Dec 052014
 

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Fiction writers often struggle with various questions related to subplots: How should I structure my subplots? How much space should my subplots consume? What kind of relationship should the subplot bear to the main plot? Should the subplot be congruent or opposed to the main plot? Let’s consider the novels Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler as an entry point into the study of subplots in general and the related techniques of character grouping and gradation.

Aristotle taught that the best plots proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions. John Dufresne is his book The Lie That Tells a Truth tells us that episodes do not necessarily make a plot. He says, “Plot is the writer’s arrangement of events to achieve a desired effect. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach.”

Plot is something, I believe, that can be coaxed into being. John Dufresne says that “a plot begins to form as soon as you ask yourself the appropriate questions: what does my central character want? What is preventing her from getting it? What does she do about the various obstacles in her way? What is the outcome of what she does? What climax does this all lead to? Does she get what she wants in the end? Plot, then, is the element of fiction that shapes the other elements—character, theme, point of view, language, and so on—into a story.”

JDJohn Dufresne

Now let’s turn our attention to subplots, the main topic of this essay. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover says this about subplots: “In its simplest and most direct form the subplot is another plot, involving another set of characters, weaving through the novel.” Subplots can vary in size but every novel must have at least one to achieve the resonating or echoing effect that a novelist tries to achieve by modulating or reduplicating situations and characters, by having several people falling in love or dying or praying in different ways—dissimilar people solving the same problem or similar people confronted with dissimilar problems.

In his essay “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats says that “the Shakespearean drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of one man and a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.” Yeats seems to imply that if we read the experiences of one man, we may imagine it rooted in his own unique personality or providential in nature or the result of unprecedented or uncommon play of events. But if we notice similar dramas unraveling in several individuals’ lives we may be forced to look beyond the characters and we may end up understanding the thematic issues the authors wants to highlight.

Usually, subplots have graded characters closely related to the main characters. On the topic of graded characters, Glover offers us this: “Graded characters are characters in narrative who share, in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion, thematically crucial experiences in such a way as to create structural parallels” (The Enamoured Knight). A group of friends or schoolmates or army buddies make good subplot characters. “The advantage of the near relations between characters on plot and subplot lines is that they can interact with and observe one another naturally” (The Enamoured Knight). However, we must keep in mind that the different character groups we see in novels often—class, family, working groups—are options we see frequently, but they are not the only possibilities for running subplots.

EK

All right, now let’s turn to Sense and Sensibility to better comprehend what might have led Jane Austen to make use of a plot-subplot structure with graded characters. In this novel, after Henry Dashwood dies, his three daughters and his wife inherit a small and insufficient sum, so the Dashwood girls must marry to find respectability and secure their futures. Although their stepbrother, John Dashwood, promised his dying father he’d take care of his stepmother and sisters, he decides to offer them nothing under the influence of his greedy wife, Fanny. Then, a pleasant unassuming man, Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, visits Norland and Elinor, the prudent Dashwood girl, gets attached to him. Fanny disapproves of the match and complains to Mrs Dashwood, Elinor’s mother, which results in the hasty departure of Elinor, her sisters and mother from Norland to a small rental cottage they’ve found for themselves in Devonshire. Marianne, the younger sister, full of fine sensibilities—which is a euphemism indicating her excessively emotional and impetuous temperament—disregards Brandon, an older, mellow, reserved man and finds her soul mate in a dashing young man named Willoughby, who, not surprisingly, resembles Marianne. Demonstrative and passionate, Willoughby and Marianne never leave each other’s side, leading to much public speculation about their relationship. Then, all of a sudden, Willoughby leaves. Marianne, a romantic, suffers a “violent oppression of spirits” while waiting for him to return. Soon she learns of Willoughby’s engagement with someone else for monetary reasons and falls sick and nearly loses her life as a result of the heartbreak. Like Marianne, even Brandon is wronged by Willoughby: Willoughby flirted with and impregnated a girl-child, Eliza, under Brandon’s guardianship. Even Elinor faces ill-luck in love—Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy, a girl who suffers from a want of delicacy and integrity of mind. But Elinor does not share the news of Edward’s engagement with her family for a long time and bears hardship with a sense of forbearance. In the end, Elinor turns out to be the fortunate one, although just by chance: Edward’s fiancé, Lucy, breaks her engagement with Edward so he can unite with Elinor; however Marianne must content herself to be with Brandon, although she didn’t care for him before.

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, anonymously, brought its writer no fame during her lifetime, although it was an instant success. With a recent surge of interest in Jane Austen, the novel is more widely read and proclaimed today than it ever was. Written in third person from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, the novel explores the problem of finding a life partner and whether sense or sensibility leads to a better match.

In this novel the plot and the subplot occupy nearly equal space and are accorded equal consideration, forming parallel plot-subplot structure. Right in the beginning, on page three, Jane Austen sets the stage for parallel plots with graded characters.

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionJane Austen

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to learn. (3)

Note the way Elinor’s character is described in relation to that of her mother and her sister. In the next paragraph, the author offers us this about the younger sister, Marianne.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. (3)

Throughout the novel, the author uses the words “prudence” in reference to Elinor and “eagerness” and “imprudence” in reference to Marianne and her mother, Mrs Dashwood. Elinor and Marianne—sisters, young, unmarried, constrained by their financial situation, the fact they are women, and the fact they must marry to secure a future for themselves—belong to the same character group, even though they are temperamentally apart. They are both well brought-up girls, who enjoy books and are fond of arts, although Marianne’s fondness for arts is more vehement in nature. Elinor draws and Marianne plays piano. They love their mother and each other. But to illuminate the theme of the novel the author must draw out the differences in the outlook of the two Dashwood girls. So to accentuate their heterogeneity, the sisters form pairs with men who reflect their personalities. Like Elinor, Edward has a quietness of manner and is amiable, warm and affectionate. Willoughby is frank and vivacious and as passionate about music and dancing as Marianne. Not just Elinor but even Edward and Brandon represent sense and the pair, Marianne and Willoughby, sensibility and indiscreetness. Edward and Willoughby mirror the dispositions of the women they are with, though not entirely. Elinor is not as shy as Edward, and Edward doesn’t have the same interest in arts as Elinor. The narrator tells us this about Willoughby and Marianne: “The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or if any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed.” Jane Austen takes time to define the spectrum of her characters’ beliefs and their propensities, and then these graded characters will trudge along parallel plot lines to explore the central theme of the novel: when looking for a life partner, is it better to follow reason or sensibility? Whether sense or sensibility is the winner in the end?

Both sisters fall in love; they are presented with obstacles and find resolutions. The novel unfolds in a pattern. We see some event bear down upon one of the sisters and observe her reaction to the life event and then we see a similar occurrence in the other sister’s life and witness her response and learn what others think of the whole business. “In fiction,” E. K. Brown tells us, “the rhythmic arrangements that move us most are those where repetition is enveloped in variations, but never so enveloped that it appears subordinate.” That is exactly what Jane Austen seems to want to accomplish. Although the arcs of the two parallel plots cover the same points and are a bit repetitive on the surface, they are designed to achieve the opposite effect: highlight differences and illuminate the theme.

Compare Elinor’s gentle anguish, when she discovers Edward is engaged to Lucy, to Marianne’s finding Willoughby with a woman at a party.

Elinor for a few moments remained silent. Her astonishment at what she heard was at first too great for words; but at length forcing herself to speak, and to speak cautiously, she said with a calmness of manner, which tolerably well concealed her surprise and solicitude—‘May I ask if your engagement is of long standing?’ (87)

Here’s Marianne’s comportment in a somewhat similar predicament.

Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.

‘Go to him, Elinor,’ she cried, as soon as she could speak, ‘and force him to come to me. Tell him I must see him again—must speak to him instantly.—I cannot rest—I shall not have a moment’s peace till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other.—Oh go to him this moment.’ (119)

When the sisters are about to leave their childhood home in Norland, Marianne sheds tears, but Elinor finds the decision to move prudent and refuses to dissuade her mother, even though her love-interest is in Norland.

A romantic, Marianne says, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” “Grandeur has but little,” says Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.” Elinor falls for Edward who is not handsome, and his manners require intimacy to make them pleasing. Marianne, who doesn’t approve of her sister’s beau entirely because Edward has no spirit and is not striking enough, falls in love with Willoughby, a charming personality in everyone’s opinion. Even Mrs. Dashwood commends Marianne’s choice and finds Willoughby faultless, although Elinor can clearly see a problematic propensity, in which Willoughby strongly resembles Marianne, of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to person or circumstances.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

In the end, Elinor, although prudent, selfless, calm, hardly fairs better than Marianne, even though Marianne is eager and imprudent. Elinor’s cautiousness is not entirely a helpful trait, given that she cannot discuss her feelings openly and is unsure how Edward feels for her. Ultimately, she unites with Edward only because of happenstance. So, in a way, the author declares “sense” as the winner somewhat grudgingly. We see the same pattern reappear in the cast of characters supporting the two parallel plots: Willoughby, Brandon, and Edward Ferrars. Shy and sensible, Edward loves Elinor but gets engaged to Lucy because of a past commitment. If Lucy didn’t abandon him, he could count on a miserable life ahead of him. Brandon, another calm, rational, caring man, never marries his first love, fails to protect the child, Eliza, under his guardianship, and finally unites with Marianne only after Willoughby deserts Marianne. True, Willoughby finds himself in a frightful place toward the end of the novel, but then, he has abandoned sense and even sensibility for that matter—he has lived a life of extreme indiscretion: rejected Marianne, flirted with and impregnated a young girl, and married solely for monetary reasons. The author has placed Willoughby near the edge of the spectrum of her characters, but with the help of her other characters, she argues for and against her ideas imparting depth to the discourse.

It is clear that the main benefit of having closely related characters and a tightly interwoven plot-subplot structure is to act as the glue holding and unifying the story and bestowing a direction and a sense of purpose. The author shows several characters struggling to find life partners so we get a flavor of the emotion of multitudes. The plots and the subplots point in the same direction so the theme is emphasized and we get a sense of the larger world. How else would we recognize the complexities inherent in identifying a life partner, and the fact that it is so hard for anyone to be right in this matter?

So what other benefits Jane Austen reaps by having parallel plots with graded characters. As I read Sense and Sensibility and considered the topic of graded characters, I also realized that having two sisters driving parallel plots was also serving as a subtle memory rehearsal device by reinforcing and comparing constantly. When Elinor expresses her thoughts on the subject of move from Norland and then Marianne wails over the same issue, the reader knows for sure the family is moving. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the role this repetition plays. The more a bit of information or an idea is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, to be “retained.” People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information. So if you want your readers to retain bits from your novel in their long term memories you may want to consider closely related characters and an interlaced plot-subplot structure so these characters can frequently cross each other’s paths and reflect on each other.

In the end, we must recognize that narrating Marianne’s story, along with Elinor’s, doubles the length and makes the novel more interesting. Far more engrossing, Marianne and Willoughby serve as a balance against Elinor and Edward, who are shy, reserved and not so amusing. Does that mean if a protagonist is ill-tempered or morose, we should consider a lively and more engaging character driving a subplot to relieve the strain off a difficult topic? Definitely something we should keep in mind.

Now let’s turn to The Accidental Tourist to see the plot-subplot structure in that novel. After Macon Leary’s twelve-year-old son gets shot and killed, Macon and his wife Sarah separate, because Sarah cannot find any comfort in her husband.

Left alone with just an unruly dog for company, Macon has difficulty sleeping and wishes his wife would return. Then he breaks his leg and is forced to move to his sister Rose’s house where Rose and Macon’s two brothers, Charles and Porter, live. To help train his dog, whose violent tendencies have increased as a result of the move, Macon hires Muriel Pritchett. She is a divorced woman and the mother of a seven-year-old reclusive boy with medical problems from the time of his premature birth. At first Macon refuses to get involved with Muriel, but, ultimately, her eccentricities and her problems draw him out of his shell. He cohabits with her in her house, which is in a slummy neighborhood, and teaches her son math and plumbing techniques, even though he is not in love with her or even entirely comfortable with her, for that matter. Disorganized, unsettling and unpredictable, Muriel has a “nasty temper, a shrewish tongue and a tendency to fall into spells of self-disgust.” Not surprisingly, Macon’s siblings disapprove of the relationship and try to convince him she is not the right woman by reminding him she is much younger and just out there to catch a man so he could provide for her. At this point, Macon’s ex-wife, aware of Macon’s live-in relationship, tries to woo him back. As Macon has never really gotten over Sarah, he cannot help but move back with Sarah; but Muriel, unwilling to give up on Macon, follows him around when he goes on a business trip to Paris. Finally, after an argument with Sarah, Macon realizes that he and Sarah “have used each other up.” He realizes he must embrace his new life with Muriel and leave the memories of his dead son and his ex-wife behind.

SS

Anne Tyler’s tenth novel, written in 1985, The Accidental Tourist was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. With a clear plot-subplot structure, the main story has Macon Leary as its lead character, and the subplot features his sister Rose. The minor subplots are about Macon’s two older brothers, Porter and Charles.

Just as in Sense and Sensibility, the subplots in The Accidental Tourist are driven by close relatives, the sister and brothers of the protagonist. As if the fact that Rose and Macon are siblings isn’t enough to bring them together often, Rose has a relationship with Macon’s boss, Julian, and this gives the author an opportunity to talk about Rose every time Macon meets Julian. Even Macon’s estranged wife, Sarah, is close to Rose and when Macon and Sarah reconcile they discuss Rose’s situation in life. The relationships form a tightly woven pattern so the characters can observe each other and compare and contrast.

Just as the two sisters in Sense and Sensibility are both similar and different, Macon and his sister and his two brothers resemble each other and have traits that establish their distinctness as human beings. All of the Leary children are grammar fanatics, orderly, somewhat socially stunted, and idiosyncratic. They even look alike: “Their hair had an ashy cast and their eyes were a steely gray. They all had that distinct center groove from nose to upper lip. And never in a million years would Alicia [their mother] have worn an expression so guarded and suspicious.”

Rose has her kitchen so alphabetized that she keeps allspice next to ant poison and considers it perfectly normal to live with her brothers. Macon sleeps in a body bag, does not use a dishwasher, and stalks around in circles while showering, sloshing the day’s dirty clothes underfoot. Even though the details differ, the siblings have the same strange quirky feel about them, as if they are different shades of each other. But the siblings wouldn’t become real in our eyes if the author didn’t list their unique characteristics to round them up as human beings.

Books Anne TylerAnne Tyler

So Anne Tyler lets us know that Rose is the only social Leary, who helps out neighbors and old relatives; Porter is the best looking Leary kid, talkative, and able to run finances and plan taxes; Charles, a sweet-faced man who never seems to move; and Macon, even though he shares several character traits with his siblings, is not always comfortable with the idea of abiding with Rose and his brothers. He experiences moments of anxiety when he wonders if has gone any further in life since his childhood days. And he is also the only one who considers the fact that that they might be unconventional. When Julian visits Rose’s home, Macon tells Rose that Julian was there just because “he hopes we’ll do something eccentric.” Macon wishes none of his siblings would say or do anything awkward around Julian.

Unlike her three brothers, Rose wants to experience love. Rose says, “Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love.” But Charles and Porter, after their failed marriages, seem content in Rose’s house with Rose overseeing the housekeeping for them. Even Macon does not seek romantic associations actively, although he can get entangled into them. To a certain extent, Macon and Rose share the desire to be in romantic relationships, and therefore, their lives evolve in a similar fashion, creating a congruent plot-subplot structure. After Rose marries Julian and lives with him for a while, she begins to get disoriented with the newness of her life and moves back with her brothers. Similarly, Macon abides with Muriel for some time and then moves back with his estranged wife. In the end, both Macon and Rose unite with their lovers, although in variant ways—Macon leaves his estranged wife and goes back to Muriel and Julian begins to live with Rose and her brothers. .

Now let’s focus for a minute on the textual space devoted to Macon versus that devoted to Rose. As this novel has a clear plot-subplot structure, Macon enjoys the lion’s share of space. Rose does not appear in the first chapter—there is not even a mention of her. She appears for the first time in the second chapter and then disappears till the end of the fourth. The fifth chapter is dedicated to describing Macon’s siblings, particularly Rose. And from then on, Rose is mentioned in every chapter, even if it is just to let us know that she drove Macon to Julian’s place. In the last chapter, although we don’t get to see Rose, Macon’s ex-wife, Sarah, informs Macon that Julian has moved in with Rose and the brothers. Of the twenty chapters in this book, Rose occupies significant space in just four and the brothers are given much less consideration.

So why have Rose and the brothers? What purpose do they serve? Several, in my opinion. First, with the help of these subplots, the author highlights the theme of the novel—the nature of love and the fact that for successful love relationships one has to reach a point of wisdom or a compromise between the desire for order and chaos. As we see Macon and Rose struggling to understand what they want and where they belong, we get the “emotion of multitudes,” a feeling that even though we are reading a novel with a simple structure and few characters we are in a large and teeming world where everyone is trying to fathom the meaning of love, marriage, and compromise in an ever changing world.

Note how all the Leary kids seem to drift back to their place of origin. After Macon breaks his legs, he moves in with Rose and his brothers and experiences quiet contentment. Macon gets involved with Muriel only because his dog, Edward, is unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings and begins to attack everyone. Even though Macon misses some aspects of his life at Rose’s place, he is lulled by the ease and simplicity of his childhood routines and hardly seems to desire new relationships. Even though he says his lack of interest in sex is a result of his son Ethan’s death, one cannot help notice that he has always shunned newness and unfamiliarity. Even when he was young, it was Sarah who initiated and drove the relationship forward, not Macon. Anne Tyler sheds light on the same appeal for one’s native environment through Rose. Rose, fascinated by the concept of love because she’s never been in a relationship before, falls for Julian and marries hastily, but within a few days of her wedding, she leaves her marital home and comes back to live with her brothers. She unites with Julian only because he sheds his traditional idea of a marital home and moves in with her brothers. Julian says, “She’d worn herself a groove or something in that house of hers, and she couldn’t help swerving back into it.” Even Charles and Porter have the same regard for familiarity as Macon and Rose. And all the Leary children love and deeply care for each other. Rose ministered to the needs of her ailing grandfather and cooks and cleans for her brothers, and they, in turn, care for her in a subtle, heartwarming way. Looking at Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, readers may begin to wonder if, at some level, we all have the same affinity and weakness for our first homes. We do not know if this is the effect Anne Tyler wanted to achieve but nevertheless with the help of her subplots and graded characters, she underscores the human tendency to value familiarity—the sense of well-being we associate with our childhood home—and the intimacy we share with our siblings and other blood relations.

What other purpose do the subplots serve? What other “emotion of multitudes” does the author hope to evince? Let’s consider the partners the Leary kids are attracted to. Rose, a sober, prim woman, who “folds her hair unobtrusively at the fact of her neck where it wouldn’t be a bother” and wears “spinsterly and concealing” clothes, finds love in Julian, a playboy, living in a Singles apartment. Rose’s brothers try their best to dissuade her from getting involved with Julian but for some reason she cannot resist. Even Porter and Charles were married to women unlike them, who made fun of them. Macon, a man in his forties, obsessively organized, grammar fanatic, has a strange attraction for Muriel, a talkative, neurotic, disorganized woman. Every one of Macon’s siblings thinks Macon and Muriel are unsuitable for each other. But when Macon moves back with his ex-wife, he misses Muriel’s eccentricities and her misusages. Even though Macon and his sister and brothers have a fondness for the familiar, they are also enthralled by the unfamiliar, and the same can be said about their spouses. We, the readers of The Accidental Tourist, wonder if most of us “in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion” exist in a confused state, drawn toward and repelled by the familiar.

Accidental Tourist

Now let’s turn our attention to the two married couples in The Accidental Tourist. Even though Macon and Sarah have been together for decades, even though he loves her dearly, the only comfort they seem to accord each other is the comfort of routine. When Muriel tells Macon she wants to marry him, he says, “I don’t think marriage ought to be as common as it is; I really believe it ought to be the exception to the rule; oh, perfect couples could marry, maybe, but who’s a perfect couple?” And then later, thinking about a conversation Macon had with his wife, we learn this: “Thinking back on that conversation now, he [Macon] began to believe that people could, in fact, be used up—could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other.”

On the other hand, Macon enjoys the cozy, sloppy presence of Muriel, a woman he does not love. At times he is ashamed of Muriel but still ends up making a home with her. And Rose loses her fascination for marriage soon after she gets married and returns to her childhood home. Although she is attracted to Julian, a traditional wedding and a married life provide no comfort to her. Ultimately, her marriage survives because Julian moves back with her forming an unconventional arrangement. So is there some truth that the author wants to shed light on here? Is it possible to live and find comfort in unorthodox relationships and arrangements outside of marriage with people we do not even love? Is marriage as an institution worthy of the respect we accord to it, given that people and their conditions change so frequently?

After studying these two novels, Sense and Sensibility and The Accidental Tourist, it is clear that their subplot structures are different in key ways. Rose occupies far less space than Marianne, probably because Jane Austen wants to initiate a dialogue with her readers, but Anne Tyler seems to open our minds to a new idea, one that may not have too many takers in the middle class. The key thing to note is the fact that subplots must parallel or reflect the main plot, otherwise the various elements of a novel fly apart and the text lacks rhythm and unity of thought.

—Shambhavi Roy

 

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Shambhavi Roy, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, lives in Saratoga, CA, with her husband and two kids.

Dec 012014
 

Chaulky-WhiteChaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

The following is an excerpt from SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’—a book that is based/extrapolates on an MFA thesis my brother Kevin White wrote in 1990 entitled ‘SSES” ‘SSES” wherein he recapitulated Joyce’s Ulysses‘ recapitulation of Homer’s Odyssey to a trip he took across Asia in search of our father (who committed suicide a few years before). ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ takes his recapitulation 1 step further, folding in his journals, unpublished stories + artwork he made before himself dying of a drug overdose. ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ is also a literary work that reflexively interrogates the very transcription processes used to produce/copy it, mobilizing reflexive loops between original imagined intent + editorial deterritorialization … a «gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm»—as Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses.

This is episode 1 (the 2nd episode—episode 0 is up on Sleepingfish if are interested in seeing the continuity/more background on the project: http://sleepingfish.net/13/000_SSES.htm).

Chaulky White is the pen name given to our combined effort.

Derek White

SSEY 01-1Click on the individual pages for larger views.

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Chaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

Nov 132014
 

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).

Capture

As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.

Capture

Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.

the-minds-eye

If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte

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Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

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Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

Nov 122014
 

MooreLisa Moore

Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She [Moore] concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. —María Jesús Hernáez Lerena

Alligator

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The philosopher apparently meets our expectations by spelling out what the “reverie” of the refined poets and the commitment of the contemporary artist have in common: the link between the solitude of the artwork and human community is a matter of transformed “sensation.” What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience. […] What is common is “sensation.” Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of “being together.” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator 2009, 56)

I am similarly ensnared by consumer products and culture, especially “junk foods” such as chocolate bars: I like to celebrate their blaring colours and slogans, and I like the noisy, chance juxtapositions of everyday things: the newsagent’s sweet counter, the magazine rack, the stall of souvenir t-shirts.” (Cynthia Poole “Exactitude IV” 2008, 1)

x

Lisa Moore’s novel Alligator is fashioned by conferring the still life —the depiction of inanimate objects— primacy over other kinds of discourse. The narrative opens itself up to another medium in order to imitate methods of composition that would be otherwise fully realized in painting, thus resisting the naturalized impulse of narrative to become a transition or temporal process. By this transfer of the still life from one medium to another, I do not only mean that there are abundant descriptions of place and objects in the novel, since all novels depend on this explanatory apparatus [1], but that the mere sight of objects —a view the reader shares with the characters at all times—, becomes the center of gravity in their lives. Novelistic and biographical discourse is thus counteracted and transformed into a mode of understanding which does not depend on the disclosure of meaning through time but on the peculiarities of shape, color, and brightness that objects possess.

In this article I will attempt to describe Lisa Moore’s method of composition in Alligator and relate it to an analogous form of composition in the visual arts, particularly an artistic movement called hyperrealism, in order to throw some light on the epistemological implications of their common strategies. I will then discuss whether this perspective in the novel —a besetting representation of external reality— addresses or contests certain ideas of cultural distinction and community which are ever-present within the cultural context Lisa Moore belongs to, Newfoundland [2]. “Burning Rock” is the name of the writers’ collective where Lisa Moore began her career as a writer in St. John’s. The phrase refers to an unidentified burning object which fell into the sea off the Newfoundland coast. With this name, its members wish to point to the emergent incandescent energy coming from Newfoundland, The Rock, which until relatively recently was seen as marginal to or lagging behind Canada. They wish to conjure up “images of isolation and extreme subject matter”:

Geographically, we have always been an extremity: on the edge of a new, unknown world, the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, our topsoil scraped by glaciers and dumped into the Grand Banks. An island on which, for centuries, it was forbidden to settle. And now, economically and culturally we have drifted to a state of emergency. The ball of lightning has burned past us and we stand stunned, dumbfounded by the experience. […] We live in a bruised landscape which cultivates extreme people with extreme stories. (Michael Winter Extremities 1994, xi-xii)

I will address two different but interrelated questions: first, how to think critically about our response to Lisa Moore’s particular invocation of reality in fiction; and second, does Moore’s particular depiction in Alligator of a group of characters in St. John’s constitute some kind of statement about sense of community in Newfoundland? [3]

My approach is conducted by a basic idea that underlies much of the theories of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Jacques Rancière: the belief in the dichotomy between seeing and understanding. John Berger’s quote “Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight” (1972, 7) points at this basic premise: an awareness of the mismatch between what we perceive through our sense of sight and the elaborations of discourse. The idea that the image does not make you understand, that it only activates your sensory system, also runs through much of Susan Sontag’s interpretation of the photograph (1977, 110). For her, photography is the opposite of understanding, “which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (1977, 23). How the world functions must be explained in time. “Only that which narrates can make us understand” (1977, 23; 2003, 89). According to her, muteness in a photograph is an attraction, a provocation; it “makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (1977, 24). The art of photography makes no invitation to understanding the world, but to collecting it (1977, 82). For Jacques Rancière, viewing is also the opposite of knowing: “The spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals” (2009, 2). Additionally, he believes that viewing is also the opposite of being active, “to be a spectator is to be separated both from the capacity to know and the power to act” (2009, 2).

Both critics agree that the photograph, the image in general, is a moral anesthetic, in spite of the fact that it may produce distress (Sontag 1977, 109-110). Our impression that we have come into possession of the essence of tragedy, for example, neutralizes horror, it distances us from it. As a result, history is transformed into spectacle because it possesses the qualities of beauty and eternity (Sontag 1977, 109-110; 2003, 99-103). “Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through a photograph really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment” (Sontag 1977, 111). [4]

This idea of the binary image/word is supported, on a different front, by critics who could be termed sociologists of identity: Nicholas Rose (1997, 244), Charles Taylor (1996, 51), or Anthony Giddens (1991, 54), for example. For them, the self cannot be constructed outside words, it requires verbalization and narration: it requires the story of how things happened. There can be no such thing as instant identity. [5] For Rose “Language is one of the keys to our assembly as psychological beings. Only through lexicons, grammars, syntax and semantics can we organize our thoughts and formulate our intentions” (1997, 234). Psychological language is, for him, the main key to the modern soul (1997, 238).

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor (1996 18, 48) rejects the value of the immediate experience or the sudden rupture by explaining that our notion of ourselves only comes through the story of how we have become, the unfolding of how we have travelled to get here. According to him, not to use this framework for one’s life is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. “The sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding as an unfolding story” (1996, 47). The self cannot be punctual or instantaneous. Self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and sense of direction, and incorporates narrative. If we think that we become different persons each time we are in a different situation or if we fail to meet the full challenge of making sense of our lives we destroy our chances for a meaningful life. When analyzing confessional narrative, Dennis Forster remarks that “[n]o matter how one’s experiences may be present in memory, the events of these narratives are understandable only when they are transformed into objects of consciousness, into histories rather than sensations” (1987, 10). His argument clarifies the dilemma of our considering images as mere stimuli that cannot substantiate “real” knowledge, which is only to be accessed through a contextualized historicity. [6] Thus, we seem to be immersed in a battleground where the warring forces are the dissociated images —objects which belong to the realm of suspended temporality— and articulated plots sustained by informed rationalizations. [7]

One paradox inherent in Alligator is that, although the novel’s plot is action-packed, it is structured around the perception of a few objects whose presence becomes overpowering. A jar, a metal Christmas tree, the walls of an elevator, the arrangement of objects on a restaurant’s table, a plastic bag that contains food, reflections of the city in a car door. The visual qualities of these objects are a magnet around which events and thoughts seem to rotate. Due to the intensity of gaze these objects are given, the novel’s plot, events, even the thoughts of the characters, seem to be beside the point. The characters’ past also appears to them in a clear and crystalline form: like light falling on surfaces.

In a narrative, a description does not materialize into a still life merely because an object is being described; the description resembles a pictorial still life when the reader feels that a frame has been put around a small section of static material reality and the surrounding area remains out of sight. The same object may be shown again but, contrary to common poetic strategies which turn the object into a symbol once it has appeared several times in the narrative —and it has become interwoven with events and feelings—, the still life retains its specific characteristics in isolation, impervious to the meaning-making processes that narratives per se impose. Alligator opens with a young woman, Colleen, watching some footage where a man surrounded by a crowd is taming an alligator. For some time the narrator focuses on a helium balloon tied to a little girl’s wrist:

The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There’s no wind, but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and bobs and then settles, becomes still. There isn’t a cloud. The little girl’s blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light. (1)

A spellbinding fascination arrests the pull of the narrative. We are clinging to a sort of tableaux vivant whose mise-en-scène leaves the temporal processes of the plot without a sense of purpose. Both character and reader are given the position of a stunned viewer, what we see is sharply outlined but slowed down and torn from context. This ocularcentric approach presides over Alligator; the reader is put inside metaphorical bubbles which somehow prevent a rationale. The impression that characters are in a bubble returns many times:

On the street the boy from next door was playing with a bubble wand. He pressed a lever in the handle and the wand opened out into a large diamond shape and bubble liquid shot up from the clear handle and coated the plastic diamond when he tipped it into the breeze and a giant bubble wobbled into the air and lifted from the wand, and it caught the reflection of the landlord’s Jaguar, which was parked outside the bed-sit and the black streaky gleaming car slithered on the curve of the oversized bubble. (225)

Slavoj Žižek claimed that repetition turns an element into a symbol, that it ascribes a metaphorical import to an event due to our need for transcendence. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain nonsymbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity” (1989, 61). However, this direction of meaning is at odds with the dynamics of our understanding in Alligator: the objects depicted do not become symbols. What we perceive is the intensity with which the narrator or the characters look at them. Once an object becomes a reference for something else, the still life somehow loses its force. This is because the reader’s pleasure originally lay in the actual physicality of the thing, not in its evocative or allusive power. This is contrary to painting, where still lifes have historically gone hand in hand with fixed metaphorical traditions. Whether or not we wish objects to become metaphors, the actual achievement in a medium formed by words is to be found in the materiality they seem to bring to life, in their rotund visibility.

Thus, the usual methods of characterization in novels are somehow put on hold in Alligator; there is no panoramic setting that may hold or explain characters. Readers encounter mainly the exigent presence of objects. The first time we meet Frank, a street hot dog vendor in St. John’s, we read:

FRANK’S GOT THE windows open and the warm night breeze jostles the handful forget-me-nots sitting in a Mason jar of yellowish water on the windowsill. A few petals move on the surface of the water like tiny boats on a still lake. The glass jar and the submerged flower stems are coated with silvery beads of air. There’s a housefly near the jar, bluish and iridescent, lying on the crackled paint of the windowsill, since Frank moved in a few months before Christmas, two days after his nineteenth birthday. (10)

After this still life we are informed of the string of events in Frank’s past that the narrator recollects for him: Frank’s mother died of cancer, he sold her furniture, he was evicted and moved to a bed-sit, he became a hot dog vendor in a sleazy street in St. John’s, an Inuit man hanged himself in an apartment above his, the police came and removed the body. But all these chunks of experience are related as if in haste, while Frank himself is standing, having a shower, thinking. There is no analysis, no comment: meanwhile the way objects stand before Frank’s eyes while he is thinking acquires a full dimension. The objects are explored as if with a magnifying glass: minimal spaces which the narrator makes conspicuous by describing the way the light makes them appear. These descriptions are not ornamental or explanatory, they form the very substance of the tale.

At this early point in the narrative the reader may not yet suspect that the overwhelming presence of objects may in fact not be there for the sake of our understanding of the characters, their moods, or their plights. After all, we could agree that the image of a preserve jar and a dead fly on an old window sill may evoke the emptiness, the silence, the vacuity of a life. As has been previously mentioned, having objects as projections of the character’s situation is indeed a common literary device. However, at the end of this chapter, Frank leaves the room and we read:

Inside Frank’s empty bed-sit, water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar. (17)

Then we realize that objects, this object here, is not a thing which irradiates emotion coming from a human source. The relevance given to the physicality of the jar, its inner workings —so to speak— alters our idea of Story itself, story defined as sequence of events or a flow of emotion. Alligator becomes a medium to render life as externality attached to trivial, inconsequential objects we do not normally care to perceive in their full essence. At the end of the chapter we have been given a glimpse of Frank’s life but after he leaves, the object (the Mason Jar) is the element that remains there to give a sense of closure to the chapter. The attention paid to the jar seems to reduce everything else to insignificance, to diminish the pull of narration by having us stare at a random element when the room is empty. What stays is the solidity of the object, the little changes in its appearance; the rest seems to be ephemeral, pure silence. Narrative as such evaporates and the way an object impacts our retina remains. The personality of the object becomes the priority.

The abundance of examples of the previous strategy in Alligator implies that the novel articulates our dependence on the visual mode as a mode of conscience. This affects the reading experience structurally: all fiction strives to make the reader visualize but some fictions, such as this one, engage in the visual as a literal index to reality, even when the image itself is outside the drama of the story. That does not make its “reality” less urgent. When we experience a moment of intensified perception, we put continuity and sequence on hold. And this is the way suspense is created here: it defines experience as visibility in a strictly physical sense and stops short at that, without offering reasoning in transitions. The author refuses to provide the consolations often implied in novelistic, biographical, or historical narrative. These explanatory structures often assure us that life is a journey which can be explained by the author, that we have access to the characters’ minds and understand them, and that we can morally assess their decisions.

The presence of objects through their materiality of glass, metal, clothing, plastic, skin, is insistent (Fig. 1). Their solidity is sometimes offputting, even fierce, and it upsets the fluidity that events, feelings, and thoughts are supposed to be given in a narrative. To focus on the way objects are depicted in stories leads us to the question of narrativity and narrative resistance, that is, to the questions: Is reality amenable to storytelling? and, can we translate reality into a continuous and coherent temporal sequence? Any story is the abstraction of a temporal trajectory, a humanized sequence of events or emotions, of accomplishments and frustrations, or psychological deepening and sometimes of healing. Objects, on the contrary signal an impasse, an impenetrability, the indifference of the inanimate world.

Fig.1-StevenSmulka-SolarSystemFigure 1. Steven Smulka. “Solar System.” 2011, Oil on Linen, 76.2 x 116.8 cm.

Other explanations of the function of objects in literature have run against the above-mentioned interpretation of objects as repository of absence and of aloofness. The latter interpretation of the role of objects in narrative has been given, for example, by genre theory. The short story as a genre does not seem to depend on the rendering of temporality in the degree that the novel does, and one recurrent strategy to enhance meaning is to use objects to which characters become emotionally attached in order to express, through them, the characters’ ordeal. [8] This paradigm for understanding the characters’ dilemmas is a model usually called “feeling behind the surface,” that is, trivial objects embodying conflicts. The objects contain a quality of latent lyricism and speak on behalf of the characters. They signal turning points in their lives, they implement a revelation or show the manifestation of something hidden. The effect is usually of tragic awareness: a detail, an object from the past, emits significance without explicative intrusion; it discloses the character’s essence. [9] Our associations may be false but they show us the mechanism of our thinking: we like to believe our actions and feelings do have an effect on our environment, on the objects around us.

However, the objects we find in Alligator are not so obviously there for the sake of the distillation of meaning. If they are disturbing and their presence cannot be shaken away it is because of the fetishized relationship characters have with them and also because of the author’s frantic attention to visual compositions of objects and light: they are not peripheral, they always remain sharply focused in a close-up mode. Lisa Moore creates a certain kind of bond between words and things, a certain responsibility within language to render ocular arrangements. A focus sharper than you’d thought possible, as a fellow writer said. [10]

Madeleine is another character whose experiences we trace and whose life is patterned through vivid perceptions of a number of objects. She is an aging film director, obsessed by making a film with iconic images from Newfoundland: a priest, a cliff, the foaming sea, the rocks, horses running wild. She tries to put together this scenario for the film, she gets into trouble because of the transportation of horses, she has imaginary conversations with the archbishop whose letters she found in the Roman Catholic Archives. But her obsession with capturing the essence of Newfoundland becomes somehow secondary when, almost at the end of the novel, she gets inexplicably, almost pathetically, fascinated by a metal Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. The narrator says on her behalf:

It was as though she had unleashed all of her loneliness. Her loneliness had been imprisoned in a tree, which happens all the time: and she had been forced by some evil spell to walk up and down the aisles of Canadian Tire, forgetting why she was there (clothespins), until she found the tree. When she got it home, the tree leapt out of the box, screaming absurd loneliness in eight different languages. A burning bush of shame, how old she is and weak-feeling lately and the film is lost and how profoundly alone with a ball and chain of a film around her neck. (180) (My emphasis)

This passage may be interpreted as a parody of one the best known revelations or epiphanies in the history of English literature, the one rendered in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss”: an upper class woman looks at a tree in her garden and comprehends how mistaken she was about her life and achievements. When looking at a tree in full bloom, she realizes she has lost her husband and her best friend. Madeleine wants to uplift the idea of Newfoundland through images but instead finds herself attached to a cheap commercial object. Moore is responding here to the often trotted-out western tradition which unites objects and feelings. This becomes even more conspicuous when Madeleine says in addition to the previous comments: “There is no need to question the rightness of the tree. She wanted some stone stupid objects in her life that are irrevocably themselves” (181) (my emphasis). Clearly, objects do not have to stand for emotions. Moore is explicitly defining objects outside our need to turn them into bearers of significance. Their solidity may be the only source of comfort.

Thus, in Alligator, Madeleine makes her final, important point: objects are, after all, just objects, and not any other thing or idea, and she claims their validity as such. But although objects are that, just commonplace things, even if we need to attach to them some psychological import, the very juxtaposition of objects and feelings hints at the monstrous separation between inanimateness and the continuity of ordinary life, at the abyss between life and non-life. The act of looking at something and the way Alligator is studded with these images increases this very distance. No quantity of words can make up for life’s opacity. There are no doors for in-depth revelations. However, the final issue in this novel does not seem to be the encounter with the untameable inhospitality of reality; Moore’s novel conveys a recognition of its impenetrability as well as an offer of a certain kind of pleasure, a call to pause on the objects’ idiosyncrasy. Experience is both blazing and numb, as one character in the novel says about love (263). By inflating the status of the sense of sight, Lisa Moore offers us narrative as bondage: this term, taken from dictionaries of fantasy —so concerned with alteration in narrative– means: “an engagement with story not as process but as bondage, that is, being trapped by a particular place or physical shape that keeps you immobile, under a spell” (Clute & Grant 339).

Alligator does not only represent the case of one medium (narrative) and a genre (novel) taking on the nature of another medium (painting or photograph) and genre (the still life): it contains an explicit dialogue with a painting style, a certain method of rendering external reality that an artistic movement, hyperrealism, has made well-known in the last few decades. [11] Lisa Moore’s interest in genre hybridity may have to do with the fact that she is an art critic. She studied Art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and is an art journalist for a variety of Canadian newspapers and magazines. In Alligator, a meeting between two characters takes on the iconic quality of the paintings of photorealists and hyperrealists: a shaltshaker is foregrounded, “It was ordinary, with a stainless-steel screw on perforated lid and a fluted glass bottom. The salt looked very white” (83). Two friends meet at a restaurant: “There were white truffles in small jars under lock and key. The ceiling was stucco with bits of mirror and the tablecloths were checked and the balsamic vinegar and olive oil were poured into a saucer that must have a matching teacup in the back” (174).

Frank visits Kevin, another poor child who, like him, had to be kept in a home as a child. Both have been beaten down by life and they meet at Kevin’s run-down flat many years later:

The rain came down hard, drilling the metal garbage tin, rising up like white fur from the slabs of the concrete that made up the patio, spiking off the arm of the plastic lawn chair. Kevin unwrapped the bologna and, peeling off the wax rind, dropped each slice in the sizzling margarine. (259)

The embarrassment they feel at the uneasiness of being together is replaced by a concentration on objects (their conversation revolves around a frying pan). These are all very clear cases of ekphrases, literary representations of visual art. Ekphrasis is a mode of narrative which speaks to and for works of art, not only about them (Heffernan 1993, 7): it is the “art of describing works of art, the verbal representation of visual representation” (1-2). Its difference from pictorialism is that the latter “represents natural objects and artefacts, not art.” Ekphrasis represents pictures. And in this case, pictures which represent photographs, which look like photographs, as is the case with hyperrealism.

Whenever there is a shock experienced by the characters it is associated with a certain kind of brightness, a colour, a piece of clothing that assaults the characters’ memories persistently after seeing it. Scenes in Alligator are transformed into “metal experiences,” also plastic and glass: electrified fences, coins, saltshakers, plastic nozzles, meat in fridges, sun striking the doors of cars, the remains of food on a dish, bottles: precisely the icons that hyperrealist writers have painted over and over again. There are too many coincidences to be overlooked. Coincidences in subject-matter, method and purpose, even ethics. One could even say that Lisa Moore is establishing an open dialogue between her strategies of written composition and the pictorial approach to reality that has become the trademark of hyperrealism. She has gone beyond fiction to converse with visual art.

Hyperrealism is a style of painting, although some painters and critics consider it a proper artistic movement, which seeks a perfection of resolution above all other painterly interests (Head 2009, 16). [12] Hyperrealists seek to achieve a hypnotic sense of objective presence. They want to make the real and the illusory indiscernible: reality in their paintings looks like a photograph. The photograph is indeed their technical starting point and from that primal source, they enrich its photographic reality, they make it more palpable, larger, impossible to obviate. The real is translated onto the canvas through the camera and then it is “photographed” by painting it. They make of minimal spaces and objects magnificent feats of physicality. Some say their work is more realistic than photography. They do not leave marks of brush strokes on the canvas; functionality is emphasized. They are said to be an outgrowth of the photorealist movement which started in the 1960’s especially in America, whose subject-matter was mainly cars, motorcycles, diners, fast-food emporiums, etc. They believed that their work should adhere strictly to the information found in the photo, as the photo was the object to imitate because in their time it was the supreme reality. They zoomed in on shop windows and through doorways. Most of the time they approached a culturally charged subject matter (American everyday objects) while retaining the objective stance: their aim to reveal banality and beauty, but also address the industrial wastelands of our civilization. Some well-known photorealists are Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Charles Bells, John Baeder, Tom Blackwell, et al. [13] (Fig. 2 and 3)

Then again, at the beginning of the 21st century painters from a number of nationalities mainly exhibiting in One Plus Gallery in London, England, formed a movement called “Exactitude.” They showed a similar approach to reality to that of the photorealists, but this time they expanded their techniques and their range of subjects. They abandoned their fidelity to the photograph too. They added more detail than any photo would ever show and from the emphasis on urban wastelands and American cultural icons, they would move on to other less panoramic views in order to bring the contemporary commonplace to our attention. A certain amount of explicative literature has been gathered by them and about them. Certainly, the language painters and visual critics have used to describe their hyperrealistic methods and philosophy helps us to understand better the artistic qualities displayed by Lisa Moore in Alligator.

Figure 2-Ralph GoingsFigure 2. Ralph Goings. “Double Ketchup.” 2006, Pigmented Inkjet on rag paper. 22×32.75 in. Edition of 30.

Figure 3.- Randy Dudley, Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave, 1988Figure 3. Randy Dudley. “Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave.” 1988, Oil on Canvas. 28 1/2 x 54 in.

One of their maxims is that things deprived of their functions and of their context reveal their real status: “A thing stripped of its real function […] revealed to me the poetry of reflection, distortion and light!” says Dutch painter Tjalf Sparnaay (2002, 34). For him, the object is explored and discovered down to the smallest detail: “Under the realistic surface of this painting is the soul of the object, and essence we were never aware of before” (Introduction). He usually paints fried eggs, banana peels, half-eaten food, dishwashers, packaged meat, etc. He tries to find beauty in ordinariness and is fascinated by banal subjects unrelated to mainstream aesthetic traditions, the question being “is this thing really so ordinary?”:

Clean Crockery! A fresh start, gleaming as if nothing has happened, ready to be dirtied again. But then that is the whole point of crockery —and of the dishwasher. We are happy with it, although we never take the trouble to see how nice it really is. So I’ve done that for you. Our domestic and eating tools shine in all their clean-lined stupidity. (2002, 56). (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4-Sparnaay-DishwasherFigure 4. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Vaatwasser” (“Dishwasher”). 1998, oil on canvas, 185 x125 cm.

When trivial objects are contemplated in their timelessness, we obtain a renewed sense of reality:

Time stands still when I place these objects in a classical arrangement, removed from the context of their day-to-day surroundings. Ideally, this sense of timelessness is the way in which my technique is close to the 17th century Dutch tradition” (http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl/index_eng.html)

Sparnaay talks back to classical painters by having their iconography transformed into a consumerist product, his most famous painting being that of “Meisje Van Vermeer in Plastic”, a version of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” wrapped in plastic and with a price tag (Fig. 5) (see http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl /overview/meisje_vermeer.html).

Figure 5-Tjalf-Sparnaay-MeisjeVanVermeerInPlasticFigure 5. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Girl with a Pearl Earring in Plastic”. 2002, oil on canvas, 75 x 60 cm.

These painters share an acute awareness of the visual overload in our contemporary society, but they accept the ubiquity of consumer products and attempt to create new relationships with them: “The visual overload we are exposed to day in, day out, has deprived us of the ability to look “purely”, in the same pure way a child, for instance, looks at reality. The visual harmony of things is dictated not, as consumer society would have us believe, by perfection, but by imperfection, idiosyncrasy and unpredictability.” (Sparnaay 2002, 46).

Another hyperrealist, Cynthia Poole, says:

Many of the pictures are of chocolate bars and crisp packets, either in newsagents’ displays or in vending machines. I like their vivid colour and strident competitiveness. These objects are normally only perceived as signage, their actual visual qualities, particularly in combination, are invisible —yet they make up much of the visual fabric of contemporary life. […] Again, that captivating combination of ordinary objects, vivid colours, and strong signage. Still close-cropped, taking still life outside into the larger urban context. [14]

Cynthia Poole is interested in the surfaces and signage of everyday things, mass-market, consumer items, so that she can rescue them from our familiarity with them. She thinks of her work as “contemporary still life.” (Fig. 6)

Figure 6-Cynthia Poole -DisplacedMintsIIFigure 6. Cynthia Poole. “Displaced Mints II.”2011. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 120 cm.

Thus, they promote a sense of seeing anew through an intense gaze at objects that are otherwise background and meaningless. Their aim is to activate a sense of visual excitement with our immediate environment (Clive Head 2009, 12). They share a common optimism “which asserts humanity’s ability to create beautiful objects” (10). Sometimes they represent reality in an almost forensic way, like Vania Comoretti; [15]  their purpose being to bring clarity and focus to our lives, suspend disbelief, realize meaning in the mundane. Sparnaay claims that: “As a painter I seek my personal reality in almost trivial subjects. […] even a till receipt offers a voyage of discovery.” (2002, 102).

They also like to experiment with the borderline of meaning: how close does a close-up have to be before becoming blurred and decontextualized?:

I like to arrange the objects in a ‘modern’ way: thanks to the camera, we are overwhelmed by images; we are used to seeing multiple views of the same thing. […] I am also interested in the close crop: how close can you go before the composition becomes entirely abstract, or the context incomprehensible? (Cynthia Poole at http://www.plusonegallery.com/Artist-Info.cfm?ArtistsID= 382&Object=#Bio)

They sometimes openly manifest that theirs is not an art of social illustration or comment (Head 2009, 10-12), it is not an art which raises issues, or cultivates irony. [16]  Their dedication is to a world that has already shaped its identity; that is, there is no troubled relationship with “objective reality.” They say, we see what others miss and then make it compelling (Fig. 7).

Most of these painters are interested in a corner and not in the big picture, not in the architectonics of place and the archways of biography or feeling but, like Lisa Moore, only in that restricted visual space (or object) our eyes can apprehend with intensity. [17] They wish to possess the world and remove it from chaos (Head 2009, 12), or what is the same, from time. The world, or better, certain parts of the world are presented in a state of permanence, their object apparently, as Jean Baudrillard (1976, 1018) had claimed, “to enclose the real in a vacuum, to extirpate all psychology and subjectivity in order to represent pristine objectivity.” This project was common, for example, to the Nouveau Roman. It was an attempt to elide meaning by exhibiting the attrezzo of a meticulous reality.

Figure 7- TomMartin-OneofFiveFigure 7. Tom Martin. “One of Five.” 2009, Acrylic on panel, 90 x 90 cm.

Hyperrealism has sometimes been harshly criticized for being an art without soul, without a transformational end, that is, it has been regarded as unable to awaken consciences. Hyperrealist ethics, an extreme commitment to the reproduction of reality, seems not to be enough. After all, so-called “objective realism” has been downgraded from the early 20th century. Is this just art for art’s sake and therefore just barren aesthetics? Perhaps we are still clinging to a very limited definition of aesthetics, forgetting its capacity of awakening us into the qualities of the world. Or, could we say that hyperrealism represents the aggressive triviality of modern life and that therefore, Lisa Moore´s method liberates her portrait of contemporary St. John’s from all duty to depict inner states or to raise social issues?

Is the effect “glacial”, as some have said? Hyperrealists have been accused of not trying to depict inner states, to eliminate the presence and the interpretation of the painter. These questions about artistic positioning, as well as about method and subject-matter, bear on the impulse which generates Lisa Moore´s novel: her penchant for the still life, her close-ups of objects from kitchens and restaurant tables, her insistence on the city reflections on cars and windows, her habit of rendering people (characters) as patches of colours. The prominence of the surfaces of everyday consumer products turns her novel into a hybrid form: “The meticulous investigation of the events in a minimal space” as Vania Comoretti says of her work.

