.e., words on the page. Whether dissecting the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall or Emily Dickenson’s broken lines (“a mixture of virtuosity and willed dissonance”), Lerner suggests that poetry makes “a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time.”

That negative image of the ideal Poem (that poem that “we cannot write”) is reinforced through poetry critique. From Plato’s provocative (to contemporary readers) banishment of the poet as citizen of the ideal city, through, for example, Mark Edmundson (“The Decline of American Verse) and George Packer (“Presidential Poetry”) who bemoan the current state of poetry as being mired in the particular to the expense of the universal, Lerner’s point is that prose written about poetry upholds the place that poetry provides for the “glimmer of the virtual.” In other words, the “defense itself becomes a kind of virtual poetry – it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.”

Lerner closes with a relatively extended meditation upon the virgule, signifying the slash, the virgula or “little twig” used to indicate line breaks when quoting poetry in the context of prose. He observes that Claudia Rankine, in the pre-publication galleys of Citizen: An American Lyric, used the virgule “where it could be read as a typographical representation of verse’s felt unavailability.” In the final copy, however, these virgules were gone, leaving only what Lerner calls “a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation” behind. Rankine’s Citizen, is named lyric where otherwise that quality would not be likely assumed: the poem is, after all, comprised almost entirely of prose. “What I encounter in Rankine,” he writes, “is the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry — and especially as lyric poetry — catalyzes an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb.”

The seeming divide between poetry and prose is a border that Lerner has blurred before: in his first novel, the narrator (a poet) writes, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose (…) where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” He quotes this passage twice in the pages of The Hatred of Poetry, before making a final – and, yes, lyrical – segue towards the essay’s coda. The virgule, he writes,

can be heard in Virgula Divina, the divining rod that locates water or other precious substances underground…(It can be heard) in the name of Virgil. Dante’s guide through Hell. And in the meteorological phenomenon known as “virga”… streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground. It’s a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth, between the dream and fire; it’s a mark for verse that is not yet, or no longer, or not merely actual; they are phenomena whose failure to become or remain fully real allows them to figure something beyond the phenomenal.

Throughout the book, references to Grossman are made, off-stage as it were, including Lerner’s telephoned conversation with poet/critic Aaron Kunin (“also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s”), or recognitions of Grossman’s influence on this or that observation. Then, abruptly, a few pages from the book’s close, Lerner writes: “Today, June 27, 2014, Allen Grossman died.”

In Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” the poet writes:

(O)ne of its (personism’s) minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

O’Hara’s manifesto is typically read as mocking; Lucky Pierre is a slang term for the middle person in a 3-person sexual encounter. Of course Lerner, with his love for ambivalence, would produce a manifesto of his own, one placed “squarely between the poet and the person.” But which is which? Who is the person, and the poet – is it Lerner? or is it his teacher, Grossman? Who, of course, can no longer be reached by phone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would suggest that perhaps The Hatred of Poetry could be read as a poem “between two persons instead of two pages.” Lerner writes that poetry is, “where relations between people must appear as things.” Its final pages certainly merit such a reading, as it. By the second to the last paragraph, Lerner can assert that poetry “is on the one hand a mundane experience and on the other an experience of the structure behind the mundane, patches of unprimed canvas peeking through the real.” We might not have initially considered the comparison, but Lerner introduces it: “why not speak of it — fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.” Like sex, like speech itself, poetry is forever seeking purchase in the real, yet exists only in “the glimmer of virtual possibility.”

One of the aspects of Lerner’s writing that I find most compelling is the way he distrusts his own facility with language, his self-conscious working against a fluency that he cannot seem to dismantle (as he writes, in Mean Free Path: “I was tired of my voice, how it stressed / its quality as object with transparent darks / This is a recording.”) If, as he writes, the “closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them,” then the acknowledgment of that distance is itself the truest kind of faith. In The Hatred of Poetry, we find, I think, the truest kind of love.

— Carolyn Ogburn


Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.



Aug 092016

Self-Reliance cover 500pxCover image for The Domino Project’s edition of “Self-Reliance,” c2011.


Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested—“but these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very ready transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution, the only wrong is what is against it. 

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)


Quantum sumus, scimus. That which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)


If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)



This year marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Until I sat down recently to re-read it in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give on the subject, I’d somehow managed to forget just how complex and internally qualified that essay is, and how the interpretive problems are as compounded as they are clarified by Emerson’s later revisitings of his central idea. As Spinoza tells us in the final note to the Ethics, “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” The difficulties one encounters in reading Emerson in general are inseparable from the pleasures. The principal complications stem, in the first place, from Emerson’s temperament and style, and, second, from the richness of the spiritual, philosophic, and poetic traditions in which he was embedded, and by which, for all his originality, he was profoundly influenced.

Stylistically, Emerson is so committed to polarity that his powerful yet ambiguous texts are full of overstatements and qualifications, swerves and counter-swerves. In the second half of many lectures and essays, he takes away with the left hand what he has just given with the right. As he notoriously proclaimed in our main text, “Self-Reliance,” a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (E&L 265). His disciple Walt Whitman was never more Emersonian than when (in “Song of Myself” §51) he asked a rhetorical question and responded audaciously: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself./ (I am large. I contain multitudes)”—to which Emerson’s German disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, responded: “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[1]

There is a polarity at the heart of “Self-Reliance,” a primary thrust and a secondary elaboration, taking the form of a caveat, an inconsistency, what the prosaic Understanding would consider a “contradiction.” What Emerson meant by his pivotal idea is not always as obvious as our initial excited response to the clarion call to independence in “Self-Reliance” would suggest. The ambiguity lurking beneath the surface has required interpretation, and thus potential misreadings, of what the volatile and not always consistent Emerson actually intended to convey in urging on us his imperative of self-trust and inner reliance. In what follows, I will flesh out those complications and “contradictions,” and attempt to resolve them, not only by exploring Emerson’s later elaborations on the idea, but by placing climactic emphasis where he himself placed it in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance”: on the “peace” that relies on trust in Intuition, yet requires a moral, divinely inspired component, “the triumph of principles.”

“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most widely-read essay and, if not his greatest, certainly his most influential. Emerson’s central idea in this essay has had a profound impact on American thought as well as on the world of practical affairs, commercial and political, especially in its glorification of the “individual” at the expense of “society,” depicted as a distraction or hindrance. Many an American Captain of Industry has found Emersonian sanction for often rapacious business practices. But despite his strenuous advocacy of self-reliance, admiration of men of action exercising “power,” and observation that, like history, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” (E&L 267), Emerson’s individualism was not meant to endorse commodification and the Exchange in the form of ruthless corporate aggrandizement, nor, though this connection has also been made, to justify Western expansion. It is certainly open to use and abuse, but in its various adaptations, self-reliance has all-too-often been simplified, even distorted—most often in the same way in which “Social Darwinism,” with its self-centered doctrine of the “survival of the fittest,” has misrepresented Darwin’s theory of the various ways, often cooperative rather than competitive, evolution actually works.

We are not wrong to read “Self-Reliance,” a prose Song of Myself, as an unforgettably defiant declaration of independence: an exhilarating celebration of the individual who has cast off the repressive and conformist strictures of society, and buried the dead past in favor of “the present hour.” Employing a favorite device, the rhetorical question, Emerson asks: “Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” Where the soul “is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.” Narcissistically, this out-trumps Trump, but it is saved by Emerson’s turn to “today” and to Nature. The “blade of grass or the blowing rose”

exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence….But the man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with a reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy or strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (E&L 270)

But Emerson’s concept of the sovereign self, living for the moment and liberated from the burden of the past, simultaneously incorporates (though often overlooked, especially by thrilled young readers rebelling against their elders) an insistence that every person’s inmost identity is part of a larger whole, a transpersonal universal. To be sure, “Self-Reliance” sets the individual in splendid isolation against all that would threaten the imperial self, especially the opinions of others and all the interrelated conformist pressures of society and tradition. And yet the essay also stresses “virtue” and “principles”: built-in safeguards against the egocentricity Emerson seems not only to most value, but to license and unleash.

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)



The concept of an inner self that transcends the merely private and egoistic (just as Jungian “individuation,” or “self-actualization,” often seems inseparable from “self-transcendence”) is rooted in those earlier-mentioned spiritual, philosophic, and poetic sources comprising the “traditions” by which Emerson was influenced. For even this arch-champion of self-reliant originality and radical independence was deeply indebted to selected precursors, preeminent among them John Milton and his visionary progeny: poets and thinkers in the Romantic tradition (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle) and clerics in the line of radical “inner light” Protestant spirituality, from Reformation theologians to one of his own mentors, the liberal Unitarian William Ellery Channing. Emerson’s “star of the American Church” (JMN 7:470) proclaimed, in his famous sermon of that title, “man’s likeness to God,” a God who “dwells within us.” Emerson was an even more ardent believer in the God within. Fusing the “still, small voice” of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ assertion that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), he told his cousin David Greene Haskins: “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the still small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He had “only glimpses” of the “divine principle that lurks within us,” but for Emerson, “God is, and we within him,” a conviction for which he found even pagan support—in the 6th and final book of Ovid’s Fasti: “There is a God within us. It is when he stirs us that our bosom warms.” (JMN 4:27-29, 3:12)

However radical, Emerson’s insistence on what Milton (negatively) and the British Romantics (positively) referred to as “divinity within” has precedent in both testaments of the Bible. “I will put my love within them,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:32-33), anticipating Jesus’ assertion that “the kingdom of God is within you.” The uncanonical Gospel of Thomas contains an identical formulation, “The Kingdom of God is inside you.” Though a suppressed text unknown to the author of “Self-Reliance” (it was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt more than a century after that essay was written), this Gnostic gospel is remarkably aligned with Emerson’s own religious radicalism, most fully developed in the “Divinity School Address” he delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838.

On that memorable evening, Emerson shocked the theological faculty of his alma mater by (among other outrages to even Unitarian convention) describing “historical Christianity” as corrupt and “corpse-cold.” One “would rather be,” he intoned (quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much with Us”), a “pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” than to be a conformist Christian “defrauded” of the “manly right” to “dare” to “live after the infinite Law that is within you.” In a passage uncannily parallel to a central passage in Thomas (“if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”), Emerson announces, in the most dramatic antithesis in the Divinity School Address: “That is always best which gives me to myself….That which shows God in me fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart and a wen.”[2]

What scandalized the Divinity School faculty—especially as garbed in the deliberately provocative rhetoric Emerson employed on this notable occasion—thrilled the young graduates in the audience. Each neophyte preacher, fortified by the God within him, was, proclaimed Emerson, to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”[3] That unmediated access to the divinity within, Emerson’s refusal to draw a clear distinction between the inspired “self” and the inspired Savior (Jesus was but one, though the first and greatest, to realize that “God incarnates himself as man”), along with his contemptuous dismissal of tradition and “conformity,” allies the Divinity School Address with the essay it directly anticipates: “Self-Reliance.” In fact, that essay is in part a reaction to the furious public controversy following Emerson’s Address: a widespread and incendiary brouhaha in which the lecturer was condemned as a “mad dog,” a “pagan,” an “infidel,” even a demonic Pan or devil who had planted “the cloven hoof” of German pantheism and atheism in New England.[4]

It is true that, in both lecture and essay, Emerson was intellectually participating in a philosophy imported from Germany: in the epistemological “Copernican revolution” of Immanuel Kant, as transmitted to him, “filtered,” through the British Romantics, principally Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom stressed the centrality of Kantian Transcendental Idealism and the radical extension of Kant by J. G. Fichte, who transcended the antithesis between Ich and Nicht-Ich—famously Englished by Carlyle and Emerson as “Me” and “NOT ME” (E&L 8)—by positing a “pure I,” even a “Divine-Me.” In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge published a caricature, what he called a “burlesque on the Fichtean Egoismus.” Coleridge’s satiric doggerel opens with a burst of Latin translatable as “Huzzah! God’s vice-regent, myself God,” and continues:

The form and the substance, the earth and the sky,
The when and the where, the low and the high,
The inside and outside, the earth and the sky,
I, you, and he, and he, you, and I,
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!

Everything, the Supreme Being included, is part of the world’s “Lexicon,” with the “I” or Ich as the “root.” In all “cases,” grammatical and philosophic, the Fichtean Ich is the “case absolute,” “self-begot,” yet indistinguishable from “the God infinitivus!”[5] What Coleridge says here of the Fichtean Egoismus was later said, more genially and in more readable verse, of Emerson by his friend James Russell Lowell. Writing at his epigrammatic best in the finest vignette in his 1848 Fable for Critics, an amused and yet devastatingly on-target Lowell wrote:

All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got
To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what;
For though he builds glorious temples, ’tis odd
He leaves never a doorway to let in a god.
’Tis refreshing to old-fashioned people like me
To meet such a primitive Pagan as he,
In whose mind all creation is duly respected
As parts of himself—just a little projected;
And who’s willing to worship the stars and the sun,
A convert to—nothing but Emerson![6]

Though Lowell was aware of the complexities in Emerson’s position, his parody conveyed (to quote Coleridge on his own “burlesque” of Fichte) “as tolerable a likeness” of his subject’s “idealism as can be expected from an avowed caricature.” In an early, unpublished poem of his own, Emerson located God at the “bottom of my heart,” his “voice therein” an “oracle” and “wise Seer” who always guides “aright.” I “never taught what it teaches me,” Emerson concludes. “Whence then did this omniscient Spirit come?/ From God it came. It is the Deity” (JMN 4:447-48). Another notebook entry, a meditation recorded on May 26, 1837, begins and ends with questions: “Who shall define to me an Individual?….Cannot I conceive the Universe without a contradiction?”

In between these genuine questions, Emerson contemplates the “One Universal Mind” and “my being embedded in it.” God is “the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body…and my private will.” A “believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two….Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual.” He overcomes this philosophic duality and “contradiction” by falling back on the mysterious light of Intuition. At moments, a “certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life.” At such privileged “moments,”

I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He. Then, secondly, the contradictory fact is familiar, that I am a surprised spectator & learner of all my life….But whenever the day dawns, the great day of truth on the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora.[7]

Emerson’s imagery in this extraordinary passage reflects the Inward Light of radically immanent Protestantism, and, more specifically, the language of his favorite lines in the poem that most haunted him and to which he most often alludes: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” where those intimations are presented as “the fountain light of all our day/…a master light of all our seeing.” But the merging of self and God also resembles that of Fichte, which casts its own light, thrilling yet problematic, on the concept of Self-Reliance.

Wordsworth Coleridge Carlyle composite(l. to r.) William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle (via Wikimedia Commons)



Allied with the spiritual conceptions of an “inward light” or “divinity within,” the most radical aspect of Emerson’s conception of “self-reliance” is derived in part from German Idealism. Emerson’s core idea had, in turn, a momentous impact on a later German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Idealist proponent of the Will to Power and of the Übermensch. The American’s most enthusiastic and formidable European disciple, Nietzsche considered Emerson the major thinker of the age and filled almost every margin of his copy of the Essays with scribbled annotations. Nietzsche is “Emersonian” in his condemnation of the dead weight of the past, in his praise of “Dionysian” instinct and intuition, in his exaltation of the exceptional or “higher” man, and in his dismissal of the conformist “herd.”

At times, Emerson could be as ruthless as Nietzsche toward the mediocre “herd,” as in the following provocative passage on the relationship of “great” individuals to the community, which occurs in no less crucial a text than “The American Scholar,” a lecture read by Nietzsche and a precursor of his untimely meditation “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Here, sounding like Nietzsche, is the supposedly benign Emerson on the current condition:

Men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men [approximate] to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened, yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature….The poor and the low are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. (E&L 66)

The goal is the “enlargement” of the self, a crucial concept Emerson derived, as we shall see, from Coleridge. Furthermore, in keeping with the related reciprocity between “Each and All” as laid out in Coleridge’s “Essay on Method” in The Friend, we “each” have a stake in developing the potential of “all” for the greater good. But this Nietzsche-anticipating (if not quite Nazi-foreshadowing) passage in “The American Scholar” is a notably harsh as well as hyperbolic cultural teaching. Usually, Emerson qualified or caveated his most hyperbolic assertions; Nietzsche tended not to. And though he borrowed the phrase from Emerson’s Divinity School Address (E&L 88), Nietzsche, that atheist and self-professed Antichrist, really meant it when he announced that “God is dead.” Emerson, devotee of the God within, cannot have known what the catalytic impact of the doctrine of self-reliance would be on the precociously brilliant German youth who began to read him at the age of seventeen. Himself a great liberator, Nietzsche found his own liberating god in Emerson.

What gets liberated is another matter. Though the Nazis exploited and distorted much that was in Nietzsche, few serious readers any longer accept the once-commonplace alignment of Nietzsche with Nazism. But such explosive phrases as “the blond beast,” “the master race,” the “Will to Power,” and the Übermensch, did provide materials to be exploited and distorted. As Nietzsche himself said in opening the “Why I Am a Destiny” section of Ecce Homo, “I am no man; I am dynamite,” and dynamite, which can explode indiscriminately, is particularly dangerous in the wrong hands, a “fate” Nietzsche feared.[8]

Emerson was an equally brilliant and provocative phrasemaker. His guilt by association is less notorious than the Nazification of Nietzsche, but Emerson—that glorifier of the “aboriginal Self,” celebrator of one’s “sacred impulses,” professor of “one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man” (JMN 7:342), and champion of autonomy, “self-reliance” and the “God within”—has also been connected with Hitler and Nazism. One distinguished American critic, Alfred Kazin, reported in 1997 in God and the American Writer that he once heard another distinguished literary critic, the conservative Southerner Cleanth Brooks, “charge that ‘Emerson led to Hitler.’”[9] The charge is of course excessive. Yet, in his own perverse way, Hitler was a product of the same German Idealist philosophy that found its way to Emerson by way of Coleridge, Carlyle, and French philosopher Victor Cousin. Reading Fichte, philosopher of the “Divine-Me,” Hitler marked passages in which Fichte claimed that “God and I are One….My work is his work, and his work my work,” among other identifications of himself “with God.” In perusing Fichte, the Führer found evidence to support his own growing belief that the “mortal and divine were one and the same: that the God he was seeking was in fact himself.”[10]

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

Appropriately enough, Hitler’s eight-volume set of Fichte was given to him by Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who also gave the world in 1934 the greatest of all propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, whose opening shot features a plane bearing Hitler descending from the clouds: deus ex machina, the Führer as God. At the Eagle’s Nest precisely a century after the 1841 publication of “Self-Reliance,” a metaphysical Hitler informed his mesmerized guests: “If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but consciousness and awareness,” adding, in the sentence adopted as my third epigraph, “If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.”[11]

This emphasis on divinely inspired intuitive “insights” sounds remarkably like the Emerson of much of “Self-Reliance”: the champion of “Intuition” who privileged “self-trust” and the “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded,” and who insisted on “the source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin” (E&L 268-69). To this Emerson, as we have seen, “no law can be sacred” but that of his own nature. He lives “wholly from within,” and, while his “impulses” seem to him to come not “from below,” but “from above,” even if “I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil” (E&L 261-62). Given his equation of the individual with infinitude, the self with the God within, Emerson, who has been blamed for so much by so many critics of unrestrained individualism, might even be blamed for the messianic psychopath whose will to power transformed the most culturally and philosophically sophisticated nation on earth into the most barbaric and, together with an all-too-willing new Germany, produced worldwide carnage and a genocide so ferocious that it shattered our naïvely optimistic theories of progress and disfigured the image of humanity itself. But unlike Emerson, Hitler genuinely was “the Devil’s child”: “the devil’s miracle man,” in the memorable depiction by psychologist and Holocaust historian Walter Reich.[12] The supposedly “God-given insights” of Adolf Hitler were really the dark side of the Protestant belief in the Inner Light, of Fichte’s “Divine-Me,” and a particularly rancid example of the High Romanticism of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Emerson gone sour.

Pace Cleanth Brooks, Emerson is not responsible for the rise of Hitler. Nevertheless, that the concepts of divinity within and of self-reliant individualism are not only liberating, but also potentially anarchic or tyrannical or both, was conceded by some of the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists themselves, usually in their later, “conservative” years. For all their emphasis on the individual mind and heart, and their celebration of “genius” and the godlike creative Imagination, Coleridge and Wordsworth—like their mentor Milton and unlike the advocates of a rugged individualism or will to power that is mindlessly or brutally self-assertive—retained a belief in autonomy, freedom, and idealism without forgetting that the needs of a humane society, knit by ties of reciprocal obligation, were incompatible with selfish (merely private and therefore petty) individualism. Despite his obsession with society’s threat to the self, the same is true of Emerson.

Hitler contemplates Nietzsche Hitler and bust of Nietzsche (via Axis History Forum)(Photo credit)



On the other hand, making the author of “Self-Reliance” socially responsible runs the risk of de-radicalizing or “taming” Emerson, whose fierce celebration of self-reliance and the God within at once fascinates and troubles even that most devout of Emersonians, Harold Bloom. “In forming the mind of America,” Bloom writes, Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” That last image is a silent but appropriate allusion to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), a poem endorsing (in contrast to externally driven women like Maud Gonne, who “eat a crazy salad with their meat”) the “radical innocence” of the autonomous soul that discovers that it is “self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” This concern about the Pentecostal and political ramifications of Emerson’s alignment of the autonomous self with the divine will occurs in Bloom’s 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?[13] The following year, another major literary critic, Denis Donoghue, agreeing with this momentary reservation but, unlike Bloom, hostile to Emerson, set himself against all benign interpretations of self-reliance. Rejecting the depictions by stalwart Emersonians of their hero’s individualism as a “social value,” even “the flowering of democracy” (a thesis nuanced in Stanley Cavell, strenuous in George Kateb), Donoghue, going too far in the other direction, presents us with an “arch-radical” with “no interest in providing professors of politics with a theory of society.” Emerson was “really an anarchist; necessarily so, since he cultivated the thrill of glorifying his own mind and refused to let any other consideration thwart him.”[14]

Two decades earlier, Bloom had registered his negative response to the often-castigated passage early in “Self-Reliance” where Emerson denies his “obligation” to those “poor” with whom he has no “spiritual affinity,” even though he confesses “with shame” that “I sometimes succumb” to the call of “miscellaneous popular charities” (E&L 262-63). In response, Bloom acknowledged that “self-reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness,” a remark endorsed with vigor a few years later by John Updike, always hostile to Emerson, who reduced this anti-philanthropic passage to a simple doctrine of “righteous selfishness.” Subjecting the same provocative passage of “Self-Reliance” to a brilliant textual and contextual reading, Stanley Cavell insists that the biblical sources on which Emerson is playing reveal him as clearly distinguishable from “those who may be taken as parodies of him.”[15]

Perhaps. But there is no denying that Emerson disliked “stirring in the philanthropic mud,” even when—as in his open letter to President Van Buren protesting (in vain) the carrying out of the brutal and unconstitutional Jacksonian policy of uprooting the Cherokees from their ancestral lands—he believed in the cause. What he resented was being pressured into acting. As an exponent of self-reliance, he was determined to do only what “concerns my majesty & not what men great or small think of it….I write my journal, I read my lectures with joy—but this stirring in the philanthropic mud, gives me no peace.” And, in concluding on the quietist note that “I will let the republic alone until the republic comes to me,” he endorses the “wise passiveness” of Wordsworth, who condemned (in “Expostulation and Reply”) the overbusy conviction that “nothing of itself will come,/ But we must still be seeking.” He had also alluded to these lines in 1837, declaring, in the peroration of “The American Scholar,” that if “the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him” (E&L 70), and again, three years later, and explicitly, when he told the abolitionists in his audience that he would persist in wearing his loose and unbecoming “robe…of inaction, this wise passiveness, until my hour comes when I can see how to act with truth as well as to refuse.”[16] That hour would come, the republic would seem to Emerson to have “come” to him, when the question of slavery, and the danger of its extension, epitomized in the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, moved Emerson to eloquence on behalf of a republic threatened by what he slowly but surely perceived to be a moral abomination.

The hour had not quite “come” in writing the letter to President Van Buren, when Emerson had accepted the activist role “rather from my friends” than from his own dictate. “It is not my impulse to say it & therefore my genius deserts me, no muse befriends, no music of thought or word accompanies. Bah!” (JMN 5:479). The violence of his language reveals his sense that no matter the justice of the cause, he had, by submitting to collectively imposed pressure from his neighbors, betrayed his own intuitive “impulse,” his nonconformist creed of self-reliance.[17]

Readers of Emerson are aware of the often-chilly dismissals of human ties sometimes required by the dominant aspect of the doctrine of “self-reliance.” Consider an often-overlooked element in the famous or notorious epiphany in the opening chapter of Nature, where Emerson becomes a “transparent eyeball”:

Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign or accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance. (E&L 10)

In this ocular epiphany, the self becomes part of God, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things” (Wordsworth,“Tintern Abbey”). But we are so caught up in the visionary moment that we barely notice the dismissal of “friends” and “brothers”—even Emerson’s beloved brother Charles, the “dear friend” whose recent death is alluded to in this chapter’s final words (E&L 11). “Who can ever supply his place to me?” Emerson writes in a heartbroken journal entry. “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now, in a kind of compensation, Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eyeball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, the great and disturbing essay “Experience,” written in the aftermath of the death of little Waldo, Emerson’s son taken by scarlet fever when he was not yet six, proclaims the allegedly superficial nature of grief and love. In the most troubling single passage in all of Emerson, he says of “this calamity: it does not touch me. Something which I fancied was part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me…falls off from me, leaving no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473).

Devastated by the death of his boy, Emerson is struggling to compensate for his loss by adapting Wordsworth’s idealist praise of those “obstinate questionings/ Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings,” in Emerson’s favorite stanza of “Intimations of Immortality.” Yet, even if we detect this verbal and thematic connection to the great Ode, we cannot but be shocked by the apparently heartless use of the coldly scientific term, “caducous,” typically applied to a placenta or shed leaves from a tree, or other fallings-off that leave the quintessential life unchanged.[18] Later in “Experience,” we are told that

The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love….There will be the same gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture….The soul is not twice-born, but the only begotten,…admitting no co-life….We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. (E&L 487-88)

xWaldo_Emerson 480pxWaldo Emerson, four months before his death in January, 1842. (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

To return to the essay “Self-Reliance”: immediately preceding his denial of any “foolish” obligation to miscellaneous popular charities, Emerson rejects “the doctrine of love” when it “pules and whines,” famously declaring: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim” (E&L 262). Having, like Jesus (Matthew 12:34-48), played this audacious variation on Deuteronomy 6:9 and Exodus 12:23, Emerson immediately adds, “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.” This afterthought is a minor example of a dominant pattern in Emerson, who characteristically supplies the reservations or qualifications to his own liberating, challenging, but overstated case in “Self-Reliance.” Though implicit throughout, it is only at the very end of “Self-Reliance” that Emerson most clearly qualifies, delimits, and moralizes his claim for the liberated self. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he writes, adding at once and finally: “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (E&L 282; italics added).

In the second half of the essay Emerson had spoken of “our docility to our own law” and the “poverty” of all else, even “nature,” in comparison to “our native riches.” But this is so only because “God is here within.” Emerson rejects “the rage of travelling” (E&L 278). Man’s “genius” is admonished “to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean” (the source of the title, The Inner Ocean, of George Kateb’s first book on Emersonian “self-reliance”). Consequently, “let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause,” alone, “begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary. So let us always sit” (E&L 272-73). As that loyal Emersonian Robert Frost would later put it in a 1936 couplet included in his collection, A Witness Tree (1942): “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”[19] In fact, to fully illuminate this passage of “Self-Reliance” requires us to enter a veritable echo chamber.

Transparent eyeball by CranchCaricature of The Transparent Eyeball by Christopher Pearse Cranch (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)



Emerson concludes that “all concentrates,” since the “vital resources” of everything in nature, including human nature, are “demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (E&L 272). As in his description, earlier in “Self-Reliance,” of honor as “self-dependent, self-derived” (E&L 266), Emerson’s language echoes that of Milton’s Satan, describing himself and his fellow fallen angels as “self-begot, self-raised/ By our own quick’ning power…./Our puissance is our own” (Paradise Lost V:860-64). But the purport (Emerson as “the Devil’s child” notwithstanding) is less blasphemous than an affirmation of what Yeats, as we have just seen, referred to as the self-reliant soul’s recovery of “radical innocence”: the realization “that it is self-delighting, / Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” The analogy with Yeatsian “radical innocence” is not forced since Yeats is echoing, not Satan, but the Emerson of “Self-Reliance,” who tells us early in that essay that to remain always “formidable” we must “avoid” external “pledges,” and adopt an “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence” (E&L 261).

The “ultimate fact” in every instance, Emerson continues in the passage we began with, is “the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE,” since “Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause” (E&L 272). The language of the ONE is that of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, as mediated by Coleridge, but Emerson—fusing psychology and morality with Neoplatonist mystical theology—locates divinity in the tabernacle of the self. It is, however, what he will later call—in “Uses of Great Men” and his late essay “Character”—an “enlarged self.” But even in “Self-Reliance,” his phrases (the “triumph of principles” and “ultimate fact”) echo Coleridge’s insistence, in The Statesman’s Manual, that only the “enlargement and elevation of the soul above its mere self attest the presence, and accompany the intuition of, ultimate PRINCIPLES.”[20] In “Character” (1866), referring in detail to these “great enlargements,” Emerson defines “morals” as “the direction of the will on universal ends,” adding: “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings.” Having linked the correspondence sought by the Roman Stoic between the universe and his own moral impulses with the modern ethicist’s “Categorical Imperative,” Emerson quickly buttresses Marcus Aurelius and Kant with the Wordsworth of the Intimations Ode, quoting, as he so often does, the lines about “truths that wake/ To perish never,” the “fountain light of all our day,” and “master light of all our seeing,” which lead, in moral men, “to great enlargements” (W 10:94-97). In “Uses of Great Men,” the Introduction to Representative Men, Emerson says that “these enlargements” liberate “elastic” man from his “bounds” so that he is “exalted” by “ideas” transcending his individual self (E&L 622-23).

But this transcendence of the private self, though an aspect of the argument in “Self-Reliance,” is hardly the primary thrust most of us register while reading the essay, or in the immediate aftermath of our initial bewitchment by Emerson’s rhapsodic celebration of the “spontaneous,” “intuitive” self as the very font of “originality” and “power.” In the opening paragraph of the essay, we are urged

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. (E&L 259)

The dramatic imperative to “believe your own thought,” your own “private heart,” can make us miss the reciprocity between “inmost” and “outmost,” our “first thought” and the “Last Judgment,” the individual and the “universal.”

It’s no wonder most readers miss these qualifications and caveats. David Hume roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” and Emerson wants to shake and shock us out of our conformist complacency. So powerful is his advocacy of self-reliance that Stephen Whicher, whose Freedom and Fate was for several decades the most praised study of Emerson’s “inner life,” influentially insisted that “the lesson” Emerson “would drive home is man’s entire independence. The aim of this strain in his thought is not virtue, but freedom and mastery. It is radically anarchic, overflowing all the authority of the past, all compromise or cooperation with others, in the name of the Power present and agent in the soul.”[21] It would be hard to improve on so brilliantly concise a summation of so crucial an aspect of Emerson’s position. Though not the only “strain” in Emerson’s thought, it is exhilarating, and can be—as Denis Donoghue and others have emphasized—anti-democratic and dangerous.

Cavell, Lawrence Buell, and George Kateb would disagree, but hostile critics—most (not all) coming from the political Left, and most of them focusing on “Emersonianism,” as opposed to the personally benign Sage of Concord—have seized on the ambiguous legacy of Emersonian individualism in order to stress immoral rather than moral “enlargements”: the hazards of a detached, egoistic, antisocial, unlimited, avaricious, anarchic, even solipsistic self, valorized and privileged at the expense of solidarity, association, community. Morse Peckham, writing a decade after Whicher, spoke for many in saying of Emerson, he “created a doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ which could be and was absorbed by the anarchic individualism of the socially irresponsible middle-class Philistine.”[22]

One might respond that, just as Nietzsche should not be blamed for the crimes of Nazism, the excesses of unfettered capitalism or of Ayn Randian selfishness should not be laid at the door of Emerson. But the provocative ideas and stylistic seductiveness of both of these great liberators, in particular their exaltation of a seemingly autonomous self, opened casements on some perilous seas. Nevertheless, for those who would, under the aegis of self-reliance, confuse the Miltonic distinction between “license” and “liberty,”[23] Emerson has an austere response, even in “Self-Reliance.” The “populace” may think that the “rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism,” a wholesale dismissal of moral law. That is not so. A commitment to self-reliance “enables me to dispense with the popular code.” But “if anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment [for even] one day.” For self-reliance has its own “stern claim” and self-legislated challenge:

truly it demands something godlike in him, who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself as a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (E&L 274)

The preacher of self-reliance as “law, to himself,” has his own Categorical Imperative; and, as in Milton, he “who loves liberty, must first be wise and good.”



I have already elaborated on the third of my epigraphs, citing Adolf Hitler. As indicated by that epigraph and the first, from Emerson himself, Emersonian Self-Reliance is less a doctrine than—as Nietzsche would put it—potential “dynamite.” It can also be (at least hypothetically and theoretically) diabolical—“if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil”[24]—unless it is tempered by other considerations. Here, the formative influences, crucial to Emerson, are those of John Milton and his principal Romantic disciple, Coleridge.

Like Hitler, Milton’s Satan bases his “divinity” on a corrupted sense of what Milton himself meant in his prose texts, as well as in the masque Comus and Paradise Lost, by “freedom.” As my friend and former colleague, Milton scholar William Shaw, observed in responding to the present essay, this “warped” sense of freedom is impervious “to the freedom of others, and not only self-serving but without a moral foundation.” It inevitably leads to “tyranny, and the more powerful the person, the more terrible the tyranny.” In Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Bill notes, the “tyrant” is defined as “he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction.”[25]

As my middle epigraph reveals, Coleridge strove to affirm the primacy of “that which we find within ourselves,” without losing sight of our moral and communal responsibilities and without surrendering to the willfulness of what Coleridge, specifically citing Milton’s fallen archangel, called “Satanic pride,” “wicked” enthusiasm, and self-worshiping rebellion. In its “reprobate” form, he writes in a much-discussed Appendix, “the WILL becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relation of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others,” the consequence of the will’s “fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.”[26]

Like Coleridge and Wordsworth (indeed, all the British Romantics), Emerson was steeped in Miltonic thought and poetry. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, immediately “fancy that they feel/ Divinity within them breeding wings/ Wherewith to scorn the earth”; but the “false fruit” inflames instead lascivious “carnal desire” (IX:1009-14). Familiar with Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom of heaven is “within you,” the Romantics and their American disciple were also well aware that, in the final book of Milton’s epic poem, the Archangel Michael promises fallen Adam, as abundant recompense for the Eden lost, a “Paradise within thee, happier far” (XII:587). Having experienced a bogus sense of “divinity within,” Adam and Eve achieve (to again cite Bill Shaw) “their ‘paradise within’ when they have learned obedience to God,” along with “such virtues as…temperance and charity. And the Lady in Comus is unassailable because of her subscription to ‘sober laws.’ She loves ‘virtue’ because she alone is free.”

But the Romantics, who venerated Milton, also revised him. To one degree or another, they naturalized the supernatural, secularized the sacred, and, as Wordsworth made dramatically manifest in the great “Prospectus” to The Recluse, psychologized Miltonic theology. For nothing in Heaven or Hell, neither “Jehovah—with his thunder,” nor the “darkest pit of lowest Erebus,”

can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
(“Prospectus,” 35-41)

Emerson printed the whole of the “Prospectus” in his anthology Parnassus, renaming it “Outline” to accurately present it as Wordsworth’s guide to his entire canon: a Kant-echoing synopsis (to quote the conclusion of The Prelude) of “how the mind of man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells, above this frame of things/…In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine.”[27] Emerson followed the Romantics in this internalizing process, emphasizing, above all, the sanctity of the sovereign human mind. In the final and climactic sentence of his seminal book, Nature—his imagery of light, blindness, and perfect sight silently but unmistakably gathering up Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth—Emerson had proclaimed “the kingdom of man over nature” (E&L 49). Four years later, in “Self-Reliance,” he insists that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” continuing by posing that characteristically audacious rhetorical question: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions if I live wholly from within?” (E&L 261-62)

In such passages, Emerson is the rhapsodic champion of autonomy and originality, exalting an intuitive “divinity within” and liberation from the dead weight of the past. Repudiating outworn institutions and established authority, he insists, in notably virile (and, as we’ll see, again Miltonic) imagery, that to be a “man” one “must be a non-conformist,” since “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (E&L 261). Once again, faced with this antithesis between society and self, we need to seek the balance Emerson wants us to find, however difficult he makes the task by the power of his own rhetoric.

Paradise Lost 1667 title page



Resistance to conformity and to the burden of tradition also extends to self-reliance and self-trust in engaging literary and historical texts, though, here again, we encounter a huge caveat. We are to read “creatively,” Emerson tells us in “Self-Reliance” and in “The American Scholar,” adding in a third, “History” (which opens Essays: First Series), that the student is to read “actively and not passively; to esteem his own life in the text,” for everything is “within us, of the soul.” This, he asserts, is his “claim of claims” (E&L, 237, 239). If this claim, exciting as it is, seems excessive, it’s because it is. Anticipating all of these essays, Emerson had foreshadowed in an 1831 journal entry his defiant assertion of autonomy and originality. The journal entry reads: “Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence. Let him scorn to imitate any man, let him scorn to be a secondary man” (JMN 3:199). And following this scornful rejection of parasitic imitation in favor of creative originality, he inscribed in the same journal these four lines of verse:

In your own bosom are your destiny’s Stars.
Confidence in yourself, prompt resolution;
This is your Venus! & the sole malignant,
The only one that harmeth you, is Doubt! (JMN 3: 251)

But despite adamant and absolute “confidence in yourself,” this ringing endorsement of self-reliant originality is borrowed. The lines are quoted from a German play by Friedrich von Schiller, which Emerson referred to as “Coleridge’s Wallenstein” since he read Schiller’s drama in the British Romantic’s translation—just one of many examples of Coleridge serving as a transatlantic conduit of German thought to his less-than-totally self-reliant American recipient. “Insist on yourself,” cries Emerson; “never imitate,” which is, at best, to half-possess “the adopted talent of another.” And this imperative was foreshadowed in the dramatic declaration at the outset of “Self-Reliance” that “imitation is suicide,” that a man “must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion” (E&L 278-79, 259). Nevertheless, other examples of what has been called the “paradox of originality” occur in “Self-Reliance” itself. Though it rejects “imitation” and mere reading (“tuition”) in favor of spontaneous “intuition,” “Self-Reliance” begins, “I read the other day some verses….” (E&L 259). And halfway through, Emerson begins a paragraph: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am’ but quotes some saint or sage” (E&L 270). But once again, despite the point he is making, Emerson himself is quoting, this time from René Descartes’ Second Meditation. “The truth,” as Emerson acknowledged in an 1835 lecture, “The Age of Fable,” is that “There never was an original writer. Each is a link in an endless chain.” Indeed, our debt to our precursors is “so massive” that one might say (as he does in a splendid late lecture, “Quotation and Originality”) “there is no pure originality. All minds quote.” “Genius borrows nobly”; if we could trace the line back to them, we would, he adds, find that “even the archangels” quote.[28] This paradox is never more paradoxical than in Nature. That seminal book, which announces American and Emersonian originality, is riddled with unacknowledged borrowings from Coleridge and Wordsworth, and yet somehow remains original.

Claiming originality yet quoting, mixing what he contrasts as book-learning or “tuition” with original “intuition,” Emerson is not dismantling the whole “upright” and individualistic thesis of “Self-Reliance,” a text that is nothing if not a rejection of suppliant dependence and an expression of what he repeatedly calls the “sovereignty” or “majesty” of “the erect position” (E&L 282)—though, even here, Emerson is echoing Milton’s description of unfallen Adam and Eve, “erect and tall,/ Godlike erect,” and “clad/ In naked majesty.”[29] And yet, since a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson can, in a famous passage at the outset of “Self-Reliance,” propose as the “highest merit” ascribable to “Moses, Plato, and Milton” that they supposedly “set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they [themselves] thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (E&L 259). These inner flashes anticipate the “Spontaneity or Instinct,” the “primary wisdom” Emerson calls “Intuition” (E&L 269, cf. 259 and 271). These gleams of light constitute, Emerson insisted in a contemporaneous (1845) journal entry, “the best part…of every mind.” Tantalizing “gleams” hovering “unpossessed before” a man, they far exceed in significance “that which he knows” through pedestrian Understanding. Emerson’s famous contrast, derived from Coleridge, between “Reason” and mere “Understanding” is complicated by the fact (a source of confusion for readers) that Emerson also follows Coleridge in equating capitalized Reason with “intuitive Reason” and thus with what the Romantics mean by the creative Imagination.

Those mysterious “gleams” to which Emerson refers emanate essentially, as we have seen, from his most cherished poem, the Intimations Ode. He was haunted by its “visionary gleam” and turned Wordsworth’s “a master light of all our seeing” into “the master light of all our seeing.” These profound intuitions and intimations, which even Wordsworth acknowledged were ineffable (“be they what they may”), remained, in Emerson’s favorite phrase from the Ode, “the fountain light of all our day.” That repeated “our,” replicated in Wordsworth’s shift from “I” to “we” in the final stanza of the Ode, marks the transition from the private self to a more generous inclusiveness. The “self within” of Emersonian self-reliance is also more expansive than it initially appears—an expansiveness reflecting a pair of talismanic texts provided to a grateful Emerson by Wordsworth’s friend and fellow-laborer, Coleridge.

I have earlier cited Coleridge’s emphasis, in The Statesman’s Manual, on the “enlargements and elevation” of the principled soul “above its mere self,” a passage echoed by Emerson in both his essay “Character” and in “Uses of Great Men.” Two Coleridge texts that meant even more to Emerson, the “Essay on Method” in The Friend and Aids to Reflection, provided crucial help in forming—as a sort of supplement or qualification, even partial corrective, to “Self-Reliance”—his idea of an expanded or enlarged self. The reciprocity between “each and all” (“the relation of each to the other, of each to all, and of all to each”), coupled with the Latin axiom Quantum sumus, scimus (“we are what we know, and know what we are”), became, with the help of Coleridge’s own gloss in Aids to Reflection, momentous sources for Emerson’s finding (to synopsize the passage of Coleridge cited as my second epigraph) “within ourselves,” a self that is paradoxically “more than ourselves,” the ground and substance of the moral life and of “all other knowledge.”[30] This Coleridgean sanction for an inner self that transcends the merely egoistic helps explain what, at its deepest level, Emerson meant by “self-reliance.” However straightforward it may seem at times, it is actually a complex concept—mixing Milton, Kant, and the British Romantics, in a blend that turns out, paradoxically but as usual, to be distinctively “Emersonian.” As such, it cannot, or at least should not, be reduced to “rugged individualism,” let alone to mere selfishness.

Transparent Eyeball by Ron KosterTransparent Eyeball courtesy Ron Koster, Psymon Web Bindery



Given Emerson’s habit of emphasizing, depending on the occasion, a single aspect of a larger truth, his formulations are often ambiguous, and this is nowhere more true than in his various presentations of self-reliance. In the end, however, Emerson’s key concept seems to embrace and illuminate—however fierce the affirmation of individualism and independence in the essay actually titled “Self-Reliance”—the problematic relationship between the merely private self and what a Coleridgean Emerson called the “enlarged” Self, between the Self and God, even the polarity between what he referred to as Solitude and Society. An “intensely focused thinker who kept returning lifelong to his core idea,” Emerson was, notes Lawrence Buell, “forever reopening and reformulating it, looping away and back again, convinced that the spirit of the idea dictated that no final statement was possible.” Nevertheless, like George Kateb, perhaps the most penetrating analyst of the theory of Self-Reliance, Buell insists on the importance to Emerson of what Kateb calls “impersonal individuality”: a formulation that subsumes the apparent or actual “contradiction” between the God within and what Emerson calls “the “Over-Soul,” between the assertion of an autonomous, intuitive self and the absorption of that self in an all-encompassing universal and impersonal life-force. I cannot improve upon Buell’s final formulation:

The Me at the bottom of the me, the “Trustee” or “aboriginal Self” on which reliance may be safely grounded, is despite whatever appearances to the contrary not a merely personal interest but a universal. The more inward you go, the less individuated you get. Beneath and within the “private” is a “public” power on which anyone can potentially draw. So Self-Reliance involves not a single but a double negative: resistance to external pressure, but then resistance to shallow impulse.[31]

That a double negative should be at the crux of an affirmative vision is only one of many paradoxes attending Emerson’s central idea. One is occasionally left wondering if Emersonian self-reliance is advocacy of extreme individualism, or individualism at all. If we are to take Emerson at face value when he later claims (W 11:236) that “Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God,” it has to be added that few of the ardent young readers intoxicated by the essay of that title have taken it as a theological treatise.[32] And what, precisely, is Emerson telling us about the relationship between Spirit, Nature, Mind and, ultimately, between God and Man, Divinity and the Self? Such protean relationships, volatile in themselves, are further problematized by Emerson’s often shifting definitions, within a single text or over time. The paragraph of “Self-Reliance” that begins by insisting that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” continues:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.—“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. (E&L 265)

In the case of Emerson, this admission or, rather, vaunting of inconsistency, contradiction, and sibylline incomprehensibility, may seem to be the “last fact behind which analysis cannot go” (E&L 269). Yet even in “Self-Reliance,” the aboriginal Self is neither anarchic nor arbitrary; indeed, it is disciplined by “stern” if self-imposed laws, a Self whose internal moral depths renders trivial the merely private good we associate with our superficial selves. “Compare all that we call ourselves,” says Emerson in “Character,” all “our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinence, and we take part with hasty shame against ourselves.” Juxtaposing two phrases separated graphically by only a single letter, Emerson explicitly contrasts our deep “moral nature” with what Wordsworth refers to in the pivotal stanza of the Intimations Ode as “our mortal nature,” whose hasty shame takes the form of guilty trembling. After evoking those Wordsworthian “High instincts, before which our mortal nature/ Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,” Emerson goes on to quote the rest of this crucial ninth stanza—accurately, with the exception of one significant change; he alters Wordsworth’s “a master light” to “the master light of all our seeing.” (W 10:94).

That is the light that Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson, call “intuitive Reason”: the near-angelic power that leads the lowercase self, limited by “tuition” and mere Understanding, to “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition”; and it is in that “deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,” that “all things find their common origin….Here is the fountain of action and of thought” (E&L 269). And it is this “fountain light of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing,” that guides and distinguishes the higher (individual and yet universal) Self: the Transcendental Self in which we can “trust,” and upon which “reliance may be safely grounded.” The lower self, “bound” and constricted, is often mired in “mean egotism” (E&L 10). But “whenever the great day dawns, the day of truth in the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora” (EPP 497). In that aurora—the great Ode’s “fountain light of all our day” illuminating intuitive “truths that wake,/ To perish never”—contradiction and duality blend (for those, however skeptical, still open to that light) into a Unity in which Reason and Intuition are indistinguishable, the enlarged Self finding “peace” in (to again quote the final words of “Self-Reliance”) “the triumph of principles.”

—Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane smaller


Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).


Photo credit  Return to photo

Photo originally reproduced in “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism’” by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April ­2008.

Emerson texts cited parenthetically

E&L   Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. NY: Library of America, 1983.

EL   The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, 1972.

EPP   Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. NY and London: Norton, 2001.

JMN   The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1960-1982.

W   The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §2, in Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), 99.

  2. E&L 81; italics added. For the passage (verse 70) in Thomas, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 32.

  3. E&L 80, 89. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from Harvard following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint yourself at first hand with Deity.”

  4. For a synopsis of the vehement response to the Divinity School Address, as well as Emerson’s own response, in his poem “Uriel,” see my Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 339-44.

  5. For both lampoon and commentary, see Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols. 1:160. Vol 7 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Bart Winer, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969-2003).

  6. Lowell, A Fable for Critics (New York: George P. Putnam, 1848).

  7. EPP 497. This polarity was later fleshed out in “Circles,” in the famed paragraph beginning, “Our moods do not believe in each other,” and ending, “Alas…for this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall” (E&L 406): a vacillation between self-deification and utter nihilism.

  8. Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 326. This opening paragraph had begun, “I know my fate. My name one day will be associated with the memory of something tremendous.” Expressing a “terrible fear” that “one day” he would be “pronounced holy,” he said he was writing Ecce Homo to “prevent people from doing mischief with me.” Written in 1888, but not published until 1908, eight years after Nietzsche’s death, Ecce Homo did little to prevent mischief.

  9. Kazin, God and the American Writer (New York: Vintage, 1997), 14.

  10. This is the conclusion of Timothy W. Ryback, in “Hitler’s Forgotten Library: The Man, His Books, and His Search for God” (Atlantic Monthly [May 2003], 76-90). In 2001, Ryback studied Hitler’s annotations in these and other religio-philosophical books and manuscripts in the Führer’s personal library, volumes now housed in the Hitler Collection in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  11. Quoted by Paul R. Hinlicky, Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from Nazism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 134.

  12. Reich, “The Devil’s Miracle Man,” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1999.

  13. Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2004), 200. Earlier, however, in the title of the Prelude to a 1996 book, Bloom equated Emersonian “Self-Reliance” with “Mere [pure] Gnosis,” especially with the Gnostic concept of the “deep self” as a “unit of the universe,” the “original self” being “already one with God.” Omens of Millennium (New York Riverhead, 1996), 1, 15, 20, 23.

  14. The American Classics: A Personal Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 42-43, 51. In a Marxist critique, V. F. Calverton conceded Emerson’s sincerity and his initially liberating impulses. “Eternally,” however, “Emerson’s stress is upon the self, the individual self, the personal ego. Society can take care of itself, or go hang, as the frontiersman would have put it. It is the individual who must be stressed, the individual who must…become sufficient unto himself….Without wishing it, Emerson gave sanction by virtue of his doctrines to every type of exploitation which the frontier encouraged.” But Calverton goes too far in concluding that the faith of Emerson and Whitman in the common man as “a petty bourgeois individual” is outmoded and must now be replaced (he was writing in the depth of the Depression) by “our belief” in the common man as “proletarian collectivist.” The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 247-49, 258, 479-80.Whatever Emerson’s sins, it’s Calverton’s vision of the “future” that now seems outmoded.

  15. Bloom, “Mr. America,” New York Review of Books (November 22, 1984). Updike, “Emersonianism,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1991). Cavell responded to such charges, perhaps more ingeniously than persuasively, in his 1984 lecture “Hope against Hope,” reprinted as Appendix A of his Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 134-35.

  16. EL 3:266. His initial reticence but final commitment to the abolition of slavery has been clarified by Emerson’s Antislavery Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson; and by The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform, ed. David. M. Robinson (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

  17. Robert Lowell, invited to a White House reception during the Vietnam war (which he opposed), was planning to attend—until urged not to by friends and colleagues, who wanted the nation’s most prominent poet at the time to make a statement by rejecting President Johnson’s invitation. Like Emerson, Lowell agreed with the opposition to presidential policy, but took an activist and public position only because pressed to do so by friends.

  18. The “caducous” passage is repugnant enough to call for a note to assure readers that its author was anything but a cold, unfeeling parent. No stranger to familial tragedy, Emerson had earlier suffered the loss of his beloved Ellen, his first wife, and of two cherished brothers, Charles and Edward. But the death of little Waldo was the single most devastating event of his life. Despite his famous optimism, the self-reliant exponent of “the erect position” acknowledged in “Threnody,” his long-delayed elegy for his son, that “this losing is true dying;/ This is lordly man’s down-lying,/ This his slow but sure reclining,/ Star by star his world resigning” (lines 162-65). With the help of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality Ode, Emerson managed to supply the generically-required consolation; in the final quintessentially Emersonian line, his precious son is pronounced “Lost in God, in Godhead found” (line 289).

