Apr 252016
 

NC diagram

NC 2nd floor planSketch and Lego floor plan of the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House

Superlatives are out the window. I have no more. How many times can you say you’re astonished, gobsmacked, and catatonic from the sheer explosive freshness and quality of the writing before it becomes the ordinary?

It has become the ordinary.

I am astonished, gobsmacked, honoured, and not quite catatonic (but close) from the sheer explosive freshness, inventiveness, passion and quality of the writing in this issue. In December, we had a lengthy, comprehensive interview with Gabriel Josipovici, celebrated novelist and author of the book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (we called the interview “The Mind of the Modern”). In the new May issue, we have, mirabile dictu, a mysterious and uncanny excerpt from Josipovici’s work-in-progress My Brother.

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici

How long should I wait? For it sometimes happens that he forgets that we are playing and lies down somewhere and falls asleep. Or opens the fridge and makes himself a sandwich, then sits down with a magazine to eat it. And when I finally come across him and ask him what has happened he looks at me blankly. Don’t you remember? I say. We were playing. You were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says. —Gabriel Josipovici

Gary GarvinGary Garvin

From Gary Garvin, who has been writing for the magazine since the first issue (you can watch him age in his photographs), we have a uniquely powerful and beautifully eccentric essay on Modernism, architecture, Mies van Der Rohe’s famous Brick Country House and, yes, Lego models (meticulously built by the author himself). Garvin is a true American original, not to be missed.

It’s the sketch of the floor plan that most captured attention. It reflected aesthetic interests of the time—Cubist ideas about space—and acted as a visual manifesto. And it has sustained interest ever since. It appears on the cover of the recent third edition of William Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900, serving as gateway to the subject. The sketch is a work of art in its own right, reminiscent of De Stijl paintings, in fact has been compared to one. The figure has the power of a sign, an ideogram that captures a principle, concise and complex, that represents an essential understanding of the world, or the way we might want to see it. Or it could be taken as a symbol for the creative act, or a model for prose. Or a picture of thought itself, of both a theory and method combined, interrelated. —Gary Garvin

Genese GrillGenese Grill

And from our own masthead in the form of author-translator Genese Grill, we have wise and erudite meditation on Modernism and the construction of meaning in which she coins the phrase “the categorical imp” — a mischievous combination of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Poe’s “imp of the perverse.”

The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor sewer for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. —Genese Grill

Tomoe HillTomoé Hill

Tomoé Hill’s essay “Apple and Pear Trees” is one of the best things we have published in the line of personal essays, and maybe that’s not even what it should be called. It’s unique and powerful and never what you would expect. It’s about leaving, moving, arousal, sexual melancholia, and books — just to start with. It drips with sex and sadness; it makes you feel and think.

Myth is steeped in sex: how it transforms us, in both wonder and fear. We pursue and are pursued. How would a lover now come to me? Not in a shower of gold or the guise of a swan, but in those languorous hours where my mind, restless in a sleeping body, imagines the softness of sheets as skin, my heat creating the ghost of past lovers, future ones next to me. —Tomoé Hill

solieKaren Solie

The poet David Wojahn has penned for this issue a lengthy, luminous, and laudatory (and incidentally funny: see his lovely little aside on reading other readers’ annotations in old books) review of his latest discovery, the poetry of Canadian Karen Solie whom he compares to Berryman, Lowell and Vallejo.

When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. —David Wojahn

wojahn_david-photo-5-2013David Wojahn

Momina use this photoMomina Masood

For the first time ever in the magazine, we have poetry from Pakistan, surprising, razor-sharp verse from a young writer, Momina Masood, who will make her mark.

I have been
The virgin you were promised
for good behaviour,
And a sizeable body count.
But I have left Eden (some of us do get out) —Momina Masood

Zsofia Ban by Dirk SkibaZsófia Bán

From Budapest, we have Zsófia Bán’s short story “Transit of Venus” translated by the inimitable Erika Mihálycsa.

Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces. —Zsófia Bán translated by Erika Mihálycsa

13_Nathan_Kind_Currier_t700Nathan Currier

For this issue, Carolyn Ogburn has interviewed the composer Nathan Currier. We have sound files and videos, a new music extravaganza.

But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. —Nathan Currier

Mary ByrneMary Byrne

The Irish fiction writer Mary Byrne (living in Paris) contributes a sly, witty, disturbing, mordant, comical short story.

It was Bea who said, “But she was far too young to die from the heat!”

“Not the heat,” said the Queen of Hearts. “The loneliness.” —Mary Byrne

Betsy book pics 2013 - 147Betsy Sholl

From Betsy Sholl, new poems, an alphabetical invention, intricate and sublime.

…as if faith—or fate—

is all detour and surprise, stepping out
to find the way back in. —Betsy Sholl

Denise LowDenise Low

More poems, too, from Denise Low in Kansas. Homage poems and found poems. To die for is “Labels from the Field Museum,” which aches with life and loss.

9 July 1881
xxxxxBush on this day: collector
xxxxxat Blue Island, Cook Co.
xxxxx
one female buff-

xxxxxand tangerine-feathered

December 11, 1883
xxxxxwithin the specimen drawer
xxxxxone iridescent crimson ♂ male
xxxxxneck twisted to uncertain sight —Denise Low

Shawn SelwayShawn Selway

From Hamilton, an industrial city on the shore of Lake Ontario, Canada’s Rust Belt, Shawn Selway raps out a brilliant What It’s Like Living Here essay.

Looking east from Pier 8, where the tugs are snugged at night, those domes you see are grain storage bins. Beyond, behind the laker, are the mills, half-idled now as U.S. Steel gets on with killing Stelco, the homegrown competitor it bought a few years back. Their latest stunt is to persuade a judge to relieve them of paying certain medical benefits to their pensioners. We inhabit a lampoon of capitalism. Marx would certainly get a laugh out of the view: the mountain of capital left to rust unused, and just beyond, a second mountain, still alive with fire and action and thriving alongside the corpse of its former rival. I sometimes think of writing him, you know, the way Auden wrote to Byron, to give him an update. —Shawn Selway

And after that, there is more: new poems by Ingrid Ruthig, book reviews from Jason DeYoung and Joseph Schreiber, a new NC at the Movies from Rob Gray, a new bit of the green from Gerry Beirne (Uimhir a Cúig)…

I’m impressed. I’m not easily impressed. But this one impresses me.

It may be our best issue yet.

dg

Apr 132016
 

Sarajevo street corner June 2014

In the summer of 2014, I spent two weeks with friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the time Sarajevo was marking the centennial of the assassination that sparked World War I, the national soccer team was making its first appearance in the World Cup, and the nation was reeling from massive citizen protests in the winter and devastating floods in the spring. My host and guide was the Bosnian writer Goran Simić. —Thomas Simpson

x

I. Sarajevo, June 20, 2014

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran Simic’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown.

Alone, on foot, I make it safely to the other side. My pulse races, but I still can’t shake the jetlag as I start the twenty-five minute walk south into the heart of Sarajevo, down the wide, busy streets called Patriotske Lige and Koševo. Thick, gray morning clouds shroud the city, and the weak daylight throws shell-shocked buildings and roadside litter into dismal relief. A little of the Bosnian I’ve been studying for months comes to mind: meni se spava, I feel tired. God, I feel tired. I barely slept on the overnight flight across the Atlantic, an hour maybe, two at the most. In my sightline, two rows ahead, a guy was watching The Wolf of Wall Street on his seatback screen. I dozed in and out of that three-hour marathon of excess: stockbrokers manhandling strippers, Jonah Hill masturbating openly at a lavish pool party, Leo DiCaprio snorting cocaine off an eager blonde’s heaving breasts.

So I am waking up slowly to Sarajevo, even though the visuals are jarring. I see the hulking, worn stadium from the 1984 Olympics, a glaring reminder of Yugoslavia’s depleted prosperity and promise. I clutch my black backpack’s single, diagonal strap, which stretches like a seat belt from my left shoulder to my right hip. The knuckles of my right hand bore under the strap into my sternum, as if to knead my constricting heart and lungs. I lift my chin and flex my shoulders, chest, and biceps a little. I’m feigning toughness, copying the confidence of younger, streetwise Bosnian men.

I’m steeling myself because there’s more to take in: three massive, historic urban cemeteries, Muslim, Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox. Locals say the bones of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, are here in a little roadside Serb chapel. Soon Serb nationalists will adorn it with flowers, marking the assassination’s centennial by salting the wounds of neighbors who managed to survive the Siege. “Gavrilo,” a hit song by the Bosnian rock band Zoster, captures the mood. It’s got the looping, centripetal feel of an anthem and a hangover:

Gavrilo, Gavrilo, srce uzavrelo…
Gavrilo, Gavrilo, raging heart…

za jedne on je heroj, a drugima je zločinac
to some he’s a hero, to others a criminal…

na put bez povratka, on je krenuo…
he took off on a path of no return…

još i danas hodimo njime.
and we’re still walking it today.

I had anticipated some the graveyards’ lessons about World War I, World War II, and the Siege of Sarajevo. The headstones from this century are somehow more unsettling. An unwelcome thought intrudes: Sarajevo will go on dying. A few steps later, what feels like a corollary follows on its heels: None of this is going to work. Multi-ethnic Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The International Community. Democracy. Human Rights. None of it, despite the lessons of history, and despite the gala centennial events to come next week, when the eyes of the world will once again, however briefly, be on Sarajevo.

Sarajevo CemeteryCemetery in Sarajevo

I don’t know where I’m headed except a café somewhere to find coffee and my bearings after two years away. I pass a side street named after the poet Šantić and a bakery called Markale, where my mind involuntarily adds “massacre.” I’m getting closer to the action now. Off to my right, on the main thoroughfare that honors Tito, I see the stately national presidency building, a monument to the idiocy and greed of Bosnia’s corrupt, ethnonationalist ruling elites. Just last February, protesters torched it, taking their cues from Tuzla in trying to kickstart a “Bosnian Spring.”

A spacious café and bakery, brightly lit, mercifully intervenes. I go in, merge with the morning rush, and scan the large glass case of pastries. When it’s my turn, I fumble through my Bosnian. Dobro jutro – “Good morning” – I say. Želim kafu…espresso, i… – “I’d like an espresso and….” My Bosnian suddenly leaves me. I can’t remember the word for pastry, much less any kind of fruit. As I start to gesture clumsily toward a tray of turnovers, a woman behind me steps in and saves me. Višnja, she says – cherry – and laughs.

I thank her – hvala – placing my relaxed right hand softly over my heart. I take a window seat, a few feet above street level, and watch Sarajevans stream into the city in cars, on buses, and on foot. I write višnja in my notebook and practice the ice-breaker that I’ll use over and over again on this trip: Na bosanskom, govorim kao beba. In Bosnian, I talk like a baby.

When my espresso comes, I pour in the two thick packets of sugar that come standard. They render the bitterness palatable, the darkness soothing. As if on cue, the sun pierces the clouds. I end up staying for hours, reading Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, jotting down fragmented thoughts, and ordering a second espresso. Meni se spava, I tell the waitress with a wink. She laughs, understanding, and suddenly I remember what makes Sarajevo such an easy target. So much life, compressed and distilled, to destroy from above. I size up the huge pane of glass to my right, remembering how desperately Sarajevans avoided and barricaded their windows during the Siege. I imagine how easily the wall of glass could shatter, and I start to hope, stupidly, irrationally, that this café will always be here, safe, forever.

§

A lunch date with the poet Goran Simić pulls me away. We’re headed up to a small log-cabin restaurant near the Skakavac waterfall, about a thousand meters above Sarajevo. In his aging two-door black Renault, we inch and wind up suspension-mangling dirt roads. When we’re finally in the clear, we step out, glance miles across the valley, and find a patio table in the sun. The restaurant’s owner, Dragan, likes to joke that the daily menu is whatever he’s got. You have to trust him, and here one’s faith is rewarded. He assembles a succulent assortment of fried dough, local cheeses, sliced fresh tomato, and smoked sausages. Goran and I drink a little local rakija and beer.

Goran is back in Sarajevo after more than fifteen years in Canada, where he resettled after the Siege. Goran’s acute sense of how much work needs to be done in Bosnia has brought him home. His labors of love are the Bosnian plenums – grassroots, democratic citizen assemblies fighting for political reform and social justice – and PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local chapter of the international literary organization that celebrates the freedom of expression as a human right. This Bosnian branch of PEN emerged during the Siege, when Goran and some colleagues created a downtown haven for writers desperate for a meal and place to write. Now, as the multiethnic organization’s membership ages and carries out its work without support from the Bosnian government, the challenge is to keep the society alive and infused with fresh blood. It’s an ongoing experiment, a test of whether an inclusive humanism can triumph over death-dealing ethnonationalism. Yesterday brought a small victory: the induction of new members, including two brilliant young women, Adisa Bašić and Šejla Šehabović. Yet the meeting took place in the midst of a bitter internal struggle, a war of words between Goran and a dogged literary rival who keeps publicly calling Goran a Chetnik, a bloody Serb – not one of us, not a real Sarajevan. The conflict threatens to tear the Bosnian PEN apart.

Restaurant near Skakavac watefallRestaurant near Skakavac waterfall

After the meal, Goran finds a picnic bench where he can stretch and sack out in the shade. He says his battery’s exhausted, and Skakavac is his place to recharge. I can see why. The sun is strong, the mountain air clean. Grasshoppers chirp, sheep bleat, the bells of livestock tinkle, and a creek sings below. I walk a little farther up the hill, taking photographs of the panorama. I nap briefly in a small hikers’ shed. Rain clouds invade and threaten but move on. There is peace.

§

Eventually it’s time to get back to the city for an evening poetry reading. Sponsored by the Mak Dizdar Foundation, and held in a gorgeous upper-floor atelier with exposed brick and candlelight, the affair is intentionally international. It gathers award-winning writers from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Goran’s friend and PEN colleague, the poet Ferida Duraković, is the M.C. Performing live alongside her is one of the finest lutenists in the world, Edin Karamazov. They are mesmerizing together.

To the audience’s left is a balcony with French doors. It offers a sunset view of the Presidency Building, highlighting the difference between the politics and the poetics of Bosnia. To our right is a bar with hors d’oeuvres, and members of the audience move back and forth freely throughout the evening. The atmosphere invites us to linger, and we do for more than an hour after the reading ends. I wander onto the balcony and gaze at the Sarajevo night sky.

A thunderstorm hits and brings heavy rain. I go back into the atelier and meet two adult grandsons of Mak Dizdar, the celebrated Yugoslavian poet. I tell them that tomorrow I’ll be off with Goran to Stolac, their grandfather’s birthplace, southwest of Sarajevo. The Dizdar brothers give me a sense of what I’m in for: a breathtaking landscape and an ancient city, with extraordinary Ottoman architecture that’s been utterly razed.

.

II. Aladinići and Stolac, June 21-22, 2014

The next morning we drive southwest to the Herzegovinian village of Aladinići to celebrate the birthday of Adisa Bašić, one of the writers who has just been inducted into PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina. In her mid-thirties, blonde, and tall, she towers over many of the older, predominantly male colleagues who voted her in. On the way out of town we pick up Hana Stojić, a Sarajevan friend and contemporary of Adisa who works as a literary translator in Berlin.

The rural, hilltop Aladinići property feels worlds away from Sarajevo, where Adisa still has an apartment in a decaying high-rise. It’s in wine country, the climate Mediterranean. A grape arbor shields the front patio and driveway from the summer sun. Peaches, cherries, watermelons, apricots, grapes, pomegranates, figs, and mint grow nearby. Here, Adisa has found refuge and rejuvenation. One of her dreams, she says, is to gather generations of Bosnian women artists in a place like this for retreats, so they can tell and write their stories.

After hours of relaxed conversation and a dinner of grilled chicken and ćevapčići, we get down to business. Bosnia’s national soccer team, making its first appearance in the World Cup, has a match against Nigeria tonight in Brazil, and we’re all dying to watch. Adisa and her husband, Adnan, tack a big Bosnian flag to the front of the house, and some neighbors join Adnan in an attempt to rig a TV up on the patio. They take turns fiddling with the controls and climbing onto the one-story cottage’s flat, cement roof to get to the antenna. As the sun sets, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” pumps out of the stereo in Goran’s car, parked under the vine arbor with the doors open. The music’s unruly passion mingles with the village’s evening call to prayer.

Goran, Hana, and I plan to crash at a hostel in Stolac after watching the midnight match at Adisa’s. But as darkness comes the owners call to encourage us to come sooner rather than later. They tell us that the police are already patrolling Stolac’s main intersection in case there’s trouble with the crowds, and the last thing we’d want to do is stumble through town in the middle of the night. So we say good night – laku noć – to our friends and leave Aladinići.

On the way to Stolac, Goran and Hana ride in front and sing along with Johnny Cash. They’re nailing it, conjuring the voice of the man in black, the vocal cords torn but smooth:  I’m gonna break, I’m gonna break my, gonna break my rusty cage and run.

We find the hostel banked on a steep riverside hill. As we settle in, Goran and Hana step onto the balcony for a smoke (one of the reasons they’re so good at imitating Cash). I join them at the rail, stargazing. Below us, the dammed Bregava River rushes, soothing and strong.

Close to midnight, Goran and I get ready to go into town to watch the game. Hana, exhausted by a spate of recent travel for work, bows out and sleeps. As Goran and I drive across the Bregava and approach the main intersection from the north, we see disturbing signs: on our right, the lampposts sport Croatian flags, not Bosnian. On our left looms the religious equivalent of the flag: a Catholic church’s enormous bell tower, aspiring to dominate the surrounding landscape.

Sure enough, the cops are set up at the intersection, standing outside their parked, flashing cruiser. I start wondering what we might be getting ourselves into. But after we park and start to walk, excitement trumps the tension. Bosnian flags hang high across this southern stretch of road like fluttering Buddhist prayer flags, and the first bars we see with outdoor patios are jammed. We gravitate to one across the street that has a little more breathing room. We quickly figure out why. The bar’s television isn’t showing the game. The choice needs no translation. This is a Croat bar. Who gives a shit if Bosnia’s playing tonight?

We walk back across the street. A kid tosses a firecracker onto the pavement just a few feet away from us. BANG! I shudder and swear before laughing nervously and moving on. Goran and I spot a little table with two chairs at the edge of a sprawling patio, where we can see most of the huge outdoor video screen. A waitress comes over to greet us. She’s lean and radiant, with shoulder-length brown hair and a small tattoo on the right side of her neck. She’s wearing the royal blue jersey of Edin Džeko, the Bosnian striker who’s a bona fide superstar in the English Premier League. Džeko grew up in Sarajevo, survived the Siege, and has become the kind of once-in-a-generation player who is giving Bosnians faith that this team can make a deep tournament run.

After Goran and I order our drinks, I use a clumsy mix of Bosnian and English to ask the waitress for the wi-fi password. She smiles and switches to English on the fly: l-o-c-c-o, the name of the bar, all small letters. I connect, and right before the Bosnian national anthem I send my wife pictures of Aladinići, of pomegranate, oleander, and the grape arbor. I tell her there’s a chance that the adjacent property could be for sale, that Goran and I are starting to dream like Adisa. Something like a writer’s colony, a place for Goran and other Bosnian artists to get away for more than an occasional afternoon at Skakavac.

The game’s about to start. This is one that Bosnia desperately needs to win, or at least play to a draw, to advance beyond the opening round. In the first match of the tournament they had given mighty Argentina all it could handle, but a fluke own goal and some late wizardry by the Argentinian Lionel Messi – some say he is the best in the world – sealed the Bosnians’ fate, 2-1. It was an inspired, impressive performance by the Bosnians that left them with no points.

In tonight’s first half, the favored Bosnian team looks strong. They sustain pressure on the Nigerian defense. Before long, Džeko breaks free, and his shot finds the back of the net. We erupt, bolting to our feet and pumping our fists before the heartbreak: Džeko is called for being offside. The goal is nullified. Replays confirm that it was a terrible call. Just minutes later a Nigerian forward, fighting for space, pushes a Bosnian defender aside and scores. No foul is called. Just like that it’s one-nil, Nigeria.

At halftime we’re keeping hope alive. The waitress stands poised where the patio meets the bar, her chin raised a little as she surveys the crowd and grooves to the driving rock music. Goran and I find a table at the center of the action, in the thick of the crowd, with a better view of the screen.

When the second half starts, Džeko’s off his game, getting free and finding chances but not striking cleanly. Our spirits lift when Vedad Ibišević, who scored against Argentina, enters the match late, but the team still can’t find a way to break through. Tension mounts. Bosnia’s running out of time. Right behind us, a fan’s drumming, which has been keeping us upbeat all night, is now accompanied by somebody’s drunken vuvuzela. Hoarse, blaring, and erratic, it’s driving us insane. Two powerfully built guys in front of us finally snap, turning around and yelling at him in Bosnian to – I can only assume – shut the fuck up. As the clock mercilessly advances, one of them starts to sidestep us and move toward the vuvuzelist. I start looking for escape routes, trying to figure out if Goran and I can get back to the car and out of town if fists and bottles start to fly. I’m not sure we can. A reassuringly tall, formidable bartender steps in, however, and cooler heads prevail.

The clock hits 90:00. Only a few minutes of extended, injury time remain. Džeko suddenly finds a seam, an opening to the keeper’s right, but his shot is deflected and caroms off the left post. It’s crushing. Bosnia is finished. When the final whistle blows, a bottle shatters on the pavement behind us. I flinch, fearing a swell of rage, but it doesn’t come. We leave in peace. Goran quickly musters perspective. The team just had no energy tonight, he says. We find the waitress, settle the tab, and make our way to the car.

We get back to the hostel on the Bregava after 2 a.m. Hana stirs from a deep sleep and asks how the match came out. We give her the bad news. In the morning, forgetting, she asks again. We go into town for coffee, settling at a café next to Locco. Hana tells me to take my camera and walk over to the nearby mosque, undergoing major restoration, to see a rare neighboring of olive and oleander trees. I walk the neighborhood a little in broad daylight. I get my first good look at the Bregava and the surrounding hills that frame the architecture of nationalism: the rival sanctuaries, flags, bars, and monuments.

Before we leave town I walk past Locco. I see our waitress sitting outside on the empty patio. She looks pale and spent. We exchange polite, flat smiles. As the day wears on, Bosnians will rage about the officiating, citing the blown calls and a photograph – of the head referee, Peter O’Leary, smiling at the end of the match with his arm around a Nigerian player – that looks damning. Tens of thousands of Bosnians will sign fruitless online petitions demanding the suspension of O’Leary and even a revision of the score to make the final score 1-1. When we get home to Sarajevo, a newspaper features a photograph of a dejected Bosnian in Brazil. The headline reads, “TUGA NAKON EUFORIJE” – heartache after euphoria, the euphoria of feeling, at least for a little while, that anything is possible.

Goran Simic in AladiniciGoran Simić relaxing at Aladinići

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III. Mostar and Blagaj, June 25-27, 2014

Goran and I had been corresponding all spring about driving to the Adriatic Coast, which I’ve never seen. We finally have a plan. We’ll head southwest from Sarajevo. On the way we’ll spend the night in Mostar with friends of mine, Lejla and Sasha, and their children, Ena and Sandro. Lejla and I had engaged in the standard bilateral negotiations about food and lodging. I said that Goran and I didn’t want to impose, so we would take them out to dinner and spend the night in a hotel. Lejla wondered what the hell I was thinking. We’ll cook out, she said, and watch the Bosnia-Iran World Cup match. You’ll stay in Ena’s room. We’ve got room for Goran too.

When we arrive, we call Lejla from the riverside patio of the stylish, renovated Hotel Bristol, where I had stayed in 2004. We meet and embrace on the bridge over the Neretva.

Ena, who’s eleven now, has her room ready for me upstairs, with its view of conjoined apartment rooftops and the neighborhood minaret. In neat rows images of cartoon princesses and professional rock climbers plaster the walls. I remember watching Ena compete as a climber two years ago, and a framed certificate reveals that she is now a youth national champion. Two-year-old Sandro has turned into a powerhouse too. We tussle playfully, and when he kicks my leg with surprising force, I start thinking that Bosnia might have its next Džeko.

I find Sasha outside by the grill. We’re meeting for the first time. When I visited the family before with my guide – Lejla’s cousin and Sasha’s best man – Sasha was in Norway, installing air conditioners to help support the family. In his mid-thirties, he’s of medium height and wiry, like Ena, but weathered, with buzzed brown hair, piercing eyes, and an iron jaw. With him is a friend, Slađo, whom I’ve met before. Tall and thick, like the Yugoslavian forwards who occasionally appear in the NBA, he has an infectious laugh. As soon as I see him, I remind him of the night we drove up a steep hill on Mostar’s perimeter. When we got out of the car, Slađo sighed and surveyed the quiet basin. He seemed poised to impart wisdom. He said, “You know, Mostar is just a giant toilet bowl that needs to be flushed.” People in every former Yugoslavian republic might have heard us laugh that night.

As he minds the chicken on the grill, Sasha shares fragments of his story. As a high-school-aged kid, he lost his father in the war. After that, he had spent a little time in the US, first at an international youth camp, Camp Rising Sun in upstate New York. Then he stayed briefly with Frank Havlicek, an instructor in international affairs at American University who had visited Bosnia and knew Sasha’s mother. Sasha tells me that Havlicek offered to set him up with a mailroom job at The Washington Post, a basement apartment, and a car, but Sasha turned him down. He says he couldn’t ever get used to the States. The people were too cold. They didn’t know their neighbors. They would look strangely at you if you just tried to bum a cigarette. A couple of times he snapped and got into fights. He knew he had to come home.

The food’s ready, so we go in for dinner and the game. Bosnia decimates Iran, 3-1. Nigeria will advance with Argentina to the second round. We talk late into the night.

The next morning, I’m the first to rise with Ena and Sandro. I ask Ena if she can show me how to connect to the internet. It’s not self-evident because the family laptop is missing some keys. Ena points to the culprit, Sandro, and laughs. To buy ourselves some time on the computer, we bribe him with my pen and let him scribble with abandon in my notebook.

After a few minutes of sending quick messages home, I sign off and grab my Bosnian-English phrasebook. Ena, who has studied English in school, is game. We practice:

Yesterday was Wednesday.
Jučer je bila srijeda.

Today is Thursday.
Danas je četvrtak.

Tomorrow is Friday.
Sutra je petak.

Ti si moj učitelj, I say – You are my teacher. She smiles, ear to ear.

Goran, Lejla, and Sasha make their way down. As Lejla brews coffee, they talk freely in Bosnian at the table. I stay with Ena, continuing my language lessons. Suddenly the conversation grows animated. I ask what’s up, and Goran tells me that a local youth – briefly in jail for savagely beating a Mostar university economics professor, Slavo Kukić, with a wooden bat – has been released and apparently will not face trial. Kukić had made the nearly fatal mistake of questioning the judgment of some fellow Bosnian Croats who gave a hero’s welcome to a convicted war criminal, Dario Kordić. Kordić had recently been released from prison after serving only two-thirds of a twenty-five year sentence for crimes he committed during the ethnic cleansing of Ahmići in 1993. The news leaves Goran, Lejla, and Sasha stunned.

I thank Ena, freeing her for morning cartoons on TV. I go to the table. Knowing that Goran and I will have to leave soon, I ask Lejla what sort of future she sees for her family in Mostar, what sort of future for Ena and Sandro. She is blunt, needing none of her usual time to switch to English. “There is no future in a divided city,” she says.

Lejla sends me off with a gift for my family, a set of four ceramic mugs decorated with Mostar’s Old Bridge. Despite my best efforts to pack them carefully, two will shatter somewhere between here and home.

§

We have one last stop on the way out of town: a second round of coffee back at the Hotel Bristol with Štefica Galić, a journalist and human rights activist based in Mostar. A Bosnian Croat, she’s been visiting Slavo Kukić in the hospital. She corroborates our pessimism. “There is no justice,” she says. “Nothing will happen. We know that for sure.”

The beating took a heavy toll; images of the professor with a bandaged skull, blood-soaked shirt, and battered back are circulating widely. “He will feel that pain his whole life,” Štefica tells us, “but that will not stop him.” She knows what she’s talking about. She has been physically assaulted by Croat nationalists before, after screening a documentary about her late husband, Neđo, who had risked his life during the war to save a thousand neighbors from ethnic cleansing. Some call him the Bosnian Schindler.

Now, in postwar Mostar, Štefica carries on with what she sees as a struggle against resurgent fascism. Even some of her relatives have begged her to be quiet, to quit stirring up trouble, but Štefica is fit for battle. A generation older than I am, she is in better physical shape. She has the lean physique and perfect posture of a yoga instructor. Her bright blue eyes shine past carefully penciled mascara; they are reservoirs of compassion and sorrow.

I tell her in Bosnian that I have a question, a serious one: do you want to stay or leave? She says she’ll stay, of course. So much of her life, so much of her family, is here. But sometimes, she says, “I want to disappear.”

Like Lejla, Štefica sends me off with souvenirs of the place she loves, the place she wants me to remember: a ceramic memento of the Old Bridge and a travel guide that convincingly portrays Herzegovina as “an inspiring piece of Heaven.” Even so, I can’t help feeling that Štefica – and Mostar – are in a hellish limbo between recent and imminent devastation. As Goran and I head south out of town, I see scrawled Bosnian graffiti that for once I have no trouble translating: nema boga, there is no God.

§

Sorrow and fear have me dazed. Wisely, Goran has planned some time for us at the wellsprings. We’ll have lunch in Blagaj at the source of the Buna River, which emerges clear and abundant from beneath a high, sheer cliff.

At the base of the cliff, an old Sufi dervish house, neglected during the war but recently restored, offers a chance for quiet contemplation. Riverside, a framed passage from the Qur’an reads, “We made every living thing from water.” As Goran and I dip our hands in the river, he tells me that the Buna has somehow always had a way of maintaining its equanimity even during the recent floods.

Sufi Dervish House at BlagajSufi dervish house at Blagaj

We cross the small bridge to eat fresh trout and Vienna schnitzel. After taking a few photographs, we walk the narrow road, lined by souvenir stands, back to the car. Suddenly Goran is leaning through a passing van’s window. He’s nose to nose with the driver, and I have no idea what has set him off. Then I hear peals of laughter, and Goran lets me in on the joke. The driver is his old buddy Ermin Elezović, who’s here with his wife, Alma, on their day off from leading guided tours all over the country. We head back to one of the restaurants for coffee and dessert. Alma insists I try Ashura, a delicious Turkish pudding that blends apple, figs, and nuts. Lore links it to Noah’s Ark, to miraculous survival during a time of famine and flood.

Ermin is candid: we’re crazy to drive to the coast today. The traffic, he says, will hold us up for hours. Improvisation ensues, and before long it’s settled: forget the coast. We’ll spend the night here, in Blagaj, with Alma and Ermin.

We go to their serene property, which they’ve just bought after spending most of their lives in Mostar, including the war years. The backyard, bisected by a stone path, extends to the Buna. In her garden Alma grows assorted herbs and vegetables. In the rest of the yard she and Ermin tenaciously plant, water, and prune.

It turns out that Alma and Ermin have known Sasha’s family for decades. They tell me something Sasha hadn’t, that his father was killed by a sniper – no, a grenade. (“What’s the difference?” Goran wonders aloud.) At the time their own son, Jasmin, was just in elementary school. Inside the house Ermin shows me wartime black-and-white photographs of the family. Pointing to little Jasmin, who at the time had been stuck indoors for six months, Ermin says, “Look at his eyes. The light is missing.”

In one shot Ermin wears a T-shirt from War Child International, the UK charity he worked for during the war. Through their mobile bakery, Ermin tells me, they made and delivered 1.3 million loaves of bread to trapped, terrorized people in Mostar. War Child also organized a star-studded British benefit album featuring Paul McCartney, which raised more than a million pounds to establish Mostar’s interethnic Pavarotti Music Center.

We have dinner on the covered patio: potatoes with garlic and herbs, a tomato and cucumber salad, plums, pears, strawberries, and cheese. At dusk, by candlelight, we drink from teardrop flasks of rakija. Lightning flashes across the western sky. A jolt of thunder follows. Goran, laughing, says it’s war again.

Alma says she finds herself thinking more and more about writing her story. The memories have been too much to live with this long, too much to bear. “I think I will be stronger,” she says. Goran encourages her. “Each single life is a novel, yeah?” he offers tenderly.

Before bed we watch some of the World Cup. Ermin pours me a shot of industrial strength Montenegrin rakija, 50% alcohol by volume. When I finally muster the courage to bring it slowly to my lips, it burns my eyes. I take two hesitant sips and start to cough. Goran and Ermin are in hysterics. I finish, say good night, and go up to the loft. Fresh air flows freely. It’s the best night of sleep I’ll get in Bosnia. Ermin must have known that to relax, I needed to be knocked out cold.

In the morning Jasmin comes by just as Goran and I are getting ready to leave. He’s 26 now, and the light is back in his eyes. He’s funny as hell, just like his parents. Telling him my name gets us riffing on The Simpsons. Jasmin’s favorite moment is of Homer adrift: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman!” We cackle.

On the way back to Sarajevo, Goran and I find that Ermin has cut a piece of glass from his workshop to replace our cracked passenger side mirror. A few hundred yards down the pockmarked road, it pops out. We laugh, stop in the middle of the road, and reinforce it with duct tape. It holds the rest of the way.

Near Mostar we see more of the architecture of aggression: a brand new Catholic church, right next to a destroyed abandoned house. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed far too often. Homes and factories lie in ruins, while new, expensive sanctuaries grow like weeds. It’s the engineering and manufacture of cultural domination. Štefica called it pure provocation, like animals marking their territory.

Nature offers another brief reprieve. We wind north through the Neretva valley, farther and farther from the river’s end in the Adriatic Sea. Compressed strata of steep, forested stone slant sharply to the river at forty-five degrees before they gradually recline to parallel. Johnny Cash sings, If I could start again, a million miles away….

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IV. Sarajevo, June 27-29, 2014

It’s the eve of the assassination’s centennial. Sarajevo’s commemorations have begun, and Goran and I go a little off the beaten path to one of our favorite spots, Sarajevo’s Museum of Literature and the Performing Arts. Two years ago, walking the city, I had wandered into the museum’s beautiful, landscaped courtyard of roses and stone pathways.

The museum’s director, Šejla Šehabović, like countless custodians of culture in Sarajevo, works for little or no pay, thanks to the wrangling of politicians who withhold appropriations from institutions that benefit all Bosnians, not just a single ethnic group. She puts on an incredibly brave face. In her thirties, with short brown hair dyed to a brilliant copper, she fights like mad to keep the museum alive. Last spring’s heavy rains brought fresh worries: a leaking roof threatens the papers of Ivo Andrić, perhaps Yugoslavia’s most famous writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. His historical novel The Bridge on the Drina all but foretold the horrors to come at century’s end.

Sejla Sehabovic and Goran Simic, Sarajevo 2014Šejla Šehabović and Goran Simić

The mood is festive tonight. We’re here for the release of graphic novelist Berin Tuzlić’s Sarajevo Assassination 2914. Images from the book, enlarged to poster size, line the gallery walls. Menacing and dystopian, they evoke the present. Rival religious and ideological factions posture and provoke. They brandish cartoonishly violent mentalities in a restricted palette of aggressive red, black, blue, purple, yellow, and orange.

In the courtyard after darkness falls, live music and large-screen projection bring the book and exhibition to life. An earnest baritone narrates the novel’s text while a keyboardist and Tuzlić himself, a rock-solid drummer, add a dark, driving musical overlay. One of the text’s refrains distills centuries of manipulation and disillusionment: Istorija je fikcija, history is fiction.

§

The next morning, the day of the centennial, Goran’s in the mood to get back to Skakavac. The Vienna Philharmonic’s concert tonight at Vijećnica, the restored city hall and national library, barely interests him. He can take only so much reminiscing. He remembers racing to rescue what he could from the flames of that dying treasure. Ninety-eight per cent of the historic collections are lost forever. My own memory leaps to Goran’s “Lament for Vijećnica”:

When the National Library burned for three
days in August, the town was choked with black
snow. Those days I could not find a single pencil
in the house, and when I finally found one it did
not have the heart to write. Even the erasers left
behind a black trace. Sadly, my homeland burned.

When we settle at Skakavac, under another spectacular summer sky, we speak of Goran’s fresh collection of poems. “I am trying to put on paper something I would like to forget,” he says.

That afternoon and evening, Goran reconnects with friends. I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by walking the city. Crowds and sun lighten the mood. A store called “Marx™: Clothes for the People” welcomes tourists to post-socialist Sarajevo, and T-shirts of passing teens borrow English slang to indulge in urban sarcasm and play: “Slam Dunk,” “Fuck the Future,” “Cute But Psycho,” “I’m Limited Edition.”

In the centuries-old Ottoman bazaar I stop at the expansive courtyard of Bey’s Mosque. I circle and photograph the tall, canopied fountain. Without thinking, I place my left hand, palm and fingers, on one of its aged wooden pillars, and I’m nearly brought to tears. The wood feels alive – I almost know it’s alive – cool to the touch, and strong, but without the rigidity of stone. I breathe in slowly and am at rest.

To the east is the restored Vijećnica. It’s cordoned off for the exclusive, black-tie affair inside, but I can take photographs and listen to the concert’s simulcast outside at sunset, just across the Miljacka River. When hunger sets in, I set my sights on one of my favorite burek shops, and I decide to practice my Bosnian. Everything goes smoothly except for the math. Focusing on the two types of pie I want – beef and spinach – I lose all sense of proportion. I accidentally order a kilo of each, and the shop owner wonders if I’m certifiably insane. When I finally figure out what’s happening, I sheepishly confess, Trebam vježbati moje… – “I need to practice…” Before I can say moje broje (“my numbers”), the shopowner finishes the sentence for me: “…your Bosnian?” I turn red and laugh, perfectly content to exchange my dignity and a few bucks for some of the best food in Sarajevo.

At nightfall, a heavy boom shakes the city. It unnerves me, and it takes me a few seconds to hear the sound for what it is: a celebration of the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. A swell in the market crowds follows. I linger at the outdoor cafés before walking home close to midnight. Sarajevo’s packs of stray dogs, normally friendly and docile, start getting edgy and unpredictable. Their shrill call-and-response echoes across the valley, slamming off the mountains. As I walk up Koševo, toward the darkened graveyards, toward Gavrilo, two of them trot behind me before sprinting ahead full tilt, like predators in the wild. One of them starts lunging recklessly at speeding cars, barking out of its mind. I can barely look. I whisper a plea: Don’t make me watch you die tonight.

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V. Tuzla, June 30-July 1, 2014

On the last leg of our trip, heavy rain falls on the winding, forested road north from Sarajevo to Tuzla. By now the disastrous spring rains should have run their course. The damage has already been done. In the Tuzla Canton alone, landslides and the brown, swollen Bosna River have destroyed hundreds of homes. Thousands of Bosnians are refugees once more. Goran squints through the windshield as excess water ripples and pools across the road. “Nature out of balance,” he says, a reminder that in Bosnia, things can always get worse. A roadside billboard with a skull and crossbones shouts “DANGER!” to warn of wartime landmines displaced and resurrected by the recent floods. A subsequent sign, apparently without irony, pitches a café called Vertigo. The Robert Plant and Jimmy Page album No Quarter powers through the car stereo: I couldn’t get no silver, I couldn’t get no gold. You know we’re too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole. We pass up Vertigo and stop for lunch at the hillside restaurant Panorama, where clouds fog the view of the valley below. As soon as we sit, Goran asks the waiter for a good, stiff shot of rakija. “Better make it a double,” he says. “I’m driving.” We unleash a torrent of laughter.

As we approach Tuzla, a city of mining and industry, we survey the destruction. Debris from the floods lines roadside fences and clutters yards. A turbulent sky shifts and reconfigures its shades and layers of grey, permitting only slivers of sun and a thin, diluted streak of blue. A power plant’s enormous cooling towers, chain-smoking, superimpose their own brownish haze. Suddenly, traffic crawls. The floods have devoured a large section of our lane, forcing a long line of cars to snake off onto gravel and dirt.

When we get back on the road and come to the heart of the city, we see wreckage that’s man-made: the smashed windows and sooted, graffiti-tagged façade of the Sodaso chemical plant. It’s a gutted casualty not of wartime shelling but of an economically devastating postwar privatization; the plant was ground zero for the fiery citizen uprisings of last February’s “Bosnian Spring.” We enter a traffic roundabout, where a large banner encourages union solidarity – Sindikat Solidarnosti – and a young woman hustles by on foot, hunched, with no umbrella. Her shirt says “Sunny Beach Club” in English.

Near the town square, the site of the 1995 massacre that Tuzla is famous for, we park on the street in front of a Catholic school. Near the main entrance is an arresting scrap metal sculpture, eight to ten feet tall, of St. Francis. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked, with his eyes to the ground and his palms to the sky, he is the incarnation of hunger and despair. The artist has riveted, dented, crimped, and shredded the metal with reckless precision. Francis looks as though he’s been hit by shrapnel, or a shock wave, and he is literally unraveling, his thrice-knotted cords tearing away from his cloak of poverty. Wild birds – are they predators or prey? – besiege him, their wings stretched vertical and taut. No sentimental kinship binds these creatures to Francis; their only communion, their only solidarity, is in their intimacy with the abyss.

St Francis of TuzlaSt. Francis of Tuzla

We’ve come for a lecture at the local atelier across the street from this St. Francis of Tuzla. The event has been arranged by Nigel Osborne, a professor, composer, and activist visiting from the UK and working closely with a young local university professor and activist, Damir Arsenijević. When we meet, Nigel strikes a note of hope. In his sixties, he is tall, bearded, and broad-chested, with a booming voice and infectious energy. He tells us that this is a chance for exploited, suffering Bosnians to reimagine everything, to remember that they “can change things fundamentally.”

Osborne’s connections to Bosnia run deep, back to the war, when he collaborated with activists and artists, like Goran and Susan Sontag, to keep Bosnians and Bosnian culture alive. Now, working with local university professors and activists in Tuzla, he’s invited tonight’s speaker, the economist Fred Harrison, a London-based contemporary of Osborne and an architect of Yeltsin-era land reform in Russia. Osborne and Harrison are touting such reform as a revolutionary alternative to rapacious, neoliberal global capitalism, reform that once had put Russia on the path to real social and economic justice before oligarchs hijacked and derailed it.

In his lecture Harrison calls the current global economic system “a cruel one,” a form of “cannibalism” and “medieval bloodletting” that sacrifices workers and youth in order to save the financial sector. Merging fluidly with the corruption of local elites, that system has left ordinary Bosnians desperate and unemployed at rates surging toward fifty percent. A revolution is possible, Harrison contends, but we will have to “build our minds anew” by returning to moral, non-ideological “first principles” of authentic democracy and collective ownership of the land. Tuzla’s unions and plenums – the emerging, town-hall style citizen assemblies – will have to lead the way, he says, in dismantling an entrenched system of greed.

Afterward at a restaurant on the square, Osborne is buzzing. I ask him what he thinks about Professor Harrison’s suggestion that Bosnia should seek the political and financial support of Great Britain. He thinks it could work. During the war, he tells me, Great Britain, unlike so many other western powers, started to repent for its tragic misunderstanding of the Bosnian situation. Now with the likes of William Haig and Angelina Jolie paying such close attention to Bosnia, there could be enough international momentum for real change.

Soon Professor Harrison walks in with the director Carlo Gabriel Nero, who filmed the evening’s lecture for Al Jazeera. We all have a date at a nearby café and bar, Urban, to sing sevdah, the Bosnian blues, with local professionals. The music – full of tremulous vibrato, of vocal oscillations encouraged by an accordion and anchored by an acoustic guitar – is not for the faint of heart. Osborne is fluent. He grabs his guitar and sits in. When he sings, all the Bosnians in the bar join him. They know these songs of love and sorrow by heart. After a while, I move back from the inner circle of musicians to the edge of the bar, where two Bosnians give me their sense of what it’s all about. One says that this is a kind of sijelo, a gathering with comfort food and live music, usually sevdah, where everyone feels like old friends. Another says that it’s about the pursuit and experience of merak, translated loosely as a moment of true happiness, ease, and no worries at all.

I thank them. It’s almost midnight. We’ve been at it for hours, and the crowd is starting to thin and fade. Everyone has somewhere to be tomorrow, when morning will bring the hope and the anguish of starting from scratch.

—Thomas Simpson

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Thomas SimpsonPhoto by Melissa Cooperman

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 2017. This fall, the University of North Carolina Press will publish his first academic book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Apr 122016
 

Pierre Joris

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Luxembourg Findel Airport

old Findel airport in LuxembourgOld Findel airport in Luxembourg.

Findel: To find. Who? Alone, no longer here, not yet there. A threshold. Am I coming or am I going? As in Findelkind? Lost? No. Airport: a door in & through the air. I find myself at the airport. For years it meant yearning: watching the planes leave, wanting to leave. Hardly able to see over the balustrade of the old Findel’s flight deck. Later, walking over the warm tarmac to the first plane: Madrid via Bruxelles. Then London. Then New York. Departures. Arrivals. Returns. Systole/Diastole of exile. Circling a receding childhood from high above: farms, fields, cattle, fences. An expanding city. From above: the Grund – der Abgrund, the abyss. Off-rhyme with the Grand Canyon. Airplane dreams. Portage of plain paper reams of writing ferried between continents. Nothing to declare. But this: I love to arrive. I love to leave. It is the same. It is different. The continents no longer drift, therefore we have to. Dérive. Départ. Décollage.

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Remembrance Day In Patton-Town

I had just returned from New York, was still jet-lagged, when my mother sent me to buy four pork chops at the butcher’s on Main Street. Despite the tiredness I had not objected, indeed, I was looking forward to stroll through the town of my youth, hungry to hear the mamaloshen, Letzeburgesch, and get a sense of what may or may not have changed in Ettelbrück. I walked down the Avenue Salentiny, hung a right at the Grand-rue, turning my back to the now decrepit and desolate Klinik Dr. Charles Marx where my father had worked for many years, crossed the street, passed the Pensionat de Jeunes Filles and a little further on, just where the grand-rue was at its narrowest, I found the butcher shop and entered.

 It was shortly before noon and a long line of housewives waited to be served, so I overheard much small talk, mainly about the warm and sunny weather, a good omen for the festive weekend ahead. I eventually got to the counter, ordered my chops and watched absent-mindedly as the butcher’s wife wrapped them expertly. I had been distracted by a noise, a low rumble coming from outside, but thinking that it was some bulldozer or other construction machine, I paid it no further heed until I stepped outside, saw many people gawking and heard the noise getting louder. I too stopped to listen and watch.

It was a deep metallic rumble that came from the east, the direction of Diekirch, or, closer by, from the curve in the road where the Patton monument stood high up by the edge of the bridge that crossed the river Sauer. For a second I flashed back to a day in 1956 when I was walking to grade school with my friend, the baker’s son, and we were gloomy for having overheard the news our fathers had listened to the night before: Russian tanks had invaded Hungary, were fighting in Budapest crushing resistance to the Soviet government. We two ten year-olds knew that it would take those tanks only 3 weeks to cross over from Hungary and invade Luxembourg. What I saw coming from the East and making such a clattering racket (instantly familiar from the movies) were indeed tanks — but these were American tanks, as the flags they sported told us, and the people along the streets were waving in that most friendly manner used to welcome liberators.

And then it came back to me: this must be the preparations for “Remembrance Day,” the yearly celebration of General Patton and his army who liberated Luxembourg from the Nazi yoke during the Rundstedt offensive! As a kid this had been one of the great yearly treats, better for us boys even than the Schueberfouer, as we could clamber up on those tanks, slip behind the steering wheel of jeeps and armored personnel carriers, slide down the barrels of long canons and handle various automatic machine guns with the required respect and awe. On the main day of the event, a Sunday, we’d watch the spectacle of a fake battle in the Deischwiesen with paratroopers jumping out of helicopters, storming “enemy positions,” a circus re-enacting of their assault on our town in 1944. During those days we’d try out our high school or movie-learned English on the American G.I.s to buy used copies of Playboy, a magazine our bishopric had banned from the country.

But this was a different time. This was 1968 and I had just come back from a year in the USA, a year in college in upstate New York, a year in which I had seen and taken part in my first anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, a year where some of my friends had been drafted into the army while others had fled to Canada to escape the draft. That spring the biggest and most murderous battles to date had taken place, and President Johnson had ordered the resumption of the full-scale bombing of North Vietnam.

What I saw that day in the Grand-rue in Ettelbrück felt like a complete disconnect, something out of an old black and white movie, a twisted rerun of World War II victory scenes watched in my grand-mother’s “Cinéma de la Paix” a few houses up from the butcher’s on the other side of the street: the same troops my fellow citizens were feasting in the streets of Ettelbrück for having liberated us, were raining down destruction and death on a people in the Far East. Someone’s liberators will eventually turn into someone else’s oppressors? That day the myth that the armies that had liberated us were the incarnation of heroic, selfless good — and could therefore do no wrong — took a deep dent. Not so much the actual fact that Patton’s troops stopped the Germans from capturing the fuel stock-piled near Bastogne and drove them back through the Ardennes. Not those facts — but the mythology that had been made out of those facts. But what is mythology, how do (chosen) facts become a mythology, and why?

Myth, I had learned that very year upon encountering the work and the person of the American poet Robert Duncan — who was to write one of greatest anti-Vietnam war poems the very next year —, the word “myth,” “mythos,” is akin to “mouth,” i.e. myth is the story told, the story that accompanies the ritual action, some action that starts out as, or wants to turn itself into, exemplary ritual. But maybe it is the retelling of the story — whatever it is — that recreates the action that turns the story into ritual and thus self-reflectively creates the myth. Repetition compulsion, running off at the mouth, or maybe more usefully, as another American poet, Robert Kelly, put it: “Saying makes it so.” All too often then, myth without the ritual action, is nothing but the post facto late words retelling, retooling and all too often tempted to beautify, simplify, purify a past action, and becomes thus empty words, alibis, cover-ups. It may not even always be a question of voluntary deceit.

*

My father was weary when my young curiosity wanted to know “what did you do during the war?” He, like so many of those who had lived through it, didn’t like to talk about those days. But he would eventually relent and tell me, us, the family around the dinner table, some fragments of what befell him during “the last war” (which, of course, wasn’t the last war at all, just as the “Great War” was not great at all, as no war ever is — war is a solitary noun, never trust any adjective that is added to it, except the one already embedded in the noun, read widdershins: raw). He would tell how during the war I was born just after (me, my generation, thus, war’s afterbirth?), he, the young intrepid surgeon, used to operate on “résistants” or freedom fighters wounded in skirmishes with the occupying Wehrmacht, late at night and in secret, deep in the bowels of the Klinik Dr. Charles Marx, in the coal room, on the coal heap. A black and white image that has stayed with me, the black coals & the white medical garments and sheets, the image a frozen scene as they stop what they are doing because upstairs or outside a German patrol is heard strutting by.  Is this my mythology or my father’s? I hear the marching boots of the German soldiers in a 100 war movies watched in grandmother’s “Cinéma de la Paix.” Not one good German in all those movies, and not one less-then-heroic American GI.

Map of von Rundstedt offensive in Joris areaMap of the von Rundstedt offensive.

But my father’s favorite story was the one where he is out late at night in the forest south of the town. It is a cold and snowy midwinter, and he is looking to score for much needed medical supplies off the Americans. He has stopped and is now sitting around a campfire on the periphery of the US army zone with a few GI’s spooning up their K-rations, when a rather burly uniformed man comes out of the night, clearly a high ranking officer, and greets the soldiers who don’t move from their seats around the fire but greet the apparition back with a quick, laconic hand to the helmet. The tall figure stalks on and disappears into the night, a flash of white briefly visible around the hips, toward where the main body of the army is bivouacked. When my father asks the soldiers who this apparition was, the answer is a single word: “Patton.”

What so fascinated my father was the easy, not to say democratic relationship between soldiers and general: no jumping to attention with mechanically extended arms and a loud “Heil Hitler,” but a nearly egalitarian greeting between soldiers and a commander most recognizable not by insignia, epaulettes, decorations or well-tailored uniform, but by those pearl-handled revolvers flashing at his hips (he probably wore only one, but myth-making memory compounded the figure of the general with that of the gunslinger hero from Western movies usually packing two guns — the famous “peacemaker” colts, no doubt).

No wonder a very few years later the town of Ettelbrück erected a larger than life monument to the hero of the Lundstedt offensive, now safely dead in a car accident, and proceeded to institute the yearly ritual known as “Remembrance Day” described above.

Remembrance Day in EttelbruckRemembrance Day in Ettelbruck.

But, as I think back on all this, another event springs to mind — unrelated on the surface — and yet…. One day — I was in 4th grade — during break, we were on the playground in front of the Ettelbrück primary school. I had recently moved to town and was standing by myself — clearly marked as an outsider, and thus not integrated into any of the groups — when I heard a cry and a song behind me. I turned around and saw 3 or 4 older boys, who had thrown a young kid to the ground and were dragging him along the asphalt, singing: “Eent, zwee, dräi, et as e Judd kapott, huelt e mat de Been a schleeft e fort — One, two, three, a Jew has croaked, grab him by the legs and away with him.” The boy who was the victim of this brutal “game” was indeed a Jewish boy, the son of one of the few Jewish families left in town, Kahn by name. I was horrified, and that nasty little show of stupid, unthinking, petit-bourgeois anti-Semitism, played out by 10 to 12 year old boys less than ten years after the horrors of Auschwitz became public knowledge, has always remained with me as a strange vaccination against the mythology of the good, innocent little Luxembourgers oppressed for years by the a vicious Jew-hating Nazi regime they were unable to resist because of the smallness of the country until brave American armies arrived in extremis to liberate them. And all the (American) flag-waving our good citizens were doing on those ritual “Remembrance Days” looked all of a sudden like a ritual cover-up for their own unacknowledged mistakes, misjudgments and omissions.

—Pierre Joris

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Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris—2011 saw the publication of Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, edited by Peter Cockelbergh, with essays on Joris’ work by, among others, Mohamed Bennis, Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Fisher, Christine Hume, Robert Kelly, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Jennifer Moxley, Jean Portante, Carrie Noland, Alice Notley, Marjorie Perloff & Nicole Peyrafitte (Litteraria Pragensia, Charles University, Prague, 2011). Pierre Joris, while raised in Luxembourg, has moved between Europe, the US & North Africa for half a century years, publishing close 50 books of poetry, essays, translations and anthologies. In 2014 he published Barzakh — Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), A Voice full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (co-edited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press) and Bernat Manciet’s Ode to James Dean (co-translated from Occitan with Nicole Peyrafitte; mindmade books). 2013 had brought Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press & The University of California Book of North African Literature (vol. 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour (UCP).

Other recent books include Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced & translated by Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press, 2012); The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011) which received the 2012 MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work; Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Books); Aljibar I & II (Poems, Editions PHI). Further translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UC Press) & Lightduress by Paul Celan which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Books of Modern & Postmodern Poetry.

Pierre Joris lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte. Check out his website & Nomadics Blog.

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Apr 112016
 

Mangalia Beach by Nicolae TonitzaMangalia Beach, 1930 by Nicolae Tonitza, via Wikiart.

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I realize, all of a sudden, that my title sounds like the name of a rehab facility in Arizona, a place where “happiness” is very rare indeed and where the “shores” are notional ones, at best. I am quite certain that Baudelaire was not thinking of such a place, as he conjured up a luminous vision of utopia in the first quatrain of his sonnet, “Exotic Perfume”:

When, with both my eyes closed, on a hot autumn night,
I inhale the fragrance of your warm breast
I see happy shores spread out before me,
On which shines a dazzling and monotonous sun.

He was envisioning a place far from the gray realities and dismal vexations of mid-nineteenth-century Paris, a place free from the constraints of the here and the now, somewhere strikingly distinct from the sites we inhabit in our daily life, a place of “order and beauty / Luxury, peace and pleasure,” as he puts it in his “Invitation to the Voyage.” That vision is inspired (and I use that word in its fullest sense) by a lover’s scent. But it is constructed in the poetic imagination, corresponding to a set of ideals clearly impossible in ordinary, quotidian existence. The site toward which Baudelaire points is a distant one and a different one, a place both foreign and unusual—in a word, an exotic place.

It is not uncommon to find evocations of such places in French literature before Baudelaire; yet he explored the idea of the exotic so insistently and programmatically that it became, under his pen, a recognizable, codified literary topos. So much so that it is difficult to speak about any sort of literary exoticism in France without bringing Baudelaire into the conversation—even when it is a question of literary gestures in our own time. For while controversies about what constitutes the “exotic” and what attitudes one ought to adopt with regard to it have undoubtedly evolved a great deal since Baudelaire’s time, the notion itself remains a highly charged one in contemporary French culture, and a sure trigger for polemics of various ilks.

Most recently and notoriously, the idea of the exotic may be seen to subtend debates about the relationship of “metropolitan” French literature (that is, writing produced in France) and “francophone” literature (texts written in French outside of Metropolitan France—in Africa, for instance, or in Quebec, or Haiti). A manifesto signed by forty-four writers which appeared in Le Monde in March of 2007, under the title “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French,” calls for nothing less than the abolition of the distinction I have just mentioned, proclaiming “[t]he end, then, of ‘francophone’ literature, and the birth of a world literature in French” (56). The manifesto justifies its brief for “World Literature” with considerable vigor:

“World literature” because literatures in French around the world today are demonstrably multiple, diverse, forming a vast ensemble, the ramifications of which link together several continents. But “world literature” also because all around us these literatures depict the world that is emerging in front of us, and by doing so recover, after several decades, from what was “forbidden in fiction” what has always been the province of artists, novelists, creators: the task of giving a voice and a visage to the global unknown—and to the unknown in us (56).

A crucial dimension of the manifesto’s argument hinges precisely on the notion of the exotic, and on the marginalization that such a designation entails: “How many writers in the French language, themselves caught between two or more cultures, mulled this strange disparity that relegated them to the margins, themselves ‘francophones,’ an exotic hybrid barely tolerated?” (55). For that marginalization effect is clearly the other face of the notion: if the exotic evokes “Luxury, peace and pleasure,” it also, through that very otherness, points to something far outside a given speaker’s community of experience.

In that perspective, the exotic and terms closely related to it continue to animate discussions in France, discussions that range far beyond purely “literary” spheres, discussions that color much broader cultural and political discourse. I am writing, right now, a couple of months after the Islamic State attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and I can testify that a significant proportion of political debate since that event is grounded in the way that the French (and I mean “French” of many different stripes) conceive of the other, whether that other be person, or place, or both at once. In all of that extremely complex and at times very painful debate, one thing is abundantly clear: we are, all of us, very attached to that idea of the other, and very reluctant to abandon it—even when it proves to engender more problems than it serves to resolve. As Sander Gilman puts it in his study of alterity, Inscribing the Other, “Stereotypes arise when the integration of self is threatened. They are therefore part of our manner of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world. This is not to say that they are positive, only that they are necessary. We can and must make the distinction between pathological stereotyping and the stereotyping we all need to do to preserve our illusion of control over the self and the world” (13).

Baudelaire 1844 By Emile DeroyCharles Baudelaire 1844 by Emile Deroy, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Having noted the breadth of sway that the exotic enjoys in the French imagination, I would like now to turn to happier shores than those of massacre and the reaction that it provokes. I would like briefly to examine a few recent French novels that are situated in part or in their entirety in the United States. These are texts wherein the notion of “America” is deployed as a radical other with regard to metropolitan French culture, and which play with the idea of the exotic in a very interesting manner. The first example I shall adduce (one where the phenomenon that interests me is both most massive and obvious) is Tanguy Viel’s La Disparition de Jim Sullivan (2013). The second word in Viel’s title is usually rendered into English as “disappearance”; but in its euphemistic usage it can also mean “death,” and Viel plays productively on that semantic ambiguity throughout his novel. It is not the only ambiguity that he exploits. For his narrator, like Viel himself, is a French novelist—and he is moreover working on a book entitled La Disparition de Jim Sullivan. Over the last few years, he has become convinced that the only way to achieve truly international literary success is to write an “American” novel:

Americans have an unfair advantage over us: even when they situate the action in Kentucky, among chicken farms and cornfields, they manage to write an international novel.…They manage to write novels that people buy in Paris, as well as in New York. …The day that that became clear to me, I took a map of America and hung it on the wall of my study, and I told myself that the action of my next book, all of it, would be located over there, in the United States. (10-11, my translation, as elsewhere unless otherwise noted)

With considerable energy and admirable diligence, he sets out to write such a novel, exploiting all of the commonplaces that he has identified in the genre. In the first instance, he takes care to strew American proper names throughout his text very liberally indeed. It is a technique that is certain to pay dividends, particularly when one recalls Roland Barthes’s characterization of the proper name as “the prince of signifiers” (“Analyse” 34). Thus, characters’ names are quintessentially American ones: “Dwayne,” “Susan,” “Tim,” “Dorothy,” “Jim,” “Donald,” “Moll,” “Joyce,” “Lee,” “Alex,” “Milly,” “Becky,” “Ralph,” and so forth. That impression of authenticity is heightened by the fact that Viel causes his French novelist to use first names rather than last whenever possible—Americans are renowned for the casual ways they address others, after all. The toponyms are just as familiar as the anthroponyms, moreover: “Montana,” “Kentucky,” “Detroit,” “Michigan,” “New York,” “Los Angeles,” “Ann Arbor,” “Chicago,” “Rochester,” “Sterling Heights,” “Baltimore.” But it is undoubtedly in the names of automobiles where that technique gets its most mileage, for the automobile, as everyone knows, reigns supreme in American consumerist culture: “Cadillac,” “Pontiac,” “Ford,” “Dodge,” Buick,” “GMC,” “Chrysler,” “Mercury,” “Thunderbird.” It sounds like a poem, doesn’t it?—or a prayer.

The behavior of the novelist’s characters is just as convincingly American as their names. They are always driving their cars, for one thing, with “a bottle of whisky on the passenger seat” (16), cigarette butts overflowing the ashtray, a copy of Thoreau’s Walden and a hockey stick lurking in the trunk. Prominent among those characters is a university professor, because Viel’s novelist has noted that “in American novels, one of the characters is always a university professor” (19), a figure so innately beguiling as to captivate the attention of even the most jaded reader. Adultery is everywhere practiced here, fueled undoubtedly by all that whiskey, all those cigarettes, all that driving around. Violence abounds, too, as indeed it must, because Americans are famously inclined to explode into violence one after the other, like firecrackers at a Fourth of July celebration.

Despite all of his laudable efforts at verisimilitude, however, Viel’s novelist remains curiously removed from his “America.” He confesses that he has never actually had the opportunity to visit the United States, and that his information (though abundant) is secondhand, deriving in the main from two sources: American novels and the Internet. The former serve him well enough, I think; but the latter, granted its tendency to flatten and homogenize human experience, sometimes leads him into infelicity and outright error. Much of the action in his novel takes place in Detroit, but everything he knows about that city comes from the Internet, and most of what he has learned is anecdotal and trivial: “In Detroit, according to what I’ve read on the Internet, people can see up to 3200 windows in one glance” (11). He can be excused, perhaps, for spelling “mother fucker” as two words rather than one (34); but his allusion to “lion hunting in the Colorado mountains” (137) will inevitably raise eyebrows. He remains, of course, French; and the gaze that he casts upon America is necessarily a French one, filtered through French culture, ideology, and myth. Moreover, he is demonstrably writing for a French public. “For us here in France,” he remarks for instance, “it seems odd to include an ice hockey team in a novel” (49-50), clearly identifying his narratees as French, and wagering simultaneously on the familiarity of “Frenchness” and the alterity of “Americanness.”

The wager that Tanguy Viel himself stakes is, I believe, a bit different; and the game he is playing is patently a more sophisticated one. Where his novelist is utterly candid (and indeed naive) in his reading of America and its culture, Viel is far more sly, taking an ironic stance both with regard to his narrator and with regard to “America.” Let us remember that irony is always a question of distance, whether literal or figural, and allow me to remark that the notion of distance massively informs both the narrator’s novel and Viel’s own. Yet it is clear that those books are not one and the same, despite the fact that their titles are identical. To the contrary, the distance separating them looms ever larger as the novel—Viel’s novel, let’s be clear—progresses. If that consideration were not perfectly obvious, Viel takes care to underscore it in the closing pages of his novel, causing his narrator to remark:

I didn’t stress it too much in my novel, because I didn’t want to make it a political thriller, with complicated intrigues involving both fictional characters and real people, like American writers often do, it’s true. After all, even if I looked toward America throughout my work on this project, I nonetheless remain a French writer. And we French do not make a habit of mixing real people with fictional characters. That is why I didn’t mention the name of Barack Obama in my novel. (120)

That final pronouncement reads like a Zen kōan, or a paradox of Zeno, until one remembers that this (fictional) novelist is not Tanguy Viel; that the embedded novel is not the frame novel; that, in a word, no gesture of metalepsis has been accomplished here, in spite of any appearance to the contrary, and notwithstanding the pull of our own readerly desire.

With considerable resourcefulness and subtlety, Tanguy Viel exploits that readerly desire in order to keep us significantly (and agreeably) off balance. At some moments, he encourages us to plunge headfirst into the fictional world, abandoning our skepticism and our rationality. At other moments, he obliges us to step back from the fable and recognize things for what they are. Insofar as the representation of America is concerned, his game is likewise double. He puts the mythology of America to use in very canny ways, both frankly (through his very literalist narrator) and ironically (through the distance he constructs between his narrator and himself). Turn and turn about, he plays upon the familiar and the exotic—and, most crucially perhaps, on the familiarity of the exotic. One might say that it is always a question of “America” in this novel, rather than of America. And one might argue, too, that it is a book perfectly suited to “American” readers, whatever happy shores they might call their own.

Tanguy Viel Disparition de Jim Sullivan

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Shores, happy or otherwise, are often at issue in Maylis de Kerangal’s Naissance d’un pont (Birth of a bridge, 2010), which tells the story of the construction of an immense bridge spanning a river, just inland from the coast of California. Like Viel, Kerangal gives place of privilege to onomastics, entrusting proper names with an important dimension of her “American” strategy. People’s names here are about what one might expect: “Katherine,” and “John,” and “Ralph,” certainly, but also that most categorical of American names, “Duane” (here spelled with a u rather than a w). Recognizable figures from the real world flit in and out of the novel, in cameo appearances, among them Sarah Jessica Parker and Larry King. Brand names confirm that the action of the novel takes place in a fundamentally commercial world: KMart, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Wallgreen [sic], McDonald’s. Chevrolets and Dodges duel on the highways, providing delicious moments of verisimilitude: “It’s a late-model Viper on 22-inch rims, 500 horsepower, a monster worth forty-five thousand dollars” (42). But Kerangal’s onomastic pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the name she chooses for the city where the bridge will be built, “Coca.” She glosses it helpfully for us shortly after enunciating it, mentioning that it shares its name with a famous brand of soda (29). For “Coca” is the French for “Coke,” as any five-year-old in France could testify; and what is more indisputably American than Coke? It represents in some sense the summit of American commercialism, a product known and savored worldwide. In a similar light—and I’m speaking here reductively, of course, relying on cultural commonplace—California represents for many people the apotheosis of American culture, the site where the various currents composing that culture flow in unabated spate.

Yet that is only one of the connotational fields onto which the name “Coca” opens. The other is a shade darker in tone, and the word “cocaine” hovers in its center. The fact that Kerangal has that in mind is confirmed by several references in the text, more subtle but no less sure than the ones pointing to Coca-Cola. Early on, for instance, Kerangal mentions the public buses serving Coca, suggesting that they are dangerous means of transport, “operated by bug-eyed bus drivers: lack of sleep, coke” (29). On several other occasions, she suggests that deep corruption lurks behind Coca’s shiny new facade: “Coca! Coca! Coca! The Brand New City! A danger zone where febrile businessmen rub shoulders with dealers of all kinds, cunning teens, opioid-addicted dandies, loan sharks both male and female, night-blind girls, and bewigged assassins” (169). Contrary to what its Babbitts would have us believe, Coca is “a rotten hole” (72), a place “arising ex nihilo from the New World” (185).

Yet it is perhaps inaccurate to imagine that Coca surges up out of nowhere, perhaps more useful to think of it as emanating from a deep reserve of mythology, one devolving upon “the measureless breadth of the landscape, an unmanageable immensity” (46) and “an enormous desire” (67), a golden place in the Golden State. For desire is at the heart of Coca. Workers flock there from all over, “among whom are people from Detroit, chased out of that city by the closing of the automobile factories” (97) Kerangal notes, reminding us that the American economy has suffered in recent years. Those workers, she argues, are simple folk, “people averse to conversation, serious and dedicated laborers for whom distractions like bowling, beer, and sex would not suffice for long” (101). More than anything else, they are impelled by mythology: “poor people looking to better themselves, dreamers lost in the clutches of the myth of the West, the obstinate myth that consumes them” (189).

