Apr 162014

dms 2

Where is poetry? the poet asks at the beginning of this poem/essay — call it an epode, call it an extended epigram, a form that somehow contains balanced contraries in dynamic tension, the heart of metaphor, of art. Written in response to an essay by Ralph Angel that we published in January last year, D. M. Spitzer’s “Mythology” oscillates between monster and marvel, labyrinth and sanctuary, fragment and whole, tapping ahead with his words for solid ground and offering, yes, a mythology of the poem, of the imagination (dangerous, contained within a force field — form). Beautiful to read, surging and lapidary in its rhythms, erudite and cunning in  its weaving together of legend, text, word play and reference.

Also one of the best author photos in ages.



part 1:  (muthos) labyrinth & sanctuary

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

—Ralph Angel, “The Exile and Return of Poetry:  Essay
Numéro Cinq vol. vi, 1 (January, 2013).

Unspool the thread given by Ariadne, in whom the ecstasy of oblivion awaits the coming of Dionysos. The end precedes the beginning and a certain movement of form collects both. Dionysos already presents himself in the form of desire. Unspool the thread down narrowing and widening passages. Daidalos, poet-exemplar, modulates light and darkness, clarity and obscurity in the labyrinth. To isolate the final cause of this structure, peel away at the Minotaur: Minos and shame, Pasiphaë and desire, desire and the god of translation (Zeus). Dionysos stands at the threshold of the labyrinth and in the mind of the poet-architect. Into the sacred labyrinth let thread follow. Thread protects against loss and wandering and a hungry monster inhabits the structure.  Monster is monstrum, something that elicits wonder, a marvel.

Risk:  to be consumed by the hunger and isolation that motivates wonder.

Where is poetry?

A poet designs a sanctuary into which imagination—a genuine monstrum—is led.  Fear of the creative imagination in the full range of license, and a shame, rooted in modality, of the creative imagination’s potency, force the creative imagination into the sanctuary—that is, a world-making creativity will also be world-devouring. Shelter it within sanctuary. Labyrinth is sanctuary.

Sanctuary:  a forbidden vein of dark blood writing the holy secrets across its innermost holy place, a place of healing.

Into the labyrinth unwind thread. Poetry is labyrinth, but a poem takes flight from the surrounding walls. Ikaros too with wings of syllables and breath lifts himself out of the sanctuary’s enclosure unto the bright morning air, the island’s craggy shoreline diminishing. Into the open.

Or sing the poem from the open place near the labyrinth’s center. Write poems on papyrus scraps and send them to the skies on wings of smoke and flame. Too near the sun they have already burned to ash and their flight continues. Poem needs no ground save the whole of things; air discloses the whole.

Unwinding thread towards the interior of labyrinth, find the shield of Achilles blazing in midday light. Everything reflects there. It burns the eye and the mind falls to its knees.  A fire-god rends the metal earth into folds that look just like earth and the poet’s god is the god of fire. There on the shield read one’s own face in bronze embossed where the surface is whole. Everything there terrifies. None dares to look.  Begins the fire-god a poetry of metal fragged from deep veins beneath the surface of earth. Tear open the surface of things and make beginnings in the dark material hidden there. A whole rent down to the interior of fragments stripped and reshaped in time-present’s forge where everything else collapses into forgetting. Unmake whole make fragment into whole in which a face echoed recalls its fragmentation. Tragedy builds its shield from the shield of fire given from god to man. Poet beneath it all, blindness shielding from the tragedy of wholeness. Where whole forms itself into stability there loses all into unself. Whole will encapsulate in its message of bronze the perishing of what you want:  the city of gold, walled with lapis tesserae and medallions of everything precious, gods’ hands pressing stone towards the sun into a wall impenetrable. Down tumbles wall and the quiet household gods into flame of the poet’s limping god. A fierce jaw breaks spear after spear into the torso of a warrior who is also a son, a father watching unable to look away. Down tumbles what the whole speaks in its ekphrastic visioning. Down.

At the labyrinth’s center, Minotaur shakes loose his must-covered voice:

mind sleeps and wakes and stirs and rests and poetry cycles

turning & turning the spirit moves as it cycles once more into itself[i]

Fragmentary remains in the manner of the cycling going-under of things.  Take it up from the ruins, or from the labyrinth where it was found lying in midday sun.  Out of a ruined whole brings forth the poet a second world that looks out upon another contained within itself.  The thread leads deeper into labyrinth’s ordered chasm.  Light is channeled into momentany into dark by the architect of moving-images[ii] and prisons.  The poet chains everything in artifice, released in the mouth and ear of the reader.

Back to sanctuary only ever half-finished, abandoned when tyranny fell. Footsteps glish in blood and stain the foundation.  The wonder is, after all, only half human.  The rest is untranslatable.  Leave the traces of holiness along the eastern wall where temple and labyrinth are one.


part 2:  (logos)  literary dynamism

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

This sentence traces the belonging-together of whole and not whole. The sentence says:  if a subject is able to produce a sanctuary out of literary wholeness, that subject must produce a sanctuary of the fragmentary.  It says, in fact, nothing about the making of a literary sanctuary, but rather about the power to make such a sanctuary and the necessity, because of that power, to create a sanctuary for the fragmentary.  Accordingly, the fragmentary involves a dynamism that exceeds and excludes the whole.

However, wholeness comes first.[iii] Only after the presencing of wholes to consciousness do the fragments begin to appear, light-catching as glass-shards. To be sure, wholeness as a concept both precedes and precipitates a notion of the fragmentary; coming across a potsherd on the island of Delos, for instance, one immediately recognizes the fragment of pottery as having been a part of a now ruined whole.  The sentence above, the starting point of this brief inquiry, on one level simply asserts that, since the production of a sanctuary for wholeness can be carried out, wholeness exists in some way, and then what applies to the whole applies necessarily to the parts.  Yet, this assertion is complicated by the idea that the sanctuary produced for wholeness exists in modality, while that produced for fragmentariness exists as a dynamic and necessary movement towards a whole.  It is further complicated by the notion that such a whole, as the sanctuary seems to describe, takes place as not only whole, but also fragmentary.  For, a sanctuary marks off an area that is described by its boundaries and is a kind of whole, yet one which also explicitly does not contain the wholeness for whose praise and worship it has been created.  In principle, that which is limited, while perhaps whole in itself, is nevertheless fragmentary insofar as it has been segregated from all else.  Emerson communicates something like this principle in the essay “Circles,” writing that “around every circle another can be drawn.”[iv]

Fragments exemplify the coexistence and belonging together of whole and fragmentary while also pointing to different ways in which the fragmentary is related to the whole.  A literary fragment, such as those attributed to Sappho, leans toward the imagination as a medium in which the dynamism of fragmentariness delivers itself and raises itself and exceeds itself into a poetically engaged wholeness.  This entails a dialectic, an inter-activity, a potent engagement of the imagination with the poetic fragment. “[N]ot everything can be given straight away to the understanding through the work of art,” as Schopenhauer noted, “but only what is needed to set the imagination on the right path; it must always leave out something—indeed, the final thing—for the imagination to produce for itself.”[v] Out of this engagement the fragmentary poem overcomes itself and reaches its latent wholeness, which consists in the belonging-together of literary art and the thoughtful auditor or reader.  All strives for wholeness.[vi] Imagination reaches out for the dynamism inherent to phenomena, as phenomena strive towards an outside-of-themselves that completes them. The ancient Greek epic phrase kluthi moi…ophr’ eipo (listen so that I might speak) expresses this cycle.[vii] Without the correlative of an outside-of-self listening, speaking cannot take place; the being of each depends on the other.

The Sapphic fragments also reach in the direction of the lost whole; splintered from that whole, the fragments bear an enhanced attitude of longing.  This raises the relation of fragments within a context of wholeness.  In complete works lines, phrases, and episodes exhibit a kind of ecstasy of their own whereby each part as a fragment overcomes itself by semantically stepping beyond and outside itself when taken independently, which is how the reader or hearer initially perceives them while also assembling these, by means of the memory and imagination, into and towards a wholeness.  Each phrase can be experienced both in its fragmentariness and in its condition of literary ecstasy:  a stance thrust beyond the self into and towards the self—the whole—it has power to become. The outside-of-self, however, can only emerge into being from the self’s unfolding, such that the outside-of-self towards which a thing strives consists within the self itself as a power to be that which the self not yet is.  A work’s literary dynamism in this sense takes place as its movement towards itself—its latent wholeness—through continuing its self-overcoming.  That is, the whole gains itself through each phrase-as-fragment overcoming itself, gathering and overflowing into the next and the next.  Each fragment inheres to the literary dynamism and does so because of a work’s wholeness.[viii]

Ecstasy—standing beyond self—shows itself as an essential feature of the relationship between wholeness and fragmentariness. This is at the center of literary dynamism, at once ecstatic in its reach for the ever-outside-itself and rootedly inward, inherent.  The shadow of this thought also comes forward:  in striving towards wholeness, fragments move away from a previous condition, fragmenting themselves in the very moment of overcoming themselves into wholeness. Herakleitos speaks this movement:

out from the teeming plenitude of all things one

out from the quietus of unity all things[ix]

The Herakleiteian double-move takes place in the manner of Angel’s articulation of the belonging-together of whole and fragment.

In the end, Angel’s “exile and return of poetry” traces the movement of entities coming-forth from wholeness into fragmentation and returning, in their time and by means of dynamism, from fragmentation into wholeness.  Relations with other entities provide the context and ground for the actuation of this dynamism and may point to an underlying unity of those related entities.[x]

n.b.  All ‘translations’ given above are original by the author.

— D. M. Spitzer


After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Transfiguration of Ecclesiastes 1:6.
  2. Plato uses as a simile the moving statues of Daidelos in the Meno [97d.6-10].
  3. Aristotle likewise observes, at the outset of Physics, that “for the most part to our sight and taste first arise things in a mixed-together state, and then later, from things of that sort, the elements and the sources (arkhai) that set things apart are discernable.  In light of this, inquiry should proceed from the wholeness of things (to katholou) towards each separate thing, since, aesthetically, the whole is more knowable and the wholeness of things is a kind of whole” [184a.21-25].  
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson:  Essays and Poems, ed. Tony Tanner & Christopher Bigsby (J. M. Dent:  London; Charles E. Tuttle:  Vermont, 1995), 146.
  5. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 2, ch. 34 (Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main:  Cotta-Insel, 1960), 523:  “…durch das Kunstwerk nicht alles geradezu den Sinnen gegeben werden darf, vielmehr nur soviel, als erfordert ist, die Phantasie auf den rechten Weg zu leiten:  ihr muß immer noch etwas, und zwar das letzte zu tun übrigbleiben.”  
  6. Compare Aristotle’s thought at Physics A.9 [192a.16-25] that hule (typically translated as “material”) yearns for eidos (“form”).
  7. See, for example, Hesiod, Theogony, 644-645:  keklute meu…ophr’ eipo ta me thumos eni stethessi keleuei.  The last part of the expression emphasizes the impulse to reach beyond the self.
  8. For example, Robert Creeley’s poem “Fragment,” in Echoes (New York:  New Directions, 1993), 67 achieves its art through appealing to the reader’s sense and expectation of wholeness, even if it intends to show the radical absence of a whole.  Similarly, Sappho’s poems are so alluring on one level because they never attain themselves, they leave in play the desire for wholeness, a taut bow never released.  
  9. This is a transfiguration of the last section of Herakleitos, fragment 10 (Deils-Kranz).
  10. The image of literary dynamism may work to understand the more practical problem of “writer’s block,” which I take to be at issue in Angel’s “exile and return.”  If the practice of what is called “writing” can be thought in terms of a dynamic interplay of fragmentariness (or silence, or a period without writing) and wholeness (productivity, writing), we might make a sanctuary of the whole process that includes periods of speaking and hearing, of writing and reading, of reading and quiet, a process that is inherently fragmentary in its wholeness.
Apr 132014

Heaney paintingCatherine Edmunds’ 2013 sketch of Seamus Heaney painted by Patrick J. Keane

Today would have been Seamus Heaney’s 75th birthday and to celebrate that celebrated absence we offer an essay by Patrick J. Keane who does what the best critics do: he goes straight to the heart of the man through the poems and thence to the poems again. In 1972, Heaney famously and controversially moved from the bloody ground of Northern Ireland to Wicklow in the Republic, abandoning outright political action and commitment for a more contemplative and poetic life. He did not make this decision easily, and out of his personal struggle came the poems in North, what Keane calls his “most powerful and controversial collection.” Keane takes us through Heaney’s discovery of the famous “bog people” and the mythic method of poetic argument, his identification with the dispossessed peoples and the people of the earth, into the complex battle between Hercules and Antaeus (whose strength was always renewed by contact with mother earth) and finally to crucial culminating poem “Exposure,” a poem that begins

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.





ad he lived, Seamus Heaney would have been 75 on April 13, 2014. For poetry lovers and, even more, for those who came to know him as a warm and generous human being, it’s hard to believe that that magnanimous presence is gone. Hard to believe, too, that it is almost 40 years since the publication of his most powerful and most controversial collection. When North appeared, in 1975, it was greeted enthusiastically by major critics as varied as Helen Vendler, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Jordan, and Christopher Ricks. But strong reservations, politically-related and having to do with Heaney’s use or alleged misuse of archeology and myth, were expressed by Ulster writers Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson, among others. The hostility of some poets and critics in Northern Ireland was influenced, or at least complicated, by the fact that Heaney had left his native province in 1972, just as the sectarian conflict was intensifying.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, killing twelve and wounding thirteen, a consensus had understandably solidified among the Catholic minority in the North. In one of their sustained interviews, conducted over a half-dozen years, Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll that one of the reasons he moved from Belfast to Wicklow in the Republic was precisely to “get away from the consensus culture that had built up among us.” That culture would be reflected a few years later in the response from the North to North. “I’d left the party,” as Heaney put it to O’Driscoll, “and that complicates things for everybody, for the one who goes as well as the ones who stay. You get my side of that in the last poem of the book, ‘Exposure’.” [1]

The present essay takes its thematic and structural cue from Heaney’s specific response to a question. Asked about the “new direction” his poetry had taken after the “archeological and mythological” emphases in North, Heaney observed that such a “new direction is already being followed in North, in poems like ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ and ‘Exposure’” (SS, 162). The former, which closes Part I of North, revisits and revises “Antaeus,” the poem that had opened Part I; and the reconsiderations, or second thoughts, implicit in that revision prepare us for “Exposure,” which brings to a close the volume as a whole, including the more discursive and directly political poems of Part II. In Heaney’s canon, from the beginning through his death in August 2013, there is no more crucial text, personally and politically, than “Exposure,” not only the final poem in North, but the one poem he chose to stress—quoting it almost in full (OG, 419-20)—in “Crediting Poetry,” his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.[2]

Heaney was very conscious of “the artistic doubleness,” the “double aspect,” of North.  He continued, in the Stepping Stones interview, to say that “the Hercules poem” is, “for all its mythy content” (characteristic of Part I), expressed in “plain speech”—the language of Part II. (SS, 160, 162). Yet “Hercules and Antaeus,” a literally pivotal poem, remains “mythy.” Like “Antaeus,” the poem it echoes in order to alter, it derives, obviously, from Greek mythology. In general, however, Heaney famously drew in North on a mythology and archeology rooted in Northern Europe. In order to address the horrors unfolding in his native province in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heaney in effect played a variation on what T. S. Eliot had called, in his cogent 1923 Dial review of Ulysses, “the mythical method.” Joyce had paralleled Homer’s Odyssey with the events of his own pedestrian epic of Leopold Bloom, and so taken, said Eliot, “a step toward making the modern world possible for art,” a step toward “order and form.”

In using “myth,” Eliot went on, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce was “pursuing a method which others must pursue after him,” not as “imitators,” but as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”  Eliot was keenly aware (as was Joyce himself) of his debt to Ulysses in The Waste Land. He was also aware that Yeats had reanimated Cuchulain, made his Maud Gonne a modern Helen of Troy, set his apocalyptic rough beast slouching toward an anything-but Christian rebirth in Bethlehem, and had, in his great poetic sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” juxtaposed the Persian destruction of the “ingenious lovely things” of Athenian civilization with the eruption of modern barbarism. Eliot was right to note: “It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious….Instead of a narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.”[3]

In North, Heaney uses the mythical method to engage the anarchic panorama presented by the sectarian, political, and deep-rooted cultural conflict in Northern Ireland that erupted in the late sixties and continued well beyond the publication of North in 1975. Though a lapsed Catholic, Heaney continued to identify with those in his tradition, “my wronged people.” But he realized, as he says in the second half of North, in the poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” that the “liberal papist note sounds hollow,” and that “the ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse” (OG, 123). Clichéd rhetoric at the journalistic level of daily reportage, or echoing (or bemoaning) the simplifications imposed by rival sectarian ideologies, was inadequate to the atrocities occurring on the ground. In a dramatic move, Heaney set the contemporary Troubles in the deep historical context provided by P. V. Glob’s text and “unforgettable photographs” in The Bog People, a book that deeply moved Heaney as a man and creatively galvanized him as a poet.


Attracted by its title, he’d bought The Bog People as a Christmas present for himself in 1969, the year the book was published. A “line was crossed,” he told O’Driscoll (SS, 157), with “The Tollund Man,” published in Wintering Out (1972), the collection immediately preceding North. When he wrote that poem’s first line, “Some day I will go to Aarhus” (OG, 62), he felt that he was in “a new field of force.” He compared Glob’s book to a gate. “The minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it.” Even, he insisted, if there had been no Northern Troubles, he would still have been drawn to the stunning pictures and descriptions of the Iron Age bodies exhumed from the peat. There was a hiatus, but he knew that he was not finished with The Bog People. “I didn’t really ‘go back’ to the book,” he said in 2006 or so, “because it never left me. And still hasn’t” (SS, 157-58).


Heaney later wished that, in public readings, he had played down his application of the bog material to the political situation in the North. It “would have been better…for me and for everybody else if I had left [the poems] without that sort of commentary.” Above all, it “would have been better for the poems,” which had their own “biological right to life.” That was the “point and remains the point and I never had the slightest doubt about them in that regard” (SS, 159). Nevertheless, Heaney obviously saw current atrocities mirrored in the preserved bodies of those murdered Iron Age victims (the Bog Queen, Tollund Man, Grauballe Man): all part of the blood-saturated, “skull-capped ground” of the “old man-killing parishes” of the Scandinavian and Irish North; while the adulteress of “Punishment,” unearthed from a bog in Germany, was even more controversially identified by Heaney with his tribe-betraying sisters, heads shaved and “cauled in tar” for fraternizing with British soldiers in contemporary Belfast. (OG, 62, 113)

Tollund Man

As deployed in North, Heaney’s archeological-mythical method was unquestionably powerful and attention-getting. But the primary challenge remained: to concentrate on getting things right, not in deeds, but in words and images—befitting emblems of adversity that would record what happened, bear witness without exploiting the tragedy of the Troubles, and remain true to oneself. This demanding task, confronted in the bog poems and in the more immediately political poems of the “Singing School” sequence in North, culminates in “Exposure.” But the trajectory begins (once we are past the two exquisite dedicatory lyrics) with the first of the two poems centering on the mythic and symbolic combat between Antaeus and Hercules.



Some familiarity with these titular figures from Greek mythology is required to grasp what Heaney retrospectively came to regret in the case of the bog poems: the application to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. The Hercules-Antaeus conflict is also relevant to his own position at the time, which was anything but static. During the Troubles, quoting Czelaw Milosz’s Native Realm, Heaney said of himself, in his poem “Away From It All”:

I was stretched between contemplation
of a motionless point
and the command to participate
actively in history.[4]

It was a variation on an old theme. As Henry Hart has observed, “at the root” of the work of this “poet of contrary progressions” is a “multifaceted argument with himself, with others, with sectarian Northern Ireland, with his Anglo-Irish [poetic] heritage, and with his Roman Catholic, nationalist upbringing on a farm in County Derry.”[5]  In that dialectical context, the perennial combat embodied in the mythic wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus becomes emblematic of the dynamic between the first and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney himself, “stretched between” contemplation and the pressure to participate actively, a man of “two minds” both poetically and politically. In “Terminus” (from The Haw Lantern, 1987), Heaney, graphically illustrating his double-mindedness, says he “grew up in between,” describing himself in Part 1 of the poem as suspended between past and present, between the native earth of the Derry farm of his childhood, and the machinery of the modern world:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.

If I listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.

Is it any wonder when I thought
I would have second thoughts? (OG, 272)

Both in her 1998 book, Seamus Heaney, and in her not-yet-published 2014 obituary, Helen Vendler emphasizes these “second thoughts,” even going so far, in the book, as to have a “Second Thoughts” section as a sort of postscript or coda to each chapter. The theme of reconsideration is embodied in Heaney’s two treatments of the Hercules-Antaeus story, and their placement. Readers of Opened Ground, the poet’s own selection of verse from 1966-1996, will be misled by the Contents page, which indicates that “Antaeus” (the only poem in Opened Ground parenthetically dated) appeared in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. It didn’t. Though it was written in the year that inaugural volume was published (1966), it first appeared in print in 1975 in North, immediately following “Mossbawn,” incorporating the two introductory ut pictura poeisis (Vermeer and Brueghel, respectively) poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary.

That warm domestic and pastoral preamble (OG, 93-94), twinned poems of love (“like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin”) and benign communal activity (potato seed-cutters in a Brueghel-like “frieze/ with all of us there, our anonymities”) is in striking contrast to the violent subject-matter of most of North: violence introduced by the poem that opens Part I of North, “Antaeus.” Heaney’s second poem on the struggle between the two Greek heroes, “Hercules and Antaeus,” closes Part 1. In Opened Ground, Heaney evidently wanted to put some distance between “Antaeus” and the poems he selected in 1998 to represent his work in North—understandably, since there had indeed been second thoughts. “Hercules and Antaeus,” in which the poet grudgingly recognizes the inevitable triumph of the Hercules figures of the world, not only revisits but in part reverses the 1966 poem in which he clearly identified with “Antaeus.” Before proceeding, we should pause for a backward glance at both Greek heroes.

Hercules and Antaeus

The son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal woman, Heracles (Hercules is the Latin form of the name) was intended by his father to lord it over all others. Though he became the greatest and most popular hero in Greek mythology, renowned for both brawn and brains, he had obstacles to overcome from the outset. The jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, unsuccessful in preventing Heracles’ birth, tried (Pindar tells us) to destroy him as an infant, sending two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. Little Heracles strangled the snakes instead. Hera later contrived to have the destiny Zeus intended for his son conferred instead on the king of Argos, Eurystheus, to whom Heracles would eventually become subject, forced (as punishment for the murder of his wife and children during a Hera-inflicted fit of madness) to perform the famous Twelve Labors.[6] In Book 11 of the Odyssey, the ghost of Heracles tells Homer’s hero of his suffering: “Son of Zeus that I was, my torments never ended,/ forced to slave for a man not half the man I was:/ he saddled me with the worst heartbreaking labors.” Those labors included, among others, killing the Nemean Lion, cleansing the Augean stables, and (the task he specifically mentions to Odysseus), retrieving the three-headed hound Cerberus from Hades; “no harder task for me, he thought,/ but I dragged the great beast up from the underworld to earth.”[7]

Prior to hauling Cerberus up from Hell, Heracles had been tasked by Eurystheus to find and bring to him the golden apples originally given (by Ge, mother of Antaeus) to Hera to celebrate her marriage to Zeus. The apples were secreted in the distant Garden of the daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides, where they grew from a Tree guarded not only by these three singing nymphs, but by the hundred-eyed serpent Ladon, coiled protectively about the trunk. In the most prominent variation on the legend, Heracles, wandering about seeking advice on the location of the Garden, encounters Prometheus, chained to the rock in the Caucasus, waiting by night for the eagle that returned daily to feed on his liver. When Heracles shoots and kills the eagle with his bow, a grateful Prometheus advises his savior to enlist his brother Atlas, who knows the location of the Garden. Atlas was also being punished by Zeus, condemned to support the sky on his back forever in order to keep heaven and earth apart. When he finally finds cloud-mantled Atlas, Heracles asks for his help in getting the apples. The Titan agrees, providing that Heracles, in exchange, will shoulder his burden. Heracles agrees. But when Atlas returns with the apples, clever Heracles tricks him into resuming his burden and departs with his prize.

In his long and meandering journey to the remote Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles, in addition to helping Prometheus, engaged and conquered two dangerous enemies in Northern Africa: the king of Egypt, Busiris, and the less tyrannical but even more formidable king of Libya. This was the invincible wrestler, the giant Antaeus, son of the Earth-goddess Ge and the sea-god Poseidon. Antaeus was always victorious in his matches because, when he was thrown to the ground, the Earth, his mother, renewed his strength. In their famous match, Heracles, unaware at first of that special relationship, started by wrestling Antaeus in the normal way. But, smart as he was powerful, he quickly realized what was going on. Lifting the giant up, Heracles held Antaeus aloft in the air, weakened him, and slowly crushed him to death with his bare hands. In his two poems on the subject, double-minded Seamus Heaney identifies in the first with with the earthy Antaeus, then, reluctantly, acknowledges the power and intelligence of Hercules.



The 1966 “Antaeus” begins with a probable echo (one among several, to which I’ll return) of Heaney’s predecessor and fellow Irishman and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats. Heaney would seem to have in mind as well lines from Robert Frost—his “favorite poet,” he later confided to a surprised Helen Vendler. In the two concluding quatrains of “To Earthward” (1923), Frost yearns for an Antaeus-like relationship with the earth, a joyous contact so intense as to include pain and tears, “the aftermark/ Of almost too much love.”

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. [8]

And here are the opening lines of Heaney’s gravitational poem, also written in quatrains:

           When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning,
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
………..To rub myself with sand

           That is operative
As an elixir.

Antaeus’ earth-connection is chthonic and natal. “I cannot be weaned/ Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins,/ Down here in my cave,” he says. “Girdered with root and rock/ I am cradled in the dark that wombed me,/ And nurtured in every artery.” The final two quatrains introduce Heracles—supposedly just one of many challengers (“Let each new hero come…”), but identified by the references to the golden apples, to Atlas, and to the fatal wrestling match:

           Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas.
He must wrestle with me before he pass
………..Into that realm of fame

           Among the sky-born and royal:
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
………..My elevation, my fall.  (OG, 15)

It is hard to gauge the tone (pride, bravado, fear, petition?) in the punning and paradoxical final lines, in which Antaeus envisages and yet resists Heracles’ victorious strategy in the received myth. Let my opponent “not plan,” says Antaeus, even in elevating me off the earth, “my fall.”

Renewal in descent is a Yeatsian theme as well. In his late, summing-up poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the “foul” heart in which the ladderless Yeats at last “must lie down” is the fecund source of the artist’s creativity, enabling him to be, as Heaney’s Antaeus puts it, “nurtured in every artery.” But the closer Yeatsian parallel to Heaney’s “Antaeus” occurs in a related summing-up poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (also written in 1938). Yeats had identified (in the Preface to A Vision) with another Greek hero, terrestrial Oedipus, who “descended into an earth riven by love,” rather than with celestial Christ, who ascended into the abstract heaven. (Yeats is recalling his “translation” of the Messenger’s speech in Oedipus at Colonus; Heaney has described as one of “the things I’ve done with most relish,” his own version of the Messenger’s account of Oedipus disappearing, “assumed into earth rather than into heaven” [SS, 472]). In the Municipal Gallery poem, Yeats, asserting the gravitational pull of his art and cultural nationality alike, alludes directly to the Antaeus myth, applying it to himself and his principal Abbey-Theatre co-workers. Along with that earthy aristocrat and collector of Irish folklore, Lady Augusta Gregory, and “that rooted man” John Millington Synge, Yeats thought

All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.[9]

Early Heaney would agree. Like Antaeus, son of Mother Earth, the poet of Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) seemed an instinctual and earth-centered child of the natal soil. In an essay published in 1980, five years after North, he, too, like Yeats, described Synge as one who, Antaeus-like grew strong, having discovered in his experience on the Aran Islands a tangible “power-point.” Like Heaney himself in his archeological digging into the remote pre-Christian past in North, Synge, “grafted to a tree that had roots touching the rock bottom, …had put on the armour of authentic pre-Christian vision which was a salvation from the fallen world of Unionism and Nationalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Anglo and Irish, Celtic and Saxon—all those bedevilling abstractions and circumstances.”[10]



But, however bedeviling and abstract, those antithetical forces could not be ignored or wholly transcended, and Heaney’s proclivity toward “second thoughts” would not allow him to rest with a too-easy “salvation” in the form of empathetic alliance with one side of the agon. As his cherished Robert Frost acknowledged, “I have been pulled two ways and torn in two all my life.”[11]At the time he wrote that, in a 1915 letter, Frost was just five years older than the author of North. Though Heaney was similarly torn, Antaeus—his alter ego in the 1966 poem—was, for all his myth-defying insistence or petition, still a defeated figure. When he takes up the theme again, in the wake of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland beginning with Bloody Sunday in January 1972, Heaney concedes in advance the defeat of Antaeus at the hands, and head, of Heracles, a figure of superior strength and “intelligence.”

In the earlier poem, Antaeus had boasted that the challenger must wrestle with him before he could “pass/ Into that realm of fame//Among sky-born and royal.” That successful passage is acknowledged (repeating the very phrase) at the outset of the new poem—which is written in the third person and whose opening lines go on to allude to Heracles’ feats: from the precocious choking of the snakes sent to strangle him in his cradle, through his ingenious cleansing of the accumulated cattle-dung in the Augean stables, and his successful quest for the golden apples, culminating in his apotheosis, laden with earned prizes:

Sky-born and royal,
Snake-choker, dung heaver,
His mind big with golden apples,
his future hung with trophies,

Hercules has the measure
of resistance and black powers
feeding off the territory.

The forces of resistance whose “measure” has been taken—doubly “grasped”—by intelligent Hercules, a violent light-bringer, are primordial, instinctual “black powers/ feeding” off the nurturing soil, the native “territory.” Antaeus himself is introduced as “the mould-hugger.” In the earlier poem he had claimed, “I cannot be weaned off” the earth and its “cradling dark.” Now he is described as “weaned at last” from his Mother-Earth. In the past,

a fall was a renewal
but now he is raised up—
the challenger’s intelligence

is a spur of light,
a blue prong graiping him
out of his element
into a dream of loss

and origins—the cradling dark,
the river-veins, the secret gullies
of his strength
the hatching grounds

of cave and souterrain,
he has bequeathed it all
to elegists. Balor will die,
and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

“Light”—masculine and intellectual—defeats the cradling “dark” that had, in the earlier poem, “wombed” and “nurtured” Antaeus. Now the intelligent but phallic and brutal “spur” and “prong” of Hercules has succeeded in “graiping” (an obscure but forceful Scots verb for lifting, perhaps derived from William Dunbar) Antaeus “out of his element” into a dream of “loss” and nostalgia for his chthonic “origins” in the mothering soil: the hidden river-veins, gullies, caves and underground networks that once nourished his strength, and over which Heaney lingers.

Heaney’s lingering identification with Antaeus and the poetic, cultural, and nationalist dimension of this poem are confirmed by a 1979 interview, in which he recalled a conversation with a “fine” British poet, but one with a “kind of Presbyterian light” about him, “essentially different from the kind of poet I am.” The “image” that came into Heaney’s mind after the conversation “was of me being a dark soil and him being a kind of bright-pronged fork that was digging it up and going through it.” In “Hercules and Antaeus,” he continued, “Hercules represents the possibility of the play of intelligence,” resembling the “satisfaction you get from Borges,” so “different from the pleasures of Neruda, who’s more of an Antaeus figure.” Such thinking, he says, “led into the poetry of the second half of North, which was an attempt at some kind of declarative voice.” In that voice, the victory of the trophy-laden conqueror, his “light” too Protestant and “Anglo” for Heaney to ever endorse, is registered, but with reluctance.[12]

Forcefully severed from contact with the dark soil that is the source of his strength, Antaeus must lose, bequeathing his legacy to “elegists” lamenting the death of other indigenous fighters defeated and dispossessed by invaders. Heaney singles out mythic and historical losers, united by fate and alliteration: the one-eyed Irish god-king Balor, killed by the Tuatha de Danaan, the legendary invaders of Ireland; the Anglo-Saxon earl Byrthnoth, slain by Vikings in the massacre of his forces at the Battle of Maldon (991); and the chief of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull, victor at Little Big Horn in 1876, but shot and killed by Indian police when, a decade and a half later, his followers tried to rescue him from reservation captivity. Transatlantic, but emblematic of all the native peoples overwhelmed in the inexorable advance of whites colonizing the American continent, Sitting Bull belongs in this trinity of the dispossessed and defeated—principal among whom are Heaney’s own “wronged people,” driven out or subjugated by the English invaders and planters, and still subject to violence and discrimination.

The final two stanzas present the victor in an iconic pose (archaic, but repeated from Churchill to “Rocky”), along with the transformation of the defeated into the topography and mythology of resurrection so often resorted to by the vanquished: arrogant “Hercules lifts his arms/ In a remorseless V,” his “triumph unassailed/ By the powers he has shaken,”

And lifts and banks Antaeus
High as a profiled ridge,
A sleeping giant,
Pap for the dispossessed.  (OG, 121-22)

The defeated Antaeus is lifted, crushed to death, and banked, his profiled corpse becoming part of the ridged landscape. In both Native American (Ojibway) and Celtic mythology and popular legend, a Sleeping Giant will one day awaken to lead his defeated and disinherited people to triumph. This desperate cultural-political wish-fulfillment, applied to his own tribe in Northern Ireland, is spurned by Heaney, brutally and caustically, as “Pap for the dispossessed”: the sentimental mythology of false hope that simultaneously sustains and deludes an uprooted and oppressed people. Later, in Station Island, the ghost of James Joyce himself will advise Heaney to stop “raking at dead fires” and “rehearsing the old whinges at your age./ That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,/ infantile” (OG, 245).  Though Heaney is not dismissing the reality either of oppression or of the need to rectify injustice, he is harshly critical of what Neil Corcoran succinctly describes as a subject people’s “hopeful but puerile” mythology. Yeats, too, in Celtic fin-de-siècle poems like “The Secret Rose” and “The Valley of the Black Pig, and, more obliquely in “The Second Coming,” had reminded us that oppressed people always dream apocalyptic dreams of deliverance, of what the distinguished Quaker philosopher Rufus M. Jones has memorably called “the fierce comfort of a relief expedition from the skies.”[13]

In that climactic line, “Pap for the dispossessed,” Heaney, conceding victory to Hercules, refuses to dwell on either the nostalgic “dream of loss/ and origins,” or the apocalyptic pipedream of the projected awakening of a “sleeping giant.” In Greek myth, Heracles will himself eventually be defeated, poisoned by the toxic shirt of the centaur Nessus. Though that dark future offers no comfort in this poem, it is also true that the combat between what is antithetically represented by Heaney’s Hercules and Antaeus (a spur of light/earthy darkness, “male” reason/ “female” instinct, victory/defeat) is itself a transitional phase, a “stepping stone” in a larger and more complex dialectic, both poetic and political. The forces symbolized in “Hercules and Antaeus” will wrestle again, and on a far more nuanced level, in the culminating poem in North, “Exposure.” By “bidding farewell to the chthonic elegiac myth of Antaeus, by finding something to praise in the ‘spur of light’ in ‘the challenger’s intelligence,’ Heaney,” writes Helen Vendler, “opened himself to the more authentic—if more dubious and shifting—figures animating “Exposure”—figures of exile, of flight, of sequestration and, above all, of second thoughts, ‘weighing and weighing,’ as he says, ‘my responsible tristia’.”[14]



Seamus Heaney began his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, just as he had begun “Terminus” eight years earlier, by presenting himself as having grown up “in between”; “in suspension,” he says in the speech, “between the archaic and the modern.” His life as a “pre-reflective” child safely insulated from the outside world in a crowded traditional thatched farmstead was “an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled” with other sounds—“rain in the trees,…a steam train rumbling along a railway line one field back from the house.” This was during World War II, and so, conveyed by the wind-stirred wire leading from atop a chestnut tree to the family radio, the sounds included the voice of a BBC newsreader announcing in “resonant English tones…the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions,” and intoning as well “those other solemn and oddly bracing words, ‘the enemy’ and ‘the allies’.” (OG, 416)

That child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to sounds of the pastoral and modern worlds was “already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament”: a future involving the conflict between the Provisional IRA, British troops, and loyalist paramilitaries during the renewed Troubles, centered in Northern Ireland but radiating out to bombings in Dublin and London. A no-longer “pre-reflective” child, Heaney was now an adult who would, as he told his audience in Stockholm, have to “adjudicate” among “promptings” that were

variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, quite impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen-seventies in another small house, this time in County Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home…feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweet-natured school friend had been interned because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. (OG, 418)

In August 1972, the year that had begun with the second Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers killed and wounded the Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, Heaney resigned his teaching post at Queens University in Belfast, moving with his wife and two young sons to Wicklow in the Republic. It was, he has acknowledged, the “most intense phase” of his life, “and not just of the writing life.” Referring to his family as well as himself, he told O’Driscoll, “we were at a turning point,…exposed and ready in a new way.” He had “no more alibis. That much was clear the first morning I took the children” to their new school “and the headmaster wrote ‘file’ [poet] in the column of the rollbook where he had to enter ‘Occupation of Parent.’ No more of your ‘lecturer’ or ‘teacher’” (SS, 156).  They settled in “Glanmore,” a cottage (formerly the gatekeeper’s on the Synge estate) rented to them by their friend, the Synge scholar Anne Saddlemeyer. As noted earlier, the decision, much commented on in the media, was criticized by some Northern Catholics, including fellow writers, who felt that the poet best equipped to be an engaged spokesman for “their side” had abandoned them. In these circumstances, says Heaney in the Nobel Prize speech, what “I was longing for was…a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.” It was then, he says (OG, 419), that “I wrote a poem called ‘Exposure’.”

Aside from “Punishment,” in which he accuses himself of complicity and passivity in the tribal vengeance exacted against his “sisters” brutally punished for fraternizing with British soldiers, “Exposure,” the sixth and final poem in the sequence “Singing School” in North, is the most controversial poem in Heaney’s most controversial and powerful collection. Epitomizing the rival claims of the private and public voice, of art and action, of poetry and political engagement, “Exposure” traces several “exposings.” The first is to the natural elements in a rural environment. The poem, written, like “Hercules and Antaeus,” in unrhymed quatrains, begins:

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

In this damp, darkening, low-wicked end of the year, there were other cold looks. The second “exposing” was to the unaccustomed criticism already mentioned, both private and in terms of the media publicity occasioned by the decision to move to the Republic. The poet is critical himself—at least, as in the case of Horatio on the battlements in Hamlet, “a part of him.” In an image that will recur in the poem’s final line, he refers to the opportunity to possibly make a difference at home as “A comet that was lost,” and should at least

                             be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

Instead of a wrestling Antaeus, we have a stone-slinging potential Cuchulain or David defending his people against physically superior (Goliath-like) strength. Heaney’s “gift,” though weapon-like, would be (as in his canon-opening poem, “Digging”) that “pen” mightier than sword or gun (or slingshot). But the “desperate” here are the same “dispossessed” battening on “pap” in “Hercules and Antaeus.” In any case, it is all a fantasy. The million-tonned luminous comet is already “lost,” its glimmering roseate track not even “visible at sunset”; the lesser “falling star” is glimpsed only “sometimes”; and the recluse self-exiled in the Wicklow woods is, in this declension, reduced to hoping for the diminished excitement of coming upon “meteorite.”

Walking through “damp leaves,” the husks of an “autumn” as “spent” as the meteorite, and merely “imagining” himself a potentially salvific “hero,” Heaney sounds remarkably like the middle-aged Yeats of The Wild Swans at Coole, shuffling among the littering autumnal leaves and burning “damp faggots” while, in contrast, a man of action—Irish Airman Robert Gregory, driven by a lethal and “lonely impulse” to hurl himself into combat—“may consume/ The entire combustible world” in the “flare” of a single courageous if reckless decision. Like Heaney, who presents himself in this poem “weighing and weighing” options, Yeats’s Airman claims to have “balanced all, brought all to mind.”  But the fighter-pilot impulsively leaps into his “tumult in the clouds,” while Heaney and Yeats “sit,” or walk through “damp leaves.” And yet one senses, at the deepest level, that for both poets, however they may momentarily envy and even glorify it, the role of the combustible “hero” is, in the final weighing, just more infantile pap.[15]

In the next two stanzas, the media exposure attending Heaney’s controversial move to the seclusion and safety of the Republic is made more intimate by the many-faceted “counseling” of friends  (whether well-intentioned or the equivalent of Job’s comforters) and the more blunt hatred of ideological enemies, whose “anvil brains” generate more heat than sparks of light:

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind backs?

The Latin word signals a double-echo: an allusion to another internal émigré, Osip Mandelstam in the Stalinist Soviet Union, whose poems in exile, titled Tristia, in turn echoed the Tristia of Ovid, exiled by Augustus from Rome. But “for what,” Heaney asks himself, does he sit weighing and weighing incompatible responsibilities? He momentarily casts doubt even on the claims of poetry, in terms both of its adequacy in the face of the atrocities in the North and in purely aesthetic terms: the artistic labor required to create sounds to please a discerning “ear.” Feeling, as he said in the Nobel Prize speech, “challenged yet steadfast,” he implicitly resists as well civic responsibility in the form of politically engaged labor on behalf of “the people,” and spurns, though acutely sensitive to it, the sniping of those who talk behind one’s back.

But there remains self-criticism and the final and most important “exposure”: the revelation of his own deeply-conflicted feelings and thoughts. He hears, in the symbolic utterance of the rain through the alders (the familiar rain-in-the-trees image with which the poem had opened), self-accusation and a nagging fear—since each raindrop recalls the “diamond absolutes” beyond endless weighing of alternatives—that he may be a less-than-noble escapist whose quietist quest has caused him to dodge the violence and miss a momentous chance:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.  (OG, 135-36)



“Exposure,” in which Heaney puts extraordinary pressure on himself, is an intimate self-examination and meditation on what Robert Frost famously called “the road not taken.” But against the vacillation and conflicted thoughts that led him both to self-protectively escape “the massacre” and to miss the not-taken and once-only opportunity to stay in the North and perhaps even make a difference politically, we have to weigh, as Heaney may well have, not only the nuanced subtext of sedentary Yeats’s ostensibly unflattering contrast of himself to heroic Robert Gregory, but the older poet’s insistence, in “The Second Coming,” that it is the “best” who lack conviction, while “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (YP, 235). In addition, though they give off but “meagre heat” compared to the comet’s “million tons of light,” the “sparks” to which Heaney refers in the final stanza are poetic sparks.

According to Heaney in a 1997 interview with fellow poet Henri Cole, what he was asking, with “anxiety,” in “Exposure” was: “what am I doing striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?”[16] But those little sparks were still inspired sparks, blown by the “wind” Heaney  feels as a “wood-kerne” hidden and camouflaged—like the Irish soldiers Spenser had described in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)—by protective bole and bark, the autumnal woods surrounding Glanmore Cottage. To my ear, “these sparks” evoke Shelley’s final petition to that “breath of autumn’s being” in the “Ode to the West Wind”:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In the end, Heaney, neither informer nor internee, confirms (though not without misgivings) his decision to become an internal émigré and noncombatant. In moving to Glanmore Cottage, a secluded retreat and place of writing he came to love and eventually to purchase, Heaney committed himself full-time to poetry, recognizing—as had Wordsworth, in an earlier time of political “catastrophe” and with the support of his sister Dorothy—his “true self” as “Poet,” file. In the third of the “Glanmore Sonnets” (in Field Work, 1979), Heaney starts to compare himself and his wife to “William and Dorothy,” only to be interrupted by Marie (OG, 158)—who may, however, have played a role not unlike that of Dorothy. Asked by Helen Vendler about separations and other difficulties, Marie insisted that “all I want is for Seamus to be able to write his poems.” That was what mattered as well to Dorothy, that “belovéd woman” and “companion” who had, in a time of political and emotional turmoil, Wordsworth insisted,

Maintained for me a saving intercourse
With my true self…preserved me still
A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.[17]

But “poetry,” as Auden famously insisted in his elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” Even (OG, 102, 103) lying “down/ in the word-horde” and “jumping in graves” (as Heaney, a self-mocking “Hamlet the Dane” does in the “skull-capped ground” of North) cannot effect political change any more than the imaginative “flames” of Yeats’s “Byzantium” (YP, 298) can “singe a sleeve” in the material world.  As Heaney says, echoing Auden and Yeats: though poetry is “unlimited” in its capacity for “pure concentration,” “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” [18] Nor, in “Exposure,” can “meagre sparks” outweigh the comet’s million tons of light.

As man and poet, Heaney had to acknowledge the passionate intensity and terrible beauty of that climactic comet’s “pulsing rose.” But there is an implicit caveat in that very image, a reservation taking the form of repetition and rondure. For this final image in the final poem of North—the “comet’s pulsing rose”—not only echoes the absent afterglow of the comet’s tail,  imagined resembling the fruit of the rose, the ripe seed-receptacles that remain after the petals have been removed (“Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips”); it also curves back to “Antaeus,” the opening (post-Dedication) poem in the volume, and to what proved to be the earth-renewed wrestler’s over-confident and punning assertion: “When I die on the ground,/ I rise flushed as a rose.” The internal “rose”-echo is obvious, and I take the oblique allusion to “Antaeus” also to be deliberate, an echo adding to the undermining of the pulsing comet’s combustible political force.