    But elegy is one thing, agony another. Nine-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who had been sent by her father to inquire about the condition of “little Waldo, then lying very ill,” never forgot what she saw and heard when Emerson entered the room. “His father came to me, so worn with watching and changed by sorrow that I was startled and could only stammer out my message. ‘Child, he is dead’ was the answer.” That was “my first glimpse of a great grief,” she recalled in commemorating Emerson’s own death forty years later, adding that “the anguish that made a familiar face so tragic…gave those few words more pathos than the sweet lamentation of the Threnody.” (“Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Youth’s Companion [May 25, 1882], 213-14.) Similarly, the brother of Elizabeth Hoar—who had grieved with his sister when her fiancé, Emerson’s brother Charles, died in 1836—said that he was “never more impressed with a human expression of agony than by that of Emerson leading the way into the room where little Waldo lay dead.” For the reaction of Rockwood Hoar, Jr., see Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 294.

  19. Frost, “The Secret Sits.” The allegiance to Emerson on the part of Robert Frost was confirmed in his lecture “On Emerson,” delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1958. On that occasion, Frost stressed his alignment with Emerson’s monistic idealism; but in anti-welfare system poems like “Provide, Provide!,” Frost sounds like the Emerson resistant to giving to “miscellaneous charities.” Frost considered “Uriel” (Emerson’s defiant response to attacks on his Divinity School Address) the best American poem; Job, a character in Frost’s The Masque of Reason (line 344) refers to “Uriel” as “the greatest Western poem yet.”

  20. Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (1972), 23. Vol. 6 in CC.

  21. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 56.

  22. Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 236.

  23. In the sestet to Sonnet XII, Milton refers to those who “bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,/ And still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty;/ For who loves that must first be wise and good.”

  24. Nietzsche partially transcribed the passage in “Self-Reliance” in which Emerson nonchalantly says that if he is “the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” An echoing Nietzsche has his prophet say (in “On the Pitying,” the section on repression in the second part of Zarathustra): “to him who is possessed by the devil I whisper this word: ‘Better for you to rear up your devil!’” Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 201.

  25. William Shaw, email to me dated June 1, 2016. Bill raised a crucial double-question: “Is Emerson saying that what made intuitive behavior wise was some fixed principle of the person defining it for him/herself? Or, does the person define that principle as well, so there is this floating relativity?” Though I am arguing that the “principles” that “triumph” in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance” are “fixed,” there is evidence enough in Emerson’s texts to also support a “floating relativity” thesis.

  26. Coleridge, Appendix C of The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, 63.

  27. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XIV:450-56. The equivalent cognitive turn in Keats occurs in the first of the great odes. Like the “Prospectus,” the “Ode to Psyche” assimilates and supersedes Milton and adopts Wordsworth’s (Coleridge-influenced) adaptation of Kant. As the neglected goddess’s priest and choir all in one, “see[ing] and sing[ing] by my own eyes inspired,” Keats will, in the extraordinary final stanza, “build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind” (lines 50-51), precisely that “Mind of Man” chosen by Wordsworth as his haunt and the “main region” of his “song.”

  28. “The Age of Fable,” in EL 1:284-85. “Quotation and Originality,” in EPP 320, 323.

  29. PL IV:288-90. In his deliberately sordid 1920 poem “Sweeney Erect,” whose title constitutes a phallic pun on Emerson’s (Miltonic) “erect position,” T. S. Eliot cites Emerson by name:

    The lengthened shadow of a man
    xxxxxxxIs history, said Emerson
    Who had not seen the silhouette
    xxxxxxxOf Sweeney straddled in the sun.

    In these lines, Eliot alludes to another formulation from “Self-Reliance” (“an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”), which he fuses with a related phrase from Emerson’s “History”: “If the whole of history is one man, it is all to be explained from private experience.”

  30. The Friend (vol. 4 of the CC, 1969), ed. Barbara Rooke, 2 vols. I:511; Aids to Reflection (vol. 9 of CC, 1993), ed. John Beer, 30n. This book’s immense impact on Coleridge’s American disciples, Emerson included,was partly attributable to the cogent “Preliminary Essay” by James March (included by Beer) in introducing his 1829 edition of Coleridge’s 1825 text.

  31. Buell, Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2003), 65. Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 90-91. See also Kateb’s Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

  32. This fusion of self-reliance with “reliance on God”—along with Fichte’s self-identification with God and Emerson’s similar “inner light” sense of divinity within (at least at certain “illuminated” moments)—has, as we’ve seen in the case of Adolf Hitler, tragic ramifications. There are also tragi-comic examples that amount to a reductio ad absurdum of the idea. Displaying humor as well as utter obliviousness to the widespread suffering caused by his industry, Lloyd  C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, publicly quipped, in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis that had just upended millions of “lesser” lives, that bankers are “doing God’s work.” On a less calamitous level, hip-hop artist and pseudo-fashionista Kanye West, whose colossal ego dwarfs that of even the most self-entitled banker, has proclaimed, with not a trace of saving irony, that “God chose me. He made a path for me….I am God’s vessel.” Both men, especially West, have recently been presented, not as agents fulfilling a divine purpose, but as “assholes.” See Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 76n, 85.

Aug 052016



One of the most startling persistencies in human nature is its craving to find other humans with whom to agree. Startling because it is rare that any two persons agree upon anything with any degree of precision. Vague assent is vague for a reason—it doesn’t really understand either the question or the answer.

We are not constructed to agree. The uniqueness that we claim we each possess, the distinctive consciousness we feel to be within ourselves and not within others, is very real in its billions upon billions of subtly human variations. Whether a meal is well-cooked or sadly dry, whether a city street is a triumph of order or a stream of chaos, these are questions that become unanswerable when asked of a human array of tasters and observers. And most of us have experienced being on both sides of the same question. The street we found charming one day becomes a biting snake the next. The person we thought we would love forever becomes a thought that we cannot imagine we ever thought, not really.

I say that the experience of difference is real for each of us, and I feel that is so. But does that give me the right to assert that it is so, for real. If aliens were to observe the full planetary range of terran human behavior and could tabulate the vast sameness of our movements—eating, drinking, fighting, fucking, shitting, sleeping, watching screens—we would all seem as much the same to those aliens as deer in the forest seem to human observers. We are so blindingly alike that it is hard to remember we never think a thought in the same way, at the same rate, with the same visuals and feelings and bodily sensations, as any other person who has ever been or ever will be, not even if they are in the same room with us at this very moment and and know us quite well.

No matter how carefully I try to write what I think, I know that it will be difficult to impress you the reader—if you are out there and I am not writing in a private language in a solipsistic trance that has lasted the entirety of my life—that anything I say will warrant the label reality. Who is he to tell me what that is? In truth, there is no one you would trust with the care of that most definitive designation. You insist that the final decision on that score must be yours, that to give way to anyone else would be to give away your freedom, which you sense you must never do, though the thought is tempting when your particular freedom is to sit on nails.

It seems to basic human wisdom not to entrust our conceptions of reality to editing by others. Of course we do it all the time—cave in, pretend to agree—to avoid ill feelings and the sheer exhaustion of asserting the truth of one’s private visions on agreeable social occasions. Religions require still more effort in this regard, as do corporations that call themselves cultures. But privately we are most of us aware that no one knows any more about reality than we do. For evidence of the lack of evidence of those who insist that they do know more, consider the histories of philosophies and spiritual speculations around the earth. You will find the same in all of them, sects of difference, the impermanence of seeming ultimate truths, all the sweeping certainties spiced hot with our capacity for simultaneously believing opposites with all our hearts. Opposites such as: no one knows what it’s like to be me and anyone who sees it that way is an asshole.

But opposites don’t make us solely oppositional. They also fuel our impossible aspirations such as achieving consensus agreement on what reality is and what we might expect of it and do with it or about it. Aren’t we all just dressed-up primates walking the earth that we have befouled? We all need to breathe, feed, drink, shit, touch, love, live without fear always breathing behind us—we can agree upon that much, surely? No. We do not concur on what is sinful or delightful to eat or who should have access to food and how much food if access is agreed upon. We disagree fundamentally on whether we are all the same we and whether the vast numbers of persons we call them deserve our consideration on food or any other matter including the matter of their lives. The abyss opens as we part company over whether we or they or anyone are physical beings purely or, rather, infused with a spirit that would be demeaned by any belief that limits it to an isolated self rather than a flowing, glowing interdependence of all sentient beings.

But is this language that I am using now capable of comprehending the real answers to the syntactical entrapments that are our questions? And can’t we all just agree anyway?

The dream of us all agreeing at last assumes that there are many of us, each with our independent experience of reality, who can reach meaningful agreement on the basis of our shared abilities to process sensory data through the neuronic structures of our brains. If we can agree that we are witnessing the same happenings, then there just might be a basis for agreeing what to do about it all, even if we have signally failed in that regard throughout human history. But what if it’s all an implanted delusion, with each of us possessing our own special delusional view designed by who knows what force to make our lives hell or merely amusing? What if our brains are fashioned both not to agree and to yearn to agree, and the frictional heat is what is keeps the thinking alive? What if what we call the I falls asleep and the universe spoons with the I and falls asleep too? There would be no one, nothing that no one would ever see except in the variant dreams of the two sleepers.

We have a patchwork reality consensus. Communication drips and distorts in this vale of tears. And most of the time we leave it like that because it feels that we must. We walk past ourselves on the streets and nod or maybe not and have no idea. We can do without love but not without hate and hate is in ample supply. Inside our heads we are constantly disagreeing, each of us hating some part of the life-dream of somebody else, it’s tragic if the person living it sees us hate it. When we see that happening to us we hate the person hating our dream. To avoid constant killings in the streets, which we do not in fact avoid as it happens somewhere(s) in the world every day, we try as societies or states (or whatever we call our desperate survival groupings) to emphasize our points of agreement, though we still have a hard time naming them. In the most democratic human groupings—as measured by the range of points of agreement (race, gender, orientation, religious and political views) they allow for the sake of peace—we consider everyone equal but our own personal selves most important. How can we resist—we know the rich juicy mindset goodies inside ourselves and cherish them for their ability to keep us happy as we navigate a planet we scarcely understand. Who can know what’s inside the others, and what good could it do us if we could know? As for justice, we believe in it but we’re also certain that we ourselves could do without being caught at our favorite misdeeds and downfalls. Life is sacred except when… and everyone has their own except whens, from self-defense to abortion to protection of property to revenge to war especially if the dying is far off.

So our agreements are tenuous and even scrofulous but it would be hard to stay alive without them, to go out on the streets without sensing that we all understood what streets are and how many ways one might go out on them. The urge to agree intensifies and we smile at our neighbors and think they’re not as crazy as they look and by the way consider who’s doing the looking.

As for my daughter Sarah, who is going to be married this summer and has become a powerful woman who so much resembles the powerful toddler she once was that I find myself conversing with her as if we are playing a game on the floor of her childhood bedroom, I had to ask her if she felt or cared that her reality resembled that of others. She will henceforth speak for herself and bring this essay to a close:

I hate the question ‘What Is Reality?’ I have never spent time thinking about it. Everyone comes up with a different answer. So just say what you think and be done with it. I’m not interested in anyone else’s definition of reality. Nobody else is interested in mine, so I’m not going to spend time trying to perfect my own answer. We all experience things differently because everyone is looking through a different lens. Let’s try to be as cooperative as we can be with each other, given those differences.

Consensual reality? I would prefer to be locked outside of it, thank you. That is the main hook of organized religion. I’ve been in enough youth groups to get a sense of the basic conversion—meaning, induced conformity—experience. The group leaders are totally about a feeling of comfort that they’re sure we’ve all had with God. I would look around the room and see nodding heads, but I could tell, I knew, they hadn’t all had that feeling. But if you dare to shake your head no, you ostracize yourself, and if you keep shaking your head no at that oh so obvious God feeling, you continue to ostracize yourself in lots of contexts for the rest of your life. It’s the same with early social pressures on girls to drink, party and have sex with lots of boys. Don’t you want to do this like all the rest of us seem to want to? No.

But nodding my head yes at that comforting God feeling, that could be very useful some day if I get in trouble with the wrong crowd. So I’ll keep that in my back pocket.

—Lawrence Sutin


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. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image.  Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology.  An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016.  For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Aug 032016

1968Milwaukee, 1968. Milwaukee Journal photo.

Dorothy Day images courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.



Reading Dorothy Day makes me want to write radically, according to the Latin definition of the word, meaning from the root. Everything she wrote—novels, articles, letters, diary entries—was rooted deeply in her political, social, and spiritual beliefs. And she lived the way she wrote—freely and richly—eschewing convention, however society happened to define it. As Victorian norms still enshrouded America, she moved alone from Chicago to New York to live and work and find love where she might. Yet during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when a whole generation was challenging traditional marital values, she upheld them firmly. In terms of social justice, her inclinations tended to be years ahead of most of her contemporaries. She fought on the cusp of practically every crucial social movement of the twentieth century—against the war in Vietnam, against the Atom Bomb, on behalf of Civil Rights, labor, and suffrage. She didn’t just live as a Catholic, she lived according to Gospels, stripping herself of her possessions because Christ had commanded it, loving the poor—truly loving them, which was an act of will, because the poor, up close, can be horrifying. As I read through her published works, her type-written notes, and her scribbled manuscripts, I can find nothing that she didn’t do with passion. She lived passionately, again, going to the root of the word, meaning to suffer, and she suffered in living and loving. Dorothy suffered as a lifelong habit, because she believed that to suffer was to understand Christ, and like all mystics, she dreamt of crossing through the mirror and meeting her God face to face. She wrote long rambling letters that journeyed the world and back and always ended with love of God and man alike. “The final word is love,” she copied over and over in her works.

1930sDorothy Day, 1930s.

Before I began this project I was most familiar with the famous Dorothy, the post-conversion Dorothy, the one she wanted us to see, the woman who landed in prison at the age of seventy-five for protesting alongside Cesar Chavez and the California grape workers. I knew less of her earlier commitments to causes and quandaries that have since fallen out of fashion or have, in some sense, been resolved such as socialism, anarchism, free love, New Womanhood. The first time I read The Long Loneliness, her 1952 spiritual memoir, I understood that she had always been radical and had always written with and about passion. When I read her first novel (now out of print) I was shocked at its transgressive nature. Who described the physical effects of abortion in the 1920s? Who even admitted to having one, a fraught subject even today? I resolved to write with honesty, to embrace the uncomfortable, to write as a whole person, both flesh and spirit, but most of all to write passionately, from the root.

Dorothy radically invested herself into every action, whether it was motherhood, journalism, farming, or prayer. Yet she was also a radical in the conventional sense, throughout her life belonging to multiple fringe groups who advocated for extreme social change. After leaving home in 1916 at the age of nineteen, she moved to New York and embarked on an adventurous career in journalism. Her jobs writing for the socialist paper the New York Call and The Masses introduced her to Greenwich Village intellectuals like John Reed, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, Crystal Eastman, Eugene O’Neil, Emma Goldman, Neith Boyce, and Louise Bryant. In their company as well as that of lesser known cohorts, Dorothy experienced Communist sympathizers, the suffrage movement, Margaret Sanger’s birth control campaign, and wrote, protested, and debated about them long into the night. She wrote her first novel in 1924 and began another (never completed) in 1932.

Her family raised her to be nominally Protestant, but they never practiced or attended services. She converted to Catholicism in 1927 while living on Staten Island, shortly after giving birth to her only child, Tamar Batterham. Her conversion irrevocably changed the trajectory of her life, as it enforced a separation from her partner and father of her child, Forster Batterham, an anarchist who hated organized religion. In 1933, she encountered Peter Maurin, a French peasant philosopher with radical notions about returning the worker to the land, opening houses of hospitality in the cities, and spreading these ideas through a newspaper. And thus the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper was born. The first Hospitality House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side fed, clothed, and housed the poor and unemployed who languished in New York during the depths of the Great Depression.

While she herself maintained a pre- and post-conversion narrative of her life, the values of the Catholic Worker were every bit as radical as those of the Greenwich Village set. Through the newspaper, public appearances, rallies, and protests, Dorothy Day and the other CW members advocated pacifism, non-violent resistance, opposition to capitalism, and support for labor. What she wanted was not just better wages and more reasonable working hours, but an upheaval and transformation of existing society, an entire revolution, but one carried out with love, the only weapons being education and mercy.

Although she remained a committed journalist throughout her life, she never wrote another novel after The Dispossessed and focused instead on spiritual memoir, including her most famous work, The Long Loneliness. Despite the shifts in genre, her writing continued to be informed by radicalism and feminism as much as by orthodox Catholicism. She beautifully articulated contemporary social problems through the tropes of Christian mysticism. She continued to concern herself with the place of women within the family structure as well as with the centrality of sex in human interactions. Moving on from her earlier explorations of free love, she employed the language of desire to articulate her search for the divine that embraced both the spiritual and sensual.

1925ca. 1925.

,ca. 193.

Bohemian Romances

While other cities, including Dorothy’s native Chicago, were experiencing a similar renaissance in gender relations, in the nineteen teens, New York was truly the radical heart of American modernity. Greenwich Village, in particular, attracted intellectuals fascinated by the lure of change, whether it was in the arena of politics, labor, or sex. They wrote novels and plays and started newspapers to disseminate their ideas across the country. Some of the leading figures were immigrants from Eastern Europe like Emma Goldman. Others were scions of prominent families who had attended Harvard and Vassar like Crystal Eastman, Hutchins Hapgood, and John Reed. Most of them found inspiration in the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements in Russia and envisioned the day when a similar revolution would sweep America. If people wanted to write, express themselves, and generally experience life at the turn of the century, they dreamed of Greenwich Village.

Dorothy’s arrival in New York coincided with “a world in which modern women were encroaching on the formerly all-male turf of college, office, and street.”[1] Women were visible in ways their mothers had not been, and at least in Greenwich Village, several of their male colleagues welcomed that visibility as part and parcel of a new social order. Sexual equality was integral to the values of the Bohemian set. As Christine Stansell writes in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, “Throughout the left intelligentsia, the emancipated woman stood at the symbolic center of a program for cultural regeneration.”[2] Financial independence, free speech, and political activism were all tenets of early-twentieth century feminism. Many of the women Dorothy met in New York were supporting themselves as journalists, playwrights, editors, novelists, artists, and political advocates. She remembered that “everyone on the city desk was writing a play or a book.”[3] Louise Bryant also worked for The Masses and during the war would move to France to work for the wire services. She would publish several books on Russian politics as well as plays. Ida Rauh, the wife of Dorothy’s editor Max Eastman, was a trained lawyer and active suffragist, as was his sister, Crystal Eastman. After the government shut down The Masses, Crystal Eastman would edit a new paper, The Liberator, for which Dorothy would work. Neith Boyce was another journalist who interacted with Dorothy socially at the Provincetown Players, where they were both involved in amateur dramatics.

Sexual freedom was part and parcel of New Womanhood in the teens. Dorothy’s experience was thus different from that of late Victorian female freethinkers and activists like the settlement house workers and the first female college professors. Husbands and children represented the horrors of domesticity they had longed to escape. Marriage and a career were seen as incompatible.[4] “But with the supposed emergence of a sphere where men and women mingled in all sorts of all sorts of meaningful ways, work no longer obviated the possibility of heterosexual love.”[5] For Dorothy and her contemporaries, true equality meant the right to socialize with male coworkers at the end of the day with the possibility of romance later in the evening. As Dorothy remembered of those years, “No one ever wanted to go to bed, and no one ever wanted to be alone.”[6]

The Greenwich Village radicals were tight-knit to the point of being incestuous. Men and women formed passionate friendships and collaborated on artistic endeavors. Dorothy’s co-workers on The Masses, John Reed and Louise Bryant, were the quintessential Bohemian power couple, living together and later marrying. Louise Bryant also had an affair with the playwright Eugene O’Neil. Reed, for his part, had been involved with Mabel Dodge, another writer on The Masses, who had also been romantically linked with Hutchins Hapgood, a prominent writer in the Greenwich Village circle and husband of journalist Neith Boyce. Terry Carlin, a friend of Dorothy’s and Hapgood’s muse for his novel An Anarchist Woman (1909), lived for a time with Eugene O’Neil.

Dorothy formed attachments to various men both inside and outside these circles. She developed a deep friendship with Eugene O’Neil as he was recovering from his tormented relationship with Louise Bryant. He would drunkenly recite poetry for her at a bar nicknamed the Hell Hole, and in The Long Loneliness she credits him with stirring the already deep wells of spiritual hunger in her.”[7] After staying up late all night with him she would occasionally run into a church for a morning mass. Later she fell deeply in love with the adventurer and occasional journalist Lionel Moise. He arrived in New York at the end of World War I having worked as an editor on The Kansas City Star alongside Ernest Hemingway, who described him as a hardbitten and fearless man’s man with an air of legend surrounding him.[8] Hemingway wrote about Moise in 1952 that “what impressed me most in him was his facility, his un-disciplined talent and his vitality which, when he was drinking, and I never saw him when he was not drinking, overflowed into violence.”[9] He furiously countered the argument (originating in Charles Fenton’s The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway and repeated in multiple biographies) that Lionel had taught him how to write while simultaneously mythologizing him. “I remember him as a sort of primitive force, a skillful and extremely facile newspaper man who had his troubles and his pleasures with drink and women.”[10]

Lionel Moise’s rough attractions beguiled Dorothy, who later wrote in a letter to her partner Forster Batterham that “I’ve never loved anyone but you and Lionel.”[11] She remained involved with him on and off through the early 1920s. Although still in love with him, in 1920 or 1921 Dorothy married Berkeley Tobey, the business manager for the socialist paper The Masses. Dorothy’s biograper Robert Coles referred to Tobey as “a strange man about whom little is known beyond gossip.”[12] I found a listing for him in a compilation of notable characters of Haworth, New Jersey, hilariously describing him as “a Greenwich Village rogue and bon vivant, married somewhere in the neighborhood of eight times.”[13] His last wife was the well-known California architect Esther McCoy. The photograph I saw shows a jovial man with a white walrus mustache, and is very much in keeping with the little I know of him, as he was posing next to three much younger attractive women, including Theodore Dreiser’s wife. His marriage to Dorothy lasted less than a year. She rarely mentioned him in her writing and never mentioned her marriage in The Long Loneliness, her memoirs of these years. By then, she had become a public figure due to her activism and was deliberately vague on the specifics of her romantic life before Forster Batterham. She always expressed her disapproved of Emma Goldman’s “tell-all” memoirs that named each of her lovers and recalled being “revolted by such promiscuity.”[14] But while she later insisted upon her personal privacy, her writing in the 1920s quite openly explored the new sexual freedom she was living.

In terms of its honesty about sex and relationships from a female perspective, Dorothy’s novels The Eleventh Virgin and The Dispossessed were very much in sync with the work of her fellow writers and intellectuals, Louise Bryant, Crystal Goodman, Neith Boyce, and even, despite her dislike of her, Emma Goldman. They wrote sexually independent heroines into their novels and plays and they explored its real-life implications in treatises and articles. In her 1908 novel, The Bond, Neith Boyce chronicles the first stormy years of the marriage of Basil and Theresa. Theresa, a sculptor, struggles to maintain her artistic freedom despite the obligations of motherhood and household. She also refuses to accept Basil’s double standard regarding fidelity. After he has an affair with a wealthy widow, she insists on open flirtations with other men, although she never allows them to become physical. She employs the phrase, “balancing the account,” to counter Basil’s anger. Despite their mutual misunderstandings and jealousies, Theresa and Basil remain in love and enjoy a sexually satisfying relationship.[15] Boyce’s 1921 one-act play Enemies picks up these themes. A husband and a wife, named simply “She” and “He,” argue back and forth about the inconsistencies and unhappinesses of their marriage. He complains she cares nothing for housekeeping and pays no attention to his interests. She retorts that he intrudes on her inner space and reveals her anger at his inability to remain faithful. In return, he insists, infuriatingly, that a husband’s infidelity means nothing, although a wife’s fidelity must remain paramount. At the end of the play, the two embrace and declare their mutual love and desire, although they admit they will continue to quarrel over these issues for years to come.[16]

Theresa and Basil’s fictional marriage, as well as the anonymous marriage in Enemies mirrored several key questions of the day for feminists—double standards regarding fidelity in marriage, the availability of birth control, female independence within a marriage, and the possibilities of balancing household responsibilities with domestic duties. Crystal Eastman explored these issues in a series of articles and essays for a variety of periodicals, including Cosmopolitan, The Birth Control Review, Equal Rights, and her own The Liberator, for which Dorothy would also write in the late 1920s. Most notably, in her 1923 Cosmopolitan article “Marriage under Two Roofs,” she proclaimed the merits of wives living apart from their husbands, a practice she insisted upon in her own marriage.[17] She advocated as well for husbands who took on housework, and for short hair, short skirts, legalization of prostitution, and ready access to birth control. As she wrote in a 1918 article for The Birth Control Review, “We want this precious sex knowledge not just for ourselves, the conscious feminist; we want it for all the millions of unconscious feminists that swarm the earth, —we want it for all women.”[18]

Neith Boyce, Crystal Eastman, and other Greenwich Village women writers were exploring untrodden territory. As Christine Stansell explains,

American Victorian culture had bustled with sex talk in its own segregated, covert ways. But nineteenth-century women’s ability to speak as sentient sexual beings had been limited by a melodramatic vision of decent women’s victimization by men’s lust. Outside pornography, the words were literally lacking to speak of female desire. Now, the garrulous exponents of free love broke with the asymmetrical pattern by according women a voice and transforming the male soliloquy into a conversation between the sexes.[19]

Dale Bauer terms this language as sex expressionism. “As sexuality became more public, the rhetorics of both the body and language could express sexual desire . . . women writers began to treat sex, once considered an urge or impulse, as a conscious act and a choice, deliberated, enacted and embodied.”[20] Dorothy employed “sex expressionism” to describe both the chaotic internal life and the free-spirited external life of her heroine in The Eleventh Virgin.

The Eleventh Virgin chronicles the sexual awakening of June Henreddy. It begins with her first feelings of desire as a teenager for an older married neighbor and ends with her abortion and the painful end of an affair in her twenties. June’s body stirs, shivers, and shudders with desire. Later it spasms in pain while rejecting the fruit of those desires. The discourse surrounding desire is just as important as the act itself. June is only sexually active in the ending chapters; but the expression of her desire permeates the entire book. First comes the adolescent crush on a neighbor. The relationship exists entirely in June’s imagination, but Day is clear about the physical effects on the young girl. “Her mind had never seemed to be connected with her body and it was strange and wonderful that a thought, a glance, could make a little shower of delight run through her.”[21] The delight is both emotional, physical, and entirely welcome, as June admits that “she loved to be bitten by fierce emotion.”[22] All nature seems to June to be in harmony with her desires. “A breeze sprang up as the sun settled on the sky line, and stirred the wisps of hair around their [June’s and her sister’s] hot faces. It was like a caress and June thought of Mr. Armand’s long fingers.”[23] Mr. Armand’s presence awakens June to the sensual possibilities of her body, but the experience is isolated and predictably, goes nowhere.

Over the next few years, June enjoys platonic friendships with any number of men at college and in the newspaper offices where she finds employment. She even moves in with three jovial co-workers, to the horror of her mother. Despite the constant male companionship, however, she is quite clear that she feels nothing to compare to the physical effects of Mr. Armand. She avoids romantic relationships, insisting that sexual attraction as well as emotional sympathy be present. June is a quintessential New Woman, in that her relationships with men are solely a matter of preference. Since she supports herself through writing, marriage possesses no financial incentive for her and thus she literally can afford to wait.

When she does meet a man who attracts her, Dick Wemys, she is frank about her sexual hopes. “He gave himself three months to stay in the hospital. June gave him three months in which to seduce her.” Dick works as an orderly at the hospital where June trains during the influenza epidemic. With no intentions of marring June, he would have been termed a rake had the book been written fifty years before. In the frank sexual expressionism of June’s world, however, he admits his devious plans up front. “”I love you, June. I love you more than anything in the world, today. But I can’t say how I’ll feel tomorrow.”[24] June accepts his lack of commitment and plunges ahead with the relationship. She doesn’t just love, she flirts, engaging in playful talk about sex. “I’m a demi-vierge,” she informs Dick coyly.[25] When they discuss the future, it is in terms of her physical submission to him, rather than any plans for marriage, children, or future adventures. After he announces he is leaving the hospital, he invites her to live with him temporarily—the temporary is emphasized, as is the physical nature of the request, when he shoves a card with his address in between her breasts. June’s arrival at his apartment signals to both of them the end of her virginity, which is subsequently lost discreetly, but clearly, in a break between two paragraphs.

He looked as though he were suffering. If he would only take her, push aside this barrier of sex that was between them, he could grip hold of himself again. And [she,she] could     breathe easily once more and her heart wouldn’t ache so in her breast. To get the first pain over with! She bit his neck contemplatively.

He shook her so suddenly that she cried out, started, and then noticed that it was very still and quiet. When he turned town the lamp there was only the painful thumping of her  own heart.

Later in the evening, June sat cross-legged on the bed in a pair of pajamas which were far too big for her and ate with a great deal of relish an anchovy toast sandwich and stuffed olives. She felt very young and childlike.[26]

Despite the frankness of June’s sexual enjoyment, the book harbors no illusions as to the nature of their relationship. June’s sexual freedom does not translate into sexual equality. For the first time since leaving home, she stops working, at his direct request. “‘While you’re mine, you’ve got to be all mine, so you needn’t have any interests outside of me.’”[27] Dick’s love is violent, possessive, and controlling. June finds herself lying to please him, “You’re nothing but a damn little fool so don’t you dare tell me Conrad knows how to write a story. I tell you he doesn’t so you might as well shut up.”[28] She wasn’t even allowed to look as if Conrad could write novels. She secretly goes ahead and reads all she pleases. While it had been up to her to yield her virginity, he dictated the subsequent terms of the relationship, reserving the right to decide alone when it would end. He also warned her that he would leave immediately should she become pregnant, which indeed, he does, even though she has an abortion. Christine Stansell notes, “Paradoxical, self-deluding, sometimes harmful: without question there was a dark edge to sexual modernism.”[29]

June’s abortion is rendered in graphic terms. Day is as frank about June’s bodily reaction to pain as she had been about its receptivity to pleasure.

One pain every three minutes. How fast they came! It seemed that the moments of  respite could be counted in seconds. The pain came in a huge wave and she lay there writhing and tortured under it. Just when she thought she could endure it no longer, the wave passed and she could gather up her strength to endure the next one.[30]

There were few literary precedents for such a description, although the topic was proving to be incredibly popular among young writers, including Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy’s friends Floyd Dell and Eugene O’Neil. Mr. Durant, a story by Dorothy Parker appeared the same year (1924) as did the incredibly successful novel The Green Hat, by Michael Arlen.[31] Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy was published in the following year. Over fifty more novels and short stories would tackle the controversial subject before 1945.[32] While The Eleventh Virgin remains one of the least known of these works, it proves that Dorothy was at the forefront of the significant literary discourse surrounding illegal abortions, a discourse that privileged female bodily experience. The Eleventh Virgin ends shortly after June Henreddy’s abortion, so Dorothy allows her little time to reflect upon it. The morality of abortion nevertheless remained a significant theme in her later essays and articles, as I will discuss later.

Historian James Fisher writes that “The Eleventh Virgin showed that Day was not a novelist,” and Robert Coles calls the plot “wretched.”[33] I actually found The Eleventh Virgin highly enjoyable, if somewhat immature. The most charming aspect of the writing is Day’s own bemused attitude towards the melodramatic excesses of her heroine: “‘I’ve got to have you,’ she [June] told him [Dick]. ‘I love you. I do love you. It’s a fatal passion.”[34] There is a sense of fond reminiscence over June’s willingness to throw everything to the winds in the name of love, tinged with a growing bitterness as Dick’s behavior grows more untenable.

Coles, Fisher, and historian of American Catholicism Jim Forest frequently refer to it as her autobiographical novel and glean its pages for details of her early years. It is certainly tempting to read The Eleventh Virgin as a thinly veiled autobiography of Day’s early years in Greenwich Village, although I am loathe to place experiences in Dorothy’s own life on the sole evidence that they appear in the novel. Certainly June’s adventures in writing and politics mirror Dorothy’s own as she described them in The Long Loneliness. The book also embarrassed her after she became a well-known public figure. “There was a time that I thought I had a lifetime job cut out for me—to track down every copy of that novel and destroy all of them, one by one.”[35] At least some of the book did echo her own experiences. She revealed in letters and diaries that she did have an abortion during her relationship with Lionel Moise and preceding her marriage to Berkeley Tobey. As she related in The Long Loneliness, she sought spiritual solace during this time, and there are also hints of a kindling religious interest in the adolescent June, who rebels against the coldness of her parents by a passionate devotion to God, although once she leaves home she grows absorbed in other pursuits.

The Eleventh Virgin, however, documents sensuality rather than spirituality, and the heroine, at least, sees a clear separation between the two. As the adolescent June writes to a friend,

All these feelings and cravings that come to us are sexual desires. We are prone to have them at this age, I suppose. [The fifteen-year-old intoned piously.] But I think they are impure. It is sensual and God is spiritual. We must harden ourselves to these feelings, for God is love, and God is all, so the only love is of God and is spiritual without taint of earthliness.

Given that the subject of religion is then dropped in the novel, there is no sense that the author had reconciled them either.

1932With her daughter, ca. 1932.


Conflict and Conversion

Dorothy’s next novel explores both the sensual and spiritual. She wrote the first chapters during 1932, when she had moved back to New York after working briefly in Hollywood as a screenwriter and then traveling for a year in Mexico. She had already converted to Catholicism although she had not yet met Peter Maurin and begun the Catholic Worker. Most of her time was spent writing for Catholic newspapers and magazines and working on the novel she would term both The Dispossessed and This Dear Flesh. As she describes those months in The Long Loneliness:

I was writing a novel. I have always been a journalist and a diarist pure and simple, but as long as I could remember, I dreamed in terms of novels. This one was to be about the depression, a social novel with the pursuit of a job as the motive and the social revolution as its crisis. There was to be the struggle between religion and otherworldliness, and communism and this-worldliness, replete with a hero and a heroine and scores of   fascinating characters. I put my own struggle and dreams of love into the book and was very happy writing it.[36]

The Dispossessed documents the conversion to Catholicism of a young girl named Monica as well as her love affair with a Communist she knows she can never marry. As with The Eleventh Virgin, Day frankly explores the physicality of Monica’s desire. Monica has loved Nick ever since she moved into the apartment next to him as a little girl. But as she reaches adolescence, her love assumes a physical dimension. She doesn’t just love him; she desires him.

At this time Monica began to be obsessed with desire for him. When he was away, she saw him everywhere, in the line of head, the attitude of some stranger. She heard him in a   sudden soft laugh. The river noises and the heavy damp smell of the city those early spring days reminded her of walks they had taken, long wordless hours they had spent  together.[37]

Day employs metaphors of heat and hunger. Monica feels “hot within herself” and is “hungry to love.”[38] Her sexual awakening coincides with an equally passionate religious awakening. The only thing in her life that evokes the same level of emotion and physicality within her is Catholicism, which ironically means that she can never succumb to her desire for Nick. Her experiences of the depths of her faith resonate physically in her body, and Day employs similar language. One morning, Monica impulsively follows a young woman to Mass:

It was almost every Mass in the Italian Churches, and Monica sat during the Gloria in a maze of happiness. She did not know why she was happy, why this sudden glow of joy had come into her life. She felt waves of exalted thankfulness flooding her heart,a sudden intense consciousness of an all-loving God, and the need and hunger of the human   heart in its desire to serve Him to worship Him. The Mass satisfied her as it never had before. And somehow all this sudden realization was linked up with that girl, so still, so breathlessly still and radiant.”[39]

The two desires are intricately connected and spur each other to greater heights. “Monica’s love for Nick made her realize her faith, because young though she was, she recognized that a choice was being put up to her. She could not have him and her Church too.”[40] It is difficult for the reader to form an opinion one way or another regarding her choices, since each option stirs her equally to physical and emotional frenzy.

Monica sought refuge in her religion now, but she distrusted the softness of religious emotion during these hard times. It went hand in hand with the melting tenderness she was apt to feel at the thought of Nick. The joy and the faith which made it forbidden were too closely linked at these times in her mind. She was as unstable as a reed.[41]

Her torment expresses itself in the language of illness as well as yearning. “She felt that she was a woman with a sickness who had to cure herself.” To love is to experience passion. Passion, literally and figuratively equals suffering. It is impossible not to love and thus, not to suffer.

Unlike June Henreddy, Monica is a virgin and never speaks in terms of seduction. Marriage is the forbidden but desired outcome of her relationship with Nick. Although they cling to each other in dark corners, neither proposes going any further. Yet she is caught up in concerns about sin that June never experienced.

There came with this knowledge of her deliberate choice, the question of mortal sin. Even the thought of bodily desire (forbidden as it was in connection with Nick) was an act of unchastity in the sight of God and as such was mortal sin. Yet to have committed mortal sin . . . (it was that, – Oh God – it certainly was that) but it was not due deliberation or full       consent of the will. For blindly she had fought and struggled, praying daily, walking through the misty, fogbound streets, and how could it be full consent of the will when her lips were numb at the remembrance of his kiss, and her lips were stiff as she forced them on in a mechanical round of walking.[42]

Politics also stands in the way of the young couple’s happiness. Nick also desires Monica but feels an equal calling to Communism and believes he cannot distract himself with a wife and family. He dreads the thought of prison but is equally convinced that he must end up there. The two engage in mutual torment. “’Oh, Nick, Nick, I’m so glad to see you,’ Monica cried, her hands behind her back to keep them from clutching at him. He took hold of her shoulders and his hands were trembling. ‘

“‘You know how I feel, and I can’t stand it.’”[43] It is a love that cannot be born but equally cannot be ignored.

In Monica’s yearning for an unattainable love, Dorothy articulates the mystical longings that she would explore later in her spiritual writing. According to the brief plot summary she had drawn up for potential publishers, Dorothy had planned a happy ending for the pair, each with more suitable spouses. Nick would marry the Russian emigre Natasha while Monica would fall in love with and eventually marry Raoul, an upstanding architect and a friend of Nick’s. “All would be happy according to their lights.”[44] It is fitting, perhaps, that she never composed this ending, dropping the novel in 1933 when she began the Catholic Worker. The desire that coursed through Monica’s body could not be stilled in a contented marriage. The only cure for such desire was a lifetime committed to seeking, following the trail of an elusive lover into dark nights and lonely mornings.

Towards the end of the unfinished narrative Dorothy brings in another woman as a rival for Nick’s affections. The Russian emigre Natasha, unlike Monika, is a sexually experienced woman desperately in love with Nick. Despite his earlier disavowal of marriage, he proposes to her, as her loyalties are compatible with his politics. She relates a sad tale of a promiscuous past in Russia with uncaring lovers more devoted to the Revolution than to her, and then in New York living a hand-to-mouth existence working at a cabaret (which seems to be a euphemism for a brothel). Despite her experience, when it comes to desire, she and Monica speak the same language. Her love is starvation, misery, and desperation. Even in love and engaged, she experiences torment. Nick accuses her of enjoying her misery, and she responds in explanation, “It is difficult for a passionate woman to get over the habit of being passionate.” By passion, she means not only love, but the suffering that must accompany it. Monica must renounce Nick and Natasha will marry him, but to truly experience the weight of their choices, they both must suffer in love. We don’t know how the characters will develop but love as suffering and joy in renunciation are both themes that will inform the rest of her work.

19341934 (original in New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection, Library of Congress).


Love as Mystical Yearning

Dorothy’s post-conversion politics led her to conservative stances on issues such as abortion, birth control, divorce, and pre-marital sex, all of which she firmly condemned in her writings. These attitudes seem to represent a complete break from her earlier radical days when she had attended Margaret Sanger’s speeches, worked for Crystal Eastman, and stayed up nights discussing the merits of free love with John Reed and Eugene O’Neil. They also seem to contradict her own first writings which had expressed sexual desire freely regardless of marital ties and whose heroines had expressed regret only at the loss of love, not the loss of virginity or reputation. Her subsequent writing certainly appears to advocate a more traditional femininity in line with the Victorian family structure against which she had originally rebelled.

Her conversion seemed abrupt to those who knew her, but it followed years of seeking. In the years preceding her conversion, she felt increasingly drawn to the life of the spirit. In The Long Loneliness, she writes, “It seems to me a long time that I led this wavering life . . . . I felt strongly that the life of nature warred against the life of grace.”[45] She had also expressed these anxieties in The Eleventh Virgin when June Hendreddy declares that “the only love is of God and is spiritual without taint of earthliness.” Even though she was happily in love with Forster Batterham, she experienced emptiness and longing. They lived together in her cottage on Staten Island. It was the greatest happiness she had ever experienced but she still felt dissatisfied. In The Long Loneliness (1952), she articulates the idea of God as lover who drew her away from her Forster. She presents her struggle as a love triangle between herself, God, and Forster Batterham, Tamar’s father and the man she refers to as her common-law husband. “I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love. Why should not Forster be jealous? Any man who did not participate in this love would, of course, realize my infidelity, my adultery.”[46]

On a practical level, her conversion meant sacrificing a life that brought her much delight as well as stability after years of searching. Although Dorothy liked to refer to Forster as her husband, they were not married in the eyes of either the state or the church, and he refused to take those steps. A self-identified anarchist, he abhorred the institutions of both religion and marriage. As a Catholic, she could not live with him outside of marriage. Neither would yield. “To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where it was the simplest question of whether I chose God or man.”[47] It is hard not to read Monica’s struggle with a love incompatible with a burgeoning faith as a reenactment of Dorothy’s own. Monica and Nick had begged each other to relent; in similar ways, Dorothy and Forster argued back and forth for almost ten years. She left him and moved to Hollywood and then to Mexico and then to Florida. He visited her occasionally to rekindle their relationship but refused to marry her. She begged him in tones alternating between seduction and despair to marry her and accept her Catholicism. In 1929 from California: “I wish you would give in. I can assure you that I would not bother you and your own opinions as long as you granted me religious liberty—that is, me and the numerous other children we’d have.”[48] In 1932: “Aren’t we ever going to be together again, sweetheart? . . . I do not see why you can’t let me and Tamar be Catholics and be happy with us just the same. You know I love you, and I always think of us belonging together in spite of us being four years apart.”[49] She didn’t give up until she met Peter Maurin and threw herself into beginning the Catholic Worker. When she wrote to Forster in December, 1932 that “I have really given up hope now, so I won’t try to persuade you any more,” she meant it. She wouldn’t write to him again until the 1950s.[50]

After she gave up hope of reconnecting with Forster, she politely but firmly put a stop to any romantic attentions and declared herself a celibate. In the 1940s, Ammon Hennacy, a former Mormon turned Catholic anarchist who had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the Catholic Worker movement became captivated by her. She fended off his advances, writing, “I have a great love for you of comradeship but sex does not enter into it.” [51] And later: “When one is celibate, one is celibate. There is no playing around with sex.”[52] He evidently still thought of her in terms she considered inappropriate when in 1953, he sent her a copy of his memoir (later titled The Book of Ammon) which she returned with pages cut out of it, pleading that such thoughts did not become their age. “It is next to impossible to write about such love of people in their sixties without either seeming ridiculous or revolting.”[53] It is unclearly exactly why she turned towards celibacy, especially considering that she still lived very much in the world. She is clear that she did not do so out of a distaste for sexual love. “It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.”[54]

1938Day at Maryfarm, Easton, PA, ca. 1938.

Although certainly after her struggles with Lionel and Forster, it is conceivable that she could have been fed up with noncommittal men. In 1947, she wrote angrily to a disgruntled Catholic Worker volunteer: “I should be used to men failing me. I’ve had to bring up a child alone and I’ve certainly seen more than my share of the gross and selfish in men. I’ve had many men love me but few protect me.” Although she never explicitly states this, possibly she felt the need to atone for what she considered her early promiscuity. Guilt over her behavior, especially her abortion, haunts her diary entries.

Robert Coles asked her why her she had chosen to end her romantic life at such a young age. For one who positioned sexual pleasure in the heart of the Catholic marriage and who eschewed what she termed Jansenism (a manichean distaste for the physical), why give up such a part of herself and her past? She answered him in a series of roundabout conversations. “When I fell in love with Forster I thought it was a solid love . . . that I had been seeking. But I began to realize it wasn’t the love between a man and a woman that I was hungry to find. . .”[55] In a similar vein, she wrote to Ammon Hennesy that “the whole direction of our thoughts should be to increase in the love of God. It is only in giving up a thing that you can keep it; it is only by such a sacrifice on your part that love can be beautiful and holy.”[56] In much of her post-conversion writing, love becomes directed entirely towards God in a complete mysticism. For Dorothy, nothing but God’s love would suffice.

Yet desire never loses its place in her language, describing both a longing for physical contact as well as the presence of a transcendent force. After her conversion, she reinterpreted her understanding of humanity to include both body and soul conjoined together, per God’s design. Hence the sacral nature of sex: “One cannot properly be said to understand the love of God without understanding the deepest fleshly as well as spiritual love between man and woman. The two should go hand in hand. You cannot separate the soul from the body.”[57] She devoted her whole self to seeking God as she would a lover, and that search took the place of romantic human love. She told Robert Coles: “My conversion was a way of saying to myself that I knew I was trying to go someplace and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to go there and try not to let myself get distracted by side trips, excursions that were not to the point.”[58] A husband or lover would be beside the point in her mystical journey.

In Dorothy’s spiritual writings, she beautifully articulates the sacramental nature of marriage and the centrality of sexuality in marital relationships as “a foretaste of the beatific vision.”[59] “The intense pleasure and delight in the act itself may be like a sword piercing the heart.”[60] Sex is the actual sacrament embodied in matrimony, as opposed to the vows. “It is not the promises that make the marriage. The vows are exchanged at the altar; the marriage is the embrace itself.”[61] On a practical level, she argues, then, that the church needed to emphasize the significance of marital relations and to avoid the “Anglo-Saxon Jansenism,” that caused people to shy away from such discussions. “ . . . It is time indeed that there should be more talk on the subject of sex and marriage on the part of Catholics.”[62] She refused to read the Kinsey report but was nonetheless fascinated by its willingness to bring sex into popular conversations, an inclination she argued that contemporary religious writing lacked.

It is because sex is “the most deeply wounded of all our faculties” since the Fall. In sex, body and spirit are so interwoven, so attuned, so single-minded, so concentrated, and so alive. It is in sex love that people catch glimpses of harmony and peace unutterable. That is why thwarting sex, unfulfilled marriage, is a tragedy often dealt with by physicians and psychiatrists. If the act, which is called by St. Paul “the marriage debt” is not paid generously and to the full people are warped and nerve-wracked, curiously  askew.

The language of desire occupied a permanent place in her writing, but in her post-conversion writing the force of it was directed back to divine union. In On Pilgrimage, The Long Loneliness, and her many letters, diaries, and articles, she explores the theme of Christ as lover, a literary path previously trod by Dorothy’s favorite saints, Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux as well as other great mystics whom she admired. In Dorothy’s voice, the image takes on a modern and realistic meaning. The joys are not metaphorical, and the bodily effects speak to actual memories. For the medieval mystics, the language of sexual ecstasies only existed on a metaphorical plane. For Dorothy, it as the realistic humanity behind the words that renders them meaningful—“It is because I am not now suffering that I can write, but it is also because I have suffered in the past that I can write.”[63] It was precisely because she had known the sweetness of a whole love, body and soul, that her act of renunciation was so precious. “The best thing to do with the best of things is to give them to the Lord,” she wrote in her diary decades after her conversion, “and note that fleshly pleasure if not isolated from mind and spirit is not here labeled sin, but called ‘the best of things.’”[64] So her bridal mysticism loses the morbid aspect of the medieval saints that she admired and appeals to a twentieth and twenty-first century sensibility. It makes sense that in Augustine of Hippo, another great lover of the flesh who nevertheless turned his heart to God, she found great inspiration and quoted frequently in her Catholic Worker articles. Sexual desire between humans was both a piece of and a reflection of God’s love, not divorced from it. Human love was the overflow of God’s love.

Religious historian James Fisher declared that she “came to espouse one of the most abject brands of self-abnegation in American religious history,”[65] and referred to her religious interpretations as “bleak.”[66] His interpretation denies the joyful earthiness of her spiritual writing. Dorothy never turned away from the reality of flesh, delighting in her body even when it sickened and aged, so that she could write on Valentine’s Day, 1944 in her diary:

But this aging flesh, I love it, I treat it tenderly, but also rejoice that it has been well used, that was my vocation—a wife and mother, I gave myself to husband and children, my flesh well used, droops, my breasts sag, my face withers, but my eyes and lips rejoiced and love and laugh with happiness.[67]

Flesh was both her “enemy” and her “dear companion on this pilgrimage.”[68] Her acknowledgement and appreciation of bodily realities represents one of the strongest continuities throughout her writing. At the age of eighty-two, she declared firmly in her diary, “I am a sensual woman.”[69]

1951Day serving soup to Franciscans at Detroit Catholic Worker, ca. 1951.


An Unwilling Feminist

She never retired, writing articles until her death at the age of eighty-three. Her continuing engagement with current affairs required her to confront the changing social mores of the 1960s and 1970s. The Catholic Worker could not remain static if it wanted to remain relevant. As its original members aged, the organization relied on a steady influx of younger volunteers. Dorothy treated these younger colleagues with the same mixture of amusement, concern, and bewilderment, that she showed her nine grandchildren. The young girls of the CW attended Woodstock and excitedly reported back to her. “They had a weekend of rain. Sounded like a nightmare to me,” she wrote dismissively. Her perplexity was frequently softened by outpourings of compassion, as she found her bohemian youth reflected in their untempered idealism. “Aside from drug addiction, I committed all the sins young people commit today,” she wrote in 1976.[70] She disapproved of priests who approached the drugs and sex of youth culture with a lack of understanding. “No compassion for the young,” she dismissed an otherwise good sermon that had ended with a censure of Woodstock.[71] The anti-war demonstrators of the 1960s were near and dear to her heart, as they picked up the pacifism the CW had espoused since the 1930s. In 1965 she spoke at Union Square in support of men who burned their draft cards. In 1967 she attended the trials of anti-war demonstrators and helped raise money for their defense. She differentiated them from the young men and women she deemed to be “hippies,” whom she dismissed as spoiled rebels without any causes other than non-conformity. “I felt in view of the blood and guts spilled in Vietnam the soldiers would like to come back and kill these flower-power-loving people. . . . Middle-class affluent homes, they have not known suffering.”[72] In her warmer moments, she judged them foolish but lost, as she had been and as she knew her own progeny to be. “These are my children too, my grandchildren. Having so many grandchildren, I love . . .”[73]

Dorothy firmly maintained during the 1960s that she was not a “women’s-libber,” but she did conceive of marriage, motherhood, and the position of a woman in a family in radical ways, not unlike her Bohemian companions of the 1920s. She meditates on motherhood and marriage in On Pilgrimage, a book based on a journal she kept in 1948. She spent most of the year on a farm in West Virginia with Tamar who was pregnant with her third child, and her writing reflects her domestic setting. “Meditations for women, these notes should be called, jumping as I do from the profane to the sacred over and over. But then, living in the country, with little children, with growing things, one has the sacramental view of life.”[74] On the farm, dealing with no running water, no electricity, no stores, and two small children, she found herself beset by household cares and unable to write, pray, or even think. She writes frankly about the lack of intellectual and creative stimulation mothers endured. On January 20, she writes despairingly, “What kind of an interior life can a mother of three children have who is doing all her own work on a farm with wood fires to tend and water to pump? Or the grandmother either?”[75] In a similar vein, she complains on March 8, “If you stop to read a paper, pick up a book, the children are into the tubs or the sewing machine drawers. . . . Everything is interrupted, even prayers, since by nightfall one is too tired to pray with understanding.”[76]

She compares the relative constraints of young mothers and fathers. Enviously watching her son-in-law exploring the woods, she admits “one cannot help but thinking that the men have an easier time of it. It is wonderful to work out on such a day as this, with the snow falling lightly all around, chopping wood, dragging in fodder, working with the animals. Women are held pretty constantly to the home.”[77] In On Pilgrimage, she raises a theme that would haunt her writings for years to come—Tamar’s isolation and frustration as a young mother with a new baby practically every two years (nine children in eighteen years of marriage) and no intellectual outlets. “It is a lonely life for a woman with many small children. It is a life of solitude in city and village anyway, since a young mother cannot get out, but in town neighbors and friends can at least drop in.”[78] Her correspondence with Tamar is rife with comforts and reassurances that rarely seemed to work. When Tamar longed to move back to New York so she could have more company, Dorothy warns her away because of the polio epidemic and the high rents. “Oh dear. I do know how lonely you are, but I do assure you that a mother with small babies is always lonely.”[79] She titled her book The Long Loneliness in part as a reference to the shared solitude of humanity. But she also meant to pay specific homage to the particular loneliness of women, both as young mothers isolated by the burdens of childcare and then later as older mothers bereft of their children. “Tamar is partly responsible for the title of this book in that when I was beginning it she was writing me about how alone a mother of young children always is.”[80] Dorothy realized, of course, that loneliness and anxiety were the bitter but necessary fruits of motherly love. “It is right for us to love our families, but oh the heartaches. But it is the cross, the saving Cross. We cannot have Christ without His Cross.”[81]

Tamar’s experiences, both her loneliness and her restlessness, paralleled Dorothy’s own as a young mother. She remembered herself as a young mother traveling from New York to Hollywood to Mexico and back again. “I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others.” That loneliness can stem from specific circumstances—Dorothy knew almost no one in Hollywood and likewise, Tamar lived in the country miles from a neighbor. But it also derives from social pressures and biological realities that isolate women in households. In a statement that stunningly echoes Betty Friedan’s work of the following decade, she continues by declaring that, “ A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough.” Women needed to create and seek outside the family structure. Even flush with love for her new baby, she had still been driven to write. Back in her cottage on Staten Island, still with Forster, her Catholic sponsor Sister Aloyisia had scolded her for sitting at her typewriter while the breakfast dishes piled high. Dorothy’s own conversion, for all that it that it represented a more conservative social stance, actually entailed an assertion of autonomy, radical in every sense.