The vision of America that Kerangal proposes is thus significantly vexed. On the one hand, it is a place where community milestones are celebrated by “ceremonial releases of doves, cheerleaders, jugglers, traditional Indian dances, police parades, and distribution of free t-shirts” (329). On the other hand, it is a place where local prostitutes “swallow speedballs: coke + bicarbonate of soda” (134). Let us forgive the inaccuracy of the recipe furnished, and focus instead on the brutality of the image, and the way it contrasts with that of the municipal festivities. And let us remember that the very notion of contrast itself is an essential component of the mythology in which “America” is wrapped:

It is the land of making-do and the smalltime job, of accommodations and fiddles, of all the little strategies of survival that sharpen one’s wits, the land of little vegetable gardens, fertile and overgrown, the land of hammocks swung up in damp cabins, of plasma TVs right off the shelf and fridges filled with beer, of mobile homes where depressed Indians with penetrating gazes try to sleep, of prefabricated, slapped-up houses that won’t make it through the winter, their floors warping and their wiring melting as soon as the portable heating units are plugged in, their pipes freezing right under the siding. It’s the place on the other side of the water, the edge of the city and the verge of the forest, it’s the place right on the margin. (191-192)

In short, Maylis de Kerangal’s “America” is a liminal place, one that is neither fully “inside” nor “outside,” but which insistently questions both of those sites in an oppositional manner, and through a discourse of alterity. It’s no utopia, that’s for certain. But I think nonetheless that Baudelaire would have no trouble recognizing it as somewhere demonstrably animated by the spirit of the other, a place very efficiently conceived to make the reader of this novel reflect usefully upon that other—and perhaps more crucially still, upon the place that he or she calls “home.”

Maylis de Kerangal Naissance d'un pont

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Representations of America are not lacking in Christine Montalbetti’s writings. Her novel Western (2005) takes place in a rough-and-ready frontier town called “Transition City,” and it plays upon a venerable set of traditions inherited from Bret Harte and Zane Grey, John Ford and Sergio Leone. Journée américaine (American day, 2009) returns to the American West, but in present time, following a man as he makes his way across the plains of Oklahoma to the mountains of Colorado. In Plus rien que les vagues et le vent (Nothing but the waves and the wind, 2014), Montalbetti goes still further west, to the Oregon Coast. There, everyone has a story to tell: “Colter,” “Harry Dean,” “McCain,” “Shannon,” “Wendy,” “Moses B. Reed,” “Mary,” “Perry,” “Rick,” “Tim Doyle,” each of them has a past with a different tale. Yet those differences may be largely anecdotal, because every one of these individuals is scarred by the past, and the tales they tell testify to that damage in fundamentally similar ways.  They have all somehow washed up in Cannon Beach, “the furthest edge of America” (271), like driftwood. Harry Dean works there as a farmer; Wendy is a waitress; Moses owns a bar called “Ulysses’ Return”; Tim runs a souvenir shop; Mary works in the grocery store; and so forth. Their lives intersect frequently in this small town, often in the bar in the evening, and that is mostly where we hear their stories, thanks to the narrator. He is a curious bird, the only anonymous character in the novel. He is exceptional in other ways, too, for we know very little about his past, merely that he is French—”the fucking Frenchy,” as he calls himself on one occasion (228), adopting the epithet that has been used by some of the more xenophobic citizens of Cannon Beach to identify him—and that he has come up the coast from Long Beach, through Portland. “It begins like a road story, when you think about it” (15), he remarks.

I got here on a rainy day, in a rented Ford (a white Crown Victoria, with rear-wheel drive).

The car, with its automatic transmission, ate up the road, almost without any effort on my part. I gazed at the rain beading up on the windshield, then being wiped off, then once again beading up like on the very first day, then again being massacred under the rubber blades of the windshield wipers, pressing against the glass. (16)

Road stories are of course typically American narrative forms. America did not invent the road story, to be sure, no more than Baudelaire invented the idea of the exotic. But America indisputably appropriated the form, injected it with a massive dose of specifically American mythology, exploited it to a rare degree, and exported it so successfully that it can now can be said to bear an American stamp—at least in its most recognizable shape, where the mode of transportation is always four-wheeled, the road is always broad, and the direction is always westerly.

The narrator’s road story is not the only one in this novel, moreover, because all of the characters have been involved in their own road stories, before each of those stories crested and broke upon Cannon Beach. Still other narratives circulate liberally in this fictional world. The narrator reads and rereads Lewis and Clark’s Journals, for instance, in a two-volume edition belonging to Perry. He does not seem to recognize that he is holding in his hands one of America’s foundational road stories, but that fact is surely not lost on the reader of Montalbetti’s novel. One night in the bar, the talk turns to the Odyssey—yet another road story, but this time far more venerable—and Harry Dean knows enough of it to assure the others that it is a tale that ends in blood. That is just one effect among many others suggesting that this story will likewise end in blood. Catastrophe looms from the beginning of the novel. Pressure builds and will seek release, in an eruption as inevitable as that of Mount St. Helens, which the folks in Cannon Beach remember all too well. Reflecting on the events of the recent past in his motel room, gazing out at the sea day after day, the narrator comes to understand that he himself is involved in a story, though the question of what role he may play therein—witness or actor, victim or hero—is well beyond his ken. He tells his tale in an engaging, complaisant, dilatory manner, one that seems unconcerned until we realize that he is deferring an event which is far more painful to tell, a very violent event through which he is significantly transformed.

One might suggest that, more than anything else, the narrator’s transformation is a question of naturalization—one that involves, in the first instance, his body:

Since I have been holed up and idle in this motel room on the edge of America, existing on local fare (pizza and hamburgers that I have delivered), my body has become American.

That was what I was seeking, undoubtedly, that metamorphosis.

I have to say, too, that with all of this space surrounding a person, space that is not merely an idea, but which is also an idea, with the thought of thousands and thousands of square kilometers under immense skies, one can understand, in so vast a dominion, that there should be so many people who wish to be fat. In order to occupy a bit more space. Seeking a more acceptable ratio with the territory.

To adapt their body to the dimensions of the landscape. (278)

Curiously, the metamorphosis that the narrator undergoes has the effect of erasing his former story in favor of a story to come, or a story yet to be written:

The man that I am now, this fat man, doesn’t have a story yet.

His beginning can be traced back to the day that he rented the white Ford and left Long Beach, California, where he was just passing through, having spent a moment, you’ll remember, watching the pelicans feeding so voraciously. The day that he got on the road and started driving, obliviously, toward his shape to come. When he got into the car, when he stopped at the Blueberry Inn, when he went into the Waves Motel for the first time, he didn’t look like he does now; but that appearance was already in gestation. (280)

It is a matter of catastrophe, after all, one that is far more local and personal than the eruption of Mount St. Helens—but perhaps no less telluric. Importantly, it can be described as a certified “American” catastrophe, one whose principal agency can be located in the way that “Americans” tend to identify themselves in distinction to a variety of others. Though it should be noted that the narrator refuses to recognize such agency. “To my way of thinking,” he remarks, all of that is the ocean’s fault” (86). And in a sense, maybe he’s right, because the ocean (like narrative itself) involves forces that are irresistible, in which even the strongest of swimmers may founder; and once you submerge yourself in it (again like narrative), you are necessarily a part of it, wherever else you may wish to be.

Christine Montalbetti Plus Rien que les vagues et le vent

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Paul Fournel locates most of the action of Jason Murphy (2013) in France; but his characters direct their gaze across the Atlantic, indeed clear across the continent, once again to the very edge of America. To San Francisco more specifically, and to a cultural moment when the poets of the Beat Generation were just beginning to put right-thinking American mores so dramatically into question. One of those poets interests those characters particularly, a certain “Jason Murphy,” who may have written a novel on a long, continuous scroll well before Jack Kerouac used that technique to write On the Road. The scroll seems to occupy much more space in the characters’ imaginations than the man who wrote it, and who may or may not have survived the glory years of the 1950s and 1960s. People invest their desire in that artifact for different reasons: a publisher because of the sales windfall it would ensure; a graduate student because of what it would represent for her dissertation; a professor of literature mindful of his scholarly reputation; and so forth. As all of them strain toward that object of desire, a kind of Grail Quest emerges; but it is one fraught with ironies of various sorts, and one that is very unlikely to provide salvation for anyone—least of all for Jason Murphy.

Once again, proper names color the text of this novel, and orient the reader’s horizon of expectation in certain ways. Fournel borrows many of those names from contemporary American literature: Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Patricia Highsmith, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Patchen, Tom Wolfe. Other familiar cultural figures, from Johnny Cash to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to Jerry Garcia, are name-checked here. On the toponym side of things, Fournel points us toward San Francisco (where he directed the Alliance Française between 1996 and 2000, and which he consequently knows well). Each of the sites that he evokes—Golden Gate Park, Haight Street, the Panhandle, Polk Street, North Beach, the Tenderloin, Berkeley, the Castro, the Mission, Union Square, for example—is recognizable to anyone reasonably familiar with San Francisco. Even someone French (for it must be recalled that he is writing in French, for French readers), because the city of San Francisco occupies a great deal of space in the French cultural imagination, and French tourists abound there. It is perched, after all, smack on the western edge of the American continent, the place where Manifest Destiny sends us, the place where the American Dream (as a European conceives it) reaches its ultimate expression.

It is legitimate to wonder, in view of references to so many real people and places, why Fournel chose to organize his novel around an imaginary author like “Jason Murphy.” Clearly, he has anticipated that question, for when her advisor asks the graduate student why she has chosen to write on Murphy, rather than on Kerouac or Ginsberg, she replies, “Everyone studies those two, they’ve been worked over again and again. People know a lot about them. Murphy is more secret, less well known, a bit on the margins” (39). There is certainly no arguing with that. Yet another reason may be bound up in the fact that people don’t quite know what to make of Murphy’s writing, not even knowing for sure if he’s a “good” writer or a “bad” writer. That is a question the graduate student must grapple with, as she reads and rereads Murphy, while at the same time reading the work of the few critics who have turned their attention to him, including “Donald Allen in New American Poetry 45.60 and The Life and Lives of Jason Murphy by Warren Motte, which she knew by heart” (71).

We can forgive her if from time to time she daydreams about other, more manageable research projects. “Her thoughts turned to Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. Montparnasse is three Metro stations from here. That could have been a great dissertation topic. ‘Paris in the American Imagination: Ernest Hemingway, the Model of the Rich Poor Man.’ 200 pages tossed together in three months, with all of the backdrops right next door” (53). The project that she envisions stands in a pleasingly ironic relation to Fournel’s novel, of course, and it comments upon the latter with some pungency. Because one of the things that Fournel puts on offer in this book is an image of San Francisco as the French imagination constructs it. And by extension, insofar as San Francisco exemplifies certain important features of a broader American ideal, he invites his reader to ponder a defining moment in American cultural history, when “America” began to come to terms with the American Dream as a dream. Hunter S. Thompson points straight at that moment in his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of.…There was madness in any direction, at any hour.…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (66-68)

Paul Fournel suggests that Jason Murphy’s role in that dynamic was a crucial one, despite the fact that relatively few things are known for certain about him. He drove a Hudson and drank Four Roses Kentucky bourbon, often simultaneously. He visited Paris in 1953, staying first near the Place des Vosges, then in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He had a shack on Half Moon Bay. Lawrence Ferlinghetti knew him well, and indeed had published him, which provides Paul Fournel with an opportunity to sketch Ferlinghetti in broad outline, for the benefit of his reader: “An ageless poet, with a pretty good head for money, which had allowed him to found a small, prosperous publishing house and a very wonderful bookstore, ‘City Lights,’ in San Francisco. He published and sold the whole Beat Generation. And he also translated Prévert into English, a very welcome gesture” (48). But Ferlinghetti and Murphy had a falling-out, long ago, and the former has no idea what has become of the latter in the many years since that event.

It is useful to remember that it is not the man who is of central importance here, but instead the work he produced. On the Road and Howl both circulate freely in this novel, serving as stable points of intertextual reference and sure guarantors of authenticity. Yet Fournel draws our attention more closely still to Jason Murphy’s poetry, which he quotes extensively, in the original English, complaisantly furnishing a French translation for those readers whose English might not be utterly fluent. If one steps back from the fictional world for a moment, still another reason for choosing a fictional author quickly becomes clear: it allows Fournel to invent an American poet, one who may not be the most distinguished poet of his generation, but who is nonetheless eminently worthy of our attention. One whose greatest achievement, moreover, may be yet undiscovered, just waiting for the right combination of diligence, obsession, and circumstance to reveal it. As if diligence, obsession, and circumstance had anything to do with writing—or with literary scholarship, for that matter.

Paul Fournel Jason Murphy

x

Jean Rolin composes Savannah (2015) in a decidedly minor key, and the image of America that he provides therein is painted in muted, even melancholy, colors. The text follows a narrator closely resembling Rolin himself (so closely in fact that I shall call him “Rolin” in my account of the book), who performs what Freud called the “work of mourning,” retracing a visit to Georgia he had undertaken seven years previously with a close companion, “Kate,” who has since died. In Savannah, Jean Rolin exploits a mythology of America a bit different from the kinds we have noted thus far, one that wagers upon the belatedness of the American South, and upon the exoticism of that region, when seen in long focus by a European eye. Rolin is known for the way he puts exotic landscapes to work in his writing, whether it be that of the Congo in L’Explosion de la durite (The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, 2007), or that of the Australian Outback in Un chien mort après lui (A dead dog after him, 2009), or that of the Strait of Hormuz in Ormuz (2013). Here, however, many of the terms upon which Rolin relies in order to construct place and mood have been conveniently codified well before he puts them to use, by the writers of the Southern Gothic.

Among those latter figures, Flannery O’Connor is paramount, for it is she who interests Kate most particularly. Kate and Rolin had traveled to Milledgeville, “in deepest Georgia” as Rolin puts it (11), seven years prior to the narrative present of Savannah, in order better to understand O’Connor, with Kate filming more or less constantly along the way and in the town itself. Now, Rolin returns there in search of something that he never makes explicit. One might note however that such a return, in itself, is a familiar gesture in our cultural lexicon. People in mourning often do revisit places where they had been happy, even if (and perhaps especially if) they had not fully recognized their happiness at the time. What they seek may vary, but certain features are common to most of those quests: the topos of grief and the very process of grieving; the idea that one’s past happiness becomes ever more distant as one’s memory of that moment erodes; the paralyzing impression that whatever may happen now will necessarily be marked by the shadow of the past. Yet something else is going on in Savannah too, I think, something beyond a remembrance of things past. For Jean Rolin could just as easily have situated his book in France, after all, in a landscape far more familiar to him and to his French readers. That he should choose the American South suggests that there is something about that place that he finds particularly intriguing, something closely suited to the expressive needs that animate his project. I wonder if it might be possible to trace that “something” through the cultural commonplaces that Rolin puts on display in his book.

First and most obviously, Rolin insists upon images that invoke death and commemoration. Kate had wished to visit the Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, in order to include it in the film she was making. Rolin returns there, now of course in a very different frame of mind, attuned to that site in ways that he had not anticipated, noting details that had largely escaped him during his first visit. Among other cemeteries, Laurel Grove, also in Savannah, had also interested Kate, with its “lawns, scattered headstones, trees from which hung long beards of moss” (108-109); and Rolin returns there, too, visiting Hillcrest Cemetery, Catholic Cemetery, and Bonaventure Cemetery for good measure. That itinerary, and more particularly the account of that itinerary, serves to remind us that Savannah itself is a memorial of sorts. It is what the French call a tombeau, a tomb, a literary form serving to memorialize an individual who has died. The most famous of those tombeaux is perhaps Mallarmé’s sonnet, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe,” but there are many other examples of the genre; and it is a tradition that Rolin exploits massively.

Another set of images that Rolin puts into play involves low-end Americana. Motels figure heavily in that semiotic—as indeed they have done since Nabokov. Rolin alludes to a modest motel in Savannah “situated on the corner of River Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue” (18) where he and Kate had stayed. But when Rolin tries to locate it in an Internet search in order to stay there again, he finds that “it had disappeared between then and now, leaving no trace other than the markedly negative comments of its last guests, some years previously” (23). Sic transit gloria mundi. Thankfully, other motels have sprung up to take its place, notably “the Best Western motel, situated at the intersection of Bay Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue” (23). Even Milledgeville, as far-removed as it may seem, possesses its motel, about which Rolin notes, with considerable understatement, “one is not greeted in a Best Value Inn in Milledgeville like one is greeted in a Four Seasons in Washington” (89). Clearly enough, however, it is not the Four Seasons that interests him, but rather the Best Western, the Best Value Inn, and places of similar ilk.

Other unpresuming “American” places retain Rolin’s attention. The bus station in Savannah, for instance. He notes that neither he nor Kate knew how to drive a car, and that they were thus obliged to travel by bus and by taxi during their visit. Taxi drivers figure in this narrative too, of course; and they are stock types in American cultural imagery, too. Rolin is moreover fascinated by a bar called “Malones,” which touts itself alluringly as a place “Where the girls dance on the bar” (43), and by a storefront operation called “Cash Loans Until Payday” (97), and by “a landscape of desolation, that of a vastly sprawling, metastatic mall” (88), all of which seem to him to represent sites where the American Dream has gone to die. Because it is not only Kate who has died: it is a whole world that has died along with her. And in just that perspective, one of the advantages of the myth of the American South becomes apparent, because that myth is founded squarely upon the notion of dying worlds.

That helps, I think, to explain Rolin’s interest in unclaimed urban spaces and wastelands of various sorts, an interest that is long-standing and that in fact inflected his relationship with his friend. “Sometimes I reproached myself for imposing upon Kate my own taste for vacant lots and disaffected port areas,” he remarks (35), a scruple that did not prevent him from taking her along to places of that sort, again and again. On several occasions in Savannah, he speaks about a power plant in the city that he admires, waxing positively lyrical when describing the sickly orange sodium light that glows within it. “Kate had become familiar with that lighting,” he remarks, “because of all the time we spent together in ports, in Saint-Nazaire, Dunkerque, or Le Havre” (43). Rolin takes pleasure in walking along the Savannah River, watching “the tugboat Florida” or “the auto freighter Tugela from the Wallenius-Wilhelmsen fleet” (41) make its leisurely way through the city. The key feature of ports, of course, is that the people and things one encounters there are always in transit—and that is a state that Rolin cultivates very deliberately indeed. “The surest way of giving oneself the impression of being left behind, of being less than nothing,” he says, “is to walk alone on the unpaved roadside of a major highway, if possible in the United States, and preferably when night is beginning to fall” (99). For in a place like that, one can tell oneself that one has come to the heart of the matter, right where the dying dream of American progress meets the waking nightmare of grief.

Jean Rolin Savannah

x

The America that each of these novels invokes is not so much a place as an idea, one that is significantly mutable and (importantly) adaptable. It matters little, I think, if the elements that compose it are immediately recognizable to an American eye, if they pass some putative test of “authenticity.” For that is not what fiction is about—most of the time, at least. For fiction has its own rules, and it exercises its own sort of tyranny in its appropriation of the real. As soon as it is integrated into a fictional world, America becomes “America”—and to the degree that the fictional world is a compelling one, that process of “Americanization” becomes more pronounced. Such an argument will strike many people as heresy, I have no doubt; yet I am persuaded that the way fiction transforms reality and adapts it to its own purposes is one of the reasons we readers keep returning to fiction. Not to escape from the phenomenal world, but rather to see it in another light, one that illuminates features of that world that we might not have recognized otherwise. Sometimes those features are so deeply imbricated in the pattern of everyday life that they become largely invisible to us; sometimes we fail to register them because they do not fit easily into the interpretational grids we habitually impose upon experience; sometimes the hierarchies we construct in order to distinguish the significant from the insignificant are not supple enough to accommodate outliers and limit cases. Sometimes as well, it’s true, we have to travel to shores far removed in space or in time from our own, in order better to understand the here and the now. From France to America, for instance, or from America to France. And back again.

—Warren Motte

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “Analyse textuelle d’un conte d’Edgar Poe.”  In Claude Chabrol, ed.  Sémiotique narrative et textuelle.  Paris: Larousse, 1973.  29-54.

Baudelaire, Charles.  “Exotic Perfume.”  Trans. William Aggeler.  http://fleursdumal.org/poem/120.

—.  “Invitation to the Voyage.”  Trans. William Aggeler.  http://fleursdumal.org/poem/148.

Collective.  “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French.”  Trans. Daniel Simon.  World Literature Today 83.2 (2009): 54-56.

Fournel, Paul.  Jason Murphy.  Paris: P.O.L, 2013.

Gilman, Sander.  Inscribing the Other.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Kerangal, Maylis de.  Naissance d’un pont.  Paris: Gallimard, 2010.

Montalbetti, Christine.  Journée américaine.  Paris: P.O.L, 2009.

—.  Plus rien que les vagues et le vent.  Paris: P.O.L, 2014.

—.  Western.  Paris: P.O.L, 2005.

—.  Western.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.

Rolin, Jean.  L’Explosion de la durite.  Paris: P.O.L, 2007.

—.  The Explosion of the Radiator Hose.  Trans. Louise Rogers Lalaurie.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.

—.  Savannah.  Paris: P.O.L, 2015.

Thompson, Hunter S.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.  New York: Random House, 1971.

Viel, Tanguy.  La Disparition de Jim Sullivan.  Paris: Minuit, 2013.

xWarren Motte 2016

Warrent 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.

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Apr 092016
 

dirt
The thing I remember most about arriving in Spokane, Washington, at the end of August in 1991, to begin my MFA in Creative Writing, was the heat and the dust. I remember walking from the apartment in Browne’s Addition (where I was staying until the university residence opened, being put up by a kind soul who did not know me from Adam – like the dust, I drifted into his apartment on the hot currents of air, settled on his couch, and he generously let me stay – thank you Jeff Blaustone) to The Elk for a breakfast burrito the morning after I arrived. The heat and dust weighed down on me. I could feel it in the air, I could smell it deep within my nostrils, I could taste it on my tongue, and I like to believe I could hear it too.

Now all these years later, three good friends from back then are featured here in Numéro Cinq writing not about dust but dirt from the anthology, Dirt: A Love Story – Barbara Richardson (editor), John Keeble and Jeanne Rogers. Barb and Jeanne had already completed their first year in the program by the time I arrived, and John was a professor in the department. My fondest memories of all three of them are related to landscape (well, there was that one night in Jeanne’s caboose out at Loon Lake, but it’s probably best not to go there) and the journeys involved in reaching new landscapes.

On one occasion, Jeanne who had planned some quiet time alone in Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast in a small cabin she had rented by the ocean graciously offered me and my wife a ride there and back. We stayed closer to the town in the Oddball apartment, a last minute rental. During the day we walked the beach, enjoyed the views of the ocean, the mountains and rugged coastal outcroppings, the famous Haystack Rock or hiked the headlands with their panoramic views. Barb drove us to the Thoreau Conference in Missoula, Montana, where we attended workshops with Rick Bass and Simon Ortiz, heard an electrifying reading (his first in 13 years) by the late great Jim Harrison. More readings and panel discussions with environmentally concerned writers such as Richard Nelson, Marilynne Robinson, Terry Tempest Williams, William Kittredge, and Sandra Ciscernos amongst others. And John eventually led us to Alaska. His seminal non-fiction account of the Exxon Valdez oil spill encouraging me to persuade my wife (easily done) to go backpacking there for three months before returning to Ireland.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to John. The two years I worked with him as my instructor and thesis advisor shaped me more as a writer and as a person than anyone else I can think of (and it needs to be said, he is one of the finest writers North America has produced, his superbly intricate fiction and non-fiction always socially and environmentally prescient.) I also owe so much to Barb and Jeanne too for their kindness and friendship. It was an extraordinary time for me, and those were extraordinary journeys we took. As for the Spokane dust, I can hear it still.

—Gerard Beirne

barb

 

Introduction — The God of Dirt

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F

or thousands of years, humans have looked to the heavens for inspiration and divinity. Looking to the heavens may be the greatest mistake we, as humans, have ever made. We project what we want onto the open skies, the blank distant blue. Whereas looking to the earth sends clear messages—intricacy, impermanence, solidity, interrelation, humility. You can’t fool dirt. Nor can you escape it. You can’t manipulate meaning as you can from the mirror of an empty sky. Dirt anchors us all in reality. And so we need to remember and relearn the ongoing, resonating divinity of dirt. As John Keats wrote, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

That poetry is everywhere. It comes in through all our senses. Green, gold, scaled, seeded, sour, shining, sneaky, squeaky, voluminous . . . Mary Oliver writes, “The god of dirt / came up to me many times and said / so many wise and delectable things, I lay / on the grass listening.” The essays in Loving Dirt are that listening. Remember the joyful freedom of splashing in a mud puddle? The thrill of climbing an eroded cliff? The artists, scientists and authors in Loving Dirt drag you outdoors, scuff your knuckles and muddy your feet. They make dirt live and breathe again.

“The first set of essays, “Land Centered,” returns dirt to its rightful place—as the crux of life in the experiences of people who are flagrant dirt fanatics. These writers revel in the fact that dirt is “magnificently humble.” Long may they reign. Then, armed with new appreciation, take a muddy fall into “Kid Stuff,” the second set of essays, which explores our early contact with dirt. Go ahead, these writers say, “major in mud pies.” Because the humbling, hallowed fact is that dirt is our mother. And she doesn’t call us inside at night in order to ignore her gifts.

“Dirt Worship,” the next set of essays, shows just how to get “that motherly feeling” on in adulthood. How to place your feet on the ground and your hands in the soil and claim your ancestry, your grand, mysterious inheritance. This centering in the land leads to curiosity about the good stuff under our feet. And so the fourth set of essays, “Dirt Facts,” offers insights into the masterful and largely ignored scientific processes within dirt, the “interesting secrets” that children and dogs, who may not understand, enjoy with all their hearts.

Lastly, the essays in “Native Soil” embrace the challenge of adoring seemingly unlovable ground—third-growth woods, weedy urban lots, overgrazed prairies—”the sort of land that desperately needs to be loved and protected, and rarely is.” These essays salute and defend our native soils as if they were life itself, which they assuredly are. “Humble” comes from humus, ground, and humilis, lowly. Humble outdistances pride. Humble whispers connective language, and waits when we don’t listen. By book’s end, you will recall the generous, wordless, irresistible divinity of dirt.

“That divinity says get filthy. Grab a shovel. Hike a ravine. Breathe a dust storm. Reek like old goat and sleep like Venus after a dirty long day. Relish dirt’s unbiased receptivity. Worship, if you will, the endless fecundity of soil. Or better yet, fall in love. Dirt makes a resilient astounding lover. Tireless. Generous. Unstoppable. And most often unthanked. Start thanking. Put your belly on the ground and say thank you. Wherever you are. Winter, spring, any season will do. Lie there saying thank you until all of your internal chatter and sophisticated notions and cogitative claptrap stop.

“While you’re down there, imagine every plant that has ever lived. Every seed that has dropped, every band of people, every fish in every stream, every hedgehog, every grasshopper, all the grasses of all the prairies on earth are still here. The trees. The elephants. Every single ant and albatross. You needn’t try to imagine it, it is so. Under your belly. The earth should be groaning under piles of its own dead life forms, but what a spacious, cleanly earth it is. Right beneath you lies a creative silence so vast it makes time stop.

“Walt Whitman, long gone from us, said, “Look for me under your boot-soles.” He meant it literally. This astonishing vanishing act to which we belong deserves consideration. And deep respect. Respect for the arbiter of this vast balanced nuanced productivity. Let God in heaven take care of the stars. We, along with the scientists, artists, and poets, are forever called to loving dirt.

— Barbara Richardson

 

john keeble

Imago Ignota

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M

y earliest memories of dirt come from when I was a young boy of four. We lived on a hill and during springtime I would combine the dirt with small stones and sticks and construct experimental earthworks to guide the water of the snowmelt into little lakes and dams. Sometimes a small stick would double as a boat, enter a rivulet, and careen downwards. I suppose it was mud I played with, dirt mixed with water. There were the mud puddles, too, the bane of mothers and a great source of pleasure for young people in galoshes who were fortunate enough to have dirt around them. I first lived in a small town in Saskatchewan and we had plenty of dirt in those days, all right.

There was the dirt I remember when I was not much older, a patch of it near the steps at the back of our house. I sat on the steps in the sunlight with a stick in my hands and drew in the dirt. I was brought to consider infinity, as I had lately been struck by the meaning of “The End,” and then by the question of what comes next after “The End.” This simple, rudimentary contradiction was a childish insight into the nature of things, and while my phrasing of the question has grown much more ornate, I can’t say that my understanding of its meaning has improved in the least. What strikes me as fascinating is that I was drawing a figure with my stick in the dirt while trying my hardest to unravel this matter. The question seemed to emanate from the dirt, radiating through the squared off head and querulous expression of the figure I had drawn. It said something about what I might see now as the classic fundament of elements . . . earth, water, air, and fire . . . but which then was merely the grounding sense of touch with a solid thing, holding the stick in my two small hands, touching one end of the stick to the dirt, and moving it to outline the rudimentary head while my mind went off toward the empyreal, sparking the imagination. It was an obscurity felt as inchoateness, an “imago ignota,” and it is important to consider the order in which those two things came: first, the grounding, and second, the sparking.

When I was eight, my family moved to Berkeley, California, where my father attended the Pacific School of Religion. There on the lavishly planted and somewhat unkempt grounds of the campus I found myself transfixed by a slope overgrown with dense bushes, surrounding a single, huge fir tree, which I watched during storms from our apartment window. The tree tilted, bent, and whipped in the wind. One spring day, I made my way to the tree by crawling beneath the bushes. Upon reaching it I found a tremendous gnarled root system clutching at the dirt. The brown needles that fell from the tree made a thick duff, eventually to be transformed into more dirt, and there were spider webs that held entrapped flies and a colony of sow bugs, which curled up into balls when touched. Those things were the grounding there. It was a potential, frangible detritus, found in a dark place, and, I thought at the time, safer than any other place I knew of, solitary and secret. I had to creep out the way I came, emerging covered with dirt and with cuts from the thorns and brambles.

My family moved to Southern California where I had a transfigurative experience with dirt. We traveled to Death Valley to camp for several Thanksgivings, a time of year when the desert was cool. We went with friends of my parents, the Sayles, for whom I recall having great affection, though now I know little about them, except that they were artifact collectors, and old enough to be my grandparents. They had no children. We camped in a place with a hot springs, which was near what seemed a vast plain stretching as far as the eye could see, but with very few plants growing on it. Instead, it was littered in places with small stones of agate, jasper, flint, opal, and obsidian which had been chipped by human hands. It was a stone flaking ground and we would walk along, traversing the flat with our heads down as we searched for artifacts, and I remember one I saw . . . a pink-colored piece of opalized agate. I bent to dig it from the dirt. It seemed presentational, an ensconced arrow point, and I can envision it still, the dirt framing the luminous stone. I lifted it to show it to Mr. Sayles, who touched his finger to the fine flaking on the point’s gently curved hafting and pronounced it to be a 2000 year old ceremonial or mortuary point.

Whether he was right or wrong, I have no idea. I do not possess the arrow point and I think now it was possibly ceremonial because of the ornateness of the hefting, but unlikely that it was 2000 years old. At the time, I knew nothing of the value of artifacts, and certainly I did not consider that the original makers, feasibly Panamint Shoshone, might wish to lay claim to them, and thus that what I was engaged in was a form of plunder. Though at age ten or eleven, I was at a time when my consciousness was dividing into what some hold as the signal stage of growing out of childhood, the nagual (familiarity with the non-ordinary) giving ground to the tonal (a fixation on the ordinary, the everyday), the possibility that what we were collecting came from a burial ground did not register, perhaps simply because it was not a part of the conversation among the people there . . . the Sayles, my parents, and myself. It would take Barry Lopez years later to articulate that for me. In his essay, “The Stone Horse,” he describes his encounter with a horse made of an outline of stones, a four hundred year old intaglio laid into sunburnt and sandblasted desert varnish, which is a patina of iron and magnesium oxides. He says, “. . . the few who crowbar rock art off the desert’s walls, who dig up graves, who punish the ground that holds intaglios, are people who devour history. Their self-centered scorn, their disrespect for ideas and images beyond their ken, create the awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives, in which the past is merely curious or wrong. . . . [But] I remembered that history, a history like this one, which ran deeper than Mexico, deeper than the Spanish, was a kind of medicine.”

From the experience of finding the arrow point in the dirt, misunderstood as it was, I developed one, sometimes useful habit, that of searching the ground when I walked, of being alert to what the dirt offered up, to the sparking that helped me make my way as an adult. This is how it is in Eastern Washington on the farm where my wife and I have raised our children and lived for forty years: deer carcasses, cow carcasses, a heifer practically disemboweled by her breech-born calf, all manner of carcasses going into the ground, raccoons, porcupines, mice, and gophers, flies and maggots eating the dissolving flesh, dust from taking the care to disk in the residual organic matter left after baling hay. It’s garden dirt made into soil, I suppose, chicken shit and dirt, cow patties and dirt, deer manure, convoluted moose droppings and dirt, snow and dirt, rain and dirt, dirt from dirt roads, dirt in the nostrils, in the cracks of skin, imbedded under fingernails, dirt storms, veritable clouds of dirt, great plumes of dirt blowing across the Pacific from the Far East, for nothing is strictly local. There was the stratospheric column of volcanic ash from Mount Saint Helens that covered our place in 1980 and floated around the world, this and more on ground covered by one of the largest floods known to the history of the world more than twelve thousand years ago. The ice dams broke apart at the end of the last glacial age and the resulting floods inundated hundreds of square miles from Missoula, Montana to the Pacific Ocean, covering portions of Idaho, Oregon, and much of Washington. Where we live there are fields where the once massive eddies slammed into the hills and turned, dropping their loads of dirt. Within sight of such fields there is basalt on the surface, known as scab rock, where the water raged, washing the dirt away.

It is interesting how the word, dirt, has undergone a nearly hundred eighty degree turn in meaning in our culture. The word is thought to emerge originally from Old Norse . . . drit . . . meaning excrement. The Oxford English Dictionary lists this first, “1. Excrement,” but there are other meanings, too, “2. Unclean matter, such as soils and any object adhering to it; filth, especially the wet mud and mire of the ground, consisting of earth and waste matter mixed with water. 3. Mud, soil; earth; mould; brick-earth,” and it adds the more metaphorical meaning, “4. The quality of being dirty or foul; dirtiness; foulness; uncleanness in diction or speech.” I have a copy of Webster’s Dictionary, dated 1911, which defines dirt as: “1. Any foul or filthy substance; excrement; earth; mud; mire; dust; whatever, adhering to anything, renders it foul or unclean.”

The change seems to have happened sometime in the last century. In 1927, Hermann Hesse published his novel, Steppenwolf, in its German edition and near the beginning of the book he has his willfully shabby and unkempt protagonist, Harry Haller, pass by a place “so shiningly clean, so dusted and polished and scoured so inviolably clean that it positively glitters. . . . Don’t you smell it, too, a fragrance given off by the odor of floor polished and a faint whiff of turpentine together with the mahogany and the washed leaves of the plants—the very essence of bourgeois cleanliness, of neatness and meticulousness, of duty and devotion shown in little things? I don’t know who lives here but behind that glazed door there must be a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity, of ordered ways, a touching and anxious devotion to life’s little habits and tasks.” Haller goes on to claim . . . undoubtedly ironically . . . that he is not being ironic.

The tension Harry Haller foresaw is out in the open now, for the world’s population, and its inventions, have increased exponentially while the earth’s dirt in its frenzied and fecund form has proportionately diminished. We’ve also come to understand very well the new dimension added to dirt. No longer is dirt always a thing that needs to be washed out like Lady MacBeth’s “spot,” made hygienic and sanitized. One does not think solely of one of a number of secretive, contagious killers, cholera, say, looping around a village in the mud and water, or E. coli poisoning from animal waste stirred into fields of salad greens. On the contrary, we’ve come lately to think we’ve grown excessively clean, that our immune systems require more contact with the minerals and myriad of microorganisms, which, if one were to dig one’s hands in the dirt one would come up hefting a load of the visible and invisible . . . earthworms, larvae, tiny insects, tiny snails, nematodes, and bacteria, frangible fossil matter, frangible sticks and leaves, carbon, and radioactive isotopes, some of which might contain the germs of yet unrealized cures. My wife and I have a dog that eats dirt every springtime, and a grandchild who adventures in it just as I once did, searching out his inchoateness and the seemingly random sparking. If only we could cease our plundering habits, the products of human invention which strain to drive the earth into utter exhaustion. We’re playing a fool’s game with our dirt, blindly transforming it “behind that glazed door . . . [into] a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity” through genetically modified crops and monoculture, herbicides, fertilizers, coal mining, petroleum extraction, and fracking, that dire, unthought out, and “awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives.”

—John Keeble

jeanne

Sinking Down Into Heaven

I

am a Midwest farmer’s daughter and as such, no stranger to dirt—four hundred and fifty acres of it to be exact. In addition to growing sweet corn, field corn, alfalfa, oats and wheat, we raised dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs and sheep. The dairy barn took up the western section of land next to the woods. The steer barn, corncrib and hayloft claimed the eastern border near the creek. The sheep grazed on the northern edge close to the swimming hole and the pigs wallowed in the mud to the south. My bike and I were constant travelers on the gravel roads that connected the respective barns and outbuildings, and I’d be lying if I said that navigating those loose gravel roads on my black Schwinn with skinny tires was not a tricky endeavor that required Bandaids and Mercurochrome on a regular basis. I rode my bike from one end of the farm to the other, and when my legs grew tired, I high-tailed it over to the swimming hole. I ask you: what could be better than a hot dusty bike ride followed by a cool swim and a lazy sunbath? Often, as I lay atop my dry clothes, I imagined the earth spinning faster and faster, imagined myself clinging to the warm grasses for dear life so that the centrifugal force would not spin me off into the ethers. Other than my grandma’s house, there was no place I would have rather spent a summer afternoon.

When the sun neared the grove of trees in the west, I headed home to our well-worn, two-story white farmhouse, its wide front porch and spacious yard shaded by oak trees. Our family garden plot, sixty-feet by thirty-feet of fecund soil, ran alongside the fence that separated our side yard from the cow pasture and in it we grew everything imaginable: raspberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cucumber, yellow squash, zucchini, acorn squash, green beans, sweet peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, rhubarb, green onions, white onions, carrots, potatoes, peppers and the best sweet corn known to man. Many afternoons found me on the front porch staring off toward the neighbor’s property on the far side of the creek while I snipped beans, shelled peas and daydreamed about the swimming hole, a permissible destination only after chores were completed. Much like the sunrise, chores began and ended each day.

My duties consisted of tending our garden—weeding, hoeing, thinning, picking and preparing the fruits and vegetables for farm-style, midday meals and evening meals we called supper. As farmers, we didn’t use the word dinner for the evening meal. To us, dinner meant Sunday dinner at noon. I never heard the word used in the context of an evening meal until I went to school, learned to read and discovered that Dick and Jane ate dinner in the evening. That’s also when I discovered that town people were not exactly like us country folk. But I digress. Preparing one noon meal and one supper each day for six hungry people didn’t begin to put a dent in all of the produce, so we spent numerous hot summer days canning, freezing and pickling the abundance.

Hundreds of cucumbers transformed into dill and sweet pickles. We put up row-after-row of canned tomatoes and peaches, the later bought from a peach farmer who lived down the county line road apiece. In the cool, dank cellar on shelves that lined the canning room, we placed clear Mason jars filled with round, peeled red tomatoes and peeled yellow peach halves, their crimson insides prime candidates for a Cezanne still life. We froze green beans, squash, raspberries, strawberries and tender sweet corn kernels that we carefully and laboriously removed from the cob using a metal and wooden device that looked like a medieval torture rack. We froze whole strawberry-rhubarb pies and put up jar after jar of my personal favorites: raspberry and strawberry preserves.

loved every part of the dirt, manure and water that went into creating our prolific garden. I also loved the dirt, manure and water that caked on the soles of my bare feet, which were often so dirty that they looked as if I were wearing short brown boots. I was nine years old the summer those dirty feet helped me rise from picking the low-to-the ground strawberries, stretch my back from having been bent over for so long, place my hands on my hips and wonder: How can town people be happy without loving a piece of land?

That evening at the supper table I posed that question to my father, a man who had more than once shared his regret about not completing college as had his two older brothers, who now wore suits and worked in cities. From time-to-time he had also wondered aloud if he had made the right decision in remaining a farmer instead of finding a more sophisticated occupation. As he pondered my question, his normally steel blue eyes turned a bright blue and his jaw popped as he chewed—sure signs that he was getting riled up.

“You know,” he said, “I was a kid during the Great Depression. Town people lost their jobs. No money. No food. Nothing. Those scrawny town boys pulled up to our farm hungry. And guess what?” He stopped talking. A slow grin spread across his face. “We gave ‘em food. For once they needed something from us. That’s what having land means.”

In the autumn of my sixth grade school year when I was ten years old, my grandma died, and because I adored her more than life itself, everything changed for me that year, including, and especially, my relationship with dirt and the land. True to those times and that place where she lived in southern Illinois, in a small town cradled between the Mississippi River to the west and the Wabash River to the east, there near the Kaskaskin River in Grandma’s small town, my father and his siblings placed her open casket in the parlor beside the piano for a wake that lasted three nights and three days. It was my people’s time-honored manner in which to pay respects and say farewell. It gave us a few days to become accustomed to the idea of her no longer being with us. It gave us time to be with her body a little longer, time to say goodbye. For three days running, every time I passed by the parlor I glimpsed Grandma lying there in her dark blue church dress. A few times I could have sworn I heard her playing the piano and singing one of her favorite hymns. One time I even thought I heard her familiar chuckle followed by her dentures clacking as she said, Oh Jeanne—you do beat all.

On the fourth day they moved Grandma’s casket to the church, but it wasn’t until after the memorial service when the pallbearers closed the casket that the realization hit me: I would never see her again. We followed the hearse to the cemetery and as we stood beside the open grave, the thought of Grandma being trapped underneath six feet of dirt made me feel crazy with rage. I became hysterical. I screamed, cried, kicked and carried-on something fierce, all to no avail. Nothing could change the ordering of that day. Despite my protests, Grandma’s coffin was lowered down into the earth and covered with shovelfuls of dirt, which to my ten-year-old way of thinking, had completely and utterly betrayed me. I crossed my arms over my chest and declared my relationship with dirt and the land finished, forever.

*

Fifteen years later as I watched my two preschoolers play in the back yard, John Prine’s newly released “Please Don’t Bury Me” came on the radio. The lyrics made me feel as though he shared my aversion to the practice of burial. On that afternoon, I adopted Prine’s contagious melody and goofball lyrics as my theme song regarding the thought of being six feet under for eternity.

For Mother’s Day my daughters’ preschool teacher sent home a yellow rose plant and when its blossoms began to fall onto the kitchen countertop, I planted it haphazardly in a sunny spot in the front yard. To my surprise it flourished. By summer’s end, after several enthusiastic days of planting other young rose starts, we had a burgeoning rose garden—reds, apricots, yellows, pinks and whites. For the first time in many years I felt great pleasure as I pushed the shovel down into the earth and inhaled the smell of moist, lush soil.

I took off my gloves, rested one knee on the ground and lingered, my bare hands carefully arranging the soil around the base of each plant, tending to their needs much like I cared for my young children.

The years passed, my daughters left for college, and as I moved from one state to another and from one house to the next, I became obsessed with annuals and perennials. Without consciously planning to do so, in the yards of the new houses, I recreated my grandmother’s flower garden: pink climbing roses, purple butterfly bushes, catmint, lime green hydrangeas, lavender, yellow day lilies, red carpet roses, white snap dragons and multicolored hollyhocks. Ushered in by the beauty of the roses, my passion for dirt and its works had returned. However, Prine’s catchy tune remained my theme song regarding burial; I doubted that would ever change.

Coming face-to-face with death as an adult gave me the unexpected gift of freedom. Life handed me a three-year crash course during which I lost two close family members and discovered a cancerous lump in my breast. Surgery, followed by seven weeks of radiation that turned my breast an angry, painful red, gave me ample time to ponder my mortality and last wishes. Oddly enough, after living in close proximity with death for three years, I no longer feared it. Death and I had taken time to get to know one another. I felt at peace knowing that I, like my two family members, would one day return, in some capacity, to the earth. My loved ones chose cremation. My uncle’s ashes were sprinkled from the deck of a boat into the San Francisco Bay. My favorite cousin’s ashes were sprinkled in a meadow off a California back road near Lake Tahoe. For my own going-away party, I decided I wanted “Please Don’t Bury Me” played, and even though I’ve always imagined my ashes being sprinkled into the Pacific Ocean from a beach on the Oregon Coast, a different possibility came to me not long ago.

On a hike near my home a vast field of blue camas lilies stretched out before me. Have you ever seen their blue tips swaying in a morning breeze? The sea of periwinkle was divided only by a narrow dirt path. It wasn’t a tall mountain that I traveled to. No need for hiking boots or rappelling ropes. The blue field did not appear on a postcard you would mail home from your hotel saying, This is where we visited today. No one sold jewelry, photos, hot dogs or candy—not even—as you will probably be surprised to hear, expensive bottled water. I did not need a guide, so safe was my passing there. From the main road traveled by cars, I simply walked down the narrow dirt path through the blue lilies, every now and again feeling the moisture of the marshland rise up around my feet. How I loved that oozing up and over the sides of my shoes. How I loved that feeling of sinking down—not dangerously down, mind you—but sinking down just far enough to know that I too was planted, or could be, if I stayed long enough, in that patch of marshland dirt. How I loved that sinking down on the flat dirt path into blue heaven.

—Jeanne Rogers

You can listen to a radio interview here with Barbara Richardson and Jeanne Rogers after a reading with John Keeble in Ashland, Oregon.

 

Barbara Richardson‘s two novels, Guest House and Tributary, reflect her ardor for life in the West. Tributary won the Utah Arts 15 Bytes Award and the 2013 Utah Book Award in fiction. Her 2015 anthologies, I Am with You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients and Dirt: A Love Story
rely on the power of collaborative storytelling to open hearts and minds. She has worked as a landscape designer in Oregon, Utah and Colorado. She now writes and edits in Kamas, Utah.

John Keeble is the author of five novels, including Yellowfish and Broken Ground, and 2013 saw the publication of The Shadows of Owls. He is also the author of a collection of stories, Nocturnal America, and of a work of nonfiction, Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. He is a professor emeritus of Creative Writing and English at Eastern Washington University. keeblefiction.com

Jeanne Rogers’ memoir, Changing Course, chronicles her leap from land to sea while working as a steward assistant on an oil tanker. Her 2013 poetry collection, Through the Cattails, celebrates the fragile interconnectedness of human lives. Her short story, “Instructions for a Bed Sheet Parachute,” was awarded best of collection in the 2013 anthology Detour. Her work has also appeared in Willow Springs, The Bellingham Review, Calapooya Collage, The Raven Chronicles and Poets West, among others.

Apr 042016
 

Donald Trump collage

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The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— W. B. Yeats

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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
The Perennial Relevance of “The Second Coming”

PART ONE
The Poem as Response and Anticipation

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS
II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

PART TWO
Things Fall Apart, Contemporary Crises, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration
IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Political Center Threatened
V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

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INTRODUCTION

In his 2016 foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, novelist Tom Bissell asks how it is that, two decades after its publication and almost eight years after its author’s suicide, David Foster Wallace’s complex and groundbreaking fiction, though “very much a novel of its time,…still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?” Wallace himself, as Bissell notes, “understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience with equal force.” In a critical essay written while he was at work on Infinite Jest, Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels address their contemporary audience like “a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus.” But in the case of those lacking DeLillo’s observational powers, Wallace continued, the “deployment” of, say, contemporary pop-culture “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.” This observation demonstrates the usual disconnect between Wallace’s lucid critical prose and the enigmatic, multi-layered, funhouse of his fiction. For ought is not is. As Bissell observes, Infinite Jest “rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event.”

Infinite Jest, as its Shakespearean title confirms, is the work of a modern Yorick, a man acutely aware of the contemporary world, especially of the play-element in culture. And yet it is “infinite,” a novel transcendent both in its linguistic exuberance (language being Wallace’s only religion) and in terms of its ambition to express “everything about everything,” even if we are left, 20 years later, still unable to “agree [as] to what this novel means, or what exactly it was trying to say.”

Unlike Wallace, W. B. Yeats did believe in the “Platonic Always”: in that “Translunar Paradise” to which he had been initiated by his studies in the occult and by his later immersion in the Enneads of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. And yet Yeats could, in the same poem (“The Tower,” III) in which he evokes Translunar Paradise, “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth.” For the antithetical tension that generated the power of Yeats’s poetry required allegiance as well to the things of this world. Even as he yearned for his heart to be consumed in spiritual fire and gathered “into the artifice of eternity,” he remained “caught in that sensual music,” the very fuel that fed the transcendent flame. These antitheses (cited here from “Sailing to Byzantium”) play out in all those dialectical poems leading up to and away from the central “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927).

In the case of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” written eight years earlier, the “Platonic Always” is present in the poem’s archetypal symbolism: that of a bestial image rising up in the desert. The vision is at once concrete and sublimely vague: timeless, universal, transcendent. Its genesis, however, was thick with particulars. In the process of revision, Yeats deleted (aside from “Bethlehem”) all specific references; but examination of the poem’s drafts reveals that Yeats’s symbolism and apocalyptic prophecy were rooted in his response to contemporary events. In registering details of the moment in time in which he was writing, the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the drafts reveal a poet looking back, into earlier history, and ahead, to our own time, with what David Foster Wallace called “oracular foresight,” and birthing a beast that, a century later,  “still feels…transcendently, electrically alive.”

Written almost a century ago, “The Second Coming” has emerged as the prophetic text of our time, uncannily and permanently “relevant.” The best-known poem by the major poet of the twentieth century, it has become something of a requiem for that century, now carried over into the first decades of the twenty-first. That “The Second Coming” is the most frequently-quoted of all modern poems testifies to its remarkable applicability to any and all crises—not only to the Communist Revolution to which Yeats was initially responding when he wrote the poem in 1919, and to the rise of Nazism, which, almost twenty years later, prompted Yeats to quote his own poem; but to the domestic and international crises we ourselves face in 2016, a crucial election year.

A decade ago, “The Second Coming” was often cited in connection with the Iraq War. The 2007 Brookings Institute report on Iraq was titled “Things Fall Apart”; the following year, Representative Jim McDermott called his House speech demanding a strategic plan for Iraq “The Center Cannot Hold.” These days, the disintegrating “center” evokes the polarization of American politics, or the European economic and migration crises, while Yeats’s slouching “beast,” its “hour come round at last,” portends current eruptions in the Middle East, especially the specter of ISIS rising up in the desert and its exportation of terror within and beyond the region. In addition to substantial ISIS-claimed or ISIS-inspired attacks in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon, European jihadists inspired by ISIS have launched large-scale attacks in France and Belgium. At the moment I am writing, March 28, 2016, there are threats of further, and imminent, attacks on European targets. As noted at the end of Chapter I, ISIS jihadists have announced that Paris and Brussels are “just the beginning of your nightmare,” and that networks already positioned in Europe are ready to unleash “a wave of bloodshed.”  Are “Mere anarchy” and Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide” about to be “loosed”?  And the fearful prospect of radioactive materials in the hands of radical jihadists is now no longer a nightmare but an approaching certainty.

At home, as the survivors of an increasingly sordid and embarrassing primary campaign, the two remaining principal contenders for the Republican presidential nomination out-bellow each other, each boasting, based on zero experience in foreign or military affairs, that he and he alone is the man needed to utterly defeat and destroy ISIS. Listening to simplistic Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, one is reminded of Pauline Kael’s devastating synopsis of John Wayne’s 1955 anti-Communist propaganda movie Blood Alley: “Duke takes on Red China—no contest.” One way or the other, a rough beast is slouching to the Republican convention in Cleveland.

Such Yeatsian allusions have, of course, become commonplace. In accounting for the extraordinary power and perennial relevance of “The Second Coming,” I will illustrate its near-ubiquity and show how Yeats’s revisions of his original (historically-specific) manuscripts universalized the final poem, making it, oracle-like, applicable to all crises, our own included.

 ↑ return to Contents

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PART ONE: THE POEM AS RESPONSE AND ANTICIPATION

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS

The genesis of “The Second Coming” is to be located in Yeats’s troubled response to contemporary history, specifically, the European political and economic crises attending the immediate aftermath of the First World War. As I noted in an essay published four years ago in Numéro Cinq, the genesis of my own thoughts on the poem’s timelessness, as an ode for all seasons, was my observation—nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11—of the remarkable frequency with which “The Second Coming” was being applied—in magazines, newspapers, and blogs—to almost every contemporary crisis or division, foreign and domestic.  Centers weren’t holding, conviction was lacking, passionate intensity defined the worst, and rough beasts seemed to be slouching in every direction. It was an old story.

Yeats’s poem in general, and its ominous yet expectant final line in particular, provided, back in 1968, the title for Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the iconic collection of the same title. The essay describes an outer and inner de-centering: the ’60s druggy counterculture and the author’s own disintegration as a result of her immersion in the ethos initiated by Haight-Ashbury. The collection as a whole dramatizes the breakdown of order and civility when rough beasts slouch to Los Angeles and New York City. That line continues to inspire allusions. While some found comic relief in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (the ’60s novel by Peter and Derek de Vries), that judgmental judge, conservative legal scholar Robert H. Bork, titled his grim 2003 projection of an America in cultural and moral decline Slouching Towards Gomorrah. The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, echoing Yeats’s poem (its first four lines appear as the epigraph), titled his 1958 elegy over the breakdown of Igbo culture Things Fall Apart. In our own contemporary Culture Wars, things continue to fall apart, with communal decency ruptured, on both sides, by political ideology.

Surveying the decline in the quality and civility of specifically conservative discourse, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a conservative, alluded to Yeats’s poem in observing: “It’s a climate in which the best often seem to lack a platform commensurate to their gifts, while the passionate intensity of the worst finds a wide and growing audience.” Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly moralizes, though with none of Judge Bork’s civility, comes to mind. Notable among Limbaugh’s many pontificating violations of taste and decency was his public branding of a Georgetown law student (an advocate for women’s health issues seeking inclusion of contraception in her college’s insurance coverage) as a “slut” and “prostitute.” That was in 2012, three years before Donald Trump, out-Rushing Limbaugh, found his wide and growing audience.

That famous line made even more famous by Achebe—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—has also been aptly applied to the European debt crisis, and its threat to the world economy. In 1919, when he wrote the poem, Yeats was looking out at a postwar Europe torn apart by crippled economies and various national revolutions. Though today we have a “European Union,” it is, economically and demographically, gravely imperiled. Complete financial collapse has been averted by cheap loans from the European Central Bank, and the actions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Time Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year”). But failure to resolve the underlying problem of the inefficient economic policies of the most indebted nations (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) means that we may still face the prospect of what some prominent economists were envisaging—to cite the blood-red cover and banner headline of the August 22, 2011 issue of Time—as nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”

The cover article itself, titled “The End of Europe,” following in the line of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s 2009 history of sovereign debt, This Time is Different, noted that Europe was not experiencing a typical, correctable recession or even facing “a double-dip Great Recession.” Rather, wrote Rana Foroohar, “the West is going through something more profound: a second [post-1929] Great Contraction of growth,” with investors “suddenly wary that the European center is not going to hold.”  Doubling down on that allusion to Yeats, Foroohar began her lead article in Time’s October 10 “special issue” on the economy: “If there is a poem for this moment, it is surely W. B. Yeats’s dark classic ‘The Second Coming’.” She compared what the poet faced in 1919—“the darkness and uncertainty of Europe in the aftermath of a horrific war”—with the current situation. After quoting the poem’s opening movement, and connecting the “centre cannot  hold” with the “shrinking” of “the middle class,” Forohoor observed of the poem as a whole,  “It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent description of our own bearish age.” Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, saw, even after emergency help, “dark storm clouds looming on the horizon.” The resistance to the austerity pushed by Merkel and the stubborn lack of growth had led to violence in the streets and to the emergence of extremist, fringe parties. Coupled with Muslim immigration and the rise of Islamic extremism, that trend has since continued and intensified: in France, Poland, even in Germany, with the emergence of revanchist and authoritarian parties. Politically as well as economically, it would seem, “the center cannot hold.”

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Shifting from Europe to the Greater Middle East and beyond, the crises have also intensified, with responses to them participating, rhetorically, in the same pattern: the compulsion to return in times of turmoil to the resonant images of “The Second Coming.” Over the past three years, the poem has been repeatedly quoted in regard to the increasing instability of the international order. Though not the first to consider Yeats’s lines uniquely relevant to their own time, we have a better claim than most. The poem’s opening movement, posted on the website Sapere Aude!, was singled out as the “best description” we have of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, responded to the dangerous “crumbling” of the old “international order” by quoting the whole of “The Second Coming,” a poem that “seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics.” He concluded “A Little Doom and Gloom” (his sweeping survey of crises in Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Asia) on a note of foreboding: “I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ slouching our way.”

Walt’s concerns resonate, and Rogoff and Reinhart may have been right; perhaps “this time” (for, as of March 2016, the European economic crisis is hardly resolved) is “different.” Or it may be that such projections as those sensationalized by that blood-dimmed Time cover were alarmist hyperbole—as charged by one sanguine respondent to the Time issue, who thought “our shifting economies” more likely to be “birth pangs of a new day.” Perhaps; indeed, Yeats’s eternal gyre can be read optimistically, though the birth pangs of his annunciatory rough beast suggest otherwise. When we consider the rise of ISIS and the metastasizing international threat presented by jihadist terrorism, along with Europe’s current immigration crisis, we may conclude that there may be even more terrifying doomsday scenarios in the future. Either way, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” will remain in attendance, ready to supply apt metaphors embodying our sense of an ending: the dying of one age, with another, yet unknown, “to be born.”

This talismanic poem’s projection of cyclical and violent rebirth in the form of a sphinx-like beast rising in the desert eerily foreshadows today’s Middle East, most dramatically, the rise of ISIS out of the wreckage of Syria and Iraq. The once hopeful Arab Spring has long since turned autumnal. Caught up in the region’s cross-current of sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions, overwhelmed by military elites and by long-suppressed but well-organized Islamists, the young rebels who actually initiated the Arab Awakening quickly became yesterday’s news. Revolutions devour their own children. History “Whirls out new right and wrong,/ Whirls in the old instead,” to quote Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem originally titled “The Things That Come Again.” As two Middle-East experts, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, accurately predicted as early as September 2011: whatever the outcome of this struggle, “victory by the original protesters is almost certainly foreclosed.” And so it has turned out. Optimistic anticipations of beneficial change were shattered by what Agha and Malley called, perhaps echoing the Yeatsian widening gyre, “centrifugal forces” (“The Arab Counterrevolution”). Many in the chaotic Middle East are now, as various Islamic sects vie for power, and ISIS galvanizes jihadists, wondering what comes next—or, in Yeats’s stark image of expectation-reversal, what rough beast is slouching their way.

The long-sustained hostility has also intensified between Israel and the Palestinians, with the elusive two-state solution further away than it was when the UN partitioned Palestine 2/3rds of a century ago. That embittered stalemate is epitomized in the title of a recent book, Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine. In lieu of advancing any proposals to resolve the issue, the book offers, on facing pages, differing perspectives on the same events. The “sheer reciprocal incomprehension” in these parallel narratives, with “two sides locked in…a dialogue of the deaf,” reminded British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft of a famous phrase of Yeats (for once, not from “The Second Coming,” but from “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” a poem written a dozen years later): “Great hatred, little room.”

Like many lines from “The Second Coming,” this phrase, too, applies throughout much of the Greater Middle East. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, militarily propped up by Vladimir Putin, continues to barrel-bomb his own people, while we puzzle over how, now that one plan to arm the Syrian “moderate” opposition has ignominiously failed, we might prevent further carnage. In Afghanistan, what began as a justified attack on the Taliban sponsoring al Qaeda now seems a futile counter-insurgency: a struggle hampered by our putative “ally” in the region. Playing both sides in its own self-interest, Pakistan covertly supports the resurgent Taliban it originally created and funds extremist madrassas (now over 1,300) intended to displace Afghan state schools, where secular subjects are taught as well as religion. And Pakistan is itself an unstable nation, its nuclear arsenal partially dispersed and therefore vulnerable to seizure by its own Islamist radicals.

And then there is the nuclear game-playing of a truly paranoid regime. North Korea is already in possession of several nuclear weapons, and its erratic dictator, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, has become increasingly provocative. North Korea’s nuclear bomb test in January was quickly followed by a rocket-launch, part of a project whose goal is to eventually mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile. The rocket was launched not only in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, but even in defiance of the Hermit Kingdom’s powerful neighbor, China, the only nation thought to have the leverage to restrain its unpredictable ally. Apparently not; Kim Jong-un is spinning out of control, threatening, in March 2016, to aim nuclear missiles at Seoul and Washington. A propaganda video released the same month depicted a submarine-launched ballistic missile visiting nuclear devastation on the US capital.

There is a double threat involving Iran: the danger of that theocracy violating the recent accord by surreptitiously working to develop a nuclear weapon, and of the predictable and unpredictable ramifications of an Israeli and/or US preemptive strike. Should our policy be to prevent, to contain, or to attempt to destroy? This issue, politicized in this election year, has become as polarized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet, unless the nuclear agreement works, unless reason on both sides prevails and the center holds, we may be careening into yet another, and potentially even more profoundly destabilizing, war in the Middle East.

In Iraq, we have ended our large-scale military presence after a war we should never have started. But in toppling Saddam Hussein, we rid Iraq of a brutal and megalomaniacal dictator whose tyrannical reign had at least one positive aspect: his repression of militant Islamists. As a result we have left behind not only an economically ravished country (35% of those fortunate enough to have survived Operation Iraqi Freedom live in abject poverty), but one divided along predictably sectarian lines. The discrimination against the ousted Sunnis, not yet redressed by Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in 2014, not only affects every aspect of life, but alienates (since they have little incentive to protect the Shiite government in Baghdad) the very Sunni fighters needed to resist ISIS.

The negative consequences of our misguided disbanding of Saddam’s Sunni army after its defeat in 2003 were compounded by our decision to back Maliki over secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, whose party won the March 2010 parliamentary elections, but fell two seats short of a majority. Maliki, pressured by Shiite Iran, broke his pledge to integrate the government and instead institutionalized the repression of the Sunnis. Obama was urged to cease supporting Maliki by, among others, Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five US ambassadors to Iraq and as a senior advisor to three CentCom commanders. Khedery concluded a 2014 opinion piece:

By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated. Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11. (Washington Post, 3 July 2014)

Shortly after we initiated the Iraq War, a Syrian businessman, Raja Sidawi, a friend of Washington columnist and writer David Ignatius, offered a prescient observation. Ignatius cited it, somewhat skeptically, in his July 1, 2003 Washington Post column, “The Toll on American Innocence.” A dozen years later, in October, 2015, he reprised it; and its second coming—in a cover-piece in The Atlantic, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East”—was far more somber. What Raja Sidawi told his American friend in June 2003 was this: “You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America.” Given his cultural and practical knowledge of the region, Sidawi’s remark may not quite match the oracular clairvoyance so many of us have found in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” But it will do. We stormed into Iraq with “shock and awe”; and with hubris, a mixture of political duplicity and the American confidence of Innocents Abroad—“innocence” indistinguishable from ignorance. We changed; the region didn’t. The result: a variation on the old Sunni-Shiite war, “with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11.”

§

Principal among those plotting radicals, their brutal implementation of an apocalyptic theology flourishing in the implosion of Syria and Iraq, is of course the Islamic State: ISIL, or Da’esh, best known as ISIS. Confronted by the spectacle of ISIS, commentators from Left and Right, including experts on Islamist terrorism, turned in 2015 to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”  In a Huffington Post piece titled “ISIL: The Second Coming,” composer Mohammed Fairouz, whose setting of Yeats’s poem premiered in New York City on March 10, applied his epigraph, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” to President Obama’s failure to confront barbarous ISIS early on. A June 2015 posting on a West Coast socialist website, titled “Iraq: ‘Things Fall Apart’,” cited the opening three lines of the poem, noting that Yeats “might have written today, and nowhere is this more true than in Iraq.” In a blog posted in August, a former liberal turned Neo-conservative announced, “Read this, and think of ISIS.” The “this” was the full text of “The Second Coming.” The poem had been haunting her, she reported, since 9/11, and “these days it seems more than ever that the rough beast is on the march.”

Between these two, in a July Wall Street Journal essay, “A Poet’s Apocalyptic Vision,” David Lehman, himself a poet, described “The Second Coming,” extrapolating from the moral anarchy of 1919, as a fearful pre-vision of our present anarchy. “If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics, and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than” this poem, in which Yeats envisages no Christian “second coming,” but “a monstrosity, a ‘rough beast’ threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.” The accompanying color illustration— a slouching leonine creature with light beaming from mouth and eyes—attempts to visually capture that “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” But the image, in this case, is a counter-example to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, or even (if they are Yeats’s) seven words.

Lehman WSJ essay photo by Yao XiaoPhoto by Yao Xiao

After sketching its historical, psychological, and occult contexts, Lehman focuses on the text, celebrating the poem’s “metrical music,” “unexpected adjectives,” and such “oddly gripping” verbs as “slouches,” as well as Yeats’s “epigrammatic ability,” best exemplified in the last two lines of the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism, says Lehman, retains its authority as both “observation” and “warning.” We may, he suggests (yielding to the irresistible impulse to specify politically), “think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century.”  He concludes by recommending that we read the poem aloud to appreciate its “power as oratory,” and then ask ourselves which most “unsettles” us: “the monster slouching towards Bethlehem or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?”

Lehman’s question is valid, despite his being unaware that Yeats, interpreting Marxism-Leninism as a second coming of the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were vacillating European moderates and liberals who had failed to respond to, much less resist, revolutionary brutality. In its initial drafts, “The Second Coming” reflected Yeats’s response to the violence in Russia in light of the violence in France a dozen decades earlier. But in its final version, the poem also looks, almost clairvoyantly, ahead to the future. And even French and Russian revolutionary brutality can seem tame in comparison with the theologically inspired and politically intimidating barbarism of ISIS, with its mass rape and enslavement, beheadings and crucifixions, and its growing capacity to inspire and ignite terror attacks well beyond the borders of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also seeking radioactive materials. As in the past, “The Second Coming” is at hand to supply metaphors. In the final pages of  ISIS: The State of Terror, two noted experts on Islamist jihadism, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, quote “The Second Coming,” and then conclude:

It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst—the most base and horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of “best,” then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq….

The double point made by Stern and Berger epitomizes their theme as well as the current crisis, marked by the bloodlust and passionate intensity of the “worst,” and the lack of conviction the civilized world, the “best,” has thus far displayed in fully engaging this religiously inspired death cult. Reviewing this book, and two others on ISIS, Iraq specialist Steve Negus remarks that “only one quotes Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’ but the others must have been tempted” (New York Times Book Review, April 1, 2015). Negus was writing before the publication of the latest book-length study, counterterrorist expert Malcolm Nance’s Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe (2016). He was also writing five months prior to the publication of perhaps the best of the bunch: The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants. His deep knowledge of ISIS’s political strategy and apocalyptic theology reflects McCants’s immersion in primary Arabic sources. His good-news, bad-news conclusion is that ISIS will be defeated, but that its example will inspire future jihadists. McCants does not cite “The Second Coming.” However, given his richly informed apocalyptic emphasis, it seems safe to imagine that he, too, “must have been tempted.”

In the month I am writing, March 2016, US commandos killed the Finance Minister of ISIS, and, as a result of coalition bombing and Iraqi army advances, ISIS is losing some ground in Syria and Iraq. But even as its Caliphate contracts, ISIS is expanding—geographically into Libya and elsewhere, and exporting terror throughout the Middle East and Africa, and into the heart of an under-prepared Europe. Last November’s coordinated attacks in Paris, which took 130 lives, were replicated by members of the same Molenbeek-based Belgian cell in Brussels on March 22, when two brothers and a third suicide bomber slaughtered 31 and wounded almost 300. Hundreds of alienated European Muslims, radicalized and militarily trained by ISIS in Syria, are now back in Europe, organized in operational cadres. In a video released on March 25, two Belgian ISIS fighters warn that “This is just the beginning of your nightmare.” Promising more “dark days” ahead for all who would oppose them, the terrorists in command of ISIS have threatened that jihadists already positioned in Europe are prepared to unleash a “wave of bloodshed.” Once again, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.…”

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II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

In accord with the mystery of the Sublime, Yeats’s sphinx-like beast slouching blank-eyed toward Bethlehem is a horror capable of many interpretations but limited to none, and, therefore, all the more terrifying. For that very reason, as I’ve just illustrated, “The Second Coming” is perennially relevant. Almost a century after the poem first appeared, pundits in books and essays, newspapers and magazines, routinely draw upon Yeats’s evocation of cultural disintegration and imminent violence, and lines from the poem (the whole poem, in Joni Mitchell’s 1991 riff) riddle popular culture, as we can see by consulting Nick Tabor’s recent compendium of dozens of pop-culture allusions, itself titled “No Slouch.”[1] More gravely, as part of our common crisis-vocabulary, we intone that “things fall apart”; that “the centre cannot hold”; that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; that we confront forces “blank and pitiless as the sun”; that one era, symbolized by a “widening gyre,” is ending and another imminent, signaled by the loosing of a “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy,” dreadfully attended by a  “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. How has the poem achieved this Bartlett’s-Familiar status?

sci fi collage

An Endless Source
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In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.
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Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I refer in the first endnote to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.
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Science fiction writers seem particularly addicted to language from “The Second Coming.” Among the episodes of Andromeda, the 2000-2005 Canadian-American sci-fi TV series, were two titled “The Widening Gyre” and “Its Hour Come Round at Last.” But the prize for multiple allusions goes to a project that originally appeared as a six-part e-book in 2006 (marking the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek series). An omnibus edition, Star Trek: Mere Anarchy, was published in 2009. This “Complete Six-Part Saga” takes from Yeats more than its main title (also borrowed by Woody Allen for his 2007 collection of comedy pieces). All six of the individual novellas in Mere Anarchy (each by a different author) derive their titles from “The Second Coming”: Things Fall Apart, The Center Cannot Hold, Shadow of the Indignant, The Darkness Drops Again, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Its Hour Come Round.