The way the biographies of the characters shape up in the novel is inextricably linked to their perceptions of a world made of glass, of metal. But do we perceive it as lacking in depth? Indeed, as in the case of Madeleine, there is a hitch between the character’s aims and their actual experiences; their sensorial input sends them off their tracks. Colleen, a young woman who wishes to act against the environmental destruction of developers in Newfoundland is caught out when she pours sugar into the fuel tanks of some bulldozers which belong to a business man in St. John’s. She wanted to save the Newfoundland pine marten from extinction. Her meeting with the judge is put in these terms:

THE ELEVATOR DOORS fling open and Colleen sees a judge heading toward her from the end of a long hallway. He’s in full stride, forehead first, the arms of his black robes billowing. The reflection from a tube of fluorescent ceiling light runs over his oily bald head like a charging train […] Colleen looks at the judge’s reflection in the brass panels of the elevator. His eyebrows hang down into his watery eyes. His face is warped in the polished metal. (18-9)

Just after this view, a whiff of perfume hits her and she immediately remembers a gift package of four bottles of Aqua Velva that she gave to David, her stepfather, for Christmas. The relationship of Colleen with her stepfather —the most important familial tie she’s ever had— will be told from now on through this object.

The Aqua Velva was the first gift Colleen had ever picked out by herself. A tower of boxes ingeniously piled one on top of the other, each with a corner slightly off-kilter so the stack rose like a spiral staircase. There were giant Christmas bulbs hanging from the rafters, carols bubbling wordlessly through the overhead speakers, shoppers in bright coats rushing forward and away like the bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope (20).

Before and after this passage, people seen at the supermarket are described within a dynamics of visual pyrotechnics. They become shreds of colours, the buttons on their clothes blinking: suddenly a close-up shows us the head of an obese woman in a wheelchair. “The grooves made by her comb were still visible and the pink of her scalp showed through.” (21)

How can Colleen remember the past in such a visual literality? Narrative is supposed to be the main medium to transform reality into psychological information, i.e., useful, therapeutic, but here narrative becomes a static medium more akin to a certain style of painting. Also, characters only remember themselves seeing something, their past only becoming remembrance through the visibility of objects. This approach gives a certain vision of identity. The self is defined as more punctual and instantaneous than narrative oriented; it is not given real agency. The cologne is the last agent in the chapter which tells about Colleen’s relationship with her stepfather:

The cologne eventually made its way up to the cupboard under the sink in the guest bathroom, behind the pipes, containers of Comet, cleaning rags. It remained there, even after David died, the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust (31).

The presence of this object permeates at least three chapters, but it does not crown an important episode in Colleen’s life. The cologne is placed outside a gigantic mechanism of causes and effects, rescued from a then-and-then narrative, from any kind of purposeful biographical arrangement. As a consequence of the high status given to the sense of sight, the narrative becomes the story of how objects put their imprint on us, how they assail us: in fact, everything else is defocalized by the spell that a banal element casts on us. It definitely blocks our reading habit of uniting objects and symbols: although the bottles of cologne can indeed be considered to stand for disappointment and forgetfulness, that dusty box that is waiting for our look there in the bathroom is not totally subservient to the character’s mental summary of her past. The visuality of the package challenges the passing of time, it refuses to be made absent, it makes the reality of feelings, the crazy turmoil of experience, recede, become tangential. It is as if the narrative proper, with its incertitude and all too human mistakes, would lie far away, muted.

An art critic said: “Stories may be told about animals, or even inanimate objects, but most Western narrative art depicts the vicissitudes of individuals in human form: men, women, children and the gods who take on their semblance” (Langmuir 2003, 11). Certainly here, humans seem to be more absent than objects, their burning wishes and fulfilments swallowed by a whirlpool, sent back in another direction, inapprehensible, unmanageable. In contrast, the permanence of everyday, commonplace objects becomes too familiar, almost threatening. And this method of composing a novel certainly reflects the way characters think of themselves. Beverly, Colleen´s mother, says:

She had come to think of life not as a progression of days full of minor dramas, some tragedy, small joys, and carefully won accomplishments, as she figures most people think of life —but rather a stillness that would occasionally be interrupted with blasts of chaos. (46) (my emphasis)

Alligator takes on the nature of the still life as a painting genre, and when it moves beyond it into a temporal dimension, the world of the characters explodes with grief and physical pain, like Frank, who is literally burned alive, one of the most horrifying sights we are made to look at in the novel. We see how his skin is transformed by the effects of fire; it is one of the climaxes of the novel rendered in descriptive slow down. The acts of perception of each character seem to originate in different dimensions of existence, there seems to be no thread that connects their personal circumstance so that we can reach a common platform for social analysis. The very idea of cruelty embodied in the dehumanized Russian exile Valentine, who sets a house and Frank himself on fire, is put in the background in view of the narrator’s fascination with the transformations of Frank’s body in the flames.

As in hyperrealism painting, in Alligator we have an altered state of reality through a meticulous depiction, taking human observation of the visible to an almost impossible realm. [18] But does this heightening of visibility inevitably provoke a trivialization of humanity? Is it a flat, clean, and thrilling art where the image is liberated from all metaphysical troubles?

Conclusions
Characters in Alligator are dissociated from large-scale setting and attached to common-place “universal” objects: crockery, cars, gifts, consumer items. These objects seem to bulge out of the page and they are presented to us at critical moments for the characters. They become pivotal and replace the role that psychological discourse often plays in fiction. The characters’ bond to the appearance of objects intensifies their isolation, trapped as they are by their overinflated visual perceptions. As a consequence of their fascination with the “outwardness” of objects, the idea of collective —of a common experiential space— is difficult to assemble or imagine in a novel where characters are given a more sensorial than social existence.

This narrative environment close to ekphrasis prevents the past from being memorialized. It cannot be passed to others as a legacy because it creates situations that are outside time. It precludes the possibility of offering a regional representational continuum made up of images that could be regarded as the epitome of Newfoundland, powerful as its iconicity has been historically in the literature of the province. In Alligator we find recognizable geographical and cultural facts of St. John’s, its streets, institutions, businesses, tourism, although the overall impression readers assimilate is that of the bleak realities of a city overridden by greed and short-sighted development practices. However, close attention to the dynamics of the novel prevent us from giving primordial importance to an interpretation revolving around loss or dilution of cultural identity. This is a fact at the start of the novel and the tone is not elegiac. Life is not seen as a collective enterprise and the transmission of information between individuals is not effected through storytelling; [19] there is either the isolation of intense perceptions, often happening in miniature domestic spaces, or an exposure to the violent realities of the world through the internet. The novel opens with a teenager, Colleen, watching an accident during a stunt performance with alligators in Louisiana; she then watches a man’s beheading on the internet while she eats a sandwich. In the unobserved intimacy of her room she can view the world’s detritus.

Rancière defined aesthetic and political communities in the quotation that opened this article. Through tactics similar to those of hyperrealist painters, Alligator shows us that the “sensory fabric” (Rancière 56) that characters share is personal and untransferable and if there is to be a community of sensations, it lies in those objects that everyone shares nowadays, objects that accompany us when we eat, watch TV, or shop at a mall. The second quote opening this article by hyperrealist painter Cynthia Poole attests the validity of that idea. This is the collective enterprise, “the distribution of the sensible” that Rancière alluded to, a globalized reality wedged into little worlds that, like Newfoundland, not so long ago were very different.

Another strategy which overrides the evocation of the uniqueness of geography —and the notion of connectedness among individuals in a community—, consists of forcing the reader to reconsider the status of narrative as process or plot by creating suspense through images unaided by any rationalization. Lacerating memories retain their physicality and cannot be appeased by the comforts of narrative: narratives are therapeutic, they tie things up. In a different kind of adventure —closer to the ecstatic nature of visual art—, Moore, like the hyperrealist painters, brings clarity of vision into focus by the isolation of detail. Moore makes us look at objects purely, as was Tjalf Sparnaay’s desire. There seems to be a resistance to take a step further than the impact caused by an assailing stimulus. Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. The power of sight dismisses the significance of plot. By doing this, Moore makes problematic the conventional bond between image and message in narrations by showing us that the power of sight may reduce everything else to insignificance, to fuzziness. The paradoxes of hyperrealist art are the same paradoxes implicit in Moore’s style: does it give an intimate or a detached vision? Is her rendering of reality matter-of-fact or hallucinatory? Are objects reliable or menacing? This is a kind of psychic ambush, but it certainly does not foster a sedate or stultifying approach to reality, as some critics have claimed about hyperrealism.

The novel does show some concern with the modern overexposure to images, a problem which deeply troubled Sontag and Rancière, disturbed as they were by our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag 1977, 11, 28 and 30; Rancière 2009, 87). Photography negates the ephemeral quality of an event and once it makes everything permanent, the fact of considering one thing important and another trivial becomes arbitrary; discrimination is often beside the point. These critics have sensed the moral problems resulting from our saturation with the image, with the photograph; the analgesic effect of living in a world made up of overpowering visual display. At one point in the novel, Madeleine, the film maker, comes across a digital photograph of a naked man with his cuffed hands over his genitals. She is deeply shocked:

She brought the picture close to her face to see if she could see pixels, how the colour had been reproduced; she tried to understand the image. A blooming horror made her skin prickle; what was this photograph? It was a homemade joke about torture, folksy and kitsch, full of abject glee and hatred. She had left the egg boiling. The egg was boiling over. She went back to the kitchen and put the paper on the table. The shock of the photograph receded; shock smacks and recedes. She would not let herself think the word evil. The egg was rubbery. The photograph was evil. (170-71)

In this excerpt and the text that follows, we realize that extreme cruelty is unavoidably implicated and overridden by the little urgencies in our daily life. Madeleine soon forgets about the Iraqi prisoner, even after she notices his broken shoulder.

Although characters are occasionally allowed brief glimpses of the pain of others, Moore does not bear in the novel any representational burden, neither from the icons that may represent Newfoundland’s culture nor from an overly exhibitionist capitalist system. Thus, she somehow questions Sontag’s negative ethical interpretations of the overexposure to photographs that citizens in the first world are inevitably subjected to. Like hyperrealist painters, she has turned this overload of images of commercial items into a visual gift which can work toward creativity in art. There is celebration rather than rejection: of shapes and colours, also an impulse to foster a capacity for acute visual focus. Time and again in her novel we realize she does not show impatience with the image, that her approach is not fatigued or mournful, nostalgic for a time where the world was not so imaged-choked.

In Alligator people are defined for what they are, a portable kit of images. With them we try to possess the past and grapple with the present (Sontag 1977, 8). This definition of humankind rooted in the sensory does not mean that the novel’s final statement is to opt for visual entertainment removed from social discord. [20] There is deep reverberation beyond the sensorial. The emotionally neutral temperature of the still life in its coolness and detachment in fact intensifies the heated chaotic state of discomposure that the characters are experiencing. The intractability of reality, the resistance of objects and circumstances to bend to the characters’ purposes or understanding is a basic factor in realizing that the relationship between characters and objects is not one-way road.

There is another dimension added to this celebratory mode: all the characters seem to be spectators rather than actors. They do try to become agents in their own lives but cannot help behaving only as viewers. They build private spaces within which to be able to build protection against aging, failure, poverty, loneliness. Walter Benjamin (1936) and Susan Buck-Morss (1992) described a mental state where the individual, by looking at something other than himself, lets this otherness, usually inhospitable, invade his senses. As a result of this saturation of the senses, the powers for thought are paralysed. This understanding of reality as shock was explored by Benjamin to explain how modern society has created artistic mechanisms and commodities (phantasmagoria) that protect people from the excessive energies of external stimuli and from the harshness of industrial societies. The creation of cushioned spaces in the professions and in art is further developed by Buck-Morss, who located the threat of bewilderment and pain in the relationship between humans and the image. According to her, we possess a synaesthetic system through which the images we store in our memory get connected with external stimuli, thus creating an internal language that cannot be conceived of in conceptual terms (see Sarikartal 2005, 106). This language threatens to betray the language of reason, endangering its philosophic sovereignty. What is absorbed unintentionally resists intellectual comprehension, it baffles notions of knowledge as comprehension and confers instead climactic status on states of bewilderment. As Susan Buck-Morss explains, “all of the senses can be acculturated […]. But however strictly the senses are trained […] all of this is a posteriori. The senses maintain an uncivilized trace, a core resistance to cultural domestication […] they remain part of the biological apparatus” (1992, 6).

This existential stance undermines the polarity used against hyperrealist painting: the accusation that there is a prioritizing of aesthetic creation over reflexive criticality. Moore shows us in her novel pop-up images and the fascinating labyrinths of the mundane. Yes, she portrays characters as spectators, however, she shows the dangers of spectatorship. Characters keep trying to make cushioned versions of their reality that would fit their purposes, yet they live in a world of digitality which inhibits metaphor and transcendence. The digitalization of reality itself troubles definitions of what is real. Moore shows a world that is itemized through the image (see Sontag 1977, 22-3) and novelizes what to expect after humanity has gone through the saturation point, the image-choked world Sontag referred to. The consequences were diagnosed by Sontag (1977, 28): “The arbitrariness of considering some elements as trivial and some as important has been superceded long ago.” When all events are levelled, the result is lack of empathy: the world in Alligator has withdrawn the lines between the extreme and the trivial, between the relevant and the inconsequential or frivolous, the cruel and the desirable.

If we bring to mind how the notion of “Newfoundlandness” is usually codified, we perceive a marked contrast between Lisa Moore’s literary practices in Alligator and some manifestoes of national or regional identity, such as the one previously quoted, Extremities, which explained shared objectives by writers bearing witness to the same landscape and history. This declaration revolved around notions of extreme geography and extreme experiences, however, Alligator is constructed upon a foregrounding of globalized consumer objects.

Certainly Alligator’s message is not that geography is destiny, an idea which permeates much of the literature by Newfoundland writers and others writing about Newfoundland; the novel is almost a visual treatise on the materiality of new capitalist spaces. Alligator also runs against the idea of constructions of Newfoundland as a therapeutic space, where victims of capitalist modernity can pull themselves together and recover meaning. [21] Characters are not cultural artefacts and the plot is not contaminated by the stitches of historicity because the arbitrary intersections of emotions and circumstance provoke not so much a meditation on cultural heritage as an engagement in a densely displayed net of affective intensities. Moore’s technique prevents the past from being memorialized: she works on a common contemporaneous fabric of sensation that is often unnoticed but that nevertheless reaches everywhere.

How do we describe place now? Lisa Moore has shifted our ocular bondage to place from an evocation of landscape or cityscape to the hypnosis produced by readymade objects which do not transmit transcendental meaning or collective memory but a common sensory fabric, a certain quality of palpability devoid of conciliatory epilogues. [22]

—María Jesús Hernáez Lerena

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Fowler, Adrian. “The Literature of Newfoundland: A Roundabout Return to Elemental Matters.” Essays on Canadian Writing, 1985: 118-141.

Fuller, Danielle. “Strange Terrain: Reproducing and Resisting Place-Myths in Two Contemporary Fictions of Newfoundland.” Essays on Canadian Writing. The Literature of Newfoundland, 82, Spring 2004: 21- 50.

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Head, Clive. “Foreword.” Exactitude: Hyperrealist Art Today. Ed. Maggie Bollaert. Plus One Publishing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009: 8-19.

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MacLeod, Alexander. “History Versus Geography in Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.” Canadian Literature: The Literature of Atlantic Canada, 189, Summer 2006: 69-83.

Moore, Lisa. Alligator, A Novel. Toronto, Anansi, 2005.

O’Flaherty, Patrick. The Rock Observed: Studies in the Literature of Newfoundland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Poole, Cynthia. 2008. “Exactitude IV” http://plusonegallery.com/Shows-Detail.cfm? ShowsID=195 (last retrieved April 2, 2012).

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San Sebastian-2014
María Jesús Hernáez Lerena is an Associate Professor of American and Canadian literatures at the University of La Rioja (Spain). She is author of the books Exploración de un Género Literario: Los Relatos Breves de Alice Munro (1998), Short Story World: The Nineteenth-Century American Masters (2003), and co-author of Story Time: Exercises in the Study of American Literature for Advanced Students of English (1999) with Julieta Ojeda and James Sullivan. She co-edited the volume Canon Disorders: Gendered perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the United States (2007) with Eva Darias Beautell. She is the former editor of Journal of English Studies (University of La Rioja) and teaches graduate courses on Canadian literature within a doctoral program awarded a quality distinction by the Spanish Ministry of Education. She has published essays on English, American and Canadian writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Douglas Glover, Katherine Govier, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Crummey, etc. Some of her articles and interviews can be found in the journals Toronto University Quarterly, Canadian Literature, British Journal of Canadian Studies, Arc Poetry Magazine, Wyndham Lewis Annual, Atlantis, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, etc., and in the books Visions of Canada Approaching the Millennium (1999); Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity (2007); Canada Exposed/ Le Canada à découvert (2009); Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada (2011); Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (2012). Forthcoming is her edited book: Pathways of Creativity in Contemporary Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Description and narration are not clear‐cut categories, there is usually instability of their boundaries. Nevertheless, some texts show a marked tendency to one or the other direction. See Heffernan (1993, 6).
  2. Some of the recurrent topics in Newfoundland literature have been the idea of extreme geography, rugged individuals, fraternal communities in the outports, a tradition of orality, and loss of nationhood. See O´Flaherty (1979), Adrian Fowler (1985), Seifert (2002), or MacLeod (2006).
  3. Lisa Moore belongs to a young established generation of Newfoundland writers who, after Wayne Johnston, have become well‐known beyond their region. Together with other writers such as Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Kenneth Harvey, Ed Riche, Jessica Grant, Joel Thomas Hynes, etc., they represent the literary present and future in Newfoundland.
  4. Rancière poses that the intolerable image, the image which shows pain or infliction of pain does not necessarily imply or call for action or engagement, since we live “a single regime of universal exhibition”: “the mere fact of viewing images that denounce the reality of a system already emerges as complicity with this system” (2009, 85).
  5. Fernández Prieto (1994, 124‐25) claims that there is no identity previous to the act of narration. In order to achieve a sense of the self, we have to become a narrator and construct a plot in which we fashion some of our pasts as characters. Giddens (1991, 54) asserts that we are not to find a person’s identity in behavior, or in the others’ reactions, but in his or her ability to keep a particular narrative going. The self is no longer a list of qualities, but a narrator in search of coherence.
  6. Melnyk (2003, x) is another author who has reflected on this dilemma: “We know that reality is separate from language and beyond language, although language claims to offer us the truth of reality. At the same time we are not comfortable in a reality beyond the explanations of our language. If we find ourselves in a situation that is unexplainable we become either fearful or we struggle to find within our language some explanation. Trapped in the discourse created by our culture and our time, we are lost without it.”
  7. Photographs make us confuse beauty with truth, according to Sontag (1977, 112): “the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relationship with the needs of understanding.”
  8. See Elizabeth Bowen (1994, 262) and Michael Trussler (1996, 558).
  9. Well‐known examples are the pear tree in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss” (1920) or the snow in Joyces’ story “The Dead” (1914).
  10. See Tracy Whalen’s (2008) view on the scope of Lisa Moore’s rendition of hyper‐sensory details.
  11. See Takacs for a definition of the hyperreal in the context of digital art and the contemporary indiscernibility between the actual and the virtual.
  12. See Clive Head (2009, 8‐19) and John Russell Taylor (2009, 20‐53) for a manifesto of hyperrealist principles. Some hyperrealist painters of a variety of nationalities are Tom Martin, Tjalf Sparnaay, Cynthia Poole, Pedro Campos, Ben Schonzeit, Paul Bèliveau, Cesar Santander, Steve Smulka (Fig. 1), etc. Literature on and reproductions of hyperrealist paintings can be found at the following websites: http://www.justart‐e.com/; http://www.meiselgallery.com/; http://www.tjalfsparnaay.nl/home.html; http://hyper‐tom.deviantart.com/. Apart from Bèliveau, there are other Canadian hyperrealists who use the photograph as their starting point: Robert Potvin, Wayne Mondock, Merv Brandel, Olaf Schneider, Brandi Deziel, Evan Penny (sculptor), etc. however, not all their work would be closely related to the hyperrealist impulse. In Newfoundland we can also find paintings by Helen Parsons Shepherd and Mary Pratt. Lisa Moore’s iconicity in Alligator, however, does not seem to be related to the Canadian painters but to less panoramic artists who obsessively represent certain kinds of objects mainly related to an urban American tradition.
  13. See Louis K. Meisel (2002) for an introduction by Linda Chase and for excellent reproductions of paintings by most photorealists.
  14. In http://www.plusonegallery.com/Artist‐Info.cfm?ArtistsID=382&InTheNews=1&Object= #Press (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  15. See her pictures at http://www.vaniacomoretti.com (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  16. An exception would be Denis Peterson, whose astonishing paintings of poverty and marginality pose as call‐to‐action photographs. See, for example, “A Tombstone Hand and a Graveyard Mind” in his exhibition “Don’t Shed No Tears” at http://www.denispe terson.com/.
  17. These painters had a hostile or rather indifferent critical response. According to Clive Head, the brainchild of Exactitude in Europe, “The art world is predominantly a place for political or social pronouncement, not a forum for aesthetic development” (2009, 14). After so much conceptual art, they think of their realism today in terms of avant‐garde. There are websites devoted to them which engage in making this kind of art known to the public. See, for example, “Deviant Art” (http://hyper‐tom.deviantart.com/gallery/#). Clive Head (2009, 18) claims that “Exactitude occupies a very particular stance within the contemporary scene. Undeniably rooted in their own personal creativity, these artists nevertheless present a collective position against the philosophical underpinnings of the mainstream. What might be seen as a conventional pursuit in another era could be regarded as radical in today’s context. The failure of the media and large art institutions to embrace this art only intensifies its outsider status, consolidating it as an avant‐garde movement.” A return to representation was seen as a retrograde step. See also Russell Taylor (2009, 33‐45) for a discussion on the criticism to this art and a meditation on the use of photography in painting.
  18. “There are certain qualities produced by the camera that do not exist in reality; they are only present in the hyper‐realist world of photography”, says Simon Hennessey, a hyperrealist painter who exaggerates the qualities in conventional photographic portraits of people. (Bollaert 2009, 144).
  19. This is somehow surprising for an author coming from Newfoundland, an island who has historically possessed an acute sense of independence based on a distinctive cultural legacy and a political past separate from Canada. Moore’s style is at odds with usual modes of transmission of cultural memory, namely storytelling, usually revolving around episodes of the national past, sense of place, the rural idyll (or tragedy), and on a reassuring sense of human connectedness in small communities.
  20. See T. J. Demos (2010) for a meditation of the status of storytelling in contemporary art and cultural industry.
  21. See Danielle Fuller (2004) and Ian McKay (1993) for the ideological dangers of romantic constructions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A notorious case is Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, harshly criticized in Newfoundland for its inaccurate and stereotyped representations of the place (see Tracy Whalen 2004).
  22. An earlier version of this paper was published as “Still Lifes: The Extreme and the Trivial in Lisa Moore’s Novel Alligator” in the electronic journal Canada and Beyond 1, 1‐2 (2011). http://www.canada‐and‐beyond.com.
Nov 082014
 

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

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

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The List

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

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

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Motion Mimesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Never-ending Story

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

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

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

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

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

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

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

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

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The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

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

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

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

james-joyceJames Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

menardMathias Énard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Altered States

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

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

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.
Nov 012014
 

Gonzalez Park

 

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

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

“Please,” tía Chata added.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

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

“Who’s going to notice?” I said.

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

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

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

/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Working,” is all she would answer.

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

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

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

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

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

/

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

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

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

“Yes I did,” he insisted.

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

“Oh, now who’s the one cheating?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rigoberto González

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

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Oct 092014
 

Biscevic MostarSamir Biščević “Mostar”

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

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

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

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

—Thomas Simpson

YouTube Preview Image
Merima Ključo

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Sarajevo RoseSarajevo Roses

Springs
Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2012

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

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

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

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Ash

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

Stari MostStari Most, the old Ottoman bridge at Mostar.

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

Tunel Spasa InteriorTunel Spasa interior.

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

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Salt

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

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

Tuzla Square 1

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

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Grounds

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

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial

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

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

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Ink

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

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

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

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Tile

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

Sarajevo Terra CottaSarajevo Terra Cotta.

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

Trebevic Restaurant

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

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Pulse

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

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

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

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Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić

—Thomas Simpson

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Simpson author shot

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

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Oct 072014
 

Samuel StoltonSamuel Stolton

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The most imprudent of all terms that can be applied to a work of art is to say that it has been ‘created.’ Such an affirmation suggests that a presence has been formed in a subjective totalization that affords one the ability to ‘create,’ undiscriminated by the status of previous forms. Perhaps this is why the terms ‘creator’ and ‘to create’ had no place in ancient Greek terminology. The ambiguous history of artistic creation relies on the discipline of ‘making,’ what the Greeks termed, poiesis. The operation of this act is dependent on a bifurcation between ‘presence’ and ‘materiality,’ representing a theoretical division delineated by ancient and modern conceptions of poiesis. In the following, I will examine how this conceptual junction animates the enterprise of ‘creation’ through ‘making’, in relating to an oscillating cycle of communicable ‘forth-bringing’, whilst I shall also identify how the magnificent authority of poiesis in presencing art, has the capability to actuate itself upon a universal transmissible communicability.

In order to castigate the capacious division between materiality and presence that so severely informs the art making process, my first course of action will be to trace the original contours that afford poiesis a viable agency in applying the distinction. For Plato, it is the “emotional force” that ‘making’ invokes by advocating a domain upon which we are in the “presence of an aesthetic experience.”[i] Such a communion is composed upon the act of producing an item, opposed to the modern conception of poiesis as reliant on the resonance that an item has in its final form. The modern conception was perpetuated, as William Watkin observes, by the nominalistic theories attributable to thinkers such as Nietzsche.[ii] This can be noticed in his concept of the Will to Power as Art, as a common purposiveness that bids the ‘will’ duty in creation, ex nihilo.[iii] The Will, driven by the force of supposed ontological functionalities, offers a direct path to the final presencing of a work. Nonetheless, subsequent thinkers such as Gianni Vattimo have appropriated Nietzsche’s ‘Will’, upon a more diluted theorisation, calling it, as Vattimo does, the pensiero debole – meaning “weak thought.”[iv] Vattimo’s postulations were met with wide criticism, his definition of weak thought as “a way to encounter being once more as trace, recall, a Being used up and weakened,” was judged as a detrimental outlook on the authoritative power of driving forces.[v] Nonetheless, in analysing the statement, a Being used up and weakened, it begs us to question how a ‘Being’ is firstly animated, and subsequently exhausted.

AgambenGiorgio Agamben

It is important here to review Agamben’s addressing of Plato’s conception of poiesis as a dramatization of form that serves to ‘bring something into existence that was not there before.”[vi] Agamben delineates the substance of existence by which poiesis dispenses its authority, relative to the availability of a pro-duction into presence. He speaks of the “energetic status of a work” receding amid art’s setting-up as an aestheticised model.[vii] The Heideggerian ‘being-at-work’ is “erased to make room for its characters as a stimulant of the aesthetic sentiment.”[viii] Subsequently, ‘making’s’ materialistic virtues are informed by the ‘stimulant’ of praxis, which is the action of doing, and techne, which represents, as Watkins observes, the “skilled knowing through doing.”[ix] Nevertheless, the operation of praxis in the modern age has become all too comfortably associated in applying an insurance that the “transformation of all human intentional activity” may profess to result into “some mode of making”;[x] a making that may very well achieve a state of existence, but nevertheless, in order to inject a certain ‘being,’ the participatory union of an active condition of ‘being’ is required; as such, it is possible for the ‘being’ of creative thought to legitimise the capabilities of a being-presence in art.

Experiments in the field of cognitive neuroscience have identified a functional correlation between brain activity and such creative-making ‘thought’. This has been realized in electroencephalographic (EEG) research that analyses the “quantification or task – or event-related (de)synchronization of brain activity,” resulting in what Andreas Fink has discovered to be, a “cortical idling phenomenon.”[xi] That is to say, in the experiment, Fink recognized that when a participant was presented with a task-orientated creative opportunity, and such an opportunity was acted on, this resulted in the “reduced or lower activity level of the brain [of which] is needed to produce novel, original ideas.”[xii] Is this in fact what Vattimo meant when he spoke of man’s ‘weak thought’? Vattimo’s term essentially concerns itself with the philosophical “dissolution of theory,”[xiii] relating to the withdrawal in theorizations of knowledge, that is episteme, and the subsequent emphasis on the technical aspects of craft, techne, that exemplify the postmodern persuasion in ‘making’ art. Episteme relates to the absolute knowledge as a theoretical imperative that has the propensity to inform the operation of techne, as Heidegger says, episteme is “knowing in the widest sense…to understand and be expert.”[xiv] From the aforementioned scientific observations, it can be suggested that the subcerebellar functionality of the brain may pertain to a potentiality toward the abilities and actions of techne, in creative thought,as opposed to a direct force in the comprehension of compounding an ulterior source for knowledge. That is to say, in the process of making art, the brain moves towards an emphasis on technical design, potentiality, as opposed to the formulation of an epistemological outcome in the ‘product’ of the work, actuality, thus supporting Vattimo’s claims.

The differentiation between actuality and potentiality relates to the order in which techne is performed. Heidegger deems the natural articulation of presence in the “bringing forth of something out of itself”[xv] as apparent in the cataclysmic energies that eternalize ‘being’, in such instances as the “bursting forth of a blossom into bloom, the birth of a baby or the ripening of fruit.”[xvi] On the other hand, technes abstractive, synergetic determination, readapts itself to form the process of the “bringing forth of art.”[xvii] This notion hybridizes the engagement of techne, upon an “oscillation between poiesis and enframing.”[xviii] When the process of techne provokes a bringing-forth as revealing, it is poietic, but conversely, when the mastery of its instrumentality compounds the work’s constitution as a made-thing, this represents merely a “controlling revealing.”[xix] Techne’s completion results in the retrospective formality of potentiality, but the fashioning towards its completion, revertively constitutes the ‘being’ of its actuality. Techne’s purposing is therefore not to achieve an ‘end,’ but to attain a ‘means,’ the end result being merely subsidiary to the practice itself.

HeideggerMartin Heidegger

The exercise of an absolute techne ability can never be comprehensively ‘total’, as it is impossible to appropriate an ubiquitous ‘controlling revealing’ to all realms and domains of craft, as humans, our attainment of episteme is restricted to the conditions of praxis. That is to say, we can only ‘know’ to the extent that we are able to ‘do,’ and we can only ‘do’ to the extent that we ‘know.’ We have not the authority to incite being in the crimson blush of a rose or the heavy sigh of a winter’s breeze. We are trapped within the harsh confines of our own ability, of our own equipmentality, of our own resources that afford us the aptitude toward our own perceptions.

This brings me onto a great difficulty I have in conceptualising the opportunity for creation. The issue is that we have an explicit inability to prognosticate a form that does not pertain to human sensory reception. There appears always a process taking place, an instrumental faculty, an inter-aesthetic ghost, presencing the possibility of presence itself. But nevertheless, objects appear to be exclusively sensually informed. What art do we not see, smell, touch, hear or taste? Can we ‘will’ an art, even in conceptual ‘thinking,’ that does not summon a sensory provocation? Agamben explores the emergence in seventeenth century culture of the “man of taste,” a rationalist essentialism that promulgated the “man who is endowed with a particular faculty, almost a sixth sense…which allows him to grasp the point de perfection that is characteristic of every work of art.”[xx] It is therefore possible to determine a communicative synthesis between art’s presencing of character, and man’s inheritance of such a presence, unbound from the physiological capacities of sense data, that permit a point de perfection to be realized. To explore this theory further, I must combine two concepts that in their amalgamation, support the notion that a poietical presencing is not exclusively reliant on a sensory referencing. The two theories of which I shall strive to coalesce are the Kantian sensus communis, and Jürgen Habermas’ communicative rationality.

The sensus communis translates literally as the English ‘common sense,’ which is a horridly ambiguous term in itself, and within Aristotelian theory, it originally referred to man’s ability to commune with an object through a preordained comprehension that facilitates the objective understanding upon the elemental dynamics of its ‘being’. That is to say, the unity of the sensus communis, as a concealed meditation, “allows the soul to distinguish between the proper objects of particular senses.”[xxi] Kant viewed the sensus communis as something shared by us all, that is “a power to judge that in reflecting takes account (a priori), in our thought, of everyone else’s way of presenting, in order as it were to compare our own judgement with human reason in general.”[xxii] The sensory judgmental casus belli of objects perform as per the demands towards the reasoning of human nature. We are able to reflect, judge, and think because the mode of such inquisitions is driven by this common sense. However, we have to ask ourselves, from what ontological division does the sensus communis derive? Here, I cannot merely concur with Kant in the delineation of its presencing as an a priori disposition, I would suggest however, that it originates from man’s communicative abilities. Communication, in the broadest sense of the term, facilities the movement of the sensus communis into an established perceptive prerequisite, interaction can be the only rationale that informs the continuing flux of ontological components. As Habermas states, the communicative rationality, is “orientated to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus.”[xxiii] Together with the determinate existence of the sensus communis, communicative rationality adapts and frames a terrain of which inhabitants appropriate the fundamentals of both functionalities. That is to say, the sensus communis is actuated upon an engagement with communicative forces. Without communicative abilities, even in the most elementary operation, presentation, as an affectation of ‘everyone else’s way’ would recede into hybridized elements of which would have no outlet for a renegotiation that the sensus communis allows. Communicative rationality continuously evolves from this, striving for an intersubjectivity founded on the composite principles of human nature, communication and interaction build these, and the subliminal operation of the sensus communis fundamentally affirms them.

HabermasJürgen Habermas via Wikipedia

Poiesis then, may be realized as a communicative presencing, it is ‘making’ from the faculty of the sensus communis, protruded by communicate rationality. It does not ‘create’ but it is the renewal and materialistic manifestation of a presencing. It is the redundant propensity, actuated upon various schema, through techne and praxis, that allows potentiality and reverts back to the only undeniable actuality, that is of the possibility of its being in the first place.

Perhaps then, the materialities of presence that dwell in the most barren and vacant pockets of the mind, awaiting upon an instance to be ‘brought-forth,’ perhaps these quiescent chapters of thought rely on poiesis to be discovered. These ‘presences’ are in constant renewal, dependent on interactive and communicative processes, and in each actuation into the fully material domain, recede from the original habitation of the maker, and, through the subjective translation in an exposure to their material ‘being,’ take up another residence, presencing in the mind of the recipient to the work. Resulting in a universal and continuous series of transmissible occurrences. A subject, therefore, has the propensity to delve into certain chambers of hidden thought, and bring forth such potentialities for making, that trigger the “transition from nonbeing to being [that] means taking on a form,”[xxiv] in order to manifest what Watkin has called “logopoiesis”.[xxv] The most coarse analogy which I can beckon to represent this is a worldwide, objective game of ‘pass the parcel’, except that everyone receives some form of a gift from the undertaking. This gift, although germinating as a mere potentiality, upon its possible actuation, is ‘used up’ as Vattimo said, but is vitally not weakened, but in fact strengthened upon a translation that conditions the essence of what Aristotle referred to as entelechy. That is the “inner urge” to be fully realized through various processes of natural design. As such, the operations of poiesis, provide a suitable, yet incredibly tragic substitute, in the search to make and actuate an immortality reflective of that of nature. As the extemporaneous cycles of nature – from blossoming to decay, are in continuous cultivation, man attempts, through the transmissible processes of presence-making, to reflect this unattainable naturality: immortality, through the contagious affair of poiesis.    

—Samuel Stolton

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Samuel Stolton is a writer living in London. He co-edits 3:AM Magazine and is the Founding Editor of the journal of philosophy, poetry and politics, Inky Needles.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Julius A. Elias, Plato’s Defence of Poetry (New York: SUNY Press, 1984), 226.
  2.  As evidenced in: William Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis (London and New York: Continuum Publishing, 2010).
  3. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Random House Inc, 1973), 76.
  4. Gianni Vattimo, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, ed. Franca D’Agostini. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 113.
  5. Gianni Vattimo, Not Being God: A Collaborative Autobiography, trans. William McCuaig. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 87.
  6. Plato, The Symposium (Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1971), 43.
  7.  Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 66.
  8. ibid.
  9. Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis, 75.
  10.  Gyorgy Markus, “Praxis and Poiesis: Beyond the Dichotomy,” Thesis Eleven 15, no. 30 (Jan 1986): 30.
  11. Andreas Fink, “Creativity meets Neuroscience: Experimental Tasks for the Neuroscientific study of Creative Thinking,” Science Direct 42, no. 1 (Dec 2006): 75.
  12. ibid.
  13. Vattimo, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, 89.
  14. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays(New York: Garland Publishers, 1977), 13.
  15. ibid., 11.
  16. Barbara Bolt, Heidegger Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts(New York and London: I.B Tauris Publishing, 2011), 80.
  17. ibid.
  18.  ibid.
  19. ibid., 81.
  20. Agamben, The Man Without Content, 9.
  21. A.G Chern︠i︡akovThe Ontology of Time: Being and Time in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Husserl and Heidegger (New York: Springer Publishing, 2002), 73.
  22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 173.
  23.  Jürgen HabermasThe Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 17.
  24. Agamben, The Man Without Content, 37.
  25.  Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis, 119.
Sep 092014
 

Fernando Sdrigotti Fernando Sdrigotti at Shakespeare and Co, Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Fernando Sdrigotti

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

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Aug 142014
 

Biss

In my recent interview with the brilliant essayist Eula Biss, we spoke at length about one of the major themes in her new book: the continuity between human beings and the environment we inhabit, as well the continuity between all human bodies and human minds. I find this to be an evolution of a major theme in Biss’s last book, the remarkable 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land. This book, which established Biss as one of the great nonfiction writers at work today, is predicated on the continuity of past and present. There can be no separating ourselves from history. In Notes, Biss invokes of the great crimes of early America and confronts the myriad ways we encounter their echoes—in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our fractured families and complicated identities. Best of all, Biss immerses herself in each essay, examining the place she occupies—as a researcher, a writer, a neighbor, a daughter—in the various attitudes, narratives, and institutions the book seeks to expose and challenge.

This lens, at once highly confessional and fiercely critical, is put to use once again in On Immunity: An Inoculation. Biss and I spoke about her desire for the book to highlight “the intellectual work of mothering.” Indeed, On Immunity might easily be read as a personal struggle with information; an intellectual odyssey. But the added drama here is that the life of one’s child depends on that struggle.

In the following excerpt, Biss confronts the common model of the human immune system as a defensive military force eternally on high alert. Our metaphors have consequences. Late in On Immunity, Eula Biss quotes George Orwell from his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” I find that one of the driving forces behind On Immunity is a hopeful reworking of this idea: if thought enriches language, language can also enrich thought. On Immunity is a challenging book, often as sharply critical as its predecessor. But it is also, as Biss noted in our interview, about moving forward. It is an incitement to “live one’s life reparatively.”

— Adam Segal

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

 

Three immunologists on a road trip in 1984 became excited about the possibility that the cells of our bodies might, like the humans they compose, use a system of signs and symbols—a kind of language—in their communication with each other. After traveling for seventeen hours in a VW bus with a ripe wheel of Taleggio cheese and an Italian edition of Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics, they determined, through some rough translations performed by the Italian among them, that a better understanding of semiotics, the study of how signs and symbols are used and interpreted, might enhance their work in immunology.

When I learned of the resulting conference on “immuno-semiotics,” I was excited by the possibility that it was devoted to the discussion of metaphor, a semiotic device. I thought I had found a group of immunologists interested in dissecting their own metaphors. To my disappointment, the conference papers revealed that they were much more concerned with the question of how our bodies, not our minds, interpret symbols. But as the immunologist Franco Celada proposed in a paper titled “Does the Human Mind Use a Logic of Signs Developed by Lymphocytes 108 Years Ago?” our minds may have learned the ability to interpret from our bodies.

“Immunologists are forced to use unusual expressions in order to describe their observations,” the semiotician Thure von Uexküll observed at the conference. “Expressions like ‘memory,’ ‘recognition,’ ‘interpretation,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘reading,’ ‘inner picture,’ ‘self,’ ‘nonself,’” he maintained, were unknown in physics or chemistry. “Atoms and molecules have no self, memory, individuality, or inner pictures,” he said. “They are not able to read, to recognise or to interpret anything and cannot be killed either.” Some of the other semioticians at that conference, most notably Umberto Eco, would question whether the cells of the body were literally engaged in acts of interpretation, but the immunologists seemed less skeptical.

When the anthropologist Emily Martin asked an array of scientists to discuss descriptions of the immune system that depended on the metaphor of a body at war, some of them rejected the idea that this was a metaphor. It was, they insisted, “how it is.” One scientist disliked the war metaphor, but only because he objected to the way war was being waged at that moment. In her study of how we think about immunity, which was conducted during the first Iraq war, Martin found that metaphors of military defense permeate our imagination of the immune system.

“Popular publications,” Martin observes, “depict the body as the scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders.” Our understanding of disease as something that we “fight” invites an array of military metaphors for the immune system. In illustrated books and magazine articles, the body employs some cells as “infantry” and others as the “armored unit,” and these troops deploy “mines” to explode bacteria, while the immune response itself “detonates like a bomb.”

But this war imagery does not reflect the full diversity of thinking Martin discovered in her interviews. Alternative medicine practitioners, as a group, consistently refused to use war metaphors in their descriptions of the immune system. Most other people, scientists and nonscientists alike, tended to gravitate toward militaristic terms, but many were able to suggest different metaphors and some explicitly resisted military metaphors. “My visualization would be much more like a piece of almost tides or something . . . the forces, you know, the ebbs and flows,” a lawyer remarked, clarifying that by forces she meant “imbalance and balance.” A number of other people, including scientists, echoed this idea of a body striving for balance and harmony, rather than engaging in armed conflict. The inventive metaphors with which they imagined the immune system ranged from a symphony to the solar system to a perpetual motion machine to the vigilance of a mother.

The term immune system was used for the first time in 1967 by Niels Jerne, an immunologist who was trying to reconcile two factions of immunology—those who believed that immunity depended largely on antibodies and those who believed it depended more on specialized cells. Jerne used the word system to unite all the cells and antibodies and organs involved in immunity into one comprehensive whole. This idea that immunity is the product of a complex system of interdependent parts acting in concert is relatively new to science.

Even so, what we know of this system is staggering. It begins at the skin, a barrier capable of synthesizing biochemicals that inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and containing, in its deeper layers, cells that can induce inflammation and ingest pathogens. Then there are the membranes of the digestive, respiratory, and urogenital systems with their pathogen-ensnaring mucous and their pathogen-expelling cilia and their high con- centration of cells equipped to produce the antibodies responsible for lasting immunity. Beyond those barriers, the circulatory system transports pathogens in the blood to the spleen, where the blood is filtered and antibodies are generated, and the lymphatic system flushes pathogens from body tissues to the lymph nodes, where the same process ensues—pathogens are surrounded by an assortment of cells that ingest them, eliminate them, and remember them for a more efficient response in the future.

Deep in the body, the bone marrow and the thymus generate a dizzying array of cells specialized for immunity. These include cells that can destroy infected cells, cells that swallow pathogens and then display pieces of them for other cells to see, cells that monitor other cells for signs of cancer or infection, cells that make antibodies, and cells that carry antibodies. All of these cells, falling into an intricate arrangement of types and subtypes, interact in a series of baroque dances, their communication depending in part on the action of free-floating molecules. Chemical signals travel through the blood from sites of injury or infection, activated cells release substances to trigger inflammation, and helpful molecules poke holes in the membranes of microbes to deflate them.

Infants have all the components of this system at birth. There are certain things the infant immune system does not do well—it has trouble penetrating the sticky coating of the Hib bacteria, for example. But the immune system of a full-term infant is not incomplete or undeveloped. It is what immunologists call “naive.” It has not yet had the opportunity to produce antibodies in response to infection. Infants are born with some antibodies from their mothers already circulating in their systems, and breast milk supplies them with more antibodies, but this “passive immunity” fades as an infant grows, no matter how long it is breast-fed. A vaccine tutors the infant immune system, making it capable of remembering pathogens it has not yet seen. With or without vaccination, the first years of a child’s life are a time of rapid education on immunity—all the runny noses and fevers of those years are the symptoms of a system learning the microbial lexicon.

When I asked for help understanding the basic mechanics of immunity, a professor of immunology gave me a two-hour explanation of the immune system in a coffee shop. He never once, in those two hours, used a military metaphor to describe the workings of the body. His metaphors tended to be gastronomic or educational—cells “ate” or “digested” pathogens and “instructed” other cells. When he spoke of something being killed or destroyed, he was referring to literal death or destruction. The scientific term for a type of white blood cell capable of destroying other cells, he told me, is natural killer.

Later, I attended a series of lectures by the same professor. While I was learning the distinction between innate immunity and adaptive immunity and trying desperately to keep track of a proliferation of acronyms—NLRs and PAMPs and APCs—I would note that the cells of the immune system lead lives in which they kiss, are naive, eat, purge, express, get turned on, are instructed, make presentations, mature, and have memories. “They sound like my students,” a friend of mine, a poetry professor, would observe.

If a narrative of any kind emerged from those lectures, it was the drama of the interaction between our immune system and the pathogens with which it coevolved. This drama was sometimes characterized as an ongoing battle, but not the kind that involves Apache helicopters and unmanned drones— this was clearly a battle of the wits. “And then the viruses got even smarter,” my professor would say, “and did something ingenious—they used our own strategies against us.” In his telling, our bodies and the viruses were two competing intelligences locked in a mortal game of chess.

— Eula Biss

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

 

Eula Biss  is the author of three books: On Immunity: An Inoculation, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, andThe Balloonists. Her work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. She holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and a M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The BelieverGulf CoastDenver QuarterlyThird Coast, and Harper’s. Eula Biss and John Bresland are the Chicago-based band STET Everything.

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Aug 082014
 

Paul PinesPaul Pines

yggdrasil gamle naboerYggdrasil

 

Probative Values

The future of High Culture in today’s world is a daunting question, assuming there is a definition that we can agree upon. One might well ask if High Culture even exists. And if it exists, where do we find it? Perhaps in the historical consensus of universally valued products like Phidias’ 5th Century BCE statue of Athena Parthenos, the poetry of Li Po who died in 762 supposedly trying to embrace the moon in the Yellow River, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” painted in 1665, or Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D minor,” in 1795. There are the obvious venues of High Culture such as the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center offering “La Boehme,” or The Getty Museum in Brentwood displaying a restored Jackson Pollock, “Mural,” commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. Then there is the anti-elitist vision expressed by Matthew Arnold in his 1875 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” as that which makes “the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” All of it buckles under the weight of changes in the last century that make it unclear what High Culture looks like, or how it functions. We may, like young Parsifal in the spectral castle known as Mount Sauvage, ask the wounded Fisher King: Who does the Grail serve?

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal searches for the grail in a Waste Land devastated by war. Nathanael West’s novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, written in 1933, describes just such a landscape stripped bare of traditions, symbols and long held beliefs that once provided comfort and civility. Standing in the Waste Land of a Civil War field hospital, Walt Whitman wondered what had become of the grail he’d called “democracy”, and soon after wrote that we might be growing “an expanding material body with no soul.” For Whitman, as for West’s wounded Miss. L., soul loss is an abiding wound that can only be healed by the poetic imagination.

Whitman declared the poet as shaman, able to call forth the vision to unite a culturally diverse nation. Only the poetic imagination could forge this connection, give birth to a High Culture that would water the flowering tree at the center of our garden. There is evidence that the symbols of this idea have been buried in the relativist trope of Post Modernism and the expanding web of electronic media. Ominous clues suggest that poetic imagination has been reduced to a retail commodity in the global economy. High Culture, subject to a rate of change equivalent to that of the G-force that pulls space craft loose from gravity, may be unrecognizable.

gimbutas-Spirals-60ANeolithic Spirals — Maria Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess

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Starting at the Centre

…he drew a circle on the face of the deep…Proverbs 8:27

In considering the plight of High Culture in our time, it may be helpful to examine its roots. Around 8,000 BCE patterns appear on Paleolithic vessels from the Great Mother Culture representing forms of energies,  i.e. the chevron (bird), waves (water/frequency), swastika (wheel of life in motion), and the most basic orienting symbol of all—the circle  traversed by four lines converging at its center: the circle-squared. Visible in this structure is the paradox of stillness (center) and motion (periphery) and basic orienting division into four starting with the four directions, four seasons, and four phases of life. The center still point, axis mundi, is often depicted as a tree with roots below and branches above. Energies flow from upper and lower worlds through the nexus where time meets eternity to animate the material world.

This paradigm can be found in Plato, the Egyptian Night Sea journey of Osiris, Sioux Medicine Wheel teaching and indigenous Central American cultures. Most often the center is anchored by a tree, the Mayan Tree of Life, the Kabbalist’s Yesod and the Norse Yiggdrasil. In these systems the dark world at the root works in tandem with branches flowering in the light. Where the center holds, masculine and feminine, the whole congress of opposites work to form the unus mundus, one world composed of many parts.

In Vedic discipline the world-tree is the spinal column rooted in the pelvic chackras rising through the heart chakra to an opening between the eyes through which the soul-bird is released at death. The snake and the bird inhabited the Tree at the center of Inanna’s Sumerian garden as early as 4,000 BCE. Quetzalcoatl, the snake-bird, was equally at home in the roots and branches of the Aztec/Mayan World Tree in 1511 AD when the Spanish first cruised past the gleaming towers of Tulum. It is interesting to note that the soul’s double-nature carries the morphic resonance of the biological link between snake and bird.

The most complex form of the circle-squared is the mandala common to Navajo, Ancient Egyptian, Cretan, Jewish, Druidic, Roman, Christian, Indian, Aboriginal and Tibetan cultures. A Chinese alchemical text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Richard Wilhelm, speaks of a Golden Flower (lotus), four petals rising from the center. Psychologist Carl Jung recognized in it his own mandalic structure, the flowering of the individuated Self/Soul. Nomadic groups in Paleolithic Europe or the buffalo rich Native American Plains left little physical evidence of advanced civilization, but poetic imagination abounds in the symbols on Venus figures and exploits of Coyote of oral tradition: the metaphysical system of the circle squared may well be an Ur-product of High Culture.

cross-circle-horned-serpent-3Aztec Serpent Wheel

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The Original Vision

And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops
that made 
one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight,
and in the center grew one mighty 
flowering tree to
shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

Black Elk Speaks, J.G. Neihardt.