Dealing with birth control, abortion, and free love were the most troubling aspects of the 1960s and 1970s for her, both because they conflicted directly with Catholic family doctrine and because they reminded her uncomfortably of her own youth. Her disapproval of birth control brought her into conflict with her sister Della, who volunteered at Margaret Sanger’s clinic and openly declared she would only have children she could afford to bring up and send to college. Dorothy writes in Della’s obituary: “When she went on to exhort me . . . that I should not urge, as a catholic, Tamar, my daughter, to have so many children, I got up firmly and walked out of the house, whereupon she ran after me weeping, saying, ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, We just won’t talk about it again.’”[82] Her advocacy of marriage without birth control continually warred with her championing of female independence. Had she remarried and given birth to more than one child, her ability to travel the country and write would have been greatly curtailed. In 1973 she wrote to Sidney Callahan, a professor of psychology at Mercy College, “I feel badly at seeing formerly happy women friends bitter and angry at all they have suddenly discovered they have suffered. And they get angry at me for not being angry.”[83] Yet even though she disliked the label of feminist, she continued to be attracted to the ideals they championed. She disapproved of bishops who were “more concerned about [birth control] than war.”[84] By 1979, after hearing Dr. Marian Moses speak, she admitted there was validity to the feminist critique of the papal stance on birth control and abortion. “She is a strong feminist. I am not, tho I can see all the problems.”[85]

Interestingly enough, while her disdain for birth control seems like mere unquestioning acceptance of Catholic dogma, on a few occasions she expresses her belief that birth control harmed women in particular, as it allowed men to escape marriage and responsibility. “Sex is a gigantic force in our lives and unless controlled becomes unbridled lust under which woman is victim and suffers most of all.”[86] The sexual revolution seemed to give men license to leave their wives, which she witnessed frequently in the CW. Divorced women with small children took refuge as part volunteers and part boarders. “Dear God, help me not to judge people harshly. But men certainly take advantage of women more than ever these days.”[87] Her critique of the sexual revolution sounded a familiar feminist note. As Ruth Rosen explains in The World Split Open, men happily exploited women’s newfound sexual availability. “If sex was free, where did you draw the line?” She related the tale of one woman in a Washington D.C. consciousness-raising group who lamented that “the sexual revolution is making me miserable,” because “I’m not supposed to be jealous” when her husband cheated on her with “everything in sight.”[88]

Thirty years prior, Dorothy had angrily accused Forster of just such flippancy in their relationship when he refused to marry her.

You have always in the past treated me most casually, and I see no difference between     [our] affair and any other casual affair I have had in the past. You avoided, as you admitted yourself, all responsibility. You would not marry me then because you preferred the slight casual contact with me to any other. And last spring when my love and physical desire for you overcame me, you were quite willing for the affair to go on, on a weekend basis.[89]

In a roundabout way, she argued that birth control allowed for promiscuity, which created an easy escape from marriage, which was the ultimate sacrament. Given her experiences with Forster and Lionel Moise, perhaps Dorothy assumed most men would avoid marriage if offered sex and most women would choose it. The legalization of abortion after Roe v. Wade in 1973 struck close to home. “Does the changing of laws—the Supreme Court decision—do away with this instinctive feeling of guilt? My own longing for a child.”[90]

The separation of love and sex troubled her, not only because it led to the dissolution of marriage but because of its ubiquity, even in the sanctuaries of the Catholic Worker homes and farms. It overwhelmed impulses for pacifism and charity that she tried to hone in new workers. “What to do about the open immorality (and of course I mean sexual morality) in our midst. It is like the last times—there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed.”[91] She worried that contemporary thought urged people to succumb to their desires. “[They say] why does God implant in us these instincts and then punish us when we satisfy them? God made all things to be enjoyed. Enjoy! Enjoy!”[92] Her conversion was based on denial of instinct; she relied on discipline and prayer to strengthen her resolve when old temptations beckoned. She had renounced love only to find a deeper love and a greater life. She found something vacuous about those who searched without sacrifice. “My heart aches for them, they are so profoundly unhappy. Their only sense of well-being comes from sex and drugs, seeking to be turned on, to get high, and to reach the heights of awareness, but steadily killing the possibility of real joy.”[93]

Yet Dorothy believed in love, even if it was free. Despite her adherence to Catholic moral teaching, she couldn’t condemn a relationship in which love had sprung up between two people, even if the love lacked sacrality. “Birth control, abortion, free love—all in the name of love. . . . The hunger for human love, how beautiful in marriage and renunciation, too. But it is always to be respected, even in all these free unions, even in all these sad searchings . . .”[94] As the seventies crawled on, her own and the century’s, the world continued to change, and she insisted on reexamining her priorities and values. Old friends and colleagues started coming out as gay and she strove to understand what the church condemned. When two of her female friends confessed to her they were lesbians, she sought back into her past to remember moments of similar feeling—again, she strove to co-suffer—she remembered a girl in high school who inspired her—”I never knew her name or anything about her but in a way she cast a light about her.” She also recalled a young Polish woman who reminded her of the Virgin Mary whom she met when she first went to Communion (a scene that appears in The Dispossessed). “How contemplation of that Polish girl deepened my faith!”[95] Could love ever be wrong? Without the grace of God, it could lead to temptation and temptation, but that was just as true, she argued, for any kind of love. “Unbridled sex, practiced today in every form or fashion,” was certainly worthy of censure, but love itself could only deepen understanding. “I mean that one must be grateful for the sate of ‘in-love-ness’ which is a preliminary state to the beatific vision, which is indeed a consummation of all we desire.”[96] She seemed to take a particular dislike to drugs, probably because they were unfamiliar, possibly also because they reminded her of her own drinking days, which embarrassed her. Maybe because both of those things were forms of escape from the sorrows of the world, but sorrow was suffering and suffering was love. It was only when she embraced suffering that she found joy. It had happened once, at the great moment of her conversion, and it continued to happen every day in moments of struggle. “To love is to suffer. Perhaps our only assurance that we do love God, Jesus, is to accept this suffering joyfully! What a contradiction!”

1958With grandchildren ca. 1958.


The Hard Work of Loving

While Dorothy worked out her ideas on feminism, women, sex, and love in her writing, she was also putting her ideas on charity into action. She viewed herself as a writer, frequently declaring that writing brought her the greatest joys in her life. But very little of her day was actually devoted to writing. It couldn’t be. She was the heart of a network that fed, clothed, and sheltered hundreds of people every day. The Catholic Worker was a unique organization in that it operated as a newspaper, a soup kitchen, and a shelter, all within the same few rooms. “The trouble with the CW is that one is so busy living there is no time to write about it.”[97] Dorothy and the other CW volunteers lived and ate alongside the alcoholics, the prostitutes, and the unemployed whom they sheltered. She wrote to support them as much as she did for personal fulfillment, and even then, she wrote only in moments stolen from brewing coffee and boiling soup for the lines of men and women that wove around the block even years after the Depression had ended, not to mention lending them a sympathetic and non-judgmental ear when necessary. She frequently found the latter task the greatest challenge. As she chronicled in her diaries, the poor can be incredibly unpleasant. They vomited in the stairwells, stole money for drugs, swore, cursed, and sometimes screamed late into the night. This indeed was the hard work of loving she wrote about. How to love the unloveable? She knew the answer—she had to see Christ in each one of them. But how difficult that was in practice. She admitted that at times she found the poor “repellant.”[98]How could you look into the dull eyes of an alcoholic or a schizophrenic raging in madness and see God inside them? How could you summon a vision of Christ when you dwelt in Hell? “. . . To be present, to be available to men, to see Jesus in the poor, to welcome, to be hospitable, to love. This is my need. I fail every day.”[99]

She was rarely rewarded, but the moments when she received gratitude must have been incredibly perfectly sweet. Edward Breen was an especially hard case who could and (should Dorothy’s canonization process prove successful) literally did try the patience of a saint. In 1935, she wrote to her friend Catherine, “Will you please pray real hard for a Mr. Breen who is at the present moment my greatest and most miserable worry? . . . He won’t be comfortable . . . and he, after all, is Christ.[100]” He yelled racist epithets at the staff and insisted he hated them all. But he stayed at the house until his death in 1939, and she persisted in her attentions to him. When she went traveling, she wrote him affectionate letters telling how proud she was of his improved behavior.

…..Dear Mr. Breen, This is but a note to tell you to be good and to be happy even though it means a great effort of will. I know you haven’t been feeling well, you poor dear, but take care of yourself, and try to keep calm and peacable in mind, and you will make me happy. I know things become very hard and disagreeable at times, but just offer it up for my intention.”[101]

And the difficult Mr. Breen was just one person of the hundreds she dealt with in the 1930s. Dorothy interacted with his equally stubborn sucessors every day until her death at eighty-three, because she never stopped living at the Catholic Worker shelter. Throughout those years, she frequently gave up even her room to people in need of shelter. She ate whatever they ate, however plain, and found her own clothes in the donation bundles so that she could devote her income to them. From her diary in 1944:

I darn stockings, three pairs, all I possess, heavy cotton, grey, tan, and one brown wool,    and reflect that these come to me from the cancerous poor, entering a hospital to die. For ten years I have worn stockings which an old lady, a dear friend, who is spending her declining years in this hospital, has collected for me and carefully darned and patched.   Often these have come to me soiled, or with that heavy hospital smell which never seemed to leave them after many washings. And the wearing of these stockings and other second-hand clothes has saved me much money to use for running of our houses of hospitality and the publishing of a paper.[102]

Perhaps because of my own love of new clothes, and perhaps too because I know Dorothy shared it, this passage affects me greatly. Whenever I face the hard work of loving, I think about Mr. Breen and the mended stockings and the sacrifices they represented for her. Dorothy’s anguish is my salvation, because if the woman who created the Catholic Worker Movement sometimes found people unendurable, how much hope is there for the rest of us!

DD0049aDay Day reading at farm, ca. 1937 (TIF)Reading at the farm, ca. 1937.

Some of Dorothy’s writing disappoints me. I have wished I could write an essay about how her feminist convictions strengthened over time and only became more radical, in the commonly accepted sense of the word. That she strode seamlessly from New Womanhood to Women’s Liberation. I admire so much her refusal to live her life on any one else’s terms. To me, it is such a shame that she condemned her own courageous behavior as sinful and glossed over everything that didn’t fit into her Catholic moral narrative. She had defied convention by living with Forster Batterham without marrying him, yet later she conveniently decided they had been “common-law” married. That the “common-law” marriage was a later invention is made clear in letters from the 1920s when she described Tamar as his illegitimate daughter. It seems like she was a radical before the world was ready who then retracted by the time the world caught up with her. I suppose my acknowledgement of her faults is important because otherwise I would be limited to hagiography in writing about her. I would rather approach her as she was, which was human, and therefore, flawed. Even in her flaws, however, I find her appealing, because for all her harsh rhetoric, she was uniquely flexible in her ability to adapt, forgive, and accept. Her sister Della, who remained her best friend until the end of her life, worked for Margaret Sanger. Tamar’s marriage ended in divorce and she and most of her children rebelled against Catholicism, so that several of Dorothy’s great-grandchildren were born out of wedlock and most never baptized. Dorothy accepted all of these blows to her faith, sometimes with sadness, but never withdrawing affection. She continued to act as a loving mother and grandmother, supporting Tamar emotionally and financially. And remarkably, in the 1950s she reconnected with Forster and helped nurse his live-in mistress (he had stubbornly adhered to his anti-marriage stance) through cancer. What touches me most is a letter Dorothy wrote in response in 1973 to a young girl in distress because of an abortion:

I’m praying very hard for you this morning, because I myself have been through much of what you have been through. Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me thru that darkness . . . My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with    bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.

But God has been so good to me—I have known such joy in nature, and work—in writing, as you must get in your painting—in fulfilling myself, using my God-given love of beauty and desire to express myself. . . .

Again, I beg you to excuse me for seeming to intrude on you in this way. I know that just praying for you would have been enough. But we are human and must have human contact if only thru pen and paper. I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren.

When I read how tenderly she responded to others, I realize that she reserved her harshest criticism for herself and that the only sins she refused to forgive were her own.

In complicated situations, I actually do ask myself, what would Dorothy do? I don’t mean this in a sentimental way and I certainly don’t think she was perfect or would have all the answers even could I magically commune with her. I ask this question precisely because I know that she was flawed and that she understood imperfection to be the human condition. When I waver in faith or love, I think she would tell me to forgive the flaws in my fellow humans as well as myself and to treasure those flaws as the mark of the divine. A friend of mine, in the process of an unpleasant divorce, told me he had begun to forgive his wife for her years of cruelties, because he started to recognize aspects of her in his daughter, whom he loved wholeheartedly. If he loved the weaknesses of one, how could not love them in the other? Our flaws stem from our creator, and if we love him we must love his designs, which is to love each other. “The final word is love,” Dorothy declared, over and over, in articles and letters. She loved with passion, a habit she could never cast off. “We should be fools for Christ,” she also wrote frequently. Dorothy formed a foolish and passionate love wide enough to embrace the entire body and creation of God. She loved the poor, the tormented, the almost unloveable. She even, bless her heart, loved the non-believers, which includes myself. “For those who not believe in God—they believe in love.” I don’t know if I believe in God but I know I believe in Dorothy—her message, her words, her acts of charity in a dark world.

Works Cited

Bauer, Dale M. Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.

Boulton, Agnes. Part of a Long Story: Eugene O’Neil as a Young Man in Love. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

Boyce, Neith and Hapgood, Hutchins. Intimate Warriors: Portrait of a Modern Marriage, 1899–1944, Selections by Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood. Ed. Ellen Kay. Trimberger. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991.

Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1989. Print.

Costello, Virginia. Revolutionizing Literature: Anarchism in the Lives and Works of Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, and Bernard Shaw. Diss. Stony Brook University, 2010. Print.

Day, Dorothy. Dorothy Day. The Dispossessed. 1932. Series D-3, Box 1. Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection. Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI.—. The Duty of Delight. Ed. Robert Ellsberg.  New York: Image Books, 2008.

—. The Eleventh Virgin. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1924.

—-. From Union Square to Rome. (New York: Orbis Books, 2006). Print.

—-. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. New York: Harper and Row,  1952. Print.

—-. On Pilgrimage. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. Print.

—-. “Reflection during Advent—Part Three, Chastity.” The Catholic Worker 10 December 1966.

—-. Therese: A Life of Therese of Lisieux. Springfield: Templegate Publishers, 1960. Print.

Dearborn, Mary. Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Print.

Eastman, Crystal. On Women and Revolution. Ed. Blanche Wiesen Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Print.

Falk, Candace Serena. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Print.

Fisher, James Terence. The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Print.

Forest, Jim. All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.  Print.

Gillette, Meg. “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence,” Twentieth Century Literature 58:4 (2012) 663–687. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 March 2015.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. Selected Letters 1917–1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner, 1981. Print.

LaBrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. Columbia, MO: University of  Missouri Press, 1997. Print.

Miller, Nina. Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary  Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread – the Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in  America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Print.

Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.


Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Miller 8.
  2. Stansell 225.
  3. Long Loneliness 53.
  4. Stansell 249.
  5. Stansell 249.
  6. Long Loneliness 84.
  7. Long Loneliness 84.
  8. Forrest 51–52.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hemingway 774–775.
  11. Day, All the Way to Heaven 38.
  12. Coles 3.
  13. “Haworth’s notable characters.” http://www.haworthnj.org/index.asp accessed 2 March 2015.
  14. Day, Long Loneliness 60.
  15. Boyce and Hapgood 39–132.
  16. Boyce and Hapgood 186–195.
  17. Eastman 76–83.
  18. Eastman 46–49.
  19. Stansell 275.
  20. Bauer 19.
  21. The Eleventh Virgin. The Dorothy Day Collection/The Catholic Worker. n.d. Web. n. pag.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Stansell 267.
  30. Ibid.
  31. I found this website on abortion in American and British literature immensely helpful: www.lesleyahall.net/literaryabortion.htm along with Gillette, Meg. “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence.” Twentieth Century Literature 58.4 (2012): 663–687. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
  32. Gillette 666.
  33. Coles 6 and Fisher 13.
  34. The Eleventh Virgin. The Dorothy Day Collection/The Catholic Worker. n.d. Web. n. pag.
  35. Coles 37.
  36. Long Loneliness 161
  37. The Dispossessed 65.
  38. The Dispossessed 60–61.
  39. The Dispossessed 61.
  40. The Dispossessed 59.
  41. The Dispossessed 65.
  42. The Dispossessed 65–66.
  43. The Dispossessed 81.
  44. The Dispossessed n. pag.
  45. Long Loneliness 85.
  46. Long Loneliness 148.
  47. Long Loneliness 140.
  48. All the Way to Heaven 40.
  49. All the Way to Heaven 56.
  50. All the Way to Heaven 63.
  51. All the Way to Heaven 216.
  52. All the Way to Heaven 216.
  53. All is Heaven 275.
  54. Long Loneliness 140.
  55. Coles 61.
  56. All is Heaven 275.
  57. Duty of Delight 29.
  58. Coles 64.
  59. On Pilgrimage 132.
  60. “Reflections during Advent” 20.
  61. On Pilgrimage 206.
  62. On Pilgrimage 132
  63. On Pilgrimage 227–228.
  64. Duty of Delight 505.
  65. Fisher, 1.
  66. Fisher, 2.
  67. Duty of Delight 81–82.
  68. Duty of Delight 81.
  69. Duty of Delight 688.
  70. Duty of Delight 602.
  71. Duty of Delight 488.
  72. Duty of Delight 418.
  73. Duty of Delight 411.
  74. On Pilgrimage 110.
  75. On Pilgrimage 91.
  76. On Pilgrimage 110.
  77. On Pilgrimage 95–96.
  78. On Pilgrimage 72.
  79. All the Way to Heaven 222.
  80. Long Loneliness 243.
  81. Duty of Delight 563.
  82. Day “On Pilgrimage” The Catholic Worker, May 1980.
  83. All the Way to Heaven 523.
  84. All the Way to Heaven 378.
  85. The Duty of Delight 673.
  86. The Duty of Delight 409.
  87. Duty of Delight 578.
  88. Rosen 143–195.
  89. Day, All the Way to Heaven 61.
  90. Duty of Delight 564
  91. Duty of Delight, 522–523.
  92. Duty of Delight 525.
  93. Duty of Delight 532.
  94. Duty of Delight 416
  95. Duty of Delight 589.
  96. Duty of Delight 590.
  97. Duty of Delight 268.
  98. Duty of Delight 63.
  99. Duty of Delight 291.
  100. All the Way to Heaven 97–98.
  101. All the Way to Heaven 124.
  102. Duty of Delight 77.
Jul 092016

StratfordTrainCirca1971The Author circa 1971 on the Stratford Train.


By the time I was seventeen, I was a singer-songwriter—a tumbleweed riding the wind, barely making ends meet. I sang a lunch set at the Penny Farthing coffee house for my lunch and dinner. And I lived in a downtown Toronto rooming house across the hall from Murray the Speed Freak who, according to the Addiction and Research Foundation, should have been dead six months ago. I needed a steady job to afford a better place to live.

So I applied to work at the University of Toronto where, I was told, jobs were plentiful. I presented myself to their administration offices with no skills, no experience and no references because I was not yet eighteen, still legally too young to work full-time. I lied about my age and likely other details I don’t recall. They hired me for the Wallace Room, the undergraduate reading room in the Sigmund Samuel Library. My first full-time job required me to be in the same place, all day, five days a week. What a shock.

9-5 Blues by Mary Rykov  [1:48]

My first full-time job was also a serendipitous good fit because I love to read. I’m told I recited the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit as a two-year-old. And I have fond memories as a five-year-old walking with my mother to the public library each week to exchange books. I felt grown up when she went off to choose her books and left me alone with the children’s librarian to choose mine. I love books, libraries and even the musty-dusty smell of some old books.

I can’t say I enjoyed my grade school library, where choices were limited. Mrs. Copeland ruled that library with a sign-out system that encouraged us to read the classics. The deal was to alternate between reading a book from her list and a book of our choosing. Fair enough.

When given the choice, I read about animals. Sometimes my choice overlapped with Mrs. Copeland’s book list, but not often enough. When I eventually read all the fiction and nonfiction animal books on the Grade 1, 2, and 3 shelves—interspersed, of course, with Mrs. Copeland’s literary canon—I chose an animal story from the Grade 4 shelf. But I was not allowed to read the Grade 4 books because I was still in Grade 3.

I balked at the injustice. I was following the rules and living up to my side of the bargain, but Mrs. Copeland was not playing fair. In protest, I stopped reading all books in Mrs. Copeland’s library. The school thought I stopped reading. They didn’t know I was reading — without restriction—the children’s books that lined my piano teacher’s waiting room.


The Wallace Room

The Sigmund Samuel Library was constructed in 1910 on the east perimeter of King’s College Circle to replace the original University College library that was gutted by fire in 1890. The Wallace Room, named for Chief Librarian and scholar-historian-editor W. Stewart Wallace (1884-1970), was located in a new wing added to the north side of the 1910 building in 1954-55.


The library building was then named for—and significantly financed by—Sigmund Samuel (1868–1962), son of a wealthy British industrialist who successfully grew his inherited family business. His generous philanthropy was responsible for the library enlargement, as well as the Canadiana collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada), contributions to Toronto Western Hospital, and numerous other community projects. Samuel became a Governor of the university and laid the cornerstone for the new library addition. With no disrespect intended for Samuel’s significant contributions, the oversight of indigenous perspectives that characterizes Eurocentric-colonialist “Canadiana” constitutes an unsettling and incomplete historiography by today’s standards.

The Wallace Room housed open stack books for all undergraduate disciplines, as well as short-term course reserve loans. After the Robarts Library was built on St. George Street in 1973, the humanities and social science holdings moved there. Today the old Wallace Room is a reading room in the Gerstein Science Information Centre, which takes up the entire Sigmund Samuel building. But during my 1971 tenure, I bolstered my high school dropout education with the full range of undergraduate disciplines.


Wallace Room 2016



My Wallace Room desk duties rotated between the sign-out desk and the front desk. At the sign-out desk, I ensured that sign-out slips were completed correctly. Then I date-stamped both duplicate parts of the slip, placed one copy in the pocket pasted to the back inside cover of the book, and the duplicate copies accumulated in a box to be filed later.


Duties at the front desk entailed answering questions, retrieving course reserve books, receiving book returns, and collecting fines. We were allowed to excuse overdue fines under $50.00 at our discretion, depending on the circumstances. I always pardoned fines for students who told me about a family death or other emergency, but not for students who told me the maid swept the books under their bed. We admired some of the stories that accompanied overdue books. Who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn?

During down time at the front desk, those duplicate paper sign-out slips were meticulously filed by date and call number. Book returns were processed by removing the paper sign-out slips from the back pockets, finding the corresponding filed duplicate slip, and discarding the matched pair.

The returned books, once processed, were placed on wheeled trolley carts according to the call number printed on their spines and by the green, orange, red, blue, purple and yellow dots that signified the call number section.


My favourite task was shelving books from the trolley carts in the back of the library stacks where my reading was not so easily disrupted. I read everything from Herodotus’s Histories (all nine volumes) to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I didn’t steal the books; I read them. And I particularly enjoyed the marginalia comments and arguments.


Herodotus interested me because I like archaeology and ancient history, myths, legends, and old things in general. I enjoyed talking to the students and read what I saw them reading. I was allowed to sign books out, and did. But most of my reading was done on the job. I read slowly and deeply (still do), cover to cover, including forewords, introductions, and acknowledgements. The marginalia was like a conversation speaking to me, although I can’t remember exactly what was said. I just enjoyed the discourse and that someone was moved—and cared enough—to respond to the writer. I still read marginalia.

My Wallace Room supervisor was librarian Jeanette Anton, a childless Estonian WWII refugee in her 50s who spoke with a musical accent. I likely projected onto her the character of Mrs. Copeland, my grade school librarian, who more closely resembled the wicked-witch-of-all-libraries past, present and future. In fact, there was no comparison. When Mrs. Anton smiled, her blue eyes twinkled. Mrs. Copeland also had blue eyes, but she never smiled. At least, not at me.

Mrs. Anton was kind, but she was also precise, demanding and did not suffer fools kindly, as the saying goes. She seemed to have had eyes in the back of her head, which gave her the uncanny ability to catch you doing something wrong—even if you never did it wrong before and never did it wrong again. She knew. Also knowledgeable and competent, Mrs. Anton was grandfathered into the library profession without having had formal training. She furthermore frightened me because she was very tall and towered over me.


Dress Code

I was (am) tiny, not five feet on a tall day. I could never find shoes small enough for my feet, and clothes didn’t look the same on me as they did on store mannequins. My long chestnut-auburn hair was never styled. Besides, I often rode my bike to work and didn’t preen. Mrs. Anton tolerated my jeans and sandals with a patient, maternal kindness. She also offered unsolicited wardrobe advice.

“So-o-o-o, my little one,” she would say, “they came out with a new fabric not long ago called Crimplene. It comes in all sorts of pretty colours — pink, blue, yellow, green. Solids and prints. You can throw it in the washing machine and dryer and it won’t need ironing. Crimplene!” I used to imagine Mrs. Anton with her very own TV commercial.


For readers who missed this 1960s fashion phenomenon, Crimplene was a thick, wrinkle-resistant polyester that was ideal for A-line mini dresses. The Crimplene name alone used to make me cringe almost as much as my coworkers’ snickering as Mrs. Anton extolled its virtues to me. While she raptured on, they stood behind her with fingers to their lips as if to vomit, trying to make me laugh. I learned to keep a straight face—a useful skill when fabricating excuses for being derelict in my duties. Read on.


Paper Records

Libraries in those days functioned on paper. Everything did. Books were requested, acquired, signed out and signed in on paper. Overdue fines were recorded on paper. My hours worked, all recorded on paper. But I was too young and feckless to care about company loyalty, much less duty, or pride in work well done. On busy days when I was too hot, bored or hungry—or hot, bored and hungry—I would tire of filing or retrieving all those paper sign-out slips. My eyes glazed over.

So I became the library fine faery.

Sometimes I excused library fines just because I didn’t want to record them. Other times I “disappeared” the paper sign-out slip duplicates by filing them temporarily in my pockets instead of in their respective file boxes. Later I would file them permanently down the toilet. Unfortunately—or fortunately—my tight blue jean pockets could not hold much.


Front Desk as War Zone

One spring morning, with cherry trees in full blossom, Mrs. Anton gathered us around her for a strategy meeting. Convocation ceremonies were scheduled, and students who had not paid their library fines would not receive their diplomas. They attended convocation, but their diplomas were held hostage until their fines were settled. Mrs. Anton knew this ritual well. She scheduled extra front-desk staff to address the onslaught.

You’d think these students would know who they were. You’d think they’d come in ahead of time to pay up. Some did, but many did not. Maybe they considered their overdue fines were hollow threats now that they had completed their studies and had no use for library privileges. They underestimated the ransom power of unpaid library fines until they found themselves at graduation, all dressed up in gowns and mortarboards, with just empty handshakes. No diplomas.


After the ceremony, the convocation carillon rang out like a starter pistol. We watched the would-be grads sprint straight across the King’s College Circle lawn from Convocation Hall heading in our direction—caps in hand and gowns flowing behind them in the wind. We took our positions behind the front desk as they arrived in droves, while Mrs. Anton maintained order in the lines-ups. Ha! Gotcha!


The Book Stacks

As mentioned, I enjoyed shelving and reading the books on the trolleys. On hot days, the book stacks in the back were darker and cooler than the sunny western exposure of the reading area in front. The old library building was not air conditioned back then. And when I was shelving books alone in the back book stacks with nobody looking, I would lie down on the floor to feel the cold marble on my hot arms and legs.


One steamy summer day I fell asleep there. I woke, startled, with everyone standing over me wringing their hands. Before I could leap to my feet—afraid I was really in big trouble this time—I realized they thought I had fainted. I was not allowed to stand up until I drank some water and ate a snack. Then I was sent home in a cab.


I Sleep Late (Most) Thursdays

Yes, my sleeping was a problem. More specifically, I had trouble waking on Thursday mornings because every Wednesday night I worked a late shift. I didn’t mind taking my turn and working late, but not when I had to start work at 8:45 am the next morning. My Wednesday late shift alternated between 10:00 pm one week and midnight the next week. Regardless, I still needed to be at work by 8:45 am on Thursday mornings.

I usually (but not always) managed to arrive on time after working until 10:00 pm. But on Thursday mornings after working until midnight the night before, I often failed to wake on time, even with three alarm clocks. And when I (or anyone) did not appear by 9:00 am, Mrs. Anton phoned. By then I had moved to a large shared house, living student-style with six others. And when I slept in and Mrs. Anton called, I had to dash from my third floor bedroom to the second floor telephone before my sleeping housemates were roused.

One Thursday morning after a midnight shift, I woke right at 8:45 am. Late again! But this time I dressed quickly, took the telephone receiver off the black, rotary-dialed base, and stifled the beeping with my pillow and blankets. I ran two blocks to the payphone at a busy intersection. Out of breath, I called in late from there.

“Where are you?” I’m asked.

“I just witnessed an accident, Mrs. Anton,” I say.

“Oooh, you must be upset,” she answers. “Go have a cup of coffee.”

“Okay,” I say.

So I walked home and put the telephone receiver back on the hook. After a leisurely bath—we had no shower—I made coffee and breakfast for my housemates. I finally sauntered into work around 11:30 am, in time for lunch.

“What happened?” they all asked.

Hmmm, I should have anticipated I would need further details to account for myself. But I was too young to be responsibly irresponsible. At first I tried saying I was too upset to talk about it. I hemmed and hawed, stalling, until they finally wheedled this story out of me.

“It was such a glorious morning, and I was a bit early,” I lied. “So I decide that instead of getting off the southbound Yonge subway at College and taking the streetcar west, I would exit a stop earlier at Wellesley so I could walk across Queen’s Park and enjoy the beautiful spring flowers,” my fib unfolds. “And while I stand on the northeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets waiting out the red light before crossing to the west side, I see a popcorn man wheeling his bicycle cart south on Bay Street.”


By now there was no turning back or stopping. My story continued, as if on its own. So I included hand gestures to illustrate. “As the popcorn man pedals into the intersection, the Cadillac car behind him starts to make a right-hand turn west onto Wellesley Street from Bay—and knocks the poor, old popcorn man over with its left rear tail fin!”

I was awed by my own audacity. Had I read so much Wallace Room fiction I was beginning to make up my own? I covered my face with my hands because I laughed so hard I actually gasped. And as I gasped, I cried. So I carried on, embellishing an awful scene with the popcorn man and his cap and his popcorn and peanuts and chestnuts and cashews and taffy apples spilled all over Bay Street, balloons billowing in the middle of the morning rush hour traffic. Of course I stayed with the popcorn man until the ambulance arrived. His name was Giorgio. Then I went to the police station with the officers to give my report. And months later when I slept in again—I was in court, serving as witness for Giogio’s case.


My First Job Legacy

Dumbfounded and relieved, I somehow passed my three-month probationary work period. How? No doubt due to Mrs. Anton’s compassion and affection. Mrs. Anton, may you rest in peace, and thank you. But three months after passing probation, I slept in so often that I exhausted all my toothache and dead relative excuses. No sequels to the popcorn man fable followed.

Unable to manufacture as much fiction as I consumed, I resigned from my first job because I assumed I would, eventually, be fired. I resumed playing music and did manage to land some television and radio spots, thanks to the Canadian content (Cancon) government regulations set out by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1970s. Once I opened for Lenny Breau in an after-hours jazz club. I even sang at the Myna Bird as an opening act for the strippers, which might have been easier had I stripped. Oh, well.


As I fumbled on towards adulthood, I came to appreciate my path was paved with more kindness than I was aware of at the time.

—Mary H. Auerbach Rykov


Mary H Auerbach Rykov is a Toronto music therapist-researcher, editor and educator. Her work appears in literary and professional venues. http://maryrykov.com



Jul 072016

Version 6


When I was seven, the age my son is now, my parents took my sisters and me to SeaWorld. I fell in love with Shamu, and came home with a stuffed killer whale. He shared my bed from then on. Ever since, my blissed-out dreams have featured whales.

I now live on an island surrounded by whales. Resident pods swim the strait that is my front yard. A friend once told me that I was looking for a whale in the shape of a man. My husband once thought he’d lose me as I ran along the beach, trailing a pod. He feared I’d dive in and never come back.

Dawn Brancheau underwater with whale

When I was pregnant, I had a dream. A dream of sex and a killer whale. Of sex with a killer whale.

My pregnancy was hard won. It had required surgery, daily shots of hormones, medical invasions. There were triplets at first, but two of them died. There was bleeding, there were dire prognoses for the one fetus I had remaining inside me. I was put on bed rest, and spent days in a haze of reading, movies, sleep, and dreams. I was careful about what I watched and heard; everything made me cry. (Hormones). I couldn’t watch the news, and I especially couldn’t follow the US presidential election. This was the fall of 2008, and I had a huge political crush on the junior senator from Illinois. I desperately wanted him to win.

A few weeks before the election, I had a dream in which I had sex with a killer whale, and gave birth to Barack Obama.  My sleeping mind was trying to make sense of it, trying trying to link the two events in a visual pun. It clicked: a killer whale is black and white so naturally our son, Barack Obama, would be bi-racial.


I told my husband, thinking the story would be good for light over-coffee conversation.  I had sex with a killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. 

No reaction.

So, I explain. Again. Slowly. Wishing I’d kept the dream to myself.

A beat. Then he asks, very seriously, very quietly. Was there penetration?

Are you jealous? I asked.

Was there penetration? he repeated.

Now usually, when I have dreams about sex there’s no actual sex involved, there’s just a wash of good feeling, but this dream had been different. It was logistical, mechanical, graphic. It was almost entirely about penetration.

whale breaching

The  whale of my dreams is variously misnamed: killer whale (a smart carnivore, but not a psychopath); orcinus orca (meaning “from the kingdom of the dead”); blackfish (yes, black; but no, not a fish). Grampus has fallen out of favor. At Seaworld, all the killer whales are called Shamu in public, but their trainers recognize them individually: Tilikum, Kasatka, Makani, Shouka. No doubt they have names for themselves in their own killer whale tongue.


Before I had sex with the whale, I took a good look at him. His erection was made of metal, as long as I am tall. It brought to mind a corkscrew, or drill bit. I said to him, You’re going to kill me if you’re not careful with that. He listened, he thought about the situation, he was great, very accommodating, very understanding. We worked it out. We made love. We made Barack Obama.

I have told this story before. People tend to be impressed by the sexual aspect; one friend informed me that in real life, whale peckers are, in fact, very long. My dream fear was not unfounded.


A unicorn lays his head down in a virgin’s lap. She strokes the beast, calms him.

The cetacean equivalent of a unicorn is the narwhal, who has a single, spiraled, very long tooth protruding from its forehead.

Killer whales eat narwhals for breakfast.


We are apex predators –nobody eats us. The peoples and the resident orcas where I live subsist on salmon. Transients will eat mammals. The beluga and the narwhal are  traditional sources of blubber, for man and blackfish alike.  Both salmon and blubber are great sources of Vitamin D, as well as other nutrients. One study found that the average 70-year-old Inuit with a traditional uqhuq –blubber– diet was likely to have arteries as elastic as a 20-year-old Dane.

Resident orcas are highly organized: matrilines are a family consisting of a mother and all her offspring; these whales separate only for hours at a time, to mate or hunt. Pods consist of closely related matrilines; pods travel together. Clans consist of related pods; communities comprise related clans.

To avoid inbreeding, males mate with females from other pods. In the wild, the dorsal of a male is always erect. Like that of many captive males, Tilikum’s dorsal drooped.

Tilikum's Flaccid Dorsal

When SeaWorld orca Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn, her blonde ponytail was blamed. It had been swinging and bouncing, catching the sunlight, and something about it aroused the whale.  He lunged from the pool, grabbing her ponytail in his mouth, and swam with her to the bottom of the pool. He kept her down there, molesting her, until she was quite dead. There was an inquest, there were written statements. An autopsy was performed. There was talk of attempted rape, that perhaps Tilikum had attacked Dawn due to raging hormones, and was enacting mating behavior. The killing was ruled a homicide.

After the incident, Tilikum was shut away. Isolated. With nobody to talk to.


Except when they’re resting, blackfish talk all the time. Their language consists of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. Pods all speak the same dialect, whereas clans in a community will exhibit dialectical variations. We can’t even guess what they’re saying.

The females go through menopause, and lead their matrilines  for decades beyond their child-bearing. Granny, of J pod and J clan of the Salish Sea, is 104 years old.

Killer whales teach their young; knowledge is passed down through generations.


In the absence of an elder, witch, priest, or other designated teacher, I see a psychologist regularly. She is heavily influenced by Jungian thought. What we do together is dredge the depths of my shadow side. Where unhealed wounds reside. Where rage lives. Where the part of us unknown to ourselves is.

The work is a bringing to light of what was in the dark. The work is chiaroscuro. The work is wholeness. We work with memories, with dreams.

There can be resistance to therapy, I’m told, because we fear what we might find. We’re afraid of who we are when we’re naked, and seen.

I went to her when my hands and feet were going numb, when my tongue was swollen, when I couldn’t breathe, when I had stigmata on my palms.  My body was a semaphore, a metaphor. My subconscious, speaking in symbols, was desperately trying to get my attention.

I was dreaming of sea monsters. White, repulsive things. Moby Dick on a bad day.

Moby Dick

There are perils to to misreading symbols, to taking dreams literally.  Conversely: tragedy when metaphor makes itself real.

There is a condition called sirenomelia, also known as Mermaid Syndrome.  A romantic name for a deformity in which the legs are fused together. The feet turn out like little flukes, so that the child looks half-human, half-fish. Or half-whale.

A baby like this was born in Peru. Her parents lived at the side of a lake filled with legends.  They named the child Milagros. They prayed that her legs might someday be cut apart. That someday she’d be able to walk on land.


I had sex with a killer whale and gave birth to Barack Obama. But that was a dream.


When I was in college studying art, I loved to paint. I wanted to lick those shining, oily colors, the mineral swirl of them around on my palette, the magic of mixing them. Stroking them onto the slick gessoed canvas felt like love. Drawing, on the other hand, was hard for me. It required disciplined seeing. The marks determined form and space, the black on white created architecture, skeletons. If color was flesh, black-on-white was bone.

When all the colors of the light spectrum are mixed, you get white. When all the colors of the physical pigment spectrum are mixed, you get black.  Light contains all colors, black absorbs all colors. Like many opposites, in some ways they’re the same: containing, absorbing, holding. And, at once, denying.

When my son was tiny, I hung a mobile of black and white above his crib. Newborns can only see light and shadow, they are trying to discern edges. We start by knowing the world through colorless extremes.

It’s also how we end. White is a mourning color in much of the world, as is black.

Black made from charcoal is one of the oldest know pigments, and shows up in Paleolithic art. Other traditional blacks include bone char, made from burnt bone, and lampblack, made from soot. In the United States, performers used to rub burnt cork, and later greasepaint, on their skin to blacken their faces.

For a long time, white was either temporary (chalk) or a ground (lime white) on which other pigments would be applied. It wasn’t until the Greeks came along and invented lead white pigment that white became a permanent part of the picture. Women in ancient Rome would paint their faces white. With lead. These cosmetics reeked, and so the women masked the smell of their faces with perfume. This make-up and perfume, along with jewelry, were a woman’s cultus, her culture.

Version 2

Irregular patches of contrasted colours and tones … tend to catch the eye of the observer and to draw his attention away from the shape which bears them.

— Hugh Cott, Adaptive Coloration in Animals

A killer whale’s black and white patterning  is a kind of disruptive camouflage. If you focus on only the black or only the white, you can’t see the thing for what it is, in its entirety. You don’t know what’s coming at you.

Individual whales are recognizable to humans by their dorsal fins and saddle patches. By the particularities of coloration. Who knows how the killer whales recognize one another, but to those of us on the outside, with only the crudest of metrics at our disposal, skins have become identities.  Soul clothes, passed down through generations.

Disruptive Camouflage

A killer whale’s black as well as white is largely determined by melanin, the same pigment found in squid ink, which people have long used for writing.

Melanin writes on human skin as well as on the whales’. It writes a letter from the inside of a person to the outside world, it seems to say, This is who I am.

Be careful what you read. Ink is not the same as truth, the word is not the same as god. Everyone knows, all writers are liars.


Some of us were leached of melanin long ago when we migrated to what is now Europe. When we lost our melanin, we lost our protection. Pale skin is more prone to deadly skin cancer, and ages more quickly. It was a necessary concession: the lack of sun and adequate dietary sources of vitamin D would’ve killed us.  Our skin paled so that it could soak up the sun more efficiently. Fewer melanocytes results in lighter skin, the color of which is then affected by the bluish-white connective tissue under, and the red blood coursing through, the dermis.

Rarely, a genetic twist will color the skin indigo. As in a family—the Fugates—who lived at Troublesome Creek, and suffered from methemoglobinemia.

The bluest Fugates I ever saw was Luna and her kin. Luna was bluish all over. Her lips were as dark as a bruise. She was as blue a woman as I ever saw.

–Carrie Lee Kilburn, a nurse

Albino Killer Whale Iceberg

Iceberg is a pure white killer whale who has been spotted off the coasts of Alaska and Russia.  Scientists want to look into his eyes, to see if he’s albino.  There have been other white killers, though not albinos. Chediak-Higashi is a rare disease of the immune and nervous systems that drains the whale of color, and also of life. Most die when they’re very young.

Killer whales, in order to be whole, are black and white, not one or the other.


Queequeg and Ishmael in bed together, Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over pale Ishmael’s. They are in a cold room, keeping each other warm:

…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.

—from Chapter 11, “Nightgown,” of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.


I have wondered if paper was made to be white because ink was black, and wanted a contrasting field. Did the mark determine the ground?


Killer whales are  important clan and totem animals amongst Indigenous Northwest Coast peoples. I’m a permanent, uninvited guest on Coast Salish land. I can’t imagine life without the salmonberries and seagulls, the kelpy beaches, the Nootka roses. Please know I love the killer whales.


The sea is often taken as a symbol for the subconscious mind, the unknown self, the deep soul. A whale navigates these depths with ease.

As a girl in Arizona, I spent hours in the swimming pool. Holding my breath underwater. Swimming swimming swimming. All the way down to the bottom.  Don’t touch the drain, I was told. Your fingers could get caught in the grate and you’ll die.

You can’t live your life in dreams. We walk on land. We breathe air.

Jan Topelski transcriptJan Topelski transcript

She was lying down … face to face performing a relationship session” with our whale. I then noticed immediately he bit down on a piece of her hair.

—Jan Topelski, SeaWorld official

Suddenly I saw (the whale) grabbing the trainer … and pulling her down in the water. It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the whale’s mouth, the whale’s tail was very wild in the water.

—Susanne De Wit, a 33-year-old tourist from the Netherlands

One of the guests at DWS (Dine with Shamu) asked if she was going to be OK cause she witnessed Dawn being pulled under by the hair.

—Phyllis Manning, waitress

The whale would not let us have her.

—Jodie Ann Tintle, whale trainer

Tilly was not giving up Dawn.

—Robin Ann Morland, another SeaWorld worker.

We don’t know what was going through the killer whale’s head.

—Chuck Tompkins, Brancheau’s former supervisor.


As SeaWorld’s chief stud, Tilikum has been masturbated by trainers like Dawn many times.  When given the signal, he knows how to swim to a shelf at the side of the pool, lie on his back, and flop his (sizable) penis onto the deck. Then the trainer gives him a handjob.


Moby Dick was a killer whale, but not a killer whale. He was an albino sperm.


Tilikum’s semen, caught in plastic bags poolside, has been used to make seventeen more Shamus, ten of whom are still alive and performing.

Like Tilikum’s children, my son is the product of artificial insemination. He was conceived in a petri dish, and then grew in me. I have a picture of him when he was eight cells old. He is my greatest joy.

Tilikum was some mother whale’s son, but he was taken from her, from the wild, off the coast of Iceland.

The bull whales had tried to lead the whale catchers astray by swimming down a fjord, while the mothers and aunties stayed with the children. But the hunters found the children anyway, and took Tilikum away. As Tilikum was hoisted up out of the water, the whole pod keened.


Dawn’s murder was caught on videotape. When studied, footage revealed that Tilikum had not actually dragged Dawn down to the depths by her pony tail. He’d grabbed her arm. He was angry, not aroused.

The film Blackfish persuasively argues that his aggression and psychosis were a result of abuse in his childhood. Not only was he stolen from his family, but once ensconced in his first human home, in Canada, he was bullied and beaten by his peers. He was kept in a tiny tank where he was lonely and had nothing to do. It was a miserable existence, with nothing natural about it. Along with two other, older whales, young Tilikum was involved in the death of their trainer, Keltie Byrne. After that, they were sold off to America.


My father’s family comes from the West Indies. We’ve been there for hundreds of years, in Barbados and Bermuda, though no longer. The men in my family spent their time on the sea.

Records indicate that my forebears were not whalers, but shippers who plied the route from the Caribbean to Canada, hauling rum north, salt cod south.  They did not, as far as I can tell, traffic in people.  I don’t know if they held captives, if they forced labor without wages, if they tore families apart, but at very least they were certainly part of the slave economy.

History is never safely in the past until it has been seen, understood, brought to light. Shadow side work.

The history of a self extends beyond her own borders. The outside and the inside of a self are connected. They resonate. To see one clearly, you must also see the other. You must be in two places at once.

We are both particle and wave.

We are whale and water.


We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.

―Herman Melvill, not the American writer, but the English preacher


The only resident killer whale known to have lived all on his own was named Luna. He’d been separated from his mother early on, under mysterious circumstances, and wound up in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Vancouver Island.  Orcas are social creatures. Did he know who he was without his kin? He was killed by a tugboat when he was just six.


Tilikum, after the incident with Dawn, was placed in solitary confinement. He became listless, and now, as I write, is dying.


My Jungian therapist says that, symbolically, a god and I were fucking when I had sex with the killer whale.


When fireworks went off all around me in 2008, I knew Obama had won and I burst out crying. I was happy for our country, but in some deep way, I also believed that there was a resonance between the son I dreamt and the son I carried. Because Obama had won, so would, despite predictions to the contrary, my child. To this day I credit that killer whale for my son’s robustness.


Killer whales drown if they fall completely asleep. They rest, one eye open, half a brain closed. We do not know if they dream.


In my dream, I had sex with killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. That’s my story, one of them.


The resident whales where I live sing.  The salmon they eat can’t hear their songs, and so the whales sing freely.


Dawn Brancheau with whale



As a child, Dawn Brancheau fell in love with Shamu, and dreamt of working with killer whales when she grew up. She stayed with that dream, and became a lead trainer at SeaWorld.  She loved the whales. Her family has objected to the film Blackfish. “Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was just a footnote.” The family statement about Blackfish is here: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2014-01-21/business/os-dawn-brancheau-blackfish-statement-20140121_1_killer-whales-blackfish-orca-tilikum

The Dawn Brancheau Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and promoting the importance of community service. http://www.dawnsfoundation.org

Blackfish: http://www.blackfishmovie.com

The Joy of (Killer Whale) Sex: my story as told at the Moth, http://julietrimingham.com/the-joy-of-killer-whale-sex/

Some research links:

—Julie Trimingham

Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her fictional travelogue chapbook, Way Elsewhere, was released in May 2016 by The Lettered Streets Press (https://squareup.com/store/lettered-streets-press/). She regularly tells stories at The Moth and writes essays for  Numéro Cinq magazine. Gina B. Nahai blurbed Julie’s first book, saying, “A novel of quiet passion and rare beauty, Mockingbird is a testament to the power of pure, uncluttered language—a confluence of feelings and physicality that will draw you back, line after graceful, memorable, line.” Julie is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer with Longhouse Media (http://longhousemedia.org) on a documentary film about the Salish Sea.


Jul 022016

anita-desai-1Anita Desai


In his introduction to Moral Agents: Eight American Writers of the 20th century, Edward Mendelson mentions a singularity of the American novel, one that is reflective of its culture: the emphasis on the individual self’s determination and ability to overcome odds. This could mean destiny in certain instances or even convention. There is nothing that can hold the individual back – and the example Mendelson’s offers is that of Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn. This theme, however, appears in some of Henry James’ novels: the early ones such as The American, Roderick Hudson and even in Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer tries hard not to settle into the conventional role as society demands of her.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is about a man who gives himself a new identity and tries hard to chalk out his own destiny.

‘American culture,’ writes Mendelson, ‘has always been troubled by the question of what it means to be an individual person.’ He goes on, ‘In the American novel, on the whole, the goal of the plot is the liberation of the hero… from other people’s values and demands, an escape from all relations of the kind in which individual persons find some accommodation with each other.’  Consider in this light also some works of Ernest Hemingway, where the hero tries hard to find love, but a bigger, larger motive – of fighting battles, of doing a heroic act – always calls him away.

Choice is what drives the individual and it is the individual’s agency that pushes her destiny and even fiction forward. This is unlike, Mendelson suggests, ‘the fictions of Europe where an individual’s life is shaped from outside by large interpersonal forces of culture, history, gender, ethnicity, class, archetype or myth’. In such fiction too, other pulls – of society for example, are far stronger, and the individual is subsumed to it. Interestingly, this difference between American and European cultures appears in Henry James’ works, such as The American, where the brash, assertive American’s ways are contrasted with the more circumspect, more socially conscious French aristocracy.