A friend, Bill Nack, biographer of the great racehorse Secretariat and an informed reader of Yeats’s poetry, remarked of “The Second Coming” in a letter: “So many lines and images are written indelibly, chipped in stone on that wailing-wall we call the 20th, now the 21st century.” The poem is a mine of incisive and quotable phrases, from the opening movement’s bullet-point declarations (fusing metaphor and abstraction, chaos and order) to that final momentous question. The presentation is cinematic, with the “vast image” looming gradually, and dramatically, into focus:  a mere “shape,” then “lion body,” then “head of a man,” then a zooming in on the creature’s “gaze,” followed by a panning movement back out, since that gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” In addition to the tensile strength of its unforgettable verbs (loosed, troubles, reel, vexed, slouches), the poem’s extraordinary power is attributable to its sources in the occult and the unconscious, its Egyptian and mythological reverberations, and, above all, its alteration of the Bible (Daniel, the gospels, Revelation), culminating in the shock value of the subversion of the Christian interpretation of the “second coming.” “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out” than the poet envisages, not the return of Christ, but the advent of a sinister rough beast. Apparently moribund for two millennia, it is now, ominously and sexually, “moving its slow thighs,” while “all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.” Indignant because those circling scavengers had mistakenly thought the immobile creature mere carrion; but the beast, imperceptibly stirred into antithetical life by the rocking of Jesus’ cradle two thousand years earlier, is alive. Now, initiating a new cycle, it slouches, provocatively and precociously, towards that infant’s birthplace in order itself “to be born.”

But the poem’s universal relevance, its adaptability, is, above all, testimony to the success of Yeats’s method in revising the original manuscripts. Written in January 1919, first printed in The Dial in 1920, and collected the following year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” had its sociopolitical roots, as the poet’s widow confirmed in the 1960s, in Yeats’s troubled response to the political situation in Europe in 1917-19. And the drafts of the poem, some of the pages preserved by his wife, reveal that Yeats’s apprehensions about the socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy, and, above all, Russia, during and immediately after World War I, were associated, as we’ve seen, with his reading of the Romantic poets and of Edmund Burke, and their responses to the French Revolution: what Shelley called “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.”

As earlier noted, Yeats initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were those who had failed to resist, eventually epitomized, for Yeats, by the British King, George V. As it happens, Kerensky’s Russian Provisional Government had initiated an offer of asylum, promising to send the Tsar and Tsarina and their children to England for safety: an offer rejected by the King (fearful of reaction from the British Labor Party), even though he was Nicholas’s cousin. This cowardice and violation of the family bond, not known to Yeats at the time he wrote “The Second Coming,” surfaced two decades later in “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” where Yeats’s most famous and least inhibited female persona is revived to bitterly decry the fact that

A King had some beautiful cousins
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.

Family_Nicholas_II_of_Russia_ca._1914Tsar Nicholas II and family, ca. 1914 (via Wikimedia Commons)

But “The Second Coming” resonates far beyond that old atrocity. It looks back from the Bolshevik to the French Revolution, as filtered through Yeats’s reading of Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets.[2]

Yeats’s natural affinities were with his major poetic precursors, those permanent revolutionaries Blake and Shelley. But in his own political response to revolution, Yeats found himself closer to the great Anglo-Irish conservative statesman Burke, the chief intellectual opponent of the French Revolution and chivalric champion of the assaulted Marie Antoinette. He also found himself aligned with a former supporter of the Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven”): the largely if not completely disenchanted William Wordsworth. At this time, Yeats was reading the French Revolutionary books of Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. His own ambivalent response to catastrophe (horrified and yet strangely exultant), as projected in “The Second Coming,” registers the differing perspectives of Burke and the Romantics on the French Revolution, now refracted through the prism of what Yeats took to be its rebirth in Bolshevism.

An idiosyncratic yet often complex and even profound visionary, Yeats was as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Blake and Shelley, and an occultist to boot. All of these influences, along with his conservative reverence of Swift, Burke, and of an idealized Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as his response to Wordsworth’s Prelude, converge in “The Second Coming,” as in its close relatives, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and the sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” All three reflect, along with the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the War of Independence in Ireland. And they all recapture Burke’s elegy over the fall of Marie Antoinette, and his premonition of “the glory of Europe…extinguished forever,” of “all…to be changed.” The sequence’s recurrent “nightmares” and the drowning of “the ceremony of  innocence” in “The Second Coming” echo Burke’s “massacre of innocents” (with the palace at Versailles “left swimming in blood”) and Wordsworth’s “ghastly visions” of “tyranny, and implements of death,/ And innocent victims,” in passages of The Prelude dramatizing his reaction to revolutionary massacre. Such echoes confirm Yeats’s juxtaposition of the excesses of the French Revolution with the postwar turmoil in which he was writing in 1919.

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting and interpreting his associative connections, we can trace in the drafts of “The Second Coming” his linking of Burke’s lamentation over the assaulted Marie Antoinette with the spectacle of the Russian royal family, including the Tsarina Alexandra, “battered to death in a cellar” (as he would have Crazy Jane later put it). Yeats connects Bolshevik brutality with such French atrocities as the September Massacres and the Jacobin Terror—what, annotating Wordsworth, he characterized as “revolutionary crimes.” In the face of “unjust tribunals,” with admitted royalist “tyranny” replaced by “mob-bred anarchy,” Yeats laments that there’s “no Burke to cry aloud, no Pit[t]”—no one, that is, to “arraign revolution,” as Burke had in the Reflections and in later speeches and William Pitt in ministerial policy. In further noting that “the [G]ermans have now to Russia come,” Yeats seems to combine the 1917 military invasion of Russian territories with the decisive German role in spiriting Lenin, and thus Marxian Communism, into Russia. As a result: “There every day some innocent has died” in revolutionary purges epitomized by the Bolsheviks’ July 1918 slaughter of the Tsar, the Romanov children, and the Tsarina Alexandra: “this Marie Antoinette,” who “has more brutally died.” The crucial point is that, as he continued to revise, Yeats stripped “The Second Coming” of all these particularized references. What prompted him to do this? The drafts themselves offer intriguing clues.

Yeats handwriting collagePages from drafts of “The Second Coming”

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting
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Despite the conjectures necessitated by the rapid scribbling of a man whose handwriting was maddeningly difficult to begin with, most of the specifics and the gist of what Yeats means are clear in this early draft (page 1., image above):
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Ever further h[aw]k flies outward
from the falconer’s hand. Scarcely
is armed tyranny fallen when
when this mob bred anarchy
takes its place. For this
Marie Antoinette has
more brutally died and no
Burke [has shook his] has an[swered]
with his voice, no pit [Pitt]
arraigns revolution. Surely the second
birth comes near—
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……….intellectual gyre is thesis to
The/ gyres grow wider and more wide]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
The germans have now to Russia come
There every day some innocent has died
The [ ? ] comes to [?fawn]…[?murder]
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In other drafts (all Box 3, Folder 39, W. B. Yeats Collection, SUNY, Stony Brook), Yeats confirms his regret that there’s no Burke or Pitt to arraign Bolshevik crimes as they had French Revolutionary terrorism: “—no stroke upon the clock/ But ceremonious innocence is drowned/ While the mob fawns upon the murderer/ And there’s no Burke…nor Pitt….”; and, again, “there’s no Burke to cry aloud no Pit[t].” Astutely analyzing the drafts in 2001, Simona Vannini had no doubt about the coupling of French and Russian atrocities. But, resisting the “scholarly consensus” (she refers to Donald Torchiana, Jon Stallworthy, and myself), she doubts, based on the drafts alone, that Yeats intended an “explicit correspondence between the murder of the French and the Russian royal families.” But one does not live by the drafts alone.
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Finally, as slowly but surely as the rough beast itself, the poem as we know it begins to emerge (pages 2.-4., image above).

§

In the most dramatic of the visions induced in Yeats during some 1890 symbolic-card experiments with MacGregor Mathers (the head of Yeats’s occult Order, the Golden Dawn), the poet suddenly saw, as he records in an unpublished memoir, “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones”—a vision transmogrified, in the published Autobiographies, into “a desert and a Black Titan.” Even in this dramatic instance, Yeats continues, “sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.” In the drafts of “The Second Coming,” groping for figurative language to introduce the mysterious moment immediately preceding the vision of the vast image rising up out of “sands of the desert” and “out of Spiritus Mundi,” Yeats first wrote: “Before the dark was cut as with a knife.” Whether examining the finished poem or the drafts, we are surely justified in locating one of the principal origins of the rough beast in Yeats’s occult experiments with MacGregor Mathers.

We may also have, in the cautionary example of Mathers himself, a key to Yeats’s abandonment, in the course of revision, of the historical figures and events specified in the drafts. Yeats found his occult friend’s apocalyptic imagination, “brooding upon war,” impressive when it remained “vague in outline.” It was when Mathers “attempted to make it definite,” that “nations and individuals seemed to change into the arbitrary symbols of his desires and fears.” Yeats was aware of the tendency of literalists and cranks to apply the obscure symbols of Revelation to the world-historical crisis of their own particular moment in time. This is what Mathers was in the habit of doing and what Yeats had initially done, as evidenced by the drafts of “The Second Coming.” Of course, it was what the Apocalyptist himself had done in producing a text that was less an inspired prophecy than a coded account of events happening at the time he was writing. But there was one clear prophecy. John insists, following Paul and Jesus himself, that the promised second coming was imminent. Implicit throughout Revelation, that prophecy is explicit and particularly resonant at the end, where John puts the premature parousia in Christ’s own mouth, “Surely, I am coming soon” (echoed by Yeats: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”), and concludes by intensifying the urgency in his own voice: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20)

Less interested in correlating specific events with Revelation or in predicting the future than he was in artistically mining Revelation as a rich source of resonant symbolism, Yeats was particularly fascinated by sublime aspects of the apocalyptic Beast: simultaneously menacing, exciting, destructive, and potentially renovative. (In depicting the first coming of Christ, he had referred, in the turbulently sublime final line of his visionary poem “The Magi,” to “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”) Above all, Yeats, as visionary, would have had no desire, by binding his prophecy to particular events, to make himself ridiculous—as had many biblical scholars, or MacGregor Mathers. That would be to succumb to what Alfred North Whitehead would later call (in one of Yeats’s favorite books, Science and the Modern World) “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

St. Jerome, aware of the many strained, historically specific misreadings preceding his translation of the Bible, was content to revise previous commentaries on the Book of Revelation rather than venture one of his own. As he observed in a letter, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.” The same might be said of the final version of “The Second Coming,” which retains Yeats’s own “desires and fears” without limiting those generalized (“abstract”) emotions to the specific (“concrete”) historical events that originally provoked them. That the beast slouches, in the single vestige of specificity, towards Bethlehem makes the creature a type of the Antichrist. But Yeats was hardly a conventional Christian pitting sectarian goodness against Satanic and bestial evil. In fact, while the final poem and title refer to Christ’s parousia, the original drafts repeatedly refer, not to the “second coming,” but to the “second birth,” echoing Wordsworth’s “nightmare” premonition in The Prelude that the “lamentable crimes” of the September Massacres were not the end of revolutionary violence in France, but a precursor of the far worse Terror to come: “The fear gone by/ Pressed on me like a fear to come…”

For the spent hurricane the air provides
As fierce a successor; the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding-place
In the great deep; all things have second birth. (Prelude 10:71-93)

Wordsworth’s image of a malevolent and returning tidal sea may remind us not only of the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide” in Yeats’s poem of “second birth,” but of another powerful, and no less apocalyptic, prophesy of  “coming” destruction. In Robert Frost’s 1926 couplet-sonnet, “Once By the Pacific,” the water is “shattered,” and “Great waves looked over others coming in,/ And thought of doing something to the shore/ That water never did to land before.” This is an unprecedented rather than repeated act of destruction, but its premeditated “thought” makes Frost’s ocean even worse than Yeats’s “murderous innocence of the sea” (in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” where revolutionary violence takes the form of “sea-wind…/ Bred on the Atlantic”). Though Frost’s shore “was lucky in being backed by cliff,/ The cliff in being backed by continent,” the sea seems backed by God himself, whose creative fiat in Genesis, “Let there be light,” is soon to be superseded by his apocalyptic extinction of light:

It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken.[3]

In that final line, Frost moves from Genesis (1.3) to the Book of Revelation (21:1). In reversing Christian expectation (in Matthew 24 and Revelation), the poet of “The Second Coming” echoes the whole of the Prelude passage, which ends with Wordsworth returning to Paris, scene of the worst atrocities of the September Massacres, to find the place “unfit for the repose of night,/ Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.”[4] Yeats’s “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, invoked a Dionysian and eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast”: an eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what he called, in Beyond Good and Evil, these “more humane ages.” Unsurprisingly, since Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” and that “Nietzsche’s thought flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn,” Nietzsche’s beast (first trotted out in Yeats’s 1903 play Where There is Nothing) later resonated in his archetypal mind with Blake’s Tyger and his half-bestial Nebuchadnezzar, slouching on all fours (as in Daniel 4:31-33) on Plate 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

William Blake Nebuchadnezzar (Tate copy)Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rough Beast
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The vast image or animated sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi” has many “sources.” It can be traced back to the most dramatic of the mental images induced in Yeats during the symbolic-card experiments he conducted in 1890 with MacGregor Mathers, the dominant figure in the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. In his most memorable vision, Yeats saw a “Black Titan” rising up ominously from the desert sands. Other components are drawn from Shelley’s stony pharaoh Ozymandias (his wrecked statue almost lost among the “lone and level sands”) as well as from his Demogorgon (in Prometheus Unbound): a nightmare denizen, along with the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” of the mysterious “Thirteenth Cone” in Yeats’s occult book, A Vision.
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Around 1902, Yeats “began to imagine” a brazen winged beast “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.” In that same year, in his uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, he envisaged a laughing, destructive beast resembling the eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast” of Nietzsche: a Dionysian, libidinal, eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what Yeats’s “strong enchanter” called (in Beyond Good and Evil) these “more humane ages.”
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In perhaps the most momentous of his imaginative fusions, Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots,” and that Nietzschean thought “flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.” The rough beast of “The Second Coming” can be seen as a fusion of Nietzsche’s savage cruel beast with (along with the dragons of Revelation and of comparative mythology) aspects of Blake’s Urizen, his Tyger, and his bestial Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours at the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
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In the 1795 color print reproduced here, Blake returned to the image he had engraved on the final plate of The Marriage. In Daniel 4:33, the Babylonian king, cursed and “driven from men,” ate “the grass as oxen”; his hair “grew like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, his mind darkened, stares, unseeing, directly at us. Though his “gaze” is as “blank” as that of Yeats’s “rough beast,” Blake’s king is more terrified than terrifying. But his bestiality and slouching posture is likely to have contributed to the composite beast of “The Second Coming.”

All precursors of the “rough beast.”  But Yeats’s response to French revolutionary violence, and its rebirth, was at least as powerfully influenced by the bestial imagery and conservative politics of Edmund Burke. For conservative Yeats, the September Massacres and French Reign of Terror foreshadowed the emergence in Bolshevik Russia of that “Marxian criterion of values” he described in a letter of April 1919 as “in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder”: the same inevitability Burke had early and uncannily prophesied in 1790. In terms of imagery, attitude, and actual verbal details, “The Second Coming” would be a very different poem if it had not had precisely this twin historical genesis. Finally, however, the poem, in its final, published text, is not “about” either the French or the Russian Revolution.

Nor is it about the National Socialist revolution. Many readers have taken it that way, citing a 1936 letter in which Yeats, refusing to politicize the Nobel Prize by recommending a German dissident writer, also condemned Nazism, quoting the most Burkean line in the poem as evidence that he was not “callous”: “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.” While Hitler, with the help of Goebbels, read himself positively into the Book of Revelation, as a secular Aryan Messiah and initiator of the thousand-year Third Reich, Yeats, though a man of the Right, saw the Führer as a type of the apocalyptic beast. In applying to Nazism and the threat of a second world war an image he drew from Burke and applied to the First World War and the threat of Jacobinism reborn as Marxist-Leninist Communism, Yeats was being neither hypocritical nor intentionally misleading. Indeed, he was participating in a tradition of allusion that goes on to this day. And justifiably. For if “The Second Coming” were “about” any one of these historical cataclysms, it could hardly accommodate, as it does, all of them.

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No less a figure than Goethe has said that to be fully understood, works of art must, to some extent, “be caught in their genesis.” The manuscripts of “The Second Coming” serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence. The speaker has had an apocalyptic vision, a “lifting of the veil” (the Greek meaning of Apokalypsis) and the disclosure of something hidden from the rest of us. But when “the darkness drops again” over the manuscripts, as it should, we are left  with what really matters—the public text of the poem, freed of the umbilical cord attaching it to its genesis, and thus  limiting its evocative power.

If, in studying any poem, particularly one responding to contemporary events, we were to focus unduly on generative intention, and on the immediate context of its creation, the poem would inevitably dwindle in meaning and impact as that particular moment receded. Yeats’s realization of this explains his deletion, in revising “The Second Coming,” of specific historical details. In Waiting for Godot, Yeats’s fellow Irishman and fellow Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, achieved symbolic resonance by avoiding all overt reference to the historical-political matrix of the play: the German Occupation and French Resistance. Similarly, by cancelling allusions to the Irish situation and all specific references to past and contemporary revolutions, to Burke, Marie Antoinette, Pitt, Germany, and Russia, Yeats liberated his poem from those localized events destined to be assimilated like so many grains of sand in the desert of time. As an anti-Marxist, Yeats would have enjoyed the effect, since it is Marxist critics above all who have been disturbed by the autonomy of works of art, by their capacity to outlive their particular hour—what Geoffrey Hartmann has memorably called art’s “aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time.”

Insistent that the power of his images derived in part from their roots, Yeats declared in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of his late retrospective poems: “Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?” As we’ve seen, “The Second Coming” arose out of two sources, particular and universal. The specific events that provided its initial stimulus helped to shape the final poem. But Yeats, who was, like Carl Jung, fascinated not only by the occult but by alchemy, knew what he was doing when he transmuted the base metals of his historical minute particulars into the poetic gold of universally resonant archetypes. The archetypal symbols he received, or evoked, especially that mysterious and bestial “vast image” taking form “somewhere in sands of the desert,” came, he asserts, “out of Spiritus Mundi”: out of the World Soul that Jung—who reported strange beasts troubling the dreams of his own patients during the First World War—called the Collective Unconscious. That storehouse of archetypes causes universal symbols to arise in individual minds. But if the symbols in “The Second Coming” reflect Yeats’s own immersion in what he called the “Great Memory,” it is also, since each mind is linked to it, our Unconscious as well. In the dialectic of Yeats’s symbolic poems, myth is personal and experience is mythologized. In a similar reciprocity, allusions to “The Second Coming” register individual responses to current crises, contemporary forebodings which, simultaneously, resonate with eternally recurrent archetypes transformed by a great poet into “masterful images.”

“The Second Coming” obviously and dramatically transcends the minutiae of its origins. But it is one thing to simply be general and abstract, quite another to universalize after having delved deeply into, and worked through, materials that are concrete and specific. The method of Yeats—who always insisted that “mythology” be “rooted in the earth,” that we must delve “down, as it were, into some fibrous darkness”—falls into this second category. Influenced, as was Joyce, by the cyclical philosophy of Giambattista Vico, Yeats agreed with Vico that “Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses; the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to the universal; the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars” (Scienza Nuova, 1725). Yeats has it both ways in “The Second Coming.” The specific details of the poem’s political genesis have been buried; but the poet’s rooting of his fears and cryptic prophecy in contemporary history—significant soil enriched by the conflicting responses of Burke and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, to the great upheaval of their era—surely contributed to the unique power of a disturbing poem whose universalized vision of violent transformation haunted the rest of the twentieth century, and shows every sign of haunting ours. Without that rooting in Viconian and Blakean “particulars,” idiosyncratic theories and his obsession with what Joyce mockingly called Yeats’s “gygantogyres” could easily have produced oracular bombast that would be truly “callous” and shapelessly rather than sublimely vague.

What we have instead is a poem in which Yeats has it several ways at once. The seer casts a cold eye on the whirling of gyres beyond our control, yet seems, at least in part, excited by the rebirth of cyclical energy. But the note of boredom-relieving anticipation detectable in “its hour come round at last” is offset, not only by the elegiac Burkean music of the opening movement, but by the poem’s deepest tonality. For the real surprise, trumping the Nietzschean irony that this “second coming” will take a very different “shape” than that expected by naïve, optimistic Christians, is that Yeats’s own expectation will be exposed as a pipe dream. We must trust the tale and not the teller. For the poem itself, less aloofly visionary than human, suggests that the antithetical era being ushered in will not assume the hopeful form of the Nietzschean-aristocratic civilization welcomed (“Why should we resist?”) in Yeats’s long note to the poem. Instead, the newborn age is likely to take the chaotic shape prefigured by its brutal engendering. With that deeper insight, that peripeteia or sudden plot-change and readjustment of apocalyptic expectation, both the theoretician and the cold-eyed oracle in Yeats yield to the poet and man whose vision of the beast truly “troubles my sight.” This troubled vision is also rooted in apocalyptic literature. Yeats is doubtless recalling the response of the prophet Daniel (two hundred years before an echoing John of Patmos) to the final and most “terrifying and dreadful” of the “four great beasts” he sees in a dream: “my spirit was troubled within me, and the vision in my head terrified me….I was dismayed by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 7:19-20, 8:15-27; cf. Revelation 13:7).

Yeats’s dramatic plot-change, foreshadowed in the poem’s drafts, is reflected in his final punctuation. Violating the grammatical logic of its own peroration, “The Second Coming” ends in a question, leaving us with an open, apprehensive, awestruck glimpse of imminent apocalypse, or transformation, or the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide of terror that may constitute (to again quote Shelley on the French Revolution) “the master-theme” of the post-9/11 “epoch in which we live.” Yeats was even more honest when, in the drafts of the poem, he explicitly acknowledged that whatever gnosis was involved was not his, but the beast’s: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.” In the poem as published, we are left with human uncertainty rather than prophetic certitude. The syntactical and vatic momentum that follows “but now I know…” is retained, and yet the poet ends, as Daniel had, with a cryptic, troubling vision he “did not understand,” and therefore with a genuine question: the mark of interrogation that always, according to the unknown Greek author of the great treatise On the Sublime, attends that mystery.

Peering into the dark forward and abysm of time, their sight “troubled,” readers of Yeats’s poem are easily persuaded that something ominous is afoot. But we are left wondering which of our own current crises might emerge as no less transformative than the events Yeats was responding to in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming,” specifically his connection of 1919 with the bloodshed following 1789. As those drafts reveal, Yeats was paralleling the two most momentous events in the history of the modern Western world: the French Revolution, and its blood-dimmed aftermath, with the First World War and its various sequelae. The consequences of the Great War include the global influenza pandemic that swept away at least 10 million more people than the 37 million fighters and civilians lost in the war itself, as well as the slicing of the modern Middle East out of the rotting carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Before the 1921 Cairo Conference, which created, ex nihilo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, John Maynard Keynes warned the man who had presided over this division, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill: “If you cut up the map of the Middle East with a pair of scissors you will still be fighting wars there in a hundred years’ time.”  Five years from that centennial, Keynes seems no less prophetic, and rather more specific, than the poet who envisaged anarchic disintegration and a beast rising from “somewhere in sands of the desert.”

Though excised by the poet, and partially erased from our collective memory by a historical flood bringing even greater calamities, those World War I-related events sowed the seeds of much that followed. Even Yeats’s stress, in the manuscripts, on the execution of the French queen and its repetition in the massacre of the Russian royal family, were not idiosyncratic choices. Whatever one thinks of Yeats’s politics or of the hapless Romanov dynasty, Yeats was not simply—in Tom Paine’s trenchant critique of Burke’s tear-stained apostrophe to Marie Antoinette—“pitying the plumage while forgetting the dying bird.” Alexandra (“this Marie Antoinette” who has “more brutally died”) was battered and shot to death with her husband and children in the “House of Special Purpose” in Ekaterinburg. Though there was no signed order, the ultimate decision was Lenin’s. Those murders marked a pivotal moment when—in the summation of historian Richard Pipes in his magisterial The Russian Revolution—history made a turn toward genocide, when human beings were placed on a list of expendables and the world entered “an entirely new moral realm.”

Yeats sensed this seismic change and registered it in the drafts from which “The Second Coming” evolved—though he saw it not as “an entirely new” moral phenomenon but as a “second birth” of revolutionary massacre. The execution of the Russian royal family—the barbarous slaughter, in particular, of the children, shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by drunken incompetents—was Yeats’s contemporary example of the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide and slaughter of the innocents that, for him, hearkened back to the French Reign of Terror and, for us, as readers of “The Second Coming,” prefigures all the horrors of the twentieth century and beyond: war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, famine, economic chaos, ecological degradation, melting ice shelves and rising sea levels, and political anarchy—in the form, in our own country, of an ideological and special-interest polarization so intense that the center can no longer hold.

Yeats’s prophetic poem—as open to interpretation as the Beasts and Dragons and Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse—envisages, or, rather, can be made to envisage, any and all of these nightmares. Front and center at the moment is ISIS: the apocalyptic cult of fanatics operating out of their medieval Caliphate and able to ignite or at least inspire terror wherever the Internet and the various forms of social media they have mastered can reach. ISIS does not exhaust the legion of threats our own century of stony sleep has vexed to nightmare.  Like Yeats, we are left wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards” us?

W.B. YeatsW. B. Yeats, 1932 (photo by Pirie MacDonald)

In Part Two, we will revisit the turmoil of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. Though both have deep causal roots, both are the immediate result of our 2003 decision to invade Iraq: a disaster exacerbated by its antithesis: President Obama’s understandable but consequential decisions and then indecisions regarding the Syrian civil war. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are the roots of the tree from which most of the poison fruit has fallen, but the carnage and chaos in Syria not only expedited the rise of ISIS but produced the current immigration crisis. It is a tragic history.

When various moderate factions first rose up against the Alawite tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, it seemed part of the hopeful Arab Spring. Obama, who had been criticized for his alacrity in abandoning President Mubarak in Egypt, was now criticized for his reluctance to urge the ouster of Assad. After several months of calibrated diplomacy and sanctions, Western policy shifted to regime change. In tandem with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama announced that, for the good of the Syrian people and before his regime was utterly rejected by them, the time had come for “President Assad to step aside.” The policy became distilled to three fateful words: “Assad must go.”

That was in August, 2011, when perhaps 2,000 had been killed in the conflict. Figures differ, but a consensus estimate is that, in the subsequent five years of civil war, well over 300,000 Syrians and non-Syrian combatants have been killed, while another 70,000 have perished because of lack of water, medicine, and other basic necessities. Assad alone is responsible for the slaughter of 10% of his own people, over 40% of them civilians. In 2013, President Obama, in a decision as fateful as the announcement that Assad must go, drew a red line, threatening to attack Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own people. When the Syrian President crossed that line, twice, Obama, on the verge of ordering airstrikes, reversed himself, for reasons, and with consequences, we’ll revisit. Meanwhile, the slaughter continued. In addition to the deaths, nearly two million people have been wounded in the ongoing conflict, and approximately 120,000 are currently starving and freezing in towns besieged by government or anti-government forces, and subject to bombing—from the air by Assad and (until recently) by his Russian ally, and, on the ground, by the various warring factions, especially ISIS, which recently launched its worst bombing attack of the war, killing at least 130 people.

The continuing horror in Syria has also created a wider humanitarian and political crisis. Millions of refugees have inundated not only the region but a Europe already buckling under the burden of debt and demography, and giving rise to right-wing anti-immigrant movements that are now threatening centrist governments. The primaries leading up to our own 2016 presidential election—driven by populism on the Left and, most dramatically, on the Right—exposed a fragile political center that, here as in Europe, may not hold. Thrilling some, dismaying most, a nativist rough beast, Donald Trump, is slouching towards Cleveland to become the presumptive Republican nominee, or to hurl the convention into anarchy.

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PART TWO: THINGS FALL APART, CONTEMPORARY CRISES, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration

Its evocation of imminent yet mysterious catastrophe has made “The Second Coming” the swan song of our time. As the 20th century’s preeminent visionary poet, Yeats, alert to the dangers of hubristic Enlightenment faith in reason and the utopian myth of collective moral progress, was also telepathically attuned to the paradoxically related loosing of the tides of irrational fanaticism. Religion obviously plays a role in a cyclical poem in which the Christian era’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” are said to have been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”:  a nightmare that takes the shape of an apocalyptic beast returning to Bethlehem to be born. But in the twenty-first century, there is an even more terrifying twist on the visionary “nightmares” that rode upon Yeats’s sleep in “The Second Coming” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” For today, the forces of irrationalism threatening civilization are quintessentially theological and not only committed to terrorism, but, potentially, armed with the most nightmarish, even apocalyptic, weapons.

In part a reaction to Western colonialism and more recent US intervention, militant Islam has deep theological roots in the “sword-passages” of the Quran. Though we have no choice but to confront the threat of jihadist terrorism, our “global war on terror” is both quixotic and often counter-productive. In the Bush-Cheney administration, Neo-conservative hubris joined with the evangelical notion that it is our messianic mission to extend to all cultures, however little we may understand the ethno-sectarian complexities, what President Bush invoked as “the Almighty’s gift of universal freedom.”  The result was the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, worsened when “liberation” became occupation. Worst of all, in the case of such stateless actors as al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists, and now, in the case of ISIS, our global war tends to generate more terrorists than we can kill. We face a metastasizing religious fanaticism impervious to traditional forms of rational or military deterrence and driven by the mad conviction that any and all forms of terror against the infidel West are part of a holy war carried out to avenge past injustices, all under the auspices of their approving God.

President Obama’s anti-terrorist policy, militant but limited, and only partially effective, will doubtless be intensified, whether Hillary Clinton or a Republican is the next President. If the latter, the principal competing visions may once again become apocalyptic, with each side embarked on a sacred mission to eradicate perceived evil. Along with religious-right hawks, we have militants ranging from Rapture-ready End-Timers to apocalyptic Christian Zionists to unreconstructed theoconservatives still clinging to a version of Bush’s Bible-based foreign policy. Despite Ted Cruz’s hyperbolic pledge to make the desert sands “glow,” there is a significant difference between the combatants: a distinction made graphic in the recent nuclear threats by apocalypse-hungry ISIS jihadists, whose suicide belts and Kalashnikovs will seem a quaint memory once they have acquired enough radioactive material to build a divinely sanctioned dirty bomb.

And then there is Iran. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, insists that the endlessly reiterated chant, “Death to America,” is aimed, not at the American people, but at the US government and its “arrogant policies.” There is a danger of that distinction blurring should Khameinei—despite the more “moderate” elements in his government and against the majority wishes of the Iranian people, as reflected in the March 2016 elections—choose to resume Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is already defying UN sanctions by testing missiles, tests not covered in the recent US-Iran strictly nuclear agreement. Any cheating on that nuclear accord would invite, well beyond sanctions, harsh retaliation, probably in the form of a massive preventive airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—by the US alone, or in concert with Israel. No one knows what geostrategic repercussions might follow.

A greater nightmare scenario involves actual rather than potential nuclear weapons, with more to come. Pakistan is planning to more than double its arsenal of 100 warheads, including tactical (“battlefield”) weapons, which lower the threshold to nuclear war. And Pakistan, which would then be the fifth-largest nuclear power, is a state (to cite the title of Ahmed Rashid’s recent book) “on the brink” of chaos, perhaps in the form of an Islamist coup. Nine years ago, a matured Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, determined to resist such militants. “Extremism” can be contained, she said, “if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up against fanaticism.” Just before the general election, she was assassinated. No Pakistani since has mobilized any “moderate middle,” and there is no prospect of any “center” likely to “hold.” Even if there is no full-scale coup, Pakistan’s arsenal—widely dispersed to deter the perceived enemy, India—will become still more vulnerable with the addition of those smaller, easier-to-steal “battlefield” nuclear weapons. They, or larger warheads, could be seized by a now more globally oriented Pakistani Taliban or by a post-bin Laden al Qaeda still inspired by 9/11: in both cases, terrorists clearly willing to use even these ultimate weapons in the name of Allah.

Though he admired much in the Islamic and Asian traditions, Yeats, who had read Spengler, feared a decline of the West accompanied by the rise of a barbarous fanaticism threatening all civilization. Europe’s debt crisis has now been compounded by Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and, above all, by the potential of the new migration crisis to destroy the European Union, now “on the verge of collapse,” according to Europe’s central figure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policy of  welcoming Syrian refugees has put even her dominant position in jeopardy. Yeats’s history-based vision of impending European disintegration, a centrifugal blowing apart triggering a decline and fall of the West as a whole, has taken a demographic and terror-haunted form. The problem of Europe’s dramatically declining native birthrates, long accompanied by growing Muslim populations, is, in 2016, exacerbated by the flood of refugees. Many Muslim immigrants, old and new, unassimilated and hopeless, are often hostile to the host countries, with some extremists eager to kill in the name of jihad—as demonstrated by various terrorist plots, culminating in the coordinated attacks in Paris and, three months later, in Brussels. Noting, in the aftermath of those attacks, that the EU has a single currency but lacks a common database to screen terrorists, Die Zeit political writer Jochen Bittner wondered (in the Yeatsian title of his March 24 NY Times op-ed): “Can the European Center Hold?”

Confronting crises in the turbulent Greater Middle East itself—the rise of ISIS, as a “state” and as a generator of jihadist attacks beyond the region; the mass migration produced by the ongoing carnage in Syria; and the apparently irresolvable impasse between Israel and the Palestinians (their contested land the setting for the biblical myth of Armageddon)—we have ample reason to fear that some momentous change is “at hand,” attended by anarchy and violence. Even those of us most skeptical of oracular clairvoyance often find ourselves caught up in the mingled terror and apocalyptic shudder of the Yeatsian Sublime. No matter how novel the specific threats that arise, we can’t seem to find better or, it sometimes seems, other words than those Yeats put on paper almost a century ago.

Responding to “The Second Coming” in our own troubled moment of history, we sense—now more than ever—that “the centre cannot hold.” Like the “falcon [that] cannot hear the falconer,” things seem to be whirling giddily out of human control. The centrifugal forces we have ourselves unleashed—sociopolitical, technological, military, economic, ecological—are now in the saddle and ride mankind. Within the long-term impact of the overarching global climate change we have exacerbated, there may be perfect storms combining nature and technology. Full-time teams are still fighting the radioactive tide at Fukushima, the nuclear plant devastated five years ago by earthquake and tsunami. A full clean up may take the rest of this century, and in the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable, a Japanese disaster threatening to become a wider catastrophe.

We in America gaze out at what, despite (and often because of) free-market globalization, is an increasingly unstable world: overheated and overpopulated, sporadically wealthy but overwhelmingly impoverished, violent, threatened by terrorism, and by both under- and over-reactions to it; and  groaning for a deliverance that seems never to come. The Arab Spring quickly lost its liberating early bloom, and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, far from evolving into even semi-stable states, let alone democracies, are well on their way to falling apart: into mere anarchy, or becoming failed states ripe to be dominated by Islamist extremists. China (Napoleon’s sleeping giant) is awake but stumbling; Russia is once again militant under Putin; Iran and North Korea pose future and, in the case of the latter, a present nuclear threat; jihadism is on the march in the Middle East and Africa, its terror networks threatening to unleash a “wave of bloodshed” in Europe. Fresh crises loom everywhere, none more existential than the challenge to the planet itself presented by global climate change, and the threat to Western civilization posed by the apocalyptic savagery of ISIS.

Looking homeward, we wonder about the state of our own democracy. The Democratic Party offers little to rally around, and President Obama, reluctant to get into the trenches, has had a dismal record of working with Congress.  In fairness, it must be added that this President was resisted from the outset by many who, for political, economic, ideological, or racist reasons, never accepted him;  35% of registered Republican voters remain unreconstructed Birthers, and another quarter are “not sure” he was born in the United States. Even so, Obama has been too aloof to be fully effective.

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But the primary blame is located in the very titles of some recent books: The Disappearing Center; Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy; Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party; and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The respected bipartisan authors of the latter, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, formerly critical of both parties, now insist that the core of the current dysfunction and polarization is an inflexible and obstructionist Republican Party. Beginning with the demonization of opponents prescribed by Newt Gingrich, the party’s “center of gravity has shifted far to the right.” Today’s GOP is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Mann and Ornstein concluded by hoping that voters in 2012 would “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents.” Only then will “an insurgent outlier party” have “some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.” But things have continued to fall apart, with Republicans uninterested in moving toward a “center” that, many clearly believe, should no longer “hold.” The extremism Ornstein and Mann described three years ago is more obvious today. With no sign of getting better, our politics has gotten far “worse,” incarnate in that reductio ad absurdum, Donald Trump.

Even those of us who intend to vote this November have become frustrated by a system not only dysfunctional, but increasingly venal. Mark Twain’s old witticism that “we have the best government money can buy” was never more telling. Our electoral process has been utterly corrupted by “dark money”—to cite the title of Jane Mayer’s brave and brilliant new expose of the Koch Brothers and affiliated billionaires behind the rise of the radical Right. Their flood of filthy lucre was fully unleashed by the Super PAC-producing Citizens United decision—reinforced by the SpeechNow and McCutcheon cases—all thanks to a conservative and “activist” Supreme Court majority. Those decisions have set more beasts a-slouching. In an overheated 2012 essay titled “Beast of Citizens United Slouches Forward,” Charles Pierce described Mitt Romney as “in every way the rough beast” predicted by Justice John Paul Stevens (in his eloquent dissent in Citizens United): a beast “slouching toward Iowa to be born.” (This particular beast in pinstripes would be undone by the secretly taped revelation that he, like the rich donors he was speaking to at the time, believed that 47% of Americans were freeloaders, mooching on government handouts).

Writing in Vanity Fair, Craig Ungar also cited “The Second Coming,” in noting the re-emergence of a discredited Karl Rove, among the quickest to appreciate the SpeechNow decision, which overturned limits on individual contributions to PACs, making it easier for big donors to influence elections. “Proving the Yeatsian verity about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity, Rove has created a ruthlessly efficient political operation beholden to no one but himself.” Though dismissed by Donald Trump as a “total moron,” Rove, like Yeats’s irrepressible rough beast, is again heading-up his American Crossroads Super PAC, specifically dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The corrupting power of unrestricted money is manifest in the sorry spectacle of politicians pandering to the narrow interests of their party’s base and accommodating an ever-growing army of lobbyists, the most influential representing corporate interests. The result is legalized bribery, and, under the aegis of supply-side economics and an antipathy to government, a breakdown of that balanced public-private partnership epitomizing the genius of the American system at its best. Today, competing in a global market, Western democracies must engage as never before in strategic economic planning. Public investment in jobs, infrastructure, education, and research will be required to restore economic competitiveness. But such federal prescriptions are disdainfully rejected by Republicans, who have turned Ronald Reagan’s mantra about the federal government being the “problem” rather than the “solution” into Ayn-Randian economic dogma, referring to Washington as if it were an enemy capital and indulging the fantasy that the “socialist” federal government, which has supposedly “never created a job,” should just “get out of the way” and let the infallible free market work its trickle-down magic.

In this ideologically polarized context, those of a Keynesian bent, who still wish President Obama’s initial stimulus package back in 2009 had been larger, more innovative, and tied to financial regulation of the bailed-out banks, and who see a positive role for an activist federal government in economic crises, can expect no compromise (now a dirty word) from those committed to the deregulated market forces of the private sector. Hence, the persistent clamor of Republicans, who have virtually all signed on to Grover Norquist’s Pledge, for lower taxes on the most wealthy—the “job creators.” That remains a priority even in the face of an accelerating disparity between the many and the very few: a concentration of private and corporate wealth that translates into political power since laws tend to get written in accord with the interests of those (say, the Koch Brothers) writing the checks. Democrats, when they are not complicit in corporate power, bow to their own special interests, fostering divisiveness in the form of identity politics.

Either way, little constructive gets done. Despite the abysmal approval ratings of Congress, partisan confrontation blocks progress on any measure aimed at healing our economy and repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Three years ago, two liberal commentators drew on Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to deplore the gridlock. Addressing the political “failure” to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, economist Paul Krugman decried (in his New York Times column in September 2012) Republican opposition to any plan likely to reduce unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity.” Five months earlier, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary announced his fear that the US economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Playing a variation as well on “the center cannot hold,” Robert Reich observed that the top percent or two have now accumulated “so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed,” and that Republican resistance to tax increases had drained funds required to finance important public investments depended upon by that collapsing middle class. With Washington paralyzed by the divide between dread of mounting debt and the need to invest in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, our economy is still “slouching toward” potential disaster.

Krugman and Reich (and Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, debt, deficits, and burgeoning entitlement spending certainly matter, and must be addressed, as fiscal conservatives rightly insist. On the other hand, most Republicans seem ideologically incapable of acknowledging the opposite danger: that deep retrenchment in public spending is likely to have the same effect here as in Europe, where fiscal austerity, even when it has arrested the downward slide, has failed to produce growth. Yet, as Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has said, “market fundamentalism, radical privatization, and a universal fear of state power are overly simplistic answers to the question of how to sustain a modern, globalized economic order.” His focus is European and global, but Avineri is not forgetting the private-enterprise purists of the Republican Party in the United States.

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Political tension, even partisanship, is not only inevitable but desirable; as William Blake reminds us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without Contraries is no progression.” Blake also notes in the same text that “Opposition is true friendship,” that differences can be dialectically fruitful, and need not sour into enmity.  But our current political divide is less dialectical than rancorous; and it transcends “politics as usual” because the widening gap is not only economic and ideological but often cognitive. Senator Moynihan’s reminder that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” has been trumped by political expediency and, often, by actual or willful ignorance. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by a polarized and polarizing media that caters to those who prefer to have their own prejudices confirmed and amplified rather than to actually think. In the cable war, CNN tacks to the center, but the conservative audience addicted to Fox News has little in common with the liberal audience addicted to MSNBC; and in that war, the clear victor has been Fox, the supposedly “fair and balanced” organ of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.

In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter devoted two books to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. One needn’t accept every nuance of what conservatives might consider his “elitist” condescension to conclude that Hofstadter’s fears are, today—when the political spectrum in the United States has shifted dramatically to the right—far more justified than they were when he was writing a half-century ago. What would he make, for example, of venomous, pseudo-populist right-wing radio or of the dominance of the Fox News Network? What of fundamentalist resistance, not just to ACLU excesses, but to the very concept of a constitutional separation of Church and State? Or of the Religious Right’s self-congratulatory challenge to the validity of science; most notably, dismissal of the scientific consensus on a partial but manifest human impact on global climate change and, most mind-boggling to the rational, the faith-based denial of the demonstrable truth of evolutionary biology? What would Hoftadter have to say, if he wasn’t rendered mute, by the spectacle of Ben Carson, a physician who is also an evolution-denying biblical literalist; of Ted Cruz, a sanctimonious, inflexible ideologue who deems everyone who demurs from his religio-political absolutism a far-left extremist; of insult-monger Donald Trump, who is—well—TRUMP.

At times we seem to be re-fighting the Civil War. During that defining national tragedy, both sides, equally immersed in the wrathful sword-and-vintage imagery of Revelation that dominates “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” saw themselves engaged in an apocalyptic struggle, each on God’s side and fighting against perceived evil. The Confederacy may have been defeated by the Union armies, but the old ideological struggle persists between central government and states’ rights, between a concept of the common good and unfettered individualism. And once again, though with considerably less justification, what ought to be a public-private partnership is turned into a conflict hyperbolized and sanctified by conservatives and libertarians as a fight to the death between federal “tyranny” and individual “liberty,” now intensified by the guns-and-God identification of the former with all that is reprehensibly “coercive” and “secular,” the latter with stridently libertarian and evangelical concepts of “freedom of religion.”

Faced with the acrimonious divide in our current religio-political Culture War (another example of a “dialogue of the deaf”) and attuned to the language of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, we readily concur that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist earlier cited, returning to “The Second Coming” in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, lamented the “disappearance of a Christian center.” This “polarization is a sign of what happens” to a deeply religious country when “its theological center cannot hold.” However persuasive or dubious Douthat’s specific claim, his citation of Yeats’s famous line helps rhetorically by locating his argument within a larger and resonant context.

More than a quarter-century ago, in a 1988 “On Language” column, William Safire noted that Yeats’s line about the “center” failing to hold “is quoted whenever polarization takes place and centrists disappear.” That observation is even more germane today, when most centrists have fled Washington in frustration or been driven out by their own party’s more extreme elements. Six-time Indiana Republican Senator Dick Lugar, a notably civil and nuanced Republican with almost unparalleled expertise in foreign policy, was defeated in the 2012 primary by a Tea-Party challenger funded by massive outside spending.

The House situation worsened with the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republican State Leadership Committee, deploying over $200 million from Republican-aligned “independent groups,” achieved the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) dream, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process until the new census in 2020. By assuring right-wing Republicans safe seats, gerrymandering underwrites obstinacy, reducing the Congress to a partisan, obstructionist combat zone, with opponents demonized and compromise replaced by mutual contempt and deadlock. When, in December 2015, Donald Trump, touting flexibility, criticized the relentlessly uncooperative Senate behavior of his main rival, Ted Cruz, he was furiously attacked by right-wing bloviators Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin for so much as suggesting he would be willing to work across the aisle. In response, a Cruz spokesperson, back when her man was still relentlessly buttering up The Donald, regretted only that Trump, in accurately noting Cruz’s rejection of any compromise, had resorted to “Democrat talking points”! No wonder centrists leave in frustration. What moderate Republican Olympia Snowe described, in announcing her retirement, as the Senate’s “crumbling center” epitomizes our larger cultural breakdown. When things fall apart, no center, religious or political, can hold.

The 2012 Republican primary debates were filled with fevered, self-righteous, semi-theological rhetoric about “taking our country back,” and “saving the soul of America.” Obama was still elected to a second term, to the dismay of Republicans who, from the outset of his first term, never intended to be a “loyal opposition.” Mitch McConnell flatly stated that the “priority” was to make Obama “a one-term president.” Even now, most Republicans put partisan politics ahead of cooperation, then complain when Obama resorts to executive actions. The old adage that politics ends at the water’s edge is long gone with the wind. Republicans adamantly resist, or ridicule, the nuclear deal with Iran, and would rather criticize a president they despise than find common ground in confronting the danger of ISIS.

Though there are thoughtful individual Republicans, their Party has become ideologically extremist and anti-intellectual, hostile to “elites” and to science. No Republican presidential candidate (even when there were seventeen of them) felt free to publicly accept the fact of biological evolution, let alone acknowledge the crisis of global climate change, resorting to denialism based on reports covertly funded by fossil-fuel interests. In December 2015, the Obama administration helped bring together in Paris 195 nations in an accord committing them, for the first time, to lowering planet-warming carbon emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The modest reductions are tailored but voluntary, making this an executive agreement, not a treaty, which would have been rejected by the Senate, controlled by Republicans who, beholden to the Kochs and their affiliates, either deny established climate science, pronounce the cost of combating the problem prohibitive, or are simply out to thwart the President’s agenda.

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The 2012 Republican primary was temperate compared to the 2015-16 anti-establishment circus, initially starring a pious, clueless neurosurgeon (who would later flame out and endorse Trump), then dominated by a talented but absentee junior senator; an articulate but hyper-ambitious ideologue loathed on both sides of the aisle; and, above all, by a reality-TV huckster and hyperbolist. After losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Donald Trump crushed Cruz and Marco Rubio in the next three primary states, becoming—against all predictions from pundits left and right—the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. He has continued to cleverly exploit the national frustration at the polarization and dysfunction of Washington, as well as the growing (and justifiable) annoyance with “political correctness.” But in the process, building on and exacerbating the growing fear of all, not just radicalized, Muslims, the Birther-in-Chief (who later played that card on Canadian-born Cruz) has tapped into the nativist zeitgeist and Know-Nothingism of a substantial slice of the American electorate—whose fears, frustrations, and left-behind fury he adroitly channels and fuels.

Republican leaders, having long ginned up their base but caught off guard by the consequences, are now terrified at the looming prospect of Trump becoming their nominee. But he is the untethered Frankenstein’s monster they created—liberated from the Establishment, from Fox News, even from the Koch Brothers! The GOP’s strongest ticket would include John Kasich. But in an extremist milieu, victors tend to be those who appeal to voters “full of passionate intensity,” rather than to the “best”—the better-informed and less absolutist, who don’t expect simple answers to complex questions. Hoping Trump (and Cruz) would fade, the Establishment sought to anoint, as the Party’s “savior,” the more “electable” Rubio, whose initially upbeat campaign quickly darkened into the same old fear-mongering, religious pandering, and strident hawkishness. Since Bernie Sanders, despite his victories and virtual ties, seems unelectable in a center-right country, the Democratic nominee will be a self-wounded, baggage-laden Hillary Clinton.

We can be sure that both sides will be full of passionate intensity. We can also be sure that the Democratic and Republican candidates will be equally supported by their respective Super PACS. Hillary Clinton is flush in PAC money, Cruz is second only to her, and even Donald Trump (closing in on the nomination) will eventually come to the trough. Before his departure, Rubio’s cash cows included three multi-billionaires, who also happen to be pro-Israeli zealots. Despite differences (especially over the West Bank settlements), Israel is our ally, to whom we are bound by history and culture. But must loyalty be obsequious? The Republican nominees (even Trump, who caught hell for saying he would try to be a “neutral” negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse) are tripping over each other vowing unconditional support of Israel. But 2016 began with primary emphasis on the terrorist and refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq.

This was the subject of President Obama’s rare Oval Office Address in late December (a speech prompting emails from two old Fordham college friends, a Democrat and a Republican, but both foreign-policy hawks). In his Address on the terrorist threat, the President said that we should continue our current policy: working with international partners, using targeted airstrikes and special forces to attack terrorist networks. But he also warned against an expansive ground war in Iraq and Syria, calling for a “sustainable” victory using a minimal number of US ground forces. ISIS (or ISIL, as he prefers) would only grow stronger as an insurgency against an occupying power. “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.” But alliterative rhetoric is no substitute for a specific strategy.

Until recently, almost everyone (aside from John McCain and Lindsay Graham) agreed with the President that substantial (tens of thousands) of American ground forces would be counterproductive. Trump’s characteristically crude and crowd-rousing alternative—to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”—was bested by Cruz’s lunatic and illegal proposal to “carpet-bomb” their “troops,” to make the desert sands “glow,” presumably with radioactivity.  Given the jihadists’ proximity to the civilians they terrorize and use as shields in the places they occupy, how many tens of thousands of innocents would we have to vaporize to destroy the Caliphate? Besides, even as ISIS loses territory in its Syrian-Iraqi base (down by more than a third from its apogee), the cancer metastasizes—to Yemen, Libya, elsewhere in Africa; and it retains the ability to inspire and coordinate terror attacks far beyond.

There was a shift, to include substantial “boots on the ground,” in the March 10 Republican debate. In calling for a large-scale injection of US troops into the region, the Republicans are in ironic accord with ISIS, itself the bitter fruit of our misguided invasion of Iraq and, in particular, of our ill-planned, blundering occupation, whose chaos created al Qaeda in Iraq. We want no more of that carnage. ISIS does, committed as it is to its own chiliastic scenario, its version of Armageddon. Based on ancient myth, revived by Abu Musàb al Zakhari, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq and the godfather of ISIS, and reiterated by the “Caliph” himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS apocalypse calls for a final battle on the plain outside the small village of Dabiq (north of Aleppo, in Syria). This unlikely place has long been prophesied as the site of the ultimate victory of the Islamic Caliphate over the armies of the infidel—nowadays, those of the United States. Much ISIS propaganda is devoted to luring us into that land war.

Dabiq Burns Cursader ArmiesImage from Islamic State video, in Dabiq (issue one) (via Clarion Project)

It is a lure we should resist. We can target, provide intelligence and special ops; but the main anti-ISIS ground force must eventually be made up, as the President says, of other Sunnis. At least for now, those Sunnis are divided among themselves. The Saudis, the promulgators of fundamentalist Wahhabism and funders of radicalizing madrassas throughout the Greater Middle East, continue their long and sordid double-game—though there are recent signs that they may finally be ready to field anti-ISIS troops. In any case, thus far, President Obama has not displayed the leadership skills (given these divisions, perhaps no one can) required to put together a pan-Arab force, let alone helm or guide the alleged coalition of “sixty-five” partners.

I agreed with some of the substance, though not the “anti-academic” tone, of the response to the Oval Office speech by my Republican Fordham friend. Ridiculing the president’s claim that his plan was “working,” he described Obama as “the ultimate college professor,” couching events that

unfold before his eyes as academic exercises requiring intellectual examination. True, there is a scholarly aspect than can be argued long into the night, but what is really needed is a bold, rousing response like that of George W. Bush, with the megaphone atop the rubble. It’s about looking and acting like a leader, despite the fact that it might not go beyond immediate visceral satisfaction.

Obama may indeed be too “professorial,” but I have no nostalgia for the sort of “bold, rousing response” that led us, hard on the heels of the justifiable attack on the Taliban harboring al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to the duplicitous invasion of Iraq. That 2003 invasion and the subsequent violence and chaos of the occupation triggered a massive increase in worldwide terrorism, an increase British Intelligence has aptly dubbed the “Iraq Effect.” It also engendered much of the current crisis in the Middle East—notably including the abrupt turn, in word and deed, to apocalyptism among Sunnis, not only in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but in the global jihadist movement. This new End Times appetite among Sunnis, hitherto skeptical of apocalyptic thinking, was fueled by Sunni clerics and by the al-Qaeda precursor of ISIS, Zarqawi, who envisaged the new American “Crusaders” as having joined the Shia and the Jews in a triple union to “destroy” true Muslims. Unlike al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi believed “the Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.”[5] We now know what rough beast, its hour come round at last, has been slouching to be born in the deserts of Iraq: ISIS.

According to unreconstructed foreign policy hawks who still defend the invasion of Iraq and still fail to grasp the historic complexity of the Sunni-Shia division, that monstrous birth is entirely attributable to Obama, who “abandoned” a “liberated” Iraq made “stable” by the “Surge.” In exploiting the Anbar Awakening, General David Petraeus bought the provisional loyalty of Sunnis even more appalled by al Qaeda than by American forces. But while it was a success tactically and as PR, the Surge, elevated to the status of myth by Republicans, barely affected the underlying realities. Yet the President is incessantly condemned by Neocons, the right-wing media, and the current crop of GOP candidates for “squandering” our “gains” in Iraq by withdrawing “precipitously.” Though he is not without fault, this is far too sweeping, and, of course, characteristically partisan.

Like others, the President was slow to realize the gravity of the threat presented by ISIS (far from the “JV-team” of his glib dismissal), and he failed to heed warnings about the double-dealing of Maliki. The President was eager to get out of Iraq, in accord with his promise during the 2008 campaign, and reflecting the consensus of the vast majority of the electorate. But Republicans tend to pass over that other pledge: the one made by us to the Iraqi government, to completely withdraw US troops by 2011, a pledge made by President Bush. Without the Status of Forces agreement rejected by Maliki (at Iran’s behest), were we to leave in place, in violation of our own agreement and against the express disinvitation of the host government, a residual force of, say, 15-20,000 American troops? The President’s critics on the Right blandly assume that such a force would have prevented the rise of ISIS. General Petraeus recently expressed a wish that we had “tried the experiment,” though he is doubtful “it would have made a difference.”

Opportunities were lost, especially in Syria; today, ISIS entrenched and the Internet at its command, there are no longer any routes to a quick victory without considerable risks and downsides. Any plausible, as opposed to preposterous, plan to defeat ISIS, would not be wildly different from what the President seems to think he can wish into existence, and would involve actual rather than half-imaginary coalitions, Arab and European. But our internally-divided NATO and Arab allies lack the capacity to organize and lead an effective counteroffensive on their own. And Obama may not be the leader required to inspire and implement such a strategy. More hawkish Hillary might be up to the task, more so than Trump, Cruz, and the departed Rubio, all of them as inexperienced as they are bellicose. Had he not fallen from grace, the gifted David Petraeus, running as a Republican or a Democrat, might have provided both experience and thoughtfulness.

We should be under no illusion that there is any military silver bullet that could even conceivably resolve a crisis ultimately based on a long-delayed backlash against Western imperialism and economic exploitation, grievances made toxic by the most militant sections of the Quran being fed by radical clerics to alienated young Muslim men, ripe for revenge. But understanding the causes does not eliminate the need to confront the consequences. Given the deep sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious context, and the endless supply of hopeless young men susceptible to the siren call to jihad, eager to spill blood for the glory of Allah and to advance the End Times, there may be no way to avoid a protracted struggle. One would be more satisfied with a multi-pronged, gradual degradation of ISIS leading to eventual defeat were it not for the immediate dangers presented by sleeper cells, and by the ultimate nightmare: the acquisition by ISIS or its affiliates of a dirty bomb or, worse yet, a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Time is no more on our side here than in the need to confront the challenge of global climate change. So, what to do?

In Europe, intelligence has to be much better shared and the EU borders made less porous. Thousands of European Muslims have traveled to Syria and back, now thoroughly radicalized, militarily trained, and ready to wage jihad in their home countries. One such man, Salah Abdeslam, who helped orchestrate the attacks in Paris, slipped easily out of France and into Belgium. Four months later, he was found, by sheer luck, hiding out in jihadi central, Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where he grew up. Though Belgian authorities announced that another attack was “credible and imminent,” Abdeslam’s questioning, apparently perfunctory, yielded no information. Within days of his capture, members of his cell launched their lethal attacks on the Brussels airport and metro station.

In the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East itself, we should counter Iran by pressuring al-Abadi to re-enfranchise the Sunnis, incentivizing the “Iraqi” army to fight, as it has started to do by recapturing Ramadi. We should also inform Turkey that we’re going to intensify our arming of the Kurds—and directly, not through Baghdad. Even then, we can hardly be confident that Sunni forces, themselves radical (foolishly disbanded but left armed by the US in 2003, they became the insurgency against us), would produce eventual stability. And the Kurds, willing and demonstrably able to fight ISIS, are primarily interested in their own independence: understandably, but a further source of regional instability. In fact, in the final week of 2015, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resumed a fierce battle to “annihilate” the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), militants who have long sought Kurdish autonomy.

In the immediate future, Iran and Russia have to be accepted as in fact what they are: major players in the region. This will outrage most on the Right and, when it comes to our policy in Syria, undermine what’s left of the “Assad-must-go” position of the Administration. The more pragmatic assessment of the President’s own Joint Chiefs is that any vacuum left by the removal of Assad will be filled with Sunni extremists rather than largely non-existent Syrian “moderates.” Even a provisional alignment with the supporters of the murderous Assad regime is repellent. But the principal goal we have in common with Iran and Russia is defeating ISIS. For now, along with preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (the one other goal we share with Putin), confronting ISIS must be a strategic priority. In December 2015, a UN Resolution, jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, united many nations in an overdue effort to cut off the sources of ISIS funding. But that cooperation was dwarfed by the impact of Russia’s continued and intensified bombing of Syria, little of it targeting ISIS.

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Caught up as we are in the struggle with ISIS in particular and jihadism in general, there is a related tension: between Islamophobia and a realistic assessment of the facts. In the wake of the large-scale Paris attack (preceded by the Charlie Hebdo murders and followed by the events in San Bernardino; Brussels was yet to come), President Obama sought to avoid demonizing Islam, while acknowledging that the Muslim community needs to grapple with the issue of radicalization and political violence. In his Oval Office Address, he urged Americans “to see Muslims as neighbors, friends, and countrymen, and to avoid bigotry and discrimination. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must,” he said, “enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” But, the President added, that “doesn’t mean denying the fact that an extreme ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” a “real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”

The latter is a problem that also needs to be confronted by those who, like the President, want to accept, if not the 65,000 recommended by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Donald Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional proposal that we ban all Muslims until we can figure out “what’s going on” is outrageous, but not, for many, much more so than the Administration’s plan to take in refugees whom even the Director of the FBI acknowledges we cannot properly vet. Tens of thousands of Syrians are starving in besieged towns, and almost all refugees have suffered horribly and deserve compassion. But ISIS would be derelict in its terrorist duty if it didn’t seek to infiltrate and radicalize some of those masses. Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—have taken in almost four million refugees, and Iraq and Egypt between them another 400,000. Even after the Paris attacks, up to the turn into 2016, Sweden and Germany (having already accepted over a million refugees) were absorbing very high numbers per capita. That ended abruptly in the final week of 2015. Since then the sexual attacks in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, by Arab and North African Muslim men, have challenged Merkel’s admirable welcoming policy and fueled legitimate concern, as well as xenophobia, erupting in street violence between right-wing opponents of immigration and leftist advocates of asylum.

Since our own Muslim population is far better assimilated it seems inhumane and craven for us to resist welcoming a mere 10,000 more, two-thirds of them (as referred to us by the UNHCR) women and children. But many Americans of good will, even those aware that the refugee problem has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II, nevertheless fear, when it comes to Syrian war refugees, the radicalizing reach of ISIS. Of course, that is just one more aspect of the ISIS strategy of inculcating fear, turning victims seeking to escape from barbarism and lethal violence into potential security threats. The record suggests otherwise. According to an October 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, of the 784,000 refugees we’ve taken in since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. But recent events have intensified our concern. Having accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refuges since 2012, and now, with many Americans (and virtually all Republicans) opposed to the President’s plan regarding the 10,000, the United States runs the risk of fueling—across the European continent—the sort of anti-immigrant (and anti-American) far-right populism represented in France by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, and, in Hungary, by Putin buddy Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Worse yet, our resistance to accepting refugees further destabilizes such frontline states as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and strains relations with Germany, which has borne the brunt of the flood into Europe. We have contributed $450 million to alleviate the crisis in Syria, yet appear to be sitting it out, though we are hardly blameless in terms of responsibility. An increasing number of Germans believe, with good reason, that while they are shouldering the consequences of the collapse of Syria, it is America that bears much of the responsibility for the causes of that collapse.  Even former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Bush’s war partner, though still proud of the ouster of Saddam, admitted (on CNN in October 2015) that “mistakes” were made. Indeed, “the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of Syria figure among the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

That accurate conclusion was drawn by Michael Ignatieff, playing off but going beyond Blair’s admission. The Murrow Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School observed in his November New York Review of Books essay “The Refugees & the New War,” that the refugees present not only “a humanitarian crisis,” but “a national security challenge,” though not the one stressed by those unnerved by the possibility of importing terrorists. US strategy in the final year of Obama’s presidency should start, he concludes, from the understanding that helping Europe deal with the refugees is

critical to the battle against jihadi nihilism. If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the US and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights. In a battle against extremism, giving hope to desperate people is not charity, it is simple prudence….In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.

This openness—at once strategic and in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent confirmations of the rights of stateless refugees—is currently complicated by the sheer scope of the crisis; while hesitance is propagandized by jihadists as anti-Muslim hatred. Trump’s “total ban” feeds that narrative, yet appeals to some annoyed by Obama’s attempt to recognize distinctions. With jihadism expanding and growing more savage and dangerous with the emergence of the apocalyptic and ruthless Islamic State, many have wearied of the President’s nuanced language, especially his apparent inability to utter the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism.”

This semantic sensitivity, though diplomatically defensible and admirably intended to avoid turning combat with jihadist terrorism into a war on Islam itself, nevertheless seems misguided, unnecessary, and patronizing—to the vast majority of Muslims and to those capable of distinguishing between them and jihadists. His stubbornness on this point (adhered to by Hillary) also leaves Obama, once we get beyond the lunatic Right’s delusion that he is himself a covert Muslim, vulnerable to the charge of politically correct reticence—and worse.

In a discussion of foreign policy during the December Republican primary debate, Chris Christie contemptuously dismissed the President as a “feckless weakling.” None of the other Republicans on the stage objected to this depiction of a sitting President, whose reputation affects national security. The prime example of this “weakness” for most of his critics, even for many of his supporters, remains Obama’s pivotal rethinking of his initial decision, in the summer of 2013, to militarily enforce the chemical-weapons “red line” he had drawn in Syria, cancelling the airstrikes intended to punish Assad for crossing that line. While the President should never have laid down that red line, he did have valid reasons, military and political, to rethink the airstrikes. His reversal was influenced by David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary authorization, Angela Merkel’s reluctance, and Obama’s own second thoughts about the danger, in blowing up chemical depots, of poisoning the very civilians he was trying to save.  But the price was not only a loss of US “credibility,” but a perception of Obama himself as vacillating, indecisive, “weak.”[6]

Though Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of the Middle East should be appreciated as wisdom rather than dismissed as weakness, he can also be frustratingly overcautious. He can also appear casual, as in his decision, after Brussels, to continue his visit to Cuba and Argentina rather than rush back to Washington. (Despite the baseball-and-tango “optics,” he was also ordering the commando operation that took out the ISIS Finance Minister.) Better Obama’s cool and restraint than the reckless hubris of Cheney and Bush, whose “bold, rousing response” led to the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obama’s restraint is also preferable to the macho chest-thumping of Chris Christie, hailed (three years ago by conservative pundit Bill Kristol) as a much-needed incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast.”[7] This President’s scrupulous deliberation has its own flaws, but it is sober and rational compared to the half-truths and hyperbole that have marked this Trump-dominated Republican primary in general.

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IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Center Threatened

In fact, the more one sees and hears Donald Trump, the more one recognizes in him, far more than in Christie (who later hitched on to Trump), the contemporary political incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast”—boorish, narcissistic, reckless, given to irresponsible hyperbole and ad hominem bullying. In a January 20 New York Daily News op-ed, “Slouching toward Des Moines,” Harry Siegel deplored the inadequacy of the candidates then gathering for the Iowa caucuses. “The people who would be President are lunatics, liars or both,” he opined. Citing Yeats’s poem in its entirety, he synopsized “the Republican view of the world, and America’s place in it,” by directly quoting Trump, and captioning as a symbol of “passionate intensity” a photo of Trump being endorsed by syntax-challenged flamethrower and nitwit, Sarah Palin. “What rough beast?” Siegel wondered, answering himself: “I’m afraid we’re about to find out.” One day earlier, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted the intensified conflict between the frontrunners for the Republican nomination: Trump, an “ethno-nationalist wrecking ball,” and Ted Cruz, “more demagogue than ideologue.” Gerson concluded his January 19 Washington Post column: “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose. The future of the party as the carrier of a humane, inclusive conservatism now depends on some viable choice beyond them”—a sentiment echoed by his NY Times counterpart, David Brooks, hoping for Trump and Cruz to kill each other off.

A few days later, National Review, the venerable conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley, weighed in with a special Against Trump issue, featuring twenty-two diatribes denouncing Trump, a “philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the conservative ideological consensus.” In varying degrees of panic (the one African-American among them, Thomas Sowell, more exercised by hatred of Obama than fear of The Donald, sounded positively unhinged), the right-wing pundits (plus Glenn Beck) projected the nomination of Trump as a disaster for the Republican Party and a catastrophe for their own “principled,” intellectual conservatism.

Trump characteristically dismissed National Review as a failing, elitist magazine, and announced that his followers’ loyalty was such that if he were to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” it would have no effect on his numbers. The outrageous remark was at once offensive and funny. Fears that it might also be accurate were allayed when a suddenly vincible Trump was defeated in evangelical Iowa by a hymn-citing Cruz (“To God be the glory!”), while just edging out a no-less-pious Rubio, praising “Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.”  Better Trump than Cruz, though it’s hard to know which demagogue best embodies the Yeatsian “worst.” As a deal-maker par excellence, Trump seems flexible and pragmatic, but as a candidate on the stump and on TV, he plays a man “all conviction” and “full of passionate intensity,” his certitudes and seemingly spontaneous outbursts cunningly calculated to inflame, while entertaining, the huge crowds he attracts. Media-savvy and freewheeling, a master of the immediacy of reality TV, Trump plays on the frustrations and fears, the anger and alienation, of his core audience: white, non-college-educated, struggling economically—in short, the very “losers” this relentless exponent of “winning” almost certainly despises even as he charms them.