Oglala Sioux shaman Black Elk, cousin of Crazy Horse, had a Great Vision as an eleven year old while deep in an illness those around him thought he wouldn’t survive.  During this time he was taken to the center of the world he saw “with the sacred eye” his nation as one of many sacred hoops. The year was 1874. Wasichu were passing through Sioux land on their way to the gold fields. He was given power-gifts to save the flowering tree at the center of his nation. Fifty-one years after the battle of Wounded Knee, that sounded the death knell of his people, Black Elk agreed to share his Great Vision with ethnologist J.G. Neihardt, who found the old man at the rear of a squalid reservation. He had lived the last two-thirds of his life there lamenting his failure. In spite of his efforts, the tree had died. But as the end approached, he thought his Great Vision might instruct others, its truth find a way back into the world.

After all, his hoop was one of many. He saw that when the tree dies, the center is lost. When a center is lost, it is buried and must be renewed. Black Elk’s cry to the Grandfathers at the end of his life echoes those other visionaries for the loss of their cultures: the buried Merlin’s grief for Camelot echoes through the wood, Ezekiel weeps for Jerusalem, Aztec poet Netzahualcoyotl

(Hungry Coyote) who appears on the Mexican 100 peso note, divines as the bearer of High Culture: The smoking stars gather against it; the one who cares for flowers is about to be destroyed.

Pauli_s_World_ClocknewThe World Clock: Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel laureate physicist saw in a dream this image that came to be known as Pauli’s world clock. It is a multi-tiered mandala similar to the circle squared where a vertical and a horizontal circle share a common centre. Pauli and C.G. Jung suggested the image supported their intuition of a unified psychophysical reality that interfaced with individual consciousness.

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Ralph Loves Walt

Thirty years before Black Elk received his Great Vision, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his essay, “The Poet”, calling for “one with tyrannous eye” to unite “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas…” He promised that poet, “Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor…”

Implied in his call was the fear that without poetic imagination the culture would fall apart. Ten years later Walt Whitman sent Emerson the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In the introduction he stated: “The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets.” Whitman articulated a version of democracy in which our very atoms resonate, but enjoined us also to prize individuality—a High Culture built on poetic imagination, its ability to integrate as well as renew experience.

Later this vision, like Black Elk’s, dimmed.

The nation divided by Civil War left its youth for dead in heaps, and shuffled others into make-shift tents. Whitman threaded his way through the fetid field hospitals of D.C. nursing the boys he loved, navigating their corpses, lost limbs, buckets of blood swinging from broom handles; his optimism darkened. It may have been with a touch of PTSD that he wrote in his late essay, “Democratic Vistas,” dated 1871, of the failure of poetic imagination to take hold, and the withering flower at the center of his hoop:  “…with unprecedented material advancement–Society in these States is canker’d, crude, surreptitious, superstitious and rotten…I say we best look our times and land searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease…It is as if we were being endowed with a vast and more thoroughly appointed body, then left with little or no soul…

meta_navajo_sandNavajo Sand Painting

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The Centre Cannot Hold

Black Elk lived from 1863 to 1949, from the buffalo-rich open prairie to the post Holocaust reality in the wake of WWII. Even so, he held on to the core of his Great Vision. Prior to the 20th Century, the circle-squared archetype of wholeness passed easily from one civilization to the next until it hit a hard edge mid-way through Modernism, and broke. Cracks had appeared at the dawn of the 19th Century, but went largely unobserved.

In 1807, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel published his theory of Geist in his Phenomenology of Spirit. His idea of Geist, translated as “spirit” or “mind,” is essentially an examination of consciousness. The consciousness in question is a collective one realizing itself over time through the philosophical work of individuals starting with Heraclitus and culminating in Hegel, who posited that the history of philosophical enquiry ended with him; from that point forward consciousness didn’t so much unfold as contained absolute knowledge. This was cause for celebration in the Hegel household. He had secured the Paleolithic/Platonic ontological center of the circle squared. That’s when cracks appeared in the saucer of Hegel’s teacup. Something dark began to shimmer in the wings of the departing century: the swan-song of the Victorian age. Nietzsche, Freud and Marx danced onto center stage in bow ties and patent leather shoes. Billed on the marquee as The Hermeneutics of Suspicion, they declared that nothing is what it appears to be; all received wisdom and articles of faith must be regarded with suspicion.

By mid-century, philosophy no longer addressed general questions about the human condition, but cracks into numerous specialties each in search of a foundation. The dervishes of Post Modernism, chief among them two Jacques, Lacan and Derrida summed it up. Lacan called The Real “the impossible.”  Derrida thought any inquiry outside the limitations of language unthinkable, and everything inside of it only spin.

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The Crack Up

The Great Depression confirmed for many that there was nothing of substance at the center. A few grieved the demise of High Culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West wailed in the 1930s Waste Land. West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts as a night clerk at the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village, and then at the Hotel Kenmore on 23rd Street. From his desk at the latter, looking out on a second floor terrace, he watched bankrupt millionaires fall from the top floor, “lovers leap.”  He observed that in the absence of a center, pain can’t be addressed. The result was a culture of cruelty and disconnection. His novel follows a sports journalist reassigned by a sadistic editor to the Advice Desk where he answered letters from the heartbroken as “Miss. L”. His attempt to take on the burden of the suffering humanity fails. Miss L. experienced a psychotic breakdown rather than what at an earlier time might’ve been mystical union or a redemptive renewal of faith.

West never made a penny on his novels. He moved to Hollywood in 1935. He met F. Scott Fitzgerald on the lot of Republic Pictures, aka Repulsive Pictures, where the major stars were singing cowboys. Fitzgerald’s royalties plummeted to $50 in 1933 from an earlier high of $29,757.85. The author who once defined The Jazz Age, now analogized himself and the world in which he found himself to a cracked plate. It might be glued and used, but would always be a cracked plate, not suitable for company. In essays for Esquire published posthumously as the Crack Up in 1940 by Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald wrote about the death of High Culture. The novel, which he’d thought “the most powerful medium of conveying thought and feeling from one human being to another,” had become “subordinate to a mechanical and communal art…capable of only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.” Poetic imagination had given way to Hollywood, a collaborative medium which fed on the obvious.

In West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust, the “dream machine” fabricated and recycled virtual realities for financial gain. Its illusions were paper thin, but addictive. The novel ends with an apocalyptic riot; a panicked crowd covers the land like locusts driven by a viral hunger to consume their own medium. Fitzgerald and West became fast friends. One day after news of Fitzgerald’s death reaches him, West collided with another car. He and his wife, Eileen, returning from a hunting trip in Mexico, were killed. West is thirty-seven.

-axis-mundi ldsanarchyAxis Mundi — LDS anarchy website

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Chinatown Chicken

As a young man in search of a center, I engaged in numerous addictions, but none so telling as one in Chinatown. The object of my hunger for The Real, which Lacan labeled “the impossible”, was a chicken. Not the edible kind, baked in clay or shredded with almonds and bean sprouts, but a live fowl, occupant of a glass case mounted on a platform in an arcade south of Canal Street.

The challenge overhead read: BEAT THE BIRD.

No one ever beat the chicken at its own game: tic-tac-toe.

A quarter in the slot, and the game was on. A board at the base marked each move with an illuminated X or O. The chicken didn’t have to see it. His attention was on the pellet that dropped into one of several dishes to prompt his next move. The whole affair was run by wires and electrical connections to which the player became attached as an input in an otherwise selforganizing system. It didn’t really matter who performed that function.

It was not simply passive pleasure that held me, but the hunger that drove West’s substance starved movie audience to swarm like locusts. I became infected by the inevitability of defeat, but couldn’t stop hitting keys, a glimpse of the addiction that would later wire me to Facebook. Years later teaching an essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” I asked my American Literature class at a small college in the Adirondacks if they agreed with William James that “the pleasure culture” posed a greater danger to us than the “warrior” culture. Facing the fear of death-in-battle deepened those who survived it. Entertainment and entitlement in pursuit of pleasure offered only endless adolescence. James suggested that we find moral equivalents for those rites which made men of boys, but without the violence of warfare.

Was my attachment to the tic-tac-toe chicken an early immersion in pleasure culture, or a moral equivalent worthy of a warrior?

There was no contest; the chicken always won!

But I succumbed to the addictive thrill of punching the buttons to watch the chicken dance in front of the feeding tray. Who does the Grail serve?

What would William James say? I see him as a young man who feels like a failure and suffers a nervous breakdown. No warrior, he pays for another man to face the rebel yells in his stead, and most likely die. Older, at his desk, scruffy beard starting to grey, he sniffs ammonium nitrate from a beaker, giggling as he makes notes for an article, “Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide,” in the Psychological Review (1898). High Culture gives way to getting high, William James, in pursuit of altered consciousness, uses an anesthetic gas. Foldedin the chemical hilarity, James writes:

Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
But–
What escapes, WHAT escapes?

Integra Natura—The Whole of Nature (1671) – Robert Fludd physician, alchemist, philosopher and artist depicts in this engraving the correspondence between realms linked in the Great Chain of Being by the World Soul, Anima Mundi. From his two volume masterwork Ultriusque Cosmi.

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Numbness and the Mediated World

Here is a conversation recently overheard between two girls at Starbucks in NYC.

GIRL 1: I mean…it’s like he doesn’t even care.
GIRL 2: Why do you think that?
GIRL 1: I posted something super nice about him on Facebook and he never liked it!
GIRL 2: When did you post it?
GIRL 1: Like…an hour ago.
GIRL 2: Oh, that’s serious!!

Thomas de Zengotita’s “Numbing of the American Mind, Culture as Anesthetic,” (Harper’s, 4/02) captures the ironic relationship of stimulation to numbness. It opens with a quote by Nietzsche: …the massive influx of impressions is so great; surprising, barbaric, and violent things press so overpoweringly–balled up into hideous clumps–in the youthful soul; that it can save itself only by taking recourse in premeditated stupidity. The philosopher isn’t referring to I.Q., but to being anesthetized. “Ever notice how, when your hand is numb, everything feels thin?” asks Zengotita. “Even a solid block of wood lacks depth and texture. You can’t feel the wood; your limb just encounters the interrupting surface. Well, numb is to the soul as thin is to a mediated world.”

His point is hiding in plain sight: the effect of constant stimulation is numbness. The absence of sensation is not linked to sense-deprivation, but to excessive input of shifting images and messages claiming our attention. The excitation is numbing.  When the surface becomes all there is to life, stress is “how reality feels.”

Post Modernists assert we live in closed, self-referential systems such as language, culture, identity, politics—constructions of the moment. We can’t claim to live in reality, only our representation of it. Derrida insists that there is nothing outside the text, but more text, which we create to describe the purport of our text.

What happens when the soul turns numb and poetic imagination goes underground? What difference does it make if our children are fed packaged imagery designed to sell product but leave their inner worlds atrophied? Why should we care if there is no perceived difference between news and entertainment, advertising and information, Vivaldi and Kenny G.

Nezahuacoyotl Peso

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The Submerged Centre

There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course…

—Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”

It may be impossible to endure the crushing G-Force, that propulsive rate of change, without a degree of protective numbness. At the same time, the structure of the psyche remains the same since it gave birth to Paleolithic images on cave walls.  Symbols rising spontaneously from its depth inform and guide us.  Polymath anthropologist George Gregory Bateson tells us that the ordering process of self-organizing systems is not imposed by the environment but established within the system itself. Two dynamic principles are at work here: self-renewal and selftranscendence–the ability to reach beyond physical and mental boundaries in the process of learning, development and evolution. A system that becomes stressed—read here “numb” or “stupid”—will become rigid and unable to adapt, connect to its own symbols, and hear its inner voice.

Socrates called his inner voice the daemon. Romans, the genius.  Native Americans, the Spirit Guide. Mayans know it as the Nahual. In analytical psychology it is the Self or Objective Psyche. In a study of destiny, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman refers to Plato’s myth of Er, in The Republic. Er returns from a near death experience to describe the protocol of returning souls. Before crossing to the re-birth destination, each soul witnesses the Fates spin, weave and cut the cloth of its destiny. The soul knows the unique pattern before it drinks from Lethe. Some drink more deeply than others. Those who hears the spirit guide whisper in its ear, are said to be touched by Genius, the submerged center.

This is another way to describe poetic imagination and its ability to give birth to works that constitute High Culture. Poetic imagination rises from the same intelligence that conveys information about the destiny of individuals and civilizations. Even unheard, at times when the center collapses, the Genius speaks, seeks a way to break the surface of numbness and denial. William James curiosity about altered consciousness, including his love affair with Nitrous Oxide, can be viewed as a search for the pharmakon, that remedy mentioned by Plato which is both cure and disease. It can be argued that those most in touch with poetic imagination in the last century were scientists, not poets.

Sacred Script: Catalog of signs collected by Marija Gimbutas, showing core signs at left and derivatives at right formed by additional dots, lines, curves or alternate orientations; from her ground breaking work, "The Civilization of the Goddess."Sacred Script: Catalog of signs collected by Marija Gimbutas, showing core signs at left and derivatives at right formed by additional dots, lines, curves or alternate orientations; from her ground breaking work, The Civilization of the Goddess.

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Albert Einstein’s imaginative “thought experiment” in 1905, working in the Swiss Patent Office, led to his theory of special relativity. Using poetic imagination, Einstein was able to formulate the behavior of movement at the speed of light when time falls away. Later, he would write in his essay, On Science: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Depth psychologist Carl Jung asserted that imagination and its products must be understood as facts. Jung worked with quantum visionary Wolfgang Pauli to explore the phenomena of meaningful coincidence, which Jung called synchronicity, and Pauli non-local causality. They published a paper together in 1952, “The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche,” concluded that “the observed patterns of matter are reflections of patterns of mind.”

But the question remains, how can we discern the voice of poetic imagination, rooted in the archetype of wholeness, through the numbness of surface stimulation?

350px-Mandala_of_VajradhatuMandala Of Vajrahdatu

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The Face of the Deep

“My core fear,” writes Sven Birkerts in The Guttenberg Elegies, “is that we are as a culture, as a species, becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth…and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture…” Birkets views the changes to our world, (and our psyches), as a Faustian trade-off.

Cyber-technology promises mastery of time and space, the ability to make love to a virtual Helen or Hercules, circumnavigate the globe in a heartbeat, and access financial markets at a key stroke. The reality is that we are trapped in an “electric tribalism” where individual development is not a goal but an impediment. Instead are offered superhuman avatars, but exist as insects stuck in a web, or as Birkerts would have it, bees glued to a hive. He may have reason to fear the hive mentality and it consequences for depth of any kind. For example, the most frequent and celebrated activity on Facebook is the ritual changing of the Profile Picture. Two recent examples of this drifted through my timeline this morning.

Which 80s Superstar are you?
Which mystical creature are you?

Two “friends” linked to me by the wireless network for no apparent reason but that we share the technology, responded to these challenging questions with answers applauded by each of their networks first separately and then on a “share”, together:

Madonna (w/photo), responded one.
A Fairy (Tinkerbelle), declared another.

My “profile picture” of choice belongs to Sri Ramana Maharshi  on the cover of his collected works published in the early 60s. When I first opened the book years ago I was stunned by its simplicity the teaching. The man in a loincloth with a trimmed grey beard lean body curved slightly like a question mark broached this call and response.

Maharshi posed what philosophers today would call a foundational question: Who am I? He then instructs the student to answer: “Who is asking the question?” This may fairly characterize the sum total of the teaching.

Who is asking? He persists.

I repeat this over and over to myself, going deeper with each repetition. Eventually one understands:  Who am I? is not a question.

Who breaks the surface by asking Who.

Who delivers the intelligence that draws on personal and collective fields.

Who messages in dreams, epiphany, and the shaman’s visionary consciousness.

Who pre-exists language and can’t be deconstructed, embedded in the structure of the psyche.

Who rises from the submerged center.

Who hosts the poetic imagination, and interfaces with the informational field that holds all forms in potential?

Who in the psyche that knows the knower.

Who looks back at me through my eyes but remains unseen.

Tree_of_Life_geometry2Tree of Life geometry

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The Problems of High Culture

There are many ways to understand the term High Culture. On the most obvious level it is a privileged procession of products agreed upon by consensus, i.e. Michelangelo’s paintings on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, which he did under protest; on another level, self-selecting groups of esthetes may admire carved duck decoys or Faberge Eggs. Those whose products are deemed worthy of High Culture might often be more at home in the Cedar Bar than on Park Avenue, while the reverse may be true of those who consume those products to verify their status. Then there is the culture of improvisation that takes place in smoke filled rooms, street theater, subway mimes. For example, French composer Darius Milhaud, foremost among the Les Six, disembarked in New York and went directly to Harlem instead of Carnegie Hall, to hear authentic jazz, arguably the only high art form created on this continent. We are familiar with High Culture Enshrined, but what about the numinous moments that pass and are gone, High Culture In Time? About which Thelonious Monk said: “If you’re not there, you miss it all.”  Perhaps there is a working definition that connects them.

High Culture: that which connects us to the submerged center, conduit for poetic imagination, moves people beyond numbness, dumbness, violence and blind belief, absorbs pain that is otherwise not addressable—and suggests something permanent in the midst of impermanence.

Does such a thing exist?

And what becomes of a Rothko painting once it appears as a postage stamp?

High Culture may slumber like Schrodinger’s cat closed in a box that regarded from the superposition suggested by complementarity is both alive and dead.

As we move forward, it is important to understand the proof that haunts our dreams, the archetypes of totality, refrain of oracles and sages, often using the same words.

Empedocles: “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Timaeus of Locris (via Plato): “A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”The Timaeus

Hermes Trismegistus: “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” Book of the 24 Philosophers.

Alain of Lille: “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Nicola of Cusa: “Your eye is a circle—or better, an infinite sphere—sees—all things at once.” De Visioni Dei

Hildegard of Bingen: “In its workings the Godhead is like a wheel, a whole.”

Voltaire: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” The Philosophical Dictionary

Blaise Pascal: Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Pensees #199 in Penguin tr.)

It’s as if we all woke up from the same dream!

Or were enfolded in it.

We thirst for that long draught of what Mircea Eliade calls a thirst for the experience of being, the ontological soul-bath. If in this metaphor God/Self/Genius is understood as the center of consciousness, that circle of wholeness in the depths of our psychic field, is everywhere, then it can be accessed wherever we find ourselves. The voice from the submerged center calls to us,

“Drop your bucket anywhere and pull up sweet water. Break the surface and be healed.”

Buddhist Wheel of LifeBuddhist Wheel of Life

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Damage Report

In The Guttenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts opines that electronic media destabilizes “our entire collective subjective history;” reduces our capacity for “inwardness,” and repeats William James’ warning. The “pleasure culture” has given birth to the “hive mentality,” a form of mindless collectivity. Absent a concrete center, Birkerts sees every dissolving digital byte as a “metaphor for chaos.”  The energies of eternity flowing into time have gone underground, along with historical memory.

Until recently, the cultivation of memory has been central to education. Simonides handed down his memory system in the 5th Century BCE after the roof caved on friends at dinner while he was standing outside. The bodies couldn’t be recovered but he found a way to recall who was there by remembering where each friend was sitting. Cicero’s memory system linking things to remember with rooms in his villa was used by Renaissance luminaries like Ficino, Picus, Campenella, and Giordano Bruno. In the 16th Century Guilio Camillo built his Theater of Memory to contain the entire history of man.

One might observe without hyperbole that memory is the guardian of meaning. There is no High Culture without it. Unfortunately, memory has been a prime casualty of the pleasure culture and hive mentality. We can access endless information at a keystroke, but ignore the scaffolds for memory to support a coherent vision of events and ideas.  Abjured in the schools, memory has become a fatality of impact and speed.  We entered the 20th Century on horseback and exited with the first man on the moon. At that speed, a collision of Historical Memory with the Virtual Present is both inevitable and catastrophic.

No doubt the accident took place on a difficult merge. According to the report, Virtual Present did not give way. Historical Memory was forced to pull into oncoming traffic. Witnesses fled the scene. Most severely injured, High Culture was rushed to the ER, admitted after a long wait, and then placed in ICU.

There are no clear directives, no Proxy Power of Attorney, DNR or Organ Donor plans. The court may have to appoint a Medical Guardian. Fortunately, the vitals have stabilized and High Culture, uncovered by private insurance, was moved into a public ward. It is however resting comfortably, hooked up to IVs and monitors charting oxygen levels, heart rate and BP.

There’s been discussion of rehab, but it’s premature.

The speculation is that High Culture may continue to exist, but more as an idea within the  virtual body of ideas, rather than as a direct experience

Maya worldtreeMaya World Tree

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Summing Up: The Pharmakon

Plato talks about the pharmakon as both a remedy and a poison. It is the cure in the disease and the disease in the cure. That medicine had a double nature was well known to Galen and Asclepius as well as Paracelsus and Derrida. The pharmakon may be the Objective Psyche or the submerged center. By the same token Post Modernism, with its claim of absolute relativism married to Faustian promise of technology and instant information may be the poison in which the panacea is secreted. Caught between the dreams of virtuality and globalization, a wounded poetic imagination bombarded by packaged images for consumption, symbols replaced by brands, we must not retreat in grief and anger, or to easy answers. In her exploration of centrality, Dreams of Totality, Sherry Salman warns us that where the old symbols no longer hold and new ones have yet to emerge, we must be wary of “the pull toward passive or righteous identification with either utopian faith or dystopian demise.”  If we hold the questions in our consciousness, the submerged center, Genius, Objective Psyche will in its own time yield answers, give birth to new symbols. Beyond that, the sense of helplessness and fragmentation is inevitable.

“We know that in order for new dreams of totality to emerge,” Salman continues, “the old ones have to be broken, and that this happens at the point of weak links, where disenfranchised elements create the tension. Stay near this edge between order and disorder. Have empathy for what’s dying and being born.”

What is the future of High Culture in the world as we now know it? Where is a credible center, or conduit for poetic imagination? We may well ask again, like Parsifal, “Whom does the Grail serve?”

What lies ahead may be taking shape in us even as we question its existence.

The Genius whispers, “This way.”

— Paul Pines

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Bibliography

ACZEL, D. Amir, Entanglement, The Greatest Mystery in Physics, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001

BATESON, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Hampton Press.

BIRKERTS, Sven, The Guttenberg Elegies, The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, NEW YORK: Fawcett

Columbine, 1994

BOHM, David, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1987

DANIELSON, Dennis Richard ed., the book of the  cosmos, Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking, NEW YORK: Perseus Publishing, 2000

DERRIDA, Jacques, Disseminations, tr. Babara Johnson, Chicago, Universit of Chicago Press, 1083 EINSTEIN, Albert, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, New York, Covini-Freide, 1931

EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

EDINGER, Edward, Ego and Archetype, New York: Putnam, 1972

GELL-MAN, Murray, The Quark and the Jaguar, Adventures in the Simple and Complex, San Francisco,

W.H.Freeman, 1994

HILLMAN, James, Re-Visioning Psychology, New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1977

———————, The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 1997

HEGEL, G.W.F., Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, translated with introduction, running commentary and notes by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

HOLLIS, James, 2004, Mythologems, Incarnations of the Invisible World, Toronto, Inner City Books.

JAMES, William, The Principles of Psychology, vol 1, New York, Cosimo Classics, 2007

JUNG, C.G. The Collected Works, (Bollingen Series XX) 20 vol. Trans. R.C.F. Hull. Ed. H. Read, Princeton University Press, 1953-79

————————–, Man and his Symbols, New York Doubleday and Co;, 1964

————————-, Memories, Dreams, Reflection, Ed. Aniela Jaffe, New York, Pantheon Books, 1961

—————————,”Commentrary of ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’”, 1957. In Alchemical Studies, vol.   13, The Collected Works of C.G.Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

————————-The Red Book; Liber Novus, Edited and introduced by Sonu Shamandasani. New York,  W.W.

Norton, 2009

JUNG, C.G., and Wolfgang PAULI, Atom and Archetype: The Pauli-Jung Letters 1932-1958, Edited by C.A.

Meier, Princetone NJ; Princeton University Press, 2001

MCQUADE, Donald, et.al., The Harper American Literature, vol 2., New York: Harper Collins, 1993

NIETZSCHE Friedrich, The Portable Nietzsche, Ed. Wlter Kaufman, New York, Viking, 1972

PEAT, F. David. Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind, New York: Bantam, 1987

——————–Infinite Potential, The Life and Times of David Bohm, MASS., Addison-Wesley, 1997

RUDOLF, Anthony, 2013, London, silent conversations, Seagull Books

REGIER, Willis G., Masterpieces of American Indian Literature, New York: MJF Books, 1993

SALMAN, Sherry, Dreams of Totality, Spring Journal Books, New Orleans Louisiana, 2013

SHELDRAKE, Ruppert, The Presence of the Past: morphic resonance and the habits of nature, New York, NY:

Times Books, 1988

TALBOT, Michael, Mysticism and the New Physics, Toronto, Penguin Arkana, 1993

TODD, Peter B., The Individuation of God, Integrating Science and Religion, Ill, Chiron Publications, 2012

Von ESCHENBACK, Parzival, New York, Vintage Books, 1961

Von FRANZ, Marie-Louise, Alchemical Active Imagination, Shambhala, Boston, 1997

WHITMONT, C. Edward, The Alchemy of Healing, Psyche and Soma, CA, North Atlantic Books, 1993

YATES, Frances, The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966

 

 

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published ten books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding Light, Taxidancing, Last Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness and New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros. The last collection recently won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. His eleventh collection, Fishing On The Pole Star, will soon be out from Dos Madres. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.

 

Aug 072014
 

leslie-ullman_09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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—Leslie Ullman

 

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

 

Jul 152014
 

BeatrieBeatrice, Gustave Doré

Wayne HankeyWayne Hankey

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I declare that to recommend Goodness and Innocence hath been my sincere Endeavour in this History. The honest Purpose you [his Patron] have been pleased to think I have attained: and to say the Truth, it is likeliest to be attained in Books of this Kind; for an Example is a Kind of Picture, in which Virtue becomes as it were an Object of Sight, and strikes us with an Idea of that Loveliness, which Plato asserts there is in her naked Charms.” —“Dedication,” The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

Of Sophia “There is indeed in perfect Beauty a Power which none almost can withstand.” —Tom Jones

“Sophia expecting to find no one in the Room, came hastily in, and went directly to a Glass which almost fronted her, without once looking towards the upper End of the Room, where the Statue of Jones now stood motionless.—In this Glass it was, after contemplating her own lovely Face, that she first discovered the said Statue; when instantly turning about, she perceived the Reality of the Vision”  —Tom Jones

Jones replied “’Don’t believe me upon my Word; I have a better Security, a Pledge for my Constancy, which it is impossible to see and to doubt.’ ‘What is that?’ said Sophia, a little surprised. ‘I will show you, my charming Angel,’ cried Jones, seizing her Hand, and carrying her to the Glass. ‘There, behold it there, in that lovely Figure, in that Face, that Shape, those Eyes, that Mind which shines through those Eyes: Can the Man who shall be in Possession of these be inconstant? Impossible! My Sophia….You could not doubt it, if you could see yourself with any Eyes but your own.” —Tom Jones

“We have found beauty shining most clearly through the clearest of our senses; for sight is the sharpest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it, for wisdom would arouse terrible love, if such a clear image of it were granted as would come through sight, [1] and the  same is true of the other lovely realities; but beauty alone has this privilege, and therefore it is most clearly seen and most lovely.” —Phaedrus

 §

Having chosen to stomp with me through history in seven league boots, you will expect neither minute accuracy nor subtlety. The aim of my outrageous generalizations is to present some features of conversion as represented over about twenty-five hundred years in the pagan and Christian west in a way which may prove illumining because not expected. Rather than looking at conversion as primarily a religious phenomenon, though not leaving this out, I shall mainly present it as psychic, ontological, and secular.[2] Moreover, although these three aspects can be seen together at almost every point, in order to bring out differences, I shall stress the psychological through Plato’s dialogues, the ontological through Neoplatonic–Peripatetic systems, and the secular through 18th and early 19th century novels of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Jane Austen. The elements touched on from Plato and his Late Ancient and Medieval successors will largely be determined by what is modified or suppressed by our cast of English novelists.

Our conclusion with Tom Jones would justify beginning with the Odyssey and its hero’s conversion as return home drawn by the faithful Penelope; Fielding, the Etonian, the most learned mythologically and philosophically of our novelists, looks back to that paradigm.[3] I begin rather with a foundational and secular representation, that of the Cave and the Line in Plato’s Republic. There the gods and religious practice are not mentioned, either as the goal or means of the conversion. They stand in the background, because Parmenides’ The Way of Truth belongs to that. They are certainly found as end and means in the ἀναγωγή described by Diotima in the Symposium and in the Gnothi seauton of the Alcibiades to which the Cave conversion is assimilated in the Platonic tradition. The divine and religious practice will belong to the Platonic ἀναγωγή, not only for the Middle and Neoplatonists, but also when the Abrahamic monotheisms and Platonism merge so as to determine a fundamental of the Western religious and philosophical traditions. There, most notoriously in Augustine’s account of the Trinity and in its Latin successors, even the Divine Being will convert upon Itself.[4]

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From the Cave to the Divine Mirror: Conversion in the Republic, the Symposium, and the Alcibiades[5]

By way of the analogy of the Cave, the movement, of the prisoners bent down by their chains, up the Line from ignorance, non-being, and darkness to knowledge, being, light and their source, the Good, is “to turn around” (στρέφειν). A journey upwards, a conversion (ἀναγωγή or περιαγωγή) is required. This demands someone with the art of leading around (τέχνη…τῆς περιαγωγῆς), who can convert (μεταστραφήσεται). Ultimately this requires that someone who has seen the light return to the dark to help the prisoners break their chains, turn around, move upwards and out.[6] The resulting soteriology is most influentially and completely worked out philosophically by Iamblichus and Proclus. Religions, pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim have this idea and these images at their centre and a converting saviour or saviours (Protagoras, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed).

cavevia globalnet.co.uk

Plato's Cave.Plato’s Cave

Convergence of the Abrahamic religions and Platonism in respect to this Platonic conversion was assisted by ἐπίστρεψον in the repeated refrain “Turn us again, O Lord; show us the light of thy countenance (πρόσωπόν) and we shall be saved” of Psalm 79 in the Septuagint, translated in the Vulgate and English by convert,[7] and by the use of the same language in both works in Lamentations 5.[8] Equally, the representation of that from which we are saved encourages assimilation. We are bent down (κατεκάμφθην),[9] incurvatus in Latin, which describes for Augustine the state of the idolater divinizing material objects,[10] and, when the Prayer of Manasse added “by many chains of iron”, it is not surprising to find that quoted by Aquinas.[11] Anselm may be linking the Psalm with Boethius who certainly knew Plato’s text when he describes the fallen children of Adam as “bent over double so that they can only see down.”[12] Bonaventure is looking back to Anselm when he describes fallen blind humanity as “incurvatus in tenebris.”[13]

The Consolation of Philosophy might be called a secularized Christianity insofar as that religion is assimilated to the common Platonism of Late Antiquity and never shows itself directly. The itinerarium of the imprisoned and condemned Boethius begins with his eyes cast down to the earth “in terram defixo,” so that saving Philosophia must sit or bend down to come to him.[14] Its centre, in every sense, is the famous prayer, “O Qui Perpetua,” sung by Philosophia on the authority of Plato’s Timaeus, and summarizing its doctrine, so as to effect the conversion of human ratio beyond itself up the Line to intellectus.[15] Beatrice, “cerchiato de le fronde di Minerva” in the Commedia, effects the same for Dante.[16] Tom Jones is converted to and by Sophia, but she is best translated as “prudence”. Its conclusion in Boethius and Dante is the Plotinian simplification of vision so that reason is drawn toward the divine intuition. Central to its means is a knowledge of the nature of Fortuna, unceasing change, which is mostly gained by humans from the experience of practical life. In common with the Platonic tradition, e.g. Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus, Boethius teaches that Fate or Fortune operates under, and is an instrument of, Providence which characteristically brings good out of evil.[17] The use of Fortune by Providence, and the Providential drawing of good out of evil, are essential to Tom Jones and the other secular accounts of conversion.

interviewInterview between Tom Jones and Sophia Western

Plato and Aristotle turn the Delphic Gnothi seauton into a means of conversion by a reversal of Socratic philosophical religion where it agrees with the poets as the inspired revealers of Hellenic religion. For Socrates, only God is wise and the Delphic Gnothi seauton is directed against hubristic human pretence to know. In contrast, for Plato and Aristotle, it is a command to know what we are through knowing the divine, so (to quote Aristotle who will be taken up by Plotinus in this and much else) “being human we are not to think like mortals” but rather strive to participate the divine life.

The main dialogue employed for teaching the discipline of self-knowledge was the Alcibiades Major of Plato. In it Socrates, as the faithful lover, is represented in conversation with Athens’ most fatally beautiful kouros. Read early by those being educated in the Neoplatonic schools, the Oracle’s admonition is interpreted so as to require knowledge of self through the higher namely: the soul, the true lover and guide, and, ultimately, God. Mirroring is essential to understanding both what is (as theophany) and our knowing. Once again there is an important convergence. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the itinerarium love travels from lower to higher kinds of knowing until it reaches the mutual divine human intuition Boethius sought, compares our present knowledge to obscure vision through a mirror.[18] Plotinus uses mirroring repeatedly and variously, so, for example, the presence of soul to bodies is spoken of “as giving images of itself, like a face seen in many mirrors.”[19] We may say that Dante meets Beatrice in and as mirror.[20] It is especially important for the representation of Sophia and Allworthy in Tom Jones, that mirroring enables transcendence and immanence simultaneously. With such a convergence of Plotinus and Paul, it is not surprising that the mirror is important to Augustine, most notably in the De Trinitate which depends on moves back and forth between the Divine Trinity and its images in the human and other creatures.[21] The Itinerarium mentis in Deum of Augustine’s disciple Bonaventure represents everything through an infinitely complex system of mirrors, and conversion up the Line is from one kind of mirroring to a higher.[22]

danteDante and Beatrice, Henry Holiday, 1884 via Wikipedia

The ultimate goals of conversion are both given in the analogy of the Line and they correspond to the two ideas of God which will develop in the Western tradition: God as the identity of thought and being, at the top of the Line, and, above it, God as the source of thought and being but beyond both. The Good transcends the Line and its vertical division between the kinds of apprehension and their objects.[23] The first will be definitively deified in Aristotle’s highest substance, the self-thinking thought. It merges with the divinity of the Abrahamic religions when the Septuagint translated the “I am that I am” in terms of einai, which, as idipsum esse, is the most proper name of God for Aquinas and Augustine. [24] The Good ἐπέκεινα (Beyond), when merged with the One Non-Being of the Parmenides dialogue, will point to Plotinus’ Father God beyond nous and, when Proclus’ Commentary on the Parmenides is added into the tradition, will point us to the ultimate of the Mystical Theology of the Areopagite, so profoundly and widely influential. Of course the goal of conversion is not mere theory in the limited sense of that, but is given in yet another dialogue, the Theaetetus “to become like God as much as possible.” (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν)[25] For Jews and Christians this is put in terms of Genesis. The goal is to move from “image” to “likeness”.[26]

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, those converted to the contemplative life, and what is beyond it, sought union with the First, or at least ecstasy by moving with the divine activities around it. In the novels of classical modern Protestantism we are treating, marriage with the First and divinely inspired enthusiasm are replaced by the union of man and wife. The monkish contemplative embodied in Fielding’s “Man of the Hill” is made ridiculous and heartless: he is inhospitable even to the man who saves his life and ignores the attempted murder of a woman who is saved by Tom.[27]

One more depiction of the goal of conversion and the way to it is required before we have the barest sketch of the elements relative to which the modern secular account is intelligible. That is the way of the love of Beauty described in the Symposium by Diotima. She sets out an anagogy to conformity with God by love’s step by step movement from physical particulars to the more universal and intelligible.[28] It is important for our destination in this paper that she begins with individual beautiful forms and, for our purposes, it makes no difference if, like Augustine, following Plotinus in the ascents of Confessions 7,9, and 10,[29] the movement is more from, than, as with Dionysius, following Iamblichus, through, the sensible images.[30] Diotima, like Richardson, Fielding, and Austen would have us “consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form.” From love of the virtuous soul, the ascent will be “to see the beauty of institutions and laws.” From institutions the lover of beauty will turn upward to the sciences, until philosophy brings him to the loveliness of one science.[31] She goes on: “He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love [τὰ ἐρωτικὰ], and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty… absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.”[32] Knowing this beauty by a power of sight raised to it, the lover will be able to bring forth true virtue and “to become the friend of God and be immortal, if humans may.”[33] Thus, the love of beauty also converts us to and makes us like God. It is of the greatest importance for both philosophy and religion that, according to Diotima, ascent to the highest beauty and good is by love, a divinity.[34]

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Ontological Conversion

There is an alternative Platonic – Peripatetic tradition to the one I have exhibited in terms of the Gnothi seauton which also treats conversion as reflexivity. That tradition depends on the soul having access to its own essence in self-reflexivity and to the noetic by way of mental interiority. In the sillage of Plotinus, among Christians Augustine is its great propagator and conversion is the move inward and upward: “from exterior things to interior ones, from lower to higher.” The alternative tradition comes from the Neoplatonic understanding of thinking and being as the return of the One upon itself. Combining elements from Plato and Aristotle, it is especially worked out by Proclus, and by Christians under his influence, directly (like Dionysius) or indirectly (like Eriugena). It becomes central among Latin Christians after they have assimilated Arabic learning. The so-called Liber de causis, elements of the Corpus Areopagiticum, and, ultimately, works of Proclus, propagate this in the Latin world where it mixed well with what it received from Aristotle to produce the philosophical underpinnings of the Christian systems of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Eckhart and Cusa, to mention a few prominent adherents.

PlotinusPlotinus

For Proclus, all reality beneath the One – Good itself is structured by the mone [remaining], proodos [going out], epistrophe [return]. All is in the First, proceeds from it and returns, is converted, back towards its source when it achieves its proper good. Typically, Christians, like Aquinas under the influence of both Augustine’s trinitarian theology and Proclus, will import this conversion into the First itself and then structure their entire theological cosmic systems by it. I shall say something briefly about this kind of ontological conversion in Eriugena and Aquinas and conclude with enough about Dante’s Divine Comedy to provide the transition to, and contrast with, Richardson’s Pamela and Fielding’s Sophia.

After Origen, and with his De Principiis in the background, Eriugena is the greatest systematic theologian of the first Christian millennium. As Jean Trouillard put it, he “reinvented the greater part of the theses of Neoplatonism” having discovered them in the works of Patristic theologians.[35] Eriugena gave his system a Greek title, PERI PHYSEŌN, Concerning Nature (Expos. II 168a); it is a physiologia, a science of nature (Peri. IV 441c). Nature includes “what is and what is not” (Peri. I 441a) and the divine superessential nothingness, beyond all things which are and which are not, is its principle.

The division of nature gives its systematic structure. Nature is completely divided logically, and returns to itself according to the same logic: “first, into that which creates and is not created, second into that which is created and creates, third into that which is created and does not create, fourth, that which neither creates nor is created” (Peri. I 441d). These divisions produce four subjects: 1) God as creator, 2) the primary causes, 3) what is subject to generation in place and time, i.e. the labours of the Hexamaeron, including the human—the work of the sixth day—and its Fall. It, as the terminus of the procession, becomes the point of departure for the return into 4) God as end, the final object of investigation. This MONĒ, PROODOS, EPISTROPHĒ form he discerned in Dionysius.

Eriugena came to understand human nature in such a way, that it became “that in which all things are created (condita est)” (cf. Peri. IV 807a).[36] The human is the workshop of creation (Peri. II 531ab, III 733b, V 893bc); it is the medium in which God creates himself and the universe of beings out of his own nothingness precisely because, uniquely among beings, the human possesses all the forms of knowing and ignorance, including sensation. Because everything is through human perception, there are no absolute objects. As in earlier Platonic systems, the forms have become not only thoughts, but forms of apprehension in various kinds of subject; as Plotinus puts it, “all things come from contemplations and are contemplations” (Enneads III 8 [30] 7, 1-2). In Eriugena, there are, as Stephen Gersh puts it, “thinkers who turn out to be objects of thought…[and] objects of thought which turn out to be thinkers”.[37] Periphyseon is an interplay of diverse subjectivities looking at the universe from different, even opposed, points of view. Because God does not know what he is apart from human reason and sense, these perspectives are theophanies even for God in the human; divine manifestations of which God and the human are co-creators. Reality is mirroring.

A recent article by Paul Rorem indicates the elements which come together to constitute the cosmic conversion at the heart of the theology of the Greek Fathers, primary in Augustine’s Confessions, and communicated by Dionysius and Eriugena to the Victorines and Bonaventure (to give the most limited list). He writes of “Dionysian Uplifting (Anagogy) in Bonaventure’s Reductio”.[38] In Eriugena: “the Dionysian ‘anagogy and epistrophe (return) to God’ became AD DEUM REDUCTIO ET CONVERSIO.” By way of Eriugena “A whole Victorine tradition stems from this Dionysian theme … Hugh appropriates the translation of ανάγω as reducere: ‘Et hoc ideo fecit ut NOS REDUCTERET PER SENSIBILIA AD INTELLECTUALIA hoc est per visibilia ad invisibilia.’ As in Dionysius and Eriugena, the Hugonian ‘uplifting’ is specifically through or by means of the perceptible, an appreciation for the concrete means of ‘reduction’, or uplifting, that is continued in Bonaventure.“[39] We get a sense of what this conversion is in a passage from Bonaventure on the Hexaemeron: “Such is the uplifting metaphysical centre, and this is the sum total of our metaphysics: concerned with emanation, exemplarity, and consummation, that is, to be illuminated through spiritual rays and uplifted to the highest.”[40]

Aquinas ReadingAquinas Reading; Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (circa 1400) via Wikipedia

By his own account Aquinas’ Summa theologiae gives the subject its proper order, beginning in and determined by its treatment of God in Himself. The logic of the Deus in se is manifested first in the Quinque Viae to the Existence of God and its basic structure does not vary until its completion in the Sending of the Divine Persons.[41] This logic continues into the questions on creation, and thus into the Summa as a whole. There are two gatherings, breaks and transitions within the de deo, but there is a strong impulse throughout, and the structure, when reduced to its elements, is stunningly simple.

The circular motions returning upon themselves are of diverse kinds, but by far the most important are those which Aquinas deduces from the Proclean logic of simple substance.[42]  From the Liber de causis and Dionysius, he knows that simple substance has perfect self-return, a shape he has manifested, following Dionysius, in his initial questions on the divine names, beginning at Simplicity and circling around to Unity. In consequence, ipsum esse subsistens is, by the absolute necessity of its nature, knowing and willing.[43] These two operations, processions or emanations—the terms are used more or less interchangeably by Aquinas for whom emanation was a Scriptural term (Liber Sapientiae, 7.25 [44])—are internal to the divine essence. By employing the Neoplatonic notion of motionless motion, Aquinas is able to attribute the characteristics of Plotinian NOUS to Aristotle’s (and his own) God as self-thinking thought predicating life of it.[45]

Although, motionless motion is a metaphor for Aquinas, nonetheless, the divine self-diremption must be real. Thus we get “Et licet motus non sit in divinis, est tamen ibi accipere.” [ST 1.42.1 ad 3]. Accipere and its correlative dare are essential to the logic of infinite esse, as the form under which it is, or contains, the relation of opposites. Such a relation is real, the differentiation of the essence in the opposition of action and reception is not merely “rational”, that is, a creation of perspective. Thus, within the divine simplicity, the two relations of this kind must of necessity form subsistences, or hypostases, to use another word which is both Scriptural and Neoplatonic, or persons.[46] The circumincession, or περιχώρησις of the subsistences in the Divine essence is the fundamental conversion determining all the others. It makes understandable the emanation of finite beings, creation.

Creation, in a series of contrasts with the Divine in itself, is represented as the result of a productive operation, that of power. Unlike knowing and willing, perfect activities really given and received within the essence to become the Trinitarian Persons, power works outside the essence, as a procession or emanation of the Trinitarian subsistences in their essential unity. Unlike the internal operations, power is neither according to nature nor necessity. It constitutes a relation with the opposition of giving and receiving, but, in contrast to the Trinity, the terms are unequal. Thus, the relation is not mutually of the relative terms but in the recipient. So we move from the divine and creation under God’s Providence and Governance in the First Part, to the complete exitus in the Second Part produced by the human empowered as the image of God to create his own world in the pursuit of happiness. The conversio, which is the divine trinitarian life, is realized in the cosmos fallen in the human exitus, by a Chalcedonian interpretation of the hypostatic union in line with the humanism of the 12th century Renaissance. The Third Part is de Christo, qui secundum quod homo, via est nobis tendendi in Deum. In Him is the conversio to the Principle.

danteDante and Beatrice, John William Waterhouse (between 1914 and 1917)

Aquinas’ system gathers in itself all we have treated so far. Dante’s Commedia, which, like the Summa theologiae, is nothing but a complete cosmic conversion and, thus, and only thus, as with Augustine, a personal one, contains even more.

Like the author of Tom Jones, Dante is conscious of being a literary creator. In the dolce stil nuovo he created a Poetic-comic-epic[47] in which, as with Fielding and Cervantes, he gave us the “History of the World in general”. Beatrice tells her prisoner, he was so far gone she had to send him all the way to Hell to convert him. She accuses:

He set his steps upon an untrue way, pursuing those false images of good that bring no promise to fulfillment… ‘He sank so low that every instrument for his salvation now fell short except to make him see souls in perdition.’ And so I visited the threshold of the dead and, weeping, offered up my prayers to the one who has conducted him this far.[48]

Dì, dì se questo è vero: a tanta accusa/tua confession conviene esser congiunta”. (“Speak, Say whether this is true: to so grave an accusation your confession must be joined”.)[49]

Beatrice, thus, in the Adamic Paradise at the top of the Purgatorio’s mountain of repentance before Dante plunges into its two rivers, one of which derives from the Republic’s Myth of Er by way of Virgil’s Aeneid.[50]

She brings to mind the judgement there and the demands of Philosophia to the prisoner she heals and guides in the Consolation. Beatrice’s demand anticipates Sophia with the penitent Tom and the exigent lady confessors of Jane Austen.[51] Nonetheless, Beatrice and they convert very differently.

JonesTom Jones & Sophia Western, from the movie

It is not so much that their means are very different, and their understanding of the fundamentals of the act of repentance are much the same, but the end is altogether other. Beatrice comes to Dante as the one who particularly moves him by her innocence and beauty of body and soul, but, nonetheless, as also as only one agent in a long chain of mediators including Christ, the Mother of God, and saints above her in the hierarchy. Crucially, as she is moved from above, so also she leads Dante beyond herself. After his repentance is complete, with him already mitred and crowned at the end of his tutelage by Virgil, [52] she will return to her proper place in the Paradiso and he will rise with her. He will not possess her nor she him. Dorothy Sayers writes:

She was thus in fact the vehicle of the Glory—the vessel in which the divine experience was carried—she is, in the allegory, from time to time likened to, or equated with, those other “God-bearers”: the Church, and Divine Grace in the Church; the Blessed Virgin; even Christ Himself. She is the image by which Dante perceives all these, and her function in the poem is to bring him to that state in which he is able to perceive them directly; at the end of the Paradiso the image of Beatrice is—not replaced by, but—taken up into the images, successively, of the Church Triumphant, of Mary, the historic and universal God-bearer, and of God, in whom Image and Reality are one and the same.[53]

DoreDante & Beatrice, Gustave Doré

Put differently, coming to her, even to reconciliation with her and with God by her help, is not the end of the journey. There is another whole Cantina, the Paradiso, of contemplation, precisely that which Protestant England rejected when Henry VIIIth dissolved the monasteries, expelled or executed the monks and nuns, refunded the aristocracy, and helped the expansion of the bourgeoisie. Except for some Gothick moments, largely architectural, our secular novelists follow him without regret.

Heaven for them is the future state of reward, whose promise together with the threat of Hell, are used as the ultimate incentives to morality: personal, social, and political order. Heaven’s joys serve the absolutizing of morality, a stance which Nietzsche so convincingly exposed as atheism that their successors recognised themselves in his descriptions and gave up Christian religion and morality both. Heaven is distant and without content; its God hidden. We never enter a substantial spiritual realm or reach out to it. Features of their own society left over from the revolutions in Church and state are forgotten. Not even Jane Austen, buried in Winchester Cathedral, sends us a rumour of scores of Men and Boys choirs in Cathedral, Royal and Collegiate chapels continuing medieval offices. Despite their frightening descriptions of the miseries of most of them, the ultimate present felicity is marriage. Incredible!

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Conversion in Protestant Secular Romance: Beatrice converts to Protestantism and Marries Dante: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

Tom Jones’ Sophia (1749), the beauty of eternal Wisdom heavenly and incarnate, comes after Richardson’s Pamela (November 1740) and before Austen’s Fanny Price of Mansfield Park (1814). Both of the latter reiterate the kenotic Christ[54] as well as the irresistibly attractive loveliness of Person or Virtue which all share. As such they are the ends of conversion and the means of that, or of damnation. Here, and in the romances of 18th and early 19th century England I shall treat, the ultimate felicity consists in marriage to these descendants, in lineages conscious or unconscious, of Dante’s Beatrice and Plato’s form of Beauty. Flesh and blood marriage to what is heavenly either as the blessed, inspiring, but never possessed, intercessor or as transcendent deity is their “secularization”, as I use this term in this paper, but it means more than this. As we move from Richardson to Fielding and, at the extreme, to Austen, the forms of religion: prayers, sermons, liturgies, theological debates, either disappear or become more and more external to the conversion, or at least to its representation. The operation of Providence is by way of social and psychological forces and religion is hidden, being manifest in these but not alongside them.

Pamela is a fifteen year old universally loved, and irresistibly beautiful, servant in a wealthy and extensive aristocratic household. On the death of her mistress, who added education to her personal beauty, Pamela became the object of first the lust and, then, converted by her, the love of the son and heir. He confesses repeatedly after the conversion that he made what we, and Richardson, understand as the Platonic move from, and by way of, the love of “the Charms of her Person” to “the Graces of her Mind”. After attempting to make her his mistress, and outraged by the impudence of resistance from a minor servant, abducting and imprisoning her, and coming more than once to the physical edge of rape, when he meets with unbreakable, absolutely consistent, and endlessly ingenious resistance, Squire B. transgresses the social boundaries, subdues his pride, and marries her.