Such wider forces appear in Asian fiction as well, of which Asian writing in English is a subset. Characters are in thrall to other pressures – long existing, overarching and demanding, and also divinely/religiously sanctioned. In Asia, religion has from time immemorial, formed an integral part of the polity; the strictures of religion and its rules decide an individual’s life. Rulers or the government have the dharma (or ordained duty), then, to uphold what has been thus ‘divinely’ ordained. One’s birth then decided one’s destiny and this or the fates, defined her duties, the role she had to play in different life stages, and choice or agency could do little to circumvent or surpass this. The two famous Hindu ancient Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are about individuals who are advised to do their duty; indeed, one’s dharma (way of living rightly) lies just in fulfilling one’s duties sanctioned by tradition and caste.

In ancient societies, where religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have long had a presence, it is received wisdom that individuals are born to certain roles, to certain stations and that it is their destiny or dharma to live according to that. A king serves his subjects, officials function as per the roles they occupy and as defined by caste. On a more unit level, a man has responsibility for his family, a woman serves her family, children are to respect their parents and to grow up within the family and serve it. The individual, in tradition and even in fiction, is defined by the family, whose very reason for existence, and function is decided by culture and religion. There is then little free will; things are pre-destined.

A look at the trajectory of literature in South Asia reveals that the popular works, that travelled primarily by word of mouth before being written down much later, such as the epics or tales from the Panchatantra (tales that sought to impart training to princes), involved individuals performing best as they could their given roles and duties. The novel, it has been suggested, is a western import. Some Indian first novels in the mid-19th century, such as the novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay who wrote India’s first novel in English, and those written soon after in regional languages, reflect the country’s need to question colonial rule, the need to rebel against an unjust foreign power. The individual’s role, in a time of change as seen from the 19th century, appeared in greater measure as the novel emerged. But these still recognized the role of tradition, especially in the domestic realm.

Anita desai


The Novels of Anita Desai

The novels of Anita Desai (born 1937) look at present-day and persistent manifestations of the conflict as manifested with the individual arraigned against bigger forces and also the individual’s attempts to subvert destiny. Such subversion, especially in her early novels that feature women, never quite come easy.

In the few interviews she has given, Desai has offered glimpses of her own life: one that did not fall into conventional accepted patterns. It made her in many ways the outsider, and yet gave her an inside view on how the domestic world functioned in India, the relationships and subtle modes of exploitation that existed in traditional families, where the woman was expected to sacrifice her own interests for the greater good – and how bigger events have an impact on small lives.

Her father, Dhiren Mazumdar, a Bengali from Dhaka (then in undivided British India and now the capital of Bangladesh), travelled to Germany as a student of engineering; his father and brother were involved in the Indian freedom struggle against the British that raged then. In pre-war Berlin of the 1930s, Mazumdar met Antoinette Nime, whom he married—something quite different from the usual ‘arranged marriages’ of the time. Desai’s mother, who claimed to have mixed French and German ancestry, never returned to Germany. (Desai’s recollections of Germany, that appear in her Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989), are based largely on her mother’s reminiscences about a home she could never return to, once the Nazis rose to power.)

It was in Mussoorie, a hill town near the Himalayan foothills that Desai was born on June 24th, 1937, one of four siblings. The family later moved to Delhi; again a city where the extended family was absent and thus unable to interfere (an aspect that appears in several of Desai’s novels). Desai lived most of her early life in Old Delhi, the more ancient part of the city; its houses and streets appear in many of her works.

Desai spoke German at home and also knew Hindi, English—her literary language, and the one she read books in first—and then also Bengali and Urdu. She read English at Delhi University and married fairly young at 21, to a businessman with roots in Bombay, Ashvin Desai. Bringing up four children and moving first to Bombay and then Calcutta, Desai wrote her first novel when she was 27. Cry, the Peacock (1963) reveals the confusion and unnamed fears of a young married woman, living in assured privilege, but which precisely becomes the cause for her anguish.

In these early works, the resistance, to familial pressures, on the part of her protagonists is passive and sullen and leads to a helpless, hysterical despair – as indeed in Cry, The Peacock. The object of one’s resistance is somewhat mysterious – for individuals do not (know how to) question tradition or societal sanctions. Her protagonists in subsequent novels have been largely women, though two novels in particular, deal with men whose lives have been disrupted by historical forces. Desai describes the constraints and limitations such tradition imposes, especially on women’s lives. Women have to marry, and have to serve their families. Sons have to study hard to keep the family’s honor and secure a good job to improve the family economically.

Desai, a writer who is part of the first generation of post-independent Indian writers (the 50s and 60s onward) in English, set her stories in this period as well, a time when the country made its first attempts to shake off its colonial past. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, talked of a modern nation that would find its place among the world’s bigger powers in a ‘non-aligned’ way – this in a time as the Cold War settled in between the world’s two superpowers, the US and the then Soviet Union.

Indian writers then who wrote in English had, it was understood by the Indian people, a different audience. They were seeking in some sense to explain India to the world, and also present the west’s encounter with tradition, something seen in Desai’s novels. Writing in English – and some writers who were first bilingual moved to English as a deliberate measure – is in contrast with writers in India’s regional languages, who wrote books on important themes such as Partition, of the condition of women, the position of castes considered ‘lower’ in the hierarchy for instance. But their exposure, via translation, has been a more recent occurrence.

It was around the late 1980s that she moved to the west, dividing her time between Delhi and the west. She was first a fellow at Girton College in the UK and then moved on as a faculty to Smith College, Mount Holyoke and then the MIT where she has been teaching since 1993. Her novels of this period, the middle phase of her career, have characters that try and question tradition, or resist convention and societal constraint, not in overtly rebellious ways, but by seeking an undefined spirituality as happens in Journey to Ithaca (1995), through contrarian behavior, that leads to self-destruction as in Fasting, Feasting (1999), and also in the three novellas that constitute The Artist of Disappearance (2012) where resistance appears in forms of ‘renunciation’ or abdication in the manner of the sadhus of old.

Her work, shows this constant questioning on her part, the attempt to understand, with empathy, how ordinary lives might resist, though, as in some of her other novels during this time, the forces now arraigned against them were wider in scope– such as the pulls of history in In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). Concomitant with her many movements, her stories too move, from India—where most of her novels till the late 1980s are set, to places like Europe, Mexico and the US.


Two Conflicting Roles

The figures of householder and ascetic, symbolizing the contrast between individuality and tradition, have been the staples of the ancient Hindu textual tradition. Its epics, mentioned earlier, and law texts such as the Dharmashastras, define duties and laws according to the caste one has been born in. The obligations placed on the individual at every life stage appear to suggest that life is always directed by tradition, responsibilities thrust by society and community.

An individual passes through four stages of life from being a student to setting up house, which is succeeded by retirement and then renunciation: when the individual leaves behind all worldly and household obligations and leaves for the forest. This departure is not just symbolic, for the casting off of ties implies that the character is not bound by her family and household any more. It then becomes a societal obligation to care for the person, for it is understood that they are seeking a higher spirituality, looking for an immersion into God, away from the cycle of birth and death.

The ascetic, then, is one who has renounced it all, someone who has shunned all ties and obligations, for only through such renunciation, as the ancient scriptures have it, can the individual attain salvation (moksha).  The ascetic is seeking meaning in a higher spirituality, usually immaterial and unworldly – this isn’t easily defined and is hard to achieve, involving arduous penance, long periods of fasting and usually subjecting the body to all kinds of hardships, in the hope that some divinity would be appeased by such measures and confer blessings.

The householder, on the other hand, is immersed in family obligations and duties, and responsibilities. This contrast in Indian society has engaged sociologists and historians alike, such as the French sociologist, Louis Dumont who suggested, that an ascetic is one “beyond” the caste system; only they could, by professing to break the associations of caste, seek spirituality of a higher order.  (It was, on the other hand, easier for those from a higher caste giving it all up; both Mahavira and Buddha, founders of Jainism and Buddhism respectively, were born in Kshatriya (warrior) families). A social historian of colonial India, William R Pinch, writes of the symbiotic relationship between peasants and monks in villages throughout Indian history; each one dependent on the other for well-being and survival. The peasants in their villages, have to provide succor and shelter, as per their dharma, to wandering monks; the latter’s presence graces the village and offers them benediction. He presents to them an idea of their own future.

As the American writer-painter Edwin Lord Weeks noted in the 1890s, the itinerant fakir was a ubiquitous part of Indian life like the crow and the vulture. For all his seriousness, Weeks wrote, the fakir could look grotesque and even an anachronism. Writing of how he came upon fakirs in cities and in villages, Weeks described how the fakir appeared incongruous in the midst of a country that was changing, with new ways of transportation and thought (in the late 19th century, railways covered most of India, except the very remote and there were more modern thoughts of government and rationality among its thinkers). Yet the fakir was left undisturbed where he was, and those who came upon him, even offered him their respects.

This contrast (and also conflict) between these two aspects of life – one in the throes of destiny and another, hoping to subvert or even question destiny – manifests itself in different ways all through Anita Desai’s work from the early 1960s (Cry, The Peacock) to her most recent (The Artist of Disappearance).  While the conflict possesses the individual in Desai’s early novels, in sometimes irresolvable ways – either the protagonist is violent to herself, or rebels in little understood ways – in the novels that make up the later phase of her career, there is the quest for renunciation, a search for ‘meaning’ and spirituality, and then, as happens in Desai’s last, very recent work—a collection of three novellas—in 2012 (The Artist of Disappearance), a move towards self-effacement, a vanishing of the self. It appears as if Desai is seeking to provide her own answer or a resolution between these two different ways of living.  As the novellas in The Artist of Disappearance show, there are possibilities of fulfillment, and this search can acquire unique meaning for the seeker.  It may be hard to understand or to make oneself understood – but this need, very often for her protagonist, for her is immaterial or irrelevant.

Moreover, using quiet, stoic characters, Desai also seeks to reveal what is the inexplicable: the urge to follow one’s desires that drives life, even though these desires may seem mysterious and absurd to others. The nature of happiness and even contentment is indeed strange; her characters seem to suggest. But reaching this stage – that is, the realization that one can live simply without approval, without very many needs – can belie the need to explain oneself to others, in the manner of a true ascetic.


A Woman’s Inner Torment

Desai’s first novel, Cry, The Peacock, appeared in 1963 when she was 27. It is rather overwrought, as Desai herself said later, for it lingers greatly on Maya’s inner thoughts and her torment. A young woman finds it hard to overcome her destiny, largely as a dutiful daughter ready to do her father’s bidding. While she is clearly an unhappy wife (in this regard, she is not dutiful to her role), it is the prediction that made about her future, her later destiny, that comes to soon obsess her.

The novel is told from the point of view of Maya and while no dates are given, it is clearly set in the middle of the last century (the 1950s, when India had just become independent). The book begins with the death of Maya’s adored dog, a small Pomeranian. It is a death that appears sudden and unexpected and as the reader soon understands, it is the first death Maya has been witness to. It is this that drives her to hysterics. She sees the death as a premonition of other more unfortunate events: especially other deaths, even her own.  Soon after, she sees apparitions and shapes that appear out of the darkness. She remembers then the astrologer’s prediction made about her future when she was still a child.

Cry the Peacock

Maya remembers every detail of this encounter. A man, she remembers vividly, evidently an albino for he is unnaturally pale and who is vividly dressed in fine colored robes and his strange half-dark chamber who she had visited in the company of an ayah when very young.  The recent death she has witnessed brings about a resurgence in her memory of this old prophecy: The astrologer had predicted a death for someone very close to her, or even her own. He did not specify a time or even if Maya would be the cause for such a death, but it leaves her horrified. She runs out of the astrologer’s chamber, throwing a tantrum. Later, her father, a progressive lawyer and a widower detached from his children, will dismiss the prediction and life will appear to go on as usual. Maya is married early, as per her father’s wishes, to Gautama, a lawyer colleague, while Arjuna, her beloved older brother, leaves home after quarreling with his father. It strikes the reader that the horror of the prophecy was heightened by Maya’s evident shock at the astrologer’s own appearance.

But losing her dog does unhinge her in several ways. Maya spends hours studying her reflection, preferring the comfort of her own room in contrast to the world outside. She refuses to even sit for long in the garden with her husband. She is unable to understand her own fearful restlessness – for she paces to and fro in her room – and feels only a quick dissatisfaction with all that she sees around her, even the occasions she goes outside.  She sees her friends, and how they have ‘adjusted’ to their lives – someone as an unhappily married woman, another married to a perpetually sick man – and she feels a horror at such lives that have no ‘meaning’ left.  Such thoughts on life’s meaninglessness and the recent death of an adored pet, bring back the prediction, as a long buried memory, starkly to life.

Maya then cannot seem to stop thinking of it.  Bereft of other choices – for as a traditional woman, she is a rich, stay-at-home wife – she comes to be in thrall to this prophecy. Desai describes vividly Maya’s cloistered life, spent in a huge mansion, where she spends time lost in repetitive thoughts or looking at herself in the mirror. Old houses are a motif in Desai’s fiction, appearing as they do in many of her novels, symbolizing decadence and even a claustrophobia of the self. Maya’s repetitive actions, and Maya catches herself at this, make her appear more helpless. The novel spends too much time on Maya’s inner world and her obsession with the house’s silences, its intricate interiors that are also reminiscent of Charlotte Gilman Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Being a woman, Desai suggests through Maya’s spoilt, pampered, sheltered life, means one is unable to give up the constraints of tradition. It is reflected in the lives of the other women Maya sees around her. Maya does not quite understand how her friends “make do” with life as it comes to them.  They are simply caught up in the flow of life; Maya too (despite her name, which in Sanskrit and most Indian languages, means ‘illusion’) finds herself sinking in life’s hard, undiminishing realities. Things, it seems, will be as they have been ordained. She remains dissatisfied with the people she meets, horrified when one of her more ambitious friends gets pregnant; she is stunned into silence by another friend who sacrifices her career in serving her sick husband, and still another, who suffers long at the hands of her husband and yet lies about her social status.

As the novel progresses, it is clear that the astrologer’s prophecy has taken over Maya’s life. She alternates between a withdrawal into herself or basking in false cheer.  Always, she remains obsessed with thoughts of death, despite all her striving to find some meaning as to what life could be about. But life’s very mundaneness—especially in how her friends and acquaintances lead their lives —is what turns her off. The traditional family in provincial India in much of Desai’s fiction is oppressive, grasping and stifling, and no member is spared from her piercing description.  Every member has a role to fulfill as ordained by destiny, and there is little they can do.

Maya’s husband, Gautama, older than her in years, tries to do his duty by her by being ever solicitous and attentive. He fails, despite or because of his efforts for Maya’s obsession with the death prophecy, makes her fearful of him and also afraid for him. The death she fears could be his, or that he could be the cause of her own death. And Maya, obsessed with death, still hopes to find meaning in life. Gautama (a name that is also the Buddha’s) talks of acceptance as embodied in the Bhagavad Gita.  He refers to karma, the results of one’s actions from past lives, and how it reads to reincarnation till one is fortunate to attain ‘moksha’ or salvation. But such answers do not satisfy Maya; they suggest an acceptance of destiny, the very fatalism that drives her to despair.

The novel moves back into the past from the present: In Desai’s novels, ‘analepsis’ is an oft-used technique. There is then a frequent movement to the past – where much of the present is shaped – and then back again.  In this novel, almost as a contrast, there is Maya’s brother Arjuna, who ran away from home to escape the rigid authoritarianism of their father. Arjuna, named after the warrior to whom Krishna addressed his message of doing one duty without attachment in the Bhagavad Gita, drops out of Maya’s life for a bit. But in a letter to Maya written several years later, that Maya receives not long after the death of her pet, Arjuna reveals his whereabouts. It appears he now lives in the US, eking out a living in a canning plant.  A life lived solely for pleasure, Arjuna writes (almost as if in answer to Maya’s questions to herself), has no meaning. One has to find one’s role in life, and despite subverting tradition, one must be of use to one’s fellow beings. This leaves Maya more confused for she does not know how to question things, unlike her more rebellious brother, though there is a desperation in her trying, in her ability to understand herself and to make herself understood.

The contrasts between the two siblings, one tied to obligations, unable even to break free of an astrologer’s prediction and the other, always questioning, stepping outside boundaries set by his father – appear in how Maya remembers a childhood scene of kite flying. Arjuna’s kite soars high like a hawk while hers resembles a mere ordinary bird, flies almost as if tied to the ground.  But for Arjuna too – in a theme not really explored fully by Desai in this novel – there is a constraint for Arjuna realizes he cannot be entirely “free”; he cannot get away from his roots (tradition). As he writes to Maya, in words and thoughts that would appear antiquated to most people today, even the Afro-Americans he works with have to return to Africa, to find their roots.


Feminism, Quiet Rebellion and Inanimate Presences

As women have been central to several of her novels, Desai has also been called a feminist writer, a term not really associated with Indian writers in English during this time of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism—or even protest at traditions in place that historically subjected women—was a concern that emerged among such writers (Indian writers in English) arguably around the 1980s, though criticism of patriarchy and accepted tradition was already established in regional writing – in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi and in the Dravidian languages as well. English was, at the time, considered the language of the elite, more an urban language. In the immediate post-independence years (1940s and 1950s) India’s literacy rates were low (barely 20 percent of the population could read and write; the number now at nearly 80 per cent is much higher). No doubt Desai found herself isolated in some ways. For a long time, she was bracketed by critics and scholars of Indian writing in English into a writerly triumvirate with authors who had partial roots in India such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Meira Chand.

 Jhabvala, a German married to an Indian – in a similarity with Anita Desai’s own parentage – was a writer of several short stories and novels such as the Booker winning Heat and Dust, where tradition clearly exerts hold over people’s lives, even when they flout convention in other ways.  In a short story, ‘The Judge’s Wife,’ for instance, the family comes to know of their father’s (the judge) second wife only as he is dying, and she turns out to be a meek, quiet and unassuming woman. In Heat and Dust, a British woman comes to India in the footsteps of her step grandmother who had lived during the Raj days.

Jhabvala uses the technique of analepsis – something seen in Desai’s writings too. Heat and Dust is a slow revelation of how the step-grandmother Olivia, chafing under the restrictions of a conservative British society in India, once had a secret affair with the Nawab of a princely state.  It led to her taking up a reclusive life, spending the rest of her life in India with her son, born of the Nawab.

Meira Chand, a Singapore based writer of Indo-Swiss parentage, wrote her first novels set in Japan where she lived then. In these works, the woman’s status is always subservient to the demands of her husband and his family. But all three novelists—Desai, Jhabvala and Chand—, with a certain ‘outsider’ status, especially in how they approach their writing, have characters that deal with this matter with a quiet rebellion, evinced in different ways. Chand’s women heroines are usually ‘outsiders’, married into a traditional family and hence they appear more silently questioning. Desai’s characters, in their conflict with tradition and self-assertion, find themselves similarly isolated. They could be loners or eccentrics – largely ignored and forgotten.  Desai evokes with empathy their inner lives as they struggle, most often with incomprehension with this conflict.


Pressures of Family and History

In Desai’s subsequent novels, following Cry, The Peacock, Desai’s characters, major or minor, strive in various ways, most often not succeeding, to seek release from binding ties and tradition. In Clear Light of Day (1980), Bim, the unmarried older sister of Tara and Raja, protector and preserver of the family’s old house, finds herself resentful of what has been thrust on her. Bim (or Bimala) has, to all apparent purposes, sacrificed her life to look first after her brother Raja, then their autistic younger brother, Baba and their aunt, Mira-masi, who after a lifetime spent looking after them has sunk, in her old age, into a drunken stupor and mad ramblings. The doctor who once had a romantic interest in her surmises that it is Bim’s family whose needs she considers more important and deserving of her sacrifice, but to this Bim has a strange, inexplicable reaction. She laughs, Desai writes. “He had not understood.”

clear light of day

But Bim’s attachment to her family – what remains of it after Mira Masi’s death and even after Raja leaves them – is not really explained. But from Desai’s long and detailed descriptions of their old house, in Delhi located by the river Jamuna, it is the house with its memories, its tradition and especially its past, that has a hold on Bim. As it falls apart, and Bim greys too, it is as if they are synonymous with each other. The house with its garden, and the river slowly silting up is Bim’s domain, though she knows that she too is ephemeral.

The house too appears as a character: Its looming creepers, huge, vacant rooms, columns with their flaky and constantly dropping stone pieces, the abandoned pond where the family cow had once drowned in, and its old forgotten sounds as Baba, the younger brother plays the old records over and over again in his room. Yet, it is the contrast in how the house appears to Bim and Tara, her younger sister, especially in their memories, that shapes the people they have become. Bim becomes attached to the house and its many pulls. She is unable to abandon it, just as she couldn’t their old aunt, Mira-masi, who is becomes helplessly dependent on Bim as senility catches up. All Tara appeared to want, on the other hand, with her early marriage to a diplomat with a promising career, was to leave the house as soon as she could.

In contrast to Tara, Bim remains bitter towards their brother, Raja. While the responsibility of maintaining the house is hers, she resents being officially a tenant – of her brother, Raja, who left to marry into the family of their erstwhile landlord, Hyder Ali. The latter, like all Muslims who had chosen to live on in India (instead of leaving for the new country of Pakistan created with Independence in 1947) felt himself threatened as riots broke out in the run-up independence. He moved south to Hyderabad, a state in India (renamed Andhra Pradesh later) where Muslims found security in numbers.

Raja’s marriage into this family – and Hyder Ali was a mentor of sorts who encouraged Raja’s love of Urdu poetry – and his subsequent abandonment of his old family for he left for Hyderabad leads Bim to cut off ties with him. This doesn’t happen in dramatic fashion, but in the long years of separation, Bim has not written to him even once. The younger sister, Tara, on the other hand, devoted to the family she has married into, wants her natal family – no matter how “dysfunctional” it is (her husband Bakul’s term) – to remain knitted together.

Desai’s novel, in the pattern of analepsis, found in her other works, moves back and forth in time.  From the present, where we are confronted with Bim’s animosity towards Raja, we move into the children’s childhood, and understand the special bond Bim had shared with him in the past.  This bond is broken when as they grow into maturity, for each of the siblings is pulled by demands of the householder. Bim to the people dependent on her and the house; Raja to the family he now has in Hyderabad, and Tara, who married early to escape the family she knew, is devoted – in a submissive way – to her diplomat husband and their two daughters.

The family, as Desai shows in this novel, exercises a strong hold on the individual, demanding in turn a great cost of individuality. But the two characters in contrast who seem aloof and remote from family obligations, lead shrunken lives. There is Mira-masi, who comes to look after the children when their mother is unwell. But she, widowed early, has been abandoned as well. As a widow, her role in life is to move within the extended family, hoping to be of service to them, in return for a roof and shelter over her head.  With no family of her own, she has to serve a family, to survive.  There are some figures like Mira-masi, a widow or an unmarried aunt who appear in more than just one Desai novel.  An aunt Mira, with a similar religious bent and piety, appears in Desai’s later novel, Fasting, Feasting. It is, as if, with similar names, these women dependent on their families for shelter and help share much the same fate.

In this novel, Baba, the youngest sibling, was born retarded, and is thus rendered forever dependent on his family. It is Bim who ultimately takes care of him. Yet his strange detachment, the way he remains lost in his own world, the constant smile playing about his face, is something that arouses in Bim envy and pity in equal measure.  Even random acts of cruelty and negligence that Bim is capable of – such as sending him to office when the traffic on the streets scares him, forcing Tara to pull him back – pass Baba by.  He does not appear to understand, and it is the speaker, Bim, who feels the guilt instead. Yet rendered innocent, and guileless in every way, he is helpless too without his family’s support.

The other force, besides destiny and tradition, that exercises an influence in Clear Light of Day, is the historical one. Much of the novel, especially its decisive, critical parts are set in the 1940s: A time of change when much of India is in ferment. In 1947, with independence, Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, is announced. From the terrace of their house, the three children see firsthand the riots and houses set afire. Hearing of the attacks on Muslims who have still remained in Delhi, Raja fears for their neighbor, Hyder Ali, who speaks Urdu, a language that with the emergence of Hindi in the early 20th century, has come to be associated with Islam.[1]

It is this attachment to the Hyder Ali family that Bim resents. When he leaves to join them, it is almost as if the house they have lived in has been ‘Partitioned’ by Raja’s desertion, as Bim sees it.

In a clear contrast to Cry, The Peacock, which dwells on Maya’s inner life, Desai in her later works, as in Clear Light of Day, is more measured and also oblique. In Clear Light of Day, with its many more cast of characters, there is the same detailing but less dwelling on the inner life and characters are less introspective. Desai shapes them instead, by drawing attention to their quirks, mannerisms, and oddities. Little of their inner lives is revealed for Desai doesn’t get into their mind, but is made evident in how the character is perceived or by her actions.  Tara for instance, sees how erratic Bim is in her movements – her frayed dress, her way of talking to herself.  Bim says little about her brother Baba, but her devotion to him is clear, as is her cruelty.  She sends him to an office – the insurance company in which the family has a stake – and then threatens him with the offer of sending him to Hyderabad to their brother, but later, seeing Baba as usual, unreactive and sleeping peacefully all curled up, she lays down by him, longing to be comforted and to forget – though she has never had the words to say this. Bakul, the snobbish husband, is fastidious in his dressing, and Mira Masi’s descent into madness is detailed by Desai in how she secretly indulges in drinking.


Historical Forces

The novel, Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989) also has as its backdrop significant historical events: the rise of the Nazis in Germany and their persecution of Jews like Hugo Baumgartner’s family in Berlin in the 1930s and also the Partition riots that accompanied India’s independence in 1947. Separated by a decade, Hugo Baumgartner witnesses both tragedies firsthand. In some of her novels (such as In Custody), the significant events of her time are told through the lives of ordinary people.  As with Bim in Clear Light of Day, in this novel too, there are people, sidelined and forgotten by history, who lead lonely lives but they have seen it all.

Baumgartner's bombay

 Baumgartner’s Bombay begins in Bombay of the 1970s where Hugo Baumgartner, an elderly German Jewish man has tried for the last two decades to make a new life for himself. This life is one of loneliness and increasingly, about nostalgia as well, as Hugo realizing that the past can never return, begins thinking of his own with some wistfulness.  This will, as the novel ends, lead him to making some tragic mistakes. Hugo’s own past has been painful. As a child in Germany, Hugo had seen the sad and humiliating descent of his family into poverty. He remembers, in the beginning, a happy childhood, pampered by his mother, and then taken by his father every Sunday on secret outings, as they watched the races and he was allowed a sip of beer from his father’s glass. Looking back, even the imagined ghosts that peopled his father’s furniture store offer hours of dark amusement to Hugo.  But this happiness is all too soon threatened and proves evanescent, as the Nazis gain prominence. Hugo well remembers Kristallnacht, the night the Jewish establishments were attacked in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany; the hours he spent cowering in fear inside his quilt.

This vanishing of childhood happiness is vividly described in a few pages: his father’s disappearance one day and equally sudden return as someone who, to Hugo appeared totally transformed, followed by his father’s suicide only a few weeks later, the takeover of the furniture store by his father’s old German partner, and Hugo’s own departure to Bombay – deemed a safe place soon after.  His mother, though, refuses to leave. For all the dangers, she cannot bring herself to leave their house, though she is forced to occupy one of the smaller rooms now. This hold that houses have on its occupants evokes Bim and her loyalty to her childhood home in the earlier novel.

Baumgartner then is a man forsaken by the world in every way, who knows happiness can be precarious precisely because it is fleeting and who does not trust identity any more. In different places, in different ways, being who he is has confused him in every way. For instance, his Jewishness had made him a hated and reviled figure during his Berlin childhood; in Venice, as he waited for the steamship to Bombay, his darker skin tone had marked him out as someone different, Asian, and in Bombay, where, he reached as the Second World War raged, he was sent to an internment camp for being from the enemy side: a German in British ruled India.

When the story resumes, after this look back at Hugo’s journey to India, he has in every way renounced his past. His is a life of careful and yet shabby routine, his untidy house is run as efficiently as he can manage. His mornings begin with his running down to a Parsi restaurant to fetch the leftovers for his cats; a habit which has given Baumgartner the nickname, ‘Madman of the Cats.’ For all his hermetic ways, his efforts to live a nondescript way, Hugo retains identity in the wrong ways: a man picked on for his color in Germany (where his darkness gave him away as Jewish), while in India, he is clearly the foreigner, the ‘firangi’- and his foreignness is of multiple dimensions.

But the past – his memories of Germany – remain, especially with his friendship with a dissolute German woman, Lotte, who lives by herself. Once a dancer at a popular Bombay nightclub, Lotte has been abandoned by her patron, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta, and lives on in the flat left to her. It is with her that Hugo enjoys the occasional drink and even flirts, though Lotte sees him as a friend and nothing more. His compassion, his experience of the suffering he has witnessed, make him feel for the victims of India’s Partition riots as well. But Baumgartner is always alone in his compassion. He is indulged in, as Lotte and the Parsi café-owner do, when they engage in small idle conversation with him, but little understood. He is indeed just dismissed as who he is, an elderly German man who sought solace in the company of his cats.

But his past catches up with Hugo when he encounters a German drifter, Kurt, who lies almost comatose in an evidently drug-induced state, in the Parsi’s café. Though the latter in his agitated state, is convinced Kurt is nothing but a ‘hippie’ who lives a dissolute life, Kurt also strikes a chord in Hugo. He offers him shelter and takes him home. In reaching out to Kurt, who he sees only as a fellow German, someone from the country he left behind forever, Baumgartner reveals that he has never really renounced the past. His friendship and offering help to the drifter are what will cost Baumgartner very dearly.


Undefined Search

Anita Desai moved to the United States in the mid-1980s. Her novels made the shift too, though her concerns – on issues of divided selves and the conflict between tradition and renunciation or abandonment – stayed the same. Journey to Ithaca written in 1995 takes its title from the well-known poem by Cavafy, that was titled ‘Ithaka.’

Constantine Cavafy (CP Cavafy, 1863-1933), widely hailed as “the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th century). Of Greek origin, Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt where his parents had moved in the mid-19th century. In his youth, he lived between Liverpool, England, and Constantinople (now Istanbul), in Turkey, before returning to Alexandria, where he worked as a civil servant and where he died of cancer in 1833. His poems, haunting, direct and flat in tone, are also “highly personal” for Cavafy kept his homosexuality a secret and was tormented by it. They also encompass a range of themes and subjects- history, myth, and literature. The theme of Desai’s novel takes on the message that Cavafy conveys in describing the Greek hero Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the long war with Troy: it is the journey that matters, for it transforms one far more than reaching the actual destination does.

journey to ithaca

As Cavafy writes in Ithaka:[2]

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The urge to leave family bonds, the past behind and to become a seeker and ascetic, is what drives Matteo, and in a different way, his wife Sophie in Desai’s Journey to Ithaca. The story begins from Italy of the 1920s and moves to Europe between the wars to 1970 when the hippies or the flower children are drawn to India. Journey to Ithaca is a story about seeking, the need to find spiritual realization, the need to go on a pilgrimage. This is an all-consuming urge, driving the seeker toward a spiritual union with a greater spirit or truth.  But Desai also points out that renunciation, though it may appear in contrast to all sorts of binds and ties, is in turn a total devotion to an ideal, and hence forms a kind of bondage.

Matteo is drawn to the spirituality of the East, when as a young boy, frail in health and subject to frequent bullying in school, is tutored at home. It is his tutor who introduces him to Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, a book that comes to entrance Matteo totally. It is about a group of travelers, some real historical characters and others mythical, who travel to the East in search of Truth. On the way, however, as they pass the night near a particularly treacherous gorge in Europe, they are abandoned by their attendant, Leo. It throws the journey into confusion but as is revealed later, by the narrator, the journey, Leo’s abandonment of them, was a test in itself, of their own deep faith in the journey.

Matteo’s early confusion is never directly revealed in the novel except in how he behaves – his hatred of boarding school, the usual games boys his age play, his misery in working in his uncle’s silk factory in Milan, and then his decision to leave his family. The latter isn’t stated but is apparent from the broad sweeps the novel makes across time.  Matteo leaves soon after his marriage to Sophie, a German, whose father moved in the same financial circles as did Matteo’s father. Evidently Matteo expected Sophie to fall in with his plans and they leave together for India.  Sophie, devoted to Matteo, is also the beginning, first dazzled by the flower children, and their freedom. However, the bitter truth about them soon dawns on Sophie as Desai dispassionately describes their cunning ways, and ways of sponging off each other. Sophie also sees through the many godmen Matteo visits, and their assistants, who it seems, will eagerly leech off any gullible white foreigner looking for the ultimate spiritual experience. As Matteo tries out one spiritual experiment after another – going on long, arduous pilgrimages, meditating and giving himself up to a chosen godman’s prescriptions for living – Sophie for her part, longs to be home. Yet she cannot bring herself to abandon Matteo, even as she is left increasingly puzzled and then angry by this elusive search.

When they are part of a long pilgrimage procession, Sophie encounters a fellow pilgrim, a mother with her ailing, barely surviving, child. The mother’s need to seek spiritual, rather than the medical help, her child so urgently requires puzzles Sophie. She also doesn’t understand Matteo when he finally appears to find some solace with a mysterious “god woman” (a spiritual figure), with a carefully concealed past (as Sophie soon realizes), and who lives in a hill town. The god woman is called ‘Mother’, a name she evidently assumed and she is addressed this way by all her acolytes and disciples who see her as a parental figure of some authority. All of them live in the ashram and among themselves, share the responsibility of running it, though it is Mother who calls the shots.

It is Matteo’s utter devotion to her, something different from occasions in the past that Sophie has been witness to, which alarms her. She is suspicious of Mother and also sneering of Matteo’s apparent high regard of her. This prompts her to go on a search to lay bare the true identity of the ‘Mother’, leaving her two young children in the care of her parents in Germany. The Mother appears a spiritual ‘godmother’, but Sophie is convinced that she is a charlatan who has bedazzled Matteo. Her search to dig into the Mother’s past, which takes on almost the contours of a detective novel, instead reveals to Sophie some truths, if not the kind of truth – the Mother’s true nature – she has been seeking.

The Mother’s past has been a carefully kept secret, but Sophie retraces her steps painstakingly and carefully, first to Alexandria in Egypt where the Mother, as a young girl called Laila had spent her youth. Later, Sophie follows Laila’s footsteps to Paris, where the latter’s restlessness, her impatience at her aunt’s snobbishness finally leads her to the ‘guru’, a dance teacher visiting with his troupe from India. The Master’s depiction of Krishna, the Hindu god, enthralls her: in this dance form that combines passion with mysticism, Laila feels she has finally found her reason for living. Soon she leaves to be part of his troupe.  But barely a few months later in Venice, she is disillusioned, as she sees that the master too is driven by practical things. He bargains with his patrons over the littlest of things, is demanding of favors and privileges, and is not averse to making the other female dancers jealous simply to get his own way.

Laila, however, is determined to go to India. If not with the Master, she is certain of finding some spiritual meaning there. Her yearning, one that is undefined and yet that takes over her every sense, has made her physically sick – a sickness in some senses that afflicts Matteo too. On a visit to the north of India, she finds some solace in a guru – though Desai says nothing about him, or even describes him. It is almost as if, in Desai’s vision, the individual’s quest for salvation, and even its seeming culmination, remain inexplicable and also mysterious. It is in this ashram of which Mother is now in charge that Matteo too finds her and comes to live. Sophie thus in a way comes to understand Matteo’s need to look for a truth, however elusive. It is something akin to what Sophie had also understood about Laila. In Paris, as a young student, Laila realizes that what draws her is some kind of passion – one not just of celebration but also the passion of renunciation.


Old Concerns and New Themes

The conflict in Desai’s novels between the ascetic and householder returns in Fasting, Feasting (1999), with the figure of the householder embodied in Uma who is resentful of her sheltered life and yearns for a different existence. In this novel, set in a traditional family living in Delhi (in a house and time that evokes Desai’s Clear Light of Day) there is rebellion of a kind.  Uma, for years spent serving her parents’ needs, longs to give it up, and when thwarted, and unable to express herself, shows some sullen resistance.

Fasting feasting

Uma has been a failure in school. Forced to drop out after being unable to clear her final examination for a class, she becomes almost a young second mother to her youngest sibling, the brother and only son of the family, Arun.  Sometime later, Uma’s parents arrange a dowry for her but her marriage ends in shame, as the family, it appears, has been cheated. The groom, it soon turns out, is already married but had availed himself of the dowry offered by Uma’s family to improve his own business. Desai sees this as a pattern and it recurs in the novel: the groom’s family, all too aware of the desperation among some families to see daughters married off quickly as per tradition, milks them for all the dowry they can demand.

Uma also disappoints her family in her inability to make a good marriage. Desai depicts how marriage can transform a woman’s life and how it is an entrapment of a kind: Uma’s sister Aruna, becomes a flighty, superficial creature, concerned with family matters that to Uma appear shallow. There is also the tragedy that befell their brilliant cousin Anamika, who had once secured a scholarship to Oxford but who, only some years into her marriage, is killed by her in-laws, for not pleasing them in various ways.  Anamika’s death, from burns is passed off as suicide, but as had always been acknowledged by her family, the dowry Anamika had brought with her on marriage had never been enough. There had always been constant demands, which Anamika’s parents found hard to meet and her in-laws became harder to please than ever.

With her failed marriage and other failures, Uma’s life becomes one of constant service to her family, its needs and that of the old rambling house they live in. But she is drawn to her prodigal cousin, Ramu, whom the family disapproves of, for all his degenerate ways. She is also attached to her wandering aunt, Mira-masi, who lives the pilgrim’s life, moving from one temple town to another, or between ashrams, looking for salvation. Her long arduous penance, her frequent periods of going on fast, all in search for an elusive salvation – the only goal permitted to an abandoned young widow left to the mercy of relatives – is what gives this part of the novel its name: Fasting.

There are also the nuns in Uma’s school, who find happiness in service. Uma has ways of rebelling quietly, of showing resentment subtly: sometimes she has fits, she goes out for dinner with her cousin Ramu—someone her parents disapprove of—and returns late on such occasions. In a last show of defiance, she calls up on the sly, the nuns in her school who have offered her a job (running a ward in a missionary run hospital), for her parents do not approve of women seeking a career for themselves. Though this is a later work, written in 1999, Desai is clearly evincing more modern concerns relating to India – as women seek more education and want a career for themselves. However, in traditional societies, as with Uma’s family, conservative thought patterns and modes of life remain hard to break. Her parents are adamant about Uma not pursuing her own career. Uma, resentful and sullen, is unable to break free.

Almost in contrast to Uma, the section on Feasting dwells on her brother, Arun, the family’s only son, on whom their hopes rest. Though nothing has ever been denied him, Arun is glad in many ways to be away in the United States, as he finds hard to bear the constant attention and oppressive demands made on him as the only son in the family.  His every waking hour had been carefully monitored by his father, who sent him to the best schools, employed tutors, and looked to his every need. It was a parental love tinged with ambition: Arun’s later success, it was believed, would bring prestige and honor to the family. Their status within the community would rise.

In the US, where he is at university, and away from family ties, Arun shies away from emotional attachment of any kind. In fact, despite his isolation, he is relieved to be free from family pressures and expectations. As Arun looks for accommodation during the summer, he rejects any that will demand any kind of human contact for him. But then finally, when an accommodation is picked for him, thanks to people known to his sister Uma, he finds himself immersed in the daily conflicts of an American family.

Oppression of another kind appears in how his landlady, Mrs. Patton’s daughter, Melanie, rejects in her teenage rebellion, all the food her mother—in the hope that such food, home-cooked will be nutritious and sustaining—has cooked for her. This is Mrs. Patton’s way of making Arun feel welcome for the food, in accordance with Arun’s traditional habits, is vegetarian.  Melanie, however, chooses to gorge herself on junk food, throwing it all up later. She is evidently a secret bulimic and her parents, realizing the reasons for Melanie’s strange rebellion later, send her for rehab. Arun is amazed at the sheer wastage of food: not just on Melanie’s part but the amount his host buys at the mall, much of which goes unused and rots.

This latter section on Feasting reflects Anita Desai’s own observations about life in the US: the loneliness and demands of college life, the communication gap (of a kind different than in India where tradition and conservatism breeds silence between generations) within families, and the over-consumption; the earlier section that dwells on Uma and her life in Delhi, appears an extension of her earlier concerns in Clear Light of Day.  However, in this novel Uma’s anger is more evident. The widowed aunt, Mira-masi, is clearly not dependent on any family but is on her own, visiting temples and places of pilgrimage and even ashrams, where Uma accompanies her on one occasion.  Desai builds up Mira-masi almost as a humorous figure; through her, Desai exposes some essential societal flaws. Her pilgrimage isn’t really a search, but one that is thrust on Mira-masi, because she is a widow and has nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. A wandering ascetic life, with all its accompanying austerities is thus thrust on unfortunate women like Mira-masi.



This search for what makes the complete or ‘true’ renouncer is most apparent in Desai’s most recent published work, a collection of novellas, The Artist of Disappearance (2012). In the three long stories that make up this collection, there is an inner passion and search for ‘self-realization’ but this is subdued. Self-effacement appears in entirely different ways. The passion is deeply internal, spent on pursuits that appear ‘strange’, yet these characters in her novellas appear happy.

Artist of disa[pearance

The aristocrat in ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ collects a variety of things from all over the world, to be housed in some rooms of his mansion, of which he is the sole occupant. Once he even procures an elephant who lives in its own shed outside. It appears just a useless hobby, for the collection is ersatz, random and has no order to it. Moreover, he has no heir to pass all this on. It will all go to the state, and the administrator, who is the narrator, is nonplussed at the sight that befalls him. While the latter wonders as to what to make of it all, and how to acquire and disperse in some order, this collection (including the elephant), he also understands in some vague, inchoate way, the aristocrat collector’s reasons: He did it simply to make himself happy. The act of collecting is all that evidently mattered to the aristocrat.

‘Translator Translated’ is about a lonely teacher, Prema, who at the behest of an old college friend, tries her hand at translating. Prema decides to introduce an unknown writer in Odia (one of India’s fourteen recognized languages), Suvarna Devi, by translating her works into English. This will, Prema believes, bring Suvarna Devi, the fame she so rightly deserves. Prema gets passionately involved in her work and in the author too.  The translator begins taking a possessive interest in the author’s life, almost as if she is responsible for giving her a new one, and a new identity too.  When one of Suvarna Devi’s later works comes to Prema, the latter finds it full of errors and insipid in some ways. It is then that she begins, inadvertently at first and then very deliberately, changing the meaning of the original text, even a word here and there, and then she gets bolder. Later, one of the author’s relatives accuses her of rendering the work wrongly. But the author herself remains a nondescript, shy person who is content to let things be. Prema’s attempts at making a new life for herself, fashioning herself in a new light, come to nothing, as all she does is try to live through another.

‘The Artist of Disappearance’, the title story, is a man who lives an isolated life and thrives in it. Born unloved and largely uncared for, Ravi has become a recluse.  His life becomes to all intents and purposes, pathetically circumscribed though he does not think so. He lives in part of a house that has long burned down and his needs are looked after by a cow herd family that lives near. Ravi instead is happy spending hours looking at the minutiae of life unfolding around him: a snail uncurling itself, a spider at work and once in Bombay, he experienced bliss staring down at the shallow depths of the sea and seeing the tiny life beneath.  With the death of his mother’s old nurse, Ravi removes himself from every contact with society.  He comes to nurse a secret glade, located amidst certain boulders in the hill town he now lives in, making it beautiful by planting trees, and arranging nature in careful patterned ways. This remains undiscovered and unknown till a television crew member stumbles on it.  She convinces her team to film the glade and even interview its creator. But as the search for him grows, Ravi chooses to evade them.

Dressed in the clothes given him by the cow herd family, he appears just a nondescript idle local, whiling the afternoon away. However, when the crew examines its reel footage of the glade, it appears to them perfectly ordinary, even whimsical; the footage is discarded. What Desai seeks to say is that an act of creation could exist simply to make its creator happy. Creation can bring about fulfillment, even to those merely observing, as does the film crew member. By extension, Desai is perhaps suggesting the self-effacing nature of the true creator.


Threads that Tie Desai’s Work

Inner Conflict – something that is inevitable in every individual life – can only be assuaged by an inner peace, Desai seems to suggest in her work.  For instance, all the three characters in her last work have chosen to shun the limelight, from the need to constantly engage with the outside world and have thus found peace of a kind – though this is never clearly defined. But it does take artistry, as denoted by the last story, to efface oneself totally.

The conflict is, moreover, focused on her character’s inner life. In her novels, she also visually describes this conflict as one symbolized by crowded chaotic outer worlds that is totally opposed to solitude, an individual’s desire for peace. Old houses, packed with bric-a-brac appear in Clear Light of Day, Baumgartner’s Bombay and Fasting, Feasting, symbolizing the past and memories, evoking the weight of tradition, responsibility and pressures. In Journey to Ithaca, Matteo longs to escape the imposing mansion of his rich parents.  In contrast, the ashram rooms he lives in, are shabby and without any amenities, yet he is not bothered.  The crowded mansion room, with its vast collection of objects that make no coherent sense, is best expressed in the first story of her last novella, The Artist of Disappearance.

Her way of offering a resolution is the suggestion that this search for inner contentment, must be all self-driven. Even renunciation as embodied in the figure of the ascetic is of little use, rather Desai, whether in her short stories or in her novels, renders the figure of the ascetic or godman (god woman) in humorous ways or even as someone suspicious.  In one of her stories in the collection Diamond Dust (2000), a philosopher friend comes visiting Sarla just when she is preparing to leave for the hills. And their lives are thrown upside down as they have to arrange parties and meetings on his behalf. Laila, or the Mother, is scheming, the ashram is a cloistered space, and Matteo is hapless. Laila is someone who can never win Sophie’s trust while she has Matteo’s dogged devotion. Ashrams, that appear places of solitude and peace, assume a sinister character, with their rigid discipline. Uma in Fasting, Feasting is taken by her aunt to one has the first of her fainting spells there.  Journey to Ithaca describes the different kinds of ashrams in which Matteo and Sophie find themselves. Their shabbiness, suspicion, for all the communal atmosphere, make the ashram a place of immense danger.

In The Artist of Disappearance, the ‘search’ for fulfillment or peace has been given up though it is not that Desai has been actively looking for such a resolution The three characters in the narratives do not travel anywhere, and even their motivations are not explained. It is a mysterious and all fulfilling kind of self-effacement, when even the self – or ego – does not strive to belong and is not bothered to ask questions or even answer them.

Human nature, Desai then suggests in her works, is born to conflict, for an individual is subjected to pulls and pressures of every kind. Her focus in her early novels was on traditional families, with women, unable to question the force of tradition and long accepted rules of living. Those who ‘renounced’ were those who had been “given up” by the family – the widowed or unmarried aunt – and never the other way around, as in the true tradition of holy sages and ascetics. It is through her characters, like Matteo, in Journey to Ithaca, that Desai tries to explore in turn the contrary pull of renunciation (as opposed to living the householder’s life). She suggests that renunciation too is a bond of a kind.

Is self-effacement, finding happiness – or rather fulfillment, which is how Desai sees it – in undefined ways, the key to resolving such conflict? Prema’s search for fulfillment by finding a new identity in another, leaves her unfulfilled; while Ravi’s creation appears too fragile and evanescent. But for Suvarna Devi, the author Prema translated, simply the act of writing was enough, just as making a small secret garden have Ravi some secret pleasure. The Artist of Disappearance leaves us with more questions and rightly so, for a writer’s work is to ask the necessary questions. Human existence, it appears by a reading of some of Desai’s works, is a search for answers to this conflict and the search remains an enduring one.

—Anu Kumar



Desai Anita.  Cry, the Peacock, Orient Paperbacks, 1967

__________.  Clear Light of Day, Penguin Random House, New Delhi, 1980

__________. Baumgartner’s Bombay, Penguin Random House, 1989

__________. Journey to Ithaca, Penguin Random House, 1995

__________. Fasting Feasting, Penguin Random House, 1999

__________. The Artist of Disappearance, Penguin Random House, 2012

Dumont, Louis.  Homo Heirarchichus: The Caste System and Its Implications. University of Chicago Press. 1979.

Keeley, Edmund and Philip Sherrad (translated). C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.  Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992; http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?cat=1&id=74

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer.   Heat and Dust. Counterpoint. 1999

Mendelsohn, Edward.  ‘Introduction.’ In Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth Century American Writers. New York Review of Books. 2015.

Pinch, William R. Peasant and Monks in British India. University of California Press. 1996.


anu northeast review

Anu Kumar is in the MFA Program of Writing at VCFA (2014-16). She resides in Baltimore, Maryland, and has lived in India and Singapore before.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A novel involved in similar historical themes and the loneliness of the individual is the Urdu poet Nur, in Desai’s 1984 novel, In Custody, who is visited by a young and idealistic Hindi journalist, Deven Sharma. In this novel, the language difference is also a telling indicator of how things have changed, for in independent India, Urdu is now giving way to Hindi. Deven, who has long admired him, visits him, hoping to do a story on Nur’s life, but Deven is increasingly disillusioned as he sees the Urdu poet struggle.
  2. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrad
Jul 012016

Desktop5Clockwise from top left: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Whitney Lee, & Sheela Clary

This is very cool. Last winter in a workshop I was teaching I assigned an exercise on lists. I gave a little lesson, lists in sentences and lists as structure. You can find it written out here (look at the second item in the series): Building Sentences: The Complete Short Course — Douglas Glover | National Post. As an example of list structure, I gave out copies of Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties,” which you can find to read on the Internet here or listen to here. The results were astonishingly varied, intense and emotional. Family stories mostly, as memoirs often are. I managed to sheepdog four of them together for the magazine. A change of pace, a delight to read, not to mention an introduction to four fine new writers: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Sheela Clary, and Whitney Lee.



List of Do’s and Don’ts — Tracy Proctor

Do adhere to mantras. “Travel light.” “Don’t fence me in.” “Surf’s up.” That sort of thing.

Don’t put corny bumper stickers on the back of your pick-up truck, though. Keep your mantras in your head. Stay cool.

Do adorn your truck with your man toys: dirt bike, road bike, paddle board, surfboard, kite board. Sub-zero cooler. Heavy duty trailer hitch.  Camper top.

Do visit lots of kick-ass places across the continent. Allow your mind to be blown. Do feel kinship with the soaring hawk, the lone wolf, the gypsy.

Do maintain high standards in females. If your nubile, fertile girlfriend starts to look or act like a spreading, hormonal woman, tell yourself you’re doing both of you a favor, and move on.

Commit full-heartedly to a dog. Take her with you everywhere: the high ranges of Wyoming, the ducky swamps of Arkansas, the teeming fishing grounds of Key West. The sun-bright shore and ice-cold beers and winding desert trails of Baja Mexico. Confide in your dog. Train her to stay and fetch and ride many miles without peeing. Feed her buffalo jerky and fish tacos. Recognize that you love her and can’t live without her, except when the waves and wind are forecast to be epic. At which time you drop her off with your mom for a month.

Do have many high-quality girls. Brunettes, blonds, redheads, surfer girls, hippy chicks (not too dirty), med students, massage therapists.  Fuck and run.

When your mountain-biking buddies are sitting around the campfire on weekend nights, sipping warm tequila and reveling in the precious, waning moments until they have to drag their asses back to wives and kids, pass the flask around again and fake sympathy. When pressed, agree with them that your newest girl is super hot. Agree that she has silky chestnut hair and legs up to here and intelligent green eyes. Agree that you are damn lucky that Miss Super Hot understands – no, endorses – your free’n’easy life style. Don’t tell your buddies that those green eyes of hers see right through to your soul, because that is corny, and because it might be true.

Do not tell your buddies that Miss Super Hot actually wants to marry you. Instead, break up with her.

Definitely do not tell your buddies – or anyone at all – that, one week after you break up with her, she tells you she is pregnant with your child.

Deny it. Fight it. Ask her if she’s sure the baby is yours. Ask her when she morphed into a Bible-thumping pro-lifer. Join Planned Parenthood, and send her a brochure.