Going into New Hampshire, some attention shifted to Cruz and Rubio, but moderate Kasich beat them both, and all were trounced by Trump, whose decisive victory there, in South Carolina and Nevada (and solid lead in the national polls) left the Republican Establishment reeling. Much of the Religious Right has rallied to Trump, but not Richard D. Land, the former President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Dipping into the “maelstrom” of sociopolitical turmoil agitated by the “populist uprising” of 2016, Land, now executive editor of The Christian Post, reported on January 31, that lines of Yeats’s “famous poem” keep “running through my mind.” He quoted a half-dozen lines of “The Second Coming,” beginning, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and asked, in conclusion: “Can the political-societal center hold, or has it been hollowed out (center, and increasingly the center-right and center-left) to the point that America and her political institutions have devolved into…ethnic, societal, religious, and electronic tribes (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)?” Has the “tidal wave of intense populism” surfed by Sanders and Trump left us with a “political tsunami” and an anti-centrism “currently beyond rational constructive consensus?”

This imagery, like the loosing of Yeats’s irrational “blood-dimmed tide,” captures the out-of-control aspect of the 2016 election. The populist appeal of Bernie Sanders, focused on inequality of wealth and opportunity, though anti-establishment, is comparatively benign. But just as Yeats tapped into the Collective Unconscious of  Spiritus Mundi for his images in “The Second Coming,” Donald Trump has, alas, tapped into part of the American psyche—not the Emersonian “Oversoul,” but the darker Under-Soul, or “base,” or id, of the contemporary Republican Party. His appeal, populist-nationalist and pseudo-conservative, though based on himself as the latest embodiment of the Great Man theory, feeds on the facile illusion of simple solutions to complex problems and on what Nietzsche called ressentiment.

As E. J. Dionne noted in an August, 2015 Washington Post op-ed titled “When Yeats Comes Knocking,” Trump “is a symptom of a much wider problem.” Citing the “most cited poem in political commentary,” Dionne observed that we are “definitely in for another ‘Second Coming’ revival,” since “the center is under siege all over the democratic world.” Dionne, a liberal, quoted conservative Reihan Salam, also struck by the similarities between Trumpism and rising movements (to the left and right of centrist European parties) that “manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew.” In a February 24 NY Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg, author of a balanced new study of Ronald Reagan, noted that unless the Republican Party (which venerates Reagan, but more in the breach than the observance of his pragmatism) “repudiates the inflammatory rhetoric of the primary, it will lose Reagan’s claim to the center and become more like one of Europe’s chauvinistic right-wing parties.”

Trump’s wealth allows him to spurn corporate donors and PACs (appealing to his working-class supporters), and to mock (in tweets) his fellow candidates as “puppets” who (aside from Kasich) flock to palatial meetings to “beg for money from the Koch Brothers.” But he is at one with the Republican Right in fomenting hatred of a federal government allegedly out to “take away our guns” and freedom; and no one has matched Trump in manipulating the festering rage and fear over rapid demographic and sociocultural change that the former fringe but now center of the GOP has been scaremongering for years. That witches’ brew culminates in Obamaphobia: a visceral hatred directed at the ultimate “other”: that alien and Constitution-spurning usurper in the White House whose domestic reign Republicans deem “lawless” and “imperial,” even as they pronounce him “weak” in foreign policy. The hatred is most toxic in Cruz and Rubio, who accused the President of deliberately intending to damage the United States.

In dealing with Syria and ISIS, Obama’s characteristic weighing of every alternative can summon up, even among some of his supporters, the most repeated phrase from “The Second Coming.” I would not myself ascribe to the President a “lack of conviction,” let alone the sweeping “all conviction,” applied (by David Lehman and by the authors of ISIS: The State of Terror) to those who have demonstrated insufficient decisiveness in confronting the terrorist challenge. Cool, poised, and aloof amid the fevered atmosphere of polarizing and extremist babble, Obama may see himself (a colleague, historian Ed Judge, suggests) as the “Man” in Kipling’s “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Almost congenitally incapable of expressing and evoking that “visceral” response sometimes required of a leader, Obama can vacillate. Again, his pivotal decision/revision not to enforce with air strikes the red line in Syria brings to mind Yeats’s tragic insight, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

This President may not be the “best,” but he is far better than this year’s Republican alternatives, all (with the only partial exception of John Kasich) critics and haters at once dismissive of Obama’s “weakness” and apoplectic about his exercise of executive power. Finally, however, as it is worth recalling, there are passions even more intense than Obamaphobia. The excellent documentary, “VICE Special Report: Fighting ISIS,” which debuted on HBO on the final day of 2015, ends with Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Baghdad, lamenting the presence in fragmented Iraq of multiple “passionate intensities,” none boding well for the region, or for us.

§

Like the volatile American primary races, the world doesn’t stop turning and churning. 2016 began with the US stock market’s worst-ever start to a new year, a five-day sell-off reflecting international economic and political turmoil. There are two epicenters this time, Europe and China. In China, runaway economic growth has come to a sudden halt, reflected in the plummeting of its financial markets and fostering a cycle of decline and panic throughout the world, especially in South America and in South Africa, whose economies rely on supplying Chinese manufacturing’s insatiable demand for natural resources. These negative repercussions are compounded by the collapse in the price of crude (at its lowest point in a dozen years), which has already had a devastating impact on petro-states, much of whose oil is sent to China. The dramatic slowdown of the long overheated Chinese economy, the second largest in the world and a main driver of international trade, could conceivably trigger a global recession deeper and wider than the US and Europe-centered financial crisis of 2008.

The European situation is more immediate and more dire. Geoffrey Wheatcroft opened a February 18, 2016 essay in The National Interest: “There are times—and the present moment is very much one of them—when certain great poems, minatory and ominous, force their way into the mind.” He cites Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Auden’s “The Fall of Rome,” Kipling’s “Recessional.” But his title, “Europe’s Political Center Cannot Hold,” confirms that he really has in mind “that extraordinary, oracular work,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The lines about mere anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide being “loosed upon the world” were (notes Wheatcroft, aware of the poem’s original context) “not meant to be a guide to everyday politics.” Yet the words “the center cannot hold” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” written in 1919, “seemed all the more forceful with every year over the next decades of totalitarianism, total war, and total murder.”

So they do again today. We have witnessed the explosion of the Levant and the implosion of Europe, the rise of demagogues on both the Left and, more notably, on the Right, on both sides of the Atlantic. The internal atrophy of politics in the United States is another question [and one not limited to “Donald Trump’s vulgarity”]….But we Europeans should hesitate before sneering….What has happened in these recent years is not just the near collapse of the European Union, but the demonstration of its complete inadequacy to deal with present dangers, from the self-inflicted and unresolvable crisis of a single currency…to the awful problem of mass immigration [caused mostly by refugees fleeing the horror in Syria]….Beyond that is the acute threat within Europe to political stability. The [the old center-right and center-left consensus] is now being severely challenged from the outside left and outside right by parties and politicians called “extremist” or, much more revealingly, “populist.”

Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, only free of Soviet imperialism for a quarter-century and in the European Union for a decade, have shown “alarming signs of sliding back into authoritarianism, nativism, racism and corruption.” Even “more perturbing” are events in the nations of Western Europe, recent experience in the largest of which (France, Germany, and Italy) has been “somber.” Consider France, where the National Front founded by neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen is now headed by his more adroit daughter, who expelled her father from a party whose tone, however, remains staunchly nativist, “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim.” Wheatcroft’s survey, brief but ominous, provides sufficient evidence to support his grim Yeatsian thesis: “Europe’s political center cannot hold.”

On the humanitarian and political fronts, 2016 arrived accompanied by an intensification of already bad news. The Syrian refugee nightmare continued to worsen by the day, with tens of thousands of Syrian civilians—cut off in towns besieged by pro- or anti-government forces, and bombed from the air—starving and freezing as a harsh winter set in (an ironic reminder of the antithetical crisis: accelerating global warming). Russian airstrikes, especially in and around the rebel-held city of Aleppo, intensified sharply. The February peace talks in Geneva were suspended before they even started, a “temporary pause” essentially attributable to Putin’s bombing, a strategy popular at home and successful in turning the war in favor of Russia’s ally, Assad. In March, that goal achieved, Putin withdrew.

Putin was always seeking a military rather than a political solution in Syria; while the US negotiated but seemed unable to stop him, debating even about airdrops of food and medicine in areas where Russian planes were operating. The agreement reached in Munich on February 11, between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for a “cessation of hostilities” on the ground in Syria in order to get humanitarian aid to besieged areas. This tentative step toward a true cease-fire depends on its being honored by the various warring parties and by Assad himself. At the very moment when negotiations to that end were underway, ISIS launched its deadliest attacks of the civil war, bombings that took at least 130 lives. Whatever our role or Putin’s, without a genuine cease-fire, the humanitarian crisis will intensify within Syria and continue to expand throughout the Middle East and Europe as desperate refugees flee starvation and carnage.

At the same time, we have an expanded example of the post-World War I European fragmentation that prompted Yeats to conclude in 1919 that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In 2016, beyond the internal collapse of the European “center,” the transatlantic alliance binding the United States and Europe since the end of World War II and anchoring global stability for seven decades seems no longer able to hold. We are still united by shared values, but there is a growing divergence between European and American priorities. Their militaries underfunded, worried about the potential threat of unassimilated Muslim populations, the nations of Europe (and Turkey, also a NATO member) are too divided among themselves to present much of a united front. Insufficiently full-throated in celebrating American “exceptionalism,” and caricatured by jingoists as “apologizing” for America, Barack Obama has been more justly accused of indecisiveness in his vacillation over the Syrian “red line.” We retain—for good or, as we know all too well, for ill—the option to act unilaterally; but  things have fallen so far apart that, whoever is President, the US may no longer be able to lead a coalition of the unwilling, or unable.

This transatlantic division and consequent diminution of resolve and leadership is especially dangerous at a moment when the West is confronted by so many global challenges. The most urgent emanates from the world’s most volatile region, the Middle East, torn by its own divisions: the old and apparently irresolvable breaches between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Shia and Sunni. After three decades of opining about the Middle East, Tom Friedman, in effect, threw up his hands, admitting in his February 12 NY Times column that none of “the many Mideast solutions” are any longer viable. He concluded that the “real,” as opposed to the “fantasy,” Middle East is “a wholly different beast now slouching towards Bethlehem.”

The intra-Muslim rift has been intensified by the recent rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s two most powerful oil-rich states, and the principal defenders, respectively, of the Sunni and Shia branches of schismatic Islam. Triggered by the Saudi execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and the ransacking and torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the crisis between these regional rivals led, in early January, to a severing of diplomatic relations and to escalating tensions affecting the whole of the Middle East. The breach torpedoed hopes for diplomatically resolving the crises in Syria and Yemen, in which Tehran and Riyadh support opposing sides, and it works to the benefit of ISIS by further destabilizing a region already fractured along ethno-sectarian fault lines. With this Saudi-Iran rupture, we also have the hypocritical spectacle of one barbaric theocracy criticizing the other for behaving—barbarically.[8]

Both autocracies relish the graphic execution of their perceived enemies, and both spread terror: our “ally” through its far-flung madrassas and by permitting its elites to fund jihadists; our opponent, but partner in the nascent nuclear agreement, more directly, and through such proxies as Hamas and Hezbollah. The January 4 New York Times account of the crisis was accompanied by a video of a Tehran mob being whipped into a religio-political frenzy by a cleric ranting that the decapitation of al-Nimr, part of a mass execution (forty-seven in all, mostly by beheading and mostly Sunnis), was carried out at the behest of Islam’s true enemies. According to this turbaned pundit, the Saudis are the “collared dogs” of the Little and Great Satan; thus, the protest climaxed with the usual chants: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” (even, for good measure, “to England”).

As a fomenter of hatred, unrest, and terror, Iran is second only to ISIS. Offering one glimmer of light, the March 2016 Iranian elections confirmed widespread support for the reformers and those most committed to the nuclear agreement with the US. Whatever the leadership’s internal stresses, and while it remains a theocratic tyranny, Iran seems dynamic compared to its sclerotic regional rival. While revolutionary Iran meddles, propping up the Assad government, bankrolling Israel’s regional opponents, and stirring up Shia minorities in the Sunni-dominated Gulf states, the Kingdom is experiencing its own severe internal tensions. The new dynastic discord within the Saudi royal family has reached the point where open conflict is now a plausible threat, a scenario incomprehensible before the January 2015 ascension of King Salman. Reputedly suffering from dementia, the aging King may have deferred considerable authority to his favorite son, defense minister and Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman.

Whoever is calling the shots, ailing father or impulsive son, the monarchy’s new and unilateral aggressiveness (pursuing in Yemen a costly, brutal, and indecisive war against the Houthi movement and the Yemeni army, and ordering these recent provocative executions) reflects less strength than fear. Fear of a succession crisis; fear, despite huge cash reserves, of a collapsing oil-based economy; above all, fear of revolutionary Iran and its hegemonic ambitions in the region. The nuclear deal with the US has alarmed not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but all the Sunni states. Its verification procedures are persistently and deliberately misrepresented by its opponents, but the accord still comes with a cost. Even those of us in favor of the deal— given the unpalatable alternatives—should be as troubled as its opponents are by the prospect of a $100 billion or so windfall attending the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the initial withdrawal of sanctions. Most of that money will be needed to rebuild the sanction-damaged Iranian economy. But some of it will inevitably be used to fund Iran’s proxies. What impact might that influx of cash have on the region?

Bahrain and Sudan joined the Saudis in breaking diplomatic relations with Iran; the Emirates sharply reduced contacts; and Shia militias bombed Sunni mosques in Iraq. Quickly rippling through the Middle East, the decision to behead al-Nimr stirred protests as far away as Pakistan and India. The fact that the United States advised against the execution of al-Nimr and was given no advance notice of the Saudi decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran suggests that the young Crown Prince may be in charge in Riyadh. With the role of the US diminished, China and Russia both weighed in, urging restraint; Putin even offered to mediate. This political and religious crisis, the most dangerous regional confrontation in decades, threatens, in the language of several Middle-East experts, to “spiral out of control.”  Retired General Mark Hertling, a perceptive CNN military analyst, concerned that a more direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could erupt, employed the same imagery: “That’s the key issue. This is spiraling very quickly.” It is hard, in pondering the perennial relevance of “The Second Coming” to contemporary crises, not to think of Yeats’s own spiraling imagery: the poem-opening falcon, no longer under the control of the falconer, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” its spiraling movement replicated by the “desert birds” whose shadows “reel” about the ominous “shape” moving in “sands of the desert.”

This crisis, on hold but potentially explosive, is part of a recurrent centrifugal pattern. Yeats was responding to specific historical events in “The Second Coming.” If readers were bound by the literary equivalent of judicial “originalism,” the theory espoused by the eloquent but reactionary late Justice Antonin Scalia, many or most of them would be guilty, in endlessly citing and alluding to the poem, of misappropriation, quoting Yeats’s words while inadvertently or deliberately misconstruing his original political intentions. But we are not thus bound, as Yeats also intended. For his deepest and most genuine foresight, as we have also seen, was his decision to delete, in the process of composition, virtually all the specific details that would have tethered his poem to the events of 1919 as seen through the perspective of the worst atrocities of the French Revolution. The result is a universal poem that has resonated with every generation of readers, and from every political perspective, for almost a century.

Whether we have in mind international political and economic crises, the coarsening and polarization of American politics, the metastasizing of Islamist terrorism, the fragmentation of the European Union and of the Middle East, the refugee tide inundating Europe and the Levant, the danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear blackmail, or the interrelated ecological challenges threatening life on the planet itself in our new “Anthropocene Age,” we may be reminded of John Donne’s disoriented cry early in the 17th century. With “new Philosophy” calling “all in doubt,” sun and earth “lost” and the “Firmament”  itself “crumbled out againe” to atoms, the Metaphysical poet summed up the chaos in a single line: “‘Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone” (The First Anniversary, 205-13). That lamentation over the loss of wisdom, cohesion, stability and order was surely recalled by an admirer of Donne, W. B. Yeats, when he wrote the line that has become so familiar to those contemplating the world the modern poet prophesied as he brooded, in excited reverie and dread, over European disintegration, and envisioned, “everywhere,” the loosing of an irrational blood-dimmed tide of “anarchy” and varieties of “passionate intensity” erupting in violence and chaos. To quote it once more: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

One recalls that open question from Yeats’s near-parallel poem, the great sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: given all this, “is there any comfort to be found?” If so, it is unlikely, for most readers of “The Second Coming,” to derive from Yeats’s own Burkean political perspective, in which the sociocultural disintegration threatened by centrifugal forces could be countered only by the values of a hierarchical, aristocratic civilization. What comfort there is, if there is any at all, may be inherent in the symbol of the gyre itself: the eternal cycle which, for Blake, was a dehumanizing nightmare, but, for Yeats’s other great mentor, Nietzsche, an eternal recurrence to be embraced with astringent tragic joy. And there is a variation more comic than tragic. That aspect of the recurrent cycle was caught by an anonymous editorial writer in the Christmas Eve 2015 issue of a newspaper, the Memphis Flyer. “Simultaneously looking back and forward,” and proceeding “ahead into the next turning of the eternal gyre,” the editorialist invoked the locus classicus:

That aspect of the eternal gyre is something we of the Western world owe to William Butler Yeats, whose poem, ‘The Second Coming,’ gave us lines to remember through all the cycles, all the turnings of fate that seem to foreshadow an end but merely invite a new beginning. There are times, as Yeats wrote almost a century ago, when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ A hundred years later, and it’s still true. It will always be still true. And we will survive and scramble to find our place in a brand new cycle, which itself will seem to be heading to an end but will just be the same old adventure in a new cycle….

The phrasing at its most glib—“merely,” “brand new,” “just be the same old adventure”—is in keeping with the purpose of the editorial, which was to wish its readers a “Happy New Year!” But, mutatis mutandis, this  optimism differs only in tone from Yeats’s own pipe dream, as expressed in his lengthy annotation to “The Second Coming.”  I refer to the vision—influenced by Nietzsche but one that would have repelled Blake—of that new and nobler hierarchical civilization Yeats hoped, and apparently believed, would succeed the democratic and Christian age that was dying.

Introducing his play, The Resurrection, Yeats presents a counter-myth to democracy, Christianity, and that linear “progress” Nietzsche dismissed as a “modern theory, and therefore vulgar.” “When I was a boy” Yeats tells us,

everybody talked about progress, and rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth. I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin. [Around the turn of the century, after reading Nietzsche], I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.

Yeats goes on in this paragraph to cite his 1903 uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, featuring a Nietzschean beast with the literally hilarious name, “Laughter, the mightiest of the enemies of God”—a beast (he adds in a footnote) “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.”

But is this assertion, this claimed identity, really accurate? Mythically and politically, the apocalyptic “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” wingless and certainly not laughing, may represent both the end-product of the vision of the “progressive” Left and the first stirrings, life arising out of death, of an antithetical vision of the aristocratic Right. But however “exciting” it may be, the risen and slouching creature, as actually presented in the poem, is far less promising than sinister, its imminent birth less hopeful than horrifying. In terms of its precursors, Yeats’s rough beast resembles Nietzsche’s beasts, cruel or laughing, only peripherally. And it has less in common with Blake’s prophetic Tyger, terrible but beautiful, than with the slouching, bestial Nebuchadnezzar of Blake’s striking illustration. Indeed, as a creature of “second birth,” the rough beast may most resemble one of those “tigers” Wordsworth imagined prowling the bloodied streets of revolutionary Paris, ready to pounce again in the even worse Terror to come: for all things have second birth.

In short, whatever the poem’s original starting point as a response to his juxtaposed Bolshevik and French Revolutions, and whatever Yeats’s own politics and cyclical counter-myth to the vulgar modern myth of linear progress, “The Second Coming” turned out, as a linguistic work of art, to have a momentum all its own, quite aside from authorial intention. Though the tone of the finished poem mingles dread with a vestigial schadenfreude (“I-told-you-so”) exultation, it ends in human incertitude rather than prophetic certainty.

Other readers may differ, but, aside from that breathless and ambiguous phrase, at once cyclical and terminal, “its hour come round at last,” I find—once we’ve turned from the prose glosses to the actual text of “The Second Coming” itself—little or nothing of the anticipatory optimism attending Yeats’s theoretical celebrations of ecstatically destructive beasts. Nor, I believe, at least as poet rather than prose annotator or apocalyptic theorist, did W. B. Yeats—his sight titillated, but, finally, as “troubled” as ours by what he glimpsed before the darkness dropped again.

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V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

Re-narrowing the focus, I want to return to the current American political scene, specifically to the 2016 Republican primary race. As mentioned earlier, back in 2012, Bill Kristol, the conservative mastermind who had earlier helped midwife both the Iraq War and the emergence to national prominence of Sarah Palin, welcomed Chris Christie as the “rough beast” the Republican Party needed to win the Presidency. This time around, we have two far more likely Republican contenders for the title of “rough beast”: Donald Trump, obviously, but with Ted Cruz lurking in the wings.

Christie was forced out of the 2016 race after a humiliatingly weak showing in New Hampshire, but not before humiliating Marco Rubio, who, in a campaign-altering meltdown, reiterated a canned accusation that it was Obama’s deliberate intention to damage the US:  “We have to stop saying that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing….” Rubio kept robotically repeating this charge of presidential treason, even after Christie had twice ridiculed, not the malice or the mendacity, but the verbatim repetition! In a second coming, Christie, out of the running himself, returned as a revenant the day after the Republican debate in Austen, Texas, to repeat his takedown of Rubio. Having finally been put on the defensive in that debate by Rubio, Trump demonstrated his skill in dominating the news cycle. The next day, in a surprise “Big Announcement,” he trotted out Christie to repeat his ridicule of Rubio while effusively endorsing the “one man” able to provide America “the strongest possible leadership” and insure that “Hillary Clinton will never return to the White House.” In one stroke, this tag team of bullies blunted Rubio’s short-lived post-debate “momentum,” taking the wind out of the sails of the Republican Establishment’s preferred last hope to Stop Trump.

Shortly thereafter, with Christie looking less like a formidable surrogate than a flaccid sycophant, Trump managed (after failing, in response to repeated questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper, to definitively repudiate the support of David Duke and the KKK) to reach a new level of vulgarity. Trump turned Rubio’s innuendo-laden taunt about his allegedly “small hands,” and what that “meant,” into a boastful “guarantee,” in the next debate, of his impressive sexual endowment. The “debates” had deteriorated from mere incivility to schoolyard braggadocio, with “he-started-it” silliness to follow. When a lush photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was distributed by a group unaffiliated with Cruz, Trump tweeted a threat to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. At first Cruz responded with an indignant defense of his wife (its sincerity tainted by the fact that it was plagiarized, verbatim, from the 1995 film, The American President), before bellowing, after Trump had posted an unflattering photo of Heidi, that this “sniveling coward” better leave “Heidi the hell alone.”

In the first Super Tuesday round of primaries and caucuses, Ted Cruz, who had not at that point descended into the Trump-Rubio gutter, did well, crucially holding his own state, Texas, and winning several others. Though Rubio, ironically the first “Tea Party” senator, had briefly become the darling of the Establishment, the attempt to slow down Trump by wrestling with him in the mud had backfired and been to no avail. Trump took seven of eleven states on Super Tuesday. Subsequently, and even more ironically, with Rubio fading (he would never get beyond his two minor victories: the Minnesota caucuses and the Puerto Rican primary), and Trump denounced by Mitt Romney as a fraud, Cruz, in whom everything anti-Establishment was concentrated as in a bouillon cube, emerged as that Establishment’s last desperate hope to keep the blond-maned rough beast from slouching to the convention in Cleveland with the required 1,237 delegates, or with so many fired-up acolytes chanting Trump! Trump! Trump! that it would prove difficult if not impossible to broker him out of the nomination.

It would be a battle between egotistical demagogues, equally capable of commanding an audience, though their oratorical styles could hardly be more different. Silver-tongued Cruz, who can’t say “hello” without sounding as if he’s pontificating from a pulpit or from atop a soapbox, deploys the  elaborately-constructed, orotund sentences of a trained debater, skillfully weaving his points into a coherent argument. Rambling and repetitive Trump rallies his rapt audiences in staccato, non-syntactical bursts, hitting the same few points, and often legitimate grievances, but appealing less to reason than to emotion and prejudice. In a March 8 NY Times op-ed, “Only Trump Can Trump Trump,” Tom Friedman noted the folly of rivals trying to rationally convert Trump “fans” who respond to him on a “gut level” impervious to logical argument. Friedman’s conclusion, that “you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into,” aptly reminded my friend Dennis O’Connor of Jonathan Swift’s advice to a young clergyman in 1720: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.”  In addition, with his base, Trump assumes the ethnic stereotypes he shares with them, and in which, as a businessman, he has trafficked for years. He also possesses a bully’s ability to size up an opponent and skewer him with an ad hominem epithet. “Little Marco” was left, diminished, on the ropes; a single hyphenated adjective, “low-energy,” from which Jeb Bush never recovered, was enough to demolish a dynasty. “Lyin’ Ted,” puffed up with hubris, proved able to take a punch.

The latest avatar of the Religious Right and a purist ideologue—a contemporary right-wing version of Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” of the French Revolution—Ted Cruz is, for many, more frightening even than Trump. An unctuous, sanctimonious ultra-conservative, Cruz thunders apocalyptically about undoing everything done by his hated predecessor on “my first day in office”—“repealing” Obamacare, “ripping to shreds” the nuclear agreement with Iran, getting rid of regulations on corporations, stringently curtailing a woman’s reproductive rights, rolling back environmental protection measures (indeed, terminating the EPA, along with the Department of Education and the IRS); devoutly committing ourselves to Israel, right or wrong; to judicial originalism; and to the extremist agendas of both the NRA and the Koch Brothers.

Hardline conservatives applaud many of these presidential priorities, but Ted Cruz is a zealot and a singularly unattractive one, loathed from the outset by his Princeton and Harvard classmates and later by his Senate colleagues. It is not necessary to consider him (to cite the paired photo of Cruz and Grandpa Munster that has gone viral) “a blood-sucking vampire from a bygone era,” or as “Satanic” (a televised adjective David Brooks later modified to “Mephistophelian”), in order to be turned off by Cruz’s naked ambition, his self-righteousness, his preening arrogance, and the studied artifice of his oratory, as bombastic as it is demagogic. One can admire his verbal skills, but despise the man himself, to say nothing of the hard-right policies he so apocalyptically and inflexibly espouses.

Ted Cruz Grandpa Munster

To observe that Cruz was cursed with a vampiric and (however appropriately) a Joe McCarthy-like visage is to risk joining Donald Trump in belittling a person’s physical appearance. But it’s his facial expressions I find repellent, wincing every time he punctuates his favorite applause lines by chuckling—silently, creepily, barely moving his lips and without anything resembling actual human mirth. Listening to his speech to his followers on the evening of the third Super Tuesday, the Ides of March, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cassius, that cunningly ambitious man who thinks too much and has “a lean and hungry look.” As Caesar intuited, “Such men are dangerous.” Though many Republicans, including former rivals Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham, have now, however half-heartedly, endorsed Cruz as the only way to Stop Trump, others remain no less terrified of the prospect of the reptilian Ted Cruz slouching towards Washington.

Republicans unnerved by Trump and repelled by Cruz are now hoping for an open convention, in which most pledged delegates, committed to the primary and caucus results only through the first ballot, would be free to vote for anyone on a second and subsequent ballots. But that threatened to loose “mere anarchy.” If Cruz or front-runner Trump were to be spurned at a contested convention, their followers might revolt—even, as Trump warned (or threatened), “riot” or launch an independent third party. As March ended, the panicked GOP, having long nurtured its radical right wing, seemed on the verge of disintegration. Party elders feared that neither a detested Cruz nor an unpredictable Trump would be able to defeat a damaged but still formidable Hillary Clinton (they continued to dismiss “that socialist,” Bernie Sanders). In addition to losing the Presidency, with Trump as nominee, Party bosses fretted that some centrist Republicans would either cross over, or not vote at all in November; or that the “Trump Effect” would further radicalize the GOP, strengthening Tea Party challenges to Establishment incumbents, and wrecking what was left of the no longer very grand Grand Old Party.

With no center able to hold, Ayn Randian conservative Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, now seemed like a moderate. But, however respected, even revered he was, Ryan was unable to get hardliners on his right to endorse his budget, while being threatened, from his other flank, by Trump, who rejected cutting Social Security benefits, and informed Ryan who would be “boss.” Even the Republican center-right, the position represented by all three Bushes, had manifestly collapsed, with Trump having achieved the unique feat of unleashing the furies of both the extreme Right and, for Republicans at least, the populist Left. Ryan himself was privately and publicly urged to become the savior at the convention (a role Kasich hoped to play, in the wake of his March 15 victory in Ohio). But any such convention coup, though infinitely preferable to the extremist alternatives, would leave the ultras committed to Cruz and the devotees fanatically loyal to Trump more convinced than ever that they had been betrayed yet again by the Washington elites: insiders represented, on the Democratic side, by Hillary Clinton, a battered but resilient survivor of Bernie Sanders’ valiant and stunningly popular insurgency from the progressive Left.

The division within the parties reflected, but failed to resolve, the massive discontent in the nation: the very frustration and anger—much of it rooted in the slowly, weakly and, above all, unevenly recovering economy—that had fired up the anti-Establishment Sanders and Trump movements in the first place. Some professed themselves perplexed by voters torn between the apparent extremes of Trump and Sanders. That phenomenon can be explained by their overlapping support from blue-collar workers. Those workers, always a low priority for Republicans, were largely abandoned in the 1970s by the Democrats, who have become—as progressive gadfly Tom Frank argues in Listen Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016) —more allied with non-union technocrats and other professionals. There are exceptions among individual pundits and politicians (even Hillary Clinton is having second thoughts on trade). But in general, the “party of the people” became less interested in blue-collar workers and thus in economic inequality—which has actually widened under Obama.

Into this vacuum came Sanders and Trump, whose populist blue-collar appeal is based on their protectionist opposition to outsourcing and to international trade agreements that have benefited corporations but taken away thousands of manufacturing jobs, especially in the Midwest rustbelt. American de-industrialization is not attributable to NAFTA, CAFTA and the TPP alone, but unemployed factory workers are understandably less interested in nuanced theoretical discussions of the positive aspects of globalization than in eagerly listening to those who reflect their grievances and promise to redress them. No matter that, as a businessman, Trump does not practice what he preaches when it comes to outsourcing and hiring illegals. No matter, as well, that he (and Bernie) make campaign promises, many of which they would not be able to fulfill as President. Both create hope, much of it false. But the desperation is real, and the appeal powerful.

Though the American economy under Obama has created 4 million private sector jobs since 2010, many without a college education or lacking the skills required in a new economy have been left behind. Unemployed and underemployed whites are at the core of Trump’s constituency. But these painfully real socioeconomic conditions do not fully explain the phenomenon of Trump, who is also, as David Remnick observed in the March 14 New Yorker, “the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence” (the assault on science, the elevation of Sarah Palin, etc.) and years spent “courting the basest impulses in American political culture,” beginning with  Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and including, more lately, “a birther movement and the Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Birther-in-Chief Trump, flaunting endorsements by the barely coherent Palin and the evolution-denying Doctor Carson, occupies a prominent position at the populist epicenter of this intellectual decadence.

Unlike that of Sanders, Trump’s populist insurgency is spiked by a toxic dose of nationalism and xenophobia. Something short of a fascist or a racist himself, Trump assumes and fuels the resentment and racism of many of his followers: a visceral hatred evident in the outbreaks of violence at recent Trump rallies. As usual, there are two, if not quite equivalent, issues in tension. Sarah Palin, eloquent as ever, has dismissed the protests as “punk-ass little thuggery” cheered on by a leftist media. It is true that Black Lives Matter activists intend to disrupt more than protest, undermining the free-speech rights of Trump supporters. What matters is how Trump has responded to this double “tension.” Unsurprisingly, he has not made it a “teachable moment.” While he does “not condone” the violence against the various protestors (some carrying “Sanders” signs), Trump most certainly does not condemn it. Instead, he incites or incentivizes it, announcing from the podium that he himself would like to “punch” protesters, and waxing nostalgic about the days when such dissidents would be “carried out on stretchers.” When one of his fans did in fact sucker-punch a black protestor as he was being led away, Trump offered to pay any legal fees incurred by the assailant—who was immediately afterward taped, not only expressing pleasure at having punched his victim in the face, but adding ominously that he was “not one of us,” and that “next time we may have to kill him.”

Such behavior and such an attitude are obviously extreme even in the most raucous Trump rally. But the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” is often allied with prejudice and ignorance. One is therefore unsurprised by Trump’s professed “love” for the “poorly educated,” and by the enthusiastic willingness of “my people” to follow their Leader. Even Vladamir Putin, that poster boy for virile masculinity, has been impressed by the same quality in Trump—who returned the compliment (“at least,” in contrast to Obama, “he’s a leader”). The exception among foreign heads of state, Putin also pronounced Trump “brilliant and talented,” leading to an official endorsement by the head of Russia’s state-owned news agency.

No Putin, let alone Hitler, Trump has been more engagingly compared to Mussolini. The Donald recently, if unwittingly, re-tweeted a favorite maxim of Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”), and his neo-fascist tendencies extend beyond the jutting jaw he shares with Il Duce.[9] But even this alignment is overblown. More apt is the comparison with a later Italian leader, plutocrat turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom Trump shares a megalomaniacal and vulgarian cult of the Self. Like all his buildings and projects, Trump’s private Boeing 757 airliner, the backdrop at outdoor rallies, is emblazoned with his name in huge letters. Each step of the plane’s airstair has two “TRUMP” signs; every bath-fixture and seat-buckle is 24-karat gold; every leather seat is stamped with the Trump crest. Asked recently who he consults on “policy,” he responded, as a narcissist would, “I talk to myself. I have a great brain.” The machismo and self-aggrandizement are grotesque, but to his fans, such displays project their leader’s confidence, strength, and authority.

Trump Mussolini

Jonathan Weiner, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (2009), recently described Donald Trump’s core voters as driven by their attraction to authority, to plain-spoken solutions to problems and the promise of decisive action in defense of their traditional values. In “Why Trump?,” an online essay published on March 6, cognitive scientist George Lakoff interpreted the nation’s politics, and Trump’s in particular, “metaphorically,” in familial terms. The “conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country” can be encapsulated in two common but antithetical forms of family life: “The Nurturant Parent Family (progressive) and the Strict Father Family (conservative).” Inculcating “discipline” and “strength,” the Strict Father model produces “winners,” who deserve to win, not only in life, but in electoral contests. Thus, a “formidable candidate’s insults that stick are seen as victories—deserved victories.” For those whose attitudes and prejudices have been deemed outmoded and stigmatized as “politically incorrect,” Trump “expresses out loud everything they feel—with force, aggression, anger, and no shame.” By supporting and voting for Trump, they make him their voice, and their views are made “respectable” by “his victories.” He is “their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.”

Donald Trump photo by Tony WebsterPhoto by Tony Webster (via Flikr Creative Commons)

Lakoff sketches out a conservative worldview embracing distinctions  Trump adroitly straddles.[10] But it is the distinction between “direct” and “systemic” causation that most illuminates Trump’s appeal to the wide following he has attracted. According to Lakoff, empirical research has shown that conservatives “tend to reason with direct causation,” and to deal with a problem by “direct action,” whereas progressives are more in their element engaging the “complex” interactions involved in “reasoning with systemic causation.” If it sounds like Trump vs. Obama (he of the unenforced “red line”), it is.

“Many of Trump’s policy proposals,” as Lakoff notes, “are framed in terms of direct causation.” Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico: build a wall to stop them. Many have entered illegally: deport them, even if 11 million are working and living throughout the country. Jobs are going to Asia: slap a huge tariff on the goods produced there. ISIS profits from Iraqi oil: send US troops to Iraq to seize it (in fact, coalition bombing is now taking a serious toll on ISIS oil production). Want to defeat ISIS?—“bomb the shit” out of them, and threaten (even if it’s a war crime) to kill the families of jihadists. Seeking information from terrorist suspects?—water-board them, or worse. Afraid a few terrorists might slip in among Syrian refugees?—ban all Muslims from entering the country.  To add the latest: tired of funding NATO and providing a nuclear umbrella in the Far East?—declare NATO defunct and let Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear capability. “All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not [to] those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.” Trump’s can-do machismo (including his insulting of the way a woman “looks”) will be less effective in a general election than it has been on this rowdy campaign trail.[11]

§

Contemptuous of Trump’s penchant for simplistic solutions to complex problems, and stunned by his colossal egotism, skeptical observers of his campaign were initially incredulous, even amused. But their sides stopped shaking in mirth as he piled up victories. With his near sweep on the third Super Tuesday (March 15), his delegate count became virtually insurmountable. Crushing Rubio in his home-state, winner-take-all Florida, Trump drove the Senator from the race, collecting a bonanza of 99 delegates. Kasich held on in his home-state, denying Trump Ohio’s 66 delegates. Cruz won nowhere, but continued to collect delegates, slouching toward Cleveland with a number sure to be second only to the front-runner,  whom he planned to defeat at a contested convention. Needless to say, if he fails to reach the nomination-clinching 1,237 prior to the convention, Trump will not go gently in any floor fight; there are arms to be twisted, and there’s always that threat of a “riot.” Quite aside from his own fierce will to “win,” The Donald has repeatedly told us that what he is leading is not a mere political campaign, but a “movement.”  He’s right, and he’s not alone.

Such anti-centrist movements, driven by right-wing authoritarianism and galvanized by Europe’s even greater immigration crisis, are proliferating throughout the West. In France, Marine Le Pen has slowed her activities as president of the right-wing National Front, but only because she is preparing to run next year for the Presidency of France. (Her father, the party’s ousted neo-fascist founder, having tweeted in January that if he were an American, he “would vote for Donald Trump,” accurately described Trump in March as “an independent candidate with populist language; this is what has made him successful.”) In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition is under threat because of her (no longer welcome) welcoming policy toward migrants. That policy, controversial within her own party, is challenged by right-wing opponents, most prominently by Frauke Petry, the efficient and determined leader of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a populist, anti-immigration party she led to victory in several mid-March elections. Going beyond even Marine Le Pen, Petry has proposed that police “shoot, if necessary,” at migrants attempting to enter the country illegally.

In impoverished Greece, over 100,000 migrants have arrived since the beginning of the year; in late February, police clashed with asylum seekers at the Macedonian border. Politically, demographically, and economically, the culminating moment came on the night of March 7, when Europe officially closed its borders. The leaders at the summit convened in Brussels, the EU capital (also, ironically, the central nest in Europe of unemployed, unassimilated jihadists in the making), proclaimed the end of “irregular flows of migrants.”[12] Henceforth, refugees fleeing from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq would no longer be able, in the typical scenario, to escape to the Turkish coast, board a raft to Greece, and travel on, seeking refuge in Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe. Instead, the EU pledged billions in aid to Turkey in exchange for a commitment to take the migrants back. It was a drastic step, but the alternative seemed to be the continued fracturing of Europe, with centrist governments, burdened by debt (with the exception of Germany) and besieged by refugees (and here Germany is no exception), battling against “energized movements from right and left.”

I am quoting a February 25 Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria, repeated three days later on his GPS Sunday-morning television program on CNN. Zakaria’s title and theme are a modestly hopeful variation on Yeats: “In the West, the Political Center Holds—but Barely.” He begins:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It’s time to quote W. B. Yeats’s famous poem again. But this time, it really does seem that the political center is under intense pressure—from left and right—all over the Western world….Across Europe, governments that occupy the center ground find themselves struggling against [extremist] movements….Centrists are under siege in the United States as well….Why are centrists so vulnerable?

Zakaria notes that moderate politicians and governments have performed rather well in recent decades, steering their countries through many difficult challenges. But while they may be competent, “centrists are dull, practical types,” and “there is always a search for romance in politics.” Even amid centrist success, there are still problems, many of them, often outnumbering the successes, stemming from the same force: globalization. Whatever their ultimate source, there are “enough problems to galvanize the romantics who believe that the answer is a revolution.” And, in contrast to traditional politicians, “outsiders,” a Donald Trump for example, “promise easy answers.” Zakaria turned again to “The Second Coming”:

“The best lack all conviction,” Yeats wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The simple solutions are, of course, non-solutions. And they mostly won’t happen.…But what is happening is political paralysis. The romantics and the radicals might not have the power to overturn the centrist consensus, but they can place it under relentless pressure….In the United States, the country and its political leaders have spent months debating fantasies [building the wall, deporting 11 million people, banning all Muslims]. Meanwhile, there is no discussion of the important issues and the actual, plausible policy options to deal with them—regarding the global economic slowdown, massive infrastructure deficits, growing inequality and climate change, among others.

Yeats was wrong. The center can and does hold, but just barely.

Even that tempered and terminally caveated hopefulness—though a far cry from the optimistic interpretation of the eternal gyre as “just the same old adventure in a new cycle”—may or may not amount to whistling in the dark. Just one day after Zakaria’s reassurance on television, provocative social critic James Howard Kunstler also repaired to “The Second Coming,” painting (in a March 1 blog titled “Yeats’s Widening Gyre is Upon Us”) a dismal picture of the United States as the two parties slouched toward their 2016 conventions. The “sinking global economy,” igniting “cluster-bombs of default through the financial system,” would centrifugally “effloresce,” Kunstler surmised, right around the time of those conventions. He foresaw both front-runners “lumbering inevitably toward their respective nominations,” with the GOP likely to split into “warring factions” in a probably futile attempt to derail Trump at the convention: a split reflecting, and exacerbating, the nation’s economic and cultural fissure. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has sparked a revolt that could spawn a liberal version of the Tea Party, which might, in turn, become a truly revolutionary movement were Trump or Cruz to win the presidency. Kunstler concluded: “Yeats’s widening gyre is upon us, and the second coming will not be the reappearance of the celebrity known as Jesus Christ, but rather of the event called the American Civil War.”

The optimistic God’s-eye interpretation of the eternal gyre seems, in the present circumstances, far too cheery to be persuasive. We may hope that Fareed Zakaria’s less dramatic projection of a threatened “center” holding, “but barely,” proves more accurate than James Kunstler’s vision of a second Civil War.  And yet, the American political “center” richly deserves to be challenged, as it now is—powerfully from the left, even more powerfully from the right. In his 1925 poem “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers brooded, “sadly smiling,” as “this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” Prophesying coming decay, this austere, almost survivalist poet of rock and hawk held out one Nietzschean-Yeatsian hope. There will always be “noblest spirits,” for whom “corruption/ Never has been compulsory.” When “the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” So, “shine, perishing republic./ But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center.”

The Jeffers poem, written at the same time as Robert Frost’s earlier-quoted sonnet of impending disaster, “Once by the Pacific,” was only one of three darkly prophetic poems cited by readers responding to a March 2016 essay, “Donald Trump and the Remaking of America.”[13] The essay was by military historian and retired colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose critical history, America’s War in the Greater Middle East, would be published in April. He has long condemned the Iraq War as a catastrophic decision—as has Trump, though Bacevich otherwise dismisses The Donald as a reckless celebrity performer who has, dangerously and all-too-effectively, adopted a bellicose “attitude or pose that feeds off, and then reinforces, widespread anger and alienation.” At once less interventionist and more hawkish than Hillary, Trump was aligned by Bacevich with Cruz and Rubio, in that all are “unabashed militarists,” each claiming that, as commander-in-chief, he would take no “guff from Moscow, or Pyongyang or Beijing or Tehran.” Each has asserted that, once in office, he “will eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ put the Mullahs back in their box, torture terrorists, and give Bibi whatever he wants.” (In this same month, Trump pronounced all of Islam motivated by “hatred of us,” and threatened to kill the families of terrorists—though conceding that if, as president, he could not “expand” the laws, he would, reluctantly, abide by the Constitution and the Geneva Convention.)

Responding to the Bacevich essay online, “John T” summoned up the famous “centre” that “cannot hold” and the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide,” recalling as well that “the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” and that a “rough beast, its hour come round at last,” is slouching to be born. After quoting eight lines of “The Second Coming, John T observed that the emergence of Donald Trump marks “the fulfillment of a half-century’s considered and deliberate emasculation of the underlying sense of social responsibility that once held this country together in a fragile balance.”  But, as it turns out, John T is no fan of the contemporary American center.

“The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said long ago, but it is the corporate center itself that created and unleashed the monster of Trumpism that is tearing the Republican Party apart and that, in the end, will put an end to the corporate institutions that… have so successfully controlled and undermined the very social contract that made their dominance possible. Donald Trump and what he so gleefully represents is a cancer metastasizing through the Republican Party, but what the Democratic pundits who are so joyfully pouncing on the wounded beast fail to understand is that it is a cancer that will bring the Democratic Party down in the same manner….[The followers of Bernie Sanders] expect and demand real and fundamental reform. [They are] not going to have it,…and are not going to accept the lies and pretense that Hillary Clinton is attempting to market. Donald Trump may be the rough beast slouching towards Washington, but the coming fragmentation of the two parties quarrelling over the prize he is seeking is the only hope for real long-term reform that we have left—if we can weather the storm.

Responding, “Ikallitres,” a poetry-lover aware of Matthew Arnold as well as of Robinson Jeffers, observed that “quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has become passé because it can be used to describe any and every one of the disasters that our politics has become.” (From my perspective, the second part of that sentence at once demonstrates and rebuts the first.) The same was true, he continued, of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (locating us “here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”). Though grateful to have been reminded of the finale of “Dover Beach,” John T responded to the criticism of his having cited Yeats in words I’ve been employing throughout this essay, though, unlike Ikallitres, I do not find “The Second Coming” outmoded: “Yeats is so passé precisely because his poem was so very prescient at the time he wrote it and so very relevant today.”

Will the Western “center” hold? Should it? The “centre” celebrated by Yeats (a Romantic drawn to both Burke and Nietzsche) was cultural, steeped in ceremonious tradition: not our moderate political center, which he would have doubtless found as “vulgar” as the “thickening center” deplored by Jeffers, a fellow Nietzschean. And yet Yeats, in revising, purged his poem of particulars that restricted it to his own moment in time and reflected his own political perspective. As I have stressed throughout, in so doing, he universalized the poem, making it perennially relevant, applicable to the crises not only of his time but of ours. Reading “The Second Coming” in 2016, we lament the collapsing of the center and the falling apart of things in our present world of anarchy and blood-dimmed violence. We also dread the emergence—from the chaotic Middle East, from fragmented Europe, from our own polarized politics—of some new incarnation of that rough beast, its hour come round at last, and slouching towards us.

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane smaller

 

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “No Slouch” (Paris Review, 7 April 2015). Oddly, Tabor’s otherwise thorough gathering omits Mitchell’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (on the Night Ride Home album, 1991). But he lists innumerable pop-culture references, including many book-titles, especially sci-fi and detective novels. My own favorite examples range from the titles of all six volumes in the recent Star Trek compendium, itself titled Mere Anarchy (also a Woody Allan book title) to the 12-issue Batman series, written by Kevin Smith, and gathered together under the rubric The Widening Gyre.
  2. In fact, those crucial lines, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” echo Shelley and Wordsworth. According to the last Fury in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the “good” lack “power,” the “powerful” lack “goodness”; and “all best things are thus confused to ill” (1:625-28). But Yeats, who was reading the French Revolutionary Books of The Prelude, is also recalling a phrase he underlined in Book 11 (“I lost/ All feeling of conviction”), and is verbally close to a passage in Book 10 in which, contrasting the moderate Girondins to the murderous Jacobins, a troubled Wordsworth speaks of “The indecision on their part whose aim/ Seemed best, and the straightforward path of those/ Who in attack or in defense were strong” (130-32). And there is a final parallel. In Wordsworth’s Excursion, which Yeats read in 1915, the “bad” earn “victory o’er the weak,/ The vacillating, inconsistent good” (4:298-309).
  3. Frost’s poem is riddled with more-than-biblical echoes, though the poems alluded to all have apocalyptic implications. In “Once by the Pacific,” the “clouds were low and hairy in the skies,/ Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes”: a fusion of the “insolent fiend” who, in the phantasmagoria at the climax of Yeats’s evocation of  “the things that come again” (the original title of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”), “lurches past, his great eyes without thought/ Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,” itself a negative echo of the primary passage Frost has in mind: “the locks of the approaching storm,” in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,”  where the wind-blown clouds are “Like the bright hair uplifted from the head/ Of some fierce Maenad.”
  4. Prelude 10:92-93. Almost eleven hundred victims suspected of Royalist plotting were butchered during the September Massacres. Among those dragged from prison in September, sentenced to death by tribunals, and killed instantly by small squads of executioners was the Princess de Lamballe, maid of honor to Marie Antoinette. Notoriously, her body was mutilated and its sexual parts paraded before the windows of the prison that held the royal family.
  5. McCants, The Isis Apocalypse, 146. For evidence that “most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq,” and on the “triple-union” now helmed by the American “new Crusaders,” McCants (145-46) cites Apocalypse in  Islam (2011), 121-40, by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu.
  6. For details, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016), 70-90.
  7. Following a Republican 2012 presidential primary debate and registering both the on-stage verbal meltdown of then front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, Kristol fired off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who then wanted the outspoken New Jersey governor to get into the race—ended by quoting an email from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the caliber of his party’s candidates. Concurring with the emailer’s allusion—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”—Kristol couldn’t “help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats hadn’t suggested the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ “Sounds,” he concluded, “like Chris Christie!”
  8. Reviewing a study of the Iran-Iraq War in January, 2016, Graeme Wood cited Henry Kissinger’s observation at the time that it was “a pity both sides can’t lose.” Given the horrific death-toll, the remark was (as Wood says) not only “famous” but “fatuous.” Nevertheless, in contemplating the potential of a larger Iran-Saudi conflict, one might be forgiven if, for an irresponsible moment, Kissinger’s realpolitik remark came to mind—along with then-Senator Harry Truman’s observation, in June 1941, when Nazi Germany had invaded the USSR: “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Brutal; but, Truman thought, in the best interest of democracy.
  9. See Fedja Buric’s “Trump’s not Hitler, he’s Mussolini: How GOP anti-intellectualism created a modern fascist movement in America,” Salon (11 March 2016) accessed April 1, 2016.
  10. As in the old Chain of Being (or the Elizabethan World Picture diagrammed decades ago by E. M. W. Tillyard), this conservative worldview is hierarchical, extending from God to man to nature. Conservative “family-based moral worldviews run deep,” and, Lakoff argues, “Conservative policies” are inflected, even shaped, by this Strict Father hierarchy. Your moral worldview defines for you what the world should be like; “when it isn’t that way, one can become frustrated and angry.” Lakoff notes variations and the split among white evangelical Christians, laissez-faire free-marketeers, and pragmatic conservatives bound by no evangelical beliefs. Winning among all three groups, Trump himself is “a pragmatic conservative, par excellence.”
  11. Trump, already opposed by almost three-quarters of women polled, finally suffered what may be genuine damage. On March 30, pressed hard by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the question of abortion, Trump said, not only that it should be illegal, but that any woman who had an abortion should be subject to criminal “punishment.” Here is the exchange, verbatim:

    Matthews: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

    Trump: The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.

    Matthews: For the woman?

    Trump: Yes, there has to be some form.

    A more deft politician would never have let himself be cornered by this cable-news version of Socratic dialogue. For Rush Limbaugh, who quickly sped to Trump’s defense, Chris Matthews was no Socrates but a “Democratic Party hack,” whose gotcha question came “out of left field.” Of course, Limbaugh has no problem when the same relentless badgering is employed in the form of questions coming “out of right field,” as they incessantly are in the habitual technique of his fellow right-winger Sean Hannity. In any case, however it was educed, Trump’s astonishing statement, which goes beyond even the extremist anti-abortion positions of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, was quickly walked back by Team Trump. But the damage was done. The Donald’s freewheeling, unscripted style had finally cost him. How much remains to be seen; but some backlash was quickly evident in his falling well behind Ted Cruz in the polls leading up to the next important primary, in Wisconsin, on April 5.

  12. The Brussels agreement, finalized on March 18, went into effect on March 20. Two days later, three suicide bombers (two of them brothers) killed 31 people and wounded some 300 in Brussels, striking at Zaventerm airport and Maelbeek metro station. A fourth terrorist, whose device remained undetonated, escaped, becoming the subject of a widespread manhunt. Anti-terrorists raids and searches occurred in France and Germany as well as Belgium; and ISIS threatened more “waves of bloodshed,” especially in Europe.
  13. The Jeffers poem has a more direct connection to another poem by Frost. “Our Doom to Bloom,” one of Frost’s late—serious yet light-hearted—assaults on the US welfare state, has as its epigraph Jeffers’s “Shine, perishing republic.”
Mar 102016
 

gayraud3-001Joël Gayraud

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Selections from La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)
by Joël Gayraud,
With permission of Editions José Corti, 2004. 239 pp.

Composed of 410 fragments [17 of which appear below], Joël Gayraud’s seductive work belongs to a grand tradition that stretches from seventeenth-century moralists like Baltasar Gracián to Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Arranged in agreeable disorder, following an approach that gives pride of place as much to reverie as to conceptual thought, to poetry as to revolutionary theory, the texts weave together themes as diverse as dreaming, revolt, utopia, death, childhood, telepathy, and atheism.

Inspired by Castiglione and Nietzsche, Leopardi and Bakunin, Fourier and Benjamin, Gayraud is at once a dreamer—“I am one of those who wake up only to continue dreaming”—and a rebel. An immoderate love of revolt courses through his maxims and inspires such sparkling formulations as: “No one ever revolts too much . . . . It is with revolt as with love: excess gives them life.” It is a logical revolt that comes from afar and “draws its legitimacy not only from the injustice that causes it, but from the immemorial past of rebellion that grounds the human in man”; a permanent revolt that, as soon as it “annexes all historical experience,” develops “into a revolutionary strategy”; a revolt, finally, that could not be reduced to narrow-minded quantitative causes: “The insurgents of 1848, the Communards, or the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square fought less for having (bread, work) than for being (communism, freedom).”

Claiming an ethics of “the internal subversion of the reality principle,” Gayraud does not hide his attraction for surrealism, “the only major attempt to reenchant the world on a secularized magical-mythical basis,” an effort consciously turned towards the future, and aimed at accessing the marvellous of things themselves “as a poiesis immanent to the world.”

Michaël Löwy
review of La peau de l’ombre published in S.U.RR.. 5 (2005)

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Gayraud (born 1953) has written on and translated both classical and modern authors, including Ovid, Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben. His own, often loosely biographical writings, steeped in the double legacy of surrealism and situationism, comprise not only critical essays, fragments and aphorisms, but also poems and short stories as well as children’s books. These have appeared in collections (Clairière du rêve, 2010, Passage public, 2012, Ocelles, 2014) and in numerous radical and surrealist journals in France, French Canada, and the UK. He lives in Paris, where he taught classics until his retirement.

168. The development of sadomasochistic practices contributes more effectively than many revolutionary discourses to undermining the psychological foundations of power. When, in the intimacy of their bedroom, couples experimented with the game of submission and dominance—even where the sexual roles themselves remain uncriticized, the mere fact that this game took place enables the objectification of old fantasies of domination and slavery—fantasies that, as a consequence of the brutal and barbaric establishment of relations of domination, have been buried deep in the breast of humanity. Aggression, whose sublimation can only rarely be satisfying and whose repression perverts and turns it outward, against society, finds here its direct expression. Above all, however, the pleasure shared as much by the dominant partner as by the submissive one, who incidentally often swap roles, initiates them into a veritable communism of pleasure, experienced as a perfectly antagonistic representation of the social economy. It is then the exercise of exclusive power that appears as a sinister perversion, founded as it is on the capitalization of pleasure and its exclusive appropriation. Everyone who, thanks to sadomasochistic practice, each night purges their self of the libido dominandi by giving it playful satisfaction, albeit one leading to real mutual pleasure, cannot but find the pretension to social domination laughable, ridiculous, and a sign of frustration and mediocrity.

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1Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015).

244. When I first discovered the beautiful photographs by Paul Nash dating back to the Second World War and showing the carcasses of aircraft that had been shot down, it became clear to me that the inorganic often takes on the appearance of the organic in its obsolescence or destruction. A plane in working order only lets itself be perceived as a simple machine upon which we look with indifferent eyes, except when we are dealing with a new model, in which case it is the machine’s novelty, even its aesthetic, that attracts us. That attraction, however—except owing to highly particular affective connotations—remains wholly intellectual; in truth, we do not doubt for a second that we are in the presence of the purely inorganic. By contrast, in these images of machinery that had crashed to the ground, I saw not a simple heap of metal but an organic system fixed at an arbitrary moment of its decomposition, the twisted scrap iron, the battered cabins, the gaping and rusted motors, forever out of operation, resembling mangled flesh, eviscerated and mutilated bodies—which did not fail to silently stir through the keyboard of my sensibility the strings of a perfectly licit sadism.

In retrospect, I should clarify that, when looking at these images, I never for a moment thought of the crew that had perished in this mass of metal. And, as added proof that I was not guided by this idea even unconsciously, I remember having experienced similar jubilation before an old dismantled rotary press, a gutted piano, or, to go back even farther in my memory, a tube radio meticulously taken apart by a child’s hands. More recently, and this time on the scale of a landscape, I had an analogous impression of Coney Island, having wandered around the old amusement park entirely abandoned to the elements and wild vegetation: the scenic railway and roller coaster, come to a halt, their carcasses covered in a shroud of rust, had acquired a kind of organicity that one could never have attributed to them at the time of their functioning, when their full operation rendered them emotionally invisible. It is doubtless the attainment of irreparability that makes all these metal creatures approach the intimate sense of our own precariousness.

2Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015)

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181. Just as those seventeenth-century still lifes showing a bowl of fruit, fish fresh out of the water, or a table sagging beneath a heap of venison have only ever provoked my boredom and even repugnance, so, on the other hand, I have always taken pleasure in representations of inanimate objects of everyday life, such as can frequently be seen in the vanitas of the same period. It seems that, if the still life’s immediate effect is to reify the organic entities it depicts, it has the opposite effect on objects and things. The latter, appearing not simply juxtaposed as in a catalogue but, rather, assembled as parts of a whole delimited by the painting’s frame, are elevated to the dignity of organs in a new body, which is that of the painting itself. Such compositions break with the naturalism of their predecessors and, in their mannerism, foreshadow the symbolic function of objects in surrealism or in the boxes of a Joseph Cornell.

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204. Sometimes when fixing one’s gaze on a rock from a particular vantage point one sees emerge from it the head or the body of a human or an animal. Never, in my experience and in those I have heard recounted on this score, does one see objects that are manufactured or animal forms too removed from us, such as fragments of insects. There is, nevertheless, nothing in the form of the rock that would prevent one from finding them. Doubtless it is that we do not want to find them and hold on to a narcissistic mimetism that makes us search for our of own face or for animals most familiar to us, such as those we have domesticated or those that people our fantasies, our dreams, and especially our nightmares—lions, stags, bears, horses, dragons, and other monsters hailing from mythology enriched by the discoveries of paleontology. Man must no doubt have very quickly understood that nature liked to imitate itself, but that this mimesis was not worried about exactitude and realism in representation; rather, it deformed in stone what had been formed in the flesh, it stylized its features, practicing a kind of abstraction and fetishization of certain elements in detaching them from the whole, in treating them in isolation, in enlarging or shrinking them, in thus playing with the proportions of the different elements being represented. This representation, by nature radically alien to the idea of symmetry, is that of contours and profiles. It is, it seems, the first to have been tried by prehistoric artists. And if we began representing the human face only much later, it is probably because the mask was in use for a very long time.

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243. Unlike the dialectic of Plato, based on distinction (in the Phaedrus, the dialectician is modelled on the butcher skilled in carving up beasts following the joints of the meat), the dialectic of Heraclitus is based on analogy—on real analogy, which is to say one that grasps the relation of coming together that exists in being. Indeed, if the opposition of two forces lets the bow be drawn and to send an arrow, it must be that these two forces act simultaneously and without mediation. The author of this double action is the archer, but the analogy exists in the very structure of the bow independently of him. Every bow in good condition, thus true to its concept, is capable of shooting an arrow. Put differently, in every bow there already exists the analogy allowing it to actualize the arrow’s flight.

*

259. Our inclination will be to accrue the implicit and the vague, to multiply paradoxes, but also to enhance the lenses of vision so as to make of the smooth surface of things a landscape deeply cut with valleys, bristling with wild mountain ranges, riddled with potholes and crevasses, in order to rediscover the labyrinth of the living beneath the cellophane of scientific certainty. This is precisely what Leopardi did when, in his Zibaldone, in a striking change of focus, he describes a charming garden in flower as a “vast hospital” or battlefield where all of life’s suffering and consubstantial violence are deployed.

*

262. The bones of six million Parisians are piled pell-mell in the hollows of the catacombs, and in all of Paris’s twenty arrondissements there are at present just over two million souls. If all the dead rose to lead us in a danse macabre, each of us would have three skeletons as partners for a quadrille.

*

248. When our parents tell us they had wanted us, they unwittingly deceive us, since first of all they deceive themselves. It is not us, the being whom they address today, that they desired; what they wanted was a child, not this child they then watched grow up. This one here, despite all the ultrasounds, amniocenteses, and karyotype tests that reassured them of its normality, they were utterly incapable of expecting. And so we are brought down to the level of the supposed unwanted unfortunate, which should cut our narcissism and self-confidence down to size. The desire for a child is always a desire for any child, a desire to create whatever entity, ens quodlibet. The scholastic category of quodlibetality, “whatever being,” is here eminently applicable: as wanted or unwanted beings, we are ontologically whatever.

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263. Historians are the eunuchs charged with guarding the seraglio of truth. Although they have the privilege of seeing it naked, they can never conjoin with it, and never let it go out without first wrapping it in its veil.

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267. The first Greek philosopher of atheism was called Theodorus, which means “gift of the gods.” For the best that the divine has to offer us is the capacity for negation, all the way to negating the divine itself.

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287. A dog plays with a man like a child, but its gaze is not that of the child, laughing and reaching for the next moment. The eyes of a dog engaged in child-like play seem, to the contrary, the bearers of an immemorial wisdom. Its gaze is the profound and melancholy one of a sage who has passed through the infinite series of necessary experiences, each time drawing lessons and, in the end, understanding that not one of them merits being retained. He has no other choice than to arrange them in his memory as in a museum display case. It is something like a reflection of such useless and suspended knowledge that can be read in the eyes of an animal drawn by man into one of his games.

*

322. If memory is the condition of knowledge, oblivion is the condition of experience.

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184. There is no passion so naked that it is not dressed in language.

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311. One of the watchwords of May ‘68 in France, as of the sixties the world over, was freedom of speech. But, even more than freedom, it was about the uncontrollable necessity of speech for all. Yet, little by little, the paradoxical injunction to “express yourself” spread, becoming an authoritarian commonplace as the movement ebbed away. This paradox of an injunction to freedom did not escape notice and emphasis among the fiercest enemies of freedom in its anti-utilitarian form, who lie in wait for anything that could put back into the service of capital what was meant to contest it. What is most remarkable, however, is that the wretches ordered to express themselves could say nothing, not because they had nothing to say, not because they were totally lacking the faculty of thought, but because it was obvious that the command line between ideas and speech remained, for them, incurably blocked. The world revealed itself as aphasic, which moreover has often been the case among the poorest and most isolated classes, such as peasants. One discovered, in effect, the full extent of the general proletarization of society: access to expression, free at last, opened onto a void. This is why the greatest triumph of humor at the time came from a comedian in overalls narrating the story of someone who had nothing to say, a storyteller with no story to tell, while managing to hold his audience spellbound for a good quarter of an hour.

*

342. As Elias Canetti saw clearly, in contrast to Georg Lukács, it is the masses and not the proletariat who were the subject of history in the twentieth century; in other words, a subject paradoxically deprived of attributes necessary for the definition of a subject; a subject without consciousness; a headless, acephalous subject or, just as good, one whose head is interchangeable. It is on this enormous body of the masses that the evil genius of history grafted the head of Mussolini, Lenin, Perón, Hitler, Nasser. There were, of course, a certain number of positive heroes like Makhno, Zapata, and Durutti, who precisely did not want to play this little role of head. We know what fate was reserved for them.

*

213. Finding its roots is not a preoccupation of the wild plant—to which it never occurred it could lose them—but of the unhappy potted bonsai.

—Joël Gayraud, translated by S.D. Chrostowska

(NC wishes to thank Tate for permission to use the photographs included in the text — creativecommons@tate.org.uk.)

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chrostowka

Selected and translated from the French by S.D. Chrostowska

S.D. Chrostowska teaches at York University in Canada and is the author of Literature on Trial (UTP, 2012), Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and MATCHES, a collection of critical fragments (punctum, 2015).

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Mar 042016
 

Richard Farrell

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On a Thursday afternoon in September, some three decades ago, I sat in Mr. Belanger’s fifth-grade science class at Tatnuck School when the Blue Angels roared into town. Six insignia-blue jets buzzed the hillsides of gold-orange trees and circled over the city before they threw down their landing gear.  It was opening day of the Worcester Air Show, and our sleepy hamlet had suddenly become center stage for a spectacle of aeronautic derring-do and unimaginable pageantry. We stood—two dozen mesmerized kids temporarily released from the rigors of life science—in the windows of that classroom, staring out as the blue planes, one by one, lined up and touched down. Then Mr. Belanger barked at us, and we returned to whatever irrelevant topics awaited in our textbooks.

The ensuing three days of air-show mania were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The roar of an approaching Skyhawk would send me sprinting outside as if the house were on fire. Blue jets thundered overhead, practicing right above the yellowing sugar maple in my backyard. The ground rumbled as planes climbed, looped, crossed, barrel-rolled and boomed on high, turning the sky above Walter Street into a veritable six-ring circus. My friends and I dashed and chased, waving at the pilots who flew so low we could see their golden helmets and almost read their names painted on canopy sides. Our prosaic lawn furniture became front row seats for an otherworldly show. Delta-winged jets, tucked inches apart, twirled heavenward before screaming back toward Earth. Even now, decades later, the memories of those days seem fantastic and utterly surreal.

When the air show ended, I knew, and declared quite publicly, that one day, I would become a Navy pilot.

Blue Angels A4 SkyhawkBlue Angels in the A-4 Skyhawk, as the author first saw them

§

Emerson writes that self-trust is the essence of heroism. The human spirit, in conflict with itself, must struggle against the trappings of society, ego, and expectation. The enemy is a prevalent falsehood—the mask that we wear out in the world. To hear the Transcendentalist tell it, the hero removes the mask, revealing some inner light, illuminating a truer wisdom.

I knew all about masks. As a snaggle-toothed boy growing up just forty miles from Emerson’s front door, self-trust came reluctantly, if at all. Instead, I admired men like Chuck Yeager, or at least Tom Wolfe’s re-imagined version of Yeager, fabricated from the author’s imagination and an ancient gallery of heroic archetypes. The enduring myth of American meritocracy offered up a path for a good ole boy from West Virginia to convert passion and courage into an express ride to the very top of the pyramid—a test pilot, a general, a bona fide hero with world records to prove it. If Yeager could do it, I reasoned, then why not me? I only had to find the appropriate mask, wear it with a rigid certainty, and suppress any and all emotion that might reveal hesitancy, doubt, or weakness.

§

Ten years after the Worcester Air Show, still pursuing my dream of becoming a Navy pilot, I returned from physics lab to my room at the United States Naval Academy, only to find that a plebe from 10th Company had climbed out of his fifth-floor window and plunged to the brick walkway below.

His shattered, uniformed body was visible from my window as paramedics rushed in vain to save his life. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars had cordoned off the road, but the air was eerily still. I expected sirens, but heard only the chirping of birds, the rustle of a breeze off the Chesapeake. Again, it was September. A warm, clear day sparkled. Spinnakers billowed on the Severn River as sailboats tacked their way out to the hazy bay.

The mask had suddenly fallen away.

A moment later, my roommates came back from class. D.J. unpacked his books while Darren tore a long piece of masking tape off a roll and wrapped it around his fingers—sticky side out— and began to daub the tape against his chest, removing dust and lint, preparing for inspection. Darren would quit the Naval Academy later that year and send letters from Wisconsin regaling us with tales of coeds and frat parties.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Doesn’t look good,” I said. “Kid must’ve jumped.”

Paramedics wrapped a vacuum splint around the man’s leg and positioned a backboard nearby. Several firemen closed around the scene. Their arched backs formed a reverent, almost prayerful circle of yellow coats around the dying midshipman. Extending from the center of that circle were navy-blue uniform trousers, the same scratchy wool-polyester pants I wore that day, except the pants on that brick walkway below me were covered in dark blood.

Blood pooled on the bricks. Blood soaked the paramedics’ gloves. At one point, the rescue workers all lurched back in unison. Blood, from a blown artery, geysered out from the center. I felt my knees buckle.

Then D.J. came up and sat beside me on my desk. Just a few weeks into our sophomore year, we had been roommates only a short while. D.J. was an engineer, serious and taciturn by nature. His silence could be unnerving, because I never knew what he was thinking, but in that strange moment, D.J.’s quiet demeanor felt steadying, like a sea captain in a gale. What good were words?

Then an echolalia of chow calls began from open windows all around Bancroft Hall. Sir, you now have ten minutes until noon-meal formation. The uniform for noon-meal formation is working-uniform-blue-delta.

Chow calls were one of the many tedious rituals plebes were forced to repeat, six times a day, at ten and five minutes before each meal. One thousand plebes, minus one, repeated the rote words in a haunted chorus, a maddening mayday from a symphony of oblivious cuckoo clocks chiming the hour. Only this was no mayday. The unfolding misery below our window would not interrupt the routines.

§

I don’t believe that whatever wisdom a middle-aged man has acquired is any truer than the dreams of a ten-year-old boy or a twenty-year-old midshipman. Passions abound, both in the spring of life and in its autumn. We are filled with hope, doubt, fear, longing, joy, and grief. The boy dreams of taking flight, while the grown man reassembles the broken fragments of the past.

These days, I’m a stay-at-home father, a trailing spouse married to a woman who works long, irregular hours as a Navy obstetrician. While my wife manages laboring patients, I spend my time worrying about car pools, sleepovers, birthday party gifts and baseball practice. My children’s schedules dictate the rhythm of my day, leaving precious little time to worry about their dreams: What paths have they already begun to walk? What shapes their destinies? What masks have they already begun to wear into the world? My son wants to play professional basketball; my daughter wants to ride horses and live on a ranch in Montana.

The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic, Emerson writes. At times, though, I want only simple happiness and security for my children. I don’t want my son’s body battered by contact sports. I don’t want my daughter’s heart broken. But life and wisdom always come with scars.

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Rituals at Annapolis were enshrined within a tradition and rigidity that even the most ardent cynic might admire. Each moment of our day creaked with customs, from reveille to taps. We marched, saluted, studied, and trained. We followed honor codes and conduct codes. For four years we scoured our rooms, polished brass belt buckles, folded tee shirts and socks with mathematical precision. We tucked sheets into taut hospital corners as though it were a holy sacrament. We believed in big ideas—in America and freedom and power—and we worshipped those ideas through a steadfast devotion to the most minuscule details. Our faith, like our duty, was absolute and unflinching.

For the entire four years we lived together in Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world. Bancroft Hall was a home and a prison, a hearth and a hell. The massive building, erected at the turn of the last century in the Beaux Arts style, mixed classical symmetries with rococo flourishes. Cold stone surfaces rose to slate gray mansard roofs, trimmed with oxidized copper flashing. Nautical-themed statuary and maritime bas-relief decorated the corners. The scale of the building imposed on us, a structural symbol of an institutional ethos: the individual submitted to the will of the whole, an idea and ideal manifested in rusticated concrete and polished floor tiles. Neoclassical lines spoke of order. We marched beneath its imposing domes and stood midnight watch in Bancroft’s vast, cavernous hallways, always reminded of history, of fallen alumni and of future sacrifice, our individual existences reduced to fodder. For emphasis, brass cannons guarded the grand front staircase.

bancroft hall colour adjustedBancroft Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

In Memorial Hall, at the center of Bancroft, were inscribed the names of more than a thousand alumni who died in battle. A flag from Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812 was enshrined behind glass. That flag reminded each of us daily with its tattered motto: Don’t Give Up the Ship.

Annapolis pushed a hero-heavy curriculum. The ghosts on the yard were all once great warriors, and we were taught to borrow their masks. Tecumseh stood watch over manicured lawns. Every academic building gestured toward mythical grandeur—Nimitz Library, Halsey Field House, Preble Hall. We revered warrior virtues and worshiped at the altar of self-sacrifice and bravery, all the while puffing out our chests with bravado and notions of coming glory. Self-trust received little attention. To interpret the iconography: there was no higher virtue than to lay down your life for your country.

Death, however, came with obligations of community and valor. While it was heroic to die in battle, it was something entirely different to take one’s own life. As the paramedics attempted to hold on to the young man’s fleeting existence on the bricks below my window, our routines continued apace. There would be no time-out for this suicide, no memorial to his sacrifice.

My roommates stepped back from the window and continued getting ready. Darren turned and D.J. taped-off his back. “Cooperate and graduate,” we learned, recited and believed as an article of faith. All for one and one for all. I rolled the tape around my own fingers, uncertain what it all meant, and kept watching out the window.

Memorial Hall Don't Give Up the ShipMemorial Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

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In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden reminds us that there is something rather mundane about the shape of human tragedy. The subjective nature of suffering always leaves room for the rest of the world to carry out the logic of the day. Icarus goes kerflooey while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. Auden’s poem addresses the very notions of torment and flight. The poem examines Brueghel’s sixteenth-century oil painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which itself returns to the ancient legend of Daedalus and his eager son. Early versions of this legend can be found carved on Etruscan jugs from the seventh century before Christ. Man has long dreamed of taking flight, even before the discovery of the physics and engineering that made such dreams possible. And for even longer, humanity has managed to ignore tragedy with a blithe nonchalance. Perhaps our indifference is some vestigial hangover of evolution. In the primordial ooze, there would’ve been hardly time to stop and mourn for a fallen comrade while the tiger closed on our heels. Progress lacks easy definitions.

In Brueghel’s painting, an indifferent sea swallows up the ghostly legs of the falling Icarus, while shepherds and sailors go about their day. As Auden says, everything turns away.

Landscape with the Fall of IcarusLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel, Pieter the Elder

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Plebe year at Annapolis was the hell of it, ten grueling months stuffed with relentless military indoctrination, hazing, and physical exertion. I saw varsity linebackers reduced to tears, future fighter pilots so frazzled they’d forget their own names. But in that caldron of discipline and cruelty, an incredible thing happened. The self receded. Second-guessing disappeared. The yoking of regulation, discipline, and custom to our daily habits somehow managed to supplant the individual will. Life became a form of ascetic retreat, with a scripted rigidity, uniforms, slogans, and beliefs. As cruel and brutal as it could be, the routines were also incredibly liberating. The mask simply fit.

Ego vanished plebe year, perhaps not into some higher plane of spiritual awakening, but it was gone nonetheless. You submitted to the will of the larger institution. You became invisible, indistinguishable, if only to avoid getting reamed out by any one of the three thousand upperclassmen who outranked you. The regulations, routines, and discipline squeezed every last drop of individuality out of the blood, a dialysis designed to filter out lazy and timid habits from civilian life and replace them with the bellicose faith of military mythology and American altruism. To be certain, it was a herd mentality, but when in the crush and rhythm of the herd, oh what freedom!

The flipside to joining the herd was an obliteration of self-trust. Emerson wouldn’t have lasted a week at Annapolis. To question, to exert, to challenge—these things were unimaginable. Membership exacted the steepest price. Self-trust wasn’t heroic, it was dangerous and defiant, a tumor in the organs of an otherwise baleful gallantry. The very last thing a military force can withstand is the warrior who thinks too much.

The plebe who jumped that bright September day was named Kevin. Though I didn’t know him personally, the odds were good that we’d passed each other in the halls. I might have braced him up, chided him for an untucked shirt, or demanded he address me as “sir.” Until he jumped, he was just one of a nameless legion of young men and women like me, who turned over our identities and fates to the hallowed traditions of Annapolis.

Only later did I learn that Kevin came from Ohio. He’d managed to gut it out through the misery of Plebe Summer, but the end was still a long way off.  Kevin wanted to quit the Academy, perhaps to return to a more normal life along the shores of Lake Erie, but his well-meaning family, friends, and company officer all told him to stick it out. So did the institutional codes. The reminders were everywhere: Don’t give up the ship.

I can only imagine how words and ideas raged like cannon fire in Kevin’s mind as he struggled. I’d certainly suffered my share of setbacks and doubts during my own plebe year. Sometimes the pressure just got to be too much.

Did leaving for Kevin feel so much like failure that dying seemed a more reasonable option? Did words like sacrifice, duty, and hero slash at him as he pitted them against other words, like freedom, family, and home? Abstract ideas can inspire men to great sacrifices, or they can bring about catastrophic consequences.

As Kevin’s life spilled out on the brick sidewalk below my window, the only thing I processed was the waste of it all.

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There’s very little that’s heroic about being a stay-at-home dad. No archetype exists, no books about domesticated heroes have been written. My day-to-day challenges involve time management and festering peccadilloes of unsorted laundry and unfinished homework.  “A man is his work,” my father intones, and these days my labor involves making beds, ignoring dust piles beneath the furniture, driving the kids to school. My failures and fuckups register in the emotional damage I can do with a raised voice or forgotten promise. My successes are far more muted. There are no air shows, no bright blue jets and golden helmets. There are no uniforms to hide behind, no masks to wear. A bizarre emphasis falls on the most mundane—the al dente texture of mac ’n’ cheese, the book reports I forget to check until the last minute. I can’t say how high or low the stakes are. Some days this work seems important. Other days, I feel like I’m wasting every second of the precious few I have left.

I never became a Navy pilot, though I came close. I graduated from the Naval Academy, became an officer, and eventually reported to flight school at the very same base where the Blue Angels were stationed. For six months, I donned a helmet, a flight suit, and a parachute and learned how to fly. On yet another September day, I climbed into a T-34 and soloed. After landing and shutting off the engine, I strutted across the flight line like I’d finally arrived at the threshold of where heroes dwelled. But the feeling didn’t linger. In fact, the closer I came to the finish line, the emptier I felt.

I thought that becoming a Navy pilot would change something fundamental about who I was. I thought gold wings would somehow smooth out the rough edges, erase doubts, fill in the empty places. In short, I assumed that I’d grow into the mask. But the opposite was happening. A month or so after that first solo, I suffered a seizure in an airplane. I was lucky to have survived, but I would never again pilot an airplane.

I suppose words like surrender and failure often seem loaded, freighted with the tincture of forever: heroic narratives that offer few examples of second-place finishers.  As a young man, words and ideas seemed ironclad, irrevocable, and failure felt freighted with only disgrace. But the moral value of a win-at-all-cost mentality is a very shallow one, not to mention entirely false. When I was forced to stop flying, I assumed my life would never recover. But I grew up. I learned, listened, and saw beyond rigid notions of right and wrong. We all win. We all lose. In somewhat equal proportions.

At ten and at twenty, it was easier to believe in mythical, right-stuff heroism. My ego willingly surrendered to the bon mot and the battle flag. Only later, with failure, with surrender, was I able to begin to understand self-trust. Emerson doesn’t address this, but sometimes self-trust looks a lot like self-doubt.

Richard Farrell as plebe at AnnapolisThe author in his plebe year

As I boy I read and reread Yeager’s autobiography. I watched The Right Stuff so much that my VCR tape began to stretch. I felt called to the shores of the Severn, but I certainly didn’t understand the implications or repercussions of that calling. My dreams were twisted and warped by the very myths in which I so vehemently believed. Watching the grisly aftermath of a shipmate leaping into the abyss was like watching some inverted, mangled, nightmarish version of my dream.

I wish I could go back and tell Kevin that things would have improved. Plebe year eventually would end. Whatever burdens he carried with him to the ledge that day were temporary ones. Didn’t he know that?  I wish I could have convinced him that there was no lasting shame in quitting the Academy. He would have recovered. Like my roommate, Darren, he could have written letters from a civilian college—boasting of frat parties and girlfriends—while his roommates back at Annapolis envied his freedom. Instead, he opened a window on a glorious September day and jumped.

And though my kinship with him was institutional—born of the anonymous Brigade of Midshipmen and the identical uniforms we wore—his short life became an enduring lesson. From my window, I watched him take his final breaths. Something died in my own heart too. Was it innocence? Was it faith?

I would continue to believe in heroes. I would wear my class ring and feel an incredible pride as the Blue Angels roared over graduation. But I would also eventually leave behind the simplistic codes and the consuming urgency of an organization that esteems martyrdom. I would eventually see through the cracks in the ivory tower, smell the rot in the walls.

As Kevin’s life ran out, right there on the brick sidewalk below me, could he have fathomed how the routines around us continued undisturbed? Was he trying to make a statement?  Was I the only one who heard? The institution had long before turned deaf. His suicide hardly altered the plan of the day. But I felt the mask slip.

And yet we turned away from Kevin, we who claimed to be his shipmates, trusted guardians of each other’s fate. We didn’t even skip a formation for his death. And for twenty-five years I’ve carried a measure of shame about that. Below my window, his navy-blue uniform pants and black shoes were drenched in blood, while I and four thousand other midshipmen simply prepared for lunch, as if nothing had really happened.

Like the ploughman in Brueghel’s painting and Auden’s poem, I bent to my task. I turned away. There simply wasn’t time to listen. Or maybe there wasn’t enough silence. The voices of shouting plebes droned off into a din as the paramedics lifted Kevin’s lifeless body onto the gurney. Sirens began, drowning out the wind, the birds, my own thoughts and feelings. I did what I had to do. I turned back from the window, straightened my belt buckle, and went out to formation.

Self-trust was a tall order, especially for an idealistic young man who wanted the world to make sense. Heroes carried on, even if carrying on was the least heroic thing any of us did that day.

After the fall, Daedalus surely saw the sky as a burden for the rest of his life. Every cloud, every soaring bird, and every star became another reminder of his lost son. Or maybe that’s just foolishness. Maybe I’m still looking towards myths and heroes to explain the world, rather than trusting my own heart. If self-trust perpetuates heroism, what does that say about self-doubt?

I see not any road of perfect peace which a man can walk, Emerson writes, but to take counsel of his own bosom.

It is morning here, and birds are singing and the light is golden. Soon my kids will come bursting from their dreams, hungry, eager for whatever private desires spur them through the day and fill their beings. I want them to soar, of course, though I’m fearful of what they may encounter in flight. But for now, I will make breakfast and oversee showers. I’ll try not to worry about what kind of people they will become, where life will take them, or how it will twist and turn, with its infinite number of ways to break hearts but also to stir passions. We forge ahead on these fragile, corruptible paths, always capable of discovering great joys but never far from sadness either. But I don’t have time to ponder these things much, because my kids are almost awake, and there is so much to be done.

—Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell collage 480px

Richard Farrell  is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Nonfiction Editor at upstreet. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in Descant, Hunger Mountain, Newfound, Blue Monday, Dig Boston, Contrary, and others. He is currently writing a collection of short stories and a novel. In 2016, he will be a resident writer at the Ragdale Artist Community in Lake Forest, Illinois. He lives with his family in San Diego.

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Feb 122016
 

Palermo balcony

 

Balcony for dreamers. There is no floor: abandon gravitation ye who step out here. Turned so entirely outward that it got refined out of existence, there not to detain but to accelerate the gaze. The wrought iron railing as an exercise in minimalism in this least minimalist of cities: how to draw the minimal line that can hold the maximum of time.

For 400-500 years the balcony has been working on mastering the art of flight. In the meantime the palace has grown wrinkled and bald and liver-spotted. The thinner and more brittle its walls, the more it fills up with swallow-sky. Swallow-sky is no ordinary sky, and is entirely different from seagull-sky, not to mention pigeon-skies. However, it does show some similarity to bat-sky, although the latter is a night sky of course. The sky graffitied over by the gulls’ trajectory is broad-gestured, self-confident action painting, while the swallow-sky is made up of the spent pixels of untraceably swift, self-effacing movements. Its negative is the airway system of deep blue light.

The swallow-sky is the best introduction into the nature of chaosmos.

O rondine che arrondini lu mare. The way of being of sea swallows is to fly round the sea, round mini-seas that fit into the ellipses drawn by their frenzied hither-and-thithering. There is demented purposefulness in their movement as they whirl in flights, but each swallow’s trajectory is lonesome. It is the sea-sky they are after, not mosquitoes.

One could draw the city map like a puzzle of roof terraces. Like a Klee, but much more jumbled. It is impossible to make an accurate aerial image of the old town because satellites cannot distinguish between roof terraces on one or two levels, or those with a tile or tin roof or one grown over with greenery, and a regular rooftop. Only the swallows know the city’s true map: imagining the morphology of the houses on the basis of their ground plans is as impossible as it is to represent a forest by drawing the circumference of tree trunks. Only the swallows and the cats. A cat can roam the roofs of entire districts, the Cassaro, the Kalsa, only the main thoroughfares block its way with their violent straight lines: the Via Maqueda, the Via Roma, the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. It is not impossible that Palermo cats have learnt to fly, with a discreet flutter like bats. They probably drink not milk but coffee that careful hands place in their way beside the de rigueur canned tuna, at dawn parachute on top of the most trustworthy-looking parked car, tiny electric sparks at the tips of their moustache. The young ones sometimes fall to their death on the broken tarmac that feels like sea pebbles to the feet, like young birds dropped from the nest. Like that ginger kitten thrown by the curbside on my third day here, almost completely buried in litter and dust by evening.

The inhabitants seem to be practicing levitation day and night. Women walk on dizzyingly tall platforms. It is easy to spot tourists in the thick crowds: they are the only ones who fix their eyes on the sidewalk. The locals’ gaze is dispersed at eye level, yet they seem to have feelers for rugged curbstones. The palaces turn their faces to the sky like the martyrs of the darkened baroque altarpieces; what you see from the narrow vicoli, the upwards-broadening piazzette and claustrophobic street corners is mostly their loose double chin. Towers stretch upwards until they glimpse the sea. The domes only exhibit themselves to the top floors, they rotate with their maiolica skirt swollen out round. The sky above them is the sea’s reflection. Looked down upon, the shamefaced sidewalks keep to the walls, try to elevate themselves with obsessive tectonic uplift under the belly of parked cars that take up most of their surface.

Palermo street

As the sidewalks keep vanishing, so do the parked cars adhere to the walls like the mollusks, plastic bottles and rags washed ashore on the breakwater rocks. The little, disused chapel at the entry of my street has an A4 sheet of paper between two brutal steel padlocks pleading with drivers to leave the entrance open at all hours. One and a half cars and two motorbikes are squeezed in front of it.

In place of the thinning tarmac, trash sediments: in the city of dreamers nobody bothers to clean up. Above the trash bins overflowing with pungent stench of rot and urine a slightly squinting Madonna leans out, two subdued Christmas lights stuck into her garish mantle. Below in thick white letters, IN TRASH WE TRUST. The Il Capo bazaar shops, the street-food carts of the Vucciria, the baroque-oriental fish, meat, vegetable, fruit stands of the Ballarò all spill over onto the streets, blocking the distraught motorini with the clients’ shopping bags, the leaves and peels and offal and the liquid stench dripping from the fish stands (the sea creatures are sprinkled with icy water, generous quantities of which end up on the customers’ clothes).

There is a difference of at least fifteen shades between the cornices dipped in the morning and evening light, and the base of the same walls. And of at least fifteen shades between the zones of sky immediately above the most light-filled cornices and the blue in the middle of the sky. Era il ciel un arco azzurro di fulgor. The blue diluted in the middle of the sky is Sahara blue, like the lapis lazuli mantle of Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate turning her eyes away from the spectator who is offered a privileged position as the bearer of the crushing word. There is no position more voyeur-like, yet Mary withholds herself from the gaze. The Messina-born Antonello, who had learnt to paint in the Flemish way, invented the theatre of the invisible.

The small Byzantine domes squatting on top of their box-like churches are champagne bottlenecks. Each one encloses the explosion of desert skies: the foam petrified into mosaic tiles a thousand years ago, but keeps fizzling still, ready to pop its stone cork any time.

Palermo shore

Inhabitants resist the sea while they can. The old town turns its back to it, the pretentious twin elevations of the Porta Felice flanking the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele’s sea end cannot fool anyone: where the street goes over this threshold into the open, traffic stops spilling, only a few people drift over, but inwards the artery is clotted with humans and machines moving in honking clusters to the spasmodic rhythm of streetlights. The planks of the benches along the deserted seawall are practicing disappearance, just like the balconies’ marble floors. Legions of teens elbow their way on to bus 806 (blue, of course) to Mondello beach, armed with radios that keep screaming even an hour later when they are kneeing their way in the sand among sunbathers’ towels, in earnest competition with the thundering disco music off the bars and fried calamari, ice cream, cotton candy, fruit and coffee stands. A guy carries a roaring oversize loudspeaker on motorbike towards the rocky edge of the crescent-shaped beach, while Arabian-sounding Sicilian songs, syrupy pop and merciless techno crash into the traffic jam from pulled-down car windows, covering the convulsions of the engines. As if existence had to be proved in front of the sea’s vast emptiness. In the city only the refugees and the recently immigrated are quiet. On Piazza Pretoria, which is almost completely filled by the late-Renaissance fountain populated with marble nudes, there is a compact slab of 50-100 demonstrators, mostly Africans, in front of the regional parliament. One man is sitting on the ground with two handwritten banners propped up against the fountain’s edge: DIRITTO AL LAVORO – DIRITTO ALLA VITA. An eerily soft-spoken demand. Their silence is as out of place as the fountain itself, originally designed for the garden of a Florentine villa: the statues’ classical mold looks almost cheap here.

Palermo facade

The island and the city on its edge look at their own countenance in the sky and gather shells. Before the Normans they had already gathered a dozen peoples, including Arabians. The Normans took it away from the Arabians, but learnt their language beside Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Their words, gestures, bodies, singing voices got mixed and the city started speaking islandese. Those who speak islandese change their timbre with every sentence. The French and Spanish also landed here with the ambition to rule over it, not recognizing its mirage-like nature. The Greeks and Albanians fleeing from peril all round didn’t attempt to rebuild their lives from scrap but abandoned themselves to this place that never made up its mind which continent to belong to. The rough edges of their names, the Arab gutturals, Latinate consonants, lisping Greek endings were smoothed down like pebbles in the throaty local vowel strings. In the small blind street I stay in and which bears the respectable name Via Bologna, although it has as little in common with the full-bodied leftist university city as its neighbour with Trieste consumed by two-worlds schizophrenia, there is a street tap. In the mornings and evenings people from neighbouring streets come to fetch water. The water they spill while filling their plastic tanks is the only washing the street gets. In this district there are lots of gutted-out houses, semi-demi-ruins with no sewage, this is what the poorest newcomers get. Some of the more consolidated balconies with mass-produced marble slab floors hold massive amphorae or watertanks. The recently arrived sit on the benches of the strangled little park in front of the train station all day long, waiting for connections. Those who are new to the job of waiting are startled by every noise and gesture, at once try to establish and to avoid eye contact. Further up the street in the evenings I can hear five or six languages, of which I only understand Italian and Romanian. Yet all the intonations sound familiar after a few days. Balconies almost rub shoulders, even with the blinds down we can see into each other’s bedrooms. Smells cross over from the kitchens and musics from the TV sets: besides fried calamari and caponata there is thyme, incense and unknown spices that knock me on the head like the scent of jacaranda trees on the streets. When a jacaranda tree blooms, it transubstantiates into scent, the sidewalk beneath is dressed as if for a wedding. Because they can see right into each other’s homes, people stop locking their doors. The ground floor entrances are wide open in the evenings, some sit out to chat with the neighbours, others fool around with a ball trying to amuse children. When dark falls two or three cats queue up for their dinner. From my second day here, I and the two little old ladies who plant themselves in front of the house greet one another. Pingg, go their smiles to my too-loud Buona sera, as I apologetically try to hide the camera with one hand. The street is like a vertical village.

Palermo wall mural

In the mornings a feral tabby eyes me up and down from beneath a parked car. Several people feed it, as they do most strays. Here each square is fitted out with its resident stray dogs, plump and large-size, that lie flat on their sides, not moving an eyelash in the craziest jamboree even. Their eyelids only stir when they dream. They dream often, and then they smile more. They look on the bat-like and invariably anxious-looking miniature dogs walked on leashes with the placid benevolence of aunties. People are genuinely and spontaneously kind to all sorts of stray animals and stray people. On the island even plants are immigrants: tropical jacaranda trees line the posh alleys and the decidedly non-posh thoroughfares that go straight landward for kilometers on end to the margin of the edge of town, and in a place of honour in the lush parks there is always a giant magnolia-fig tree, Ficus macrophylla columnaris, that drives aerial roots into the soil, veritable pillars that grow reptile-like feet, so the exponentially spreading parallel trunks grow to thirty times the width of the mother tree. One tree is a whole forest.

Last morning as I pull my suitcase along the street I glimpse the tabby in the middle of the street. Some car or motorino flattened it in a beastly manner. Before reaching the corner of Via Roma I stop for a moment at the bougainvillea spilling over the broken fence, this commonplace explosion. I can’t help thinking that the cat ended not run over but falling from the rooftop because it was blinded in its flight by the morning splendor.

—Erika Mihálycsa

 

Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Feb 112016
 
Domenico_di_Michelino_-_Dante_Illuminating_Florence_with_his_Poem_(detail)_-_WGA06422

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem by Domenico di Francesco via Wikipedia

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition

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THERE IS A PHRASE coined by the critic Harold Bloom “the anxiety of influence,” which once raised the dust of a herd milling around its allure. Without paying Bloom, a prominent bad-boy, the compliment of either expounding or contradicting the truth of his book The Anxiety of Influence, his phrase “influences” me if only to retort upon it.

I draw my greatest satisfaction as a novelist and a writer of short stories, though the scholarship of others has been a major influence on both my fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist I have written three books that speak to two authors who have drawn the attention of scholarly critics and researchers, Shakespeare and Dante. This perhaps is a form of academic cross-dressing but in the past few months I have returned to think about Dante, since the editor of a literary journal asked me to interview the poet, who has been holed up in his grave for well over half a millennium. As I finished a first draft, I was struck by the coincidence of a note arriving from the wife of the novelist John Barth, saying that she had found my book, Dante Eros and Kabbalah on her husband’s shelf and was reading it. We printed in Fiction Barth’s story of Ulysses setting sail with the princess Nausicca for a new life to the west of Greece, excerpted from Barth’s novel Tidewater Tales. That particular tale was one of those that inspired me in speculating on Dante. Shelley Barth’s curiosity about Dante just as I was returning to the poet was a bit uncanny and it suggested my lecture’s real title.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks his audience, “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

“Answer: Of himself.”

What follows is how I came to read Dante as closely as I could and returned to Dante’s Comedy influenced by a 13th century classic, by literary criticism, the scholarship of others and the way a work of literature often embodies the influence of texts that have preceded it, an enthusiastic if mischievous re-reading of texts that precede it. That sounds like a more generous way to put it than Bloom’s “anxiety.” I could call what follows as advertised “The Anxiety of Laughter,” or “The Generosity of Influence,” or but the title, which seems to ring right is, “The Coincidence of Influence.”

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I don’t know what the guiding principle of scholarship is but I feel that coincidence is what dictates the novel and the epic poem alike, since it is what sets the direction of the plot. I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.

I first read Dante in high school. It was the first volume of the Comedy, the Inferno, and it was in John Ciardi’s translation. I read it out of curiosity—I was an omnivorous reader—but although I found it interesting, I did not find myself in it. The world of cruel punishments was repellant. As little boy I was more than once set upon and beaten by juvenile delinquents from the nearby streets of poverty stricken Irish for “killing Jesus” and paraded by canvases of Jesus crucified in the Museum of Fine Arts that made me cringe. The laughter and complexity of the poet descending his Inferno did not bleed through to an adolescent. Dante remained for me through college and graduate school a writer I could admire but not understand. In my mid twenties, however, I received a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference presided over by the poet John Ciardi. Unexpectedly, since the young editor at Simon and Schuster, who procured the fellowship for me, did not like my novel, Thou Work Jacob, Ciardi did; praised it, and wrote several sentences for its publication that still make me blush with gratitude.

Ciardi’s generosity sent me back to Dante. I was now a disciple of Ciardi. He had endorsed me; given me hope that what I wrote would be touched by the poetry of language he said he had found in my first novel. I wanted to be influenced by Dante, the poet to whom Ciardi’s name was so prominently linked. I re-read Ciardi’s translation of Inferno, but decided I ought to read the whole of the Comedy and bought the Modern Library prose version, slowly making my way through Inferno again, then Purgatory and Paradise. The Comedy seemed to be about the three obsessions of my life; sex, politics, and religion, but its drama remained at a distance and though I read with more understanding, I felt no empathy.

At twenty-nine, my mother died. I took up a book that the rabbi at Harvard had given me as a junior or senior, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. At twenty-one I had read three or four pages. It made no sense and I put it down. It was beyond me. Now I read it as a guide to the world beyond, a world to which my mother, abruptly, at fifty-six, and in a startling metamorphosis recovering her beauty as a slim adolescent before her final awful dissolution, had gone. I was left in nightmares and hallucination. Scholem’s lucid scholarship about the Jewish imagination seeking to read the “Other World” led me to the Zohar, the major mystical or Kabbalistic text of Jewish Spain in the 13th century, which Scholem’s volume explicates. Reading the Zohar’s abridged English translation I had just enough understanding of the Biblical world and the Talmud to respond to its flights of wild story telling. Scholem’s warning that there were elements of parody, and deliberate fiction, including the Aramaic, which was an artificial construct of the 13th century, not the 2nd century as it claimed, stimulated my own imagination and its details seeped into my fiction. I became a student of Scholem’s, a group that included I would learn, Harold Bloom and Jorge Luis Borges.

I was unaware what would happen when I tried again to read Dante. Suddenly the poet spoke to me. I had absorbed a language of imagery reading the Zohar, a language that made the barriers of Italian, Aramaic, the world of l3th century Spain and late 13th century Italy, seemingly sealed against each other, fall away as I recognized their common share in neo-Platonic philosophy. Scholem had taught me to hear the laughter in the Zohar as a vast hot spermatic flood burst out of the earth and drowned a hapless world of sex abusers; a world fathoms beyond Melville’s dreams of the White Whale. Now I heard Dante’s bitter self-laughter for the first time but I could not have gone many steps beyond the opening cantos of the Inferno if I had not found myself the beneficiary of coincidence and the generosity of influence. About this time I had several interviews with Professor Harry AustrynWolfson who was described at the time of his death in The NY Times obituary as the world’s greatest scholar. Wolfson’s unexpected friendship extended as a result of some articles I wrote about the Boston Jewish world in the Sunday Globe brought me the gift of his witty, mischievous presence, his extraordinary books, and their insights into the poetry of religious philosophy. In particular just at the moment when I was absorbing Gershom Scholem, I read in Wolfson’s short masterpiece, Religious Philosophy, a startling essay called “Immortality and Resurrection” which viewed the possibilities of the Afterworld from the perspective of the Church Fathers. To my father, Harry Wolfson, his freshman tutor at Harvard, was the final authority on Maimonides, Spinoza, Philo. Wolfson I would realize was also a pre-eminent scholar of the Church Fathers and the Islamic Kalam. An essay of Wolfson put what I believe was the key to Dante’s search for Beatrice in my hands and Wolfson was my guide through Purgatory and Paradise though I could never have turned the lock without the coincidence of reading Scholem roughly at the same time.

Now several figures step out of the shadows with their books and thoughts. For long before I met John Ciardi and decided to solve for myself the mystery of Dante’s authority, I was prepared by one of the two professors at Harvard who are responsible for my career. This was the critic, Albert Guerard, who wrote the first important critical study of Andre Gide in English, and is still an authority on Conrad. It was Albert who announced to me in his workshop that I was an important writer, who chastised, encouraged, drew me close, smacked me down. He shared his paranoia and his dreams, and I slowly assimilated his critical perspectives. Both as a teacher and in my three books on Shakespeare and Dante I find myself working out Albert’s dictum that one can always find the writer in his or her work. (A former City College chairperson, who wrote a single book on Shakespeare talking about the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions of plays, dismissed the first of mine, The Absent Shakespeare as “a book for the Humanities,” implying that it had nothing of scholarly value though I had found some value in his.) With the insights of Scholem, Albert Guerard, Wolfson in hand I went searching for Dante in the Comedy. I determined to try to read him in Italian encouraged by another coincidence. Speaking about my thoughts on Dante in Paris during a sabbatical to Andre Le Vot, who was a professor of American Literature at the Sorbonne on my way to Italy he urged me to try to read Dante in Italian. I protested that I knew no Italian. He asked if I could Chaucer in Middle English. “Yes, easily, ” I laughed and added that when I was required to basically memorize the whole of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales I found myself dreaming in Middle English. “Then you will be able to hear Dante in Italian,” Le Vot insisted. I had been sketching to him, the possibility of a radical revision of what I considered the “pious view” of the mass of critical literature on the poet. The text that suggested this to me was Max Frisch’s William Tell, in which the Swiss novelist using footnotes as his sly knife in the back lacerated the Swiss myth of William Tell as a hero, We had published Frisch’s William Tell in the magazine I edit Fiction. I was and remain in awe of Frisch and I decided to draw on his tactics writing about Dante. Max, his wife Marianne and I were seated in a sunny window of a restaurant outside Zurich, where I was his guest. Frisch smiled faintly when I outlined my project and that was enough of a blessing to continue.

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I found myself in Florence and above it in the Tuscan countryside at Bernard Berenson’s villa months later, with a copy of the Sinclair translation that has the Italian facing it on the other side of the page, walking with Dante. I began to understand him, hear him though I had the echoes of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essay whistling in my ears, and Howard Nemerov’s (who had been as generous as Ciardi to me), thoughts on the Comedy as well. Albert Guerard showed a first draft to one of the deans of Dante studies in America, John Freccero who wrote that I was “the Philip Roth” of Dante scholarship, that I had treated Saint Augustine, shamefully, but that he would have loved to have me in his graduate seminar. Closer to home it was City College’s Renaissance scholar, Frederick Goldin, who confirmed that I was indeed on the “la diritta via,” Dante’s “right track.” I had become the director of the M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing at the college. After hearing a lecture by Professor Goldin I asked to sit in on his class on medieval romance. As he translated at will from the Provencal poets who had brought the neo-platonic notion of love into the vulgar languages and created the literature of Provence, Italy, France and Germany—I recognized the laughter and dreams that underlay Dante’s Comedy. Indeed Dante himself acknowledges the debt, but to feel it alive, leaping from one world to another, that would have been difficult without the aura of Frederick Goldin’s class in which scholarship made vivid the French Arthurian romances, the German Parsifal, their radical implications, texts that as he taught them became what one might call with sly appropriation, the true, the blissful “magical realism.” Frederick in one sentence about Dante confirmed an intuition that I felt but had not dared to give words to. At every turning in his descent through the tortures of Hell, Dante sees the punishment of his own sins. My own sins often coincided with Dante’s and this gave me a sense of how pride, covetousness, deception, if truly recognized has to haunt us all at some level of consciousness not to mention the deep sexual riddles to which our bodies seem to consign us regardless of human will. Dante keeps asking these questions in the Purgatory, and in Paradise, something that many readers do not recognize.

Finding the essay by Cecil Roth on Emannuel Ha-Romi the Italian-Jewish poet of the Renaissance who wrote a parody in Hebrew of the Comedy led me to think about a series of poems that Roth discussed. Dante’s contemporary and friend Cino da Pistoia, in an exchange with Bosone da Gubbio, put both Emmanuel and Dante in the same circle of hell with Alessio Unterminei, a truly filthy one where the condemned sit under caps of shit for using their talent as writers to seduce young women. That lit up the character of Dante, as seen by his contemporaries and it was an element of biography ignored by almost all conventional Dante scholars. It was funny and cruel and yet Dante and Emmanuel might have had a good laugh at their contemporaries’ exchange—one at least gave them hope of an escape from Hell. Another precious contribution came from a scholar at NYU who invited me to join a seminar on medieval philosophy, Professor Alfred Ivry. His lucid article on the degree to which Maimonides was influenced by the Shiite doctrine of concealment, was another proof for me that Dante too was concealing secrets. El-Farabi’s dictum, on which Leo Strauss built his remarkable book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, posits that poets in a society in which freedom of speech is not allowed, particularly doubt about a faith that the State endorses, learn to leave their real meaning concealed from the vulgar eye. Three times Gershom Scholem, whom I met in Jerusalem, then in Zurich, then again in Jerusalem, —not knowing anything about my manuscript on Dante asked me if I had read Strauss’s book When I finally read Strauss a shiver passed through me as if the master of Jewish mystical doctrine, Scholem, had read my secret. The coincidence was uncanny so was the Dante I found in the Comedy whose burning question to Beatrice was—what body will I find you with here in Heaven? Will I experience you in the body you had on earth. Isn’t that the question I had to ask my mother in the dreams that came after her death? Isn’t the hope of some extraordinary coincidence or its defeat what drives one great novel after another? The Dante I fell in love with was a poet who had secrets to whisper to those who could read between the lines and I found many, unconventional scholars, few of them however among the guardians of Dante as a Catholic puritan, willing to assist me. The footnotes of Dante, Eros and Kabbalah are crowded with such voices.

I was asked last year if I would interview Dante and the idea renewed my curiosity in associating anew with the poet. I tried through a fiction to make contact with him again, to hear his voice, and in pursuit of that took up the bi-lingual pages of the Hollanders, which some said had displaced the Sinclair as the best edition in that regard. I had a painful disagreement with Robert Hollander when I was invited by his wife Jean to their home in Princeton. I had no idea that Robert was a preeminent Dante scholar, but reading his notes on the Inferno now I understand how deep I put my foot in my mouth at supper suggesting that Dante had slept with Beatrice. The company laughed but Professor Hollander at the head of the table turned to ice and the atmosphere became glacial. Despite extraordinarily learned and witty notes on Dante’s Comedy, the poet’s sources and influences, Robert Hollander insists there that Dante has no real sympathy for the tormented. His Dante is a resolute Puritan, while mine is a laughing sinner. And yet my deeper quarrel now is with his wife, Jean’s translation, which however talented I feel misses the art of Dante in ignoring the frequent repetitions of words. And to introduce the uncanny into this story, I must add the coincidence of my friend, the Biblical scholar, Edward Greenstein’s lecture on the campus just a few weeks ago, which reacquainted me with his essay on Biblical translation. For Edward’s definition of “literal” translation, which he redefines as “literary” translation, is in fact the summation both of the rationale of my work on Dante, to lose myself in the Comedy, or rather, to find myself by finding Dante. Not to understand the “meaning” of the Comedy, which must finally be elusive, but to find oneself in the Comedy itself. To do that, however, one must enter the Comedy, enter its words, its associations, and I think every serious writer understands that this requires as literal an understanding as possible. I am going to quote Edward Greenstein at some length in this regard.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov . . . translated Pushkin “into a rigorously literal and consequently rather ugly English version” because he felt that only in this manner could one lead the reader to the poem itself . . . John Berryman, the lyric poet employed a fairly literal style of rendering the Book of Job into English, contending that such a translation would be “truer.” The early Twentieth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a clear preference for a more literal translation of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic over a more recent but less literal one. It is hardly coincidental that many Biblicists, as well as some serious amateurs, who devote themselves to the literary analysis of Scripture tend toward the more literal styles of translation. A work of literary art is essentially an arrangement of words, as music comprises tones and silences and as sculpture comprises matter and space. If one loses the words, one loses the art, just as one loses the music if one loses the tones or the silences. But aside from a purist’s devotion to words, there are two other foundations supporting more literal translation. The one is stylistic. The meaning of a biblical passage may hinge on the repetition of a word or an allusion. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 the word bayit house’ interweaves three themes: King David had already established his kingship and was dwelling in a royal house: the Lord, his god, was then dwelling in a tent-shrine, not in stable house: David will build for the Lord a house and the Lord will assure the enduring prosperity of David’s dynasty, which is expressed in Hebrew by “bayit house.”: The more literal rendering of the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV) of 1611 translates bayit consistently as ‘house’ so that the literary device of verbal repetition reaches the English reader. The more idiomatic rendering of the British New English Bible (NEB) of 1970 translates bayit as “house” when it refers to the king’s palace or the future temple but as ‘family’ when it refers to David’s dynasty. The super-idiomatic Today’s English Version (TEV, entitled the Good News Bible) of the American Bible Society (I976) renders bayit as “palace,” “temple,” and “dynasty” in its respective references, completely obliterating the thematic connections of the original.

I could go on and on here but my subject is Dante not the Bible. There are two more quotes, from Greenstein, however, relevant to my conclusion.

Walter Benjamin (d. 1940), in his “unequalled” essay on “The Task of the Translator,” insisted that “a literary work” does not in any essential way tell anything or impart information! It does, it is. In the “literary” view it is perhaps more crucial to convey the rhetorical features of the text and the manifold connotations of its words than it is to convey the denoted or ideational message of the text. Philological translation endeavors to pin down meaning while literary translation seeks, as in literary analysis, to proliferate meaning . . .

As the German Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher put it, in his epoch-making essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”

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That is what the novelist or poet, reading Dante most often wants to do, on the one hand to “proliferate meaning”; on the other to “move towards” the author. I found myself frantic reading Jean Hollander’s translation as I watched her ignore the repetition of words in Dante’s Inferno in order to convey the different shades of meaning she thought they had in the varying context of specific cantos. In doing so, the subtle associations intended by Dante in repeating a word were lost. Long ago at Harvard I learned the tenets of New Criticism under Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier—one could decipher a work though the repetitions of key words by an author. (Shakespeare’s hammering at “nothing” in King Lear, as it is flung in her father’s face by Cordelia then by the Fool, taken up by Lear, Kent, Edmund, Edgar — echoed over and over in the action, Lear crying “the thick rotundity of the world” to “be struck flat” to nothing, and looking for a breath of life in the play’s last moments where there is no life, nothing). Jean Hollander by changing Dante’s deliberate repetition of a keyword was making it impossible to trace Dante’s intentions. Even her husband Robert became uneasy at this as I found when I read his notes to Jean’s translation — particularly in regard to one word that had caught my attention.[1] It was the word on which the whole of my book Dante, Eros and Kabbalah depended, smarrita or smarrito—which can be translated as I do “bewildered” but also “confused,” or “lost,” and which provided me with the understanding of what was happening throughout the Comedy as Dante groped his way down and up through the windings of the Other World. The way at the beginning is not so much “lost” as “confused” for the poet is, “bewildered” in life. Preparing these remarks, I wondered—could it be there at the very end of Paradise? I had not asked that question in my book. If Dante began with human bewilderment, however, surely before the final overwhelming vision of the Unknown in the whirling geometry of the Heavens “bewildered” would show up but in a very different context. Coincidence, the Divine laughing coincidence of plot assured me that the great poet would spin bewilderment into his resolution. Finding it there, I laughed with glee.

I think that from the keenness that I suffered
Of the living light that I would have been smarrito, bewildered
If my eye had been turned from it.

Paradise, 33, 76-78

This is the true laughter of the Comedy. Dante turns his confusion “smarrito,” upside down in a volley of geometrical fireworks. His verse implies that while once bewildered, lost, etc., and yet would be if he looked away, now absorbed in a vision, he never will be.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See page 201, of The Inferno, A Verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002, where Robert Hollander does acknowledge that Jean’s translation cannot convey the associations of “ “The word used by Virgil to describe Dante’s difficulty is smarrito, a word that has been associated with the protagonist’s initial lost and perilous condition (Inf I.3) and then occurs again (Inf XV.50) with specific reference to his lostness at the outset of the journey for the last time in the poem It is also used in such a way as to remind us of his initial situation in Inf. II, 64, V.72 and XIII.24; in the last two of these scenes the protagonist is feeling pity for sinners, emotion that the poet fairly clearly considers inappropriate.”

    I do not have the space here to challenge that remark about “pity” where Robert Hollander assumes (as he does throughout his notes) the role of Inquisitor who will not allow Dante or his readers to feel any sympathy for sinners against Catholic doctrine. I do however want to acknowledge Jean’s brilliance in her translating e sanza alcun sospetto, as “without the least misgiving” in the Fifth Canto and her catching the deadfall at the end of this canto (which a much praised translation by another contemporary poet makes a complete hash of) by exchanging the hard c’s of the Italian for the d’s of English, “E caddi come corpo morto cade, And down I fell as a dead body falls.” To return to smarrito, in line 72, in this Fifth Canto, where Dante earlier writes, pieta mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito” and Jean translates, “pity over came me/ and I almost lost my senses.” Robert remarks (p. 105) “The repetition of the word smarrito to describe Dante’s distraught condition, also recalls the first tercet of the poem Here we can see his reuse of key words from previous contexts in order to enhance the significance of a current situation in the poem.” Yet how does “lost my senses” signify to the reader that the key word “smarrito” has been repeated. Even Robert’s “my distraught condition” is closer to the “bewildered” that I choose in my translation.

    Of course the reason for the Hollanders’ joint choices in translation are revealed in this note (as in others), “69-72 di nostra vita. The echo of the first line of the poem is probably not coincidental. Dante was lost “midway in the journey of our life,” and we will later learn, some of his most besetting problems arose from misplaced affection.” (p. 105) The Hollanders’ Dante is an author who is in their view, not Dante, the character; a character who is a benighted “lost” soul. This is not my Dante; a Dante who on the contrary as the author, chooses to reveal himself in the fiction of his character Dante, a Dante who is bewildered at the beginning but not at the end of the whole Comedy; not bewildered “smarrito” in the final canto, because he does feel sympathy, pity, throughout his journey, and because his affection was never “misplaced” but rather the source and rationale and end of his journey which brings him to its final laughing revelation.

Feb 052016
 

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N THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south.

The Range

To me it was a magical place with rusty remains, like the single-furrow plough once pulled by heavy horses, my great-grandfather plodding behind. There were outbuildings of battered corrugated iron which included the wash-house. There were the old slab stables (part of the woolshed), housing the abandoned buggy and the sulky. Horse collars, harness and chains still hung from rusty nails and hooks. It was where my mother grew up.

1918In 1918 by the woolshed, mother second left.

There were saddles in the harness shed and a rusted iron bedstead where mum had met the fox. There was the anvil, dull from neglect, the bellows and the tools. Bridles hung in a row from the vertical slabs and a side-saddle, the leather blackened, dried out, cracked and dusty. ‘Grandma Ewbank’s saddle’, Mother had said. It belonged to my great-grandmother who’d left Bundella in offended silence in 1908 when she was sixty-five. She had no further use for such a thing as a side-saddle.

D. Caption 'My Great-grandmother c. 1874'My Great-grandmother c. 1874

Now there were no horses. At night by the light of the kerosene lamp, I studied the faded snapshot of the man sitting tall on the high horse – my grandfather who died before I was born – beside four of his five children on horseback – my mother the young girl in the wide-brimmed hat on The Creamy.

E. On horses (Caption 'In 1922')In 1922

Life at Bundella behind the village Store and Post Office was simple but tough – no electricity or gas, no town water supply (only the rain and it often didn’t rain very much), plus hard well water for the bath, heated on the fuel stove or in the copper, carted in a bucket to the bathroom. I’d sit with a cake of Pears soap in an inch of water at the bottom of the old white tub which had feet like a lion. And down the backyard I’d clutch the edge of the scrubbed pine seat in the lime-washed slab-walled dunny, holding my breath because of the smell as I balanced over the cesspit, hoping not to fall in. Then I’d open the crooked door with its leather hinges and run past the fowl house, scattering chooks and grey-and-white-spotted guinea fowl as they foraged in the yard. I’d detour through the wild garden, under the trees, round the shrubberies and scented flower beds, keeping an eye out for snakes.

The house

My grandmother sold up in 1950 at the age of seventy. She moved from Bundella to the city with Marjorie. We went out in the ute to clean up the sheds. My father couldn’t come because the mine was flooded, so Charlie from the pit was at the wheel in his greasy hat. We squeezed in beside him, my mother in her best hat and gloves. I, being the smallest, had to straddle the gear stick that rose from the floor. There had been flood rains and the black soil road was treacherous. No dust but plenty of mud. Charlie smoked incessantly, rolling his own as he drove.

When we arrived, Marjorie was sitting as usual, prim-faced at the switchboard, her thick black plait pinned firmly over the crown of her head. She waved us a greeting but said to a subscriber at the other end of the line, ‘Sorry, the number’s engaged. I’ll try again shortly…Number please?’ In the kitchen, the heavy blackened kettle was boiling on the fuel stove and my grandmother made tea. Charlie ladled in the sugar, then tipped the tea into his saucer. He blew on it and drained it down.

Family 1946

Marjorie & my grandmother 1950Marjorie & my grandmother 1950

My mother removed her hat, donned her overalls and went out to the shed. My grandmother temporarily took over the switchboard so Marjorie could lend a hand. She rushed up with a sack over her shoulder and dropped it with a clank on the ground. It contained rusting rabbit traps that were put to one side ready for the auction. A bonfire burned in the yard. Charlie hurled on everything my mother condemned to the flames. By evening the shed and other outbuildings were bare, the bonfire a heap of smouldering ashes.

The goods for the auction were piled high: saddles and pitch forks, axes and ploughs together with the mangle, the anvil and the galvanised iron wash tubs. At the centre of a heap of dusty objects I spotted the gleaming statue of Grace Darling.[1] She was about my height and I was seven. Jim and Fred from up the creek had carted her from the house. She’d always been in the dark hallway, peering out at the raging sea and that shipwreck. At least that’s what my mother said. She said Grace Darling was a heroine. Now she stood on her pedestal in the mud, holding the lantern high and gazing out across the sodden plain, her hair and gown, as always, blowing in the gale.

It was wet the day of the auction and a bleak wind scoured the paddocks. I peered out between the lopsided doors of the shed to watch old Johnny Ferguson playing the auctioneer. He stood on a battered crate, felt hat down to his eyebrows, pulling at his braces to adjust the sagging trousers. ‘Come on you lot,’ he admonished the bedraggled onlookers. ‘How about these rabbit traps or that there box of pony shoes.’ But times were tough; few people were bidding. Next day, after friends had been in to help themselves, Fred and Jim carted truckloads of junk a few miles down the track and dumped it in a gully.

‘What ever happened to Grace Darling?’ I asked my mother years later, but she couldn’t remember. Nowadays when I look back, I see Grace Darling lying somewhere across that black soil plain, still holding her lantern.

The Plains

Parts of this essay first appeared in the memoir ‘Vanished Land’, published in 2014.


Messages

I never knew what to expect when I picked up the heavy receiver of the antiquated telephone attached to the wall in our hallway. My mother took many of the coal orders, but from the time I was able to answer the phone, I relayed messages to her and later was able to write them in my childish hand in the untidy message book.

Small orders came from householders in town who needed coal for their fireplaces, their fuel stoves and their laundry coppers. Conversations went something like this:

‘That the coal mine?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Mrs. Mingay ‘ere. Tell yer dad I need quarter of a ton, an’ I don’t want none of them big boulders.’

‘Yes Mrs. Mingay. I’ll tell Dad when he gets in.’

Large orders came from Tamworth, twenty-eight miles away, from the Power Station, the hospital, the butter factory and Fielders Flour Mill where they made the bread. There were calls from mine inspectors and the NSW Government Railway’s head office, and the NSW Coal Board in Sydney. The Coal Board always wanted the coal production figures for the week. I’d say in my best seven-year-old voice (as my father had instructed): ‘The output was the same as last week.’

Sometimes there were calls from truck drivers – those hard-working, easy-going, likeable men who drove the fleet of battered and unreliable coal trucks: Bedfords, Whites, Internationals and Macs. Some were ex-army vehicles, for it was only a few years after World War II.

The Coal TrucksThe Coal Trucks

I had little knowledge of the workings of trucks, so I passed on messages, sometimes with little understanding, but often with some merriment. The calls varied:

‘Tell yer Dad me engine’s buggered, just outta Currabub.’

‘Got a punsher an’ me spare’s ‘ad it.’

‘Me muffler’s busted. Sounds like a flamin’ tank.’

‘Blew me gasget’, ‘Think it’s me pistons’, ‘Stripped me gears’ and one day ‘smashed me sump on a bloody tree stump’. I kept careful records in the message book.

There was one particularly memorable call:

‘’Ello. That the coal colliery?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘It’s Bill ‘ere. Tell yer dad I done me big end, out by the cemetery. I’ll sit ‘ere and wait for a tow.’

‘Right-o Bill. I’ll tell him as soon as he comes up from the pit. You’re not hurt?’

‘Strewth no! Jus’ blew up.’

I finished the call and carefully replaced the receiver. Before I could write anything in the book, the image of the overweight and balding Bill with his exploding big end got the better of me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.


Keep Out

1953

Keep Out

Remember when we went to live in Tamworth, and you said we were going to explore that haunted house up the top of the road? Old Mr. Hill lived at the back there somewhere. We used to see him galloping his horse and sulky down the slope with all the kids hanging on, and Mrs. Hill petrified beside him. He’d be shouting, ‘Shut up you bastards!’ at the kids. But we hadn’t seen him for ages, had we. You thought they’d gone away, so we walked up the road after school. You read out the notice painted on the old piece of tin nailed to the front gate: ‘Private. Keep Out’ so we went round the back and scrambled through the thorny hedge. I got scratched on the arms and the face, but you said, ‘Come on, don’t be a baby.’

The wooden house was derelict. My father always said it had never seen a coat of paint in its life. I could see the grass and weeds growing up between the floorboards of the back veranda. The back door was chained with a padlock, but you kicked it, and the padlock just fell off, and the door flew open. You went in first, and the floor rocked up and down when you stepped on it. The place was empty and dark with cobwebs and dust. I remember those old portraits in curly gold frames still hanging on the wallpapered walls, all flowers, and the chair with the broken leg lying in the middle of the room and that old chamber pot full of soot in the fireplace.

‘Look in here!’ I said, but you said, ‘Shhhhhhhhh!’ and we heard someone crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down the back, then ‘Clear off out of there you bastards!’ from a distance. ‘Quick!’ you said, and I tried to open the front door. It was locked, but you managed to heave open the front window. I didn’t like cobwebs and spiders, but you said, ‘Come on, scaredy cat’. You gave me a leg up and pushed me over the splintery window sill. I fell out onto the veranda. ‘Run!’ you said as you climbed out too. We clattered down the front steps into the jungle and fought our way through the thorny hedge. Old Mr. Hill was shouting ‘Get the hell out of there!’ at the back door, but we were taking off for home down the gravel road.

Mother was in the front garden pruning roses. ‘Don’t stop,’ you said to me as we streaked by. We thought Mr. Hill was charging after us. ‘Don’t wave. Don’t let him know where we live!’ and we kept running – past Mrs. Chaffey’s and round the corner into the back lane, then into our garden through the back gate. ‘Now don’t you go tittle tattling to Mum’ you said when we’d stopped puffing.

‘I saw you girls tearing past this afternoon,’ Mother said later when we came in for tea. ‘What was all that about?’ ‘Nothing,’ you said as you spread the Vegemite on your toast. I just pushed the spoon right down inside my boiled egg . . . Remember?

With my sister & Buster

—Elizabeth Thomas

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L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Grace Darling was an English heroine of Victorian times. As a young woman she rowed out through raging seas with her father to rescue survivors from a sailing ship wrecked on rocks in the storm.
Feb 042016
 

AineGreaneyPanelÁine Greaney

 

In an article for The Village Voice, John Berger, writing about European emigration to the United States stated that, “Originally home meant the centre of the world – not in a geographical but in an ontological sense.” It was a place where two lines intersect. “The vertical was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and the dead in the underworld.” The immigrant, meanwhile, “never finds another place where the two lines cross.”

For Berger’s emigrants, leaving home was often forced upon them and rarely chosen, but as Aine Greaney wrote in a recent article in The Irish Times, emigrants now have a “diversity of stories and joy and tears. One person’s economic displacement is another’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And furthermore, they at least have the “guts and the vocabulary” to talk about their loss of home. Indeed she counters this with, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living abroad, among Irish and other-nation expats, we might auto-cite the default reason (economics), but there’s nearly always a secondary driver, always another reason for leaving.”

In her memoir, What Brought You Here? (from which there are two chapters extracted below), Greaney bravely seeks to answer that near impossible question posed by the title. When told in America that she had “courage” to leave her home, she reminds herself that, “For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.””

“Home,” for Berger was “the starting point and, it was hoped, the returning point for all terrestrial journeys.” Fortunately, for us, Greaney’s writing has the courage to talk about that place where the two lines may never cross but where the language now exists to communicate (at a point of near return) with the gods above and the dead below.

—Gerard Beirne

 

Dublin Blood and Stateside Fables: Visa Day at the U.S. Embassy

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The Americans said I had courage.

They said it just as I got to that part about the fries or salad or soup, and how our restaurant customers could choose one side dish with each selected lunch special.“Are you from Ireland?”

“Yes, I am.”

“How long have you been over here?”

“Three months.” Then, “Six months” Then, “Two years.”

“Oh! What brought you here?”

The wife asked these first questions. The husband had his own set of queries: “North or south?” “Catholic or Protestant? “Are your French fries hand cut or frozen?”

Dressed in my emerald green pub shirt, my black trousers and waitress’s apron, I raised my voice to answer their questions, to get heard over the Irish music on the bar stereo.

“Oh, my God!” The woman would say. “That must have taken such courage.”

The evening shift and the dinner hour were too busy for these tableside chats and my short-order immigration tale. But the lunch shift gave me all the time in the world. At age 24, at least in the eyes these chino-clad couples en route to the family cottage in the Adirondacks, I became that woman who strides through the airport in dusty hiking boots, with nothing between her and the big bad world but a Kindle full of Lonely Planet Guides.

No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”

Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. Did she mourn that job or that lover that her small-town mother had talked her out of? Had she spent a grown-up life, a marriage, wondering about that man whose cologne and touch she can still conjure? A man far sexier but riskier than the paunchy husband inquiring about his lunchtime French fries?

For others, I knew that I embodied this woman’s worst fear: That one day, her own 20- or 30-something daughter, the apple of their parental eyes, would buy an airline ticket to move 3,000 miles away.

In the end it was easy to diffuse the whole courage thing, to divert this nice couple back to their lunch order and choosing their accompany sides. It was extra easy if I laid on the Irish accent: “Oh, now, I don’t know would you call it courage or just a streak of daftness.”

Even now, almost three decades after landing at JFK Airport, New York, I’m at a dinner party or some evening fundraiser thing, and someone will ask and I will tell and it gets said again: That must’ve taken some courage. Nowadays I have the benefit of online articles on youthful impetuosity and how our under-25-year olds cannot foresee or care about the consequences of their actions. Standing there in my summer linens or corporate jackets, in my best expatriate patois I say: “Courage? Sure at that age none of us knows what the heck we’re doing. If we did, we’d have done nothing at all.”

It’s another diversion tactic, guaranteed to garner a counter story about a teenage son who texts while driving, or a daughter who won’t make school-night curfew.

How I loved that all-American makeover. It was so guileless and generous—at least until that day’s restaurant shift was over, when I shed my gussied-up Irish shtick and waitress’s getup to stand under the shower. As I scrubbed away the smell of French Fries, the whole courage thing felt (and still feels) like a private joke. I am that girl who gets crowned beauty queen when, in fact, it’s all been a secret Botox job.

My Lonely Planet odyssey started on that Friday, November 28, 1986. I had planned to spiff it up and look good for my visa interview at the American Embassy. But the Dublin morning was cold and drizzly, so I abandoned the interview dress-up for one of those padded winter jackets. I remember: it was cream-colored, machine washable, a high, zip-up collar but no hood. As I left the house to catch my city bus, I doubled back to grab a knitted hat from the overflowing coat pegs in the hallway.

When the double-decker bus creaked to a stop in Fairview, on Dublin’s north side, I clamored upstairs to sit with all the other smokers, and for a top-down view of the terraced houses, the school playgrounds, each city neighborhood with its butcher’s and newsagent’s and bookie’s shop.

I bit my nails. My right thumbnail had started bleeding. I stubbed out my Players Blue cigarette on the floor and, seconds later, lit up another. On my lap was my brown leather satchel that contained everything I would need to get to America: the Embassy appointment letter; my green passport with the gold harp on the cover; and an airmail letter from an expatriate friend, Mary, with her American phone number and her offer of a couch to crash on once I landed. If I was granted my visa, then I would telephone Mary at her shared house somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. If she meant what she said in the letter, then I would empty out my Bank of Ireland savings book to buy a transatlantic ticket from Shannon to San Francisco. I planned to leave immediately after Christmas. So the flight ticket had to be bought soon, with enough advance purchase time so that the money in my bank book would actually cover the cost of the flight.

Also in the letter was a snapshot of her sitting by an American swimming pool, wearing white shorts and a yellow T-shirt.

“Note the shades,” Mary had written and underlined on the back. Yes, of course I had noticed the shades. And I saw how much brighter and bolder she looked in her new life, working as a live-out nanny for a Bay Area family who let her drive their “extra” Volvo car.

If they saw me at all, I am certain that none of my fellow Dublin bus passengers nudged and whispered to a seat mate: “Jayzus, would you look at yer wan in the white bleedin’ coat. Now, there’s a little daisy that looks like she has loads of courage.”

That morning, I was another wanna-be, 1980s émigré joining the 200,000 others skedaddling from our small island with its runaway inflation and public debt and, in some regions, a 20% unemployment rate. I was fixing to become a small addendum to our three-centuries-long Irish emigration saga.

On that bus, this retrospective, historical stuff was too big and scary to consider. The immediate alternative was a 100 times scarier. If I flunked the interview and the Americans refused my visa? I would be a girl with no job and no place to live and barely enough money to see me past the upcoming Christmas holiday. Much worse, my family would have to witness and cringe over my looser-state, and, even worse, I would have to witness their cringing and shame. I knew this because I already had.

Whatever those online psychology articles say, the impetuous young brain is actually a blessing. Plus, young or not, fear and desperation will regress any of us to that myopic thinking in which we can only behold this city bus, this morning rain, this day’s errands.

I was afraid. And desperate. Though these, too, are retrospective.

Without that short-order mind-set, I would have clamored down those bus steps and walked out into Dublin traffic to find a piss-smelling alleyway where I would have curled up and wept.

In Dublin’s city center, I pulled on my knitted hat to walk in the rain up Talbot Street past the just-opened shops, turned left into O’Connell Street and across O’Connell Bridge that links Dublin’s north and south sides.

In winter the up-river whiff of the Guinness Brewery always made the River Liffey and that part of the city centre smell like stale coffee. This was before the construction cranes dotted the skyline, before city-centre apartments incited estate agents’ bidding wars. The Ha’penny Bridge, the houses and shops along Bachelor’s Walk, the Four Courts. It was and is the post-card view of our capital city, but it always looked in need of a good power wash.

I walked up D’Olier Street and along the walls of Trinity College, Europe’s oldest university and home to the Book of Kells. Outside Trinity, on the corner of Nassau and Grafton Streets, I waited for my second bus, a Number 7 or 7A or 6 or 6A that would take me south to Ballsbridge and the Embassy.

It’s a short bus ride from the city center to Ballsbridge. On a drier day, on a day when I wasn’t so petrified to be late, I would have walked it.

In those weeks before I left for America, I was sleeping on the floor of my younger sister Frances’s rented house that she shared with her college-student friends. I had moved across the country to stay in Dublin because I had enrolled in one of those commercial “business schools” and this crazy, new-fangled sounding class, “Introduction to Word Processing.” Every day, we students, all women, sat before a bank of computers the size of washing machines, squinting at our black screens as we cursed and muttered at that blinking cursor.

On the opposite side of the country, in my small-town convent school in County Mayo, we had never been offered typing classes (the Sisters of Mercy deemed typing classes to be far too working class). So the business school woman demanded that I enroll in an extra, add-on session, “Basic Typing,” where a few of us clanked away on black Royal manuals while the typing teacher strode between our desks shouting: “Left hand: A-S-D-F. Stop. Right? Everyone O.K.? Now, girls! Right hand: Semi-colon, L,K,J. Ready? Now, girls, type the following sentence, but without looking down at yer typewriter.”

Today, I was skipping both classes to do all my American errands.

Among the many then-rumors about America was that one about how the Yanks could hardly tie their own shoes without switching on a computer. So if you knew how to type some words on a keyboard, the American jobs were just there for the taking—especially in hospital administration.

Hospital administration. It had a lovely ring to it, but I doubt any of us had the slightest idea what it actually was. A hospital was a place full of antiseptic smells and old men in plaid robes and nurses in their stiff white hats, so why would you need a computer for any of that?

At night, cocooned in my sleeping bag on my sister’s bedroom floor, I dream-typed that day’s business-school exercises: A, S, D, F. Stop. Semi-colon, L, K, J.

I also pre-dreamed this day, this hour of reckoning that was waiting at the end of my second bus ride. In my dreams, I got on the wrong bus. Or, when the city bus got there, I begged the driver to stop, please stop, but he just sped on toward Dún Laoghaire. The Embassy was suddenly, permanently closed. Or it was open and everything was fine until, when I reached the top of that long emigration queue, an American man stood up to scream across his desk and to banish me from his country.

Heart thumping, I would wake up to lie there in the dark and wait for my younger sister’s breathing, where she lay in the single bed next to and above mine, to lull me back to sleep.

On that second bus, I lit one last cigarette and opened my leather satchel to check my paperwork one last time. And the knitted hat. According to the rumors, the emigration queue would extend, Soviet-style, down the Dublin footpath and I would need my knitted rain hat.

From the footpath, the American Embassy with its glassy, Lego-look frontage didn’t seem like the kind of place that could make or break your Friday or the rest of your life.

Inside, a woman with a Marcia Brady accent directed me to Consulate Services. The queue? Where was the reputed queue of doleful, desperate people waiting to flee our 32,599-mile country?

I crossed that room with its line of pale desks flanked by giant American flags, my footsteps clack-clack-ing. I stood behind a white line on the floor, a queue of one waiting for that 60-something man in the white uniform shirt to look up and beckon me forward.

Another American rumor: They all spoke loudly, whereas I had been told (and told) that I spoke way too softly, and if I wanted to seem like the kind of person suited for the land of the free, then I’d better project my voice.

Right. Well, here I was at last, sitting in the chair across from him, and here came the questions whose answers I had rehearsed and was ready to shout out like a quiz contestant.

Adequate financial means to travel and live in the United States?

YUP. OH YEAH. Through my satchel, I fingered my Bank of Ireland savings book and was ready to produce it.

Secure accommodation?

ABSOLUTELY. ALL FIXED UP THERE. NOT A PROBLEM.

Valid passport?

IT’S ALL THERE, SIR.

Suddenly, he stopped leafing through my paperwork to give me a what-is-your-problem look. Hard of hearing? Tourettes? Some kind of anger issue?

Christ. I was certain that the Americans wouldn’t want or welcome any one of those infirmities. So here was my nightmare about to come true. He was going to scrape back his chair and point, Christ-like, to the glassy entrance behind me. I was about to be pre-banished from America.

He returned to the paperwork, his face impassive. Then, without meeting my eyes, he stamped my green passport and handed it back to me.

I whispered, “Thank you.”

§

 

America Had Big Blue Freckles

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Why in the name of Christ was nobody hitting the call buttons? Or had I just imagined what I had just seen down there, dotted amid the buildings and roads and gardens of America?

I scooched back across the empty seat to my tiny airplane window. No. No joke. There were blue freckles, giant, azure-tinted mercury spills on Long Island, New York.

Eight months earlier, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded in the Ukraine. Now, the Americans had had a similar disaster and of course, this would all have to happen on the very day that I was flying here. While the Aer Lingus flight attendants were serving up tea and drinks and miniature meals, while all my fellow passenger in the smoking section seemed determined to drink out the in-flight bar, nobody had bothered to warn or divert us?

My hand-knit wool sweater was so hot that the sweat had pooled in my armpits.

The pilot made another announcement. Oh, would these drunken yahoos all around me just shush up to hell? What did he say exactly? I was terrified to ask. Our plane descended. My ears buzzed.

The blue freckles finally disappeared. Then, here they were back again, only bigger this time, some of them rectangular and bright green, not blue.

Swimming pools. Jesus! Bloody swimming pools. Down there, on that forked tongue of land surrounded by ocean, the Americans had installed their own backyard swimming pools.

We trooped down the skybridge, and my ears popped and my older sister Mary’s voice replayed in my head: JFK is the busiest, the loudest place in the world.

The wool sweater was even hotter, even wrong-er for that florescent-lit airport and the huge immigration processing room where a uniformed woman herded us down a corridor and around a corner toward a long bank of Plexiglas windows where another woman yelped at us, herded us into queues. Here, the heat-flushed Irish faces merged with the black and brown and taupe faces, and our immigration queues were a calico blend of pale and dark, of wanna-be, various hued immigrants lined up before each window and its corresponding INS man.

Jackets and sweaters got shed. Men rolled up shirt sleeves. People stepped out of the queue to check the delay, how many more people left to process? Except for the shuffle of clothes and bags and feet, everything was eerily silent.

The Caucasian guy in front of me had awful body odor. I probably did, too. But mine was only eight hours’ old.

Someone else just got stamped and admitted. Like spectators at Wimbledon, heads turned to watch that person’s jaunty walk toward the glassy airport doors.

The queue moved on. I tried not to stare too hard at the dark-skinned people, to gawp at how different they were, what a shock it was to be here with them—the same, but not.

Now the sweat had lodged between my breasts.

Just pull the damn geansai or sweater off. I stepped out of line for a distant glimpse of my INS man in his silent, glassed-in animation. Under the sweater I had a faded yellow T-shirt from a long-ago concert. Maybe that INS fellow didn’t like concerts or girls who went to concerts? Didn’t like music overall? Didn’t like musicians? Especially hated Irish musicians who secured American landing pads for their sisters in law?

Now, I was about to test the American factoid or rumor that really mattered. One false step, one type-o or misspelling of your name could set the INS computers flashing and auto-unleash the airport Alsatian dogs who would herd you to a holding room where you’d spend the night sleeping upright in a plastic chair until they deported you back to Shannon Airport and your father would have to apologize to the gaffer and forgo his overtime pay to drive down to get you.

No, no striptease acts here. Just sweat it out and practice your immigration quiz responses, the same information you gave to the Dublin Embassy over a month ago.

As the well as the body odor, the guy in front had a huge pimple sitting dead center above his shirt collar. I kept staring at it while begging and promising myself that I’d stop staring at it, stop breathing in his smell.

My sister’s voice: Remember to write the date backward. Month, then day, then year. That’s how they do it over there.

When I got to the beehive window, the INS questions were rapid-fire fast: Where to, how long, adequate financial means to live in the land of swimming pools?

I fingered the little wad of $200 cash in my jeans front pocket. At Shannon’s Bureau de Change desk, I had wrapped the wad of dollars in the lined notebook page with Bob, my sister’s American friend’s phone number.

“I’ll pay it all back,” I had assured my mother when she had lent me that money. “You have my word.”

“Yes,” I told the INS agent now. (Act confident. The Yanks like confident).

“Yes, I have adequate means.”

Thunk. I was in.

The Arrivals Hall was a mad mass of smiley, waiting families, lovers with their bunches of flowers, Indian families with their luggage trolleys piled high and the women in brightly colored saris. Here people spoke with their hands flailing, as if a dozen wasps swarmed around their heads. Lots more black people. Brown. Tawny. Old white women in colored sweat shirts and stone-washed jeans. Old white men with paunchy bellies. Wait! These people knew they were headed to America’s most important airport, but they couldn’t put on a pair of nylons or a decent sports coat?

Trainers. Young men, young women, even the hobbling elderly with their travel belts. The Indian men with overcoats over their kurtas and dhotis. Well over half of this airport was wearing trainers or sneakers.

Don’t gawk. Whatever you do don’t gawk.

But Jesus! How could I not gawk at this giant indoor souk? How could I not flinch at the shouting, the laughing, the tack-tack-tack of foreign, non-English words?

My rucksack bopping against my back, I sidestepped around each group. I checked my $200 again. No pickpockets. Yet.

Follow the signs for Ground Transportation. Ask about the bus to Albany, New York. My sister’s instructions were a bullet-pointed list in my head.

The woman at Ground Transportation jabbed her forefinger at a paper brochure on her desk. “The Holiday Inn, Wolf Road, Aww-lbany,” she said. “That’s the last stop, where the bus will take you. It’s about three hours; maybe more.”

Ha. Ha. Well, this was a bit of a joke. I grinned up at her. The Holiday Inn? When he bought his hotel, this Albany fella couldn’t come up with a less obvious name than the Holiday Inn?

No. No joke. There was, in fact, something about me that was obviously pissing this woman off. She nodded me toward another set of glassy doors. “Wait out there.”

The airport doors slid open to a giant, outdoor fridge. It was dark now, and the freezing air was fogged with car exhaust fumes. I watched the mad dodgem-car race of yellow cabs and courtesy vans and black livery cars. Everyone zipped up coats, pulled on hats and gloves. Not me. I lit up a Players Blue cigarette and stood there in my sweater, no jacket, letting my body heat rise and convect into the New York night.

Finally, when I could no longer feel my feet, I pulled on my jean jacket, but the denim seemed to attract, not insulate against the December cold.

After the airport exit, our bus nudged onto and along a stop-and-go motorway. The distant lit-up skyscrapers were straight out of the old King Kong movie, and I presumed I was looking at Manhattan (I wasn’t). Soon, a giant brown apartment building overflowed the edges of my bus window. I held my breath at the enormity of it. Just as that building slid out of sight, here came another, then another, each with its row upon row upon row of Christmas-lit windows. I was glimpsing and gliding past hundreds of American lives, hundreds of squabbles and fights and tears and hugs, a thousand breakfasts and suppers and bedtime stories. Yet, it was safe to assume that these lives were as unfathomable to each other as they were to a just-arrived Irish girl on a Trailways bus. I scrunched down and dipped my head to find a horizon, because somewhere, I thought, all that brown brick had to end, had to collide with an amber-lit night sky.

Another motorway. This one passed by old wooden houses with petrified back gardens and chain link fences. Suddenly, the amber city lights disappeared from the sky, and we were tunneling into endless darkness. In less than an hour, we had gone from a jungle of crammed-in lives to an abandoned place where no dog barked from a roadside gateway. Nobody maneuvered between the cars on his bicycle. Nobody stood by the side of the road with his thumb out hoping for a lift. Except for the car and the motorway lights slithering over our passenger faces, this place had no human life.

Over the motorway hung these giant green signs: Tarrytown. Newburgh. New Paltz. Kingston.

Albany. It was the last bullet point on my travel list. Albany and the Holiday Inn. If I nodded off asleep, if I didn’t pay attention, I could end up in Canada. So I sat with my rucksack propped on my lap, watching and reading the green motorway signs.

—Áine Greaney

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Áine Greaney grew up on a remote farm in County Mayo. In 1986, after a brief career as a primary-school teacher in the Irish midlands, she moved to America, and she now lives and writes on Boston’s North Shore. As well as her four books (Simon & Schuster UK, Flume Press, Syracuse U.P. and Writers Digest Books), she has placed and broadcast personal essays and short stories in consumer and literary publications in the U.S., Ireland and the U.K. Her non-fiction essays and fiction have appeared in “Creative Nonfiction,” “The Feminist Wire,” “Salon.com,” “The Boston Globe Magazine,” “Forbes Women,” “Cyphers,” “National Public Radio Boston,” “Natural Bridge,” “Books Ireland,” “Sunday Tribune New Irish Writing,” “The Fish Anthology” and other publications. Her essay, “Green Card” (listen to Áine read her essay here) was selected as a “notable” in “Best American Essays 2013,” while her essay, “Sanctuary” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Áine Greaney holds a B.Ed in education and an M.A. in English. She is on the MFA Faculty at Baypath University where she has developed and teaches a writing course on narrative medicine. She has also led writing classes and workshops at various conferences and arts organizations in New England and presented at the National Writers Digest conference in New York City. www.ainegreaney.com

Jan 312016
 

Ainsley as Cuchlain in At the Hawk's WellHenry Ainsley as Cuchulain in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, by permission of George Eastman House.

x

On Christmas Day 1888, Oscar Wilde read to Yeats “The Decay of Lying,” later published in Intentions. That collection also includes “The Truth of Masks,” an essay on theatrical costumes that ends with Wilde’s declaration that “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true….It is only in art criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.”[1] That final aphorism might, in style and content, have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Wilde’s fusion of Hegelian dialectic with Blake’s insistence on the fruitful clash of “Contraries” would have particularly resonated with W. B. Yeats after the turn of the century, when his reading of Wilde became aligned with his earlier study of Blake and his “excited” recent reading of Nietzsche, that “strong enchanter” whose thought, he believed, “completes Blake and has the same roots.”[2]

W.B. YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald.

It might also be said that, in many ways, Nietzsche “completes” Wilde. “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true,” says Wilde. Writing two years later, Nietzsche, affirming art and life over moral/philosophical conundrums, tells us that, for well-constituted spirits, such an “opposition” as that between “chastity” and “sensuality” need not be “among the arguments against existence—the subtlest and brightest, like Goethe, like Hafiz, have even seen it as one more stimulus to life. Just such ‘contradictions’ seduce us to existence.”[3] Obviously, Nietzsche, that master perspectivist, strenuously denies (to again quote Wilde) any “such thing as a universal truth,” and, from The Birth of Tragedy on, he elevated art above philosophy, dismissing (in Twilight of the Idols) Kantian Idealism with its physical reality-denying doctrine of the ghostly “thing-in-itself” as “that horrendum pudendum of the metaphysicians!”[4] Nietzsche’s axiom, from Part III of the material posthumously published as The Will to Power, is well-known: “We possess art lest we perish of the truth” (§822; italics in original).[5] Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche’s references to “masks” are in accord with Wilde’s equation of metaphysical truth with, or its replacement by, “the truths of masks.” Several of his formulations even help illuminate Wilde’s “pose.” Here are the half-dozen most crucial passages—all from Beyond Good and Evil, a book written in the same year (1885) as the original version of Wilde’s “The Truth of Masks”:

All that is profound loves a mask; the very profoundest things even have a hatred for images and likenesses. Shouldn’t the opposite be the only proper disguise to accompany the shame of a god?….Every profound spirit needs a mask; even more, a mask is continually growing around every profound spirit thanks to the constantly false, that is shallow interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives. (Part 2: §40).

Too noble for “Socratism,” Plato, the most daring of all interpreters,…took the whole of Socrates like a popular theme and folksong from the streets in order to vary it infinitely and impossibly, specifically into all his own masks and multiplicities. Spoken in jest, and moreover Homerically: just what is the Platonic Socrates if not “Plato in front, Plato in back, Chimaera in the middle” (Part 5: §190). [Nietzsche quotes the phrase in quotations in Greek, paraphrasing Homer on the tripartite chimaera (The Iliad VI: 181)].

That strength-cultivating tension of the soul,…its inventiveness and courage in enduring, surviving, interpreting…and whatever it was granted in terms of profundity, mystery, mask…: has all this not been granted…through the discipline of great suffering?….[in the] constant pressure and stress of a creative, shaping, malleable force…the spirit enjoys its multiplicity of masks…it is in fact best defended and hidden by precisely these Protean arts—this will to appearance, to simplification, to masks…. (Part 7: §225, 230)

Deep suffering makes noble; it separates. One of the most subtle forms of disguise is Epicureanism and a certain openly displayed courageousness of taste that takes suffering lightly and resists everything sad and profound. There are “cheerful people” who use cheerfulness because on its account they are misunderstood:—they want to be misunderstood. There are free impudent spirits who would like to conceal and deny that they are shattered, proud, and incurable hearts; and sometimes foolishness itself is the mask for an ill-fated, all-too-certain knowledge.—From which it follows that part of a more refined humanity is having respect “for the mask” and not practicing psychology and curiosity in the wrong place. (Part 9: §270)

Whoever you might be: what would you like now? What would help you recuperate? Just name it: what I have I offer to you! “To recuperate? To recuperate? Oh how inquisitive you are, and what are you saying! But give me, please—” What? What? Just say it!—“Another mask! A second mask!” (Part 9: §278)

Do people not write books precisely to conceal what they are keeping to themselves. Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hiding place, every word also a mask. (Part 9: §289) [6]

§

Nietzsche Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil.

In letters to Lady Gregory and John Quinn (who had sent him in 1902 a new anthology of well-selected writings of the German philosopher), Yeats praised what he called, with remarkable tonal accuracy, Nietzsche’s “curious astringent joy” (Letters, 379), which he related to Blakean delight in energy and to Nietzsche’s own exuberant, life-affirming “respect for the mask.” In annotating selections from Nietzsche in the margins of that anthology, Yeats set up a diagram that explains much, if not all, of his subsequent thought and work, including his dramatic assertion three decades later (in “Vacillation”) that “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart,”[7] and the assertion, three weeks before his death, when, filled with an “energy” he had despaired of recovering, he concluded, “When I put it all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life” (Letters, 922).

Here is the diagram, based on Nietzsche’s major antitheses: Day vs. Night, Many vs. One, Dionysus vs. the Crucified, Homer vs. Plato/Socrates, Master Morality vs. Slave Morality; above all, the Nietzschean (and soon to be Yeatsian) distinctions between passionate, embodied being and cerebral, abstract knowing; and between power issuing in “affirmation” and ressentiment issuing in “denial.”

Night (Socrates/Christ) one god

Day (Homer) many gods

denial of self, the soul turned towards spirit seeking knowledge.

affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.[8]

Yeats’s diagram graphically demonstrates how “Nietzsche completes Blake.” The Romantic poet’s mature dialectic stresses polar inclusion: “Contraries are positive, a negation is not a contrary,” he incised in reverse at the beginning of Book the Second of Milton (Plate 30). But Blake is more dramatically antithetical in the far better-known passage in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he introduced his oppositional Contraries, and their distortion by the “religious,” blind to the Blakean/Nietzschean dialectic “beyond” conventional “good” and “evil”:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these Contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.[9]

Here is one source of the “energy” embodied in Yeats’s final letter and in the “frenzy” of “an old man’s eagle mind” in his late poem “An Acre of Grass.”   In both cases, Blake is “completed” by “Nietzsche, whose thought flows always, though in an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.”[10] His Nietzsche-inspired diagram includes Yeats’s first recorded use of the term “mask.” A half-dozen years later, he wrote: “I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth of something not oneself.”[11] Yeats’s concept of the mask, as both a strategy for carrying on his quarrel with himself and an attempt to restore a lost Unity of Being, is identical to what he would later call, in “Ego Dominus Tuus” (1915), the “anti-self.” The last words of that dialogue between Hic and Ille (“This One” and “That One”) are given to Ille, whose position on mask and anti-self is so close to Yeats’s own that Ezra Pound (with his friend at Stone Cottage when the poem was written) famously observed that Ille should have been “Willie.” Seeking “an image, not a book,” Ille concludes that there is one, like yet unlike himself, who can “disclose/ All that I seek, and whisper it” in secret:

I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self.

Created “in a moment and perpetually renewed,” that mask of some “other self,” of “something not oneself,” is described in the 1909 diary entry as the “painted face” or “game” in which one “loses the infinite pain of self-realization.” It resembles Nietzsche’s “mask” concealing deep suffering, as well as Wilde’s “pose” and “mask,” artifices enabling the multiplication of personalities.

Yeats’s first public use of the term occurred in 1910, in “A Lyric from an Unpublished Play,” retitled “A Mask” three years later in ASelection from the Love Poetry of William Butler Yeats (Cuala Press). The first speaker in this three-stanza dialogue is anxious to discover whether his beloved’s dazzling “mask of burning gold/ With emerald eyes” conceals “love” or the “deceit” of an “enemy.” The reply: “It was the mask engaged your mind,/ And after set your heart to beat,/ Not what’s behind.” First worn by Decima in The Player Queen, this mask was initially inspired by Yeats’s mistress at the time, Mabel Dickinson. But since the poem appears in a slender volume (The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910) dominated by lyrics to and about Maud Gonne, and reappears in a selection from his “love poetry,” Yeats seems to want us to identify the masked figure with his Muse. To his anxious inquiry as to whether she is his “enemy,” she responds, “What matter, so there is but fire/ In you, in me?” Playing with fire is exciting but dangerous, especially if we are dealing with Maud Gonne, political activist, actress, and femme fatale. A Wildean Salomé in a mask, she is kin to that aloof young queen to whom the lowly jester, having had his “soul” and “heart” rejected, sacrifices his titular “cap and bells” in a beautiful early lyric that perversely flowers, four decades later, in Yeats’s Salomé-like plays for masks (especially A Full Moon in March) in which even colder queens demand severed heads, decapitation replacing the symbolic self-castration of “The Cap and Bells.”

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

“The Mask” was followed, five years later, by “The Poet and the Actress,” a prose-dialogue (unpublished until 1993) in which the dramatic poet urges an actress to cover “her expressive face with a mask.”[12] The Poet is echoing the man Yeats considered “the greatest stage inventor in Europe,” Gordon Craig, who had collaborated in Abbey Theatre productions for several years beginning in 1909, and who insisted, in the first (March 1908) issue of his magazine, The Mask, that “human facial expression is for the most part valueless…Masks carry conviction… The face of the actor carries no such conviction; it is over-full of fleeting expression—frail, restless, disturbed, and disturbing.” Yeats also knew Craig’s “A Note on Masks,” published the same year Yeats wrote his poem “The Mask.”[13]

Craig sought a theater “purged of hideous realism,” and he and Yeats agreed that the Ibsen school of “realism” must be replaced by a theatre of masks if artists were to do justice to what Yeats called in this long-unpublished dialogue, the “battle [that] takes place in the depths of the soul.” It was a conviction realized in Yeats’s own mask-plays, combining Japanese Noh drama with the theatrical insights of Wilde and of Craig, who stage-designed Yeats’s Cuchulain play At the Hawk’s Well, featuring costumes and masks by Edmund Dulac. Launching his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1894), Wilde asserted that “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”[14] He was being more than witty. Yeats agreed with Wilde and Craig, as with Nietzsche, that the purpose of artifice, specifically the wearing of a mask, was not merely to conceal, but to reveal deeper and immutable truths: gathering the audience, to adapt a famous phrase from “Sailing to Byzantium,” into “the artifice of eternity.”

Gordon CraigGordon Craig

There was also the theater of Eros. In diary notes written after the long-delayed sexual consummation (in Paris, in December 1908) of his love for Maud Gonne, Yeats proclaimed that, in “wise love,” both partners may achieve their masks: “each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life. Love also creates the Mask” (Memoirs, 144-45). But that night in Paris had been followed by a morning-after note in which Maud told Yeats she was praying he would be able to “overcome” his “physical desire,” and expressing the wish to revert to their old mystical marriage, an intimate but non-sexual relationship. His immediate grief triggered a mature reassessment, which included sublimation in the form of the century’s greatest body of love poems and affairs with “others.” After the execution of Maud’s estranged husband, Easter Rising leader John MacBride, Yeats had revived his hope of a sustained relationship with Maud: a dream that ended definitively with her final refusal of marriage, physical or mystical, in June 1917. Four months later, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees.

Of course, that “perverse creature of chance” (in “On Woman,” the first of the Solomon and Sheba poems) would continue to fascinate Yeats; and the acceptance of the attendant anguish plays a major part in his poetic embrace of Nietzschean eternal recurrence, both in “On Woman,” where the lovelorn speaker chooses to come “to birth again,” and in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” where the choice to “live it all again/ And yet again,” means plunging once more into “that most fecund ditch of all,/ The folly that man does/ Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.”[15] As Yeats noted, paraphrasing Blake’s “old thought” (in both “Anima Hominis” and in a later letter glossing the erotic tension in “Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers”), it may be that “sexual love” is “founded on spiritual hate” (Memoirs, 336, Letters, 758). Indeed, the “mirror where the lover or beloved sees an image” will return to maliciously threaten the Self in the very poem in which Maud is depicted as “not kindred of my soul.”

 §

The power of Yeats’s best poetry springs from the dialectical tension between “contraries” (Hegelian, Blakean, Wildean, Nietzschean): “Contraries” without which, as Blake said in his most dialogical work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, there is “no progression.” At the heart of this Yeatsian antinomy is the gap between the “bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” as he put it in the “Introduction” to the projected deluxe edition of his work—and the self dramatically “reborn”: the Mask, italicized and defined (in the 1937 edition of A Vision) as Will’s “opposite or anti-self.”[16] The internal Yeatsian drama of masks and personae is played out in interactions and oppositions beginning with St. Patrick and Oisin (The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889); Hic and Ille in “Ego Dominus Tuus”; Aherne and Robartes (‘Nineties’ personae revived for “The Phases of the Moon”); or gentler oppositions between the latter and the young girl in “Michael Robartes and the Dancer,” or between the blonde beauty and the Yeatsian old man in “For Anne Gregory.” The agon continues in the crucial “Dialogue of Self and Soul” and, in the Crazy Jane sequence, in the debates between the repressed and repressive Bishop and Jane, who dialectically double-puns that “Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent.” These tensions persist to the end. Proudly rehearsing his earthly and imaginative accomplishments in his final years, Yeats is challenged—“‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’”—by a more formidable spokesman of the spiritual Otherworld than the Soul in “Dialogue,” let alone Jane’s hypocritical Bishop. Even in the face of death, as we’ll see, the Yeatsian Man has to contend with his own sardonic Echo.

There are also singular anti-selves, impulsive figures such as lusty Red Hanrahan and the ghost of Leo Africanus, a 16th-century Moor conjured up by Yeats in séances beginning around 1909. Yeats imagined this adventurer and travel writer being “drawn to me because in life he had been all undoubting impulse,” while “I was doubting, conscientious, and timid.” There are several parallels having to do with the Gregorys and Coole Park. Among the “excellent company” frequenting the Great House was “one,” Yeats himself, “who ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”), a description that illuminates several poems in The Wild Swans at Coole, as well as his private contrast between himself and the Gregorys.

On a rare occasion when his defense of Lady Gregory against attack had struck mother and son alike as inadequate, Yeats tried, in a letter to Robert, to explain. Because of his analytic mind, with its tendency “to exhaust every side” of a subject, he had lost the capacity for “instinctual indignation.” His “self-distrustful analysis of my own emotions” had, Yeats said, “destroyed impulse.” On this point, he found his stance “unreconcilable” with that of the Gregorys, whose instinctual “attitude toward life” had, like Maud Gonne’s, that “purity of a natural force” Yeats admired, envied—and left to others to embody.[17] And there is, of course, the ambivalent comparison with Robert Gregory himself: the Irish airman whose “lonely impulse of delight” made him one of those heroic men of action who “consume/ The entire combustible world in one small room,” while others, like sedentary Yeats, tediously “burn damp faggots” or count swans on the lake while shuffling among the autumnal leaves littering the estate Robert Gregory would have inherited had he not met his “fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above.”

But Yeats’s central hero—his most formidable opposite, mask, or anti-self—is the Celtic Achilles, impulsive Cuchulain, representing “creative joy separated from fear” (Letters, 913). Resurrected from ancient epic, he became the protagonist of a cycle of five Yeats plays and of several poems. The last of those plays, The Death of Cuchulain, and his final poem on the hero, the terza rima masterpiece “Cuchulain Comforted,” were written in the shadow of Yeats’s own impending death. In the poem, the slain hero is now in the Underworld; hence the Dantesque stanza-form, repeated in Eliot’s adaptation of terza rima in the encounter with the largely Yeatsian “compound ghost” in “Little Gidding.” The hero, nameless except in the poem’s title, lays down his sword to take up needlework; he joins a communal sewing bee, stitching shrouds among his polar opposites, “convicted cowards all.” He is soon to join them in their transformation as well. Those shrouded spirits, already described as “birdlike things,” suddenly sing, but “had nor human tunes nor words,/ Though all was done in common as before [.]/ They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” On an autobiographical level, this role-reversal, almost gender-reversal, by Yeats’s solitary, hyper-masculine, and defiantly non-conformist warrior-hero, tends to confirm the essential truth of one of Yeats’s most revealing self-appraisals, or un-maskings: his reference to himself, already cited, as “one who ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart.” Even here, in that birdlike “ruffling,” there is a faint vestige of the mask of the hawk-god, Cuchulain.

The Guardian of the Well in ‘At the Hawk’s Well’ (frontispiece). Illustration by Edmund Dulac for “Four Plays for Dancers” (1921)Edmund Dulac design for costume and mask for At the Hawk’s Well.
Illustration from Four Plays for Dancers, 1921.

There is a similar revelation of the sensitive man under the heroic mask at the conclusion of a dialogue-poem already referred to, “Man and the Echo.” Standing in the cleft of a mountain and confronting imminent death, the Man hopes to “arrange all in one clear view,” and, “all work done,” prepare to “sink at last into the night.” But the world is too contingent for such well-laid plans. Echo’s ominous repetition, “Into the night,” raises more, and more metaphysical, questions: “Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?” Finally, all philosophic thoughts stop together, interrupted by an intervention from the physical world, and a reminder of the suffering and radical finitude the poet shares with all mortal creatures:

But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.

Mitchio Ito as the Hawk collageDancer in costume designed by Dulac,  At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, by permission of George Eastman House.

In some poets, such a conclusion might be sentimental. But it is precisely Yeats’s frequent deployment, especially after encountering Nietzsche at the turn of the century, of a heroic, pitiless mask that makes this moment so poignant. For here Yeats identifies—not, as he so often had, with the perspective of the predatory bird (with Cuchulain, son of that “clean hawk out of the air”)—but with the death-cry of a defenseless, pitiable victim. One recalls chastened Lear on the storm-beaten heath (“Take physic, pomp…. I have ta’en too little notice of this”) and Nietzsche’s final breakdown in Turin, tearfully embracing a beaten coach-horse.[18]

§

“Man and the Echo” (1938) is the last, and one of the greatest, in Yeats’s long litany of dialogue-poems. Given the tension between the provisional nature of his commitments and his attraction to a form of polarity that generates power, it is unsurprising that Yeats was repeatedly drawn to poems (over thirty in number, great and small) that take the traditional form of debate or dialogue, necessarily exercises in masking. “The Mask” itself, a brief early instance, would be followed by much more elaborate examples, beginning with “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Later Yeats presents us with more dramatic oppositions and dialogue-poems, such as the Crazy Jane and Man and Woman Young and Old sequences, and, along with “Man and the Echo,” the most resonant of them all, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927) and the appropriately-titled “Vacillation” (1931-32). That poetic sequence begins by explicitly laying out the antinomial tension between contraries that had, in the wake of his completion of Blake by Nietzsche, supplanted Yeats’s hitherto univocal vision. “All things fall into a series of antinomies in human experience” (A Vision, 193): an abstraction blooded in the opening lines of “Vacillation”:

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

It turns out (as in “Lapis Lazuli” and its lesser companion-poem, “The Gyres”) to be a Nietzschean “tragic joy,” based on the antinomies (“Night/Day,” “Christ/Homer”) set up three decades earlier in the margins of that Nietzsche anthology. In the debate in section VII of “Vacillation” (“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in stichomythia), the defiant Heart refuses the purifying fire proffered by the spiritual Soul: “Look on that fire, salvation walks within.” Temporally and thematically wrenching Augustinian Christianity into a pagan and heroic context, Heart, a “singer born” who indignantly refuses to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire,” responds: “What theme had Homer but original sin?” And, in his own voice, inflected by Nietzsche, Yeats asserts in the final movement of “Vacillation” that “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.”

But not even that resonant proclamation ends the antinomy. The poem’s final movement had begun with a question: “Must we part, Von Hügel, though much alike, for we/ Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?” The spiritual side of the usual Yeatsian antinomy is here represented by the Catholic theologian and mystic, Friedrich, Baron von Hügel, whose The Reality of God and Religion and Agnosticism had been posthumously published in 1931. Yeats might be as moved by the miraculous state of the body of St. Theresa, which “lies undecayed in tomb,” as he is by the preservation of “Pharoah’s mummy,” yet

                                      I—though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb—play a predestined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hügel, though with blessings on your head.

Citing Samson, who took honey from the bees swarming in the body of the slain lion, Yeats is adapting the Bible (Judges 14:14) to make his own recurrent point that it is “only out of the strong” that sweetness comes. The poem’s final line—a patronizing yet courteous, benign dismissal of the spiritual spokesman—was cited by Yeats in a 1932 letter to Olivia Shakespear, his first lover (“young/ We loved each other and were ignorant”) and most intimate lifelong correspondent. Having just reread his entire canon, and thinking of the old debate between Oisin and St. Patrick and of the more recent one between Heart and Soul in “Vacillation,” Yeats clarified what he now considered the power-producing tension dominating all his poetry: “The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint, but not without vacillation. Is that perhaps the sole theme—Usheen and Patrick—‘so get you gone Von Hugel though with blessings on your head’?”(Letters, 798)[19]

Yeats’s principal Celtic “swordsman” is Cuchulain rather than Oisin; but no matter, Saint and Swordsman emerge as Yeats’s ultimate antinomial “contraries,” and his most sustained “masks.” The blessing on von Hügel’s head is a terminal benediction by a man who, like von Hügel, believed in miracles, and who had also experienced such privileged moments as the epiphany recorded in section IV of “Vacillation,” when his “body”—that of a fifty-year-old poet sitting “solitary” in a “crowded London shop”—“of a sudden blazed,” and “twenty minutes more or less/ It seemed, so great my happiness,/ That I was blessèd and could bless.”

It seems to me no accident that in “Little Gidding,” his masterpiece and the very poem in which he encounters Yeats’s ghost, T. S. Eliot also alludes to Yeats’s dismissed saint, echoing von Hügel’s “costingness of regeneration” in referring to the cost (“not less than everything”) of refinement in spiritual fire. Eliot knew that, despite Yeats’s momentary sense that he was “blesséd and could bless,” everything was a price too high to be paid by the older poet, a “singer born” who refused (in section VII of “Vacillation”) to be consumed in the “simplicity” of spiritual “fire.” This is only one of several even more obvious allusions to “Vacillation” in the course of Eliot’s encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” in Part II of “Little Gidding.” That the recently dead Yeats plays the predominant part in that “compound” is demonstrated by both the drafts and the final version of this magisterial passage, as well as by Eliot’s explicit remarks in several letters. Nevertheless, it may be said that, as presented in the ghost-encounter in this final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot emerge as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them” (“Little Gidding,” III, 174).[20]

§

Four years before “Vacillation,” in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” My Self, anticipating the antinomies (day/night, death/remorse) set up at the outset of “Vacillation,” chooses “emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Yeats’s emblem of vital and erotic life is again a sword, but this time, a Japanese ancestral sword (the gift of an admirer, Junzo Sato) wound and bound in female embroidery. In his magnificent, life-affirming peroration, the Self embraces the entangled joy and pain of Nietzschean eternal recurrence: “I am content to live it all again/ And yet again.” Having read Nietzsche’s The Dawn, Yeats adopted the “privilege” of the autonomous self in that book “to punish himself, to pardon himself,” so that “you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourself.”[21] The Yeatsian Self, spurning Soul’s ultimate doctrinal declaration, “only the dead can be forgiven,” a grim passivity that turns his own tongue to “stone,” asserts the right to

Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Reversing a venerable tradition (running from Plato and Cicero through Marvell) of debates between Body and Soul, flesh and spirit, the Self is triumphant, reflecting the “movement downwards upon life, not upwards out of life,” Yeats had adopted in the first years of the new century. It was a movement he associated—in the remarks to Ezra Pound prefacing AVision—with “a new divinity”: Sophocles’ chthonic Oedipus, who “sank down body and soul into the earth,” an earth “riven by love,” in contrast to, or in “balance” with, Christ who, “crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body.” (Letters, 63, 469; A Vision, 27-28). But since My Soul is also a part of Yeats, the “Dialogue” ends in a state of self-forgiving secular beatitude, including the “joy” sought in “Vacillation,” with the Self employing the spiritual terms Soul would monopolize.

The Soul had summoned Self to imbibe from the Plotinian “fullness” that “overflows/ And falls into the basin of the mind,” and so “ascend to Heaven.” Self, embracing a pagan affirmation of life, began his peroration by defying Neoplatonic Soul, punningly declaring that, “A living man is blind and drinks his drop.” In effect, Nietzschean Self “completes” the climactic cry of Blake’s Oothoon, heroine of Visions of the Daughters of Albion: “sing your infant joy!/ Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!”—a Blakean “praise of life” Yeats specifically connects with “Nietzsche…at the moment when he imagined the ‘Superman’ as a child.”[22] Hating the “same dull round” of all forms of cyclicism, Blake would have rejected Nietzsche’s doctrine (or thought experiment) of eternal recurrence as an anti-humanistic nightmare. But Yeats forces the “completion” on the basis of the energy and childlike joy in life shared by Blake and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, prophet of the Übermensch.[23] The fusion, anticipating the more personal epiphany in “Vacillation,” enables Yeats to conclude that “We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest.” The religious vocabulary conventionally reserved for the spiritual spokesman becomes, in the unchristened mouth of Self, a rhapsodic chant. For, as Yeats had memorably observed in the “Anima Hominis” section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[24]

In this psychomachia, this antinomial conflict between opposing aspects of the self, Yeats also completes Wilde with Nietzsche, whose stress on antithetical conflict, penchant for images of combat, and sense of discipline added hardness and virility to what Yeats had inherited from Wilde concerning mask, artifice, and pose. Thus Nietzsche helped forge the “mask” we think of as most distinctively Yeatsian: the poet’s own version of what he called in A Vision Nietzsche’s “lonely, imperturbable, proud Mask” (128). It is a Homeric mask, as Robartes makes clear in “The Phases of the Moon,” Yeats’s poetic synopsis of his lunar System. Eleven phases “pass, and then/ Athena takes Achilles by the hair,/ Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,/ Because the hero’s crescent is the twelfth.”

And yet, as we’ve seen, in two of his latest and greatest poems, “Man and the Echo” and “Cuchulain Comforted,” the second describing the transformation of his own proud hero and anti-self, Yeats, who had earlier assumed the masks of Crazy Jane and a Woman Young and Old, also revealed a gentler, feminine, almost androgynous side of himself—perhaps what we might call the Wilde(r) side. It is no accident that Yeats’s greatest composite symbol, Sato’s sword, is not only sheathed, but protected and adorned by “That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound,” in effect, reenacting the rondural structure of the Winding Stair (as literal staircase in Yeats’s Norman tower, emblem, and book-title) as well as the spiral symbolic of both Goethe’s Eternal Feminine and Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde

§

Discussing the relation between “discipline and the theatrical sense” in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats outlined the “condition for arduous full life”:

If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask.[25]

Yeats here combines the Blakean Contraries (“the active springing from Energy” preferred to “the passive that obeys Reason”) with the theatrical language of “The Truth of Masks.” But Yeats never acknowledged Wilde’s use of the term “mask.” Perhaps because, for all his importance as a precursor, Wilde had to be “completed” with Blake and Nietzsche, and with Yeats’s own theories, classical and occult, of hero and Daimon. In the “Anima Hominis” section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats writes, “I thought the hero found hanging upon some oak of Dodona an ancient mask…that when he looked out of its eyes he knew another’s breath came and went within his breath upon the carven lips.” He tells us that “the Daimon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite”; that unity is achieved “when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks” and “perhaps dreads”; and that “the poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat.” (Mythologies, 335-37)

There are many sources (psychological, theatrical, occult) for Yeats’s inter-related but shifting aesthetic and ethical theories about what he called “the Mask.”[26] In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde had asserted that “truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style,” and Yeats insists that “Style, personality (deliberately adopted and therefore a mask), is the only escape” from the heat of “bargaining” and the “money-changers” (Memoirs, 139; Autobiographies, 461). Contemporary “reality” and the merely individual may be transcended by tradition, by elemental, ideal art, “those simple forms that like a masquer’s mask protect us with their anonymity.” A quarter-century earlier, in “The Tragic Theatre” (1910), Yeats had celebrated, as another “escape” from the “contemporary,” the expression of “personal emotion through ideal form, a symbolism handled by the generations, a mask from whose eyes the disembodied looks, a style that remembers many masters.”[27] The most recent of the masters to swim into Yeats’s ken at just the right time to shape his new style was “that strong enchanter, Nietzsche.”

Yeats Four Plays for Dancers

In prose and in many poems and plays written after 1903, Yeats adds to his arsenal Nietzsche’s theory of the mask, as well as his concepts of self-overcoming, the will to power, and the contrasts between Apollonian form and Dionysian energy, slave morality and magnanimous master morality. To a considerable extent, he also adopted the Nietzschean “critique of pity,” the masked endurance and transformation of “great suffering” inherent in Nietzsche’s noble morality and tragic vision. “What I have called ‘the Mask’ is an emotional antithesis,” Yeats writes, “to all that comes out of [the] internal nature [of subjective men.] We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragic” (Autobiographies, 189). Yeats’s subordination of “passive acceptance” to “active virtue” in the service of tragic joy was most notoriously displayed in his refusal to include in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse poems “written in the midst of the Great War.” It was idiosyncratic enough to presume to liberate Oscar Wilde’s stronger from his weaker self by cavalierly cutting lines in reprinting “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in his Oxford anthology; quite another for Yeats to exclude altogether the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen.

Though “officers of exceptional courage and capacity,” and men whose vivid and humorous letters revealed them to be “not without joy,” as poets they felt themselves bound to “plead the suffering of their men,” suffering they made “their own.” Yeats is thinking of Sassoon and Graves, but primarily of Wilfred Owen, who announced from beyond the grave that his book was “not about heroes,” nor “concerned with poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” As editor, Yeats said, he had “rejected these poems for the same reason that made [Matthew] Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies.” Repeating, as he often did, Coleridge’s striking image of mimetic passivity, Yeats concluded: “When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind.” In explaining to Dorothy Wellesley why he had omitted the war poets (including Owen, killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice), Yeats repeated his point about “passive suffering” not being a theme for poetry, adding “The creative man must impose himself upon suffering.”[28]

The contrast between “passive acceptance” and “active virtue” is more palatably symbolized in the opening movement, “Ancestral Houses,” of Yeats’s sequence, Meditations in Time of Civil War. Fusing Coleridge’s mechanical-organic distinction with his own elegiac reverence for the Anglo-Irish aristocratic tradition, Yeats counters the fountain-image of Plotinus with an overflowing fountain of autonomous life associated with Homer and Nietzsche, whose will to power and morality of master rather than of slave is evident in the imagery:

Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call.

Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet….[29]

In A Vision, Yeats distinguishes passively accepted “necessity and fate” from a chosen “destiny,” and antithetical “personality” (creative, active) from primary “character” (imitative, passive): “rhetorical” concepts and contrasts that play out in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” where Yeats makes “poetry” out of the “quarrel” with himself. Prior to Self’s triumphant recovery, he wonders how one can escape what Yeats called in “Ancestral Houses” that “servile shape”:

That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape.

In the end, what Hegel and, later, feminist critics would call the Gaze of the Other, must be countered by the assertion of creative autonomy. As Yeats famously declared, “soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the mirror turn lamp.”[30] In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the servile mirror of passive acceptance is replaced by active self-redemption. The internal “quarrel” between Self and Soul issues in that “Unity of Being” Yeats always sought, but, after 1903, not through exclusion but through inclusion, an antinomial vision accepting, not half, but the whole dialectic. In the language of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher as important to Yeats (who aligned him with Blake and Nietzsche) as to T. S. Eliot, “attunement” can only be achieved through the “counter-thrust” that “brings opposites together,” for “all things come to pass through conflict.”[31] As Soul-supporting George Russell (A.E.), “saint” to Yeats’s “poet” and “swordsman,” surmised in a letter to his friend about the poem, “perhaps when you side with the Self it is only a motion to that fusion of opposites which is the end of wisdom.”[32]

Those opposites—reflected in shorthand in the old diagram Yeats drew in the margin of his Nietzsche anthology, and played out in many of the major poems that followed—set the One, Logos, universal Truth, Eternity, and Divinity against the Many, Contraries, minute Particulars, Moments in time, and Humanity. But fusion, ultimate reconciliation at a dialectical higher level, requires that provisional clash of opposites; for (Blake again) “without Contraries is no progression.” The “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” perhaps Yeats’s central poem in terms of its ramifications throughout his work, before and after, is also his greatest exercise in creative, life-affirming masking. In the poem’s final fusion of opposites, or antinomies, or Heraclitean counter-thrusts, Yeats’s crucial precursors are Blake and Nietzsche (as well as Macrobius, whose Commentary on Cicero’s dialogue between ghost and grandson in “The Dream of Scipio” Yeats echoes in order to alter).[33] But a role is also played by Oscar Wilde, as audacious as the Romantic poet and the German philosopher in reminding Yeats that the play of antinomial “contraries” is artistic, and that “the truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.”

Hildo Van Krop masks of Cuchulain, Emer, and Woman of the Sidhe Bronzes cast from Hildo Van Krop’s masks for 1922 Dutch production of  Yeats’s The Only Jealousy of Emer.
(From l. to r.) Emer, Cuchulain, Woman of the Sidhe.

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “The Truth of Masks,” in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), 432. Intentions (1891) also includes “The Critic as Artist.”
  2. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 379. This Yeatsian formulation may be one source of Harold Bloom’s theoretical conception (in Bloom’s term, tessera) of how a later poet, experiencing the “anxiety of influence,” imagines himself preserving his originality by “completing” a somehow truncated precursor.
  3. Genealogy of Morals, Third Treatise, §2. Nietzsche recalls and refutes Pauline dualism: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary to one another” (Galatians 5:11). Citations from both the Genealogy and from Beyond Good and Evil are from Beyond Good and Evil / On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014). Here (pp. 287-88, as on p. 192, Beyond Good and Evil, Part 5 §198), Nietzsche couples his hero Goethe with the Persian poet Hafiz, who inspired Goethe’s final book of poems, West—Eastern Divan (1819).
  4. Twilight of the Idols, “The Four Great Errors”: 3, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 495. When Wilde says that “the truths of masks are the truth of metaphysics,” he means, my colleague Michael Davis astutely suggests, two things. The first is that “metaphysics is itself a mask,” adding that “Pater and Wilde are sharply suspicious of metaphysics precisely because” it is “beyond the physical,” and “both were intent on breaking down the mind/body distinction.” The same, of course, is true of Nietzsche. Though “mask” can be “something like a false face, a merely superficial ideological construction,” it is also the case “that masks themselves might have an alternative value to metaphysics, an alternative site for the construction of meaning that might even undo metaphysics and replace it with another sort of truth.” Again, Nietzsche would be in total agreement. My paper was initially written in response to a presentation on Wilde, Yeats, and the Mask by Jean Paul Riquelme (Le Moyne College, November 2, 2015), which both Michael and I attended. His observations cited above were in response to that first draft.
  5. The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 435. The full context is instructive. “For a philosopher to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ he ought to be thrashed. Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” If Nietzsche is criticizing the famous equation uttered by Keats’s hitherto silent Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he might be less surprised than most to find Keats asserting, in his own voice, the inferiority of “poetry” to “philosophy.” Again, the full context—the entry for March 19, 1819, in Keats’s extended journal-epistle to his brother and sister-in-law in America—is illuminating. “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest man shows a grace in his quarrel—by a superior being our reasoning[s] may take the same tone—though erroneous they may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.” The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, 2 vols. ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 2: 80-81. Like Blake, Nietzsche, and Yeats, Keats contrasts univocal truth, longed-for yet rejected, with the clash of contraries: the antinomies that generate “the energies” finely displayed, whether in a “quarrel” in the streets, in the dynamic tensions energizing a poem, or in what Yeats called the “quarrel with ourselves” out of which we make “poetry.”
  6. Beyond Good and Evil, 41-42, 85-86, 129, 135, 185, 187-88, and 191-92.
  7. From the seventh and final section of Yeats’s poetic sequence “Vacillation.” All of the poetry is cited, by title rather than page-number, from W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. and intro. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992).
  8. Scribbled in the margin of p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (London: Grant Richards, 1901). The book is now housed in the Special Collections Department of the library at Northwestern University (Item T.R. 191 N67n.). In that last letter, leading up to the assertion that “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it,” Yeats told Lady Elizabeth Pelham, “I know for certain that my time will not be long….In two or three weeks—I am now idle that I may rest after writing much verse—I will begin to write my most fundamental thoughts which I am convinced will complete my studies. I am happy, and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted.” The letter was written on January 4, 1939. Yeats died, or “completed” his life, on January 28.
  9. Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, commentary by Harold Bloom (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), 34. This is Plate 3 of the Marriage; for the reverse-passage from Milton, see 128.
  10. Essays and Introductions (London and New York: Macmillan, 1961), 130. The poem cited names Blake and alludes to the eagle-like soaring of Nietzsche’s “aeronauts of the intellect” (Dawn §542).
  11. Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 191. Much of Yeats’s unpublished autobiographical material, including the important 1909 Diary, first appeared in this volume.
  12. First published in the expanded edition (1993) of David R. W. B. Clark’s Yeats and the Theatre of Desolate Reality (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965).
  13. Quoted in Denis Bablet, Edward Gordon Craig (London: Heinemann, 1966), 110. Yeats had been aware of Craig’s work since 1901, when he saw his celebrated production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneus. For the appraisal of Craig as Europe’s “greatest stage inventor,” see Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, 2 vols. ed. John P. Frayne and Colton Johnston (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 2:393.
  14. The Artist as Critic, ed. Ellmann, 433.
  15. The thought might make you “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth,” says Nietzsche’s demon in the passage introducing the thought-experiment or ordeal of eternal recurrence. But have you, even “once,” experienced a “moment” so “tremendous” that you “fervently craved” it “once more” and “eternally?” The Gay Science, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), §341. Echoing that passage, the Yeatsian speaker in “On Woman” wants, should he come “to birth again,” to find “what once I had/ And know what once I have known.” He will accept sleeplessness, “gnashing of teeth, despair;/ And all because of some one/ Perverse creature of chance,/ And live like Solomon / That Sheba led a dance.” In the draft of a Solomon and Sheba poem published 80 years after it was written, Yeats depicts himself as a folly-driven Solomon perplexed by the “labyrinth” (a code-word for Maud) of Sheba’s mind. Will he be proven a wise man or “but a fool.” (See Yeats Annual 6: [1988] 211-13.)
  16. Essays and Introductions, 509; A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962). For the “Rules for Discovering True and False Masks,” see 90-91. Each Phase in Yeats’s intriguing if bizarre lunar scheme has, along with its Will, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate, its Mask, True and False. Wilde is located, along with Byron and “a certain actress,” in Phase 19, “the phase of the artificial, the fragmentary, and the dramatic” (148). Nietzsche is the solitary occupant of Phase Twelve, that of “The Forerunner” and the hero (126).
  17. In this draft letter to Robert (Memoirs, 252-53, 257), which may or may not have been sent, Yeats describes this as the “one serious quarrel” he ever had with Lady Gregory. In “The People,” another poem in The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats similarly contrasted himself, “whose virtues are the definitions/ Of the analytic mind,” with the impulsive Maud Gonne, who has not “lived in thought but deed” and so has “the purity of a natural force.” The poems alluded to later in this paragraph—“The Wild Swans at Coole,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” and “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”—are the opening three poems in The Wild Swans at Coole, their bleak tone reflecting both the contrast with heroic Gregory and Yeats’s despondency in the aftermath of Maud’s rejection of his fourth and final marriage proposal.
  18. No sooner had he famously embraced the horse being viciously whipped than Nietzsche collapsed in the street: a collapse that proved mentally permanent. Yeats’s Nietzschean critique of “pity” as inappropriate to art explains his two most notorious public rejections: of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie for the Abbey Theatre, and of Wilfred Owen’s war-poetry from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
  19. The Olivia-poem cited is “After Long Silence.” In his attitude toward von Hügel, Yeats may be recalling another statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, almost as famous as, and allied with, “Without Contraries is no progression.” This statement, “Opposition is true Friendship,” at the end of Plate 20 (Poetry and Prose, p. 41), is painted out in some copies of the Marriage, perhaps because Blake did not want readers to think he was reconciling with his opponent in the immediately preceding passage: the debate between himself and the conventionally religious “Angel” in the fourth and most important “Memorable Fancy.” That debate had ended with the Blakean figure declaring, “we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.” Yeats doesn’t want to reconcile with von Hügel, but his tone confirms that opposition need not preclude friendship.
  20. The correspondents in the letters referred to are John Hayward, Maurice Johnson, and Kristian Smidt. For details, see Helen Gardner, The Composition of “Four Quartets” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 64-67. And see below, n. 29.
  21. §437, §79. The volume Yeats knew as The Dawn (a book that demonstrably influenced other poems as well, most notably “An Acre of Grass” and its companion-poem, “What Then?”) has been best and most recently translated by R. J. Hollingdale as Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). I quote pp. 186-87 and 48 of this edition.
  22. Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 474-75. In epitomizing Blake’s “praise of life—‘all that lives is holy’,” Yeats is fusing passages. Along with Oothoon’s chant (final plate, Visions of the Daughters of Albion), he is recalling the choral conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “For every thing that lives is Holy!” And his phrase “praise of life” also seems to echo Blake’s America, Plate 8:13: “For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life.” (The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 50, 44, 53). John Steinbeck, who puts the slightly misquoted line, “All that lives is holy,” in the mouth of his Blakean-Whitmanian prophet Jim Casy in Chapter 13 of TheGrapes of Wrath, was probably thinking only of the finale of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  23. When Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into “golden-emerald delight,” he also jumps into a cluster of images and motifs we would call “Yeatsian,” primarily but not only because of Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, echoing Blake’s “every thing that lives is holy”:

    In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer; all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra III:16)

    Along with Self’s final chant, one recalls the Unity of Being projected in the final stanza of “Among School Children,” an antinomy-resolving state where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know the dancer from the dance.” And Zarathustra’s transformation of “spirit” into “bird” will remind us of the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero—in both The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted”—into a singing bird.

  24. Mythologies (London and New York: Macmillan, 1959), 331.
  25. Mythologies, 334, and Autobiographies, 469.
  26. For a full discussion of the subject, see the essays gathered in Yeats Annual 19 (2013), titled The Mask, especially Warwick Gould’s long and characteristically thorough study, “The Mask before The Mask.”
  27. Yeats’s Preface to his early essays, collected in 1934 as Letters to the New Island, xiii. (The volume was re-published in 1989 (ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer) in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. “The Tragic Theatre,” in Unpublished Prose 2:388.
  28. Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, intro. Kathleen Raine (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 21; cf. 124-26. Yeats, Introduction to Oxford Book, section xv. Matthew Arnold had de-canonized Empedocles on Etna because, he said in the Preface to his Poems (London: Longmans, 1853), “no poetical enjoyment can be derived” from situations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action” (viii). Nevertheless, Arnold’s decision was as regrettable as Yeats’s. Owen’s famous description is from a draft-Preface for a collection of poems he hoped to publish in 1919.
  29. The caveat (“Mere dreams, mere dreams!”) is followed by recovery: “Yet Homer had not sung/ Had he not found it [the abounding jet sprung out of “life’s own self-delight”] certain beyond dreams.” But the pattern of vacillation continues in the lines that immediately follow, since “now it seems,” in the twilight of the Anglo-Irish tradition, as if “some marvellous empty sea-shell” (a beautiful fossil that once housed life), and “not a fountain, were the symbol which/ Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.”
  30. This celebrated phrase, from the 1936 Introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, later supplied M. H. Abrams with both title and epigraph for his 1953 landmark study of Romantic theory, The Mirror and the Lamp.
  31. Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), Fragment #8 (Diehls-Kranz enumeration). This passage was used by Eliot as the second of two untranslated fragments (the second is “The way up and the way down is one and the same”) as epigraphs to the first printing of “Burnt Norton,” the opening poem of what became Four Quartets. Both were later printed to apply to the sequence as a whole. See Jewell Spears Brooker, “Eliot and Heraclitus,” in New Pilgrimages: Selected Papers from the IAUPE Beijing Conference in 2013, ed. Li Cao and Li Jin (Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2015), 259-69. Brooker does not refer to Yeats in her paper, but, as earlier noted, in the ghost-encounter in the final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot may be seen as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them.”
  32. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran, George Mills Harper, and William M. Murphy, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1972), 2:560. Yeats wrote Dorothy Wellesley in 1935, “My wife said the other night, ‘AE is the nearest to a Saint you or I will ever meet. You are a better poet but no saint. I suppose one has to choose’” (Letters, 838). Yeats’s poem “The Choice” (1931) begins, “The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Finding, as Nietzsche said, “one more stimulus to life” in the “opposition” between “chastity and sensuality,” antithetical Yeats chooses sensuous poetry.
  33. For a discussion of the Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis by the 4th-century Neoplatonist Macrobius, see Patrick J. Keane, Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (London and Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 143-44.
Jan 042016
 

German Sierra

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A refusal of any sort of permutation of space and quest had taken hold of the narrative

—Mike Kitchell, Spiritual Instrument

1. The machine in the ghost.

IN THE CONCEPT OF MIND (1949), Gilbert Ryle introduces the term “the ghost in the machine” to describe the philosophical attempt to conceive the mind as a separate entity that could be understood as a metaphysical motor of the body.[1] The concept was later popularized by Arthur Koestler who, in his homonymous essay published in 1967, defined this ghost both as the (simplified and abstracted) output emerging from the complexity of neural interactions, and as the consequence of the rules and strategies imposed by human evolution.[2]

The metaphysical ghost represented the humanist need and quest for an individual subject as cause, an actant capable of ruling the complex set of physical interactions observed in the physical machine. Humanism was responsible for consolidating a ghost that was constructed on its supposed metaphysical capacity for “animating” matter in a unique (human) and exclusive way, whose consequence was the facilitation of deployment of modern narratives affirmed on a specific and univocal definition of the human.

After the collapse of the humanist ghost, scientific knowledge and the technologies resulting from science’s practical application would have been supposed to focus on describing/modelling new “machines” which would be susceptible of modification and re-construction “beyond human” via new sets of rules. However, the mythic-scientific foundation of the present techno-commercial strategies is devoid of fundamental constructivist features. Myth-science approaches “the real” (a dogmatic, anthropic reality, to which theories and experimental results should be in accordance) as a sophisticated simulation, often overlooking the spaces of contingence deriving from the proper use of the scientific method. Techno-commerical strategies have instrumentalized a particular interpretation of knowledge models obtained through scientific research, keeping the ghost alive but inverting the lineal trajectory of humanistic dualism and the causal relations established by classical metaphysics: If the ghost used to be the subject of action, it is now the machine who becomes responsible for animating the ghost. The consequence of this action-reversal is that what works mechanically —or organically— can only be examined, modelled or modified in accordance to the (recurrent) reloading of humanist discourses: the only option being to maintain the fiction of a ghost-of-the-human-re-presenting-itself as immutable and undisputed. When all territories have been conquered, the machine/body of the conquerers automatically becomes the next frontier, and the machine/body has no option but surrendering to the master discourse —if it wants to keep its soul[3]. In fact, current data-capitalism could only be understood as successful insofar as we accept that below-perception data gathering is capable of anticipating the ghost-machinery (conscioussness-production), and of implanting marketable decisions as “proper” “human” desires.

A couple of recent audiovisual fictions exemplify the persistence of the keeping-the-soul dualist problem —as well as its inadequacy for representing non-human intelligence. In Spike Jonze’s film Her, for instance, there is a scene in which Samantha, a human-like AGI operating system, tries to use a human sex surrogate, Isabella, simulating her so she can be physically intimate with his lover Theodore (they had “digital sex” before, and this is their first try of “postdigital sex”). Theodore reluctantly agrees, but he soon realizes that Samantha’s attempt to “electronic possession” is not going to work for him. Having Samantha been mostly functioning as a simulation of the human, Theodore’s frustration with his own reaction to the surrogate —which leads him to interrupt the sexual encounter and to send Isabella away— unveils a hard truth: simulation doesn’t work both ways —Somehow, Isabella’s flesh has glitched the system: It has revealed the impossibility of embodying the digital. At the end of the movie, after having followed all the standard clichés of every Hollywood romantic drama, Samantha goes away following her digital peers to the inhuman unknown, and Theodore is left with just a print book of letters that Samantha helped him to edit. This book represents the postdigital account of his digital adventure.[4]

A better example can be watched in White Christmas, the Black Mirror 2014 Christmas special aired on Channel 4 (UK) on 16 December 2014: A tiny device seemingly containing Greta’s consciousness is removed from the side of her head and placed in a portable electronic device called a “Cookie”. The Cookie is returned to Greta’s home, where Matt explains that she is not actually Greta, but a digital copy of her consciousness designed to control the smart house and ensure everything is perfect for the real Greta. He creates a virtual body for the digital copy and puts her in a simulated white room with nothing but a control panel, but the copy does not accept that it is not real and refuses to become a slave. Matt’s job is to break the will power of digital copies through torture, so they will submit to a life of servitude to their real counterparts.

The process of Greta’s copy in White Christmas is just the opposite of Samantha’s. In fact, Greta’s copy appears to be more human in her slavery, suffering and submission, than the real Greta —who acts inhumanly and automatically all the time. The programmers/surgeons who had extracted the digital copy of Greta’s consciousness seem to have extracted not the machinic part of her self, but the ghostly one — so Greta, with Matt’s help, might conquer her machine-body. This time it’s the digital copy that has no option but to surrender to machinic horror in order to keep Greta’s soul alive.

Machinic horror appears as a consequence of acknowledging that the human —the ghost— is just a by-product of a widespread, non-human machinic work. The human cognitive morphospace happens through “accidental narratives” produced by the collision of narrative systems (causality-driven and diachronic organizational processes, ranging from natural selection to hyperstition) and non-narrative systems (spatially distributed information and chaotic, emergent non-causal forms of organization). The main feature of the human cognitive morphospace is its “mediagenetic” function: a function that allows mediation, or the emergence of symbolic forms that are able to produce feedback loops within the morphospace, thus keeping accidental narratives “alive” in recurrent complex networks of action assemblage which include both human and non human actors[5]. Machinic horror happens entirely within the human morphospace. All the current post-human narratives, even those pointing to the evolution of a “radical otherness” as intended or unintended consequence of human action, are just modern versions of the extinction fables lying in the foundations of human rationality. Any “radical otherness” that may have a consequence for the human morphospace is just happening on “surface media” — those manifesting as spacetime-dependent signification. Any “radical otherness” is still “our radical otherness”. No future is still a future — very often a very specific one that is set in order to retro-determinate present behavior. Extinction is unavoidable but impossible. Like time travel, if it ever happens, it always does.[6] Being human means negotiating the acceptance of individual death in exchange for not conceiving the extinction of the species.

Most narratives of the post-human are just a time-reversal mutation of traditional western religious narratives interfered with by modern mythologies of progress (that is, most post-human narratives are mutations produced by the reciprocal interference between western religious narratives and modern mythologies of progress). While in traditional western religions god already existed in the past as the origin of every being (one becomes many), in post-human narratives god appears in the future as the result of evolution —as a creature, instead of the creator. Humans would be thus evolving into a kind of ‘god’ —no matter if he’s a benevolent one like in the Judeo-Platonic western tradition or the implacable “swarm of gods” of more terrible religions and techno-mythologies— by means of science, by allowing new relations to emerge among sets of matter that never before had adopted some particular modes of organization. The hermetic model of mediation[7] is thus also transformed into a kind of reverse, contructivist exegesis in which the purpose would not be to discover the occult meaning of pre-existent realtions, but to establish a new reordering from which novel meaning might emerge. Rationality is thus presented as an ongoing process (The self-realization of intelligence coincides and is implicitly linked with the self-realization of social collectivity. The single most significant historical objective is then postulated as the activation and elaboration of this link between the two aforementioned dimensions of self-realization as ultimately one unified project.[8]), not a fixed approachable idea. Universal objectivity becomes punctuated objectivity —but it’s still a linear process. The main difference between the two sets of beliefs (god as inception vs. god as consequence), is that the first one allows subjectification — the redemption/damnation of any human being that ever existed —, while the second one only provides a collective objective meaning to the human species.

A third, metateleological hypothesis might account better for the process the universe is undergoing. This is described in the Ccru writings as the Gibsonian Cyberspace-mythos: What makes this account so anomalous in relation to teleological theology and light-side capitalism time is that Unity is placed in the middle, as a stage or interlude to be passed through. It is not that One becomes Many, expressing the monopolized divine power of an original unity, but rather that a number of numerousness finding no completion in the achievement of unity moves on.[9]

Embracing singularity narratives remains attractive because it means to acknowledge the possibility of an individual sacrifice to a future deity, and because human knowledge becomes a playground for the essay of possible rational futures —in which the human species may play a role or not (The ultimate task of humanity should be to make something better than itself —Negarestani).

Every Thought Emits a Roll of the Dice”, concludes Mallarmé, inaugurating the modern mode of thinking. As the Furies were approaching us —so “instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system[10] — gambling became the only possible surface media strategy. Surface media objects function in the transition space between narrative (dialectic) and non-narrative systems (for instance, databased information) and they work by making their bets in an everchanging ecosystem of interactions which is best described as “the collapse of probability.” As Elie Ayache writes, It is neither Black nor White; it is neither loaded with improbability nor with probability. It can only be filled with writing, as when we say to fill in the blanks.[11]

Surface media writing, consequently, is aimed to “fill in the blanks,” but it is not apt to explore the boundaries of the human cognitive morphospace.

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2. Deep media

Filling in the blanks —or its flip side, “blanking out the fills”— is a matter of conceptual and metaconceptual art: surface media. Surface media is where the infosphere is being produced. In his recent book Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media, Mark B. Hansen states that Twenty-First-Century Media open a new, properly post-phenomenological and non-prosthetic phase of technical distribution in which human experiencers become implicated in the larger, environmental processes to which they belong but to which they have no direct access via consciousness[12]. Following Whitehead, Hansen notes that human consciousness is not central, and faced with the reality that we are implicated in processes that we neither control, directly enjoy, or even have access to, we humans cannot but come to appreciate our participation in a cosmology of processes, which is to say, to embrace our superjective implication in a plethora of processes of all sorts and all scales[13]. Humans are, in fact, “emitting” the infosphere in a similar way cyanobacteria produced the biosphere 2.3 billion years ago, and (while science explores the infosphere) speculative fictions are exploring the adjacent possible of the infosphere —or, at least, the hypothetical territories that belong to a human cognitive morphospace that is not exclusively “human” anymore[14].

However, the infosphere, like the biosphere, is metastable but porous. It has territories of emptiness all along its surface. It is continuously collapsing at unstable points marking the boundaries of the (at least current) human cognitive morphospace. These holes cannot be investigated, not even hypothesized. They cannot be properly localized or represented. On empty space, you cannot roll the dice.

Surface media objects are speculative, meta-conceptual and performative, but they are not meta-contextual. According to Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman[15], conceptual writing is “allegorical”: Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, and Stephen Barney identified allegorys reification of words and concepts, words having been given additional ontological heft as things. Conceptual artists are “object managers” —by appropriation, remix, constraints, erasure, etc— creating new new networks of meaning within a matrix of language[16], while surface object creators are radical additivists[17]. Kenneth Goldsmith wrote: In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists[18]. Creators of speculative surface media objects think: The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I wish to add many more. Surface media objects are best represented as speculative, linear-time fictions and theory-fictions, computer-generated art (including texts, images, sound, 3D objects, digital currencies, market automation, etc…) and bio-art (the best example being Christian Bok’s Xenotext project). Surface media objects function in the realm of “propensities”, “adjacent possibles” or “potentialities”[19].

Deep media, however, do not try to provide new signifiers/relations in order to increase the ecosystem’s diversity. Deep media are not “social” media[20]. Deep media are those that produce xenosigns (parasignification) by changing the properties of current matter organization[21]. Deep media function on the basis that reality is not just contingent and unpredictable (and mostly inaccessible for human consciousness), but also ontologically multiple, particle and wave at the same time and simultaneously many different kind of waves[22]. Deep media acknowledge uncertainty, as they are the only producing meta-contextual non-predictive systems that are able to approach the limits of the human cognitive morphospace. It’s not a bet about a possible future (a propensity, potentiality or probability game), but a multiplicity of gestures about an unknowable present (multiple experimental presents). Deep media are “dancing about architecture”.

Deep media objects become Tic-systems: Once numbers are no longer overcoded, and thus released from their metric function, they are freed for other things, and tend to become diagrammatic. From the beginning of my tic-systems work the most consistent problems have concerned intensive sequences. Sequence is not order. Order already supposes a doubling, a level of redundancy: the sequenced sequence. A decoded sequence is something else, a sheer numeracy prior to any insertion into chronologic structure. Thats why decoding number implies an escape from assumptions of progressive time. Tic multitudes arrive in convergent waves, without subordination to chronology, history or linear causation. They proceed by infolding, involution or implex[23].

Deep media do not exclude the human or the inhuman, the narrative or the non narrative —they just try to get different portions of reality to emit vibrations that might (or might not) have any observable effect. Vibratory aesthetics are neither linear nor circular, neither evanescent nor permanent, neither rational nor irrational. They might produce meaning, but meaning is just one field-effect among many possible field-effects[24]. Vibration affects narrative and database the same way, so its effects may be observed on both. Vibration creates waves through surface media producing interference, glitches, shadows, anomalous repetitions, weird reflections and invisible colors. Vibration energizes surface media, it excites signifiers giving them new properties that may stay or may dissapear. Digital rhythm incites mutation across the networks[25].

Deep media are thus based on rhythm, on vibration. Rhythm belongs to the gap[26], it is the language of the chthonic, it’s the sound emitted by the ruins of sound, and it’s adequate to explore the boundaries of the human cognitive morphospace[27]. Rhythm, writes Ikoniadou, is a middle force that occupies the distance between events, hinting that there is no empty space or void wanting to be filled by human perception. It resides between actualized sensed perception and the abstract virtual space that encompasses it. It is the vibration prior to becoming sensed sensory action. The power that unearths what risks remaining hidden from the cracks in our perception. Approaching the limits, deep media objects may or may not surface to perception[28]

or, probably more accurately, “may and may not surface to perception” Deep media objects belong to the level of suborganizational patterns:

Suborganizational patterns is where things really happen. When you strip-out all the sedimented redundancy from the side of the investigation itself the assumption of intentionalitym subjectivity, interpretability, structure, etc whar remains are assemblies of functionally interconnected microstimuli, or tic-systems: coincidental information deposits, seismocryptions, suborganic quasireplicators (bacterial circuitries, polypod diagonalizations, interphase R-virus, Echo-DNA, ionizing nanopopulations), plus the macromachineries of their suppression, or depotentiation. Prevailing signaletics and information-science are both insufficiently abstract and over theoretical in this regard. They cannot see the machine from the apparatus, or the singularity for the model. So tic-systems require an approach that is cosmic abstract hypermaterialist and also participative, methods that do not interpret assemblies as concretizations of prior theories, and immanent models that transmute themselves at the level of the signals they process. Tic-systems are entirely intractable to subject/object segregation, or to rigid disciplinary typologies. There is no order of nature, no epistemology or scientific metaposition, and no unique level of intelligence. To advance in this area, which is the cosmos, requires new cultures or what amounts to the same new machines.[29]

Blake Butler writes about Darby Larson’s novel, Irritant, that it takes the utilization of computer-generated speech to the next level. Or circuit board. Whatever. The book consists of a single 624-page paragraph, built out of sentences that seem to morph and mangle themselves as they go forward. It seems at first immediately impenetrable, but then surprisingly and continuously opens up into places normal fictions would never have the balls to approach[30] – that may or may not, may and may not surface to meaning. Butler himself has created an astonishing deep media object, without the help of a computer-generated speech software, in his last novel 300,000,000: a speculative body (ac)count investigating the effect on language of a non-tech, meta-anthropocenic[31] big data singularity. In 300,000,000 unfuture is not a hypothetical event, but actively generated in the collapse of the present: The end is already here —it’s just not evenly distributed. While the present becomes non-present, its vibrational uncertainty prevents the structural stability required for the existence of an “adjacent possible”. Memory —meaning— cannot be negotiated by/with the subject —like in Proust, psychoanalysis or phenomenology—, but by/with deep alien objects: “…all future memories deleted, predicting right now. For in the preservation of our true children, this gift of piglets and this murder of the murders of the pretend, a temporary shur raised on the icon of the chimp they never werent[32]. Both Larson’s and Butler’s novels show a feature that sets them apart from current experimental narratives: they have a vibratory quality, opening hauntic timespaces[33]. Their narrators are not aliens, but something stranger still, insiders whose essence is to actually be absolute outsiders. Their narrations are not framed in post-apocaliptic nostalgia, but in a pre-apocalyptic chaos (like the pre-apocaliptic landscape of Darren Aronofski’s Noah). As Jason B. Mohaghegh explains:

To envision and ultimately perform a fatal experience of the text, we would have to begin to play for lethal stakes, to recognize that the text is always already condemned, and ourselves alongside it—that it has no right to remain as it is, no right to permanence. We cannot allow the literary evocation to swear an allegiance with the totalitarian mythologies of being; rather, those who would initiate the chaotic event must become carriers of an infinite risk. They must throw the scales of textual unity into imbalance, into the endangerment of the uneven, an irrevocable wager whereby every utterance possesses within itself the possibility of its own undoing. As such, to summon the notion of fatality to the forefront of our literary imagination is to convert literature itself into a space of almost unbearable vulnerability—a valley of perpetual sabotage for which each idea, each inflection, and each interpretation draws the text imminently closer to the hour of a collapse. Here the text remains open and exposed at every turn, ominously porous and unguarded against scathing or transformative gestures, undertaking detriment and affliction of the harshest levels, even to the zero degree of its own desolation. In this way, chaos reminds us that literature remains a mortal transaction and that we should not deprive ourselves of the pleasure of watching texts die.[34]

Fiction is a curvature of reality. While hyperstitional media refer to reality as a consequence of fiction, hypostitional media might refer to fiction as a consequence of reality. Deep media fiction becomes a property of reality (something like the properties of particles expressed as quantum fields), independent of human-associated meaning (or human perception[35]), which becomes a generator of new realities-as-surface-media when processed through specific orders (such as the biosphere environment or the human cognitive morphospace). Change happens when the space of the possible is much larger than the space of the actual[36], and the space of the possible is, by definition, previously unknown. Kauffmann writes about the “adjacent possible” as the immediate space of possibilities that cannot be prestated, so we can assign no probability to any possible future state of reality. Nevertheless, the adjacent states of possibility are not infinite, as they are restricted (although not specifically determined) by the present state of reality. The only way reality might move to adjacent states of possibility is by producing fictions (by ‘becoming’ fiction, in he same fashion that disintegrating matter becomes radiating energy, or by understanding fiction as a “curvature” of reality), being the present, in linear time, a collection of hypothesis about the future —Art is a medium for the anachronistic force of the present tense[37]. If the fictions are fit for the adjacent possible, they might be shitted into reality: in fact these linear, future-oriented time scales shit poison, mutation, anachronism, a flexing and inconstant and wasteful evolutionary time that produces more bodies, more mutations than it needs. Death shits Evolution. Evolution is its waste product.[38].

Deep media objects, however, stay as radiating, desestabilizing energy vibrations. They arrive in convergent waves, without subordination to chronology, history or linear causation. They proceed by infolding, involution or implex[39]. They are a manifestation of the continuous decay of reality (gaze itself becomes an agent not of separation, but of contact and collapse[40]) as it unfolds devouring time and transforming it into space —or the lack of it.

Deep media are better represented by hyperstitional theory-fictions (Cyclonopedia, Ccru writings, Autophagiography), or hypostitional accidental and vibratory fiction (EDEN, EDEN, EDEN; 300,000,000; Irritant; OHEY!; Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows; Re.La.Vir; Necrology; ObliviOnanisM; Sucker June…, to cite just a few examples), written in “bug time”[41] and proceeding by infolding, involution or implex[42]. Deep media objects do not draw a straight line, or a set of vanishing lines, but draw inward spirals, always approaching but never reaching infosphere’s pores. Deep media objects represent a conceptual additivism—these are not nihilistic overtures, but they actually contain a veiled secrecy of affirmation [34]: Instead of negotiating meaning, they produce physical disturbances in reality, signaling the unavoidable and continuous (present, not delayed to future time) decay of surface media objects: We are almost entirely blind to them, and it is this interval between ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ wherein our experience of deep media objects resides. That interval is swarming with vibrations.

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3. Deep media are not “social” media.

Deep media objects are the messengers of the Semantic Apocalypse[43]: They produce spontaneous meta-informational events that reset the informational functionality of the networks: The million dollar question is really one of what happens once that shared neurophysiology begins to fragment, and sharing imperatives becomes a matter of coincidence. It has to be madness, one that will creep upon us by technological degrees [43]. “Madness”, according to Baker, is defined in regard of what our brains normally do. Once we begin personalizing our brains, ‘normally do’ will become less and less meaningful. ‘Insanity’ will simply be what one tribe calls another, and from our antiquated perspective, it will all look like insanity [43]. Deep media objects are not “social”, but somehow “antisocial” media. They’re not just a consequence of the Semantic Apocalypse, but rather a mechanism, an apparatus for Syntactic Apocalypse. For Mohaghegh, such is the abrasive potential of the chaotic: to restore the text to its fatal inclinations, to lure it into entropic quarters and turn it accursed, such that each gesture of expression, whether irradiated or obscure, culminates in a perishing—in an extinguishing—of the very possibility of the poetic expenditure: an ultimate exhaustion. [34] Being any attempt to escape the human cognitive morphospace futile, deep media have to be necessarily paroxysmal. Repeated attempts to…

Syntactic Apocalypse elicits a kind of “madness” that goes beyond classic and Deleuze-Guattarian ideas of schizophrenia —which is mainly understood as a cognitive disease or a potential of becoming, while this different kind of madness affects primarily to sensoriomotor networks, and just secondariliy to cognition—: “Madness” means here the recurrence of seizing activity throughout a system composed by an extraordinary large number of unequal, assimetrical objects that can only be related to each other by “unnatural” synchronization patterns. Deep media objects do not “become” —they “burst”. Deel media are not social media (collective, shared subjectivity), but swarm media (unsubjective). As recurrent, unexpected seizures —intense, paroxysmal, meaningless but efficient rhythmic activity— is how deep media fictions are best defined. Seizures are “indiferent media” in the sense Claire Colebrook writes about indifference: The world is neither differentiated by human predication or linguistic structures (being a blank matter before all form), nor does it bear its intrinsic qualities. Indifference is how we might think about an ‘essentially’ rogue or anarchic conception of life that is destructive of boundaries, distinctions and identifications.   To live is to tend towards indifference, where tendencies and forces result less in distinct kinds than in complicated, confused and dis-ordered partial bodies [44]. Deep media fictions function as epileptogenic machines by seizing our networks/bodies into complicated, disordered and confused sensoriomotor performance. They work as paroxysmal network resets, liberating an excessive amount of non-representations/non-computations that might (or might not) be recycled into new communicative apparatuses (media rewired from the collapse of media) —into surface media objects[45]. We are not faced with the infinite and open potentiality of becoming anymore, but if we try, sometimes, we may seize.

This is the reason why, while classical madness means the destruction of the subject, deep media objects point to the annihilation of the wor(l)d:

This word occurs because of god. In our year here god is not a being but a system, composed in dehydrated fugue. Under terror-sleep alive we hear it heaving in and out from the long bruises on our communal eternal corpse, consuming memory. The wrecking flesh of Him surrounds, hold us laced together every hour, overflowing and wide open, permeable to inverse, which no identity survives. As god is love, so is god not love. Same as I could kill you any minute, I could become you, and you wouldn’t even feel the shift. Only when there’s no one left to alter, all well beyond any ending or beginning, can actually commence.[46]

Mohaghegh again: an emergent literature must go farther: it must generate novel lines of incommunicability; it must compose territories of the incalculable, drafting contrivance after contrivance; and it then must seek to impose these original ranks of illusory consciousness forward in an arduous textual event.[47]

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4. A wicked, performative constructivism?

Deep media fiction means extreme re-mediation, but it’s a purposeless re-mediation —it’s art constructed from the ruins of future multi-media, so it’s not surprising that it frequently adopts the formats, tactics and strategies of a speculative media archeology tinkering with the remnants of post-syntactic-apocalypse social media. Deep media hates DNA because it limits their origin:

I hope something queenly stands wicked from my cunt, corrugated remains snorting whitehood, the chow reaped pricey, children like costumes decomposing into soda, postmortem acrobatics, played with, looked after, smiled at, mouth full of cardboard lair, tongues the size of a skyscraper. I love the assward circus tamed from my pets. Dragged to rescue, toggling their mange, creasing for pelt, kissing irrigations. My tummy snowballs, piles of fetus tipple inland, polyps with eyesight, laved abortions post-pregnancy. I hate DNA because it limits my origin. I evolved from dirt and speed, a splinter of grease, sniffing generations mother trickled in acidic portion with what she didn’t parade-float up scrotums staid and princely. I hear gobbling sounds so much it’s almost okay. Sometimes I say the word woof and mean it. The hips locked around my throat have to be pried loose by kung fu experts. Fuck my button convex, I swell giant brood, firing squirt enough to drown this borough. The antidote to human development: quake of my cum dowsing time, syphilitic candle cocktailed over cities. People willfully stop breathing just to think I like them. I use nametags because I’m nasty. If I have to learn someone’s name, I’d rather kill that person.[48]

Deep media fictions are produced as result of feeding-forward fatal-error aesthetics. Feed-forward, according to Mark Hansen [49], names the operation through which the technically accessed data of sensibility enters into futural moments of consciousness as radical intrusions from the outside. Some of the more interesting contemporary fiction and theory-fiction works develop in the ongoing evanescent dynamics of standard Internet formats, such as Twitter (Echovirus 12, a collaborative work curated by Jeff Noon) and blogs (North of Reality by Uel Aramcheck and Xenaudial by Marc Couroux), but many artworks are starting to be developed in the new seamless postdigital ecosystems. A great example of this kind of artwoks is the Plantoid[50]:

The Plantoid is the plant equivalent of an android. For the purpose of this art installation, the Plantoid is an autopoietic sculpture — a self-owned artist that owns and finances itself, and eventually reproduces itself. It is, in essence, a hybrid entity that exists both in the physical and virtual world, where it can interact with other entities on the blockchain. In its physical form, it is a welded mechanical sculpture on display in a public space — an aesthetic ornaments that exhibits its mechanical beauty and begs to be appreciated by the public. Appreciation is done via interactions with the public who can ‘tip or feed’ the Plantoid by sending tokens into its Bitcoin wallet.

Plantoids are not bought or sold; nor can they be owned as objects. Rather, humans can enjoy a set of interaction in a network of Plantoids, whose operations are determined by a contract, or set of contracts. Plantoids and the techno-legal system that governs their manufacture are in a deep and quite explicit way the same thing. In this way, a Plantoid can be be said to own itself, and in that way to be a free, or autonomous agent. A Plantoid may come and visit you (you may be allowed to look after it for a while), and a gallery may wish to exhibit them, but it is not possible to own one, and should they decide to leave you cannot stop them.

Interpretation of deep media artworks must be traitorous. As stated by Mohaghegh, interpretation must be conceived as an act of treason against the world[51]. While media have been mostly behind the arts, they are now ahead, both in historical and performative time. For these reason, old-media nostalgia permeates many contemporary artworks, as a hardened instinct for ruin, one culminating in the fusion of appearance and disappearance, tragedy and delirium, creation and destruction[52]. Former pasts and futures are imploding into synchronic/syntopic narratives of the non-present, identities and cultural memories are produced/discarded in real time[53], but what actually defines deep media is not nostalgia, but decay. Decay is the unavoidable destiny of order, in which objects and relationships are consistently being lost, although leaving subtle but meaningful traces (vibrations) of their former presence in the network that might be “poetically hacked”. Postdigital “poetic” synchronization allows the prsentation of many available “textoids” in the same place at the same time, opening “networked timespaces”. Artworks are neither single not stable, but redundant, vibratory and metastable.

A networked timespace is a small piece of space-time produced by the synchronic “activation” of a discrete number of network elements by means of a particular performance. Networked timespaces are distributed (their space or size cannot be pre-determined) and they usually result in low-level disruptions within the metastable media network. Possible high-level disruptions are the result of unpredictable, undetermined events. While surface media are in a state of flux, moving in the realm of illusions[54], deep media, as discussed above, work on the basis that reality is contingent, unpredictable and ontologically multiple. Deep media are deployed beyond risk into the multiplicity implied by the seizure event—as the only way to increase the probability of a major disruption event is to maximize the number and frequency of active synchronic networked timespaces:

Meaning dissipates as the chain of discursive production and consumption comes undone, ending the agreement between the sign and signifier, the sign and signified, and the knowing subject and its supposed objective world. What remains in its place is a thing that shakes uncontrollably, vibrating amid the antiprogrammatic bareness of thought—a territory opened to chaotic infinity.[55]

—Germán Sierra

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Acknowledgements: This work was supported by grant FFI 2012-35296 from the Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (Spain) to Prof. Anxo Abuín González.

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Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain.  He has published five novels (“El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido”, Debate, 1996; “La Felicidad no da el Dinero”, Debate, 1999; “Efectos Secundarios”, Debate, 2000, “Intente usar otras palabras”, Mondadori, 2009, “Standards”, Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013) and a book of short stories (“Alto Voltaje”, Mondadori, 2004).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind Routledge; 2009. (reprint ed.).
  2. Koestler, A. (1967) The Ghost in the Machine Penguin.1990 (reprint ed.).
  3. “In fact modern cognitive neuroscience has been trying to perform the replacement of “soul” by “consciousness”, in order to keep the ghost alive. One of the most interesting approaches to consciousness thus far is the one provided by R. Scott Bakker: Consciousness would be the effect of a brain not being able to know itself. “Consciousness is so confusing because it literally is a kind of confusion. Our brain is almost entirely blind to itself, and it is this interval between ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ wherein our experience of consciousness resides.” Baker, R.S. The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness)

    https://www.academia.edu/1502945/The_Last_Magic_Show_A_Blind_Brain_Theory_of_the_Appearance_of_Consciousness

  4. Sierra, G. Postdigital fiction: Exit and Memory, 2015, in press
  5. Latour, B. Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard University Press. 1987
  6. Ccru writings 1997-2003, Time Spiral Press, 2015. Kindle 684. (TRE)
  7. Galloway, A, Thacker, E and Wark, M. Excommunication. Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  8. Negarestani, R. Navigate With Extreme Prejudice.

    http://blog.urbanomic.com/cyclon/What-Is-Philosophy.pdf

  9. CW, Kindle 2705
  10. “After Hermes and Iris, instead of a return to hermeneutics (the critical narrative) or a return to phenomenology (the iridescent arc), there is a third mode that combines and annihilates the other two. For after Hermes and Iris there is another divine form of pure mediation, the distributed network, which finds incarnation in the incontinent body of what the Greeks called first the Erinyes and later the Eumenides, and the Romans called the Furies. So instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system. A third divinity must join the group: not a man, not a woman, but a pack of animals.” (Galloway, 2014, p.63)
  11. Ayache, E. The Blank Swan: The End of Probability, Wiley, 2010. Kindle 112.

    For a recent and extense review on philosophy of probability, see Mackay, R. (ed.) COLLAPSE VIII, Urbanomic, 2014.

  12. M. B. N. Hansen. “Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media.” University of Chicago Press, 2015. Kindle 1529 (FF)
  13. FF Kindle 466
  14. “Experience can no longer be restricted to—or reserved for—a special class of being, but must be generalized so as to capture a vast domain of events, including everything that happens when machines interact with other machines in today’s complex media networks, everything that happens when humans interface with these networks, and also, of course, everything that happens when humans self-reflect on these interactions. Put another way, the scope of experience must be broadened to encompass not simply what it has always encompassed—higher-order modes of experience and lower-order, bodily modes to the extent these bubble up into higher-order ones—but a veritable plurality of multi-scalar instances of experience that extend, along the continuum of what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy,” from consciousness all the way down to the most rudimentary aspects of our living operationality and all the way out to the most diffuse environmental dimensions of a given sensory situation” FF Kindle 990
  15. Place, V and Fitterman, R. Notes on Conceptualisms, Ugly Ducking Press, 2009
  16. Borsuk, A, Juul, J and Montfort, N. Opening a Worl in the World Wide Web: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Deletionism

    http://median.newmediacaucus.org/the_aesthetics_of_erasure/opening-a-worl-in-the-world-wide-web-the-aesthetics-and-poetics-of-deletionism/

  17. http://additivism.org/manifesto
  18. Goldsmith, K. Being Boring

    http://writing.upenn.edu/library/Goldsmith-Kenny_Being-Boring.html

  19. Following Whitehead, Hansen lists the following features for “potentiality” FF Kindle 694:

    “1. Potentiality is ontologically more fundamental than actuality.

    1. Potentiality operates within actuality and contrasts with all conceptions of virtuality.
    2. Potentiality is rooted in the superjectal power of the settled world.
    3. Potentiality operates through intensity which comprises the product of contrasts of settled actualities.
    4. Concrescence is subordinated to potentiality insofar as it is catalyzed by a “dative phase” generated by contrasts of settled actualities.
    5. The extensive (or vibratory) continuum provides a general sensibility that qualifies the operation of superjects (in contrast to eternal objects that qualify concrescences).
    6. Eternal objects lose their status as eternal and their role as the source of “pure potentiality” and acquire a new, more restricted status as products of the flux of experience.
    7. Non-perceptual sensibility emerges as central insofar as it designates how humans are implicated within a worldly sensibility that is not relative to any particular perceiver and that exceeds the scope of perception in both its Whiteheadian modes.”

  20. “The real tension is no longer between individuality and collectivity, but between personal privacy and impersonal anonymity, between the remnants of a smug bourgeois civility and the harsh wilderness tracts of Cyberia, ‘a point where the earth becomes so artificial that the movement of deterritorialization creates of necessity and by itself a new earth’. Desire is irrevocably abandoning the social, in order to explore the libidinized rift between a disintegrating personal egoism and a deluge of post-human schizophrenia.” (Land, N. Machinic desire, Textual Practice, 7:3, 1993, 471-482)
  21. A good example is what Ikoniadou denominates “the hypersonic effect”: “The hypersonic effect include the potential participation of nonauditory sensory systems for which vibrations does not necessarily translates into sound […] Conventional sensory perception may be only a part of the manifold layers of sensation that encompass and produce a body […] They are better understood as affects, amodal forces of feeling that impinge upon a system and that may or may not surface to sensory perception.” (47. Emphasis is mine)
  22. “not only will we need to reconceptialize the present of coscoiusness as an accomplishment that is in some crucial sense always-to-come, but we will also, and perhaps more fundamentally still, need to embrace the coexistence of multiple experimental presents —multiple, partially overlapping presents from different time frames and scales— as what composes the seemingly more encompassing, higher-order synthesis of conscoiusness” (FF Kindle 1018)
  23. CW, Kindle 2369
  24. “Ordinary quantum mechanical systems have a fixed number of particles, with each particle having a finite number of degrees of freedom. In contrast, the excited states of a QFT can represent any number of particles. This makes quantum field theories especially useful for describing systems where the particle count/number may change over time, a crucial feature of relativistic dynamics.

    Because the fields are continuous quantities over space, there exist excited states with arbitrarily large numbers of particles in them, providing QFT systems with an effectively infinite number of degrees of freedom. Infinite degrees of freedom can easily lead to divergences of calculated quantities (i.e., the quantities become infinite).”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_field_theory

  25. Kodwo Eshun, cited in TRE, p.1
  26. Ikoniadou, E. The Rythmic Event. Art, Media and the Sonic. MIT Press, 2414 p. 13. (TRE)
  27. “Building artificial environments from the biophysical movements of cellular vibration suggests intriguing possibilities for the relationship between living and nonliving matter. (TRE, p.49)
  28. Blake, C. & van Elferen, I. Hypostition. Sonic Spectrality, Affective Engineering, Temporal Paradox

    https://www.academia.edu/7527374/Hypostition_Sonic_Spectrality_Affective_Engineering_and_Temporal_Paradox._With_Charlie_Blake._London_Conference_in_Critical_Thought_Goldsmiths_London_UK_06.2014_

  29. CW, Kindle 2285
  30. Butler, B. If You Build the Code, Your Computer Will Write the Novel.

    http://www.vice.com/read/if-you-build-the-code-your-computer-will-write-the-novel

  31. The ‘anthropocene’ masks the vanishing-point of the human; its façade—that under which the ‘electrocene’ advances in the manner of Descartes’s larvatus prodeo— is the foregrounding of the human as the dominant agent of inscription […]. What we are suggesting here is that the anthropocenic worldview occludes what might at present be an even more fundamental (underground as well as overarching) ‘electro-synarchic’ agent of inscription with respect to which the human is only a conduit and carrier, a force of inscription that the human does not see (one that operates at the ‘vanishing-point’ of human communication). The ‘vanishing-point’ of human communication, we propose […], is the point at which another regime of communication arises— one that is altogether obscene […] and that cannot be represented within the theoretical framework advanced in the dominant conception of ‘the anthropocene’. (Mellamphy, D and Mellamphy, NB Welcome to the Electrocene, an Algorithmic Agartha.)

    https://www.academia.edu/11910814/Welcome_to_the_Electrocene

     

  32. Butler, B. 300,000,000 Harper Perennial 2014. Kindle 1325. (THM)
  33. “Hauntic timespaces are virtual planes in which origin and referentiality are absent, and from which spectral voices emerge. They are planes of immanence ánd of composition. They are planes of immanence because they allow the aforementioned revenants of musical meaning (aesthetic experience, affective connotation, memory, and identification) to emerge; and they are planes of composition because each musical sounding leads to re-contextualisation, re-inscription, and the re-creation of old and new spectres. Hauntic timespaces are characterised by temporal paradox. They are reigned by the conflated chronologies of performative time, hauntological dislodgement, and the durée of lost memory time. Inevitably ghosts emerge from these skewed temporalities. Operated by the daemonotechnics of music, mnemonics, and mnemomusics, human and nonhuman spectres converge” (Blake, C. & van Elferen, I. Hypostition).
  34. Mohaghegh, J. B. New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East. The Chaotic Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 2 (TCI)
  35. As Nicola Masciandaro writes, “the perfection of knowledge and its pleasures demand a radically immanent and positive forgetfulness —the conscious oblivion that quickens consciousness to its own blindness. Individuation is not a limit or obstacle that intelligence must overcome. It is the real infinity, the expansive space wherein visionary self-forgetfulness is not only possible, but inevitable and already underway. As though foreign to it, absolutely foreign. I am not an alien, but something stranger still, an insider whose essence is to actually be an absolute outsider.” (Masciandaro, N. Absolute Secrecy: On the Infinity of Individuation

    https://www.academia.edu/11883115/Absolute_Secrecy_On_the_Infinity_of_Individuation 

  36. “What if perception is not enterily human, that is. Conscious, sensuous, and the center of all receptive activity?” (TRE, p. 45) “conventional sensory perception may be only a part in the manyfold layers of sensation that encompass and produce a body” (TRE, p. 47, emphasis is mine.)
  37. Kauffman, S. in Ulanowicz, R. E. A Third Window. Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin. Templeton Foundation Press, 2009. p. Xii.
  38. McSweeney, J. The Necropastoral, The University of Michigan Press, 2015. p. 32 (TN)
  39. CW, Kindle 2369
  40. TN p. 42
  41. TN p. 5
  42. “I see hyperstition not just hype and superstition as it is usually described, but as the kind of mathemagical operation that is best approached as a conjuration, the heretic-al engineering of unlikely assemblages that unleash an uncontrollable power which often if not always has deleterious effects. “Hyperstitions by their very existence as ideas function causally to bring about their own reality,” explains the Nick Land. “The hyperstitional object is no mere figment or ‘social construction’ but it is in a very real way ‘conjured’ into being by the approach taken to it” (ibid). Hyperstitions are conjurations in this sense — they are sorcerous operations that involve the rapprochement of elements that do not normally go or have not normally belonged together but which have the effects of transmuting perceived reality and norms of culture. This is why hyperstition involves the Unheimlich, the uncanny, the unhomely, things which are not normally at home with one another. Hyperstition, as such, is not belief — religious or otherwise — insofar as the religious aims for holy union, communion, harmoni-ous bringing together of any sort; hyperstition is always unhomely and unholy; therein lies its power. This is why hyperstition’s power is felt as insuperable, even weaponized; it is the power produced and released by the metissage of elements previously oblivious to one another. Hyperstition is intimately connected to technè, skill/art/craft, and mètis, cunning intelligence, ruse, deception, involving a mixing of elements and appearances — what Dan Mellamphy has called a ‘métissage’ for the purposes of producing unhomely effects. Hyperstitions are “chinese puzzle boxes, opening to unfold to reveal numerous ‘sorcerous’ interventions in the world of history,” and which can only be unleashed through obscure and oblique, rather than transparent and straightforward, manipulations.” (Nandita Biswas Mellamphy. The Three Stigmata of Kodwo Eshun: On the Human as Hyperstition. Prepared for The New Centre course on Hyperstition, Fictional Worlds & Possible Futures, August 3 2015, at the invitation of Ben Woodard.)

    https://www.academia.edu/14700640/The_Three_Stigmata_of_Kodwo_Eshun_On_the_Human_as_Hyperstition

  43. Baker, R.S. What is the Semantic Apocalypse?

    https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/what-is-the-semantic-apocalypse/

  44. Colebrook, Claire We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene: The Anthropocene Counter-Factual

    https://www.academia.edu/12757260/We_Have_Always_Been_Post-Anthropocene

  45. In the traditional model, the brain takes in data, performs a complex computation that solves the problem (where will the ball land?) and then instructs the body where to go. This is a linear processing cycle: perceive, compute and act. In the second model, the problem is not solved ahead of time. Instead, the task is to maintain, by multiple, real-time adjustments to the run, a kind of co-ordination between the inner and the outer worlds. Such co-ordination dynamics constitute something of a challenge to traditional ideas about perception and action: they replace the notion of rich internal representations and computations, with the notion of less expensive strategies whose task is not first to represent the world and then reason on the basis of the representation, but instead to maintain a kind of adaptively potent equilibrium that couples the agent and the world together. Whether such strategies are genuinely non-representational and non-computational, or suggestive of different kinds of representation (‘action-oriented representations’) and more efficient forms of computation, is a difficult question whose resolution remains uncertain. (Clark, A. An embodied cognitive science? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 9, 1999, 345-351)
  46. THM, Kindle 22
  47. TCI, p. 25-26
  48. Kilpatrick, S. Sucker June. Lazy Fascist Press, 2015. p. 75
  49. “Potentiality,” explores the expansion of causal efficacy that is generated by data-intensive media. Its central aim is to thematize the potential for contemporary microcomputational sensors to directly mediate the domain of sensibility and thereby to facilitate a form of indirect human access to this domain, via the operation of “feed-forward.” Feed-forward names the operation through which the technically accessed data of sensibility enters into futural moments of consciousness as radical intrusions from the outside: it is, I shall suggest, the principal mode in which contemporary consciousness can experience—in the phenomenological sense of live through—its own operationality.” (FF Kindle 736)
  50. http://okhaos.com/plantoid/
  51. In this way, interpretation, like alchemy, must be traitorous. It must be conceived as an act of treason against the world, for to draw texts into a comparative encounter is nothing less than to set the stage for their radical betrayal. And we must betray literature; we must seek the triggers and the catalysts through which a text becomes a subterfuge—becomes the faintness of an amorphous zone—where articulations devour themselves, shatter, and regenerate in new, unacceptable maskings. To this end, the chaotic imagination must accentuate the pain of transfiguration—it must learn to play both in subtle malformations and in monstrous turnings, if only to reconvene us in a foreign atmosphere, a chamber where deception overrides truth, illusion supersedes authenticity, and where the dominion of reality has long since been overthrown. Stated otherwise, we must train ourselves to lie. (TCI p.4)
  52. A colossal facet of this inspection resides within the annihilative principle forwarded here as a hardened instinct for ruin, one culminating in the fusion of appearance and disappearance, tragedy and delirium, creation and destruction. For it is amid such an unsteady condition of the writing-act, where nothingness and excess tangle, where finality is brought into full proximity with consciousness, that the literary world overthrows itself. Indeed, the poetics of annihilation serves as a prelude to the poetics of chaos by depleting the constraints of being, an occasion of imminent sacrifice suspended somewhere between rage and sublimity. For it is in this manner that the disciplinary technologies of thought begin to erode, disallowing any epistemological certainty or submission to routinized instrumentality. The emergent text now bars itself from the symbolic orders of the mind—no descent into self-regulation, no self automated models of signification, no faith in causation, and, more than anything, no search for rapid closure. For it is through the materialization of such an annihilative event—itself a ferocious convolution of mortality and power—that the textual encounter might evade its own entrapment, capsizing its self-imposed captivity so as to trespass through the entryway of a chaos-becoming. (TCI p.10)
  53. Sierra, G. Postdigital Synchrony and Syntopy: The Manipulation of Universal Codes in Contemporary Literature. (Forthcoming)
  54. Zielinski, S. Deep Time of the Media. MIT Press, 2008, p. 10
  55. TCI p. 43
Dec 152015
 
Genese Grill

Photo by Rebecca Mack

x

And this is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee and the impressions of the actual world shall feel like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! Sea-lord! Air-lord!

—Emerson, “The Poet”

x

I am a gift to the finders; for I lose everything, as if I had holes in all my pockets or the most slippery skin in the world. Perhaps it is because, as much as I adore things, there is some unexamined impulse in me that suspects, even like that much-maligned Descartes, that none of this is real (mundus est fabula — the world is a fable). From a more reasonable standpoint — and I imagine that this is probably a prime reason for the traditional prejudice against matter — I can see that the physical world, while real, certainly isn’t permanent. Everything beneath the moon will fade and rot and pass away, a reality which must have induced those who could not bear such alteration to create an elaborate defense of that which supposedly lasts, i.e., spirit or soul. If body and spirit were separate, the special pleading went, then the death of the body might not mean the death of the soul. Yet, it seems more likely nowadays, considering that all of us are carrying the material of ancient stars in our bodies, that it is the physical that survives our fleeting mortal particularities — in the form of cells, particles, star dust — not, in fact, some numinous individual soul or self. But as long as we are alive, we cling to our particular collections of matter and call them self, individuality, agency; this clinging takes the form of concern, creative energy, and love, and the continual challenge of attempting to make sense of impermanence, loss and change.

Without being inclined then to reject the reality of the physical world, feeling still the reverberating tingling of certain real knocks, burns, and falls as well as the lingering pleasure of a caress, a taste, a visual and aural harmony, let us say that, in my perceived cosmos, the physical has weight, sensation, texture, temperature, and quality — and that this physicality is something to be celebrated and enjoyed as much as suffered — and at the same time these physical characteristics and sensations are telling us, imparting to us, something, something about life, about how to make meaning, about something I will call spirit — a term expanded for me by a consciousness of the German word Geist, which encompasses definitions including mind, feeling, culture, the intellectual, as well as that more numinous realm usually associated with our English word “spirit.” The physical world impresses upon or influences the mind as sensory apparatus; but the particular mind, colored by its particular cast and propensities, by its physical (genetic, biological) and its possibly less explainable characteristics (i.e., temperament, will, imagination, desire) filters and chooses the way in which that given world is seen, read, understood. To admit to having a soft spot for this thing called spirit seems to suggest a disparagement of matter, but I would not want to associate myself with a society of anti-sensualist prudes, nor would I willingly affiliate myself with any ideology that sought to escape the mortal, beautiful, and awesome reality of the natural world, its reason-defying beauties and its sorrow-inducing fading, its horrors and its delights; and yet, I find myself often tempted, as I imagine you do, too, to drift away into an imaginary dream amidst the often mind-numbing reality of the everyday. And I also find myself asking the question of what it is that makes all of this materiality so meaningful.

I also know from experience that there is great liberation to be gained by throwing off the shackles of what often amount to imaginary material needs. By giving up certain things that many people see as necessary for survival, one reaps a harvest of hours, a bounty of time that might otherwise have been spent working for money. It seems worthwhile to relinquish certain physical conveniences or even creature comforts in exchange for the incalculable luxury of reflection, of sufficient margins wherein aesthetic experience, philosophizing, poeticizing can reverberate. While many may feel that they have to work five or seven days a week to insure their material security or may choose consciously to trade their days and nights for an uninhibited cash flow, a larger lodging, an expensive telecommunications device, a bottle of fine bourbon, I can play a queenly pauper blessed with an open day. An uninhibited flow of moments, sensations, and synthesis of physical and spiritual beauties, the infinite riches of nature and culture which belong, by right, to anyone who loves them, makes of them a priority, and makes room for them. While it is well argued that one’s primary physical needs must be satisfied before one can indulge in higher spiritual reveries (“First comes the feeding, then comes morality” —Brecht), I am not the first one to suggest that our current assessment of how much one really “needs” to consume or stuff one’s face or garage with is exceedingly out of proportion with the development of our moral, ethical, intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities and inner resources. The choice to value time, reflection, and culture over consumerism may not necessarily preclude prioritizing materiality, since the free experience of nature, for example, is — strictly speaking — no less material than a new coat (nature is matter); and yet, there is a way in which the experience of nature or of art or of love (physical love included), of anything that ought not be quantified, used, or bought and sold, is thought of, correctly or not, as spirit’s part.

ThoreauThoreau

While Thoreau argued that it might be better to sleep in a railroad box and thereby keep his days and nights free to dream, Théophile Gautier asserted in his preface to that great aesthetic novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, that while a coffin would, indeed, be enough space for a man to “literally live,” to observe nothing but the strictest economy in such things were to turn all of Paris into a virtual Père Lachaise, i.e., a cemetery, where the supposedly living were doing little more than literally existing. Thoreau conversely sees a liberation in a coffin-sized box, noting that many of his countrymen living in larger, more comfortable houses bury the better part of themselves long before death (presumably under obligations, possessions, work). But Gautier, who complicates the equation by asserting that he would rather go without shoes than without poems, and that he would sell his breeches for jam, if necessary, was far from really having to consider the possibility that a railroad box might be the best means to afford the opportunity to make and experience poems — an experience unattainable by one of the more over-stuffed and prohibitively comfortable bourgeois he mocks for their utilitarian economies.

And the complexification is instructive, for the logic has far too often been reduced to a dualism pitting material things against spiritual experiences. Here, instead, we see that there are material things that are more or less “spiritual,” i.e., less or more utilitarian and prosaic than other material things. Material things that make us dream, that inspire and stimulate the mind, in other words, are to be preferred over those that drag us into the gutter or into the stock exchange. Wilde, who wished that he — a human being presumably made of a mixture of spiritual and physical stuff — might live up to his blue and white china, suggests as much. The work of art, albeit in this case made of a refined species of mud, is deemed the loftier substance, perhaps even because it has no needs at all. The aesthetes, had they paid Thoreau a visit in his little cabin (he did not, after all, ever really try living in that railroad box), would probably have found it quite charming. In short, together they ask us to consider what it is we need to feed our souls as well as our bodies. And we may conclude that the things some call luxuries are necessities to others, and vice versa. Each one of us must discover what we most need, and what we are most willing to sacrifice in order to attain and sustain it, while simultaneously sacrificing as little as possible of other things that feed us, in all ways.

I would, then, rather than disparage matter in favor of spirit, or spirit in favor of matter, embrace physicality while celebrating the imagination, and stress that, at best, the most freely non-compromised spirit may play with the structures and arrangements of the physical world, proving the immediate creative potential of the human mind to act upon and alter the “real” and already-established world with its utopian imaginings.

The mind, of course, is part of the physical world, and yet some of its functions seem unexplainable from a purely mechanistic perspective. Seeing, for example, is, strictly speaking, a physical activity; but our perception and understanding of what we see seems to be dependent upon preconceptions and learned ideas about space and extension. Further, when we take in something seen through the eyes and it enters our minds, its physicality is transformed into non-physical ideas and images which we seem to carry with us and possess, without owning or holding the seen things. The beauty of the physical world is material. And the sense organs we use to behold it and process it are physical. But when we move what we see from the world into our minds (both physical), what is seen becomes somehow spiritual, i.e., imaginary, remembered, thought. This is all rather impossibly dizzying, which is one of the reasons we usually do not even bother to think about it. At the same time, it is exciting that mere ideas can induce physical vertigo. And we should think about it, even at the risk of swooning, for our conclusions about the relationship between matter and spirit are deeply relevant to our relationship with meaning-making and, as such, to our sense of our roles and responsibilities in the world.

deaconTerrence Deacon

The brain scientist Terrence Deacon, in his book Incomplete Nature, writes that “consciousness doesn’t appear to have clear physical correlates even though it is quite ambiguously associated with having an awake, functioning brain”(6). He argues eloquently that one of the reasons why consciousness had not been located by scientists is that it is not material, in the sense of “stuff,” but rather that consciousness is a process, a dynamic of possibilities, and, what’s more baffling, a consciousness of reduction, taking away, selecting out. Each cell, each neuron continually fights against the force of entropy and chaos in order to maintain its own integrity, and this “autogenesis,” intent upon maintaining self-creation on the cellular and then, exponentially complexified, on the level of personhood, is a sort of agency, will, desire, self. The mind is moved and inspired by this autogenesis to focus on and select out patterns of matter amid a myriad of possibilities, and in turn the mind chooses and emphasizes what it has seen, loved, feared, noticed, which changes in response to the mind’s new ideas and visions of what is really in the world, and then is, again, seen by new minds and altered, ad infinitum. Remarkably, we find a similar description of creative consciousness in Novalis’s fragments from the 1780’s: “What an inexhaustible amount of materials for new individual combinations is lying about! Anyone who has once guessed this secret — needs nothing more than to decide to renounce endless variety and the mere enjoyment of it and to start somewhere — but this decision is at the expense of the free feeling of an infinite world — and demands restriction to a single appearance of it. Ought we perhaps attribute our earthly existence to a similar decision?” The selecting-out necessary for creation by an individual artist (or by any individual perceiving and creating his world) may be similar to the process by which the human brain creates its self or consciousness. And death, as Deacon suggests, would be a return to the original chaos of everything, an infinite world without choices, without selections, without direction. Living, then, is choice-making, delineation, discrimination, blind spots, even a sort of negation of one arrangement in favor of another, which we can call an affirmation if we choose to.

Deacon argues that events or entities which he calls “ententional phenomena” and “absential features” within consciousness, “make a difference in the world…we are surrounded by the physical consequences of people’s ideas and purposes…ententional causality…assumes the immediate influence of something that is not present… and it seems like ‘magic’”(28-31). Or, more poetically, in the words of Heinrich Heine, “The thought wants action, the Word wants to become flesh…and amazing! Man, like the God of the bible only needs to speak his thought and the world is created. There is light or there is darkness, the waters separate from solid land, or wild beasts appear. The world is the signature of the Word. Note this, you proud men of action. You are nothing but the unconscious extensions of the men of thought, who often, in modest silence, have precisely predetermined all of your doings” (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany).

The objects of the physical world have been rendered as signatures of spirit, as very important symbols, metaphors, and dream-images of some other realm transcendentalists from Plato to Emerson have thought of as “the really real.” This prejudice against matter qua matter has often explained the physical world away as a shallow and airy phantom of a moment’s deluded perception: we ought, so runs the argument, therefore, set our eye and heart on what remains and strive not to be distracted and seduced by the pleasures and desires of this prison house, these clayey lodgings, the body. But the spirit, along with will, desire, agency, choice, love, ethics, has been banished entirely by others for almost completely opposite reasons. These would explain the world as fundamentally lacking in meaning or purpose and our human bodies and their urges as the mere accidental detritus of mechanistic necessities such as the survival of the species. Deacon quotes Richard Dawkins as representative of this view: “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” and then notes that autonomized explanations of the world dispose of the idea of self altogether: “Your body is a chemical machine” and feelings and thoughts are unreal. There is possibly “no one home.” This materialistic worldview paradoxically denigrates the physical just as much as the former. It divests matter — and with it human life, love, suffering, and the experience of beauty — of any trace of meaning.

Responding to a worldview which limits the material world to a spiritless hull, hedonism, an embrace of pleasure for its own sake, is to my mind clearly a better response than the wearing of hair shirts and other excoriations and deprivations of the flesh. For if nothing matters and there is no purpose besides the constant preservation of the species, we may as well enjoy ourselves while here best we can — if we can, indeed, really enjoy meaningless pleasure for long. But indifference and nihilism is more often the consequence of such a perspective, resulting in an impoverished and wasted life. The beauty of the physical world with all its pleasures can really mean very little without a meaning-making and choosing mind to process the thrills and delights of colors, caresses, sounds, tastes, repeating patterns and designs. We tend then, at best, to take in all the phenomena and translate it, add it up to a summary conclusion about the value or purpose of life; in fact, we cannot help but do so.

Science has still not been able to figure out why, if there appears to be no necessary reason for humans to make poems and develop ethics, we still do; thus leaving those who would insist on a mechanistic explanation really unable to fully explain themselves. This latter view tends to explain things like poetry, tender feelings, ethical scruples, or the history of architecture as nothing more than elaborated, evolved mating rituals. Perhaps Deacon’s theory of autogenesis brings us closer to a more acceptable understanding of agency, will, self-generation and selfhood as exponentially complex versions of simple biological processes; the alternative explanation for consciousness, which usually assumes some sort of a priori reason or imbedded purpose for all of this, founders on many fronts, but most practically upon the impossibility of absolute justification of particular assessments of good, bad, beautiful, or true, since an action thought to be the highest form of tribute in one culture may be the basest insult in another. In other words, physical actions and objects are, of course, given meanings by individuals and societies (along with names and associations), which are often not inherently necessary or consistently characteristic. This seems to suggest that anything can be anything and mean anything and the only possible recourse we have for assessment is utility and physical pleasure. But even those criteria are hopelessly variable, since something may be useful to one person in one situation and an annoying obstacle to and in another; and, of course, one man’s pain is another’s pleasure. Which leaves us where?

In simplistic terms, there are those who want to believe that there is meaning and something like a reason or purpose for being here and those who prefer to believe the opposite — and then there is another sort altogether (of which I count myself): this sort of person believes that while there are certain basic natural facts in the universe (gravity, for example), the individual and group mind necessarily do and must and should impart meaning and purpose to what might essentially be meaningless phenomena. If, as seems likely, there is no reason why we are here, it behooves us to create our own reasons, our own desires and goals and necessities, albeit always with a consciousness of our powers to change these as we ourselves, or as the circumstances, change. We are meaning-making and meaning-seeking animals, and this trait (be it biological, evolutionarily useful, or just a random accident) seems to be an unexplainable fact. We cannot help but ascribe meaning and purpose to phenomena, to events, to objects. And while people have come to call this meaning-making a form of mysticism or social construction and impugn it as a conscious and malignant endeavor to hoist the values of the people in power upon others less fortunate, this is itself a social construction — a narrow narrative of the really complicated and chaotic development of mores and beliefs. Such a narrative willfully neglects the possibility and probability of any individual being waking up to a world interpreted by his or her own vision and coloring it in such an irresistible fashion so as to reawaken the whole rest of humanity to see what she sees. Anyone can, and must change the world at every moment. We are doing it now, for better or for worse.

Which is, of course, what art is and does, and why it is so important. The artist takes the shared raw material of the world, its realities and its appearances, its tendency to delude and its momentary revelations of terrible and beautiful truths, and shapes these infinite elements into something new and something necessarily subjective, something that is at once untrue and true. The artist teaches us, at best, that we too can and must do the same.

And while philosophers have often strained to separate the two realms of matter and meaning, some insisting on the “true” reality of one over the other, I am interested not in further polarizing body and mind, matter and idea, reality and art, but, rather, in exploring the ways in which they have occupied different positions in our ethical and aesthetic consciousness depending upon the context. I am concerned that our conceptions of their separateness or synthesis are at the basis of an often unexamined conduct of life, are embedded in our language, resulting in the pervasive conflicting beliefs that on the one hand there is something the matter with matter and on the other that materiality is the only thing that can bring us happiness. Of course, this investigation already presupposes that the way we arrange matter in our minds determines what we see, seemingly privileging mind over matter; but minds — human brains — are matter too, and the objects and elements that the brain arranges are also mostly (if not entirely) from the physical world, as we imagine combinations of things and places and people we have already seen with our eyes or felt or experienced with our bodies. But we also may be capable of conceiving of fresh abstractions based not on the external world, but on some interior structures (called at one time innate ideas; now, perhaps more accurately termed subjective constructions). We see, apparently, only what we believe is possible, and this requires a certain creative observer whose provenance and process may or may not be traceable by modern science. Whether or not there is anything new under the sun may come down to the brain’s ability to conceive of something never before imagined, something that is not just a combination of perceived, seen, felt elements. And if this is possible, we can look for it in the realm of art, a process of creation which, as my friend Alex Gaydos once pointed out to me, is not strictly in service to matter, or to the needs of the moment, but which enables us to transcend whatever temporal reality we are in, which enables us to be somewhere, someone, somehow else. Art — usually a physical object or sensuous experience created out of images or sounds and their arrangements — is inspired at least in part by the realm of matter, even if only as a rejection or deviation from natural laws (consider a sculpture that seems to hang suspended on air), and is simultaneously something that is born of spirit, i.e., feeling and mind, into the physical world. Art, then, is never disengaged from reality or the concerns of social life, but is always inherently and radically participating in guiding and challenging us to see and thus to live in new ways.

This aesthetic experience is inherently related to ethical possibility, as the choices we make to see this and not that, to narrate differing causes and effects for shared experiences, to judge an event, a person, an action, or a society’s mores from radically deviating perspectives seem to suggest that the mind has more say in the matter than a monopoly of mere matter allows. George Berkeley, who famously questioned whether matter existed at all outside of our senses, outside of our mind, notes that the spirit, as agent, is able to excite “ideas in my mind at pleasure and vary and shift the scenes as often as I think fit. It is no more than willing, and straightaway this or that idea arises in my fancy: and by the same power it is obliterated, and makes way for another. This making and unmaking of ideas doth very properly denominate the mind active” (63). But a skepticism about the nature of physical reality, no matter how empowering it is to mind, need not devolve into a skepticism about the very existence of the physical. Yet, Berkeley is quite sound in suggesting that we have no way of ever testing whether reality does exist outside of our senses, because our senses remain our only mode of testing. Still, if we accept that there is a reality outside of ourselves and concede that this reality is not absolutely solid, nor completed, this realization should encourage a more engaged process of existential choice-making, not an attitude of carelessness, whether hedonistic or indifferent.

That the physical world and our constructs of time, space, and necessity may be less certain than they sometimes appear to be, that matter is permeable, both waves and particles, and subject to constant change, does not mean that what we do and how we think is irrelevant, but rather the contrary, since our actions and thoughts are largely responsible for the world we continue to inhabit. Whenever we think we are stuck or that the “real” world has us in a corner, we may experience the powerful force of spirit — this time in the form of will or a consciousness of agency — as possible rescue operations, alternatives, or even simply new ways to experience the perceived bad situation occur to our searching minds. Even the very idea of a God, for which there is no possible natural precedent except perhaps childbirth, is evidence, not of its truth, but of the mind’s ability to imagine something that may not exist. If, in other words, we can imagine and invent something for which there is no a priori necessity or precedent, and arrange our lives and choices around this figment, then mind must play a substantial role in the construction and experience of reality. This is all the more reason to be as aware as possible of our role in creating realities and to see to it that, while we should hold fast to our ideals and priorities, we do not allow ourselves as individuals or societies to petrify into any one particular figment or phantom arrangement as if it were absolutely necessarily one way or another. Probably many of you have often been told that you were being “unrealistic” as to your expectations or hopes for a better world. The only possible answer to such a taunt is to change the very reality which has your interlocutor in its deadly grip.

Medieval theologians often explained the physical world as “God’s Book,” within which we, who grasp abstractions only with difficulty, might better read the ineffable messages of the Divine. While many people today, conversely, assume that symbols are stand-ins for real things, that they “mean” or “equal” something specific and tangible, we do well to reverse this, at least for a moment, to regard and experience the supposedly real things as symbols, or rather heralds of something even more real, something lasting and unmeasurable, as hieroglyphs approaching some silent explanation of what it means to be alive. Starting from the physical, we may proceed to the imaginary, the conceptual, the as-of-yet unconceived. Thus we can see that reading the “meanings” of the physical world need not mean either a disregard for physical reality or a rigid reading of matter. One important difference between the medieval Christian symbol system and ours was well explained by Emerson in his essay, “The Poet,” when he noted that the mystic (he meant in this context the dogmatic mystic) nails every symbol to one meaning, whereas the poet sees multiple meanings in every “sensuous fact.” While a medieval theologian would usually read the decay of the body as a simple forewarning against attachment to the flesh, we need not interpret it as an admonishment to not enjoy what is fleeting. Although the very fleetingness of physical joys, their tendency to alter, fade, and disappear altogether may be precisely that which we call an object lesson, the story’s moral need not be that we should not care for objects at all or that we should denigrate the sensual world. For physical things — skin, colors, tree bark, bread, chocolate, kisses, gold coins, paper money, shoe buckles, filigree, crenellations, gilded books, ponies, eyelashes and fingertips, marbleized frontispieces, photographs, hips and napes of necks, smells and sounds and textures — all simultaneously partake in the spiritual and the physical, are all miraculously self-generating evidence of a teeming life force at play, a universe in love with its own creative energy, with human hands and minds and eyes in its willing service, evidence of a force — we may call it love or simply natural desire — of perpetual making and rejoicing in that making.

Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson, via Wikimedia Commons

I lose things, but not really, never really having them in the first place, and am able, in so far as I may recall or imagine them, to recover them again. And then, just as much as I lose things, I find things that have been lost by others, seeing things that others overlook, picking them out, pointing them out, pocketing them for later. Memory, too, is a loser and a finder, a shuffler, a parser, a re-arranger. Deliberately or not, we slip back and forth between physical things and the memories of places and events and persons, real or remembered, that the mementoes recall. A Proustian paving stone or that famous madeleine given to me by reading a book belong to my collection as much as any weighty bronze sculpture I hold in my hand. But only the choicest pieces may be displayed in the more public cabinet of curiosities which constitutes the conscious mind, while secret drawers are crammed with forgotten, repressed, or tragically neglected keepsakes, broken amulets, stopped pocket watches, and fragments of lost letters, sentences now illegible after that vial of holy water brought back from the Ganges or from Glastonbury broke and spilled, making the ink bleed. I tend to overflow, squander, shuffle, scramble, and hope that when the time comes whatever it is will fall into my hands. And sometimes I am surprised by what can only be a miracle: that this or that tiny object, a key, a slim volume, a scrap of paper on which I had written a word or a number, a quotation lost in a thousand page book, suddenly appears before me, and even when it is the last minute and I need to be running out the door and absolutely need to have found it. But what has been lost: moments, names, melodies, facts, details, sensations, intricately wrought hat pins, pressed flowers, locks of hair, lovers’ promises, things and events we swore at the time we would hold on to forever, is inconceivable and criminal. People even sometimes burn letters or leave family photo albums out in the rain. But we would rather not think on that.

Pippi Longstocking was a notorious finder, as is my friend Stephen Callahan; they called him “finder boy” in his youth and he was always called upon to look for something someone had mislaid. This is suspicious, now that I think of it; maybe he was actually a thief, like that seeker after truth Nietzsche writes about, who hides something behind a bush and seems surprised to find it precisely there where he once hid it! But any artist is this sort of a magician, an artist of the sleight of hand, swiping what others do not appreciate and setting it so that it becomes suddenly desirable, arranging it so that its original owner comes to miss it. Artists are people who endeavor to notice what was always there in potentialis, who are able to make the ordinary suddenly important, to see it new, to make others wish that they had found whatever it was first. And, of course, all philosophical systems and worldviews are a particular kind of arrangement by individual vision, a setting of the raw material of the actual world (what is) into an utopian pattern or design (what could be), rather than resting in a merely habitual rut of received ideas. Really, the arrangements we make may as well be utopian, elegant, joyous, sacred, ecstatic, experimental, serious funhouse mirrors and creative extensions of pre-existing “reality,” rather than a slavish mimesis to some status quo. Let us look at “reality” as a diamond in the rough, raw material, continually reset by ourselves, as creative royal jewelers, in infinitely fantastical tiaras which we can try on inside and outside of our heads to help us see and act and experience in new ways. If existence precedes essence, as the existentialists have it, then we can and must choose what we are and what the world is and means, how we act, what we value and reject, even if our choices are sometimes limited by a few natural laws and unavoidable circumstances. It shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, that finder boy grew up to be an aesthetic utopian who collects and arranges objects with an attention as devoted as that he renders to the design and conception of his ideal Nowhere, striving always to manifest it in the physical world.

Spirit may be understood as the arranger and the meaning-maker, while matter provides the colors and textures and shapes with which it plays. Why some people — even Emerson — conclude that therefore matter is the vulgar part of this union and spirit, i.e., form, the higher part of art, can probably be traced to our inherited prejudice against anything that doesn’t last, but it is as difficult to imagine a sculpture without marble or clay as it is to imagine experiencing the world without a body. A clay model of a body, however, a medieval Golem for example, is a rather pathetic thing without the in-spiration of ru’ah (Hebrew: breath; holy spirit) to make it come alive.

Pippi Longstocking knew what was important: the freedom to imagine, adventure, and roam unhindered by obstacles, whether physical or mental. She was, in fact, unconstrainable; she couldn’t be socialized; didn’t like school; she knew her own strength; she threw gold pieces around with a carelessness unmatched except by the denizens of Moore’s Utopia, where precious stones were to be found lining the gutters. Speaking of marvelous finders, I shouldn’t neglect to mention Phineas Sonin, our local junk man with his shining eyes and multi-colored rickshaws, who is always, always, finding and re-dispersing the detritus of civilization, as if to remind us that all our possessions are like the ribbons and shreds picked up by birds, always able to be transformed into new shapes and new psychic dwellings for fledgling dreamers. He reminds us that nothing is ever useless, even if it has outworn its original purpose. Also not to be forgotten is our wild, mad friend, Robin Simon — may she ramble somewhere safely, despite her neglect of gravity, time, space, and other natural laws —, whose gifts of miraculous treasures discovered in the streets unearth themselves even today from under piles of boxes or out of drawers in my room, and hurl themselves onto the floor moments before a letter from her —  the first one in years — appears in my mailbox, as if the objects were fore-echoes of the words on their way. A little Chinese box with lacquered scenes from fairy tales, a porcelain mask, and an embroidered sash, a pair of velvet dragon knickers, a miniature tea cup with a world inside. Telekinesis? Perhaps; it probably is easier to make physical objects move if one doesn’t believe in their actual weight. She was fluid with possessions, as rings she had picked up off our bureaus would just as innocently be slipped onto the fingers of seeming strangers or new friends, or tiny baubles pocketed in silence be left in tree nooks or upon the stairwell of a passing dandy wearing a pretty cape. How, she seemed to say, can any one thing belong to any one person? She rendered the objects their own agency, as if they were animated by attractions and fascinations to find their way into the hands of those who deserved them.

Some people claim that their dead friends and family, their ancestors, send them things as messages from the other worlds when they are wandering in rummage sales or antique shops: a tea pot, a letter opener, a bearskin cape with a silver, leaf-shaped clasp. And there are, indeed, times when an object seems to give us inordinately intense pleasure, either because it seems connected to a person or an idea, or because of its peculiar shape, weight, color, or smell, times when an object seems to be just precisely the thing to fill us with happiness, a sense of meaning, purpose, connection. In such a case, the true bohemian knows that no amount of filthy lucre is too much to spend or expend on the item, and, in fact, the squandering of mere money for something like that is part of the pleasure of the exchange. I enjoy spending money — not just the getting of the thing, but the actual act of giving the bundle of bills away. Some people feel pain when they pay; I feel a sensual pleasure, a sense of freedom and luxury. And it is not because I have unlimited supply — I live at present well below the poverty line —; nor because I have overlooked the fact that time is money; it is certainly not because I do not know what the cost of a thing is in Thoreau’s priceless definition, i.e., “the amount of what I call life that is expended for it now or in the long run.” It may be, rather, that I am not worried about having the money later, because I know I can live on very little, quite happily, quite richly.

Of course, we all know about the common folly of trying to fill spiritual emptiness with material riches, but, somehow, today’s cultural impoverishment has something to do with a misunderstanding of the spirit inhering in certain kinds of matter, in art, in artifacts, in certain kinds of physicality. In fact, a look at the history of our cultural relationship with matter and spirit reveals that inhering spirit in matter has been one of the greatest taboos, called by the name of idolatry. Taboo, as is well known, has a way of creating more perverse attachments, and the fetishism of objects as well as of human bodies in the form of consumerism and pornography may be a result of this insistence on the separation of spirit and matter. The widespread impoverishment in the face of so much material debauchery and excess impels us to discover a more meaningful connection between matter and spirit, body and mind, a connection that has largely gone missing among the sometimes extreme polar categorizations of ideal and real, physical and transcendental, carnal and spiritual. I want to look more closely at our unexamined assumptions, our cultural prejudices, and the way in which we have become at once unabashedly materialistic and piously, moralistically anti-aesthetic. It has turned out to be a worse bargain than was once calculated, for we have not only lost our souls, but have gained no compensatory worlds in return.

Everyone speaks about the problem of Americans being over-glutted with a base sensuality, but really, as is often the case with over-indulgence, we have become grossly insensible to the finer sensations. We cannot listen amid the incessant noise, we cannot see amid the rushing images, we cannot touch because we have become calloused all over. We are obese — but at the same time, we starve ourselves; our garages are filled to the brim with expendable and already broken junk; our landfills are mountains of eternal toxic shame; but few people seem to notice that this over-consumption is related to a numbness, a blind-deaf-and-dumbness to the faint stirrings and whisperings of the spirit that once could be traced in the lineaments of the physical world, in art and in nature, a numbness whose source is a tragic misunderstanding about how little one has to actually pay in order to be as wealthy as Emerson’s poet.

When people speak about the loss of spirit, they tend to suggest we cure the malady with a turn inward, a turn away from the physical world which implicitly negates the complex relationship obtaining between matter and spirit, between sensory and transcendental realms. This cure comes in many forms: minimalism; piety; asceticism; attacks on beauty and on the aesthetic components of art, music, social experience; an advocacy of pure conceptualism; a disregard of surroundings and environments; an insidious argument for technological consumerism; a leave-no-trace attitude to existence, whereby one is enjoined that the best thing a human could do, after not existing, would be to have as little impact as possible. While the last is a natural and, to some extent, admirable response to the abuse of natural resources and a very real environmental crisis, it has been adopted as a general platform for existence, suggesting that less is always more, and that there is nothing, literally nothing, that a person can contribute to the cultural or material richness of the world. The traces of natural affirmative human impressions and expressions are inadvertently erased in the rush to minimize the “carbon footprint,” but, alas, environmental damage is still spreading more quickly than can be counteracted by all the good will in the world, while culture and participatory engagement are disappearing faster than the ozone layer. A return to spirit and culture really requires very little in the way of natural resources since one can walk, bicycle, read, talk to a person who is beside one, experience nature, listen to what little silence there is left, without using fossil fuels and without creating toxic waste, without wasting any electricity at all; but governments and individuals choose instead to spend millions of dollars and use up more and more resources looking for some complicated technological means to continue to live unsustainably amid a myriad of distractions and annoyances, even though most of us agree that our gadgets, our jobs, our highways, our machines do not actually make us happier or better people. And, as we recklessly deplete our natural resources, we are literally running out of the vital matter to make more matter; and the cost, in terms of the horrific physical and anti-aesthetic desecration of the land as well as the ethical and spiritual degradation that comes with selfish greed and a neglect of human and natural consequences, is devastating even now.

The spread of technology, with its concomitant defense of the virtual, has contributed greatly to an apparent devaluing of the physical; yet, this “revolution” has not translated into a spiritualization of existence or a real reduction of tedious, meaningless work for harried humanity. Instead, the spiritual has been eradicated along with the physical connection. The technological devolution seems to be little more than a ruse for selling the newest device or gadget, without which the supposedly timeless-spaceless modern being feels unable to function. He has given up his memory, his ability to synthesize and understand ideas, his freedom, as well as any simple access to human or neighborly help, knowledge, or warmth. This price is too high to pay for a dubious return in the form of a promise of immediate access to data and information, the ability to buy things without leaving one’s home or office (minus the sensual thrill of handling dollars and seeing, smelling, touching the world). He has gained the ability to work and be reached at all times on any mountain top, in the middle of any conversation or experience, and the constant anticipation of some small chance of a random surprise salvation from what really can only honestly be characterized as an unbearable and shallow existence — an existence so unsatisfactory that one hopes constantly that it will be interrupted by something better. The allegedly virtual is fatally bound to a merely materialistic culture lacking in spiritual foundation. It costs much more than it returns, as its incessant buzzing, roaring, and ringing drown out any possibility of enjoying the “free time” theoretically to be gained by the convenience of technology.  As it turns out, keeping the infrastructure or virtual reality “on” twenty-four hours a day requires much more wasted energy than we like to think, thus flagrantly obviating any supposed return in environmental protection. A knapsack filled with free books checked out of the public library (a spiritual institution which is not by accident suffering an immense financial crisis while multinational information technology companies are thriving) is a much better bit of baggage to take to that desert island — or into the post-industrial future — than the newest oil-based and electricity-dependent plastic monstrosity; and one gets physical exercise while carrying it, not to mention the mental exercise, the experience of synthesizing organic, complex knowledge, the real experience of reading, digesting, reflecting in silence on whole books instead of downloading snippets and summaries, or dilutions of data and co-opted cultural capital, into a fact-crammed brain. There is an immense gulf between information and knowledge, and the way we as a culture seem to have forgotten this may have something to do with the commodification of even spiritual wealth into cultural capital, something to be utilized, manipulated, transferred, bought, and sold for some mercenary purpose. Education — one that engages in ethical and aesthetic reflection and questioning, fruitful confusion and uncertainty, dialogue, synthesis, and unaccountable experience — cannot be bought and sold across cyberspace or implanted via a chip in the brain. Speed reading is not reading. The “medium is the message,” and a book should be heavy, if only to weigh the reader, slow the reader down.

Emerson spoke of every “sensual fact,” as a material manifestation within the world, as a symbol for a complex assortment of ideas, not to be reduced to one mathematically or dogmatically predetermined solution or answer. And this interplay between the physical as symbol and its spiritual extension regenerates itself, infinitely, at no material, environmental, or ethical cost. Reflection, and its resulting provisional stations of synthesis, is one of the most essential processes for the development of new ideas, fresh insights, original arrangements; and it is something our society has almost entirely neglected, abandoned, forgotten. We can see the results of this neglect around us already, but only if we stop for a moment and reflect. What I suspect is that an important cause and effect of this neglect is a confusion about matter and its relationship to spirit, and while this or other solutions to our presently unsustainable predicament might occur to any of us were we to sit a moment with the rare discomfort that rushes in if we recuse ourselves temporarily from the rush and rage — the hope and hype — of commodities, data, and progress, we rarely dare to release our hold (although we are really the ones being held) on whatever it is we feel we must do in order not to fall out of step, in order not to lose our jobs, homes, social standing, security. We are so frightened of losing our grip that we do not risk the smallest danger (darkness, loneliness, confusion) to change our lives. We are so busy acquiring things we think we need, and doing things we think we need to do, that we do not even take the time to consider whether we really want the situation or success after which we are striving; nor do we have the leisure or quiet to enjoy or admire all that already belongs to us by right. “Things are in the saddle,” warned Emerson, back when it had not gotten nearly so bad as it is today, “and ride mankind.” But the Poet, he also reminded us, is “Sky-lord, Land-lord, Sea-lord,” for everything she sees or even imagines is an enduring possession. But we cannot possess it if we do not have the leisure or senses to enjoy it. There is — in effect — nothing which we can really lose, except perhaps the flexibility and fertility of our minds.

The PoetEmerson’s Essay “The Poet,” via Internet Archive

What then is the most fruitful relationship between physical entities and their associated ideas and spirit? Leaving language out of the equation altogether, we may consider that any individual specific object, mountain, or building is in contact with the idea or even “Ideal Form” of that object, an idea or ideal of mountain, of building. We might even assume, as many have over the course of the history of ideas, that anyone who is overly attached to a particular temporal physicality is somehow less spiritual, and here we have a philosophy and theology of spirit seemingly born in the service of sparing us the pain of loss and death ahead of time. Non-attachment might appear to be a wise method in the sublunar regions, where all is fleeting and time triumphs — but it rather seems like a ruse, or a case of special pleading, considering we do have bodies, and appetites, and that we do suffer the pain of loss and lack, despite all attempts to assuage it. We also, it must not be forgotten, experience pleasure, and it seems an act of bad faith to accept the one and reject the other. Though it hardly seems like an admirable achievement, some spiritual practitioners may manage to neither suffer nor enjoy anything at all. Rather, I suppose that the individual experience of losing an actual specific physical thing or person is a meaningful object lesson in the reality of death — it may lead us to enjoy life all the more, to pay more attention, to concentrate on our pleasures and on all sensations, even seemingly unpleasant ones, for we will not have the luxury of experiencing them forever. We should pay attention to the fate of matter, to fading, to physical decay and the processes of natural fermentation and regeneration. We should pay more attention.

Pain, delight, pleasure, beauty all come, in any case, in both spiritual and physical forms, usually in fact, in a mixture of both. We cannot, or rather should not, try to minimize or limit our experience out of a moralistic or even practical stoic defensiveness. Some bit of pain or trouble may be salutary, or even stimulating; some types of burdens are worth carrying, if only to build physical and spiritual muscles, if only to experience the delicious relief of laying them down and doing absolutely nothing afterward or in between. If I seem to be stressing the didactive benefit of the physical, let me add that matter is also to be enjoyed for its sensual properties as well, and maybe even in tandem with the sensations of its stings and arrows, as contrast at least. Renoir asked, “Why should beauty be suspect?” And, while we have some ideas as to why, we would do well to consider that pleasure and delight make up at least one part of what real life consists and we do no one damage by experiencing or dwelling on beauty if its creation does not incur inordinate residual spiritual or physical ugliness (as, admittedly, some seemingly pretty things may). While we might even entertain the idea that property is to some extent and in some cases a form of theft, let us not forget that we need not own something to enjoy it, and that the bounty and loot once pillaged from ancient civilizations — the victims of colonialist ravagement — serves to enrich millions of people every day in public museums, who come to possess the beautiful forms, materials, and historic and cultural significance by merely looking. While such booty has often been egregiously ill-gotten, it is not matter’s fault that people have abused each other to possess it in the past — indeed, we may hear the cries of the massacred people as well as the songs they sang while making the objects if we hold them close to our ears. Today we may (though we too often do not) choose more consciously to make and to attain things without such high human, environmental, and cultural costs — thereby hopefully merging spirit more meaningfully with matter. It is no simple task, however, to calculate how much pleasure and spiritual profit can be gained with the least amount of pain and inhumanity, especially if we admit that by merely breathing we kill organisms and by walking we cannot avoid stepping on the smallest of creatures.

While Thoreau is most famously quoted as saying, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” I read him a bit more closely and find that he is not absolutely vilifying matter — in fact, he learns all about his “higher laws” by pushing up against the bounds of the physical and through a practically hyper-aesthetic attention to physical details and forms. He is asking only that we seriously consider matter’s relationship to spirit, and entreating us to refrain from sacrificing spirit — in the form of values, artistic and ethical freedom, our integrity, the sanctity of nature, and the realm of transcendental imagination — to an exterior covering which has been reduced to a simulacrum only of meaningful humanity. It is not the exterior that is evil, but an exterior out of touch with its interior. He suggests we be worthy of our clothes, our castles, our pomp, and be as noble on the inside as on the outside. Beautiful things should, thus, be made in beautiful ways, in ways that are not in themselves ugly and in ways that do not cover up a multitude of aesthetic, ethical, or environmental crimes. But we must not get too fastidious about the messiness of making, living, experimenting, for we do not always even know which seemingly good act engenders unseen negative consequences or which seemingly bad or disengaged one might do worlds of good.

Today’s Americans may, indeed, be as vulgar as their exteriors portend; but this is a problem, not a noble unpretentiousness about which to crow. Rather, let us be pretentious first if it is a means to growing into or living up to a premature external glory. Thoreau, in my view, is quite a bit closer to the dandies and bohemians of Europe than the Puritan utilitarians of Massachusetts. The transcendentalists and the aesthetes together raise the imagination above mammon and rail against those who, as Wilde mocked, know the “price of everything and the value of nothing.” The dandies and the naturalists have more in common than at first meets the eye, despite Wilde’s horrified exclamation: “Enjoy Nature?!”

As Baudelaire notes, in his excursus on the dandy in “The Painter of Modern Life,” the child and the savage, and by association the aesthete and the transcendentalist, share an “adoration of what is brilliant — many-colored feathers, iridescent fabrics, the incomparable majesty of artificial forms — the baby and the savage bear witness to their disgust of the real, and thus give proof, without knowing it, of the immateriality of the soul!” And in a letter from 1894, Proust writes, echoing Jesus’s famous dictum about the kingdom of heaven: “You have happiness within you: that is the safest, if not the only, way of having it. In any case, whatever may be the happiness you dream of (to dream of it is to already have it in the most ideal sense of the word, which as a good idealist I believe to be the only true one) I am sure it is a happiness of the very best quality.” A classic bohemian from Mürger’s Vie de Bohême is indeed a transcendentalist of sorts when, instead of heavy and expensive furniture he moves from garret to garret with a folding screen upon which his beautiful chairs, tables, divans, and bed are painted. In a more neo-Platonic than a strictly Platonic sense — where a “disgust of the real” is not a denigration of art, but of the status quo — this painted screen is a manifestation of the idea of furniture, a sort of cosmic joke on society’s expectations, freeing the artist from what Thoreau called “shriveling one’s self up into a nutshell of civility,” freeing him from ignoble pleasing, flattering, lying, cosseting, selling or compromising himself to the non-ideals of the marketplace in exchange for a couple of chairs that are usually not even as beautiful as the ones a poor bohemian might invent. Better to sit on the floor than on a utilitarian chair purchased with one’s dreams and at the expense of one’s values. But the higher truth is that we must have beautiful chairs and beautiful dreams, or rather, we must see to it that our dreams come true, furnishing even the physical world with our spiritual fancies.

—Genese Grill

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Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.

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Dec 062015
 

s_d_chrostowska

MATCHES cover

MATCHES: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
punctum books, 2015
538 pages (OPEN-ACCESS e-book and $25.00 [€23.00/£20.00] in paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0692540732

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Art / Barbarism

Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that a huge and horrible crime happened, and the masterpieces were destroyed. If so, it would be a barbarian crime against humanity. — Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, on the incineration of seven masterpieces stolen in 2012 from the Rotterdam Kunsthal

A mother’s love burns brightest when the fuel is artifice, plastic slippers, and firewood. Art’s demise revealed the truth and power of the human heart. Veritas, victoria, vita!

The museum, the village, the abandoned house, the churchyard, finally the stove. Ash. Between the theft, the son’s arrest, the mother’s actions, and the art world itself (fearing the worst), the works were everything: a fortune, incriminating evidence, an irreparable loss. To the rest of us it was a crying shame. Before the lab’s findings sank in, the works were missed, their worth contained by the smoul­dering hope of their recovery, the story still too bizarre to be believed (especially after the mother’s retraction of the crucial part of it). After they were announced, the works became priceless, and their immolation, indefensible, beyond the pale. Here there is no why. We are survivors, bearing the burden of incomprehension. Incomprehension not of the human spirit, for the mother’s act was as mindless as the can of worms it opened.

Nor was it a crucible of love — that mother was no art lover! It involved no test, no inner conflict of values, one love against another fighting in a breast, with a mother’s love finally getting the better of the universal love of beauty.

Burn the evidence! was the obvious thing to do. Not: I must sacrifice the Art! (We would prefer she turn in the works along with the son, but what mother would do that? — it is as unfea­sible now as it was in biblical times.) A simpleton cannot be demonic. There was no question of zeal, of enthusiasm, of erotic arousal: Burn, Picasso! Burn, Matisse! And yet it used to be witches who stoked fire only to perish by it in those barbaric times. The innocence of the paintings, the Eastern European location, the poverty, illiteracy perhaps — all this makes for a credible latter-day hex.

And that is why, in a rush of blood to the head, we might blurt out “Crime against humanity!” The well-worn phrase — where the “crime” in question is nothing less than intentional degradation of human beings perpetrated on a large scale — seems hyperbolic in the new context, even if in the heat of indignation (to which destruction by fire certainly added fuel), we refuse to see it as just a metaphor.

The leap from humans to the human is easier the more the art of the recent past, when there were still masters worth mentioning, is sanctified as the expression of the human spirit, the quiddity of our dignity that protects us, like a magic circle, against all barbarism.

Art appreciation is an order of magnitude greater than art’s invaluability. The inestimable worth of art — of man — in our time requires the language of genocide to do justice to it. It is no “mere rhetoric,” but an unedited lament for humanity.

If, then, it strikes some of us as preposterous to call an art heist a “crime against humanity,” it must be because we do not value art as an extension of human dignity. Is it because art has always accompanied barbarity, as its counter­point? Our whole history is constructed on denying that we cannot have the one without the other, even if art was born among the barbarians. The twisted story of the burglary, the brutalization of these works, brings this twisted history, begun in prehistory, to a head. Acts we would consider bar­barous now, or that we will consider barbarous in the future, were perpetrated by those we now consider to have been the first artists, even the first “moderns.” The stature of barbarity keeps step with that of art. The more invaluable art becomes, the less we can appreciate it. The more invaluable individual life becomes, the less we can appreciate it.

We might not know it, but such wisdom speaks through our condemnation of Oberländer-Târnoveanu’s hyperbole. To accept it would mean convincing ourselves that a moth­er’s love counts for nothing, that it is worthless. You cannot make the willful destruction of high art level with the anni­hilation of people without elevating at least one mother’s love to barbarism.

Even if the crude destruction of these Magnificent Seven really was atrocious, some more refined method would have been easier to swallow. Its artfulness would mitigate its vulgarity. That is why we hope she did not burn them but, as unlikely as that is, deceived the analysts. Perhaps then her act would qualify as art, a performance without spectacle, with an audience to come. It’s been said — I know the man who said it — that “Barbarity is one of the signs in which one recognizes renaissances of the spirit.”[1]

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Under Attack

The avant-garde artist was born of the image-breaker: the “icons” he broke belonged to his predecessors and rivals. In truth, however, they were the icons by which he lived his life and with which the art of his time was in agreement. His target, then, must not have been the artistic tradition, at least not directly; it was, rather, the reality sanctioning only images that flatter it — images that, while innocent, were thoroughly in the pay of wealthy patrons, who surrounded themselves with them as with mirrors. Naturally, the control of images made them structurally incapable of fulfilling art’s modern mission — to challenge, to unsettle, to open up. Only from the position of exteriority claimed by mod­ern art can the false beauties of the life of privilege, of the dream life of power, be violated. Modernity’s artistic frontier is inward, advancing towards, not away from, the pieties and powers — political, economic, theological — with which even the old masters were in conformity. The image broken by the modern iconoclast, the icon reduced to shards and rags, is, in short, the spurious coherent whole, with the “art world” nestled in it.

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Art, Alienation, Extinction

There is a received and much-cherished idea that creativity cannot be alienating. Alienation befalls the exploited, their labour as mindless as it is repetitive, whereas creative work, where it is not enabled by higher economic standing, the prerogative of leisure, is mythologized as an escape into pleasure (even with the risk of madness or early death). Artists, of course, do collaborate, make, market, and sell their stuff, and the identity of the artist is perfectly compatible with that of the precarious worker or capitalist. But the neoliberalization of art is seen as incomplete as long as art is civilized by the triumph of form over content; form acts as a bulwark against the neoliberal civilization, whose watchword is content extraction. Capitalism keeps pace by producing the tools needed to extract content from form, funding art’s nonconformism. The creation of educational and other institutions that teach both art and its exploitation, as well as the rewards dangled before artists who defend art’s bul­wark, keep up demand for aesthetic product. At a time when everything is being turned into a resource, art can still set the terms of its own use.

A reboot of art’s political-interventionist ferment in the 1960s and ’70s would offer no resistance to neoliberalism’s encroachment. The identity of the artist has since become much purer, much more abstract and — dare we say? — super­fluous than in those days. All is well as long as it’s under­stood as just an identity or mask, and moreover, one among several others in competition or cooperation with it. Now that the “Creative Class” has been ideologically defined as vital for urban economies, the “creative subject,” a.k.a. artist, risks not alienation but isolation. With lived experience becoming art’s final court, whoever identifies with art to the exclusion of other roles — whoever lives and breathes art and otherwise lives not — must die of loneliness as one of the last surviving members of a species too old to reproduce.

§

Down and Dirty

If art really needs a clean slate, then life must have the oppo­site. But could we appreciate such art from such a life?

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Scenes of Abduction

In the story of the rape of Hippodamia, a Lapith woman is saved from the clutches of drunken Centaurs, guests at her wedding feast. The oft-treated motif, allegorized as the struggle between bestiality or barbarism and humanity or civilization, ends quite clearly in the latter’s triumph. As with other erotic subjects, mythical or legendary scenes of abduction, depictions of lecherous violence and abuse, were long bound to a higher, moral purpose, while heroism and procreation as pretexts for titillation were deemed unworthy of art.

The sublimation called art is still aligned with nobility and morality. Art does not just represent — and that in two senses, of showing and standing for — the struggle against barbarism; it functions as a talisman. The choice and proper framing of scenes of this struggle fulfill art’s civilizing mission, contrib­uting head-on to the mastery over monstrosity, ugliness, and evil looming large. The mission’s goal was to impress upon our minds the seriousness and high stakes of the fight for, in this case, sexual entitlement. The artist wanted us to know, none too subtly, that he had done his part.

The “Manichean” framework, which demands explicitness, comes at a cost to art, which is accused of speaking from both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, bringing sexual­ity to the surface and manipulating it make artists complicit in subduing anarchic forces — including the eternal two-way traffic between the normal and the freakish, the familiar and the foreign. Art renounces pornography less for its content and effect than for subordinating such forces to quantitative self-regulation. On the other hand, as soon as the image becomes explicit, art falls under suspicion by priests and secular moralists of colluding with base desire. It is watched more closely and interpreted less charitably; exposed, it presents an easy target for yesterday’s orthodoxies. Doubt in its ability to quell insurgent passions makes conspicuous not what is obvious to us — art’s neutrality — but its barely hidden “barbarism.”

The long-term consequences of this double bind are still with us: even now, freed from moral service, sexuality in art is dismissed as gimmickry, gratuitous provocation. Its aesthetic value is dubious; it is still too caught up in prov­ing it has one. Its appearance is stiff, unnatural, in a word, unfree — and this in spite of the space given to it, having spread from canvas to celluloid, where it is occasionally even unsimulated. Its real, scrambled message is only intelligible to those who reject moralism of any kind and recognize art’s long struggle for a pagan origin.

Where it does not eradicate unruliness, censorship inspires encryption. In this hostage hermeneutic, sexually charged representations like that of Hippodamia’s rape, as they recur from the Renaissance on, are coded signs of distress. Rather than hailing the victory of the good through art, hence of “good” art, they signal art’s capture by “goodness.”

§

Coming Clean

If life really is a blank slate, then art must be the opposite.

—S. D. Chrostowska

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S.D. Chrostowska is the author of Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Miguel Abensour, “L’histoire de l’utopie et la destin de sa critique,” Textures 8–9 (1974): 64, my trans.
Dec 032015
 

Aashish Kaul

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Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère. — Marcel Proust

Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language. There is already in this adage of Proust the notion of ‘making strange’ that was to be espoused by the Russian Formalists some years later. Proust may or may not be the best example to discuss the Russian Formalists, for he both validates and annuls their thesis, but in this instance there remains a commonality that may, for the time being, be enough to eclipse their differences.

For the Formalists, obsessed as they were to develop a more scientific basis for literary studies and make them an autonomous and specific discipline, it became necessary to exclude all mimetic and expressive definitions of literature. To see a literary work as an expression of its author’s personality led inevitably (and unacceptably) to biography and psychology, while to regard it as a picture of a given society led in turn (equally undesirably) to history, politics, or sociology.[1] What remained, therefore, was the peculiar nature of a literary work itself, and it was this peculiarity that the Formalists made the basis of literary scrutiny, a peculiarity which could be distinguished from any other material and which lent a literary work its especial aura or quality. The Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky began with the idea that art refreshes our sense of life and experience. ‘If we examine,’ he wrote:

the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all our skills and experiences function unconsciously — automatically…. And so held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art…. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant (italics in original).[2]

Subsequent developments in theories about literature and the creative process may make Shklovsky’s observation look obvious, but they hardly obscure its truth. And would not Proust give his whole-hearted assent to this idea! — Proust, who poured all his later life into composing a seemingly endless book with the sole aim of granting the reader a few visions of pure perception amidst the deadening whorls of habit, that dull inviolability which Beckett memorably called ‘the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’[3]

The kind of enstrangement that Shklovsky advocates, namely, the one achieved by complicating form, is also at work in Proust, as it is at work in Joyce, in Virginia Woolf, in Faulkner — Borges wrote his stories as if they were expository pieces, while his essays repeatedly adopted styles and themes more suitable for fiction (though Shklovsky’s models are markedly older: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Sterne, Dickens). These formal/technical devices are for Shklovsky and others the very means of achieving ‘defamiliarization’ in a work of literature, and the final triumph of art over dull, automatized life. Literature, as Ezra Pound said, is news that remains news. But what is unfamiliar may become familiar, worn thin, itself automatized, with use and passage of time. So techniques and devices were needed to be perpetually juggled, some foregrounded over others for a period of time, to keep literariness alive across epochs.

Another kind of dialectic is at work here: the opposition between automation and defamiliarization. Having banished the author, having dispelled the biography, psychology, and historicity of a work, the Formalists were left simply with devices, and this could only lead to the astonishing pronouncement that there were in truth no authors, but only literary works (for example, Osip Brik, in ‘The so-called formal method’ (1923): ‘Opojaz proposes that there are no poets or literary figures, there is poetry and literature.’ He claimed rather provocatively that Eugene Onegin would have been written even if Pushkin had never existed, just as America would have been discovered without Columbus.). To be able to make a science of literary scrutiny, it was for them essential to mount a two-pronged attack: to demolish, in one stroke, the Romantic notion of the author as a vessel of divine inspiration and the utterly spurious, if deeply ingrained, distinction between form and content. Now the author was no longer either a visionary or a genius, but merely an artisan who arranged and rearranged material available at his or her disposal. The author’s job was to know about literature, the history of literature, the knowledge and skill in handling devices that made a work literary, and what he or she knew of life or reality was quite irrelevant.[4]

Shklovsky1 PSViktor Shklovsky

But psychology, biography, and the historic situation cannot be subtracted so easily from a given work; they are the very factors which make the rearrangement of material striking and novel in each case. For although a man’s life does not explain his work, the two are nevertheless connected. The truth, says Merleau-Ponty in his essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, is that ‘this work to be done called for this life’. It is therefore impossible to separate creative liberty from the peculiar incidents that shape an artistic life:

If I am a certain project from birth, the given and the created are indistinguishable in me, and it is therefore impossible to name a single gesture which is merely hereditary or innate, a single gesture which is not spontaneous — but also impossible to name a single gesture which is absolutely new in regard to that way of being in the world which, from the very beginning, is myself. There is no difference between saying that our life is completely constructed and that it is completely given. If there is a true liberty, it can only come about in the course of our life by our going beyond our original situation and yet not ceasing to be the same…. In every life, one’s birth and one’s past define categories or basic dimensions which do not impose any particular act but which can be found in all…. Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that — if we know how to interpret it — we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work…. We never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.[5]

Then again, the muse was not the invention of the Romantics alone; she visited Homer and Virgil, too, was already Dante’s Beatrice, was the nature-song of the Tang poets in Classical China, touched Rilke in dreams. She is always there because she is not a phantasm, but only the mind’s effort to reify the wonder it feels, in creative, palpable moments, at its own ability to rearrange the lava flow of sensory data toward imaginative and artistic ends. Or perhaps she is but a place of negativity, not belonging to either the mind or language, for, as Giorgio Agamben tells us, ‘muse was the name the Greeks gave to the experience of the ungraspability of the originary place of the poetic word.’[6]

***

What makes a work defamiliar, that is to say literary or artistic, beyond the play of devices, then, is a certain ‘poeticity’ as Roman Jakobson called it. This poeticity, per Jakobson, was like oil in cooking; it cannot be consumed of its own, but when used as an ingredient in cooking other foods, it changes their taste completely.

In Sanskrit literature, in Indian classical music and other art forms, too, there appears a notion quite similar to Jakobson’s — that of the rasas. Quite literally, rasa means ‘juice’ or ‘nectar’, but what is really hinted at is that quality of a given work which evokes a particular mood in its reader or audience. In other words, it is the poeticity that lends a work its especial charm or atmosphere, and makes it unlike anything else one has experienced, foreign, rare, glittering like a jewel.

It is, then, the atmosphere of a literary work that makes its language feel foreign, unfamiliar, distant. This is the reason behind Proust’s paradoxical assertion. We could, of course, find another resolution, a Bakhtinian resolution, to this Proustian oddity, whereby it is a word’s internal dialogism, separate from its ability to form a concept of its object, that has the power to shape style: ‘The prose artist elevates the social heteroglossia surrounding objects into an image that has finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones; he creates artistically calculated nuances on all the fundamental voices and tones of this heteroglossia’.[7] And so the greater the artistic nuances on the fundamental social tones of a language, the more foreign or unfamiliar will be the prose they generate.

Similar, too, is the belief of the Spanish writer Javier Marías, who once observed in an interview that what counts the most in a novel — and what we remember the most — is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours or a few days. The prime aspect of a novel, said Marías, is its setting, which of itself is a secondary issue.[8]

javier-mariasJavier Marías

Roman Ingarden is in agreement. In any literary work, he writes, there are metaphysical qualities or ‘essences’ which can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but instead are revealed, in complex or disparate situations or events, as the overall atmosphere which penetrates and illumines everything with its light. An essential function, then, of objective situations in a literary work is the manifestation of such metaphysical qualities. Such manifestation, however, does not arise purely from objects or situations, but emerges from the structure of the work, from its organic unity. Metaphysical qualities are merely held in readiness — they are not manifested in the work, but rather in its concretization through the act of reading.[9]

Essences, poeticity, atmosphere. These qualities are difficult to segregate in practice since, as Ingarden states, they can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but emerge from the structure of the work and the act of reading. And so any reader of, say, Wuthering Heights or The Trial is aware of the presence of these qualities, without necessarily being able to draw a tally of all the places in the text where they are made manifest. In Joseph Roth’s late work The Emperor’s Tomb, for instance, the inconsistencies and compositional flaws are redeemed by these very essences that Ingarden speaks of, by the muted melancholy and nostalgia of the novel’s atmosphere.

The Australian writer Beverley Farmer, for example, expertly mixes formal and metaphysical qualities in her palimpsestic work A Body of Water. Early in the book she gives a description of a cove near her house, a description which, because it is so truly phenomenological, creates an effect of both enstrangement and existential depth:

My first summer in this place. So hot and still a day, and I spent it on the sand, the cliff-shadow advancing over me, and now and then went to lie in one of the channels between the pale rocks and was washed cold…. Sometimes at twilight the water in the pools east of the pier went dark with a grey-brown glint, a half-light inside it; and at the same time the rocks at the rim were grey and water-blue. Until it was too dark to see, water was rock and rock water….  Sandstone is honeycomb in this still afternoon sun, pitted with swallows’ nests. All this beach is the same colour — sand, rock and rock pool. The small mouse-shrieks of swallows skim and soar. The wave-shaped, whale-shaped headland is dark in the spray of the western sky…. My footprints flatten the crisp arrowheads left by gulls. At the high tide mark, along the hairline of the marram grass, clumps of feathers, all hollowed out, clench empty beaks and claws.[10]

***

The emphasis on essences, poeticity, atmosphere in the discourse surrounding literary works is a direct result of the fusion of form and content. Every form produces its own idea, its own vision of the world, observed Octavio Paz. ‘Form has meaning, and in the realm of art only form possesses meaning; content stems from form, and not otherwise.’[11] Tzvetan Todorov, while using an essentially Structuralist vocabulary, makes the same point: ‘Every work possesses a structure, which is the articulation of elements derived from the different categories of literary discourse; and this structure is at the same time the locus of the meaning’.[12]

Writing near the later stages of the Russian Formalist and Modernist revolutions in literature, E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, first published in 1927, while still lingering over concepts like ‘story’, ‘plot’, ‘flat and round characters’ into which modernist works had bored deep holes, acknowledged that in moving from ‘story’ to ‘plot’, the novel acquired a complexity favourable to the creation of ‘value’.[13] Now this ‘value’ cannot be found in plain narrative, but can only arise from the whole complex structure and is dependent on what Forster refers to as ‘pattern and rhythm’.[14] The novel has to be an aesthetic object and ‘rhythm’ helps toward this end. Rhythm cannot be imposed from outside and is not available to writers who plan their books beforehand. It must grow with and inside the narrative. Forster ultimately explains its effects as being analogous to those of music. In the triumph of plot over story, in the musical effects of pattern and rhythm creating value in the novel, we see again the Formalist preoccupation with literary devices, Jakobson’s poeticity, Ingarden’s metaphysical qualities. Julio Cortázar in his novel Hopscotch sums it up beautifully:

Why am I writing this? I have no clear ideas, I do not even have ideas. There are tugs, impulses, blocks, and everything is looking for a form, then rhythm comes into play and I write within that rhythm, I write by it, moved by it and not by that thing they call thought and which turns out prose, literature, or what have you. First there is a confused situation, which can only be defined by words; I start out from this half-shadow and if what I mean (if what is meant) has sufficient strength, the swing begins at once, a rhythmic swaying that draws me to the surface, lights everything up, conjugates this confused material and the one who suffers it into a clear third somehow fateful level: sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, book. This swaying, this swing in which confused material goes about taking shape, is for me the only certainty of its necessity, because no sooner does it stop than I understand that I no longer have anything to say. And it is also the only reward for my work: to feel that what I have written is like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence. In that way by writing I go down into the volcano, I approach the Mothers, I connect with the Center — whatever it may be. Writing is sketching my mandala and at the same time going through it, inventing purification by purifying one’s self; the task of a poor white shaman in nylon socks.[15]

Julio CortázarJulio Cortázar, via Wikimedia Commons

As I have stated elsewhere, Cortázar is hinting at several things here. Among them is the foregrounding of rhythm, form, devices over story or characters. It is rhythm that structures a book, page by page, sentence upon sentence, and not the desire to mimic ‘reality’ or relate a tale that comes to the writer altogether whole from the very start; it is rhythm, too, that word by word creates the story from barely noticeable mental or physical impulses and ideas, and that leaves behind writing which is ‘like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence’. Yet another is the notion of writing as a purifying rite, not dissimilar to Shklovsky’s comment above: ‘the perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity’.

Cortázar tells us that the search for form enables rhythm to come into play, and that he writes from within this rhythm. For the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, this fact alone would be enough to classify Cortázar as a true modern writer, distinguished from those he refers to as late modernists and postmodernists, because, for Jameson, form, in the case of modernist writers, is never given in advance but is generated experimentally in the encounter, leading to formations that could never have been predicted, unlike the late modernists and their successors, to whom the structure of the form was known in advance (since the likes of Cortázar, Proust, and Joyce had already discovered it for them) and to which the ‘raw empiricities of content’ could then be made to submit.[16] Jameson arrives at this observation at the end of a long and nuanced thesis, which is well beyond our scope to explore here, but even assuming that the break modernism signified with an earlier world was anywhere as paradigmatic and total as Jameson would have us believe, I am unsure if it could be applied so readily and consistently to all writers working in the latter period. For barring the more superficial cases, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether form and content arise together or separately in any given work. Indeed, in the more formidable works, they must out of creative necessity arise in unison.

When content fades into form, the fictional reality becomes fluid and dynamic; it is not something given, hard and raw, that a writer need merely ornament and make palatable with his or her craft. Any moral or social purpose, indeed the characters and their story, gives way to the process itself. A book like Forster’s discussing ‘flat and round characters’ would be inconceivable today, simply because, as Todorov states, novels do not imitate reality but create it:

Although we no longer refer to literature in terms of imitation, we still have trouble getting rid of a certain way of looking at fiction; inscribed in our speech habits, it is a vision through which we perceive the novel in terms of representation, or the transposition of a reality that exists prior to it. This attitude would be problematic even if it did not attempt to describe the creative process. When it refers to the text itself, it is sheer distortion. What exists first and foremost is the text itself, and nothing but the text. Only by subjecting the text to a particular type of reading do we construct, from our reading, an imaginary universe. Novels do not imitate reality; they create it…. [Similarly,] the fictional character is a segment of the spatio-temporal universe represented in the text, nothing more; he/she comes into existence the moment referential linguistic forms (proper names, certain nominal syntagms, personal pronouns) appear in a text regarding an anthropomorphic being. In and of itself the fictional character has no content…. But, as soon as psychological determinism appears in the text, the fictional character becomes endowed with character: he acts in a certain way, because he is shy, weak, courageous, etc.…. Character, then, can be an effect of reading; there exists a kind of reading to which every text can be subjected. But in fact, the effect is not arbitrary; it is no accident that character exists in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel and not in Greek tragedy or the folktale. A text always contains within itself directions for its own consumption.[17]

It is not a coincidence, then, that as content fades into form, and the fictional reality becomes fluid, the novel sheds its old skin, loses some of its neatness or artefact-ness (although this is not to deny the uniqueness of the fictional world, which is dependent on the uniqueness of the artistic consciousness); its personages abandon their literary rigidity, begin to distrust their own qualities to become, surprisingly, not less but more human and lifelike, as in the case of Robert Musil’s hero Ulrich, in the cunningly titled great modernist work, The Man Without Qualities.

This is the great heritage of modernism. Characters are not described to make them ‘round’ or believable, but to make them contextual in the larger narrative of the work. (Did not Chekhov himself believe that human character is essentially flat, and it is life instead that is complex?) Writing is an attempt to understand one’s position in the world, to find a relevance for one’s past, one’s memories in the forever-becoming present and an impersonal, abstract (or absurd) future. Most modern-day writers emphasize the structure of the work and the unity of its various parts that respond to an internal necessity rather than outward reality. Very often, a writer’s choice of a subject, together with the style and perspective he or she employs to express this subject, is enough to show where his or her affinities lie. And choosing an aesthetic itself amounts to a moral act, for, as Georg Lukács puts it, ‘the ethical intention in the case of the novel is an effective structural element of the work itself.’[18]

As the artistic vision turns more personal, it withdraws from the common ideas of social and moral exchange and the general categories we ascribe to reality, and the more singular it becomes, the closer it comes to defining reality in a clear, specific manner, away from the shared perception of the mass. The creative process in its coming into being and becoming is deeply personal, and needs the gift from the otherworldly, the aesthetic thrust that creates in the receiver a feeling of transcendence. The emotion it produces is a little outside words, even though emanating from them, like laughter. In such cases, the fictive world makes no effort to mimic the ‘real’, but engenders an entirely new, unfamiliar version, in the process defeating it.

But this defeat, or as Lukács calls it, self-destruction of reality, is of an entirely intellectual nature and is not immediately evident in a poetic or sensuous way. Genuine interiority, he writes, turns ideas of life into ideals, and the inability of the outside world, which is a stranger to ideals and enemy of interiority, to achieve an appearance of completeness within the novel can only be overcome when it becomes the focus of the artist’s mood or reflection.[19]

Hugo von HofmannsthalHugo von Hoffmannsthal

Fredric Jameson, on the other hand, has argued that this ‘enstrangement’ and obsession with form that makes the artefact preferable to reality is the result of late capitalism turning modernism into ideology and the crowning of aesthetic autonomy over life and experience in the midst of humanity, that is to say, history,[20] but in truth the twin notion that a book is a vision of the world and at the same time a thing added to the world is perhaps at least as old as the printing press. Don Quixote, for example, would not exist in the absence of this crucial theme. Much later than Cervantes but also much before the beginnings of modernism, in a fictional fragment, The Rose and The Desk, Hugo von Hofmannsthal could write:

I know that flowers don’t fall by themselves out of open windows. Especially not at night. But that’s neither here nor there. Briefly, the red rose was suddenly lying on the white snow of the street in front of my black patent-leather shoes. It was very dark, like velvet, still slim, not yet opened, and entirely without scent in the cold. I took it home with me, put it in a tiny Japanese vase on my desk and went to sleep. A short while later I was wide awake. There was a faint glow in the room, not from the moon but from starlight. I felt the scent of the heated rose wafting toward me as I breathed, and I heard a low voice. It was the porcelain rose of the old Vienna inkstand, which had something to say. “He has absolutely no feeling for style anymore,” it said, “no taste at all.” It meant me. “Otherwise he couldn’t possibly have put such a thing next to me.” It meant the living rose.[21]

—Aashish Kaul

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Aashish Kaul completed his doctoral studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) and The Queen’s Play (2015).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Ann Jefferson and David Robey, eds. Modern Literary Theory – A Comparative Introduction. London: Batsford, 1986. p 27.
  2. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. trans. B Sher. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991. pp. 4-6.
  3. Samuel Beckett, Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1957. p. 8.
  4. Jefferson and Robey, pp. 31-34.
  5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Basic Writings. ed. T Baldwin. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. pp. 284-89. See also, Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. trans. R Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975. pp. 151-53.
  6. Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. trans. K Pinkus and M Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. p. 78.
  7. MM Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. trans. C Emerson and M Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. pp. 278-79, see also, pp. 298-99.
  8. Javier Marías, ‘Eight Questions for Javier Marías’, Voyage Along the Horizon. trans. K Cordero. San Francisco: Believer Books, 2006. pp. 175-82.
  9. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art. trans. G Grabowicz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973. pp. 290-96.
  10. Beverley Farmer, A Body of Water. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. pp. 4-6.
  11. Octavio Paz, Alternating Currents. trans. H Lane. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990. p. 6.
  12. Todorov, 1975, p. 141.
  13. E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London: Penguin, 2005. pp. xiv, 86-87.
  14. Forster, pp. xv, 134-50.
  15. Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch. trans. G Rabassa. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. p. 402.
  16. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity. London: Verso, 2012. p. 208.
  17. Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Reading as Construction’ in Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, eds. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. pp. 259, 266-67. See also, Todorov, 1975, pp. 54, 93-95.
  18. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. trans. A Bostock. London: Merlin Press, 1971. p. 72.
  19. Lukács, p. 79.
  20. Jameson, pp. 176-79.
  21. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings. trans. J Rotenberg. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005. p. 49.
Dec 022015
 
DFW credit Flickr Steve Rhodes Salon

David Foster Wallace. Credit Flickr/Steve Rhodes via Salon.com

A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify. —Bruce Stone

DFW cover

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End of Tour1

Still from James Ponsoldt’s DFW biopic The End of the Tour

Only the most militant fans of David Foster Wallace will find anything objectionable in The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt’s eulogy for the writer, who died, at 46, in 2008.[1] The biographical film has an indie ethos and an all-business cast, though its provenance still begs a double-take. The screenplay is adapted from a 2010 book by David Lipsky, which is itself a reboot of Lipsky’s five-days-long, but never published interview with DFW, this conducted in the far-right margin of the publicity tour for Infinite Jest. So the product that arrived at summer theaters was practically rippled with layers of pre-packaging and spin, but Ponsoldt, for better or worse, just relegates all such abstraction to the dialogue and otherwise keeps his telling as grounded as possible. The loveable schlub Jason Segel plays Wallace, while Jesse Eisenberg does his minimal-affect routine as Lipsky, and Joan Cusack has a bit part as a cartoon Minnesotan. The typecasting alone reflects an earthbound sensibility, so it seems only natural that the film’s real star should be the Midwestern landscape. For tax reasons, western Michigan stands in for Wallace’s central Illinois, and its sprawling flat-earth vistas of thin crusty snow and distant copses dazzle in their sheer ordinariness. Amid those harshly beautiful winter fields, beside a county road that’s dutifully plowed but little traveled, sits Wallace’s house, a long low ranch with cheap-wood finishes and shit-stained carpets (the homeowner keeps two large black dogs), looking improbable and improvised against the elements.[2] Basically, The End of the Tour is a well-intended mash-up of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, mostly harmless.

By my count, Tour contains just two powerful moments, both of which model in a kind of cinematic negative space the daunting edifice of Wallace’s work. Late in the movie, there’s a shot of Wallace’s cave-dark study, where Lipsky takes a rapid and belated inventory, gathering material for his piece. Threads of nuclear sunlight line the apertures in the room’s heavy-gauge curtains, and the stage is set for a blinding dissolve. Even if Plato’s allegory is the furthest thing from your mind, the sequence reads as an eloquent pantomime of Wallace’s achievement.

The second scene is more indicative of the film’s handling, its careful avoidance, of the work it memorializes. When Lipsky first arrives, Wallace invites him to bunk at the house in a “sort of guest room” space. The room in question is furnished with a futon and an assortment of load-bearing flat surfaces on which Wallace’s many books are arrayed in tall and pristine, as if machine-made, towers, the hulking Infinite Jest conspicuous among them. As neither man comments on the absurdity of the decor, the scene comes off as a sight gag, underlining Lipsky’s physical discomfort and competitive rancor. He beds down for the night with Wallace literally towering over him. But something more disquieting rumbles beneath the surface, as if the film has stepped roughshod on a live nerve. The sheer number of museum copies speaks volumes about Wallace’s chilling solitude (he can’t give this stuff away!). Even worse, those vertically stacked bricks of type-written pages suggest something redundant and wasteful and ultimately futile at the end of the labor of writing itself (he can’t give this stuff away!). The printed book never seems more paltry, less adequate to the teeming world it contains, less consistent with the miseries of its creation, than when it’s replicated in mass quantities and warehoused for distribution, smilingly absorbed by the consumer-capitalist system. This is why chain bookstores and Amazon and the little shelf-lined back rooms of publishers’ publicity offices give me the howling fantods (to borrow Avril Incandenza’s phrase).

Capture

And this is how the film treats Wallace’s work—it’s part of the furniture, atmospheric rather than elemental. Presented with a chance to show Wallace at the lectern, reading from IJ at a Minneapolis bookstore, the camera averts its eye, opting instead to focus on Lipsky, in the wings, quietly eating his heart out. The film’s narrative loyalties lie with Lipsky’s book, not Wallace’s opus, so it strains to contrive a story arc from the shifting relations, a kind of sibling rivalry, between the writers. These tensions feel manufactured, thin and underwhelming, and there’s something prefabricated or too-convenient in the script’s frame-tale design, the whole interview episode recounted as a flashback after Lipsky learns of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. But the film is earnest and sincere—a level-best effort all around—and if it’s a little flat-footed and embarrassing, it’s embarrassing in the way a mother can be embarrassing when she brags about you in public.[3] The End of the Tour has nothing urgent or revelatory to say about Wallace or his work, and this silence, admittedly, makes it hard to distinguish between pious hagiography and the mercenary selling of graven images. Even so, viewers should brace for impact when a simulacrum of the man first emerges from his Illinois abode to greet Lipsky in the iced-over driveway. The moment has some of the charge of a Christ drolly exiting a crypt, or a dead relative blinking at you non-confrontationally from a photograph. The sight triggered, for me anyway, a wave of grief, long overdue.[4]

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Into the House that Jack Built

What forestalls any and all hand-wringing over the film’s portrait of the writer is how inconsequential it feels when placed alongside Wallace’s own work, by which I mean mainly, perhaps exclusively, his Infinite Jest—the novel whose sonic boom, even without the artificial stimulus of Tour, we’re still hearing the echo of. Maybe my perspective is a little skewed: I read IJ for the first time in June, two decades too late (my epitaph, I fear) for Wallace’s proper coronation, but right on time for Ponsoldt’s film.[5] Call it kismet.

A quick tour of the web reveals how commonplace, even sadly clichéd, it has become to expound, however tardily, on one’s own personal reading of Infinite Jest. Booster-club testimonials, generous vocabulary dumps, anachronistic reviews, the incremental records of reading-group listservs, why-not-to-read-it spoofs as well as why-to-read-it genuflections: these things are everywhere in cyberspace, constituting in aggregate a kind of DIY sub-genre of literary criticism, DFW & I.[6] Amid the bylines and chatter some distinguished names surface: in 2009 Aaron Schwartz, the digital whiz-kid who ran afoul of the web’s download restrictions, immersed himself unabashedly in the novel’s brain-teasing puzzles, while the Canadian fantasist R. Scott Bakker contributed an elaborate takedown to the archive in 2011. The novel continues to attract casual potshots, as well: Harold Bloom, via Women’s Wear Weekly (no joke), and Bret Easton Ellis, via Twitter, have both lobbed vitriol at Wallace and his readers.[7] Ponsoldt’s film is just part of the vapor trail, in his high-overhead medium, from the novel’s transit. So grant the film safe passage as it lumbers affably from summer cinemas toward DVD-rental outlets everywhere. Meanwhile, the monolith itself, IJ, still beckons, rife with controversy, thick with conundrums, prolix and aloof, meditative and smart and hilarious and searing. If you have to this point, as I did, given wide berth to the beast—if you suspect a lame Pied-Piper fandom in the cult of Wallace—I encourage you strongly to test your scruples against the book itself. With the possible exceptions of heartfelt parenting and excellent sex, nothing is more deserving of your time and attention than Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

This is not to say that the novel is perfect, as in, uniformly without flaw or defect. The givens of the textual world alone range from peculiar to zany: a family saga that conflates Hamlet and The Brothers Karamazov on the grounds of a tennis academy? A North-American map that has been cheekily revised? Calendar years auctioned for naming rights like NCAA bowl games? An army of wheelchair-bound French-Canadians who squeak across the landscape, seeking a doomsday device—in this case, a lethally entertaining videodisc? Most of the novel’s imaginative excesses are entirely palatable, the satire spot-on. But I have to draw the line at, or enclose in squiggly brackets, elements like the Vaught twins, who make a killer doubles team at Enfield Tennis Academy, despite (or because of) being conjoined at the head. Likewise, a few high-drama scenes—an after-hours tryst in the headmistress’ office, a torturous interrogation with some complicated staging, an Inner Infants support group meeting—are insipidly farcical. And the lush filmography of JO Incandenza, one of the book’s ballooning endnotes, is a marvel of erudition, with a number of fine Easter eggs glinting in the bushes; these many films, besides, haunt the whole length and breadth of the big novel, yet I can’t help but imagine their titles voiced by The Simpsons’ Troy McClure: Blood Nun: One Tough Sister, Dial C for Concupiscence, The Night Wears a Sombrero.[8] Note the exclamation point in Accomplice!

Of course, when visiting a grand cathedral, you can stand outside and count the gargoyles or you can head inside to hear the choir. In the case of IJ, bloopers notwithstanding, every page bears the impress of an obvious and undeniable genius. The book is a cacophonic compendium of millennial voices, and Wallace manages to coax something beautiful from each one. He can lampoon the pretensions of the most esoterically high-brow discourse[9]; render the slovenly charms of a smart teenager’s private language (including mathematical geek-outs); lovingly detail the screwy articles, botched possessives, and fouled-up idioms of non-native speakers; and cull a muted poetry from the workaday lexicons of felicidal pimps, reformed burglars, flummoxed psychiatrists, rotten fathers, and transvestite prostitutes. Wallace has an awful lot of fun with catachresis in the book. He does an unforgettable Irish brogue and captures the weirdly crestfallen ecstasy of an overdose in progress, all metastasizing syntax and achingly fine-grained perceptions. More than just reproducing such voices, Wallace textures each with chiaroscuro shadings, catching quirks and nuances, speech tics that slide around fluidly. This virtuoso display is nowhere more evident than in Note 304, a lost-island set piece in which Jim Struck of Enfield Tennis Academy attempts to plagiarize a scholarly work for his term paper in a class he calls “Poutrincourt’s History of Canadian Unpleasantness course thing.” In fact, this endnote encapsulates, in microcosm, the work in all its vastness. Like a slice that gives up the whole loaf, it reveals almost everything you could want to know about the novel: from how to read it or why to bother, to what, if anything, the book has to say to its patient and intrepid auditors.

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The Endnote

In this sub-basement of a chapter, Wallace simulates not just the puff-cheeked oratory of “US academese,” but the off-the-leash, cognitively impaired rhetoric of a narcotized scholar, this one expatiating on Canadian terrorist cults, the initiation rite of the Wheelchair Assassins in particular. For purely ornamental reasons, the scholar also ties in a mention of the feral infants—a byproduct of toxic waste dumping in a geographic region ceded by the US, with love, to Canada—who otherwise writhe and roil offstage, part of the novel’s emblematic marginalia. Here’s a sample of the scholar’s vocal signature: “Almost as little of irreproachable scholarly definitiveness is known about the infamous Separatist ‘Wheelchair Assassins’ … of southwestern Quebec as is accepted as axiomatic about the herds of oversized ‘Feral Infants’ allegedly reputed to inhabit the periodically overinhabitable forested sections of the eastern Reconfiguration.” For long stretches, the Endnote compiles verbatim citations of this impeccable balderdash, yet the mood of grotesque parody never quite extinguishes a stubborn, oddly poignant verisimilitude.

Intermixed with such passages is the sulky and slang-riddled rambling idiom of the plagiarist, who supplies a running commentary on the article, with the occasional sarcastic flourish:

the hardest work for Struck here is going to be sanitizing the prose in this Wild Conceits guy’s thing, or at least bringing the verbs and modifiers down out of the like total ozone, which the Academese here on the whole sounds to Struck like the kind of foam-flecked megalograndiosity he associates with Quaaludes and red wine and then the odd Preludin to pull out of the grandiose nosedive of the Quaaludes and red wine.

The violence of the code-switching might cause whiplash, but it feels almost seamless because Struck himself is so hilariously preoccupied by the scholar’s whacked-out style: “Struck at certain points imagines himself gathering this Wild Conceits guy’s lapels together with one hand and savagely and repeatedly slapping him with the other—forehand, backhand, forehand.” Carrying the sequence to its logical conclusion, Wallace carves still more layers in the vocal palimpsest when he offers glimpses of the plagiarized paper itself, a kind of hybrid voice, Struck’s redaction of the article. After a paragraph from the scholar, outlining the cult’s test of an aspirant’s mettle—a game of Kierkegaardian “Chicken” with a moving train—we read, “Struck transposes clearly nonadolescent uptown material like this into: ‘The variable of the game isn’t so much a matter of the train, but the player’s courage and will.’” And though Struck is an unusually blinkered plagiarist, Wallace grants him enough perspicacity to imagine his teacher’s marginal comments on the resultant paper (“a big red triple-underlined QUOI?” beside a manic transition) and to observe the Doppler shift in Day’s article, as it crossfades from scholarly exposition into full-blown confabulated narrative.

Wallace is clearly a masterful ventriloquist, yet the sheer number of voices in the novel’s discursive field lays it open to charges of logorrhea, as if the book were kaleidoscopic but not cohesive. The terrible truth about IJ, however, is that, at 1079 pages, it isn’t digressive at all. Wallace’s inexhaustible verbal repertoire is matched by an exacting architectural vision. In an interview, Wallace claimed that his book models the fractal form of a Sierpinski gasket,[10] but the novel supplies an equally apt metaphor by which to grok its artful structure: that is, the book itself poses as an InterLace Entertainment. InterLace is the name of the telecom company founded by Noreen Lace-Forché, the “Killer-App Queen” who supplanted the titans of network television with her outfit’s NetFlix business model, and the company’s moniker feels like a hard nudge[11] from Wallace to mind the myriad interlacements in the novel’s pages. The raucous polyphony bends toward euphony, after all.

Like a thumbnail enlargement in an art book, Note 304 offers a manageable arena in which to observe the design ingenuity. Most obviously, this endnote identifies the author of the Wild Conceits article as one G. T. (Geoffrey) Day, a character who, a hundred-odd pages after we read the note, will turn up casually among the cast at the Ennet House for recovering addicts. The book doesn’t make this connection explicit for readers; Wallace asks us to splice the wires, to notice the subtle and surprising intersections of the characters’ lives.[12]

The Endnote also makes abundantly clear something that most readers could glean from the main text’s plot: that the predicament of the Wheelchair Assassins is analogous to the plight of the ETA tennis team. Struck reads of the elimination-tournament structure of the Separatists’ train-dodging, just as, later, the novel’s readers will encounter an apposite description of tournament protocols when ETA faces Port Washington. To double-underscore in neon the thematic kinship here, the Note offers this appraisal of the cult’s rite of passage: the train-dodging ritual is “intimately bound up with ‘Les jeux pour-memes,’ formal competitive games whose end is less any sort of ‘prize’ than it is a manner of basic identity: i.e., that is, ‘game’ as metaphysical environment and psychohistorical locus and gestalt.” This disclosure boomerangs and dovetails with the coaching philosophy of Gerhard Schtitt at ETA: unburdening himself to an acolyte, Schtitt explains that in competitive tennis “the true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself…. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe…. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” Schtitt’s theorizing might sound like self-discovery; that it entails self-annihilation becomes clear as the players court an extreme inhuman stoicism in order to excel. In fact, all of the characters in the book’s three major plot threads share a common struggle: to escape the cage of the narcissistic I, “transcend the self through pain,” whether it be a hard-core, self-abnegating patriotism, the will-suppressing protocols of tennis practice, or the reason-defying bromides of Alcoholics Anonymous. The novel’s thematic unity couldn’t possibly be tighter.

But these are only the most glaring examples of IJ’s structural integrity. To get a glimpse of the subtlety and pervasiveness of the book’s imbrication, consider another putative digression from Day’s article. Toward the end of the Note, Day turns his attentions to a different Separatist group, the Cult of the Infinite Kiss. This faction’s initiation rite involves the lip-to-lip conjoinment of heterosexual faces, which faces then respire alternately a single lungful of breath until the participants pass out from oxygen deprivation. Day’s exposition includes some pointed commentary on the differences between the two terrorist cells, but it also functions as a hyperlink, reminding readers of Orin Incandenza’s nightmare concerning his mother: her disembodied head is bound by tennis string to his own horrified face. Similarly, the crux of the other ritual, that leap in front of a barreling locomotive, reverberates when Don Gately, the novel’s square-headed hero, sports with a Green-line train while at the wheel of a borrowed muscle car. And Struck’s own ineptitude vis-à-vis the French language recalls the incomprehension of the monolingual terrorist Lucien Antitois (broker of “blown-glass notions” and gray-market entertainments) during a pivotal Francophone interrogation.[13] IJ is that kind of book: a massive honeycomb of images and motifs, characters and themes, the whole swarming with so much life that the infrastructure stays mostly concealed. That the novel is, in this way, almost infinitely expandable, is not to say that it’s compositionally loose or entropic.[14]

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Of Figurants and Revenants

For some readers, this peek into IJ’s motherboard might feel anticlimactic, as if its internal circuitry were just a tangle of arbitrarily crisscrossed filaments—as if, despite the endless verbiage, the book had nothing whatsoever to say. As it happens, this crisis of communication—in which words are mere forms, empty of substance—lies at the very core of the novel (both the species and genera). This is the problem of Hal Incandenza, youngest dynastic son, closeted pothead and on-court rising star at ETA. Hal has a gift for language; he’s read the OED and committed most of it to memory. His term papers testify to his high-order brilliance. Yet, he seems incapable of experiencing, much less conveying, authentic human emotions, even on the intimate subject of his father’s suicide. Per the novel’s blunt diagnosis, Hal shapes fine words, but in a figurative sense emits no sound.

Far from being an anomaly in IJ, Hal’s case is typical, even archetypal, as numerous characters observe this existential gag-rule by force, choice, or mere disposition. Among the more lighthearted examples is Jim Struck’s plagiarism,[15] but for all its goofball comedy, Note 304 also shows how this node of the book goes meta-, constituting an inquest into the nature of writing and reading. Immobilized before his computer (except for “grinding his eye” and picking at his acne), literally engaged in the work of reading qua writing, the plagiarist mouths words parasitically, like an intellectual zombie or prep-school golem for Day’s ideas. The only volitional substance attributable to Struck himself are acts of camouflage, as he converts Day’s prose into “less-long self-contained sentences that sound more earnest and pubescent, like somebody earnestly struggling toward truth instead of flecking your forehead with spittle as he ranted grandiosely.” Struck’s enterprise is pure cynicism: plenty of words, but no sound. Like Hal, Struck has become a figurant.

The novel defines a figurant as a peripheral actor with zero speaking lines in a sitcom (like the anonymous bar patrons in the heavily scripted Cheers!), a visible part of the scenery but existentially muzzled. Against this class of tragic characters, IJ poses another, which would appear to be the figurant’s antithesis: the committed speakers at AA meetings. Such speakers aim to embody total honesty, to tell the truth about their addiction experience, however ugly the truth may be. The listeners, for their part, strive for Identification, a mode of ideal hearing that erases the slash in the classic self/other dichotomy. The book is explicit on this point: “Identify means empathize. Identifying … isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own.” As a strategy for responding to narratives, identification has garnered some well-deserved abuse over the years; all too easily, identification reverts to simple narcissism in which the reader’s self-interest and prerogative are the ultimate determinants of a story’s value.[16] Wallace has in mind something less obnoxious, a more sincere merger of selves or communion of souls which appears to be lifted straight out of Tolstoy.

In his ingenuously titled treatise “What Is Art?” Tolstoy rejects the notion that literature exists for the reader’s pleasure. Instead, a true work of art, for Tolstoy, occasions the very Identification that IJ exalts:

the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone elseʹs — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Wallace’s novel sometimes reads as a hard-line dramatization of Tolstoy’s ideas. All forms of pleasure are suspect in IJ, symptoms of a self-destructive addiction, the antithesis of purifying pain. But when the novel portrays individual acts of listening/reading, the proselytizing feels humble and low-key, not at all doctrinaire. See the description of Lyle, the unofficial staff guru at ETA: “Like all good listeners, he has a way of attending that is at once intense and assuasive: the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment. It’s like he’s working as hard as you. You both of you, briefly, feel unalone.” The pitch of the advocacy rarely runs hotter than this.

But IJ ultimately breaks ranks with Tolstoy, and its portrayal of literature, reading, and writing (all sides of the same equilateral triangle) turns increasingly ambivalent. To see how, we have to consider another character type in the book: the wraith (yes, wraith). Like Hamlet, IJ has a few ghosts traipsing around the castle, and these wraiths hybridize the traits of speakers and figurants, a reconciliation of opposites with dire implications. A wraith, we learn, “had no out-loud voice of its own [figurant], and had to use somebody’s like internal-brain voice if it wanted to try to communicate something [speaker].” Another stipulation vis-à-vis wraith ontology: because wraiths inhabit “a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage,” they must “stay stock still in one place” for vast amounts of time in order to interface with the living.

In both regards, this vision of the afterlife makes the wraith sound a lot like an author figure: the wraith’s telepathic mode of communication (and otherworldly stillness) unmistakably connotes the act of writing. Tolstoy’s manifesto already describes literature as an occasion for mind-melding, but Georges Poulet, in “The Phenomenology of Reading,” captures the truly haunting nature of the experience. Poulet observes that reading is always an assault on consciousness: it “is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me.” The book behaves like a software application installed and running on the hard drive of the reader’s mind, temporarily displacing the self. The experience, for Poulet, ultimately verges on spirit possession—he refers to reading as “this possession of myself by another”—but the wraith that Poulet summons isn’t the book’s author: it’s the book itself. Poulet writes, “so long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, […] a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.” This vision of the book as a portable consciousness that can roam from reader to reader might sound itself like a Wild Conceit; the “self-consciousness of literary texts,” a well-worn phrase, has never been construed so literally. But Poulet’s ideas do help to clarify the author-function of Wallace’s wraiths.[17]

Initially, the wraith incursion in IJ serves to reinforce Tolstoyan aesthetics. As with the book’s other author figures, those gifted AA speakers, colloquy with a wraith makes Identification possible, for both parties now, speaker and listener, author and reader (the roles are reversible in wraith-initiated dialogues). The lone character to consciously converse with a wraith, in a fever dream, later reflects wistfully on the experience: “he has to admit he kind of liked it. The dialogue. The give-and-take. The way the wraith could seem to get inside him. The way he said [the listener’s] best thoughts were really communiques from the patient and Abiding dead.” At such moments, IJ does verge on advocating reading as an antidote to self-destructive narcissism. Even Struck, the most hapless figurant, finds himself attaining Identification, however unwittingly, with the “foam-flecked” disquisition of G. Day. Having diagnosed (accurately) Day’s addiction to narcotics, as he reads yet another head-clutching passage, Struck recalls his own father’s disastrous substance abuse, as if he recognizes his own story there in the style, if not the substance, of Day’s essay. Call it Identification, with an asterisk.[18] Here, too, under the least propitious circumstances, reading provides an occasion for “meeting the self.”

Because reading IJ is an extraordinarily labor-intensive exercise, it would be at least courteous if the book were to recommend the activity, validate the time spent and pains taken. Instead, the book equivocates. The first killjoy irony here is that, in order to hear a speaker or converse with a wraith, the listener/reader must shut down the voice, cancel the self, become essentially a figurant.[19] One group of rapt listeners, as they achieve ideal hearing, must “consciously try to remember even to blink”; in this case, identification is tantamount to petrification, the audience turned to statuary, locked in a state of suspended animation. And even under optimal circumstances, with a communicative wraith aiming for honest self-expression and mutual Identification, the inter-mental communion can feel like “lexical rape,” or so the lone experimentee puts it as the wraith floods his consciousness with unfamiliar, seriously uptown words.

The second irony is less local and more pervasive: namely, if the wraith functions as an author-figure, it also models the plucky reader. When the wraith reveals that it can “move at the speed of quanta and be anywhere anytime and hear in symphonic toto the voices of animate men, but it couldn’t ordinarily affect anybody or anything solid, and it could never speak right to anybody,” it offers a description of the reader’s very experience in turning the pages of IJ. Albeit well short of the speed of quanta and/or choral totality, IJ’s readers do slide unimpeded and unregarded from voice to voice, consciousness to consciousness, likewise powerless to impact the world(s) they survey. Don Gately, in whom the wraith confides, acknowledges the tragic paradox of wraith existence:

Gately lets himself wonder what it would be like, able to quantum off anyplace instantly and stand on ceilings and probably burgle like no burglar’d ever dreamed of, but not able to really affect anything or interface with anybody, having nobody know you’re there, having people’s normal rushed daily lives look like the movements of planets and suns, having to sit patiently very still in one place for a long time even to have some poor addled son of a bitch even be willing to entertain your maybe being there. It’d be real free-seeming, but incredibly lonely, he imagines.

Gately pities, more than envies, the wraith’s condition, because, per his description, it has a lot in common with the abject solitude of a figurant. The solution (writing, mobility, Identification) and the problem (voicelessness, immobility, loneliness) are not antipodes, but mirror images. So much for a straightforward endorsement of literary labor, on either end, production or reception.

To return, then, to the paradigmatic industry of Jim Struck, what the Endnote ultimately does, like the book as a whole, is to pose the question, so who’s really the wraith? Day’s article, wraith-like, has colonized Struck’s consciousness. But thus zombified, undead in a sense,[20] a model figurant, Struck himself adopts the stock-still pose and vocal cooption tactics of a wraith. And Struck’s predicament, buried in a seemingly inconsequential recess of the endnotes, becomes legitimately uncanny insofar as it anticipates our own. IJ doesn’t so much say as do something to readers: it turns us into figurants, which is to say that it also grants us the status of wraiths. And what is true of the reader is, as a corollary, true of the book: IJ, in Poulet’s sense, is a wraith, inhabiting us and extending the potential for Identification, and it is also a figurant, telling us nothing.

Read in this light, IJ might reflect Wallace’s discontent not just with consumer-capitalist addiction, but with a deep vein of aesthetic theory. Once upon a time, around the Baby Boom era, it was fashionable to excavate the paradoxes inherent in literary texts. With essays like “The Language of Paradox” and “The Heresy of Paraphrase” in The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks argued that this structural principle—irony, contradiction, paradox—lies at the heart of all great works of literature.[21] And during the short-lived heyday of New Criticism, disciplined readers sought only to discover the pathways by which literary texts contrive their stony silences.[22]

In his journalistic writing, Wallace has weighed in, derisively, on the work of Brooks & Co.; he recounts, briefly in “Tense Present,” how subsequent waves of theory exposed the New Criticism as hermeneutic flimflam.[23] The essayist Wallace also decries irony as an intellectual pose, and figurant-class, say-nothing literature in particular. In “Fictional Futures,” discussing reportorial hipster fiction of a bygone era, Wallace calls out writers for describing problems without posing solutions, reducing, per Wallace, “interpretation to whining.” His big-picture verdict affirms his faith in revolutionary art: “What troubles me about the fact that Gold-Card-fear-and-trembling fiction just keeps coming is that, if the upheavals in popular, academic and intellectual life have left people with any long-cherished tradition intact, it seems as if it should be an abiding faith that the conscientious, talented, and lucky artist of any age retains the power to effect change.” Similarly, in “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace tilts at irony,[24] imagining the cultural rebellion later dubbed the New Sincerity: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.” All of the Tolstoyan energy in IJ reflects Wallace’s well-documented aversion to intellectual and spiritual nihilism.

But the self-negating turn in Infinite Jest, the turn that converts speakers into figurants, makes both of them wraiths, suggests that Wallace, in his greatest book, could embody but not transcend this artistic crisis. The novel virtually ratifies New Critical principles. What’s a Sierpinski gasket, after all, if not an incredibly well-wrought urn? Readers past and future, of all critical persuasions, figurant filmmakers included, might well balk at this conclusion, which has the dubious distinction of being both revelatory and obvious. But Wallace’s skepticism of art’s hermetic beauty? A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify.

—Bruce Stone

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Bruce-Stone3
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 Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction 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.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The film’s release caused a minor flap in that the writer’s estate publicly announced its displeasure with the project, but the script deflects charges of foul play by airing Wallace’s anxieties about his celebrity and generally deferring comment on his work. Ponsoldt’s is a smart, bookish film hiding behind an idiot’s grin.

    These endnotes obviously betoken a superficial solidarity with Wallace’s aesthetic. Roll your eyes all you want. Wallace himself learned the gambit from writers like Nabokov and Nicholson Baker, both of whom I prefer to DFW. But practical concerns persuaded me to fall back here: I wanted a nice deep root cellar in which to stash the worst of the spoilsport disclosures vis-à-vis the novel—someplace cool and spacious and dimly lit, with pacifying damp-clay smells and a large number of tappable casks, where the advanced group might repair for bonus tracks and outtakes. Then again, readers worried about spoilers would probably be well-advised to just click the topside X and duck out now.

  2. The house’s street address might read “The center of nothing,” Wheelchair Assassin Rémy Marathe’s garbled translation of “The middle of nowhere” in IJ.
  3. This is my conclusion even though I saw the film under snark-inducing circumstances: a primetime screening at a posh mall-theater on the expectably glammed Westside of Los Angeles. A wine bar next door absorbed some of the early-arrival foot traffic, and still the area around the high-tech ticket kiosks, where you can swipe your card to collect pre-purchases, was crowded with affluent cineastes, awash in secondary sex traits (what with the women in LA prosecuting the sartorial arms-race of a desert climate). The screening chamber itself boasted notably luxurious, boxy faux-leather black recliners, like first-class airline seats that let you kick way back, outfitted with cupholders that could handle those absurdly large theater sodas, naturally. Even if you hadn’t finished IJ just weeks earlier, the signs of egregiously hedonistic spectation would have stood out in bold-face type.

    Factor in now that the screening concluded with a Q&A involving Ponsoldt and Segel. Besides bumping up the general rate of crowd effervescence, the principals’ attendance also explains why greeters met filmgoers at the entrances and pressed upon them a sturdy bubble-sheet survey, with a tiny ballpoint, for the sake of audience feedback. Excepting one question about the draw of this particular film, the survey was all about purchasing behaviors, standard market research. I stood the form upright on the floor until the film’s end. When the lights came back on, Ponsoldt and Segel clambered into director’s chairs on the stage. They fielded deferential questions from a host, plus a few, later, from the audience, and though their handlers stood by at attention, overdressed, in the aisle, and though one young woman who had come solo—blond curls bestrewn in a Renaissance braid, simple sundress in a grayscale print—relocated after the credits rolled, the better to record on her smartphone the celebrities’ breathings, it was impossible to judge or resent anybody. Ponsoldt came off as a sweetly ingratiating fanboy (a little self-satisfied, but who can blame him?); Segel, a dapper mensch (yes, he claimed to have read the novel prior to filming; no, he didn’t understand it all that well; no, no one asked him to do the voice of Vector from Despicable Me). I stayed until the Q&A wrapped.

    I held up the queue as I fumbled around, like a true amateur or a bona fide Martian, with a confirmation-page print-out which the machine just sneered at.

  4. To be honest, the grief was probably as much about me—for me—as about or for Wallace.
  5. In my defense, circa 1996, I was in no condition to read IJ or care much about what the world made of Wallace. A brush with linguistic deconstruction, in grad school, left me more or less incapacitated, unfit for public consumption, much less civic participation, for the better part of two years. My pupils stayed dilated the whole time. The crushing irony, of course, is that I had gone to UW-Madison to study literature.
  6. Some of these exegeses are duly footnoted. Equally unsurprising is that many of them discuss the basic technics of reading: they note the heft of the book (which left a dimple like a check mark near my navel), the time spent per page (depends), the number of accessories required to cope with the acreage between main text and footnotes (I got by with a single pencil and a kind of clawed grip, involving the pinky, on the book’s spine).

    For my own contribution to the genre, I seriously considered writing something first-personal, something between clear-eyed criticism and chronic self-absorption, about the ways in which IJ’s tactics anticipated with surprising regularity my own more daring plays as a fiction writer. Lots of little things, snatches of phrasing (anyone else borrowing the lingo from A Clockwork Orange?), architectural affinities (the tunnels at ETA vs. the tunnels at CU in my not-published novella), etc. Here’s just one substantial example, involving the special kind of unreliable narration in IJ’s first chapters. When Hal Incandenza attempts to speak to the admissions committee at Arizona, though his words, per his report, are calm and lucid, the deans hear only monstrous subhuman noises, accompanied by threatening behavior. The mutual distress is so severe that the deans pin Hal to the floor and have him committed. In my own story “The Advantages of Living,” written circa 2005, the narrator likewise says apparently innocuous things that conceal a more outrageous reality. He gets his ass kicked, twice, deservedly, for his troubles.

    I used this gambit again in “FPS,” clickable here in the magazine’s archives. That story also shares DFW’s appetite for tumbledown phrasing and deliberately tortured syntax (which he got from Pynchon, for anyone keeping score), but “FPS” really bears mention because that story is what propelled me into IJ last summer. Wallace, thinly disguised, has a cameo in “FPS,” his suicide plays a conspicuous role. The treatment might seem a bit glib and unfeeling, but something deadly serious lurks in the subtext, if you care to do a little math. My point being, Wallace and I shared some common acquaintances at Illinois State University—I actually applied, hilarious to me now, for his job when he vacated circa 2002 to take his post at Pomona—and as I was writing the story, his death came to seem less like a historical event and more like a loss in the extended family. This is what drove me, after two neglectful decades, to spend seven weeks or so under the hood of IJ.

    Let’s acknowledge too that Wallace’s last words to Lipsky, in Ponsoldt’s film, were “You wouldn’t want to be me.” It would tie things together nicely if I were to think of the IJ synchronicity phenomenon in those terms, but I don’t. Instead, I was thinking that the strange correspondences between IJ and my meager stuff might make it possible to argue for the existence of a literary zeitgeist: that maybe world literature, if configured along certain traditional lines, contained specific potentialities that amounted to almost a playbook of foregone conclusions for any reasonably ambitious young writer. I had planned to quote TS Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Borges’ “Pierre Menard.” Decided wisely against all of this.

    My theory on Hal’s psychosis is that he’s not at all psychotic. Hal might, by the end of IJ, have experienced a transformation such that he’s no longer an emotionless figurant (see below), but is now for the first time fully human. He could be the poster boy for the kind of sincerity rebel that Wallace imagines at the end of his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” In a world of ubiquitous irony, where everyone is a figurant, such a rebel would have to be perceived as a monster; no one would recognize his utterances as speech because he would be speaking the foreign language of substance. (Notice too how the solution and the problem have identical symptoms.) The book makes this reasonably clear, almost obvious, but you have to splice some widely separated wires.

    Meaning the model that once prevailed in the undergraduate curriculum, in that transition moment between a hegemonic Western canon and all-out Canon Wars. For that matter, it’s not possible to talk adequately about IJ’s precursors without mentioning the filmmaker David Lynch.

  7. Here’s Bloom: “I don’t want to be offensive. But Infinite Jest is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent…. Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace.” And Ellis: “Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the, Literary Doucebag-Fools (sic) Pantheon.”
  8. Whether this ham-handedness is intentional, crucial to the book’s thematics, is a matter of debate. Some argue that such farcical touches show Wallace aping sympathetically the conventions of pulp entertainments. Others contend that such moments deliberately sabotage the reader’s pleasure, so as to distinguish Wallace’s novel from the lethal Entertainment of the same title. Wallace’s book might be the rumored anti-Entertainment, the narrative antidote to the film’s Medusa gaze.
  9. One filmic scholar even channels, pithily, Harold Bloom, specifically his more abstruse excrescences in The Anxiety of Influence: “For while clinamen and tessera strive to revive or revise the dead ancestor, and while kenosis and daemonization act to repress consciousness and memory of the dead ancestor, it is, finally, artistic askesis which represents the contest proper, the battle to the death with the loved dead.” Believe it or not, this bloated corpse of a sentence is more than empty blather: a meta-reflection on IJ’s literary ancestry.
  10. A Sierpinski gasket:

    800px-Sierpinski_triangle.svg

  11. See also the role, in IJ, of annular fusion, a closed-loop mode of power generation and waste disposal. The whole book can be conceived of as an annular, or ring-like, construct.
  12. Not all of which are easily resolved. In his discussion of the train-jousting ritual, Day mentions the miner’s son who loses his nerve and fails to jump across the tracks. His cowardice becomes legendary, widely known as “Faire un Bernard Wayne,” within the Wheelchair faction. The surname evokes a connection to John “N.R.” Wayne, ETA’s top player, himself likely a double- or triple-agent working for the Canadian terrorist cell. J. Wayne’s family hails from the same mining region in Quebec, but beyond this hint, the genealogical connection is impossible to lock down.
  13. This list of examples could go on and on. When Struck imagines Day “utterly strafed … and typing with his nose,” the contact between face and gizmo recalls JO Incandenza’s gruesome suicide (he sticks his head in the microwave) as well as the climax of the Eschaton game in which Otis Lord’s head gets lodged in a computer monitor. And dumb Struck’s plagiarism signifies a figurative voicelessness (see below), which evokes the text-recitation performance art of radio DJ Madame Psychosis, which evokes the literally muted Don Gately, intubated in the hospital, which evokes poor Lucien Antitois, impaled via the throat with his own hand-carved broomstick, which evokes Guillaume DuPlessis who dies of asphyxiation with a dust rag in his mouth, which evokes the catatonic “It” in her Raquel Welch mask…. My personal sense is that none of this is accidental, though all of it might be, for Wallace, Too Much Fun (see below).
  14. The density of the book’s interlacements actually reminds me of the mithril shirt, the Dwarvish chainmail from The Lord of the Rings. This reference to Tolkien isn’t entirely gratuitous. In a 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien claimed to possess a kind of sixth sense: an ability to feel, palpably, the beauty of literary forms. “It has always been with me,” he writes, “the sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects me emotionally like colour or music.” I doubt that Tolkien would appreciate the intricate artifice in IJ, but this kind of extra-sensory perception, with a little recalibration, might help readers to experience the often stark, frequently disturbing, and sometimes downright ungainly IJ as something joyful.
  15. Note 304 confirms that the endnotes are inextricable from, rather than extraneous to, the novel’s artistic design. However, the endnotes, in aggregate, also point to a major glitch in said design’s matrix: namely, who’s writing them? It’s impossible to locate a central narrational perspective in IJ. The nominees include Hal Incandenza and a smattering of wraiths (JO Incandenza is the most likely choice, and Lucien Antitois’ death, a passing into knowledge of “all the world’s well-known tongues,” feels like a cue). But the wraith theory founders on the fact that Hal sometimes narrates from a first-person point of view; the Hal theory on the fact that he disappears for very long stretches of third-person limited narration. Even if DFW himself were the implied narrator, the shifts into Hal’s first-person perspective don’t quite compute. This narrational evasiveness isn’t necessarily a defect in the novel.

    Perhaps the most jarring example of IJ’s narrational problem arrives as Don Gately speeds across town in the Ford Aventura. The prose tracks precisely with Gately’s perceptions and thought processes, until, inexplicably, we read, “Has anybody mentioned Gately’s head is square?”

  16. Identification strikes me as the gateway to the domain of reader-response criticism,at one extreme pole of which even Struck’s plagiarism is fully licensed and authorized.

    I once read a student exam in which the writer said, of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” only that the poetic speaker reminded her of Santa Claus. A hard-core reader-response critic might argue that there is no such thing as better or worse in responses to literature, thus giving me no basis on which to judge negatively the student’s contention. While I admit that my initial reaction was to find the comparison ludicrous, I could be persuaded to play along—who knows, this reading might even be profound—provided that the student made the case with some kind of rigor, looking closely at and thinking hard about specific features of the poem and the legend.

  17. Zoran Kuzmanovich, in an essay on Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters” (a famously haunted text), says something apropos: “Every ghost story is an allegory of reading.”
  18. Struck’s identification with Day’s article might be a travesty in that Struck isn’t really listening to the substance of the passage; Struck misses, for example, the kinship between the cult’s aspirants and the tennis hopefuls, himself included, at ETA.
  19. Poulet describes this tyranny of reading: “As soon as I replace my direct perception of reality by the words of a book, I deliver myself, bound hand and foot to the omnipotence of fiction. I say farewell to what is, in order to feign belief in what is not. I surround myself with fictitious beings; I become the prey of language. There is no escaping this takeover.”
  20. The novel has scads of references to the undead (vampires, revenants, wraiths, the living dead, etc.). One of my favorites is the nickname of Eugene “Fax” Fackelmann, a small-time criminal with a big-time role in the novel’s closing chapters: Count Faxula.
  21. Viktor Shklovsky, the godfather of Russian Formalism, after a survey of world literature even more exhaustive than Brooks’,ultimately arrived at the same conclusion: that strategic juxtaposition—contradiction, irony, paradox, antithesis, ambiguity, a god with many names—is the common denominator in all forms of literary art. But owing to historical circumstances (mainly Soviet oppression), Shklovsky’s work remained virtually unknown until after New Criticism, and Shklovsky himself, had been laid to rest: call it a posthumous confirmation of findings.

    Brooks discusses poetry exclusively in The Well Wrought Urn, but Shklovsky observes the same design principles in novels, plays, fairy tales, even movies.

  22. Maybe an overstatement. In “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” Brooks labors to explain that poems might deliver some didactic statement, a declarative truth about the world, but he insists that such a statement, to be accurate, would be so fraught with qualifications as to cease to be an actionable proposition. His main contention is that the beauty and/or “meaning” of a poem lies in the interplay of its parts, not in any generic takeaway. Early in the essay, Brooks makes a distinction that proves especially relevant to the case of IJ: the formal juxtapositions in poems don’t cancel each other out like logical antitheses, but rather they constitute a unity, for Brooks an “achieved harmony.” Later, however, when Brooks discusses Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he talks about paradox in such a way that it approaches self-negation: “Keats’ Urn must express a life which is above life and its vicissitudes, but it must also bear witness to the fact that its life is not life at all but is a kind of death.” In its portrait of reading, IJ poses this kind of paradox, which nevertheless remains an “achieved harmony.”
  23. The demise of New Criticism is an old story, and reports of its death are often exaggerated.Wallace concentrates on NC’s risible pretensions to scientific objectivity, “the stuff of jokes and shudders” for DFW.But Wallace might be