PamelaA plate from the 1742 deluxe edition of Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded showing Mr. B intercepting Pamela’s first letter home to her mother. Original engraving by Hubert Gravelot. via Wikipedia

Presented as a series of letters, mostly from Pamela to her aged, poor and pious parents from their equally pious daughter, determined to preserve what she calls her “honesty”, the novel is full both of the naive and importunate prayers of one dependent on God’s grace in the terrible exigencies of preserving her virtue against cozening, kidnapping, deceit, and violence, and of the constant self-humiliation and self-blame of the believer. By a deception which belongs to the ceaselessly repeated Augustinian biographical pattern of good brought out of evil, determinative in Pamela, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Amelia, and all the novels of Jane Austen manifesting the government of Providence, Squire B. reads the letters. They enflame his determination to possess their author, not just because her resistance increases her desirability, but also, because, among other reasons, he sees that Pamela’s dutiful prayers for him as her master continue during much of his abuse of her. That a fundamental good will and a love even for him her enemy, and, indeed, her wishing him the ultimate good rules her, is what in the final analysis converts Squire B. The terrible moment for her—terrible because she recognises that she is falling in love with him despite his dreadful abuse and that he might use this to seduce her—and simultaneously the converting moment for him is when she realises that she could not bear to be his accuser on Judgment Day.[55] Her love overcomes his evil.

An important character is an unbeneficed young cleric, Williams, entirely dependent on Squire B., who nonetheless courageously attempts to rescue her—though he is more than balanced by established clergy who oppose any resistance to “the powers that be”. Religion is so much present in its own dress, so to speak, that we even go through the moments of the marriage liturgy of our heroine. The novel was recommended and cited from the pulpits of England. As just suggested by my report of Pamela’s Christlike love of her enemy through which the servant converts the master, the turnings where Pamela acts as alter Christus are crucial. I must say a word about those which occur at the crux of Squire B’s conversion.[56]

In the final and most serious attempted rape Pamela is held down in cruciform shape on her bed by her master on one side and her jailor on the other. Imprisoned at his remote country estate, she is utterly in the power of “Lucifer in the Shape of my Master”.[57] “Wicked Man! said I; wicked, abominable Woman!”[58] In the hands of the wicked, as Jesus is described in the gospel Passion narrative,[59] Pamela cries out to God for death or deliverance. “With Struggling, Fright, Terror” she faints into a fit so deathlike that Squire B. mistakes it for the reality. She is resurrected by his ministrations. His pity aroused, he asks for her forgiveness. Her giving this is his turning. Pamela’s relief brings her to bless God in the words of St Paul, “who, by disabling me in my Faculties, enabled me to preserve my Innocence; and when all my Strength would have signified nothing, magnified himself in my Weakness!”[60]Out of the episode Squire B. is brought to confess: “I could curse my Weakness and my Folly, which makes me that I love you beyond all your Sex, and cannot live without you. But if I am Master of myself, and my own Resolution, I will not attempt to force you to anything again.” Nor does he. Pamela’s advice sought by him as to how he might keep his resolution consists in his sending her back to her parents because she had come to “love Poverty.”[61]

Pamela“Pamela swooning after having discovered Mr B in the closet. He (frighted) endeavouring to recover her. Mrs Jervis wringing her hands, and screaming.” From a series of twelve illustrations to Pamela, by Samuel Richardson (1745, 2nd edition). via http://teainateacup.wordpress.com

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Tom Jones’ Platonic Sophia: the Learned Henry Fielding supplies the Romantic Philosophy

There is no love of Poverty in Fielding’s Tom Jones, his sense of the ridiculous is too acute to endure the piety of Pamela for hundreds of pages, and his determination to be true to nature prevents snow white characters. Indeed, Fielding is explicit that theologically, morally, dramatically, and essential to his new genre, the heroic figures in Tom Jones  must have flaws, their characters must be mixed.[62] Nonetheless, the most learned of our romancers, Fielding, depicts his paradigmatic heroine though the notion of the naked vision of a Platonic form. We are told that one might almost say “Her Body thought”; “Her Mind was every way equal to her Person; nay the latter borrowed some Charms from the former”.[63] Indeed, her virtue of mind so shines through her beauty that Tom, her true lover, is converted, not from lust for her, but to complete fidelity; his lust is for others.[64] His rival Blifil moves in the opposite way. As his aversion to Sophia increased, so did his lust. Aversion “served rather to heighten the Pleasure he proposed in rifling her Charms, as it added Triumph to Lust.”[65] Thus, Sophia too is subjected to schemes for rape made by the aristocrat cousin, Lady Bellaston, to whom she has fled for refuge, and by her father, proposing that his chosen mate for her, Blifil, use force.

On the road, Sophia is so “distracted between Hope and Fear, her Duty and Love to her Father, her Hatred to Blifil, her Compassion and … her Love for Jones…that her Mind was in that confused State which may be truly said to make us ignorant of what we do, or whither we go, or rather indeed indifferent as to the Consequence of either.”[66] In London, at the mansion of Bellaston, who is maintaining Tom as her amour, carefully keeping the true lovers apart, Sophia encounters Tom by accident. She first views herself and him through a mirror. In their conversation Sophia asks: “Can every Thing noble and every Thing base, be lodged together in the same Bosom?”[67] Nonetheless, when Tom formally proposes Marriage, she accepts. Almost immediately after, they are discovered by Lady Bellaston and an intercourse between Tom, Bellaston, and herself ensues during which all three conceal truths known or suspected by the others. Sophia self-consciously enters the mirror world of appearances and reluctantly teaches herself the “Practice of Deceit”.[68] So totally is Wisdom made earthly. The union of the heavenly pattern with the flawed earthly is the heart of the understanding of which Fielding aims to persuade us. Writing of “Platonic Affection which is absolutely detached from the flesh”, he reports: “I cannot pretend to say, I have ever seen an instance of it.”[69]

Fielding’s relation to Richardson’s Pamela is ambiguous. Praise from the pulpit was matched by criticisms so serious that Richardson revised the text several times. Some were distressed by its sexual explicitness and thought it encouraged licence, some correctly saw its depiction of the violent misuse of power by an aristocrat, the compliance of the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, and his marriage to a house maid to be destructive of respect for the social order. Fielding instead savagely and profitably sent up its moralistic pedantry in An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (April 1741), a parody or “burlesque”, which appeared less than six months after it. In The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams which came out less than a year later (February 1742), he adopts a more positive form, the comic prose epic. This he regards as his proper genre, “I am, in reality, the Founder of a new Province of Writing”,[70] “Prosai-comi-epic”[71]. Despite the contrast with Dante’s Poetic-comic-epic, Fielding and our other authors are probably too Enlightened to have known much of Dante. William Blake, a contemporary of Jane Austen was reviving Dante but he too was then unknown. In any case Fielding sets out to perfect his new province in Tom Jones. Certainly elements of the burlesque remain, but Fielding distinguishes the comic and satirical from it. Joseph Andrews both borrows much from and satirizes Pamela.

Joseph andrewsJoseph Andrews and Lady Booby, from the movie

Fielding explicitly places Joseph Andrews against Pamela as the demonstration that a male can also be virtuous. Indeed, although “Andrews” is borrowed from Richardson’s novel, “Joseph”, the Biblical figure, who, at great cost and greater risk, preserved his chastity against Potiphar’s wife, is borrowed from Genesis and from a sermon of the great Latitudinarian divine Isaac Barrow.[72] At Cambridge, Regius Professor of Greek, then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, then Master of Trinity, this Platonist we may call Fielding’s theologian. Abraham, as the counterpoint of Joseph’s “virtue and integrity”, from the same sermon by Barrow, has the charity and beneficence of Parson Abraham Adams of his earlier and shorter “Prosai-comi-epic”. This characterizes Tom Jones, whose universally beneficent good nature makes him repeatedly and habitually charitable according to Squire Allworthy’s definition: “giving what even our own Necessities cannot well spare”.[73]Unfortunately in Tom it goes with “a blameworthy Want of Caution, and Diffidence to the Veracity of others, in which he was highly worthy of Censure.”[74] His extraordinary natural beauty, like his too trusting nature, match the same qualities in Sophia. Tom is described as an “Angel”,[75] as “Adonis”, and even as uniting that delicate beauty with Heraclean masculinity.[76] Given his lack of chastity, this is as much a destructive snare for him as an attraction for others.

It is his active, spontaneous and habitual charity which brings him the friends who save him from the hanging for which it had been the “universal Opinion of all Mr. Allworthy’s Family” he was born.[77] We may say, then, that the problematic of the plot of Fielding’s later prose epic comedy is set already in the first: the conversion of Tom to the chastity of Joseph[78] through the joint influence of the paradigmatic Sophia and Allworthy. Both of them are as great Patterns of Wisdom as of Goodness.[79] Allworthy also is heavenly: “Heaven only can know him, can know that Benevolence which it copied from itself, and sent upon Earth as its own Pattern.”[80] But though, like Sophia, he is irresistible,[81] Allworthy is also fallible and is frequently deceived,[82] and when Tom’s reconciling full confession is made to him, it is in response to his own admission of, and repentance for, his blameworthy faults.[83]

Be that as it may, the earlier of Fielding’s two comic epics of the road, depicts the resistance of Joseph Andrews, the brother of Pamela, to the sexual depredations of Squire Booby’s aunt, Potiphar’s wife updated. Nonetheless, the telos of Joseph Andrews is the reward of its heroes’ virtue by marriage to the beautiful, caste, and innocent Fanny to whom he has been faithful, and Lady Booby is sentenced to infinite boredom and degradation in the debauched high life of London, Fielding’s Hell. From both his satire of Pamela, and his mocking exploitative mirroring, Fielding took over positively, or by critical opposition, still more elements into Tom Jones: an uncompromising exposure of hypocrisy, especially sexual, the preservation of social rank and a strictness about the rights and limits of paternal authority,[84] elements of the converting heroine, marriage as telos and felicity, the Parson Abraham Adams, and the imitation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose Sancho Panza, under the form of Partidge, and very much else, appear in Fielding’s masterpiece.

In the sillage of what he called Cervantes’ “History of the World in general”[85] Fielding tells us that The History of Tom Jones is a “great creation of our own” in form and content.[86] The critic is warned “not too hastily to condemn any of the Incidents in this our History, as impertinent and foreign to our main Design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what Manner such Incident may conduce to that Design.” Martin Battestin rightly adduces Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) with its comparison between a poem and the universe taken from Plotinus.[87] Fielding goes on from this to justify his characterization according to types and, later, will designate Experience of all social classes, along with Genius, Humanity, and Learning as necessary to his comic prose epics because they need knowledge of “the Manners of Mankind.”[88] The plenitude of Fielding’s Great Chain of Being is more than social. It reaches around the globe and up and down the hierarchy from the divine to “Insects and Vegetables”.[89] Sophia is Tom’s “goddess”[90], with a “heavenly Temper…[and] divine Goodness”,[91] he ascribes to her “all that we believe of Heaven”.[92] In the final chapter of the work, she is described as sitting among the other brides “Like a Queen receiving homage, or rather like a superior Being receiving Adoration from all around her”, and she helps conclude the work by a rain of graces procured by her “Mediation” or “Instance”.[93]

SophiaSophia Western (Susannah York), from the movie

However, lest we mistake her either for Dante’s Beatrice or Richardson’s Pamela, at the point when, owing to her “very deep sense of Religion”, she contemplates, with “an agreeable Tickling”, the thought of making herself “a Martyr to filial Love and Duty” by marrying the hated Blifil, Fielding remains faithful to his principles. He will stray neither from his Latitudinarian theology to a predestination of pure characters, nor from the plenitude of his comic epic with all sorts and conditions and their flaws as well as its own.[94] As to the former:

Sophia was charmed with the Contemplation of so heroic an Action, and began to compliment herself with much premature Flattery, when Cupid …like Punchinello in a Puppet-shew, kicked all out before him. In Truth (for we scorn to deceive our Reader, or to vindicate the Character of our Heroine, by ascribing her Actions to supernatural Impulse), the Thoughts of her beloved Jones and some Hopes… in which he was very particularly concerned, immediately destroyed all which filial Love, Piety and Pride, had, with their joint Endeavours, been labouring to bring about.[95]

Sophia Western2 wikipedia“Adorned with all the charms in which Nature can array her, bedecked with beauty, youth, sprightliness, innocence, modesty and tenderness, breathing sweetness from her rosy lips and darting brightness from her sparkling eyes, the lovely Sophia comes!”

Time does not permit us to follow the whole process of Tom’s conversion.  The comic journey begins when Sophia’s love and hopes, her hatred of Blifil, and the terrifying prospect of being forcibly married to someone whose passions for her are a mixture of greed, hatred, and lust induces her to flee her father and seek refuge with Lady Bellaston in London. Along the way, on discovering the path Tom was taking, she sets out to pursue him.[96] Tom, in disgrace with Allworthy and in flight from Sophia’s father, finds, in the discovery of her pocket book she lost on her journey, the excuse he desires to follow her there. On the journey, and in London, where he becomes the kept man of Bellaston (“nor do I pretend to the Gift of Chastity”),[97] the two sides of his personality,[98] his “naturally violent animal Spirits”,[99] and his universal beneficence,[100] have the space and opportunity to develop their opposition. He ends up in prison likely to be hanged for murder. There he is cast off by Sophia who has learned of his services to Bellaston and is deceived into thinking Tom has proposed marriage to his mistress. Worst of all Tom becomes convinced that he missed meeting Sophia when they were on the road together because he was “a-Bed” with his own mother![101] On hearing this Tom repents, crying out:

Fortune will never have done with me, till she hath driven me to Distraction. But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the Cause of all my Misery. All the dreadful Mischiefs which have befallen me, are the Consequences only of my own Folly and Vice.”…He then fell into the most violent and frantic Agonies of Grief and Despair.[102]

Later, when released and welcomed by Allworthy, at this point known to be his uncle, Tom will make a full confession in due form with all the proper moments of sorting out what his sins were, taking responsibility, discerning the roots of each fault, and expressing his contrition with a promise of amendment of life.[103]

After the exclamation just recorded, the omniscient author assures us that it is not Fortune but the same governance ruling his comedy and the universe which has brought Tom to this complete mortification: “Instances of this Kind we may frequently observe in Life, where the greatest Events are produced by a nice Train of little Circumstances.”[104] The nice train of circumstances is already moving things in the other direction. Tom’s charity and basic goodness have won him friends who are well at work to clear him of the false charges and to release him from his mistaken notion of being incestuous. Fielding gives the operative law: “The Good or Evil we confer in others, very often…recoils on ourselves.”[105]

CaptureSophia Western (Susannah York) and Tom Jones (Albert Finney) in the movie

Providence exposes as rascals those who betrayed him and Sophia, according to the repeated dictum of Squire Allworthy: “Good Heavens, by what wonderful Means is the blackest and deepest Villany sometimes discovered.”[106] Tom changes places with Blifil, as nephew and heir, who turns “Methodist”.[107] Mrs Honour, Sophia’s maid who went over to Bellaston is known to be “Honour Blackmore”,[108] and traitorously ready to testify whatever Bellaston pleased.[109] Black George, who betrayed Tom’s charity is seen to have “a most remarkable Beard, the largest and blackest”, his robbery is uncovered and he disappears into oblivion, where Mrs Honour has already preceded him. [110]

Tom and Sophia marry on Christmas Eve[111] and move into her father’s mansion given up for them. They are neighbours to “Paradise Hall”, Allworthy’s noble “Gothick” house. To which they will succeed. There Allworthy has taken in Mr. Abraham Adams, who Sophia declares “shall have the Tuition of her Children.’[112] Tom’s tendency to Vice is corrected by “continual Conversation with” Allworthy “and by his Union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia.” We are assured that “He hath also, by Reflexion on his past Follies, acquired a Discretion and Prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.”[113]

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Conversion in Jane Austen’s Novels: Secularization Completed and the Beginnings of a Critique[114]

Mary Crawford: “‘A clergyman is nothing’.” Edmund: “‘The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing….[I]t is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct…And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.’ ‘Certainly,’ said Fanny, with gentle earnestness” (Mansfield Park).

In contrast to the readers of Richardson’s Pamela or of Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), or of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), Shamela (1741), Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751), those who are blessed enough to read through all six of Jane Austen’s novels will be spared ever attending a liturgy or hearing a prayer (as in Pamela) or repetitions of the words and doctrines of the Book of Common Prayer (as in Tom Jones[115]). They will never listen to a sermon[116] and only very very rarely witness one being read.[117] Reading a sermon will convert no one (as in Amelia), and in none of Austen’s novels will a clergyman function as a saving hero (as Williams, Adams and Harrison do, or attempt to do, in Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Amelia respectively). Importantly for my thesis, a discourse compared to preaching is that of a female character heartening a man and reflecting that she is in need of her own advice.[118] There are no lengthy theological debates to be read (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones). The villains are neither Methodists nor on the way to becoming one (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones). No references to Latitudinarian Divines are required to understand substantial debates about nature and grace, predestination and freewill, philosophy and revelation, and the nature of charity (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia).

The clergy are present in abundance and their characters vary from the ridiculous, gluttonous[119], greedy and manipulative (Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park, Emma (1816)) to the husbands of three of her six principal heroines, but two of these are rather weak, shy, and passive partners of their impoverished brides (Edmund and Edward in Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility (1811) respectively). These beneficed husbands are pluralist servants of the social hierarchy provided with livings by their friends or families.[120] The authoress daughter of a clergyman makes none of hers heroic resisters of powerful evil doers in the manner of Mr Williams, Mr Adams and Dr Harrison.

Yet we are not witnessing the loss of conversion in the Christian Platonist tradition but rather such a complete passage into the processes of social and individual life, i.e. secularization, that religious forms need not be represented along side them. Jane Austen is a modern Sophocles in his difference from Euripides and Aeschylus. Indeed, there is a sense in which her novels are the deepest treatments of conversion in the genre. Two other differences from her predecessors in her representation of conversion, as well as an important difference of style and domain are notable.

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I begin with the last. Jane Austen’s romances are in the tradition of and dependent upon those we have treated, but the contrast to all of them and especially to Tom Jones is striking. In opposition to Pamela, The Adventures of Humphry Clinker, Joseph Andrews, Shamela, and Tom Jones, there are neither speeches in dialect nor the amusingly misspelled letters of servants. In fact, we never enter the world of the servants at all and we have none of Fielding’s learning: no Latin tags, neither references to Plato and the Stoics nor to modern rationalist philosophers, no Horace or Ovid, not even Homer. We have nothing of Fielding’s “great creation” and the determination to exhibit the plenitude of the social chain of being. Indeed, although Darcy in Pride and Prejudice must come to recognize that people in trade can have the virtues associated with the gentry, and Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell (Persuasion(1818)) must be educated to some respect for naval captains and admirals, Austen generally keeps people within their different social spheres: Emma sins in trying to raise a bastard daughter into the respectable gentry—which, after all is said and done, is the boundary Tom Jones transgresses. The rascals in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (Wickham and Mrs Clay, respectively) are the son and the daughter of stewards of the estates, who, from too easy mixing with their betters, acquired ambitions and expectations beyond their places.[121] Certainly there is nothing approaching Pamela’s leap from the servant’s hall to becoming Lady Booby which so scandalised Richardson’s readers and provoked the imitations and mockeries of Fielding and Smollett. Instead of a great chain of social being, depicted in all its ridiculous contrasts and tyrannies so as to be enjoyed and transgressed, Jane Austen’s world, except for the navy, is almost entirely the small one of the country gentry and those with pretensions for it, or falling out of it. She seems not to have liked the titled aristocracy any more than her predecessor authors did, and the town, as for them, is the picture and reality of hell and damnation. Her power, and none had it in greater measure, was for the close ironic observation, and epigrammatical description, of the psyches which constitute it and of their inner and social movements. Heaven and Hell in a handful of dust. In exchange for the smallness of her world, we are admitted to sometimes terrible intimacies of the spirit unopened by her predecessors.

As to the two differences of her heroines, first, Jane Austen’s are not exemplars of the irresistible beauty which animates the conversion of the lovers of Pamela and Sophia. Second, although Austen has heroines whose virtue is perfect from the beginning and fix the stable centre around and towards which conversion takes place (thus, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Fanny in Mansfield Park), she is just as likely, and more interestingly I judge, to have heroes and heroines who undergo conversion which is mutual. Thus, outstandingly, Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mr Knightly in Emma, and Anne and Frederick in Persuasion. Darcy, Knightly, and Anne[122] are the stable fixed centres of true judgment[123], as Brandon, Marianne’s true lover, is in Sense and Sensibility. Because I think these two characteristics of her heroines taken together may help expose what is most intensely Christian in her depictions, I elaborate them slightly.

The union of beauty, goodness, and wisdom in Dante’s Beatrice, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones has disappeared. Jane Austen has no ugly heroines but they may, at some points in their lives in her stories, be judged “plain” (thus, Anne, Fanny, and Catherine in Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, although all three will come to be regarded as attractively beautiful or at least “pretty” (Catherine)[124]). Even more telling is that her great beauties, male and female,  have faults or worse. Thus, Jane in Pride and Prejudice is endlessly charitable through refusing to discriminate,[125] and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility[126] has a self-destructive and selfish romantic sensibility; significantly, they are both the favourites of their mothers. Willoughby, who will nearly destroy Marianne and does destroy others, has “manly beauty and more than common gracefulness.”[127] Wickham, the villain of Pride and Prejudice, is judged more handsome than the hero Darcy,[128] has an “appearance greatly in his favour; he had all the great part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” [129] Worse, the more he lies the more handsome he seems. Darcy, though a “fine, tall person,” with “handsome features, noble mien” has disgustingly proud manners.[130] Mary Crawford, close to being a female villain, is “remarkably pretty” and she, and her even more destructive brother, are “of very prepossessing appearance”.[131]

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What attracts in Anne, Fanny, Elinor, and Catherine is virtue which makes them standards of judgement when others err or are incapable of action, even if, in the case of Catherine, this is only an incorruptible and naïvely trusting innocence. They are stable poles of judgement rather than of physical beauty.[132] Further, and most tellingly, in the cases of Anne and Fanny, because of humiliations suffered early and at length[133], or, in the case of Elinor, of a self-effacement and self-conquest in the service of her family, especially of Marianne, and of her own integrity, their virtue comes from suffering, from mortification.[134] Emma and Marianne are indulged and indulge themselves. [135] They are converted towards the virtues of their husbands to be.[136]

Besides the following of Christ in the self-effacement and acceptance of humiliation of Fanny, Anne and Elinor, the most striking imitatio Christi in the novels appears in the self-humiliation of the noble Darcy. Having rejected Darcy’s proposal of marriage, Elizabeth is humbled and grieved when having repented her judgments she desires him when “a gulf impassable” had opened  between them.[137] Uniting with her would join Darcy to Wickham, a villain who had injured both families and defamed him wherever possible. “Rational expectation” of his returning to her “could not survive such a blow as this.”[138] Being mortal he must triumph in having escaped what he once proposed. However, very soon after these miserable reflections and repentances, Elizabeth discovers Darcy’s “exertion of goodness too great to be probable”, he has beaten back his pride and bridged the impassable gulf to make reparation for his own faults and for love of her. He has treated with those he most despised to save her undeserving sister and her family from disgrace. Thus, she and her family were “under obligations to a person who could never receive a return”.[139] This gratitude moves her to further repentance. And there is more reason for Elizabeth to be astonished at his grace.

Darcy’s aristocratic aunt comes to warn Elizabeth her that marriage to her “will be a disgrace”. Connection to her sister and “the son of his late father’s steward” would “pollute” the family “shades”.[140] However, the intervention of the aunt, which Elizabeth supposes “would address him on his weakest side,”[141] turns out to encourage him to renew his suit. She thanks him for “that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications,” he does the unthinkable and proposes again and Elizabeth accepts.[142] So great the condescension, so marvellous the love.

This brings us to the second difference of Jane Austen’s conversions, seen most notably, skilfully, and delightfully in Pride and Prejudice. There we do not have Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility in separate individuals, but rather Elizabeth and Darcy both are filled with pride and prejudice, tho’ differently, and must both come to self-knowledge, repentance, mortification, and conversion separately and through their interchange. A mutual conversion toward the complementary virtue of the beloved also occurs in Persuasion.[143] With Anne, Elinor, and Fanny, in respect to the sufferings and mortifications imposed on them but accepted and purposefully employed for spiritual deepening, and with Emma and Elizabeth in respect to the repentant self-knowledge their own vices require, we are admitted to their inner spiritual life in a way not found in our other novelists. Austen does not give us the sermons and theological debates of her male predecessors in this tradition, but she works out the same questions of grace and works, predestination and freedom in the questions of the relative roles of character and condition, education and breeding, principles and effort which her predecessors treated in the discourses she omits as well as in their stories. Generally, it seems to me that she judges within the same Latitudinarian “Broad Church” mentality that was theirs. She demands, and allows, much in the way of self-exertion and self-conquest, perhaps seen most movingly in what Elinor hopes for in Marianne, but certainly also in Anne (Persuasion)[144]

Within the predestination which the social order sets, Austen’s theology strikes me as standard anti-Papist and anti-Enthusiast rational English Pelagian 18th century Protestantism. But, there is something more, something from an earlier period. Those who are as completely formed by the Book of Common Prayer as she was, especially in the forms she used (basically 1662), which were not replaced in Canada before they had been thoroughly fixed in my psyche, will recognise the source of the need her converted or converting characters have for suffering for sin, for condemning self-knowledge, either imposed from without or self-inflicted, for mortification (after all, dying with and in the saviour). They are “miserable sinners” the burdens of whose sins are “grievous” and “intolerable”. Their confessions are lengthy, laborious, and as theologically exact as those in Dante’s Purgatorio.[145]

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During the time of the novels we are considering, the clergy were expected to be able to guide the sinner, especially on his or her deathbed, through the moments of an eternally consequential confession. Dr Harrison in Amelia is seen doing this. Jane Austin probably learned them from her own practice of Prayer Book piety, and we see them undertaken as necessary to the conversion of her characters, enabling reconciliation and the union of marriage. Usually they will require a public aspect when what has been worked out inwardly is told to the beloved, whether or not he or she was the direct object of the sinful acts. The beloved, is, as Elizabeth King (and Bennet) assert “the keeper of her best self”,[146] but this qualification, not its identity in the beloved, is the essential for the one hearing the confession, as we see in the series of confessions made to Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.

Notable examples will be found in the long repentance of Emma and the mutual confession with Mr Knightly[147], the multi year penance and long confession of Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, which becomes more complete in stages, requires two self-accusations of pride,[148] and is matched, not by one from Anne, but by her correct refusal to repent for that which he supposed to be her sin.[149] Even the naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey, whose sin, of no more than undo suspicion, comes from an overly vivid imagination formed in the reading of the popular horror romances, must undergo conversion and its attendant repentance in due form.[150]Confession is not cheap; nor is guilt to be generally diffused.

From the point of view of the plot, Elizabeth’s repentance is the longest because it takes place in stages.[151] Marianne’s confession is to Elinor, whose conduct has now become her standard, and Marianne expresses such remorse at her “imprudence towards myself and want of kindness to others” that she wonders she has been spared “to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all.”[152] The chapter just next but one earlier had been devoted to Elinor’s hearing of the confession of the errant occasion of the Marianne’s sins, Willoughby, which involves such exchanges as “Thank Heaven! It did torture me. I was miserable” (on his part) and “You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked. But I hardly know—the misery you have inflicted—I hardly know what could have made it worse” (on hers).[153] Nor have we done with confession: there are still those of Mrs Dashwood[154] and Edward for Elinor to hear![155]

The essential elements are the acceptance of responsibility: I did this, I am to blame, self-knowledge (under what false notion or passion was I working to do this), acknowledgement of the evil consequences; contrition (the humiliation and mortification which may often result in a depression and despair from which the sinner is lifted by the forgiveness of the beloved).

God is a mystery too high to be spoken of in her romances[156] but all things move towards the conversion of those destined for the felicity of which she writes, matrimony. When rightly taken in hand, a situation very rare in these romances, it is a communion of spirits which is heavenly felicity come to earth—or the earth raised to heaven. The alternative often wished on the wicked, and frequently witnessed in Austen’s novels, is a living hell of mutual punishment.[157] Perhaps it is imagined most satisfactorily in the mutual recriminations of Maria Bertram exiled for adultery and her Aunt Norris. Maria had been married for her beauty by a dunce and she took him for his money. Her follies were nurtured by her Aunt, the persecutor of Fanny, who is made her keeper so that they can bedevil one another.[158] Under the endings in perfect felicity of Jane Austen’s novels there are many more makings-do and perhaps yet more living hells.[159]

The decoupling of beauty and goodness and the depiction of marriages which, though not ideal, work in their own way, and may even be chosen in full consciousness of their imperfection, suggests that the ever perceptive and shockingly ironic Austen may be exposing the limit of marriage as the secularized ideal of conversion.

CaptureEdward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson), from the 1995 movie

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Conclusion

Soul is a subsistent cosmic reality in the Platonic tradition, until, in its Christian continuation, the human replaces its mediating role. In consequence, psychological conversion is also ontological. We have only considered Christian versions of Proclean system and in them the mediating role of the human, and thus humanization, reaches an extreme never known in Hellenism. Sir Richard Southern’s judgment, when extended backward in time to Eriugena and strengthened beyond his sense of what is intelligible, remains correct: “Thomas Aquinas died in 1274 and, it is probably true that man has never appeared so important a being in so well-ordered and intelligible a universe as in his works. Man was important because he was the link between the created universe and divine intelligence. He alone in the world of nature could understand nature. He alone could use and perfect nature in accordance with the will of God and thus achieve his full nobility.”[160] The secularization and humanization of the human and cosmic telos and the means to it goes much further when we move from the culmination of conversion as contemplative or ecstatic union with the Divine Good, True, and Beautiful to felicity as marriage of the Protestant gentry. It is evident that such an incredible representation of matrimony must depend on its filling in for the transcendent divine goal of the ancient and medieval quest. Moreover, by the accounts of those who most enchantingly depict this humanized telos and process of conversion, its heaven is very sparsely populated and the massa damnata is the multitude which no man can number.

It seems clear the honourable estate of matrimony has not been able to bear the weight placed upon it. The fact that, in the Northern European Christian world and its offshoots, it is now mostly an on and off affair for those who attempt it at all is in part owed to the impossible expectations it bears. The best corrective would be a restoration of the contemplative goods alongside it, but in our society distraction is sought above all else. So we seem to be left with neither contemplation nor union in the flesh. Must, and can, we go further back? Will there be a renaissance by a conversio ad fontes, Parmenides and Plato? Or is the spiral now ever downwards?

— Wayne J. Hankey

 

Wayne Hankey was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia where he received his primary and secondary education. He studied Classics, philosophy, and theology at King’s College & Dalhousie University (Bachelor of Arts, 1965, with First Class Honours and the University Medal in Philosophy and Valedictorian), Trinity College & the University of Toronto (Master of Arts in Philosophy, 1969, First Class) and Oxford University (D. Phil. Theology, 1982). At Dalhousie from 2002 he chaired the Academic Development Committee as it reshaped Dalhousie University’s teaching of Religion into the new Programme in Religious Studies within the Department of Classics where he is Carnegie Professor and Chair. He is the author of more than 10 monographs and edited volumes, more than 100 scholarly articles, chapters and reviews, and a mass of addresses, sermons and journalistic pieces. Many of these are collected on his website at http://www.dal.ca/faculty/arts/classics/faculty-staff/wayne-hankey-publications.html. In the last year he delivered guest lectures at St Thomas University Fredericton, Smith College, Princeton University and McGill University.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. ᾗ φρόνησις οὐχ ὁρᾶται δεινοὺς γὰρ ἂν παρεῖχεν ἔρωτας, εἴ τι τοιοῦτον ἑαυτῆς ἐναργὲς εἴδωλον παρείχετο εἰς ὄψιν ἰόν
  2. Thus it owes nothing to the Conversion of A.D. Nock (Oxford University Press, 1933) which is almost exclusively, despite a chapter on conversion to philosophy, about conversions between religions and to them. It has much in common, however, with the even more learned classic of Gerhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (1959), for example, the use of convertere by Augustine.
  3. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones. A Foundling, IV,xiii: she is “the great pattern of matrimonial love and constancy”. I use Fredson Bowers text with Martin Battenstin’s notes (2 vol., Wesleyan Edition 1975) as reprinted in a single volume, The Modern Library 1994.
  4. See my “Theoria versus Poesis:  Neoplatonism and Trinitarian Difference in Aquinas, John Milbank, Jean-Luc Marion and John Zizioulas” Modern Theology, 15:4 (1999): 387-415 at 406 on Aquinas: “[T]he divine knowing, as source, is Father; as the essence known, thus, as object, it is Son. ‘The Son understands not by producing a word but as being a word which comes forth from another.’ Father and Son are thus opposed as well as united.  The opposition engendered must be overcome.  The connexio duorum is the Spirit who receives his being from both as love. As Aquinas says, ‘If you leave out the Spirit, it is not possible to understand the unitas connexionis inter Patrem et Filium.’ Aquinas is explicit that this whole trinitarian process is an exitus and reditus.  It is the basis of that other going out and return which is creation.”
  5. Guest Lecture sponsored by CREOR, McGill Centre for Research on Religion / Centre de research sur la religion in partnership with ‘Early Modern Conversions’ Tuesday, 18 February
  6. Plato Republic VI,509d-VII,521b. At 515c ὁπότε τις λυθείη καὶ ἀναγκάζοιτο ἐξαίφνης ἀνίστασθαί τε καὶ περιάγειν τὸν αὐχένα καὶ βαδίζειν καὶ πρὸς τὸ φῶς ἀναβλέπειν; 517a ὅτι οὐκ ἄξιον οὐδὲ πειρᾶσθαι ἄνω ἰέναι; καὶ τὸν ἐπιχειροῦντα λύειν τε καὶ ἀνάγειν; 517d τὸ δὲ τοῦ πυρὸς ἐν αὐτῇ φῶς τῇ τοῦ ἡλίου δυνάμει: τὴν δὲ ἄνω ἀνάβασιν καὶ θέαν τῶν ἄνω τὴν εἰς τὸν νοητὸν τόπον τῆς ψυχῆς ἄνοδον τιθεὶς; 518c οἷον εἰ ὄμμα μὴ δυνατὸν ἦν ἄλλως ἢ σὺν ὅλῳ τῷ σώματι στρέφειν πρὸς τὸ φανὸν ἐκ τοῦ σκοτώδους, οὕτω σὺν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ ἐκ τοῦ γιγνομένου περιακτέον εἶναι, ἕως ἂν εἰς τὸ ὂν καὶ τοῦ ὄντος τὸ φανότατον δυνατὴ γένηται ἀνασχέσθαι θεωμένη; 518d τούτου τοίνυν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, αὐτοῦ τέχνη ἂν εἴη, τῆς περιαγωγῆς, τίνα τρόπον ὡς ῥᾷστά τε καὶ ἀνυσιμώτατα μεταστραφήσεται, οὐ τοῦ ἐμποιῆσαι αὐτῷ τὸ ὁρᾶν, ἀλλ᾽ ὡς ἔχοντι μὲν αὐτό, οὐκ ὀρθῶς δὲ τετραμμένῳ οὐδὲ βλέποντι οἷ ἔδει, τοῦτο διαμηχανήσασθαι.
  7. Septuagint Psalm 79,4: ὁ θεός, ἐπίστρεψον ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπίφανον τὸ πρόσωπόν σου, καὶ σωθησόμεθα.
  8. Septuagint Lamentations 5,21: ἐπίστρεψον ἡμᾶς, κύριε, πρὸς σέ, καὶ ἐπιστραφησόμεθα· καὶ ἀνακαίνισον ἡμέρας ἡμῶν καθὼς ἔμπροσθεν. Vulgate: converte nos Domine ad te et convertemur innova dies nostros sicut a principio.
  9. Septuagint Psalm 37,7: ἐταλαιπώρησα καὶ κατεκάμφθην ἕως τέλους,
  10. Augustine, Sermon 223A.
  11. In Super Psalmos Davidis Expositio 37.3 and 37.4. His Bible placed it at the end of 2 Chronicles. It was not in the Vulgate. It is now given as the Prayer of Manasse: 10: “Incurvatus sum multo vinculo ferri”. LXX,10 “κατακαμπτόμενος πολλῷ δεσμῷ σιδήρου”.
  12. Anselm Proslogion cap. 1: incurvatus non possum nisi deorsum aspicere.
  13. Bonaventure, Itinerarium, 1,7: “Secundum enim primam naturae institutionem creatus fuit homo habilis ad contemplationis quietem, et ideo posuit eum Deus in paradiso deliciarum. Sed avertens se a vero lumine ad commutabile bonum, incurvatus est ipse per culpam  propriam, et totum genus suum per originale peccatum, quod dupliciter infecit humanam naturam, scilicet ignorantia mentem et concupiscentia carnem; ita quod excaecatus homo et incurvatus in tenebris sedet et caeli lumen non videt…”
  14. Boethius Consolatio IP1.13 and IIIP2.1: Tum defixo paululum uisu et uelut in augustam suae mentis sedem receptasic coepit. The ascent from the Cave and a return are placed at the very end of Book III: IIIM12,53-58: quicumque in superum diem mentem ducere quaeritis; nam qui Tartareum in specus uictus lumina flexerit, quicquid praecipuum trahit perdit dum uidet inferos
  15. Boethius Consolatio IIIM9.
  16. She stands between truth and his intellect: Purgatorio 6,38: ”lume fia tra ‘l vero e lo ‘ntelletto.” Her appearance crowned with the Athena’s olive leaves is at 30,68.
  17. See my “God’s Care for Human Individuals: What Neoplatonism gives to a Christian Doctrine of Providence”, Quaestiones Disputatae 2: 1 & 2 (Spring –Fall 2011): 4–36 and “Providence and Hierarchy in Thomas Aquinas and the Neoplatonic Tradition,” for The Question of Nobility. Aspects of Medieval and Renaissance Conceptualization of Man, ed. by Andrea A. Robiglio, Studies on the Interaction of Art, Thought and Power 8, Leiden-New York, Brill, 2014, in press.
  18. I Corinthians 13.12-13: βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.
  19. Ennead 1.1.8: εἴδωλα δὲ αὐτῆς διδοῦσα, ὥσπερ πρόσωπον ἐν πολλοῖς κατόπτροις.
  20. The movement to the masque and its mirrors begins, when Virgil departed, Beatrice speaks and names herself. Dante looks down and sees himself mirrored in water (the first mirrors of the world of forms for the ascending prisoner of the Cave), but in this presence such self-knowledge is too much to bear. 30,76: Li occhi mi cadder giù nel chiaro fonte; ma veggendomi in esso, i trassi a l’erba, tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.
  21. Augustine De Trinitate X,2, XIV,5, XV,3 provide examples.
  22. Bonaventure Itinerarium I,5: in quantum contingit videre Deum in unoquoque praedictorum modorum ut per speculum et ut in speculo.
  23.  Republic VI,509b: οὐκ οὐσίας ὄντος τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας πρεσβείᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ὑπερέχοντος.
  24. Exodus 3,14: καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸς Μωυσῆν ᾿Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν·
  25.  Theaetetus, 176a–b: Socrates. Evils, Theodorus, can never pass away; for there must always remain something which is antagonistic to good. Having no place among the gods in heaven, of necessity they hover around the mortal nature, and this earthly sphere. Wherefore we ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, is to become holy, just, and wise.
  26. Philo, De Opif. 70-71, And again, being raised up on wings,… it is borne upwards to the higher firmament, and to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And also being itself involved in the revolutions of the planets and fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music, and being led on by love [eros], which is the guide of wisdom, it proceeds onwards till, having surmounted all essence intelligible by the external senses, it comes to aspire to such as is perceptible only by the intellect: and perceiving in that, the original models and ideas of those things intelligible by the external senses which it saw here full of surpassing beauty, it becomes seized with a sort of sober intoxication like the zealots engaged in the Corybantian festivals, and yields to enthusiasm, becoming filled with another desire, and a more excellent longing, by which it is conducted onwards to the very summit of such things as are perceptible only to the intellect, (see Plato, Phaedrus, 245ff) till it appears to be reaching the great King himself. And while it is eagerly longing to behold him pure and unmingled, rays of divine light are poured forth upon it like a torrent, so as to bewilder the eyes of its intelligence [dianoia] by their splendour. But as it is not every image that resembles its archetypal model, since many are unlike, Moses has shown this by adding to the words “after his image,” the expression, “in his likeness,” to prove that it means an accurate impression, having a clear and evident resemblance in form.” Following him, Clement, Strom. 2.22, 131, 6 and Origen De princ.3.6, 1.
  27. Fielding, Tom Jones, VIII,10-IX,2.
  28. Plato, Symposium 210b.
  29. See my “Recurrens in te unum: Neoplatonic Form and Content in Augustine’s Confessions,” Augustine and Philosophy, ed. Phillip Cary, John Doody, and Kim Paffernroth, Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation, (Lanham/ Boulder/ New York/ Toronto/ Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 127–144.
  30. Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 445-6, representing Diotima’s love as of the from variety, gives us the debate on the subject in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy(1759-1767)  and what that displays of a very considerable knowledge of Neoplatonism in the literary world during the time Fielding was also writing.
  31. Plato, Symposium 210d: ἐπιστήμην μίαν τοιαύτην.
  32. Plato, Symposium 210e-211b: ὃς γὰρ ἂν μέχρι ἐνταῦθα πρὸς τὰ ἐρωτικὰ παιδαγωγηθῇ, θεώμενος ἐφεξῆς τε καὶ ὀρθῶς τὰ καλά, πρὸς τέλος ἤδη ἰὼν τῶν ἐρωτικῶν ἐξαίφνης κατόψεταί τι θαυμαστὸν τὴν φύσιν καλόν,… αὐτὸ καθ᾽ αὑτὸ μεθ᾽ αὑτοῦ μονοειδὲς ἀεὶ ὄν, τὰ δὲ ἄλλα πάντα καλὰ ἐκείνου μετέχοντα τρόπον τινὰ τοιοῦτον, οἷον γιγνομένων τε τῶν ἄλλων καὶ ἀπολλυμένων μηδὲν ἐκεῖνο μήτε τι πλέον μήτε ἔλαττον γίγνεσθαι μηδὲ πάσχειν μηδέν
  33. Plato, Symposium 212a: τεκόντι δὲ ἀρετὴν ἀληθῆ καὶ θρεψαμένῳ ὑπάρχει θεοφιλεῖ γενέσθαι, καὶ εἴπέρ τῳ ἄλλῳ ἀνθρώπων ἀθανάτῳ καὶ ἐκείνῳ;
  34. Plato, Symposium 212b: Socrates: ὅτι τούτου τοῦ κτήματος τῇ ἀνθρωπείᾳ φύσει συνεργὸν ἀμείνω Ἔρωτος οὐκ ἄν τις ῥᾳδίως λάβοι. διὸ δὴ ἔγωγέ φημι χρῆναι πάντα ἄνδρα τὸν ἔρωτα τιμᾶν, καὶ αὐτὸς τιμῶ τὰ ἐρωτικὰ καὶ διαφερόντως ἀσκῶ, καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις παρακελεύομαι, καὶ νῦν τε καὶ ἀεὶ ἐγκωμιάζω τὴν δύναμιν καὶ ἀνδρείαν τοῦ Ἔρωτος καθ᾽ ὅσον οἷός τ᾽ εἰμί. “towards this acquisition the best helper that our human nature can hope to find is Love. Wherefore I tell you now that every man should honor Love, as I myself do honor all the erotica with especial devotion, and exhort all other men to do the same; both now and always do I glorify Love’s power and valor” (Fowler, modified).
  35. For references see my “John Scottus Eriugena,” (with Lloyd Gerson), Cambridge History of Late Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, edited Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), vol. II, 829–840, or, better, the online version from which Gerson produced his edition: http://www.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/fass/Classics/Hankey/John%20Scotus%20Eriugena.pdf
  36. M. Zier, “The Growth of an Idea,” in H. Westra, From Athens to Chartres.  Neoplatonism and Medieval Thought.  Studies in Honour of Édouard Jeauneau (Leiden, 1992), 71–83 at 80.
  37. Stephen Gersh, “Eriugena’s Fourfold Contemplation: Idealism and Arithmetic,” in S. Gersh and D. Moran, Eriugena, Berkeley and the Idealist Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind., 2006), 151–67 at 156.
  38. Paul Rorem, “Dionysian Uplifting (Anagogy) in Bonaventure’s Reductio”, Franciscan Studies 70 (2012): 183-188.
  39. Ibid.: 186-7
  40. Ibid.: 188 quoting Bonaventure, The Collations on the Six Days
  41. See my God in Himself, 141 & 142: “Thomas uses the causes to structure his writing only twice in the first forty-five questions of the Summa theologiae; in both cases he uses the same order. He places matter and form between the moving and final causes. Proper motion, as distinguished from activity generally, belongs to the material. When seen in relation to the divine causality, it involves a going out from simple immaterial being to matter which is raised to formal perfection as the good, or end, it lacks. In causing, God as the principle of all procession, i.e. the Father, knows the form by which he acts in [and as] the Son and loves the Son and himself as end in the Spirit. Thus understood, the order Thomas uses, in distinction from his sources in Aristotle, has a reason. The source of motion is the obvious beginning, just as its opposed cause, the final, is appropriate end….He says, glossing Aristotle, who also mentions their opposition, ‘motion begins from efficient cause and ends at final cause’ [In Meta. I.IV, 70]. ‘Prima autem et manifestior via est, quae sumitur ex parte motus.’ The moving cause is an obvious point from which to start the ways to God within a theology which also begins from him. Those ways ended: ‘Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur a finem, et hoc dicimus Deum’. But ‘intelligere et velle’ are motions as ‘actus perfecti’ and as such display the ‘rediens ad essentiam suam’. This return is perfect in the divine being. Its exitus and reditus become fully manifest in the processions of persons founded in God’s activities of knowledge and love; these in turn make intelligible the procession and return of creatures.”
  42. On which see K. Corrigan, “L’Auto-réflexivité et l’expérience humaine dans l’Ennéade V, 3 [49], et autres traités: de Plotin à Thomas d’Aquin,” Études sur Plotin, éd. M. Fattal (Paris – Montreal: L’Harmattan, 2000): 149–172 and my “Between and Beyond Augustine and Descartes: More than a Source of the Self,” Augustinian Studies 32:1 (2001): 65–88 at 84–85.
  43. For the beginning of an analysis of the connection between physical circling and knowing as reflection, see Stephen Menn, “Self-Motion and Reflection: Hermias and Proclus on the Harmony of Plato and Aristotle on the Soul,” in James Wilberding and Christoph Horn (eds.), Neoplatonism and the Philosophy of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 44–67; at 65–67 Menn treats Aquinas whom he finds to be the first person using reflexio or reflectio “as something like a technical term.”
  44. See W.J. Hankey, “Ab uno simplici non est nisi unum: The Place of Natural and Necessary Emanation in Aquinas’ Doctrine of Creation,” in Divine Creation in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Thought: Essays Presented to the Rev’d Dr Robert D. Crouse, edited by Michael Treschow, Willemien Otten and Walter Hannam, Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 309–333 at 310. As a result emanation is used a term for the proodos more by Latin Christian theologians than by pagan Platonists.
  45. My interpretation here is fully within the later medieval Thomist tradition, especially as taken up along the Rhine in the sillage of Albertus Magnus and worked out in dialogue with the texts of Thomas by Eckhart, see Evan King, “’Bonum non est in Deo’: on the Indistinction of the One and the Exclusion of the Good in Meister Eckhart,” M.A. thesis Dalhousie University (2012), 80–101. I am deeply grateful to Evan for the interest he has taken in this paper and his help with it. My thanks is equally owed, and very willingly given, to the members of my seminar for 2012-13 who worked through Questions 1 to 45 of the Summa theologiae with me. Their work confirmed Thomas’ judgment that the order of the Summa is the ordo disciplinae.
  46. See Hebrews 1.3.
  47. I am adapting “Prosai-comi-epic” of Fielding.
  48. Purgatorio, XXX, 139-141: “e volse i passi suoi per via non vera, imagini di ben seguendo false, Tanto giù cadde, che tutti argomenti a la salute sua eran già corti, fuor che mostrarli le perdute genti. er questo visitai l’uscio d’i morti e a colui che l’ha qua sù condotto, li prieghi miei, piangendo, furon porti.”
  49. Purgatorio XXXI,5-7.
  50.  Republic, X,621a: εἰς τὸ τῆς Λήθηςτὸν Ἀμέλητα ποταμόν; Aeneid VI,713-15: “Animae, quibus altera fato corpora debentur, Lethaei ad fluminis undam securos latices et longa oblivia potant.
  51. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, XVIII,12: “Both sat with their eyes cast downwards on the ground, and for some minutes continued in perfect silence. Mr Jones during this interval attempted once or twice to speak, but was absolutely incapable, muttering only, or rather sighing out, some broken words; when Sophia at length, partly out of pity to him, and partly to turn the discourse from the subject which she knew well enough he was endeavouring to open, said— “Sure, sir, you are the most fortunate man in the world in this discovery.” “And can you really, madam, think me so fortunate,” said Jones, sighing, “while I have incurred your displeasure?”—”Nay, sir,” says she, “as to that you best know whether you have deserved it.” “Indeed, madam,” answered he, “you yourself are as well apprized of all my demerits. Mrs Miller hath acquainted you with the whole truth. Tom: “O! my Sophia, am I never to hope for forgiveness?”—”I think, Mr Jones,” said she, “I may almost depend on your own justice, and leave it to yourself to pass sentence on your own conduct.”—”Alas! madam,” answered he, “it is mercy, and not justice, which I implore at your hands. Justice I know must condemn me…”
  52. Purgatorio XXVII, Virgil: “libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:  per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio
  53. Dante, The Divine Comedy I: Hell, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1949), 67-68. For another and fuller description of Beatrice in terms of the Masque and the Eucharistic Host, see Dante, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1955), 311-12.
  54. Philippians 2.8.
  55. Richardson, Pamela, Oxford World’s Classics 2001, pp. 214-216.
  56. For another see Pamela, p. 435: “May I, Sir, said I, beg all your Anger on myself, and to be reconciled to your good Sister?”
  57. Pamela, p. 209.
  58. Pamela, p. 203.
  59. E.g. Mark 14.41.
  60. Pamela, p. 205. 2 Corinthians 12.9.
  61. Pamela, p. 216.
  62. Tom Jones, X,ii,XI,ii, XII,viii.
  63. Tom Jones, IV,ii.
  64. Sophia is attracted to Tom before he has any particular “Design” on her Tom Jones, IV,vii. She manifests her attraction first. This disturbs him. Tom Jones, V,ii: “He extremely liked her Person, no less admired her accomplishments, and tenderly loved her Goodness. In Reality, as he had never once entertained any thought of possessing her, nor had ever given the least voluntary Indulgence to his Inclinations, he had a much stronger Passion for her than he himself was acquainted with. His Heart now brought forth the full Secret, at the same Time that it assured him the adorable Object returned his Affection.”
  65. Tom Jones, VII,vi and see XVI,vi.
  66. Tom Jones, X,ix.
  67. Tom Jones, XIII,xi.
  68. Tom Jones, XIII,xii. This is not the first time Wisdom deceives; at VI,iii she ignores Tom and pays special attention to Blifil in order to hide the true state of her affections, and at XI,viii, and elsewhere, she leaves Tom out of her account of her reasons for fleeing her father. However, XIII,xii is the first time she is represented as seriously remorseful.
  69. Tom Jones, XVI,v.
  70. Tom Jones, II,i.
  71. Tom Jones, V,i.
  72. See Martin C. Battestin, The Moral Basis of Fielding’s Art: A Study of Joseph Andrews (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).
  73. Tom Jones, II,vi.
  74. Tom Jones, VIII,vii.
  75. Tom Jones, IX,ii.
  76. Tom Jones, VIII,iv; Tom Jones, XV,vii, Tom Jones, IX,v: “a most masculine Person and Mein; which latter had as much in them of the Heracles, as the former [his face] had of Adonis.” And XVIII,xii.
  77. Tom Jones, III,ii. Parson Thwackum was firm in this conviction Tom Jones, V,ii. He is represented as a Calvinist predestinarian simultaneously sure of Tom’s “State of Reprobacy” and exercising his “Duty, however, to exhort you to…Repentance, tho’ I too well know all Exhortations will be vain and fruitless.” The wicked Captain Blifil is given the same kinds of doctrines, but, in him they are ascribed to Methodism (I,x) which his “Rascal” son will adopt. The two are united for Fielding in the evangelist George Whitefield (see Battestin’s note at I,x). Parson Abraham Adams of Joseph Andrews, and of the conclusion of Tom Jones, is the determined enemy of both the movement and the doctrines. For Fielding’s Tom Jones as set up to oppose this logic and its opposite, see XII,viii.
  78. Allworthy to Tom, Tom Jones, V,vii: “I am convinced, my Child, that you have much Goodness, Generosity and Honor in your Temper; if you will add Prudence and Religion to these, you must be happy: For the three former Qualities, I admit, make you worthy of Happiness, but they are the latter only which will put you in Possession of it.”
  79. So Allworthy is described at Tom Jones, VI,iv. Allworthy is the man to pull Tom together. He “was naturally a Man of Spirit, and his present Gravity arose from true Wisdom and Philosophy, not from any original Phlegm in his Disposition: For he had possessed much fire in his Youth, and had married a beautiful woman for Love.” VI.iv.
  80. Tom Jones, VIII,ii.
  81. Tom Jones, XVIII,ix: Western complains you “make me always do just as you please”.
  82. E.g. most importantly at Tom Jones, VI,xi.
  83. Tom Jones, XVIII,x.
  84. Although Sophia resists and flees the wrong exercise of he father’s authority, and is supported against it by Allworthy, Squire Western is permitted to do what he must as her father at the critical point when he saves her from imminent rape, Tom Jones, XV,v. In the end she does marry the man he wishes for her (though his mind has been changed), his bloody minded opposition to Tom is allowed to be forgiven because “I took thee for another Person” (XVIII,x), and Sophia (very willingly we suppose) yields to him on the date of the wedding (XVIII,xii).
  85. Joseph Andrews, III.i.
  86. Tom Jones, X,i.
  87. Ibid.
  88. Tom Jones, XIII,i.
  89. Tom Jones, XV,i.
  90. Tom Jones, IV,xiv.
  91. Tom Jones, V,vi
  92. Tom Jones, VIII,ii.
  93. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  94. Tom Jones, XI,i
  95. Tom Jones VII,ix.
  96. Tom Jones, X,ix.
  97. Tom Jones, XIV,iv.
  98. Tom Jones, III,v: “a thoughtless, giddy Youth”.
  99. Tom Jones, V,ix.
  100. Tom Jones, XV,viii where Terence’s most famous dictum is applied to him. And we have Tom on himself: “tho’ I have been a very wild young fellow, still in my most serious Moments, and at the Bottom, I am really a Christian.” Tom Jones, VII,xiii. His are the “Faults of Wildness and of Youth” XVII,ii
  101. Tom Jones, XVIII,ii.
  102. Ibid.
  103. Tom Jones, XVIII,x.
  104. Tom Jones, XVIII,ii.
  105. Tom Jones, XIV,vii.
  106. Tom Jones, XVIII,vii & XVIII,viii.
  107. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  108. Tom Jones, XV,x.
  109. Tom Jones, XVI,viii, XVIII,xi, and XVII, viii.
  110. Tom Jones, XII,xii and XVIII,xiii.
  111. See note to Tom Jones, VIII,ix.
  112. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  113. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  114. My treatment of Jane Austen’s novels has been encouraged and assisted by Paul Epstein, “‘Is Sex Necessary’: Friendship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s Emma’,” and Susan Harris’ response to Dr Epstein’s paper in Christian Friendship. Papers delivered at the Twenty-Fifth Annual Atlantic Theological Conference, June 26th to 29th, 2005, edited Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St Peter Publications, 2005), 173-192 and 193-199.
  115. Tom Jones, I,xii gives us the Book of Common Prayer on Matrimony and at V,ii the same on the Visitation of the Sick.
  116. Mansfield Park, ix, Mary and Edward disputing about whether a clergyman is nothing are agreed that sermons are pretty much ineffectual, what is needed is “a clergyman constantly resident” as “well-wisher and friend.”
  117. Except, very briefly, when the ridiculous Mr Collins attempts to read to Mrs Bennett and her daughters in Pride and Prejudice,[New York: Pantheon Books, nd]xiv and is rudely interrupted and thus silenced by Lydia, and when Lady Bertram cries herself to sleep after having heard “an affecting sermon” read to her, Mansfield Park, xlvii
  118. Persuasion, xi,101: “When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.” I owe this point to Elizabeth King.
  119. Dr Grant, after becoming a Prebendary of Westminster Abbey, “brought on apoplexy and death by three great institutionary dinners in one week.” Mansfield Park, xlviii
  120. Especially clear in Sense and Sensibility, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd]xxxixand Mansfield Park, xlviii: “the acquisition of Mansfield living”. Edward we are assured showed his contentment with his small living by “the ready discharge of his duties in every particular” (Sense and Sensibility, xxxix)—the wonder is that it should need remarking upon. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey(1818) [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] is strong and has defied his father, the tyrannical General, to his face to be faithful to Catherine, xxx, p. 232. He employs a curate to do the ordinary pastoral work while he enjoys the parsonage and the greater part of the income of the living (Chapters xxvi & xxviii,205). Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr Bennet advises the sycophantic and ambitious Mr Collins to shift from Lady Catherine to her nephew: “he has more to give” Pride and Prejudice, lx,380. In Pride and Prejudice, pastoral charges are treated as sources of income and the right to appoint to them (present them) is a commercial matter. See also Sense and Sensibility, xli where Elinor’s brother cannot believe that the living is really being given rather than sold. Neither Sir Walter Elliot nor his second daughter regard a curate as a gentleman, Persuasion, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] iii,22. Jane Austen has nothing of Fielding’s zeal both to better the lot of the poorer clergy—many of his worse off characters are the children of clergy who ridiculously regard themselves as gentry on that account (e.g. Black George’s wife and Honour Blackmore), and to inspire a spirit of independence vis-à-vis their patrons.
  121. At Pride and Prejudice, lvi: Lady Catherine de Bourgh: “…is the son of his late father’s stewart, to be his brother? Heaven and Earth—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” However, Darcy does transgress this boundary in marrying Elizabeth.
  122. Persuasion, xxii, p. 226: (Anne speaks) “I am not yet so much changed”, xxiii, 244: “the resolution of a collected mind”, xxiii, 245: (Wentworth speaks) “You could never alter.” In fact, she has changed, but by the time of the action of the novel her sufferings and self-exertions have given her the habit Frederick admires. It shows itself above all when she alone knows how to act, and does it from the spontaneity of virtue, when Louisa jumps and falls. In contrast Frederick Wentworth and the other men are helpless. Persuasion, xii, pp. 109-110: “’Is there no one to help me? were the first words which burst from Captain Wentworth, in a tone of despair, and as if all his own strength were gone. ‘Go to him, go to him,’ cried Anne, ‘for heaven’s sake go to him. I can support her myself…’ Anne, attending with all the strength, and zeal, and thought, which instinct supplied…tried to quiet Mary, to animate Charles, to assuage the feelings of Captain Wentworth. Both seemed to look to her for direction.” I am grateful to Elizabeth King for reminding me of the change in Anne.
  123. Pride and Prejudice, vi where Darcy has already formed the right judgment of Elizabeth that will motive him, despite himself, his family and friends, and her family: Elizabeth was “becoming an object of interest”; “no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes…he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing”. He is compelled to repent his first hasty judgment. By chapter x “Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.” In contrast, Liz’s aunt Gardiner must warn her about becoming further attached to the rascal Wickham (xxv) and in Chapter xxvi she confesses that he “must always be her model of the amiable and pleasing”. Liz is rescued by his forsaking her for someone with money. It is not until her visit to Pemberley (xliii) and its consequences that Elizabeth begins to understand Darcy and her love for him. Throughout it all, once fixed, Darcy is able to say “My affections and wishes are unchanged” (lviii). And Elizabeth declares to Wickham: “In essentials, I believe, he is very much as he ever was.” (xli).
  124. Northanger Abbey, ii. Henry Tilney “had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.” (iii).
  125. Elizabeth on Jane, Pride and Prejudice, iv:”Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes.” At xxvi Jane reveals how this is self-serving: “But I will endeavour to banish every painful thought, and think only of what will make me happy…” In contrast Elizabeth comes to be ashamed of her too quick and too harsh judgments, especially of Darcy.
  126. Marianne is described in Sense and Sensibility at the beginning of Chapter x. Elinor is in her shadow for appearance: “her face was so lovely” as to make her more than a “beautiful girl”; “her complexion was uncommonly brilliant”, etc.
  127. Sense and Sensibility, ix. In contrast Marianne says of Edward “his figure is not striking—it has none of the grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attach my sister.” (iii).
  128. Pride and Prejudice, xliv: “‘To be sure Lizzy,’ said her aunt, ‘he is not so handsome as Wickham; or rather, he has not Wickham’s countenance, for his features are perfectly good.’”
  129. Pride and Prejudice, xv. At xvi: “Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and thought him handsomer than ever as he expressed them.”…She thought: “A young man, too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable” When wrongly believing him as opposed to Darcy, Elizabeth gives as a reason: “Besides, there was truth in his looks.”(xvii). Again, at xxxvi: “As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had never felt a wish of inquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue.”
  130. Pride and Prejudice, iii: “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”
  131. Mansfield Park, iv.
  132. Thus, of Fanny, from her rejected suitor, Henry Crawford, who by losing her damns himself and those he implicates: “Your judgment is my rule of right.” Mansfield Park, xlii. Her judgment and perseverance in it prove to be truer and stronger than that both of Edmund, the right principled clergyman she marries, who gave her guidance when she was younger, and of Sir Thomas Bertram, the admirable but erring pater familias. Naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey is nonetheless of sure and unmovable judgment “my opinion of your bother never did alter”, xviii, and xxvii, “an innate principle of general integrity”.
  133. “[T]he advantages of early hardship and discipline and the conscious of being born to struggle and endure” belonging to Fanny come to be appreciated. Mansfield Park, xlviii. Persuasion i.4: “Anne…was nobody with either father or sister”.
  134. Of Eleanor Tilney, who is rescued from her tyrannical father by “the most charming young man in the world”, then persuades the tyrant to let Catherine and Henry marry, we are told “I know no one more entitled by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering to receive and enjoy felicity.” Northanger Abbey, xxxi.
  135. What ruins is displayed for example in Elinor’s reflection on Willoughby’s confession in Sense and Sensibility, xliv: “the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation and luxury, had made in the mind…The world had made him extravagant and vain…” Female versions abound, most notoriously Lydia of Pride and Prejudice indulged by her mother and ignored by her father. Maria of Mansfield Park is ruined in the same way and to much the same effect by an indulgent Aunt and an aloof father. Also in Mansfield Park, xlvii, Mary Crawford, who together with her brother had independence too early, and the example of a morally “vicious” uncle to substitute for lost parents, is found by Edward, who had once been completely in love with her, to be in “total ignorance” of right feelings about good and evil. “Hers are faults of principle…of blunted delicacy and of a corrupted vitiated mind”. More ridiculous than harmful are the faults of Mr Collins: Pride and Prejudice xv: “Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of Nature had been but little assisted by education and society…[including] the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity.”
  136. Emma was nearly led astray by the troublemaking, if not vicious, Frank Churchill: “He was a very good-looking young man—height, air, address. All were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father’s—he looked quick and sensible.” Emma, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] xxxiii.
  137. Pride and Prejudice, l: “there seemed a gulf impassable between them. Had Lydia’s marriage been concluded on the most honourable terms, it was not to be supposed that Mr. Darcy would connect himself with a family where, to every other objection, would now be added an alliance and relationship of the nearest kind with a man whom he so justly scorned.”
  138. Ibid.
  139. Pride and Prejudice, lii: “It was painful, exceedingly painful, to know that they were under obligations to a person who could never receive a return. They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, every thing, to him. Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself.”
  140. Pride and Prejudice, lvi.
  141. Pride and Prejudice, lvii.
  142. Pride and Prejudice, lviii.
  143. While the once too submissive daughter of a gentleman snob must learn something of the freedom of the self-made naval man, Frederick Wentworth confesses his need to learn submission at the end of the novel, delightfully combining irony and truth: “I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses,” he added with a smile, “I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.” Persuasion, xxiii,249.
  144. Persuasion, ix,80: Anne “arranged” her feelings. “She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflexion to recover her.” xix,177: “She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.”
  145. This from Elizabeth King commenting on a draft of my paper richly adds to it. “What you point out about the heroines’ (as well as some other peripheral characters’) confessions is so true. They are the most convicting element of her novels, without a doubt, and the reader cannot but be changed and moved toward conversion herself through the privilege of both witnessing the public act and, far beyond that, the interior self-examination and terribly piercing repentance that it involves. In every novel it is the moment when you most love the confessing character (I think here especially of Emma.) I am convinced of what you say about both the pattern their confessions follow, and their ultimate and necessary orientation toward the Beloved. I think what I appreciate most about what you have written is your point about the precisionof the confession. That really is at the heart of it—it is absolutely necessary that the exact nature of the fault be recognized—its outward manifestation, the passions that underlie it, the precise limits of the wrong. And also exactly how that fault relates to the Beloved; because he is the keeper of her best self which she is yet to come into, he must know all.”
  146. Pride and Prejudice, lx. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible.”
  147. Emma, xlvii,gives the beginning in a revelation by Harriet: “Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet!”; by xlvii, 421 she is wretched and mortified and undertakes self-examination: “To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour.” As a result of “the first series of reflexions”, she comes to acknowledge her fault: “With insufferable vanity had she… ” (421). This continues ”Alas! was not all that her own doing too.”(423) The repentance she undertook alone turns to confession to Mr Knightly, the beloved, in which she takes care not to wrongly accuse another, Emma, xlix: ”Let me swell out the causes ever so ingeniously, they all centre in this last—my vanity was flattered.” She undertakes to repair the damage of her sin, and, at xlix, 440: ”She felt for Harriet with pain and with contrition….” Later, in liii, there is a mutual assessment of faults between herself and Mr Knightly.
  148. Persuasion, xxiii, 249: “There may have been one person more my enemy than that lady: My own self….I was proud, too proud to ask again….Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared.”
  149. Persuasion, xxiii,248: “I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and the wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right….” Anne was not always of exactly this mind. In Chapter iv,28 we are told she might have been eloquent “against that over-anxious caution which would seem to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
  150. Northanger Abbey, xxv: “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened….She hated herself more than she could express….[I]t had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion”. However, the tone of this novel requires a counterbalancing lightness: “Her mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but forgive herself and be happier than ever; and the lenient hand of time did much for her by insensible gradations in the course of another day.”
  151. It begins once she has forced herself to reread a letter from Darcy and examine against her prejudice its veracity. Pride and Prejudice, xxxvi: “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.…[S]he had been blind, prejudiced, absurd. ‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried: ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!…How humiliating is this discovery! Yet how just a humiliation!…Till this moment I never knew myself’…[H]er sense of shame was severe.”She continues the self-examination in xl where it goes with accusing herself to Jane. She begins to make reparation for her bad treatment of Darcy with Wickham in xli. On the process goes until completed in the mutual confessions of the engaged couple in Chapter lx.
  152. Sense and Sensibility, xlvi.
  153. Sense and Sensibility, xliv.
  154. Sense and Sensibility, xlvii.
  155. Sense and Sensibility, xlix: “His heart was now open to Elinor—all its weaknesses, all its errors confessed…”
  156. Though in Sense and Sensibility, xlvi, Marianne breaks this rule.
  157. Thus Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, xliv whose continued longing for Marianne and criticism of his wife Elinor the strict judge in the Confessional must suppress: “That is not right, Mr Willoughby. Remember that you are married. Relate only what in your conscience you think necessary for me to hear”.
  158. Mansfield Park, xlviii “their tempers became their mutual punishment”.
  159. The marriages of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park), and, in Pride and Prejudice,the senior Bennets, by both of which only one daughter in the end is irretrievably damaged, and above all of Charlotte and Mr Collins must raise the question as to whether Jane Austin’s irony does not extend to her own idealization of marriage. See this from David Curry: “Austen, like Dante, understands the way in which incurvatus se can be turned around (and not down). The penitents on the cornice of the Proud are turned down—bent double—to contemplate the exemplars of humility and self-awareness, particularly Mary. For Austen, even the little ones or the foolish ones, (as in Mozart’s the Magic Flute, too,) such as Wickham and Lydia, are part of something greater than their own folly and are sustained by the institutional expression of that greater principle, all their folly and limitations notwithstanding.”
  160. R. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (Oxford: 1970), 90.
Jul 132014
 