Hit the road with your dog. Ignore Miss Super Hot’s demand that you review her birth plan. When she asks you to give her your parenting plan, tell her to go fuck herself.

Drive west, and more west. End up back in Baja.

Kite-board your brains out.  Tell your mom you won’t be back east for Christmas this year.  Stay away from females. Keep that terrifying secret to yourself.

Get nostalgic on Christmas morning. Send a holiday email greeting to friends and family, including Miss Super Hot: a photo of you in a striped orange hammock, holding a beer, the words Feliz Navidad dancing above your head. Enjoy the warm feeling from all the good email wishes you get in return, until you read the one from Miss Super Hot which says Merry Christmas to you, too and Wow it sure looks nice out there and She’s so glad you’re enjoying yourself in Baja while she and your unborn child are trying to keep warm in Jackson Hole, where you last left them. Get even more upset when you realize she has sent this email “Reply all.”

Do finally answer the phone the fourth time your mom calls you. Do gruffly answer most of her questions. Do not laugh bitterly when she says Miss Super Hot must not understand what “reply all” means.

Do not answer your mom’s question “What are you going to do now, honey?” Because you do not know.

Do get embarrassed when your buddies say that maybe it’s time to get out of the hammock. After a couple more days kite-boarding your brains out, come to the conclusion that maybe they are right.

Do show up at Jackson Hole Regional Medical Center just as Miss Super Hot’s water breaks. Do try not to crumble under her family’s glare.

Do spend the next ten hours walking your dog on the hospital grounds and pacing in the waiting room and getting updates from Miss Super Hot’s family members and learning what three inches of dilation signify and listening to the screeches of infants and the howls of birthing women and the buzz of the phone system and the names of doctors on the intercom. Do close your eyes and smell coffee and antiseptic.  Do pop several Advil. Don’t stare at the poster of the island scene.

Do follow the nurse when she beckons you to come to Miss Super Hot’s room and meet your new son.

Do feel your legs tremble when you spy your son swaddled next to Miss Super Hot’s side. Do think that he is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Tell Miss Super Hot that. Look into her green eyes when you say it.

Do take the pen the nurse is giving you. Do sign your name on the Birth Certificate next to the word “father.”  Don’t protest when Miss Super Hot’s family offers to take your dog for the night so you can sleep there in the hospital room. Do hold your son; marvel at his fuzzy hair and scrunched-up nose; at the stump of umbilical cord. When Miss Super Hot falls asleep, whisper to your baby boy that you can’t live without him. Promise him that when he gets old enough, you’re going to teach him how to kite-board.

—Tracy Proctor


Here You Are — Megan Okkerse

Here is what you remember:

You remember my curly blonde hair and the little blue dress I wore at the McCrae’s wedding when I stomped around in the bride’s shoes at the reception. You remember me with my head on Daddy’s shoulder like in the picture he would keep in his office, when he worked day and night, year after year. You remember me playing with the skin under your chin, the soft flesh of your neck as we snuggled together under the pink plaid flannel sheets on those cold winter mornings when you had the heat turned down and the windows cracked because, “fresh air is good for you,” you would say. You remember the day Daddy left and all the names of my elementary school teachers and my soccer games and my long legs striding across the field, me, before I got skinny and sick. You remember my friend Lauren, who had cancer in 7th grade, and Daddy spanking me with the paddle for playing doctor with the neighbor boy when I was five. You remember the day I moved to Daddy’s house and the late night calls you would get from me begging for you to come pick me up and bring me home. Why didn’t you? Did you quietly like the freedom of my absence?

You remember 4th of July at Riverside Park and our long walks around the point. “I can’t walk anymore. I have cramps,” I would whine. You would tell me this, years later when I replaced you with compulsive exercise. You remember the time Daddy came to pick us up after he had shaved off his long beard, and Peter stood at the top of the stairs and refused to come down because he hated seeing Daddy differently.

Here is What I Remember:

Your post-divorce boyfriend Mark Phister and his building that smelled like paint thinner. He wouldn’t come to church with you  so instead your Sunday mornings were spent making eggs Benedict and watching Charles Kuralt. I remember that the two of you were going to open a bed and breakfast and travel to France. I remember seeing him that night we walked downtown. He was sitting on the curb with the paramedics, bleeding. His speech was slurred and his breath: what  exactly did his breath smell like? I remember the unfinished apartment above his antique refinishing studio. Sometimes finding you in there was like a treasure hunt, but I could always find you. Usually in his bed. You would lift up the covers and scoot over as I curled into your side, and we would tell each other our dreams.

I remember his farmhouse table and the bagels he would toast and top with Mrs. Dash and butter, cutting them up as croutons on the salad. I remember his van. Sometimes, when you had been gone for hours, I would walk to the park to look for you, and there you would be, by the lighthouse in his van talking. I remember his son and his dog Yessa and the monologues he would have with Martha Stewart while he was cooking. I remember how funny he was. He could make my brothers laugh so hard they cried, and I wondered why if he was so funny he made you cry so much.

I remember Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Van Morrison, NPR, and Lake Wobegon. I remember how you kept caramel nips and red licorice in the drawer next to the fridge and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in the freezer, one big spoonful for your coffee every morning. I remember Peter and I used to jump from the balcony onto the couch when you weren’t home and we should have died, but we never got hurt. I remember that Peter always ate all the Frosted Flakes, and Elliott hoarded the graham crackers. I ate malt-o-meal while we stood at the counter over the floor heater as the hot air blew up at us.

I remember the day my first grade crush Drew Adams was supposed to come over for lunch, but his mom called and said he was sick. I wondered if he was really sick, or if it was me, because maybe I wasn’t pretty, or maybe it was because we were poor, but I didn’t think we were poor. I remember the time I was learning to drive and Elliott took me to Fresh Air Park. It was dark out, and I drove up onto a boulder and the tailpipe fell off. Elliott drove me home but he had to pull over so I could puke. When we got home and told you what happened, you said, “Well hell, there’s nothing we can do about it tonight. Let’s have some wine.”

I remember you used to take baths every night. I would sit on the tile floor next to the tub, and you would cover your vagina and breasts with washcloths so all that was visible was your flat stomach, the one you pinched and sighed in disgust over. I remember your hair, a shimmering silky grey and your skin, milky, smooth, and unblemished. I remember when you wouldn’t eat, but insisted that I eat more than I was hungry for. You would say, “You don’t really need to eat that much when you’re a grown up.”

You used to tell me I was big boned. I never knew if that was a compliment, but I do know that I’ve always tried to be small—except when I want to be a woman, and then I don’t know what I’ve tried to be except submerged in water, covered in rags.

—Megan Okkerse


In my house — Sheela Clary

In my house I have always had the last word, except when Dad was visiting.

When the mudroom was painted, I put up an Irish blessing/curse. I like its surprise ending.

May those that love us, love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limping.

I lie in bed and imagine the routines of single mothers on the infrequent nights when Jim goes out with his uncle, or Tim or Grigori.

To the visitors who perk up when I mention that the house dates to 1783, I point out the wide, uneven floorboards upstairs. I tell them about the newspapers Jim found inside the walls, so old the Ss look like F’s, reporting news about the Papal states. If the visitors like that story, my older daughter usually jumps in about the gravestone for an 11-year-old girl who died in 1810 that lies somewhere in the trees behind the house.

Jim built an addition with a mudroom, our bedroom, a laundry room, our son’s room, and two bathrooms downstairs. I worry that the new upstairs part isn’t necessary, especially the additional bathroom. I grew up in a house for four people with four bathrooms.

There are thousands of small, hard, Leggo pieces. They are not confined to the plastic bins Jim’s mother brought in from Target one day and left on the kitchen table, along with a note offering to help us organize.

I often prepare Bolognese sauce on homebound afternoons. It takes three hours to simmer down the water, milk and wine out of the sauce to a thick consistency. Then I use an immersion blender to blend the meat, tomatoes, onions, carrots and celery into a red brown mush my son will eat.

The kids don’t need to be told what to do or were to go to build up a fire in the fireplace. Jim gently supervises the workings of fire, tools, and wood.

My family creates surprises for me in the basement. I receive these gifts on random evenings throughout the year instead of flowers and chocolates and lingerie. A miniature stable made of twigs and moss, three painted birdhouses, a low bench for the mudroom.

There are several blank walls. One has a print of a shaker apple tree leaning against it on the floor, unattached.

In various chests and drawers there are stacks of undisplayed photos we took when we had just Cecelia, including some from the afternoon she ran around a piazza in Orvieto in her socks because she couldn’t stay still and she was just walking and I wasn’t used to carrying shoes for her.

I worry most about Fiona, my middle child. I worry that a better mother would have prevented her from getting fat, that a better mother would say no cookies and enforce no cookies.

My son Donal complains mostly about the Leggos he doesn’t have, but one morning he complains that there are pictures of only his sisters on top of the bookcase next to my writing desk. I point with satisfaction to my dresser, where I’d only recently cut up a picture of him with face paint on and stuck it in a heart-shaped frame. I’d also noticed the discrepancy.

There was a difficult puppy, and there is still a crocheted baby blanket soaked with her blood in a tightly tied up plastic bag, sitting at the bottom of a laundry basket in the laundry room under my husband’s Carhartts and a jumble of purple underwear.

My father kept his shoes on and gravitated toward the velvety, auburn armchair in a corner of the living room. I worried that Dad would hit his head on the little wooden shelf on the wall above, or that the kids would not be wearing socks, or that he’d ask for the Diet Coke he left in the fridge two months ago for the purpose of having something to drink the next time he visited us.

One afternoon, I stood in the kitchen to hear an update from the hospice nurse via Mom, inserting, “All right,” “See you then.” “Bye.” Then I fell to my knees and keened, and Jim shooed the children outside and came back to hold me.

I keep Dad’s datebook from 2014 on my writing desk. I wonder which day holds his last written words.

I see my father in Fiona.

—Sheela Clary



I used to dance and sway with Violet in my arms and wondered if she remembered a different time, in different place, with a different family.

I first touched Violet’s almond-colored skin when she was two. She wore a daffodil dress and sunshine-colored shoes. But she was terrified, so she cried.  But I loved her, so I cried.

My husband and I bought, packed, and flew a stuffed green frog from San Diego, over a vast blue ocean, to the city of Seoul. We gave it to Violet when we first met her.  I suppose we thought there were no stuffed frogs in Korea.

Violet’s foster mother carried her on her back.  She slept on ours.

I once stood on the shores of the Korean Straight, on the beaches of Busan, the city where Violet’s mother lived. When my feet pressed into the wet sand, and the tiny rocks pushed up between my toes, I wondered if her mother’s footprints lingered or if the ocean swept them away.

When I went to the Korean adoption court, the judge asked me if I would love Violet forever.

When we brought Violet home, many said, “She is lucky she has you.” But no, I was lucky to have her.

Our first weeks together, Violet protested if her feet touched the ground or if I quit moving when she was in my arms. So we walked for hours through the woods and pointed at black-eyed Susans, shasta daisies, and butterflies. When I could finally peel her little body away from mine, my arms ached, and a Violet-shaped sweat stain remained.

Violet was a cupcake her first Halloween.

After she had been home for a few months, Violet crawled into bed with her five-year old sister, Esmae. Their little bodies tangled and twenty little toes peeked beyond polka-dotted sheets.

Violet peed in her pants when her routine was interrupted or if she was nervous. Sometimes, after I removed her soaked clothes, and I cleaned her body, I believed I failed her.

Violet’s first words were, “Eli did it.”  Eli is her five-year old brother.

This summer, Violet stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, just behind our house, and threw rocks into the water. She liked to watch them splash.

Last Friday, when I washed her small three-year old body in the shower, I watched the water weigh down her black curls, cascade over the slope of her nose, and stream onto her round taught belly.

Violet wears lots of dresses but only if she can choose them.

With crayons and pencils, Violet’s eight-year old brother, Zachary, still writes stories about the day she came home.

Violet’s laugh fills my heart. That is why I tickle her.

Now I dance and sway with Violet in my arms and I wonder if she forgets a different time, in a different place, with a different family.

—Whitney Lee


Tracy Williamson

Born and raised in Tallahassee, Tracy Proctor now lives in New York with her three children and a hound dog. Her short stories have earned a Pushcart Prize nomination, won contest awards and been adapted to stage. She’s currently working on an historical novel set in Florida during the Spanish Empire and perfecting her sangria recipe.

Megan Okkerse

Megan Okkerse is pursuing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing workshops in Charlotte, NC, and is a reader for Hunger Mountain.

Sheela Clary

Sheela Clary has taught English and Latin in the Bronx, Italy and with the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. She is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

 Whitney Lee

Whitney Lee is a physician in the Chicago area. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and Women’s eNews. She is currently an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and four children.


Jun 122016



“MAYBE I’LL TRY that special,” my new pal Joe said, a sardonic smile on his face. The six of us had just lingered outside a moment to laugh at the sign in the diner’s window. The Baseball Special consisted of a hotdog and two hard-boiled eggs. Needless to say, as witless college freshmen, we swapped some witless humor about what may after all have been intentionally ribald humor on the part of the place’s owner.

None of us yet knew that owner’s name, because this was our first wee-hour foray to the United, part of a timeless freshman rite: the first All-Nighter. Eddie Witten insisted he’d pulled one in high school, though the rest of us, innocent of any such experience, were loudly skeptical. Our little group shared an odd exhilaration –unspoken but obvious, at least to me– at the prospect of hitting the books until the sun came up. It felt like an initiation into independence from conditions so lately abandoned. None of us now needed to consider household rules or curfews.

We did quickly come to know the name of the United’s only waiter; Gus was stitched in raveling red on his pocket. He seemed ancient to us as any pseudo-Gothic or pseudo-Federalist building on a Yale quad. Stooped and flat-footed, he wore an expression, bored, world-weary, or both, as he took our orders, turning an ear, presumably the better one, to each speaker in his turn.

At last Gus gathered up the ketchup- and coffee-stained menus and limped back to the kitchen. No one had asked him for the Baseball Special. The old man wrote down none of our very varied requests, and I marveled, thinking he must be what my Dad meant by an old-time waiter, a real pro.”

Gus soon returned with a tray of food, none of it bearing the least resemblance to anything we’d asked him for, but for whatever reason, nobody thought to complain.

The week just past in New Haven had held other novel experiences for me. During Convocation, famed art historian Vincent Scully, the sort of spellbinding speaker I’d never heard, assured the students assembled in Commons that they represented “a thousand future world leaders.” I concluded, instantly and instinctively, that the description couldn’t possibly apply to me, and I likewise remember looking around at the other 999 freshmen, and having similar doubts. Fifty-odd years later, my inference still feels right.

In the case of those who did become leaders, most, with honorable exceptions like my classmate Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, became leading money men, not moral nor cultural exemplars.

On the day after Convocation, I’d been far more taken by Professor Scully’s lecture. His was the first art history course I’d ever taken, one starting with classical Greek sculpture and architecture and ending, at year’s end, with the modern abstract painters. There in the United, I fancied that if I squinted my eyes, I could almost make the images of Greek monuments on the diner’s walls blend with those in Mr. Scully’s slides. During lulls in our boisterous conversation, I did a lot of such squinting, because for all my greenhorn irony, I enjoyed being imaginatively transported in that or any other way.

My daily schedule at the start of college days was about exactly opposite to the one I’ve adopted for most of my life since. Once I moved on from lowly freshman status, I’d gotten most of my required courses out of the way and could elect ones that met in the afternoon or, at worst, at 11 a.m, which allowed me to sleep in, even if, so far as a liberal education was concerned, this scarcely represented a good premise for selection.

As a freshman year, however, I couldn’t duck those morning classes, including ones on Saturday, so as soon as the last was dismissed, I would usually return to bed. On awakening from my afternoon siesta, I’d think of something to amuse myself until suppertime. Sadly enough, alcohol– a demon I later had to struggle hard to exorcise– played a progressively prominent part in such amusement, more, say, than hockey practice, swims at the gym, or simply reading.

My obligatory schoolwork waited until after dinner, and it often took me well into the early hours of the next day. I soon, therefore, became more or less an habitué of the United, going there for a break at least three times a week, sometimes in company, more often on my own.

Every college freshman likely tries at some point to dope out a schedule that will allow him (we were all hims at early-sixties Yale) somehow to beat the system. Most of my friends soon discovered there was no such magic formula, and went back to saner modes of behavior. I either failed to make that discovery myself, or, having made it, persisted no matter. I honestly can’t remember which.

Becoming a regular led to frequent contact with Spiro, the United’s proprietor, a soulful-visaged Greek who dressed, invariably, in blue suit and dark, solid tie. Spiro assigned himself the night shift at the register, for reasons I shortly divined: he had another daytime enterprise.

I’d sometimes be the diner’s only customer in the wee hours, and so it was that, after about three weeks of showing up at his establishment, I was let into a real confidence from Spiro. He stressed that his revelation was not to be shared with anyone. The man’s dearest wish, it turned out, was to complete the epic poem he’d long been working on, Sixty Steps from Yale. He’d accumulated more than seventy pages of manuscript, all of them in Greek, and all composed, he claimed, in genuinely Homeric fashion.

Spiro had cultivated a manner of discussing his undertaking in what can only be described as blurbese, an idiom that favors antithesis. Sixty Steps from Yale, he announced, was a tale at once sweet and dark, despairing and uplifting. It concerned a beautiful Greek girl, recently arrived in America and a Yale student from an old Connecticut family, who had fallen in love.

Spiro would insert a Byronic hand between shirt and jacket front, lean his head back, and proceed more or less like this. “The young Greek woman is of humble origins but born with a noble spirit. She meets her lover at her father’s restaurant. The two look at each other from separate tables. How great is the distance that separates them, yet how much greater the attraction that blooms in their hearts.”

Spiro always spoke at whatever length I had time for. I don’t quote him exactly, I’m sure, but I do catch his manner. “The poem is both light- and heavy-hearted,” Spiro might begin. “The couple’s destiny is written in heaven, but every force on earth seems to interfere with it. The boy’s parents disapprove, the girl’s are suspicious of the Yale man and his airs. At times wildly comic, at others gloomy, Sixty Steps from Yale is not only a love story but also a look at two cultures, one ancient and one young.”

However flowery, his speech was every bit as articulate as I indicate.

Today, half a century later, I wince at how I betrayed my pledge of secrecy. The very day after first being sworn to confidence, I shared what I’d heard from Spiro with my closest companions. I’d ape the old man’s book-jacket rhetoric, and my cohort would obligingly guffaw.

I should instead have felt honored to be Spiro’s interlocutor. There seems to have been something in me, specifically, or so I like to think, that Spiro considered congenial, perhaps even poetic, no matter that the notion of becoming a poet would have struck even me as absurd. No, I liked booze, girls, and ice hockey, in descending order of preference. I certainly had no epic intentions, no ambition as a writer of any kind, none in fact as anything. I’d genuinely rejected Professor Scully’s prognostications of my future.

As a sophomore, I moved far from where I’d been billeted that first year. My schedule didn’t become much saner, and yet my sorties to the United became ever rarer. The Connecticut drinking age being 21, I’d befriended another local merchant, who served as my liquor dealer until graduation. Now my wee-hour diversions tended to involve nothing but liquor, until my trips to the United ceased altogether.

Thus it was a good while after it happened that I learned of Spiro’s death– and only by way of scanning the obituaries in the New Haven Register. I assumed that the old gent’s magnum opus remained unfinished, that it would never be discovered, save, perhaps, by some family member, who’d stash it away with other keepsakes from the writer’s life, not to be considered again.

As I write, I’m older than Spiro was in those days. I may even be older than our waiter Gus, who back then struck our company as unimaginably ancient.

Unlike him, unlike Spiro, I find no orthodoxy, Greek or otherwise, fitted to what I believe. And yet just this morning, prompted who-knows-how, I found myself praying to God, scarcely for the first time, that He forgive me for having once shown qualities so often joined in the unworldly young– stupidity and arrogance.

How, after all, can I know that Sixty Steps from Yale was fit for ridicule? I never read it, of course, having, in Ben Jonson’s words, little Latin, less Greek. Still with all the confidence of immitigable ignorance, I imagined the work to be farcical, sentimental, and overwrought.

Unlike poor Spiro, I’ve published twelve collections of poetry. I’ve won a prize or two, garnered this or that sweetheart fellowship, taught in various higher educational institutions (Yale among them) for over forty years. At the same time, of course, I remain a stranger to the vast majority of citizens, bookish ones included, even within my tiny state of Vermont. After I am gone, my obscurity will in all likelihood become as complete as that of the United’s owner. The diner itself lives only as a sketchy memory of people my age and older. With no false humility, I can say that I’ll lack the sort of accomplishment that Spiro could have pointed to. He did manage the United, after all, well and for a long time.

Perhaps I’m the sentimental one these days, but now it strikes me that there was real poetry in Spiro’s merely composing what he did of Sixty Steps from Yale, given his need to keep his diner going, to keep Gus more or less content, to keep serving what was, after all, pretty good food. And as I recall all this, it seems that Spiro’s very authorial effort was epic in and of itself.

— Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.


Jun 112016

image001Toyen (Marie Cerminova): Among the Long Shadows

This is the fourth and final chapter in Paul Pines’ book-length essay on the Fisher King of legend. You can find the earlier essays in the NC archives, but for easy reference, here are the links.



Parzival felt all the grief he had encountered since he first began his long journey into exile from true innocence of heart. And in the same moment of anguished illumination, he saw how—mile after mile, day after day, battle after battle, until he had finally met defeat at  his brother’s hands—that guilt-driven journey had taken him further and further from the one true source of joy and meaning in his life. Reflecting on his pride and bitterness, the willful error of his ways, he found himself wondering what the wound was at the heart—or in the mind—of man that kept him forever in exile from what he most desired.

—Lindsay Clarke, Parzival and the Stone from Heaven

For Whom the Buoy Tolls

image002Marsden Hartley: Lighthouse

For several months I’d had an email correspondence with Justin. We’d never met face to face. He was a poet who had also been a fisherman and spent time at sea. A mutual friend in the UK had initiated an electronic introduction based on our common interests. Subsequently we’d exchanged work by mail—copies of our respective memoirs and latest books of poetry. I had hoped my collection, Fishing on the Pole Star, would ring true for him.

We both grew up fishing for blues out of Sheepshead Bay and Montauk, I as a passenger on party boats, and he as crew. The account of his childhood, under the rigorous command of his father, a charter boat captain, haunted me. I was moved by the thought of him as a boy filling the ice chests, cleaning the catch, stowing gear and hosing the deck. What might he have been thinking as he untangled the lines of anglers fiddling with the drag, or gaffing a big blue before it jumped the hook? His formative years in my imagination tolled like the buoy I passed as a seaman, Robbins Light, at the entrance of New York Bay.

Justin’s emails to me were cool, almost formal, a few words to make a point or ask a question. Probing further in this medium after reading each other’s personal confessions on the page felt awkward. He had been born in Sag Harbor, a brilliant blue-eyed boy. He’d done well financially, and moved to the UK where he was now a citizen, with an office at Oxford of the kind reserved for scholars and Emeriti.  I was surprised by his email in early April saying that he’d be spending the summer at his home, Ardetta Exilis, on Martha’s Vineyard, and would I care to visit him there on the weekend following my residency in August at the Gloucester Writers Center. I wrote back that my wife would be joining me in Gloucester and we had planned coincidentally to be in Vineyard Haven on Thursday where I’d be reading at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore. In a following message dated Friday, August 1st, Justin indicated that due to an unforeseen obligation, he was no longer free to host us for the entire weekend, but an overnight on Friday, the day after my reading, would work well for him. He apologized that it couldn’t be longer, but looked forward to our visit.

“Let’s do it,” said my wife.


Leaving Gloucester

On the my last night of my residency, Carol joins me in the one-room cape, perched on the road between Gloucester and Cape Anne. She may have expected something more elaborate. We sit at the small writing table I’ve been using all week, taking in the scene. With her broad cheeks, and full lips, red highlights in her shoulder length hair, she is my Queen of Cups. I point out the black and white photo of poet Vincent Ferrini, who had lived there, beside his friend, Charles Olson. Both have been palpable presences for me. Imposing at 6’7”, Olson’s physical size is proportional to his impact on American poetry. With good reason he named the persona that gave voice to his vision, Maximus. From the first night I spent there, lines from Olson’s visionary poem “The Kingfishers,” have been echoing in my dreams.

What does not change / is the will to change

image003Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water

Carol points out that I’d come to this fishing village, inhabited the home of another poet/fisherman, friend of an even more renowned one, to read from Fishing on the Pole Star, my own poetry collection about fishing.

“It’s almost operatic,” she comments. “Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.”

“I woke with these lines from ‘The Kingfishers’ in my head…then couldn’t stop thinking about Amfortas.”

“In Wagner’s Parsifal,” Carol comments. “Amfortas is a baritone wounded by his own holy spear.”

“Wolfram’s Amfortas betrays his duty as Grail keeper by killing another knight, who leaves him with a wound that won’t heal. His pain is almost unbearable. Only fishing eases it.”

“Until Parzival appears to heal him.”

“Or he’s able to get insured for a pre-existing condition,” I tease her.

“Parzival or Amfortas, which are you?” Carol’s green eyes sparkle.

I shrug. “Navigating between baritone and tenor.”

Earlier in the week I’d given a talk after my poetry reading. The title had come to me on the first morning here: Trolling with the Fisher King. Ideas and images followed. I recorded them in my dream journal. The thirty or so people who came to hear poems from Polestar remained when I followed up the reading with my talk. In fact, they seemed more engaged. What I had to say about the Fisher King spilled like water out of my Aquarian unconscious.

Operatic, indeed.


On the day of our departure, over coffee, I recall last night’s dream. I’m seated at a long table between Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini, waiting for a scheduled event. They are talking about poetry and art, the essential nature of creative imagination with its spontaneous production of symbols. I lean over and say:

This is where we find ourselves
On soiled angels’ wings
This is the way we come to the end
The way the end comes to us
On soiled angels’ wings…

“What do you make of it?” Carol studies me.

image004Tarot (Alphonse) Mucha: Queen Of Cups

“My discussion with them, and this place, is coming to an end. But why soiled angels’ wings?”

“Maybe that’s what happens when we try to fly beyond our comprehension.” She touches my hand. “Or sing off-key.”

I had embarked on my Fisher King troll with the encouragement of an imagined Vincent Ferrini gazing down at me from the black and white etching on the wall that made him look like Pedrolino.

“What if I can’t hold onto the Fisher King, the conversation I’ve been having with him all week? It could stop cold when I drive away from Ferrini’s house?”

“We can’t let that happen.”

Carol takes my arm as we walk to the Hyundai. As she sees it, my troll with the Fisher King is open-ended. We might think of our Martha’s Vineyard journey as a quest, and our mysterious destination, Ardetta Exilis, as the Grail Castle.

I slip easily into the driver’s seat.

Ardetta Exilis. My wife repeats the name. After fastening her seat belt, she checks her iPad. Carol is expert at searching the internet. Even before I pull out on to the road, she finds the definition: the Castle at the end of our road is named for the least bittern, a small wading bird similar to the heron.


In Flight

image005Wayne Atherton: Cover, Fishing on the Polestar

I point our silver Hyundai south, toward Boston. We will spend the night there on Kenmore Square, not far from what used to be Miles Standish Hall, the dormitory for Boston University students half a century ago. We arrive at the Buckminster Hotel, a grey stone and brick structure designed by Sanford White at the start of the last century. It follows the U-shaped corner of Beacon and Brookline in a circular embrace. What had been the front entrance is now a Pizzeria Uno, but in the 50s it had been the home of Storyville, that hosted Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Sarah Vaughan among others. Many of them had performed here at the same time I lived across the street, before I knew their names.

The new entrance on Brookline is marble, with glass sliding doors leading into the original art-deco circular lobby, painted lemon yellow and crowned with gold-leaf laurels over the registration desk.

The space feels like the past renewed, still vital, reassuring but not cloying, open to what may come next.

In our case, a nap. And then a slow walk down Commonwealth Avenue like a European boulevard divided by a verdant mall. Falling light casts a glow over the stone and brick buildings with their turrets, garrets and wrought iron fences. We turn onto Mass Ave. and again on Boylston. The streets are full of tourists and natives, often distinguished by their respective body languages. Even the exuberant traveler betrays a certain stiffness.

On the veranda of the Atlantic Fish Company we are lucky to score a table by the rail hedged with flowerboxes and set with silverware on a white linen tablecloth. Carol and I split a toasted goat cheese salad of wild greens, roasted red and golden beets, spiced pecans, and red wine vinaigrette. She orders a seared north Atlantic salmon with ricotta gnocchi, Andouille sausage, spinach, heirloom cherry tomato and a white wine-lemon pan sauce. I can’t resist the seared sesame tuna served rare with sautéed bok choy. Half way through the meal we realize that only a year earlier this place was devastated by the Boston Marathon bombing. Which explains the pristine condition of the interior, the white walls and stair to a second tier, polished wooden floors and impeccable modern bar under a raised ceiling.

The wounds are no longer visible. I am less confident that they are entirely healed, that they do not bleed through, as unseen but cohesive as dark matter.


The afternoon is slightly overcast when we start out, follow US-1 down the coast, but burns off by the time we take Exit #7 towards Cape Cod.  We cross the Bourne Bridge, and proceed to the second exit on the roundabout to MA-28, a flat highway divided by a median that will take us south to Woods Hole, where we will catch the ferry to Vineyard Haven.  We stop in Falmouth at the bagel café, then continue down Woods Hole Road, then make a left to the Steam Ship Authority where we wait in a line of cars to be directed on to the ferry. We eventually follow directions to the belly of the vessel. Once parked, we climb three flights of stairs to the top deck. Summer residents and weekend tourists sit on hatches and lean against rails. Seagulls cry and the smell of salt air revives us from the fatigue that had nestled in my bones on the drive down.

The invitation to read at the Bunch of Grapes, the island’s only year-around book store, came through Jay and Ivy who shuttle between their house in Tisbury, and an apartment in Boston. Jay has spent the summer playing piano in a jazz duo at the country club, while Ivy owns and operates an art gallery exhibiting mostly local artists. They thought my Pole Star would attract an audience on an island populated by poets and fishermen, and offered to host us for the weekend. But when I told them about Justin’s invitation for the following night, Jay shrugged and agreed with Ivy that Justin was entirely unknown to them, as was the compound called Ardetta Exilis, in the area they referred to as Menemsha Heights. And when they greet us at the landing stage in Vineyard Haven, they confide that no one they’ve talked to has anything more to add.

I tell them that this is because the Fisher King’s castle occupies an imaginary space, a dimension that intersects with ours, but can’t be accessed by intention.

“Invitation only.”


The Bunch of Grapes is a legendary bookstore on the island, catering to a literary population, among them a couple of visiting U.S. Presidents. Located on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, it occupies a space across the street from the original store that burned down in 2008 when the restaurant next door, Moxies, went up in a kitchen fire. The new location, once a Bowl & Board, is now hedged by wooden book cases and table displays behind lattice windows. Prominently on display are signed copies of Boys in the Trees by local author Carly Simon. And another island resident, historian David McCullough, has left a supply of his latest book, The Wright Brothers.

I am here to read from Fishing on the Polestar. Our event takes place in a nook at the rear where chairs and a couch have been arranged in a circle. There may be as many as thirty people gathered and we need more chairs. As we suspected, the subject of fishing appears to have  expanded the audience.

image006Richard Saba: Ancient Clamor

Most of those here understand how to read the book-of-the-world in birds and schooling fish, weed-lines and tides, and an invisible bottom. These fishermen, both commercial and sport, are intent on blues, stripers and bonito. But I talk about small islands, some uninhabited, or protected by reefs, and I enumerate the rituals of trolling baits and lures on multiple lines that shape the pursuit of marlin, the fisherman’s Grail, through the Bahamas. The focus of everyone in the room coalesces when I reach the poem at the heart of this collection, “Marlin Strike.”

It opens when a five-hundred pound marlin takes the hook, and a life and death communication between fish and fisherman transpires through a strip of mono-filament. The powerful creature dances, leaps, tail-walks the water until it is exhausted and comes willingly to our starboard side where the “wire man”, hand wrapped carefully around the wire leader, “swims” the fish until his color returns. A marlin with faded pigment is instantly a feast for sharks. At full strength, the marlin is shark-proof.

I describe how Caleb, our wire man, holds the creature close to our hull, talks softly, strokes his bill. The boat cruising at a super slow speed allows water to circulate through the gills. Caleb swims him until we see the marlin’s deep purple and green stripes glow, then removes the hook. The marlin, whose jaws are capable of crushing a human hand, gently bites down twice on Caleb’s to indicate he is ready to go. Caleb releases him. Still brushing our gunwale, this great creature rises above it, remains suspended for a timeless moment:

we gaze into
the perfect roundness of his eye
……………….watch the boundary
…………………….between us

in that great wink of eternity

………..the Divine Child

……….watch him swim

………..the unconscious
………….conscious of

When I‘ve finished, people linger for Q & A. The blonde woman who had been working the register when I came in, wants to know more about what I saw in the depths of that perfectly round eye. The question brings tears to mine. I have a hard time describing that gaze, so deeply knowing.  Except to say that it continues to gaze at me, locates me in my own depths, a primordial moment that endures as an inexpressible word on the ocean’s tongue.

And then, to release the catch? Inconceivable for most, especially for those who troll the waters around this island.

“There’s no choice, if you truly recognize the intelligence you’re dealing with.”

 “Is it hard to release it, watch it swim away?” a thin young man with a piratical blue do-rag tied around his head wants to know.

“How do you say goodbye to one who takes a part of you with them?”

A greybeard in a watch cap, about my age, comments on my image of Vietnamese fishermen in dugouts pulling up silver splinters of light on multiple hooks. He has seen them too, on the South China Sea, and appears comforted by the memory.

An elderly women in L.L. Bean jacket lets me know she is well into her eighties and regularly fishes from her dingy in Katama Bay.


Good Directions

image009John Marin: Marin Island

I remember that in the tale, Parzival is told by a man fishing from the back of a boat that he can find shelter in a castle not far away. But he must follow the fisherman’s directions, proceed up the road, make a left, and then cross a drawbridge. Parzival is unaware that this is the Fisher King himself guiding him to the Grail Castle, or that in symbolic terms the left is the direction of the unconscious, the side sinister.

The road is flat, lined intermittently by low stone walls framing oak, and white pine hedged by meadows and wetlands. We wind through Tisbury, and Chilmark, past an untended graveyard where John Belushi is buried. A mile beyond that landmark we find Menemsha Road, make a right, snake up hill, admiring private homes tucked into the hills. Night Heron Lane, a name that foreshadows the least bittern, comes up quickly. We turn left, and continue climbing. Soon Carol points to the unsigned road on our right, thickly wooded and flanked by huckleberry, bayberry and the occasional white oak saplings. We have followed the directions faithfully.

“This must be it,” Carol’s voice is hushed “The entrance to Ardetta Exilis.”

I steer the silver Hyundai between imposing stone pillars eight feet high on to a graded gravel road that curves gently up a wooded slope. We level off past a grassy alcove hedged by rhododendrons on my side, before opening on Carol’s side into an informal Japanese garden, featuring a pond surrounded by weeping maples. This careful balance of art and nature announces a domain created by a precise and prosperous hand.

image010Toyen (Marie Cerminova): Eclipse

I stop a few feet from a structure resembling a Mayan stele or Egyptian boundary marker planted in the ground where the road loops right into unseen territory. We get out of the car and walk over. This stele is made of a polymer material that might be mistaken for translucent marble. There are words engraved on it, which turns out to be a poem. In two four line stanzas the poet asks us to consider which is most frightening, an indifferent or hostile universe.

“One of his,” I tell her.

The mutual friend who had introduced us thought that Justin and I, two fishermen/poets, might have something to say to each other. This had prompted an exchange of books, along with a few brief emails. I’d been touched by the unornamented severity of his memoir. But the same quality in Justin’s poems left me unmoved, indifferent rather than dismissive. Whatever we might have to say to each other had not seemed pressing as I read his writings. But now, having entered his world, I’m curious.

“Do we abandon all hope?” My wife strays to the edge of the Japanese garden.

“Not yet.”

I follow her to a bench beneath the weeping cherry tree. We sit. Neither of us know what to expect, but I fill her in as best I can, starting with details I recall from his memoir.

Justin was born to an Irish mother from Hell’s Kitchen on the upper West Side. The family had owned a bucket-of-blood bar on Broadway. Her brother, an avid fisherman, and a Westie, had taken a bullet in a gang related incident. She met her future husband at her brother’s wake, the Captain of a charter boat out of Montauk. After they married, she moved to Sag Harbor, and never went back. Her only child, Justin, grew up a working class Bonacker, or “bub”, tags most island locals wore with pride. Justin never identified with either. There are photos of him as a wiry boy with curly locks, his jaw set as befits one under his father’s thumb. He is alone in each of the black and white photos, one taken beside a bicycle, the other in front of the boat. Justin excelled at school, but otherwise spent his time securing lines, gutting fish, and cleaning up after rich customers—until he escaped on scholarship to Harvard, graduate work at Oxford, and then to a career in international finance. Evidence would indicate success.

image011Herman Maril: Province Town

 It’s a long way from a peninsula at the tip of Long Island’s south fork to this gardens in the Menemsha Hills. Hands that once dispensed chum, the smelly stew of fish parts, bones and blood thrown into the water as bait, now held a British passport and the key to rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he spent at least half of his year. He also has an apartment in London’s elegant Palace Gate.  This house in the Vineyard may be as close as he gets to his blue-collar Bonacker roots at the end of Long Island.

While I often fished out of Montauk on party boats, the pricey charters were always financially out of my childhood reach. It’s just possible though that Justin and I crossed paths as teenagers on the dock. I’ve spent enough time in that world to imagine what it was like to grow up as he did, and why he felt compelled to escape it.

Less familiar, is the world in which he now lives.


Be Welcome Here

We continue up the drive to a parking area in front of a circular blue stone terrace where a weathered woman in denim coveralls, her silver hair piled on her head, waves us into a parking space. Her dark eyes are wide set above broad cheeks. It’s hard to judge her age, but it is north of forty. She welcomes us to Ardetta Exilis.

“Did you have trouble finding us? First timers often do.”

“It feels like a separate world,” observes Carol.

“What’s left of our ancestral lands.”

image012Djorde Ozbolt: Monkey Business

She is quick to let us know that she’s a full blooded Wampanoag, who traces her line back to the great chief Massasoit. Even with her coiled silver hair, and in work clothes, she radiates dignity. I think of her as “princess.” She helps us carry our backpacks and carry bags up a hill that flattens into a field bounded at one end by a forest. Through a gap in the vegetation she points out a view of the Aquinnah cliffs.  We follow her to the guest cottage, a grey cape perched on a raised deck that offers a view of the ocean trough a tangle of windswept pines.

“This is the highest point on the island,” she tells us. “Over three-hundred feet.”

Our princess opens the sliding glass door, then invites us to enter. In spite of the rustic exterior, the appointments inside include brass bathroom fixtures, comforters stuffed with the finest down, and flower arrangements flanking silver trays of dried fruits and trail mix. Our princess waits for us to take it all in, before instructing us to feel free to explore the grounds or rest, but that we will be dining tonight with our host. The path at the far side of the meadow follows the ocean and leads eventually to the Main House.

We’re expected there at 8:00 PM.

“Please,” she adds before taking her leave, “try to be on time.”


In the Zone

We start out early. The path runs through a forest of Bonsai pines, their limbs artfully twisted by strong winds. Beyond it, parallel rows of solar foot-lights are reminiscent of a miniature landing strip. Their glow lines a gravel path across a lawn that slopes to a ridge on the right. We walk to the edge, where a rocky slope drops to a beach sixty feet below carpeted with smooth round stones. The light appears to be falling fast. S/W of us clay-faced bluffs burn red in the last rays of the sun. Los ultimos rayos del sol.

image013Arthur Dove: Red Sunset

Carol points to a steep descent along a trail flanked by huckleberry, and bayberry. On the west side of the slope white oak saplings flank the trail to a look out, and from there a cedar and fir stairway descends to the beach. Small waves break soundlessly. A red-tailed hawk circles above them. Carol would like to go down there, feel the spray.

I touch my watch. No time for a detour. But she holds my arm, and we linger there, details in a painting where light spills over the bluffs like blood from the wound in a darkening sky. Before the sun disappears, we break the spell and head back to the path edged by dwarf conifers. Solar lights glow like fireflies that lead us to a pond, where they end at a wooden foot bridge. Just beyond the bridge, a blue stone patio borders the two story structure of stone, wood and glass at the crest of the hill. It is a hybrid of modernist and Romanesque forms. A wall of tinted glass rests on a fortress of weathered grey shingles incorporating cathedral windows and an entrance set into a gothic arch.

“Ardetta Exiles,” whispers Carol.

Our shared but unspoken sense of the occasion is now clear: what started off as a trip has turned into a pilgrimage. Two stone benches on the patio convey the peacefulness of a medieval monastery. Carved oak doors rise the full height of their gothic niche. It is clear that beyond the entrance, the walls disappear behind a wall of arbor vitae to occupy considerably more space than meets the eye.

“It’s an eyrie,” I reply.

“I agree,” Carol squeezes my hand. “Very eerie.”

“Not that,” I clarify. “Ardetta Exiles, the bittern’s nest.”

image014Percival’s Quest, 1385-1390

A carved wooden door set into the niche rises to a vaulted ceiling. Strips of glass on either side of the door allows a peek into the ante-chamber. I can’t find a bell, so reach for the brass knocker shaped like an eagle’s claw. Before I can bring it down, a shape appears on the other side of the glass.

The man who opens the door wears a navy cashmere crew neck over white ducks and boat shoes. I barely recognize him from the black and white photos in his memoir. Justin’s once curly locks have thinned, spun gold turned reddish and threaded with grey. He bows slightly, then stands back to let us in. As I wonder if he is permanently bent like a question mark, he straightens to his full height, I guess at 6’3” or thereabouts.

“I believe we’re on time.” I enter, Carol close behind me.

“Perfect.” His voice is soft, almost apologetic. “Forgive me. We keep only a small staff, so I must answer the door myself. Come in.”

image015Frank Auerbach: Head of E.O.W. (1955)

Justin’s head appears too small for his body, but his clean shaven face, curiously unlined except for grooves bracketing his mouth, makes his age impossible to judge. The most striking features are his blue-grey eyes. They catch mine like fish hooks, then release me.


Justin takes our jackets and folds them neatly on the bench to his right. His long-fingered hands are tapered, almost delicate, in contrast to his corded neck common to certain thin men whose muscles are like cables. His shoulders are slightly bent in the manner of one who must gaze down at others. When he leads us into the vestibule, he appears off balance, as if one leg were a millimeter shorter than the other. A skylight in the entry way illuminates an abstract painting. Justin draws our attention to it.

“de Kooning,” I guess, thinking it one of the Untitled series he painted in the 70s.

“Auerbach,” Justin corrects me. “Our greatest living painter.”

A few steps beyond we stop in front of a cubist assemblage on a pedestal. It stands at the arched entrance to a dimly lit room. Steel straps wrap a green vertical chess board. I could picture it in a garden by a wading pool, a New Age sundial.

“David Smith?”

“No,” Justin gentles my ignorance. “It’s a Caro. Chamber Music. If you listen closely, it sings.”

Caro nome…” says my wife.

“Ah, you know Rigoletto.” Justin’s face lights up for a moment, then becomes stern. “I mean Anthony Caro. The music his sculpture makes isn’t an aria, from the heart, but structural, detached, like the vibration NASA captures in the planetary rings, Uranian music.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever hear such music,” Carol is thoughtful

Justin steeples his fingers in front of his lips. He takes her in.

“Keats tells us, unheard music is the sweetest,” I observe.

Justin is less impressed with me. He takes Carol’s arm. She steps closer to the assemblage. “Bend closer.”

“Ah, I hear it,” she says, rising after moments of fixed attention. “The whispered song in a chambered nautilus.”

“Indeed.” He lets go of her arm, and, as if to balance the moment, addresses me. “Caro made this piece in the 60s. I found it in his studio shortly before his death last year at eighty-nine.”

We cross the threshold into the next room, which is also dimly lit. On the far side I can see a picture windows framing the night sky. When he turns up the lights, the world bursts into color. Paintings of all descriptions float on white walls, luminous as reef fish. Glazed ceramics, dyed weavings and metal sculptures glow on shelves and in niches like shards of the spectrum. Carol and I are stunned.

image016Kenneth Armitage: People in the Wind

A monumental Anselm Kiefer dominates one wall with its mottled surface, lattices of blacks and golds floating like clouds in a white and blue sky above a field of wild flowers, and mountains on the horizon. Running through the sculptural topography of ridges and charged particles there is the suggestion of train tracks in the field. I think they must lead to Auschwitz.

Jerusalem,” he all but sighs. “This way.”

Justin leads through an arch on the other side of the painting, but cautions us to be careful. There are three steps leading down into the dining room. As he takes the steps I note again his slight but definite limp. He walks to the head of a table surrounded by cathedral-back chairs. The space can seat twelve comfortably. Tonight it is set for four. He pulls out the chair on his right for Carol, then indicates the one to his left for me. The fourth place at the other end remains empty. Each place is set with delft china and Waterford crystal. Wild flowers—violets, dog roses, primrose, black eyed-Susan, orange cornflower, red trillium, buttercup and purple phlox decorate the center.

I’m comforted by Carol’s smile facing me across the table, then direct my attention to what is on the wall behind her. A rectangular canvas in a plain metal frame features a beefy young woman, dark hair pinned back, in a white satin sleeveless dress and toe-shoe on her one exposed foot. Her other leg folded under her, she sits on a chair with her left arm plunged into a long black boot which she polishes with the cloth in her other hand, back to a window in the stone wall. What’s most remarkable about this work is the way moonlight floods the room with shadows, at the edge of which a cat stands on two legs looking up at the sky. I see elements of Balthus, and Magritte, but know it’s neither of them.

image017Paula Rego: Angel

“Latin American.” I guess. “Botero?”

“Nice try.” His frown lines deepen when he smiles. “Paula Rego. The Policeman’s Daughter.

image018Paula Rego: House Underground

Rego, he tells us, is Portuguese, though she’s long been a resident of the UK. We learn that she is highly respected in the English art world, and has been honored by the Queen. Justin knows Dame Paula, has spent time at her studio. He describes her work as darkly childlike, dominated by grotesque fairytale figures in narratives that hint at sexual secrets. This one, between father and daughter.

A tall, expensively preserved woman in her fifties interrupts our host when she enters from the kitchen behind me. She has salt and pepper hair cut boyishly close. Her pale face defined by “good bones,” is webbed with fine lines, but tight skin around her mouth and jaw hint at cosmetic surgery. Makeup, skillfully applied, heightens the color in her cheeks and lips. A white cardigan over designer jeans relieves the formality of her presentation without cheapening it. Her voice is soft, and slightly accented.

“Good evening. So glad you could come.”

“This is Violette, my fourth wife.” Justin rises briefly.

“I hope you’re not vegetarians.” Her voice betrays a hint of an accent. She shakes our hands before taking a seat facing her husband at the other end.

“Violette is French, more precisely, Parisian.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed,” Carol told her.

“All those years at the American School,” Violette replied.

“And at Cornell,” commented her husband. “She’s a vet.”

“Large animals. Mostly horses,” his wife pours claret from a crystal decanter beside her husband, then moves to her seat at the opposite end of the table.

“There will be a warm port later, to wash down the daube, which Violette has prepared.”

“I hope you like daube,” she says.

“We had a memorable daube several years ago in Normandy,” I tell her.

“I think of it as a variation on beef stew,” Justin toasts. “Bon appetit.”

Carol observes that Justin seems to know most of the painters on display here personally.

“He makes a point of it,” his wife replies. Violette rings the bell at her end.

Our princess, the Wampanoag woman who greeted us this afternoon emerges from the kitchen, followed by a man who might be her husband carrying a silver tureen: the daube has arrived. They are both dressed in white shirts and black pants, familiar servers’ colors. The man places the tureen in front of our host, besides a stack of porcelain bowls. The smell of vegetables and meat well-seasoned with herbes de Provence increases when Justin removes the lid.

Deliberately, as if he’s peeling skin from a grape, Justin serves dinner.

I ask him about Anselm Kiefer, a favorite artist of ours. Kiefer’s breathtaking Let the Earth Open and Bring Forth a Savior, has drawn us again and again to MASS MoCA, the museum in N. Adams Mass., since 2008. Justin shakes his head sadly.  Kiefer has become complacent, he says. Paula Rego continues working despite health issues. Frank Auerbach, he repeats, remains the great genius of our time. At eighty-five he is as productive as ever, and uninterested in the marketplace even though his work increases exponentially in value by the day.

image019Anselm Kiefer: Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior

“The marketplace has been good to you,” I observe.

“People I do business with know me well.” He fixes me with translucent blue eyes, then smiles ever so slightly. “As we speak, I’m in the process of letting go of a company I built years ago to create a new one. I do it with minimal stress.”

“Almost casually?”

“Exactly.” He rolls past any suggestion of irony. “My great love, beside art, is the sea.”

“One we share,” I remark.

Justin is quick to let me know that here, too, I’m out of my depth. He has crossed the Atlantic in small crafts three times—most recently on the 38 footer. The earlier ocean crossings he made with other men. He will make the next one alone.

“I’m sailing my boat to Naushon Island tomorrow morning. Five miles to the North Shore in Buzzards Bay.”

“Sounds like a good life,” I observe.

“Not without its challenges.” His voice softens.

I agree. No life is free of difficulties.

“He’s referring to his son and third wife.” Wife number four gossips openly. “Others in his family, also, who will go unnamed.”

“Many depend on me. And I take care of them all.” His tone changes from confession to something harder edged. “I care for them, but not about them.”

“Really?” Carol is piqued.

“I don’t get emotionally involved.”

Justin declares as a point of pride that he doesn’t trust emotion, which includes love, vows of all kinds, gratitude, and promises. His jaw and neck tighten visibly, then release.

“What do you trust?” Carol asks him.

“One thing only: the human need for protection. I’m willing to provide this for others, according to my code. After I’m gone, that ends.”

“What do you mean?” my wife leans forward.

image020Francis Bacon: Lucien Freud

“Tell them,” Violette’s frown lines deepen. When he hesitates, she continues: “He’s leaving all his wealth, including his art, to charity—nothing to his son who has not lived up to his expectations.”

“It must be difficult to live up to the expectations of one who has accomplished so much,” I keep my tone neutral.

“That’s true. Children of men like me don’t fare well.”

Justin’s tone is flat, but something flickers in his eyes. For a second I glimpse the wounded bait boy from Montauk with the hands of an artist, one who spent his childhood cleaning other people’s fish. I wonder if we passed each other on the dock as kids, and if we had, would I have noticed, or remembered him?

Violette rings the bell.

Her minions are almost invisible in their ministrations. The man whom I guess to be a Wampanoag too, clears the table, then helps the princess bring in individually built dishes of fruit compote. Our host becomes animated again and pours four snifters of deep red port to go with the dessert. He then turn his attention to Carol.

“And you, who know the words to Caro nome…?”

“I’m a private voice teacher.” She sings a few words from Gilda’s aria in Rigoletto.

Justin becomes visibly intrigued. He probes further, listens attentively to Carol talk about her training, and early career as an operatic soprano. She has performed with the original Wolf Trap Company, in the Bernstein Mass, sung with the Philadelphia Symphony, but at one point found a professional career too stressful to pursue. Instead, she has taught music in the public schools until her retirement five years ago.

“I have my own voice studio, and work with a few aspiring performers, but mostly young people involved with theater. I find it very rewarding.”

image021Dragon King

Justin nods, then inclines his head as if hearing something inaudible to the rest of us, and then, in a light, but not unmusical baritone, sings:

La ci darem la mano,

La mi dirai di si,

Vedi, non e lontano,

Partiam, ben mio, da qui.

Carol hardly notices he is touching her hand, and responds in her haunting soprano:

Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor.
Felice, e ver, sarei,
Ma puo burlarmi ancor.

“Mozart. Don Giovanni,” says Justin.

“Don Giovani attempts to seduce Zerlina,” Carol explains. “La ci darem la mano, ‘We will take each other’s hands.’”

“My favorite duet,” he says, then half-sings the words. “’Andiam, andiam…come, come with me and reawaken the pleasure of innocent love.’”

“But Elvira, whom he has already seduced, interrupts him.” It is Carol, in this case, who interrupts our host.

Justin’s long fingers linger on her wrist, before he withdraws them. But not his gaze.

“It doesn’t end well for the Don,” my wife continues. “In the end he refuses to repent and a chorus of demons take him down to hell.”

“The poor baritone is undone.” Justin apologizes. “As you can see, beside art and fishing, my other great passion is opera.”

“I thought you didn’t trust emotion?” Carol reminds him.

“Except in opera,” comments Violette.

“I’m not at all sentimental.” Justin glances at his current wife, then turns his attention back to mine. “But I have powerful desires.”

“My very own Don Giovanni,” Violette’s voice falls to a whisper. “And he, too, is unrepentant.”

His jaw tightens again. This time, it doesn’t release. In that bait-boy voice, his eyes still fixed on Carol, he confesses to being a great philanderer.

“It’s the only thing I learned from my father, besides how to fish and captain a boat.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Carol’s voice breaks. She is genuinely moved.

“A question for you.” I intervene, attempting to mask my chagrin.

“All right.” Reluctantly, he turns toward me.

“Do you consider your impact on others?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your entire presentation from the moment we walked in has been a demonstration of your power. And now you sing the part of Don Giovanni gazing at my wife as if you’re about to invoke the Droit de seigneur.”

Justin appears surprised to hear this stated so boldly. He at first steadies himself as if to fend off an insult, but recovers in seconds. A smile crosses his face.

“Of course,” he replies. “You could read it that way.”

Intending to disarm him and to touch the core of his wound, I ask: “Was it hard to meet your father’s expectations?”

Justin takes a deep breath, then nods. “I forgot, you’re a psychotherapist.” His voice is almost raw. “I did everything he asked of me on the boat. I was cook, mate, rigger, and fisherman. My father thought that everything else had little value, including my wealth, art, or intellectual achievement.

What you see here, my ‘presentation’ as you put it, would have meant nothing to him.”

I suspect that his father’s rejection of what the world now considers his son’s accomplishments, utterly devalues them for Justin. Without a doubt, my question has pierced through, but instead of healing his wound, has opened it up. I realize that I wielded my challenge like a sword, as Amfortas did when he betrayed the Grail.

I recall Parzival’s question. The one he failed to ask which now perches on the edge of my tongue: What ails thee?

But I can’t get it out.

Try as I may to manage my response, his defenses have triggered my aggression rather than my compassion. Although ashamed, I am defiant. I’m also more aware than Parzival was on his first visit, and this changes everything.

What ails thee?

Would Justin find the question naïve? Whatever I surmise about his condition, he is surrounded by abundance and gives from it what he deems necessary to those he must, and those he favors.

All else is post mortem.

After coffee and fresh fruit compote, I am ready to leave. I fold my napkin and place it beside the empty crystal. Carol follows suit. As I stand, and as my wife pushes back her chair, a hint of panic flushes his cheeks.

“Au revoir,” says Violette. “I’m going riding in the morning and probably won’t have a chance to see you.”

We exchange European ghost kisses with wife number four, and prepare to leave.

“A few more minutes of your time, please.” Justin faces us. “I know you’re tired. It won’t take long. There’s something I want to show you.”


image022Paula Rego: Vanitas (pastel, 2006)

There is a new note in his voice, a compelling urgency. Violette and the princess have already started clearing the table. Our host indicates that we should turn right, to another wing of the house. We follow him through corridors displaying art work by blue chip painters, sculptors and ceramicists, to a landing where we stand at the rail of a balcony that looks down at a floor below. Justin points to the spiral staircase a few feet away. We descend single file down into the belly of the castle. I’m reminded of the unrepentant Don Giovanni sinking into hell surrounded by a chorus of demons and I half-fear what we might find—a dungeon outfitted with leather whips and electronic sex-toys for practices not inconsistent with the humiliation he experienced as a child.

But I am wrong.

Justin wants to show us his secret place. It is dimly lit, without windows or mirrors. This is his temenos, a sanctuary where he feels safe and, perhaps, even whole.

The space resembles a cathedral—not through any architectural intention, but in the almost shrine-like arrangement of contents beneath a vaulted ceiling. State-of-the-art Bose speakers like icons rise from perches on the walls. Amplifiers, monitors and support equipment all have their own niches. At the center of the room, elevated a foot above the floor on a wooden platform, a black leather chair with a headrest waits with open arms. A headset and a remote rest on end tables on either side.

It is a throne.

Carol and I have been given an audience, are the audience, in this throne room surrounded by invisible courtiers— tenors, baritones, sopranos and mezzos. CDs and vinyl, arranged on tiers of shelves like rungs on a heavenly ladder no doubt hold a peerless collection of music, especially opera. The throne is placed optimally for balanced sound. It can swivel, or be adjusted for comfort at any in angle of repose.

image023Robert Fludd: Temple of Music

Of all his worldly possessions, the ones in this chamber are not for display. Everything here, he confides, exists for him alone. He has felt compelled to bring us here thanks to Carol. In spite of his protestations, her response to his sculpture with Caro nome, and in the duet La ci darem la mano… her Zerlina to his Don Giovanni has opened Justin’s heart. And then I, too, have pierced it with my question. Even if I haven’t fully understood how, I have penetrated his the shield of his wealth, his palace of defenses to realize his struggle all along has been with the Charter Boat Captain, the philandering father, who saw in his son only what he despised in himself.

And I grasp that it’s a wound we share. How else could I have seen it in him, if it weren’t mine as well!

“I am happiest when I come here,” he tells us. “I don’t need anything or anyone else. And I am never lonely. Let the world do what the world does, as long as I can sit in that chair and listen to Maria Callas.”

Quickly, Justin selects a record from a shelf, sets it on the turntable, adjusts the earphones, and then ascends the throne. He picks up the remote, locates the cut he is looking for, then clicks it. At that moment, his eyes close, his head falls back, rests on the chair, then jerks forward and twists, like the torsos of Michelangelo’s prisoners struggling to liberate their still imprisoned bodies from uncarved marble. He clicks the remote and the voice of Maria Callas fills the room with Tosca’s lament, Vissi d’arte.

His features compress, then release from what appeared an unbearable moment of agony. And then I see his cheek is wet, but without a trace of tears.


Reeling In

image024John Marin: Sunset, Casco Bay

We are packed and ready to leave Ardetta Exiles a few minutes after 7:00 AM. Only the conifers stir in a sea breeze. We walk from the guest quarters to the main house hoping to thank our host and say goodbye. No one answers my claw-hammer knock at the door. Justin told us that he’d be leaving early to catch the tide on his trip to the privately owned Naushon Island, where only invited guests are allowed access. Violette, his fourth wife, let us know she had plans to go riding in the morning, and said her good-bye after dessert. She keeps a horse at a stable nearby, where one of her companions, a former Olympic dressage competitor,  often accompanies her.

“I wish we could’ve talked more,” says Carol. “She reminds me of Don Giovanni’s spurned lover, Elvira.”

“How does it end for her?”

“She enters a convent. But before that, Elvira gets to sing a great angry aria.”

Back in the parking lot, we search for the princess. This descendent of Massasoit exhibited the rare balance and wisdom of natural royalty, even as she served and cleared someone else’s table.  I’d hoped to thank her for making us feel at home, but neither she nor her male companion are in evidence.

Belted into our  Hyundai, we start back down the road along which we arrived the day before.  In the stillness that accompanies our departure I feel like Parzival leaving the Grail Castle, haunted by the specter of missed opportunity.

image025Peter Reginato: Yellow Interior

Justin protests that his solitude is sufficient. It doesn’t matter if anybody sees what hangs on his walls or hears what he hears in the depths of his castle. For all of his material abundance, cultivated esthetic, imperial assumptions, he remains Amfortas. The voice of his suffering continues unheard in its own operatic frequency.

“Why are you frowning?” asks Carol.

 “Not sure.”

Again, I’m seized by a sense of personal failure. I’d missed the point of the dinner at Ardetta Exiles, and the challenge posed by my host. It was easy to look into Justin’s face and see his wounded pride, but not my own. Instead of resonating to his buried grief, I’d fed my envy.

“Have you figured it out?” my wife pursues.

“The name Parzival means ‘to pierce, to break though’. I ruffled his defenses, but failed to breach them.”

“Or you own” she says.

We drive past the default question our host has graved in polymer: What frightens us most, the indifference or hostility of the universe?

Beyond the stone pillars, we turn onto the road that will lead us back to the ferry from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole.

“What’s to become of Justin?” I ask aloud.

“You tell me.”

“What if the Fisher King were to disappear completely, or become like the neutrino, a particle that leaves no footprint but binds the world?”

My wife smiles. “Would that change what’s in your heart?”

image026Kusama: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
(light installation at the Tate Modern)

I glance up into the rearview mirror. As I do so, an image appears in another mirror at the back of my head where a moment ago there had been neither image nor mirror. The unhealed Fisher King, crowned by earphones, listening to Maria Callas sing—not Gilda from Rigoletto, or Zerlina from Don Giovanni—but an aria by Puccini.  The shock of her voice pouring from those Bose speakers, filling the room with Tosca’s lament when she fears that her God has abandoned her. It begins:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore
I lived for art, I lived for love

And ends:

Perchem, perche, Signor
Ah, perche me ne rimuneri cosi?
Why, why Lord
Do you repay me like this?

And this is what I’m left with, the image of Justin on his throne. Long after it dissolved, I can feel the aftershock of his unbearable pain and invisible tears.


Dancing in the End Zone

image027Wayne Atherton: Everything Is Permitted (collage)

We feast on clam chowder in the open air on the ferry’s top deck. Later, as we cross Buzzard’s Bay on the Bourne Bridge, it is comforting to drive in silence, each of us attending the theaters of our discrete minds.  After a long straight drive on the Mass Pike we pass into New York State. After so much time in New England it looks unkempt. This is abundantly evident as we approach Albany on the other side of the Hudson. The State Capital is a bizarre assemblage of architectural periods conjuring the archeological remains of an incoherent civilization: Rockefeller’s modernist Empire State Plaza with its three phallic white tombstones and the other worldly entertainment center, The Egg, nested at its center, mingle with 19th Century row houses, beside Gothic  and multi-arched Romanesque revival buildings like the State Capital.

“Home again,” I observe.

“Are you ready for re-entry?”

“I’m working on it.”

It occurs to me that in our time the Fisher King might exist not as a figure to be healed, but one who wakes us to ourselves by remaining unhealed. A post-modern Parzival’s attempt to heal him must fail. When I share this with her, she points out that I did affect Justin with my question, even if I’d asked it in anger.

“The attempt may fail, but not the longing to heal. In spite of your anger, you wanted to get through to him.”

“Personally, I’m looking forward to poached salmon, and a glass of wine.” I yawn. “Then early to bed.”

“If you’re tired, I can drive.” she says.

“We’ll open a bottle of Breca,” I tell her. It’s our favorite Spanish red.

We turn right at Albany on the elevated highway that crosses the Hudson to 787 North along the river to Troy. We take this as far as the exit to 7 East towards Saratoga. I reconsider Parzival’s question, what ails thee or me?  The answer, I conclude, is numbness.

image028Roy Laewetz: Three Fishing Ladies (detail)

I search for the mystery once evoked by the image of a fisherman in the mist on the stern of a skiff. I am having difficulty feeling anything that expresses the awe and fascination once posed by The Wounded Fisher King.

“Stay to the right,” my wife directs me. “We turn off here.”

“I see it.”

“What are you feeling?” asks Carol.

“Lost,” I tell her.


I’m careful to negotiate the next turn that arcs right, then twists left to 87 North without a hitch. After merging on to the Adirondack Northway, I adjust the Cruise Control to the 75 mph that is consistent with the flow of traffic.

“Let’s stop at the Price Chopper,” says Carol. “I think we need salad, vegetables, and maybe a baguette.”

“Is it conceivable that in the course of time Amfortas might have become so disconnected and that he turns into Justin?”

“And if your wound went unaddressed for ten centuries?”

“You were right from the start,” I admit. “This only makes sense if Parzival and Amfortas are two split off parts of a single psyche.”

image030Albrecht Durer: Melancolia I (detail)

We get off the Northway at Exit #18. A few minutes later we pull into our driveway in front of the white ranch at 55 Garfield Street in Glens Falls, NY, home of Bob & Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America”. I take comfort in this, and the “quantum uncertainty” in which a particle can exist everywhere and nowhere, until consciousness connects subject to object and we see as we are seen. Carol removes her backpack from the trunk, and hands me mine.

image029Paula Rego: Dame with a Goat’s Foot

“It’s good to be home,” says my Queen of Cups, as she takes my arm with her free hand on our way to the door.


In Search of the World Soul: An Afterword

If life is to be sustained hope must remain,
even where confidence is wounded,
and trust impaired.”

—Erik Erikson


By all accounts, in his early years, Carl Jung was terrified at the prospect of being so internally split that he would forever suffer from a psychic Amfortas wound.   Later, in 1959, during a BBC interview, in response to the idea that collective dissociation would at some point reach a critical mass, Jung observed: You know, man doesn’t stand forever his nullification.

image031Darren Tunnicliff: Quantum Entanglement through Time

Jung pointed out that the latent intelligence of the deep psyche, what we call the unconscious, responds to painful conflicts under pressure, over time, with the dreams and symbols that help us to understand them. The Grail is such a symbol. It arose from the growing disconnection between Eros and agape, the elevation of spirit in a devalued physical world. Wolfram’s Parzival tells us that the Grail’s wounded custodian, the Fisher King, can be released from suffering by one who becomes conscious that he shares such a wound. Jung’s calls this process in which the solution to a systemic conflict emerges the Transcendent Function.

The embedded intelligence from which symbols, and myth arise is autonomous. It doesn’t depend upon or necessarily reference discursive intellect. Often, the shifts in attitude take place under the radar and are communicated in the language of dreams. The deep nature of conflict addressed at this level can’t be resolved by reason or custom. And the resolution arrived at can only be described in the telling or enactment of a myth.

Wolfram gives us a myth within a myth which locates the origin of his tale in a war waged in heaven between the angels of light and darkness. It is the neutral angels who descend to deliver the Grail, a symbol of wholeness, to us. Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd Century also speculated that the creation of the world as we know it was born as an answer to heavenly conflict.

In our time, quantum physics has shed light on what earlier had been beyond our grasp: at a sub-atomic level matter and energy, particle and wave, are interchangeable. The speed and direction of these particles can’t be known at the same time, and the form one will take depends as much on the observer as the observed, and can be discussed only in terms of probability. The relationship of energy to matter exists as fact, but remains unimaginable to the naked eye. This resolution is a measure of our time, free of symbolic/mythic content. At best, it leaves us with uncertainty.

I remain drawn to the idea of the Fisher King, but he, too, has become difficult to recognize. The myth in which he is rooted compels me, but no longer describes the challenges that shape my world—the G-Force rate of change, geometries recognizable only in virtual space, the suspended alternatives of “super states,” and a cosmology that points to a multi-dimensional universe.

How might any prospective Parzival penetrate the intuition of a realm beyond intuition?

Physicist Irwin Schrodinger’s model of the atom as a solar-system fell apart because the image no longer described the electron’s behavior. Without it, the atom became unimaginable. Wolfgang Pauli, who’d deconstructed it, assured his colleagues that an image would emerge in time to embody what waited faceless in the dark. Albert Einstein understood that the mystery of our condition is more deeply apprehended when it looks back at us. If not, we are gazing into the abyss. Without recognizable landmarks, we are lost at sea.


I glimpsed the Grail in the marlin’s eye, and immediately recognized what stared back at me as “the Divine Child.” In my book, Fishing on the Pole Star, I record watching “the unconscious conscious of itself” swim away on release to disappear into the primordial depths. What good is that unless something is born from it, seed of my heart-break?

I remember that glimpse even as I reel in the projections of our collective fears. They are recycled Victorian nightmares with a post-modern flourish: Dr. Frankenstein masters the genome, Dracula transforms into a vampire rock-star, only to be superseded by legions of viral zombies which define our war with creeping numbness. I cling to the hope that longing, even expressed as anger, will “pierce through” the callous thickening around our humanity. It is unclear what might deliver our cultural psyche under the assault of constant stimulation that leaves us dumb in an avalanche of words.

image 30Arthur Dove: Me and the Moon

The neutral angels might want to reconsider their strategy and take the Grail back to the war in heaven—reboot the Transcendent Function.

This is not where I thought my troll would end, with a suspicion that the entire mythos, and the psychological underpinnings of symbol formation itself, are no longer reliable.

I began this journey trolling with the Fisher King, and ended it with Justin, crowned by headphones, weeping for the doomed singer, Tosca, who rises on soiled wings to relocate human pain in the sublime. Justin as wounded Amfortas points to what we are both missing, the divine breath that carries such a voice:  Vissi d’arte, I lived for art/ Vissi d’amore, I lived for love. In Tosca we glimpse the World Soul, the interstitial presence connecting visible and invisible realms. Not a particle that leaves no footprint, unless it is possible to imagine a suffering neutrino.  Tosca, a recognizable aspect of the World Soul reminds me of words by Leo Stein: “Though the mole is blind, the earth is one.    

The World Soul exists in and out of time.

The philosopher Alfred Whitehead suggests the World Soul has two components, the unchanging primordial, and the consequent nature that shares our experience. The Primordial abides but is informed by the consequent that unfolds in space-time, shares in our suffering and joy, and is changed by it. From that point of view, the archetype of the Fisher King, like all expressions of eternal forms, is beyond our grasp. What we visualize as the Fisher King, the figure on the stern of a skiff, is our idea of the archetype, and subject to events beyond our control. It is possible, even inevitable, that changes will re-shape the ideas we thought unchanging in ways that make them unrecognizable, like gods disguised as beggars.

image 31Wayne Atherton: Spider Mind

Wolfram makes it plain that neutral angels brought the Grail to earth to save it. More than the danger posed by warring angels, the Grail’s descent into our world replicates the Transcendent Function, the active principle of the World Soul. A symbol, Jung tells us, is alive to the extent that it expresses “the immutable structure of the unconscious.” Only such a symbol and healing mythos can address the challenge that pits us against our “nullification.”     

We live at the center of a mystery that nothing prior to the present moment can cipher, uncertain how the Transcendent Function will eventually respond to what can’t be imagined.

Something vital to the World Soul pins us to the production of symbols, myths, and dreams that inform its primordial aspect, and the consequent one in space-time that flows in sympathy with our condition. It may be that I no longer recognize the Fisher King or Parzival as I had at one time conceived of them. The changes to our archetypal ideas may be our greatest hedge against nullification. The Grail, that had been an external principle of restoration and balance, may best be realized now as an internal potential. We are each us a Grail, in which warring and neutral  angels continue to give birth to the Transcendent Function.

This is where we find ourselves
On soiled angels’ wings
This is the way we come to the end
The way the end comes to us


—by Paul Pines



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


Jun 082016

Patrick Modiano Nobel announcement 2014

Patrick Modiano at Swedish Academy Press conference 2014Patrick Modiano at the Swedish Academy’s press conference 2014 (via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)



When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature, not very many people knew who he was. This was a delicious irony, if you had ever read any of his novels. Modiano’s work, when seen as a whole, is like a patchwork quilt, his books forming a coherent design, related by pattern, theme, and sometimes character, each one revolving around a fugitive, enigmatic narrator. Sometimes the narrator searches through the rare fragments of his past, trying to shed light on his personal circumstances, and sometimes it is the present that is bewildering and opaque, in which he searches for that lovely French concept a point de repère, an orientation point, an anchor, a compass direction. In both cases the same ambiance is created by the story: one of melancholy, nostalgia, an aching emptiness where there should be the bustle and roar of ordinary daily life, a sense of dislocation from others, and a quest that never ends.

I first came across Patrick Modiano when I was teaching twentieth-century French literature, some time around 2002 or 2003. The first novel I read was Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person), quintessential Modiano, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the year it was published. It is the story of Guy Roland, a private detective who is suffering from amnesia. When his amiable boss retires, Guy decides to take this opportunity to make his identity the subject of his researches. He contacts a man he knows who has a vague memory of him from the past; Paul Sonachitze takes him to meet a friend and together they ponder Guy’s oddly ageless face and their own memories. Perhaps they have seen him in a nightclub they kept, in company with a Russian named Stioppa? Guy tracks Stioppa down to a funeral and makes contact with him. Touched by his story, Stioppa gives Guy a biscuit tin containing old photos and documents. In one of the old photos Guy sees a man who maybe resembles himself a little, in the company of a woman Stioppa identifies as Gay Orlow, a Russian who emigrated to America. When Guy tries to track her down, he finds she committed suicide many years ago. But another name, another trace arises, keeping him tied to his quest. This is how his narrative will progress, a slow hopscotch from clue to clue, none of which will prove definitive, though he will tenaciously keep going.

Eventually, the pattern of his researches repeatedly circles around a single black hole. During the Occupation, Jimmy Pedro Stern (who he thinks he may have been) and his presumed girlfriend, Denise Coudreuse, retired to a chalet in the southeast of France, aiming to outwit the threat of the Nazis. They seem to have made a break for the border of Switzerland in the company of smugglers, but something must have happened, something traumatic of which Guy has no recollection, only a faint sense of unease. Denise has never been heard of since. Only one person might be able to enlighten him about this event, a friend called Freddie Howard de Luz, who shared the cabin with them. Freddie has moved to Polynesia, but when Guy arrives in Bora-Bora, Freddie has of course disappeared in his boat. The novel ends with Guy about to pursue the final clue he possesses, an address in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome where he may once have lived.

You might think that this inconclusive ending would be disappointing, but I did not find it so. Closure, an answer, the solution, would by this point have been the intolerable choice. Throughout the entire novel, Guy has been searching, until it feels that this uncertainty, the solidity of not-knowing, is precisely what defines him. And as the story wends its way through a fragmentary archive of papers, postcards and old photos, the reader understands how little such material could ever say about a person. If Guy even knew his real name for sure, what would this tell him about himself? The most audacious conceit of the novel is to pit an urgent quest for identity alongside a dawning realisation on the part of the reader (never the narrator, alas) that there is no single formulation that could define and describe a person, no one event, no one friend, no one piece of information, that could tell us what we truly need to know about ourselves. Collective memory turns out to be the great repository of our lives, and yet it is never more than patchy and discontinuous, little more than a reflection of ourselves looking back.

Rue des boutiques Missing person collage

At the time of reading this novel, I had never been more overworked or more stressed. I had a young child and a highly demanding job and it seemed to me that I was living multiple and incompatible lives. I found this novel unusually soothing. Guy’s world was so serenely empty, rarely containing more than one person at a time alongside himself. The places he visited—restaurants, manor houses, apartment blocks, rural railway stations—were always empty or abandoned. He was dislocated, for sure, but, considered from another perspective, he was free. In the way that reading a book can provide a fantasy environment inhabitable for the duration of a story, a sort of holiday destination for the mind, Modiano provided me with a refreshing void. I felt a rush of hopefulness that the networks of love and responsibility that bound me might one day fall away, leaving no trace. It was so peaceful, this untethered existence in a barren place, from which the whole of a life might be seen if one could climb high enough into the depleted air.

Naturally, this was not what I taught the students when we read Modiano together. We spoke about the more obvious themes of memory and identity and trauma. But when I reread this novel, beginning to think about writing this article, those were not the themes that touched me still. Twelve years after that first encounter with Rue des boutiques obscures, my life had changed beyond recognition. I had left the university, my son had grown and moved away, I now worked every day alone. I had in fact moved into the position that Modiano’s narrators occupied, often obliged to look back over my own past and try to make some sense of my memories. This time I identified with the melancholy and the nostalgia in the writing. I felt within my body the perplexity of missing a past that had been so intense, so urgent, so overwhelming. It is the strangest feeling to look back on times of passionate engagement and find the old emotions worn so thin and threadbare. What odd creatures we are that we can lose the best and worst of ourselves with equal disregard, no matter how hard we try to cling on.

This was the experience that reading Modiano offered me: a game of two halves, each so different to the other as to be unreconcilable. Yet that stretch of time in between my readings seems crucial to understanding Modiano as a writer. The fracture that runs between the present and the past lies at the origin of all his novels. For Modiano’s formative experiences came from a time that he had not lived through himself, but for which he would vicariously search across his books: the dark and troubled era of the Occupation in France during the Second World War.



Born in 1945, Patrick Modiano was the son of a Jewish businessman of distinctly shady transactions and a Flemish bit-part actress. Neither had any interest in being a parent or was able to show any kind of affection. Patrick and his younger brother, Rudy, were shuttled between caretakers and friends when small, and then sent to boarding schools, even when the parents were living less than a hundred meters away. His mother was a ‘pretty girl with an arid heart’, whose emotional crimes Modiano couldn’t even bring himself to enumerate in his brief memoir, Pedigree. The admission that he felt ‘the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness,’ is immediately countered by the assertion that he will ‘keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now….’ Distance becomes the key note of Modiano’s account of his early life; the death of his younger brother aged nine is recounted in a paragraph, entirely without specific details. But it seems evident that it is not a lack of emotion that fuels his brevity, more the sense of skimming narrative stones over pools of memory that have the quality of molten lava. ‘It’s not my fault if the words jumble together’, he writes. ‘I have to move quickly, before I lose heart.’

His father warrants more attention in the memoir. Alberto Modiano survived the Occupation, which resulted in nearly 76,000 Jews being deported from France to the German death camps, from whence a mere 2,500 returned alive. Between 1940 and 1944, his father lived in permanent danger. He found a security of sorts in underground collaboration work, becoming a black marketeer and engaging the patronage of a group of morally deplorable demimondains. Modiano believed that his father was on the outskirts of the notorious rue Lauriston gang, also known as the Bonny-Lafont gang. Henri Lafont began his life of petty crime aged 17 and used the confusion of the French exode to escape from prison. Aided by a number of spies for the German army and a handful of military men whose speciality was punishment, he let it be known to the German powers that he could provide information and goods that could not be obtained legitimately, and even conduct kidnappings and assassinations if need be. When Lafont teamed up with corrupt French police inspector Pierre Bonny, his black market business took off in ways that blurred the distinction between policing and crime. The Bonny-Lafont gang represented the most shameful element of the Occupation, the sort of organization that arose out of the vortex of normalized brutality and petty crime, and that sucked in the poor and the vulnerable alongside the immoral and the violent.

Modiano clearly longed to have some genuine insight into his father’s emotional life during the Occupation. But his father was a ruined man by the time he knew him, a man who held him at arm’s length, explained nothing, and wrote terrible letters of accusation and reproach as his only contact with a son abandoned in unsavoury boarding schools. ‘He never told me what he had felt, deep inside, in Paris during that period’, Modiano wrote in his memoir. ‘Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he himself didn’t really know what he was?’ To understand the emotions that motivated him would justify Modiano’s compassion and encourage a fantasy of reconciliation. But Modiano would never know whether his father fell into crime because he had no other recourse or because it suited him as well as anything else.

Un Pedigree collage

In 1968 at the precocious age of 22, Modiano burst onto the French literary scene with his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, which won him both the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Roger-Nimier.  It was the wildly picaresque story of Rafael Schlemilovitch, a French Jew born at the end of the war, though seemingly with the capacity for time travel. The narrative hops and skips frenetically through the history of anti-Semitism, with Rafael working in the white slave trade and then becoming a confidant of Hitler. He is tortured for collaboration and about to be executed when he wakes up on an analyst’s couch. Never again would Modiano write such a fierce and scattered novel, and that was just as well. By his second novel, La Ronde de nuit (The Night Watch), his focus had narrowed in ways that added intrinsic power to his narrative. This novel employed stream of consciousness to depict the schizophrenic life of a young man who is working as a double agent for both the French Gestapo and the Resistance. It has a nightmarish tone as the narrator sinks into hopeless confusion over his identity, torn as he is between the conflicting demands of the groups he works for, either of whom will denounce and execute him should he fail in carrying out their demands. The novel could be read from one perspective as a loose dramatisation of the Bonny-Lafont gang, and it contains a large selection of repulsive characters, many of whom carry the real names of people his father had known.

By his third novel, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads), published in 1972, Modiano’s intent to merge himself with the fantasized place of his father in history becomes clear and is used as a masterful narrative conceit. The novel opens with the description of a photograph: three men in a bar, one of whom is the narrator’s father. As the narrator sinks his gaze into the photograph so the frame falls away and we enter the scene with him. The narrator is a young man attempting to have a relationship with a father he barely knows; in fact, the most memorable event they shared was his father’s failed attempt to push him under a metro train. Still, the son is determined to create some sort of intimacy, and in order to get closer to him, he infiltrates the ring of collaborators and black marketeers with whom his father is working, though he keeps his filial association secret. As the narrator gets closer to his father, the ambivalence of his feelings of love and hatred become stark. He begins to realise how pitiful and impotent the man is, how desperately tenuous his hold on security, how little respect he has for him. And at the same time, the things the narrator must do and the people he must associate with sicken him ever more.

Plunging into an atmosphere that sapped me mentally and physically; putting up with the company of these sickening people; lying in wait for days on end, never weakening. And all for the tawdry mirage I now saw before me. But I will hound you to the bitter end. You interest me, ‘papa.’ One is always curious to know one’s family background.

The narrator does indeed accompany his father to the bitter end. When his father tells him that he has paid for safe passage out of Paris and an escape route to Belgium, the narrator is convinced it is a trap. And when the two of them go to meet their contact, they are arrested and put in a police van. At which point, the narrator steps neatly out of the fiction he has created, the one that began when he stepped into the photograph, reminding the reader that there was nothing of substance being recounted here, just the fantasies provoked by an evocative old snap. It’s a moment of brilliant dislocation for the reader, although it’s not as if we haven’t been warned over the course of the narrative. ‘You become interested in a man who vanished long ago’, the narrator tells us at one point. ‘You try to question the people who knew him, but their traces disappeared with him. Of his life, only vague, often contradictory rumours remain, one or two pointers. Hard evidence? A postage stamp and a fake Légion d’honneur. So all one can do is imagine.’

And imagine is what Modiano does. These three novels, published in English together as The Occupation Trilogy, are resolutely cerebral affairs, red-flagged works of fantasy that proclaim their uncertain status every step of the way. But there are touchstones that return repeatedly—the desire to plunge deep into the collaborationist experience with sympathy for the complex emotions and necessities that compel it, guilt, shame and pity for the father and the wretched filial love that seeks to absolve and rescue him. The critic Nathalie Rachlin ties these components of Modiano’s texts in with the findings of Austrian journalist Peter Sichrovsky, who interviewed the sons and daughters of Nazis for his book, Naître coupable, naître victime. Sichrovsky found that these children ‘often charged themselves with and experienced the guilt and remorse their parents never expressed or perhaps never felt about their roles in Nazi crimes.’[1] Sichrovsky saw it as a strategy that would whitewash the parent’s image in the imagination of the child, making that parent a viable role model again. It would seem that the sins of the fathers do indeed become the psychic burden of their offspring.

The Occupation trilogy

Or, at least, the legacy of the Second World War for the next generation in France and Germany was one of unresolved guilt. In the aftermath of the Occupation, emotions swung violently between extremes. The retreat of the Germany army was followed by immediate reprisals in a wave of violence against collaborators that became known as l’épuration sauvage—the brutal purge. Some statistics suggest that more French people were killed by vengeful resistance fighters than lost their lives in the war. But when de Gaulle returned to liberate Paris and head up the provisional new government, he came with a ready-made narrative to soothe the troubled French soul. De Gaulle believed in a country that had been united in solidarity against the occupying forces, and a vast resistance network that had worked tirelessly and unflinchingly throughout the war. This was the myth that salved the conscience of a nation, but produced what the historian Henry Rousso would describe as unresolved mourning for the reality of its traumatic past.

Modiano started writing about the black truth of the Occupation while it was still a taboo subject, but he wrote for a generation that was ready and willing to catch him up. Rousso argued in his book The Vichy Syndrome that in the years between 1975 and 1994 France became obsessed with reviewing the Occupation. The death of de Gaulle signalled the end of an era, and previously hidden documents were coming to light during the trials of war criminals in Germany that proved the extent of French involvement in the deportation of the Jews. Rousso declared that ‘Patrick Modiano must be placed in a category of his own, so great was his influence in those years.’ The novelist spoke directly to a powerful cultural upheaval, and spoke in the terms of bewilderment and loss that seemed so pervasive. For Modiano, it was a private compulsion to peer into the obscure regions of the past and to dredge through the ambiguous mess he found there. But it happened to coincide with the nationwide shock and vertigo that accompanied revelations of scarcely imaginable wrongdoing.



To read Modiano purely as an elucidator of great historical concerns is to miss how crucial the personal is to his work. And without that personal element, we underestimate his extraordinary technical audacity. The book that perhaps shows this the best is Dora Bruder, in which Modiano describes his attempt over many years to uncover the biography of a young Jewish girl who was deported with her father to Auschwitz and died there. Some reviews of the book in translation call it a novel, which is most certainly is not, but given its structural similarity to so many other Modiano works, it’s a forgivable error. Fiction, in Modiano’s hands, is always a sort of autobiographical fiction, and non-fiction, in the form of Dora Bruder, is somewhere between a Holocaust memoir and a highly speculative historical reconstruction. It is written in the cool reportage style that is so quintessentially his, and which in its very serenity seems able to provoke a storm of emotion in the reader. (Modiano reminds me of Edith Wharton in this way—terrible things are recounted in a voice of supine elegance, as lives are ruined for the failure to adhere to a dominant social code.) But what Modiano has to report is his usual tale of loss and fragmentation.

‘Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading of page 3 caught my eye’, Modiano begins. It’s a petit annonce, asking for information about a 15-year-old runaway, Dora Bruder. The fact that her parents live on the Boulevard Ornano is really what captures Modiano’s imagination. For it is an area of Paris he knows well from childhood visits with his mother and adolescent dates with a girlfriend. He can conjure up a number of memories, all mundane and yet resonant for him, of his presence in this place, and as always for this author, the pull of psychogeography is immensely powerful. All Modiano’s narrators walk the streets of Paris, aware of traces of the past—their own or other people’s, it really doesn’t matter. The point is to be attentive to a kind of profound historical vibration that keeps the past enmeshed with the present. For instance, when Modiano finds himself watching a film from the 40s, he writes that: ‘I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation….[B]y some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film.’ In the immediate surroundings of his characters, the material meets the ineffable in a way that enriches their experiences. For Modiano it’s a sixth sense, one he appeals to when he declares that his memory begins before he does. ‘So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born’, he remarks at one point. The elusive Dora Bruder, whose traces he will follow with increasing tenacity as the points of contact between them multiply, becomes one of them. The traces her presence has left on Paris will be there for Modiano’s perception.

Dora Bruder

Finding out anything factual about her is painstaking and time-consuming work. It takes four years for Modiano to discover her date of birth, longer to discover when Dora and her father were deported to Auschwitz. At one point, Modiano writes a novel inspired by Dora (the brilliant Voyage de noces, or Honeymoon) in the hope he might exorcise the hold she has over him, but it doesn’t prove to be satisfying enough, and back he goes to the hard-to-access records, the fading testimonies, the endless speculation. Gradually a shadowy and incomplete portrait of Dora begins to emerge, a possibly headstrong young woman who runs away from the convent where her parents placed her in the hope of keeping her safe from the Nazis. The notion of the fugue is a very redolent one in Modiano’s writing, for he, too, was a runaway aged 15. That experience in 1960 was one of the most intense of his life:

It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke: the clean break, deliberately made, from enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates; you have nothing to do with these people from now on; the break from your parents, who have never understood you, and from whom, you tell yourself, it’s useless to to expect any help; feelings of rebellion and solitude carried to flash point, taking your breath away and leaving you in a state of weightlessness. It was probably one of the few times in my life when I was truly myself and following my own bent. This ecstasy cannot last. It has no future.

The shift into the present tense is a subtle moment of coincidence between Patrick Modiano and Dora Bruder, and the extended community of runaways and self-selecting outcasts. By settling his emotional experience down over her rare facts, Modiano comes closer to Dora, breathing life back into his insufficient data. There is more: his father’s account of being picked up by the French gestapo one evening in February 1942 and narrowly avoiding detention is one of the few family stories Patrick has. Now it begins to seem likely to him that Dora might be the young woman his father mentioned, who was one of the other passengers in that same police van. ‘Perhaps I wanted the two to cross paths, my father and her, during that winter of 1942’, Modiano admits. This is, after all, the strategy that is continually deployed—Modiano’s memories bring him closer to Dora, and the thought that Dora’s life has touched his, even at a generational remove, adds depth and meaning to the paucity of Modiano’s family history.

Where lives touch across time, in Modiano’s reckoning, there is a spark, an illumination. A process of osmosis occurs, which Modiano describes with extraordinary transparency. Whilst we see it as a function of the talented writer, who reanimates a lost Jewish woman from meagre details, we are aware that he also writes as a private individual trying to make sense of his sparse personal history. For how much of our understanding relies on our ability to occupy the same emotional space as another person? This is how we identify, this is how we relate, and yet this is also how we use our imaginations and how we create fiction.

Modiano remains ever-vigilant to the limits of his knowledge. By the end of the book, Dora’s life remains mostly obscure, and he acknowleges some gladness that Dora retains ‘her secret’, an essential privacy that even the death camps could not take away. Some of the most heart-rending parts of the book are the fragments of letters of enquiry which Modiano came across in his researches, sent to the authorities in the wake of other disappearances. Painfully polite and carefully worded, family members risked their own safety by appealing for information about their missing loved ones in the black days of 1941-2, when the deportations of the Jews were at their height. Dora Bruder becomes special to us over the course of the book; we begin to think we know her and understand her story, and the impact is significant when we realise she was one among thousands. Yet such is Modiano’s ability to create concentric circles from the personal to the general to the universal, every fragment he reproduces sings with its own specific life and every lost soul touches us deeply.

Patrick Modiano’s books are essentially about loss and abandonment. They are about the difficulties we experience in creating and maintaining identities when the past is obscure and our personal history has been crushed under the bloodied wheels of History itself. In the majority of his books, he wrote unflinchingly about the legacy of the Occupation. He never wrote about war itself; the reality of battle lies the other side of the fracture in time, consigned to the distant and unknowable past. Instead, his work is a careful enumeration of the intolerable losses of war that persist for decades, and which we should perhaps consider closely in our contemporary times, when the desire for sabre-rattling seems as strong as ever and the idea of occupying forces is considered a harmless one. Not only do those caught up in war lose the people they love, and the right to satisfy hunger and protect the property they own; it is not just the desire to live without fear that is forcibly removed. War requires those who survive it to do so at the loss of their innocence, their dignity and sometimes even their humanity. And these are losses that have heavy consequences for the next generation, who must deal with the legacy of shame, guilt and humiliation. The violence of war is not the end of a story, but the breeding ground of many other kinds of violence—emotional, psychic, existential—that poison the lives of generations to come. It takes writers like Patrick Modiano to bring the reality of this alive.

—Victoria Best

Victoria Best small photox

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



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Nathalie Rachlin, ‘The Modiano Syndrome: 1968-1997’ in Paradigms of Memory; The Occupation and Other Hi/stories in the Novels of Patrick Modiano, ed by Guyot-Bender, Martine and VanderWolk, William (Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 121-135. Specific quote from p. 130.
May 052016

1 NC bch

I FIRST SAW the drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House over forty years ago while in college, in H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, a standard text on the subject at the time, the pictures illumined with only a few sentences of explication. First the three-dimensional drawing of a home spare yet engaged, complex yet composed, low lying yet forward looking—a lean, solid wedge opening out into the world and negotiating the earth and sky:

2 NC bch

Below it the sketch of the ground floor plan, a grid of right angles that do not intersect, difficult to read as a living space, that extends, in seeming contradiction to the first drawing, out into space without clear containment, yet still a scheme coherent and compelling:

3 NC bch

And a chord was struck within, or a tone cluster, that gathered and realigned. Part of the attraction came from the material, brick, whose deep color and rough surface textured my life growing up in North Carolina, providing hue and permanence and friction to all I once found attractive, all I resisted. All the homes where I lived and all the schools I attended drew their substance from the red clay beneath the state’s soil. But resonance came from Mies’s form, the structure, what it analyzed and took apart, what it put aside. Because I was looking for alternatives to the architecture I knew—the colonial attenuations, the classical appropriations, their rigid symmetries—for a way of life that transcended the manners and mannerisms those styles housed and encouraged. I wanted a plan that directed me away from the state’s muddied past and out of its funneling course. I wanted to build a life that sounded the vitality of the present moment and looked to the future, that left options open in a changing dynamic. I wanted to be modern.

Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms
Living. Changing. Now.

Mies van der Rohe/“Working Theses”/1923

Such was the spirit and ambition when Mies’s drawings were first exhibited in avant-garde exhibitions in Germany in 1924, when architects looked for ways to escape the entrapments that led to the broil of the first war. They helped establish his reputation and set the course for his later work, anticipating the Barcelona Pavilion.

It’s the sketch of the floor plan that most captured attention. It reflected aesthetic interests of the time—Cubist ideas about space—and acted as a visual manifesto. And it has sustained interest ever since. It appears on the cover of the recent third edition of William Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900, serving as gateway to the subject:

Curtis cover NC

The sketch is a work of art in its own right, reminiscent of De Stijl paintings, in fact has been compared to one. The figure has the power of a sign, an ideogram that captures a principle, concise and complex, that represents an essential understanding of the world, or the way we might want to see it. Or it could be taken as a symbol for the creative act, or a model for prose. Or a picture of thought itself, of both a theory and method combined, interrelated.

Architecture has given us the most visible face of modernism and provides one strain of its mood. Definitions of movements, however, always run into problems. General definitions lack the power of distinction; strict ones ignore variation and individual talent, as well as run the risk of reducing design to simple rules that lose the sense of art. Often they are shaded by agendas, depending upon what critics want to defend or attack.

There are, however, useful tendencies. Modernist architects were inspired by industrial and technological innovations in material and construction, and wanted to capture their energy and potential in buildings that gave the look of lightness, transparency, freshness, and purity. They built to reveal structural function, not disguise it, though function was ambiguously defined and that motive led to some deception. If reference was made to a region and its past, it was heavily abstracted. But most rejected the past architectural languages of support as unnecessary, of ornament as dishonest, of ceremony and monument as out of step with the times. Instead they wanted buildings that crossed national borders and cut ties with the past as the world approached new social order, belief in which for some approached the spiritual. Unlike many modernists in the other arts they were optimistic.

The style spread to ubiquity, from our cities to our suburbs, throughout the world, giving the places where we all worked and lived a common stamp. It has been with us some hundred years, depending upon when one wants to set the date of its beginnings. Here there is paradox. What was once fresh now appears stale, what was once startling in its innovation now looks passé. By attaching itself to the present modernism fell into the stream of what it tried to step out of, becoming in effect a historical movement without clear sense where it might go next. In the hands of the less inspired, the majority, the architecture became formulaic and monotonous. In the universities, where the leading architects settled, it became refined, rarefied, and inbred, yet theirs were the designs selected by corporations and institutions not for cultural regeneration but for brand recognition and status. Lost in both cases was any sense of common purpose and social cause. Some grand schemes were proposed to remake the world, some of these were in part completed and proved disastrous. The trailing off, the diversions, and the failures provided grounds for the scourge of postmodernist gibes and attacks, whose architecture itself provided the face of that movement and one sense of its tilt.

Yet Mies’s design still strikes imagination today, maybe something else, and still escapes the pitfalls of critical debates and the drag of time. Records for the project, however, are sketchy. It is not clear when the drawings were made and there is little supporting discussion. The two drawings themselves don’t align, having inconsistencies that needed to be worked out in final construction. But the Brick Country House was never built, and there is debate whether he intended to have that done. All that remain are photographs of the two drawings, most of poor quality.

And I put the house aside, leaving its traces to the tangled war of memory and forgetting. For I left for California, the land of promise and casual fantasy, to start a new life, where I endured its flights, distractions, and scourges, going off course, getting lost on distant shores, home itself, any home, a fading thought.




To chart a place on earth—that is the supreme effort of the built environment in antiquity. Shelter, of course, always takes precedence. But its issue transcends self-preservation and comfort. Shelter engages human alliances and rank, and so it becomes the task of residential architecture to advance the pattern of collective existence. From family to empire, the stages of social and political gradation affect the scope and intricacy of this extendable pattern. But in the end organization only tidies up; it cannot satisfy darker anxieties of being afloat in a mysterious design which is not of our own making. To mediate between cosmos and polity, to give shape to fear and exorcize it, to effect a reconciliation of knowledge and the unknowable—that was the charge of ancient architecture.

It is a charge that is no longer pressing, that no longer has meaning. Geomancy had no place in the laying out of New York or Teheran; Buckingham Palace was not planned to be the pivot of the cosmic universe. At some point we chose to keep our own counsel, to search for self close at home.

Spiro Kostof/A History of Architecture

Kostof’s rich prose itself provides a place to dwell. Everything begins at home, whether we care to recognize that fact or not.

Eumaios crossed the court and went straight forward
into the megaron among the suitors

Megaron is the term Homer uses to indicate a large hall around which palaces were once built, in this case Odysseus’s, where his loyal swineherd now appears. It refers to a common floor plan found in Asia Minor, including the site identified as the city of Troy, that dates back to the third millennium BC and later appeared in Mycenaean Greece, likely an import.

Mycenean_Megaron Wik

Columns support a front porch, which protects the palace from the elements and provides formal entry. In the center of the room, an open hearth, which gives warmth and sets the locus for libation and animal sacrifice to the gods. It is a place of residence for chieftains and a center for cultural and political events, marking the consolidation of social order and the rise of aristocratic power in the early days of Greek civilization.

The plan is the basis for later Greek temples, where columns extend around the perimeter and the hearth is replaced with a statue of a deity.

PartFloor use

A temple is a house for the gods that we can enter, giving us a home in the world as well as a means of defining our relationship with it and with each other. For example the Parthenon, where bright-eyed Athena, Athen’s guarantor and protector, the virgin goddess of wisdom, inspiration, strength, and justice, stands in the center of the main chamber, the cella, and receives the citizens of the city. The chieftain has moved out, the people, democratically, let in; unseen powers above have been brought down to earth and given form. Beliefs have visible expression in the face and stance of the goddess, before whom, in more direct and communal participation, citizens can show their respect, make appeasement, and bargain with forces beyond their control, often unpredictable and violent.

That the world is violent the Greeks recognized and embraced. As Kostof explains strength comes from recognition of the power of opposition, a way to gauge one’s own. Above the columns, around the temple, the violence is depicted in friezes of warring factions captured in the pitch of battle—Lapiths and Centaurs, Greeks and Amazons, Greek and Trojans, giants and gods—the outcomes unresolved. Warring opposites complement each other, not contradict, showing an essential part of the Classical spirit that keeps distance, “a sense of timeless idealism,” but maintains engagement in the strain of conflict.

NC centaur

For in the final analysis, the sole purpose of religion is to prevent the recurrence of reciprocal violence.

René Girard/Violence and the Sacred

Or opposition gives us a means to project the hidden conflicts and desires within on the world without and keep us intact, the transfer vouched by displacement into a sacred scheme. A temple offers a container for the violence in our collective hearts.

Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion is a home and also a temple of sorts as well, and like the Parthenon is a projection of a people’s desires to define their values and offer a way of life. The Weimar Republic commissioned him to build it for that city’s international exposition in 1929, wanting to put a new face on Germany that looked past the war and the country’s militaristic past towards new purpose and peaceful order.

NC BarcelonaExpositionPanorama.1929.ws

Against the pomp, imposition, and inflation of past architectural styles from the other nations, Mies’s subdued design, calm, level, and collected:

NC BP wiki

Like the Parthenon, it is set on a raised base that requires slight ascent and, once entered, procession to discover its design and intent. And like the Parthenon, it has a statue that offers figurative expression, Georg Kolbe’s Dawn, standing in a pool in the back corner.


But the pavilion has a decidedly domestic cast, in fact suburban, bringing aspiration closer to the ground in low-ceilinged rooms that encourage us not to look up but at each other. Nor does it try to impress with mass and means of support. The load is carried by eight slender chrome piers. The walls are free standing and seem to float in space. There is a similar effect in the Brick Country House, where the floor-to-ceiling windows open up the sense of structure and pass support to the isolated sections of brick walls.

Mies admired Greek architecture and studied its influence under Peter Behrens, Behrens himself influenced by neoclassicist Schinkel. His work reflects classical proportion and composition, these brought back to human scale. We also see the energy of involvement in the play of tensions implied in the offset planes and angles.

Indeed we should strive to bring Nature, houses, and people together into a higher harmony.


The Brick Country House is a temple for private rites and follows in essence another long tradition, that of a home placed in spacious setting away from the polis, as described in the writings of Pliny, that extends through Palladio into the last centuries. They were homes for the patrician order, and as such reinforced their remove and power. But they carried with them a proposition about our relationship with what might lie outside and beyond us, what appears in the world that is not of our design and making, what has been referred to over the millennia with a term of shifting and escaping associations and assumptions, what we still call nature.

NC BP floor plan Wik

In both we see Mies’s break with tradition. Axial planning and symmetry have been replaced with asymmetric designs that have no explicit center. The walls are incomplete, thus the rooms are left open, and their relationship to each other and to the overall design, the relationship of the buildings to the external world, in general the relationship of interior to exterior, are all part of a dialogue that has no final resting point. Instead of a plan of orderly containment and progression to guide the life inside, options for a program are left to the residents to decide freely, without any being decisive. Nor is there explicit reference to past architectural orders and the meanings they might carry, or, aside from Dawn, who in her twisting, rising stretch into consciousness echoes the asymmetric design of the pavilion, any figurative expression. The languages of decoration have been refined to abstraction, or put aside.

Still there is careful placement and unifying composition, and still a sense of centering. However, while there is great energy in the tension of the play of planes, gone is the strain that once charged Greek temples. Both the pavilion and house exhibit control, certainty, confidence, and composure, though we do not know yet what awakening Dawn or wakers in the house might have or where that might lead.

In the shadowy hall a low sound rose—of suitors
murmuring to one another.

Classical orders, however, came back with a vengeance in Germany and elsewhere not long after.

NC nazi arch

Nostalgia fused with symmetry can be a powerful conduit for single-mindedness.


The Elements of Fiction


Greek thinking is at once typal and specific. It takes on an idea (or a form, which is nothing other than a congealed idea), nourishes and perfects it through a series of conscious changes, and in this way informs it with a kind of universal validity that seems irrefutable. The process is in fact ideal, that is, based on “the perfection of kind.” It presupposes orderly development and the practicability of consummation.

Kostof again

I loved building with construction sets when I was a kid and could spend hours sitting on the floor of my bedroom, absorbed in physical act of putting one piece on top of another, of setting concrete objects into empty space, watching them gather, the building rise, in a process that at first seemed endless, a great part of the joy. But I’d yield to the demands of the materials, the various pieces in my set, and to the design in my head—just a thought, just a sketch—and give myself to those, anticipating but not yet knowing, often not knowing until the end, the shape and success of the final product. Once I adjusted to the small scale, space became huge, extending to the reaches of the world and its peoples, invisible spirits making appearance, my excitement from entering the world and commanding its space mounting with the rising building, that thrill, however, mixing with the equally strong fear of disturbance that always comes from the violation of the creative act. And always, when done, when I stepped back and looked at my creation, my efforts spent, the pieces in my set exhausted, I felt the sadness of completion.

Recently I took up building again, using pieces from the Lego architecture series, constructing models of well-known buildings as well as attempting some of my own design. I spend much more time in preparation, studying and revising floor plans. I still pass hours on end with the same absorption, the same anticipation and dread, but now I am moved to parallel contemplation of other things, of higher things, of all that might be thought, one path my life has taken. And still, the building completed, I feel the depression at the end when all that I excluded in the design flies back at me or escapes into fleeing nothing.

What I often think about is writing. Architecture, like writing, is a ritual of construction, a repetition of acts to fulfill desire and serve some purpose, and since a series of actions that moves towards an end, it has a story. Architecture is one kind of fiction, the building of one desire and sacrifice of another, whose life comes from the implied opposition. Philosophy, religion, politics—everything is fiction. Our different thoughts and different beliefs and different actions take different forms and we experience them in different ways, but the elements are the same and the task is to find ways to make them work together.

Setting is site, the land, its contours, its life, its exposure to the elements, as well the life of the people who live there, their history, their beliefs, their customs, their habits, these expressed in other buildings near which the new construction is placed, to which it might make reference.

Character is the inhabitant, who will be determined in large part by his or her setting. But also there is the character the architect hopes to create through experience of the building. Differences between the two might lead to conflict, which, the architect hopes, finds resolution in character transformation.

Plot is the floor plan, a building’s structure, and the program it offers characters. Time has been frozen in the plan, but it comes alive as characters move through the structure. The plan determines how they rise, how they descend, how they gather and interact, where they might disperse, these subplots combining to form the ascent of the narrative trail and conditioning the move to resolution.

Point of view, the perspective by which we experience a work, is omniscient third person, effaced. The architect knows the intent of the overall design, but we have to discover it by experience and implication. That takes us, of course, to the problem of nailing down and knowing the Author, a matter of fractured debate the last decades. If I am the designer of my own buildings, I am thrown back on myself, on all the conflicts and uncertainties there. The problem splits in other ways when I model buildings by well-known architects and try get inside their heads.

Voice is the accumulation of small touches to create the mood that colors how we receive the building, which comes in architecture from the posture of accents, the directness or slant of references, or their pointed absence, from the suggestions that arise from shapes. When building I can stare in perplexity at a single wall, just a simple rectangle, which with the addition of a single layer of bricks can move from bathos to the sublime.

Theme comes from placement and variation of recurring motifs—the angles, the shapes, the openings and enclosures, the play of light and shadow—and how these join to form a coherent whole. Theme takes us to the matter of meaning, if we can go that way, to the larger world and the world of ideas, and to voice, which determines our emotional attachment or distance, a large part of meaning.

NC floor diag

I started the model of the Brick Country House because I thought it would be a quick and easy project, well suited to the Lego parts I had. But once underway my earlier fascination, dormant all those years, resurfaced, and I gave myself to hours of reflection that moved me farther out, in all directions. I also ran into problems I wasn’t sure how to solve. It is not a simple house at all.

As for setting, the drawings indicate a large house, low, wide, and spreading, situated on a considerable tract of open land, reinforcing the tradition of the country house and its occupants, the implications there, at least in the abstract. Mies also uses the traditional material of brick, perhaps a nod to local soil and customs. The son of a marble carver and proprietor of a small concern, he didn’t have formal training but did have experience early on in the building trade, and late in life he expressed his admiration for the craft and care of the masons, another influence. The two tall columns above the roofs suggest chimneys and bring their associations, though hearths are not marked in the floor plan. He built other homes with brick for well-off clients at that time, but also a monument to fallen Communists in the Sparacist revolt, during the November Revolution, suggesting his cultural sensitivity wasn’t fixed in one direction. Also implied is the setting of the new world he saw coming and its life, though still in the abstract. Neither drawing, however, offers specifics of site to fix the setting in any actual place and time.

Mies may have only intended the project to be a position piece for exhibition, in which case the specifics would have been left out to highlight the concept. Wolf Tegethoff, however, in Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses, has made careful study of available evidence to conclude he planned to build the house for himself and had a particular site in mind in a suburban area outside Berlin, in fact had two sites in mind, and the three-dimensional drawing was made for one, the floor plan sketch for the other, thus accounting for the discrepancies in their alignment. So they might also have been preliminary designs for actual construction, which would have to be adjusted in the later final planning and construction.

As for plot, the house’s program, the small rooms on the right might be utility rooms for food preparation and other functions, or, if privilege is involved, living quarters for servants. Or they might provide working space for the owner, removed from the rest of the house to allow concentration. The narrow middle section could be a library or casual den. The rooms on the left, larger, could be used for more formal social functions, dining and gatherings. The second floor, since separate and private, might have held bedrooms and other rooms for repose and intimacy. I’m just guessing, however. The only indications Mies wrote on the floor plan are the general designations “living space” on the left and “service space” on the right. But to fix the plan with a definite program is to miss the point.

In the ground plan of this house, I have abandoned the usual concept of enclosed rooms and striven for a series of spatial effects rather than a row of individual rooms. The wall loses its enclosing character and serves only to articulate the house organism.


Plot, theme, character, and voice can subsumed in the term organism, an intriguing and elusive concept. The rooms, like those in the Barcelona Pavilion, flow into each other without full delineation of their boundaries or definitive separation from the exterior. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is obvious and was acknowledged. The walls and the areas they suggest give a sense of internal involvement, denser, more enclosed and defined in the smaller, compact rooms on the right, that opens through the narrow middle section and out to the rest of the house—and beyond. Little is in line with anything, and there is an energy in the overall plan that never settles.

With corners removed, the design encourages an open way of living, away from the compartmentalization and hierarchy of the past, in a fluid, flexible space that offers full visibility and the chance for common interaction and individual retreat. Plot is not a matter of a set path of actions or final ends but an evolving process; setting becomes the immediacy of the present moment, an ever-changing now. Theme comes from the related ideas of freedom and flux and vision, expressed in a mood that is open and light. But the plan is not chaotic. Rather, it shows a precise, complex, asymmetric logic where control is never lost. We do have the option of the possibilities of containment in rectangular enclosures, however. As Tegethoff observes, the incomplete walls imply, through a gestalt of perception, extension into corners, giving mental closure. There is also the motif throughout of implied squares, separate and overlapping.

The house gains extension in its structural interrelationship with site, which takes us to the world of nature and whatever might lie beyond. It is the outside walls, which do not intersect at a common point, that give the house its greater energy yet at the same time, with their figure of an incomplete but implied cross, off-center, stability. While we might not see the overall plan or the outside walls completely, Tegethoff notes we will be aware of them inside and can fill in gaps. And moving through the house engages us in the outward motion. The many full-length windows lighten the sense of load and encourage openness and exterior vision. We will see the outside world in many parts, from many angles, and can put it together it through the experience of living and moving throughout the house. Seen from the outside, the house promotes a similar effect in a play of solid brick planes and separate, multiple reflections of the world in the glass windows, always changing, and in an interaction of light and shadow. Inferred is the idea that knowing the world, like living in it, is an active process of multiple points of view and assemblage.

Still, the overall structure raises questions. It is not clear what is front or back or where the main entrance is, if there is one, or how the house might communicate with the rest of the world, as these distinctions have been put aside in the larger scheme. Such distinctions might not matter or even make sense, however, in a home in the country, and perhaps Mies wanted a house that maintained the openness of the setting and its lack of orientation while avoiding the conventional formalities of entry and exit. There is no overt pretension in the main facade, if we can find it.

The outside walls are vital, yet the most problematic. They mean three separate yards, though for what distinct purposes I can’t imagine. They provide division, but not functional definition. The only way to move through the three areas they create is through the house. Also they exert complete domination of the estate, with all that might imply.

If the house were built on actual site, however, likely we are seeing a front view in the three-dimensional drawing. Tegethoff argues the closed face of the foremost rooms and the spreading yard before them provide separation from the street and remove the traffic of the world, allowing for private life. Entry is likely from the back, and the walls hide the other areas from public view, perhaps one being a garden for personal cultivation. The walls, however, would have to stop somewhere, presumably the boundaries of the property, which, standing isolated, would look awkward. Also they would have to be shortened considerably in symbolic representation, losing the sense of their extension. Other adjustments are needed, but they would disrupt the overall plan and effect. And once placed in a neighborhood of other homes, the Brick Country House would be enclosed, losing the effect of openness into space.

But even if the project is a conceptual proposition there seems to be no place for trees or other landscaping, which would be disruptive to the horizontal character of the house and its openness. Nature has been rendered as flat, empty space, a bare idea. The effect is orderly, serene, even breathtaking—and solitary and chilling.

NC side view

Either way, actual or theoretical, the drawings raise the question as to what forms our lives might take separately and together, even if provisionally, even if momentarily, with what common understanding, or whether we will become Dawns perpetually rousing but not gaining full consciousness, an awakening.

For Mies, architecture was neither a technical problem nor applied sociology but rather, as he wrote in 1928, using words that are as ambiguous as they are emphatic, “the spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.”

Christoph Asendorf

Intellectual may be the term with the most resonance and ambiguity, depending on how one sees the life of the mind. The outside walls suggest extension that, theoretically, since their lines run to the edges of the drawing and look to go further, is endless. The plan gives a picture of a mind asserting itself, opening up to and grasping all space and time. It recalls the Cartesian grid—Tegethoff again—with the implied cross suggesting the presence of x crossing y, giving us the coordinates to map the universe and comprehend it. But Mies’s grid, with the axes offset, the shapes incomplete yet suggesting closure, their interrelationship complex, gives us a picture of a universe that is active, not static, not divided evenly down a middle. Yet it is only a theoretical proposition, a rationalism that cannot be filled with empirical data, the stuff of our lives. The plan reminds me of the precise, brilliant propositions of Wittgenstein and of all the philosopher bracketed and left in suspension—ethics, esthetics, and even the matter of our existence itself—which could not be contained in his logic.

NC Witt 1

Wittgenstein. There were moments, while building, I felt I was lifted to that plane.


Completing the Brick Country House


NC Witt2

There is no plan for the second floor or any view of the rest of the house. But really there isn’t much left to do. The floor plan provides openings and walls for entire first floor, while the three-dimensional drawing gives views of two sides. All that has to be done is locate the rooms on the second floor and fill out the back walls. The smallest problems, however, are often the hardest.

The three-dimensional drawing has a wide perspective with a low horizon and vanishing points well off the visible picture plane, I assume to give the building the horizontal cast Mies wanted. Such a perspective is also necessary to include the outside walls, or a good portion of them, important to the design. But it is an extreme perspective drawn with lines at slight angles, difficult to capture—I tried with ruler and pencil—and I’m not sure it is consistent. Neither my model nor the models and CAD renderings I found online can account for the distance between the second-floor room, with the windows, and the smaller chimney on the right, and I couldn’t recreate it.

NC w arrows

That room is especially hard to read. Its front wall appears to begin next to and behind the large chimney. That would make for a narrow room, however, given the way it appears to align with the first floor. Some of the models I saw move the room forward and extend its width all the way to the edge of the first floor, adding a brick section before the glass. But that distorts the relationship of its windows to those on the first floor. Also there should be a corner line in the chimney to indicate where the room begins, which does not appear in the drawing. I kept it behind the chimney but moved its rear wall back and its side wall in to maintain apparent relationships. The band at the bottom indicates terracing, the only suggestion of site contour. Perhaps Mies wanted the house, like the Barcelona Pavilion, slightly elevated. The house and the rest of the land look to be on the same level.

But those are only structural details. I could not fill in the manner and temper of time and place, which moved me towards a theoretical model, my preference anyway. Nor could I share the surprise—or shock—of Mies’s innovations. I am well familiar with nearly a century of modernist abstraction, and open floor plans have become a standard convention, unquestioned. I also had to fight my own esthetic interests. I must confess that, like bourgeois Germans then, I do not like flat roofs. Most essential and least supported by facts, the spirit of the design and the mind of its creator, which I would have to discover in the process of building.

I still had to fight habits that called for a practical program and put aside the demands of small uses—closets, bathrooms—simple, slight needs that present great challenge to any overall design. Thinking about the house in conventional terms ran me into all kinds of problems and felt like unwanted intrusion. So instead I followed guidelines of design and structure, not use, suggested by the two drawings, referring to the floor plan to set the rooms and openings for the first floor, and the three-dimensional drawing to guide overall appearance:

Structurally, the brick walls provide support points for a reinforced slab that forms the base for the second floor, though I’m not sure my design is structurally sound—and questions were raised about his.

The second floor should be contained within the first and not extend beyond.

Like the first, it should be composed of free-standing walls and windows floor to ceiling. Its floor plan should maintain the pattern of open corners and implied squares, and continue the energy of the first.

The back of the second floor should provide several windows for light and view, of varying widths for variety and complexity.

Again, almost nothing is aligned in the first floor, except the brick exterior wall at the top with the second floor wall beyond the large patio. This reinforces the influence the extending walls have on the overall energy of the design and adds a measure of control. In my design for the second floor, I made the back wall of the back room on the second floor, which I added, to align with the bottom exterior wall, for that reason.

I also added that room to give the floor some width to fill out and integrate the whole building rather than have a narrow, isolated floor atop the first.

I decided it did not make sense, formally or practically, to have windows at the back of the floor overlooking the greater span of the roof, although I see alternatives to my placement.

The enclosure should suggest and complement the first floor but not repeat its forms and have some complexity. My second floor, as is apparent from the roof pictures below, provides a complex shape that echoes its length and provides offsetting variety. That it’s set at a right angle to the first reflects the cross shape of the exterior walls, reinforcing their influence and adding another degree of tension.

I decided there should be continuous walking space on the roof around the exterior of the floor, with the exception of the large platform by the large chimney, and assumed a door or doors. The access enhances the physical experience of openness and relationship with the land, though I don’t know that is desirable or needed. There should be continuity of the plane of the first floor roof, however, visible from within.

NC roof 1

NC roof 2

Aerial views matter. Even if we don’t see the top, we construct it in our minds, and it will be seen in the minds of those who will look at illustrations and flyover shots later, a pattern among patterns, part of an overall pattern of the surrounding landscape. The roofs overhang the floors slightly for guttering, which I couldn’t reproduce in my model, so I made sides of the roofs flush, except where there are extending platforms. I assumed there are patios beneath the platforms, shown in the floor plan, which I modeled in gray. The floor plan does not differentiate between windows and doors, nor are doors explicitly shown in the three-dimensional drawing, so I made all openings planes of glass without distinguishing detail.

Exterior views, rotating counterclockwise from the first:

NC aa

The two chimneys, if they are chimneys, with the line of progression implied from the smaller to the larger, unify the house and reinforce the outward and now upward direction of the scheme. The three-dimensional drawing presents a view seen near ground level, from considerable distance. Our experience of the house will change as we move closer and walk around, although the exterior walls will limit and determine our views in the three separate areas they create. The unity within the horizontality is maintained in some views. In others it breaks down and we are more aware of the separate components. It is what I discovered in making the model, the many different aspects of the house.

NC a

I added a corner window to the back room of the second floor to complement the one on the first. For the rooms on the right, the floor plan calls for an overhang, and I tried three options, one over the first floor, as shown, two parallel platforms over both, which looked repetitive and static, and an overhang only on the top, which removed the walking space and added a vertical element I didn’t think called for, as well as dissipated the variety and energy of the overall design of the top roof.

The narrow window on the second floor, far right, may be a mistake, but it offers the only view from the second floor of a large part of the backyard and the land beyond. I didn’t want to repeat the size of the first floor opening or create a checkerboard of regular squares. Another option would have been a wider window above it, but that would have meant one floor-to-ceiling window atop another, without clear structural separation, at odds with the rest of the design.

It was in this corner, near the end of construction, that I most began to question what I had done.

NC b

A window or door is not marked on the floor plan for the opening near the middle, next to the exterior wall, so I left that space open, providing an internal penetration to the house and allowing protected entry. This side, which I took for the back, most presents the mass and solidity of the building and emphasizes the materiality of brick.

Possible second floor plan:

NC 2nd floor plan

As in my first floor plan model, windows have not been placed. The large area in the middle would be a common area with entries to the smaller rooms around it. The black tiles represent where the stairs enter the second floor.

The most important determinant of the design is the active, outward expansion into space. Should the second floor continue the expansion or would the design reverse course and we ascend instead into another area of concentration? The floor plan only provides two dimensions. How would the third dimension, height, be added, and with what effect? Entry to the second floor is only provided by the narrow stairway, which would cause intense concentration. That could be avoided by making the the entire area of the largest room, which looks to be a foyer or maybe a living or dining room, an open space that extends the full two stories. But I’m not sure such a solution would be structurally sound or fit Mies’s intentions. The whole first floor looks to be covered by the slab, upon which the second rests. Also such a solution would limit usable space on the second. And any view from this large space on either floor would be interrupted by the large platform in the middle, which would be intrusive and disrupting.

But I only list general esthetic concerns without relationship to a specific controlling principle. The open mesh of lines in the floor plan, the suggested squares, the implied vertices, might be guided by some central idea, an essence. Careful study could be made of these, of their proportions and relationships, to find a pattern that, once understood, might provide a key for the second floor and the hidden walls.

NC diagram

The design speaks but doesn’t give answers. A host of options presented themselves and none settled. I only made a brief effort, without result. My attempt to recreate the sun with a spotlight and study patterns of shadows created by its diurnal course got no further.

Throughout the process, at every shape, at every turn, at every opening, I was struck by the originality of the design, the order of its scheme. But I have no confidence in anything I have done. What I knew from the outset only became more apparent as I approached completion, that I would never be able to maintain Mies’s precise shapes and careful proportions, much less assemble them into a unified whole. I only moved further, with each piece, with each attempt to comprehend the space, to indecision and uncertainty. Instead of finding a home, I worked my way out of one, its spirit vanishing with its creator.

NC top floor plan

NC witt 3




NC brick kiln

Architecture begins when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

Mies’s comment, like his other remarks, like the man, is concrete, concise—and enigmatic.

A brick is an obdurate object of ambiguity that hovers between idea and matter, between life and death. Its texture can be smoothed to glide our touch or left rough and abrade. It can be molded into even shapes for consistent construction or made uneven, presenting individual challenges each time one is laid in a course. The hues can be made consistent, offering an even appearance, or they can vary from one brick to another, presenting more individual challenges. But while it can come close to an ideal oblong shape, it never attains perfection, and it can as much be said that it approaches perfection as it resists it. A brick has the right heft for throwing through a window in revolt. It can also be stacked to encase one solidly. Its color takes on that of blood and the earth from which it is made, or both inseparably combined. Whether it preserves blood or shows it spilled, whether it reveals decay or stalls it—these questions cannot be answered. In spite of its ambiguity, however, we are always aware, in mind and in hand, of its touch, of its mass and weight, of its presence.

Just after college, still in North Carolina, I took on a string of junk jobs to make some extra bucks while I was trying to decide what to do with myself. In one I was a brick palletizer for a brick company, a complicated title for a simple task. At the beginning of each day four of us, two to a team, would enter one of a half dozen large dome kilns by a small opening, climb the pile, and lift, lower, and stack bricks on wood pallets so a forklift could come and take them someplace else.

Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.

Once inside the kiln, you couldn’t see who you worked with and after a while didn’t care. All I can remember is bricks. They were sharp-edged, heavy, and rough; we had to use thick rubber gloves to hold them that we’d wear out in a week. Stacked close to the ceiling, smallest on top, largest at the bottom, bricks blocked out, seemed to absorb what little light came in. You couldn’t even hear yourself think or cuss, because outside the opening fans the size of airplane propellers roared to cool us, the bricks off. As we worked, we bumped, dragged, and scraped the bricks against each other and ourselves, raising a dust the fans returned that burned our eyes and, mixed with our sweat, seeped into cuts and scratches. Our hands cramped, sometimes locked. The bricks, still warm from the firing, got hotter the closer we worked to the center of the pile, as if in some inferno. Even on the cold mornings—it was winter—we stripped to our waists ten or fifteen minutes into the day.

One day I teamed up with an old black man, easily in his sixties, and now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. He moved slowly and deliberately, but with economy of effort, and I had trouble keeping up. I had the position on top, the old man, below. I was always stopping to straighten my back and catch my breath, and my halting labor broke the cadence of his. That irritated him, I could tell, but he never said anything about it. He never spoke about anything, or swore, or shrank, or groaned. The only interchange we had was the passing of hot, heavy bricks. Nor did he look up: he saw no further than arm’s length, than the bricks that came down in irregular rhythm.

A kiln is also a kind of temple built for communion within a system that has its own beliefs and practices, that attempts to attain its own sense of perfection. For me it was a place of contemplation, where I saw things precise and clear. While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light.

The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a week. Twenty to fifty bricks a pallet times two or three pallets an hour times eight hours a day times two hundred and fifty days a year times over twenty years would build how many houses?

With what effect on the body and spirit?




Now by Athena’s side in the quiet hall
studying the ground for slaughter, Lord Odysseus
turned to Telemakhos.

We are all modern now, by default and by desire, and modernism has returned by leaps and bounds.

Our world has become increasingly abstract, simplifying itself by its own process. The cost of labor to procure materials and build with them—one effect of a loose move towards democratization—has led to reductions, while mass production and mass media and mass marketing most determine the appearance of what we see in our day-to-day lives. It’s hard to find a language of embellishment in our current culture that might stick. The once dominant influence in Western architecture of classical forms and detail, and the culture that created them, can only be referred to now sentimentally or ironically. We are distant from other influences as well, and they can’t be tapped without a sense of intrusion or appropriation. Whatever geographical moorings we once had have been diluted by our movement away from centers and dissolved by the abstract ways we define our lives together. Our gaze is now outward, international, beyond nation, this in a world that is still trying to define its themes, whose plot fractures in local skirmishes or climbs precipitously to virtual apocalyptic visions, on our screens.

Our conversion to scientific revelation—and scientific-looking revelation—has given us certainty and confidence but removed the base for awe. Transcendence itself has been dismissed as an illusion, a vague desire. We have no fixed set of beliefs upon which to build anything, no cause to look up, and no compelling reason to design one way or another. We do not know what to be afraid of, have even put the thought of fear aside, but somehow have bypassed the suspicion we should be afraid of ourselves.

Still we are moved to wonder, or whatever has taken its place, by our technological devices and constructions, these ever propelling us to the threshold of what we cannot and do not want to name. Because by default and desire we are attached to the present moment, the pulse that feeds our self-awareness, now, and we can’t think of that moment without thinking of its decay, so are propelled to look forward to the next, to the future, in visions whose spirit is fresh, whose surfaces are pure, unhindered by distracting detail.

We can build now almost anything we want and open up our walls to the endless world and endlessly let it in, and do so with little visible external support. At least this much has been transcended, the restrictions once imposed by gravity that necessitated placing beams on posts, that limited openings and kept us close to the ground, that constrained the building of an esthetic.

Our buildings can take any shape we want:

NC Gehry

Or they can rise closer to the heavens:

NC burj

Or give us the means of ascent:

NC Apple 2

And we have embraced nature in our constructions, integrating its color into our pure whites and sheer glass and shining steel.

NC Fields vallco

Or used nature to efface them. This is Rafael Viñoly’s project for The Hills at Vallco, which will become the world’s largest green roof that will cover a mixed-use complex:

NC Vallco below

It is all exhilarating, really, but it all makes me dizzy. I don’t know if that is where my quest to be modern has taken me or whether modernism has left me behind. Or maybe modernism, reaching beyond itself, has left itself behind.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Elliot offers another view of eternity, different from Wittgenstein’s, and raises other questions.

The new Apple headquarters, a Norman Foster design under construction now, and The Hills, still a proposal, will lie next to each other, part of a plan to revitalize Cupertino, the heart of Silicon Valley, where I have lived some thirty years without ever taking root. I have been buffeted by the turbulence of the tech industry, its busts, but haven’t enjoyed the exuberance of its booms. And a new energy has emerged once more, taking me by surprise, because I am removed from that life and didn’t know about these buildings, just a mile away, until I saw them announced in the media.

Apple Campus 2 itself will be 80 percent landscape, with many functions submerged underground. Steve Jobs said he wanted to bring back the California of his youth, “the fruit bowl of America”; the company, after his passing, represents it as “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s brand values of innovation, ease of use and beauty.” There’s a term for the suppressed iconography, pastoral capitalism, and according to Louise Mozingo, who coined the term and wrote a book with that title, the movement is global. Apple’s profits the last years have been enormous. The Hills, however tells another story. The current Vallco Mall, which it will replace, has been in decline since its inception. All its anchors—Sears, Macy’s, etc.—have left and it is now half tenanted. Covering the stores with grass will somehow resurrect them.

Both pictures are also misleading. The green spaces they create will only provide a small patch of land in crowded streets and compacted homes and stores that stretch out for fifty miles. And they conjure a past that that never was and promote a way of life at odds with the hectic pace and manic schedules needed to thrive here.

Mixed-use is another trend designed to halt the decay of sub- and exurban sprawl. The idea is to combine residence and commerce in a mix of apartments and restaurants and offices and shops in central integration, to bring us closer together. Cupertino, whose previous attempts to establish a city center have failed, is giving it a shot. Main Street Cupertino is another mixed-use complex, nearly completed, in front of Apple 2, and about which developers say:

It’s all happening at Main Street. Everyone in your group—from young professionals to big families—will find what they crave in an inclusive community atmosphere that enhances your time together. Food, wine, friends and fun are celebrated here at Main Street. From enlightened burgers to craft beer, artisan pizza, vegan wraps and more, everyone will find something to love.

Angels have descended to write copy.

I can only stand aside in disbelief. But maybe there is innocence in all of this, maybe even a future. Because I, wingless, am the one who has become corrupted over the years. I am the one who is tortured by irony and wrecked with doubt, whose only mood now is fatigue. Maybe it is time to put those aside, let go, take a leap, and think of another way of life. There is something here that approaches spirit, even a kind of peace and order, and I do not know what life these visions will bring. I try to imagine myself tending the fields above Vallco or dining among the others in casual assurance or gathering with them out in the open field, waiting to see what will appear on the large screen. Who call tell what stories will yet be played there? And those fictions will have a home in the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, proposed for the shores of Chicago, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, brought to us by the director who has given us our modern epics and exhorted us to trust the force:

NC Lucas museum

But I will not be there to see them. The tech companies—Apple, Google, the others—with their salaries to lure, along with international buyers, have sent housing prices soaring with no end in sight, and there has been an epidemic of landlords evicting tenants so they can raise rent, as has happened to me. I have a month left on my lease, and my rent, already steep, will likely double if I look elsewhere. It makes no financial sense for me or anyone of like salary—teachers, policemen, social workers, shop owners, much less the mixed-use clerks and waiters—to live here.

So I will take ship and set sail again, for parts unknown. . . .


—Gary Garvin




There is another drawing of the floor plan, made by Werner Blaser under Mies’s supervision late in his life, 1965, that details the placement of each brick—and adds a hearth to the large chimney. As Blaser states,

. . . the ground plan of the brick house is a good example of the manner in which Mies van der Rohe developed the art of the structure from the very beginning. The structure of a brick wall begins already with the smallest divisible unit: the brick.

Cited by Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer in Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas. The brick placement, however, has little relationship with the original drawings, and, as the authors point out, such a claim cannot be true. Rather, the drawing served as a manifesto of Mies’s method, well after the fact, without consideration for actual construction. According to them, referencing Dan Hoffman, discussing other brick houses actually built:

Mies has consequently been credited with coaxing a machined precision out of the handiwork of bricklaying to the point where the masonry units and mortar joints merged to form an overall texture of such regularity that it approached the appearance of an industrialized surface. Craft was pushed to a degree of such perfection that it disappeared.

Such precision is not possible with brick, but it does represent a desire, an upward goal. The purpose, the point of such a desire, however, rests elusive. Then again, looking for purpose may miss the point. For all his precision and control, Mies is difficult to locate. He rejects formalism, which leaves open the matter of esthetic grounding. His only reference point is the spirit of the “new era,” or a platonic conception of it, without critical question:

The new era is a fact; it exists entirely independently of whether we say “yes” or “no” to it. But it is neither better nor worse than any other era. It is a pure datum and in itself neural as to value.

From “The New Era,” 1930, found in Programs and manifestoes on 20th-century architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads. Another paradox: we can see the facts of this new era but not its spirit, yet without this ideal concept his architecture collapses. Ultimately Mies approaches religion, or an abstraction of it. There’s a kind of faith in his neutrality.

Mies, “Working Theses” also found in Programs.

Mies, “Indeed we should strive to bring Nature” from Tegethoff.

Mies, “In the ground plan of this house, I have abandoned” from Mies van der Rohe, Jean-Louis Cohen.

Mies, “Architecture begins when two bricks” from Architecture: The Subject is Matter, ed. Jonathan Hill.

Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey.

Christoph Asendorf, “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Dessau, Berlin, Chicago” from Bauhaus, ed. Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend.

Wittgenstein quotations from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden.

Quotations about Apple 2 from “Look Inside Apple’s Spaceship Headquarters,” Wired.

Portions of this essay appeared in the author’s piece at Archinect and his short story “Willy.”


Picture Credits

Mies van der Rohe drawings from Alex Maymind “5 Projects: Interview 5,” via Archinect.

From Wikipedia Commons: the floor plans of a megaron, the Parthenon, and the Barcelona Pavilion; photographs of Centaur and Lapith, the Barcelona Exposition, the Barcelona Pavilion (or rather its reconstruction), Dawn, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Adrian Smith’s Burj Khalifa.

Albert Speer Zeppelinfeld via drexel.edu.

Apple Campus 2, The Hills at Vallco, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art via designboom.

All photographs of the model by the author.



Gary Garvin lives with his son in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English, though he is in the process now of relocating. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.


May 042016

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It is a radical, a primitive impulse—elementary.
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
—Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals


The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor seamstress for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. There are tried and true patterns she will revert to, and for good reasons. But like all artists, she will deviate from the patterns, too, beginning new traditions and conventions in the place of old. That, however, all the patches are made of the same fabric—a fabric woven of the mind’s sympathy with the material world—we can be quite sure.


Two myths regarding the origin of language haunt our presentiments about the way we know reality and, thus, our conclusions about how and what the world means. One posits an absolute and legible world of meaning; the other an utterly meaningless world. The first tells the tale of a lost Ur-Sprache, wherein words were identical to the things they signified. Mixing Kabbalistic creation magic with esoteric Renaissance alchemy, this myth is one source of Romantic views of the world as whole, harmonious, and inherently logical (“worded” and in accordance with Reason). The assumption is that things mean, and that their meaning is at least partially legible—if not transparently through the dark glass of the fallen language of man, then at least through the visible language of nature, its patterns and repeating hieroglyphs. From ancient times through the mid-18th century at least, scholars and mystics have searched for traces of a perfect language, supposedly lost after the collapse of Babel tower or after that other fall in Eden, claiming sometimes that it was a form of Hebrew and, at others, inventing new symbol systems that promised to heal the rift between word and world, human mind and cosmos. Suspending for a moment belief in the myth’s more esoteric tendencies, the idea that language could be intrinsically related to reality is somewhat supported by etymological evidence tracing the roots of words in the world of matter, binding thought to history, nature, and social practices. Most compelling of all is its occasional call—as in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (1303-5)—for the modern poet to bridge the chasm between both words and the essences of ideas and things with a creative regeneration of language.

The second myth deceptively denies any correspondence between words and world, and tends to insist that individual experience cannot be translated from one person to the next. It came more recently to prominence, though there were proto-believers, or shall I say skeptics—for it is a skeptical myth, though myth just the same—even in ancient times. It came to hold sway in the late 19th century, along with other skepticisms, gained considerable ground at the turn of the 20th, and is currently one of the most pervasive articles of faith of the 21st-century social theorist and even many writers who, in holding to it, undermine a belief in their own work. In this explanation of the origin of language, words have never and never could be anything but arbitrary labels for things. This arbitrariness signals a kind of treacherous deceit. The way we think is, they warn, directed and controlled by these arbitrary signifiers— masters, which have no right to such guiding and limiting power over our thoughts and the world they pretend to describe. Words, in this story, coalesce into controlling concepts, cutting up the world into arbitrary categories and quickly shutting down thought and vision. As if that were not bad enough, this tyranny of words deceives in yet another fundamental way. By presenting an order that is invented, words give the lie to the actual dis-ordered state of the world. Words cover up a chaotic, fluid abyss that cannot (or rather should not) be reduced, differentiated, or delimited. Words impose definitions where there should be none, separating, distinguishing, discriminating. Perhaps by the end of the 21st century, light itself will be decried as another separator of substances, an arbitrary surveyor of imperialistic boundary lines between brightness and shadow; but for now we may enjoy our chiaroscuro, virtually guiltlessly. Not so our words. Words in this myth fail to translate between thing and mind and between person and person and language and language. All is a jumble. This myth of untranslatability marks a kind of second Babel, inaugurating a dire suspicion about the ability of words to mean anything, and about meaning altogether.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

A driving force of the myth of untranslatabilty is the myth of social construction, which, in its most extreme form, denies any relationship between our social attitudes and customs and our biology, our instincts, or experiences, thus cutting the lifeline between materiality and ideas. Neither the myth of the perfect language nor that of non-translatability are true in their extreme forms, but both contain germs of truth, and both are analogies for the fears and hopes of human beings who are, naturally, quite concerned with whether or not the world has any meaning and how we might know what it is and then communicate it to others. But like all strict dualisms, their extreme polarity avoids the fruitful unification of opposites where the world meets word and both might be expanded through contact.

Over the course of the 20th century, philosophers continued the exploration begun in ancient times of how we know the world, focusing more directly on how we know the world through language. In the 21st century these queries have often been reduced to a set of conclusions about how we don’t and can’t know the world, neither through language or otherwise. Although these philosophies have often been liberating, breaking down preconceived limits and questioning restrictive assumptions, when taken to their logical extremes they lead to silence and solipsism.

Social construction is, of course, grounded in the much older philosophical supposition that it is impossible to experience, see, or know “the thing in itself.” We see only phenomena and not realities, and our seeing is determined by filters or structures in our brains that mediate the ways in which we see. Over centuries, this realization has been transformed to mean that what we see is necessarily either wrong or extremely different from what is, an assumption that was not present in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Although Kant conceived of the a priori mental structures that determined our perception as divinely given, we might secularize his exploration by accepting that there are basic biological constants in human brains through which we see, sense, and experience phenomena. While Kant did note that each person sees a different shade of red, he did not suggest that we each see entirely different colors, or that colors themselves did not exist.

The “categorical imp of the perverse” acknowledges that there are some a priori givens or essences in both our minds and the world and that, whether we can see the “thing in itself” perfectly or not, we still have some access to a reasonable sense of reality in its basic forms; that our individual perception, although subjective, is not so radically different from that of others as to prohibit correspondence and communication; that we can use words and images to approximate our meanings and expand our own perception and that of others; and, finally, that while we may follow the categorical imperative as a general law, we also will, like Poe’s imp, perversely deviate from its strictures when an uncontrollable irrational impulse, a creative urge, an ethical scruple, or simple taste dictates. This is an unfashionable idea, to be sure, for it does not provide the satisfaction of either complete wholeness and harmony, on the one hand, or of complete nihilism and alienation, on the other. Instead, it hovers uncomfortably in a middle realm where some things are real and repeating and others open to interpretation and change. It leaves us neither completely omnipotent nor completely helpless.

Without the interventions of the foolish imp (pointing out naively that the emperor has no clothes, for example) an utterly de-materialized form of reader response theory might prevail in the social scene, regardless of the “text” that is being interpreted. The categorical imp wags its finger at an “anything goes” interpretation of the world, blurting out “foolish” truisms to make sophisticated social theorists blush, but also does not stay long within any constructed system that can be exploded or questioned.

Kant Imp PoeLeft: Immanuel Kant, 18th-century portrait  Right: Edgar Allan Poe by Michael Deas (Both public domain)

Nietzsche, inaugurating the “linguistic turn,” made us aware of the way language conceptualizes reality by creating names or descriptions of things that may leave out as much as they contain. Words are inexact figures and metaphors, inaccurate and incommensurate attempts to describe reality. We group similar things that nevertheless exhibit many differences into general categories; and this process induces a sort of simplification of seeing. We come to perceive dogs, trees, men, women, instead of each individual creature and entity. This eventually leads us to create abstractions and reifications, such as love, good, bad, noble, moral, money, which may become more and more removed from physical reality and experience. Yet, while many theorists after Nietzsche came to see the use of language as a treacherous crime committed upon reality, he tended to see it in a more creatively joyous light. Just as long as we do not come to be the slaves of ossified constructs and concepts, just as long as the “creative subject” continues to make new terms, new words, new metaphors, new figures to describe a changing reality from his own shifting perspective, just as long as individuals stoke the flame of a living language, language can be a prod and a stimulus to new seeing.

Social construction theory has tried to moralistically discredit this joyous aesthetic and existential world- and word-making activity and has replaced it with an imperative to strip every word and every concept of its given meaning by calling all designations and conceptualizations into question. Berger and Luckmann, authors of The Social Construction of Reality (1966), reduce all human culture to “an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth, the theoretical integration of which requires considerable intellectual fortitude in itself, as the long line of heroic integrators from Homer to the latest sociological system-builders testifies.” Thus the enlightened skeptics discard all of literature, philosophy, and history in one fell swoop—excepting, of course, their own myth and narrative, of a social system occurring randomly and ex nihilo, which just appears and dupes all subsequent humans into following rules and belief systems which have nothing to do with human tendencies, desires, or human nature. The champions of the subsequent puritanical silence would discredit myth, historic narrative, fairy tales, religious legends, songs, poems, paintings, totems, and talismans as random and as traitorous social constructions. They would have us scoff at any product of the human imagination as if it had been made by some abstract non-human author, as something necessarily imposed upon the passive human from some extraneous force that would have to be virtually extraterrestrial, not ourselves, not natural. They would insist that a human is not capable of experiencing his or her reality without being blind-sided by the already constructed way of seeing determined by his or her society, as if construction only works in one negative, exclusive, terminating direction, when, in fact, new ideas, new conceptualizations, new abstractions exponentially proliferate over the ages, as new details, microcosmic particulars, and relative complexities are incorporated into our shared cultural, scientific, and artistic discourse.

Of course our visions and perspectives are colored by our social context and these visions vary from one culture to another, often extremely. The variations between cultures must be the product of many different influences, from genetics to climate to landscape to the requirement for survival of a particular place and a particular people (gene culture co-evolution). Originary group social experiences are passed down from generation to generation, and are altered or not over time. Certainly old customs can be kept longer than necessary and humans on the whole may act according to originary evolutionary necessities that are no longer useful and even sometimes harmful in our current context. But these ways of seeing and ways of acting are not random. In other words, while there certainly are many social constructs, there is no such thing as “just” a social construct—a phrase that suggests that the construct appeared out of nowhere and has no validity whatsoever. Social constructs including language, education, and art are the positive product of human interaction with nature, the physical world, social groups, experience. They may always be questioned and often must be challenged, but they are fundamental and indispensable to human culture.

Over time there is oscillation between repeated forms and invention, including the benefit of influence, interaction, discourse, criticism, the scientific method, testing of assumptions, positing of hypotheses and theories, gathering of facts and evidence to support the hypotheses and theories, foregrounding certain facts over others, selecting out and focusing on one or another aspect, evaluating based on differing values and differing relative needs of the moment.

One can say that different people notice different things when they read a story; that their experiences color what they will remember and the emotions that different words or images inspire. But one can’t say that the story itself is different. What is in it is what is in it. A test consists in the subjective reader pointing out something (making an observation). Is it really there? Or is it a wrong reading, a reading into, a hallucination? Do others see it too, now that it has been pointed out? Indeed, since people do largely see mainly what others have seen before them, it takes a particularly brave or odd reader to suddenly find something there that others have missed repeatedly. Different reading capabilities will see more nuances; simpler people will miss complexities or misread altogether. Someone may grasp the literal but not the allegorical or ironic level.

But here we are talking about a story, something made with some level of intention by a conscious being, something limited. What of the vast and contradictory text of the world? How do we read it collectively even though there is no author and no given purpose? Arrive at an interpretation of its infinite elements and relations? Not all readings are acceptable or right. Yet they persist. How do people live entire lives misunderstanding reality, or not understanding aspects of science, biology, history, anthropology? We still come to absurd conclusions about observed phenomena, like primitives inventing myths to explain the terrors of nature. What of these myths? They are readings and explanations. Technically, scientifically wrong, but often they are allegorically, humanly, right. People lived, perhaps, more beautiful and richer lives believing in Zeus and the divinations of the Oracle than we do today with our scientific knowledge of cause and effect. But there have also been instances when superstitions and wrong-thinking have led to terrible misery and violence (as they still do today, alas). What we want would rather be myths that are “true” to the most healthful, life-affirming essence of Nature, myths that help us to understand who we are and to face up to the fearsomeness of the unknown. Myths that help us to embrace change and mortality and reality. The myth of a perfect language and the myth of untranslatability can be classed in the larger philosophical categories on either side of hope and despair. Which myth is most true to our potential as a species and which do we want to dream on? Do we want skeptical solipsism or holistic Idealism? Again, as in all such extreme polarizations, the sweet spot is in their synthesis, in the creation of a new myth: perhaps that of the categorical imp of the perverse.

Imp of the Perverse by Leonard BaskinImp of the Perverse (from Leonard Baskin’s Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies and Elves, Pantheon 1984)

How much, then, is our reading of the world, of events, of words, of symbols invented or constructed; and how much, on the other hand, is it inherent in nature, in our biology, in our evolutionary coding? Words and symbols describe, denote, suggest, but they may also coerce and imprison; words calcify clichés, but they also can be rearranged and newly coined to make us see and be in new ways. The relationship of the material world with the world of words and ideas has, of course, significant bearing on the very question of meaning, not just the meaning of words, but of the meanings or values we attribute to the world and our ability to share, compare, and translate these meanings with others over time and space. Meaning in the sense of an intentional predetermined purpose by some external agent is not credible. We are not here for something (short of evolutionary processes, which cannot always be counted on our side or in our interest). And yet, our biological sensory essences are replete in themselves with a life force, a will to power, a will to pleasure and also, surprisingly, an evolved ethical and social sense. According to E.O. Wilson, in The Meaning of Human Existence, “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction—the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete….” If this is the case, what would it mean for the continuation of our species were we to turn our backs on these originary processes? We create and find meanings, valuations, scales of significance about things, acts, people, as a result of our shared experience. These conclusions are not random or arbitrary, but based on our own bodies, on nature, on what seems to work, on what brings pleasure, excitement; on instinct, on counter-instinct; and, yes, also by conditioning and resistance to conditioning. By denying the direct influence of material reality on our ideas, we undo the bonds between thought and action. By breaking the current from world to word and mind, we break the current back as well: a disembodied idea cannot touch an embodied world.

Modernism introduced both freedom and alienation through the recognition of perspectivism and relativity, inventing non-linear modes of communication such as symbols, metaphors, novel arrangements of forms to express the newly significant internal states that could not as easily be expressed in didactic language. Postmodernism robbed the individual of even the comfort of her own temporary, provisional, shifting view—relieved by moments of being as extratemporal, exceptional moments when all flux was set in a harmonious form before being dispersed once more. And then further denied us the notion that these experiences might be translatable to others through poetic form. Declaring that everything cancelled everything else out, and that any interpretation was as good as any other (thus none were any good), postmodernism simultaneously opened the airwaves to an inchoate cacophony and closed many mortal ears to the music of the spheres. Ostensibly taking away the privilege of the elite reader, any reader of the world was now equally entitled to affirm his own arbitrary reading over any other. Some contemporary theorists, lacking, however, the compensation of another world that may have softened the blow of Berkeley’s 18th-century de-materialism, go a step further, by suggesting that there isn’t even a world or a reality to know in the first place.

But through materiality we are literally in touch with the textures, the colors, the approximate spaces and dynamics of iteration and difference in our shared physical world. Although our experiences of the real are necessarily colored, limited, or expanded by our personal experiences and subjective lenses, we need not give in to alienated despair and a rejection of the possibility of translation from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, or past to present to future. Although my perception of the world is filtered through my own brain, experience, and interests, it is possible that the words that I use, the images that I make to evoke that world will mean something to you. And the differences between how I see the world and the way you see it are, in fact, enriching and expansive variations of individual and group worldviews, creating awareness of individual sentience and self-consciousness.

Schiller noted the difference between what he called “naïve” and “sentimental” approaches to poetry, the former exemplified by the simple objectivity of Homer, the latter by the subjectivity of Romanticism. We are all-too-well aware today that all vision (even Homer’s supposedly objective reporting) involves re-vision and that all expression comes from a particular perspective; but that need not mean that each representation is hopelessly inaccessible to other humans who share, at least to some extent, much of the same cellular structure, much of the same instinctive apparatus, and much of the same social and natural experience. Henry David Thoreau, though labelled a transcendentalist and thus supposedly a proponent of innate knowledge rather than empiricism, was really committed to what he called “fronting the facts” of reality: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy:” he wrote, “we reason from our hands to our head.” Analogies would not mean anything to us if they did not correspond to something we recognized from a shared real world.

In this age where alienation is taken by some as a mark of sophistication, I would rather hearken back to a time when sentimentality—which in Schiller’s sense is a mode of perception and expression that infuses some external entity with a subjectivity—was not a dirty word. For the cost of abandoning communication and correspondence between persons and between persons and their world is far too high to uncritically accept philosophies that insist on the absolute incommensurability of perception and phenomena, word and thing, individual and individual. The ultimate cost of abandoning an approximation, a translation of some shared meaning, is not only culture and community as George Steiner and others have noted, but also any impetus for individual or group agency. For, if we cannot know the world well enough, and cannot know others more or less, and cannot know even ourselves, it would not only be impossible to function on a daily basis, but it would be impossible to dream about and to work to minimize the space between what is and what could be. The kind of knowing that helps us with practical functioning and the kind that helps us dream and engage with the world are both proximate, but they have different uses. The former is a pragmatism that accepts certain probabilities for the sake of efficiency and practicality. The kind of knowing that allows us to dream and act, however, is one that fathoms the difference between what is determined and what is yet determinable, keeping always a lifeline from the palpable facts of nature down to the subconscious watery depths of the imagination, a kind of knowing which must continually measure what in our life is necessity and what might yet be changed.

If constructs in the form of language and images have a tendency to direct thought, thereby potentially limiting how we see the world, then the “creative subject” (to use Nietzsche’s term for all humans who act upon the object of the world) has an ethical and aesthetic responsibility to rejuvenate where ideas have become ossified, and to invent new living language where vision has become merely conventional. Even evolutionary and genetic coding can be resisted to varying extents, so that individual and group choice may deviate from long-repeated patterns and veer away from social and biological conformity. Environmental events also alter what is beneficial for survival, inducing adaptations which change the course of social behavior. But extreme forms of social construction deny the biological and evolutionary foundations of our thought and action. According to Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the old, established, standard social science model made a religion out of the idea of the impressionable empty mind waiting to be imprinted by any external force whatsoever, denying any connection between one’s physical characteristics, one’s material surroundings, and one’s behavior (gene-culture co-evolution), shifting the entire cause of social systems to conditioning and social engineering. Pinker’s radical stance is that:

We have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.

Although, as he notes in his introduction, most people acknowledge that everything is both nature and nurture, when it really comes down to it (in liberal milieus, in any case) politically correct assumptions veer sharply away from biological causation. Pinker traces the ideological shift from biology to historical materialism to social construction, and quotes Franz Boas saying, “We must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary;” and Durkheim: “Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms;” noting also that Skinner’s behaviorism was based on a belief in the complete malleability of individuals. The blank slate model has been used, of course, as political leverage to affirm the equal potential of all persons; but, as Pinker argues, it also works against the development of the kind of innate ethical behavior that can do battle against totalitarianism, the shadow that looms large over this discussion. Marxist historical materialism, which, certainly in its received form, oddly leaves the material of the body out when calculating what material forces shape the individual, is based on the blank slate model; and whereas Nazism was, of course, grounded in an ideology of ethnic cleansing with direct links to biology. Rescuing the humane exploration of the extent of genetic causes of behavior from its associated calumny, Pinker reminds us that, “Government sponsored mass murder can come from an anti-innatist belief system as easily as from an innate one.” The Stalinists, in pursuit of a political goal based on the blank slate, killed just as many (or more) people as the Nazis. Noam Chomsky, whose research on universal grammars leans in the direction of the perfect language myth, echoes Pinker’s reservations about the political benefits of the blank slate model:

If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community.

Social construction theory, likewise dependent upon the total malleability of the blank slate model—although ostensibly a radical attack on exploitative and oppressive essences, universals, and absolutes—has a paradoxical tendency to discourage rather than inspire radical activity. This is because it is cynical about the individual’s participatory agency in creating and, if necessary, reconstructing our shared world, the essential ethical agency affirmed by existentialism. Adorno finally conceded that there can be some form of poetry after Auschwitz, but can we find our way back to a scientific and philosophical ideology that balances the influence of both biology and environment, an assessment of language that allows for some measure of conceptual correspondence with reality, a way to appreciate the significance of civilization amid its cruelties and kindnesses? And if we cannot, how shall we possibly proceed as a culture, as members of an extended and complex cultural and ecological system? Centuries after the Kantkrise, when people rightfully experienced the disequilibrium of a world from which the horizon, in Nietzsche’s image, had been wiped away with a sponge, a world wherein all established values were subject to reevaluation, a mature attempt is called for: to do our best, despite subjectivity, perspectivism, and cultural differences. Because the real costs of abandoning the possibility of communication are nothing less than culture, community, and ethical agency.

Nietzsche characterized language as a “prison house,” and Wittgenstein famously noted the challenge of struggling against the walls of language, but both concluded that there was no choice but to attempt to communicate despite the challenges. Nietzsche wrote: “We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language.” I suggest that, instead of a prison house, what we really have is a misprision house, a house where misunderstandings haunt our communications; a house, however, which we may readily transform with all manner of expansion, rearrangement, implosion and explosion. A house of our own making, subject to our own renovations. A house of any kind requires foundations. In language, these foundations are words and concepts; in society, the foundations are shared universals. Cultural relativity is one of the largely unexamined assumptions of contemporary society, but many anthropologists and sociologists have made the case for a wide number of behavioral constants across all cultures. Steven Pinker includes a list compiled from Donald Brown’s Human Universals as an appendix in The Blank Slate, featuring such commonalities as ambivalence, figurative language, rituals, gift-giving, in-group and out-group consciousness, nuclear family structures, incest taboos, art appreciation, attempts to predict the future, punishment for antisocial behavior, distinguishing self from others, sexual jealousy, synesthetic metaphors, taxonomy, language applied to misinform or mislead, synonyms, cooperation, selfishness, status seeking, explaining events by causation, fear of death, proverbs, ethnocentrism, private inner life, redress of wrongs, risk taking, hope, &c. Chomsky, as already noted, argues for an innate and universal grammatical structure for all languages. Despite manifest differences, he writes, “…it seems that very heavy conditions in the form of grammar are universal. Deep structures seem to be very similar from language to language, and the rules that manipulate and interpret them also seem to be drawn from a very narrow class of conceivable formal operations.” Although there are variations across cultures in terms of language and customs, “the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” There are more things in heaven and earth that are universal than the social constructionist will usually allow, and the tension between these universals and individual will and choice is the same tension present in the categorical imperative, put into new and equally paradoxical words by the American transcendentalist Emerson, who received his Kant filtered through the German Romantics. In his famous essay, “Self-Reliance” Emerson writes: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius”. In other words, if you follow your own conscience instead of blindly following conventions and social constructions, you probably will find yourself where the most conscious humans before you have found themselves; but it is not something an ethical person can take for granted. Thus one must assess and experiment anew— while keeping the experiments of others always within reach.

Steven Pinker Blank SlatePhoto of Steven Pinker by Rose Lincoln, Harvard University

A young male friend of mine told me of an experiment he conducted with a woman friend to try to “be together without preconceptions,” without language, without definitions. It fell flat. What is left when we take away history, archetypes, essence? Some preconceived images and roles are still meaningful, though others have become empty shells, simulacra, and conventions. What still reverberates, and why? Consider Proust’s Swann and his comparison of his beloved Odette to the women in old paintings. Her beauty in the present is enhanced by its comparison and relation with the already delineated forms of archetypal female beauty. When I was a young woman, I was attracted and repelled by de Beauvoir’s encouragement in The Second Sex to simply live as one is, and let that define what a woman is. I understood the problem with any individual woman trying to fit into a pre-existent role of womanliness, and judging her success and failure as a person based on the extent to which she fits into this role, especially in so far as the myths have often been written by men. Indeed, de Beauvoir’s discussion constitutes one of the clearest illustrations of the existentialist motto: existence precedes essence. But much is lost if we abandon the ancient archetypes altogether. Some essences do precede existence, and they cannot easily by altered by even the strongest will. A woman is whatever any particular woman is; but at the same time a woman is an echo and a continuance of what women have always been: in poetry, history, song, painting, myth. Today’s blank slate theory is tantamount to a total blankness, a neutered neutrality, especially as it threatens to wipe away not only history and archetype, but even biology and instinct. If fantasies of roles and patterns do not excite the modern contemporary moralistic lover (who may try to be blank even in his or her perception of eroticism), then at least biology ought to do the trick. But even that is repressed or denied. Nothing is supposed to be determining except social context, which is allegedly random and created by oppressive institutions. Shall we then sacrifice erotic imagination and sexual pleasure for a sterile—indeed blank—moralistic neutrality? Or is it possible to play affirmatively with the fruitful tension between innovation and an engagement with determined biology and past archetypes? Today we speak of fluidity and the social construct of gender, often without considering the implications of these ideas. Fluidity is consistent with a rejection of the “construct” of gender, but transformation of physical and stylistic trappings seems still to keep faith with the gender roles it claims to repudiate, only changing the individual’s physicality to match a pre-created role. I certainly have nothing against each individual pursuing his or her or their own sense of sexuality. I sometimes feel like a thunderstorm, a mountainside, a young boy, an old book, a lioness, a flower, a lightning bolt, a field of moss. Yet I am concerned about the way in which this new mode of thought joins other current ideologies to deny the reality of the material world.

I suppose I am rather old-fashioned though, believing even that words mean something that can be traced back to nature through their roots. Emerson, who nowadays is also old-fashioned but in his time was a proponent of the new thought, wrote that words were “fossil poetry;” and an archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D, elaborated on this suggestive phrase in a book much loved by Thoreau. Trench writes:

[A] popular American author has somewhere characterized language as “fossil poetry.” He evidently means that just as in some fossils, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrate lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would have been theirs,—so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves…Language may be, and indeed is, this “fossil poetry.” [But it also is] fossil ethics, or fossil history.

How far from this belief in the significance of etymology we are today! Some contemporary people seem to really not believe that words have any meanings at all. They do not keep their words and speak untruths easily, just as advertisers do, with rampant euphemism, ignoring the proper use of grammatical symbols like possessive apostrophes (perhaps a subconscious attempt to do away with private property and possession?), sprinkling them around haphazardly, in hopes that one might make some sense somewhere or sprout into a sentence.

Sounding somewhat like Wittgenstein, who came to believe in the organic communal development of language over time, Trench writes, “Man makes his own language, but he makes it as the bee makes its cells, as the bird its nest, he cannot do otherwise.” Indeed, why should human language-making (like the mind) be something outside of nature? Why an imposition upon nature? Trench compares the natural growth of the tree of language to a “house being built of dead timbers combined after his own fancy and caprice.” “Language,” he writes, prefiguring the coming Modernist crisis, “is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought….” And continues, landing on more solid ground than the later language philosophers, declaring that it is “on the other side that which feeds and unfolds thought”; and that “there is…a reality about words.” Words to Trench are not mere arbitrary signs, but “living powers…growing out of roots, clustering in families, connected and intertwining themselves with all that men have been doing and thinking and feeling from the beginning of the world till now.” Tribulation: from tribulum-harrow, a threshing instrument; Caprices—from capra, a goat; Daisyeye of day; Laburnum—golden rain. Words are like artifacts in curiosity cabinets, except that they are living, evolving.

If originally words were arbitrary, they grew out of each other in accord with reality. But why do we worry so much about the distinction between what is and what is perceived or how named, when the perceiver and namer is made of the same nature as the observed thing? Why would the structure of the human mind and its brainchild language commit treachery on its own kith and kin, its own world? That sometimes false etymologies are attached to words whose real etymologies have been forgotten may only prove the connection of words to realities all the more, since the new explanation relates the old word to some existing reality. We are always binding words to what is, even if they do not strictly come from one particular is. Trench writes: “errors survive in words” and “disprove themselves”: tempers, humors, saturnine, mercurial, jovial (descriptions of people born under these planets); to charm, bewitch, enchant, lunacy, panic, auguries, and auspices (from divination), initiating (from rites)—all mark the persistence of Pagan words in Christian lands. The universe was named “cosmos” or beautiful order, probably by Pythagoras. Was this not an expression of natural human sentiment, voiced by one man? It is surely one possible good name for the universe, though not the only or ultimate one. Someone else in a later era might choose rather to name it “chaos.”

Words born of specific cultures attest to that culture’s history and tendencies. Though sometimes it may be difficult to ascertain which is the stronger, dominant friend, language or reality, we cannot deny that a relationship obtains. Smith comes from smite; wrong from wring; haft from have. Shire, shore, shears, share, shred, shard are all connected to the idea of separation. The contemporary fear of mastery and dominance denies even this relatedness. Some people would rather have no meaning than a meaning that is possibly imposed. Rather not use language at all, they think, than use the language of the oppressors. Why not, instead, make new words? Become ourselves creators?

A belief in the meaningful relation between words and the world extended in Thoreau to a belief in man’s ability to read the visible meanings (verba visibilia) in nature as lessons in human conduct of life. In his 1837 journal he writes, “How indispensable to a correct study of nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth.” A few entries later he is observing ice crystals on the lake:

When the ice was laid upon its smooth side [the crystal] resembles the roofs and steeples of a Gothic city, or the vessels of a crowded harem under a press of canvas….Wherever the water, or other causes, had formed a hole in the bank, its throat and outer edge, like the entrance to a citadel of the olden time, bristled with a glistening ice armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warriors filing into the fortress, in another the glancing fan-shaped banners of the Lilliputian host, and in another the needle-shaped particles, collected into bundles resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for the phalanx of spears.

Thoreau cannot help but draw meaning, make stories and connections between observed natural phenomena and human life and civilization. We all make meaning when we look at Nature. We say the moon is smiling on us lovers, fancy an overcast, stormy sky is melancholy and a bright one happy. These are merely natural phenomena with no intentional meaning inherently attached. But spring blossoms make us think of newness and rebirth because they are new rebirths; just as autumn’s gloominess is death, a temporary going-under, a symbol system of the Urpflanze’s recurrence. This surely is no invention, but the truth of their significance. We naturally tell ourselves stories of human life when observing nature (as we do when we listen to music, as sounds suggest landscapes and actions, crises, moods, narratives from human life). And Thoreau would have us learn from Nature how to be more noble, more hearty, more equanimical about changes and cycles: “So let it be with man,” he writes, over and over, after describing a natural process.

But just as there are repeating natural laws that can reliably be studied to learn about the world, ourselves, and each other, there is the categorical imp of the perverse, which, again and again, proves that man can break the patterns of thought and behavior constructed by his forefathers and foremothers. Changing presentiments over centuries have been initiated by individual discoveries and inventions, by accidents and reactions, by experience that proved old presentiments wrong, and in response to new physical realities: infinity, entropy, solar heat death, eternal recurrence, millennial apocalypse, chaos theory, robotics, creationism, evolution, and social construction itself.

The Horn of Babel by Vladimir KushThe Horn of Babel by Vladimir Kush

Was evolution (“just”) a social construct? No better than the one it replaced? Darwin’s critics accused him of gathering data to support his hypothesis, as if such a process were a manipulative and dishonest method of forcing existence into a certain essence. The opposite was true. In the twenty years of gathering and testing evidence from the natural world leading up to his writing of The Origin of Species, Darwin actually worked from observation toward hypothesis in a remarkably innocent way, not expecting to find (to borrow Nietzsche’s wonderful image in “On Truth and Lying in a Supramoral Sense”) the truth he had himself hidden behind a bush. But ironically, he actually discovered data that undermined Creationism, the socially constructed truth of his society, thereby proving that individuals are not all such dupes as social construction theory makes us out to be. Social construction theorists tend to reduce the rich history of human thought down to a few coercive institutionalized oppressive ideas, ignoring the variety and ingenuity and complexity of any given society’s presentiments, dreams, and beliefs.

In fact, not only are there repeating universals and also deviations from these universals over time and space, but differences among cultures and throughout history may actually depend on a vital interplay between universality and deviating human agency. If everything is not entirely, externally, randomly constructed, or, on the other hand, entirely determined by biology, inheritance, or evolutionary urges, then we have some degree of agency to choose what we love and hate and favor and impugn. We have the agency to break out of established patterns and create new ones, which then create individuated modes and variations. Paradoxically, thus differentiation proves comprehensive, as the deviations of so much that usually repeats (archetypes, life forms, ways of living, attitudes toward beauty, others, family, nature, ethics, deep structures in languages), can be attributed to choice rather than coercion or random conformity.

In After Babel, Steiner talks about translation (by which he means not just from language to language but from person to person) as a process including destructive aggression, appropriation, and expansion. We break the meaning of the other when we attempt to understand and re-present; we appropriate it into our own idiom, idiolect, understanding. And then we also add something to it. We expand it with interpretation, elucidation, interest, passion (thereby deforming it). This is analogous to all relations between individuals and countries (passionate love, colonialism, anthropological study), and I suspect that the current distrust of language has something to do with our sensitivity about appropriation and mastery. No one wants to dare speak for someone else or for another kind of person, assuming incomprehension; practicing silence. At the Vermont Studio Center, where I was resident one winter, some of the other writers were sensitively discussing whether a white person could write a black character or a male a female one. But is not at least one part of what a writer does imagining the “other” and delineating and dissolving, dissolving and delineating the differences between everything? With such fastidious exclusions, most of literature would have to be banned. Today, it seems that many people don’t dare express themselves or dare love or enter into relationships at all, for fear of overcoming or being overcome by another person’s personality, power, desires.

What are the consequences of such paranoia in regard to appropriation? Steiner writes: “If a substantial part of all utterances were not public or, more precisely, could not be treated as if they were, chaos and autism would follow.” Although language can limit the horizon of our consciousness, it is also one of the ways or maybe the only way to expand it. Poetic language, as Wittgenstein suggested, is the answer to a cliché–ridden, ossified thought. Living language, as Robert Musil practiced and preached it, is the active process of revivifying stale meanings through the magic of metaphor-making. Although the process is inaccurate, metaphors, writes Musil, “bring beauty and excitement into the world.” Steiner concurs: “Vital acts of speech are those which seek to make a fresh and ‘private’ content more publically available without weakening the uniqueness, the felt edge of individual intent.” And continues:

In significant measure, different languages are different, inherently creative counter-proposals to the constraints, to the limiting universals of biological and ecological conditions. They are the instruments of storage and of transmission of legacies of experience and imaginative construction particular to a given community. We do not yet know if the “deep structures” postulated by transformational-generative grammars are in fact substantive universals. But if they are, the immense diversity of languages as men have spoken and speak them can be interpreted as a direct rebellion against the undifferentiated constraints of biological universality.

He suggests that we use language to hide, keep secrets, lie, imagine fictions; that groups use language to differentiate and leave others out, in ways that give us advantages evolutionarily. Of course, over time, the circle of insiders grows larger, as the unknown becomes more and more rare. Amid persistence of sameness, however, there exists persistent resistance to sameness and a constant generation of difference.

George Steiner After Babel

The existential requirement is that each person decide for herself, in all circumstances where there is choice, paying heed to the essences and facts that cannot be altered. The best way to make meaningful decisions is to choose based on the real characteristics of real life. This does not mean we must choose always the most practical, the most reasonable action for survival. We may choose to throw all our comfort and safety away because of the perverse beauty of an irrational gesture or passion or an act of ethical bravery, or to act in direct contradiction to nature and society as an affirmation of our free will. The biological, evolutionary imperative would seem to favor survival or protection of self, but sometimes we do things that are certain to mean our downfall. Why? Out of a sense that there is sometimes something more important, more beautiful, more brave than personal safety, possibly to protect our genes living in the bodies of our relatives, possibly in consideration of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run; mayhap for reasons we will never understand. Consider these three gestures:

1. Sophie Scholl, the young German resistance fighter, who with her brother smuggled anti-Nazi propaganda into the university while classes were in session, stood at the top of the balcony as the professors and students streamed from the classrooms, her work already safely done. Instead of sneaking home and avoiding arrest, she flung the rest of the fliers down over the heads of her fellow Germans. Papers flying freely in an atmosphere of terror. She and her brother were beheaded, but for one moment the word sang. For one moment, everyone was free.

2. Nastasya Filippovna, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, is courted from all sides by scoundrels and maniacs. Her “virtue” has already been compromised due to her situation as a woman without means, yet she has a lofty soul. Beloved of Myshkin, the “idiot,” she glimpses, then loses faith in, a possible redemption. When Rogozhin, one of the scoundrels, comes to a party with 100,000 rubles with which he effectively means to “buy” her, she agrees to go with him; but first she casts the bundle of bills into the fire with a last wild gesture of free will, daring another suitor to plunge his hands into the flames to take the money for himself. He does not, and Nastasya transcends for a moment the petty laws and priorities of her society.

3. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia risk torture and death to resist the stronghold of their totalitarian society. They do many useless things (Winston buys a cloudy glass paperweight and a creamy papered journal even though either of these acts, if discovered, would mean arrest). But the most powerful symbol of these many resistances is repeated twice in the book, once as a pre-vision in Winston’s dream of the “golden country,” and the second time in reality when the two lovers meet for the first time in a landscape strikingly similar to the dream: “She stood looking at him for an instant, then felt at the zipper of her overalls. And, yes! It was almost as in his dream. Almost as swiftly as he had imagined it, she had torn her clothes off, and when she flung them aside it was with that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated.”

Nineteen-Eighty Four, a picture of a totally constructed universe based on a brutally enforced ideology of the blank slate, shows us how close and how far we are from being infinitely malleable today.

Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there. And when enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than pre-established social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric, become in time established, sanctioned, and limiting; and new people may find that there are better (or worse) ways to get from here to there. If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made in a certain place because of beauty or because of utility; for sentimental reasons; for access to a view; because it is private; because there are obstacles adjacent to it; because there are special features along the route; or because there are no other options left. Yet any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.

Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr “Desire Paths” group (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Herbert Marcuse’s classic book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), is an indictment of what he characterized as the flattening out of contemporary American consciousness into a closed system of self-reflexive rationality that resisted external (two-dimensional) critique. It begins by noting that the current social construct was a “project” chosen by people at one time out of a number of alternatives. In a footnote he explains that his use of the word “project” alludes to Sartre’s linkage of autonomy and contingency, and presupposes a freedom and responsibility, despite the fact that the choosers most likely were the most powerful people in the original society. His whole book is an explanation of how very difficult it is to see beyond the “rationality” of any given social construct, but also an imperative to create the conditions under which we might. Marcuse calls for a rediscovery of a lost dialectic, a two-dimensional space which keeps alive the friction between ideal and real, status quo and possibility, subjective and objective, calculable and incalculable, appearance and essence, universal and particular, concept and specific iteration, and not least of all, spirit and matter. A hero of the New Left, Marcuse nevertheless criticized many of the basic assumptions of leftist ideology, including the democratic rejection of European intellectual and artistic culture, the increasing conflation of art and life, and the increasing dematerialization of sociology, linguistics and science in his time. Contemporary physics, he notes, does not entirely deny or question the existence of the physical world, but “in one way or another it suspends judgment on what reality itself may be, or considers the very question meaningless and unanswerable.” This then shifts the emphasis from a metaphysical what to an operational how and “establishes a practical (though by no means absolute) certainty which, in its operations with matter, is with good conscience free from commitment to any substance outside the operational context.” Materiality becomes assessed only in terms of its quantifiable use for humans, diminishing our relationship with the qualities of matter and weakening our ability to counter and critique the material status quo. The end itself, of one-dimensional consciousness, is a closed system of democratic totalitarianism, controlling every aspect of our lives.

While everything is filtered through our human interests, and thus somehow “instrumental” towards our human “use,” some uses are more strictly utilitarian than others; some serve the continuation of a status quo more than others. Individually and socially we have an underdeveloped interest in the qualitative experience of materiality, in dreaming induced by matter, not merely efficiency, practicality, exploitation of resources. Critical yet utopian thinking occurs as we free ourselves from the condition of what and how much and begin to consider the why and how; two-dimensional discourse helps us to transcend the needs of the current system to consider not only alternate answers, but completely different questions.

Marcuse ended his book in a less than hopeful mood, but the revolutionary movements of the late sixties, encouraged in part by his ideas, surprised him and gave him cause to hope. But where are we now, over half a century later? We may, indeed, not be able to save the earth, or stem the rush of species loss, and we certainly cannot undo the lasting legacies of political and social havoc wrought by man’s inhumanity to man in any simple way. Although Candide provided a picture of what Voltaire had deemed an inevitably cruel and destructive force rampant in what was already in his time far from the “best of all possible worlds,” today climate change changes the equation to an extent which should prick the conscience of anyone who has retreated to his garden instead of trying to make sense of the world or make it better. We have arrived where we are because of who we are as a species. We are responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly, for the beautiful and the damning, in compliance and resistance to genetic coding, evolutionary habits, environmental changes, and the social and cultural memes we have created together out of the deeply imbedded contradictions of our natures: competition and collaboration, love of and exploitation of nature, curiosity and will to ignorance, practicality and squandering, ethics, aesthetics, and hypocritical morality. Thus it is up to us to try to reverse the damages we have wrought and to preserve as much as possible of what is precious and essential about life and of our cultural history, both for ourselves and for all the other species with whom we must learn to empathize. But this can only happen if we begin to see again the meaningful connections between ourselves and the natural and created world, mediated through words, images, and our senses, and if we learn to use whatever languages possible to communicate a fullness of feeling about what it means to be a deeply fraught, complex human being in a world in this state of crisis. We can, furthermore, only reverse the damage wrought if we deviate from the business-as-usual status quo of our society’s current “rationality”—replacing quantifiable with qualitative, empty materialism with materiality imbued with spirit. To do so will inevitably seem foolish and perverse to those too entrenched to imagine other ways of living, to anyone too committed to the immediate profits of the current system to consider that they might, actually, be much happier without all of the possessions and processes they misconceive as necessary. If we do not, however, manage to succeed against what really are terrible odds, we must at least bear witness to the tragic fall and leave some traces of the aesthetic and ethical consciousness of humankind, even if no one ever comes after us who can decipher the script.

We have often been capable of overturning the paradigms created by our predecessors, challenging, criticizing, or revising the constructs and narratives of other humans, following old errors to new truths or old truths to new errors, bungling sometimes, but doing our best. It has been a conversation and debate, a love song and a lamentation over the ages, among strangers and friends, enemies and kin, all of us trying to understand the world and our place in it; trying to balance the many voices within each of us with the many voices within others. We can continue to discourse in this polyphonic chorus of the past and the present, or we can decide, with the social constructionist theorists and their deconstructionist allies, that no way in which anyone has ever described the world, no poem, no theory, no evaluation or re-evaluation of values is reality-relevant (except of course the social constructionist theory itself); that language is a crime against nature; that the history of ideas and the idealistic pursuit of education is an Enlightenment plot to impose random ideas of good and bad on a benighted populace. We can just do away with our libraries and our picture galleries, our approximate meanings and our attempts to understand what can never be completely mastered, our mythologies and our delightful misprisions, and smugly, certainly, moralistically and accurately, resort to grunting and sneezing. No misleading words; no oppressive influences; no images to teach us that one thing or person is more beautiful or more valuable than another; no theories; no ideas at all. Only a purportedly honest, gaping, silent void.

—Genese Grill


Genese Grill 350x479px Photo by Suzanne Levine

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.



May 012016

Tomoe HillTomoé Hill


IF THIS FEELS like a flood that flows from my fingertips, it is: I have gone for so long without this kind of communication—I am thirsty, I am hungry, I am ravenous in mind and body. I wonder if there is anyone who feels the same.


I am leaving my period of hibernation. Or is it stagnation? It has felt the same, at times. I must re-enter the world, alone, and I am frightened. Looking at rental properties online bewilders me—brand new riverfront towers, chrome and glass boxes—then I spot a place hidden away. When I go to see it—a tiny annexe of an oast house—it is set on wooded land, a small bright stream running through it, something out of a fairy tale. It is late January, and a light dusting of snow drapes the dark green moss-covered shelter to park the car, the lighter green of the grass. It silvers the white snowdrops that cover the grounds like a carpet. Driving there, the lanes are narrow and the car brushes against tangled holly, waxen green and needle-edged. You would have your own section of garden, says the landlord. Apple and pear trees. I touch one of the trunks: cold, gnarled and waiting again for its branches to explode with leaves and fruit, and suddenly remember how Demeter rendered the earth barren in the months Persephone was bound to the underworld.

He tells me a charming anecdote about the property: that if the owner cuts off the supply of water from the stream to the nearby castle, he can still be beheaded. The peculiar charm of a violent past gives these places their character. There is a high, weather stained brick wall that hides me away, an old wooden gate with a metal latch that needs kicking open when it rains and causes it to swell. A large old-fashioned bell with a small strap is mounted on the white painted brick of the entry alcove. Will anyone ever ring it? I think to myself. The inside of the annexe is smaller than I thought, but then, it will be just myself and all of my books, and that is enough. Part of me, I think, needs to be tightly enclosed for some time to come—coccooned. With a shaking voice I place a deposit on the phone that afternoon and start packing in the evening. I am haphazard about everything but books and perfume; these are packed carefully, lovingly—swathed in bubble wrap and cotton wool. Words and scents, the only precious things these past long years, the ones that still made me feel alive.

A drop of Le Labo Benjoin 19 spills on my fingers as I pack: it smells of warm animal fur—memories of a tiny black and grey kitten that liked to sleep inside in the bed when it was cold—fall, winter and smoldering wood. It scents my dreams, where sex still permeates everything, even though I turn in my bed and there is no other, even though my body generates the heat of passion in the depths of sleep.

Myth is steeped in sex: how it transforms us, in both wonder and fear. We pursue and are pursued. How would a lover now come to me? Not in a shower of gold or the guise of a swan, but in those languorous hours where my mind, restless in a sleeping body, imagines the softness of sheets as skin, my heat creating the ghost of past lovers, future ones next to me.

I awake: secretly wet and aching, not just muscles, but also flesh—with longing, with loneliness. My hair brushes my back and feels like a lover’s fingertips in the morning; that slow arousal that makes the eyes flicker open and the mouth form words of almost inaudible want. I smell animal heat and embers: it hangs in the room, the heavy draperies of lust.


One bitterly cold evening I move out, leave my old life. I am paralysed by fear as I stand outside my new threshold. The movers are still at the annexe, so I bring in the remaining boxes from the car and move about the kitchen mechanically, cleaning and pretending that everything will be alright, that I have made the right decision. Once they have gone, I set to work: I pour a large glass of whisky, light candles, set about moving bookcases and methodically filling them. I open box after heavy white box and gently take each one out, remembering how they were ordered on the shelves before. Anatomy, art, philosophy, Roman and Greek history, classical novels, modern ones. Ballard and Bradbury, Davis and Joyce, Benjamin and Barthes. I murmur titles under my breath like some healing mantra. I don’t really believe in much of anything, but books are at the top of the small list of what I do.

I work steadily, late into the night, stopping briefly to eat, unable to taste anything but the whisky that I refill my glass with. When the most important things are finished—the bookcases and the bed—I sink exhausted into a hot bath and stare at the ceiling. I need to be surrounded in scent right now, more than any other time, and so the water is perfumed with Ormonde Jayne’s Ta’if: rich red roses, dates, and orange blossom. Of course it is frowned upon now to consider such imagery, but I cannot help but think of Ingres: The Turkish Bath, pale peach and pink-tinted flesh, curved bodies resting against one another—when time is nothing but pleasure or the anticipation of it. On top of the bookcase in a corner of the small bedroom is a tray filled with my perfumes. The bedside table is stacked with a few of my comfort books: Ulysses, Metamorphoses, The Arcades Project, and something by P.G. Wodehouse. Perhaps that seems odd, the last choice, but I need to remember to laugh now. Nevertheless, I fall asleep that night listening to the owl in the trees outside, tears staining fresh linen.


I am a solitary person by nature, but this new silence is hard to get used to. I fill it with Mozart and Puccini’s operas and read voraciously to make up for lost time. The person I left felt ignored when I read too much—as he was not a reader himself—and so my compromise for years was to watch television while thinking of the things I wanted to read, visualising turning the pages. I would end up devouring books when he wasn’t around, one perpetually in my hand as I went about the house doing chores. But as any reader knows, half the pleasure of reading is talking about it with a like-minded person. I knew no like-minded people. I knew people who read grocery-store bestsellers: sports and celebrity biographies, the latest popular trilogy turned movie, but no one who delved below the surface into the wild literary deep, the tangles of words and thoughts that capture and drag you back down into the depths, barely letting you breathe. In the month before I moved out, when things were in the last throes of finality and it didn’t matter what I did, I stayed up late into the night, reading Ancient Medicine, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things or Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

I no longer draw my bedroom curtains at night. I like that there are no eyes to watch me like there would be in the city, save the ones of the nocturnal animals and birds—and what do they care about me? I am the stranger here. When the night is stripped of its sodium lights, its intrusive concrete structures, when all that is left is trees and undergrowth, stars and the noises of the ones to whom the earth belongs, I feel accepted. I turn off my light and stand by the open window—it is always open, even on the coldest nights, because when I shiver, it reminds me that I am still alive, that something can touch me. I breathe in the scent of the water from the nearby stream. Fresh-running water has a metallic scent, ozonic. It speaks to you of purity and the places that are still relatively untouched by our interference. The water that flows down the mountains in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France is like this: it may be sultry and hot in the cities by the sea, but drive a half-hour or so upwards along the windy rocky road, and the air becomes crisp and icy. I was amused the first time I was in England and saw a Pimm’s, full of herbs and fruit and vegetables: the air in the mountains is a version of that. The icy breeze carries with it the scents of hyssop, rosemary, lavender and thyme; dried grasses and overripe fruits that fall in the shade by the roadsides, figs, mainly. Beautiful purple-black figs that split almost when you touch them—the most sensual of fruits. White milky sap that oozes out, inviting you to dig your fingers in and tear it apart: reddish-pink seeded flesh that you can do nothing else with but sink your mouth onto and devour, juices dripping from your lips and chin. At the small cafés that are in every village in the mountains, I was always intrigued by the tall, ice-filled glasses of green effervescent liquid that everyone sipped under striped umbrellas. I asked in my halting French for one, and when the cool liquid ran down my throat, I understood: it was mint sirop with sparkling water, the romanticised taste of the icy liquid that poured forth from the mountains.

But the animals: there are many foxes here. They seem unafraid of people, because here we leave them alone. Coming home in the still winter evenings, they walk close enough by to unnerve me, although they have always seemed indifferent to my presence. But their noise first startled me as I lay in bed: it sounded like a child screaming, a high pitched broken wail, over and over. They are either fighting or fucking, I think. Does it matter which? Both bring a certain degree of agony to the noises that emanate from the body, whether woman or animal. Now I listen to them and it is a kind of lullaby: a violent, lonely one that matches how I feel. Some nights, when the landlord is away and I am at my lowest point, I lean out of the window and wail with them. It does not make me feel better, but for that night, less alone.


I can’t get used to my new home. Logically, then, it is not a home. It is a house—but not even a house, an annex. Somewhere I come after a day of arguing to wander about, restless, up and down the small flight of stairs; staring at the bookcases; taking long eucalyptus or rose-scented baths in order to let the water take away some of the invisible weight. I decide I will plant flowers. Walking the outdoor rows and through the greenhouses at the garden centre, I choose rosemary and hellebore, two of each and wait in the open doorway looking at the idyllic Kent countryside as they are potted. Rosemary will flank my door, hellebore will sit in the wooden alcoves. In the mornings and evenings I take to rubbing sprigs of the herb as I leave and come back. Never having been one for ritual, I find my actions both strange and comforting. Rosemary has a clearing, energising scent: a combination of mint, pine and camphor. Its oil is strong—so much so that only lightly running a fingertip across it leaves you scented for hours. I like to be marked in that way, because it reminds me of my skin being anointed by a lover’s fluids. Rosemary… remembrance, as Shakespeare’s line goes. Memory is sometimes punishment. Plants have taken the place of flesh now.


I finally tell my mother that I have left: something I could not bring myself to do until now. As much as the silence has screamed, I did not want, did not know how to tell anyone what had happened. All I told her in the end was brief: I’ve left. I don’t really want to talk about it. I’ll be fine. I was lying, of course. I don’t think there was much truth in those words at all, bar the part about having left, and that too was a sort of lie: You see, we had divorced years ago. We just stayed together. Why? That is a rope so long, that even holding it for all these years, I am not quite sure where its beginning is. I never told her we divorced. Why? That, at least, I can answer simply. It happened around the time my father got ill and then later died. I didn’t want to burden her. My sister had her own marriage problems at the same time, which everyone knew about. My instinct has always been to withdraw at bad times where hers is to amplify. But to pile one child’s troubles onto another seemed unforgivable to me.

Physically, my mother is slight—a child’s body: only 4’9”, the weight of a sparrow. And yet, like most mothers, she has shouldered mountains without complaint. But I knew that I would have been the proverbial straw, and would have died rather than uttered a word. There never seemed a good time to tell her, later on. After my father’s death, I was trying to make sure, as best I could across an ocean, that she was functioning as well as she could, grieving, but not too much: I didn’t want her to sink into a death-reverie that some fall into, the reverie that swallows lives whole. Those are sinkholes that dot the road of our family; we see them miles off yet some of us have been hypnotically drawn by them: choosing to stare into that small abyss, then jump in without a backwards glance.


Lily of the valley grows creamy white, en masse along the shadows of the moss-patched brick wall, and the roses are blooming early: there is a tangle of them outside the downstairs windows. Mixed pale pink and yellow, I can reach out and draw them to me. I tweet pictures of the grounds and the flowers. I get the impression people think I live an idyllic sort of lifestyle, although I quickly dispel notions that I somehow own this property. Sometimes I am too poetic with the accompanying things I write with photos. They come out of me in melancholy but I think they are read as romantic—something like pastoral isolation. Other people’s perspectives are such a curious thing.

I hate the word reclaim. I am supposed to reclaim my life, my power as if it were a suitcase waiting at an airline’s lost items office, or a piece of dusty furniture in the attic that just needs a clean and some new paint. An action is sometimes just as hollow as words can be empty. There is an elusive something beyond the writing and the doing that restores us to something more or less whole in the world.

I receive an email for an acceptance, a short memory piece about how I used to walk the London streets at night. This was in my university days, when I couldn’t sleep, from too much reading. There is a fine line between recalling memory and creating false ones when you spend a lot of time trawling through the archives of your mind. It is how people go mad, I imagine—slip from one to another. When the mind and body are under stress, attack from that rush of adrenaline, some people strangely grow tired and need to sleep—hide in the safety of the unconscious, like losing yourself in the rows of a vast library.

I am finding that I lose myself like this while I am awake.

The same place previously accepted a fiction piece of mine that had the same dreamlike feel. There was a line about muscle memory: how when you have not had physical—sexual—contact for a long time, your body expresses its frustration by acting out pleasurable motions. Sometimes I find my legs in the act of wrapping as if they were reaching to pull a lover close, a hand in mid-air caressing. Often now, I am awakened by my body betraying me in the ultimate way: dripping with sweat, in the midst of full orgasm, back arching away from the mattress. I don’t remember what I was dreaming of.

More than the geographical isolation, more than not knowing anyone, this is the thing that makes me feel like some sort of ghost among the living. I remember sex vividly, I think of it—want it constantly, and yet it feels like a country I visited a very long time ago, one that I don’t know if I will ever return to. My body knows, and fights—fights the idea that one day I could forget completely. I am touched by its determination.

Over the Easter weekend I order two large turquoise ceramic planters, to be filled with as much lavender as they can hold. I have envisioned where they will sit in the alcove, fragrant on the breeze and bringing bees. When I go to pick them up, I realise I have been a bit too romantic: they are easily over 30 kilos each, filled. I can’t manoeuvre them myself. One of the men that works at the garden centre lifts them into my car, managing to scratch the side of it in the process, to which I stay silent, more concerned about the folly of my purchase. One goes in the boot, the other is lifted into the back seat. When I arrive home, it takes me about twenty minutes just to partially lever out the one in the boot. I have parked next to the gate, but it is still a struggle—admittedly a comic one to look at—to get it to the alcove without dropping it and shattering all the bones in my feet. I swear at the bees that have already arrived in greeting, then go back to the car, where I spend the next hour crying and cursing and spilling soil everywhere. The landlord is gone, and I refuse to call my ex-husband to come and help me. I think wildly for a moment that I will dig the soil out, handful by handful into another container so that I can move it. I end up leaving it there the entire long weekend, and whenever I leave the house to go to the shops or exercise, I am hit with a dizzying and humiliating wave of fragrant incapability.


I have been asked out on a date. This takes me by surprise. I have been speaking to someone online, a friend of another online acquaintance. He offers to come down from where he lives if I would honour him with a date. I agree, and we meet at the National Gallery. I am wearing a black Helmut Lang dress, wide-brimmed grosgrain-trimmed olive-green hat, high leopard-print suede Saint Laurent heels—relics from a past life. My wardrobe is a reliquary, and occasionally I open the doors and silently contemplate the stack of expensive shoes, row of fitted dresses, silk shirts, brocade pencil skirts and pile of cashmere jumpers piled in a wicker basket. Am I praying? No, but I am wishing for something—maybe that is the same. “They’re just so beautiful” Daisy sobs into Gatsby’s colourful stacks of thick silk and flannel shirts in The Great Gatsby. A similar type of worship, perhaps. Worshipping a person she knows but doesn’t, in the way I recognise myself, yet at the same time do not. I ask the cabbie who drops me off to wish me luck. Good luck, love, he says heartily. When I arrive at our meeting place and touch his shoulder lightly in greeting, he shakes. The shaking extends to his voice, which quivers very audibly, and I don’t know if he is just terribly nervous, or if I am somehow displeasing. I can dress and apply my makeup, but I have no idea what looks back at me in the mirror. In my head it is still the shape of the woman who could not get off the sofa a year and a half ago, held down by a body slipping out of normal function in the extreme; preventing any form of living, such as it was.

He has brought me a gift: a bag full of Anne Carson books. Most have inscriptions to me on the first page, a very hopeful and premature wish for coupled longevity. We walk around the museum, I holding onto his arm lightly, which I think he likes, although part of the reason for this is because my heels are damnably painful since I am not used to walking in them anymore. I try to make him comfortable, but he trembles throughout. He says that he was that nervous all the way down on the train. I am nervous, but I don’t think it has ever manifested itself quite so visibly, drastically. He is intelligent and charming, but seems afraid of things. He doesn’t seem to like London at all, the people, the heat of the day—which isn’t even that hot. Afterwards, we walk to a nearby expensive hotel and have a champagne afternoon tea. Or rather, I do, because he doesn’t eat those sorts of things. At least he drinks. We sip our champagne and have a rather technical conversation about sex, which reminds me of The Bell Jar, where Esther has a long, serious talk about sex with a young man from another college, after which he deliberates and then announces he would like to have sex with her, because she would be the right kind of girl. It all felt mechanical and cold. I kiss him goodbye as a test. I want to know if I feel anything, if my body registers something my brain doesn’t. His lips are soft but I feel nothing. As I sit on the train home, I feel relieved, frustrated and also guilty.

We have a few conversations on the phone. They are long, but again, feel mechanical to me. Sex is discussed at more length. He admits he is squeamish. He doesn’t know if he can give me what I want, but he says he would like to try. The problem is, I want everything. I don’t want someone who is afraid or timid. I don’t want to have to teach anyone. The person who touches me next needs to grasp me in a way that shows they understand. Within the boundaries we create for ourselves, we need to roam free. I have never understood why this is so difficult for some people.

Sometimes you get an innate sense of a person—nothing they say specifically, but a reading between the lines. You feel that they feel about these things the way you do. Something about sex exudes from their pores, and you want to get under the skin and explore. Maybe your body just smells pheromones. We like to think it is a more cerebral connection. But even through a screen, although of course you can’t smell, you can still sense. Something animal still translates, distantly.


I have been invited to my first literary event. I am unsure why, maybe it is because I talk about and post pictures of my books all the time. But I accept, and then spend terrible amounts of time wondering who might be there, if they will think I am a fraud or interloper because I have not written a novel and I work in a completely different area. I envision worldly authors discussing literature I haven’t read and discussing people I don’t know. When the day comes, I take the train, a growing knot in my stomach. Since I am early, I find a bar and proceed to drink Manhattans and worry further, nervously folding and unfolding the corner of the page of a book I have brought, Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces. I listen to the chatter that combines into one indistinguishable voice, thinking how some people take these conversations for granted, how others talk because they can’t bear silence in their heads or around them—how it is a kind of death to be alone with only their thoughts. I come close to turning around and going back to the annex, to the lavender and rosemary, to the foxes. But as I sit there, chatting to people online, someone says they understand, they probably wouldn’t have the nerve to go, either, easier to stay home. For some reason that makes me determined to see it through. I pay, leave and turn up late—walking into the room, one foot forced in front of the other. Faced by the prospect of having to introduce myself to this crowd of strangers, I feel my lips go numb. One of the hosts says hello and introduces themselves, I stammer a pleasantry back. Then someone else recognises me from online, someone I talk to a bit more on and off. I say hello, admit to being petrified, and find myself mumbling I can’t do this and walking swiftly out. I’ve already made it around the corner and down the street when he catches up to me. Hey. Hey! You walk really fast. Where are you going? I slump against the wall of a building. I don’t belong there, I explain. I don’t know anyone either, he says. A lot of us don’t, except from online. You’re the same as us. The same as us, I think. Come on, he says. X is there. You know, who writes _______. You’d like him. I’ll introduce you. I find myself surprisingly drained, but willing. I let him humorously march me back in, and end up spending the couple hours left talking, much more easily than I would have thought possible. It feels like coming back to a language you haven’t spoken in a long time.


It is my birthday. I stay at home, because I can’t face the idea of going to work and having my ex-husband wish me a happy birthday. Happy what, exactly? I wake up and spend a lot of the day on the sofa reading in silence, the windows open wide throughout the annex to let in the warm breeze. The landlord is on the grounds tending to a great bonfire—the smoke, scent of flames, smouldering wood and ashes drift in and cover everything, including my skin. I have a fanciful idea that this is somehow a kind of purification, a burning of the past—but not quite rising up from the clichéd ashes. I think the embers will continue to burn for some time. On television people who have terrible lonely birthdays always seem to open a bottle of champagne and toast themselves ironically—this seems to me an awful waste. I drink whisky instead and think about how it burns going down my throat, the taste of smoke and peat and salt air. It reminds me of walking along cliff edges in Skye—how isolated it felt, and wondering if it settled in the blood and bones of people who lived here. Perhaps it lies dormant, waiting for a person, a place to trigger it back to melancholy life. Or does it grow on you like moss, covering you until you become indistinguishable from your landscape?


In Sex and Terror, Pascal Quignard says, “What the world is: the traces the wave leaves when the sea slowly withdraws.” He was, appropriately enough, speaking of sexual melancholia. This is what I continue to feel. In my last experience, to put it brutally and bluntly, I was fucked enough to feel guilty, but not enough to come. I can’t give any eloquence to the moment our bodies broke free, animal scent heavy in the room, all-too-human emotions leaving us wild-eyed.


There is a book by the name of Pond, where at one point the protagonist—also isolated, although less so than I am—speaks at length of her discontinued cooker, almost at the end of its life as she cannot source a required control knob. It is a faithful appliance, one that has helped sustain her, and so it takes on an almost mythic quality. When I moved in, and even now, the one thing I hated about the annexe was the cooker: no strange, far-off brand, but a standard old white Belling. Old, because as pleasant as my landlord is, he does not wish to or cannot afford to have new appliances put in. These things were really of the least importance in my mind (it was also after I moved in that I discovered there were no kitchen drawers), but in the life I had come from there was a kitchen I was especially proud of: ash countertops stained to look like oak (we were told oak itself was not practical), pale grey-green rustic wooden cabinets with dark silvered handles, even cabinet doors that hid the washing machine and refrigerator/freezer fronts. A large, pristine white double farmhouse sink, although I only ever seemed to use one side—the kitten we had liked to occupy the other, watching contentedly as I washed vegetables. A microwave built into an alcove. A large oak table and matching wine cubby. A set-apart shelf above the sink that held tins of expensive exotic teas: Mariage Frères Earl Grey French Blue and Sultane, Fortnum & Mason Russian Caravan and Irish Breakfast, Kusmi Samovar and Thé Vert à la Menthe Nanah. While all this seems posh and aloof, it was not without humour. There were glass chopping boards scattered on the countertops, a matching green to the cabinets. They had botanical prints of fruit and herbs with their Latin names below, which I glimpsed in a shop and had to have immediately. It was only as I was washing one months later that I realised the small scripts in full were Biblical references: where in the Bible the fig appeared, etc. We were not religious, and then it dawned on me why visitors—close acquaintances—who happened to glance at them gave us strange looks, but never said anything than oh… nice. I just thought they didn’t like botanical prints. After that, whenever we used them, we said we were chopping for Jesus.

The cooker is the one thing that best symbolises the chasm between my old life and new. I use it very little as a result: I find it depressing the way it produces memories—not because I miss that life, but only because they persist—alongside the foil-wrapped salmon for one or the roasted vegetables I made way too many of once, automatically calculating for two. I can afford to buy something new, but the thought of the hassle of having to disconnect and move it when I eventually leave (will I eventually leave? This seems wildly optimistic) makes me tired. And I wonder how often I would use it anyway, if it would just be a superficial thing to try and make me feel better, that in the end, wouldn’t.


I had braced myself for that period of a week and a half when the office was closed for the holidays. Said that I would stay in and read, write. It is true that I had enough to occupy me in daylight hours, but once the sun set too early, I would find myself staring out of the window into the dark, seeing nothing but my own reflection from the candlelight behind me. I could have flown back home, true, but I couldn’t bear to face the rest of my family outside of my mother. You see, it would have been the first time I had gone home since I left—it would have felt like failure, not homecoming. I am sure most of my relatives would have been outwardly kind, but I would know that inside their heads, unasked questions would be buzzing like angry wasps.

I had one relation in particular: an aunt who gave me conflicting advice over the years—I must be better and more clever than the men. I must be independent. But at the same time, the first questions regarding a boyfriend would be: How much does he earn? What does he do? What kind of gifts does he buy you? Even when I was younger, I tolerated it with a laugh, although secretly I was appalled. When I became engaged, I grudgingly told her what she wanted to hear. She happened to be in London on 9/11. My then-fiance was in America, trying to get a flight out. He ended up on one of the first commercial flights they allowed, and he recalled how thick and heavy the silence was the whole eleven or so hours. This relation phoned to arrange a visit whilst I was watching coverage on television, my neighbours vague and not terribly interested in what was happening—it wasn’t here, after all, it was there. Sometimes there is the same thing as not existing at all. Get your ass to London, she said laughingly down the line. Fuck you, don’t ever speak to me again, I said, slamming down the receiver. The famous family temper rearing its head (You’re descended from Samurai and Vikings, my father said mildly, after one of my youthful outbursts. You shouldn’t be surprised by this). Now, I wonder how much of my decision to marry him was a knee-jerk reaction based on her. Rebelling against her approval of him by convincing myself I was more in love than I really was. I was relieved when he came back safely, but not as much as I should have been.


Christmas Eve/Christmas Day: in those early hours that straddle both, I am in bed, books scattered on the duvet. I can’t stop crying, but I don’t know why. I am frustrated and perplexed at my inability to stop. The person I wish would send a few words by email or message is silent, busy doing what people do at this time of year. But very kindly two people who know my situation—at least part of it—send me emails. I am grateful for the acknowledgement, and that they don’t do that thing some do of trying too hard to make a person feel better. The few words are more than enough.


This is not therapy, nor is it cathartic. It exorcises nothing. I have always found it curious that people consider writing about experiences—mainly terrible—as such. In my mind I always pictured it, perhaps cruelly, like those travelling spiritual healers who claim to be able to cast out sin or sickness. Get thee out, Satan. A white tent with other people’s memories sitting on benches crying Hallelujah. What is this, then? I am not entirely sure. What it feels like is a bottle of champagne (how strange to think of it in terms of such a celebratory drink) that has been shaken: you understand the pressure building inside, and although the glass can withstand it, to remove the cork and let the agitated contents flood out is preferable to letting it settle and not know if you will be met with an explosion or lifeless liquid later on.

— Tomoé Hill


Tomoé Hill was born in Wisconsin and after escaping to London, now lives and writes in the South of England. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literatureminor literature[s]Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.


Apr 132016

Sarajevo street corner June 2014

In the summer of 2014, I spent two weeks with friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the time Sarajevo was marking the centennial of the assassination that sparked World War I, the national soccer team was making its first appearance in the World Cup, and the nation was reeling from massive citizen protests in the winter and devastating floods in the spring. My host and guide was the Bosnian writer Goran Simić. —Thomas Simpson


I. Sarajevo, June 20, 2014

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran Simic’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown.

Alone, on foot, I make it safely to the other side. My pulse races, but I still can’t shake the jetlag as I start the twenty-five minute walk south into the heart of Sarajevo, down the wide, busy streets called Patriotske Lige and Koševo. Thick, gray morning clouds shroud the city, and the weak daylight throws shell-shocked buildings and roadside litter into dismal relief. A little of the Bosnian I’ve been studying for months comes to mind: meni se spava, I feel tired. God, I feel tired. I barely slept on the overnight flight across the Atlantic, an hour maybe, two at the most. In my sightline, two rows ahead, a guy was watching The Wolf of Wall Street on his seatback screen. I dozed in and out of that three-hour marathon of excess: stockbrokers manhandling strippers, Jonah Hill masturbating openly at a lavish pool party, Leo DiCaprio snorting cocaine off an eager blonde’s heaving breasts.

So I am waking up slowly to Sarajevo, even though the visuals are jarring. I see the hulking, worn stadium from the 1984 Olympics, a glaring reminder of Yugoslavia’s depleted prosperity and promise. I clutch my black backpack’s single, diagonal strap, which stretches like a seat belt from my left shoulder to my right hip. The knuckles of my right hand bore under the strap into my sternum, as if to knead my constricting heart and lungs. I lift my chin and flex my shoulders, chest, and biceps a little. I’m feigning toughness, copying the confidence of younger, streetwise Bosnian men.

I’m steeling myself because there’s more to take in: three massive, historic urban cemeteries, Muslim, Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox. Locals say the bones of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, are here in a little roadside Serb chapel. Soon Serb nationalists will adorn it with flowers, marking the assassination’s centennial by salting the wounds of neighbors who managed to survive the Siege. “Gavrilo,” a hit song by the Bosnian rock band Zoster, captures the mood. It’s got the looping, centripetal feel of an anthem and a hangover:

Gavrilo, Gavrilo, srce uzavrelo…
Gavrilo, Gavrilo, raging heart…

za jedne on je heroj, a drugima je zločinac
to some he’s a hero, to others a criminal…

na put bez povratka, on je krenuo…
he took off on a path of no return…

još i danas hodimo njime.
and we’re still walking it today.

I had anticipated some the graveyards’ lessons about World War I, World War II, and the Siege of Sarajevo. The headstones from this century are somehow more unsettling. An unwelcome thought intrudes: Sarajevo will go on dying. A few steps later, what feels like a corollary follows on its heels: None of this is going to work. Multi-ethnic Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The International Community. Democracy. Human Rights. None of it, despite the lessons of history, and despite the gala centennial events to come next week, when the eyes of the world will once again, however briefly, be on Sarajevo.

Sarajevo CemeteryCemetery in Sarajevo

I don’t know where I’m headed except a café somewhere to find coffee and my bearings after two years away. I pass a side street named after the poet Šantić and a bakery called Markale, where my mind involuntarily adds “massacre.” I’m getting closer to the action now. Off to my right, on the main thoroughfare that honors Tito, I see the stately national presidency building, a monument to the idiocy and greed of Bosnia’s corrupt, ethnonationalist ruling elites. Just last February, protesters torched it, taking their cues from Tuzla in trying to kickstart a “Bosnian Spring.”

A spacious café and bakery, brightly lit, mercifully intervenes. I go in, merge with the morning rush, and scan the large glass case of pastries. When it’s my turn, I fumble through my Bosnian. Dobro jutro – “Good morning” – I say. Želim kafu…espresso, i… – “I’d like an espresso and….” My Bosnian suddenly leaves me. I can’t remember the word for pastry, much less any kind of fruit. As I start to gesture clumsily toward a tray of turnovers, a woman behind me steps in and saves me. Višnja, she says – cherry – and laughs.

I thank her – hvala – placing my relaxed right hand softly over my heart. I take a window seat, a few feet above street level, and watch Sarajevans stream into the city in cars, on buses, and on foot. I write višnja in my notebook and practice the ice-breaker that I’ll use over and over again on this trip: Na bosanskom, govorim kao beba. In Bosnian, I talk like a baby.

When my espresso comes, I pour in the two thick packets of sugar that come standard. They render the bitterness palatable, the darkness soothing. As if on cue, the sun pierces the clouds. I end up staying for hours, reading Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, jotting down fragmented thoughts, and ordering a second espresso. Meni se spava, I tell the waitress with a wink. She laughs, understanding, and suddenly I remember what makes Sarajevo such an easy target. So much life, compressed and distilled, to destroy from above. I size up the huge pane of glass to my right, remembering how desperately Sarajevans avoided and barricaded their windows during the Siege. I imagine how easily the wall of glass could shatter, and I start to hope, stupidly, irrationally, that this café will always be here, safe, forever.


A lunch date with the poet Goran Simić pulls me away. We’re headed up to a small log-cabin restaurant near the Skakavac waterfall, about a thousand meters above Sarajevo. In his aging two-door black Renault, we inch and wind up suspension-mangling dirt roads. When we’re finally in the clear, we step out, glance miles across the valley, and find a patio table in the sun. The restaurant’s owner, Dragan, likes to joke that the daily menu is whatever he’s got. You have to trust him, and here one’s faith is rewarded. He assembles a succulent assortment of fried dough, local cheeses, sliced fresh tomato, and smoked sausages. Goran and I drink a little local rakija and beer.

Goran is back in Sarajevo after more than fifteen years in Canada, where he resettled after the Siege. Goran’s acute sense of how much work needs to be done in Bosnia has brought him home. His labors of love are the Bosnian plenums – grassroots, democratic citizen assemblies fighting for political reform and social justice – and PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local chapter of the international literary organization that celebrates the freedom of expression as a human right. This Bosnian branch of PEN emerged during the Siege, when Goran and some colleagues created a downtown haven for writers desperate for a meal and place to write. Now, as the multiethnic organization’s membership ages and carries out its work without support from the Bosnian government, the challenge is to keep the society alive and infused with fresh blood. It’s an ongoing experiment, a test of whether an inclusive humanism can triumph over death-dealing ethnonationalism. Yesterday brought a small victory: the induction of new members, including two brilliant young women, Adisa Bašić and Šejla Šehabović. Yet the meeting took place in the mi