For in the trajectory of North, atavistic Antaeus had been forced to yield. Not, finally, to the strength and spurred light of hubristic Hercules, but to the responsibility-weighing tristia and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney, acting in his true office upon earth: that of Poet. A poet may make, as Heaney often has, public statements; but a poet’s resistance to pressure to become overtly “committed” is usually accompanied, as in the case of Wordsworth and Coleridge (disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution), by a belief that the authentic agent of change is not political activism but the creative imagination, with its implicit assertion of the essential autonomy of poetry. This is a claim certain, in a time of troubles, to frustrate readers who want their poets to “engage” rather than fiddle. And yet we find, at the end of “Exposure,” a poet, or file, scattering, not the spent ashes of partisan politics and sectarian hatred, but those vestigial yet undying “sparks”—his inspired words—among us all. Seamus Heaney’s four decades of creativity following North, defending and reaffirming the central value of poetry, have amply vindicated the pivotal decision publicly wrestled over in “Exposure.”

— Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

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






Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 159-60. (Henceforth cited parenthetically as SS).
  2. “Crediting Poetry,” in Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 415-30. Opened Ground is cited parenthetically throughout as OG.
  3. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial 75 (November 1923); cited from Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 175-78 (177).
  4. Station Island (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 17.
  5. Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992), 2.
  6. Among his many heroic exploits, Heracles led the Theban army to victory in battle, and was rewarded by the king, Creon—the tyrant who has rebellious Antigone buried alive (Heaney would later publish a version of Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone under the title The Burial at Thebes). In gratitude, Creon gave Heracles in marriage his daughter Megara, with whom he had three children. When he regained his senses after killing his family, Heracles was commanded by the priestess of Apollo to obey Eurystheus, who assigned him the Twelve Labors (athloi: contests undertaken for a prize).
  7. Homer: The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (NY: Viking, 1996), 269-70. Book 11: 621-24.
  8. The Poetry of Robert Frost (NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 227.
  9. W. B. Yeats: The Poems [henceforth, YP], ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 367-68, and  395, for “The Circus Animal’ Desertion”);   A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962 [1937]), 27-28.
  10. Heaney, “A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on the Irish Literary Revival,” in Irish Studies 1, ed. P. J. Drudy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 1-20 (9).
  11. The Letters of Robert Frost, vol. 1 (of a projected 3), 1886-1920, ed. Robert Sheehy, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013).
  12. John Haffendon, “Meeting Seamus Heaney,” reprinted in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. (London, 1981), 57-75. My colleague David Lloyd rightly insists that Hercules is “too Angloish for Heaney to get too near.”
  13. Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986), 100. Jones, The Eternal Gospel (NY: Macmillan, 1938), 5. For the Yeats poems, see YP, 87, 83, 235.
  14. Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1998), 89-90.
  15. Ostensibly pure hero worship, both “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (YP, 181-85) hint at subversive caveats.
  16. Cole, “Seamus Heaney: The Art of Poetry No. 75.” The Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997).
  17. For Marie’s comment, see Vendler, “Seamus Justin Heaney 13 April 1939-30 August 2013” (2014), p. 2. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XI. 340-47. In North, in the sequence “Singing School” (its title taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), Wordsworth figures as well as Yeats.
  18. Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 107-8. “In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.” Though not politically “instrumental,” it functions “as pure concentration.
Apr 122014
Julian and Vidal

Gore Vidal and Emperor Julian the Apostate


The Roman Emperor Julian lived in the 4th century C.E., ruled the late empire for three years, during which time he tried to turn back time and reinstitute the ancient pagan gods, and then died (possibly murdered by a Christian) on a military campaign in Persia. Orphaned at an early age, Julian was raised as a Christian (this was just short decades after the Emperor Constantine converted, embraced Christianity and promoted it throughout the empire), but he spent a large portion of his early adulthood in Greece where he studied Neoplatonism and the old Greek mystery cults. Unusual for a Roman emperor, he was an intellectual. Then, as Emperor, he turned against Christianity, thus earning himself the famous epithet: the Apostate. A complex and fascinating character, Julian has always attracted commentary. And it’s fascinating and instructive to contrast the way authors bend the same facts (s0-called facts) to present differing themes and agendas. 

Ammianus Marcellinus, a fourth-century Roman historian, also probably a soldier in Julian’s army, wrote about Julian’s imperial career in a book called Res Gestae (literally, Things Done).[1] Ammianus only really mentions Julian’s apostasy once; he is much more concerned with the imperial qualities and legitimacy of Julian’s rule than his religious feelings. By contrast, 1500 years after Ammianus, the American novelist and political gadfly Gore Vidal, using Ammianus’ work, wrote a novel called Julian, which focuses almost entirely on Julian’s apostasy.  Both Vidal and Ammianus deploy roughly the same facts toward decidedly different ends. Vidal torques his facts, even his reading of Ammianus, to create a complex heroic figure bent on holding back the Leviathan of Christianity (which, unfortunately, as far as Vidal is concerned, prevailed). Ammianus focuses on Julian’s participation in the grand meta-narrative of the late Roman Empire, the succession of emperors, the rise of Christianity and the church. Vidal’s novel is about an individual. Ammianus’ history is not about Julian specifically but his part within the larger tapestry of his period.


Vidal was raised in the midst of an old American political family in Washington D.C. He never attended university but nevertheless published his first novel, Williwaw, at 21. He wrote Julian while visiting Rome in 1964. When talking about his reasons for writing the book, Vidal said:

As for the age of Julian, it is fascinating. In fact without some understanding of what happened it is impossible to have a clear idea of what Christianity is and how it came into being. And if we do not understand Christianity then we cannot make much sense of the world we live in.

Vidal, who delighted in being outrageously critical of Christianity, seemed to have found a kindred spirit in Julian.

…had [Julian] lived there is no doubt that Christianity would have been but one of several religions in the West. And this diversity might have saved the world considerable anguish. But one must again make the point that until the Christians appeared no one was ever persecuted because of his religious beliefs.[2]

This single man could have changed the world for the better. But he failed, mostly by dying too early for his policies to succeed. And Vidal’s novel reflects how Christianity, by betraying Julian (it was rumoured that a Christian soldier assassinated him), betrayed the future.

Ammianus’ account is written from a historian’s perspective. He occasionally interjects a first-person comment. But he will go off on tangents about rainbows or palm-trees or offer delicious aphorisms like: “no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most of the Christians in their deadly hatred of one another.” [3] Ammianus attributes this particular gem to Julian, but it is almost certainly a rhetorical flourish and the author’s own sentiment.

Vidal’s novel differs a great deal from Ammianus. Julian begins with a series of letters between Libanius (a Greek rhetorician who was a friend of Julian in Greece) and Priscus (a Neoplatonist philosopher who studied with Julian under Maximus of Ephesus). Libanius opens the novel by asking Priscus to send him copies of Julian’s memoirs. The novel is mostly the manuscript of Julian’s memoirs written from Julian’s perspective. Priscus and Libanius, however, offer their own thoughts in the margins of the memoir. Often these side-bars are presented as conversations between the two men. Occasionally, either Priscus or Libanius takes over narration to fill-out the details or give context. This back and forth effectively creates the illusion that you are reading both the raw drafts and the polished version of Julian’s memoir (which is fictional). It enhances the depth of story by turning it into a critical edition.

The texts Vidal and Ammianus produced are fascinating set side by side for the way each author treats similar material with different thematic torques. They moot the question: How does a thesis determine the way an author crafts his work. We can look at just two sections of text to see how this works. Both Vidal and Ammianus write about Julian’s speech just before the crucial Battle of Strasbourg in 357, and both also deal with the revelation of his apostasy and its aftermath.


Battle of Strasbourg

The Battle of Strasbourg occurred before Julian became emperor, but his victory over the German tribes was immensely important in his career. His army was outnumbered; he had little experience as a general. But victory re-solidified Rome’s presence in Gaul and set Julian firmly on the path to the imperial throne.

Ammianus’ account of the battle can be divided into three sections: the first is Julian’s speech before the battle, in which he suggests that the troops rest for the night rather than attack right away; the second is the solidiers’ rejection of Julian’s speech; and the third section is the battle itself. In Res Gestae, Ammianus spins the historical and political tensions surrounding this battle and its relation to past events and its implications for the future. In Julian, on the other hand, Vidal is less concerned with the battle’s political implications; he uses it as a characterizing moment to help the reader understand Julian as a man.

Ammianus’s account emphasizes the contextual social dynamics in the moment. First, it’s surprising that Julian makes a speech at all. It was the custom only for emperors to make such speeches. Peter O’Brien writes: “Unlike all the other battlefield speeches incorporated into his narrative, this is not, strictly speaking, an adlocutio. Such speeches, presented according to a specific protocol before an assembled army either in camp or on the field, were in Ammianus’ day the sole prerogative of the Augustus.” (Augustus here refers to an emperor.) [4]

Such speeches were also usually accompanied by a customary set-up, a ceremonial preliminary. For example, O’Brien points out that in description of other scenes in which the Emperor Constantius II or, later, Julian as an Emperor, makes a speech, there is always a description of his posture in relation to the men or the structure which elevates him above his men. In contrast, Ammianus introduces the speech in Strasbourg with the words: “indictaque solitis vocibus quiete, cuneatim circumsistentes alloquitur, genuina placiditate sermonis” (with the usual words quiet was indicated, and he spoke to those standing around him in wedge-formation in his genuine soothing manner of speech).[5]  Julian is among his men, at their level (circumsistentes cuneatim contrasts the usual elevated position of the emperor).

Ammianus is foreshadowing future events by omitting these customary speech/scene contextual tags and by implicitly contrasting Julian and the Emperor Constantius, a rather murderous character whom he eventually succeeds. This contrast serves as a kind of ex post facto campaign biography demonstrating Julian’s fitness to become emperor. This is Ammianus’s thematic agenda.

Gore Vidal’s version, in contrast, emphasizes Julian’s character rather than his political destiny. The entire battle scene is written in Priscus’s (Julian’s Neoplatonian student friend) point of view. The choice of Priscus allows Vidal to talk about Julian objectively and even critically. Priscus describes the speech as follows:

Julian made a good speech to the army. His speeches, though never particularly brilliant, did have the gift of striking precisely the right note with the men…His cultured voice would become harsh, his manner royal; the content modest, the effect inspiring… Julian sat on his horse… Trumpets blared in unison. Squadrons of cavalry, cuirassiers and archers moved in from the left and right until Julian was surrounded. [7]

Vidal misses the subtlety of Ammianus, who consciously avoids painting Julian as more than a general. Words like “royal” and “trumpets sounding in unison” are more applicable to an emperor than a general. In fact, Ammianus does include trumpets sounding in unison in his book but only when Julian finally rises to imperial power.

Vidal conveys the sense that the troops surround Julian, but for a different reason than that of Ammianus. Vidal’s Julian is cagey, politic and manipulative. In Vidal’s account we get motive. Priscus writes that “[Julian] wanted to persuade [the soldiers] to fight immediately, but knowing that they were tired and hot from the sun, he realized he would have to trick them into wanting what he wanted.”[8] Vidal’s assumption that the speech is an attempt at reverse psychology is not wildly inconsistent the historical facts and fits the man who will later sew confusion among the Christian bishops. But it very much contrasts with Ammianus’ imperial Julian, the emperor-in-the-making.[9]

CaptureJulian proclaimed Emperor in Paris, 360 C.E., via Wikipedia

The Speech

Ammianus’ version of Julian’s speech emphasizes that the odds are against the Romans. He gives several reasons why it would be foolhardy to attack precipitately and wiser to rest for the night. Julian offers an aphorism: “Ut enim in periculis iuventutem impigram esse convenit et audacem, ita (cum res postulat) regibilem et consultam” (Indeed, usually young men are energetic in danger and daring, but (as the situation suggests) they also ought to be restrained and forward-thinking). [12] This sentiment seems to reflect the way Julian sees himself, a young man in dangerous situation, who is both cautious and brave. But the aphorism is also a foundation for the rest of his argument. Ammianus wants to suggest that Julian’s subsequent military success is grounded in cautious bravery. The aphorism characterizes Julian, not as an anxious young man fearful of attacking a larger army, but as a cautious and experienced leader who can implement universal principles in practical situations. Throughout Ammianus emphasizes qualities, like cautious bravery, which demonstrate good leadership potential thus justifying Julian’s eventual accession to emperor.

Vidal uses the same aphorism but splits it into two parts in two different sentences. The opening of Julian’s speech in Vidal’s novel is: “The thing we most care for is the safety of our men, and though we are eager to engage the enemy, we also realize that rashness can be dangerous and caution a virtue. Though we are all young men and inclined to be impetuous, as Caesar I must be the one to move warily, though—as you know—I am far from being timid.”[13] Vidal’s version changes the emphasis from one which demonstrates Julian’s growing maturity and leadership ability to one which groups Julian in with the rest of the men and highlights his youth and bravery. Vidal here as usual is looking to analyze the specific person of Julian, whereas Ammianus is concerned with a much broader historical project. Vidal uses this speech as an opportunity to show Julian the young general relation to his men. And Ammianus, conscious of this historical momentousness of this battle, recognizes this speech as deeply important in the rise of Julian, so he crafts a speech which reflects imperial qualities in the young Caesar.

We turn now to examine how Ammianus and Vidal each describe the army’s response to the speech. These descriptions contain some of the most telling differences between the two authors. Ammianus’ account:

Nec finiri perpessi quae dicebantur, stridore dentium infrendentes, ardoremque pugnandi hastis illidendo scuta monstrantes, in hostem se duci iam conspicuum exorabant, caelestis dei favore, fiduciaque sui, et fortunati rectoris expertis virtutibus freti, atque (ut exitus docuit) salutaris quidam genius praesens ad dimicandum eos (dum adesse potuit), incitabat.[14]

They interrupted, not letting what was being said to finish, and gnashing and grinding their teeth, and showing their readiness for fighting they struck their shields with spears, and they exhorted him to lead them against the enemy in sight, by the favor of heavenly gods, and their own self-confidence, and their lucky and experienced leader, and (as events had taught) a certain genius was present urging them to the fighting (as long as he was nearby).

Interestingly, Ammianus diminishes Julian’s agency in this excitement. The soldiers are exhorting (exorabant) him, and there is a genius or spirit that is inciting them toward battle. Ammianus’ intent in this scene is to play on the tensions surrounding the historical and political importance of this event and to demonstrate Julian’s troops’ confidence in him and his abilities. O’Brien writes:

Ammianus undermines the forthright opposition of the army to their leader’s request by implying that their motivation was not based solely on their self-confidence, but on both the skill and fortune of their leader and the protective interest of heaven. The language of fortune and divine interest runs through these claims like a thread, binding the purported words of the soldiers in a typically Ammianean formulation of Julian’s particular aptitude for imperial office.[15]

For O’Brien Julian’s failure to persuade the troops is more than compensated for by their approval of him and the spirit he inspires.

Vidal shortens the response of the soldiers a great deal and, in fact, alters the tone entirely. He reuses the lines: “But the legions interrupted him. They gnashed their teeth, a terrible sound, and struck their spears against their shields.”[16] But he jumps over the secondary justifications for the soldiers’ approval and moves right to the lines:

Then one of the standard-bearers shouted, “Forward, Caesar! Follow your star!” He turned dramatically to the legions. “We have a general who will win! So if it be God’s will, we shall free Gaul this day! Hail, Caesar![17]

We find these lines in Ammianus’ as well, but the difference between the two versions lies in Vidal’s implication that this soldier was planted and coached. This follows from Vidal’s earlier claim that this speech is supposed to be a form of reverse psychology, but there is nothing in Ammianus to suggest that the soldier who cries out is not doing so on his own accord. Rather, for Ammianus’ purposes, this soldier must represent the voice of the soldiers in general.

The Battle

Ammianus’ account of the battle itself is lengthy and includes several digressions while Vidal’s version (still told by Priscus) is short and does not linger on the gory details. The differences between the two descriptions of the battle depend on Vidal’s disinterest in the war-craft of Julian which he clearly holds as secondary to his rhetorical, philosophical, and religious aspirations. In contrast, Ammianus’ desire to justify the imperial Julian leads him to dwell longer on his good generalship.

For example, near the end of the battle while the Germans are retreating to the Rhine at their backs, Julian recognizes that if his “indefessus” (indefatigable) soldiers follow too closely they will fall into the river as well. Ammianus writes: “Qua causa celeri corde futura praevidens Caesar, cum tribunis et ducibus clamore obiugatorio prohibebat, ne hostem avidius sequens, nostrorum quisquam se gurgitibus committeret verticosis” (For this reason, Caesar, with swift-thinking, foreseeing coming events, with his tribunes and generals prohibited with a large clamor of shouts, lest in eager pursuit of the enemy, our soldiers committed themselves to the eddying rapids).[18] Here Ammianus, as he is apt to do, points out Julian’s mature rationality in the field of battle. He also, once again, demonstrates Julian’s right use of caution for the sake of his troops — all to emphasize Julian’s imperial nature.

Vidal, on the other hand, eager to leave the description of the battle behind, does not even mention Julian’s quick thinking here. He skips over Julian’s commanding moments and simply segues to the famous description of the river turning red with blood, which, he assures us, “is not chronicler’s exaggeration.”[19] This is no doubt an ironic nod to Ammianus who is the source for the river turning red, though, even more ironically, Ammianus’ red river is itself no doubt not a historical fact but a literary allusion to both Homer and Virgil.

Edward Armitage - Julian the Apostate Presideing at a ConferenceJulian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875, via Wikipedia


At XXII.5 in Res Gestae, Ammianus describes Julian’s apostasy, the moment when he reveals his belief in the old gods. He writes:

Et quamquam a rudimentis pueritiae primis, inclinatior erat erga numinum cultum, paulatimque adulescens, desiderio rei flagrabat… Ubi vero abolitis quae verebatur, adesse sibi liberum tempus faciendi quae vellet advertit, pectoris patefecit arcana, et planis absolutisque decretis, aperire templa arisque hostias admovere, et restituere deorum statuit cultum…

And from his early boyhood, Julian had been inclined toward the cults of the gods, and as he matured a little, he burned with the desire for them… And when truly those things which he feared were abolished, the time had come when he could freely do what he wanted, he revealed the secrets of his heart with plain and formal decrees, that the temples be opened and victims brought to the altars, and he instituted the return to the cult of the gods.

This text is Ammianus’s most explicit reference to Julian’s apostasy. It is important to note that even though Ammianus is talking about Julian’s religious and philosophical ideas, he frames them terms of politics. Julian waits until his fears, i.e. the political effects of his self-outing as a pagan, subside before he issues his imperial edicts. Julian turns his will into policy. The verb statuit, which I have translated as “instituted,”  emphasizes the political aspect of Julian’s religiously-motivated behavior.

Vidal, in Julian, extends this moment in order to allow Julian to reflect (it is his memoir after all) on the difference between his religion and Christianity, in fact, to allow for a dramatic critique of Christianity. This section of the novel is full of examples of Vidal’s apostatic thematic coming to life. For example, when Julian arranges to have the bishops meet with him, he writes:

At the beginning of April, for my own amusement, I summoned the bishops to the palace. After all, I am the Pontifex Maximus and all religion is my province…

Julian then incites the bishops by insulting them and calling them hypocrites.

You have been taught to consider nothing your own, except your place in the other and better world. Yet you wear jewels, rich robes, build huge basilicas, all in this  world, not the next.

 After the “fine Galilean eruption,” Julian  writes: “Finally, like the bull of Mithras, I bellowed, ‘The Franks and Germans listened when I spoke!’”[20] This line is arguably the most telling when we contrast Vidal and Ammianus. Vidal takes this line directly from Ammianus but changes one thing. Ammianus writes: “Saepeque dictitabat: ‘Audite me quem Alamanni audierun et Franci,’ imitari putans Marci principis veteris dictum” (Often he would say: Listen to me whom the Alamanni and the Franks gave ear,” thinking he was imitating a dictum of the old emperor Marcus (Aurelius).”[21] Vidal’s substitution of the Bull of Mithras for Marcus Aurelius in Ammianus’s simile is pointed. Vidal emphasizes Julian’s religiosity and his animosity toward Christianity whereas Ammianus clearly wants to present Julian’s behavior on the imperial model exemplified by his great predecessor.

—Jacob Glover




Jacob Glover is a graduate student in the Classics Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Thanks to Dr. Peter O’Brien of Dalhousie University for his helpful comments on an early version of this essay.
  2. Books and Author Luncheon , November 30, 1964
  3.  Res Gestae, XXII.5.4
  4. O’Brien, 11.
  5. Res Gestae, XVI.12.8
  6. Julian, 222
  7. Julian, 222-3
  8. O’Brien, 21 (fn. 29)
  9. Res Gestae, XVI.12.10
  10. Julian, 223 (My italics where the aphorism appears.)
  11. Res Gestae, XVI.12.13
  12. O’Brien, 24
  13. Julian, 223
  14. Ibid
  15. Res Gestae, XVI.12. 55
  16. Julian, 224
  17.  Julian, 337
  18. Res Gestae, XXII.5.4
Apr 102014

author photo 2013

The moral overhang of plants, in the present case a disregarded bonsai, is the notional subject of this deft, intricate essay (with photographs) by Shawna Lemay, an essay that is also an anthology of quotations (about plants, art and people) and gnomic phrasing, an essay that almost seems to unwrite itself as it is written. “…we understand each other illegibly.” “In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them.”



The bonsai, now. Purchased years ago from the hardware store. A wish, a pretension, a desire for peacefulness, with an envious thought to the serious practitioners, precipitated its purchase.

Relegated to the basement when it sensed I was not living up to its requirements for emptiness, calm, and a true tenderness. It became too lush and I could not be severe in bringing it back to balance. Years later, it re-emerges. Parts of it have died, irretrievable. Unbalanced but splendid and we understand each other illegibly.

At the stage where she was dreaming, conjuring, The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “A lamp and a flower pot in the center. The flower can always be changing.” There would be, “…a perpetual crumbling and renewing of the plant. In its leaves she might see things happen. But who is she?”


Quickly followed by the wish she remain unnamed. The leaves would most certainly see things happen.

I forge a plan which I quickly abandon, to ask women I know about the plants they have on their windowsills, kitchen tables, desks. I imagine receiving answers about geraniums being overwintered, about African violets, and about bouquets of grocery store tulips and about long stemmed, candy coloured daisies, and roses that deliberately open. Once, someone told me about the aloe vera plant she has on her desk  which has vast properties of healing and with which she conducts séances and hearing this made me too delicate.

We breathe the plant in and the plant receives our exhalations and our chakras align accordingly.

Of course, with Clarice, I’ve been thinking about the sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists for a very long time.

As Cixous said, we have all lived one or two flowers. We have felt the light of them, the light they attract and which goes right through them, and also the heaviness, the gravity, and we have known, perhaps, as the painter Francis Bacon called it, the violence, of roses. Not just the thorns, but the colours changing and bleeding and seeping out of those generous, soft, petals. The way our souls might rise up and speak to flowers, met by flowers, their breathing, the faint breath of them. The pain of finding we can’t quite sip, can’t quite internalize the answers, to the question of scent.


I imagine the pots and vases of flowers on a table near a window in time lapse photography, one that encompasses several years. The first day emerges deliberately. It begins in a veil of morning light, I place a vase of garden roses on the weathered table. The pink-orange petals are so various, each one a slightly different combination of pink fluttering into orange. They have opened under the sun, been changed by breezes gentle and ardent and arduous. Insects have nibbled and continued on their way. And now the light becomes more diffuse, evens out, brightens, declines again, and then moonlight comes in and bathes the roses, they soften and at the same time become more radiant, full. The leaves droop a little, curl, the water clouds, the edges of the petals wither, turn a greyish brown, and the pinks become less vibrant, and the orange deepens, lessens. They begin to look tattered in the repetition of this cycle, more graceful, more noble. At one point a hand comes into the frame, and shoves the vase from the center of the table to the edge, to the far end.

In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them. We learn opening, opening. And then empty, drunk, we succumb to their heavenly sadness. It is the sadness of flowers that reminds us to keep the secret.

The table is empty for several days. The time lapse speeds up. A geranium arrives in a terracotta pot. The stems are thick and gnarled. The plant has lived and lives on in the slips that have been taken. It grows, leaning toward the light through the day, a slow dance. And then the cuttings are removed, and it must grow more leaves, and it does, small sprouts emerge. At which point someone takes it to make room for a gift, a vase of flowers. A ghostly image enters the frame and leaves, which reminds one of security camera footage.

An arrangement, a gift. A florist’s concoction. Tulips, roses, hydrangeas, snapdragons, bits of greenery in a  rigorously balanced and visually interesting triangle. Light pink, fresh green, and lavender. For days they stay as placed, rather too perfect. But then the tulips begin to droop through the course of a single day and are nearly done in.

The time lapse slows and then speeds up, and this feels alarming, how the flowers move as though in a deep conversation, the intensity of their gestures, leanings, listings, to and fro, petals drop in what could be happiness one moment, anger the next, then resignation.

Those which have perished are removed, and the bouquet is awkward, strange. A hand removes the bouquet, the arrangement returns in another form, the remaining flowers cut down and placed in a water glass. They last a day or two more. And at this point, the light in the room becomes grainy, and I can’t help but think about the clouds which must be responsible for this effect.


It goes on like this. Long periods where the space is empty. Shadows of people pass over the table. A bird flies by and casts a low and fleeting shadow. Snow falls so the window resembles a 20th century television screen at three a.m. The window is opened and the curtains blow into the frame, ever so gently. Punctuated by moments of flowering. Flowers changing. And changing.

It goes on like this. The fragrance. The colours. The fading. The beauty of decline, the simplicity. All of the attendant moods arrive and pass in waves, swelling and subsiding, at dawn, at dusk.

While I’m imagining the flowers on a table I’m also thinking about 17th century Dutch flower paintings. The way that artists would make and collect studies of  flowers so that they could paint them into lush floral bouquets that couldn’t really exist as the specimens wouldn’t naturally bloom at the same time. Sometimes an artist would share a particular study they’d made, so that another artist would have the exact same rendering of a flower in their own floral painting.

I also remember the painting by Remedios Varos called Still Life Reviving, which is the last thing she painted before her unexpected death. At the center of a small round table with a tablecloth draped on it is a lit candle. Swirling around and hovering above the table are plates, and above them various fruits which at times collide and explode, all of this witnessed by dragonflies. Seeds drop from the colliding fruits, and plants are being born from them before they hit the ground.

I remember the way things appear to lose their magic, and later regain it.

Paper whites in winter. An amaryllis bulb, forced. Spring plum blossoms. Forsythia. Peonies. Roses. Tiger lilies.

The flower is always changing which is dizzying. Which is why, still life.

—Shawna Lemay

Shawna Lemay is a writer, blogger, editor, photographer, and library assistant. She is the creator and co-editor of the website, Canadian Poetries. She has written five books of poetry, All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, Blue Feast and Red Velvet Forest, a book of essays, Calm Things, and a work of experimental fiction, Hive: A Forgery. A book of poems and poem-essays, titled Asking, is forthcoming in April of 2014. Her daily blog is Calm Things.  She resides in Edmonton, Canada, with her partner, Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter, Chloe.

Apr 032014


Why do we write? Why bother to write? I remember the advent of Game Boy, the beginning of the current culture wherein the signal gesture is eyes downcast concentrating on some hand held device, and thinking, well, it’s all over now. Readers gone, illiterate sons, no point. But then my sons grew up to be writers and one persists. And we started the magazine (so that now, when I see someone bent over a phone, I think, ah! another reader — okay, wishful thinking). But the question persists, always persists — why write?

Genese Grill, who in February contributed to Numéro Cinq her insightful and erudite essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, herewith delivers an apologia (ancient form — nothing to do with apologizing) for writing, a passionate, persuasive, eloquent (not to mention well-written) defence of the realm of writing. Read it and rush to the barricades (or get out your laptop and start writing). This essay is the preface to a book of essays in progress. Genese (have I mentioned that she is an artist, also a scholar and a translator of Musil?) also created a room-sized hand-painted accordion book with one of the essays painted on the panels; we’ve included images of that as well (photos by Rebecca Mack). Because in this day and age, as we see over and over in Numéro Cinq, the word is art.


When so many others have written before us, illuminated, explained, shown, arranged, described the world and human existence, when so many others more eloquent, more learned, more witty, more poetic have polemicized and preached about what is important, about how we must live, about what is wrong with society, with our lives, with our thinking, when the world is arguably in countless ways even worse now despite all the words, when it is even less humanistic, more materialistic, less poetic, more utilitarian, when humans seem even less connected, more isolated, even after generations of  writers have toiled to share their insights and to inspire to a better existence —we persist in writing, in feeling that writing might be a meaningful way to save the world, save our souls, to right the wrongs, make up for  disappointments, overcome alienation and despair.

In addition to all of these common complaints lodged against writing, there are even people who believe that reading and writing belong to a hopelessly corrupt past, that they are the tainted remains of a paternalistic Enlightenment attempt to control people’s thoughts by an elite which, the theory goes, misguidedly or even treacherously posed as reformers, teachers, fellow human beings. Such theorists, in the spurious interest of freeing mankind from the discipline, authority, and standards of the old world, have contributed greatly to the denigration of so much which makes life worth living. They have aimed—when they aimed at culture—at the wrong enemy; and if today’s citizens are more free than they were two hundred years ago, we need only ask, as Nietzsche did: free for what? To go to the mall whenever they please? To never challenge themselves at all? To live lives where natural and artistic beauty, reflection, relative silence, awe and wonder are present in only the scantiest proportion compared to the fragmented technocratic busy-ness and consumerism that has become the norm? Is there no other way to get free?

Are great books really something to defend against, to ridicule, to knock off a pedestal? Or have they not always, mainly, been a powerful force of liberation, often a critique, often a means toward humanizing, toward inspiring tenderness and compassion? Ironically, the great books of the past seem to have increasingly induced a sort of revolutionary fervor which has itself taught people to doubt, to deconstruct, to denigrate books themselves. The educated Marxist professor snarls at the great works of the past like an ungrateful cur or a parasite who has forgotten who first taught him the word freedom. Like Caliban, who complains that Prospero taught him language, the ingrate only knows how to curse the magic of culture. But poor Caliban, the reader may object, is Prospero’s colonialist slave, so he may well begrudge his master’s “kindness”. Quite right, my skeptical post-modern reader, quite rightly read. Yet who but Shakespeare taught us this?


Now that people read so little it is even more difficult than ever to measure the “use” or benefit of writing (leaving aside for just a moment the all-important  non-utilitarian aspects of writing). We might even ask why, if writing is efficacious, it has not succeeded in ensuring a practicable love of reading in our society, where, apparently, the average person reads but one book a year—at most. If we really want to change the world, if we really want —indeed, even in a maligned Enlightenment tradition—to inspire reform, reach people, impart urgency, does writing a book make sense?  Who will read it? What will it do? Won’t it just be ignored?

Do words and ideas impact the world at all, or are we raising our voices like that passionate orator Mynheer Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain, howling at the edge of a riotously loud waterfall, our words hopelessly drowned out by the spray and sensation of a force — in our case of media, convenience, technological  sensationalism, consumerism, novelty and speed—a force far stronger than all our dusty fusty intellectual intensity and our airy ideations?  Why do we persist in writing when writing seems sometimes to make so little palpable difference?

Do we continue out of a self-indulgent personal love of a way of life that has now become solipsistic or stubbornly antiquarian? Because it is what we like to do or because it is the only thing we know how to do?  Or can it be that the act of writing itself—yes, real writing, inscribing, on paper, with ink, for printing  in books that one can hold in one’s hands—is now something of a revolutionary act in itself, an act that is more than just an empty fatalistic last gesture in honor of some lost world?

 I wager that, yes, to write books, to read and treasure books and ideas and intellectual discourse is a revolutionary act (if somehow simultaneously reactionary).  I might even venture that one of the reasons reading is so out of fashion is not that it is boring and ineffectual but because it has the power to function as a sort of flaming conscience illuminating the “bad faith” of a general state of denial and a neglect of higher ethics and spiritual aesthetic values.  As Kafka suggested, a really great book is like an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.  Do today’s humans care to be thus destroyed, broken down, burnt up, challenged? Whether they do or no, it is imperative that we strain and strive to rouse to wakefulness whoever is still even the least bit conscious, even if it means pouring a bucket of cold water upon our fellow humans and, yes, even upon ourselves in  our most comfortable and ethically lazy hiding places.  To write is to challenge the negligent, disinterested, laissez-faire status quo.  Culture, in the coinage of my friend Stephen Callahan, is the new Counter-Culture.  We may not win the war, but we have no choice but to fight, or write, as the case may be.


But let us return to the aforementioned non-utilitarian aspects of writing and reading. These aspects are inextricably bound up in everything which is to be gained or lost along the way.  Outside of the content and import of what there is to be said and argued and persuasively insisted, the experience of writing (reflective, committed, difficult, grappling, ruminative, essayistic, careful, aesthetic, emotional) and the experience of reading (in relative quiet, with respect to the considered ideas of another human being,  critically, with margins, with emotion and inter-subjectivity, with devotion) bears its own weight and its own significance in the context of today’s fragmented and casual society. In other words, the way in which we read and write is directly commensurate to the way in which we construct meaning and measure value in our lives, our world, our history, our future, our fellow beings.  Reading and writing are two very representative practices that demonstrate the essential dynamic relationship between spirit and matter.  Ideas and words, living and breathing in books and sentences, synthesizing, dissecting, and re-animating realities, influence and engender our physical world. By altering these practices or marginalizing them, we are, in essence, altering the very way we conceptualize, share, proffer, process and manifest ideas. Thus I begin with an underlying assumption about the ability of spirit to matter in questions of matter and in hopes of breaking internal frozen seas on an individual and universal level, one reader at a time, one tiny fissure, one tiny idea at a time.

Writers all sometimes believe that they have something new and important to say that has not been said in quite the same way and quite the same context as before.  Other times they fear they have absolutely nothing at all of value to add. Even our own “freshest” ideas are but reanimations and reworkings of mostly the same things that have fascinated us since the beginning of our personal consciousness. We think we have come upon something new only to find it in much the same words in a notebook from a decade ago. Yet the slight variations of syntax, the context into which we have now placed an idea, may make worlds of difference, may be the small strand of hay that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.  A small idea may be waiting, hidden in a large book, for the right reader, just like a despairing romantic inside a country house deep in the woods, with just a candle in the window, is waiting for a surprise visitor.

Something another writer has said may make us furious, or egg us on to verbally spar; we may be exhausted by received ideas, by the sort of questions which seem to leave only two possible and unsatisfactory possibilities as answers. We may think we know how to pose a new question altogether or provide a third or fourth answer which, as Cummings hoped, asks its own new question and so on and so on. I am reminded of the utopian visionary Charles Fourier, whose preface to his opus The Four Movements claims that he alone, finally, after so many centuries, has discovered the single most important secret to human happiness that no one, not one person ever, has even begun to imagine before him.  An outrageous, majestic, beautiful and absurd claim! Nevertheless, it is true that each new voice may add something invaluable to the conversation. Imagine how bereft the ensuing centuries would have been had Fourier not had the courage of his crowing and had kept his revolutionary ideas to himself?!  This French visionary is an apt exemplum of the way in which spirit works on matter, because his ideas were, in fact, directly influential on actions. The words that he committed to paper in a tiny room in Paris formed a good part of the basis of American utopian communities (like the late Brook Farm), even if a slightly puritan-tinged interpretation of his phalansteries and phalanxes left out some of his wilder and more improbable imaginings (the sea that would turn to lemonade, the evolutionary development of human tails, the benefits of unhindered passional attractions).


On the train to Concord Massachusetts to attend a transcendentalist conference, I met a fellow scholar and we fell quickly into a surprisingly heated argument about whether or not the intellections of the abolitionist movement had had anything significant to do with the ending of slavery. This fellow maintained that all the ideas, all the writing, all the speechifying, all the newspapers and broadsheets of the period had really had no significant influence on the success of abolitionism  in comparison to that effected by the Northern soldiers’ experience going into Southern states and seeing the horrors of slavery with their own eyes.  While it certainly makes sense that this real life experience was revolutionary, it seemed rather odd to me to deny that ideas and words had contributed to changing things.  The eye-witness experiences of these soldiers were, in fact, written down in letters home or in essays for Northern journals; and other first-hand accounts, by escaped slaves, penitent owners, or in fictional accounts, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, surely crystalized vivid experiences into words, ideas, and theories.

Why then did my fellow traveler want so much for it to be so that words did not do anything, that ideas were ineffectual in history?  I knew why I wanted the opposite to be true. I needed, with every fiber of my being, to believe that ideas changed the world, for better or for worse; and he, whose dislike of Emerson turned out to be no accident, needed to believe the opposite. He wanted to take the power out of the hands of the educated classes, and away from the individual, self-reliant, supposedly elitist genius, and place it in the many hands of the illiterate soldiers, or into the slippery hands of fate, as Tolstoy tries to do in War and Peace, where he argues, implicitly in his story and explicitly in his essayism, that history is not made by individual choices or heroes, but by the random forces of accident.

But this dualistic split between the elite educated classes and the illiterate masses is, to my mind, a dangerous and largely unexamined construct that demands unpacking and re-visioning.  Is it really necessary to throw out culture and intellect because one portion of humanity has traditionally had a unique access to it? Would it not be better to work toward providing more members of society with the skills and the agency to critically consider philosophical, social, and aesthetic ideas and to participate in a meaningful and reality-relevant conversation about how we are best to live and function as a society? Anti-intellectualism seems to be a persistent American trait which somehow is inextricably bound up with the mythology of democracy. But is the vilifying of culture really a helpful response to our current problems?

My desire to believe in the efficacy of ideas and writing combines a commitment to the preservation of high culture and committed scholarship with a conviction that the realm of ideas and words should never be something to which only one class of people has access.   I am also certain that such culture is best, most lively, most meaningful, when kept in the closest possible contact with our real lives and experiences, not separated into mere abstractions or de-contextualized from social practices or the lives of others. I believe that almost anyone can learn to read, write, and think and that the insights and depth of consideration to be gained through the process of wrangling with the written word is a richer and fundamentally different process than that to be acquired through the more casual and relatively non-committal process of conversation (though speech might also meaningfully aspire to more careful and sacred consideration). I also maintain that almost anyone has the power to change the way the whole world sees and acts and lives, with little more than curiosity, some learning, and some passionate discipline, and that the words and ideas of any one individual can and do and will move others immeasurably.

In my years as a community college instructor I have seen with my own eyes how even those students with little to no academic preparation, students who are struggling to hold two jobs, go to school, and raise children on their own, can and do become immediately passionately engaged in the philosophical, social, and aesthetic questions which need to be considered before beginning to live a considered, ethical, and socially-responsible life. While it is of course easier by far to engage in philosophical and poetic activity when one is not under the constant strain of putting bread on the table or buying a new pair of shoes for one’s children, to thus conclude that only those who have easy access to leisure can participate in reflection, critical thinking, and spiritual aesthetic experience is really the worst form of cynicism—one which hides a treacherous snobbery under its supposedly compassionate condemnation of the alleged elitism of culture.

For to deny anyone the right or responsibility to participate in the communal reflection on and creation of the world is to me a crime. To do so is to deny that person his or her humanity. Instead of silencing further those whose concerns and ideas have all-too-often been traditionally undervalued, this is a call to innovative and  positive inter-action rather than continual  complaint about the restrictive and technocratic megalithic structures and systems that seem sometimes to confine and define us; a call to utilize the language and the raw material given to us instead of stubbornly calling foul and refusing to participate in a system, history,  and culture that are, indeed, deeply flawed and haunted by ghosts and demons of all kinds. This communally created labyrinth of oscillating desires, repressions, rebellions, resistances, and generativity remains, despite or even by virtue of its darker shadows, also a culture rich in beauty, humanism, tenderness, striving, passionate inquiry, imagination, and myriad evidences of the most ecstatic forms of life and love.


The conflict between intellectual culture and popular action had of course been rehearsed before we 21st century humans repeated it on the suburban train out of Boston—by former now-famous Concordians. The transcendentalist movement notoriously split off into two factions comprised, on the one hand, of individualist thinkers and writers, and, on the other, of engaged activists and communal utopians.  But this narrative of a clean split is quite misrepresentative of the complexities and overlappings that really obtained.  Bronson Alcott, possibly the least grounded of all the Concordians, felt impelled to actually experiment with his ideals in the real world, and founded the Fruitlands community, which eventually foundered on an unworkable proportion between the physical and the spiritual realms.  George Ripley founded Brook Farm, which made a formidable attempt at bridging the gap between ideal and reality.  Both utopian communities featured excellent progressive schools and were fundamentally attempts to give working people access to higher learning and to give the all-too dainty middle and upper class intellectual the chance to get his or her hands dirty. Hawthorne quickly learned that he could not get any literary work done after a day’s toiling in the fields; but others found the combination of matter and spirit salutary if not precisely conducive to the creation of great works of literature. Finding the right balance of body, mind, and soul is never easy.

Hyper-educated “bluestockings” like  Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller (who claimed she had the headaches of a genius)  suffered myriad physical pains in their striving for intellectual transcendence (but Margaret, at least, finally ran off to fight a real revolution in Italy and take on her first lover, supposedly an Adonis with limited intellectual talents). Elizabeth educated herself prodigiously, wrote, edited, taught, and ran the most intellectually exciting bookstore in Boston, while simultaneously supporting and caring for a large and unruly family of siblings and various unstable and sick relatives. Her two sisters, Mary and Sophia, won away from her the only possible suitors she entertained (Nathanial Hawthorne and Horace Mann).  It may be difficult to measure the effect of her genius (despite her own share of headaches) on the real world, but I think, although largely unappreciated, it was not minor after all was said and done.

The abolitionists (spear-headed by fiery women strategists) kept spreading the word, with and without the intellectual authority of rousing speeches by Emerson and Thoreau; Thoreau built a real house in the woods, instead of just writing about an imaginary one, but scorned the jailers who tried to imprison his soul within the walls of the Concord jail one night (because his soul, his conscience, his mind was free) ; committees and clubs were founded; gardens were  planted; journals begun, printed, proliferated, and abandoned; walks were taken; hands were grasped;  love was and was not consummated;  letters were written and sometimes not sent; and, as Emily Dickinson cryptically noted from nearby Amherst, “people must have puddings”.

Bronson Alcott’s inability to take the physical world into consideration (exemplified by his comic attempt to move his family home without putting a foundation under it) was counteracted by his daughter Louisa’s intense focus on ensuring material security (with Little Women, she earned more money from her pen than any other writer of the period, with the possible exception of  Harriet Beecher Stowe); but her traumatic experience with an inept spiritualist father may have kept Louisa from ever daring to enter into conjugal relations with a man. When a visitor asked if there were any animals laboring on the farm at Fruitlands, Louisa’s mother famously answered, “Only one woman,” but of course there were more women than one: the daughters helped too.   Ironically, Louisa’s practical innovations were all in the interest of avoiding more physical labor by providing herself and her family with the financial support necessary to dream and imagine. In a similar strain, Thoreau began his peon to transcendence with a chapter entitled “Economy”—an economy calculated to afford its readers with a  model most conducive to musing, intellectual activity, aesthetic experience, walking and communing with Nature, the World All, and the timeless reverberations of morning moods.

The painted trays, quilts, and pies made by abolitionist women supported the more ineffable traveling lectures given by escaped slaves as well as the writing and publication of propaganda journals and the legislative process of lobbying and advocacy.  The theories and words of social intellectuals were answered by the actions of smugglers on the underground railroad and even more violent physical acts of daring such as the raid on Harper’s Ferry—or perhaps the actions inspired the words;  quilts and pies and gunpowder and risked lives worked in tandem with ideas, words, and ideals.

The idea craves and creates action and manifestation; the experience and the action are object lessons, rituals, or manifestations that inspire ideas and fresh conceptualization.  The experimental enactment is spurred on, checked, re-evaluated, and given meaning by the idea, the vision, the transcendental imagination.  Material choices are made on the basis of spiritual values and spiritual values must be made on the basis of certain unavoidable material realities. Of course there are times in history or in one’s personal life when actions may be taken that fly in the face of physical practicality and prudence, when a person literally sacrifices his or her bodily comfort, convenience, or even existence for an idea or ideal. For ideas and values that are not lived or have not touched and changed or colored our lives and perceptions may as well not have been thought or written down at all.


We write in the hopes that our words could mean something to someone, somewhere, across time and space. Has Walden made a difference in the world? Have Thoreau’s words been heeded? On the one hand, when we see the mass of men and women in quiet desperation who prefer to go on with their accumulating and wage slavery rather than consider living a different way, his words certainly do not seem to have mattered much. When we see the persistent and total destruction of the ecosystem, we may wonder about the power of his statement:  “Thank God they cannot cut down the clouds”.  For, as if in refutation of a cryptic oracle, they (or is it even we?) really have managed this seemingly impossible feat, as clouds are visually cut down by skyscrapers, airplanes, and countless towers of technology.  On the other hand, we know “many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” as Thoreau himself noted in his chapter on reading.  We ourselves know how much certain books have meant to us, how they have changed our lives both materially (in terms of conduct of life) and spiritually (in terms of directing how we see the world).