CaptureEmil Nolde, Masks (still life III), 1911. Nolde was a member of Die Brücke, a group of German “wild” Expressionists.

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Because they couldn’t help but find what they were looking for, it might not be too far-fetched to imagine that the Modernists, when they opened up the passage into other realms and encountered the artifacts and spiritualities of the people they designated as primitive, were actually encountering nothing but their own subconscious minds — seen through the protective veil of the other. —Genese Grill

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Imagine if you can the young European or American Modernists of 1918, just free of a violent and dreadful war waged by what they perceived as the forces and interests of their parents’ generation, but fought by their peers; the young Modernists, still reeling from their near escape from the close and darkly chaperoned drawing rooms of propriety, good taste, and claustrophobically monitored social morality, encountering a band of gypsies trundling along a London street with wagon, tambourines, loosened hair; or an exhibition of African masks and an anthropological explanation of magic and ritual; or the art of a schizophrenic, the art of children. They are aware of the new findings of psychology, and even sexology; but they have been schooled on positivism and the great God of Reason; they are about to pull back the curtains and open the windows to look outside of their sheltered worlds—but also to look inside, underneath, to peer into the dark abyss of their subconscious minds. They will find, that after centuries of good behavior and composure it may be easier, initially, to face their demons by looking through the mind, through the mask, of the exotic other. While their visions of their chosen “others” may often reveal their own socially-constructed judgments and assumptions about the varied peoples they simultaneously celebrated and condescended to, here I am not interested in correcting or revising Modernist ideas about these cultures, but rather with delineating a few central points of contact where innovations in twentieth century art and literature seem directly related to the era’s fascination with what it defined— for better or for worse— as primitive.

These areas, all of which are linked in some way to the development of abstraction and symbolism and an emphasis on Form in Modernist aesthetics, may be briefly mapped as follows:

1. The idea of the primitive provided modernists with a model of making art wherein the Form, Gestalt, or shape of the abstracted image was thought to effect the physical nature of reality —thus abstraction and symbolism are related to what Freud in his Totem and Taboo called “the omnipotence of thought”.[1] Picasso summed this idea up after viewing the African masks in the Trocadero in Paris in 1907 (the same year he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”), exclaiming: “Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose. I realized that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediation between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires”.[2] Even if most people did not believe literally that art changed the physical nature of the world, respectable science (Ernst Mach and the Empiricists/ extreme Positivists) and cutting-edge philosophy (Wittgenstein) themselves offered enough conflicting and confusing analyses about the nature of reality and the individual’s role in perceiving and constructing it to reasonably justify a species of such belief.

Desktop6Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Pende sickness masks

2. Primitivism provided a model of creation whereby the ineffable, the emotional and subjective — rather than the literal, didactic, or rationally comprehensible—was the subject, goal, and essential experience of both art making and art perceiving. Primitivism joined forces with the new subjective science of psychology to deflect energy towards the inner and away from the outer as part of a Post WWI culture involved in a general resistance and rebellion against civilization (and its discontents) — against the rationalism, propriety, scientific positivism, and materialistic progress ideal which had sent countless soldiers home from the front maimed and haunted by nightmares. Insofar as the fascination with the so-called “primitive” was a critique of civilized rationality, it was also connected with the study of the minds and artworks of the insane and of children— and, by association, the study of the psychology of women (as the irrational, the hysterical, the mystical other within).

3. Primitivism seemed to provide evidence for universal  archetypes — this last is rather complex, because the early twentieth century struggled with tensions between the individual and his or her loss of self in communal mass consciousness. Primitivism, furthermore, can be both progressive and reactionary, both internationalist and nationalist. The Nazis celebrated nationalistic folk primitivism, propagandizing for the values of simplicity, Germanic homeliness, and country life, against modernization, metropolis, and the mixing of races, but decried the “primitivist” tendencies of modernist art—distortion, ugliness, crudity, sexuality— which borrowed its techniques and subject matter from the art of non-Germanic peoples. Moreover, while individualism (as materialist isolation or as nationalism) may have been seen as anathema to the new collectivist visions of socialisms, communisms, archetypal psychology, or an internationalist art movement; the devastating effects of early 20th century mass hysteria, crowd violence, and blind obedience were also seriously problematic. While I will not explore the political dimensions of this last connection directly, they are, I believe, an important part of the atmosphere of the times, and most essentially demonstrate the complicated relationship between the drive for irrational mass ecstasy and the beneficial uses of individual critical rationality.

In terms of Art, the question of universality is central to abstraction and symbolism, as the Modernist often seems to assume that powerful abstract shapes or symbols, unintelligible sound poems, or irrational dream-images are connected to a subconscious arousal of some ancient primal truth, accessible across cultures and times, provided the artist or viewer free herself from the artificial trappings of civilization, science, and rationality.

To reiterate: three contact points between Modernism and Primitivism—all relating in some way to symbolism and abstraction — may be characterized as: 1. The concept that Form could magically effect reality; 2. The attempt to express the unutterable, subjective experience of emotion, and 3. The Search for a primal universal language.

Nietzsche_1882.jpgNietzsche

When speaking of Modernism and the Avant-garde, we are talking about a wide range of twentieth century European and American notions about contemporary consciousness, many of which —despite their connections to sophisticated, modern sciences like anthropology, psychology, sense perception, or physics —were engaged in re-mapping and, to a great extent, transgressing the traditional 19th century trappings of civilized society. In 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche had already undermined the edifice of civilized rationality in his Birth of Tragedy, introducing a new reading of Ancient Greece which would counter the prevailing picture of individuated order, balance, and harmony synthesized by the 18th century Art historian Winckelmann’s formula, “Noble Simplicity and Quiet Grandeur”. While Nietzsche’s theory of ancient Greek culture (an early form of primitivism) exposed the wild churning of the unconscious drives and the energy of dis-individuated drunken dancing, it also pointed to the terrifying desires lurking beneath even the most civilized Victorian exterior. This was an exposure which Sigmund Freud was quick to continue, pulling the proper masks away from the carefully composed psyches of his bourgeois patients, uncovering incest, death wishes, and other previously unmentionable perversions. This social and psychological unmasking becomes part and parcel of Modernism and its more radical sister—the Avant-garde—, as Art grew into another means to rip away facades; to disturb; to not only disorient the senses, but to scandalize the stolid satisfaction of the progress philistine. Art was to encourage its readers and its viewers to look at their own and their society’s demons, and to enjoin them (in the words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”): “You must change your life”.

Modernism was a movement which concerned itself primarily with the subjective nature of reality, and thus with the creation of a non-linear discourse based more in symbol and metaphor than in narrative or sequential logic. Modernism, in its many manifestations — vorticicism, imagism, expressionism, surrealism, cubism, fauvism, stream-of-consciousness or the pre-logical, with dreams and other subconscious emanations, was — either as cause or effect of these tendencies, a movement engaged in vivifying a tired, possibly discredited language and artistic vocabulary through experimentation with forms and content. Frank Kermode, in his essay, Modernism, Postmodernism, and Explanation, characterizes Modernism and its avant-garde as movements characterized by a celebration of the illogical which eschewed explanation and its logical strategies in favor of the inexplicit. According to this theory, the modernists saw in the primitive, “a model of that which is not discursive, explanatory, that which baffles us by its isolation, its manifest inexplicitness, its apparent indifference to our concerns, its masks —in short, by its possession of an indistinct power that seems alien but that calls on us—with an urgency[…]to interpret it in such a way that we may discover the significance that we sense it must have, namely, the unutterable contained in it, which it does not attempt to utter”(365).[3]

FreudFreud in his study; look carefully and you can see the African mask in front of the book case.

Freud’s 1913 Totem and Taboo—acultural product half-way between Victorian scientific positivism and Modernism’s celebration of the subjective irrational —interpreted what he deemed explanations for the savage’s incest dread, his totemism, and his obsessive compulsive behavior, utilizing these to create a system of logical speculation whereby his contemporary neurotic patients could be analyzed. While the Modernist would abandon Freud’s need to justify his fascinations as a somewhat rational system, Freud’s comparisons were important reflections of the Modernist project, suggesting that modern man was not only interested in the primitive, in African masks, and Oceanic figurines, as he would be in the scribble scrabble of his underdeveloped younger sibling, but also as manifest exterior images of what Kermode calls modern man’s own “internal foreign territory” (Kermode 365).

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Modernism and its surprising interest in “Primitivisms” is that art had, by the turn of the last century, slightly different purposes than it had formerly professed—but these purposes had always been at least one side of art’s aims. If the history of Art can be distilled down to a battle between the Platonic Ideal of Harmonious Goodness and Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, Modernism took a distinct turn towards the Aristotelian model, requiring of Art that it be psychologically cathartic, emotional and transformative, which often meant that it would depict disturbing subject matter by way of discordant and ugly form. Despite varying degrees of emotional expressiveness or attention to aesthetic questions, pre-twentieth century audiences, theorists and critics had more often veered towards the Platonic concept of Art as a means to teaching morals; this was done mainly through mimesis — that is, representations of external physical reality— and by telling stories, usually ones wherein virtue was rewarded and evil punished. For the many critics who did not ascribe to the Aristotelian conception of Tragedy, Art was expected to be beautiful—in the sense of harmonious, whole, pleasing, and peaceful to look at—it was not to be anything but soothing, uplifting, or heroic. Within this stream of thinking, there were two goals as well, defined in the classical age by Horace as “to instruct and to delight”. The Romantics had only gone so far in breaking down these categories, by exploring sentiment, melancholy, and passion; and 19th century Naturalism, while engaged in depicting the more sordid sides of life, such as dirty feet, alcoholism, and prostitution — despite its possibly radical shift in subject matter and class consciousness — was still concerned with teaching morality, and still depicted narratives or tableaux vivantes in more or less traditional realistic styles.

In contrast, Modernism focused mainly on Form — and away from content or easily decipherable messages — in an attempt to express the internal experience of the individual, an experience made up of shifting psychological states which could often only be depicted by dissonance and ugliness.   The modernist artist was faced with the challenge of how to communicate these internal states, these private languages, in such a way that they would be meaningful to someone who wasn’t inside his or her own head. The development of abstraction, as an emphasis on non-mimetic form which expressed the inner image of the individual’s emotions in a way that didactic, linear representation or narrative could not, is linked to this new purpose of art. In their search for a means to depict such pre-logical consciousness, the Modernist turned, naturally, to the primitive, because its artifacts, despite the fact that one could not presume to understand them in any logical way, were —or so the Modernist party line went —moving.

Of course all great art has always contained the formal elements which the modernist artist explicitly aimed to foreground; considerations such as composition, rhythm, the spaces between words and shapes, the sound of words, the mysteries of syntactic impact, the effect of dramatic placement, suspense, Aristotle’s “reversal” and “recognition”. The difference in Modernism was that these formal elements were now no longer simply tools to better convey a message, but became, rather, the essential material and even subject matter of the work of art. Gestalt— born of a new psychology that studied the powerful effect of shapes and arrangements — was considered the best means to express the shapeless unutterable stirrings of the psyche.

troyHeinrich Schliemann’s wife wearing what he called the “Jewels of Helen” excavated in what he thought was Homer’s Troy. (Photograph taken ca. 1874.) via Wikipedia

Although it would be nearly impossible to ascertain just what elements in history, culture, invention, or creation made the shift into Modernism possible, Hugh Kenner, in his The Pound Era,[4] mentions two earthshaking discoveries in the field of Archaeology/Anthropology, which he links to the development of Modernism: the discovery of cave paintings in the South of France in the 1890’s and the discovery of the artifacts of Troy. “Since about 1870,” he writes, “men had held in their hands the actual objects Homer’s sounding words name. A pin, a cup, which you can handle like a safety pin tends to resist being archaized. Another [cause] which may one day seem the seminal force in modern art history, was the spreading news that painted animals of great size and indisputable vigor of line could be seen on the walls of caves which no one had entered for 25,000 years…By 1895,” he continues, “….a wholly new kind of visual experience confronted whoever cared. The shock of that new experience caused much change, we cannot say how much; we may take it as an emblem for the change that followed it” (29). Further, he tells us, the discovery and gradual decipherment of fragments of the Greek poetess Sappho’s verses, from 1896–1909, provided the Modernists with a powerful model of concision, spareness of words, and fragmentary beauty; since the papyrii were miserably crumbled, all that existed were phrases and, in some instances, single words–and these small gems were wondered over for decades by translators, scholars and Modernist poets who imitated the unintentional unintelligibility of the poetess of Lesbos. Kenner also points to advances in the field of etymology, to extensive scholarship in Sanskrit, Anglo Saxon, Provencal, Arabic, Chinese by Modernist poets and scholars, to Skeats’ Etymological Dictionary, famously poured over by James Joyce. Ezra Pound’s Cantos, he tells us, contain archaic words, “borrowing from the Greek, Latin, Chinese, Italian, French, Provencal, Spanish, Arabic, and Egyptian Hieroglyphic language; this list is not complete. And as for The Waste Land…; and as for Ulysses…; and one shrinks from a linguistic inventory for Finnegans Wake, where even Swahili components have been identified. The province of these works, as never before in history, is the entire human race speaking, and in time as well as space…” (95). There was, Kenner continues, an attempt to return old words to usages that were thought to contain more force and latent magic than modern watered-down words. Eliot studied Sanskrit circa 1910; Kenner explains: “It was with the example of a scholarship committed in this way to finding the immemorial energies of language that he perceived how the most individual parts of a poet’s work ‘may be those in which dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.’ And also how in language used with the right attention ‘a network of tentacular roots’ may reach ‘down to the deepest terrors and desires’” (Kenner quoting Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “Ben Johnson,”110).

CaptureEuropean and native dressed in Kwakiutl costume. via Wikipedia

So what did the Modernists mean when they spoke of “Primitive”?   And where were they receiving their impressions and examples? The word “primitive” was used rather indiscriminately to refer to the art of European, Russian, and American folk culture, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Medieval Christian artifacts, as well as more exotic art works, crafts, and ritual objects from cultures such as Africa, Oceania, or Australian Aboriginal regions. The indigenous examples were found, naturally, close to home, in still extant country crafts and peasant lifestyles. While an interest in national folk culture was thriving in the Romantic era, it mixed, in Modernism, with international enthusiasms for the art and craft of the “other,” fueled by colonialist and anthropological activity. There were, of course, the now scandalous displays, wherein “exotic peoples were presented in virtual zoological exhibitions or tableaux vivantes.” Since 1851, London’s International Exposition had included representations of “colored peoples”; in Paris, from 1875 to 1889, Expositions Internationales included “native villages”.[5] The St. Louis’ World fair, where a young T.S. Eliot and his family visited, featured “a comprehensive anthropological exhibition, constituting a congress of races, and exhibiting particularly the barbarous peoples of the world, as nearly as possible in their native environments” (Bush 25). “Groups of pygmies from Africa, ‘Patagonian Giants’ from Argentina, Ainu Aborigines from Japan, and Kwakiutl Indians from Vancouver Islands, as well as groups of Native Americans gathered around prominent Indian Chiefs including Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Quanah Parker”(26). Ethnographic museums, filled with artifacts and dioramas of primitive life, were frequent throughout Europe in the 19th century, but the Modernist rediscovery of these objects moved them from out of the realm of anthropology into the realm of High Art and the Art Museum, arranging influential exhibits, such as a 1914 “African Negro Art” show in New York City. African masks from the Ivory Coast, Gabon, the Congo, featuring stiff frontal poses, closed form, abstraction, and direct carving were the most common influence on Parisian artist circles before 1918; in Germany around 1909, Expressionists were influenced by Oceanic tribal sculpture and relief carvings of the Palau Islands of Micronesia, characterized by decorative motifs and surface patterns. The German Expressionist groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter took inspiration for their wood cuts and paintings from these carved beams, copying mythological scenes, exaggerated genitals, and formal simplifications. They decorated their homes and studios with 6th century Indian paintings, Javanese shadow puppets, and wall hangings.

PalauFrom the Caroline Islands, Belau (Palau), 19th-early 20th century via Wikipedia

Another important feature of the Primitivism craze was a tendency to raise craft and applied art to a higher level. Kandinsky copied the clothes and costumes of peasantry; he and his consort Gabrielle Munter “filled rooms with folk crafts executed in native styles, including Russian ceramics, lubok prints, and Bavarian glass paintings [and] decorated the furniture and staircase in a folk art style”}}6}}[[6]]Colin Rhodes, Primitivism and Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 1994, 31.[[6]]. The London Bloomsbury group, too, especially Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, were involved , through Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, in creating designs “based on the assumption of the moral superiority of peasant handicrafts”. Bohemians all over European and American cities cultivated the Primitive style in dress and home design, influenced by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and other dance costumes and theatre designs, by the advent of the Gypsies into European cities, by African, Indian, and Oceanic Art seen in art exhibits and reproductions, and by a desire to follow their Modernist precursor Charles Baudelaire “anywhere, anywhere out of this world”.

CaptureDuncan Bell West Wind fabric.

bitThe Tub, Duncan Grant, circa 1913. Painted after seeing Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon.

ballettBallet Russe, 1912

This search for the exotic led to a celebration of the outsider as subject matter in art, and of course to a mixing between high and low culture within the demi monde cafés, salons, and art happenings of the avant-garde metropolises: gypsies, circus people, criminals, prostitutes, variety performers, models, adventurers, mingled with bourgeois wannabe’s and tourists, aristocratic art collectors, and slumming members of accepted society.

Despite Modernism’s affiliations with the metropolis, Nature was often synonymous with the primitive, “embracing,” writes art historian Colin Rhodes, “a complex set of ideas, ranging from visions of the primordial landscape to the part of the human mind that was untouched by the learning process that one underwent in the civilized west…women and children were closer to nature, and therefore more primitive than men…modern primitivists raised them up as an ideal to which all, whether male or female, should aspire…” (67). Rural artists’ communities cultivated the fashion of “going away,” which often featured nudism and other back-to-nature concepts such as vegetarianism, spreading the idea that a revitalization of culture could spring from a period of regression and more direct modes of living (32). The German Expressionist Ludwig Kirchner’s favorite poet was Walt Whitman, whose 1855 Leaves of Grass had presaged a return to natural innocence while simultaneously breaking down traditional poetic forms.

CaptureMarc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911. Chagall was part of the Neo-Primitivist Donkey’s Tail Group. via Wikipedia

Alexander Shevchenko (1880-1978), a member of the Russian Avant-Garde, combined interest in the culture of the peasantry with French Cubism. In a 1913 manifesto for the “Neo-Primitivism” of the Donkey’s Tail Group Exhibition, he wrote of the turn away from Naturalistic painting as a response to the disappearance of physical nature and the dominance of the factory town: light, he writes, “is created by the electric suns of the night … nature does not exist without cleared, sanded, or asphalted roads, without water mains… without telephone or tramway”. “We are,” he continues, “endeavoring to find new paths for our art, but we do not reject the old forms altogether, and of those we acknowledge, above all primitive art, magical tales of the ancient Orient [by which he means Russia]. The simple and innocent beauty of the lubok [Russian Icon painting], the austerity of primitive art, the mechanical precision of construction, the stylistic nobility and beautiful colors gathered together by the creative hand of the master artist”.[7]

Primitivism, then, was also a protective measure necessitated by the horrors of industrialization and mechanization, which threatened to de-soul man. The Bloomsburian Clive Bell, theorist of Modern art, wrote: “If Expressionism behaves in an ungainly, violent manner, its excuse lies in the prevailing conditions it finds. These really are the conditions of a crude and primitive humanity… As primitive man, driven by fear of nature, sought refuge within himself, so we too have to adopt flight from a ‘civilization’ which is out to devour our souls”[8]. The Primitivist critique—similar to Montaigne’s suggestions in his 1580 essay “On Cannibals” — often asserted that modern civilization, its supposed rationality and propriety, harbored horrors equal to those of the savage jungles of Africa. Some of these horrors were to be discovered in the minds of the insane, or even the minimally neurotic or hysterical.

wolfli-angel-lgBy Adolph Wõlfli (1864-1930), one of the “insane artists” in the Prinzhorn Collection.

An interest in the art of the insane, which was—to the admiring Modernist artists— uninhibited, raw, honest, unadulterated by social indoctrination, was cultivated by Hans Prinzhorn’s Collection of the Art of the Insane and his 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Modernists noted, according to Rhodes, the “obsessive primitive mark-making of drawings by schizophrenics (55) and theorized about the creative force of madness. An article in a 1921 Berlin Weekly by Wilhelm Weygandt equated Klee, Kandinsky, Schwitters, Kokoschka, Cezanne, and van Gogh with the lunatics of the Prinzhorn collection; Paul Schultze-Naumberg, in his1928 book Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race) juxtaposed portraits by Expressionist painters with photos of the deformed, the mentally ill, and lepers. A 1933 Exhibit juxtaposed children’s art, modern art, and art of the insane, and the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibit of 1937 famously placed the distorted, disturbing, and abstracted art of Modernism and the Avant Garde side by side with more heroic and classical pieces, attempting to demonstrate the dangers of the primitive influence.

bitFacing pages from Paul Schultze-Naumberg’s Kunst und Rasse (1928)

Critiques of primitivism, however, did not come solely from reactionary circles: in his essay “Ornament and Crime,” Adolf Loos, one of the founders of Viennese Modernist architecture and design, railed against what he saw as a superfluous, meaningless, and childish decorative urge in his fellows, comparing those who indulged in primitive-inspired ornament to children and tattooed savages, prophesying that in the future, sophisticated, modern people would eschew the practice of ornamenting sparse, clean, and crisp open spaces—on skin, paintings, or building facades—with occult or meaningless decorations.

Clive Bell, ignoring such aspersions, analyzed Modernist art with the assumption that everyone found primitive art “mysterious” and “majestic,” explaining that “in primitive art you will find no accurate representation; you will find only significant form.” Looking, he writes, at “Sumerian sculpture…pre-dynastic Egyptian art…archaic Greek… the Wei T’ang masterpieces…early Japanese works…primitive Byzantine art of the 6th century…or…that mysterious and majestic art that flourished in Central and South America… in every case we observe these common characteristics — absence of representation, absence of technical swagger, sublimely impressive form” (114).

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This theory of “significant form”—a theoretical basis for both Symbolism and Abstraction—has its roots in the study of Anthropology, which preceded and accompanied the advent of Modernism. Sir James Frazer, who published his 13 volume The Golden Bough between 1890 and 1914, laid the groundwork for an influential comparative religious theory of metaphoric mysticism which, despite any failings as hard science or even rigorous anthropology, permeated Modernist art and psychology for decades to come. For those who have not dipped into this fascinating repository of details and data, the work examines the fertility cycle of ancient mystery religions and its recurrent variations and manifestations in subsequent primitive cultures. His images, filtered through Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, famously provided an inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. Freud’s anthropological speculations, his idea of the parricidal urge, owe much to Frazer, and it is hard to imagine the development of a popular theory of symbolic magic without Frazer’s work. In short, Frazer tells of a Divine King of the Wood, whose aging, debilitated body is the cause of an unfertile Nature (the waste land). In order to restore fertility, the king must be killed or replaced by a perfect youth, as spring follows winter. The new king enters the sacred grove and plucks the golden bough—a vegetative manifestation of the powers of fertility—and all is put in order again. Aside from the important fact that Frazer’s work was widely read, thus introducing people to examples and illustrations from comparative anthropology and religion, extant primitive tribes, ancient mystery religions, and early medieval cults, this work is important because of its emphasis on the belief in the real-world effect of symbolic action—translated by Modernist artists into a belief in the possible physical effects of their works of art, raising the stakes of formal variation to a higher level.

Freud, taking his cue from Frazer, breaks up the development of consciousness into three categories: animism, religion, and science. Animism, related to what he calls, “Omnipotence of thought”, is, in the neurotic and the “savage,” a belief that thoughts can alter physical reality : “Only in one field,” he writes, in Totem and Taboo, “has the omnipotence of thought been retained in our own civilization, namely in art” (117). He mentions, further, a theorist named Reinach, whose1909 book, L’Art et la Magie (Art and Magic), posits “that the primitive artists who have left us the scratched or painted animal pictures in the caves of France did not want to ‘arouse’ pleasure, but to ‘conjure things’” (118). If animism supposes that man’s thoughts and actions (including art) create reality, then religion supposes that gods, through the intercession and prayer of mankind, effect and create reality. Science, finally—according to Freud—is a way of looking at the world wherein man is small and helpless in the face of absurd and amoral forces. It is, in this context, easy to see why modern man would be drawn back towards a more existential model wherein he might have some power over his environment and future.

ChauvetHorses from the Chauvet Cave

horsesFranz Marc Der Turm der blauen Pferde, 1912/1913. Marc was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) mentioned above.

Another central anthropological text, Lucian Lévy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think, published as Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910), took issue with Frazer’s evolutionary comparison, positing that the natives’ thought process was not inferior or under-developed, but a wholly other way of thinking, which he called “mystical participation,” a process whereby a representation of an object or person, or a piece of an object or a person’s hair or fingernail, was thought to contain the full force or mana of the so-called original. This conception, related to Western Christian practices of Eucharist or the prohibition of idol worship, was re-introduced and re-packaged for European and American audiences as something exotic and pre-logical, and helped thereby to lay the foundations for a primitivist aesthetic theory of symbolic significance.

The fact that such mystical conceptions already existed in our culture was blithely overlooked by even the anthropologists, who — avoiding the idea that Western cultural history might be in any way irrational—presented these notions as beyond the pale of our comprehension. Lévy-Bruhl writes: “It is the direct result of active belief in the mystic properties of things, properties connected with their shape, and which can be controlled through this, but which would be beyond the power of man to regulate, if there were the slightest change in form. The most apparently trifling innovation may lead to danger, liberate hostile forces, and finally bring about the ruin of its instigator and all dependents upon him”[9]. Such innovations, then, were to be avoided in the realms of art, craft, building, clothing, or rituals, if a society wished to maintain its status quo; in the case of our Modernist revolutionaries, on the other hand, alterations of traditional Form would be seen as a means to change the world, or, at least, the way in which we see it. William Butler Yeats— who, to his credit did make connections to forms of Western mysticism and the secret irrational and occult in his own culture —writes, in a 1900 essay on Symbolism: “…I am certainly never sure, when I hear of some war, or of some religious excitement, or of some new manufacture, or of anything else that fills the ear of the world, that it has not all happened because of something that a boy piped in Thessaly”.[10]

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Whether artists actually believed, like the composer Alexander Scriabin — who avoided finishing a composition for fear that its completion would impel the universe to explode —that their work would physically transform the world, the rhetoric of symbolic effectiveness permeated artistic discourse, and abstraction was seen, by many, as a means to contain and to conjure. Since, moreover, an abstract image or symbol—however crudely depicted —might contain the spirit of a person or idea just as well as —or even better than—an exact representation, realistic mimesis came to be seen as more of a hindrance to direct mystical participation than a help. In his 1914 programmatic book Art, Clive Bell wrote: “The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant…Art transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life…”( 115). Wilhelm Worringer, whose 1906 Abstraction and Empathy was reprinted for over 40 years and provided another important theoretical basis for the link between Primitivism and Modernism, combatted what he called the “European-classical prejudice of our customary historical conception and valuation of art”.[11] The urge to abstraction,” he continued, “stands at the beginning of every art” and is a result of “an immense spiritual dread of space”(70). Abstraction for early man—and, he suggests, for the Modernist —provided a comfort in a world of confusion. He continues: “…the possibility of taking the individual thing of the external world out of its arbitrariness and seeming fortuitousness, of externalizing by the approximation to abstract forms, and, in this manner, finding a point of tranquility and a refuge from appearances,…to wrest the object of the external world out of its natural context, i.e., of everything that is arbitrary…”(71). And, finally, Worringer, quoting Arthur Schopenhauer, tells us that modern man is, indeed, in the same place as Primitive man had been: “Having slipped down from the pride of knowledge, man is now just as lost and helpless vis-à-vis the world picture as primitive man, once he has recognized that this ‘visible world in which we are is the work of Maya, brought forth by magic, a transitory and in itself unsubstantial semblance, comparable to the optical illusion and the dream, of which it is equally false and equally true to say that it is, as that it is not’” (71). Worringer differentiates between societies of abstraction and (post-Renaissance) societies of expression, which, for the Modernists, according to Kermode, can be distilled into the formula: “Bad art is dependent on external explanation, external reference, on trying to utter what is unutterable[…] Thus,” Kermode continues, “there grew up a new veneration for art that leaves out, and so has a chance of containing the unutterable —art under a new aspect, indistinct, calling one back to rough ground, demanding that one look, and see what is not palpably there: connections, interrelations, gaps signifying the unuttered” (366). “One thing Modernism taught us,” Kermode writes, “was just this: that writing can be taught to take account of what it cannot explicitly express” (359). Not only could writing or visual art be taught to take account of the ineffable; it was also theorized that the success of a work of art, even if it did refer to specific things, ideas, or people, was not dependent upon the viewer or reader sharing the particular references or private language of the artist. According to Kenner, the Romantics had found that mysterious correspondences in poems from earlier eras —mysterious because the 18th century reader no longer shared the cultural referents of a 16th century writer —had an “effect” —“too subtle for the intellect”. The Modernists took this a step further and “were,” he writes, “aiming at [these effects] by a deliberate process” (130). “‘Genuine poetry’, wrote Eliot in 1929, ‘can communicate before it is understood’” (123). And Pound, taking this yet farther, theorized that poetry could be understood by a reader “who,” writes Kenner, “could not fill the ellipses back in, who literally, therefore, didn’t know what the words meant”(133) “[W]ords, he continues, are “set free, liberated in magnificent but sober nonsense, which however beaten upon will not disclose meaning” (135).

The Primitive, therefore, which the Modernist could not translate logically into meaning, not sharing in any significant way a cultural referent or history, is the perfect model for something unintelligible which still seems to speak to us. While much is lost going over the precarious bridge of non-linear, subjective expression, we arrive, nevertheless, somewhere very different than we would have had our images and words been instantly translatable into quantifiable meaning. Perhaps, as many Modernists believed, we would arrive in a place that all humans might recognize: outside of civilization, history, logical language, and individual cultural experience, and share, for a moment, some unutterable knowledge. The contact with the art of the other, whether fully understood or boldly appropriated, allowed entrance into what they conceived of as entirely new worlds. But the silent hauntings of indecipherable symbols and abstractions have entered and blown our minds to the extent that we no longer even know what was ours and what was theirs. Modern day multiculturalism seems like a forced but weak trickle of water in comparison with the frenzied rush accompanying these early contacts. Because they couldn’t help but find what they were looking for, it might not be too far-fetched to imagine that the Modernists, when they opened up the passage into other realms and encountered the artifacts and spiritualities of the people they designated as primitive, were actually encountering nothing but their own subconscious minds — seen through the protective veil of the other. This uncertain journey into the pre-logical or aesthetic realms, amid fresh images and formal surprises, came to define the experience of art in the 20th century, an art whose aim was not to “please and instruct,” but to challenge the viewer or reader to change his or her life. How far we have come today, in an art world informed by concept and message (instruction without the pleasing?), and often derisive or neglectful of the powers of formal arrangement or aesthetic experience, is material for another essay altogether.

—Genese Grill

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G photo for BBF

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.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Translated by A. A. Brill. London: Routledge, 1919,149.
  2. Mallen, Enrique. “Stealing Beauty.” Guardian Unlimited: On-line Picasso Project. Web, 2006.
  3. Kermode, Frank. “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Explanation.” In Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, edited by Elazar Barkan. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995, 357-374.
  4. Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
  5. Ronald Bush. “The Presence of the Past: Ethnographic Thinking/Literary Politics,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush, Stanford U P, 1995, 23-41.
  6. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009.
  7. Bell, Clive. Art. New York: Capricorn Books, 1958.
  8. Lévy-Bruhl. How Natives Think, trans. Lillian Ada Clare. G. Allen & Unwin, 1926, 42.
  9. Yeats, “The Symbolism of Poetry,” The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. IV, Early Essays, 116.
  10. Worringer, William. “From Abstraction and Empathy.” In Art in Theory, 1900–2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009.
Jul 092014
 

Robert GalRóbert Gál photo by Karel Cudlín

Herewith a selection of aphorisms from the Slovak writer Róbert Gál. Provocative, terse and paradoxical. They are thought crystallized in balanced contrasts, one of our favourite forms on Numéro Cinq (see earlier examples from Steven Heighton and Yahia Lababidi). Naked thought.  Gál writes: “The obvious blinds.” and “To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately — and thereby go against it.” Think about them; they unfold and refold like intricate origami birds.

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Awareness held back by experience baulks at discovery. ‘Expect nothing’ is the watchword of the condition in which to endure means to weather the onslaught of evolution. What else — unless we are contemplating suicide — can ‘die young’ mean?

§

The obvious blinds.

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To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately — and thereby go against it.

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Unhancing.

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Bear life like offspring.

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Memory — not the attribute, but the disposition — is the basic difference between one who thinks and one who is ‘having fun’.

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Affinity confines.

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Tragic facts do not exist.

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The ideal is what is ideal about something that is not itself ideal.

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The creativity of the Devil, or God’s loyalty to what He has created?

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Aptitude for an action depends on the aptness of the act.

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We neither enter the past nor exit the future.

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Love with experimental elements is not love. An experiment with amorous elements is not an experiment.

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Having no content, they seek form, and that makes them insatiable.

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Borne down by the weight of wings.

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When can we assert that this or that boomerang will still come back, and when do boomerangs merely come back?

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Playing with fire is dangerous for the fire.

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Going round in circles induces the sense of a circle even where there isn’t one.

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Which comes first? The fall or the abyss?

 

Róbert Gál , Translated from the Slovak by David Short

 

Róbert Gál was born in 1968 in Bratislava, Slovakia. He now lives in Prague, after having resided in numerous cities around the world, including New York and Jerusalem. He is the author of several books of aphorisms and philosophical fragments, one of which, Signs & Symptoms, is available in English translation.

 

Jul 072014
 

Richard

When describing the period in which he researched and wrote God’s Middle Finger, Richard Grant says, “I was in a reckless frame of mind.” If this recklessness put him in danger, it also imbued the pages of his book with a knocking pulse. Here in the prologue, the reader encounters Grant running for his life deep in the Sierra Madre mountain range of Northern Mexico; he is far from the help of friends, law enforcement, or a sympathetic guide. Later, Grant will consider the history of the Sierra Madre, the effects of the Drug War, and the radical hospitality of strangers, but this excerpt introduces us to what is perhaps his principal companion on this journey: the allure of the sublime in all its exhilaration and brutality.

—Dan Holmes

GMF

 

PROLOGUE

So this is what it feels like to be hunted through the woods at night. My spine is pressed up against the bark of a pine tree. My heart hammers against my ribcage with astonishing force. Here they come again. Here comes the big dented old Chevy pick-up with its engine roaring and its high beam lights swinging through the darkness and the trees. The men in the truck are drunk and they have rifles and now there are other men on foot looking for me with flashlights.

Why? I have done nothing to them. I pose no threat. Nor do the men imagine that I pose a threat. They are hunting me because I’m a stranger in their territory and the nearest law is three hours’ away over a potholed and bandit-infested road and because they are the type of men who pride themselves on their willingness to kill.

“We are the real killers here,” the tall one growled at me in a gruff mountain Spanish, back when I was desperately trying to make friends with them. “Further north they grow more drugs but here we are hundred percent killers.” He had a silver scorpion affixed to his white straw cowboy hat and the first moment I saw him I knew I was in bad trouble.

The lights are swinging closer now and I press back into the corrrugated bark of the tree. I turn my face to the side, afraid that it might reflect the light. My breath comes short and fast and it makes no sound. The lights swing away and I take off running again. Deeper into the forest and the darkness, with the wide eyes and edgy floating gait of a frightened deer.

I come to a creek with a high undercut bank and I wedge myself into a shallow cave under its lip. The earth is damp and cold. It feels like a good place to hide. Then I realize that I can’t see them coming from here and I can’t hear anything except the water rushing through the creek. I have neutralized my two key senses. They could be twenty feet away. What if the men with flashlights are following my tracks? The ground I ran across was bare and dusty with a scant covering of pine needles and the men in these mountains grow up hunting game and tracking stray livestock.

I unwedge myself from the cave and step from one pale silver rock to the next across the creek. My eyes are well adjusted to the starlight from all the watching and waiting and I fear the rise of the moon. Like all hunted creatures, I want darkness and deeper cover.

 On the other side of the creek I start climbing a steep slope covered with dry crunching leaf litter and find a thicket of oak saplings with a large boulder in front of it. I work my way into the thicket, concerned about rattlesnakes and scorpions, and hunch down behind the boulder. My breathing slows and lengthens. My heart no longer feels like it’s going to smash its way through my ribcage and bounce off through the forest.

These mountains have already taught me more than I ever wanted to know about fear. It comes in many forms and normally has an element of numbness and panic but not this time. I feel focused and alert, clear-headed ,and agile, with a deep black dread in my core. I stand up and peek over the boulder. The lights are still strafing the darkness. The fuckers are still out there. How can they be so drunk and yet so persistent? Ah yes, the cocaine. Instead of snorting it like gentlemen, they poured out little white mounds of it on the palms of their hands, threw it down their throats and chased it back with more beer.

“You say you’re alone and unarmed,” said the short fat one. “Aren’t you afraid someone will kill you?”

“Why would anyone want to kill me?”

The tall one smiled and said, “To please the trigger finger.”

The short fat one smiled and said, “Someone could kill you and throw your body down a ravine and no-one would ever know.”

I should have grabbed that warm fleece-lined corduroy shirt when I bolted away from them into the forest. I can keep running and hiding all night but we’re high up in the mountains, at 8,000 feet or so, and I’m already shivering in jeans and a T-shirt and by dawn the temperature will be close to freezing. If I had matches or a lighter, I would walk a long way from here and light a fire. If I had a shirt with sleeves, I would stuff it with dead oak leaves and pine needles for insulation. If I had half a goddamn brain, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

And now another problem: what sounds like a large wild animal is walking through the dry leaf litter towards me. Its footfall is too stealthy, graceful and purposeful to be a cow or a donkey or a goat. A coyote perhaps? It sounds bigger. A mountain lion? The men said these mountains were full of them. They also said there were onzas — a kind of mutant mountain lion or lion-jaguar cross which has never been photographed and never furnished a verifiable pelt to a scientist. I don’t believe in the existence of onzas  and yet now I see one in my mind’s eye. The brindled elongated torso. The tufted elbows. The low skulking gait.

Whatever it is, this creature needs to know that I’m here and willing to fight. The human voice would be the most effective warning. Wild animals are extremely wary of people here, because the custom of the mountains is to shoot all wild animals on sight. But I daren’t make a human sound. I’m afraid human ears might pick it up. So I make a low snarling growl and the animal stops. I growl again and the footsteps veer away.

Deprived of language, hunted through the woods like an animal — what in the whoremothering bastard name of Jesus am I doing here? That’s the way people talk around here: grubworm sons of their disgraced mothers, filthy offspring of the grand raped whore. What in the goat-fornication was I thinking?

Those people up there will look at you like a great big pork chop. They’ll want to render your fat and eat your meat…

You can’t say I wasn’t warned. From the early planning stages of this long twisted journey, I have been bombarded and deluged with warnings. They came in such quantity that I stopped listening to them. I started trusting to luck and I was luckier than I deserve to make it as far as this thicket.

If you go up there alone, you become prey…

As I shiver through the long cold hours on the wrong side of midnight,  growling to keep the wild animals away, waiting for the men to give up and go home so I can get back to my truck and leave these mountains forever, one quiet husky voice keeps echoing in my head.

—Richard Grant

Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London. He is the author of American Nomads, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and Crazy River.

Jun 152014
 

DublinersAuthor and the First Edition

Bloomsday is tomorrow, June 16, a day of literary legend, which may also commemorate James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. But today is very special as well. It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, which appeared on June 15, 1914. It took ten years for Joyce to get the book published. Sending an early version to his eventual publisher Grant Richards in London, Joyce wrote perhaps not the best cover letter ever composed but one of the truest. According to Nora’s biographer Brenda Maddox, Joyce told Richards he thought “there might be a market for ‘the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.'”

As Bruce Stone explains in his luminous essay here published, Dubliners was “a revolution without fanfare.” Joyce’s grim naturalism, his disposition to document the underside (not to mention the underclass) of Edwardian Dublin, has inspired much of what we call realistic and even minimalist fiction today. When I attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1980s, I had classmates who swore that “Araby” was the best short story ever written. Conversely, since it somewhat cants against the naturalistic grain of the stories, that word “epiphany,” used so often in the discourse of contemporary American letters, also derives from Joyce’s technique in Dubliners. But for Joyce, who couldn’t get out of Dublin fast enough when he was 22, who felt betrayed by city, family and literary culture, the book was a squaring of accounts. Bruce Stone writes, “Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind.”

Bruce Stone has published essays, book reviews, and fiction in Numéro Cinq, including “Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita” and “Viktor Shklovsk’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar,” two bedrock texts in terms of the aesthetic behind the magazine. “Dear Dirty Dubliners, Revisited: James Joyce’s Classic at the Century” is the third in this string of exemplary texts, erudite, insightful, surprising, and straight — not the sentimental celebration of the great Irish writer but a re-Joycing of Joyce, the writer returned to us.

dg

 

“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Stephen Dedalus,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In June of 1914, after an agonizing labor fraught with complications—marriage, emigration, the births of two children, some unusually vexed negotiations with publishers, to say nothing of a rapidly crowning first novel—James Joyce saw his Dubliners delivered into print. The collected stories were written primarily between 1904 and 1906, and though several had appeared promptly in The Irish Homestead, the book would have to wait almost a decade for publication. The breakthrough came only after Joyce engineered a publicity coup, with the help of Ezra Pound. In an essay called “A Curious History,” Joyce aired his publication woes, naming names of fickle publishers and citing a disputed passage from the text. When Pound ran the article in The Egoist, the public shaming apparently did the trick, because Grant Richards, whose imprint had reneged on a contract in 1906, agreed to give the manuscript a second chance.

Early readers balked at the book’s then-scandalous content, which was enough to cause printers, fearing lewdness and libel charges, to break up the type. But even if we no longer share those period qualms, the collection’s arduous journey into print still seems inevitable. Perhaps no other great book can match in drabness, meanness, or deliberate ungainliness the fifteen stories of Dubliners. Turn-of-the-century Dublin, in Joyce’s lens, is a hard-scrabble place, shabby and penny-pinching, gas-lit and chill. There, alcoholics arm-wrestle for the national honor and lose, children suffer abuses both physical and spiritual (pedophiles prowl the public greens), marriages are joined out of necessity and spite, sex is mercenary, work routinized and alienating, life nasty and bleak, if rarely brutish or short (passivity and inertia are the rule). Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind. And a few months after the book’s publication, all hell broke loose: the Archduke was shot, the European countries charged variously to war, and the course of civilization warped in proportion to the scale of the carnage. Against this backdrop, the tenor of Joyce’s book, its systemic anhedonia, its grim determination to record the blemishes and mange of the human populace, might have seemed oddly prescient, the only fit appraisal of our domestic condition. Maybe it’s less surprising then that this quiet, unprepossessing little volume, this revolution without fanfare, should continue to haunt us today, its blighted populace still animate, immune to the passage of time.

For most readers, if the collection’s title is familiar at all, it remains so largely because of its most toothsome parts: “Araby” and “The Dead” have been obsessively anthologized over the years, to the perennial chagrin of high school students and undergraduates. The rest of the book, like the inedible parts of the fish, is reserved for the inoffendable palates of scholars. This ghettoization of the stories has given rise to some serious misconceptions about Joyce’s achievement in the genre—which is no small matter since “Araby” and “The Dead” have conspired to establish perhaps the dominant paradigm for modern short fiction. On the strength of those two stories, generations of readers have been conditioned to think of Joyce as the progenitor of a photographic realism in literature, and of the epiphany—the sudden flash of insight, a burst of self-knowledge—which still ranks among the favored plot devices in contemporary short fiction.

james-joyce

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Bennett captures indirectly the popular view of the book: that Dubliners represents Joyce’s flirtation with naturalism, an artistically conservative prelude to those later mad-scientist experiments of Portrait, Ulysses and the illegible Finnegan’s Wake (which Nabokov called a “petrified pun”). Bennett describes how this style took root at the Iowa Writers Workshop and rose to prominence in North American letters in the latter decades of the 20th century. He also conveys, in the same breath, his personal distaste for this programmatic realism and its blanching imperatives: to “carve, polish, compress and simplify: banish [oneself from the text] as T. S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro.” In Bennett’s view, Joyce’s aesthetic, subsequently institutionalized, equates to the triumph of showing over telling—and showing of a particular cast, call it literary asceticism. Bennett continues:

Frank Conroy [director of the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1987-2005] had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the  iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.

For a long time I shared Bennett’s aversion to this artistic parsimony, its vows of linguistic chastity and metaphysical silence, that parched clarity and bitter taste, but I’ve since come to appreciate its limited charms. In “The Sisters,” for example, Joyce depicts the boy-narrator’s distraction as the kid prays in the mourning house of his dead mentor (a bent priest); unable to concentrate on the profundities of death and godliness, instead the boy observes the homely details of the priest’s sister kneeling beside him: “how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back, and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down to one side.” The details, for all their meanness, constitute an artistic revolution that still seems radical: the moment reads like a rebuke to the notion that literature should concern itself with melodrama or metaphysics, that the human comedy can be portrayed or conceived in such high-flown terms. Yet, the passage is played with monstrous restraint, as if nothing much is going on.

This low-mimetic drift of the art in Dubliners often approaches the sublime. In “An Encounter,” for example, another boy-narrator, this one playing hooky from school, offers in passing this line of description: “The day had grown sultry and in the windows of the grocers’ shops musty biscuits lay bleaching.” A throwaway moment, but the drabness of the image and the economy of the phrasing yield a magnesium flash in the consciousness (maybe this is the psychedelia that Bennett mentions). Such passages abound in Dubliners, but what most recommends Joyce’s naturalistic mode is the fact that his characters, as a consequence of this scrupulous accounting, are perfectly incarnated, fully realized if not always exactly alive.

Consider this description of the drunk Freddy Mallins, a bit player in “The Dead”: “His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavylidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy.” Freddy shows up at the Morkans’ party already soused, with his fly open, eager to share a bawdy story with anyone who’ll listen. When a Mr. Browne interrupts Freddy’s story to alert him to the “disarray in his dress” and give him some lemonade to sober him up, the vignette concludes with this little tableaux, forever inscribed in my memory:

Freddy Mallins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Mallins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of highpitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of the last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him.

There are characters in Shakespeare who have the same effect on me—like the flea-bitten ostlers in Henry IV, Part One who spend the night in a room without a chamber pot and resort to pissing in the fireplace. I think I went to high school with those guys—that is, such characters feel as alive to me as those in my own lived memories. And Freddy: that bronchitic laughter, that gesture of rubbing a fist into an eye itchy with tears of mirth. The feeling the passage evokes for me can only be described as love. Admittedly, Freddy is a gregarious anomaly among the cast of Dubliners. A more typical city denizen would be James Duffy, who lives in Chapelizod, on the outskirts of town, under self-imposed quarantine, his blood as congealed as the white grease on a plate of corned beef and cabbage. (He’s like one of those monks, mentioned in “The Dead,” who sleeps in his own coffin.) And Freddy Mallins himself isn’t exactly admirable. I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him, or spend time with him, or be responsible for him. I suspect that sometime soon he will do something stupid, maybe unforgivable (though not tonight—see how dutifully he tends to his aging mom and gets her settled in a horse-drawn cab at the party’s end). But that he exists at that moment, as he is, scanty hair and open fly and all, makes him lovable.

Even from a vantage point as jaundiced as Bennett’s, Joyce’s dreary collection retains a hard-earned luster. But this view of the book, as a forerunner of minimalist realism, is limited, as boxed-in as the blind end of North Richmond Street. Scholars have suspected as much (albeit contentiously) for decades, yet the memo seems not to have reached creative writing circles, or the heavily trafficked annexes of contemporary anthologies. What better way to observe, then, the collection’s centennial birthday than with a close examination of one of its forgotten stories, one which might begin to rectify those well-meaning misconceptions. For best results, I would submit for your perusal “A Little Cloud,” Joyce’s parody of the artist as a no-longer-young man. This little story, muted, discontinuous, captures the essence of the collection. It both revises our doctrinal assumptions about epiphanies and reveals how Dubliners anticipates Joyce’s later innovations, the book of a piece with, not other than, Portrait and Ulysses—in its own way just as momentous.

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“A Little Cloud” Atlas

James Joyce pictured in 1934

Like many of the stories in the book, “A Little Cloud” is an oddly warped, broken-backed affair. From start to finish, the plot spans only a few decisive hours in the life of Little Chandler, a milksop law clerk who dreams of becoming a celebrated Irish poet. We first meet him daydreaming at his desk, idling away the last of the workday in anticipation of his evening plans: his longtime friend, Ignatius Gallaher, now a journalist in London, has returned for a visit to “dear dirty Dublin,” and the men have arranged to grab a drink at a posh bar with a Continental vibe. Chandler envies Gallaher and tries to talk himself into believing that Gallaher deserves his good fortune, but after a few whiskeys at the bar, when the conversation turns to manners and sexual mores in Paris (a sore spot for the untraveled Chandler), Chandler’s resentment for his friend starts to manifest. The men jokingly disparage each other’s marital status—Chandler a husband, Gallaher a confirmed bachelor who vows to settle down only with a rich Jewish woman—and they part on uneasy terms, a pantomime of friendship and fellow-feeling.

At this point, the story cuts to Chandler’s house, and the conflict centers not on his stymied artistic career, but on his stultifying marriage (which is never mentioned until Gallaher raises the subject, and then himself disappears: the story fluidly shifts thematic focus—thus, the broken-backed feel of the narrative). Chandler has forgotten to bring home his wife’s tea, and though she claims not to mind the oversight, at the last minute, before the shop closes, she rushes out to get the tea, leaving Chandler, probably still buzzed from the alcohol, alone with his infant son.

Cue the epiphany. Chandler stares at a picture of his wife and discovers in her still-life eyes the truth about his marriage: “They repelled and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture.” The recognition sparks a wave of “resentment” for the whole of his life, and he longs to escape. For solace he opens a book of Byron’s poetry and tries to comfort himself with illusions of his own poetical nature, but just then, the baby starts crying, disrupting Chandler’s reading, and he snaps: “It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:–Stop!” Of course, this only makes matters worse. The baby begins to cry so hard that it struggles to breathe, and just in the nick of time, Chandler’s wife comes home and brutally relieves Chandler of his childcare duties. The story ends with Annie, the wife, soothing the child and a broken Chandler feeling “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes.”

Because the third-person point of view closely simulates Chandler’s perceptions, and because Chandler pretends to have a poetic cast of mind, “A Little Cloud” lacks some of the emphasis on naturalistic observation that makes “Araby” and “The Dead” famous. Instead, we get trace amounts of the musky humanity from those stories. See Gallaher, as he doffs his hat when he greets Chandler and acknowledges the toll of time on the body: “He bent his head and felt with two sympathetic fingers the thin hair at the crown.” In a similar spirit, Chandler’s house feels lived-in precisely because it’s so sterile in its staging, carefully curated—equipped with the nice, but not too nice, furniture that his wife picked out and which Chandler has bought “on the hire system” (a sort of rent-to-own arrangement). But given its comparative lack of physical details, “A Little Cloud” relies on dialogue to bring the characters to life, and it does. That dialogue is, to my ear, dullish, maybe too lifelike in its fidelity to the conversational conventions of the time, but when the talk turns acrimonious, Joyce captures indelibly Gallaher’s contempt for Chandler and his marriage:

I don’t fancy tying myself up to one woman, you know.

He imitated with his mouth the act of tasting and made a wry face.

Must get a bit stale, I should think, he said.

The words limn the gesture in only the barest terms, yet I can’t help but fill in the gaps, imagining Gallaher with scrunched lips, fussily mincing the rank idea. I can smell the smoke from the cigars that the men have been puffing.

Nevertheless, if this is all there is to Dubliners, if such moments are both part and parcel of Joyce’s achievement, I think the collection would survive for us largely as a footnote to the monumental novels, and it might be justifiably parted out for the assembly of a crash course in narrative design. But the lifelikeness in Dubliners is mere prelude to a more complicated and more compelling agenda, as even the enigmatic title of “A Little Cloud” attests. To what does this title refer? The Little clearly evokes Little Chandler’s name, but the Cloud is curiously opaque. Does it refer to the cigar smoke wafting around the men’s conversation? Is it a Biblical reference, as the Norton Critical Edition scholars suggest? Is there a typo perhaps: should the title have read “A Little Clod”? Is the plot crisis here tantamount to a cloud passing over Chandler’s existence (or burning off in the sunlight of epiphany)? Might the Cloud denote the ungrounded quality of the narrative, its relative lack of physical description? The text never explicitly confirms any of the reader’s suppositions. What the title does make clear is that the story’s vision doesn’t promise or aspire to perfect clarity—however harsh, grainy and overexposed a “realistic” clarity might be. No, this story, like the book to which it belongs, trades in equal measure, perhaps primarily, in obfuscation.

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Narcissus and Echo

The fluent banality of the dialogue, for example, its plodding mimesis, doesn’t define the story’s tone; rather, it sharply contrasts with the lyrical timbre of Chandler’s poeticizing mind. As Chandler sits at his desk, staring out the window, he narrates, indirectly, the scene, a little landscape sketch:

The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures—on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens.

The irony in the sentence is hilarious: Chandler believes himself to be experiencing a beautiful moment of melancholic communion, as natural beauty gilds the urban scene. Yet, his mean-spiritedness, his contempt for his fellow Dubliners, punctures the graceful illusion at every turn: those untidy nurses, decrepit old men and screaming children belong to a different genre than the sunset’s kindly golden dust. (Even the phrase golden dust can be pressed to yield an oxymoron). Chandler is oblivious to the tone-deafness of his narrating consciousness, but the word choices reveal his true colors to the reader.

Later too, as he walks to meet Gallaher, he experiences another even more self-consciously poetical moment (later in the story he will try to recall the poem taking shape here):

For the first time [not quite true] his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. … As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river toward the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps [Chandler discovers metaphor] huddled together along the river banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of the sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone. He wondered whether he could write a poem to express his idea.

Lest you have any doubt that the intention here is parody, a caricature of the poet, consider that, as Chandler continues walking, the poem still unwritten, he fantasizes about the reviewers’ praise that might follow his performance, a passage too rich to truncate:

He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems, perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics perhaps would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of the poems; besides that, he would put in allusions [here, I laugh out loud]. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get. Mr. Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse. … A wistful sadness pervades these poems. … The Celtic note. [Guffaw!] It was a pity that his name was not more Irish looking.

The tone is so deadpan, unobtrusive, that we might miss the withering irony. That is, the parody doesn’t make a lot of noise; Chandler remains, throughout, pathetically human, not a cartoon. But the verdict is clear: Chandler’s trademark timidity (he carries a shyly scented handkerchief) gives the lie to these delusions of grandeur, and it seems especially damning that he abandons the poem to craft the praise, which is itself airily patronizing (or sentimental rot, to use a period term).

In a similar fashion, the fact that Chandler turns, later, to Byron’s poetry to escape the reality of his chintzy apartment, cold marriage and demanding child also exposes him as a poser, not a poet. Byron, as the exemplar of the Romantic era, is English, and in the nationalistic milieu of Dubliners, Chandler’s taste in poetry marks him with a self-destructive servility to British rule. Further, the poem Chandler reads (unnamed in the story, but printed in full in the wonderful Norton Critical Edition), is called “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin of the Author, and Very Dear to Him.” The first stanza sets a scene in which the writer visits the “tomb” to “scatter flowers on the dust [he loves],” and he notes how “Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove.” Compare the tone of the poem, with its tombal sonority and absent zephyrs, with that of the conversation between Gallaher and Chandler, or even that of the immediate context of the room in which Chandler is reading, with a bawling infant and layaway furniture. The incongruity here, the dissonance, amounts to an indictment of both Chandler’s tastes and the Romantic project: this sort of art is cast as precious and dated, out of tune with contemporary reality. If a story like “The Sisters” exposes the bankruptcy of metaphysics, “A Little Cloud” turns its eye overtly on aesthetics and likewise splashes cold water in the face of the hallowed tradition.

The problem with the naturalistic view of Dubliners is that it’s blind to the irony that pervades the text. As I understand it, photographic realism is, by definition, unequivocally tone neutral and impersonal: the language captures and records, reliably, the real (sounds like an impossible project to me). In Dubliners, everywhere characters are, like Chandler, victims of their own delusions, and this discovery emerges obliquely in the text, in the ironic distance between the characters’ and the readers’ perceptions.

What makes us see a work like “A Little Cloud” or, more famously, “Araby” as naturalistic is precisely the way in which mundane description comes to eclipse the protagonists’ lyrical fantasies, couched in poetic language. Early in “Araby,” for example, the boy-narrator carries his love for Mangan’s sister like a “chalice” through the storm of hectoring reality: his love is existentially girded in metaphor. By the story’s end, he boards a sluggish tram, self-consciously pays his admission fee, peruses the underwhelming staging of the workaday “bazaar,” gets slighted when trying to pick out his gift for the girl and pauses, in the story’s last line, to survey the ruins of his romantic imagination. But it’s an oversimplification to call this naturalism (as Edmund Wilson did in 1958). Instead, Joyce’s stories, as a rule, record a conflict between literary styles; if a pitiless realism tends to come out on top, this doesn’t mean that the war is over. The next story will reconfigure the conflict in another manner, play it in a different key. Even the most resolutely pragmatic stories, those most immune to the spirit of “poetry,” feature characters who could hardly be called visionaries (see Mrs. Mooney in “A Boarding House,” or Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” both hell-bent on balancing ledgers). Rather, these apparently objective views of reality are at odds with other presumably objective views, and we never reach an artistic or existential high ground. Absent this conflict, this endless tilting of voices and visions, the art would be drab, indeed. Moreover, and perhaps more alarmingly, that bedrock of reality, when it does obtrude in the stories, often proves to be hollow and porous—particularly on the matter of Joyce’s vaunted epiphanies.

To see how, and to catch the full measure of “A Little Cloud”’s contribution to Dubliners, and of Dubliners’ contribution to world literature, we need to acknowledge the inadequacy of reading the stories in isolation. If we fillet the collection, extract its most succulent parts and toss the rest, we miss the deliberate artifice that binds the stories together: they’re all interwoven, with almost subliminal recurrences of images and motifs, each part an essential contributor to the collection’s larger design (Dubliners is a story cycle inclining to a novel). “A Little Cloud” reveals this intertextual patterning from its first lines, when Chandler recalls seeing Gallaher off at the “North Wall,” the Dublin dock favored by emigrants of the period. It’s at the North Wall that Eveline, the title character of the book’s third story, refuses to budge one inch further, recedes into an animal stubbornness, and watches her lover depart for points distant while she remains behind in paraplegic Dublin. And like the self-stranded Eveline, Chandler is prone to sitting idly and gazing out the window while his mind travels, not freely, but inside its self-made cage.

The prominent male duo in “A Little Cloud” also evokes comparison with the two gallants of “Two Gallants” who manipulate and use callously a wealthy family’s servant girl. At that story’s midpoint, Lenehan, the unsightly wing-man of the gallants, dreams epiphanically of middle-class comforts with a reliable wife; in Chandler’s predicament, we see the puncturing of that illusion: Lenehan’s sentimental dream is a dead-end vision. Chandler’s rough treatment of his child also prefigures the conclusion to “Counterparts,” the collection’s next story, in which Farrington, an alcoholic scrivener, blows his money on drink, embarrasses himself in an arm-wrestling match and heads home to take a strap to his son. (The story’s last line belongs to the boy, his disembodied voice pleading for mercy, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me … I’ll say a Hail Mary.”) Even the Byron poem in “A Little Cloud” serves to decode the cryptic title of “Clay,” which concerns an aging cleaning-lady named Maria, a woman prone to self-delusion who becomes the butt of a morbid joke during a Hallow’s Eve game (involving blindfolds and divination). As Byron writes of “the clay” that he loves, we grasp clay’s associations with death, a connection essential to a reading of “Clay,” but never made explicit in that story. For one last example, consider that Chandler’s fantasies of generous reviews point to Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of “The Dead,” and his part-time job as a literary columnist for the Daily Express.

The whole of Dubliners works like this: the details of the stories call out to each other at a distance, yielding an echo chamber of motifs, a plexed matrix of correspondences. Perceiving this patterning in Dubliners is a bit like creating a cat’s cradle of the mind; one can only marvel at the artistic intelligence that fashioned it, and maybe share in some of the wonder by seeing it for oneself (sort of like visiting the Grand Canyon). When I first discovered the intricate design in Dubliners, the effect was dizzying; though I continued breathing normally, in a spiritual sense it left me gasping. The only metaphor I could supply was that it felt like staring directly into the sun. That is to say, in isolation, the stories in Dubliners are often less than scintillating; in many ways, the book shows Joyce’s determination to drive a cleaver between the notions of art and entertainment, aesthetics and enjoyment. But maybe as a whole the collection does supply, in its interlocking craftsmanship, an experience of joy; against the pervasive chill of the collection, for those of us who need it, we might find a contravening warmth in the artistry.

Maybe. The discovery of the patterned surface (or depths) in Dubliners sounds itself like the experience of the epiphany visited upon so many of the collection’s characters. And in fact, this intertextual patterning yields some startling revelations about the nature of those epiphanies, both in isolation and in the aggregate.

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Has No One Learned Anything?

james-joyce-1

Charles Baxter represents the orthodox view of the Joycean epiphany, in his otherwise heretical essay “Against Epiphanies.” Baxter begins by acknowledging the cultural baggage that attends this artistic device: the epiphany doesn’t originate with Joyce but dates back to the rhetoric of religious revelation (see, for example, the conversion experience of Saul of Tarsus). When I consider the roots of epiphany, I think less of saints and more of heroes, as in the anagnorisis, or recognition event, from classical drama and epic poetry. In that tradition, the revelation was directed outward, more public than personal, a recognition of a truth about somebody else (like the incognito Odysseus being spotted by his servant, or Oedipus Rex solving the riddle of his life). The epiphany, by contrast, is anagnorisis turned inward—you recognize at last the face in the mirror—and this attainment of knowledge often supersedes the importance of any action that might follow. Thought trumps plot.

Baxter also shows how Joyce’s epiphanies, contra Bennett, have a metaphysical thrust; he cites the lines from Stephen Hero (the prototype for Portrait) in which Stephen Dedalus describes the epiphany of the object, a perception of its genuine essence. You might call it a transfiguration of the commonplace, a moment that lights up trivialities with transcendental significance. As Baxter summarizes the upshot of the device in Dubliners,

The stories […] are astonishingly detailed, but they continually aim for a climactic moment of brilliant transforming clarification. The clarification happens on the page, even if it doesn’t become visibly apparent to the characters. The stories aim for this effect because the lives Joyce is putting on display might be insufferable to contemplate otherwise, or rather, they would exist in a condition of unimproved Naturalism.

Despite (or because of) this grand inheritance and aim, Baxter complains that epiphanies have become too pat to be convincing anymore; they’re tropes, not genuine transformations of character. And he ultimately argues that writers need to shake up their notions of epiphanies, perhaps showing us how an epiphany can be treacherous: “the insight, if it does come, [need not] be valid or true.” He’s right, of course, but he holds up Joyce’s “Araby” as a shining example of the classic epiphany, the epiphany played straight. When that story’s narrator peers up into the darkness and sees that he’s a “creature driven and derided by vanity,” his eyes burning with “anguish and anger,” he seems to have discovered the essential truth about himself, his folly in romanticizing his budding relationship with Mangan’s sister. This puncturing of a literary illusion is in fact the signature gesture of Dubliners, and maybe this explains why “Araby” has survived while the other stories have faded: the part stands for the whole here. But the local observation needs stressing: for Baxter, the boy-narrator’s conclusive judgment, while somewhat self-destructive, is reliable and truthful. “He has become visible to himself,” Baxter writes.

David Jauss, in “Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies,” holds a view similar to Baxter’s in that he too urges writers to experiment with the device. Relocate it in the narrative, he suggests (among other things), rather than reserving it for the dubious and tired fireworks-of-insight finish. However, unlike Baxter, Jauss is critical of the epiphany at the close of “Araby.” He finds a disproportion between the “showing” of the narrative up to that point, and the glib “telling” of the epiphanic moment: “the final sentence,” Jauss argues, “knocks the story off balance.” He also notes how the boy’s epiphany is couched in the language of religious revelation (vanity, anguish) instead of clear-eyed self-awareness. For Jauss, this fault in the epiphany is the crucial weakness in the story; he isn’t, as a result, “convinced the epiphany is incontrovertibly true, much less permanently life-altering.”

Jauss is right to suggest that the story’s last sentence invites and requires a double take, but what if the doubtful nature of the epiphany is precisely the point? That is, the pseudo-religious tenor of the epiphany might mark it as another form of self-delusion; the boy doesn’t progress, then, from blindness to insight, but rather exchanges one astigmatism for another: exalted romanticism for hair-shirt contrition. In fact, the interconnections among the stories help to confirm this “suspicious” reading (as Margot Norris, author of the superb Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, might call it).

Consider that in “An Encounter,” when the boy-narrator gets drawn into conversation with a pedophile on the public green, the guy’s speech is incantatory, mired in the repetitions of a one-track mind:

He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the  impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. … He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.

Repetition, a verbatim recycling of words and phrases, is here the stylistic marker of a sinister self-delusion. In some ways, incantatory repetition is similar to Romantic poetry: both offer a linguistic experience that calls attention to artifice, a sense of words being “magnetized” (repetition is the slovenly cousin of rhyme and alliteration). In the world of Dubliners, any act of dressing up language in artificial clothes scans as a symptom of error, an epistemological failure: see again, for example, Chandler’s description of that kindly golden dust and the lyrical parallelism (repetition) in his syntax. So when the narrator of “Araby” adopts that poeticized and quasi-religious rhetoric, the alliteration is the giveaway that he is girding himself in a defective system: his newfound self-knowledge is driven by the same delusive impulse as his love. Objective reality doesn’t carry the day, after all.

Read in this light, Joyce’s text was already practicing what Jauss and Baxter recommend for contemporary writers. And in every instance, I think, the epiphanies experienced by the characters in Dubliners prove to be forked, flawed, existential false positives.

The epiphany in “A Little Cloud” is, on this point, typical. Chandler’s discovery of the “hatred in his wife’s eyes” appears to represent an arrival of authentic knowledge. Yet, the initial trigger for this devastating insight is Chandler’s glimpse of the lack of “passion” in those same eyes (in the photograph). In other words, what Chandler laments in the scene is Annie’s failure to measure up to his Romantic ideals, which we’ve already seen are ridiculously inflated and artistically bankrupt. So how much truth can be said to inhere in Chandler’s judgment? The very foundation of the epiphanic scene is dubious.

The conclusion to the sequence further aggravates the ambiguity. As those “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes,” the text doesn’t specify the thing that Chandler regrets. He might regret his treatment of his son; however, this would make for a pretty hollow ending to the tale, as the minor failure eclipses the major crisis and a mood of conventional sentimentality prevails. At best, it would signal, implicitly, Chandler’s recognition of the hurtful selfishness of his artistic dreams. But because the scene appears to confirm the irreconciliability of Chandler and his wife (of Chandler to his life), it seems more likely that Chandler regrets his decision to marry the woman with the passionless eyes. In this reading, the story concludes with an access of self-pity: Chandler has learned the truth (maybe) about his marriage, but nothing about the error of his ambitions. His abusive behavior pales, for him, in comparison to his own suffering. In either case, the epiphany is ruinous, not exalting. And because the epiphany conceals within it this crucial misdirection, this potential for a forked reading, the gambit, while promising a neat resolution to the story’s conflict, cagily withholds the very closure that authentic self-awareness would supply.

With its ironic ending and parodic disposition, “A Little Cloud” also proves crucial to our understanding of the collection’s crowning epiphany, at the close of “The Dead,” possibly the most famous paragraph in all of world literature. Recall the scene: Gabriel Conroy, in the aftermath of his discovery of his wife’s private emotional world, stares out the window and observes the snow, falling softly and softly falling, faintly falling and falling faintly, “like the descent of their last end on all the living and the dead.” The prose is magnificent: lyrical but not overwrought (though the verb “swooned” hasn’t aged well), simple but not anemic (those “dark mutinous Shannon waves”), the whole charged with an existential urgency. Mundane experience is here transmuted into credible transcendence. Yet, having observed the function of stylistic artifice (repetition) elsewhere in the collection, it’s hard not to think, “Uh-oh,” when Gabriel’s meditations wax poetic, as if he’s hearkening to the false counsel of literary language.

The consensus reading (see SparkNotes, for example) catches the essential ambiguity in the passage. On one hand, Gabriel seems invested with a fresh understanding of his shortcomings, and newly resolved to embark on a journey with his wife to make amends. On the other hand, he doesn’t move a muscle in the scene, but remains spellbound, even paralyzed, by the experience of observing the snow, and as he burrows into his imagination, his thoughts tend toward the ultimate inertia of death. This paradox is almost identical to the predicament of the poetic speaker in the last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the rimy sleigh driver with promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. As Terry Eagleton expertly parses Frost’s stanza, he might be speaking equally of the conclusion to “The Dead”:

There is much recurrence and repetition in [the poem’s] rhyming pattern, which brings with it a curious sense of stasis. By the time the last verse arrives, we have the mesmeric, incantatory repetition of a single rhyme (‘deep’ … ‘keep’ … ‘sleep’). There is no longer any progress or modulation in the rhyme scheme, even though the speaker is reminding himself to move on. The effect is rather like someone trying to shake himself out of the paralysis of sleep with the thought that he should get up.

Style and content are likewise at odds in Gabriel’s epiphany, the stasis in the language nullifying the promise of profluential transformation. In Gabriel’s case, the content is further at odds with itself, as he appears simultaneously to embrace his Irish identity (his journey westward) and to obviate the difference between life and death (the last words unite “all the living and the dead”). His destination with Gretta is either Galway or Hades. Here, redemption is indistinguishable from doom. This paradox is in its own way brilliant, even perfect, but we understand the passage incompletely if we ignore the signposts elsewhere in the collection, and these further unsettle the passage’s already unsettling equipoise. In particular, the precise echoes between Chandler’s window-side view of the golden dust and Gabriel’s view of the falling snow—both scenes featuring atmospheric cascades—make me doubtful of the authenticity of Gabriel’s vision, as if it too, while seeming more humane and genuine, is just another kind of self-delusion, Chandler’s foolishness played in a more sympathetic key.

Or is Chandler’s vision a parody of Gabriel’s view, serving to contrast with, not sabotage, the epiphany in “The Dead,” the one bathed in the sunlight of stupidity, the other cloaked in the darkness and frost of a paradoxical truth? In either case, some readers would bridle, understandably, at the notion of deriving the meaning in one story from motifs in the others, as if each story requires and deserves an interpretive isolation. But even within the confines of “The Dead,” I do worry about the quantity of snow. At the hotel window, Gabriel imagines how the snow lies “thickly drifted” over everything, over all of Ireland, down to the crosses on the tombstones, the thorns of the trees, even the spear points on a cemetery gate (a neat trick that would be). Yet, a few pages earlier, as the Conroys are leaving the Morkans’ party en route to the hotel, we find this description of the snow event: “It was slushy underfoot and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings.” This sounds like something more than a dusting, but hardly a blanketing. The contrast between these perceptions of snowfall is startling, and suggests that Gabriel’s meditative epiphany carries perhaps a greater portion of error and overstatement than of genuine insight. The moment might be not only ambiguous, but, like the epiphanies in “Araby” and “A Little Cloud,” in some measure bogus.

And what of Michael Furey, Gretta’s teenage sweetheart, with the bad lungs and the job at the gasworks? Remember, he courts his own death when he stands out in the rain under Gretta’s window, a desperate (and pointless) show of devotion. In the act, he seems more like a stock character from a sentimental Irish ballad (like “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the Morkans’ party) than like an infatuated teenager. More pointedly, isn’t Furey basically the boy-narrator of “Araby,” minus the bubble-bursting epiphany? Yet Furey’s example is what exposes, by contrast, the flabbiness in Gabriel’s character. So when Gabriel reflects, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” isn’t he invoking the same ideal as Little Chandler and the love-blinded narrator of “Araby”? That is, here, on the epiphanic precipice, Gabriel is buying into the very illusionment that the stories repeatedly dispel; he hasn’t reached a summit of wisdom, but stumbled into a cul-de-sac. Rather than attaining a glimpse of objective reality, Gabriel instead fades out “into a grey impalpable world” “where [dwell] the vast hosts of the dead,” a recession into the mythic, the mystical and the supernatural. Maybe the surest evidence that the collection’s epiphanies are inherently and endemically problematic is that the two most famous examples, in “Araby” and in “The Dead,” are incompatible, even perfectly contradictory.

It isn’t quite accurate to think of Dubliners as the epitome of conventional realism, or an incubator of genuine epiphanic insight. The stories are crooked and warped, rife with voices and modes, often brutally evasive, the whole wracked by confounding involutions. If this is naturalism, we should probably revise our definition of the term because, in order to capture life as it is, Joyce repeatedly depicts characters who have, at best, a loose acquaintance with reality. And if the book has a grand epiphany, it might be that all epiphanies are suspect, self-knowledge inevitably compromised by literary wishful thinking, human folly endlessly renewable. These thoughts have led me to reconsider my estimation of the collection’s meta-patterns. Isn’t this just another dimension of artificial repetition? And as such, isn’t it, by the collection’s aesthetic logic, suggestive of an epistemological error, something to be corrected rather than cultivated? Or is this the only kind of artifice that can transcend the immediate and purblind human context, and thus prove durable (stand us now and ever in good stead) precisely because it defers meaning and avers nothing? Or is this artificer’s impulse anyway ineradicable, an inescapable part of the human condition? You tell me.

Maybe there is an element of masochism in revering an art that would disabuse readers of all notions of reverence, but this is the legacy of Dubliners. With its blinkered populace, its warped and harshly truncated narratives, all shot on the fraying black-and-white film stock of Joyce’s most miserly style, the book can seem off-putting in its relentless mundanity, Joyce’s art merely commensurate with his subject (this composite portrait of curdled human potential). But Dubliners does indeed model a radical consciousness of craft; it previews many of the most powerful strains of the Modernist revolution. For writers of the next century, it remains required reading.

— Bruce Stone

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Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

 

Jun 042014
 

02 Eagle An eagle swoops past a ship over Zolotoi Rog harbor. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Nikolai Gogol couldn’t have written a better story than this, and this one is true: a Russian provincial governor, a lost fleet of ships, an illegal tiger skin, vainglory, murder, and the mob — Russell Working is a prize-winning fiction writer, a master wordsmith and a castiron reporter. For many years he lived in Vladivostok, running a small English language newspaper, falling in love, living in a frigid flat inhabited by the spirits of great Russian poets. He wasn’t “embedded”; he LIVED there. The result has been a recent spate of  brilliant reportage (NC ran an earlier essay), or reportage crossed with memoir (or maybe it is a NEW FORM Russell invented). In Dead Souls, Gogol wrote the tale of a Dickensian con-artist who went around Russia buying up dead peasants that, by a book-keeping sleight-of-hand, he planned to mortgage off as live serfs. Gogol’s admirers said he had done nothing but tell the truth about Russia; Russell Working is doing the same.

dg

 

A MERCHANT. Such a governor there never was yet in the world, your Worship. No words can describe the injuries he inflicts upon us. He has taken the bread out of our mouths by quartering soldiers on us, so that you might as well put your neck in a noose. He doesn’t treat you as you deserve. He catches hold of your beard and says, “Oh, you Tartar!” Upon my word, if we had shown him any disrespect, but we obey all the laws and regulations. We don’t mind giving him what his wife and daughter need for their clothes, but no, that’s not enough. So help me God! He comes to our shop and takes whatever his eyes fall on. He sees a piece of cloth and says, “Oh, my friends, that’s a fine piece of goods. Take it to my house.” So we take it to his house. It will be almost forty yards.

KHLESTAKOV. Is it possible? My, what a swindler!

MERCHANTS. So help us God! No one remembers a governor like him.

—Nikolai Gogol

The Inspector General, Act IV, Scene 5

#

A Word to the Wise
Among the Lackeys of Foreigners
In the Fleet and the Media

Late one night in June 1999, a broadcast journalist named Yury Stepanov was walking home in Vladivostok, a Russian port city of six hundred fifty thousand on the Sea of Japan, when he came upon a Toyota minivan blocking his way up an alley. He hesitated. He was an editor at Radio Lemma, which had been receiving anonymous threats for reporting allegations of corruption and attempted extortion by the Primorye regional governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko. But he had to get home, after all, and a cousin to hope, in the human mind, is the ability to convince oneself that all is well.

So he headed on between the van and the wall. A burly man in black emerged from the dark and smashed Stepanov in the face, knocking him to the ground. Another thug joined in the assault. They kicked and stomped Stepanov, head, ribs, gut. His assailants rolled open the door of the van and threw his briefcase inside. They tried to drag Stepanov in, too, he later said. He fought his way free and fled. His attackers chased him on foot all the way to his apartment building. They gave up when he flung himself through the doors. Perhaps it would have been a little too public, even for Vladivostok’s goodfellas, to kidnap an editor from the lobby of his apartment. Or maybe they figured their message had been delivered.

That week Stepanov holed up in his apartment, and this is where I found him a day or two later when I visited with Nonna, then my girlfriend and now my wife. She was a deputy editor at the Vladivostok News, a little English-language paper which I edited, and she often interpreted for me. We had gotten his address from his colleagues at Radio Lemma, but we had not called ahead. Probably he didn’t have a phone; many Russians never did get land lines, and this was before the era of ubiquitous cell phones. Or perhaps he simply was not answering, not wishing to subject himself to death threats. We headed up the filthy stairwell of his Soviet-era building, of concrete slab construction, and knocked at his door, a steel one, such as any sensible Russian lives behind. A blood-yellowed eye appeared in the peephole.

“Who is it?”

Nonna introduced herself and she had brought an Amerikansky zhurnalist to interview him. The blood eye blinked doubtfully, so I said in English, “Tell him I freelance for The New York Times and The South China Morning Post.”

Stepanov let us in to the bedroom/living room and bolted the latch behind us. His face was bruised purple and brown. He hobbled across the room and winced as he lowered himself to the futon and slumped over with a groan.

“How are you doing?” Nonna said.

“I’ve got three broken ribs, a concussion, too, the doctors said. It’s my family I’m worried about. I sent them out of town.”

Stepanov was not the only victim of mysterious circumstances at Radio Lemma. The day after Stepanov’s beating, a reporter glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a truck accelerating toward his car. The truck rammed him, totaling the car. He was uninjured. Days later, strangers would snatch the nineteen-year-old daughter of another Radio Lemma editor from the street, take her on a little drive around the city, and warn her that her daddy had better tone down those broadcasts criticizing Governor Nazdratenko. “Tell you-know-who that if these statements continue on the radio, he’ll face the same thing that happened to his friend,” the men said. The friend they were referring to was Stepanov. After that they let her go.

Stepanov told us that Radio Lemma staffers had been living in fear ever since they had broadcast a series of reports about Vostoktransflot, the largest refrigerated shipping company in Russia, which was under pressure from the governor. Under the previous director, Viktor Ostapenko, Vostoktransflot had run up a debt of $96 million, the media reported. A pity, to be sure, but what could a chief executive do in a troubled business climate like Russia’s? Among Vostoktransflot’s creditors was the Bank of Scotland, which as lender effectively owned the MV Dubrava and eleven other vessels. To Ostapenko’s profound regret, he was unable to pay his employees’ salaries for nine to twelve months at a time. Understand, times were tough, and everyone on the team would just have row together and bite the bullet and give a hundred and ten percent and all that. Unpaid wages were commonplace in those days, and if Ostapenko was calculating that no one would mutiny over this, he knew his countrymen well. But then in August 1997, a young Moscow investor named Anatoly Milashevich, a graduate of Russia’s MIT—the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology—obtained a majority share of Vostoktransflot, and the nation’s business climate magically improved overnight. This was clear because Milashevich began meeting the payroll every month. The next year, Vostoktransflot ran a profit of $10 million. By 1999 the company reportedly had paid off half its debts.

But business success is dangerous in Russia; dollars smell like blood. Or this is more or less what Vostoktransflot’s leadership team discovered. Nazdratenko summoned Milashevich to the regional administration building known as the White House and, the young executive alleged, demanded a $2 million “campaign contribution,” or else. Milashevich went public with what he claimed was an extortion attempt. It so happened that the day before Stepanov’s beating, Radio Lemma had broadcast a live interview with Milashevich.

01 GuberVeterani_001Nazdratenko (right) offers flowers to veterans in Vladivostok. Photo by Yuri Maltsev

The governor denied he had bullied or threatened Milashevich or sought any bribes. By God, he was just protecting Russia’s fleet from nefarious foreigners and their Russian hirelings. The regional media, mostly controlled by Nazdratenko, launched a propaganda campaign against Milashevich. The governor had other levers to pull, as well. Under pressure from the White House, a district court ruled that Milashevich had gained control of Vostoktransflot illegally, and a judge replaced him with a man more to Nazdratenko’s liking, one whose extensive experience in refrigerated shipping made him an ideal pick to lead the troubled company. He was Viktor Ostapenko, the very man who had sailed Vostoktransflot onto a reef and run up that $96 million debt.

Bailiffs accompanied by a police SWAT team of masked gunmen stormed Vostoktransflot’s office, evicted Milashevich’s staff, and installed the new management team. When the new team opened the safe, with great excitement, they found nothing but a bottle of Chateau de la Tour red and a note that Milashevich had left for them (“Gentlemen, help yourselves”), he recently told me in an e-mail. Milashevich and his team fled to Cyprus.

This spring I exchanged a number of e-mails with Milashevich, but I never caught up with him for an interview. He noted that the Vostoktransflot case was not isolated, but acted as an “archetype” for government actions against business nationwide. “Our history was a drop of water that reflected trends that were happening in this country later (with Yukos, etc.),” he wrote, referring to the company that the Russian government crushed in a tax case, sending its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to prison. Critics of President Vladimir Putin suggested the case against Yukos was politically motivated, as Khodorkovsky had funded opposition political parties.

Once he was in charge, Ostapenko issued a worldwide order demanding that the entire fleet of thirty-eight ships return to Vladivostok, never mind their contract obligations or cargo they were carrying or their position on the earth. Oh, and good news: Ostapenko now discovered that it was possible, after all, to meet payroll. Puzzlingly, only four ships obeyed. One of those that did respond was the ship Ulbansky Zaliv. Over a year later, the crew was still owed $300,000 in wages despite a court order to sell off three Vostoktransflot ships to cover the debt to their sailors, and the crew of were Ulbansky Zaliv was left to issue threats that they would flood the fuel tanks with seawater and scuttle the ship by the pier of Vladivostok’s fishing port if they were not paid.