Like the awkward anti-heroes of a fairy tale, like Dumb Hans or the Goose Girl, we write as if we were attempting to complete some impossible task against all odds. We are climbing the mountain of glass, separating the millions of lentils from the millions of stones, weaving gold out of straw before dawn, trying to guess the magic word in three days, and scooping the ocean out with a leaky thimble, day after day, decade after decade, on the chance possibility that some drop, some one word or phrase of what we write, will get through to someone, make us, make a possible reader feel less alone, confirm our own suspicions, solicit a response, an echo, a challenge, across the watery abyss.  And if it sometimes seems as if writing has made no impact at all on the rushing, raving world, let us at least consider that it might have been an even uglier, an even colder, an even more callous world still, without the absurdly Sisyphean labors of writers and thinkers who have constantly brought all their small weight to bear against the weighty downward slide, who might, in fact, be the ones responsible for keeping total chaos, destruction, and utter indifference at bay—just until now.

 If we were to let up at long last, give up, resign ourselves to silence — I dare not even suggest what might happen, what horrific indifference and simulated emptiness might ooze into every last crack and bury  us alive, unable to remember the slightest thing, unable to form sentences or consider our actions, unable to value, denounce, celebrate, or dream.  We may never know what nasty nightmare our often thankless little efforts keep at bay.  But let us, at the very least, write in thanks and tribute to those who have persisted in the past, against such odds, in believing that writing, that ideas, that visions and images, do matter.  One thimble-full of salvaged words, one pearl of sweat or salt tear, one drop of ink, made of belief, commitment, made of love of humanity, of history, of culture, and of nature, no matter how humble, no matter how seemingly quiet, inarticulate, or out of tune, no matter how seemingly unheeded, may be precisely the enlivening, moistening alchemical liquid needful to keep the well of inspiration from going dry once and for all.  Was it in despair or in hope that Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy counseled thusly: “Writers! Open the vein!”? Did he mean we had better end it all? I like to think, rather, that he meant we ought to write as if our own life blood, all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, were flowing onto the page, that we might die even in the midst of writing—in making visible and hopefully intelligible— whatever it is we have within us.

—Genese Grill, with photographs by Rebecca Mack

.G photo for BBF

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, and translator living in Burlington Vermont and the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012). “Apologia” is part of a collection-in-progress entitled, Keepsakes: On Matter, Immateriality, and the Making of Meaning. She currently is pursuing the mad task of possibly re-creating the world through metaphor by building and inscribing a giant room-sized hand-illuminated accordion book portal containing an essay from this collection, and by working on a series of translations of previously unpublished Robert Musil writings (to be published by Contra Mundum Press beginning in 2015).

Mar 182014


In the heart of Tuscany the age-old rite of the hunt for wild boar rages long and lethal. Every Saturday and Sunday from November through January hunters converge in the hilly country spreading beyond the shadow of Siena’s Duomo. Men gather—no women in their number—with dogs and rifles, knives and bullets, walkie talkies and cell phones. Outfitted with modern equipment, today’s hunters are but a few in the long line that stretches back through the Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the days of Caesar and Odysseus. Ancient Roman reliefs depict boar hunts, while one tale recounts how the ancient Greeks baptized an island in honor of the beast; this was Kapros, now called Capri.


This morning, to one side of Monte Maggio, or May Mountain, men section off fields and cassocks, swells and dips. They pull numbers from a bag, assigning post to pursuant. Then the fifty or more shooters, tiratori in their camouflage, wind through the woods. For kilometers they tramp, then for hours they wait in their appointed spots along one side of the drifts and dales, rifles skyward. When a boar draws near they shoot ahead, never sideways, where fellow tiratori hide. No friendly crossfire tolerated. Meanwhile, twelve canai, doghandlers with their packs of sniffing hounds and growling terriers, park their jeeps on the far side of the woods and set off across the expanse toward the line bristling with tiratori. Scouring and routing, the men and their dogs startle and flush the boar, propelling them forward.

Boar Hunt Underway

Boar Hunt Underway

On the periphery of this elaborate orchestration today: my father-and law and I. I’m armed with my camera and am tolerated only because my father-in-law is a hunter of long standing. “We don’t want to end up on the front page of the animal rights group paper,” his comrades say in jest, but just barely, when they learn that he’s brought me here to take photos of the hunt. Siena with its Palio where horses are often injured in the famous race around the square in town already attracts a fair share of unwanted attention by animal rights advocates.



Today the canai’s dogs rootle through the woods above Celsa castle. The owner is an Aldobrandini prince who lives in Rome. Weathered marine pine line the avenue to the entrance. Someone has opened a couple of windows facing the sun. In the summer the castle is open to the public but now I wonder if the prince has come to his country estate for Christmas vacation. Or perhaps a maid is simply airing mildew out of the stony rooms on a bright and sunny winter’s day.


Hounds howl and bark and then several shots ring out. One who has lost the scent emerges onto the road near the abandoned carabinieri station that once controlled the area. When Monte Maggio was a tougher place, three-quarters of a century or more ago, bandits lurked here and the carabinieri chased them. After that, during the war, partisans hid in the caves. The Black Shirts and Germans hunted them.

The dog runs in circles, nose to the pavement. A woman in a Jeep spots it. She tries to lure it into her vehicle with a length of jerky.

“Scandalous,” she says. “Poor dog could get hit out here on the road.”

My father-in-law suspects she’s part of an animal rights group. He thinks she’s trying to sabotage the hunt by rounding up the dogs.

“But I bet she eats meat,” he says. “Probably pappardelle with wild boar. Take a picture of her license plate.” Then he pulls out his phone and calls il duca—the duke—one of the canai. The man’s not really a duke; it’s a nickname he’s earned one way or another. I suspect it has something to do with his less than genteel ways.

“A lady’s trying to lure one of the hounds into her car,” my father-in-law says. “Over here, on the road by the carabinieri station. We’ve got her license plate number. But maybe you should send someone over.”

I can hear il duca cursing into my father-in-law’s ear. No run of the mill obscenities though; he insults saints and the Virgin. Then he wants to speak to the lady. My father-in-law passes the phone over. It turns out that il duca and the lady know each other.

“Okay, I won’t. But get it off the road,” she says into the phone. In the meantime, the hound has already run off, back into the woods, having found the scent.



My father-in-law started hunting here when he was eighteen. Sixty-seven years he’s been hunting. At first, he hunted for hare and pheasant. He kept his own bird dogs—Jack and Tom, English names for Italian hounds—in a pen behind an old stone farmhouse. Then in the sixties when boar populations grew and overran the woods, he gave up Jack and Tom and turned to boar hunting. He loves the woods out here on Monte Maggio. He knows every centimeter. He comes when it rains, when it snows, when it’s warm and sunny like today. He’ll still keep coming as long as he’s able. He’s not sure how much longer that will be. He won’t think yet about when the hike, the interminable wait, the bad weather and the mountain itself will conspire to keep him home.


He goes to the woods for the peace, he says, and for the camaderie after. But best is when he’s the one to bag the prey. You can tell when the boar approaches. The dogs’ howling grows loud, the brush and bramble tremble. You take up your gun and aim, but only when you see the boar’s dark eyes. If you shoot into the waving thicket you risk killing a dog. You face that beast—black and fierce and angry, ringed by thirty or more frenzied dogs.

I imagine the jolt. I think the hunter’s heart must whip like pine boughs in a windstorm.

“No,” says my father-in-law, “it’s not like that. At least not for me anymore. You feel a strange sensation, but it’s more wrapped up with blood and life, the ebb and flow.”

“I see,” I say even if I don’t quite.

We find a break in the woods. “Here,” my father-in-law says. The hunters will pass by on their way back to their cars, parked on the rim of the road behind us. “We’ll wait here. Then you can shoot them as they hike through.” He grins. He likes how we’ve turned the tables on the hunters. I grin back.

We wait. Then we wait some more. While we wait we pull ivy off old oak and pine. Bark flies, red bugs scuttle, the air fills with sap, the sun shines through branches in filmy snatches. “Is this what it’s like,” I ask him, “when you’re a tiratore? Do you tend to the trees then too?”


“No,” he says. “Not when you’re stalking boar. You can’t make noise. You can’t smoke. You can’t eat. You can’t even pee. You wait ever so quietly for that one brief moment when you squeeze off a shot.”


After an hour or more, we hear voices. Men surge forward. One short, chubby hunter, a middle-aged man nicknamed Smilzo, or Skinny, drags a small boar up the path. My father-in-law thinks Smilzo’s boar may weigh 30 kilos—if that. Since Smilzo shot it, he will get the ears, tail, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and tusks in addition to his share of the meat which will be divided equally among all hunters present. “In Tuscany,” he says “no part of the boar goes to waste. Make sure you write that.”

We follow the hunters to their shack in the woods. They roast sausage and steaks they brought from home, drink Chianti and exchange tall tales. My father-in-law recounts how we rescued several dogs from an army of animal rights do-gooders. Listening, il  duca insults several more saints. Smilzo describes how his boar almost tore his leg off. Feroce, or Ferocious, a small man whose real name no one remembers, scoffs. Burlacche, or Wiseass, jokes about Smilzo’s small boar and how it couldn’t have torn off a toenail.




Butchers gut and section the carcasses. Hunters light cigars, cigarettes and pipes. Hounds wait in small trailers, their noses poking out through bars. Two canai discuss returning to the woods with their dogs to look for a boar that someone swears is wounded.

My father-in-law’s cell phone rings. It’s my mother-in-law. She’s been keeping lunch for us even though it’s almost 4 p.m.


“You get what you need?” my father-in-law asks. I nod. We say goodbye to il duca, Smilzo, Feroce, Burlacche. On the way home he tells me the menu. Polenta with stewed wild boar that he shot last season.

“Okay,” I say. I realize I’m hungry after hours of tramping through the woods. Eating the kill is part of the ritual. And my mother-in-law is an ace at stewing boar. It’s fiery and rich; red pepper in the sauce is one of her secret ingredients, a tribute of sorts to the animal itself.


When my father-in-law and I first met, he wasn’t sure how he felt about having a foreigner in the family. I wasn’t sure how I felt about someone who thought killing was a sport. Over the years we’ve gotten to know each other. Now he’s warm and proud to show me where he loves to spend his weekends from November through January. And I’m glad to have had the chance to witness this chapter in his life, one that won’t go on forever.

 —Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.


Mar 112014

Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of "The Tempest" (2010), starring Helen Mirren as "Prospera." Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad."Djimon Hounsou as Caliban

Pat Keane’s casual and encyclopedic erudition has become legendary on the pages of Numéro Cinq; he’s an eloquent magician who can pull an apt argument or a lengthy quotation out of his hat as if he were ordering breakfast at a diner. After reading one of his essays, I am always asking myself, Does he ever look anything up, or does he just remember it all? It doesn’t really matter how he does it; Pat’s years of reading and writing, his vivid recall of same, are his gift to us, his readers.

This time, following his essay on Keats and identity in our January issue, Pat goes after Defoe’s Crusoe (Friday) and Shakespeare’s Caliban, also Bloom, Coleridge, and Aimé Césaire, and fashions a dense, exhaustive (he rather cutely says it’s not exhaustive at the end, but you can see him trying to get everything in) and brilliant ramble through the arguments of identity criticism of, say, the last fifty or one hundred and fifty years. This is an essay bursting its seams with ideas and fine degrees of discrimination, a book-in-an-essay, as it were, explosive, wise and generous. And it all starts with Pat simply wondering why the anti-slavery Coleridge, who loved Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, never seemed to mention the fact that Crusoe is a slaver, odd oversight.

All this is fascinating to me personally because, of course, my novel Elle is, in part, a revision of Crusoe (like Crusoe, my heroine is an agent of colonization and she finds a footprint, first sign of the Other, first inkling that she is not living in a solipsistic, all-white universe).

One small thing that I admire excessively in this essay is Pat’s habit of clearly untangling influence and school of thought. In an essay about identity, he carefully parses identity and point of view (perspective) for each of his litigants. As you will see, he begins by telling you who he is.



As we have become increasingly aware, we all have multiple identities, a plurality of affiliations, depending on context. I am a male white heterosexual American senior citizen of Irish heritage fascinated by literature in the Romantic tradition, the racehorse Secretariat, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, film noir, women with aquiline noses, and the absurdity not only of the excesses of political correctness but of the even greater excesses of the extremist wing of the contemporary Republican Party. These and similar “identities” are mostly benign, overlap with little or no friction, and are subsumed within my sense of shared membership in the human race. The danger comes when affiliations become exclusionary and fanatic, and thus subject to ideological manipulation. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, who personally experienced the transformation of “within-group solidarity” into “between-group discord” during the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1940s India, demonstrates, in Identity and Violence (2006), how, in this and similar cases, “Violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror” (2).

“Identity politics,” whether in the form addressed by Sen (a sectarian Islamist violence we now see threatening much of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and beyond), or in its less lethal but still problematic and potentially destructive electoral forms, is distinguishable from but often necessarily overlaps with religious, sexual, cultural, and racial “identity.” Our gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and race, though they need not be wholly determinative, obviously play an enormous role both in how we conceive of ourselves and how we respond to the world around us. That world includes, along with the sociopolitical realm, the world of art: the world artists create or reshape, and the art to which the rest of us respond.

The past four decades or so have witnessed the rise of “cultural studies,” in which attention has been focused on works marginalized or excluded by the dominant political and aesthetic ideology: white, male, and European. The more recent marriage of “new historicism,” “multiculturalism,” “postcolonial studies,” and “identity theory” has bred many books and articles urging readers, not only to expand their sense of the literary canon, but, in reading traditional canonical texts, to shift their sympathy, whatever the original author’s intentions, from the dominant to the subversive characters in literary works of art, especially novels and plays. The various agendas range from aesthetic “correction” through a humane rebalancing, to overt calls for political action to redress injustices.

Like traditional humanists, these theorists place the human subject at the center of the scene of writing, interpretation, and political action. However, the humanistic emphasis on universalism is replaced by an insistence on one’s identity as part of a specific group: as the member of an ethnic, racial, or sexual minority. In this counter-narrative to the “master-narrative” of Western hegemony and imperialism, the “subaltern” (suppressed, different, “other”) is privileged over the “master.” As early as 1950, when French colonial civil servant Octave Mannoni published Psychologie de la colonization, but increasingly in the wake of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978), postcolonial writers and theorists have resisted both overt oppression and the more insidious forms of “internalization” that infect the very discourse of colonized peoples, upon whose indigenous culture has been superimposed the culture of the conquerors.

When I was recently invited to participate in a two-day panel discussion of “Identity” (the proceedings will be published later this year in Salmagundi), I found myself, now retired, casting a retrospective cold eye back on my professional life as a literary critic. When I did, I benignly envisioned a person—myself—attempting to be open and receptive, trying to discover rather than impose, even striving to be “objective”: an impossible goal, but one worth aiming for in the attempt to at least approximate what can never be fully attained. Though a practitioner of intrinsic criticism, “close reading,” I did not slight history and the sociopolitical world in which literary works were embedded. In discussing the great first-generation Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), I always placed their texts in the inevitable context of the French Revolution—which Shelley, a second-generation Romantic, rightly designated “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.” No less obviously, in discussing in the classroom works of literature in which, for example, race or Western imperialism was an element, I stressed those dimensions in trying to illuminate the text. But in my published work, I belatedly realized, I had only occasionally engaged issues of race and identity.



They did come up some twenty years ago in a book titled Coleridge’s Submerged Politics. Though my focus in that book was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I devoted some initial attention to Coleridge’s later marginalia on a novel he had loved from boyhood on, Robinson Crusoe, whose isolated protagonist was kin to his own Mariner, “alone on a wide, wide sea.” In  reading those annotations, and at the risk of swelling the ranks of poststructuralists given to scratching their knowing heads about “not saids,” “gaps,” and “significant silences” in texts, I was puzzled that a man on record as being morally, intellectually, and emotionally appalled by slavery and the traffic in human flesh should not only say nothing about Crusoe’s slave-trading activities but should actually propose him as the “Universal representative” of humanity: an Everyman whose actions, thoughts and emotions we can all, according to Coleridge, imagine ourselves doing, thinking, and feeling (Marginalia, 1:165-67). We “get” the gist of what Coleridge is saying, but it does not take a contemporary Identity theorist to resist the elevation of Defoe’s flawed Crusoe to the stature of a representative of universal humanity.


Of course, those annotations were jotted down,  not in, say, 1795, when a revolutionary and egalitarian young Coleridge had written “On the Slave Trade,” his searing assault on the moral atrocity of slavery, the horrors of the slave trade and the Middle Passage. Nor in 1798, when he wrote The Ancient Mariner (in which for some readers, beginning with William Empson, the curse and eventual shipwreck hint that the Mariner’s ship was a slaver). He annotated Robinson Crusoe half a lifetime later, in 1830, by which time the former radical, no longer egalitarian though still an advocate of abolition, had turned culturally and politically conservative. Nevertheless, even given Coleridge’s socio-political shift, and taking into account the exercise of historical imagination by a sophisticated reader perhaps unwilling to condemn Crusoe and his creator for a sin more obvious in his age than in Defoe’s, I remained puzzled by the absence of even a passing reference to slavery and the slave trade. Of course, I realized that to push this theme exclusively would itself be a sin: a sacrifice of the splendor of Defoe’s achievement in giving the world an iconic book and popular myth that has fascinated children and adults ever since it was written. For Coleridge was surely right about a major aspect of Crusoe as “Universal representative”; though, in an age of specialization, few of us could match his ability to adapt, we all respond to Crusoe’s “practical-man” energy and inventiveness in surviving, even thriving in the course of his quarter-century on the island.

Yet I remained troubled by the seeming lacuna in the marginalia when it came to Crusoe’s slaving activities, as well as his subsequent relationship with Friday. After all, under all the shifts and oscillations in Coleridge, there seemed to me to be an abiding, and deeply moral, identity. I still think so, though the question of identity now seems to all of us, and certainly to me, far more perplexed and perplexing than it did twenty years ago. Back then I wanted to make a sharp distinction between Coleridge the political and moral Man and abolitionist, and Coleridge as a supposedly apolitical appreciator or literary Critic, sitting down to re-read a much-loved work of literature, a fable that had always fired his own creative imagination. Without succumbing to any politically correct urge to beat Coleridge about the head and shoulders for his failure to so much as mention slavery in his extensive Robinson Crusoe marginalia, I’m less able now to sustain that sharp distinction. Will the real Coleridge stand up? And he will, claiming, not without considerable justice, that there is consistency beneath the difference, an underlying identity. Yet that claim is more justifiable, and more palatable, in terms of his political shift than any Coleridgean claim to an underlying continuity regarding his shifting position on race.

Like his friend and “fellow-laborer,” Wordsworth, Coleridge always maintained that the French Revolution betrayed itself, and that their move from radicalism to conservatism reflected that Gallic betrayal. To employ E. P. Thompson’s terms, “disenchantment” rather than “default” explains their disillusionment and reactionary shift to quietism. That shift— accompanied by their insistence that the authentic agent of change was not political activism but the creative Imagination—will perhaps always inspire mixed feelings on the part of their readers, readers who are themselves politically divided. But it is almost unrelievedly painful to witness the regression of Coleridge on issues of race, from uncompromising advocate of egalitarianism and liberation to a defender, on the basis of pseudo-science and the need for societal stability, of white superiority. And yet, since he remained an abolitionist, there is still a continuum between early and later Coleridge, his identity somehow subsuming antagonistic perspectives.

Variations on that dualistic theme may obviously be found in many writers. I recently published in Numéro Cinq an essay titled “Keats and Identity: The Chameleon in the Crucible,” in which I try to reconcile Keats’s two apparently antithetical conceptions of “identity.” To name just three other peripherally interrelated cases: there is self-divided Sam Clemens/ Mark Twain, whose masterwork, Huckleberry Finn, at once reflects and opposes racism; that Mark Twain enthusiast, Friedrich Nietzsche, a relentless seeker of the very truths he did more than anyone else to undermine; and  W. B. Yeats, who found in Nietzsche a “strong enchanter” whose aristocratic brio, employment of masks, and “curious astringent joy” (Letters, 379) propelled the Irish poet out of the Celtic Twilight into modernity and political conservatism. Yet there is a continuum here as well, and Richard Ellmann was right in both titles of his pioneering studies: Yeats: The Man and the Masks, followed a decade and a half later by The Identity of Yeats.



In brooding over Coleridge’s marginalia on Robinson Crusoe, I eventually gave up trying to bridge the gap separating the author of “On the Slave Trade” from the annotator who had nothing to say of slavery and the slave trade in celebrating Crusoe as a universal representative of all mankind. Some years after publishing the Coleridge book, in the course of re-reading The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, I found myself unwilling to follow the vast majority of Defoe critics who insist on another sharp distinction: in this case, between author and character. Defoe, we are told, was “ambivalent” about slavery and “ironic” in his fictional handling of the subject. He may be elsewhere; he is neither ambivalent nor ironic in his most celebrated novel. Playing off Coleridge’s claim that Robinson Crusoe is a “Universal representative,” I published an essay titled “Slavery and the Slave Trade: Crusoe as Defoe’s Representative.”

Interior of a Slave Ship. This detailed drawing shows how the “cargo” was arranged to maximize capacity.

There I argued, to the annoyance of some prominent Defoe scholars, that while Crusoe (as mercantilist and imperialist as his creator) may not be, strictly speaking, identical to Defoe, on the issue of slavery and the slave trade there seemed little to choose between them. Crusoe, newly engaged in slave-trading when he is shipwrecked, never, in his many years of hand-wringing religious rumination, thinks to attribute his calamity to the sin of buying and selling human beings. Nor does it occur as a possibility to Defoe, who, after all, had the option of enlisting Crusoe in another line of work. Though slavery and the slave trade become tangential once ship-wrecked Crusoe has been marooned on his island, they nevertheless, as Michael Seidel observed in 1991, “hover like something of a curse” over the entire novel (Robinson Crusoe, 106), re-emerging in a more benign but persistent and unironic Master-Slave relationship once Crusoe has saved from cannibals the near-victim who will become his Man Friday.

Robinson Crusoe, chapter 23: “At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know he would serve me as long as he lived…I began to speak to him and teach him to speak to me; and first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life;…I likewise taught him to say ‘Master,’ and then let him know that was to be my name.”

Though most Defoe scholars insist on their author’s double-mindedness on these issues, many who emphasize his ambivalence mistake Defoe’s criticism of the cruelty inflicted by traders and owners for condemnation of the institution itself. Writing in the 22 May 1712 number of his Review, Defoe had this to say about English slaveholders in Barbadoes:

The Negroes are indeed Slaves, and our good People use them like Slaves, or rather like Dogs, but that by the way: he that keeps them in Subjection, whips, and corrects them, in order to make them grind and labour, does Right, for out of their Labour he gains his Wealth: but he that in his Passion and Cruelty, maims, lames, and kills them, is a Fool, for they are his Estate, his Stock, his Wealth, and his Prosperity. (Review, VII, 730)

Having mistaken utilitarianism for altruism, many apologists for Defoe then compound the misperception by translating his alleged ambivalence into authorial “irony” when slavery and the trade feature in the fictional works, including The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the later Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Whatever his divided, even contradictory, feelings regarding the slave trade (expressed, for example, in his 1702 poem, A Reformation of Manners, or in such novels as Captain Singleton and Colonel Jack), Defoe adamantly defended the trade in essays, especially the series published in his Review between 1709-13. He considered the slave trade a perfectly respectable business, bought stock himself in two companies engaged in the traffic, thought it indispensable to British colonialism, and most certainly admired the profits to be made from it. Most Defoe scholars notwithstanding, when it comes to Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe on the issues of slavery, the slave trade, and white superiority, there seems less distinction, let alone difference, than identity.

Daniel DefoeDaniel Defoe

This remains essentially true even when it comes to Crusoe’s relationship with Friday: a relationship, in most readers’ memories, preserved in amber, aureoled by a soft, nostalgic glow. Though Defoe’s realism breaks through some barriers of racial prejudice and notions of primitive man, that breakthrough is severely limited by Defoe’s, and Crusoe’s, historical time and temperament. The “quest for the white man’s burden tends to end,” as Ian Watt remarked in The Rise of the Novel, “in the discovery of the perfect porter and personal servant.” The relationship between Crusoe and Friday, often touching, is hardly sentimental, and it remains as it was established from the outset. As a “first” step in communication, Crusoe, having let the man he rescued “know his name should be Friday, …likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (Robinson Crusoe, 209). The iconic Crusoe-Friday image is that of the master’s foot on the bowed head of the grateful but abject slave.

In their Farther Adventures, in Lisbon and London, Friday is either forgotten by both Crusoe and Defoe, whose memory of off-stage characters is notoriously short, or is reduced (as in the lengthy and gratuitous episode in “the Pyranean mountains,” where Friday clowns with the bear for the diversion of the white folk) to a comic entertainer. In his final role as “white” interpreter to the natives, Friday, having returned with Crusoe to their now populated island after an eight-year absence, is in the process of becoming just another in a crowd of native faces when he is singled out for one last task by his master. Answering, as always, the call to duty, he dies—heroically, to be sure, but more in keeping with Crusoe’s requirements, “useful, handy, and helpful” to the end. He has, in keeping with Crusoe’s imperative, proven loyal “to the last Drop.” The Master’s characteristically restrained grief is focused on the loss of a valuable servant. Revealingly, with Friday almost instantly eclipsed from his memory, Crusoe thinks at once about capturing another cannibal as a substitute slave (Farther Adventures, 73, 74).



The cost (cultural, emotional, and at last existential) to the perfect servant—never inquired into by either Crusoe or Defoe—has been imaginatively explored by such twentieth-century anti-Robinson French novelists as Jean Giraudoax, Suzanne et le Pacifique (1921) and  Michel Tournier, in Vendredi: ou Les limbs du Pacifique (1967), and by South Africa’s J. M. Coetzee, in Foe (1987); as well as by poets: Derek Walcott, in “Crusoe’s Journal” (1970), Elizabeth Bishop, in “Crusoe in England” (1976), and A. D. Hope, in “Man Friday” (1985). The most sustained reworking of the Friday-theme occurs in Charles Martin’s remarkable 14-part poetic sequence, Passages from Friday (1983), in which Friday not only speaks, but writes. And the sequence ends in an astonishing semi-fusion of identities between Master and Slave.

As we move toward the conclusion of the book-length poem, Crusoe and Friday together build a means of escape: a great canoe, wrecked before it can be launched. The loss of the canoe and thus of “Deliverance,” prove “1 Disaster/ too many” for Crusoe, who grows absent-minded, and given to wandering off with his jug of raisin-wine. On one drunken expedition, he falls, eventually succumbing to his injuries—despite Friday’s nursing and prayers, notably including a repetition of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “Take ye & eat/ of my owne flesh in the Remembrance of me” (XI).  Martin may be remembering that Derek Walcott’s Crusoe, seen through the eyes of a descendant of Friday’s, is said to have altered “us/ into Good Fridays” who pray, “parroting our master’s style and voice…converted cannibals/ we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ.” Having presumably (though we are never quite sure) reverted to cannibalism, a barbarous version of identity, Martin’s Friday, alone and without orders to obey, turns artist, carving wooden figures, both European and cannibals. But soon, suffering another and proto-Marxian crisis of identity, he grows alienated from the artifacts he has created, finding “no place for Friday in what Friday made; /then I was suddenly stricken….” (XIII)

First in feverish dreams, then in apparent reality, self-divided Friday, rigged out in Crusoe’s goatskin and hat, carrying “his Rifle & his Powder-Horn,” and “his Umbrella,” approaches that point on the island where his former Master had originally saved him from the cannibals. Friday is on a quest, but why and whither he cannot say:

For it was not I who set owt, nor was it him,
Nor was it the both of us together;
I know not who it was; but, as in my Dream
Of the Night befor, when I was neither

Master nor Friday, but I partook of each,
So was it that Morning. Whatever my Intention
I find myself walking on that Beach
to-ward that Poynt which I have earlier mention’d

and when I pass it by un-harmed, I collaps
upon the Sand    I lay ther in great Fear
for a good long Time   no savage Shapes
assail mine Eye   no screeching payns mine Ear (XIV)

Though, as the poem had confirmed from the outset, there is no hope of returning to his true “home,” Friday, at poem’s close, at last takes imaginative possession of the “inchanted Island” formerly ruled by Crusoe, of whom Friday would seem to have “partook” in more senses than one. Appropriately, his passing of the critical Point “unharm’d,” and his final assertion of liberation from savage sights and colonialist sounds (“no screeeching payns mine Ear”) signal Charles Martin’s thematically-related allusion to Caliban’s imaginative possession of his enchanted island in Shakespeare’s Tempest: his enjoyment of the sounds that “hum about mine ears” in the exquisitely un-savage passage in Act III of The Tempest, beginning, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (III.ii.131-32).

Title page of "The Tempest," the first play in the "First Folio," 1623Title page of “The Tempest,” the first play in the “First Folio,” 1623

And Caliban knows the isle, knows it as his own. As he had earlier cried out to Prospero, his initial liberator become his tormenter after the attempted rape of Miranda, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother,/ Which thou taks’t from me/…Which first was mine own king” (I.ii.331-42). One might point out, accurately, that Sycorax originally took the island from Ariel, a delightful and freedom-loving spirit hardly likely to stake out, as Caliban does, a possessive, indigenous claim. Thus Caliban’s claim has merit; but while Charles Martin’s Friday takes possession of the island, Shakespeare’s Caliban will again be dispossessed, carted off with the others to Milan, where he will perhaps resume his interrupted tutelage under Prospero: a prospect less incongruous when we put aside for the moment his brutish gabble and recall the beauty of that speech which not only describes but exemplifies the beauty of the island’s “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Like Martin‘s Friday and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Shakespeare’s Caliban has a touch of the artist about him. He will, to be sure, cut a very strange figure in Milan, but, as Shakespeare may hint in the final words he gives to him (“I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace”[V.i.294-95]), the half-human, even “demi-devil” Caliban may be both educable and, unlike the incorrigibly villainous Antonio and Sebastian, redeemable.

However we judge Prospero’s tone, he does say, “This thing of darkness, I/ Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-76): an observation taken up and amplified by Aimé Césaire in perhaps the most striking of the many postcolonial Latin-American and African re-envisionings of Shakespeare’s play, one in which the cleavage between Master and Slave, Prospero and Caliban, is replaced by Identity. Writing in 1990, Stephen Greenblatt noted that it would take different artists from different cultures to “rewrite Shakespeare’s play and make good on Caliban’s claim” (“Culture,” 232).  He was thinking of the Cuban critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar’s Caliban and Other Essays (trans. 1989), and of other cultural critics who, contending with Shakespeare, choose Caliban over Prospero and Ariel. Greenblatt may also have had in mind, along with other postcolonial re-writings, Césaire’s reimagining of The Tempest in a play in which the identities of Caliban and Prospero are fused into a unity resembling yet different from Friday’s hallucinatory “partaking” of both himself and Crusoe in Charles Martin’s Passages from Friday.



Like Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest has become a critical and cultural battleground, perhaps the most prominent site for combat between aesthetic and historicist readers. Exercising the hermeneutics of suspicion, many New Historicists depict intrinsic readers who insist on giving priority to what is actually there in a text—say, the text of this Shakespeare play—as both knowing and sinister: “hegemonic” reactionaries conspiring to keep the text’s “real,” if unintended, political meaning from being uttered. That “real” meaning, usually conveyed inadvertently by a politics-effacing author, typically has to do with the dominant (Western) culture’s sexist, classist, and racist suppression of its victims. Even more than Defoe’s novel, The Tempest has been the prime text for postcolonial theorists to insist on a shift of sympathy, whatever Shakespeare’s own intentions, from the dominant to the subversive character, from master Prospero to the enslaved Caliban. For decades now, The Tempest has been criticized, revised, and politically re-envisioned by directors, cultural critics, and creative writers. Last year, the Theater Department at my own college mounted a production of the play in which Caliban’s mother, the evil hag-witch, Sycorax, referred to but absent from Shakespeare’s play, was a central on-stage figure, the practitioner of a sorcery indistinguishable from Prospero’s!

Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban “The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero” (Henry Fuseli, 1797)

In the case of The Tempest —its island set in the Mediterranean but reflecting Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” and of contemporary accounts of shipwreck and salvation in the Bermudas—Latin-American writers have been particularly active pro-Caliban revisers, beginning with Nicaraguan Rubén Dario’s 1898 essay “The Triumph of Caliban.” (Two years later, Uruguayan statesman José Enrique Rodó identified Latin American culture with Ariel.) As early as 1904, W. T Stead had objected to the imperialism represented in the play and sided with indigenous cultures; but a resurgence of interest in anti-colonial readings followed Octave Mannoni’s influential Psychologie de la colonization (1950), earlier mentioned, which was translated more pointedly into English six years later as Prospero and Caliban. Most notably, Aimé Césaire of Martinique in 1969 rewrote The Tempest in his own play, Une tempête, adapted for a Black Theater, and first performed in Tunisia (where Alonso’s daughter Claribel became queen in the wedding that set Shakespeare’s court party to sea in the first place and so subject to the magical storm conjured up by his magus). Césaire’s Prospero is a white master, Ariel a mulatto, and Caliban a Black slave; while Echu (named for the Yoruba god) threatens to “smite with his penis.” In Une tempête, Caliban, unlike resistant but non-violent Ariel, is an advocate of revolution, a Malcom X to Ariel’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Declaring that “now it’s over,” Césaire’s Caliban rebels against the hated “image” imposed on him by Prospero, and finally threatens that “one day,” he will raise his “bare fist” against his Shakespearean master.

Aime CesaireAimé Césaire

In Césaire’s revision, a fusion of Western surrealism and his own vision of négritude, master and slave end up trapped on the island when the others have left. After many years together, indicated by the curtain’s being lowered halfway, then raised, Prospero appears in semi-darkness, “aged” and weary. “Ah well, my old Caliban,” says he, “we’re the only two left on this island, just you and me. You and me! You-me! Me-you!” In having Prospero suddenly think of himself and Caliban as indistinguishable, Césaire at once (as we’ll see in a moment) echoes Shakespeare’s play, and, as Joan Dayan suggested in her 1992 essay “Playing Caliban: Césaire’s Tempest,” undermines the idea that either the “original” Shakespeare play or his own  have priority. In his Prospero’s “You-me! Me-you!” fusion, she argues, Césaire “recognizes the force of mutuality, the knot of reciprocity between master and slave, between a prior ‘classic’ and his response to it.” This “labor of reciprocity” accounts for “the complexities of Césaire’s transformation: a labor that defies any simple opposition between black and white, master and slave, original and adaptation, authentic and fake.”

At the same time, Césaire, who, for all his postcolonial revisionism, seldom loses sight of the play he is adapting, may be recalling those lines already quoted from the final moments of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Indeed, Césaire’s “You-me! Me-you!” fusion may also have influenced Charles Martin’s later variation on the theme, when, at the end of Passages from Friday, the speaker-writer tells us that he is neither himself nor Crusoe, nor both together; “neither/ Master nor Friday, but I partook of each.” Martin’s Friday and Césaire’s Caliban might seem to flesh out, even fulfill, the reluctant concession of Shakespeare’s Prospero: “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine.” But Martin’s Friday seems to have literally consumed Crusoe, and by the time Césaire’s Prospero finally claims identification, Caliban himself has disappeared. The last word the audience hears—echoing and altering Caliban’s delusory and ignominious cry of “Freedom!” at the end of Act II of Shakespeare’s play—is the genuinely triumphant offstage cry, “LIBERTY!” (in Philip Crispin’s translation) or (in Richard Miller’s) “FREEDOM!!”—the distinctive Western value, as Orlando Patterson demonstrated at length in his award-winning two-volume Freedom.

The factors informing such rewritings—ethnicity, economics, social class, colonial history—are among the historical and perspectival elements that condition our responses to the world, and to texts. It is hardly surprising that some readers—politically engaged postcolonial readers of The Tempest, for example—will want to creatively fill in perceived absences and silences in ways that remold the text nearer to their own heart’s desires. In the Age of Theory, a poststructuralist era largely shaped by Nietzsche, most of us will agree that literary texts are not verbal icons hermetically sealed off from the world. They reflect and are influenced by the social and historical contexts in which they are complexly anchored, and they require readers, similarly influenced, to “actualize” them in what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a hermeneutic or dialogic “fusion of horizons” (Truth and Method, 320). The danger is that in in “recontextualizing” a work of art, we may temporally limit it to its own, now “outdated,” historical moment; or that, in properly asking questions from our present socio-economic horizon, we will also impose answers on the past. Either way, we can hardy avoid inflicting aesthetic injury in the process.

Often, New Historicist readings, whatever their many illuminations, are closed monoreadings that risk losing the palpable poem in the attempt to recover sociopolitical realities the original author supposedly tried to evade. Marxian theorists—for example, Pierre Macherey in A Theory of Literary Production—insist that these silences and absences are inevitable, ideologically predetermined. Deconstructionists invariably find text-unravelling aporias; what many New Historicists must look for, and invariably find, in “privatized” poems is the effaced “public” dimension, the vestigial politics still lurking in the unspoken but no longer quite inaudible subtext. The claim that often follows, whether explicit or implicit, is that, having ferreted out these buried meanings, we have succeeding in “decoding” the poem, revealing its “absent” and therefore primary level of meaning—the interpretation having the highest priority. In the case of The Tempest, the admonition of Frank Kermode (one of the play’s two best editors, the other being Steven Orgel) is pertinent. Even when the political dimension is actually there, in Shakespeare’s text—however blind earlier readers seem to have been to the layer of meaning often over-emphasized in our own age—these relations, though they exist in the play, should be “secondary to the beautiful object itself” (Shakespeare’s Language, 300).



In concurring with Kermode that our actual “highest priority” should be aesthetic, I am not suggesting a simplistic return to the art-for-art’s-sake school of rarified, Paterian “Appreciation.” In the specific case of The Tempest, I would not go as far as one of my own cherished mentors, Harold Bloom. Inveighing against the contemporary critical trends he dismisses (deliberately echoing Nietzsche’s famous condemnation of ressentiment) as “the School of Resentment,” Bloom declares: “Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies—A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest—these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed. Erotomania possesses the critics and directors of the Dream, while ideology drives the despoilers of The Tempest.” These characteristically judgmental sentences open the chapter on The Tempest in Bloom’s 1998 study, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He goes on to make it clear that he is open to such creative re-visitings of the play as Robert Browning’s remarkable dramatic monologue, “Caliban upon Setebos,” and W. H. Auden’s prose address, from The Sea and the Mirror, titled “Caliban to the Audience,” which, though “more Auden than Shakespeare,” catches, as Bloom acknowledges, much of Caliban’s “dilemma” and his “pathos.” What stirs Bloom’s Nietzschean wrath are the political reconfigurings I’ve already mentioned, specifically the transformation of Caliban, “a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature,” into “an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter,” a move Bloom dismisses as “not even a weak misreading.”

Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of "The Tempest" (2010), starring Helen Mirren as "Prospera." Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad."Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of “The Tempest” (2010), starring Helen Mirren as “Prospera.” Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad.”

This condemnation is less political (Bloom is on the permanent Left) than an allusion to his own long-held literary theory, which celebrates strong, but decidedly not weak, “misreading.” From The Anxiety of Influence on, Bloom has famously apotheosized the “strong reader,” one who brings to bear his own personality, and reads the work of others above all to stimulate his own creativity. Bloom has repeatedly acknowledged that his theory and practice derive primarily from two exemplars: Emerson and his disciple Nietzsche. Emerson insists, in “The American Scholar,” that there is “creative reading as well as creative writing,” and announces, in “Uses of Great Men” (in Representative Men), that “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.” At the very outset of Ecce Homo (in the chapter “Why I Write Such Good Books”), Nietzsche claims that, “Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows.” (He then goes on, perhaps “inconsistently” but certainly prophetically, to complain that anyone who claimed to understand his work “had made up something out of me after his own image.”)

This Emersonian-Nietzschean line of revisionary reading Bloom labels “antithetical,” this time borrowing his term from Yeats, who famously contrasts an italicized and preferred  antithetical to the primary; who called Nietzsche his “strong enchanter”; and who declared in his 1930 diary, “We do not seek truth in argument or in books, but clarification of what we already believe” (Explorations, 310). Bloom champions “strong” misprision (misreading), repeatedly asserting, from The Anxiety of Influence on, that “really strong poets can read only themselves,” indeed, that for such readers “to be judicious is to be weak.” Bloom’s dismissal is therefore all the more damning when he insists that the post-colonial reinterpretation of Caliban “is not even a weak misreading; that anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists—the usual suspects—know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays” (Shakespeare, 622).

One of many sinister Calibans

Without rejecting it, I would qualify the indictment. Those “suspects” are reading the play, but reading it badly, allowing their political “causes,” which really are implicit in Shakespeare’s text, to become primary rather than remaining, in Kermode’s term, “secondary.” The stock of Prospero, that valorized magus and Shakespeare-surrogate of much of the earlier criticism, has fallen in the twentieth century. Postcolonial critics have charged that the admiration of Prospero so prominent in the nineteenth century reflected a willful evasion of crucial aspects of the play. Though Prospero retains majority support, his (often justified) harshness, always there in the text, has become more evident, both to readers and, depending on the director, to theatergoers. Having become more sensitive to the irascible, bullying aspects of Prospero, many have consequently become more sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed, subjugated, and always fascinating Caliban. Bloom himself describes Caliban as “poignant” and applauds Auden for stressing his dilemma and pathos. What Bloom resists is the determinism, ideological and theoretical, of the political readers and re-writers of The Tempest. For them, Caliban, suppressed not only by Prospero, but by Shakespeare as well, must be the play’s hero. Here, the return of the repressed takes the form of Identity politics, returning with a vengeance.

Detail from Henry Fuseli's engravingDetail from Henry Fuseli’s engraving



It is, in general, an intriguing poststructuralist phenomenon that so many who theoretically pronounce texts indeterminate—bereft of authorial meaning, with text and interpretation alike determined by the inevitable linguistic gap between signifier and signified, by temporal limitations, by political ideology, class or gender bias—also, in practice, repeatedly claim to have decoded, “unmasked” or “exposed,” what is “really” going on: what a play such as The Tempest “conceals” as well as what it “reveals,” even to “correct” what has been “distorted.” As Richard Levin asked in 1990—cocking a mischievous eye in his PMLA article “The Politics and Poetics of Bardicide”—who is more guilty of what the indeterminists dismiss as “hubristic objectivism.” Is it those who believe that literary works are written by actual authors whose meanings (intention having become achievement) are there in the text, to be interpreted? Or is it those for whom the “hermeneutic vacuum” left by the Death of the Author must be filled by “a universal law” that “dictates what one must look for, and must find, in every [text]?”

I would add, in the case of The Tempest, what may be too obvious to need saying: that Aimé Césaire has every right to recreate Shakespeare in forging his own work of art, especially since Une tempête, as Malcolm Bowie noted in reviewing the 1998 Gate Theater production in London, “is not simply a new reading of Shakespeare but an original play of astonishing power.” But for the most part we are dealing with cultural revisionists who, having not found the political subtext of The Tempest adequately expressed, are compelled to “foreground” or “privilege” it in ways which—however creative,  illuminating, and even liberating—inevitably distort the original play. Both as an “immoralist” moralist and as a philological “good reader” able to “read off a text as a text” without “falsifying it by interposing an interpretation,” Nietzsche (going, in this passage from The Antichrist §52 and its original formulation in The Will to Power §479, against his usual insistence on “perspectivism” and “interpretation”), would approve of Bloom’s enrollment of such revisionists in “The School of Resentment.” For the crucial Nietzschean concept of ressentiment—stemming from the contrast introduced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 between “master morality and slave morality,” and fully developed a year later in On the Genealogy of Morals—has to do with frustration, psychological and political, arising from a sense of inferiority inseparable from subjugation. Of course, to again state the obvious, this is precisely what postcolonial “appropriations” of The Tempest set out to rectify, focusing inevitably on the subjugated figure that seems to embody both the plight and the hope of the victims of colonial oppression  To quote Cuban Fernández Retamar’s famous and defiant rhetorical question: “what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?” (Caliban and Other Essays, 14).

Finally, in terms of the revisionist act of creative reading performed by Césaire in Une tempête: the philologist in Nietzsche would probably concur with Milton’s famous distinction in Sonnet XII: there are those  that “bawl for freedom” and “still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty.” FREEDOM/ LIBERTY! cries Césaire’s Caliban. The cry is thrilling as an expression of belated, if incomplete, postcolonial liberation; but it “means” (not as a legitimate act of creative rewriting, but as a dubious act of literary interpretation) “License” in regard to the original Tempest. To be sure, as New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt remarked in 1990 (the year he borrowed from Caliban the title of his collection of essays, Learning to Curse), Shakespeare’s imaginative mobility, genius, and empathy enabled him “to display cracks in the glacial front of princely power and to record a voice, the voice of the displaced and oppressed, that is heard scarcely anywhere else in his own time.” If, Greenblatt concludes, “it is the task of cultural criticism to decipher the power of Prospero, it is equally the task to hear the accents of Caliban” (“Culture,” 232).

And that’s true, too. But nothing is got for nothing. One version of what Amartya Sen titularly juxtaposes as Identity and Violence is the textual violence that can be done, and increasingly has been done, to the last masterwork completely written by Shakespeare, of whose authorial death rumors have been greatly exaggerated. Just as he went against the prejudicial grain of his age to enable us to hear what is most moving in the speeches of Othello and Shylock, Shakespeare intended that we should hear the authentic accents of Caliban. But even in a play as mysterious as The Tempest, we can detect an overarching authorial intention. Intentional fallacy notwithstanding, an author’s intention is not dismissed even by such radical linguistic skeptics as Nietzsche and Derrida. The latter, founding father of deconstruction, refers to authorial intention as an “indispensable guardrail…protecting” readings from going over the cliff, into that abyss of wild excess otherwise sanctioned by his notorious term “freeplay” (Of Grammatology, 158).

We want and need to hear the accents of a disinherited and exploited Caliban, as Shakespeare clearly intended we should. But not if amplifying Caliban’s voice through the filtering ear-trumpet of modern Identity politics comes at the cost of distorting the play Shakespeare actually wrote. I may find more difference than identity between early and later Coleridge in dealing with race, and more identity than difference between Defoe and Crusoe on the issue of slavery. Though Césaire’s “Adaptation for a Black Theatre” may be “based” on Shakespeare’s play, we are obviously intended by its author to find more difference than identity when it comes to the treatment of Caliban in Une tempête, a revolutionary text that is at once an adaptation and a despoiler of The Tempest. We will be moved and instructed by both plays; but, in the end, we should render unto Césaire the things that are Césaire’s, and unto godlike Shakespeare the things that are Shakespeare’s.

N.C. Wyeth illustration of Robinson CrusoeN.C. Wyeth illustration of Robinson Crusoe



This brief essay, as personal as it is “scholarly,” makes no attempt at an exhaustive examination of the vast body of modern criticism that has focused on the cultural, historical, and political aspects of The Tempest. For those who wish to pursue the subject, the following provide excellent starting points.

The Tempest and Its Travels, ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman (Reaktion Books, 2000), brings together specially commissioned critical essays on the play’s various contexts and intertexts; the volume also includes poems and visual images. Along with excerpts from Césaire’s play, the editors include excerpts from two other stage versions: Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten’s Otra Tempestad, put on at The Globe (London) in 1998, and Tempest(s), staged at the Terra Nova Theater Institute in Copenhagen the following year. Arguing against the dismissal of anti-colonial readings and “appropriations” of Shakespeare’s text, Peter Hulme insists that such readings and stage-performances “do, actually…speak to the real text.” We should “listen to them and write a place for them in Shakespeare criticism” (233).

In a study illuminating the “New World” aspect of Caliban, Hulme had earlier explored that historical context, discussing colonial encounters between Europe and the Native Caribbean from 1492-1797. See Hulme, Prospero and Caliban (Routledge, 1986). The origin of the figure of Caliban and his disparate metamorphoses in stage history through 1993 is expertly examined in Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (Cambridge UP, 1993), and in Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character, eds. Nadia Lie and Theo D’haen (Amsterdam, 1997).

A year earlier, Jonathan Hart, going beyond both an ideal Prospero and a heroic Caliban, and attending to the play’s various genres, explored the interaction of the “political themes” of authority and rebellion (or freedom and slavery) with “the romance themes of survival, regeneration, and wonder.” See Hart’s “Redeeming The Tempest,” Cahiers Elizabethains (April, 1996): 23-38.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead, 1998.   

Bowie, Malcolm. “Island Infamy” [review of Une tempête] TLS (9 October 1998), 22.

Césaire, Aimé,  Une tempête, “Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest—Adaptation for a Black Theater.” Translated by Richard Miller (Online: firstyear.barnard.edu/Shakespeare/tempest/tempete), and by Philip Crispin (in 1998, for the Gate Theater production, and published by Oberon Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Marginalia, vol. 1, ed. George Whalley. Princeton UP, 1984.

____________________. “On the Slave Trade,” in Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion, ed. Louis Patton and Peter Mann. Princeton UP, 1971.

Dayan, Joan. “Playing Caliban: Césaire’s Tempest.” Arizona Quarterly 48 (1992), 125-45.

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Angus Ross. Penguin, 1965.

__________. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, in vol. 3 of the 14-volume Shakespeare Head edition of Defoe. Basil Blackwell, 1927.

__________. Defoe’s Review, ed. Arthur Wellesley Secord. Facsimile Text Society, 22 vols. Columbia UP, 1938.

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak. Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar” and “The Uses of Great Men” (Introduction to Representative Men ), both in Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. Library of America, 1983.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. [1960] Seabury Press, 1975.

Greenblatt, Stephen , “Culture,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, pp.225-32. U of Chicago P, 1990.

________________.  Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. Routledge, 1990.

Keane, Patrick J.  Coleridge’s Submerged Politics. U of Missouri P, 1994.

_____________.  “Slavery and the Slave Trade: Crusoe as Defoe’s Representative,” in Critical Essays on Daniel Defoe, ed. Roger D. Lund, pp. 97-120. G. K. Hall, 1997.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2000.

Levin, Richard. “The Poetics and Politics of Bardicide.” PMLA 105 (1990): 491-502.

Mannoni, Octave. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Praeger,1956.

Martin, Charles. Passages from Friday. Abbatoir Press, 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. pp. 565-660. Viking Press, 1968.

________________. The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. Random House, 1967.

Retamar, Fernández. Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker. Minneapolis, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, Arden Edition, ed. Frank Kermode. Routledge, 1964.

__________________. The Tempest, Oxford Edition, ed. Steven Orgel. Oxford, 1987

Seidel, Michael, “Robinson Crusoe”: Island Myths and the Novel. Twayne, 1991.

Sen, Amartya, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Norton, 2006.

Stead, W. T. “First Impressions of the Theatre.” Review of Reviews (October, 1904): 360-67.

Thompson, E. P. “Disenchantment or Default: A Lay Sermon” [1969], reprinted in Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. Free Press, 1997. pp. 33-74.

Walcott, Derek, The Gulf: Poems by Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press, 1957.

 Yeats, W. B. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade. Rupert Hart-David, 1954.

__________. Explorations. Macmillan, 1963

 — Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane 2

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


Mar 032014


Kay Henry was also a student in that (now famous) cnf workshop during the winter Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (see my introduction to Melissa Matthewson’s essay yesterday) in January. Both Kay and Melissa responded to the writing prompt: think of lists as a device, as a structure, and read Leonard Michaels’s story “In the Fifties” as a prompt. My co-leader, Patrick Madden, and I were both interested in nudging students away from narrative and into a focus on form. As Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian Formalist, said, art is a device; literary writing is content filtered through a set of structures. Proto-writers tend to have one structure firmly and somewhat unconsciously (to them it appears intuitive) fixed in their minds. It’s fun and enlightening to try a different form; sometimes the effect is like a lightning bolt.

Kay Henry’s essay, “In Dubai,” hews, in tone and sentence structure, to the Michaels’ model. She throws in a nice list in the third sentence (suddenly we’re in the land of detail piled upon detail). She eschews narrative connectors and simply presents a series of quick mini-stories. The stories are about people, the surprise and warmth of contact. In a brief space, she describes the human relationships that give the lie to the stereotypes and the racist assumptions that litter public debate.



In Dubai we belonged to the 85%. Only 15% of the population was Emirati. The rest came from South Asia, mostly; also the Philippines, and a few from other Gulf countries, Europe, and Australia. Not many were Americans. The high-end malls were peopled by shoppers in saris, kurtas, robes, jeans, full burkas, business suits, tank tops, sundresses, shorts, sweatsuits, and, at the indoor ski slope, parkas. Once on the beach near the sail-like Burj al Arab hotel, I walked by a woman in a full black abaya, complete with face veil, standing in conversation with a blond woman in a string bikini. The blond was smiling. The veiled woman pointed to something in the water. The blond shaded her eyes to look and nodded her head.

My husband Nas speaks fluent Arabic, but most people on the street and in shops did not. More spoke Hindi than English. Still, we figured out how to rent a house, set up utilities and phone service, and pick up mail at the Post Office.

Zayed University gave us a furniture allowance. We frequented sales in the homes of departing expats and bought heavy armoires and a chest of drawers carved with camels and painted gold. We felt like newlyweds.

At first my students all looked alike in their nearly-identical black robes. I tried to identify them by handbags and jewelry, but they all had several handbags and a lot of jewelry. After six months, I knew them all, and could recognize even the veiled ones, even across the courtyard.

I bought liquor at a government shop behind a blank storefront, browsing the dark aisles with my cart and, at the register, presenting my state-issued liquor permit to the Filipina check-out girl.  I was allowed 40 litres a month.

I walked the dog in the early morning as the muezzins sounded the first calls to prayer. Workers in white kurtas rode their bicycles to the mosques, gliding by soundlessly, half asleep. Sometimes thick fog covered the desert.

One student invited me to a family wedding. The women and men celebrated in separate rooms, and the band was on a stage in the middle, hidden by curtains so the performers couldn’t see the women. The women took off their abayas and danced in their jeweled dresses. A young woman in a tight beaded gown, hair in an up-do and make-up thick and precise, came toward me and kissed me three times on my right cheek. I didn’t know her. Then I did: it was my student, dressed for a party, not for school.

The founder of the country, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, died during Ramadan. His citizens mourned, truly mourned. The government shut down for three weeks. Not many months later, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, died in Australia of a heart attack. Once again, the people were in deep mourning. “This is new to us,” an Australian colleague told a local woman in our office. “We hate our leaders.” George W. Bush was in his second term as President.

We got time off for all the Muslim holidays: the Prophet’s birthday, the Prophet’s ascension, National Day, the Eid holiday following Ramadan, and 8 weeks off in the summer. At Christmas, hotels erected lavish trees and choirs sang carols from the balconies.  We worked on Christmas Day.

Nas negotiated with purveyors in the gold souk, noting the posted market price per gram, weighing his possible purchases on the jeweler’s scale, and rarely paying more than 5% above the cost of the metal no matter how ornate the workmanship. Sometimes this required repeated visits. He bought me earrings and necklaces and a new wedding band early in our stay, before the price of gold rose nearly 20-fold, so high that even the wealthy locals were complaining. We became friends with a jeweler in the Sharjah souk, 11 miles away. Altaf would load his briefcase with gold and diamonds and come to Dubai once a week to inspect his workshop, walking through the crowded lanes of the old city as if he carried a sack of cabbages instead of a fortune in jewels.  The streets were safe then.

We hired a maid and a gardener. We didn’t need either, and we didn’t pay them very much. Our maid, Mala, taught me to cook fiery Sri Lankan dahl into which she would crumble handfuls of dried chilis.  Our gardener spread a vile-smelling paste on the ground between the bougainvillea plants. “Municipality fertilizer,” he said. Raw sewage, I thought.

I fell in love for a while with a date farmer whose fringed dark eyes regarded me frankly from beneath his keffiyeh. I found milkweed on his farm and he told me the butterflies liked it. The milkweed made me homesick and I fell in love with the man who understood why. We never touched, not even when he brought me a parting gift of dates.

On the day my husband and I left Dubai I took a book about dogs to the 12-year-old Emirati boy who lived down the street. He was afraid of dogs until he met ours. I handed the book to the family’s maid, the same one who fed the boy platefuls of fat white macaroni in the late afternoon. Often when I walked by, he would put down his plate and come to pet the dog, careful to extend his hand first as I had taught him.

We arrived in New York and drove in a rented van across the country to Missouri. The second night, while passing through Ohio, we saw a camel silhouetted against the setting sun. We really did, both of us. For weeks after our return, the headlines warned of Dubai Ports World and their bid to take over the management of six U.S. shipping hubs, previously run by the British. Debate raged over whether our national security would be compromised. The Emirates had become an enemy. People said to me, “You got home just in time” and “Wasn’t it awful being a woman over there?” And especially, “You must be so happy to be back where it’s safe.” On television, members of Congress detailed the horrors of what would happen if “the Arabs” took over our ports. In my living room, friends admired my gold jewelry, but asked no questions about my students.

—Kay Henry


Kay Henry studied French and English literature in college and then embarked on a long, left-brained career in executive education.  She recently retired as Associate Dean at Washington University’s Olin Business School.  Her profession enabled her to travel widely, and she has lived and worked in France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.  Kay and her husband Nas divide their time between Missouri and Spain. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Mar 022014

Photo on 2-19-14 at 1.35 PM
During the last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Patrick Madden and I co-led a creative nonfiction workshop. Besides the usual group discussion of a student manuscripts, we found time to do some teaching as well, focusing on trying to nudge the class away from the general student obsession with narrative, with just getting the true story down. We tried to get them to think about something else while they were writing, things like technique, genre, and tradition. In the first (of six) workshops, we talked briefly about the use of lists in composition (lists in sentences, lists in paragraphs, and list as structural devices). Then we directed the class to read Leonard Michaels’s short story “In the Fifties,” an autobiographical story (might as well have been called an essay), plotless, apparently, a list of events and characters he met. Then we invited the students to write an imitation, or at least use the idea of a list and the Michaels story as a springboard for launching themselves into their own material.

After a week, in the last workshop, the students read out their  essays, cobbled together in a few days interrupted by workshops, lectures, readings and revelery. The results were spectacular, beyond expectation (it was an unusual class to begin with). Two seemed eminently publishable. Today I am publishing the first (the second, Kay Henry’s “In  Dubai,” is here), “Ten Ways to Leave” by Melissa Matthewson, a lovely, poignant evocation of a relationship in the leaving of it, charmingly written, rich with detail (in so brief a piece), startling  and profound in its emotional honesty. And, of course, you can barely see the influence. Such is the nature of influence; good writers take an influence and make it their very own thing.



She could go out the back door and down through the yard marked about in roses with hips and the overgrown grass, the juniper slope, the limestone soil and past the jungle gym where the children play out their dreams of kings and queens and kingdoms ruled with swords, fire, dragons, and sometimes happy endings.


She hears a story one afternoon and can’t forget the image of a woman walking the highway at night, alone, having left her husband standing in the parking lot of a store where he has chosen smoke instead of love and so she thinks she could leave with that same kind of drama: treading the turnpike while he watches her from a convenient store window, the road spread out before him like a long strung out piece of thread that will unravel the more you fuss with it, the more you tear at it with your fingers.


She could go while he is sleeping, but she thinks that would be unfair and doesn’t he deserve just a little bit of reason? If she did leave that way, she could sit on the bed first, the children sleeping in the other room, and watch his chest swell to the night, put her hand on his mouth, see every part of him move in dreams or nightmares, something she’s never done, never even been curious about, which makes her wonder. So maybe when the ice thaws, she’ll sneak from the bed tiptoeing through the house to the door and exit into a landscape of disquiet, apprehensive of the choice to go, but surely confident in the fantasy she holds in her mind.


She left him once for Montana, driving up the north highway and over the mountains into the snow and that was it for awhile. She lived alone in a new place and she thought this was life chosen well, but she missed him remembering when they drank beer on porches while watching cars and bicycles and stars heavy with sky. From there, she went on talking to her sheets at night, grabbing the pillow for his absence.


Maybe they could go for a hike, climb to the top of a mountain and look out from there, the way they did with their children once, the spread of all that grass and rock and peak, the wildflowers just then a new thing. They ate lunch: cheese, chocolate, salami, crackers. On top of that mountain, the wind picked up and it blew their children’s hair and they pointed their fingers to their house in its blue painted wood, just over the three ridges to the west where they could barely make out its slant and hold in the distance. They picked ticks from their hair because they lay in the grass laughing at the sky and it was spring remember. Yes, she thinks they could go for a hike and she could leave him there with the children on the mountain. She could remember him cutting cheese into slices on his knee listening for any movement in the manzanita.


Or maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe they should just be straight about it—sit on the couch together over coffee, or more likely, a drink: bourbon, ginger, bitters, a little lemon, the kind she always makes for him in a small glass with ice. She might sit with him and look out the window and over all that they’ve done together, everything they’ve created, and still know it is all lost to the past anyway. Maybe she would cry. Maybe he would too. Or maybe there would be no tears. Maybe they would have used up everything they had in the build-up to that moment, so that at that point, the fatigue of a relationship overcomes them and they are quiet in their chairs in that room when the shadows take over the floors and the walls and all that is heard is the empty burden of what is absolute then: the love having gone a long time ago slipped from them when they weren’t paying attention.


She could remember how they never did take a honeymoon. She could remember how they watched a sunset over the water in Baja one time when they thought they knew love. She could go like a butterfly. Or the coyote they saw in a field, trotting in from a distance and surely the postman would stop in his wagon if he came along. They watched from the car, the animal poised in dangerous pursuit of its prey, all of it in the last flicker of day until the coyote ran up into the frustrated hills without dinner, without anything to take his hunger away.


Or she could remember how they left Homer’s tomb one morning in Greece, the Aegean spread out behind them like a blue map made up of what they couldn’t know. She could remember how they brushed their teeth on his grave. She could remember how they spit. She could remember how they held hands. She guesses that staying is a probability because of just these memories, that story, those moments. She considers their weighted history over and over again and really, she thinks the complicated details of leaving are the only things that keep her there still. It’s the mechanics, she’ll say.


She thinks then about the train she once took through France, through Switzerland, through Spain. She rode the early rail and left him in Brussels, though she lingered in the entry to the hostel before she left, sat down on the couch, pulled him to her, let his head fall into her lap, their cheeks flushed from pints of beer. He walked her to the station through a storm and when he left, she sat on the depot floor wishing for coffee and one last night next to him in bed naked and in love. She can’t recall that feeling now. She can’t conjure it in this tired, cold place of leaving.


She could leave by writing the departure. Maybe that’s the best way. Like here. There could be any number of scenes: stomping out of the restaurant throwing her napkin on the floor; sneaking out through the window too late when another man waits in an idling car; running away as if in pursuit chased by children or thieves or…; in the car early in the morning with just the sprinklers and newspaper man; or a surprise retreat when he returns from an errand, the house packed up, or just her things packed up, the door slightly ajar, her coat waiting on the couch, hands fumbling with the zipper of her sweater or her earrings and she thinks perhaps this is the most obvious choice, the most conventional and unoriginal of all departures, the one and only way she can retreat and leave behind the safest thing she’s ever had, this story that was never supposed to end in this way, at this point, in this now.

—Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in TerrainUnder the Gum Tree, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Hothouse, and Camas, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Feb 142014

sl, bird dog pete and sharptail, Montana

On Valentine’s Day, of all days, a beautiful, yes, and uncannily disturbing short essay from Contributing Editor Sydney Lea that approaches the sex & death theme not in any trite pop-phil way, no, but in the way of poetry, juxtaposing two porcupines fucking (oh, man, the teeth chattering of two porcupines going at it) and the author’s rage and also the author’s own youthfully naive “savage romance” and the squalid death and the Wagnerian rise of “the deafening whistles of great churning trains; the shrieks of taloned raptors; the clamor of enraged men” at the end. Life is savage and strange. Something here of the ancient hunting myths: you kill (out of rage, out of necessity) and call down the curses of the dead upon your head for you have stretched your hand into the bitter lands. But brief, flashing, language that explodes. Also a story of love gone tragically bad.

May I draw your attention to Syd’s new author photo, which delights me. Author, gun, bird and dog. Bird dogs come into the essay. Ekphrasis. (Well, almost.) The author’s essays on bird hunting and dogs are among the best pieces of nature writing/observation I have ever read.



I hesitated, doubtful I really wanted to learn just what that racket could be, mere yards into the woods behind our house. Hilarity seemed to blend with loud despair in that caterwaul, a mix somehow expressive, though of what I couldn’t have said.

Uncanny. The word flew into my thoughts unbidden. Once you dig up its roots, of course, it really means nothing more than unknown, yet in common usage it often holds some hint of horror.

I longed to go indoors, unhorrified, where fall’s first fire waited in the woodstove. Now that the house had lost its children, I looked forward as well to a romantic, last-of-the-workweek meal with my wife. I wanted to get away from … what? a windigo? a lycanthrope? a djinn? Nothing ordinary, at all events. I couldn’t associate that clamor with any local fauna, which I’d always thought I knew so thoroughly.

My flashlight found two forms, not big, not small, the size perhaps of new fawns, but far darker–dark as dark ever was. I saw an eye-gleam, then another, and finally four, each the color of a coal: two porcupines, carnally clinched, hooting and cackling. I still can’t think quite how to describe those squalls.

My childhood hero Frankie de Angelis once showed his own eyes’ glint and, laughing meanly, proclaimed he wanted to die at what these beasts were so roughly up to. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, though I recall managing a comradely, pseudo-manly chuckle.  Frankie, twice my age, could knock men out. He could walk on his hands forever. He could do a back flip from a standstill.

A porcupine is not even good at climbing the trees that make up his diet, so these two looked awkward in their noisy act of sex. Or maybe just careful, as in the lame old joke. Indeed, they chattered their teeth and tittered as if their behavior were just that, a sort of petty farce.

But then they’d hiss like bobcats, or scrabble or bark. Graceless, ugly things. I considered the hours I’d spent over the past summer, pliers in hand, plucking quills from my swift but stupid bird dogs, all yelp and twitch and tremble, their blood flecking our mudroom. So perhaps it was simple rage that drove me now, though surely that’s too simple a description.

When I got a little closer to Frankie’s age, my very first sweetheart and I would chafe and scrabble at each other’s bodies, as if we meant to do each other harm. Ignorant, savage romance.

I ran to the shed, grabbed a shovel, rushed back, and clubbed that pair of animals dead. It takes some doing to murder creatures with brains the size of warts, and it’s not as though I wanted violence anyhow, only peace and calm.

As I quelled one set of noises, however, others rose to mind: the wails of sirens; the deafening whistles of great churning trains; the shrieks of taloned raptors; the clamor of enraged men. I heard them all, uncanny.

— Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. 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. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. 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 September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

Feb 132014

Ronald JohnsonPhoto courtesy of Robert Glenn Webb, who writes: “It dates from 1984 and was taken by Mario Pirami (who died not long after) and was given to me by Jodi Johnson Panula, Ron’s sister.”

In the spirit of our Undersung series on the great-but-somewhat-unnoticed poets, Denise Low, former poet laureate of Kansas, pens here a passionate, erudite essay on the late Kansas poet Ronald Johnson, as she says, a second-generation Black Mountain poet, who invented a brilliant “cascade” structure for his poems. I love this essay for its close reading of the text, its technical expertise and for its consciousness of tradition and influence. It seems to me that unless you have read for years and studied hard the territory of poetry can seem dauntingly homogeneous. But an essay like this sets out a part of the map. It’s also a part of the map with which I feel an affinity, the San Francisco poets (I practically memorized Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiographical Novel at one point) and the Black Mountain poets (reading Charles Olson taught me about place and the economy of the parenthetical). I even brushed up against this world (which still seems distant) personally having once had the opportunity to interview the poet Robin Blaser. In any case, what I mean to say is read the essay! Think about the traditions, the landscapes and the form.



In the mid-1990s I saw poet Kenneth Irby at the Lawrence public library, a brief encounter over book shelves, and he mentioned the Kansas poet Ronald Johnson had moved to Topeka. This was the first I heard of Johnson, who had just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area. This lumberyard worker’s son, born in 1935, is one of the most influential second-generation Black Mountain poets. Indeed, he and Irby (born in 1936) both were influenced by Charles Olson’s geography-informed poetics; Robert Duncan’s experience of occultism; and the synergy of the Bay Area during the 1960s-70s.

Johnson wrote one of the first and most influential erasure poems, RADI OS, in 1977 (Sand Dollar Press). For this project, Johnson found copies of Paradise Lost in used bookstores and erased words on each page to create his own text. He experimented with concrete poetry, and he wrote the epic ARK (Northpoint Press, 1980, and Dutton, 1984) in the tradition of Ezra Pound, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky.

His influence is considerable, and as his work becomes more widely available, it will grow. Peter O’Leary, his literary executor, has edited new editions of Shrubberies (2001), RADI OS (2005), and most recently ARK (2013). All of these are from Flood Editions. Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas houses the Ronald Johnson archives, where first editions and journals are available.

Johnson’s last work, The Shrubberies, has apparently modest dimensions, short poems of two to fourteen lines. Nonetheless, the collection innovates a poetic form influenced by botany and optics.

This last work, written from 1994 to 1998, is Johnson’s “own elegy,” his final project, written with full awareness of his own mortality (Naylor 507). He had returned in 1993 to care for his father, but within months he collapsed with symptoms of his own final illness (O’Leary 128). He worked part-time as a groundskeeper and handy man at a public garden in Topeka, and so plants were in his daily sight. The Shrubberies grew to “perhaps 300 poems” (O’Leary 128). The resulting posthumous book, “pruned” by his friend and editor O’Leary, is 125 poems, arranged chronologically for the most part (128). I am most interested in the optics, especially mirrored binary structures, in the poems. Binary couplings appear throughout the work, including life / death, natural / cultural, light / dark—“oscillation between light and dark” (Naylor 513)—and belief / disbelief—“stanzas of belief / strewn with disbelief” (Shrubberies 55).

Johnson does not declare his overall arrangement for the book-length collection of poems in explicit terms, and Naylor see the book as “a long, unfinished series” (507). O’Leary selected a poem from the middle of the manuscript for the opening poem, following Johnson’s own direction: “I have not altered the order of the poems in the manuscript, with the exception of the first poem, which is to be found in the middle of the manuscript. Although it was not the first poem composed, Johnson marked it with the marginal notation: ‘beginning’” (130). The rest is a chronological sequence, with some references to seasons and garden tours, so some temporal and spatial ordering do occur (O’Leary 128).  However, because Johnson gardened, I believe he set a master plan, probably in his mind as gardeners plot out their beds before sketching them on graph paper. Johnson structured all his major works deliberately, like the concrete poem projects or the RADI OS erasure based on Paradise Lost. His open-ended plan for Shrubberies is a deliberate if not closed system. He understood the organic composition of a garden and its imperfect symmetries.

The poem Johnson chose to open the book creates a template for physical construction of the rest of the book’s poems, at micro- and macro-levels. Here is the first The Shrubberies poem in its entirety:

mostly circadian rhythms
“and words to jointly knit”
a series of circumlocutions
eye in the eye of things
mirror cascade of asphodel
yet delight in spectacle   (1)

The most important trope is “mirror cascade.” This splicing of two similar but unlike things joins opposites—human-constructed “mirror” and the parallel term “cascade,” a natural water feature. This parallels how a mirror reflects a Plato’s cave dyad: flat cave wall reflection and its intangible and complex physical form.

The opening two lines set the pattern of balance between natural and imaginative qualities: “Circadian” references human measurement of daily cycles, in latinate vocabulary—Johnson used European tropes as the deep text within his writings. “Rhythm” is abstraction of time intervals, vague and unquantifiable. The quotation “and words to jointly knit” is from Richard Tottill’s description of Queen Elizabeth I’s acceptance speech for a gift, a purse of gold, presented in a public procession. This was just before her coronation, January 12, 1558-9. Tottill described the great woman’s rhetorical craft:  “. . . if it moved an extraordinary shout [from the crowd] and rejoicing, it is not to be marvelled at, since both the heartiness thereof was wonderful, and the words so jointly knit.” Johnson “jointly knits” his own procession through a rhetorical garden of delights.

Nature and culture interweave in the work and in this poem, with language as the medium. Johnson’s choice of “circumlocutions,” in the third line emphasizes speaking around meanings, as in riddles, and the concise poem-lets are indeed like word games. This set of poems is a “series,” writes the poet, not just isolate occurrences.

Next, the poet is the human “eye” or “I” or “aye” within “the eye of things”—and despite his dire health, Johnson, found affirmation, and indeed “delight,” through his inner- and outer-directed sight.

But most important are the last two lines. The “asphodel,” or white asphodel, is a plant associated with death in Greek mythology. Robert Glen Webb agrees that Johnson felt his mortality as he opened The Shrubberies with this flower symbol: “I’ve always felt the asphodel had the echo of the Greek Asphodel Meadows and thus his foreknowledge of death.” The spectacular spike-like asphodel has myriad small blooms, each with five sharp petals. Their translucent, white texture would reflect that hue intensely in direct Kansas summer solstice sunlight, with sap visible through the light-colored petals. The effect would be a clump of prisms, so indeed asphodel is a “mirror cascade.”

So the entire The Shrubberies cascades, one page after another. Poems are similar but not identical, like Kant’s mitten pairs. Johnson himself writes of his use of accretions and  bricolage. He described Sam Rodia’s building Watts Towers, as “realm of mosaic” and used it as a model for his deliberately built ARK (311-2). But cascading tiles are linked even more closely to each other than mosaic pieces. They have intentional overlaps and reflections of parts. They create a more liquid effect, like waterfalls. To emphasize this fluidity, the poet uses no line capitals or end punctuation, so the individual verses read as a continuous sequence, all parts of the whole stream. Poems were interchangeable parts because of their shared structures. Johnson did not know the final make-up of the book, but any assembling order would create his “cascade” effect.

The poetics itself is mirror-based. The lines have a binary, reflective quality within themselves, and the sequence from one line to the next is a continuum. This entire opening poem has a doubled quality, a mirrored symmetry. At each level—from line to couplets to entire poem—the composition is like paper snowflake cutouts, made by folding paper in half to create repeated patterns. This initial poem has three beats to the line, asymmetrical, with perhaps the fold in the middle of the line.

Match-ups within lines are: “circadian” and “rhythms”; “’words’” and “’knit’”; “series” and “circumlocutions”; “eye” and “eye of things”; “mirror cascade” and “asphodel”; “delight” and spectacle.” The pairs repeat each other, and the lines, one after another, re-contextualize the ideas and sounds of the line before. Lines one, three, and five, use latinate terms—circadian, circumlocution, “cascade of asphodel.”Even-numbered lines two and four have one-syllable Anglo Saxon words like “words,” “knit,” “eye,” and “things.” The poem ends with a rhyming couplet, end-words being “asphodel” and “spectacle.” Latinate and Anglo Saxon words balance in the first four lines, and the ending couplet is its own sets of more cultivated Graeco-Roman-based words.

Another couplet illustrates this bisymmetry, not quite half-way through the collection: “a plummet depth / death plumed / heights prized / into Empyrean” (60). Here deep earth—the site of graves—couples with flames of the Greek heaven, where fire originates. “Plummet” is a fall, while plumes are agents of flight. Indeed, the next poem takes up the mirrored themes of human and natural, with the opening line “tigered orange & black / a gathering of Monarchs.” The themes of “spectacle” and royal procession overlap this as well.

And so the cascade moves forward, from one sight to the next, from one dance of verse to the next. The entire poem is overlapping, paired lines, stanzas and individual poems. Bradin Cormack describes the mirror-like quality of lines in a later The Shrubberies poem: “The way that one body mirrors another is an instance of the repetition whereby the singular moment or event is preserved even as it is woven into a complete and recursive whole” (521). Each poem is an individual reflecting tile, assembled into a spire of a larger aggregate. The model of the asphodel spiked blooms is both regular and irregular, an overlapping of natural and cultivated geometries. Kenneth Irby did visit with Johnson briefly, during the composing of The Shrubberies, and they had brief correspondence. From both Kansas-by-way-of-Black-Mountain poets I learn to look closely at each word, how each evokes etymological lineages, other imperfect and overlapping sequences.

Based on comments presented on the occasion of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library- Special Collections exhibit of Ronald Johnson manuscripts, 16 April 2013.

—Denise Low


Cormack, Bradin. “A Syntax of Vision: The Last Poems of Ronald Johnson.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 517-528.

Johnson, Ronald. ARK. Chicago: Flood Editions, 20013.

—–. The Shrubberies. Edited by Peter O’Leary.  Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001.

Naylor, Paul. “After ARK.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 505-516.

O’Leary, Peter. “Afterword.” The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001: 127-31.

Tottill, Richard. “The Passage of our most drad Sovereigne Ladye Queene Elyzabeth through the Citie of London to Westminster, the day before her Coronation, Anno 1558. Imprinted at London in Flete Streete, within Temple-Barre, at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, by Richard Tottill, the WWIIII day of January, quoted in John Gough Nichols’s compilations of  accounts of royal processions – 1837 – City of London (England) p. 57

Webb, Robert Glenn. Personal correspondence. 1 April 2013.



Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and  www.deniselow.com.


Feb 102014


Diane Lefer’s essay about Northern Ireland now, in the after-glow of the Troubles that began nearly half-a-century ago, is a cunning amalgam of observation, intervention and charming self-deprecation. It reads conventionally enough till you get to the seventh paragraph where she writes: “Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite.” At which point you suddenly realize that you’re in the hands of a world-traveler, an activist and a person who knows herself and her perspective. By telling the reader not to trust her, she manages to make the reader trust her (and like her) even more. Oh, such a tricky thing the language is.

Diane Lefer is an old friend, a Numéro Cinq stalwart (a member of what I call the unofficial masthead). She has written a series of essays for NC on subjects varying from abandoned nuclear sites in Los Angeles, to half-way houses for convicts to folk festivals in Colombia. And now she’s been to Northern Ireland. See also Diane’s essay about the Ballymurphy massacre families, “Hunger for Justice,” in the current issue of New Madrid, their special issue on The Great Hunger.



If you fly to Dublin on Aer Lingus, you’ll see that Belfast, Northern Ireland—my destination—is listed as a city in Ireland, not in the UK. Taking the bus north, I must have blinked and missed the border altogether. There’s no checkpoint, no control. Quite a change from The Troubles that erupted in the North in the late 1960′s: 30 years of bombings and shootings. Loyalist paramilitaries killed Catholics, IRA splinter group volunteers killed Protestants and killed police of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and killed British soldiers who did their own share of torture and killing. Ordinary people were caught in the crossfire.

These days, the first time you realize you’re in another country is when you need pounds sterling instead of euros (though if you change your dollars at a branch of the Bank of Ireland, you’ll get perfectly legal pound sterling notes that don’t bear the image of the Queen.)

I went to Northern Ireland in October 2013 to join my frequent collaborator, Hector Aristizábal, and his nonprofit organization, ImaginAction, dedicated to the idea that accessing our imaginations and envisioning alternatives can lead to transformative social change.

Hector grew up in Medellín, Colombia, when it was the most dangerous city in the world. “Theater saved my life,” he says. While his friends in the barrio were recruited by the guerrilla movement, right-wing death squads, or the drug cartels, Hector found his gifts and a wider world through art. After arrest and torture by the military—but also after extensive training and practice both as a theater artist and a psychologist–he ended up in exile in Los Angeles where we met.

Just as psychotherapy aims to heal individual trauma, Hector believes that theater—a form of ritual—can offer communal healing. “Without healing not much social justice is possible.”

The past few years, Hector has offered theater workshops in Belfast and Derry to support peace building by bringing Catholics and Protestants together in joint creative projects. This time I wanted to be there.

Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite. How does someone enter someone else’s world and in three weeks have the nerve to think she knows it all? Especially when that someone only recently offered a benign picture of life in South LA, including the ice cream truck that made the rounds through the neighborhood. Two weeks after that piece appeared right here in NC, I attended a community meeting where people complained about the ice cream truck that makes the rounds to sell drugs and guns.

This same someone once tried to say Thank you in the Zapotec language to the people who’d welcomed her to their village. Everyone laughed. My bad pronunciation, they said, resulted in my saying Monkey’s bellybutton. It was only years later, visiting again, that a friend said they hadn’t known me well enough in those days to be honest. It wasn’t a bellybutton, it was a penis.

So now that you know I can’t be trusted, let me tell you about Northern Ireland.

make love not war

I’m glad you’re reading this online. Too many trees have already died for the many hundreds of thousands of pages that tell how ever since the 12th century the Irish have tried to drive the English conqueror from their island. In modern times we eventually ended up where we are now: with the south as the Republic of Ireland and the six northern counties still part of the UK.

If you want a full history, please look it up. Instead, I’ll try to give a brief oversimplified account of what made the North different.

Irish chieftains in the North offered the most resistance to English rule and enlisted military assistance from Catholic Spain. To pacify the region–and we’re talking a long time ago, a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (or wherever they actually made land)–England created the Plantation of Ulster. Land was confiscated from the indigenous Irish Catholics; Protestants from Scotland and England were settled there, trusted to be loyal to the Crown. The first plan was to get rid of the Irish altogether, but someone was needed to work the farms. Catholics were consigned to inferior status not only socially but by law.

Flash forward to The Troubles.

At last the paramilitaries began to demobilize. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the governments of Britain and Ireland along with the main armed groups agreed on basic principles that guaranteed Catholics in the North equal access to education, housing, employment, and the vote, along with a share of political power. For people around the world, including me, the 1998 accords represented what was possible. Northern Ireland was the model: in spite of hundreds of years of hatred, distrust, and violence, two peoples could say enough, and live in peace.

In Belfast I join up with several other artist/activists who use theater arts to empower vulnerable communities. They are young and eager to learn from Hector and to experience work in a post-conflict society. Anna was born in Poland and raised in The Netherlands which is also home to Evanne who has worked in post-conflict Uganda. Tania was born in El Salvador, raised in Australia. Tamar is from New York but has lived most recently in Germany and Tunisia. Jeroen is an activist from Belgium who knows more about radical politics in the US than I do. The Europeans are all fluent in English though all of us struggle to understand the Northern Irish accent.

So this essay isn’t really about Northern Ireland. It’s about a group of people landing in someone else’s country imagining they have something to offer.

Hector thinks when you are working in your own city or country, you tend to believe you know all about the community. In fact–and I’m living proof–you may be quite ignorant. “People are the experts about their own lives,” he reminds us. In a foreign context, we are less likely to think we know best. Aware of our own ignorance, he says we’re more likely to remain humble and see the workshop participants in an authentic way. Ideally, this will carry over into our work when we return home.

We share a house, shopping, cleaning, and cooking–the latter turning out to be less of a challenge than expected considering our group includes a few omnivores, a couple of mostly-vegetarians, one dedicated vegetarian, and one raw foods vegan. The group dynamic affords Hector a chance to use the skills he developed over decades as a psychotherapist though, personally, I find nothing smooths over tension like the shared viewing of online cat videos.

peaceful coexistence

For me the work starts right away when I meet with the Ballymurphy Massacre Families. Their loved ones were gunned down by British paratroopers in 1971, the killings justified with false claims that the dead were all IRA terrorist gunmen. Forty-two years later, the families are still seeking an official government apology. They want to see the names of their parents and brothers cleared.

There’s already been a documentary about the killings and a stage reenactment but additional ImaginAction artists, led by Alessia Cartoni from Spain, have been helping the families create something different: a play they will perform themselves focused on how they, as surviving family members, were affected. Their stories of trauma and grief should resonate on both sides of the sectarian divide. By evoking shared pain, maybe it’s possible to bolster the shared desire for peace.

Instantly I conclude this is the reality of Northern Ireland today, a place conversant with the language of human rights and the demand that there be no more culture of impunity. It’s not just the Ballymurphy families. Adults who were abused as children in Catholic orphanages and state institutions demonstrate in front of Stormont, the Parliament building, demanding an investigation. People are filing claims for compensation for their torture years ago by the British.

Soon after, though, I conclude that while people are more than willing to air grievances from the past, they won’t face up to problems in the present day.

Then, as the weeks go by, I meet people who don’t want to bring up past grievances at all. Pain is still there, but they want to put it all behind them. “Some people are just obsessed,” I hear. Or, “What do you expect from the lower class?”

People tell me it’s not the same for the younger generation. There’s a frenetic club scene, Protestants and Catholics seeking release, outrunning and out-dancing the past together, fueled by alcohol and ecstasy. But a municipal employee at work in a Protestant neighborhood lowers his voice when he says, “I’m from the other community.” And when I ask a mixed group of university students whether sectarian division is a thing of the past, I get a resounding No.

Causeway for NC

We have time off for sightseeing. Evanne catches me with her camera as I hike the Red Trail at Giant’s Causeway. Tourists wander over the flat stones that were laid down, according to legend, by Finn MacCool so he could cross the North Channel to Scotland without wetting his giant feet.

The next day we tour the two famous working class neighborhoods in Belfast: the Falls Road (Catholic) and the Shankill (Protestant). Belfast now has a tourist trade which seems to be based on being the birthplace of the Titanic–a ship that went down; Milltown cemetery where you can lay flowers on the grave of IRA hunger-strike martyr Bobby Sands; and the sectarian murals that serve as constant visual provocations.

Yes, there are also murals with messages about safe driving and climate change and nonviolent action but for the most part, they honor the martyrs and promise that resistance (on both sides) will continue. “Peace walls” keep Catholics and Protestants apart and allow foreign visitors to scrawl Kumbaya sentiments on whatever blank space can be found. At night, steel doors close off the road between The Shankill Road and The Falls.

Peace Wall

closed road

So much for peace. Of course, as I–and everyone–should know by now, governments and leaders can make all the agreements they want, but real change has to start at the grassroots.

And I shouldn’t be surprised that Loyalist extremists reject any political settlement as a sellout and betrayal. They rioted in 2013 when Belfast City Hall began to fly the Union Jack only on state occasions instead of every day. The IRA still murders—”executes”—prison guards. “Just the screws that abuse us,” a prisoner tells me, but I also hear any guard can be killed if his home address becomes known. Splinter groups continue the armed struggle. Teens and adolescents still enjoy recreational rioting–throwing rocks and bricks over the walls at each other’s communities. Loyalists swear they’ll never surrender their allegiance to Britain. Nonviolent Republicans believe it’s only a matter of time till Ireland is united.

Even away from the working class neighborhoods where the conflict has long been centered, we see curbs painted red, white, and blue in the colors of the Union Jack, high rises where the Irish flag flies, portraits of the martyrs, plaques on buildings everywhere memorializing the dead.

I wonder if the backdrop has become so normalized that no one who lives here even notices the hostile defiance. But I don’t believe that. We return to our house and I feel weighed down with a heaviness I can’t shake.

Protestant farmers wife

All of us who’ve been involved in community work have been told at one time or another not to get emotionally involved, it’s a surefire path to burnout. But Hector says you have to bring your heart to the work The real cause of burnout, he says, is repressing emotion, being unwilling to acknowledge and face what we feel.

I feel fear. I’m not afraid to be in Belfast. The continued violence from extremists and the dispossessed terrifies me because of what it suggests about the US. Don’t these things ever end? I was never so naive as to imagine racism and bigotry were gone from America where we like to imagine that our history–genocide and slavery–no longer count. That can piss me off, but the virulence of the race hate evident since Obama’s election goes further. It shakes me to the core.

Obama disappoints me but sometimes I suspect he’s overcautious because he, too, is afraid. Not just for himself, though rightwing groups have indeed issued their fatwas, making him a legitimate target for assassination. Does he tread so carefully because of a well founded fear of armed insurrection? If you bother to look, you’ll find the threats out in the open, from the most extreme “patriot” websites to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

I think I’ll shake off my depression once we get to work. I can’t wait to meet Protestant extremists–the more extreme, the better. I’ll allow myself to get involved. I’ll connect. I figure I can feel for them without having to agree with them. No Surrender, they say, but as far as I can see, they’ve already lost if their cause was to preserve the status quo. The police force is now integrated with Catholic officers and can no longer be a purely sectarian arm of repression. Catholics have a share in–at times dominate–the government.  Loyalists must be scared wondering how they’d fare in a united Ireland.

I can see how the loss of privilege would feel–no matter how irrational the feeling–like violent dispossession. I see that at the same time that Catholics were gaining equal rights, Belfast companies and factories were closing and moving overseas. Working class neighborhoods where good manufacturing jobs were once reserved for Protestants now face massive long term unemployment. These days, to generalize, Catholics blame globalization and capitalism for job loss; Protestants blame the Catholics. And I tell myself if I can empathize with Loyalist extremists and treat them with respect, maybe I’ll do better at recognizing the humanity of angry white men back home.

But it turns out we won’t be working on sectarian reconciliation after all.

We’ve been asked to work with other groups: The Playhouse in Derry is connecting us to low-income youth (vulnerable to recruitment by the paramilitaries), and the LGBT community. The Prison Arts Foundation has invited us to offer workshops in correctional facilities.

Hector’s workshops draw on the techniques of Theater of the Oppressed, developed by Augusto Boal, the late Brazilian theater artist and activist. In fact, Hector and I met more than a decade ago when people in Los Angeles interested in Boal’s methods got together to share techniques. For several years we brought the master himself to town to teach us about using theater arts with vulnerable communities.

Like most Boalians, Hector starts his workshops with games to provoke laughter and loosen inhibitions. Games create a sense of community and also demand focus and concentration. Where Hector is different from most facilitators is that he pushes the group to play at lightning speed. When you move fast enough, there’s no time to feel self-conscious. Everyone is bound to make mistakes and each mistake is celebrated. He wants to get participants past the fear of being wrong.

In Los Angeles, we’ve worked and played with torture survivors who needed the chance to experience their voices as something other than what got them in trouble, their bodies as something other than a site of pain. We’ve played with gang members who needed a chance to be children again (or for the first time). We’ve worked–not as much as we would have liked–with prisoners. In California, it’s very difficult to get permission to bring an arts program into correctional facilities. In Northern Ireland, this turns out to be relatively simple.

It’s not the only difference. I meet a man in maximum security whose baby was born while he was behind bars. He was given a 6-hour leave to go home and hold his son before being returned to custody. I can’t even imagine that happening in California. (At the same time I can’t forget that during the Troubles, torture of prisoners was standard procedure in Northern Ireland.) Inmates in California who want to take college courses have to come up with their own tuition money. In the UK, a free university education is available to at least some prisoners.

We, however, have been asked to work in Hydebank Wood Youth Prison with young men, ages 17-24, who’ve refused to participate in any educational or therapeutic programs. They are, however, intrigued by Hector who comes from the land of cocaine. So they show up, sort of. They squirm in their seats, get up and walk around, don’t make eye contact, talk among themselves, ask for smoking breaks and tea breaks (or take these breaks without asking), turn their heads aside and laugh heh heh heh from the sides of their mouths, and even when they do speak, most of us can’t understand their accents.

Back at the house, we’re discouraged by the lack of participation.

“Then you have a narrow idea of what participation looks like,” Hector tells us. “They are always participating, even when rolling cigarettes, leaving the room. They are being who they are.” We should be learning about them, taking the temperature of the room, and understanding they have no reason to open themselves up to a bunch of strangers who suddenly show up in their lives.

I think I’ve experienced this before faced with a student who seems entirely unresponsive, with whom I am completely unable to connect. Until I realize she or he is paying very close attention–to me. Studying me, figuring out if I’m someone who can be trusted. I have to go on the assumption that this is exactly what’s happening. Stay calm, stay present, remain engaged as if there is a connection.

“We are our own worst enemies because we create our own stories of what we should accomplish,” Hector says. “Get out of your own fucking way.”

Eventually some of the young men talk to us about how they can’t see a future. With or without an education, there are no jobs. The only hope is emigration but with their criminal records they believe the necessary visas will be denied them.

I’m seeing an aspect of Hector’s work I never witnessed before: teacher, mentor. Teaching “is not a process of vomiting information or how well I can talk about topics.” He challenges each one of us. What are the voices inside our heads that block us? Where and when does our energy flag? He probes us, looking at what’s going on inside each of us that may affect our work. “Don’t expect to be handed a curriculum with different techniques spelled out step by step,” he warns us. We will live the technique but what we must do is enter the space fully present, aware, our hearts open. “Learning is an act of love, there’s no other way to learn.”

Am I thinking through an ideological lens rather than with my heart?

I feel…what? Naive. Responsible. I dwell on the American propensity to export war, whether it’s ordinary people in New York and Boston funding the IRA, weapons manufacturers and dealers arming drug cartels in Mexico (and anyone else willing to pay), our support for repressive armies in Latin America, our military interventions around the globe, our drones dropping death from the sky. Yes, we mourn our servicemen and women who die and those who are maimed in body and spirit. But what do most of us, safe at home, know about the killing we pay for?

We’re supposed to be here giving people tools to claim agency over their own lives, while I feel…guilty, and helpless.

UVF paramilitaries

Hector finds it strange that the IRA martyrology bothers me more than the aggressively violent imagery of the UVF Loyalists. It troubles me that political tours and Republican museum exhibits are available in the Basque language. I’d like to believe it’s just that people whose own Irish language was in danger of dying out believe in preserving another rare tongue. But I can’t help but suspect collaboration between the IRA and the ETA. You can choose the label yourself: freedom fighter or terrorist.

I’m not Irish American by descent and can claim kin only through extended family, but I grew up in New York hearing–and not always understanding–the songs of the Irish struggle for freedom. They’re hanging men and women/For the wearin’ of the green. I took those lyrics to heart. When I started kindergarten–my first venture outside the safety of home–I checked my plaid skirt carefully for any trace of the dangerous color.

The Irish Republican Army freedom fighters were heroes of my childhood. Later, it was second nature to support anti-colonial struggles.

When I packed to go to Northern Ireland, I knew I had to be (or at least appear to be) neutral. I was cautious again, choosing clothing with no hint of green.

Which side are you on? was the unspoken–and sometimes spoken–question I faced over and over again. And I was ready with my carefully prepared answer: “It all turns out to be more complicated than it looks from the other side of the pond.”

The Irish Civil War…The Troubles. When is enough enough?

In Belfast, a woman sighs and says no cause in the world was worth all the suffering.

One of the Ballymurphy family members tells me, “The Protestants from up on the hill were shooting through our windows. The British killed my father. The IRA killed my brother.”

Hector, it’s not just ideology. My heart is indeed in this place, and my heart is troubled.

Blanket man and Palestine

We get ID cards and escorts when we enter Maghaberry, the maximum security prison. Then it’s pat-downs and multiple checkpoints with biometrics and down hallways and across yards where guards patrol with dogs.

Most prisoners here spend 23 of 24 hours in their cells. Some have revived the old IRA “dirty protest”–refusing to wash or shave and smearing their cells with their own feces. But we are working with prisoners in “Family Matters”–men who are fathers, and drug-free. They have privileges and are able to move about freely in their own part of the prison as long as they maintain good behavior. They participate in programs meant to reduce recidivism by strengthening parental skills and family ties. Our theater workshops are now part of the program.

We invite people to explore difficulties in their lives by creating scenes for each other. Then we invite participants to reflect on what they’ve seen and improvise alternative scenarios. Theater becomes a rehearsal for life. Improvisation shows you can change the script. People who can’t envision any other path than the one they took can begin to explore other choices.

So: We walk into the room where more than twenty men await us. We have to set the tone right from the start and so we circulate, greeting each individual, introducing ourselves by name, smiling, shaking hands. After fast-paced games and a lot of laughter, Hector continues the workshop with another of Boal’s techniques, Image Theater. Me, I always want to fall back on words, but Image Theater is wordless. We are invited to express emotions through our bodies or, in pairs or in groups, we create random images that are open to multiple interpretations. What you see tells a lot about who you are.

With all this talk about expression through the body, and considering we’re in a prison, it’s no surprise that sexual imagery shows up. One man positions himself in front of Hector who is kneeling. No ambiguity here: everyone sees blowjob. Hector laughs it off and goes on to the next exercise. As he tells us later, he’s glad the subject of sex came up right at the start so we could get it out of the way and move on. I’m impressed with the prisoner, astute enough to test the boundaries with Hector and not with one of the young women.

We break up into small groups to create scenes about problems. But everything’s all right, the men say. They have no concerns.

Of course they have reasons for not speaking openly. One man comes right out and says, “The enemy is here.” They may fear retaliation from the guards. Or, as Hector reminds us, “Why should they open up to you? They don’t know you.”

I try to explain to my group, “For the scene to be dramatic, we need a difficulty or a conflict.”

“No complaints.”

“It’s all right.”

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” one man suggests.

Why do you look outside, at somewhere else? I wonder.

Then I have to wonder who I mean by “you.” Back home in Los Angeles County over the course of 30 years, 25,000 lives were lost to street gang violence–more than in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine combined. And why was I saying we needed conflict?–an idea that, as a writer, I always resist. Even Hector has needed to seek alternatives. When he was in China, people insisted conflict could not exist in their society. They structured scenes instead around a dilemma. Maybe a question would work.

“Do you worry about your kids?” I ask.

“Naw. Their mother takes good care of them.”

“Is it difficult for them to come for visits?”

“Naw. No problem.”

“Be ready in five minutes,” Hector says.

Under pressure, we start to role-play a family visit. The father is besieged by his children and his wife all wanting his attention at once. He is stressed and miserable and doesn’t know who to turn to first.

“Time’s up.” Hector wants to see each group’s piece. He adds, “Whatever you do is perfect.”

In the scene we present, the father is reluctant to leave his cell. He wants to see his family, but he hangs back. As he walks at last to the visiting room, Tamar shadows him, speaking aloud the words in his head. During the visit, his two kids and his wife all clamor for attention. By the time the guard tells them to leave, he’s exhausted and depressed, feeling inadequate. Now he opens up about his feelings: As long as he’s in prison, he can’t give them what he wants to give and that they need.

None of the scenes that day looks like professional theater but so what? Hector is right: each one is perfect because it provides fertile ground to ask What do you see? Does this really happen? How might it be different?

Another man tells me later that watching these scenes teaches him empathy.


Every time we drive back to the house, the good feeling of human connection dissipates. I feel assailed by the sectarian slogans and the flags. People tell me no one talks about conflict resolution anymore, but rather conflict transformation. It’s not peace, they say. It’s just a lull. This one context–Northern Ireland–tells me a larger story about wounds that don’t heal. Hatred like a virus lies dormant between deadly outbreaks. The violent troubles throughout the world never seem to end.

I walk in the park behind our house to clear my head. I remind myself that among the Falls Road murals, there’s a portrait of a Nelson Mandela. He smiles down at everyone who passes, symbol of reconciliation and hope. Inspiring, but the South African story isn’t done. And to use one of Hector’s favorite words, images are “polysemic”–having multiple interpretations. The mural artist included a quote: In my country we go to prison first and then become President.

The writing on the wall: was the artist thinking of forgiveness, or of power?

Before you can forgive, do you have to win?

What a person sees in an image can reveal who she is.

We go to the beautiful city of Derry (also known as Londonderry if you’re a Loyalist or Derry/Londonderry–”Stroke City”–if you’re hedging your bets). The 17th-century city walls stand complete and intact. Catholics, once forbidden to live inside the walls, created the Bogside neighborhood which became the center of the nonviolent civil rights struggle and its own kind of walled city. “Free Derry” lasted from 1969-1972 when residents of the Bogside and Creggan neighborhoods put up barricades to keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army out.

The armed wing of the IRA was active in Derry too. The famous Bogside murals memorialize the innocent civilians gunned down on Bloody Sunday but also honor the Irish heritage of Che Guevara and the iconic Petrol Bomber of Free Derry, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Brits.

Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch

These days, the Derry police station has a security perimeter worthy of a U.S. Embassy and the police do an excellent job of defusing live bombs before they explode.

A Protestant university student tells me, “I’m a Hun.”

“A what?”

“That’s what they call me. A Han. Like in China.”

The Han Chinese were sent to colonize Tibet, to break the back of Tibetan culture and make the region loyal to Beijing.

How long can Protestants in Northern Ireland be considered colonizers and interlopers? I think of Southern California where I live, land that was taken from the Chumash and Tongva and then from Mexico. The descendants of those early inhabitants are still struggling for an equal place.

“I’ll say it about myself,” says the Han. “But don’t call me that.”


Derry was designated the UK City of Culture for 2013. Dozens of cultural events and celebrations would, in the words of the organizers, provide “a new story for the city to tell to the world.”

In the Neo-baroque Guildhall, Anna and I find an exhibit about the Ulster Plantation and learn some new facts: Scottish settlers were sent over in part to break the power of the Highland chieftains who also resisted English rule. Many were Presbyterians who–Protestant but not Anglican–sought to escape religious persecution. The laws that limited the rights of Catholics in Ulster were applied against Presbyterians too. Anna and I watch a series of panel discussions and debates on video, with actors in period garb offering different perspectives on the Ulster experience. The monologues are carefully scripted so that after each debate when the visitor is asked to push a button to say, for example, whether the sectarian divide is surmountable or insurmountable, almost anyone relying on the video presentation would be likely to choose “surmountable.”

The Bogside artists whose partisan Republican murals draw visitors from around the world were excluded from the City of Culture program.

Mandela also said, “Let bygones be bygones.”

But what if what’s going on hasn’t yet gone by?

Sometimes I think those who remember history are doomed.

I think about that silly book, The End of History, that people unaccountably took so seriously a few decades ago. Fukuyama argued that history had ended with the triumph of Western liberal democracy. I never noticed any such triumph or that humankind had reached a utopian end of the road. But now I begin to wonder if what we’re really seeing is the triumph of the Market. Not the free market, of course, but the rigged market, signaling the End of Society–something Margaret Thatcher famously declared did not exist. With the End of Society, we face the End of Civilization.

Hector takes me to task over my pessimism. If I bring that energy into a group, people will feel it. “Especially when working with young people, it is a huge responsibility to bring medicine. Otherwise you just contribute to hopelessness and apathy.”

And we do work with kids in an afterschool program in an impoverished community–though Hector and I see no homeless people, no burned-out lots filled with trash, no derelict buildings, no graffiti (except on one wall, a phrase people either agree with or fear to paint over: JOIN THE IRA). In spite of decades of Thatcherite austerity, maybe there’s still more of a safety net in the UK. Tania, on the other hand, recognizes signs of deprivation invisible to us. “This is what it looks like in Australia.”

With these kids–a couple of quiet girls, a lot of very jumpy adolescent boys–we start off by playing soccer so they can burn off energy, have some release after hours of sitting in school, and get ready to focus. We also bring them snacks and sandwiches. We have a chance to get to know each other before starting the theater games. And we learn the area is indeed deprived. The kids can’t remember a time when their parents were employed. Families live on government assistance and the adolescents expect they’ll grow up to stay home receiving government checks and playing video games or else they’ll go to jail. There are no jobs.

Their scenes portray teachers blaming kids for offenses they didn’t commit; parents unconcerned when their kids are suspended from school; kids getting into fights and then facing their fathers’ wrath.

The kids are so lively, the love between the older boys and their little brothers so evident, it’s easy to dismiss their realities, the “hopelessness and apathy” that shadow them. I like them so much I want to believe they can step out from under that shadow. I want to believe my pessimism doesn’t show.

Anyway, there’s a difference between rejecting optimism and being a pessimist. Years ago, at the start of the AIDS epidemic when it seemed like everyone who contracted the virus would die and die soon, an activist explained the difference between optimism–blind faith that everything is for the best and will work out just fine– and hope, which keeps you going regardless. He said he’d learned this from Vaclav Havel. Years later, I heard that Havel learned it from B.B. King. Whoever should get credit, I embraced the idea years ago of commitment without any guarantee as to outcome.

The UK no longer recognizes people arrested for sectarian violence as political prisoners. Some political groups have indeed devolved into ordinary thuggish street gangs. (Is that what’s meant by conflict transformation?)

At Maghaberry, some men do consider themselves politicals with the Republicans more outspoken than the Loyalists. One day the men improvise another Visiting Day scene. The young son tells his jailed father he is ready to join the IRA. The father expresses pride.

“What else could the father say?” Hector asks. “Does he really want his son to end up in prison?”

This is how Forum Theater works: people in the audience have the chance to replace a character onstage and try out different words, different behavior. But it seems no one wants to contradict the committed Republican.

I can’t stand it so I volunteer to take the father’s role. “I’m proud of you, my boy,” I say, “for your commitment to our cause. But you don’t want to end up here like me.”

“If it’s where I end up, it’s where I end up.”

“I don’t want that for you.”

But the son is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“All the bloodshed and the time in prison,” I say. “What good has it done? It hasn’t brought us closer to our goal.”

“We have to keep fighting.”

“The fighting hasn’t been effective. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere. There has to be another way.” Idiot American, I think. Keep preaching.

“I’m joining the IRA,” says the son.

“There has to be a better way,” I say. “At least, tell me you’ll think about it.”

I do believe in their cause. But what I’m thinking about is the well intentioned exhibit in the Guildhall. Am I equally guilty of using culture to manipulate?

The father who is playing his son lowers his head and studies the floor. He accommodates me: “I’ll think about it,” he says.

Our last day with the recalcitrant young men at Hydebank Wood, we’re scheduled to present a performance for other prisoners and the staff. We’ve developed and rehearsed a script but our lead actor disappears. The other men don’t want to perform.

Hector actually seems pleased. He’s been trying to teach us that when you work with vulnerable communities, people have very complicated lives. You don’t complain about who’s missing; you work with whoever shows up. You can plan an elaborate production, but you always have to be ready to shift gears. Offer something that engages the audience even if it’s very different from what you planned.

So we foreigners get up and improvise scenes starting with a girl telling her teenage boyfriend she’s pregnant. His response is to walk away.

Hector extends an invitation to the audience. “What else could he say? What else could he do? No, don’t tell me. Come up here and show us.”

All of a sudden we have volunteers. Maybe the guys just want the chance to play at being Evanne’s boyfriend. But one by one, they step up. Telling her to get an abortion. Telling her abortion is wrong. Asking her to marry. Denying it’s his baby. Saying his parents will help. Promising to get a job.

The audience is rapt.

“Now they have the baby. What do you think happens next?”

The baby is crying, the wife is desperate, the unemployed husband comes home drunk and angry. He looks for work. He goes back to selling drugs.

The young men who never sit still, never listen, never “participate” have their attention riveted. They all want to have their say. The prison staff has never seen them like this. One after another they improvise alternatives to the situations they’ve seen in their families, experienced in their own lives, or feared.

“If someone sees you,” says Hector, “it saves your life. You may recognize a gift in a young person who has spent his life misunderstood and stigmatized.” Modest expectations, I think, reaching one person out of many, one at a time. But believing as we do that every human being is of inestimable worth, it should be enough. “By truly seeing him, you give him the experience of seeing himself in a new light, and the strength that comes from this mutual recognition can last a lifetime.”

I’m frustrated by how much people don’t want to see. They are supposed to be the experts in their own lives.

A 12-year-old girl in Derry tells me she can’t wait to get out. Her dream is emigration to Australia. (Australia seems the destination of choice these days. People say they’d love to visit relatives in Boston and New York, but to live in the States? Too violent, too much inequality, not enough opportunity.) She talks about the constant bomb threats, the grenades, and the shootings but assures me, “No, I’m not scared. I’m not nervous. I’m not troubled.” She says everything’s all right, but she can’t wait to leave.

Members of the LGBT group blurt out their concerns: how a lesbian mother has no parental rights and can lose her child if she’s not the biological mother. But when it comes to dramatizing the situation, “No, it’s negative.”

We try a different approach and ask for coming out stories. Of any sort. Tania tells how for years she didn’t want to identify herself publicly as a “refugee.” One man insists he never had to come out because he was always out. Later in the conversation he tells me he was married for years. When his wife learned he was having sex with men, she exposed his secret and he was promptly fired from his job.

I don’t get it. Why all the denial?

One evening a gay man offers a scene in which he goes to donate blood and is turned away. He sits, wordless, head down.

“What is he feeling?” Hector asks.

Sad. Depressed. Humiliated, people suggest.

“What else could he do?” Hector asks.

No one in the LGBT group reacts so members of our group take turns replacing the actor. I ask whether the blood is screened. It is. So there is no medical reason to refuse anyone. I threaten a lawsuit. Jeroen replaces me and, instead of threatening, asks the doctor to sign a letter and petition agreeing there is no medical reason to discriminate. Another member of our team talks about wanting to give blood because a family member was saved by a transfusion. In this scenario, the doctor still can’t change the policy but responds with human empathy instead of putting up a cold bureaucratic wall.

The gay and lesbian members of the group seem to me speechless with surprise. As though it hasn’t occurred to them before that you don’t have to accept things as they are. You don’t have to take it and absorb the hurt. You may not be able to change law or policy right away, but you can assert your humanity. You don’t have to accept discrimination as inevitable and normal.

One day at Maghaberry the prisoners show their scars and merrily reenact the form of street justice called “the six-pack”–as though it’s normal to shoot someone in both knees plus a bullet in each elbow and each ankle. As normal as the murals and the flags. And I think again of the 12-year-old girl. Violence will drive her from her birthplace but at the same time, she won’t admit it bothers her. It’s such an accustomed part of daily life.

It’s her life, their lives. I shouldn’t judge people who are just trying to get by the best they can in a world not my own.

petrol bomber

I return home and land at LAX the day before the terminal is invaded by a young man who shoots to kill. A couple of days later, another young man takes his rage to the shopping mall in New Jersey near where my sister lives. The Sandy Hook school site is being demolished. There’s a mass killing in a Detroit barbershop. And another mass shooting and another. I sign a petition or two and go on with my daily life. The 12-year-old girl wants out. I’m not going anywhere. What do I feel? Sad. Depressed. Ashamed.

And I remember the day in Maghaberry Prison when I was paired with a man I could barely understand. He didn’t seem to get what I was saying either. But what with the Irish and Yankee accents, incomprehension had become entirely normal to me. It took two hours till I realized the prisoner was an immigrant from Lithuania with limited English.

Don’t trust me.

— Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include a new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, and The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit,awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor toCounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”

Feb 082014


Last April, Sydney Lea, John B. Lee, Marty Gervais and I combined for the epic Reading by the Lake mini-tour of southwestern Ontario (along the Lake Erie shore, shoreline of Fate and Fable). We had musicians, too, Ian Bell and the incomparable Michael Schatte, who now contributes a brand new, unreleased song, premiering on NC, and a knowing and literate essay on the art and craft of song-writing, which essay includes advice from Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis and, yes, Nick Lowe. Michael is a dream of a guitar player, a dashing performer, but also a thoughtful and self-conscious artist. His advice and wisdom, his methods, can cross-pollinate to any other art; he works with words and sounds and rhythms while others ply different media, but the work is always work. And he is so damned quotable. “The most ubiquitous trope in songwriting has nothing to do with good songs, and everything to do with good songs unwritten.”




Our Sun Sets Early
by Michael Schatte

Falling on down like a rotten old tree
Can’t you see, can’t you see, can’t you see?
Yes we’re sapped and the poison is trapped
From the foot to the canopy
Oh you say “we’ll live another day”
Can it be, can it be, can it be?
The last I checked the future was wrecked
And the past is the place to be

Come with me
The gates they look so pearly
Come with me
Our sun sets early

Listen here brother when I tell you what I tell you
‘Bout the sea, ’bout the sea, ’bout the sea
Your smug little chuckle’s gonna meet my knuckle
If you cry conspiracy
The water’s gonna boil over fires from hell
Oh the heat, oh the heat, oh the heat!
Pantheon judges holding ancient grudges
And Apollo plays a war beat

Where’s that voice, where’s that voice, where’s that voice I hear?
Whispering words of a doomsday ditty gonna take us all out of here
Follow me brother I’m the one receiver
Don’t you see, don’t you see, don’t you see?
The time has come, I’m the chosen one
To lead us through the prophecy

© Michael Schatte, 2013.


I recently had the pleasure of being asked to teach a four-part songwriting course in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario. The intention was to have me instruct participants on how to write songs, but then I said something to the program coordinator which I suspect at once disqualified and qualified me for the challenge. I declared in no uncertain terms that a person cannot be taught to write a great song. Instead, a person with musical ambition can be enlightened as to the creative tools which can aid the process, as well as taught to develop the protective panoply required to filter bad ideas and channel good ones. But even this was stretching it, I suppose, because the panoply I had in mind is entirely unique to the ear of the writer, being as we are at the mercy of our own taste, history of musical absorption, and innate ability to weave rhythm, melody, and lyrical poetry into something original and, in only the most successful cases, satisfying to the preponderance of people who hear it.

Despite my best attempts to sabotage this compelling opportunity, the songwriting course materialized with me in the instructor role, and it was a delightful experience. I tell this tale because the following text echoes the notion that it is impossible to teach someone how to write a song. It attempts the equally silly task of communicating a songwriting methodology and philosophy that I often cannot even explain to myself, and which therefore might only be of interest as a kind of untouchable curiosity akin to those behind glass in a low-budget 19th century traveling exhibition.

In an attempt to add tangibility to the intangible, I have included herein a brand new studio recording of a previously unreleased song of mine. By way of its lyrics and accompanying audio, I hope Our Sun Sets Early will serve as something of a case study illustrating the ideas I present briefly before you.  Regardless of whether the song tickles your own musico-sensory receptors, I hope that at the very least my explanation of the conception, birth, and growth of this piece will prove interesting, if not instructive to your own creative endeavours, musical or otherwise.


‘Office Hours’

The most ubiquitous trope in songwriting has nothing to do with good songs, and everything to do with good songs unwritten. I refer to the classic creative ‘dry spell,’ or state of artistic doldrums in which creative people seem to find themselves for interminable lengths of time. While this may be a very real phenomenon for some, I refuse to credit it. Indeed, for the sake of my own productivity, I reject it outright. The concept of writer’s block is simply too seductive, too easy an excuse for bad song craft, or far worse, periods of no song craft whatsoever.

The approach I take is what I’ve heard described as a rusty tap metaphor: sometimes the water must be turned on for a time to clear the detritus from the pipes before the pure goodness of ingestible substance arrives. That is to say, by keeping songwriting ‘office hours’ during which I simply must write – lack of imminent brilliance notwithstanding – I prime the mind for the eventual arrival of the mental goods that will become musical works deserving of capture. This is not to say that great ideas do not often arrive outside of these scheduled hours, it is simply that the regimenting of my time with songwriting in mind more readily facilitates their timely appearance.

Working in this way involves a constant battle for confidence, because there is nothing as undermining to a creative person’s self-worth than a conspicuous lack of actionable ideas. Nabokov, like most great authors, established a daily routine of composition which featured early morning writing followed by a taking of the air wherever he found himself. A head-clearing walk has worked for me on many occasions, and often I’ve found that the rhythm of my steps inspires ideas for drum patterns.  You can imagine how terribly normal I must look strolling down the street hands a-flailing, banging my chest tribally to the groove in my poor head. Nabokov’s scheduled approach reminds one that productivity requires a business-like discipline, and that we mustn’t take the work of creative geniuses for granted. As the producer Brian Eno opined, people have a tendency to attribute the output of a talent like Beethoven’s to his genius and not to his hard work. It is tempting to assume a mind that produced such glorious music did so effortlessly, discounting entirely that the real genius lies in the consistent ability to channel brilliance through hard work and persistence. There are many among us who would like to join the ranks of the prolific, but very few with the discipline to do so.


Seemingly Trivial Tools

When I sit down to write a song, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that the conditions are correct for creativity. In a pinch I’ve written useable lyric ideas on the side of a bathroom Kleenex box, but I much prefer to have a familiar and conducive surrounding if I’m spending several concerted hours at it. This means little or no fluorescent light (for me, the cozy glow of an incandescent bulb is vastly superior), no computer screens in sight (was there ever a more tyrannical attention stealer?), a large scrap book for writing in (cream coloured pages without lines encourage the free flow of ideas), and finally, a gel ink pen that can keep up with the frantic pace at which I scratch across the page.  I share these banal details because I’ve found them to be essential to my system, though they collectively place a distant second behind the one tool I simply must have present to create my music.

If you listen to Our Sun Sets Early, the dominant role of the guitar should leave no question as to why I require that instrument by my side while composing. I’m occasionally asked whether I write words or music first, and I answer that it is almost always the music, and almost always a guitar riff or chord progression that ignites the process. Indeed, on Sun Sets, the electric guitar was so inextricably linked to the plot and energy of the song that I began to hear the lead guitar as directly representative of the tumultuous nature of the cult leader’s twisted thinking.  Thus, in the instrumental outro we hear the whammy bar (a device used to bend the pitch of the guitar in unique and, if the stars align, Hendrixian ways) undulating the pitch while my voice descends into a dissonant, groaning cacophony of reverb. I included this effect to give the impression of the cult leader falling away from the world. But are these final notes and rhythmic gasps indicative of the entire world’s end or simply the demise of a mad man?  Not for me to say, of course.  I leave final interpretation to the listener.


It was during one of my Nabokov-inspired songwriting days that the audio available herein was conceived. Where the jolly idea to write a song from the perspective of a doomsday cult leader came from I know not, but clearly I found it interesting enough to devote some four hours of my time to the writing of a tune around it. Our Sun Sets Early speaks to the danger of proselytization of all stripes, illustrated here in the protagonist’s invocation of apocalyptic prophecy. At the time of its composition, I had recently released an E.P. whose title (Four Songs, One Apocalypse) and lead track (Final Night) toyed with the notion of the end of days, so writing this song was a natural extension of the same chipper, Top 40 radio conquering theme.

The writing proceeded quickly. I was excited by the concept’s potential for a brand of lively wordplay that is too seldom heard on mainstream music channels. The Greek pantheon is mentioned, for instance, with Apollo himself expected to lead the charge against the corrupt, rotting humanity the narrator invites us to escape from. You’ll notice that I avoid explaining things too overtly; instead of mentioning suicide directly – could there be a less musical sounding word? —  I allude in the chorus only to sun sets and pearly gates.  Not hard to guess what I am driving at I suspect, though you would be amazed at the misinterpretations of some of my lyrics I’ve been privy to.  I love such wild misses, as they remind me of the wonderfully unique way each person hears a piece of music, and therefore the constant potential for a singular connection between musician and listener.  In order to nurture that connection, I don’t often employ lyrics so abstract that meaning is completely uninterpretable, hoping instead to find a middle ground that rewards careful listening but does not require studying the constellations to divine my intent.


Cliché and Poetry

A few words on words: I find myself bristling every time I hear a cliché-laden song on the radio, which is to say I bristle daily. When this happens, echoes of Martin Amis’ War on Cliché ring loudly within my bulbous cranium. And yet, I think the songwriter must occasionally peddle oft-heard words and phrases, if only to create the occasional opportunity for the listener to know what one is about to sing before it is sung. There isn’t much of this dealing with the stylistic devil in Our Sun Sets Early, though perhaps I could have come up with fresher means of communicating ‘the place to be’ (verse 1) and ‘the chosen one’ (verse 3). I hope I made up for those predictable phrases with punchy alliterations like ‘doomsday ditty’ (verse 3) and ruthless rhyming a la ‘Pantheon judges holding ancient grudges’ (verse 2), both being word combinations I have never before heard uttered in song or seen in print.

I often sit staring at my raw lyrics and wonder whether they can be considered poetry. I tend to think not, as their construction is so dependent on the musical rhythm and melody of the piece, two things that cannot be communicated by the words on their own. It is akin to extracting the liquid paint from a Picasso and throwing it down on a different surface: the entire framework is lost, and the context destroyed despite all the same colours and substances being present. When I write songs, I tend to envision the lyrics bound in holy matrimony to the chords, the completed song welded to the recording process, and the final output bonded tightly to the packaging of the album itself. In other words, every step in the process is linked to what came before and will come after, and to pull any element from this context renders it impotent as far as the art is concerned.


Production and Completion

It is for this reason that I now find myself in the increasingly common position of being my own recording engineer and producer. For those not in the know, the former executes the technical capture and mixing of the song while the latter, often a non-engineer, is responsible for keeping the big sonic and economic picture in mind whilst hopefully nursing the production to a critical and commercial success.  I have readily found both joy and frustration in the tackling of these roles myself.  But as long as I continue to regard the capture and presentation of my songs as of near-equal importance to the song itself, I do not foresee relinquishing much of that control while I can still manage it.  Hence, I’m able to write from conception with the sonic pandemonium of Our Sun Sets Early in mind, and create the loud, violent ending of the mix with my original intent firmly wed to the sonic manipulation that came of it.  Whether this connectivity to all facets of the production truly benefits my music is perhaps not for me to say, but one can rest assured that the various stages of the process form a circle of inspiration that at the very least keeps my pen returning to the page, ready to drop the ink of the next song.

That being said, I often find it difficult to start a new composition if there is a potentially good song in a state of incompletion. Knowing when the thing is finished is possibly the most difficult aspect of the entire process, and there have been many works in progress lost to a kind of creative purgatory.  This is probably for the best, as the finest songs seem to have a way of writing themselves, and quickly at that.  In these cases I am left breathless at the end of the writing session, marveling that so much was done in such short order when there were occasionally entire days of aborted ideas and lyrical dead ends that preceded it. How do I know when the song needs no further effort? I cling strongly to British songwriter Nick Lowe’s imperishable litmus test: the song is finished when it sounds as though someone else wrote it. I will leave you now, as I ponder the psychological implications of that statement.

—Michael Schatte

Michael Schatte is an acclaimed Canadian guitarist, singer, and songwriter based in Toronto. He has released several albums under his own name, including his latest, Four Songs, One Apocalypse. Michael will release a new double album in late 2014, on which Our Sun Sets Early will no doubt reside. For more information including live performance footage and album audio visit www.michaelschatte.com.



Feb 062014

Desktop43Proust & Musil

Today, a truly fascinating essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, on À la recherche du temps perdu and A Man Without Qualities, that starts with a comic anecdote about Musil’s annoyance at being compared to that “nibbling mouse” in Paris and goes on to a parallel use of a certain technique, the “extratemporal” moment, the moment outside of time. Both Musil and Proust make a special case for the mythic or transcendent quality of metaphor, both write to infinitely expand the minute. Genese Grill is that wonderful combination, a scholar and an artist; and she does that lovely thing poets can do: she enacts in her prose the subject of her essay; she juxtaposes two quite different authors and in that moment of tense suspension creates a spectacular moment of clarity and insight.



But it was also like a metaphor, where the things compared are the same yet on the other hand quite different, and from the dissimilarity of the similar as from the similarity of the dissimilar two columns of smoke drift upward with the magical scent of baked apples and pine twigs strewn on the fire (Musil MWQ 153).[1]

In a diary entry from the late thirties or early forties, Robert Musil complained that people were comparing his work to that of a contemporary French novelist, and that their comparisons were rather like equating the unshakeable will of a lion with a nibbling mouse.[2] The lion — Musil himself — admitted elsewhere to having read no more than ten pages of this mouse’s voluminous work in his life, afraid presumably of being tainted by either influence or, more probably, the rumor of association. And yet, from the farther distance of three quarters of a century, from a more thorough reading of Proust than Musil’s own ten pages, one may begin to draw some lines of association, to make a metaphor, as it were, of these two separate persons. Neither Musil nor Proust, despite their famous exactitude about language, bothers, to note a relevant though minor similarity, to distinguish between different sorts of figurative language, referring indiscriminately to metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, and anthropomorphism as simply metaphor, likeness, or association. For the purposes of this discussion then, at the risk of offending grammarians, metaphor will refer — as it did for these authors — to any process of association between objects, things, persons, experiences, events, or times.

Admitting that, as Musil’s character Ulrich both warns and wonders, metaphoric association always involves a level of inaccuracy, a process of leaving out, and a necessary optical illusion of sameness where myriad differences prevail, we may begin to force these two different authors for the space of this short paper into a slightly uncomfortable proximity, in hopes that such temporary and perhaps over-bold imprecision will be fruitful.  This process involves a reduction of a complex arrangement of details to broad strokes, generalities, universals.  “Every concept,” wrote Nietzsche, “comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent […] by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another”.  “Truth,” he continued, is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms” (Nietzsche 877-878).

And Ulrich, explaining to Diotima that she, like an author, always “leaves out what doesn’t suit [her]” argues that “all concepts upon which we base our lives are no more than congealed metaphors,” — which doesn’t contradict his previous statement that “by leaving things out, we bring beauty and excitement into the world”(MWQ 625-626). Proust’s definition of Beauty, provided in a letter to Madame de Noailles, describes this optical illusion similarly: “It’s a kind of blending,” he writes, “ a transparent unity in which all things, having lost their initial aspect as things, have lined up beside each other in a sort of order, are instilled with the same light and are seen within each other. I suppose,” he concludes, “this is what is called the gloss of the old masters”(qtd. In Tadie 443). And, in The Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator admits the necessary reduction and abstraction which takes place in the translation of reality into fiction, confessing that he has reduced the whole environs of Combray to a few outlines, “like the decor one sees prescribed on the title page of an old play, for its performance in the provinces”. “As though,” he continues, “all of Combray had consisted of but two floors joined by a slender staircase, and as though there had been no time there but seven o’clock”(I 33) .

In this regard, every work of art — and every personal judgment about reality — as a result of selecting out and reduction or — one might even say, abstraction, is a process of metaphoric association, or, to use the terminology which Musil and Proust mostly chose to ignore, a process, more specifically of synecdoche, whereby a part only of reality is presented as a representation or symbol of the whole.  A work of art, then, is a sort of selective microcosm of places, events, persons, experiences, and details of all kinds, an attempt to symbolically contain all of time within the boundaries of its form. In a novel the size of Musil’s or Proust’s, however, we see art straining to stretch a map somewhat like the mythical one Borges describes in a short sketch–a map which was so exact that it covered over the entire territory it attempted to describe. While traditionally, novelists have selected only those elements which, as Hamlet notes, “serve to swell the progress of a scene,” Musil and Proust, in the almost willfully lethargic non-action of their characters, raise the question: how would a novel look which described all of the moments in between the action, or a map which depicted all of the places leading up to or receding from the usual focal points of a journey?

Their moments of attention are quite different than what our readerly expectations have been trained to await.  These moments, moreover, do not necessarily line up like purposeful dots to form an easily traceable path. Musil and Proust present us with an emphatically different methodology for arranging and thinking about our lives and about the possible narration of experience. This methodology rests, I submit, in the metaphorical qualities of what I will call the extratemporal moment–a recurring motif in both novels wherein two objects, places, persons, times, or experiences are temporarily associated with each other, lifting the experiencer and the reader into a realm outside of the time of the novel, and, what is more essential, to a realm which is outside of time altogether. For both Proust and Musil, the consciousness of an extratemporal reality is connected with mystical and mythical ideas about an eternal realm untainted by the scourges of time and death, and, for Musil–more specifically–of the realm he calls the millennium–a thousand years of heaven on earth–wherein an eternity is thought to be contained within a moment. “A thousand years is nothing more than the opening and closing of an eye”(MoE 1233 ); but all of Musil’s novel enacts this relationship of the moment with eternity. “For Proust,” writes Gerard Genette in a footnote, “lost time is not, as is widely but mistakenly believed, ‘past’ time, but time in its pure state, which is really to say, through the fusion of a present moment and a past moment, the contrary of passing time: the extra-temporal, eternity” (ff.7, 226). Genette continues, quoting Proust’s  Jean Santeuil: “As if our true nature were outside time, created to taste the eternal” (ff.8, 226). Another way to taste the eternal, perhaps a little easier than attaining to the millennium or falling into a mystical trance, is through the creation or experience of a work of art. Proust’s narrator’s discovery of a vocation through the sudden realization of correspondences is, of course, a manifest illustration of this theory of metaphor. The creation of a work of art, in other words, depends upon the involuntary association of two separate entities; metaphor is, for both of these authors, the means to the extratemporal, to the eternal moment.

In precisely a “moment” within The Man Without Qualities, wherein two concepts, “violence and love do not have quite their conventional meaning” it occurs to Ulrich that “life–bursting with conceit over its here-and-now but really a most uncertain, even a downright unreal condition–pours itself headlong into the few dozen cake molds of which reality consists” (MWQ 645). The fact that two concepts temporarily lose their conventional meaning here, and that they do this within a moment, is another reflection of the fruitful nature of metaphor; but,  paradoxically,  the insight which is born is that metaphor can be reductive as well as rich in possibilities. These few dozen molds which constitute one way in which people and authors metaphorically translate reality are clearly somewhat restrictive; they seem to limit rather than expand imagination and, by association, the possibilities of literature and life.  Perhaps we have to differentiate between the “congealed metaphors” which Ulrich mocked in his discussion with Diotima, metaphors which are more like clichés or tired concepts, and another fresher, more immediate species of newly minted juxtapositions.

In a particularly complex chapter wherein Ulrich confronts the imposing beauty of an old church and with it the tension between petrified forms, traditions, definitions and the creative energy of a fluid force he calls “mist,” metaphor is precisely the open sesame to seeing things differently, to creatively de- and re-constructing the fixed meanings and historical course of the world.  Ulrich sees the church as an old matron, “sitting here in the shade, with a huge belly terraced like a flight of steps, her back resting against the houses behind her.” “It was only seconds,” relates the narrator after a long digression on time, beauty, and change, “that Ulrich stood outside the church, but they rooted in him and compressed his heart with all the resistance of primal instinct against this world petrified into millions of tons of stone, against this frozen moonscape of feeling where, involuntarily, he had been set down” (MwQ 136).  A metaphor, followed by insights which “flashed on Ulrich with surprising suddenness,” is in this case a fruitful and expansive momentary experience which stops the flow of the narrative and undoes reality by merging two possible objects abducted from the world of real and solid things.

Proust’s narrator, describing Elstir’s paintings of seascapes, describes further metaphor’s ability to take from things their initial characteristics or qualities:   “The charm of each of them,” he explains, “lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the things represented in it, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew” (I 628). More famously, in the waiting room at the Guermante’s mansion, inundated repeatedly by a series of metaphoric correspondences and sense-memories (paving stones, clanking spoons, textures of cloth) which make him believe for the first time that he can write, the narrator notes the sudden transmutation from real world to the realm of fairy tale. After wiping his mouth with a napkin that is like unto a towel from his past life, he explains that, “immediately, like the character in The Arabian Nights who unwittingly performs precisely the rite that calls up before him, visible to his eyes alone, a docile genie, ready to transport him far away, a fresh vision of azure blue passed before my  eyes…”(II 993).

The sudden perception of a correspondence between two separate entities transports both Ulrich and Proust’s narrator from their present time-bound world into the extratemporal like magic; such correspondence cannot, according to both theorists of metaphor, be bidden, it cannot be logically prepared for; but when it comes, it comes with a beatific force to temporarily blot out everything else. While there may, then, be only limited petrified realities (heavy and fixed as stone) or formal arrangements out of the pragmatic necessity of the pursuance of normal life and the continuation of some semblance of narrative, there seem to be infinite possibilities for the extratemporal legerdemain of metaphoric displacement—to effortlessly topple centuries of tradition, discombobulate time lines, or to magically translate a dreamer from a post-WWI Parisian drawing room to a hovering trans-historical magic carpet.

Metaphor–the act of making equivalent that which is not equivalent is a sort of a category mistake, a deviation.  And, more importantly for the creation and valuation of literature, metaphor, as Paul Ricouer wrote, “bears information because it ‘redescribes’ reality.  Thus,” he  continued, “ the category mistake is the de-constructive intermediary phase between the description and the redescription” (Rule 22). Metaphor, in other words, being inherent in the creation of any fictional world, involves something like a critique of the real world as prerequisite to a redescription .  By connecting Ricouer’s work on metaphor with his work on narrative and time, we may note that fictional time, in his conception, is a metaphoric redescription of cosmological and historical time which explores “the resources of phenomenological time that are left unexploited or are inhibited by historical narrative [...] These hidden resources of phenomenological time,” Ricouer continues, “and the aporias which their discovery gives rise to, form the secret bond between the two modalities of narrative [fictive and historical]. Fiction,” he concludes, “is a treasure trove of imaginative variations applied to the theme of phenomenological time and its aporias”(Time 128).

While all novels thus bear a metaphoric relationship with reality, in The Man Without Qualities and Remembrance of Things Past, we are not only presented with two simple or self-contained redescriptions of the world; in addition to performing the normal metaphorical function vis à vis reality, metaphor in these works takes on a more specialized role, that of presenting further imaginative variations to the basic imaginative variation of each fictional world itself; this double undoing reflects strikingly back upon life from the realm of literature by its explicit questioning of all attempts to make order and to tell stories in a strictly linear order.  As Musil wrote in response to a criticism leveled against the relative plotlessness of his novel, “The problem: how shall I come to narration, is as much my stylistic problem as it is the life problem of the main character”.[3] Both novels, furthermore, wage their own wars on normal reality: Ulrich, when asked what he would do if he could rule the world for the day, announces, “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality” (MWQ 312); Marcel, for his part, declares that art alone can reveal to us “our life, life as it really is, life disclosed and at last made clear, consequently the only life that is really lived…” (II 1013).

While metaphoric processes within these two books repeatedly stem the flow of the narratives (such as they are) and, within the already disjunctive and non-linear procession of their lengthy, never-ending and never finished scope, present momentary and extra-spatial distentions, they also serve to call attention to the extra-temporal process of metaphoric thinking which is the basis of both literature and life.  Metaphoric thinking is, thus, an alternative to what Ulrich describes as longing for “the simple sequence of events in which the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things is represented, in a unidimensional order, as a mathematician would say, stringing all that has occurred in space and time on a single thread, which calms us; that celebrated ‘thread of the story,’ which is, it seems, the thread of life itself”.  Although, he continues to muse, people love the illusion of this consequent ordering of cause and effect, and look to it “as their refuge from chaos,” he notes that, “he had lost this elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface” (MwQ 709).   In a modernist novel which has lost that “elementary, narrative mode,” one can see the function of metaphor as the creation of an almost infinite number of expanding thought moments, decentralized centers, if you will, within the “infinitely interwoven surface,” which assert convincing alternatives to the comforting illusion of the “thread of the story”.  “Then there is a center,” writes Musil in a late draft, “and all around it other centers come into being” (MoE 1524, trans. mine).

Ulrich asserts repeatedly through the novel that he wants to live life like a character in a book, removing what he calls “the fatty tissue of life”; and Proust’s narrator describes a state of mind wherein a supposed real character, his lost love Albertine, is perceived as a fictional personage. He posits a world “in which Albertine counted so little [...] perhaps an intellectual world, which was the sole reality,” and a world in which his grief would be, “something like what we feel when we read a novel [wherein we would] think no more about what Albertine had done than we think about the action of the imaginary heroine of a novel after we have finished reading it” (II 374-5).

In both cases we are right to pause, for Ulrich and Albertine are, in fact, already characters in books!  But —and this is the important question here — what sort of books?  Books, it should by now be clear, which by undermining material reality, may reach the more essential — the eternal — Proust’s “sole reality” or Musil’s life without the fatty tissue, books wherein the thread of the story, otherwise known as the plot, is very tenuous amid the heady atmosphere of swirling timelessness and the dense non-action of thinking, amid the constant distention of extended metaphors and recurring metaphoric moments of mystical aesthetic experience. The books in which these characters would live if they were real are, presumably, the sort of books which they do live in as fictional, books rather more like those favored by Virginia Woolf in her essay Modern Fiction, which, rather than recording plot, tragedy, love interest, or catastrophe, describe life as it really was after the turn of the century, as a subjective experience of “myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.  From all sides they come, an incessant shower of incomparable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there”.  “Life,” Woolf famously continues, “is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (106).

That the metaphoric moment, for both Proust and Musil, constitutes a means for the arresting and dilating of time, a sort of escape from the normal reality of the novels themselves, should be examined in light of the length of these novels; the tension, in other words, between these recurring moments and the stretch of pages that persists. Judith Ryan, in her excellent book on early psychology in the modern novel, writes that “The early 20th century writers’ attempt to embed depictions of such moments into the novel, rather than reserve them for lyric poetry as the Romantics had done, was symptomatic of their view that these special states were part and parcel of reality, not something beyond it” (223).[4] The difficult question explored by this formal challenge concerns the relationship of these exceptional moments of experience with the necessary continuation of normal time and some semblance of linear narrative.

How are these moments to be valued within these novels?  How are we to understand the narrator Marcel’s statement that the pleasure which these metaphoric moments of contemplation had given him at “rare intervals” in his life, “was the only one that was fecund and real” (II 998)  or that he “would have sacrificed [his] dull life in the past, and all [his] life to come, erased with the India-rubber of habit, for one of these special, unique moments”(II 395)?  Can we begin to take seriously the challenge waged against reality by the mystics with whom Ulrich and his sister Agathe go to school, who saw that in certain states of consciousness, “the ordinary world, with its apparently so real people and things that lord it over everything like fortresses on cliffs, if one looks back at it, together with its evil and impoverished relationships, appears only as a consequence of a moral error from which we have already withdrawn our organs of sense”?[5] Or must we, still stuck in the paradigm of positivism, linearity, and the illusion of permanence which these novels explicitly aim to dissolve, deem Musil’s experiment with the “other condition” a failure because Ulrich and Agathe’s idyll in paradise does not endure any longer than an infinite moment?  Or conclude that Proust’s world of literature is merely an untenable aesthetic dream because its ultimate judgment on life favors transcendent moments experienced solipsistically and in an infinite circle?

Perhaps one last metaphor will provide us with a provisional answer (in a world of partial solutions and eternal non-closure) to at least the question of Musil’s ultimate conclusions about the viability or value of “the other condition” of these extratemporal moments. If we boldly make a metaphor of Musil’s and Proust’s novels, comparing along with all we have already discussed in all too swift passing their strikingly similar methods of continual drafting, of experimental overlapping versions, of non-closure, we may pause to wonder if Ulrich’s development, from something like what Gilles Deleuze called Proust’s narrator’s initial “apprenticeship to disillusionment”, might likewise have been towards  the discovery of vocation and the autobiographically shadowed next step of beginning to write the novel which we have just read.  In other words, as Proust’s own life is metaphorically echoed in his novel (through displacements, gender shifts, and palimpsests of a-chronology); so is Ulrich’s story very similar to his author’s, who, like his character, was an army man, an engineer, and a mathematician; and who had found, like Ulrich, a twin who was not really a twin in his wife Martha. Gene Moore in his book on Musil and Proust interprets that Musil wanted to depict in this way the “cultural suicide” of his age and, by association, the failure of his dream of “the other condition”. The culmination in war might, instead, be merely the next step in the metaphorical narration of Musil’s own experience–a next step with surprisingly positive connotations for Musil, who experienced a powerful near death experience while on the battlefield which serves as one model for the ecstasy of the other condition.

That “War,” as Musil writes in a late novel draft, “lasts a month and sex a night,”[6] is not an argument against the reality of either. Nor does Proust’s narrator’s patently absurd attempt to eternally imprison Albertine (La Prisonierre) within his rooms, to catch and hold beautiful youth, translate to a negation of the relative meaning of that which must necessarily, by its nature, be fleeting.

That neither Musil nor Proust depict the duration of these moments of exceptional experience is precisely the point; for “real essences,” in a post-Einsteinian universe, are neither solid nor consistent; real essences are in flux; they change depending upon the conditions, the atmosphere, on our relative relationship to them, depending, most of all, upon their association or temporary metaphoric relationship with other essences.

Ulrich, hundreds of pages before he even so much as thinks of his forgotten sister Agathe, says that he will either have to write a book or kill himself, and then again in later notations for the end of the novel, confesses that his three choices in life were: “Suicide, writing books, going to war” (MwQ, 1757). Perhaps — if you will humor me in my metaphor for a moment or two more, Ulrich’s answer to the impossibility of holding the moment in the real world, of maintaining a sense of conviction, desire, love, or beauty, can be glimpsed in the reflection of Proust’s novel, wherein the narrator discovers, after returning from a long convalescent exile during WWI, that all of his friends have grown so suddenly old that he believes at first that he has arrived at a masquerade party where the guests are wearing powdered wigs and face make-up.  “For I knew,” the narrator relates — pointing to the inevitability of death, “what these changes meant, what they were the prelude to”(II 1045).  The only answer, of course, could be the creation of a lasting work of art, the writing of the book which Musil would spend the rest of his post-war life writing—the book he was working on the day he died.  “Truth,” Proust writes, “will begin only when the author takes two different objects, establishes their relationship […]and encloses them in the necessary rings of a beautiful style […] makes their essential nature stand out clearly by joining them in metaphor, in order to remove them from the contingencies of time[…]”(II 1008-9).

Which must be why Proust himself, on his death bed, furiously dictated his experiences of dying to his secretary to be transposed into the still unfinished novel as the death scene of another character!  Even — or perhaps especially — in death, literature was more important than life. “Little patch of yellow wall, little patch of yellow wall,” mutters another perishing character in Proust’s novel, sucking in his very last glimpses of beauty before a Vermeer painting: “And finally,” Proust writes, “the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall.  His giddiness increased; he fixed his eyes, like a child upon a yellow butterfly which it is trying to catch, upon the precious patch of a wall”(II 509) For there in this little patch of color, not, after all, in remembering the people he had loved or lost or been betrayed by, not in reviewing the fleeting heroic actions, the failures and successes of idle scenarios or delusive desires, but there, in a metaphoric transubstantiation wherein paint becomes an image of a wall becomes prose becomes the uncatchable, elusive, fluttering yellow butterfly which is mortality, there is the extratemporal moment, eternally though ephemerally trembling…not something that lasts, alas, but, on the other hand, the only thing that does.

—Genese Grill

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science” Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Genette, Gérard.  Figures of Literary Discourse. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Columbia U P, 1984.

Moore, Gene E. Proust and Musil: The Novel as Research Instrument. Garland Series in Comparative Literature. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1985.

Musil, Robert.  Briefe [Letters]1901-1942. Ed. Adolf Frisé with help from Murray G. Hall. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1981

Gesammelte Werke: Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften. Reinbeck bei Hamburg:  Rowohlt, 1978.

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

Tagebücher (TB).  Reinbeck bei Hamburg:  Rowohlt, 1983.

The Man Without Qualities (MWQ).  Trans.  Burton Pike and Sophie Wilkens.  New York,   Knopf, 1995.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”. Trans. Ronald Speirs.  The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent P. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001.

Proust, Marcel.  Remembrance of Things Past.  Trans.  C.K. Scott Moncrieff.  New York : Random House, 1934, 2 volumes.

Ricouer, Paul.  Time and Narrative, pt. II.  Trans.  Kathleen McLaughlin & David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Trans. Robert Czerny ; with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello. Toronto/Buffalo : U of Toronto P, 1977.

Ryan, Judith. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1991

Tadie, Jean-Yves.   Marcel Proust: A  Life. Trans. Euan Cameron. New York:  Penguin,  2001

Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’. Collected Essays. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966, 3 vols., II.

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

G photo for BBF

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Musil, Robert. The Man without Qualities (MwQ).  Trans.  Burton Pike and Sophie Wilkens.  Knopf: New York, 1995, 153; Gesammelte Werke: Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (GW, MoE) 145: “Aber so wie in einem Gleichnis, wo die Dinge die gleichen sind, dawider aber auch ganz verschieden sind, und aus dem Ungleichnis des Gleichen wie aus der Gleichnis des Ungleichen zwei Rauchsäelen aufsteigen, mit dem märchenhaften Geruch von Bratäpfeln und ins Feuer gestreuten Fichtenzweigen, war es auch”.
  2. Robert Musil: Tagebücher [Diaries]. Ed. Adolf Frisé. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1976, 934.
  3. From a letter probably written to Bernard Guillemin, January 26th, 1931. Robert Musil: Briefe [Letters]1901-1942. Ed. Adolf Frisé with help from Murray G. Hall. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1981, 498 (translation mine).
  4. Judith Ryan. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991
  5. GW 5: MoE, 1642 (translation mine).
  6. Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition; KA): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009, Transkriptionen und Faksimiles, Nachlass Mappen, Mappengruppe II, Mappe II/2 “NR-23-”, Notizen zur Reinschrift 23-36, 2/11/16, NR 33-3/Studie zum Problem Aufbau-3: “. Letzte Zuflucht Sex u Krieg: aber Sex dauert 1 Nacht der Krieg immerhin wahrscheinlich 1 Monat. usw.”
Feb 012014

Julie JacobsonAuthor Photo: Brent Jacobson

Every once in a while, as a teacher, you’re blessed with a student who touches your heart, a student with intelligence, an earnest desire to learn, a story to tell, some panache and a dash of courage. Julie Jacobson is one such. An Ahtna Athabaskan native from the village of Tazlina in the Copper River Basin of Alaska, now living on a ranch in Colorado with her family, Julie Jacobson has a great story: growing up in a culture with one foot in a traditional past and another, somewhat shakily, in the modern present. She wanted to write about her self and her people and preserve what was vanishing. But last fall our semester together took a twist, as you will soon see, and a second great subject intruded, not one you would ever look for. What Julie does in this essay, stripped down and simple, a list-essay in form and inspiration, is deliver the experience — the terror, the waiting, the struggle for certainty, the people who helped and the people who didn’t, the utterly human moment when cancer upends life and nothing is ever ordinary again — you can’t ask for more.



In April, I noticed swelling in my right groin.  It was off and on painful and puffy in comparison to my left side. I had insurance and no reason not to check it out. I went to the doctor in the nearby college town of Durango. To save me having to pay my deductible, the general practitioner at the private practice I visited recommended and referred me to the Northern Navajo Medical Center for a CT scan to check for appendicitis. I sat in the NNMC emergency room for two hours. After the scan and evaluation, I was given over-the counter-drugs and told it could be appendicitis, but the pain and swelling weren’t severe enough to point to surgery yet. Later that week, the pain subsided and the swelling went down. I didn’t worry about it.

I went in for my annual exam in August. After reviewing my mammogram, an MRI and a needle biopsy, my gynecologist said she thought I had might have a wide-spread case of ductal carcinoma that could indicate the need for a bilateral mastectomy. I had 27 stars of calcium in my breasts. When I looked over her shoulder, she pointed out what looked like bright little white spots peppered in the grey fibrous web of two dimensional tissue on the screen. “You certainly have a lot going on in here,” she said, tapping the screen – “they are stars.”  Stars? I asked, thinking of gravity and falling and white hot plasma and constellations – with life all their own. “It isn’t definitive yet, so let’s just watch it.” With the attention on breast tissue changes, my right groin lump slipped out of focus, shrugged off as a hernia and not appendicitis. I couldn’t remember straining or hurting myself, but the doctor said – so it was a hernia. My lump stayed, undisturbed and untested, and I was more careful about what I lifted until I could schedule surgery between middle school football games, ranching duties, grad school assignments, and household responsibilities.

I thought, breast cancer? Maybe, but the doctors aren’t sure. This part of a diagnosis process is called watch and wait. I stared at the ceiling at night while everyone slept. The words, “Let’s look again in three months” and “What if?” ran through my head and kept me from sleep.

I thought of the worst, planned my way into and out of the doom and gloom. I planned for a beautiful halter tattoo to replace my bra. I even sketched it out and thought about how I would be free from sports bras forever. I thought I would ride my horses more often.

I didn’t tell my husband or my sons.


In September, the right groin lump swelled again and became painful and I made plans to have a pre-surgical evaluation when the month slowed down. I went on a river trip down the Colorado River with 17 other women writers, thinking I might have breast cancer, and wanting to really live and experience and write.

On the second to last day of a week-long trip, I jumped from the raft at Horsethief Canyon and rode alone and unguarded through class II rapids in my life vest, fully clothed and holding onto my sunglasses and a cinched-down sun hat. Cold muddy water washed over my head and I swallowed the earth in that minute under water. When I emerged on the other side of the rapids feet and head up, I watched black boulders rush by on the right and left of me, thinking, I’ve really lived now. When the other women pulled me into the boat and congratulated me for the solo ride, with a wide grin I said, “I’d do it again.  Nothing can take this away from me.”

I dared myself to be scared, to be brave, and to be crazy.

I cried in front of strangers and made friends.

When the trip was over, I took my time going home on the nine-hour drive from Moab, Utah.  I didn’t listen to music or a book. I just drove in silence and thought about my family and how we would get through this breast cancer threat.


That week, heavy rains doused the Rockies and some Colorado rivers washed away whole towns and I drove past them and thought, I might have breast cancer. People lost everything they owned. I thought, I could have breast cancer. People had raw sewage in their front yards and couldn’t drink their well water. I thought, the doctor said I had ductal carcinoma.

The same week, Katie — one of my best friends, had a beautiful and healthy baby boy. She had a perfect life on the outside, but I knew she had struggled growing up with family money and heady expectations. Katie struggled to have the perfect career, and the perfect marriage, and she had waited to get pregnant until the timing was perfect. Perfect or not, she keeps her misery to herself. Katie is the kindest and most generous woman I know. She deserves to be happy. I didn’t want to dampen her celebration.  I didn’t visit her (though I’d planned to before my doctor’s revelation) — knowing that I would not be able to keep my secret from her.

At home, after my rafting trip, I woke up every morning, raised my arms and imagined that I felt the tiny stars of calcium and cancer. I wrote about them by nightlight while my family slept.

I looked up everything written in every medical website I could find in the English-speaking world about cancer treatments. I made a Pinterest board with my cryptic notes typed under articles or medical contacts.

I wrote a list about things I wanted to make sure I told my children about.

I found a blue sharpie and put twenty-seven dots on my breasts. I scrubbed the dots off in the shower the next day.

Somehow another week passed.


The weekend before I told my family, I watched my tough and tender twelve and a half-year old son play in a middle school football game and wondered if it would be the last time he would be carefree.

I woke at 3:30 in the morning and wrote a list about what I was afraid of.


October arrived.  I vowed to get healthier than I’d ever been, but the same week after I ordered a spinning bike, the lump in my right groin swelled and throbbed again.  Now it was the size of a big fat lima bean.  I let it sit for two weeks, palpating it every day before I got out of bed, integrating my ad hoc lump assessments into my daily breast exam routine.  My immediate grad school writing assignments completed, I thought I should get the hernia operated on, so I went to my local general practice physician.  He talked about Obamacare and told me that foreigners were taking over our country.  He said, “People like us,” and “White people are a minority now,” and “People on entitlement programs should be drug tested.” I listened patiently while he gloved up.  I told him the lump had gotten bigger and my gynecologist said that the hernia could get hard and become troublesome.  He had me lay back and asked how long it had been there. He felt the margins, and got a cold steel measuring device from the counter. “2.5 x 2 centimeters. That is not a hernia,” he announced and then in still in his purple nitrile gloves he tapped the counter, writing illegible notes with a ball point pen. He quietly said I needed an MRI or a CT scan with contrast but the hardness of the mass was not a good sign. I didn’t comprehend what he said until later. I was still irritated over his political rant so I told the good doctor I was Native American and he got even quieter.


When I went to the hospital to schedule my imaging appointment, the Hispanic woman at the appointment desk said I couldn’t be seen without first telling her my race and ethnicity. I balked and told her that was illegal as I handed her my private insurance card and a check for my co-pay.  She said she had to have my answers or the system wouldn’t let me progress through to schedule my screening. I left without an appointment. I called it in to her after debating how important my rights were versus getting my test.

A week later, I had the first CT scan with contrast at 9:00 AM on my 45th birthday.

I made small talk with Eric, the traveling x-ray technician from Tennessee. He was six foot eight inches tall, nappy haired, kind, and reminded me of a big teddy bear. When it came time for him to insert the needle for the IV, he said, “I’ve never done this before, but people say I’m pretty good at it.” Laying on the CT table as he thumped my vein for the IV, my left hand was very near his crotch and I said, “We are not going to hurt each other — are we?” It didn’t hurt, but I didn’t have an epidural when my children were born either. Eric injected the contrast dye into my IV prepped arm for the CT scan. When the rushing warm sensation of the dye ran through my veins I thought I wet myself. We both laughed.

Once I was unhooked and dismissed, Eric extended his massive hand and gently squeezed mine, telling me to think positive. Eric stayed to clean up the room when I told the other imaging technicians that I paid $2,200 for the test and I wanted to see the results. They looked at each other, said they couldn’t show me. I’d have to wait for the report and my doctor could show me the images then. I stood with my hand on my hip in the doorway and wore my best cranky mother look and one of them cleared his throat and then pulled them up on the 64 slice CT computer screen. I saw a glowing rainbow of colors with a blue aura around the lump in my groin.  Everything else was grey.

A woman I didn’t know hugged me in the bathroom.

I stopped at the hospital lab and had blood drawn for a complete blood count and some other tubes for tests I don’t remember the names of.

I left my favorite scarf in the waiting room.

I lost my dog-eared Harry Middleton book somewhere.

I sobbed in the arms of strangers in the hallway.

I drove myself home and wrote a letter to my youngest son about the day he was born.


One day ran into the next. I did everyday things on auto pilot. I rescheduled everything that required thought or enthusiasm.

Five days after my imaging appointment, and probably my last shower, I answered the door bra-less in a worn black concert tee-shirt and snoopy fuzzy pajama bottoms. While pushing my dogs out of the way of the door, I realized I had two different kinds of house shoes on. At the time, I didn’t care. The familiar UPS man brought an Amazon package up the stairs and eyed me cautiously, like I might pull a bloody kitchen knife out of my sagging elastic waistband. He handed the package over careful not to touch my hand and pushed off the steps – springing quickly to his truck saying, “Say Hi to Brent.”

I cleaned myself up.

My husband and I went to the grocery store that evening and my doctor called right as I put my pickup in park.  I answered my cell phone and with a kiss I waved my husband off to field the call by myself. My doctor told me that the radiologist had confirmed his suspicions and he thought that I had some form of lymphoma. He asked if I knew someone I wanted to see for it, I said no, and he said he would send an order for the surgery and biopsy.

My husband returned with my list checked off and bags with organic coconut milk, orange juice, apples and cereal poking through the plastic. I told him what the doctor said while we put groceries in the back seat. He cried and I didn’t. I told him that I would be fine. Lymphoma is 89% survivable and I’m tough and too mean to die this young. He wasn’t even mad that I hadn’t told him earlier. His mother has stage four lung cancer. It has been an awful year watching her fight for her life.


I couldn’t sleep with the words “unusual”, “abnormal”, “mass” and finally, “cancerous” swimming through my subconscious.  I read Winter in the Blood  by nightlight, and listened to The Alchemist on mp3 at the same time. When I finished those, I read poetry by William Pitt Root and listened to The Round House.


A week after my CT scan, I got shingles. Bumpy red skin stretched over my torso and my shingles ached and burned at the same time. I thought I might die during the night when they broke open, but then I realized that dying from shingles would be weak and embarrassing.

I hated fucking happy people.

I resented people who have time to paint their fingernails or get their eye makeup perfect or talk about split ends.

I still had to water and feed calves, horses, bulls, cats, and dogs on our ranch. Cows looked at me with sad eyes. I’m sure they knew. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I decided that my hair was beautiful grey. I didn’t think I looked like someone with cancer. Maybe a little too plump. I don’t look sick. I thought I should get cleaned up and make a boudoir photo appointment so I could prove to myself that I looked alluring at one point in my life.

I asked myself, do I need a will?  What is a living will?

I heard an NPR personality say, “Don’t talk about your health. Nobody cares. Don’t talk about how you slept. Nobody cares.”

I thought:  what if eating sugar is feeding my cancer? Everything is sugar. I don’t want to change what I eat. I hate tofu.  The cancer survivor books say, No animal proteins and No sugar. I think I’d rather die. Why me? How do people get through this? Why are there so many books about breast cancer and so little about how to get medical professionals to care? How come I can’t find a patient navigator that doesn’t work for some insurance company or some treatment center? Does my breath smell bad? I don’t want to rot. Why do I still have to do everything as if I were healthy and normal? Why can’t I just fold up shop and drink? Don’t I have a license for that? I can’t. Why am I still taking Immune Option supplements? Should I take more? How about more orange juice? Wait. I can’t have sugar. Is orange juice sugar? What about un-sweetened apple juice? What about carrot juice? One website says to cut out all sugars and adopt a vegan diet. Another says to cut all carbohydrates. What the hell am I supposed to eat?


I waited impatiently for the next step of surgery and biopsy. I checked my phone no less than ten times an hour. I know. I counted for eight hours. For seven days.

I ordered two hundred dollars’ worth of scented bath soap from QVC.

I read five books on surviving cancer.

I thought, I don’t want to explain this to one more person.

I think I liked it better before everyone knew. My mother-in-law asked if I wanted to explain it to her daughter, my sister-in-law. I said, “No, I don’t.  I don’t even talk to her so why would I want to explain my health situation to her. I don’t give a god damn about what she cares about. She can light a thousand fucking candles and pray to the Greek God of Life or Buddha or Jesus Christ, and I won’t know or care about it. Tell her not to waste her time. There is no god. There is no one looking down on us to guide us and help us make good decisions, let alone protect us.” She cried. I went on. “If I were a Christian, I would be really pissed off right now. Furious. That’s what I’d be. How can there be a god who knows what I’m going through and yet, with the powers he/they supposedly have, still allow suffering?” I said this to a lovely bald woman with stage four lung cancer.

After I ranted, I thought, I am an asshole. What is wrong with me? I have nothing but rogue cells, which can be fought with many kinds of treatment. I have nothing really. Look at how people suffer around the world. I have nothing to gripe about. I don’t have leprosy. I don’t have a rapidly growing flesh-eating bacteria. I’m not living in fear of being raped by multiple strangers on a bus in India. I don’t have to put on a flack vest to be able to go to the mailbox. I don’t have to decide which child gets food today. I don’t live on the streets. I don’t have anything to gripe about. Really. I just have a lump.


What caused the lump? I investigated. I created Pinterest boards to organize my findings. According to lymphomainfo.net, there are a few things that are known to cause lymphoma. One is radiation and exposure to benzene. Shit. I’ve taken a lot of x-rays in a dental office. I don’t know about benzene exposure. The second is using hair dye before the 80’s. Did I dye my hair before the 80’s? No. In the 90’s. Yes. Another thing that predisposes a person for lymphoma is living in an agricultural area that has a high use of pesticides and herbicides?  Have I done that? Yes, since 2008.

I thought: I hate farmers. I want to bazooka fertilizer tanks. I could put camo on and drive around blowing up fertilizer trucks. I could take a stand. Blow up some spray airplanes. Sure, I’d go to jail, but it would draw attention to what they have done to the earth and me. Maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it is just a combination of black jelly beans and sugared orange slices. Maybe it is too much green or lemongrass tea. Maybe it is from that time I accidentally gave myself a shot of black leg vaccine in my finger? Or how about when I dripped Ivomec, the liquid cattle dewormer, on myself while processing cows. Maybe it is just a rogue cell that moved locations because I stood in one position too long?

I watched the same movies over and over again because I couldn’t remember the ending or the beginning or the middle.

I wrote a list about Native stories that are not written down yet.

I cried in the lap of my very sick mother-in-law and said I was sorry.

I stopped eating all dairy. I bought tofu bacon. I juiced 35 pounds of carrots.

I bought $205 dollars in supplements from the health food store.

I tried acupuncture for the first time. I sat in an infrared sauna. I tried to meditate.

I cried on the massage table when my masseuse friend just touched my arm.

I got tired of waiting for calls and phoned my doctor’s office in the morning, at noon and again before they closed in for that Thursday evening to ask about the schedule for my surgery. When I was told that the doctor was waiting on the radiologist’s recommendations — I lost it.  I lectured the nurse on the phone about how it wasn’t fair that I had to track this down a week later, and that if I was the doctor’s sister, I would have a scheduled date for surgery already.  She listened patiently, but she didn’t help me get a call back.

I called the hospital, got transferred twice until I was sent to hold by the imaging department.  Five minutes later, when a female technician picked up my call, I calmly asked for the name of the radiologist who had read my CT scan. She gave it to me. I asked for the back line number for his office. She said she couldn’t give that out. I said, “I know you have people you care about, right? So do I. I have two teenage boys, and a husband who depend on me. I have been waiting for a week after this guy to sign a paper after he said he thinks I have cancer.” She gave me the number.

I left many messages on doctor’s voice mails.

I took a Tylenol PM and went to sleep at 7PM. I slept without dreaming.

The next morning, a Friday, after my family left for school and work, I took a shower and beat on the wall with my fists, screaming a primal noise until my throat was raw. In my mind, it sounded like “I just want somebody to care!”

“I just need somebody to care” became my mantra. I said it to the dogs. I said it to my horse when I lay on his broad back, my face buried in his mane while he munched alfalfa. I screamed it from my pickup’s open windows as I drove too fast down dirt roads.

I sat in front of a blank computer screen and typed angry words that made no sense when I read them back. I backspaced and tried again. Coherent thoughts slipped through me before I could catch them with my fingertips on the keyboard. Inspirational words like Neil Gaiman’s “Make good art,” and Mahatma Gandhi’s “The best way to find yourself is in the service of others,” were written on sticky notes pasted on my desk calendar, but nothing came to me except lists of things I would miss if I died, or what I wanted to be sure to tell my sons, or things I still wanted accomplish, or places I wanted to travel to.

At 3:30 on that Friday afternoon — I couldn’t wait another minute. I dialed 411 and asked for a phone number for Doctor Heartless. It was an office message machine. I sat at my computer, got online, and looked up his Facebook account, health grades reviews, and finally, People Search. I typed in what I knew about the man and for $39.95, I got his phone number, tax records, email, address, what his house is worth, household family members, his genealogy, and what cars are registered in his name. I called the unlisted Doctor Heartless home phone number. When his wife answered the phone I said that I was sorry I had called her home number, but I couldn’t reach Doctor Heartless at his office.  In a calm and controlled voice I said, “I just need somebody to care.” His wife was patient and kind and let me continue. I told her “I am somebody’s wife. I am somebody’s mother. I am somebody’s sister.  Your husband wrote on report – on a piece of paper that he thought I had cancer, over a week ago.  He said I should have further testing, but he has yet to sign off on the order that I need to schedule that next step. I’m sorry to bother you, but I just need somebody to care enough to help me.” I felt like I was going to cry, but didn’t.  Mrs. Doctor Heartless got on her cell phone and I heard her call her husband’s office and tell the receptionist that as soon as Doctor Heartless was out of the surgical procedure he was currently in, he was to call her.  Mrs. Doctor Heartless said she was sorry and that she cared. Half an hour later, the receptionist called me and said that Doctor Heartless had signed my paperwork and the hospital would call me to schedule the procedure. Ten minutes after that, the surgical scheduling desk at Saint Anthony’s Hospital called to set up an appointment for the following Tuesday.

I curled around my big Border collie dog on the couch, wetting his fur with my tears.


I made dinner. I cleaned house. I picked my son up from school. I took pictures of sunsets and sunrises. I stroked purring barn cats on the porch. I went to the bank. I shopped for groceries. I went to the post office. I helped my son with a social studies project on Idaho. I lay in bed, sleeplessly counting the word “I” in terrible essays I’d written in the last ten days.


I went to bed.  I got up. I drank coffee and repeated necessities until it was finally Tuesday.  I drove myself to the hospital. I made my husband take our son to the Nature and Science Museum instead of hanging out in the surgical waiting room. I answered a hundred questions about insurance, my health history, and my knowledge of the process.  I sat alone cross-legged in a back-tie open gown in a freezing pre-op room while waiting for the doctor — reading Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. 

I watched the ultrasound monitor when the needle would not pierce my lump.  I saw my lifeblood pumping below it rhythmically in my femoral artery.  I saw the concerned faces of doctors and six technicians or nurses in the room.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I tried to make small talk about the weather change coming.  When the needle and pressure from the clipping biopsy instrument hurt me, I stayed still. And because I was drunk on IV sedation, I told the room full of medical professionals I was tough – that I had ridden bulls and bareback horses, and that I’d repelled out of helicopters, and that I had fought for Native American children’s rights with congressmen in Washington, D.C., that I had my children without anesthesia.  Then I let silent tears run down my cheeks and into my hair.

Back in the freezing room, floating above my body, I heard the interventionist radiologist tell me that he couldn’t draw a sample by needle so he had to cut snips out of the mass and as a consequence, it may be up to three days before the results came back from the pathologist and were reported to my local physician.  I heard him say he didn’t know if it was benign or malignant and that removing the node may be the only way to know for certain.

When my husband picked me up, I left the hospital still feeling two glasses of wine woozy. We went to Katie’s house in Denver and I held her baby. She cried about my situation. I told her I would be fine, because I’m too stubborn and mean to die young. We laughed. I slept on the two and a half hour drive home.


The day after my biopsy, I joined my family and rode my horse to gather cattle for fall vaccinations and pregnancy checking.

For the next few days, I didn’t talk to anyone on the phone.  My voice mail was full, and my husband fielded all calls from family and friends.

The morning of the third day after the biopsy, I called my local office and they still had not received the results.  I called the medical records office at the hospital to check to see if the results were in my file.  The woman said she could not look in my file without a request faxed in from my provider.  I called my local physician’s office back, and gave her the fax number the woman had supplied me.  Four hours later, the local physician’s office received the report.  Two hours after that, I called my local physician’s office, again.  I said to the good and patient receptionist, “I can’t go all weekend with this information just sitting on somebody’s desk.  I just need somebody to care.”  She said she couldn’t let me know what it said, but she would leave a note for the doctor to call me, but warned that his call may not come until the next day.  I told her to write me in his book for the earliest appointment, and that I would not wait for a call from him again.


I wrote a list of my favorite things and then wrote another list of the stupid things I’d done in my life and one more about all the things I was thankful for. Then I slept, nestled up next to my husband’s back from 2-6 AM.


When I went to the local provider’s office the next day, I had to wait two hours after my appointment time to be seen because of an emergency. I waited patiently. If it were me or my family in the E.R.  I’d want him to prioritize and be there.

When the general practitioner came in, he looked sheepish. He showed me all of the yellow message sticky notes in my chart from my numerous phone calls as he threw them in the trash.  I told him, “You know, I know you are not married and don’t have children, and I know you have devoted your life to your profession, but you should have some sympathy for people you care for.  It is crazy to tell someone you think they have cancer and then make them wait needlessly for the next step or a call back.  That is unprofessional and just plain mean.” He looked at my file intently, appearing to ignore my comments. He said, “I’m surprised. The report says that the biopsy sample was not malignant. The mass has endometrial cells relocated in the sentinel nodes of your right groin lymphatic system.  You still will need more tests to find out if there are more masses growing elsewhere.  You will probably need radiation to shrink it, and possibly surgery to remove the lump so they can check for cancer, maybe a hysterectomy and maybe hormone therapy and chemo if those cells are found elsewhere.  They could cause a stroke if they are in your brain or lungs or other organs and break free or create a blockage, so you cannot let this wait. I’d see a gynecologist, if I were you.” What he said after that bounced off of me like a hard rain, like what I had said to him. I stopped at the reception desk and waited for a copy of the report while I wrote a check for my co-pay.


That night, my family and I went out to eat with friends and for the first time since the ordeal began, I told the whole story. I didn’t feel like drinking, since I was still off of sugar and thinking about being as healthy as I could be. My husband held my hand all night and on the way home.

At two in the morning, I couldn’t sleep so I got up. By nightlight, I wrote a list of people I should say thank you to and another detailing ways I could promote patient self-advocacy.


Thirty one days after my initial and incorrect cancer diagnosis, I started radiation therapy to fight off migrating rogue endometrial cells. I took my first dose with grit teeth and a grateful smile on my face.

—J. M. Jacobson

J. M. Jacobson is studying creative nonfiction in the MFA writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Alaska Native from the Ahtna Athabaskan Indian village of Tazlina (Tez-len-Na). Officially a “Lower 48er” since 2005, she and her family raise cattle, horses, and cattle dogs on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

Jan 142014

Patrick J Keane 2

Pat Keane pens here a brilliant essay on Keats, Negative Capability, personality and identity. We humans are a contradictory lot. We yearn for predictability, familiarity, self, home and identity, but, equally, we yearn for vacations, distance, difference and escape from self (falling in love is one of the ways we escape the self). When Keats wrote that famous letter about his friend Dilke wherein he invented Negative Capability, he seemed, yes, to advance the idea that a poet (artist) must leave self, certainty and identity in order to create. But in other works he speaks of “soul-making” as though, rather than losing the self, the poet is creating a self. Pat Keane, vastly erudite (the man is a magician, pulling quotes from his sleeves), does the critic’s job—to make distinctions and find unity—coursing through the letters, digressing on Coleridge and giving a close reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” (among others). This is no dry argument. Keats died young; he wrote in the shadow of his self’s annihilation and yet was “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” in the pursuit of beauty.



In early November, 2013, Robert Boyers, the founder-editor of Salmagundi (now approaching its 50th anniversary), moderated a conference at Skidmore College on the subject of “Identity.” For two days, a panel of twelve discussed the subject before an audience. Those of us on the panel were given ahead of time an “Anthology of Readings,” full of provocative materials to which, however, we adhered only peripherally since the audience had no access to them. As a sort of preamble to this anthology, Robert provided brief excerpts from Leon Wieseltier’s Against Identity (1996), among which we found this:  “Only one in possession of an identity would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.”

Wieseltier was echoing a phrase from the final section of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” According to Eliot, the progress of an artist “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” This process of “depersonalization” is further defined toward the end of the essay, where Eliot undermines the “metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul” since “the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality.” Just prior to his conclusion in the short coda—that “the emotion of art is impersonal,” and that “the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done”—Eliot had ended the essay proper with the observation Wieseltier plays off: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

In the midst of these critical assertions, Eliot had cited Dante, Aeschylus, and a passage from Tournier. But he also referred to the “Ode of Keats,” which “contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale…served to bring together.” It’s Keats I want to focus on here, ending with that “Ode” to which Eliot refers, and concentrating on what the nightingale “served to bring together” in terms of the poet’s wanting to escape from his “identity,” and finally being tolled back “from thee to my sole self.”


From the life mask by B. R. Haydon, 1816, Keats Memorial House, Hampstead; Photograph by Christopher Oxford

Unlike Eliot, but like Wieseltier, Keats spoke, not of personality, but of “Identity,” sometimes registering the loss of personal identity in the process of what William Hazlitt advocated as the “Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind,” the subtitle of his Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805). Adopting and adapting Hazlitt, Keats engaged in empathetic  identification with others, whether persons or things; sometimes celebrating the absence of Identity in a poet; at other times, and finally, embracing it as an ultimate existential achievement.

In an October 27, 1818 letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, contemplating both the massiveness and the limitations of the power of Wordsworth, Keats distinguishes between the “wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” and his own ideal of “the poetical Character,” that sort “of which, if I am anything, I am a Member.” As conceived by Keats, thinking, as always, of Shakespeare, recalling Hazlitt, and anticipating Eliot, the poetical Character

is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade…It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philoso[p]her, delights the c[h]ameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in[forming]—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea [;] and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. (Letters 1:386-87)

Going further, Keats jocoseriously tells Woodhouse that, while it is “a wretched thing to confess,” it is (and here he anticipates the poststructural demystification of the “mistaken” view of the subject as cohesive and self-identical) a “very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature?” (Letters 1:387).

This characterless adaptability, this loss of identity, the feeling of being either absorbed in, or “overwhelmed” or “annihilated” by, what is around him, recurs frequently in Keats’s letters and poems. Readers of those remarkable letters are familiar with his self-identifications: flexing his muscles so that he “looked burly,” emulating Spenser’s image of the “sea-shouldering whale”; or becoming the billiard ball rolling across the table; or “if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel” (Letters 1:186). There is a particularly touching instance of annihilative empathy: as his younger brother was dying of the same disease that would eventually consume him, Keats felt his own “real self” dissolving in his intense awareness of what Tom was enduring. This capacity is connected with Keats’s “Pleasure Thermometer” passage in Book I of Endymion, and, of course, with his even more famous, influential, and somewhat elusive concept of Negative Capability.

Though it must be measured by the limitations it is encompassed by, the key passage of Book I of Endymion, written in the spring and early summer of 1817, constitutes an answer to the young poet’s question, “Wherein lies happiness?” That answer, couched in poetry occasionally mawkish and marred by the rhyming demands of the couplet-form, nevertheless advances an important theme. Sending along a revision of his initial attempt, Keats, in a letter of 30 January 1818, told his publisher, John Taylor: “I assure you that when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping stone of the Imagination towards a Truth. My having written that Argument will perhaps be the greatest Service to me of anything I ever did—It set before me at once the gradations of Happiness even like a kind of Pleasure Thermometer” (Letters 1:218-19). Answering his own question in the poem, Keats tells us that happiness lies

[space] in that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence, till we shine
Full alchemized, and free of space.
[space] (Endymion I. 777-79; italics added)

Happiness is measured by its intensity and by our selfless absorption in four ascending gradations of pleasure. The first two involve our sensuous response to natural beauty (exemplified by the tactile feel of a “rose-leaf” on fingers or lips), and to music, from the “sympathetic touch” with which the wind harp “unbinds/ Aeolian magic,” to battle’s “bronze clarions,” to the “lullaby” that occurs wherever “infant Orpheus slept” (777-94). “Feel we these things?” Keats asks rhetorically; if so,

That moment have we stepped
Into a sort of oneness, and our state   [an unrhymed line]
Is like a floating spirit’s. But there are
Richer entanglements, enthrallments far
More self-destroying, leading, by degrees,
To the chief intensity: the crown of these
Is made of love and friendship….(795-804; italics added)

He would later tell Fanny Brawne, “You absorb me in spite of myself” (Letters 2:133). In “love,” this self-annihilating absorption in beauty is so intense that, having “stepped/ Into a sort of oneness,” we melt into that “orbéd drop/ Of light” at the pinnacle of experience.

Melting into its radiance, we blend,
Mingle, and so become a part of it—
Nor with aught else can our souls interknit
So wingedly. When we combine wherewith,
Life’s self is nourished by its proper pith,
And we are nourished like a pelican brood.
(804-5, 810-15; italics added)

In legend and Christian symbolism, the pelican wounds herself to nourish her brood with her own blood. The lover sacrifices selfhood in order to attain unity, or (if one is persuaded by an Idealist or Neoplatonic reading), in order to re-attain a lost Unity. Similarly, lovers of beauty—“full alchemized” and in “fellowship with essence”—become so absorbed in the “thing of beauty” they contemplate that they melt into the object of their love. The crucial point in the passage as a whole is Keats’s emphasis on entanglements and enthrallments that are “self-destroying.”  The “sense of beauty” overcoming and obliterating every other consideration is also the crucial aesthetic point of Keats’s speculations regarding Negative Capability.


In a December 1817 letter to his brothers George and Tom, Keats reports “not a dispute but a disquisition” with their mutual friend Charles Dilke:

several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (Letters 1:193-94)

Keats was wrong to cite as a counter-example Coleridge—whose system-building was forever being thwarted by his inability to “let go by” the many “isolated verisimilitudes” that became, at worst, digressions and, at best, intuitive insights that imported German Idealism to England and, in the process—as demonstrated in my own Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (2007) and Samantha Harvey’s Transatlantic Transcendentalism (2013)—transformed both British Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Furthermore, Coleridge’s “Dynamic Philosophy” may, in the present context, help explain the apparent contradiction between Keats’s emphasis on the chameleon poet possessing “no Identity” and, in the “vale of Soul-making” analogy, the imperative to acquire an Identity. Keats’s “disquisition” with Dilke may call to mind, for us, if not for Keats, a seminal passage in Biographia Literaria, beginning with the assertion that “The office of philosophic disquisition consists in just distinction (Coleridge’s italics). But, Coleridge continues, the philosopher must remain

constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conception to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. (Biographia Literaria 2:11)

In Coleridge’s thought, based on Polarity and the harmonizing power of Intuitive Reason, ultimate unity emerges from, and depends on, the dialectical tension between opposites. Once we have set out, he says, “these two different kinds of force,” it remains for us “to elevate the Thesis,” by “contemplating intuitively this one power” combining “two…counteracting forces,” with their dynamic “interpenetration” achieved “in the process of our own self-consciousness” (Biographia Literaria 1:299). “Thus,” he remarks in a letter, “the two great Laws…of Nature would be Identity or the Law of the Ground: and Identity in the difference, or Polarity=the Manifestation of unity by opposites.” The final, if hypothetical, synthesis would be “the re-union with Nature as the apex of Individualization—the birth of the Soul, the Ego or conscious Self, into the Spirit” (Collected Letters 4:807).


Though that final phrase may remind us of the “vale of Soul-making,” Coleridge’s conception, no less hypothetical and dialectical than Keats’s, was, unlike Keats’s, theological. In the Biographia, a dozen pages prior to the “interpenetration” attained “in the process of our own self-consciousness,” Coleridge made Identity ultimately equivalent to the divine I AM of scripture: “We begin with the I KNOW MYSELF, in order to end with the absolute I AM. We proceed from the SELF, in order to lose and find all self in GOD” (1:282-83). That lost-and-found process would entail metaphysical self-annihilation, Negative Capability in extremis. Though I occasionally feel the spiritual pull in his poetry and letters, I cannot bring myself to read Keats, even in Endymion let alone the Odes, from a religious or Neoplatonic perspective. What has interested me enough to engage in this “Coleridgean” digression is Coleridge’s dual, apparently contradictory, use of the term “Identity,” and the potential of his Dynamic Philosophy, with its polar fusion of opposites, to help us examine and perhaps reconcile Keats’s two apparently contradictory perspectives on Identity.

To return to the letter on Negative Capability: whatever his misjudgment of Coleridge’s “method” and cognitive processes, these thoughts on Negative Capability codify Keats’s own imperative in engaging a world of “uncertainties” impervious to systemic and total explanation. Since we can rarely get beyond half-knowledge, what is called for, especially in a poet, is a mental and imaginative openness and receptivity. Adumbrating the Shakespearean “quiet power” he finally and fully attained in the ode “To Autumn,” Keats wrote his friend John Hamilton Reynolds on 18 February 1818: “Now it is more noble to sit like Jove tha[n] to fly like Mercury—let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee-like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive—budding patiently under the eye of Apollo, and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit” (Letters 1:232-33).

Such hints should be accepted gratefully, not least because they are creatively productive (As Blake put it, using “Keatsian” imagery: “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”) To irritably reject them because they cannot be fitted into a larger scheme—“knowledge of what is to be arrived at,” a system of one’s own making—amounts to an egoistic assertion and projection of one’s own identity. Of Dilke, “disquisition” with whom launched these thoughts, Keats later said he “was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his mind about every thing. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts…Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives; because he is always trying at it.” (Letters 2:213).


PencilSketch by Charles Brown 1819Pencil Sketch by Charles Brown, 1819

Reading Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action, Keats learned to see “identity” as a limitation of a prior anonymous subjectivity and receptivity. Cancellation of the ego enhances concern for others, a disinterestedness leading to empathy. But Keats could think of almost no one, other than Socrates and Jesus, who had attained such disinterestedness. The Self and Identity were not so easily jettisoned. Along with Hazlitt’s Essay, it seems likely that Keats also read John Locke’s chapter on “Identity and Diversity” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a volume we know he owned (Keats Circle 1:255). In Book II, Chapter 27, Locke argues that “personal identity” requires “psychological continuity,” an unchanging and unique sameness produced by consciousness and memory. “For it is by the consciousness” an intelligent being “has of its present thoughts and actions, that it is self to itself now, and so will be the same self, as far as the same consciousness can extend to actions past and to come” (sect. 10, p. 451; Locke’s italics). What “preserves” a person “as the same individual,” he concludes the chapter, “is the same existence continued” (sect. 28, p.470; Locke’s italics). In his essay “On Personal Character,” published in March 1821, within weeks of Keats’s death, a now deterministic Hazlitt insisted that “No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay I might say, from the time he is two hours old….The character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last” (Hazlitt, Complete Works, 16:23-34). By the spring of 1819—reflecting what Hyder Rollins, the editor of Keats’s letters, surmises was his reading of Chapter 27 of Locke (Letters 2:102n)—Keats would posit an identity unique to each person’s “individual existence.” But unlike Locke and, especially, Hazlitt, Keats did not see the self as unchanging and unaltered by experience. Instead he believed, in Aileen Ward’s formulation, in a “gradually developing sense of self which emerges as the individual matures, in reaction to the crises of his emotional experience and from imaginative interaction or identification with the identities of others” (John Keats: The Making of a Poet, 419n14).

The movement from one provisional ideal, that of the poet who “has no Identity,” to its polar opposite, the painful creation of an Identity forged in the experiential crucible of the world, is a Polarity that may be illuminated, as earlier suggested, by Coleridge’s emphasis on opposites requiring a creative act to transform and reconcile them: a reconciliation always potential since “distinction is not division.” Those unfamiliar with Coleridge’s emphasis on bipolar unity may think of the process in terms of Hegelian or Blakean dialectic. One or the other seems to be in the background of Stuart Sperry’s apt synopsis: if in his “expansion of the Negative Capability formulation,” Keats “envisioned poetry as an escape from or transcendence of the limits of identity, it was all the more necessary to see it as the discovery or creation of identity at a level that was more profound” (Keats the Poet, 151). The development—reminiscent of Blake’s dialectical movement from Innocence through Experience to a Higher or “organiz’d Innocence”—culminates in the analogy Keats worked out in the spring of 1819, tracing the development of the formless “intelligence” we possess at birth into a coherent “Identity.”

In the most celebrated pages of the journal-letter to his brother and sister-in-law in America, Keats rejected as “narrow and straitened” the Christian notion of “the world…as ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” Instead, Keats, a religious skeptic, hypothesized the existence of a soul, not because he believed the soul to have ontological status, but in order to advance his own scheme of salvation. He proposes an immanent process of “spirit-creation,” in which our experience of earthly life itself, however painful, is its own reward. “Call the world if you Please, ‘the vale of Soul-making’[.] Then you will find out the use of the world….Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” These intelligences do not become souls “till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself,” possessing a “bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence.” What, he asks, summing up his speculations, was a man’s formless soul before it came into the world and was altered and fortified: “An Intelligence—without Identity—and how is this Identity to be made? Through the Medium of the Heart? And how is the heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances?” (Letters 2:102-4).

Here, Keats’s earlier sense of, even occasional longing for, self-annihilation—Wieseltier’s “wish to be rid of” an Identity, Eliot’s “extinction” of, or “escape” from, personality—is retracted, replaced by an existential, Wordsworthian, even proto-Nietzschean insistence on the crucial need to face harsh, often unregenerate reality, and a positive emphasis on the acquisition of personal Identity, shaped by experiencing a world of difficulty and suffering. The process is creative rather than destructive, a rejection of both Christian and Platonic Otherworldy soul-making, a vision of tragic humanism that is finally an affirmation.


It is also Romantic in its fusion of Mind and Heart. This is precisely what Wordsworth had done in the final two stanzas of the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” To the penultimate stanza’s emphasis on “thought” and the “years that bring the philosophic mind”—a “necessary” development endorsed by Keats, citing the Ode (Letters 1:186)—Wordsworth added that, even though “the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now for ever taken from my sight,” he still felt the power of nature “in my heart of hearts”:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.  (200-203)

The Ode ends with “tears,” but they are unshed since the “thoughts” evoked by that simple flower are “too deep” for tears. In an earlier letter, to John Hamilton Reynolds on 3 May 1818, Keats says that Wordsworth identifies “the human heart” as “the main region of his song” (Letters 1:279). Keats is misremembering the lines from the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, where Wordsworth identifies “the Mind of Man” as “My haunt, and the main region of my song” (40-41), because he is reading them through the prism of the final lines of the Ode, in which Wordsworth offers praise and thanks “to the human heart by which we live.”

Keats’s own fusions of Mind and Heart are rather more sensuous. He could not have known of the letter of Coleridge I earlier cited in connection with Keats’s own “vale of Soul-making” letter, where, in describing the fusion of two forms of “Identity,” Coleridge personified Polarity as “Male and female of the World of Time, in whose wooings and retirings and nuptial conciliations all other marriages…are celebrated inclusively” (Collected Letters 4:807). But Keats did know, intimately, Wordsworth’s “Prospectus” to The Recluse, which he echoes in the “Ode to Psyche,” where the fusion takes erotic even “nuptial” form in the finale. Keats, who will “build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind,” is remembering as well Wordsworth’s “temple in the hearts/ Of mighty Poets” (“Prospectus,” 40-41, 85-86). Echoing in order to alter the Greek myth, Keats, as the goddess’s priest and self-inspired prophet, brings Psyche and Eros together in that heart- and mind-forged temple he has made for her. In one of the most touching of all the many Romantic reconciliations of mind and heart, the poet as devotee of the forlorn goddess replaces the myth’s fatal “lamp,” whose dripping wax awakened the god and drove him away, with “A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,/ To let the warm Love in.”

In the most strikingly “Keatsian” image in the “vale of Soul-making” passage, the Heart is described as “the Mind’s Bible, it is the Mind’s experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity” (Letters 2:103; italics added). To adapt John Donne, one might almost say of Keats that his body thought. One conclusion is palpable. From his own struggle with a world of painful circumstances, Keats would emerge at last, heart and mind altered and fortified, and in possession of what he had earlier criticized or resisted and what, in any case, had so long eluded him: a strong sense of his own personal Identity. The thinking and feeling Heart having become a “Medium” in the experiential crucible of a “world of Pains and troubles,” the chameleon poet of “no Identity” emerges from the soul-making process with an identifiable Self.


This same trajectory can be traced, mutatis mutandis, in what Eliot called “the Ode of Keats,” especially when it is placed in the context of Keats’s development up to that point—the same spring of 1819 when he wrote the journal-letter we have been examining. The “Ode to a Nightingale” is generally, or at least most often, read as a poem of Romantic escape from the self or identity (a “wish to be rid of it,” in Wieseltier’s phrase), however induced.  In the most controversial, and reductive, surmise in his fact-filled new biography, Nicholas Roe reads the Ode as Keats’s “Kubla Khan,” laudanum being the “dull opiate” mentioned three lines into the opening stanza:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
[space] My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
[space] One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.

The heartache and paradoxically painful numbness are a response to the “happy lot” the speaker attributes to the singer hidden in the foliage, a response intensely empathetic rather than pettily envious:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
[space] But being too happy in thine happiness—
[space] [space] That thou, light-wingéd Dryad of the trees,
[space] [space] [space] In some melodious plot
[space] Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
[space] [space] Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

“The Ode to a Nightingale” is, Roe asserts, “one of the greatest re-creations of a drug-induced dream-vision in English literature” (John Keats, 324). I take the Keatsian caveats seriously; the speaker says he feels “as though” he had drunk hemlock or “emptied” a dulling “opiate to the drains,” and goes on to reject not only poison and drugs but a milder and more enticing intoxicant: that “beaker full of the warm South,/ Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/ With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.” There is ample reason to want to escape human “weariness, the fever, and the fret,” Keats’s restless fricatives recalling Wordsworth’s solace in nature from “the fretful stir/ Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” (“Tintern Abbey,” 52-53), itself recalling death-contemplating Hamlet’s cry, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133-34). In any case, like the opiate, the wine is rejected as a vehicle to join the nightingale: “Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,/ Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,/ But on the viewless wings of Poesy.” The dream-vision—escapist, imaginative, or both—is poetically induced and articulated. And, as has been said by Paul Valéry, great poet as well as great critic, “It is the very one who writes down his dream who is obliged to be extremely wide awake” (“Concerning Adonis,” in The Art of Poetry 11-12).

Echoing Hamlet’s desire, in this same opening soliloquy, “that  this too, too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” Keats wants to “fade far away, dissolve and quite forget” the world of mutability. Though the “dull brain perplexes and retards,” he will join the nightingale on those “viewless wings of Poesy”: the very word summoning up Keats’s earlier, Spenserian poetry of voluptuous refuge from selfhood and the world of circumstances. “Oh, for ten years,” he had cried out in “Sleep and Poetry” (1816), “that I may overwhelm/ Myself in poesy.” Even there he had anticipated three stages, a journey through the sleepy realm of “Flora and old Pan,” and an erotic paradise of natural repose, until “these joys” are bade “farewell.” For the poet, inspired by a vision of his presiding deity, charioted Apollo, knows that “I must pass them for a nobler life,/ Where I may find the agonies, the strife/ Of human hearts” (90-91, 101-2, 122-25; italics added).

In lines that anticipate the disenchantment of the final stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats is torn between the real and the ideal, struggling to retain, despite the gravitational pull of reality, the memory of this vision of Apollo in his chariot, a vision he skeptically doubts, yet vows to keep alive:

The visions all are fled—the car is fled
Into the light of heaven, and in their stead
A sense of real things comes doubly strong,
And, like a muddy stream, would bear along
My soul to nothingness. But I will strive
Against all doubtings and will keep alive
The thought of that same chariot… (155-61; italics added)

The threat in the Nightingale Ode will come from “the fancy” and (closely related if not identical) the beautiful yet deceptive siren-song of that “light-wingéd Dryad of the trees,/ In some melodious plot.” In “Sleep and Poetry,” the self is threatened with annihilation by a doubled (because post-visionary) sense of the trammels of phenomenal reality: a “muddy stream” reminding us again of Hamlet, this time of drowned Ophelia, whose “garments, heavy with their drink,/ Pulled [her] from her melodious lay/ To muddy death.” These antithetical pulls persist. For Keats, who will cry out later in this poem, “If I do hide myself, it sure shall be/ In the very fane, the light of Poesy” (275-76), is not yet ready for the full burden of the Apollonian vision: the need to engage with full consciousness that “nobler life” where he may find “the agonies, the strife/ Of human hearts.”

Two years later, in January 1818, in the pivotal sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” he will turn from Spenser to Shakespeare, from that “Siren” and “Queen of far-away,” Spenserian “golden-tongued Romance,” to engage, “once again”—in the process of re-reading Shakespeare’s deepest tragedy—“the fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay.” Once again “Must I burn through, once more humbly assay/ The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearean fruit.” By vicariously experiencing the agony of Lear, “bound upon a wheel of fire,” Keats comes to that deeper understanding of human life he adumbrated in “Sleep and Poetry.” He also anticipates emerging from the fire, reborn as a poet of self-knowledge and tragic affirmation: “Let me not wander in a barren dream,/ But, when I am consuméd in the fire,/ Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” The Lear sonnet’s advance from barren dream to tragic reality and self-knowledge extends to form and meter. Though the octave was Petrarchan, its sestet is Shakespearean, and that final line hyper-metrically enacts the poet’s liberation, its Alexandrine breaking the cage of the pentameter.

All of these stages are re-enacted in the “Ode to a Nightingale.” The opulent beauty of the Ode seems Spenserian, never more so than when, on the “viewless wings of Poesy,/ Though the dull brain perplexes and retards,” the poet suddenly (“Already with thee!”) joins the nightingale in her bower-world of “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways,” from which mid-region, since “here there is no light,” he guesses at heaven: “Tender is the night,/ And haply [perhaps] the Queen-Moon is on her throne,/ Clustered around by all her starry fays.” In the exquisite fifth stanza, the poet guesses at earth. In “embalméd darkness,” he “cannot see what flowers are at my feet,/ Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,” and so must “guess each sweet/ Wherewith the seasonable month endows” the floral and arboreal world around him. But if the absence of sight liberates the imagination, even the flowers guessed at introduce more than organic fertility and growth. Echoing Oberon’s description of Titania’s bower in Act 2, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where “the nodding violet grows,” over-canopied “With sweet muske roses and with Eglantine”), Keats’s bower-litany (“the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild,/ White hawthorn and the pastoral eglantine”) ends with

Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves;
[space][space] And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
[space] The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Shakespeare’s violet “grows”; Keats’s “fast-fading” violets, the “coming” musk-rose, the projected flies of summer all evoke process, cyclical change, death. The violets’ rapid “fading” recalls, too, the poet’s desire to join the nightingale, wholly integrated into its floral and leafy world and blissfully unconscious of transience and death. Back in stanza 2, the speaker wanted a wine charged with all the joys of earth, “Tasting of Flora and the country green,/ Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth,” in order, paradoxically, that he “might drink, and leave the world unseen,/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim.” He longed to “Fade far way, dissolve and quite forget/ What thou among the leaves hast never known”: the world of human fading—where, with Tom behind the abstraction, “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;/ Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.” But with the turn into the sixth stanza, he must think, even though the stanza, until the abrupt turn in the final two lines, involves the ultimate dissolution and fading: the dream of escape from a death-haunted world through death itself.

The stanza begins, “Darkling, I listen,” for, along with the murmur of the rose-bosomed flies, Keats hears (as Thomas Hardy later would in “The Darkling Thrush”) the “nocturnal note” of Milton’s nightingale, that “wakeful Bird,” who “Sings darkling and in shadiest Covert hid” (Paradise Lost 3:38-40, marked by Keats in his copy of Milton).

Darkling, I listen; and, for many a time
[space] I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a muséd rhyme,
[space] [space] To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
[space] [space] To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
[space] [space] [space] While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
[space] [space] [space] [space] In such an ecstasy….


With the nightingale pouring forth her own soul, still singing, precisely at midnight, of summer “in full-throated ease,” that half-loved “easeful Death” seems a consummation devoutly to be wished, a fulfillment of the old prayer that, intoxicated “by the breath/ Of flowering bays,…I may die a death/ Of luxury and my young spirit” come “to the great Apollo/ Like a fresh sacrifice” (“Sleep and Poetry,” 57-61). But in the Ode, Keats is only “half in love” with that prospect, and though he has called on Death in “many” a rhyme to “take into the air my quiet breath,” and it now appears “more than ever” a luxury, he has a second caveat: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” For Keats’s long-entertained death wish, his voluptuous morbidity, is here countered by his even stronger, quenchless vitality (“full” is repeated twice more in the second stanza). Having half-embraced a “midnight” death, Keats recoils, realizing the actual consequence: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod.” Actual death, not the “easeful Death” of his erotic-aesthetic fantasy, far from being “rich,” would impoverish the listener, reduced to insensate oblivion. The nightingale’s song, an outpouring from her own selfhood inviting the poet to join her in a similarly self-transcending ecstasy, has now become a “high requiem” to which he is deaf. The bird would continue to sing; he would hear nothing. The trance has ended.

The two lines anticipate a truth registered in Keats’s heartbreaking letter, written on 30 September 1820 from Yarmouth, off the Isle of Wight. Aboard the ship on which he was making his final journey, Keats, aware that he was beyond recovery, was haunted by the image of Fanny. “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me—I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing.” He tells his friend Brown, “I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline[,] are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever” (Letters 2:345).


With the realization, at this late turning-point of the Ode, that death, far from being the portal to union with the nightingale, would be the great divorcer forever, an unbridgeable breach opens between mortal poet and immortal bird. Precisely what had made its “happy lot” so desirable, singing “of summer in full-throated ease” because it had no consciousness of seasonal change and death, now becomes a painful contrast not just emotional but existential: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!/ No hungry generations tread thee down,” as they tread down those all-too-aware that they are “born for death.” The voice the poet hears on this particular evening was heard “in ancient days” by high and low, by “emperor and clown.” Revealingly, the nightingale’s song introduces in this, the penultimate stanza, the “forlorn” note with which the final stanza will open. The poet attributes both immortality and identity to that song, though he registers (“Perhaps”) a characteristically skeptical note at the outset of the sinuously beautiful lines that follow. The song the poet, a transient mortal, hears “this passing night,” is

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
[space] Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
[space] [space] She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
[space] [space] [space] The same that oft-times hath
[space] Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
[space] [space] Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

However permanent (“Still wouldst thou sing…”) and identical through the ages, his immortalized Bird’s “self-same song” has different listeners, and the final tonality is forlorn.

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
[space] To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well
[space] As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades
[space] Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
[space] [space] Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
[space] [space] [space] In the next valley-glades….


Like the “fast-fading violets, covered up in leaves,” the music of the nightingale, which had seduced the poet into longing to “fade far away, dissolve,” and forget the world of transience and death, now itself becomes a “plaintive anthem” that “fades/ Past the near meadows,” over the stream, up the hill-side; “and now ‘tis buried deep/ In the next valley-glades.” As in the crucial sixth stanza, the final two lines of the concluding stanza mark a turn, this time in the form of a double-question: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?” The only thing certain is that, like the visionary chariot of Apollo in “Sleep and Poetry,” the music has “Fled.” If  the fading and burial of the bird’s song recall Wordsworth’s “something that is gone,” in stanza 4 of the Intimations Ode, Keats’s final double-question more certainly evokes the double-question with which Wordsworth ended that stanza (for two years his final stanza): “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?/ Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

Like Wordsworth at that point of his unfinished Ode, Keats is at a loss. “Nothing is got for nothing,” Emerson reminds us, and the ending of the “Ode to a Nightingale” is as poignant as it is perplexed.  The speaker—embodying Negative Capability, “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”—is left wondering, as are we. Was his response to the song of the nightingale “a vision real” (as he initially wrote, and, significantly, cancelled)?  Or, however glorious, was it a mere waking dream? Was he then truly awake and now in a state of sleep and torpor inferior to imaginative Reality? Or was he merely entranced then, and now once again awake to the reality of human life, however changed he has been by the intervening imaginative experience?

As in the ode it precedes, that on the Grecian Urn, the “Ode to a Nightingale” is based on antithetical pulls: between attraction to ideal beauty, authentic or escapist, and a skeptical, gravitational attraction to the truth, or the illusion, of earthly reality. In the later Ode, the Urn, speaking belatedly (and, for many readers, problematically, even notoriously) reconciles the antitheses, achieving in oracular utterance—“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’”—what Keats struggled with, in terms of “sensation” and “knowledge,” feeling and thinking, “beauty” and “truth,” as well as in terms of his differing perspectives on Identity. Indeed, the Delphic Urn asserts what Coleridge was laboring all his life to find through philosophy: that elusive bipolar unity. Of course, the Urn speaks (including, as I read and hear the lines, both the Beauty/Truth equation and the sweepingly un-Keatsian generalization) sub specie aeternitatis, a perspective which is, paradoxically, limited. The equation, true within the urn-world, seems, at best, unconvincing in our own “world of Pains and troubles.” But debate persists; it all depends on how we interpret the variously punctuated final thirteen words. “Who says What to Whom at the End of Ode on a Grecian Urn?” as Jack Stillinger famously put it in his astute analysis of the “various possibilities, along with the objections usually raised against each” (111-12).

Our inexhaustible critical interest in Keats’s Odes lies in their opening up the possibility of contradictory, and almost equally plausible, interpretations. In the case of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” though the conflict may not be definitively resolved, the gravitational pull seems paramount. For the thrust of the final stanza is that Romantic reverie must bow before reality: “The fancy,” Keats tells himself and us, “cannot cheat so well/ As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.” While “the fancy” and the poem-long subject and object of that fancy, the nightingale, are not identical, they do seem to melt into a sort of oneness in the final stanza. Is the nightingale—just a stanza earlier, an “immortal Bird” whose changeless song had the power to magically open lofty if fragile “casements”—now reduced, like “the fancy,” to a “deceiving elf”?

The contrast to that deceptive “elf,” emphasized by the very rhyme, is the “sole self” to which the word “forlorn” had tolled back the poet “from thee,” the nightingale. Those who read this return to self negatively often cite a passage from Book II of Endymion, Keats’s first attempt at epic. In the temple of Diana (anticipating the purgatorial shrine of Moneta in the great Induction to The Fall of Hyperion), the young hero is suddenly lost, at the “maw of a wide outlet, fathomless and dim.” In that state of “wild uncertainty,”

[space] thoughts of self came on, how crude and sore
The journey homeward to habitual self!
A mad-pursuing of the fog-born elf,
Whose flitting lantern, through rude nettle-briar,
Cheats us into a swamp, into a fire,
Into the bosom of a hated thing.
[space] (Endymion II. 272-80; italics added)

Earlier in Book II, the fountain-nymph told Endymion he would have to “wander far” and through “pain” before being received “Into the gentle bosom of thy love” (123-27). Now, an elf-like ignis fatuus “cheats us” into “the bosom of a hated thing.” And yet Endymion is driven to plunge through this quest-landscape of Ordeal, even at the cost of the alienating pain of “consciousness”; and in the final book, in synopsizing his entire quest, he bids “farewell” to “visions,” vowing, “No, never more/ Shall airy voices cheat me” (II.283-90; IV.652-54). Together, the passages presage the return-journey to “self” in the “Ode to a Nightingale.” The hidden, “fog-born elf” that “cheats us” seems a negative but largely accurate anticipation of Romantic fancy, that “deceiving elf” said to “cheat.” “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” One senses something funereal in the tolling of that bell. “But surely”—as Morris Dickstein has observed in celebrating Keats’s at last taking up “residence, as he has repeatedly promised, in the difficult domain of the ‘sole self’”—the primary meaning “is of an awakening to life; ‘forlorn’ serves as the bell that brings us back from the dream-world of the nightingale and from the faery lands” (Keats and His Poetry, 219). Paradoxically, and because of the poet’s altered response, it is the song of the allegedly “immortal” nightingale that “fades” and is finally “buried deep.” Though the conflicted poet mourns the fading of that enchanting song, in the “bitter-sweet” balance he has attained, schooled by “a World of Pains and troubles,” Keats seems, in this final stanza of the Nightingale Ode,  to endorse (as he does in the “vale of Soul-making” letter) Identity, the “sole self.”


“Only one in possession of an identity,” said Eliot-echoing Wieseltier, “would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.” In his earlier poetry and letters, indeed, earlier in this Ode itself, Keats, seduced by the song of the nightingale and longing to be caught up with it in a self-dissolving transport, wished to be “rid of” his own “identity.” And he remains torn between enchantment and disenchantment, allured by ravishing if dangerous music, which, like Odysseus, he audited in delight, but to which, in the end, he did not succumb. Does that make the ultimate return to the “sole self” a defeat? Paul de Man has asserted that “the condition of the ‘sole self’ is one of intolerable barrenness, the opposite of all that imagination, poetry and love can achieve. The experience of being ‘tolled back to one’s sole self’ is always profoundly negative” (John Keats, Selected Poetry, xxiii). I concur in Morris Dickstein’s adamant rejection; “that,” he says, “is simply not true” (Keats and His Poetry, 221). Despite his attempts to “dissolve,” to “fade,” to avert his eyes from human suffering; despite all the vestigial tensions in this Ode, Keats, in the final stanzas, moves beyond Spenserian Romance, which turns out to be empty and “forlorn,” returning to a grounded Shakespearean (now Keatsian) reality, and to the self-same world and “sole self” which served as the existential basis for his imaginative flight in the first place.

Keats has emerged, here as in the “vale of Soul-making,” from his own struggle with a world of painful circumstances in possession of a strong sense of his own personal identity. This does not mean that he has lost the capacity, the Negative Capability, to relinquish that now altered and fortified identity, “surrendering himself wholly,” in Eliot’s phrase, “to the work to be done.” In the poem he was born to write, “To Autumn,” the last of the great odes, Keats disappears into the sights and sounds of the season. In this poem, the “full-ripened grain” of Keats’s art, there is no ego, no “I.” The one fleeting moment of subjectivity—the ubi sunt double-question, “Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they?”—is quickly subsumed in the reassurance to Autumn herself: “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” And the funeral dirge for the dying day and season, though orchestrated by Keats (an elegiac diminuendo decreasing in volume, increasing in pitch and clarity), is made to seem her music, not his, even as she hymns her own harvest, her delayed but inevitable disappearance. The sun sets, making the “soft-dying” day “bloom” (life-in-death) and touching “the stubble plains with rosy hue.”

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
[space] Among the river sallows, borne aloft
[space] [space] Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
[space] Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
[space] The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
[space] [space] And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.




In a sonnet Shakespearean both in form and Negative Capability, Keats reminds us of this ode’s unspoken but ever-present parallel: “Four seasons fill the measure of the year;/ There are four seasons in the mind of man.” Following man’s “autumn, when” he is content “to look/ On mists in idleness—to let fair things/ Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook,” the sonnet ends with a human/seasonal memento mori: “He has his winter, too, of pale misfeature,/ Or else he would forego his mortal nature.” In the ode, autumn’s “full-grown lambs” look back to spring, while the post-harvest sounds (rising from bleat, to sing, to whistle, to twitter) and the gathering swallows herald the approach of winter. But winter is merely hinted at; even the migration of the swallows is left implicit, as, gathering, they “twitter in the skies.” The poet’s own thoughts of mortality remain liminal; they never intrude. Autumn has her own music to the end.

Each season, each stage of life, has a distinct “identity and beauty which man can appreciate by disengaging his own ego” (David Perkins, The Quest for Permanence, 294). We rightly think of this ego-less, autumnal poem as essentially “objective,” and the Nightingale Ode as highly “subjective,” rounding as it does from the opening “My heart aches,” through the flight of imagination, to the rondural tolling back to the poet’s “sole self.” The last word of John Keats’s final ode may be “skies,” but “To Autumn,” moving through its own diurnal and annual cycle, is, even as its music recedes from earth, an earth-centered poem—as, in the end, is the “Ode to a Nightingale.” As Helen Vendler has noted in the “Conclusion” to her book-length study of the Odes, “Keats is unsparingly faithful to his own sense of the artifice necessary to creation; but he remains as well the greatest celebrant, in English, of the natural base without which no art and no identity would be possible” (The Odes of John Keats, 294).

In “To Autumn,” art and identity, art and the natural base, coalesce. Here, at last, beauty and truth seem as distinct yet indistinguishable as the leaf, blossom, and bole that comprise Yeats’s “chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer.” Nor (to cite Yeats’s final image of unity of being in “Among School Children”) “can we know the dancer from the dance,” the performer from the work of art, the Eliotic “poet” from his “particular medium.” Keats was never more identifiaby Keats than in “To Autumn,” where he is an absent presence, a poet of “no Identity.” For here, his “sense of Beauty over[coming] every other consideration,” he is “continually… filling some other body,”  having “stepped/ Into a sort of oneness” with Nature, as in Coleridge’s unrealized nuptial vision of “Identity” as alienated man’s “re-union with Nature.” Though terrestrial Keats could only half-identify with the eternal song of that light-wingéd Dryad of the trees, the immortal Nightingale, he may fully identify with the gathering swallows that twitter in the skies. Yet even here there is a poignant distinction. Keats knows that, unlike them, he will not be part of a migratory let alone eternal recurrence. Even when “no Identity” weds Identity, death is the great divorcer forever. In echoing Keats’s final cadences and imagery, Wallace Stevens, in the final lines of “Sunday Morning,” made Keats’s elegiac music less subtle but more explicit: “the quail/ Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;/ Sweet berries ripen” in the wild,

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.



Montecito CA

This essay on “Keats and Identity” began with Leon Wieseltier’s observation that “Only one in possession of an identity would understand why one would wish to be rid of it.” His latest   “Washington Diarist” column (The New Republic, 9 December 2013), titled “Binocular,” is a moving meditation on things more important than politics, enough so for me to incorporate it as a coda. The essay is set in Montecito, an “impossibly lovely” town between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea. “Perched on a large rock facing the ocean,” and “saturated in the noontime light,” Wieseltier escapes all sense of “care.” Momentarily “rid of” his identity, he experiences an “exciting sensation of insubstantiality” a Keatsian dissolution of the self. A thin woman arrives and spreads a towel. He notes her “beautiful gray hair,” her “pleasant Californian smile,” and watches as “she lifted her face toward the light. I could see her sighing with gladness to be in the sun.” Sharing with her what Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” has his female persona “find in comforts of the sun,” he enjoys “a moment of solidarity with her.”

But then she reaches into her bag and removes two well-thumbed and “desperate” books: The Art of Healing Cancer and A Cancer Battle Plan Sourcebook. Wieseltier “can hardly describe the shock to my mind. The entire scene was transfigured by my discovery of the woman’s circumstances… The light shone no longer upon beauty but upon tragedy. She was gaunt, she was a fugitive, and she was dying; and I felt pity. The magnificence of creation was suddenly dwarfed by this thin, doomed creature.” I read these words earlier this morning with a shock of recognition, since, in thinking and writing about the “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the magnificent final stanzas of “To Autumn” and “Sunday Morning,” I had been haunted by memories of my first girlfriend, now, like Wieseltier’s woman on the beach, battling cancer.

When that woman on the beach at Montecito got up, stepped toward the ocean, and “stood there staring at the glittering world,” Wieseltier was reminded of the Irish custom of “taking the last look.” He had first heard of the custom, he tells us, in a Mellon lecture, later incorporated into a book, a “subtle and affecting study of the poetry of dying.” The lectures and the book, Last Looks, Last Books (2011) are by Helen Vendler, whom Wieseltier goes on to quote. “How,” Vendler asked, “can…a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit?” What is required, she says, is a “binocular style”: a variation on Coleridge’s “bi-polar unity,” though, unlike Coleridge and like Keats, Wallace Stevens and the four other modern American poets Vendler discusses had to confront death without religious consolation. During his initial idyll in the sun, Wieseltier had escaped from all troubles: “beyond caring,” but “with none of the cruelty the phrase implies.” Though he realized that it was “a temporary escape,” he really “wished,” during that momentary respite, “to be emptied” of the world’s pains and troubles. Wieseltier’s short-lived illusion of “escaping” the cares of the world, as well as Helen Vendler’s exemplification of the need, in a poetry of dying, to register “both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit,” illuminate not only “The Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn,” but many of Keats’s other poems, as well as his life and letters.

They also illuminate the state of mind of my ex-girlfriend, with whom I’m still in touch and to whom I just wrote a letter. Yesterday she completed phase one of her chemo treatments, and on the day I’m writing, she is having her first stem-cell infusion. According to a mutual friend, the process is painful, with more pain to come. He knows. Both have multiple myeloma, a horrible, incurable form of cancer. My friend has survived for an astonishing nine years, a tribute to excellent medical care and to the retention of some of the extraordinary physical strength he displayed when we were getting in fights back in the Bronx. In contrast, my girlfriend was always delicate. Yet, while under no illusions, she’s facing her situation with courage, “unabated vitality of spirit,” and the same humor I remember from all those years ago, when we were in love in the Bronx. Her vision is binocular, her face lifted to the sunlight, even as she is acutely aware of the looming presence of death. With her example in mind, as well as that of Keats as a writer and as a man, I’m trying, in Vendler’s phrase, to “do justice to both.”

Wieseltier ends his meditation on mutability by noting that, as a caring person in his everyday life, “I was binocular.” At the beach, during that care-obliterating moment of noontime sun and glittering ocean, “I became monocular.” But “care” and the “identity” he wished to be “rid of” suddenly re-emerged in his Keatsian epiphany: “the entire scene was instantly transfigured by my discovery of the woman’s circumstances.” For one’s “Identity” is “made” through the medium of the heart, “and how is the Heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances?” Wieseltier concludes, as Keats had, fusing restored identity with an empathetic identification with others. “When I left the beach I was binocular again. An old and frail friend was waiting for me to pick him up for lunch, and he needed help getting in and out of the car.”



John Keats (1795-1821): A Biographical Endnote


The richness and meteoric improvement of his poetry, the intellectual brilliance and human warmth of his letters, and the tragic brevity of his life have combined to make John Keats the best loved of all poets writing in English. In one astonishing year, 1819, Keats wrote two great medieval romances (“The Eve of St. Agnes” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci”) and two powerful epic fragments (Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion) fusing Greek myth with an inquiry into human suffering. But for most readers, the height of Keats’s achievement is the remarkable 1819 sequence of odes, culminating in the flawless ode “To Autumn,” composed in September. It was preceded by the odes written that spring: “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode on Melancholy”: beautifully constructed poems employing language of almost unparalleled richness to explore the tensions between imaginative creativity and human mutability, between vision and reality.

It is hard to separate the poetry from the young man who wrote it. Conceiving of life heroically, not as a vale of tears but as a “vale of Soul-making,” in which an identity is forged through suffering, Keats responded courageously to his own ordeals. Both his parents died when he was a boy, his mother of the same tuberculosis that would later claim both Keats’s younger brother, Tom, whom he lovingly nursed to the end, and, three years later, Keats himself. During the months he spent in Italy wasting away from consumption, Keats alternated between hope for posthumous fame and understandable bitterness at the mortal illness that had thwarted his poetic ambitions and separated him from the young woman he loved, Fanny Brawne. (Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star is based on Keats’s love letters to Fanny.)

“I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” he said in 1818; but during the hopelessness of what he called his “posthumous life” in Italy, Keats directed that the only words to appear on his tombstone should be, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” He died, after much agony, on February 23, 1821. He was twenty-five, and had been unable to write for almost a year. The extraordinary swiftness and sureness of Keats’s development as a thinker and poet, a record of rapid growth unparalleled in literary history, intensify the sense of tragic waste all readers feel at the cutting short of so remarkable a genius. But what, in the few short years given him, he did accomplish, combined with the lovable personality revealed in his letters, ensure that John Keats will always have a prominent and especially cherished place “among the English poets.”


Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. 2 vols. Princeton UP, 1983.

_____________________. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1956-71.

de Man, Paul. Introduction to John Keats: Selected Poetry. New American Library, 1966.

Dickstein, Morris. Keats and His Poetry. U of Chicago Press, 1971.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (pp. 3-11), in Eliot, Selected Essays. New Edition. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. pp. 3-11.

Harvey, Samantha. Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature. Edinburgh UP, 2013.

Hazlitt, William, Essay on the Principles of Human Action: The Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind (1805); “On Personal Character” (1821); both in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed.  P. P Howe. 21 vols. Dent, 1930-34.

Keane, Patrick J. Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason. U of Missouri P, 2007.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 2 vols., ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1958.

________. The Poems of John Keats, ed. Miriam Allott. Longman-Norton, 1970.

________. The Keats Circle, ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2nd edn. 2 vols. Harvard UP, 1965.

Locke, John. “Identity and Diversity,” in vol. 1 (pp. 439-70), of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols. Collated and annotated by Alexander Campbell Fraser. Dover, 1959.

Perkins, David. The Quest for Permanence. Harvard UP, 1959.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale UP, 2013.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and King Lear; in The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Sperry, Stuart. Keats the Poet. Princeton UP, 1973.

Stevens, Wallace. Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems, ed. John N. Serio. Knopf, 2009.

Stillinger, Jack. “Appendix” (pp. 111-12) to Twentieth Century Views of Keats’s Odes, ed. Stillinger. Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Valéry, Paul. “Concerning Adonis,” in The Art of Poetry. Pantheon, 1958.

Vendler, Helen. The Odes of John Keats. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983.

____________. Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill. Princeton, 2011.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. Viking Press, 1963.

Weiselter, Leon. Against Identity. W. Drenttel, 1996.

____________. “Binocular.” The New Republic. 9 December 2013.

 Wordsworth, William. Wordsworth: The Poems. 2 vols., ed. John O. Hayden. Yale UP, 1981.

 Yeats, W. B. W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright.  Everyman’s Library, 1992.

– Patrick J. Keane


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), andEmily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering(2007).

Contact: patrickjkeane@numerocinqmagazine.com

Jan 042014

Dad photo

“Saltwater Cowboy” is a sharply perceived portrait of an extraordinary father, a man who served in the Navy, served on ships, all his life and left his son an indelible image of competence, courage, devotion and panache. Joe Milan lives in South Korea; this is his second contribution to NC. It’s a wonderful addition to our growing collection of fatherhood texts (we have a series of set essay topics — see them all here at Numéro Cinq Anthologies).


My father said his life started at nineteen, the moment he decided to join the Navy. On a muggy August afternoon, he was sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels on a porch with a guy everyone called Bud. About halfway down the bottle my father blurted out, “Let’s go join the Navy.” They roared down the country roads in my father’s 60’s Datsun truck with holes in the floorboard, over the low hills of houses and trees where there are no dogs – only hounds, between the square plots of soybean and cotton, and into town to the recruiting office.

The recruiter showed pictures of girls and oceans and beaches and elephants of the Pacific and had them take the test and sign the papers. Two days later, after his family disapproved and said they wouldn’t let him go – “try to stop me” – my father and Bud were on a bus to Chicago and boot camp. They stayed the night in a motel along the way, and in the morning when my father woke, Bud was gone. Bud went home.

My father always left out everything that happened before that moment on the porch. For me, scraping the memories for stories my father told me when he had too much to drink, the moment my father’s life truly started was in a break room in a factory. After dropping out of high school, he worked at a rubber plant, constantly bombarded by chemical dust that stuck to his skin like paint. Once in the break room during lunch, a co-worker, who had lived his entire life in town working at the rubber factory, stood by the punch clock for a long moment. He looked around the room at the men in overalls, then down at his timecard. He muttered and then dropped to the tile floor, dead. Stroke.

* * *

Bedtime stories for me were Navy stories. Often they started when I asked about his tattoos, the cross anchors on his hands, the ships at full sail and winking girls in scanty sailor uniforms on his arms and shoulders. “Well, I got this one when we were pulling liberty in…” I heard about Singapore, Subic, Perth, Bangkok, well before Washington DC or New York. Every room was smoky. Dust trailed the speeding jeepnies and tuk tuks. Gun shots rang off in the distance. Men with names like Dirty Dan, The Fighting CB, and Matta gulped burning whisky and broke the empties on the dirt road and howled at the sky. Men fought over pool games and threw each other out of windows that had already lost their panes.

“Why, Dad?”

“That’s what young men do, have a good time,” he said. “It was fast living, boy. Real fast.”

My father, adventuring through these places, was as mythical to me as a Hollywood cowboy. And like a cowboy, he told me about vastness of space – blue fields of ocean instead of the prairie. The ocean could be as still one moment and stampeding over the deck the next. My father lived in the thick of dangerous waters and tumultuous towns.

At work

If my father had faith in anything, it was that he could handle ships. There could be a twenty-knot wind out of the west, the port engine could die on the ship, the navigator could panic since the pier cleats weren’t where they were marked on the chart, and my father, looking out the window, could drive an eleven hundred foot carrier along the pier softly. “It’s what I do,” he would say. Within ten years of joining the navy, he had moved up the ranks from a sailor mop jockeying on the deck to a harbor pilot who docked ships into port and sent them out to sea.

Sometimes, when I was about ten, my father brought me to work. I rode the tugboats that dropped him off on Trident Submarines that he guided out into the dark tree-lined fjord of Puget Sound. When the job was done, the tugboat would come alongside the moving submarine and he would jump, without a lifejacket, back onto the tug as if it were nothing. As if one slip couldn’t send him under the icy water and the wake couldn’t suck him under to the propellers.

On the way back, my father would ask the tug captain if they’d let me on the wheel. I never wanted to be on the wheel. But soon I was grasping onto the wood handles, trying to not to hold my breath, steering the boat. “Just follow the wake of the other tugs,” he would tell me.

Advice from my father was always the same. On jumping from the high dive, “Just jump. Just go and do it.” On going to college, “Make it happen. Go and do it.” On becoming a writer, “Well, go and do it. Write.” Sometimes he added, “The worst thing you can do is overthink it, boy. Educated people sit around asking why the wind is blowing you toward the rocks. You don’t have time to ask. You just look out the window and react. Make a decision. Life doesn’t have time for you to worry it right. You just go out and do it.”

* * *

When my father retired from the Navy they gave him a party, a handshake and a shadow box filled with his service ribbons and brass plates recounting my father’s time in navy, most of it as a pilot. Piloting was what he wanted to do again. He studied charts, took tests and improved his maritime licenses. He applied for piloting jobs and flew out to Florida and Virginia for interviews. Each time he came back disappointed. And so we stayed near Seattle, not far from my father’s last duty station. Waiting, my father worked part time jobs, as a captain or a mate on ferries, tugboats, and science ships in the icy waters of the Northwest. There were a lot of days he didn’t work. On those days with a coffee in hand, he sat on the porch and watched the neighbor’s cat hunker behind the cul de sac sign and take a dump.

That’s also when people my father knew started dying. Bud was first, lung cancer. My uncle, my father’s brother, cancer. That one startles me even today. For the first and only time in my life I saw my father cry. After he hung up the phone, he clung onto my mother and me in the dark end of the hallway of our house. His face was hot and he heaved for air. My uncle died at fifty-four.

After eight years of trying, and waiting, he became a pilot again in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was an October evening in 2003, after docking a couple of ships my father came home and had his first heart attack. On the phone he talked about his cholesterol levels as he would with tide tables or how much draft a ship had. Only when he had a physical would he signal his worry with a sigh and a “I gotta go, boy.” On the next call, “Boy, have a drink on me. The doctor said I’m in better shape then those twenty year old skulls on the ships I pilot.”

My parents came to see me in Korea to find me battered in the hospital. I had flown off a mountain bike crashed into a tree leaving my chest and spine a tangled mess of rattling broken bones to be fastened back together with bolts and plates of titanium, and someone else’s bones. The doctors told me I was lucky and I was: I would walk. I was alive. My father sat next to my bed, quietly rubbing the tattooed cross anchors on the back of his hand. Finally, he struggled out, “Sometimes a man has to know his limitations.” A line from Dirty Harry.

Rope ladder

* * *

After my parents separated, my father told me about a dream he kept having about a ship he had served on before he became a pilot. My father had taken the old and mothballed ship out to be sunk for target practice. The ship went down, then his shipmates from my bedtime stories – the same ones from that very ship – started dying. Diabetes. Suicide. Heart attack. It wasn’t just his old shipmates. A pilot from a nearby port in Hawaii fell off a rope ladder while boarding a ship and was sucked under the waves. My father started wearing life jackets. My father hated life jackets.

“I keep seeing it,” he told me over the phone, “just like it was after we had hung off the sides and painted it. I’m there on the pier with my sea bag over my shoulder and I’m about to go up the gangway and the old chief stops me. ‘Sorry boats, Milan,’ he tells me, ‘not your time.’ I can see them, my shipmates, hollering at the seamen, getting them heaving on the lines, the boatswain whistles blowing. Then I see them all go, steaming away, leaving me alone on the pier with the seagulls dropping clams.”

Then came the skin cancer. Small spots like freckles on his bald head got radiated, leaving little pink scars. It also had burrowed into his ear canal. The doctors took it all out and covered his earhole with a flap of skin from his leg. “They might take my job from me. Might say they I’m not fit to pilot,” My father worried over the phone. I told him if that happened, we’d just open a bar in the Philippines and drink cheap wine. “I wouldn’t survive a week.”

The last time I visited him in Hawaii, we went shopping at a maritime store for fishing caps to keep the sun off his head. He would try a hat on and look at the mirror, shake his head and put it back. I said that we could get a sombrero. He could be the Mariachi Pilot. Then I asked him, “Do you feel like you’ve lost something? Like you’ve lost a bit of breath?”

 He caught me off guard. “I don’t know, I guess. It’s like I lost something I can never have back.” He picked up a yellow fishing cap and looked in the mirror. He looked pale. He looked scared.

* * *

In college, I worked in film production. After the movie sets were torn down, when the only remains of the spectacle were naked concrete and traces of sawdust and sand, I’d always get a feeling that I was tiny and couldn’t say where the props had really been. I got that same feeling at my father’s memorial. There was a photo of my father from the bridge wing of a ship, grinning while looking down at the camera. He looked so happy. Yet, before I noticed the grin, I saw the life jacket.

One day I sat down at my desk and wrote this:

As the last hours of streetlight sliced through the blinds, my father stared up at the ceiling. Old photos in clean picture frames look out from the shelves. His shadow box is gathering dust. After a few sips of Kona decaf coffee, he sat and took his blood pressure. The machine groaned and tightened. It beeps and he wished he could still hear it without the muffle. The numbers say it’s a little low.

The harbor’s July air is thick and full of salt and diesel exhaust. The roads were still black from the morning mists. The waters rippled off the piers and the docked ships. From the wheelhouse of the tugboat steaming through the channel toward the job, my father didn’t notice the Arizona memorial raising its flag above the sunken hulk. His thoughts were on the job, and the depths of the harbor, the draft of the ship, and the breeze from the northeast. 

A cargo ship deep in West Loach waited for him. It was a complicated job that would need all his focus. His strategy is to pull the ship from the pier with tugs, back slow and turn the ship 90 degrees, using the tugs, avoiding the other ships and the unseen shallows. Once the ship was in the channel he could drive the ship past the last turn and out to sea. The job was like moving a semi-truck  out of a full parking lot, on ice, without brakes, with ball bearings instead of wheels, and little go carts pushing the trailer to keep it between the lines.

As he climbed the rope ladder to the access hatch in the wall of the gray hull, he clenched his teeth. Men can fall off into the green abyss. Big ships like this give men heartburn. They can smash into the pier or run aground. Lines from the tugs could part and whip back onto the deck. Anything can go wrong; everything can go wrong.

The sun broke through the clouds and it was hot under his life jacket.

 On the bridge, my father smiled, and shook the captain’s hand. Harbor Pilots are faces of calm. The ship’s engines hummed and the crew checked the computer screens and hustled the lines. From the bridge wing, the tugs were small, as if they hadn’t grown up yet. He swallowed, keeping in the tension, focusing on the images burned in his mind of where and when each movement would begin and end.

The tugs heaved and the ship growled and shuddered as propellers started backing. Coffee brown silt swelled up staining the water. The ship had a deep draft and the bottom wasn’t much deeper. Lines moaned, water churned, radios crackled, my father’s forehead beaded with sweat. There was a knot twisting and tightening inside him.

For an hour my father crisscrossed from the port bridge wing to the starboard and back again, gauging distances, calling corrections to conn, and to the tugs. He fought sudden breezes, the ever-changing depths, the weariness of his body. Then finally, it happened. They cleared the tight loach and were moving toward the channel to the last turn and the ocean.

With the job essentially done, he looked down from the bridge, past the anchor winches and the stanchions of the deck to the dark green water just ahead. This is when he would laugh. A country boy from the fields of Tennessee had moved a mountain of steel.

But as the adrenaline faded, he didn’t laugh. When the ship made its last turn at Whiskey point, the point where the harbor opens up to the unending field of green then blue water of the Pacific, where the white caps clapped all the way to the line where the water splits with the cloud splattered sky, he looked up and knew he had gotten the ship out safely. And that was it.

Whiskey PointThe approach to Whiskey Point

—Joe Milan


Joe Milan 3

Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. He is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.

Dec 152013

Hillary Mullins

Since the beginning NC as made it a habit, now and then, to publish a sermon. It’s an old form, not much thought of in literary terms these days — you don’t see many college courses on sermons. But it’s a form that was once immensely popular; books of sermons were published regularly and became bestsellers. I have friends whose fathers were ministers and I’ve loved listening to their memories of the weekly composition process — think of it, an ESSAY a week, 52 weeks a year! Kind of like a blog but with God as one of your readers.

Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont, runs a window-cleaning business, and gives sermons — in a sense, she has given her life over to helping people see better. This is her Christmas sermon delivered earlier this month to the UU Fellowship in  Stowe. The subject is close to my heart because when I was six I played Tiny Tim in the school Christmas play. Picture this: rural, one-room, stone schoolhouse with a raised dais along the front for the teacher’s desk, Union Jack and the Queen’s portrait prominently displayed, and me with my theatrical leg-brace made (by my father) of soup tins and cut-down harness straps. Hilary quite rightly focuses on Scrooge, who is the reclaimed character, but still I love the line I got to say (raising my wine glass filled with apple juice), “God bless us, every one.”

YouTube Preview Image

The images are John Leech’s original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, via the wonderful Victorian Web.


Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster….

Nobody ever stopped him on the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? when will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him, and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “no eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance….


Charles Dickens wrote his famous Christmas Carol in 1843, and from the very first, it sparked changes in the people who read it, momentous and generous changes. Robert Louis Stevenson for instance, wrote a friend this: “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money—I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”

The historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle was seized with his own verifiable fit of generosity. We don’t have an account of it in his own words, but his wife wrote her cousin, referring to her husband by his last name and saying this: “A huge boxful of dead animals from the Welshman arriving late on Saturday night together with the visions of Scrooge—has so worked on Carlyle’s nervous organization that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between.”

And yet another conetmporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, pronounced the book, “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”

But it wasn’t just other writers who were affected. Some years later, after the queen of Norway read A Christmas Carol, she sent gifts to disabled children in London, signed “With Tiny Tim’s love.” And an American industrialist, a certain Mr. Fairbanks of Massachusetts, having heard Dickens’ own reading of the book one Christmas Eve, was so inspired he closed his factory the very next day for Christmas, somehow managing to get a turkey to every worker he had.

Used with permission from  http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/eytinge/49.html.

Plain folks too, numberless people whose names and stories we’ll never know, were affected as well. For instance, in the spring after A Christmas Carol was published, one English magazine noted that charitable giving was up across the whole country, evidently a result of this one little book. People were moved! And moved to action.

Even Dickens himself was deeply moved by the act of writing A Christmas Carol, pushing through it in the midst of other projects in a remarkably short six weeks, crying and laughing as he wrote, taking long walks through London—and I mean long walks—supposedly fifteen or twenty-mile walks!—at a time of night when, as he put it, “all sober folks had gone to bed.” And when he reached the ecstatic, joyful end of the book, and finished it, he said he “broke out…like a madman.”

But of course acting like a madman is just how Scrooge behaves too in the joyful conclusion of A Christmas Carol:

“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded….

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge, “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

I don’t know about you, but whenever I get to this short section at the very end of the book, I always feel a little mad with joy myself, almost embarrassed by the sheer exuberance welling up in me too. And why is that? What is the power of Dickens’ little fable? Why has it touched and changed so many people?

One reason surely is simply because it’s a remarkably well-written book. If all you’ve done for years now is watch the various movie versions, I suggest this Christmas season, you go back to the book itself. It’s sheer pleasure. But there’s more to its effectiveness than its high level of craft. There are, after all, lots of well-written books. But very few of them have worked the kind of change in people that A Christmas Carol has.

So walking a little deeper into the story itself, let us next consider the book’s most obvious lesson, a lesson that can’t be repeated too often, and that Dickens himself thought of as the “Carol Philosophy,” which is simply to give, and to give in particular to those who don’t have the money or resources you do. But though this is, as I say, the obvious lesson of the book, and giving is itself a profound practice that has its own momentum in people’s lives, taken alone, it still can’t account for the singular transformational power this book has.

That power, I think, lies deeper in the story itself and is related to its more fundamental teaching—which is to open our hearts, or as E. M. Forster put it: “Only Connect!”

This approach to life of course, the way of connection, is entirely the opposite of how Scrooge conducts himself at the opening of the book: Dickens makes that abundantly clear in the description I quote earlier of Scrooge as a man who is “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”

That is to say, Scrooge is a man who has disconnected himself as much as is humanly possible. He may have a business and a good reputation as a businessman, but in the beginning of the book, he has no authentic intercourse with anyone, spurning even the one surviving relative he has, his nephew Fred–and on Christmas Eve no less.

photo 3

Fred however, a plucky chap, never loses his good humor in this early scene, giving his uncle a fine little speech about the particular value of Christmas, calling it

a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

Scrooge’s response is to belittle his nephew. Then, after Fred, still persisting, invites him to dinner the next day for Christmas, Scrooge turns even uglier, vowing to see him in hell before ever he comes for Christmas dinner.

So then, think about it. How does this work really? How does Ebenezer Scrooge shift from a miserable, money-making oyster, poking his head out of his shell only to insult people, to a man who frisks about his rooms and heads right out the door, engaging right and left in handsome acts of generosity? What can actually account for his new, miraculous and permanent habit of connecting whole-heartedly with people everywhere he goes?

Another place to look for the answer I suppose lies with the power of the spirits who visit Scrooge. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and who wouldn’t change their tune faced with these visitations? Scrooge, you could say, is scared straight.

But now I’m really setting up straw ghosts here, because clearly,  this is not the whole answer either: Scrooge is plenty afraid at various points along his journey, but it’s not fear that is the most potent catalyst for his change. It couldn’t be. For though fear may change us, its primary effect is not to open our hearts, but to close them.

I think the key to Scrooge’s transformation lies in something else.

So let us start with him after Marley has gone, at the beginning of his journey with the three spirits. As you recall, Scrooge’s first companion amongst these spirits is The Ghost of Christmas Past, who confirms, as Marley foretold, that he has indeed come for Scrooge’s reclamation.

What you might not recall however is that just before they fly from Scrooge’s dismal rooms, the spirit, having compassion for the fear Scrooge is feeling, places his hand on the man’s heart. And his hand is still there when they make their first stop, a “gentle touch,” Dickens writes, that though “light and instantaneous,” is “still present to the old man’s sense of feeling.”

Where they are now when first they alight, is on an open country road, in a place that catapults Scrooge into a wholly different frame of mind as he recognizes countryside from his boyhood, happily recollecting and relishing the old familiar sights as they walk along. But soon they are not alone: the road is filled with boys Scrooge also remembers, boys who are traveling home for Christmas on horseback, on gigs, and on carts. “All these boys,” Dickens writes, “were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.”

In the midst of all this, we see a side of Scrooge we haven’t seen before, a side that no one has seen, evidently, for years: “Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds…why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past!”

But this opening jaunt, pleasant as it is, is just an ice-breaker, a little warm-up before the next step in Scrooge’s reclamation. Because a whole nightful of recreated happiness would not have the power to thaw the deep freeze Scrooge has packed around his heart. Not permanently anyway. That will take something else.

And that something else comes soon enough, the Ghost of Christmas Past going on with Scrooge to the school building the boys have just left, a mansion of “broken fortunes”: desolate, shabby, damp, and cold: “There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.”

Surprisingly, as moving as this scene is, Dickens, in the theatrical readings he used to give in later years of A Christmas Carol, dropped it. No doubt he had good reasons—the whole book, for one thing, couldn’t be read in one sitting, and it is also said that Dickens’ contemporary audiences favored Tiny Tim and the merrier feast scenes in the story too.

But I wonder if perhaps another reason Dickens declined to share this passage with an audience live was because it touched too painfully on a similar kind of desolation he himself had experienced as a boy during a period of acute family crisis.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Dickens’ father went into a financial freefall that ultimately landed him in debtors’ prison. This resulted in two things: while most of the family actually stayed in the prison along with the father, the young Charles Dickens, who considered himself a gentleman in the making and who had been going to school, instead now found himself at the age of twelve living alone in rented rooms and working, trapped, ten hours a day, six days a week, in a broken-down factory pasting labels on pots of shoe blacking.

And this went on for months, an experience so traumatizing for the boy that years later, as a grown man, he could not walk past the place where the factory had once been, without crying.

Strikingly Scrooge has the same reaction when he is confronted with the sight of his younger school-boy self: “They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.”

It’s a painful moment, but a momentous one, because it’s the point where Scrooge’s transformation truly begins. For it’s not only the house that’s broken–it is the boy himself who is broken too, the boy whose heart Scrooge still bears within, that same heart the Spirit has laid his careful and abiding hand upon.

Understated as the scene is, compared to, say the later scenes with Tiny Tim, this moment conveys a kind of human miracle. Though utterly sunk in his old, overwhelming desolation, Scrooge now has a companion, a calm and deeply accepting witness to his anguish.

photo 2

So now it’s no longer a question of how long Scrooge will take to thaw: his melting is instantaneous. And why? Because of the power this kind of witnessing has, the ghost’s compassionate spirit bringing clear-eyed acceptance, allowing Scrooge the boy and Scrooge the man to reconnect with the whole truth of himself.

And this, I’d say too, is the underlying dynamic in the transforming power of the book itself. One word for it of course is connection. But more specifically, the process that Dickens is enacting on the page for us is the process of vulnerability. Because it’s not just that the spirit connects with Scrooge—there’s more going on, an ultimately mysterious, paradoxical process, one I think that quietly runs beneath all the rest of the story, through all of Scrooges’ journey through the Past, the Present, and the Future, through all the wrenching scenes and the boisterous ones too.

But wait, just what do I mean by vulnerability?

Well, as I was saying before, the fundamental truth of being human is that we need to be connected—like it or not, we come wired for it. Without connection, we’re stifled; with it, we thrive. But in order to be connected, we have to let others see the things in us that make us feel like we’re maybe not good enough for anyone to connect with. It’s like Brene Brown, the researcher whose TED talk on vulnerability went viral, says: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

What Scrooge discovers when he revisits his abandoned younger self in the company of the spirit, is that he must embrace his vulnerability in order to live again. Not only that, he must have the courage to do it with others. But courage, as Brene Brown reminds us, is not to be confused with bravery. If you look at the original root sense of the word, courage means having the heart to tell your whole story.

This of course, at the beginning of the Christmas Carol, is exactly what Scrooge doesn’t have. All he has is money, lots of it. But ironically, given the ways he has compensated for his extreme lack of connection with others, it turns out he is no better off than he was as a boy. He has in fact, recreated the hateful circumstances of his younger years with an unwitting fidelity. Whereas the young Ebenezer was left alone on Christmas day huddled by a small fire in a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building–Scrooge, on Christmas eve, rich as he is, takes himself home to a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building. His fire too, is the same fire, a dispiriting thing, a “very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night.”

But as ironic as the situation is, it’s natural too—in fact it’s exactly the kind of thing lots of us do, recreating the old wounding dynamics of our childhoods and imprisoning ourselves in the process.

For Scrooge himself is certainly in a prison, as the spirit of his former partner Marley recognizes. He sees that Scrooge needs drastic spiritual reclamation, a kind of crash course in vulnerability, and that of course is what Scrooge gets, the ghosts with their spirit of compassion handling him not with kid gloves, but compelling him simply to see things as they are. And that’s what does the trick: the spirits usher our man Scrooge into a fuller vision of himself, one that makes the prison of his own construction finally visible to him. Once he has seen that, the process of reclamation really takes hold in him, and he makes reconnection his own habit, his own philosophy, his religion really. For Ebenezer Scrooge is a man joyfully resurrected.

No wonder then, he goes frisking about his rooms! It’s not just because he finds he’s still alive, but because he finds at last he truly is alive. And what else to do then but make his reunion with mankind manifest, not only through giving spontaneously and generously, but by going forth to join the world on the streets of London? And here is how Dickens, who was himself his whole life a great walker of the streets of London, describes Scrooge’s jaunt that Christmas morning:

“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.”

Yes, it has taken a long night of work, but here at last, rejuvenated on Christmas Day, Scrooge has found out the wisdom of his nephew Fred’s words the day before—that is, for all that we continually fail to see it, other people really are our fellow-passengers to the grave: they are the only companions we have.


Now I know Christmas certainly is not always the festive occasion Dickens painted. It truly is not. And it can be a time of particular and pointed anguish. But at the same time, it is also a time of year when, again, as Fred claims, “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” In that way, Christmas offers precious opportunity, a chance for us to disregard what pains us most about the holiday and do instead what we’re here to do: connect.

So may the spirit of the past, the present, and the future be with you this Christmas season. May you have the courage to reconnect yourself with others and to find yourself whole. And may it bring us all joy.

Amen and blessed be.

 —Hilary Mullins


Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.

Dec 142013

Genni in Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a reputation for being a closed kingdom, a place where military repression is the norm, unfriendly to strangers and outside influences. In 2006, my Italian-Canadian-singer-composer-writer friend Genni Gunn, rather intrepidly, went there anyway, with her husband Frank, her sister Ileana and Ileana’s husband Peter. “The Wild Dogs of Bagan” speaks of a down-at-heel country, the constant military presence (a soldier with binoculars watches a birdwatcher with binoculars), the poverty and the sense of menace (not just the cobras). It’s an essay excerpted from Genni’s brand new book of travel and memoir pieces entitled Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place. We published an earlier excerpt, an essay about her ancestral village in southern Italy called “Tracks: An Italian Memoir” last year and before that an excerpt from her novel Solitaria which was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize. Genni lives in Vancouver so we hardly ever get to see one another, although a side benefit of all my travel for Savage Love this fall was the chance to spend an afternoon in a Granville Island eatery catching up with her. Lovely memory.


Bagan BuddhaBagan Buddha

Old Pagan 2006

8:00 a.m. I step out of the hotel bungalow to fenced, groomed, lush gardens, beyond which a yellow desert extends to the edge of the mighty Ayeyarwady River. A chain of blue hills shimmers in the morning sun. Three banyan trees provide all the shade for the restaurant, roots spread, branches clawing the sky. Squirrels run up and down their trunks. Crows shriek, flying back and forth, a murder of crows, whooshing their wings. Whoosh whoosh — the sound of lassos through the air. White-throated babblers hop into potted plants. Frangipani, skeletal grey limbs with single white flowers at the tip of branches. My brother-in-law Peter has his binoculars out, and his pencil and bird list: Vinous-breasted starlings, White-throated kingfishers, Great egrets, Ruddy Shelducks, White Wagtails, Grey herons.

At breakfast, served outdoors on the large patio, where all meals are served, on tables covered in white tablecloths, we hear that General Than Shwe — Myanmar’s iron-fisted military dictator — is in Bagan, as he often is, to visit the temples and gild the stupas and Buddhas, in a superstitious effort to fortify his power and gain the people’s confidence. “When he comes to visit a school,” a young man told us the other night, “they have to take the little money for education, and decorate one classroom, so that the General can see it. He spends two minutes there and leaves. Meantime, the towns and villages are suffering for this.”

“You won’t believe what happened to Peter,” my sister Ileana says, nudging him.

Peter, rolls his eyes at us, but is a good sport, so he tells us that he was up around 6:00 a.m., wandering about, bird-watching with his binoculars, when in his sights, he was startled by an armed guard staring at him through binoculars.

4 Bagan

We all laugh, imagining this unlikely scene, like a slapstick comedy on TV.

“Should teach you to stay in bed until a reasonable hour,” I say.

“It was not funny,” Peter says, and tells us he quickly lowered his binoculars, and casually walked away.

“Apparently,” Ileana says, “the generals are staying at the property next to the hotel.”

“You better be careful,” I say, smiling.

“They might come and take you away,” Ileana says, teasing him, because instead of joining us today, Peter is off on his own birding expedition.

After breakfast, we head out on foot to look at temples all around us, though we could rent a horse-drawn cart or a bicycle. Bagan, formerly Pagan, is an ancient city, the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, ruled by King Anawrahta. Situated in the dry zone and sheltered from the rain by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range in the west, it spreads for forty-two square kilometres along the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy. At one time, the plain was dotted with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Today, only the ruins of about 2,200 remain, rising above and among the desert vegetation. Of these, the gold and white ones are still in use, while the red brick ones aren’t.

2 Bagan

3 Bagan

It feels as if we are the only people in this vast landscape of red earth, stippled with ancient spires, pagodas, temples. Desert brush and vegetation abound, dirt paths snake from one monument to the other, haphazard and circuitous. Quickly, however, two young boys attach themselves to us — Soe Myint wears a white dusty T-shirt and longyi, and Zaw Win an ochre T and jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Both their cheeks are white with thanakha and on their feet, flip-flops. In the woven bags around their bodies, the children stash accordions of postcards they sell for 1000 kyat.

“We are guide,” Zaw Win says. “We show you.”

We follow the children, who explain the history of the ruins, their voices rising and falling, their fingers pointing out this temple or that pagoda. Much of what we learn from the local people and the guides is oral tradition, difficult to substantiate through books or websites (as I later discover), but far more interesting. There has been no free press here for decades. The Internet is monitored and blocked. Ileana and Peter get their news every ten weeks in Bangkok, where they go to renew their visas.

“Do you go to school?” Frank asks.

“No,” Soe Myint says, “no money for school.”

I think about our spoiled children at home, our lax education system, the students’ sense of entitlement to good grades, the many functionally illiterate high-school graduates we see year after year. I understand why Ileana enjoys teaching overseas, in countries where education is valued, where students are eager to learn.

A military truck approaches in a cloud of red dust, its open bed filled with heavily armed soldiers, who roam, feral and unchecked, through the countryside, barking orders. We yield to the passing truck. I assume the soldiers are headed for Sinmayarshin Temple, whose golden stupa was regilded in 1997 by Than Shwe, on the advice of his soothsayer; Than Shwe, whose beliefs fuse Buddhism, Nat worship, astrology, and Yadaya magic rituals — an excellent witches’ brew for politics.

As we walk along, a venomous snake crosses the road, a slithering metaphor. We stare at the imprint it leaves in the earth. In this Garden of Eden live thirty-nine deadly snake species, many of which thrive in the abandoned temples of Bagan. Burma has the highest death rate from snakebites in the world — about 1,000 people a year just from Russell’s Vipers. Like everyone here, we walk barefoot along dark passages.

“King Cobra,” Soe Myint says, keeping a safe distance as the snake slinks away. “See it is thinner in one part and thicker where the head is.”

I try to stare at the ground from then on, but not for long, distracted by the splendour of the ruins, the brilliant skeletal frangipani along the road, and then, up ahead, a red carpet stretched to the stairs of a temple, the path bordered by red bougainvillea, and lined with soldiers who stand silent and forbidding in the sun. The children suddenly disappear.

Today was to be the start of the Popa Nat Festival, a festival that goes on for six days, beginning on the first day of full moon in Nadaw, which corresponds to our December. “Nadaw” in Myanmar characters transliterates as “Nat Taw,” meaning “Spirit Respect,” the veneration of Deities. However, because General Than Shwe is in town, the festival is not allowed.

Wherever he goes, a small army precedes him, clearing the area, setting down red carpets for him to walk on, lining these carpets with soldiers, like wild dogs keeping everyone frightened. He is enemy number one of the people, no matter how much he travels around, pretending to spread goodwill. It is obscene to see the money spent on pomp for this regime, for the new capital Naypyidaw, for the red carpets and lavish houses for the generals, whose disregard and disdain for their own people is staggering.

Bagan monks

We walk past the guards and climb the steps. This temple has padlocked iron gates at every entrance except for one — a security measure for the general, though we have seen no one all day. We remove our shoes, step on the red carpet and tiptoe inside, walking anti-clockwise through the long dark passages, admiring the Buddhas, stucco carvings, frescos. As we come to each opening, we find a padlocked gate, and soon we feel as if we’re in a maze and have lost all track of where we entered. A motorcycle revs outside, a warning surely. Then a wild dog barks, a man shouts, the motorcycle revs, other wild dogs join in, growing in magnitude until the air reverberates with deep sonorous woofs, yappy small-dog yaps, snarly Rottweiler growls, howls like wolves. A cacophonous canine symphony, an ominous soundtrack. It’s easy to imagine we’re locked inside. It’s easy to imagine a King Cobra slithering toward us. My heart beats faster, recalling the pack of soldiers, the ruthlessness they’re known for. My feet speed along the red carpet, and finally, there, the open gate.

We rush out, relieved, and avoiding the red carpet, scramble away from the temple. The soldiers watch us go, their faces impassive.

The two boys now reappear from behind a bush, eager to resume their guiding duties. We turn a corner and find a soldier facing us. Startled, we nod and walk on. At the end of another path, the soldier. The children are wary, furtive. They duck behind bushes. For the rest of the afternoon, no matter where we go, the soldier follows, sometimes surprising us at the top of a temple, his proximity threatening, like the wild dogs circling below. The children disappear whenever he’s visible, as if tuned into a collective memory.

“This is biggest temple,” Zaw Win says, pointing to Dhammayangyi Temple, a step-pyramid made of identical bricks without mortar.

“Look at the bricks,” Ileana says. “They are so precise. According to legend, while this temple was being built, King Narathu would execute masons if he could stick a pin between the bricks. Can you imagine? It was never completed.”

“No wonder,” I say. “He must have killed all the masons.”


This temple has dark long corridors — approximately twenty-five metres per side — surrounding an enormous central core completely filled with rubble. No one knows why, or whether this core is simply a buttress to support the massive building.

We follow the passageways around, tall narrow walls pressing in, and when we get to one end, where small, perforated stone windows let in light, Ileana stops. “You know what this reminds me of?” she says. “Pozzecco.”

I stop too, and think about that. Pozzecco is a small village in the north of Italy, where my father’s aunts lived and farmed various fields. Ileana and I visited in summers, lay on top of hay wagons, watching the thin dusty road winding among green fields. “You’re right,” I say. “The paths, the colour of the earth, the feel of this is like Pozzecco.” And I recall the magic and superstitions of those happy days, when we slept in the stone mansion, which our great-aunts had convinced us was haunted. “And the ghosts, remember?” I say to Ileana. “Scrabbling in the ceiling, over our bedroom.” I look up, where high in the darkness hang hundreds of bats.

“They had silkworms up there,” Ileana says. “You didn’t really believe the ghost stories, did you?”

“We both did,” I insisted, and recalled a memory within a memory — a visit I made to Udine in 1982, to my father’s ancestral home where his sister lived, and how, on hearing I was going to visit the great-aunts, she had dissuaded me from staying overnight, citing malevolent ghosts. It grieves me to think how heartless I must have appeared, returning after so long to visit the last two octogenarian great-aunts, with whom my childhood summers are entwined, and not even spending a night with them in that mansion, with its long dark stone corridors, like the ones here in Myanmar, decades later.

“Actually,” Ileana says, “I wasn’t thinking about that at all. What I was recalling were the times — maybe you weren’t there — when I went to Pozzecco with the boy cousins, who would dare me to do crazy things in order to let me play with them.

“One day, I was wandering through the fields with our cousins, and we found an underground passage, a fallout shelter — I think that’s what it was, or maybe it was a bunker for soldiers during WWII. It was a cave, really, with a very small opening. Of course, the cousins dared me to go inside.” She pauses. “We had been warned about poisonous snakes that lived in crevices in the earth, so naturally, I was afraid. However, I wasn’t going to let the boys get the best of me. I was such a tomboy!”

In the winters, when Ileana came to visit me in Rutigliano, she was considered too loud, too rambunctious, an unbroken pony who galloped through the house, broken objects and scoldings trailing behind her.

“And did you?” I ask, though I have no doubt.

“Of course. I was petrified, but I crawled in and it was dark and dank, just like in here, only the walls were closer. I thought a snake would bite me. Oh, they were so impressed with me after that.”

“I was definitely not there,” I say.

“One of the boy cousins was Australian,” Ileana says. “Tulio, I think his name was, and what I remember is his mother, who was everything I wanted in a mother. She took the time to sit with me, to teach me to embroider, and do all the things that little girls did back then. I wanted her for my mother.”

I think about the childhood longing for this perfect mother in those years when there was none. Yet we’ve become who we are because of our pasts. Would we be here, now, in this remote location? Would we have travelled as we have — I for years a vagabond musician on the road — my sister endlessly displaced, returning every year to an altered home? The two of us, rediscovering each other in a foreign land?

Early Morning Ayeyarwady River


At breakfast, in the morning, we continue to tease Peter about the binocular incident with the soldier, and blame him for our being followed the previous day.

“Careful when you’re in the pool,” Ileana says.

“Watch out for the King Cobra,” Frank says.

“Don’t go walking on any red carpets,” I say.

And suddenly, in the midst of our hilarity, arrives a pack of soldiers flanking a general, who strides directly to our table, as if he’s heard everything we’ve said.

“I am General Soe Naing, Minister of Hotels and Tourism,” he announces. He has a large white star on his uniform. “How long are you staying?” he asks, which feels like a trick question.

Our laughter wanes. Our earlier defiance dissipates as the twelve armed soldiers surround our table. Beside me, Frank’s face is set. I wonder what consequences there will be if he speaks up. The general looks carefully at each of our faces, but returns to Frank’s repeatedly. What could they do to us? I recall the statements we had to sign in order to secure visas, statements that say if we speak against the government, we can be imprisoned. Oppose those relying on external elements, holding negative views.

I listen to the murmur of our innocuous responses, to the wind through the banyan tree, the clatter of coffee cups against plates, the chatter of White-throated babblers, the soldiers’ boots on stone, the echo of growls, the barks of wild dogs around us, and when the general leans forward, his face in a tight smile, and holds out his hand to each of us, I watch myself from a distance, as if my arm does not belong to me, as it moves up to shake his hand. And the dogs howl.

—Genni Gunn


Genni Gunn in Myanmar

Ileana, Peter, Genni & Frank

Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. She has published three novels: Solitaria (Signature Editions), nominated for the Giller Prize 2011; Tracing Iris, made into a film titled The Riverbank; and Thrice Upon a Time; two story collections,  two poetry collections, and two translations of poetry collections by Dacia Maraini. Her books have been finalists for the Commonwealth Prize, the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, the John Glassco Prize and the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri. She has written the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions, produced in Montreal in 2007, and showcased at the Opera America Conference in Vancouver, May 2013. She is an avid traveler, and her experiences are reflected in her most recent book, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place (Signature Editions, 2013).

Dec 012013

Paul Forte 2013

Paul Forte is a fascinating artist and thinker. “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” is a major essay on the theory and practice of Conceptual art, also a short history of the tradition, also a lesson on how to appreciate art, and also a Cook’s tour of Forte’s own amazing art (dwell on the images, meditate upon them). Steeped in the history of art and philosophy, Forte sorts out definitions and vectors of influence, does not lean on jargon but explains it, and is above all infectiously passionate about his subject. Note also that the essay is dedicated to the late Arthur C. Danto, a hugely influential philosopher (whom I have myself read assiduously now and then over the years), Forte’s friend and mentor.


For Arthur C. Danto 1924 – 2013

The international Conceptual art movement that swept the art world in the late 1960’s emphasized the primacy of the artist’s thoughts or ideas in the art making process and forever changed how many artists think about and make art.  Reaching its peak in the late 1970’s, the movement was eventually overshadowed by the resurgence of more traditional art forms, but not before sowing the radical seeds of a new consciousness, at least where art is concerned.  Almost a decade after Conceptual art passed from the scene something interesting happened: in the mid 1980’s the movement seemed to resurface in what was touted as a revival called “Neo-Conceptualism” (also referred to as “Neo-Geo”). While roundly dismissed by Conceptual purists at the time as lacking in critical value, Neo-Conceptualism nevertheless signaled a significant turn for contemporary art.

In hindsight it appears that Conceptual art began evolving in the late 1970’s, and Neo-Conceptualism was one outcome of this evolutionary process.  The curious thing about this supposed revival was its acquiescence to the importance, indeed necessity of perception for expressing or communicating ideas along with the return to more conventional materials and methods of art making.  While an implicit acceptance of the centrality of material form in art didn’t necessarily negate or displace the predominance of the idea, it did give material form equal weight or footing, rendering the most controversial theory of the 1960’s, “de-materialization,” highly problematic.  Even so, much of the work that resulted from this supposedly renewed Conceptualism seemed sensationalist and facile.  In this sense the purists were right, and yet the reintroduction of perceptual concerns while adhering to the basic principle of Conceptual art concerning the primacy of ideas was highly significant.  Thus the stage was set to usher in a post-Conceptual era: art, or at least, Conceptual art, seemed to be evolving in a cognitive direction.  “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” attempts to make sense of this far reaching development and hopefully contribute something to our understanding of aesthetic experience.


Desert Parcel (book fragments)

Desert Parcel (book fragments)
Paul Forte, 2013
Collage on canvass made from the fragments of an illustrated volume titled: Picturesque Palestine, Egypt and the Sinai, published in the late 19th century
39 3/4 x 54 3/4 inches


“Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers.”[1]Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto’s observation about artists, expressed in a review of the Whitney Biennial over a decade ago, seems prescient given the ubiquity of art made along ostensibly conceptual lines today.  Writing for savvy readers of The Nation in 2000, Danto was concerned about what he saw as an erosion of aesthetics for the sake of imparting moral meanings. He was not objecting to art that raised social awareness, only work that might do so at the expense of aesthetic value, as he understood it.  There are many competing concepts of aesthetic value, making the subject contentious to say the least.  And yet, the notion of visual thinking seems generic enough to have some bearing on a host of ways in which art might be valued.  I believe that Danto felt that by focusing on contemporary art as a form of visual thought we might renew the discussion of aesthetic value and perhaps rediscover just what it was about the experience of art that we find so engaging.  Danto’s basic point about artists as visual thinkers remains sound and was never at odds with the possibility of art being used as a vehicle for moral posturing.  His concern over the advancement of moral agendas through art at the expense of aesthetics carries little weight today, because most artists, critics, curators, and others understand that there was never an issue between aesthetics and socially committed art, although a fundamental change in attitudes about the use of aesthetics has taken place, something that Danto may not have anticipated: the aesthetic practices of many contemporary artists have become, for lack of a better term, conceptualized.  In other words, aesthetic properties such as line, form, and color, for example, are often not explored for their own sake as it were but are used as indices or signifiers, elements of visual thought perhaps best understood in terms of the artist’s intentions.  This outcome is one legacy of Conceptual art, that radical re-visioning of art begun by Duchamp and championed by Danto.  There is no little irony in the fact that the undermining of aesthetic attitudes that troubled Danto should come as a result of this legacy.

1 Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)

Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)
Paul Forte 2005
Black Slate, 42 x 22 x 2 ½ inches
Collection Yale University Art Gallery


Arthur Danto’s view of artists as visual thinkers prods us to re-examine our aesthetic experiences in light of what they can tell us about cognition. Danto’s perspective, shared by a number of his contemporaries, is important because in supposing that many contemporary artists are basically engaged in visual thinking, he suggests a fundamental reevaluation of art.  This reevaluation can be summed up in terms of the potential that art has for deepening our understanding of cognition or cognitive processes.  Certainly such understanding is as important as the moral or intellectual purpose of one’s artwork, if, indeed, that is the intention of the work.  In fact, it could be argued that it takes precedence over any moral or intellectual purpose, however lofty or urgent, because art that explores how we know and understand, however implicitly, can at the very least reveal new and engaging ways of communicating ideas.  Palpable realizations about knowing and understanding are not simply byproducts of one’s social or political messages, rather, they are the very things that make these messages effective, enduring, or even possible in the first place.  If we consider the potential of art in light of this basic value, surely its “moral or intellectual purpose,” whatever it is, will be preserved by virtue of the deeper ways the work has changed our hearts and minds.

7 Ringing silence

Ringing Silence
Paul Forte 2012
Alarm bell, map and biology text in found box
13 ½ x 16 ¾ x 12 ½ inches


The idea of artists as visual thinkers gained currency in the 1960′s and 70′s through the advocacy of visual thinking by the psychologist, Rudolph Arnheim.  But visual thinking, according to Arnheim, is hardly limited to the activities of artists.  It is a capacity that we all share, artists and lay people alike, and may be the only form of thought capable of engendering productive understanding on a broad scale.  “Visual thinking is the ability of the mind to unite observing and reasoning in every field of learning.  Whether people spend their days on using the physical forces of their bodies as garage mechanics or surgeons or dancers or whether they labor quietly at their desks as mathematicians or poets, the principal instrument on which their minds rely will always be the same.”[2]  That instrument, of course, is the eye.  The practice of one’s discipline forms the connection between observing and reasoning, something that results in the give and take or back and forth of one’s art or activity.  One does, observes and evaluates the results, and then proceeds to adjust the doing as is necessary.  The work of either artist or garage mechanic involves a dynamic interaction between doing or making and observing.

8 Facade Compendium Wall

Façade (Compendium Wall)
Paul Forte 2013
Encyclopedia covers (1893) on wood
42 x 52 ½ x 1¼ inches


But art making, certainly for the creative artist, requires open observation and careful reasoning.  The mind is always implicated in what and how we see, so the challenge for the creative artist involves sustaining an imaginative approach to both observing and reasoning without succumbing to solipsism or sophistry.  An imaginative mind combined with a critical eye seems to be the key.

2 Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts

Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts
Paul Forte 2005
Wadded paper (artist’s writings), glue, varnish
12 x 12 x 12 inches


Our knowledge of self and world is in constant flux; there is an ongoing interrelation or interaction between what we know and what and how we see.  Visual thinking in this regard seems more fundamental than abstract thought; thought seemingly divorced from qualitative features of perceptual states that determine what something is like, or to employ a philosophical term: its qualia. The artwork of artists exploring the interrelations between the phenomenal properties of their materials and ideas is often provocative and unusual, calling for a more demanding set of interpretive skills; skills beyond at least aesthetic judgment that puts great store in absolute distinctions between perceptual and conceptual concerns.  When this dichotomy is guiding appraisal of the artwork it is often misunderstood and subsequently misjudged.  For example, critics, curators, and the art viewing public often overlook or underestimate the cognitive value of contemporary art seemingly indebted to some tradition or another, assuming that such work is primarily concerned with furthering that tradition and little else. If, on the other hand, such art is presumed to simulate a tradition and have a conceptual intention, then it is usually viewed as a matter of either pastiche or parody.  The presumption in the first case is that the work is primarily the result of formal concerns, to some extent or another, in the second, that the work is either a matter of critique or gamesmanship, and essentially conceptual.  It appears that much like the apparent opposition between aesthetics and socially engaged art, absolute distinctions between the formal and the conceptual, eye and mind, are overstated if not illusory.

9 Book of Maladies

Book of Maladies
Paul Forte 2013
Sealed book, crystals and mixed media on painted base
16 x 22 x 3 inches


While visual thinking is commonplace, it is nonetheless a mainstay of creativity.  For artist and audience alike, artwork that engages visual perception and thought on an equal footing can imbue aesthetic experience with clarity, depth, and passion.  Artwork that delivers in this way may even lead to a new attitude toward aesthetics in general.  In my view, such engaging artwork precedes or makes the new attitude possible.  Thus Danto points the way when says that contemporary artists “portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things.”[3]  This is all well and good, and yet, it seems that artwork that both results from visual thinking and requires it in order to be properly understood or appreciated will implicitly call into question the limits and efficacy of conceptual exploration.  This is a reasonable assumption supported by a diverse yet coherent body of contemporary art practices, regardless of how those practices might be characterized (i.e., as “conceptual or conceptually oriented”).  It is my contention that the primary factor underlying these practices is not conceptual exploration, but rather, cognitive exploration.

3 Small World

Small World
Paul Forte 2008
Magnetized globe with metal objects on wood stand
20 x 12 ½ x 12 ½ inches


Many artists, critics, and curators continue to use the terms “conceptual” and “cognitive” interchangeably.  One reason for this indiscriminant usage may be related to the orthodox understanding of cognition as a domain consisting of “logical reasoning, awareness, and judgment, and the rational structuring of sensation and perception.”[4] This understanding relies on or is in keeping with presumptions concerning mental processing and the formation of ideas. But cognition is essentially a matter of knowing and understanding, which certainly involves thought and ideas, but thought and ideas, in daily experience as well as in the art making process, are never fully independent of sensory input or emotive aspects, at least indirectly.  A fuller understanding of cognitive processes entails apperception and the emergence of new consciousness.  Consciousness of the integration of thought, sensation and feeling merits mentioning because it has bearing on understanding the basic distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual. Consider for a moment the fact that a good many of our ideas and concepts are first expressed metaphorically, expressions that were originally based on some manner of sensory experience. Consider also the deep relationship between thought and emotions. Feeling may be ultimately inseparable from thought, however subtle the thoughts or manifest the feelings.  Think about the feelings that often accompany ideas that give rise to strong religious or political convictions.  The person holding such convictions may not be aware of his or her feelings, but others often are. There is even a question as to whether the “rational structuring of sensation and perception” is possible in any definitive sense because it seems that sensation and perception are never entirely free of unconscious factors.  Briefly put, knowing and understanding are intertwined processes that involve more than just thought and ideas.

4 Artist's breath

Artist’s Breath
Paul Forte 2008
Sealed bottle on brass stand
13 x 4 ½ inches


The late philosopher, Nelson Goodman, made a lasting contribution to our understanding by clarifying the distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual, as well as prodding us to reconsider the nature of aesthetic experience.  “In contending that aesthetic experience is cognitive, I am emphatically not identifying it with the conceptual, the discursive, the linguistic.  Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.”[5] Thus it seems clear that the cognitive encompasses the conceptual, not the other way around.  That memory, knowledge, and imagination, as mental capacities, to some extent all determine what and how we see is beyond dispute.  But the point is to see anew.  Cognitively effective art can have an impact on our lives because it enables us to, in Goodman’s words, “See what we did not see before, and see in a new way.”[6] I think that Goodman’s main point here is that such art can be instrumental in developing visual acuity, thus enriching our daily experience.  I believe that some of this artwork can do even more.  Cognitive discoveries, finding new ways of seeing things, are, ultimately, discoveries about cognition itself. The new experiences that art can provide lay the groundwork for how we come to understand ourselves and the world and how we eventually conceptualize that understanding.

6 Nest egg

Nest Egg
Paul Forte 2010
Bird’s nest, glass globe, photo and map in found box
10 ½ x 13 x 7 inches


“In metaphor, symbols moonlight.” [7]—Nelson Goodman

There is a mode of reference that has bearing on the notion of visual thinking.  This is metaphor; something that occurs primarily in verbal form, but is not limited to the realm of letters.[8] I accept the supposition that metaphor is an essential component of language, in both its literary and everyday usage.  Metaphor animates language in complex and subtle ways.  It makes words breath, adds color and interest, and generally makes reading pleasurable.  But it is more than an ornamental or humanizing gesture.  In instances where, for example, denotative language falls short or is nonexistent as a means of describing a particular phenomenon, metaphor serves an invaluable function. Thus, in science, for example, metaphor has an indispensable role in the advancement of knowledge.  Catherine Elgin comments on the value of metaphor in this regard.  She maintains that while it is true that scientists, unlike artists, “strive for literal, univocal, determinant symbols,”[9] it is wrong to assume that metaphor and other indirect forms of reference are alien to science.  Elgin states her case eloquently: “Inasmuch as metaphor is a device for drawing new lines and for redeploying conceptual resources that have proven effective elsewhere, it is an immensely valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry.  Where there is no literal vocabulary that marks the divisions that scientists want to recognize, they resort to speaking metaphorically of strings or black holes or central processing units.  But as inquiry progresses, the talk becomes increasingly less metaphorical.”[10] I think that visual metaphor has an equivalent value for the visual arts.  The practice of appropriating images and or objects from everyday life for metaphorical ends could be considered analogous to a redeployment of conceptual resources as it occurs in the theoretical language of science.  Just as it is wrong to assume that metaphor plays no essential role in the advancement of knowledge through science, it is equally wrong to assume that visual metaphor in art is not essential to our understanding of aesthetic experience. Indeed, it may be essential to our even having an aesthetic experience.  If aesthetic experience is cognitive, as Nelson Goodman contends, then visual metaphor in art is also a very valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry.  That metaphor in general connects disciplines or domains, at least in principle, indicates more than versatility.  Given its reach, it may be an instrument that combines thought, imagination, sensation, and feeling in ways that lead to new knowledge.

5 History lesson

History Lesson
Paul Forte 2009
Collage and mixed media on board
32 x 40 inches


10 Beckett's Notes

Beckett’s Notes
Book covers, postcard, map and compass on board in artist’s frame
26 ½ x 30 ½ x 1½ inches


Of course not everyone agrees that art is a form of inquiry.  Those who balk at the idea that art can teach us something fall into two general categories: those who cannot take it seriously, and those who resist its seriousness.  Art is as serious as science, and just as the results of scientific inquiry need not threaten our well being, understanding and accepting the seriousness of art need not undermine the spirit of art.  Some people maintain that they love art and that it is possible to enjoy it for no other reason than the pleasure that it affords.  Some people take it seriously for the moral instruction or social message that it conveys.  Whether we treasure art as a way of refining our sensibilities or as a tool for consciousness raising, in either case we gain immeasurably when we can better understand why we consider a particular work of art pleasurable, important, or both.  The point is that understanding the artwork from a cognitive perspective can both deepen our pleasure in the work and or our respect for its moral or social message.  Moreover, artwork with the primary purpose of exploring cognition through visual metaphor can be both pleasurable and socially relevant.  Just as the metaphorical language of science can broaden our understanding of the world, the metaphorical images and objects of art can deepen our understanding of ourselves.  As understanding grows, the metaphorical language used to express the theoretical advances of science gives way to more literal or denotative forms of expression.  Something similar may be happening as the investigation of cognition through art progresses, although it is the nature of the visual metaphor that is changing, not the underlying metaphorical orientation through which the exploration advances.

— Paul Forte

Author’s note: Arthur Danto was a wonderful philosopher and critic as well as accomplished print maker. I am very fortunate to have known Arthur, a mentor of sorts, and someone who genuinely cared about art and never shrank from offering his support and encouragement to those artists that he deemed worthy of attention. He gave a talk at the Yale University Art Gallery on my “Headstone” in 2005. It was a great evening and Arthur was in fine form. He will be greatly missed.

Arthur & Paul

Arthur & Paul


Paul Forte’s career as an artist began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s.  The Bay Area in those days was a crucible for social, political and cultural change, and Forte managed to play a small but vital part.  Like many artists at the time, he was interested in the experimental possibilities of art and, like many others, believed that the changing nature of art still had the capacity to enable new visions, new voices.  Art and politics were always an uneasy combination for the artist, although he understood perfectly well that how art is received, or enabled is largely contingent upon politics and economics, perhaps especially in a capitalist society, which tends to marginalize those artists who cannot or will not meet the demands of the market.  This realization led to an interest in Conceptual art, and to one of its principle mediums: the “artist’s book,” of which he self-published a number of works in small editions.  Throughout the 1970’s Forte’s work explored the subjective and aesthetic dimensions of conceptual approaches to art making through a variety of media that would later become the basis for what the artist calls a cognitive approach to art making.

A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Paul Forte has exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California  (1975,1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); and Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008).  Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts in Oakland, California; and the University of California at Berkeley.  Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990).

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Arthur C. Danto, “Art of the Free and Brave.”  The Nation, May 8, 2000, p. 45.
  2. Rudolph Arnheim, The Split and The Structure.   Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996, p. 119.
  3. Arthur C. Danto, op. cit., p. 47.
  4. Herbert Kohl, From Archetype to Zeitgeist.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston Toronto London, 1992, p. 179.
  5. Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 84.
  6. Nelson Goodman, ibid., p. 85.
  7. Nelson Goodman, Ibid., p. 77.
  8. Whether or not verbal metaphor is related to visual thinking is an open question, one involving an understanding of how mental images are the bases of associations underlying most verbal metaphors.  If most verbal metaphors are the result of making associations based upon mental imagery, does that make such metaphors inherently a matter of visual thinking?  It seems self-evident that visual metaphor is a matter or form of visual thinking.
  9. Catherine Elgin, “Reorienting Aesthetics, Reconceiving Cognition.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 3 2000, p. 223.
  10. Catherine Elgin, Ibid., p. 223.