10 UlbanZaliv_0249The prow of Ulbansky Zaliv. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

09 UlbanZaliv_0225Unpaid sailors from the ship Ulbansky Zaliv at a meeting in which they announce they will sink their ship in port if they aren’t paid. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

The rest of the captains continued to answer to Milashevich, who was communicating with them from Cyprus by radio. On July 2, Milashevich’s team sent Captain Igor Tkachenko to Calcutta to sell the ship, Titovsk, for scrap, because it was obsolete and did not meet company standards, Tkachenko later told the media. Ostapenko began sending radiograms every seven hours demanding that Tkachenko break the ship’s contract and carry out another job more to Ostapenko’s liking. One message stated, “You are hijacking the ship together with the crew, a violation of Article 211 of the Russian Criminal Code … Are you thinking about what you are doing?” Alarmed and confused by the turmoil, Tkachenko ignored the messages and kept sailing. “They were absurd,” he said in a later press conference quoted by The Moscow Times. “Can you imagine how I felt about that message on a stormy sea?” Once Titovsk arrived in Calcutta, the deal was delayed a month because Ostapenko’s team began telegramming the Russian consulate demanding that officials intervene.

Now it was time for Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov, a Nazdratenko appointee and ally, to turn up the heat. He ordered Radio Lemma to stop interviewing his and Nazdratenko’s political foes in what was an election year, the journalists said. “I hope that you guys are smart enough, and that no physical actions will follow,” Kopylov reportedly told them. A spokeswoman for Kopylov denied that he had threatened them, adding that he had nothing to do with Stepanov’s beating. Indeed, she found the editor’s claim of an assault “suspicious.” Since when had any journalist ever suffered for defying the authorities in Russia?

§

Curiously, while staffers at Radio Lemma were afraid for their lives, we at the Vladivostok News operated with an editorial freedom the rest of the local media, including our Russian-language parent paper, the daily Vladivostok, could only envy. Our print edition had died with the 1998 ruble crisis, and we now published on the Internet only. It would not have taken anything as crude as a beating to deal with me, had anyone cared. I could have been denied a visa or threatened and chased out of the country. But that never happened. The publisher of our parent paper, who had shown courage during the attempted coup d’état against Gorbachev in 1991, was by now allied with Nazdratenko; this made the Vladivostok News’ editorial independence all the more surprising. I suspect this was only because neither our publisher nor anybody else who mattered could read English. The point is, it took no courage whatsoever for me to publish stories that contradicted Nazdratenko’s official line. For my Russian staff, Nonna included, it was a different story. Had the governor’s White House woken up to what we were writing, they could have been subject to the Radio Lemma treatment.

The federal authorities also left us alone. In 1995 an agent from the FSB—the successor to the KGB—had become curious about the small group of Russians and foreigners who were putting out an English-language newspaper in town. He phoned Nonna in the newsroom and told her to come downstairs immediately and meet him outside. A tired-looking agent in his late thirties was waiting in a shabby Russian car, although anybody of means in the Far East drove a Japanese import. His familiarity with her biography frightened her a little. He knew all about her time dancing in a contemporary troupe, her past work as a translator for the Oceanographic Institute. He wanted to know what all those foreigners were up to in town.

“Why don’t you come up and ask them?” Nonna said.

“No! You never talked to me. This is just between us. That’s an order.”

But when he sent her back upstairs, Nonna immediately told everyone about her conversation with the FSB agent.

Only one article I wrote, a freelance piece for The New York Times on another firm, Far Eastern Shipping Co., ever drew any reaction from the local authorities. I can only speculate that this story must have been translated by the Russian Foreign Ministry and found its way to the regional White House; surely nobody in the Nazdratenko administration was paging through The Times or reading it online in English. A few weeks after the beating of Stepanov, Natalya Vstovskaya, the governor’s press secretary, phoned our parent paper and asked the editors to print a letter. The White House would pay the usual rate, she said. Russian newspapers often accept cash to print official statements disguised as letters or news stories, and the governor wanted this one to play prominently. It had not yet been decided who would sign it, but Vstovskaya would supply a name.

Fine, fax it on over, she was told.

By the time the letter arrived, someone had scrawled a name at the bottom: Yury Ukhov, chairman of the Far Eastern Shipping Company Trade Union. This was a typical Soviet-era practice: using a mouthpiece with working class bona fides to issue a denunciation on behalf of the Party. Oddly, the publisher declined the opportunity to make a buck off an advertorial attacking an employee, and the White House went trolling elsewhere for a venue for its letter.

A few days later the letter ran in a tabloid called Novosti. Ukhov (or his ghostwriter in the governor’s office) expressed indignation over my story for The New York Times. He called me “illiterate and dumb” and warned of the “boundless evil” of foreign provocateurs such as me. “What a beast Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko is!” the letter stated sarcastically, implying that I had written this. Ukhov, who apparently did not realize I lived in Vladivostok, wrote that I was one of these foreigners who think that Russians still wear velveteen trousers and sleep on stoves in the fashion of peasants of old. It compared foreign investment in the fleet to stealing a cucumber out of someone’s garden. (The quotes I have are preserved in a column I wrote for The Moscow Times. The full letter appears to have melted into the sands of the Internet.)

Even if we had not known that the letter originated in the White House, it would have seemed unlikely that that Ukhov was a regular reader of The New York Times. I asked Nonna to telephone him and subtly sound him out on this (Gosh, that’s great that you read English; where did you study?). But she was filled with righteous indignation on behalf of her man, and, judging from the side of the phone conversation I overheard, it turned into an argument. She hung up.

“Well?” I said.

“He told me, ‘I am ashamed that you, a Russian woman, are defending foreigners.’”

§

03 Newsroom Handsome or whatNazdratenko views mock-ups of the next day’s paper in the newsroom of Vladivostok. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Once, Nonna and I had the opportunity to ask Nazdratenko directly about some of the turmoil at Vostoktransflot. Around that time he dropped in on the newsroom of the Vladivostok to take questions, and Nonna and I invited ourselves upstairs. The newsroom was like any other—crowds of desks, computer terminals, heaps of faxed press releases—except that an old bust of Stalin occupied a shelf near the door. (The journalists considered this a joke.) The governor was a fleshy middle-aged man with a five-o’clock shadow and permanent sheen of sweat, and the publisher ushered him to a comfortable seat. Nazdratenko was relaxed, accustomed as he was to fawning coverage. He tended to refer to crowds as “my friends,” and, in the condescending manner of communist bureaucrats, addressed young women reporters as “ty”—the informal you. The journalists crowded around, and everyone lobbed questions at Nazdratenko, who amiably swatted them into the bleachers. Who wouldn’t enjoy this? Local TV stations devoted their entire hour-long newscasts to his daily schedule, trumpeting the governor’s ribbon-cuttings and handshakes with visiting officials. When he held press conferences, his spokeswoman distributed printouts listing the questions he wished to be asked. Reporters compliantly raised their hands and asked. Even editors said they felt compelled to attend the governor’s press conferences, although they had reporters in the room to cover the events. “Someone might notice if I don’t show up,” one editor said.

But at one point as he droned on, I whispered in Nonna’s ear: “Ask him about Milashevich and the $2 million.” When Nazdratenko paused, eyebrows raised, awaiting another softball, Nonna fired the question.

The governor purpled, and his nostrils flared. The publisher’s mouth fell open. Reporters stared at us in surprise. “Did you [ty] ask that question yourself, or did your friend put you up to it?” the governor asked Nonna, nodding at me.

Characteristically, Nonna said, “I myself” (ya sama).

Sama, sama!” Nazdratenko muttered scornfully.

He then angrily denied the allegation and reiterated his contempt for foreigners and their hireling Milashevich. “I wouldn’t accept a postcard from that company.”

He looked around to indicate he was open to a more appropriate line of inquiry. Andrei Ivlev stood up, a bony-elbowed, thirties-ish senior editor in a suit coat that hung on a frame like a dry cleaner’s coat hanger, and, with a glance of solidarity at Nonna and me, he nervously sang out a confrontational question that made the publisher flinch. I can no longer remember what he asked, but he could have been dealt with Radio Lemma-style. Nazdratenko growled a reply and looked at the publisher as if to say, This will not be forgotten. Other tough questions followed. But this moment of editorial fortitude did little good. Nothing that contradicted the governor’s narrative made it into the paper the next day.

Around that time, an item appeared in the newspaper Utro Rossii. A spokesman for the governor’s office invited editors to attend a critique of their coverage of Vostoktransflot. As the paper noted, “the editors of the newspapers were urged to fire journalists who give the wrong point of view of events.” And when Nazdratenko’s birthday rolled around, members of the media threw him a party. They gave him a dartboard decorated with the face of a political foe. And they sang a song they had composed, referring to him, in the formal Russian manner, by his first name and patronymic:

Yevgeny Ivanovich, molodets;
Oppozitsiyi prishol konets.

Which means:

Yevgeny Ivanovich, attaboy;
The opposition has been destroyed.

§

Himself

Governor Yevgeny Ivanovich Nazdratenko reportedly was born February 16, 1949, aboard a ship that was evacuating one of the Kuril Islands, a chain whose southernmost outcroppings Russia and the Soviet Union have possessed since World War II but Japan also claims. According to the website Komprinfo.ru, islanders were warned a tsunami was approaching, and they fled to sea, where the wave would ripple harmlessly beneath them. I have been to the remote islands, and the story raises questions in my mind. Did thousands of islanders really have enough notice, in the hours it takes a tsunami to sweep across the North Pacific, to round up the kids, drive over the island’s unpaved roads to the port, take a motor launch out to a ship anchored in the harbor, and clamber one-by-one up a gangway to the deck before steaming to safety? Nazdratenko’s mother is said to have come from a family of former Gulag prisoners, but this should not be taken to mean they were dissidents. Even if the story is true, Nazdratenko’s family could have been anything from common criminals—the elite of Stalin’s slave labor camps—to innocent citizens denounced by envious neighbors in search of a better apartment. Nazdratenko’s mother reportedly divorced his hard-drinking father when the future governor was a child.

Romantically, Nazdratenko is said to have met his future wife, Galina, as a child, although Komprinfo.ru does not detail the circumstances; the Web site does state that the future governor attended a music school, where he mastered the accordion. He served in the Navy as a welder, graduated from the Far Eastern Technological Institute, and eventually rose to “helm” (as The Wall Street Journal likes to put it) a mining company. In time he became a member of the Russian Duma, and was elected governor in 1995. Since taking office, he had accomplished the feat of impoverishing a region rich in natural resources at the crossroads of the booming economies of Japan, South Korea, and China. Nazdratenko did excel at collecting personal rewards and medals. When Patriarch Alexii II visited Vladivostok, the holy leader of the Russian Orthodox Church cited Nazdratenko’s “great service to the people” and honored him with the Order of St. Daniil Moskovskii.

Governors serve a different role in Russia than they do in the West. In the U.S., the states form separate power centers with taxing and enforcement structures independent of Washington. But in Russia, governors are part of a pyramid of authority with the Kremlin at its peak. For most of the nation’s history, they were appointed by Moscow, rather than elected, although Nazdratenko did win his office in a popular poll. Putin would scrap the election of governors in 2004, then reintroduce the vote following protests in 2012. A few months later he signed a law rendering the reform meaningless by allowing him to pick regional leaders if local lawmakers overturned the polls. The governor controls the police and distributes funding from Moscow to the cities. This allowed Nazdratenko to starve the Vladivostok administration of cash when he clashed with the city’s eccentric former mayor, Viktor Cherepkov. Nazdratenko eventually forced him from office.

It says something when the chief hope for reform lay in the FSB—the former KGB whose agent had summoned Nonna to his car. In 1997 President Yeltsin appointed General Viktor Kondratov, head of the local FSB office, as his representative to Primorye. Yeltsin was said to be sick of the constant reports from the Russian Far East of corruption, blackouts, unpaid wages due to theft by higher-ups, and other misery, and it was rumored that Nazdratenko would not survive much longer in office. Kondratov’s agents raided Nazdratenko’s White House in a case that brings to mind the U.S. Attorney’s Office swooping in on a corrupt Illinois governor. FSB agents lugged out computers and floppies and boxes of documents, and had this been the Northern District of Illinois, grand jury indictments would have followed. But in Russia, governors are immune to prosecution, so Kondratov focused on those around Nazdratenko, hoping the pressure would push the governor from office.

I first met Kondratov shortly after the raid, when we learned he was holding a press briefing at the FSB headquarters. Nonna and I showed up at a lobby decorated with a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish revolutionary who headed the FSB’s predecessor, the Cheka, at a time when it was notorious for torture and summary executions.

We tried to get in, but the public affairs officer told us, “We’re not having a press conference. Who told you that?”

“The Mayor’s Office,” Nonna said.

“Well, it’s not true. Besides, the general’s office is very small. He can’t fit many reporters in at once.”

Nonna is nothing if not persistent, and she phoned Kondratov from the lobby. We were invited on up.

An FSB agent escorted us upstairs to an office where, yes, reporters had indeed gathered. The burly general kept a set of barbells to work out with (he also liked to swim in the sea), and in a later story on Vladivostok’s loony politics, The New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon would describe him thus: “Dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and carrying an unlit pipe, Mr. Kondratov looks like a suave character out of a John le Carré novel.” By Kondratov’s account, he was present at a 1982 meeting when Communist Party First Secretary Yury Andropov, a former KGB chief, announced a twenty-year plan to liberalize the economy; thus Kondratov makes the astonishing claim that it was the KGB that set the Soviet Union on the path to democracy. Still, Kondratov was not always above reproach. After the police searched his allegedly drunken and belligerent son-in-law during a raid on a night club, the two officers involved were fired, the media reported. Many papers suggested Kondratov played a role in this, a charge he denied.

As I pulled up a chair, his gaze settled on one of my ears.

“What’s that?”

“A hearing aid. I’m hard of hearing.”

“American spy,” the general muttered with a wry tilt of the eyebrow. The other reporters chuckled. “But we have become friends now, haven’t we?”

Kondratov summarized a report the FSB had compiled for President Yeltsin’s office. Later leaked, the document, dated June 19, 1997, accused Nazdratenko of working hand-in-glove with the Mafia to muscle the economy of Primorye. His sons allegedly used bribery and force to wrest control of fuel, alcohol, and casino businesses in the region, and to smuggle contraband through the region’s ports. The FSB documented allegations that Nazdratenko’s son, Andrei, had gained control of Chechen gangs in the border city of Khasan, streamlining the smuggling of narcotics, rare metals, and sea urchins, which are considered luxuries in China and Japan. The FSB stated:

On the governor’s initiative, people were appointed to the main posts who used their work in the power structure of Primorye to strengthen their influence on the economy for the purpose of personal enrichment. These bureaucratic bosses empower corrupt interests with the aid of law enforcement agencies and leaders of organized crime.

In other words, the bureaucrats and the goodfellas were all in it together. It was an association Nazdratenko himself once hinted at in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia. “Indeed, I have appealed to the criminal world,” Nazdratenko said, in an interview quoted by The Chicago Tribune, “and many of those whom I asked for collaboration are wearing tuxedos rather than leather jackets for the first time,” as if the emergence of godfathers in dinner jackets with shiny lapels were not a tacky throwback to Capone and the Corleones, but an unprecedented and favorable development of his administration.

06 TolstosheinFirst Vice Governor Konstantin Toltoshein, accused of mob connections and kidnapping a reporter, promotes a book on Nazdratenko. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Most U.S. states somehow get by with a chief executive and a single lieutenant governor, no doubt toiling to exhaustion, but Nazdratenko distributed the workload among thirteen vice governors. These sub-bosses forged alliances with the mob to further their interests, the FSB alleged. The most noteworthy of them was First Vice Gov. Konstantin Tolstoshein, a weak-chinned, beak-nosed man who perpetually wore a parrot’s expression of fanatical perplexity. I once encountered him on the edge of a protest outside the White House—workers demanding unpaid wages, if I recall correctly—and through Nonna I asked a neutral question along the lines of, “What do you make of all this?” An American politician would slap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, how you doin’, great question,” and then blame the previous administration for the problem, and assure you that he and the governor were fighting every day for working men and women, and, by God, they wouldn’t rest until every penny of back wages was paid. And he would have cited statistics proving that problem was receding under the current administration, or argued that his opponents had reached a new low in politicizing this human tragedy. But Tolstoshein looked as if I had stuck a ruler between the bars of his birdcage and rapped him on the head. He began shouting obscenities. When I tried to interject, “I don’t understand why—,” his voice rose to a shriek, and I was instructed in rich new forms of Russian poetics. Nonna tugged on my sleeve, and we retreated.

Now Kondratov was alleging that Tolstoshein had seized control of numerous companies in the region, setting up his adult daughter and mother-in-law as puppet executives. “Tolstoshein,” the FSB stated, “uses connections with the leaders of criminal groups for violent actions toward competitors.” The report noted a notorious incident from 1994, when Tolstoshein had been mayor of Vladivostok. After VBC Radio broadcast an assessment of Tolstoshein’s first hundred days in office which he didn’t like, he phoned the station, “screaming obscenities and demanding apologies,” the newspaper Kommersant reported. The radio station hastily climbed down and offered its regrets, both on air and in print. But that was not good enough for Tolstoshein’s pals, who keenly felt the mayor’s pain. The radio station’s commercial director took VBC reporters Alexei Sadykov and Andrei Zhuravlyov on a little drive to a city stadium, supposedly to tell Tolstoshein in person they were sorry, for his feelings really were hurt. For God’s sake, he was probably sulking in his cage, plucking out his feathers in a rage, refusing to do any more goddamned mayoring until he received further apologies, and where would that leave the city, eh? Unmayored, that’s right. From the stadium, the mobsters (the crime boss A.B. Makarenko was involved, the FSB alleged) then drove Sadykov to a cemetery and helped him see how unfair he had been. Tolstoshein was a great guy, and in case Sadykov forgot it, here was proof. The mobsters put a sack over his head, beat him, and tortured him with cigarettes.

Kommersant added, “They forced him to dictate on a tape recorder that he received a bribe of $100 from the ousted [Mayor] Victor Cherepkov.” Which of course settled the matter.

When he escaped with his cigarette-pocked skin, Sadykov filed criminal charges. But his own station’s commercial director was merely reprimanded, and nobody went to jail.

Three years after the alleged kidnapping, but before the FSB report that raised the same charges, we pursued the story at the Vladivostok News. I admired the guts of our interpreter (and later reporter), Anatoly Medetsky. He phoned Tolstoshein’s secretary on my behalf and asked to arrange an interview for me with the first vice governor. Why? Well, I wanted to know whether Tolstoshein did or did not order the kidnapping and torture. Told that the first vice governor was unavailable, Anatoly bravely left a message. Tolstoshein never called back. Maybe we lucked out.

As for all the evidence the feared FSB accumulated, Kondratov filed forty-two criminal cases. The local courts, under the control of Nazdratenko, refused to consider them. And that was that.

§

The Baron and the Sex Ambulance Tycoon

Since the time of Gogol, the character of the governor has periodically appeared in Russian literature. In The Inspector General, Governor Anton Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky extorts bribes and flogs a corporal’s widow so severely she cannot sit for two days, although she gets off lightly compared to the prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, who are sentenced to a thousand strokes, two thousand, the beatings distributed in tranches, between which the inmate is hospitalized, nursed back from the shadowland at the border of life, and then flogged another thousand times, often to death. On the remote Pacific island of Sakhalin, a former penal colony, Governor-General Baron Korf told Chekhov, who visited in 1890, that the prisoners there lived better than their fellows anywhere else in Russia or Europe, never mind that Dr. Chekhov was tormented one night by the cries of inmates in the prison next door, begging for admission to the hospital. The next morning he glimpsed the sick, mud-soaked men, and he concluded that “I saw before me the extreme limitations of man’s degradation, lower than which he cannot go.” For his part, Tolstoy offers us Count Fyodor Rostopchin in War and Peace. Terrified of a mob that gathers outside his palace during the French invasion, he hands over a prisoner as a scapegoat, to be torn to pieces. “Lads!” Rostopchin cries. “This man, Vereshchagin, is the scoundrel by whose doing Moscow is perishing.” But only one governor in Russian history, as far as I know, has ever won a prize from a secretive society of noblemen who serve their fellow man by giving away cash to super-rich actors and politicians.

It happened like this. One day late in 1998, amid daily blackouts and a heating crisis that left water freezing in the toilets of thousands of apartments across the Russian Far East as temperatures plunged to minus 49 Fahrenheit, the White House announced news it seemed confident would cheer its grumpy citizenry. The World Aristocratic Academy, an association whose address was a post office box in the Bahamas, had awarded Nazdratenko a million-dollar prize as Aristocratic Governor of the Year, the White House reported. The Academy was said to be headed by a certain Baron De Caen and included a Baron de Rothschild, Duke Kemberinsky, Prince Golitsyn (presumably a descendant of the great Russian statesman of the seventeenth century), and “other prominent representatives of aristocratic families.” The academy wished to honor Nazdratenko “for his incorruptible sincerity, principles, and aristocratic manners in defending his opinion,” the White House stated. The members of the academy apparently had never sat in on a press conference in which Nazdratenko blew his stack at a question, but never mind. He would now be honored, we were told, alongside King Juan Carlos of Spain (“Aristocratic King of the Year”), New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (topping the “aristocratic mayor” category), the Russian boy band Na Na (surely you’ve heard of them), actors Demi Moore (star of the movie “Striptease”) and Harrison Ford (revered for his cardboard portrayals of righteously angry men in a scrape), and Princess Diana of Wales (a posthumous winner). Six million dollars would have bought a lot of polio vaccinations in Afghanistan, but, blimey, think of the trickle-down effect if we give it all to the rich and famous: this must have been the philanthropic academy’s logic.

The source of these tidings, the White House reported, was a hospital procurer and White House confidant named Viktor Fersht, previously known for his failed effort to establish a “sex ambulance” for men in urgent need of physical congress. Fersht claimed to be a graduate of the New York-based University of International Education, an organization whose existence I was unable to confirm. His résumé was filled with impressive flourishes. Fersht said he represented Primorye to the United Nations, a claim that might have surprised the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also made known that he was “director of medical intelligence” for an organization that treated wounded “veterans of espionage,” presumably providing care for all those secret agents who are injured every year in James Bond-style shootouts with their American counterparts. Fersht would soon procure further fame when he announced that a meteorite that had hit Primorye decades ago prevented erectile dysfunction and helped smooth facial wrinkles. Overnight, enterprising healers began selling chunks of blackened iron ore in Vladivostok’s street markets.

So which of Nazdratenko’s noble qualities had led the World Aristocratic Academy to honor him? When I called the Bahamas, a receptionist for the lawyer who had incorporated the academy refused to reveal the names of any officers or put me in touch with a spokesman. It was left to Fersht to explain. He said the award came about after a chance meeting he had with Baron De Caen in the Bahamas. Devil knows, as the Russians say: perhaps after a gratifying tour around Nassau in an ambulance, sirens blaring, the French nobleman in Bermuda shorts settled at a swimming pool bar beside the secret agent health sector executive, where they both sipped Mai Tais from water coconuts and twirled their little cocktail umbrellas. Whatever the setting, Fersht said he described Nazdratenko’s noble attributes, and the Frenchman must have been moved. For the next thing you know, His Liege was writing out a million-dollar check to an obscure Russian satrap in a region plagued by accusations of official thievery, assaults on the free press, and Mafia connections at the highest levels. Or this is more or less the tale citizens were asked to swallow.

Curiously, Primoryeans did not celebrate Fersht’s news with fireworks, spontaneous mazurkas, or smooches to the lips of pretty girls on downtown boulevards. The award was too much to swallow even for those papers on the governor’s payroll, and the news was covered skeptically. Never mind that the money to buy coal for the region’s power plants had evaporated, that fractals of frost were blossoming on the walls of our apartments; all Russians could take pride in Nazdratenko, Fersht insisted. In an act of noblesse oblige, Nazdratenko announced that he would donate his entire million bucks to the poor. The Primorye Red Cross promised to partner with the governor to give away food packages, and leading Western businessmen and international aid groups were recruited to serve on the board of an umbrella organization that would distribute His Worship’s largesse.

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and sure enough, certain types sneered at the reports of aristocratic jackpots. Foreigners, cynics, political foes—unsavory, all. I phoned a Giuliani spokeswoman in New York, who told me, “Quoted: Mayor’s press secretary says, ‘No way.’ We’ve never heard of this group.” The Princess of Wales’ former spokesman and her charitable foundation had no record of any windfall from societies of toffs in ascots or powdered wigs, nor had they heard of the name of Fersht. Never mind all that. The foreigners were lying, Fersht said, to evade taxes. Meanwhile, Governor Nazdratenko’s foes charged that the so-called prize was a money-laundering scheme or a means of buying the votes of the poor as the election approached. “This scheme will try to use the international humanitarian aid for his political purposes,” said a spokesman for Kondratov, the local FSB chief. “I cannot exclude that this money came from the regional budget.”

Nazdratenko’s press secretary Natalya Vstovskaya denied this. “That’s a load of crap,” she said. “Are we not supposed to give humanitarian aid at this point?”

One morning early in 1999, Fersht and the White House called a meeting at the Chamber Drama Theater, where Nonna and I once had once watched an excruciating Russian-American production of Waiting for Godot in which the actors kept forgetting their lines. In Fersht’s spectacle, though, it was the extras who veered off-script. Instead of showing gratitude for the foodstuffs they were promised, hundreds of sour-faced seniors and hard-luck types in threadbare coats and rabbit-skin hats planted their bony bottoms in the seats and folded their arms with a scowl, expecting the worst. And who wouldn’t be skeptical? The meeting was held just a year after a pyramid scheme co-founded by Galina Nazdratenko collapsed, taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars invested by the suckers who had trusted her. The governor had personally gone on TV to promote the scheme, called the Primorye Food Charitable Fund, but with its collapse, 50,000 people lost their life’s savings. The president of the scheme vanished for a few weeks, only to reemerge a few miles out of Vladivostok in a group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims who were walking six thousand miles to Moscow, carrying crosses and icons. The former pyramid scheme president felt guilty about the whole mess, he did. So he was repenting of his sins. Nazdratenko did not join the pilgrims, but surely he, too, felt bad about stripping his citizens of their life’s savings. Maybe that’s why he was so generous with his million dollars from the baron in Bermuda shorts.

At the Chamber Theater that morning, there weren’t enough applications to go around, and the scowling seniors seemed masochistically gratified to find their worst fears proven right. When Fersht gave a speech thanking Nazdratenko for his generosity, an angry grumbling and a few derisive whistles sounded from the crowd.

A lawyer took the lectern to explain that—hush, people, listen up—the assembled body would need to vote, yea or nay, on whether to create a Council of Independent Organizations and Citizens Living Below the Poverty Level, which would distribute the million bucks as food aid. The council would also have political objectives that everyone present would surely gratefully embrace. See, their benefactor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, was up for reelection, and so were pals of his at the federal level. This new council could help.

“The chief goal shall be the protection of members’ interests in the election for governor, Federal Duma, and president of the Russian Federation in 1999-2000,” the lawyer said.

The old folks jeered and shouted.

“Who stole the applications?” cried an old woman in a matted fur turban.

Elderly men and grandmas on crutches trundled down the aisle and hobbled up on stage demanding their foodstuffs. No vote could be taken in the unruly crowd.

Fersht’s voice could be heard frantically assuring the crowd that more applications would be printed, and people could apply for assistance at Red Cross the next day. Then he, the lawyer, and the other organizers fled the meeting, leaving a room full of angry pensioners who were convinced the governor had pulled another fast one and stashed his million-dollar prize in a Cypriot bank account. The next day the papers announced that the assembly had gratefully voted to create this Council of Independent Organizations and Citizens Living Below the Poverty Level, which would distribute the aid.

§

I wanted to talk to the goodhearted Baron De Caen, but when I was unable to find him, we pressed the White House for an explanation. Why didn’t a philanthropic organization with what must have been an endowment in the hundreds of millions of dollars even have a rental office with a telephone and a part-time public affairs officer willing to pass along a message to the noblemen running the show? Nazdratenko’s office kept telling me, talk to Fersht, he’s the liaison. Eventually, Nonna and I caught up with him in an upper-floor hallway of the White House. I asked for documentation of the award.

I don’t have it with me, he said. The academy called with the news.

They just phoned? You didn’t get a letter or anything?

They said they’ll be sending it.

Who called you? Do you have a name?

Baron de Caen. He’s very famous.

Do you have a contact number?

I’m afraid not. He talked to my wife.

Wait. So, you’re saying a baron you met in the Caribbean called out of the blue—

—and told not you but your wife—?

—that Yevgeny Ivanovich won a million-dollar prize from a secret society of plutocrats?

Well, yes.

And the governor chose to announce this to the media without any verification?

You know, I’m really very busy. My wife has all the information.

What’s her name, her phone number?

I’m sorry, I have to go.

He slipped into an office and closed the door behind him. Taking with him my dreams of a poolside exclusive in Nassau with Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Rudy Giuliani, Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, the Spanish king, and the child heirs to the British throne.

§

“We Heartily Welcome the President
Of Our Brother Republic, Belarus”

Only once, that I know of, did Yevgeny Nazdratenko share the stage with a worthy peer. In February 1998, more than a year before the Vostoktransflot affair, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus stopped over in Primorye on his way home from the Winter Olympics in Japan. Sporting a comb-over and an Augusto Pinochet mustache, Lukashenko clearly regarded Nazdratenko as a kindred soul. Like the Primorye governor, the Belarusian had married his high school sweetheart; she, too, was named Galina. But the Lukashenkos’ union appears to have been less blissful than that of the Nazdratenkos. In a 2005 interview with the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, Galina Lukashenko reported that she and her husband had long resided separately, though they remained legally married. Shortly after Lukashenko’s visit to Vladivostok, a series of opposition leaders and journalists in Minsk began disappearing or turning up dead, among them the deputy chairman of the legislature, who was kidnapped and never seen again. An investigative journalist was knifed to death in her apartment, a crime that remained unsolved.

Later Lukashenko reportedly fathered an illegitimate son, a precocious lad, by all accounts. “The child first appeared in public around four years ago, and now sits in on almost all state occasions,” The Independent reported June 29, 2012, when the boy was seven. In a story titled, “Who’s that boy in the grey suit? It’s Kolya Lukashenko—the next dictator of Belarus,” the paper reported that the lad strutted around at major military events brandishing a golden pistol. Generals of the army were obliged to salute the child, who was also a fixture on his father’s infrequent foreign trips. Kolya even met Pope Benedict XVI. But all this happened long after I heard Lukashenko speak.

The day I saw him, Lukashenko joined Nazdratenko on stage to address a hall full of apparatchiks and black-uniformed naval cadets at the Marine Academy. The curtains and bunting were commie red, and onstage a giant bust of Lenin wrathfully jutted his muzzle like a Scottish terrier that has spotted a squirrel on the other side of a window pane and can’t get at it. Strung across the front of the auditorium was a banner that read, “We Heartily Welcome the President of Our Brother Republic, Belarus,” as if Primorye, too, were an independent nation. Lukashenko likes to refer to the representative form of government as dermocratia— a pun that translates as “shitocracy.” The crowd laughed when Lukashenko recalled breaking up a protest by “fascists” who opposed his government, and they clapped when he warned that other nations are scheming to conquer Russia. Applause also broke out when Lukashenko fantasized about dealing with economists who wanted Belarus to adopt a Western-style market economy: “I wish they could go to the ore mines and work there and see what the real economy is like.” The Belarusian won a standing ovation in the end. Then Nazdratenko took the dais to sneer at members of the Yeltsin government with “Jewish names.” It was a hand-picked audience, but still: I could not find anyone who was troubled by the event.

I relate all this for a reason. Lukashenko flew on to his presidential palace in Minsk, where his first lady surely was not waiting to welcome him with bread and salt, being previously engaged in a small village she had never quite managed to leave. And the rest of us found the wherewithal to carry on with our lives in the anticlimax that follows any great historic moment. But the next day a senior editor of our parent paper dropped by with a tip. At a banquet honoring the Belarusian statesman, Nazdratenko had given his guest the skin of a Siberian tiger, head attached, mouth open and snarling. Fewer than five hundred of these great cats survive in Russia, and it is illegal under international law to hunt them, traffic in their parts, or transport them abroad. The Vladivostok mentioned the tiger skin deep in a fawning story: “The Governor of Primorye gave Alexander Lukashenko a tiger skin as a gift and advised him to look at the fangs in the mouth of the lord of the taiga in order to remember the most radical way to answer the attacks of his foes in Minsk and Moscow.” The reporter claimed that Nazdratenko possessed documents that somehow made the gift legal.

But that morning we heard a different story.

“There were no documents,” the editor told us. “It was completely illegal.”

“Why aren’t you guys writing this?” Nonna said.

“We can’t,” the editor said. The publisher would not allow it.

08 NazdrMuzei8Nazdratenko visits a museum. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

07-NazdrMuzei6

So alone among Vladivostok’s media, the Vladivostok News reported the story as a potential violation of international law. Primorye’ environmental prosecutor, who routinely sought jail terms for tiger poachers, refused to pursue the matter. “I have no authority to interrogate the governor,” he said.

After I wrote about Lukashenko’s tiger skin for our little paper and The Moscow Times, The Los Angeles Times followed up with a story that asked, “So what do you give the authoritarian who has everything? Well, if you’re a provincial governor in Russia’s Far East, you give him the pelt of an endangered Siberian tiger.” Having stirred up this row, we awaited an angry call from the White House, but it never came. Our paper was even on sale in a gift shop in the White House lobby. It was the first of many stories that taught me that the White House and its alleged allies in the mob did not know or simply could not care less what we published in English.

As Lukashenko left Russia, a keen-eyed customs officer discovered the tiger skin in the presidential luggage, according to news reports. After a moment of embarrassment and consultation with his superiors, he waved the visiting head of state on, and Lukashenko brought his trophy home to Minsk. No doubt to this day it lies beside a fireplace in some palatial hall, where from time to time a senior adviser drags his father to the floor for a tickling match while the Joint Chiefs of Staff applaud.

§

Her Majesty’s Scheme
To Scuttle the Fleet
With the Help of
Imperialist Sharks and Vultures

By 1999, one of the few foreigners who was still bullish on Vladivostok was a British businessman named Andrew Fox, a wry, bearded man in his mid-thirties who somehow reminded one of his namesake. The son of a Reuters reporter and grandson of a Russian émigré, Fox was a Cambridge University graduate who owned a brokerage called Tiger Securities. In a region where mobster-tycoons traveled with platoons of body guards, Fox had no security. He avoided the ostentatious displays of wealth that made the word businessman synonymous with mafioso in Russia—the gem-encrusted rings and convoys of SUVs and drunken bacchanalias at night clubs and duffle bags full of U.S. dollars. Fox was married to a Russian and spoke the language, and he lived in a three-room flat, with a small dacha on nearby Russky Island. Impressed with his thinking on business in the Russian Far East, the British government named him its honorary consul. But like Milashevich, he drew Nazdratenko’s attention because of his interest in Vladivostok’s commercial fleet. His offense: investing on behalf of Tiger’s foreign clients in Far Eastern Shipping Co., or FESCO, which was the world’s largest shipping line. Foreigners held 42 percent of the company’s shares. (Milashevich also was a director and key shareholder at FESCO.)

In June, just as the Vostoktransflot affair was brewing, Nazdratenko began attacking Fox in speeches, press conferences, and the media. The governor denounced the Britain as “an imperialist shark” and “a vulture who’s robbing Russia.” The tabloid Novosti—the same one that published the trade union leader’s letter accusing me of thinking Russians wore velveteen trousers—stated that Fox wanted to sell off FESCO’s entire fleet, so that “we will have to close all the maritime academies of Russia and delete Russia from the list of seafaring countries.” Apparently unaware of Fox’s status as an honorary diplomat, Nazdratenko announced in a press conference that he was ordering the main successor agency to the KGB to investigate whether Fox had illegally obtained the shares held by his clients. On June 3, Nazdratenko summoned Fox to the White House. In an office overlooking Zolotoi Rog harbor, Fox found himself seated at a table with perhaps thirteen or fourteen people: Nazdratenko, several vice governors, and uniformed FSB officers with medals on their chests (by now Kondratov had been recalled to Moscow). The governor told Fox he was going to throw him in jail if he did not somehow convince foreigners to meet three demands: appoint a FESCO chairman of Nazdratenko’s choosing, elect a board friendly to the regional administration’s interests, and sell the regional administration a seven percent stake in the company. Since Fox himself could not order other foreigners to sell their stock, it is unknown how the governor expected him to hand over the shares, but a basic appreciation of the workings of business never was Nazdratenko’s strong point.

11 _____G~1Rusty ships in Zolotoi Rog harbor. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

This spring while participating in a writing fellowship in Brussels, I visited Fox in London. He grilled a slaughterhouse’s worth of chicken, beef, and ribs, and we sat out under a blossoming magnolia tree in his back garden with his two daughters and the Dutch boyfriend of one of the girls. His eleven-year-old son and three of his friends marauded through, loading their plates, then vanished upstairs to play video games. As the daughters and boyfriend listened, wide-eyed, Fox and I swapped stories about Russia’s “Wild East” until a hailstorm drove us indoors. As a joke, Fox also presented me with an artifact of White House propaganda: a chapbook called The Favorite Songs of Yevgeny Nazdratenko, printed up by the regional administration.

In his meeting with Nazdratenko and the sub-bosses of Primorye, Fox recalled, the governor explained the consequences if the foreigners did not comply: “He told me he would put me in a small room in Partizansky Prospekt”—the local jail.

Fox flew to Moscow and held a press conference to reveal the threat, and it became an international scandal for Russia, with Her Majesty’s government denouncing the bullying. Media ranging from the BBC to The New York Times covered the case. Nazdratenko’s intimidation not only undermined diplomatic norms but threatened private investment in Russia. Nazdratenko’s staff hastily denied he had threatened anyone and only said he had spoken to Fox in a “manly” fashion.

But that did not put a stop to the pressure. The drumbeat against FESCO continued when Nazdratenko’s allies in Vostoktransflot’s leadership hired buses to bring maritime academy students, sailors, sea captains, and others to downtown Vladivostok for a protest. A thousand people showed up to denounce Russian businessmen close to Fox as “agents of imperialism.” From the dais, Vladivostok Mayor Yuri Kopylov excoriated a local journalist whom he noticed at the edge of the crowd interviewing a business partner of Fox’s. “She won’t be a reporter for long,” he told the crowd.

Nazdratenko pressured the FESCO board to appoint his candidate to head the company. His man for the job was Aleksandr Lugovets, who happened to be Russia’s Deputy Transportation Minister. Fox replied that Lugovets was unacceptable to foreign investors, who were insisting on a Western level of accounting and transparency. There seemed to be little chance Lugovets would land the job, because board members allied with the foreigners were in the majority. But at a July 6 board meeting, an American board member and a former employee of Fox’s named Richard Thomas threw in with Nazdratenko against the foreign shareholders, handing Lugovets a six-to-five victory. I do not know why Thomas voted as he did, because he did not respond to my inquiries at the time. (He had been editor of the Vladivostok News before my time.) The foreigners Fox represented ended up selling their shares to the Primorye regional administration.

§

By September of 1999, Vostoktransflot’s debts under Ostapenko exceeded the assets of the company, according to media reports. Thirty-four of its thirty-eight ships were arrested to be sold for debts, with one of them to be auctioned off in Lagos, Nigeria. The four remaining ships were docked in Vladivostok, where they had returned in July at Ostapenko’s orders. None of the crews had been paid under his management. Wage arrears to Vostoktransflot’s employees ran in the millions.

The turmoil in the company briefly drew the attention of the federal prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, who flew to Primorye to sniff around. But Russia had changed since the days of Gogol. No one trembled as Gogol’s governor did before the man he mistook for the inspector general from Moscow (“My God, how angry he is. He has found out everything”). Ustinov’s assistant spoke with Vostoktransflot’s legal adviser, Taisia Ponomaryova, who claimed to have evidence of corruption in the Primorye prosecutor’s office and said she possessed documentation proving that a Mafia gang known as the Larionov brothers had gained control of Vostoktransflot through front organizations and that Ostapenko was linked to the brothers, the newspaper Kommersant reported. Valery Vasilenko, the Primorye prosecutor general, dismissed her accusations as nonsense. Anyway, nothing came of Moscow’s interest. Ponomaryova was scheduled to join Milashevich in Moscow for a meeting with Ustinov.

Her phone began ringing at night. Callers she did not know wished to offer a word to the wise. She’d end up beneath the ground with her feet to the east if she kept stirring up trouble, capisce? And it turned out these dial-up friends possessed an uncanny clairvoyance, or must have access to tarot cards or soothsayers, for how else could they have foreseen what would happen at her suburban dacha on the night of September 12, 1999, when she went to bed, and either did or did not say her prayers or think the warm thoughts of the night or reassure herself that a Moscow prosecutor was now paying attention and nothing could happen to her? After she turned out the light, she was blown to bits by a half kilo of TNT.

Suspects? Ostapenko, the new director of Vostoktransflot, wanted to make clear he was not to blame for the “accident.” (The word choice was important, because, who knows, maybe Ponomaryova had in fact bought a child’s chemistry set and stashed it under the bed in an unsafe manner. It does happen.) He issued a statement denying any involvement by his office: “Some media have run absolutely false information on the alleged complicity of the present lawful administration of [Vostoktransflot] in the tragic death of Taisia Ponomaryova. In this connection, the acting administration has to state that it does not have anything to do with the accident.” Besides, he had been sick at home the week of the bombing. How could he be involved?

Well, all right, then; scratch Ostapenko off the list of suspects. What did Alexander Shcherbakov, prosecutor of the Pervomaisky district of Vladivostok, think about all this? He quickly denied any wrongdoing in raiding Vostoktransflot and kicking out Milashevich’s team. He said his office investigated all the facts and concluded that the court executors and the police were acting in full accordance with the law.

Nazdratenko? He was never implicated or named as a suspect. Who said he was? But the governor now controlled Vostoktransflot through the new board of directors, the media reported.

One of Russia’s greatest shipping companies was now falling to pieces. Foreign investors were panicking. Six ships under the Cyprus flag, pledged to the Bank of Scotland, were arrested by Nazdratenko in the port of St. Petersburg in what he said was “the national interest,” Milashevich recently recalled. And anyone who questioned the current ownership arrangement was encouraged to see things the governor’s way. Chief Judge Tatyana Loktionova, head of the Vladivostok department of the State Arbitration Court, was overseeing a case concerning Vostoktransflot’s bankruptcy, and she said she was sure Ponomaryova had been killed because of her attempts to establish corruption in the Primorye administration’s handling of the Vostoktransflot affair. This was not the first time Loktionova had heard a case that interested the White House. Once Nazdratenko phoned her and demanded that she place a crony of his as external manager of a shipping company called Yuzhmorflot, she told Nonna in an interview. And Loktionova, too, had been receiving phone calls from strangers urging her to get with the program and start ruling in accordance with the White House’s wishes, or else. Just before Ponomaryova’s assassination, Loktionova allowed Ponomaryova to copy some files to give to the federal prosecutor general, the judge said. That same day, her neighbor stumbled upon a stranger leaving a package outside Loktionova’s apartment door. Caught in the act, the man grabbed the gift and ran off. She believed it was a bomb.

“This time I again wrote to the local police and the FSB and asked for bodyguards, but I haven’t been given any,” she said. “I am afraid for my life and the life of my husband.”

She sent her two daughters, eleven- and twenty-four years old, into hiding.

04 Protest Loktionovs to Kolyma Voyakin“Loktionovs to Kolyma”—protesters outside the courthouse call for Chief Judge Tatyana Loktionova to be sent to one the most notorious Stalin-era gulag camps. Photo by Vyacheslav Voyakin.

§

Meanwhile, Vostoktransflot’s sailors and workers were going unpaid once again. After Ponomaryova’s death, the White House-allied local media began falsely reporting that Loktionova had frozen the company’s bank accounts. This was untrue, but it had the desired effect. On September 22, a hundred-odd protesters, identifying themselves as sailors, began camping outside Loktionova’s court in a round-the-clock demonstration. Russian police are not known for their tolerance of protests, but this crowd was allowed to remain there for weeks, shouting at anyone they recognized who entered or left the courthouse. Some of them carried signs that read, “Nazdratenko, you were a thousand times right.” Another sign, decorated with a set of handcuffs, said, “Send the Loktionovs to Kolyma,” a reference to a far northeastern region notorious for its Stalin-era Gulag camps. The protesters slopped graffiti on the walls denouncing Loktionova, and they brought in lifeboats, gray with orange covering, which were absurdly beached on the sidewalk along Ulitsa Svetlanskaya. Court employees complained that the seafarers were swigging from bottles and were often, quite frankly, drunk. The sailors chanted their support for the new boss, Ostapenko. This was remarkable, given that all the Vostoktransflot employees I had ever talked to were angry at their chief executive for failing to pay their wages.

On October 4 the protest grew violent. The former acting general director of Vostoktransflot showed up to the courthouse. The protesters dragged him from his car and beat him up. It took another three days before the Primorye regional prosecutor’s office finally ordered the crowd to clear off. As Loktionova left the courthouse that afternoon, police officers escorted her out. As she tried to drive off, roughly a hundred protesters surrounded and began rocking her minivan, shouting, pounding on it, and trying to tip it over.

“We’ll stay here until we kill you,” they screamed.

05 Protest3 VoyakinDemonstrators protest against Loktionova in the Vostoktransflot case. Photo by Vyacheslav Voyakin.

For a half an hour the crowd would not let the judge leave, witnesses said. Eventually, police reinforcements arrived and freed the van. Loktionova escaped unharmed. In a later interview, she told us she had become a scapegoat for the governor’s office because of the bad regional economy. She believed Nazdratenko had drummed up the protest as a part of his re-election campaign. “Just look at the posters praising him,” she said.

The governor’s office dismissed this. “It’s an absurd statement,” said spokesman Andrei Chernov. “It doesn’t have any grounds. The governor does support Ostapenko’s management just because the previous managers couldn’t provide salaries to the sailors.”

Ostapenko held on as company boss, and a year later, Loktionova again found herself under fire. Prosecutors accused her husband of accepting bribes from two businessmen who were trying to influence his wife’s rulings. She herself was never accused of wrongdoing, and she said the charges were trumped up, but the stress took its toll. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a nervous condition, and a heart ailment, and doctors admitted her to the hospital. But days later, the chief physician of Primorye, Polina Ukholenko, personally showed up in Loktionova’s room and kicked the judge out. Loktionova sought admission to other hospitals, but they all refused. “They politely told me to go home, as they didn’t want to get in trouble,” Loktionova said. No other clinic or hospital in the region would admit her.

Ukholenko denied that Loktionova was being refused medical treatment, and claimed that the judge was perfectly healthy. “We did not order clinics not to take her,” she said. “The doctors who denied her help bear full responsibility for her health.”

The New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights wrote to President Putin to complain that Nazdratenko was intimidating judges through smear campaigns in the media, threats by police and government officials, fabricated criminal charges, and physical violence. “This strong-arm governor appears to operate without any external controls, giving him free rein to threaten anyone who challenges his status quo,” wrote Robert Varenik, director of the Lawyers Committee’s Protection Program.

But the letter had no effect. The Higher Qualification Collegium of Judges, a professional licensing body, voted to dismiss Loktionova and strip her of her status as a judge in response to the criminal charges against her husband. He had not yet been convicted, nor had she been accused of anything. Never mind. Nazdratenko had won again.

§

The Goat in the Garden

Let us return to the tale of Radio Lemma. In July of 1999, shortly after the beating of Stepanov and threat to the editor through his kidnapped daughter, the building management company cut off electricity and ordered the staff to clear out of its city-owned office and studio. The reporters who arrived to cover this mostly worked for the national media, beyond Nazdratenko’s control, and Nonna and I also showed up. There in the dark, station director Alexander Karpenko told us that Radio Lemma had asked the city property committee to halt the eviction order, but the request was ignored.

“We have appealed to the governor and to Mayor Kopylov,” he told us there in the dark. “I can’t call this situation an accident after all this noise and all this scandal.”

I do not know how Radio Lemma got the power restored, but somehow the station found its way back onto the air. Then late in November, the month before the regional elections, with Nazdratenko on the ballot, the phone rang at the Vladivostok News. It was Marina Loboda, a local reporter for the national newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“The mayor’s shutting down Radio Lemma,” she said. “Get over here.”

We flagged down a car whose gold-toothed driver intuited our urgency. On the road over a mountaintop that pokes up in the city between our offices and the downtown, he kept his foot to the gas, demonstrating Formula One moves on bald tires as he screeched around the curves. Nonna asked him to slow down. He grinned and ignored her. We clung to the armrests. The Japanese cars widely used in the Russian Far East have no seatbelts in back, and for that matter, drivers themselves seldom buckle their shoulder straps, regarding this as unmanly. From the mountaintop we saw Zolotoi Rog harbor laid out before us, the slump-shouldered cranes, the rust-streaked ships at dock, the barren November hills; and we found ourselves contemplating the shortness of this blessed life. But our time had not yet come, and we screeched up safely outside the offices of Radio Lemma. It was swarming with armed cops.

As a foreigner thought to be The New York Times’ guy, I could breeze in and cover a story like this without risk. For the Russian journalists, it took guts just to gather outside the building in the November wind, clutching a notebook. Loboda, the Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter, once said that whenever she filed a story on a dangerous topic, she holed up in her apartment, fearing that something bad was going to happen to her. She and a few others from the national media were there, but this event would not be well-covered by Primorye’s media. Possibly Arsenyevskiye Vesti was there; they had been showing guts in covering the shipping scandals.

The cops wouldn’t let reporters inside. I buttonholed a young lieutenant, who told me the radio station had been storing gasoline to run its generator. This was a fire hazard, he said. The authorities were compelled to act in the interests of public safety. That was all.

I told him, “I don’t believe you.”

Anger flashed in his eyes.

He referred further questions to his captain, who shrugged that orders were orders. I asked, “Why are you doing this when the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of speech?”

A look of alarm and confusion momentarily crossed his face, as if he had received no instructions as to this point. But the raid went on, and Radio Lemma was off the air until after the election in December. It touched and saddened me later that week when Andrei Kalachinsky, one of the courageous reporters who were there, told Nonna he admired the aggressiveness of my questioning. This compliment was undeserved, particularly from Kalachinsky, who was fired from several jobs because his investigative reporting angered the governor. Later, a pliant court would attempt to seize Kalachinsky’s car after Nazdratenko sued the journalist for an article in the Moscow newspaper Novye Izvestia. (Nazdratenko eventually dropped the case. Uncharacteristically, he shook Kalachinsky’s hand the next time he saw him.) The heroes were the ones who filed their stories and then hid in their apartments, worrying about bombs under the bed. And also my wife, who never hesitated to ask the toughest questions.

Nazdratenko’s campaign in December was filled with attacks on “greedy foreigners” and their Russian allies, and he portrayed himself as a patriot fighting to preserve the Russian fleet. Yet in Vladivostok he was almost beaten by his political rival, Alexander Kirilichev, director of Primorsk Shipping Company. A majority of those we spoke to at the polling stations on election day said they were voting for Kirilichev. Milashevich also ran, but when I asked him what percentage he won, he said he did not remember—maybe 5 percent. “But it does not matter, because the practice of election fraud had already begun,” he wrote. “For example, I cannot believe that Nazdratenko, who froze Vladivostok and left it in the winter with no electric light, scored as much as 75 percent.” As for Kirilichev, he claimed he could prove the election was stolen, but the courts owned by Nazdratenko and the regional election commission found his evidence insufficient.

§

All good things must pass, and while Russian tsars and presidents will forever serve for as long as the state requires them—i.e., for life—mere governors rise and fall. (“No man in this country is irreplaceable—except for one,” Russians used to say under another ruler-for-life, Stalin.) Nazdratenko lost his job, and when he did it happened abruptly.

By the winter of 2000-2001, the Kremlin was embarrassed by the electrical and heating crisis four thousand miles away along the frozen Sea of Japan, and by the foreigners who persisted in writing about it, not just me but the foreign press corps in Moscow as well. Every year Moscow dispatched millions of rubles to buy coal for Primorye’s power stations and boiler houses, and yet in city after city the budget evaporated and ice formed on the interior walls of apartment blocks. In our apartment, Nonna and her son Sergei and I slept in sweats and long underwear and gloves under heaps of blankets, and in the morning, when I got up at four to write fiction, I wore my fur hat and sheepskin coat and fingerless gloves. During the day, amid sixteen-hour blackouts, I scrounged electricity in places where it stayed on. By now I was freelancing and no longer went in to the Vladivostok News to work, so I had to plug in my laptop in the restaurants of international hotels, which had generators to keep the power on. For eight hours at a time I sat there ordering coffee after coffee, so the staff would not kick me out. Or I tipped the waitresses and asked them to leave me alone.

Others could not afford such luxuries. Citizens staged hapless protests—blocking traffic for less than an hour on the main road into Vladivostok one night when the city was so dark, you could see the Milky Way spilled against the void of space. But the regional administration told us we were wrong to complain. First Vice Governor Tolstoshein said there was no energy crisis in Primorye. They were fools and liars, those citizens who complained about living in an apartment where ice formed in their toilets.

President Vladimir Putin was still new on the job, just a year after Yeltsin’s New Year’s Eve resignation had placed the former KGB man in power, and, funny to think, the leader who may now be the richest man on earth was then subject to hopes that he might be a reforming tsar, willing to crack heads together and set things right. Citizens of Vladivostok were cheered in late January when he assailed Nazdratenko for the heating crisis and called the situation in Primorye “utterly outrageous.” Boris Reznik, a State Duma deputy from neighboring Khabarovsk region, told The Moscow Times that Primorye was a “bandit’s nest … one of the most corrupt regions in the country. The fuel crisis was just a consequence.” Russia excels at allowing problems to reach a crisis point, and then heroically solving them. Putin shoveled emergency funds from the federal treasury to be incinerated in the boiler house of Primorye, and he sent his own inspector general in the person of Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu to investigate what might be amiss in Primorye—that is, apart from rampant criminality, theft at every level, and a governor who claimed he had been honored by an international brotherhood of blue bloods. Federal prosecutors began pressing criminal charges in connection with Primorye’s energy problems, and a mayor was found guilty of gross negligence. Cargo planes full of radiators and pipes thumped down on Vladivostok’s concrete-slab runway, and other regions sent plumbers and welders to help restore heating, Reuters reported in January. Moscow ordered other regions to ship coal to Vladivostok, but their governors balked, saying they would run out of fuel if they had to pour their supply into the rat hole by the Sea of Japan. Primorye’s scandals were beginning to touch them. They were angry. The upper house of the federal Duma, in which governors serve, scheduled a debate on the heating situation in the Far East and Siberia. There was the sense that this would not end well for Nazdratenko.

All this drove the sensitive blueblood the point of physical collapse. Taking Loktionova’s lead, Nazdratenko reported to a clinic, claiming serious heart trouble. Luckily, the doctors didn’t kick him out. Reuters cited a regional spokesman who said that “Nazdratenko, the target of a blistering attack by Moscow for alleged blatant mismanagement of the region’s infrastructure, had ended up in hospital after suffering a family loss and because he took his people’s plight to heart.”

One day early in February, the sun set on the Golden Age of the World Aristocratic Governor of the Year, that and every other: Viscount Yevgeny Nazdratenko, chevalier, Order of St. Daniil Moskovskii, Duke of Rothesay, recipient of the Grand Cross of the House Order of the Wendish Crown, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the Foreign Hirelings in Russia. The governor tendered his resignation during a phone chat with Putin.

But a few weeks later, Putin appointed the fallen governor and alleged friend of the mob to helm a new ship, the federal fisheries committee, where he would oversee hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of quotas for Arctic and North Pacific fishing and crabbing. These licenses were lucrative because trawlers could pack their refrigerated hulls with one full quota’s worth of fish, sell it straight off the boat to the Japanese in exchange for U.S. dollars, then head back out to fill their nets again, exceeding their quotas by twenty times or more. The previous head of the committee had just been dismissed amid allegations the committee was running a bribery racket. Reformers were suggesting the solution was to auction off the quotas to the highest bidder, but Nazdratenko made it clear he was opposed to auctions. And besides, with him at the helm, what difference did it make? Alexander Kirilichev, head of the Primorye Shipping Co. and Nazdratenko political rival, told The Moscow Times that ousted governor should be kept away from any managerial position in the government. “They just allowed a goat into a garden,” he said. “Don’t tell me about auctions—he will be able to benefit from any scheme. Very soon those who want to participate in the auctions will have to pay him for access.” But that was a problem for the fishing companies, or the North Pacific environment, not the Russian government.

And now Putin’s house-cleaning had left a new acting governor in place, one with the fanatically baffled gaze. The new boss of the East was the mob-allied parrot himself: First Vice Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein.

“Such stories make Russians, to some extent, feel keenly the depth of depths,” Milashevich wrote to me. Then he quoted a poem titled “12,” from The Stone, by Osip Mandelstam, who died in a gulag transit camp in Vladivostok:

When blow falls on blow
and a mortal, untiring
pendulum swings over my head
wanting to become my fate…
Pointed patterns wind around
each other, and faster and faster
poisoned darts fly up
from brave savage hands.

#

 

List of Sources

Gogol’s The Inspector General is quoted in a translation by Thomas Seltzer (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1916), reprinted by the University of Adelaide Library.

The New York Times description of General Viktor Kondratov comes from Michael R. Gordon’s “On Russia’s Far East Fringe, Unrealpolitik,” which ran Feb 14, 1999.

The Mandelstam poem “12,” translated by Burton Raffel, appeared in Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973), pg. 36. The Russian version, which was published in his 1913 collection Kamen(The Stone), reads:

Когда удар с ударами встречается
И надо мною роковой,
Неутомимый маятник качается
И хочет быть моей судьбой,

Торопится, и грубо остановится,
И упадет веретено –
И невозможно встретиться, условиться,
И уклониться не дано.

Узоры острые переплетаются,
И все быстрее и быстрей,
Отравленные дротики взвиваются
В руках отважных дикарей…

My own articles from that era ran in The New York Times, The Moscow Times, The Japan Times, The South China Morning Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Vladivostok News (now defunct), and many other venues.

—Russell Working

 

Russell Working
Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

Jun 012014
 
raymond_2

Photograph – Veronica Carroll

Raymond Deane was born on Achill Island in county Mayo, the largest island off the squally West Coast of Ireland.  The artist Paul Henry lived and worked there from 1910 to 1919 and his paintings of Achill, such as his depiction of the pirate queen Granuaile’s castle, entitled The Tower, capture the unique meshing of light, sea and landscape. Raymond’s compositional oeuvre including works such as Seachanges (with Danse Macabre) for ensemble, Ripieno for Orchestra, and the electro-acoustic Passage Work also seem to inhabit this dramatic Atlantean lit world. An inheritance, surely, of his boyhood in Achill. Embers for string quartet with its stark and ethereal beauty was composed when Deane was only 20. This remains the composer’s personal favourite and perhaps the most widely performed of all his works.

His work is finely crafted and exquisitely textured. Black humour pervades as in the subject matter of his latest opera (libretto by Gavin Kostik), The Alma Fetish, based on the true story of the love affair between artist Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler and the “anatomically correct” doll that a distraught Kokoschka had made in Alma’s likeness when the affair ended. Doll and artist lived together until ultimately Kokoschka had her publicly “executed”.

Raymond is also known for his writing. The gothic novel Death of a Medium (Published by Odell & Adair, UK, 1991) describes the quest of a failed composer in 19th century Dublin to find his father who himself is embroiled in a quest of his own to find the libertine Duc D’Urval with a phantasmagoric dénouement in guillotine-ridden Paris. The novel currently has the interest of a film production company.

— Siobhan Cleary

 

noctuary

Minerva Owl from Raymond Deane’s new Noctuary album (Resonus Classics), played by Hugh Tinney – release date June 2014

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If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. – Thomas Hardy

A substantial body of work exists comprising of the memoirs and autobiographies of composers. The most eulogised of these is Hector Berlioz’s moires, published posthumously a year after his death in 1870. This is a rollicking, colourful testament of Berlioz’s life equally intimate and tender, particularly when writing of his heartbreak, sense of failure and loneliness even after becoming a celebrated composer.  More recently John Adam’s Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life  released in 2008 is a wry but informative look back at Adam’s life combining childhood memories, cultural history and music criticism.

In My Own Light released this May is a welcome addition to this repertoire. Bob Quinn, the Irish filmmaker, writer and photographer describes it as “a superb and shocking memoir. Elegant prose first lulls us into complacency with a rich, obsessively detailed, account of an Irish childhood. Cleverly, inexorably and despite a warning prologue, we are drawn into a subsequent nightmare recalled dispassionately. The absence of self-pity heightens the horror of a life almost destroyed. Only a very talented artist could have survived the self-inflicted travails described and at the same time become one of Ireland’s finest composers. The book leaves one with a feeling of relief, even joy.”

The memoirs were written in an attempt to re-examine his past, and in particular, his descent into near fatal alcoholism. No misery memoir this, however, as Deane’s honesty, wit and humour allow a lightness on even the darkest subject matter. He was determined not to romanticise his relationship with drink which he describes as “shabby, squalid and sordid.”

The memoir is in three parts corresponding perhaps to the three movements of a symphony, each with its own tempo and style. The first accounts for his first 10 years as a boy in Achill. Contrary to the narrative of memory he previously held of an adverse childhood, he found writing this part of the memoir that his childhood was perhaps not the source of his alcoholism. Instead he describes a comfortable, middle-class background with everything provided for in an idyllic setting. Probed, he admits to have been an anxious child and was bullied by his less well-off peers, but not as badly as he had previously conjured up in his mind. His father is described as a “very nice man” who had his own battles with alcoholism. This was carefully hidden from Raymond (a drunken gait was described as the effects of prescribed medication for example) until one of his siblings spilled the beans when he was 14.  One wonders how this secrecy contributed to a young boy’s anxiety, and indeed a mere three years later, at the age of 17, Raymond had embarked on his own drink-ridden path of self-destruction.

The second part of his memoir picks up when the Deanes moved to Dublin in 1963. Raymond was thrilled at the move and didn’t miss his rural idyll. Dublin provided more stimulation by way of libraries, museums, concerts, and Raymond began to compose there at the age of ten, deciding at that tender age that a composer is what he would be.  He left school at the age of 14 wanting to concentrate on music and writing and embarked on a self-designed course of study, “reading everything that was worth reading”  including Kafka, Woolf and Faulkner (not regularly prescribed reading on any school syllabus at the time).  He matriculated into university where he studied music at UCD.  The isolation of his previous years study had its consequences and Raymond found it difficult to socialise with his colleagues. Drink became the answer to this solution bringing with it its own set of problems from which he was unable to escape for the next 18 years.

The terseness of the language of the third part underlines the torment of these years when Deane reaches hellish depths mired in the grasp of severe alcoholism. Brief sojourns as a pupil of Stockhausen in Cologne and Iseung Yun in Berlin were cut short as Raymond tried to balance his heavy drinking with the demands of rigorous 20th century compositional technique.  A further decline on his return to Dublin left him on life’s edge. He chose to admit himself to St Pat’s Hopsital and began his road to recovery.

The next part of the story is unwritten but thankfully less troubled.  Raymond successfully remained off alcohol becoming a prolific, flourishing and esteemed composer, writer and activist (he is a founding member of the Ireland–Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC). He describes himself as “happy” and fulfilled, and although he abstains from alcohol, as a “hedonist enjoying life’s pleasures”. He divides his time between Dublin, France and Germany.  He feels very lucky that he escaped the alcoholic lifestyle, no doubt mindful of countless of his contemporaries that were less fortunate. He remains optimistic about his future with his opera “The Alma Fetish “ due for a full production by the Dublin company “Wide Open Opera”,  a commission by the exciting new ensemble “The Robinson Panoramic Quartet” and he is in talks about a movie based on his Death of a Medium. He is toying with a follow up to the memoir, this time more “hallucinatory” in style. At age 61, it is clear Deane has faced and conquered whatever demons he had and is grateful for the second chance that life handed to him. In spite of terrible odds he has come through due to his own determination and resourcefulness. An inspiration indeed for those who may find themselves in similar desperate circumstances.

SC: What prompted you to write a memoir and why does it end when it does, at the relatively young age of 35?

RD: That is when I stopped drinking. The memoir was an attempt to explore the reasons why I drank so destructively and what, if any, were the childhood roots of this.

SC: Did you find a reason?

RD: No… Maybe there is no reason. Perhaps it is genetic… I was an anxious child who was terrified of growing up. I saw my father, having responsibilities, paying bills etc. and I didn’t want to be an adult. But I discovered through the writing of the memoir, that my childhood wasn’t nearly as bad as the one I had dreamt up in my imagination. I was bullied at school because I was different. I lived in a big, comfortable house and came from a more middle class background than my peers but on the other hand, I lived in an idyllic setting for a kid. I had plenty of freedom, and I was given every opportunity I could wish for, music lessons for example. But I ended up squandering all of this.

SC: Growing up in Ireland in the 1950’s by current account, seemed to bring its own set of troubles, in particular the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church. Do you think this had anything to do with the stresses that may have propelled you into alcoholismalong with many of your contemporaries?

RD: No. I don’t think so. I think it was just part of who I was.

SC: The second part of the memoir begins when you move to Dublin at the age of ten.  This seems to be a significant turning point for you.  Why did your family move? And did you miss the rural island setting of Achill?

RD:  We moved to Dublin in 1963 because my two brothers had left home and my sister was a boarder in Loreto, Stephen’s Green. I was thrilled and I didn’t miss Achill at all. I missed my piano which was still in Achill, and while waiting for it to be transported, I visited the Dublin public libraries and studied all the available piano scores. It was then at the age of ten, I decided I would be a composer. I hid this from everyone though because I was afraid of being called a sissy!

SC: By whom; Siblings? Friends? Parents?

RD: I grew up in a time and place where gender roles were very rigidly assigned. A little boy was expected to be a little man. Any perceived deviation from this – such as an interest in the arts rather than in sports – was subject to explicit mockery from peers (the word “friends” would have been too strong in my case). However, I may have been over-sensitive to this possibility. I used to hide my manuscripts behind the radiators which would cause a smell whenever the central heating was turned on in the winter!

SC: Was there a particular composer or piece of music that influenced your decision to become a composer?

RD:The “most influential piece I heard as a child” (as described in my memoir, in fact) was probably Nicolai Gedda singing the Flower Song from Carmen.

SC: Did you do any writing at that time? Short stories? Essays?

RD: Yes. Prose mainly.

SC: Do you find a difference or a similarity in composing to writing?

RD: Composing is more abstract, but I find that in either, I enter a world inhabited by characters. So if I am walking down the street, these personalities, themes, images are in my head while the real world passes by.

SC: You left school at the age of 14.  An unusual decision for a boy of your background and academic potential. Why was this?

RD: I left school because I wanted to concentrate on music and writing, and because I was fed up of mathematics, history, geography, Greek, and the likes…I felt completely relieved and not particularly anxious – I was confident of getting in to university because I could concentrate on studying English, French, Irish, Latin, and music (it was possible to do only those in the Matriculation) and I knew I was reasonably competent at all those subjects. I started reading a lot and by the time I was 23, I had read everything that even now I feel was worth reading. I practised piano, wrote and composed. I also walked the dog a lot!

SC: You studied music at UCD.  Did you enjoy this? Looking back, do you find it was particularly helpful for a subsequent career in composition?

RD:I didn’t particularly “enjoy” studying music in UCD, because I hardly did any study – I “knew it all already”. I found some of Seoirse Bodley’s lectures on modern music helpful. In 1974 when I graduated, I went to study in Switzerland, in Basel, with Gerald Bennett who was, himself, a pupil of Pierre Boulez. I studied then with Stockhausen in Cologne and with Isang Yun in Berlin.

SC: You were drinking quite heavily at this time.

RD: Yes.

SC: What were the circumstances of you giving up drink?

RD: People don’t give up drink because x, y, or z – they give up because they’ll die otherwise, or because they just age out of it, or whatever. I had reached “rock bottom,” on the verge of death, having to make a choice between life and death and choosing life… But in fact no choice being involved – given a firm push by the good people in St Pat’s.

SC: You have been sober now for nearly three decades. How easy or difficult was it to make this resolve and does it remain a temptation?

RD: In 26 years I’ve never had the slightest twinge of temptation to go back on the hooch. It’s not a question of resolve – just of the absence of temptation.

SC You later spent some time in Paris. How did this come about?

RD My sister worked for 12 years at UNESCO in Paris. She bought a small studio apartment in the 17th arrondissement (she lived in the 15th) as an investment, and put it at my disposal. I spent a few months of the year there between 1990 and1994. I came to love the place, and I still do.

SC You still spend lot of time there and in Fürth (Northern Bavaria). Do find this time away from Ireland beneficial?

RD:I need to be “away from home” for appreciable periods, be it in Germany or France, because I thrive creatively on a certain feeling of alienation from my surroundings. I don’t mean the kind of alienation I feel in Ireland – despite its cultural and political conservatism, which are repellent to me, I still feel “at home” here, a kind of insider – but the sense of being an outsider, being surrounded by people speaking a different language (which, fortunately, I also speak and understand) and having different customs. In such an atmosphere I feel freed up to work without interruption, and with a clearer perspective on what I’m doing, and also to pursue my culture vulture instincts…

SC: How did you become a political activist?

RD:I was involved in a detached kind of way in the East Timor-Ireland Solidarity Campaign, which evolved into the Ireland-Palestine SC in 2001. Its first chair was Tom Hyland, who was head of ETISC since its foundation but who soon found that he didn’t really want to continue heading the Palestine group and resigned. I was elected chair in absentia, so I was more or less thrust into intensive activism.

SC: Would you describe yourself as a reluctant activist?

RD: Yes.

SC: You’ve had some very nasty (and untrue) comments written about you in the press as a result of your activism.  Does this get to you?

RD: Press defamation DOES get to me, at least for a while. Actually, the old AA slogan helps: “This too shall pass.”

— Raymond Deane & Siobhán Cleary

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

 Extract from the last chapter of In My Own Light

 

That April I moved into a first-floor bedsit overlooking Upper Leeson Street.Increasingly I concentrated my drinking on Grogans, a famously bohemian public house presided over by the legendary Paddy O’Brien, a man who had served and refused service to Patrick Kavanagh, and who was benignly disposed towards me. Here I fell among thieves, and not just in the figurative sense. Among the hardened drinkers who became my regular cronies was Danny, a dapper rogue with an enviable way with women and an unenviable prison record. Danny rapidly ascertained that I possessed a cheque book, and seemed convinced that it was intended primarily for his benefit. He would play chess with me on my tiny portable set and would cheat shamelessly and without subtlety, taking back moves and moving pieces around when my back was turned. Eventually, when I tired of this and told him I would play no more, he simply appropriated the set and found other victims.

A more congenial companion was my old friend John Jordan. Nowadays, frustratingly, he lapsed into a comatose state after one or two drinks. John had a fine mind, had known everyone worth knowing, and could, when he wished, converse with an eloquence that contrasted blatantly with the drivel spouted by most of my associates. He was a generous man who, when compos mentis, would always stand me a pint or a short. On seeing me he would invariably exclaim “Ravel! Ma mere l’oye!” and reminisce fondly about Annaghmakerrig.

No matter how shaky I felt, I was never too self-conscious to sidle into Grogans and sit in a dark corner with a pint of water until such time as a willing victim entered the premises and either plied me with drink or “lent” me money (or both). Sometimes Paddy O’Brien or Tommy Smith, one of the pub’s co-proprietors, would let me have a few drinks on the house. When my cheques bounced they did not make too much of an issue of it, although they kept a tab of what I owed them.

Of course I had a major orchestral work to write, and this necessitated periodic trips to Bunclody. Whether I arrived drunk, hungover or semi-sober, my father always met me at the bus-stop and was always welcoming and non-judgmental. He would “feed me up” and slip me a few pounds when I left.

That summer my drinking, already excessive, took a turn for the worse. It required increasing quantities of alcohol to relieve the horror of my hangovers, yet my capacity for the stuff was diminishing drastically. This meant that by the time I had begun to feel semi-human, usually in the early afternoon, I was ready to stagger home and collapse into a short-lived and unrefreshing stupor. At seven or eight p.m. I would emerge from this with a fully reconstituted hangover, and start the whole awful process again.

This harrowing schedule often entailed waking during “the hour of the wolf”, at three or four a.m. Unable to get back to sleep I would lie there until morning, racked with anxiety, soaked in perspiration, trembling, nauseated, and dreading the delirium tremens that somehow remained at bay. I ate little, although sometimes Danny dragged me into a restaurant during the “holy hour” when he would eat with a healthy appetite while I picked at a snack and concentrated my attention on the wine. I would pay for this with a cheque, whether or not I had the funds to cover it.

On 8th July as I lurched homewards I collapsed somewhere on Leeson Street. I awoke to find myself in bed in an unknown environment. Someone had apparently taken the unacceptable liberty of inserting a wire into my penis. When I sought to remove it, my hand was clasped by an attractive young woman in a white uniform, whose firm but gentle words were: “Don’t – it’ll be very sore.” I drifted back into pleasing unconsciousness. When I came to, I was in a different bed, surrounded by curtains. My body was free of intrusive appendages. I felt drained but peaceful, and sought in vain to remember how I had arrived wherever I was.

The curtains were drawn aside and a doctor materialised. He told me I was in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, an ambulance having picked me off the street three days earlier. I had suffered an epileptic fit, and been “transferred to Casualty comatose, feverish, with abnormally low blood pressure and a severe metabolic acidosis”, to quote the medical records that I accessed a quarter century later (metabolic acidosis is an excess of acid in the body fluids). I was also suffering from dangerously rapid heart rhythm. On resuscitation I had been able to inform them that I had been drinking an average of ten pints of beer daily prior to my collapse (a figure plucked out of the air, and omitting any reference to wine, vodka and whiskey).Growing increasingly agitated over the following days I had been heavily sedated and indeed “became unrousable due to excess sedation”, which necessitated my transfer to intensive care.The words that most horrified me were “epileptic fit”. The doctor reassured me that I was not an epileptic, and the fit I had suffered was probably due to withdrawal from alcohol; such fits need not recur were I to avoid getting into such a state again.

Later that day my father visited me, bringing me a copy of Thomas Flanagan’s novel The Year of the French, which turned out to be an excellent piece of hospital reading. He had been summoned by the hospital when it seemed that my life was in danger (interestingly, this is not mentioned in the medical records). Of course he had been terribly worried but, he gently concluded, I was better now, and perhaps this was the shock that would lead to my changing my life… Yes, I responded fervently, definitely! I had learned my lesson, and everything would be different from now on.

I was taken for an endoscopy. Liquid Valium was injected into my arm to sedate me while a tube was inserted down my throat to ascertain the condition of my gastro-intestinal tract. I coughed and retched and sweated and sobbed. The doctor, disconcerted, ordered more Valium, to no avail; I went on retching and weeping until the procedure was finished. An hour later the doctor visited me, expecting to find me in a state of unconsciousness. Instead, I was sitting up in bed reading The Year of the French. He appeared baffled, and almost disapproving. The medical records mention Valium, but not my failure to respond to it. My stomach was fine, and a biopsy revealed that my liver was “as well as could be expected”, and would undoubtedly recover fully “if I gave it a chance.” Had this latest and most spectacular collapse not occurred on the street but while I was at home, nobody would have known about it and I would certainly have died.

Of course I emerged from hospital a new man. I had seen the error of my ways and henceforth would shun the embrace of Dame Ethyl. I had no fewer than three lucrative commissions waiting for me and I completed them, working mainly in Bunclody, in an unprecedented spate of concentrated work. These, like Écarts, were avant-garde pieces, quite remote in style from my earlier (and later) works, but effective for all that.

I was busy, healthy, sober, and making money. Each evening I went on a pub-crawl, drinking litres of non-alcoholic beer just to prove that I could resist temptation. Once more I anticipated amorous adventures and was undaunted when they failed to materialise – after all, it was just a matter of time until Anette and I were reunited.

We agreed to spend a week together in the Canary Islands that autumn. On 4th November I flew to Gran Canaria, where she had booked us into a German holiday resort (where the restaurants advertised Kaffee wie zu Hause! – “coffee just like at home!”). We were reasonably at ease with one another, although I felt from the start that she was insufficiently appreciative of my self-reforming zeal. I half hoped that she might confine her drinking to mineral water in solidarity with my virtuous abstemiousness. I resented the pleasure she clearly derived from a glass of wine with her meals, and envied her ability to slake her thirst in this warm climate with glasses of cool, refreshing, tempting beer.

We visited the Playa del Inglés and sneered at the crass loutishness of the Brits. We swam twice a day. We hired a car one rainy day and drove into the mountains, terrified by the absence of barriers on the abyss side of the wet winding road (lucky Anette could calm herself afterwards with a cool, refreshing, tempting beer). We took a boat trip to Tenerife, where I admired the snow-capped volcano and fantasised that it was the Popocatepetl of Under the Volcano.

As the holiday wound to a close, it became clear that it would not give renewed impetus to our relationship. I believed that I had proved my readiness to change my life in the interests of such a renewal, but that she was unwilling to meet me half way. I felt cheated, and bitterly resentful. We were leaving on successive days, so I saw her off at the airport, continued by bus to Palma, and booked into a hotel. Soon I was sitting at a terrace overlooking the sea, a large, cool, refreshing beer in front of me.

Four months without alcohol had toughened my system, so that it took a while for me to disintegrate again. After Gran Canaria I practically severed contact with the rest of my family. I learned that my father was spending Christmas in Dublin with John and his new wife Ursula, but there was no question of my inviting myself around. Instead, I accepted an invitation from the poet Michael Hartnett to partake of Christmas dinner in his house, which was a few doors away from my Leeson Street bedsit. When I arrived, Michael nervously ushered me into his sitting-room, where the table was laid for one. He himself was on the dry and his wife, fearing contagion, had ordained that I should eat alone, be given one single glass of whiskey, and sent on my way. The impulse to walk out in a dignified huff seized me momentarily, but I had little dignity left, was hungry, and “had a mind for a dhrop”.

A week later my Dublin Millennium piece, Thresholds, was performed at the NCH, conducted by Proinnsías Ó Duinn. I had attended no rehearsals. I sat in the reserved seats with a retinue of Groganites, as the habitués of that drinking establishment are known. After the concert I refused to see in the New Year with any of the musicians or even to congratulate Prionnsías on his exertions.

The year began in a blur and degenerated steadily. I stopped shaving, and took to sleeping fully clothed on the couches or floors of various cronies’ flats, which were mostly dirty and often malodorous. I began to smoke heavily and soon had acquired my first and last nicotine stains.

On my birthday, 27th January, I trundled homewards before the holy hour and decided to have a quick drink in O’Dwyer’s at Leeson Street Bridge.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m sorry, we’re all out of Smithwicks.”

“Oh? A pint of Harp then.”

“Sorry, there’s not a drop left.”

“Guinness?”

“All gone.”

I gazed at the flippant young man, and noticed my image in the mirror behind him.

“Look, I know I look a bit ratty because I haven’t shaved in a while, but today’s my birthday…”

“Happy birthday, then. Maybe you’d be better off going home for a nap.”

I went around the corner into the neighbouring pub, O’Brien’s.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m afraid we’re all out of it, sir.”

I bought a half bottle of vodka in the nearest off-licence and went home. I had broken my last remaining glass, so I mixed the vodka with water and sipped it gloomily out of a cup. If desperation mixed with desolation has a taste, then this was it.

—Raymond Deane

siobhan

Siobhán Cleary  was born in Dublin.  She studied music at the NUI, Maynooth, the Queen’s University, Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin where she completed a Masters in Music and Media Technology. She has composed in all the major genres, producing in addition to orchestral, chamber and vocal works, a number of works for electronic media and film scores. Her pieces have been performed and broadcast widely in Europe, USA, Canada, South America and Australia.  Her orchestral work ‘Threads’ was selected by Vienna Modern Masters for performance at the Second International Festival of New Music for Orchestra in Olomouc in the Czech Republic and later released on CD. In 1996 as a Pépinières European Young artist Laureate, she was composer in residence in Bologna with the Argo Ensemble. In January 1998 a concert devoted to her music was given at Cité International des Arts in Paris, She has been commissioned by The National Symphony Orchestra The Irish Chamber Orchestra, The National Chamber Choir, the Arts Councils of both England and Ireland, Cité International des Arts in Paris as well as many individuals soloists and ensembles. She is the founder of Ireland Promoting New Music which promotes the performance of contemporary music through its series New Sound Worlds. She was elected to Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of creative artists in 2008.

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Raymond Deane was born in Co Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, on 27 January 1953. He was brought up on Achill Island, Co Mayo. From 1963 he lived in Dublin, where he studied at University College Dublin, graduating in 1974. He was a founding member of the Association of Young Irish Composers, and won numerous awards as a pianist. He subsequently studied in Basle with Gerald Bennett, in Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen (although he doesn’t consider himself “a Stockhausen pupil”), and in Berlin with Isang Yun. He was featured composer in the 1991 Accents Festival (with Kurtag) and the 1999 Sligo New Music Festival (with Roger Doyle). He has featured in several ISCM festivals (Mexico City, Manchester, Hong Kong), in the festivals l’Imaginaire irlandais (Paris 1996), Voyages (Montreal 2002), Warsaw Autumn (2004), and regularly in the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers (his Ripieno for orchestra winning a special prize in 2000).

He was artistic director of the first two RTÉ Living Music Festivals (Dublin 2002/2004),  showcasing the music of Luciano Berio and contemporary French music respectively. In 1992 he published Death of a Medium, a novel (Odell & Adair), and he continues to publish essays and articles on culture and politics. He was awarded a Doctorate in Composition by the National University of Ireland (Maynooth) in 2005. He has been a member of Aosdána, the government-sponsored academy of artists, since 1986. He is now based in Dublin, Paris, and Fürth (Bavaria).

May 162014
 

Desktop52W. G. Sebald

The movie writer/director Ron Shelton once told me he figured he had enough material for a movie when he had enough for twelve movies. Something like that must be at the back of Patrick Madden’s essays because he will wander and digress and quote and ponder and talk about himself and reflect and quote again. This essay is notionally about W. G. Sebald’s discursive, essayistic novels, especially The Rings of Saturn, but then Patrick wanders off and talks about the nature of the essay itself, the nature of creative nonfiction, the fictional aspects of nonfiction and the nonfictional aspects of fiction, and the way he likes to write his own essays (maybe a dozen different topics—you count). In effect, he incarnates the form (of the essay) in his discussion of the essay and Sebald as essayist in the most amiable and slyly convincing manner. “Walking, Researching, Remembering” is, yes, an extremely amiable and charming tour de force, which, to me, also has the advantage of drawing attention to one of the differences between North American and European fiction — the Europeans (see Kundera’s The Art of the Novel) have never been averse to mixing their essays with their novels, whereas North Americans have been stunned into minimalism by that show-don’t-tell nonsense. Don’t get me started.

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In his book Understanding W. G. Sebald, Mark McCulloh contends that “Even more than The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn defies description; it does not seem to fit into any conventional prose or fiction category.” This sentiment has found its way into praise and criticism from the beginning, ever since Sebald’s books began to appear in English. Yet I disagree; unless we remove the essay from the ranks of “conventional” genres, it fits what Sebald wrote very aptly. But I would do well to begin by defining terms.

The word essay has been misused and abused for long centuries since Montaigne appropriated it to describe his writings. School teachers and children use it to mean a written test of knowledge, usually with an expected correct answer. Colleagues of mine use it to refer to academic articles, which may have somewhat in common with essays, but which are quite different in direction and intent. In fact, the best theoretical works on the essay, including those written by Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, and William Gass, pit the essay in opposition to this very thing. This is how I’ve grown to think of the essay, not as non-fiction, but as non-article. It is a malleable literary form that admits experimentation and imagination. More on this in a minute.

It is not usually my nature to make arguments. I’m more likely to content myself with leisurely explorations that churn up questions but not answers. So I expect to go back and forth, circle around my claim, perhaps contradict myself (it was Walt Whitman who declared it so memorably, but we should remember that Montaigne made a genre out of it). And, speaking of Montaigne, here’s his justification for drifting, rambling a bit:

It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient.

In any case, before I get lost in the branches, let me return to the trunk of my argument: Sebald was an essayist. I’ll focus my here today on my favorite of his books, The Rings of Saturn, but not only on that book. I’ll divide my argument into two considerations: Fiction vs. Nonfiction and The Essay as Form.

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Part I: Fiction v. Nonfiction

Although it’s rarely professed explicitly, far too many of my academic colleagues seem to espouse a one-drop theory of creative nonfiction: if a writer invents even a small detail, the prose is deemed fiction. Of course, this view immediately becomes problematic, as any nonfiction writer will attest to inventing dialogue, or crafting it to recall approximately what was said, not offer a verbatim transcript. A more theoretical view argues that all writing is fiction, either because it is a made thing or, more in line with our colloquial definition, because it is a recreation in words of an exterior reality. This is sometimes fun to ponder, but I think we’re arguing about the wrong thing. After all, poetry is not divided along factual lines; it is a literary form that admits invention as well as re-creation.

Nevertheless, the essay as a literary genre has been swept up in the current trend of “creative nonfiction,” and as it has traditionally been a nonfictional genre—one that utilizes real-life experience as a springboard to thinking—this has come to be a sort of requirement or expectation. I am not saying that this is always a bad thing—in my own writing I make it a point to stick to the facts as I remember or can discover them—but that the essay form is big enough to admit some fictionalizing.

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Fictionalizing essayists

An easy case may be made for essays that use fiction in a way that is not deceptive. Take, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” whose plot is utterly undramatic—she goes in search of a pencil—and yet whose technique is highly imaginative—she invents thoughts and backgrounds for the strangers she encounters along the way. No critical reader believes that Woolf knows the details she writes. She obviously makes them up. Similarly, no critical reader believes every detail in a James Thurber essay, or a Christopher Morley or Robert Benchley or David Sedaris. And what can we make of Joseph Addison writing in the voice of a shilling that has traveled the world or of George Orwell perhaps borrowing the haunting central scene of “A Hanging” from a comrade’s recollection? What of Ian Frazier writing as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s ex-husbands? Or as a coyote captured in Central Park!? Essayists have been utilizing fiction for as long as the essay has existed.

There is also the question of an essayist’s persona. Much is made, directly and indirectly, of Sebald’s narrators. Critics are careful not to associate author and speaker, to make such an amateur’s conflation. Yet, I would argue that an essayist always speaks through a persona, at least through a necessarily partial version of him- or herself. Was Sebald as neurotic or morose as his narrators? No, say those who knew him. Was he as interested in history and biography? He must have been, to write his books. Martin Swales assures us that “the persona clearly overlaps with the author…there is a good deal of shared identity between the narrative voice and the person who wrote and published the text.” Mark McCulloh assents: “The self-references, the literary references, the references to art and music, and the seemingly tangential digressions are indeed drawn from the author’s life and researches” (82). Most readers I know seem to agree and accept this notion. But again let’s look at a few examples of old to trouble this question:

Charles Lamb wrote his essays under the pen name Elia, an Italian immigrant, a clerk, a person very much like “the real” Lamb, but not entirely. To complicate matters further, “Charles Lamb” appears as a third-party in some of Elia’s essays, including “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” written by Elia to debunk an overly sunny Lamb composition on the same subject. A third level of difficulty arises as Elia appropriates Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s troublesome experiences as a youth at the boarding school both Coleridge and Lamb attended. This resembles very much the nature of Sebald’s ficionalizations: conflating two acquaintances to create the painter Max Ferber (whose name was changed in the English translation to be less recognizable), and two others to create Austerlitz, changing the names of certain characters, moving buildings, rearranging events, etc. There are other examples, too, of essayists trying on fictional personas, perhaps most notably Oliver Goldsmith, an Irishman posing as a visiting Chinese man writing about eighteenth-century England. Edith Maude Eaton performed a similar self-revision, writing as Sui Sin Far. Violet Paget wrote her essays as Vernon Lee, and other women likewise wrote as men. And while critics may argue the literary merits and meanings of their works, the question of their genre seems to have been settled. They wrote essays.

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Sebald’s nonfiction

Still, lots of us want to know what really happened, whether Sebald wrote true to life. On the one hand, it seems naïve, unsophisticated, to wonder if or to hope that Sebald’s books are nonfiction. On the other hand, this very question has given a number of academics projects to investigate and write about. And they seem to enjoy their quests. Certainly I enjoy reading Jo Catling’s revelation that the Eccles Church Tower Sebald places in Dunwich is really far north of there; Silke Hostkotte’s puzzlement at the library date-stamp on the newspaper that Sebald supposedly bought in Switzerland; Adrian Daub’s conclusion that the Eastern Daily Press article about Major George Wyndham LeStrange must be a forgery created by Sebald. These researchers seem genuinely pleased with the treasure hunt Sebald has left them. I myself have twice set out on my own brief treasure hunt, a tour of some of the places Sebald (and his narrator, if you prefer) visited in The Rings of Saturn.

Thankfully, then, a lot of interviewers were interested in just this very subject, and Sebald was never coy. Carole Angier, in an interview for the Jewish Quarterly, asks about the real people behind the four narratives in The Emigrants. They were real, says Sebald, “with some small changes.” He explains these changes, adding that “What matters is all true…The big events…you might think those were made up for dramatic effect. But on the contrary, they are real.” He adds “The vast majority of factual and personal detail that I use is very viable.” Nevertheless, Angier has her answer: the book is fiction.

Very well, the books fit that bill, but it is still heartening to hear Sebald detail the nonfictional elements of his books. Ninety percent of the images are authentic (41), he says. His narrator’s travels mirror his own travels. He does a great deal of historical research, searching for connections. Sometimes these connections present themselves from the long shadows of memory. Certain epiphanies “can be achieved only by actually going to certain places, by looking, by expending great amounts of time in actually exposing oneself to places that no one else goes to” (85). “The changes that I made, i.e., extending certain vectors, foreshortening certain things, adding here and there, taking something away, are marginal changes, changes of style rather than changes of substance” (38).

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Part II: The Essay as Form

There must be something, then, that distinguishes the essay as a genre. In terms of form, the simplest way to distinguish genres is by their shape on the page. My children can tell a poem from a play from prose. They can also tell country music from jazz from rock-n-roll. This is where the essay differs from the short story or the novel.

Theodor Adorno, as I have mentioned briefly, begins his “Essay as Form” railing against the tendency of humans to categorize, compartmentalize, and therefore cage. He singles out what he calls a German binary: art is irrational, science is knowledge. This is not only a German tendency, nor is it relegated to the past, of course. Adorno returns regularly to this dichotomy: on the one hand the systematic article, on the other, art, and in the middle, the confluence of the two, in good deconstructivist style, is the essay, free of restraint or obligation to either camp. The “intellectual freedom” here symbolized by the essay seems as much praise and rebellion as description, and Adorno’s tone is often exasperated, his words a counterattack on those “enemies of the essay” who “hire out to stupidity as a watchdog against the mind” (4). Central to Adorno’s idea of the essay form, then, is its fragmentariness (a mirror of fragmentary reality), its intuitiveness, its “luck and play” (4), its individuality, its uncertainty, its incompleteness, its focus on the “transient and ephemeral” (10), its dealings in experience, its contingency, its situatedness within culture, its immediacy, its skepticism, its non-linearity, its direct treatment of complexity, its resistance to reduction, its grounding in language, its musical logic, its self-reflexivity, its heresy. He is often quoted for this last sentiment, with which he ends his essay on the essay: “The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy” (23). He means, I think, a rejection of the norms of thought, of the fear of thought, of the fear of losing the solid ground created by the illusion of objective knowledge. The essay is cast in relief (perhaps with a double meaning: “standing out” and “refreshing”) against the rigid systems of science, positivism, the reification of methodical provable truth. An essay, in this sense, is a kind of anti-genre, or at least, in O. B. Hardison’s words, a “protean” form.

Georg Lukacs, who preceded Adorno and who offers many similar statements, seems to deal specifically with an essay that begins with an external, not a personal subject, much as Sebald’s work is derived from studies of other people, places, and events. Lukacs’s rendition of the science/art split hinges on his statement that “science offers us facts and the relationships between facts, but art offers us souls and destinies” (3). He justifies the need for essays in contrast with drama (or, I imagine, fiction) by pointing out that some reactions can be shown visually and aurally, but thought is invisible. Thus the essay deals with the inner workings of a mind. The essay is needed also as intermediary between concepts (abstractions) and things (concretions), between image and significance. For Lukacs, then, the essay form is marked by its questioning, its avoidance of didactic or simplistic answers, its fragmentariness, its humor, its modesty, its consideration of the quotidian, its irony, its fight against tradition, its visionary nature, its friction with fact (perhaps this is key), its interruptions, its primacy of point of view over feeling. He sees the essay as process, not product, journey, not destination. The essay, according to Phillip Lopate [Against 75], “allows one to ramble in a way that more truly reflects the mind at work,” struggling, grasping, circling, but never preaching.

Adorno deals with the misguided view of essay as simply nonfiction when he writes, “The bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand” (6). Lukacs would seem to agree: “Every event [is] only an occasion for seeing concepts more clearly,” he writes (14), and “The idea is the measure of everything that exists….Only something that is great and true can live in the proximity of the idea.” (16). Both writers stress that the essay is an ordering of things already present, not a creation ex nihilo. This calls to mind an Sebald interview with Michael Zeeman, [Netherlands TV, 12 July 1998] in which he says, “Making in prose a decent pattern out of what happens to come your way is a preoccupation, which, in a sense, has no higher ambitions than, for a brief moment in time, to rescue something out of that stream of history that keeps rushing past.” To Zeeman’s amazement, Sebald claims that as he’s writing, necessary and fitting items seem to present themselves to him. He quotes (he thinks) Adorno: “If you’re on the right track, then the quotations come and offer themselves to you; you don’t have to look for them.”

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Others’ statements about Sebald’s form

I hope you have read some of Sebald’s works, have marveled at their complexity and swooned in their beauty. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that the traits Adorno and Lukacs (and others) attribute to the essay fit Sebald. Critics and academics have made similar statements to describe Sebald’s strange prose.

Susan Sontag said The Emigrants was “like nothing I’ve ever read…an unclassifiable book, at once autobiography and fiction and historical chronicle. A roman d’essai?” Margo Jefferson of the New York Times wondered about categorizing Sebald’s books: “What does one call them? meditations, elegies, mutations grown from memoir, history, literary biography and prose poetry.”

W. S. Merwin said that Sebald’s writing conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, the dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time that makes his books, one by one, indispensable. He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory.

Michael Silverblatt, in a radio interview, comments that “The wandering that the prose does, both syntactically and in terms of subjects, reminds me a bit of my favorite of the English essayists, de Quincey: the need, in a sense, to almost sleepwalk, somnambulate from one center of attention to another, and a feeling in the reader that one has hallucinated the connection between the parts.”

J. J. Long, in W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity finds in The Rings of Saturn an anti-Cartesian parallel between the narrator’s ambling and the narrative’s form: “He wanders with no ostensible purpose or goal, following the dictates of the land, inadvertently doubling back on himself, inexplicably tracing out the same route time and again, and striking out only to end up back where he started…The Rings of Saturn, like the journey it recounts, is filled with diversions, recursions and a refusal of teleology.” The book, he says, “consists almost entirely of digressions.” The narrator’s walking “is deliberately inefficient and, one might say, anti-disciplinary. This tendency to explore byways rather than make beelines goes hand in hand with a narrative technique that is multiply digressive: it repeatedly shifts focus, as each digressions is soon abandoned in favour of another digression or a brief return to the story of the journey itself; it frequently changes the context within which phenomena are understood, evoking a parallel mythic temporality that transfigures the quotidian object-world and produces a split attention, a kind of distraction, in both the narrator and the reader; and it frequently gets sidetracked into length enumrations of physical objects” (140).

Mark McCulloh, in Understanding W. G. Sebald, makes similar claims about Sebald’s digressiveness, adding that The Rings of Saturn declares its subject from the outset, another essay commonality, thus eschewing suspense and drama, that it, like Thomas Browne’s work, pursues enigmatic interconnections, “casting doubt on virtually anything that is readily apparent” (61). “The book is thus an associative, digressive, and allusive journey through East Anglia,” he concludes.

Charles Simic notes that “[Sebald] never hesitates to interject some interesting anecdote or bit of factual information arrived at by some not-always-apparent process of association. He does this without forewarning, transition, or even paragraph break” (146)

Or hear Martin Swales [“Intertextuality, Authenticity, Metonymy? On Reading W. G. Sebald” from The Anatomist of Melancholy ed. Rüdinger Görner]: “Random meetings, memories involuntarily triggered, chance thoughts—these are the stuff of his imaginative universe.” And “In a curious way, the Sebald text stays where is has been from the outset; it does not quite go anywhere, in other words.”

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Sebald’s statements on his method of writing

It’s not only the critics who see Sebald’s books as digressive, associative, logically non-linear. When Sebald discussed his writing style and methods, he likewise seemed to be describing essaying. Consider what he told Joseph Cuomo:

I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. … So you then have a small amount of material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then, obviously, they’ll connect up. But they’ll only connect up in an obvious sort of way, which actually isn’t, in terms of writing something new, very productive. You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn’t done before. That’s how I thought about it. Then, of course, curiosity gets the better of you.

Later in that same interview, he describes his “escape,” as it were, from the demands of academic life: “The preoccupation with making something out of nothing, which is, after all, what writing is about, took me at that point. And what I liked about it was that if you just changed, as it were, the nature of your writing from academic monographs to something indefinable, then you had complete liberty” (99). His dichotomy seems to be the same as Adorno’s: article vs. essay.

In “An Attempt at Restitution,” published in English in Campo Santo, Sebald describes his method or procedure as “adhering to an exact historical perspective, patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life” (200). To Arthur Lubow, he once explained, speaking specifically of a 1918 German army map: “I don’t think I shall be able to understand it, but I want to marvel at it,” which seems to me the fundamental impulse behind the essay.

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Textual evidences from The Rings of Saturn

The plot of The Rings of Saturn is the author takes a series of walks in the countryside of southeastern England. Not much really happens to invite drama or excite our sense of the exotic, but this book is not about plot, it’s about keen observation, happenstance research, memory and meditation. One need only turn to the book’s contents page to get a sense of the breadth and depth of the subjects it mulls. Take, for instance, chapter 3: “Fishermen on the beach – The natural history of the herring – George Wyndham Le Strange – A great herd of swine – The reduplication of man – Orbis Tertius.” Already the work displays its digressive, meandering nature.

I read The Rings of Saturn as I was living for a year in Uruguay, riding the buses downtown each morning, finding books in the National Library and the used book shops, interviewing former revolutionaries about their pasts. I found in Sebald a tempered, beautiful prose that swept me up in its rhythms and convolutions, that seemed to perfectly reproduce the author’s mind processing the accidental sights and insights that crossed his path. Along for the journey with Sebald are Thomas Browne, Rembrandt, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the Dowager Empress. Underlying the meandering (on land and in mind) are considerations of the strange geometric form called a quincunx, the intrigue behind the coming of silk worms to the West, the strange resonances between Sebald’s life and the life of one Michael Hamburger, the unstoppable decline and decay of cities and lives and all that man may hope to build up, the shadow cast by death.

One of my favorite passages, one that made me laugh out loud, is this: Sebald is very tired after a day of traipsing about, so he falls asleep in an armchair watching a BBC documentary about Roger Casement. He is left with only vague, ethereal notions of what he had heard as he drifted off to sleep, but he’s interested enough to want to write about him. He says, “I have since tried to reconstruct from the sources, as far as I have been able, the story I slept through that night in Southwold.” Then he goes on to tell the story of Casement at great length.

And here is a Sebaldian moment for you: When I first wrote the above passages, for a brief book review, I repassed the section of the book in which Sebald parallels his life to Michael Hamburger’s, but I could not find the name Hamburger, only Michael. I thought I remembered Hamburger in any case, so I did what any self-respecting twenty-first-century essayist would do. I googled “Michael Hamburger.” The top results were all obituaries. I clicked on the one from the Guardian. Sure enough, this was the man I was looking for. He had just died that very week.

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Fin

I am self-aware enough to recognize that part of my drive to see Sebald’s writing as essay is selfish, a wish to claim him as part of my tribe, so that maybe some of his glory will shine on me. But weren’t more prominent critics performing a similar feat by claiming genrelessness for Sebald? Wasn’t their real message that “Sebald is great”? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with participating in a genre, especially one as malleable as the essay. And after all, genre definitions are more like recommendations or descriptions, not prescriptions. So when I say that Sebald works for me as an example of an essayist par excellence, that his works serve as models to scores of nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers, all I’m really saying is “Sebald is great,” a rather unacademic thing to say, but I wager it’s what we’re all saying, underneath it all.

—Patrick Madden

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Madden_Num5Patrick Madden walking

Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays.