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 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.



Feb 112016

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

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition


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.”


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.


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.”


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


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.


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



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.


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


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


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.


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


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?


Valid passport?


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


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


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.


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


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).


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


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 Koesler 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.


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. Thatts why decoding number implies an escape from assumptions of progressive time. Tick 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][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.


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]


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


Acknowledgements: This work was supported by grant FFI 2012-35296 from the Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (Spain) to Prof. Anxo Abuín González.

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).


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)


  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.


  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


  17. http://additivism.org/manifesto
  18. Goldsmith, K. Being Boring


  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 necessaryly translates into sound […] Conventional sensory perception may be onlya part of the manifold layers of sensation that enconpass and produce a body […] They are better understood as affects, amodal forces of feeling that impinge upon a systemand 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).”


  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


  29. CW, Kindle 2285
  30. Butler, B. 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.)



  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


  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.)


  43. Baker, R.S. What is the Semantic Apocalypse?


  44. Colebrook, Claire We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene: The Anthropocene Counter-Factual


  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


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”


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.


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


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.


Dec 062015



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

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]


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.


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?


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


S.D. Chrostowska is the author of Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).


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


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


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).


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


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).


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]


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.


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]


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

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.


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:


  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 hasty to link NC, as he does, to Grammatical Descriptivism, whose executors sought to compile a dictionary in a bottom-up, vox-populi manner. As I see it, the real trouble with NC is that what starts as descriptivism comes out the other side as SNOOT prescriptivism, establishing a universal and maybe arbitrary standard for artistic creation/appreciation. NC tends to work best for an elite body of texts, not coincidentally produced in large numbers by White Male writers. Honestly, though, the politics bothers me less (as a White Male) than something even more basic: the suspicion that artistic principles, once apprehended and codified, are anathema to art itself. (Brooks & Co., in certain lights, seem to me like a kind of literary Penn & Teller act.) Maybe this fear is unfounded. What NC and its Formalist kin prescribe amounts to little more than a plea on behalf of structural unity, an imperative that form and content smartly bedevil each other. Still, the whole project risks devolving into mere routine, and a pall of cliché gathers ominously. Fitting that Wallace, in IJ, should have harped on the need to recover the awful truth that underlies even the most moronic clichés.

    The close reading prescribed by NC continues to inform all responsible interpretive praxis (excepting Franco Moretti’s controversial “distant reading”), and this method survives too in creative writing programs, which work best when they emphasize craft and composition, not meaning (see, for example, Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design, or even James Wood’s How Fiction Works). At present, NC is mounting something of a cultural comeback; in How to Do Things with Fictions (2012), Stanford’s Joshua Landy argues, once again, that literary works are defined by their structures and techniques, and that the best of these train readers to think in new ways.

    When I read passages like this one, from Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” I find it hard to fathom how NC ever went so thoroughly out of style: “the word, as the poet uses it, has to be conceived of, not as a discrete particle of meaning, but as a potential of meaning, a nexus or cluster of meanings.” Another passage resonates with IJ in particular: “the ‘beauty’ of the poem … is the effect of a total pattern, and of a kind of pattern which can incorporate within itself items intrinsically beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive. Unless one asserts the primacy of pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items.”

    Another objection is that the “unity” of literary works, prized by New Critics, is just a naïve fallacy, but to say that unity lends itself to a facile kind of deconstruction seems to me to substitute one truism for another. A related complaint, among gender-, class-, and race-minded critics, might be that no book is ever silent. You would have to take this up on a case-by-case basis, but see Note 22 above.

    NC, with its emphasis on pattern-making, might seem ill-suited to discussions of fiction, insofar as it elides less specialized measures of literary craftsmanship: matters of plot and characterization, suspense and transformation, climax and delay (aka, retardation)—all the vertices and dragons’ backs of the standard Freitag triangle (which was devised to explain dramatic design), to say nothing of style’s infinite permutations. However, NC’s principles operate there too, and even where they aren’t readily apparent, the same caveat applies. Writers might exaggerate or truncate the Freitag pattern of rising and falling action, make “inverted checkmark” structures of varying slope and acuity, rightside-up or upside-down, all day long, but they’re still bound by the model. For his part, Wallace tends to prefer the soft ending and anticlimax, among other “nonconfluential” tactics, in IJ (some exceptions include the Eschaton game and the fracas between Ennet House residents and Hawaiian shirt-clad ‘Nucks), but we can still think of the Sierpinski gasket’s interlocking triangles as a giddily Freitagian construct.

    Which is to say, I get why some writers would want to take a hammer to convention, abjure every “literary” stratagem in the headlong pursuit of some asymptote of the real, a straighter record of what is. The rebellion has a long history, but David Shields, with his Reality Hunger manifesto, is the movement’s current poster child, and apparently the oral historian Svetlana Alexievich just bagged the Nobel Prize for her scrupulous suppression of artifice. Wallace understood this anti-aesthetic impulse, and its hazards, as well: in IJ, the filmography of JO Incandenza includes eleven works of “Found Drama,” some of which are “conceptually unfilmable,” none of which is released for viewing. Note that IJ is not itself a Found Novel.

    Strangely, it would be possible to cite both Tolkien and Nietzsche (the philosopher’s dread becoming that smears the edges off of being) to allay these anxieties over artifice. Both writers hint at an upbeat conclusion: that the discovery of structural commonalities does nothing to exhaust the mystery and singularity of creation. You might as well resent having to write in English.

  24. Brooks himself finds the terms “irony” and “paradox” aggravating. He treats them as loose synonyms in “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” but Brooks’ “paradox” might be viewed as a remedy for Wallace’s debilitating “irony.” For further discussion.
Nov 052015

1 circus closeup 2

HE STILL STARES AT ME after forty years, the man holding the rope, with a look that even at this poor resolution can only be violation. And the woman with the lithe body, seemingly naked in her light-colored tights, frozen in the moment of lifting a knee and raising both arms in air, preparing for flight, for ecstasy, or for some other abandon, still has her back to me, as does the man beside her, touching, guiding, helping in some way.

2 Circus

They are rehearsing for a circus somewhere in a court or square in Paris—I’ve forgotten where—and the sight was something interesting, behind the scenes, which, walking by and finding an opening in the tent, I thought I should take a picture of. The woman is practicing for a leap—onto a passing horse circling the ring?—that she will perform one night alone without the help of the two men or the safety of the rope, effortlessly, flawlessly, for our breathless wonder. This must be my violation. The supports and imperfect attempts, diminishing, distracting, meaningless, must be kept hidden and not be exposed.

I was 20 and had taken a year off from college. My expectations were bright but empty, undefined yet blinding. I had no good reason for being there and no idea what I would do next. Taking pictures itself was a matter of reluctance and indecision. I didn’t want to appear the tourist so seldom carried my camera. Nor could I find convincing purpose. I had slight knowledge of the city, little insight, and superficial experience, all that my pictures could reveal. Besides, everything had been photographed many, many times before by practiced journalists and artists with a better eye. Or I could just buy postcards. Still there were days when I gathered resolve and went on random expeditions throughout the city, firing away with stuttering abandon.

Paris itself was having a rehearsal of sorts, and there were tents, scaffolds, ropes, safety nets, and helping workers everywhere. The city was in the last stages of the Malraux plan to restore its historic buildings and clean its face to the world.

3 Scaffold 3

4 street scaffolding

Demolition of Les Halles, the centuries old market, was nearly complete, leaving a pit—le grand trou—the city debated how to fill.

5 Les Halles 2

Paris was the setting for Touche pas à la femme blanche!, Marco Ferreri’s farce that appropriated our history to portray the influence of power and money, the decline of native ideologies. I saw it when it came out. In the climactic scene Custer’s last stand is staged in the pit, a failed performance.

6 Les Halles Pit

It was 1973 or 74, a stalled time without much to distinguish it. France was adjusting to its declining influence and, like the rest of the western world, was in recession. The passions of May ’68 had calmed, though there were still some protests in the streets, many against our involvement in Iran and elsewhere. Last Tango in Paris and La grande bouffe were also playing in the theaters, movies sounding contemporary ennui and excess, two terms of the stall.

My pictures themselves were subject to accident and corruption, resulting in images that were excessive or indeterminate, all boring, imperfect attempts without any hope of spectacle. I bought an inexpensive, used manual rangefinder for the trip and an exposure meter, also cheap, which I didn’t know how to use well. I shot 400 ISO black and white film so I wouldn’t need a flash for interior shots and only had the negatives developed. But also the shutter was faulty, which I didn’t discover until it eventually broke, so exposures decayed gradually, erratically. I didn’t know what I had until I got home and enlarged the negatives—grainy photographs with blurred or dim or dark images, underexposed or overexposed, with excessive sharpness or faltering contrast.

I could ascend heights to get the larger view and gain perspective

7 vista 3

and see the vast, reasoned grid of ministries, French bureaucracy, revealed in sharp outline, and the labyrinth of narrow, old alleys released into wide boulevards, the plan of Baron Haussmann, its argument between the state and its people.

8 vista 2

The suspicion has been leveled that Napoléon III wanted to broaden the streets to make it easier to bring in troops. Paris is an open encyclopedia of a millennium of debates between rule and chaos, between the passion for order and the order of desire. Read a history of Paris and the streets fill with shouts of protest and run with blood.

But I could only see the order of order, not its basis, nor the life it might contain, and the relationship of the present order, newly freshened, to past and present disorder or to anything else was hazy.

9 vista 1

Fragments from the distant past were preserved but, eroded by the centuries, only revealed rough figures and uncertain structure.

11 Cluny thermes

Everywhere, well preserved, the buildings of faith. The structures that held them up and allowed the light to enter

12 buttresses 1

faith’s entry, its sharp contrasts of dark and light, right and wrong, up and down

13 dark church exterior

its followers

14 Apostles chartre?

its overarching beliefs.

15 churchover door

Inside, however, current practice came out only vaguely mysterious or dark, absent

16 church dark windows

or was flickering, wavering.

17 candles church 1

Faith’s monsters, though, still interest us.

18 pair of gargoyles

I did feel safe, however, walking the streets at any hour. And I did have some exposure to all walks of life, from the derelict to working class to the upward rising, even to an established family who traced its roots back to Roman days, but in all cases I saw an economy and tentativeness I hadn’t known growing up in the U.S. More unsure were the faces of the immigrants from beyond France’s borders, lured to the city during better times with better chances of employment.

Contrast my black and white pictures with pictures of Paris now, their confident display, their bright colors. Compare them with what we see in Paris itself, the sharp, clean lines of its monuments and buildings, the polish and refinement of the restored neighborhoods. But look, too, at the neighborhoods where it may no longer be safe to walk, most on Paris’s borders, where the immigrants now mass in simmering dislocation and disaffection, where there are breaks into violence, what you see in the movie La haine. And watch Entre les murs, where cultural conflict erupts in a middle school classroom.

It’s what cities have become, spectacles for our wealth and containers for our contradictions and exclusions. The decay and violence of the latter, however, can divert us and give our lives texture. Paris has its policier EngrenagesSpiral. We have our own, The Wire, etc.

There were intimations of the future, towering abstractions, void of past reference.

19 tour Italie

La tour Super-Italie. It was the Montparnasse tower, however, just completed in the heart of Paris, that most broke the city’s low skyline and raised the most protests. Pomidou, however, looking forward, wanted his towers, and more were on the horizon.

20 vista from park

It’s what our cities have also become, platforms for rising skyscrapers of soaring ambition, solid yet ethereal, forward gazes that look past us, past themselves, past anything we can see.

Not long ago I digitized the negatives and stored them on my computer. Processing them raised problems and questions about purpose and procedure. How could I bring out what wasn’t materially there? How could I soften total black or bring contrast to the chemically faint or still the blurred motions? Should I edit the imperfections in the negatives or the dust spots gathered from years of storage? Make adjustment for the shifts brought by electronic transfer? I had no guidelines and couldn’t decide, so left most the way they came out on my screen.

21 boatSeineLight

22 blur

What is the relationship of my pictures to reality? There are the realities of time and place and light—when I took them, where the sun was, what was in the sky—none of which can be easily determined or precisely defined. There are also the realities of my imperfect skills and uncertain motives. Add to those the mechanical reality of my failing shutter and the reality of chemical reactions in the film and the reality of electronic translation. These are all realities, defined by human nature and natural laws. How do they add up? Which takes priority? What relationship do they have with any larger picture? Why are my pictures any more or less real than any others?

There are no answers to these questions.

There are no pictures of me standing next to anything as I never asked someone else to take my camera. Here’s me, here’s Notre Dame. What is the purpose? What is revealed or qualified by the juxtaposition either way? I can’t imagine what pose I might have made and even now don’t want to strike one. Nor are there pictures of the people I met, though I remember many well, most with fondness, and I have written about them. Capturing them unannounced might only have exposed moments of reserve or indecision had they dropped the mask they showed the world to protect themselves. Taking a picture of the mask would have been pointless as it tells nothing. Pulling a camera out before them would have forced them to make a face and represent a relationship with me that may not have been well defined, or may not have existed. Or, worse, coerced a smile when they may not have wanted to give one. And if a moment of joy escaped or closeness emerged, why take the life of either and freeze it on film?

Yet what I most saw in Paris without notice or reflection, what my pictures most show, what I have added to in the decades since, is that our lives are largely spent in motion, the stall of going somewhere and being put on hold, the arrow that comes between a and b

23 trains

or in mere process, employment that may not engage us, that wears without renewal, where we are absorbed without thought

24 quai?

or in idle ways to pass the time

25 boules

or in gray repose

26 park fountain

or in random movement without relationship or interaction.

27 Street scene 2

28 Street scene 1

We are not rehearsing for anything. The French have a saying to express the tedium, métro, bureau, dodosubwayworksleep—that countered liberté, égalité, fraternité or left it hanging in air and dissolved any distinction one might make in time and place. Yet still we practice and try to perform, to fly and project beyond ourselves, or think we are trying. Our attempts at rehearsals are eternal, but eternal only in the sense that the spectacle they might lead to or we think they might lead to always lies beyond us and flees us everlastingly. Yet we can always count on this eternity, and also on this article of belief: it leaves our options open.

Most of Paris was still close to the ground, however, and the mansard roofs with their many attachments still capture our imagination and encourage us to look up.

29 roofs 1

And this is my revelation at last, after forty years: it is the spectacles that are illusory and in them we get lost.

But the place that most comes back to me really wasn’t anywhere. I lived in a working class neighborhood in Arcueil, a commune on the southern border of Paris. The landlord and his family lived on the first floor and rented out the second, where I had a room and others came and went. One day, for no reason, I pulled out my camera took this picture of the backyard

30 Backyard

about which I have written:

I am sitting at the kitchen window with a bottle of wine, looking out. The small plots behind the houses on my street and the houses on the next are enclosed by a grid of rough block fences, squaring the backyards and joining them. Each yard has something that distinguishes it, and the rural influence remains here, just outside Paris—a vegetable garden, pens and sheds for animals. Someone has chickens, someone else a goat. Also sheds for storage or some personal labor, hidden. In my yard, a swing set the owner’s daughters no longer use, a rusting memory of childhood. There is nothing else to see, other than a high-rise apartment building in the distance, modernish and sterile, not even the setting sun, off to the side and behind several houses. There is no streaking light in the sky, no dramatic break of clouds, no place for saints or angels to sit or stand, no chariot on which to descend, nor the lurid glare from war or revolution, just a pale blue diminishing into grayness. The world is silent, save for an occasional ratcheting cry from the goat, the flutter and coo and cluck from the hens. As the sky darkens, cats come out and negotiate the grid of walls and climb the roofs of the houses in their liquid, feline stealth.

I have no thoughts of leaving the window. I feel I have found a place, feel myself in place, but it is not a place I can name. I think about nothing, don’t even think to think, have no thoughts of that day or of the past months or the years coming, of who I am or what I want or what I am supposed to do. I do not feel depressed. I do not feel anything. I only feel alive, and all I am aware of is the quiet hum of existence in the lingering light.

I was not alone. I am not alone. I will never be alone.

To put yourself in this moment is not an act of humility, or contrition, or the backward arrogance of denial. It isn’t anything, and being there is doing nothing. To try to locate it is to get lost, as it isn’t anywhere and everywhere at the same time, perhaps to realize the error of trying to find, of location.

We could use what this moment reveals to build a philosophy, even a religion, but could just as easily use it to tear apart all thought and faith. It is only by tearing the self apart and seeing what is left, however, that we can start again and rebuild and try once more to think, and wish, and believe.


—Gary Garvin



Some of the cathedral pictures are of Chartres. Parts of the text, the quotation, and several pictures come from my essay “Above the Roofs of Paris, a Non-Memoir,” which appeared in Fourth Genre, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring 2015. It is available at JSTOR, is excerpted at Project Muse, and can be found here.

George Packer, in “The Other France,” The New Yorker, with the Charlie Hebdo slayings in mind, recently provided an update on immigrant dislocation in the suburbs of Paris, specifically Department 93:

For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation.




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.


Oct 082015

Victoria Best small photo


IN HIS SHORT STORY ‘The Liar’, Tobias Wolff’s narrator is a 16-year-old boy who can’t quite confine himself to the truth. Most upset by this is his mother, a woman who ‘did not consider originality a virtue’ and whose healthy existence is frequently rewritten in her son’s hands. She finds she’s been reported as coughing blood, or suffering from leukemia; there are people ‘stopping her in the street and saying how sorry they were’. The doctor and family friend she turns to tells her he’ll grow out of it. ‘What if he doesn’t grow out of it?’ his mother asks. ‘What if he just gets better at it?’ James is her last son at home, his father has died, his siblings are dispersed, and he makes her feel ‘like a failure.’ So James is sent to his brother, Michael, in San Francisco. Naturally he lies to his mother, and takes a different bus to the one she expected.

This bus goes on a long circuitous route, and when it breaks down, the passengers start to chat. James moves effortlessly into a performance. He says he works with refugees from Tibet (his parents, until their death, being missionaries out there) and, in possession of his audience’s rapt attention, he mesmerises them all with his rendition of the Tibetan language. His lies clean of criminality in the moment, James is transformed into an entertainer, an oracle. The liar has become a storyteller.

The term ‘fiction’ looks two ways at once, its products both legal and illegal. People who make things up compulsively often become writers as often as they become law-breakers. There is a difference, some may insist, between a lie and a story, for with the former there is intent to deceive. And yet, fiction writers often intend to mislead and startle their readers; they play their cards close. The real difference is in reception, with readers seeming to know instinctively that lies in the form of stories are necessary. If we need fiction, it makes more sense to ask ourselves, what’s good about lying?


The Talented Liar

Tobias Wolff is, by his own account, someone who just got a lot better at it. The theme of deceit and its consequences recurs across his works, and is exquisitely elaborated in his memoir of childhood, This Boy’s Life. It’s the story of a young boy who dreams up a life of wealth and adventure to write to his penpal, who refuses the blame for graffiti in the school toilets which he most certainly put there himself, who grows into an adolescent who makes it into a fancy school on the basis of an entirely faked application and letters of support. You can’t help but admire the persistence, the tenacity with which he hones his skills, the innovation with which he finds new outlets for them.

Of course the paradoxical beauty of such a memoir is that it remains transparently honest to the narrator’s dishonesty. The story of a liar’s career can only be told truthfully. The young Tobias (or Jack, as he prefers to be called, after his hero, Jack London) lives with his divorced mother, and he loves her very much, though her bad luck with men frequently gets them into trouble. His father, who we learn elsewhere was a consummate liar himself, is sorely missed by his neglected son, who is forced to make him up ‘out of dreams and memories’. His stepfather, Dwight, is violently abusive. In the midst of this mess of absent and over-active fathering, the stereotypes of the daredevil alpha male lassoe Jack’s imagination. He likes to dress up in the army greatcoat of one of his mother’s boyfriend and lie across the sofa, aiming his rifle through a gap in the blinds. He hangs out with male friends at school, breaking windows, throwing eggs at convertibles, smoking in the toilets and exchanging ‘interesting facts not available to the general public about women.’ He is a stud, a rogue, an outcast, though really, he likes The Mickey Mouse Club.

‘Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me’, Wolff writes. And it’s a common thing, this rehearsal of possible roles, this testing of reality against the imagined options. Jack gains a friend, Arthur, who is ‘a great storyteller’. Arthur ‘refused to accept as final the proposition’ that his ordinary parents were his real parents, attempting to convince Jack he was adopted and descended, in fact, from the followers of Bonny Prince Charles. Jack then decides he comes from Prussian aristocrats. ‘We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.’

But what, then, if he didn’t grow out of it but just got better at it? As he turns adolescent, so he becomes ever more unmoored, unhinged, unanchored. His carefully practised ability to evade the law reflects a world that won’t prevent him from indulging his worst flaws. The idea of faking an application to a prestigious school starts with the ridiculous ease of doctoring his sinking grades. ‘The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.’ And the stakes in the identity games just get higher. As the gap between his reality and his ambitions increases, he finds himself ‘wanting, at any price, the world’s esteem’, and feeling ever more reckless and desperate.

The problem is that he keeps getting away with it. In his essay ‘On Getting Away With It’, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips recalls Freud’s remark that the child’s first successful lie is both the moment when s/he realises that s/he is not in fact the subject of omniscient deities who read minds, a eureka of freedom; and also the point when s/he realises s/he is alone, abandoned, adrift. ‘If you get away with something,’ Phillips writes, ‘you have done well and you have done badly. You are released but you are also unprotected. You have at least provisionally freed yourself from something, but then you have to deal with your new-found freedom.’ What will Jack Wolff do with his? There is a logical progression for those who limbo under the bar of morality, Phillips says: ‘The Good Person would be replaced by the Impressive Person.’ And this is precisely Jack’s aim, and the destination his exquisite memoir confirms. The liar, who must keep his lies a secret to evade punishment, becomes the storyteller, whose command of fiction is both impressive and protected, made viable, worthwhile, enviable. He’s found a way to get really good at it.


The Compulsive Liar

A compulsive liar goes to see his psychoanalyst and recounts to him a typical event. That morning, he had been late for work because of a row with his wife, who was threatening to leave him. When his boss asked him what happened, the liar said he would scarcely believe it. His car was pulled over by the police and he was handcuffed and shoved into the back of a van. From there he was taken to the local precinct and placed alone in a cell, indignant, afraid, but also curious. After about an hour, a plain-clothes detective arrived and apologised for the confusion; he was free to go. Talking to his analyst, the liar is astonished at his boss’s gullibility. ‘I don’t know why I said what I did. I could easily have said I had a flat tyre. But instead I chose this outlandish story. And the poor fool believed me. He believed me. You see, as long as I can do this and get away with it, then I have no worries whatsoever. What is reality if I can do this?’

The analyst is Christopher Bollas, the patient called Jonathan, the case history is called ‘The Liar’, and the question is indeed, what is reality?Yet if the liar has to tell an analyst about his behaviour, there must be some desire to reconnect with the real world, to stop getting away with it quite so convincingly.

Bollas says that Jonathan is more truthful than he at first seems; the trick is to read the lie as a metaphor. Had Jonathan said his journey to work had been like a horrible incarceration, it would have been quite sane and negligible; a story without impact. Instead he said that it was a horrible incarceration, arousing a much more vivid response in his listener, and expressing an encoded truth. Bollas knew that Jonathan was afraid of how he might react if his wife actually left him; in many previous sessions he had expressed fear of his desire to kill her and keep custody of their children. He knew such actions would likely end in his arrest. But in the story he told, although he played with the possibility of arrest, he was then set free, innocent and absolved, by a plain-clothes detective. His fear had been soothed by the fantasy of a different kind of escape. On hearing the story, Bollas understands that the plain-clothes detective, the man to set him free, must be Bollas himself.

The metaphorical lie is a way of accessing a far more powerful and intriguing reality than bald facts suggest. Bollas recounts how: ‘Jonathan’s lying brings him to life and coheres him in a way in which his narration of actual lived events does not. He lies, he often tells me, because lying is living. It is only by lying that he remains alive.’ Jonathan does not like to tell the kind of lies that are the stuff of normal social living, the lie that hides a little secret, that protects another person. Such lies make him almost as anxious as the thought of telling the truth. No, Jonathan likes the big, complex, entirely unnecessary lie, the ongoing saga that can be sustained and exaggerated over weeks. His lies are not to protect his self and his truths, but to create his self and his existence; they are grandiose and extraordinary. He doesn’t want to be a Good Person; he wants to be an Impressive Person.

What could have caused him to behave this way? Jonathan’s background was a secure and moneyed one. His parents were ambitious intellectuals who had met with much success in their careers, and so his early childhood was divided between various members of household staff: a housekeeper, a maid and a rather sadistic nanny, with brief visits from his mother at each end of the day. His father he never knew very well, as he was busy and didn’t have much time for him. It’s not a very impressive genesis for a pathological liar, with no abuse or trauma to awaken a ready sympathy in the listener, nothing, on the face of it, that will explain or excuse. As a story, it lacks impact.

In one ‘particularly intense period’ in analysis, Jonathan asked Bollas about the nature of confidentiality in their relationship. He wanted to know what circumstances would cause him to disclose protected information. After much discussion on this topic, Jonathan admitted that he was planning the murder of someone he knew well. Bollas was not at first convinced, but as Jonathan provided ever more elaborate detail as to his methods and strategies, Bollas began to fear that he might have genuine intent. The situation quickly became intolerable, as he was not sure what to think, what to do. Eventually he took the problem to a colleague who suggested he tell his client that he would certainly inform the police if he did murder anyone. Bollas was relieved to have this solution and then baffled at his own inability to come to it. It was, he felt, because he had been in such confusion over what was truth and what was fantasy.

Having told Jonathan of his intentions, the murder plot was not spoken of again. And Bollas had a particularly provocative experience of how it felt to be on the receiving end of a lie that has been exposed as such. Like others who had caught Jonathan out, he felt betrayed. He wondered if he would ever manage to achieve a proper relationship with him. His trust was shattered. He felt anger at his own gullibility, and sadness that whatever made Jonathan behave this way was not about to stop any time soon. And Bollas realised he was caught up in the experience of a powerful, extended metaphor. He felt, in short, the turbulent and bewildering emotional responses of a child repeatedly abandoned by his parents: the loss of trust, the sense of betrayal, the anger against his own hopeful beliefs, the sadness that he could not prevent it happening again.

Jonathan had created for his analyst a situation that illuminated his feelings of extreme inadequacy and insecurity, and which could help Bollas to understand the ‘crime’ of the lie: here was a child who was never with a parent long enough to create a real relationship, who had to fall back on his own fantasies time and again until the fantasies themselves seemed more solid, more enlivening, more realistic than the truth, which was only anxiety-inducing. Telling the lie gave Jonathan a safe place to be, hearing the lie, when revealed as a lie, put the listener in the place that Jonathan could never find the words to explain to another, in the midst of the emotions that had created him.


The Confused Liar

For just about seven years, between the autumn of 1998 and the winter of 2005, I was a compulsive liar. I gave an account of myself to everyone outside my immediate family that was very far from the truth. I said that I was fine, when in fact I was suffering from a debilitating chronic illness.

I had fallen ill with viral pneumonia over the Christmas of 1997. At that point in my life I had a three-year-old son and an almost-completed doctoral thesis. I also had a post to take up at a Cambridge college in the autumn of 1998. When the illness dragged on for the best part of a year, and there was no explanation for why this should be, or any obvious cure on the horizon, I began to understand that the illness had become unacceptable. I was not cured, yet there was no reason why I was still ill. For this situation, I understood that I was at fault. The term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ did not have much currency back in 1998, and what it did have was of an outlawed and reprehensible nature. There had been cases among the students and I had heard how they were described. They were malingerers, cowards, or just plain lazy. Now this was not someone I wanted to be. I was a hard worker, a reliable friend, and a person who kept her promises; I wanted very badly to be a good mother and an admirable academic. These were truths in desperate need of preservation from an illness with the power to wreck them; I never even felt I was lying, just keeping the faith with what I knew above all else to be true.

About a year after the pneumonia, I found I could appear like my normal self in public for a while. The fact that the symptoms of chronic fatigue – racing heart, low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats, muscle ache – were all invisible was extremely helpful. The trickiest problem was that I felt energetically like a leaky car battery. The longer I acted myself, the quicker my vitality drained away, and in no time at all I would be running on empty and afraid, knowing the symptoms would steadily increase in severity. But no matter how ill I felt, I still got away with it. Does that sound implausible to you? Well, people are ridiculously easy to fool when there’s nothing much to see, and I was good at self-discipline, a natural dissembler.

But I admit I was confused. As the years went by, and I kept on pretending and getting away with it, it became harder and harder to distinguish my own reality. I was strung out between two contrasting images of myself that held mortal sway over me: an Impressive Person, who was good and reliable and held down a demanding job while bringing up a child. Lots of ticks in boxes there. Or a Weak Person, who gave in to a nameless, invisible illness that most people didn’t believe existed. My mother often told me with loving exasperation that I was ‘doing it to myself’. My mother-in-law told my husband it was ‘all in my mind’. I felt like the worst placed person to figure out the truth. Most of the time I was too busy sustaining my façade to have any energy left over for philosophy.

Seven years. Everyone wanted so badly for me to be well; that helped prolong the lie. But what the experience felt like is so hard to explain, I can’t do it without metaphors. When I forced the symptoms out of my way, I could attain a sort of cruising speed, which was a lot like driving without brakes, propelled by momentum itself, exhilarating in its way but fraught with the imminent danger of a crash. In those cruising moments I was alive in a grandiose way, against the odds, but when I crashed and was too ill even get myself out of bed, I wondered what the hell I thought I was playing at. What exactly was I doing to myself? This was an illness where I could never clarify my role as either culprit or victim, but was constantly a mind-bending amalgam of both.

Eventually, I developed a symptom that was non-negotiable. When I struggled through brain fog to recall the details of the texts I was teaching, a moment of reckoning came. I went to see my doctor – something which in its futility I had abandoned as helpful years ago – and described my condition as truthfully as possible. It was the scene for my final lie. ‘How long do you think you’ll need to take off work to recuperate?’ he asked me. And I said, ‘Two weeks.’ It was in fact three long years before I would be well enough to return.

During that time, my perception of myself executed a radical u-turn. Whereas before I had never breathed a word about chronic fatigue, now I told everyone upfront, far too often, that this was what I had. Which meant: this was who I was. In the first year or so, when I spent most of my time in bed, it did indeed wreck the identity I had so carefully – and at such cost! – preserved. I was just an invalid, with an illness that still carried a great deal of stigma. But I was functioning at the level of what was undeniable and issuing a big, bold bring it on. Let them call me malingerer, coward, sloth. I was sick and tired of lying. Finally I could tell the truth and be bad.


The Playful Liar

Readers tend to be picky about the truth content of the memoirs they read, especially after the furore that greeted James Frey’s admission that A Million Tiny Pieces was somewhat embellished and embroidered. So what to do with a memoir that states its intention to be dishonest and tricky from the outset? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, recounts her experiences with an unusual form of epilepsy, unusual in that it may not be epilepsy at all. But to describe what she suffers as epilepsy provides a powerful extended metaphor for the deepest, most twisted realities in her life, and a way into a story that has been ‘eluding me for years.’ The book begins with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy, that is also a warning:

‘[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

Naturally, Hayward Krieger doesn’t exist.

But in the afterword to the memoir, where Slater acknowledges the reader’s desire for the ‘real facts’, she points out that her diagnoses through the years have been ridiculously varied, from borderline personality disorder, to epilepsy, to Munchausen’s, depression, OCD and autism. ‘All I know for sure,’ she writes, ‘is this. I have been ill for much of my life. Illness has claimed my imagination, my brain, my body and everything I do I see through its feverish scrim. All I can tell you is this. Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue as fast as yearly fashions.’ Not that this cuts much ice with some critics. Janet Maslin in her New York Times review said the reader could be ‘forgiven for wanting to throttle the narrator’, and the memoir could be considered as ‘either postmodern fun and games or pure exasperation between hard covers.’ Yet what about that Heideggerian truth of confusion that the fictional Krieger mentions? Is there a better way for readers to understand it than to experience it?

When she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But as puberty comes around, everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. Finally she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. She’s also left with a personality disorder – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. In late adolescence, writing takes on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. When an unhappy affair with her writing tutor ends, leaving her in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, he says, no such operation would be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch. Or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate. Or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth. Or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ And what if ambiguity really is the essence of Slater’s life? What if she is more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections?

What if all our identities were composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? What price truth then? Storytelling and its metaphors would be the only honest expression we had left.


The thing about lies – or we can call them stories if you prefer – is that they are just too essential to our survival to be given up. They hold cherished parts of ourselves that have been driven out of sight; they allow us to express the truth of experiences that no facts can convey; they are often the repositories for realities that no one really wants to face. We want the lie to be a unit of genre fiction, a nice, clear readable chunk of badness, when really it is a highly complex literary construct. A thing of layers and implications and irresolvable paradox. And in the desire to master our lives, to be the people we want to be, and to explain ourselves as best we can, we all get really good at them.

—Victoria Best


Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).


Sep 072015

Chris Hedges

The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system. —Tom Faure


Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
Chris Hedges
Nation Books, May 2o15
304 pages, $26.99


Drones, the Patriot Act, stagnant real wages, failed public schools, a compliant press, the state’s shutdown of the Occupy movement, Citizens United, Stand Your Ground laws, stop and frisk, Ferguson, fracking, wiretapping, and the continuous mistreatment, often violent, of minorities, women, and particularly trans people. That’s just the tip of the U.S. iceberg. Then you’ve got the rest of the Earth: poverty, hunger, slavery, and injustice—compounded by the effects of global warming.

We’ve heard it all before, and the liberal mainstream has given up due to cynicism and lack of imagination. The lack of a simple solution dispirits idealists. The politics may be boring, but the situation is dire.

Chris Hedges’ Wages of Rebellion, published in May by Nation Books, reminds us of just how dire, chronicling a litany of anti-constitutional practices undertaken by the U.S. government, often in service of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” a state run by corporate interest. Hedges does not offer any policy-based panacea, the absence of which will disappoint those looking for quick fixes. Indeed, this important book is more a mix of genres. Over his years of international reporting, Hedges has spoken to rebels like Axel von dem Bussche, Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, guerrilla fighters, hackers, defense lawyers, Occupy members, and others who toil in the name of social justice. By way of the theories of Gramsci, Havel, Mandela, Baldwin, Paine, and Kant, the book is a series of portraits of these dissidents and rebels, exploring whether a true revolution is in the offing and who the main agents of change would be.

Hedges’ central thesis is that revolution cannot be purely intellectual. He examines the character trait Reinhold Niebuhr called “sublime madness.” Hedges quotes Niebuhr’s declaration that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’” Liberalism is too rational, fearing the emotional component necessary, Hedges and others argue, to revolution. The possessor of sublime madness has foregone the mores of the state in favor of universal moral laws—embracing Kantian dignity and duty despite public ridicule and, frequently, violent retribution.

If there’s one thing you can count on in mainstream political discourse today, it’s that it will be dismissive of unquantifiable notions such as truth, love, passion, and fairness. Probably, this is because political discourse is so widely corrupted by neo-liberal ideology, which looks down on these notions with impatience or, sometimes, an embarrassment born out of, I think, fear and insecurity. Liberalism too often allies itself with one of humanity’s more exploitable capacities: rationality.

These abstract notions and their emotional cousins that receive this lazy derision are precisely what those yearning for revolution must not overlook, according to Hedges. An emotional force is the true catalyst—a force born out of misery but also frustrated expectations. Herein lies a major obstacle to any potential New American Revolutions. The masses are placated because their expectations are not frustrated to a large enough extent. They are sipping caloric Starbucks Frappucinos, commoditizing their digital avatars via the strict norms and algorithms of Facebook, freely handing over to corporate interests their valuable political and commercial data. The poor are angry, yes. But the middle class is sedate.

At Columbia University—a bastion of fascist anarchism, if you believe Bill O’Reilly—a standard introductory macroeconomics course includes on its syllabus, as would be expected, the vastly influential thinker John Maynard Keynes. Bravo, Columbia, you lefties! But Keynes makes up perhaps 2 percent of the syllabus, and he is the only economist featured who offers any critique of the supply-side economics pipedream known as the trickle-down effect. As an 18-year-old student, I was shocked and confused by the lack of rigorous critique of neoliberalism initially offered to undergraduates.

As Hedges notes, faith in the trickle-down effect plays an important role in the global takeover of corporate interests in politics, policy, and culture. The idea that the rise of the elite will benefit the weak is very compelling, for multiple reasons. There’s only one problem. The people “benefiting” from the elite’s exploitation of labor and resources are not the weak who can’t help themselves. They are the middle class—those hanging on by a thread as real wages decline and citizen rights become hollowed out. The weak? They’ve already been eliminated.

A similar dynamic is in play with regard to race. The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system.


The result is the totalitarianism of the invisible hand. Real wages have not increased in decades, millions of people, especially minorities and especially African Americans, are incarcerated thanks to Bill Clinton’s easy-plea-one-two-three, and even if Black Lives Matter takes off, the Keystone XL Pipeline will probably contaminate millions of people’s water on its way to contributing catastrophic greenhouse gases to the environment.

Hedges posits that revolutions happen, not when the people are subdued by total abjection, but rather when they have had a glimmer of hope. Raised expectations follow technical innovations and a rise in the standard of living—this is when the failings of the state, and its all-too-frequent efforts to smother dissent, fuel the fire of rebellion. Much of the battle is invisible, residing in the language and metaphors of the people. Organizing and community-building facilitate the evolution and sharpening of a language necessary to articulate the emotion awakening in the people.

Another key factor, Hedges writes, is the use of nonviolent civil disobedience. Descending into violence or property damage legitimizes the state’s violent response in the eyes of the masses, whose emotional reaction is so key to the success of the revolution.

The growth of social media might offer a beacon of hope. However, Hedges writes, even in this relatively promising domain, dissident leaders fear the state’s ability to infiltrate and control virtual space:

It is only through encryption that we can protect ourselves, Assange and his coauthors argue, and it is only by breaking through the digital walls of secrecy erected by the power elite that we can expose power. What they fear, however, is the possibility that the corporate state will eventually effectively harness the power of the internet to shut down dissent.

Hedges’ book is a multidimensional, somewhat scattered, consistently incisive exploration of the psychological and linguistic margins upon which any revolutionary fervor might explode in the coming decades. Its critics have rolled out the hackneyed rebuttal: “well, if not global capitalism, then what?” Their claim is that Hedges does not offer any new ideas, dismissing as recycled his calls for civil disobedience and labor organizing. But, just because he doesn’t offer a structural alternative to neo-liberal ideology, that does not make the status quo acceptable.

Besides, the main weakness of Wages for this reader is that it’s simply not terrifically written. Too many instances of awkward syntax break rhetorical flow. Hedges is very thorough—the bibliography offers a comprehensive education on the anarchist critique of both capitalism and communism, as well as on the litany of injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government against its people and those abroad—but he also has a tendency to repeat himself, which can be challenging to a reader seeking the next step of the argument. At other times, Hedges does the opposite, veering into hyperbolic leaps of logic without sourcing data—odd, given his assiduous sourcing otherwise—or leading the reader step by step through the argument.

But these are quibbles, because the book is a political manifesto of sorts, not, say, a piece of literary fiction—yet they do matter, because the book could have been more ambitious. It flirts with cultural criticism at times, elevating the discourse on fanatical capitalism to the metaphorical and literary levels—notably, drawing analogies to Moby Dick. But then Hedges either pulls back intentionally or loses interest in the metaphorical thread, I can’t tell which.

Herman Melville’s odd masterpiece is an ode to the ocean and, though his narrator Ishmael warns against viewing the tale as an allegory, a frightening portrait of capitalism as seen through the whaling industry. Captain Ahab, a fanatical sea wolf, is hell-bent on killing the eponymous great “white whale” that took his leg. Ahab is prepared to forego the massive profits of the whaling expedition as he focuses his energy and his men on finding and destroying this one whale. His language contains sublime madness, which is unfortunate for the crew, all of whom will drown because of Ahab’s charismatic quest. Starbuck, the first mate, is one of the few who expresses doubts about Ahab’s plans for the Pequod.

Ahab's white whale has become a popular metaphor.

Ahab’s white whale has become a popular metaphor. Cartoon by Dave Granlund.

The crucial moment comes in Chapter 36 when Ahab enthralls his poor, exploited crew with glorious visions of killing Moby Dick. Ahab notices Starbuck’s uncomfortable look. He invites Starbuck to respond, in full view of the crew. The first mate initially expresses his worry over consigning the entire enterprise to his “commander’s vengeance.” Ahab rebukes this swiftly, using revolutionary language (my emphasis added):

How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Starbuck folds. He lacks the sublime madness (which, interestingly, Ahab does possess, as Hedges acknowledges) or language of rebellion to mutiny against his commander. He bemoans that Ahab has “blasted all my reason out of me!” Hedges writes: “Starbuck especially elucidates this peculiar division between physical and moral courage. […] Moral cowardice like Starbuck’s turns us into hostages. Mutiny is the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. And mutiny is our only salvation.” Hedges makes a compelling argument that today we have too many Starbucks.

Much of Wages focuses on cataloguing the injustices meted out by the state, only reserving a portion of its energy for portraits of rebels and an exploration of this sublime madness. Hedges does not explore with sufficient force how the quality might develop and how those possessing it will harness their passions and wake the masses out of their slumbers. What does emerge, though, is a compelling spotlight on those who are in the trenches today.

“You can’t fight power if you don’t understand it,” says Abu-Jamal from prison. Better understanding can only aid the cause—but until the corporate state trips up in its successful smothering of the will to understand, there’s little chance sublime madness will penetrate the middle class; without this, any real wages of rebellion will continue to stagnate against the inflation buoyed by mainstream narratives of capitalist ideology.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com


Sep 062015
Secretariat via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia


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Kentucky Derby 1973

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Preakness 1973

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Belmont Stakes 1973


TRIPLE CROWN WINNER American Pharoah’s recent loss in the 2015 Travers Stakes has, I’ve noticed, occasionally been accompanied by the erroneous remark that the greatest of all Triple Crown champions, the incomparable Secretariat, had also lost that race in Saratoga, the fabled “graveyard of champions.” This misstatement, coupled with the off-hand comment by Donald Trump a week earlier that “Secretariat wasn’t one of the best,” have combined to propel me back to the summer of 1973, to recall at least some of my memories of Secretariat, and to finally record something of the impact he’s had on my life.

In terms of direct, visceral experience, my relationship to Secretariat is reducible to a furtive touch and a mere breath. Yet a similar experience with the great California-bred Swaps—winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby (his owner ignored the other two Triple Crown races) and 1956 Horse of the Year—so affected Bill Nack that it led him to a career that resulted in, among other accomplishments, the writing of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the basis of the widely-viewed 2010 film. Bill and I have become friends, discovering that we have at least two things intensely in common. He is, I quickly learned, an informed appreciator, and public reader, of poetry, not least the poetry of Yeats, the poet whose work I happen to know most about. But Bill is also, of course, not merely enamored of Secretariat, but the world’s leading expert on the horse. That brings us back, again, to that annus mirabilis, 1973.

Though Secretariat had been the phenomenon of that summer, just as The Donald has been the rather-less-glorious phenomenon of the summer of 2015, Big Red had competition for the nation’s attention in 1973. That was also the summer of the Watergate hearings, which I watched on television in the recreation room of Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University. At the time, I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar taught by Harold Bloom, already as spectacularly outstanding, indeed unique, in the world of literary criticism as Secretariat had swiftly become in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The national malaise attending Watergate and the dismal winding-down of the tragedy of the Vietnam War had, for many in the country and not only sports fans, been alleviated by the brilliant performances of “the People’s Horse.” It was not only his power, dazzling speed, and breathtaking come-from-behind style that made Secretariat so popular. He was extraordinarily intelligent and curious, with a playful personality almost as noticeable and appealing as his sheer physical beauty. Magnificently muscled, the “perfect horse” or “horse that God made” had a chestnut coat that shimmered like copper in the sunlight. The photos of him that appeared on the covers of three national magazines in a single week have become collectors’ items. The June 11, 1973 Time cover, one of four framed portraits of Secretariat hanging in my home, shows him looking directly at us, eyes alert, ears pricked. The words to the right of the picture say it all: SUPER HORSE.

Time cover

In a curious parallel on the personal level, my despondency in the summer of 1973 over the painful breakup of the most passionate relationship of my life had been relieved by the exhilaration of working with Harold Bloom and, even more, by the thrill of watching Secretariat win the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century. Of course, he not only won; he set records in all three races. Those records still stand more than four decades later; and his culminating performance in the last and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes—winning by 31 lengths in an almost miraculous 2:24 flat—is almost impossible to imagine ever being matched let alone beaten.

But back for a moment to those remarks made in 2015, first Trump’s.

The author of The Art of the Deal brazenly claims that his exaggerations and outright falsehoods are “innocent” utilitarian untruths; the end justifies the means, he argues, and hyperbole is effective salesmanship. His art of the deal continues in the current presidential campaign, with the media-savvy huckster playing fast and loose with facts, while touching, with uncanny insight and precision, more than a few nativist nerves and appealing to a much larger Washington-weary constituency, alienated and frustrated by political polarization and dysfunction.

But, to extend to Trump the fairness he seldom extends to others, his remark about Secretariat was not directed at the horse’s legendary performances on the track but at his lesser performance as a stallion: a testosterone-centered category in which the supermodel-collecting billionaire has always flaunted his own prowess. At the overflow August 21 rally in Mobile, Alabama, where Trump made the casual reference to Secretariat, it was in the context of his characteristic boasting about his own brilliance. On this occasion, referring to his “family’s intelligence,” he announced to the crowd that he “believes in the gene thing.” It was thought, he continued in his usual teleprompter-free stream of loose association, that Secretariat “couldn’t produce slow horses. But Secretariat wasn’t all that great, if you want to know the truth.”

YouTube Preview ImageFrom the documentary Penny & Red: the Belmont Stakes extended cut

The slur, as usual with Trump, was a half-truth. It’s true that Secretariat never produced a horse of his own caliber (what sire could?), thus disappointing the unrealistic expectations of some who had invested in that expensive $6 million syndicate and were dreaming of miraculous progeny. But he did in fact sire some stakes-winning colts and a series of remarkable daughters, most notably, the 1986 Eclipse Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret, who won many Grade 1 races and dominated the field in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. She is one of the few fillies ranked among the 100 top thoroughbreds. Another of Secretariat’s daughters, Terlingua, became the dam of Storm Cat, the most successful sire (his breeding fee at the peak of his stud career was $500,000) in thoroughbred history.

Though it is as a broodmare sire that Secretariat has left his most enduring mark on breeding, he did produce several fine colts as well. His son Tinner’s Way had lifetime earnings of over $1.8 million. Another, Risen Star, was beaten (along with all the other boys) in the 1988 Kentucky Derby by the sensational filly, Winning Colors, who ran wire-to-wire. But he came back in the remaining Triple Crown races, taking The Preakness and then romping to victory in the Belmont, in what was then a time second only to that of his daddy. Another son of Secretariat, General Assembly, won a number of stakes races, most dramatically the 1979 Travers, in which, on a sloppy track, he set a new record, 2:00 minutes flat: a mark that still stands, both for the Travers and for that distance, 1¼ miles, at Saratoga.

I was there that wet day, cheering on General Assembly in the performance of his life, but also in what I saw as an act of poetic justice: payback for the medical fluke that, a half-dozen years earlier, had prevented his father from adding to his Saratoga legacy following his Triple Crown triumph earlier that summer.

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I had been in love with Secretariat from the first time I saw him in the flesh and, in fact, actually touched him. That was in Saratoga in early August, 1972, in the minutes leading up to the Hopeful Stakes. I was at the paddock rail when a man standing to my immediate right pointed his camera at Secretariat. With Ronnie Turcotte in the saddle, the beautiful two-year-old, already a camera-conscious star, strode to the rail. I instinctively raised my hand, then thought better of it; after all, he would be on the track competing in just a few minutes. However, Turcotte, with a resigned and understanding nod, gave me the green light. When I stroked that muscled crest of a neck, Secretariat turned and looked right at me with those intelligent eyes. I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare forearm.

YouTube Preview Image1972 Hopeful Stakes

The young colt then went out and ran the most dazzling Hopeful Stakes in the history of a race often thought of as a preview of the following year’s Triple Crown competition. He broke languidly, then, in a sudden, breathtaking move, surged past eight horses, exploding from dead last to first in little more than a furlong. He would do the same thing the following year, in The Preakness, making the other horses look as if they were standing still as he rocketed by. But by then he was a mature three-year-old. When he made that huge move in the Hopeful, I was jumping up and down, yelling to everyone near me that we were watching the future Triple Crown champion. My friends laughed at my premature enthusiasm, but I wasn’t just responding to that unprecedented burst of speed; I was still conscious of having stroked him, still feeling his breath on my arm. Bill Nack has said that he can still remember the life-changing moment when Swaps, the first horse he loved, breathed on his hand as he was stroking him. From the day I touched Secretariat and he breathed on me, I was similarly smitten for life.

The other half-truth I referred to was a claim made in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s failure on August 29. Secretariat, too, we were told, had lost at Saratoga, with the implication sometimes explicit: that he had “lost” the Travers.

American Pharoah did indeed lose the Travers. Bill Nack, recently asked to contribute to a special American Pharoah issue of the horse magazine Equus, told the editor that he was not the right contributor since he could not bring himself to rank the horse among “the greatest in history”; the editor invited him to write instead about a few of those he did so rank. Pharoah’s performance in the Travers may confirm Bill’s skepticism, conveyed to me in an email full of wonderful anecdotes about the golden age of racing.

Prior to the Travers, not even that email could steer me off Pharoah. I was at the track and noticed, from about 40 feet away, that he was sweating as he headed out for the big race, and it seemed clear, even though he led for almost the entire trip, that he was running tired. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, observed even as he graciously complimented the winner, his horse “did not bring his A-game.” No wonder—having been flown back and forth across the country in a matter of three weeks. Following his Belmont win, capping the first Triple Crown in 37 years, Pharoah had won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth handily, with his jockey, Victor Espinoza, coasting in the final stage of the stretch, saving his horse for what we all hoped would be the Travers. It was well known that Baffert didn’t like Saratoga, whose track-surface he considers deep and demanding; and Saratoga’s reputation as the “graveyard of champions” had been painfully demonstrated to him in past attempts to win the Big One at the Spa. Baffert had saddled five strong horses in previous Travers Stakes, winning only once, in 2001, with the great Point Given.

It was probably the combination of a dazzling work on August 22 at Del Mar, Pharoah’s home track in California, coupled with the NYRA decision to sweeten the Travers purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million in an attempt to lure the colt back across the country, that convinced the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and a more reluctant Baffert to run their horse in the Travers.

On top of the cross-country travel, Pharoah was not given sufficient time, less than three days, to acclimate himself to Saratoga. In the race, even in the lead, he did not seem his usual smooth self. Challenged at the head of the stretch by Frosted, he struggled, but regained the lead. That was the moment to close the deal, and many of us thought he was about to. But having beaten back the challenge by Frosted, Pharoah could not hold off the late rush of Keen Ice, who had also closed on him in the Haskell, cutting his lead from 5 to 21/2 lengths. But, with that race won, Espinoza had eased back. In the Travers, in sharp contrast, he was whipping Pharoah hard. But the horse was spent; Keen Ice passed him in the final seconds, to win by a full length.

His schedule may have been mismanaged, but the 2015 Triple Crown champion had his shot at the Travers and was beaten fair and square. In 1973, Secretariat had never gotten his chance. After easily winning the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, Secretariat was scheduled to run in both major races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Travers, and was overwhelmingly expected to win both. Coming back to the scene of his triumphs as a two-year-old in the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes, the Triple Crown champion was welcomed as a returning hero. The Saturday of the Whitney Stakes, August 4, was declared Secretariat Day; the town was festive, draped in his blue and white colors, and—he lost!

In an astonishing upset, he was beaten by Onion, trained by Allan Jerkins. When those of us watching in growing dismay finally realized that Secretariat, who came in second, wasn’t going to storm past Onion in the stretch, a shockwave of disbelief spread through the grandstand, stunning an adoring crowd that had come to see the triumph, on his way to the Travers, of the greatest thoroughbred since Man o’ War—whose only defeat came as a two-year-old in the 1919 Sanford at (of course) Saratoga, losing to a 100-1 longshot unbelievably but aptly named Upset.

In the eerie silence that followed my hero’s defeat, I left the track in tears. It turned out that Secretariat had not simply been the victim of Jerkins as “giant killer” or of Saratoga as the graveyard of champions, however well-earned both those reputations were. Secretariat had failed to fire in the stretch because of a virus he had been incubating, a low-grade fever that—salt in the wound—also prevented him, as he further sickened, from competing in the Travers.

His son would help make up for that by winning the Travers in the fastest time ever recorded. But that would be six years in the future. The immediate compensation for the numbing disappointment of the Whitney came just a month later, and I was there to see Secretariat’s astonishing recovery. What was originally intended to be a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, had been cancelled when both horses unexpectedly lost. Instead, a star cast was assembled for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational.

Along with Riva Ridge and Onion, the talented field included Annihilate ‘Em (the actual winner of the 1973 Travers), Canadian champion Kennedy Road, and the 1972 three-year-old champion, Key to the Mint. I was at Belmont on that September day when, with his stablemate coming in second, Secretariat galloped to victory in 1:452/5, setting a new world record for 11/8 miles on dirt. Once again, I left the track after the feature race—again in tears, but this time tears of joy.

Secretariat via Zenyatta

YouTube Preview ImageSecretariat in retirement, running for the fun of it



Such tearful reactions may seem excessive to those who don’t share the passion some of us have for truly great horses. So let me try one more story involving tears and Secretariat. This one takes place not long after 1989, the year Secretariat, suffering from incurable laminitis, was humanely euthanized (yes, I wept that day, but that’s not the tale of tears I’m about to tell). I was visiting Saratoga, to see friends and to take in some races. Walking on Union Avenue, I noticed that one of the great houses was serving temporarily as a museum. I went in and was immediately struck by a splendid bronze in the middle of the room.

Secretariat statue

Perhaps two-thirds life-size, it depicted Secretariat immediately after winning the Kentucky Derby. Having just broken the old Derby record (Secretariat’s 1:592/5 still stands), the horse is pumped. Turcotte is in the saddle, gripping the reins, but one feels the strength pulsing under him. Even Eddie Sweat, his groom and the man who knew “Big Red” best, can barely restrain him. Fluent in bronze, Secretariat’s muscles are sharply delineated, his eyes dilated with excitement. The sculptor had caught perfectly the stunning surface beauty of the horse and the flexed power throbbing beneath that rippling coat.

via Horseguru

Noticing me admiring it, the curator walked over and asked if I had a minute for a story involving the sculpture. Unsurprisingly, I did. She told me that the piece was not commissioned but a labor of love, begun by the artist on a much smaller scale, but gradually possessing him until this seemed the minimum size to convey his sense of the horse. When it was exhibited, the sculptor arranged for Eddie Sweat to be flown up from Florida, where he was still working with horses.

When Eddie arrived, the sole black man in a white world of brie and chablis, he walked directly to the sculpture. He proceeded to circle it, slowly and repeatedly, without saying a word and with no discernable facial expression. At last the sculptor, concerned (the curator told me) by the lack of overt response on the part of the man who knew Secretariat most intimately, walked over to him.

“What’s the matter, Eddie,” he asked nervously, “You don’t like it?”

His eyes never leaving the sculpture, Eddie said simply:

“That’s him; that’s him.”

The sculptor, so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room, later told the curator that lavish praise from the most distinguished art critic in the world could not have meant as much to him as those four words from Eddie Sweat.

Eddie Sweat and SecretariatEddie Sweat and Secretariat

The artist was internationally renowned equine sculptor Edwin Bogucki, who had first conceived of a tribute to Secretariat after seeing the horse in retirement at Claiborne Farm, just months before his death. Later, to reproduce the horse in his prime, he examined photos, made sketches, and took measurements. Ron Turcotte was always to be included in the piece. But when Bogucki saw a photograph of Eddie Sweat, alone and in tears, having just surrendered his beloved “Red” to Claiborne to begin his retirement, he knew that no depiction of Secretariat would be complete without the man who knew and loved him best.

The magnificent life-size version of this sculpture is now on permanent display in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, the entrance to which is guarded by a statue of Man o’ War, its pedestal resting on the transposed grave of the only horse in thoroughbred racing history that can be considered Secretariat’s equal.

Secretariat’s own grave is nearby, at Claiborne Farm. Traditionally, even a champion thoroughbred’s body is cremated; only the symbolic head, heart, and hooves are buried. Secretariat was given the rare honor (shared only, as far as I know, by Man o’ War and the greatest of all fillies, beautiful, doomed Ruffian) of being buried whole. Even the oxygen-crunching organ that powered him to records—revealed in the necropsy to be the largest equine heart ever measured—was returned intact to his body. Visitors to that grave who also happen to love poetry may be reminded of the opening and closing lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet evoking immense power at rest: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty…/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

YouTube Preview ImageLast video of Secretariat

—Patrick J. Keane

September 2, 2015


Patrick J Keane 2

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


Sep 012015

V0048935 Women wearing crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860, lithograph Crinolines on fire, 1860, Creative Commons Image


THIS STORY HAPPENED when I was in my mid-twenties. Like most sensitive young men I was full of romantic notions about all sorts of things. Especially famous writers: most fascinating to me at the time was Oscar Wilde. I was also curious about my family roots, in this case in Ireland. Given these preoccupations I was in the completely wrong place (the cornfields of Iowa), doing the wrong thing (studying for an interminable degree in god-knows-which obscure American modernist poet). I was feeling isolated and claustrophobic in the fishbowl of Iowa City – which was pretty enough and even cool enough thanks to the Workshop students, but which was neither sufficiently old nor charming. Added to this my father had just died unexpectedly at 49. I mourned his death by making rash, unpredictable choices.

So one frosty Iowa spring morning, seized by the desire to abandon my sensible, funded graduate program and pursue my unfunded obsession with Wilde in Ireland, I acted. I withdrew from all my courses and forwarded my small inheritance to the financial department of Trinity College, Dublin. I remember having in mind a particular epigram of Wilde’s, something about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Even the gutter part sounded romantic. I was confused, as I say, and overrun by the fever of romance. But that’s how I found myself enrolled the next autumn at the university attended by Wilde (and Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, and many other writers I admired), specializing in Wilde, at a research centre bearing Wilde’s name, in the very house where Wilde was born. (Let’s forget for a moment what happened later: when Ireland and I, having squandered all our money, were subjected to the meanest form of austerity.)

My first term at Trinity had its highs and lows. Academically speaking, it was an inauspicious start: mostly spent in smoky Northside pubs, listening to moody Irish ballads, falling prey to infatuations, drinking too much, lying spread-eagled among the cigarettes and broken glass on the pub floors of Nighttown – that sort of thing. I was attending very few lectures, and still fewer sober.

Yet somehow I soaked up, along with the beer and whiskey and gin, more literature than I ever knew existed. I read voraciously, either in my green leather nook at the back of the Stag’s Head or, like the feckless student narrator in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in bed all day while I nursed a hangover: not only Wilde but Joyce and Behan and O’Casey and Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston and Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly (who was one of my teachers). I waded through the mystical mire of Yeats’s A Vision and read the notorious Black Diaries of Roger Casement, the colonial civil servant turned human rights activist and gay Irish revolutionary, who was caught running guns from Germany to Ireland and executed by the English for treason in 1916. My blood ran black and white, and my eyes puffed up from the strain of reading fifteen hours a day.

It was a grand time and I was enjoying myself immensely. But something still nagged: I wanted to stake a formal claim on my ancestry. So I went down to the Passport Office in Molesworth Street near the National Library to obtain my hereditary citizenship. A kind and maternal woman in her fifties named Maebh took my case. She told me what to do and I brought her all the necessary documents, culled from the detritus of my dead relatives and carried across the Atlantic: certificates of birth, marriage, and death. There was one yellowed piece of parchment written in a calligraphic hand that predated the Irish Republic itself. She stamped all her stamps and scurried back and forth from her window to the ancient photocopier while I stood by and watched. Then my application was complete: the last thing she said before she rang the bell to call the next in line was “Welcome home, son.”

By that time St. Patrick’s Day was drawing near, and feeling now exceptionally Irish I decided to write to my great aunt and arrange a visit. Edna, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, was an ancient woman from Sligo whom I’d never met and who lived alone on a farm in County Monaghan just south of the border. I wrote her a proper letter, straining to remember my cursive script, and a few weeks later she wrote back. She invited me to come up for the long weekend. Leaving the party behind I walked down to the Bus Éireann station on Friday morning and caught a bus going to Belfast. I got off a few hours later in the small town of Clones – where Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy was filmed – and found the place respectable enough, if a bit cold and grey. My first thought was: No wonder they left. But one of my grandfather’s brothers had stayed, and now his wife Edna, a robust widow in her eighties with thick glasses and gumboots, was standing there waiting for me. She said hello without offering a hug, and drove us in a battered Mercedes back to the farm at Smithboro, the place where my grandfather was born.

I knew by now not to expect much of the legendary family farm, and in this lack of expectation I was not disappointed. There had once been a larger house, Edna told me, the one where my grandfather lived until he was nineteen, but it had been torn down in the sixties. In its place was a small and sensible two-storey stucco house. There were a few crumbling outbuildings to add a bit of romance, several sheep on the front lawn that Edna called “pets,” and some large enclosures behind the house which held five bulls and two or three horses. Edna said that although she lived alone there were a couple of local men who worked the farm, and her niece Ruth, my father’s cousin, stopped by almost every day. Inside the house was a mix of the very old – sombre furniture that, having survived the long journey, would never leave – and the strikingly new, including a huge television positioned directly opposite a sleek black leather lounger.

On Friday night Edna served fish fingers and boiled potatoes and milk for dinner. Since it was just the two of us we ate in the kitchen, and afterwards we retired to the living room. There we sat, Edna in her lounger and me on the lace-covered sofa, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne and saying very little to each other. I was beginning to realize that, unlike the Dubliners I had met, Edna was a woman of few words. I remember trying to ignore the silence by focusing on the film, and noticing that John Wayne’s trousers were pulled up higher than any trousers I’d ever seen on a man.

But eventually during a long advertising break we started to talk. She told me the history of my family, once prosperous “gentlemen farmers” now reduced by emigration and economic crisis to this lonely widow living in a few rooms of a modest country house. We touched on education – Edna surprised me with the news that she had attended Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school once situated on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green – and then about particular Irish authors (Shaw was a graduate of Wesley). I asked Edna if she had seen any famous productions of the plays of Wilde or Yeats or Shaw or Synge at the Abbey or the Gate. She indulged me as much as her failing memory would allow: she had definitely seen something scandalous by Shaw.

But I also learned another, more shocking family history – one that was loosely tied up with my own. It was the story of Oscar Wilde’s two illegitimate half-sisters. Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a notorious philanderer, and he had children hidden away in houses up and down the country. Two of these children, Mary and Emily, had lived on the farm, or “estate,” next to ours. They had died together – shortly after Oscar’s seventeenth birthday, though it is unclear whether he even knew of their existence – in a tragic fire in that very house. On October 31st, 1871, during the last dance of a country ball, the hem of one sister’s – Emily’s – crinoline evening gown had suddenly burst into flames. Crinoline was notoriously flammable: so much so that this sort of death was not uncommon. Hundreds of young women seem to have died in similar fires during the nineteenth century. In this case the other sister, Mary, tried to rescue her, but she was also wearing a crinoline gown; both sisters received mortal burns. William Wilde, Edna told me with a sideways glance, had been spotted at the graveside in the weeks after the funeral, wailing openly in his grief. He never recovered, she said. He died a few years later, a broken man. Not unlike his son after prison, I thought. What a tragic family.

The story came up completely by accident. Not long after I arrived, I had noticed a dust-jacketed copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde sitting primly on a doily-covered china cabinet. Ellmann, the American son of a Jewish Romanian immigrant father and a Ukrainian mother, was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University from 1970 to 1985. (He also passed through Trinity College, Dublin.) Ellmann wrote the definitive biography of James Joyce in 1959 and a dozen other books on famous Irish authors. He also published an anthology in the 1960s that strongly influenced the study of literary modernism – especially its slant towards Irish writers. Along with The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a fellow Yale graduate and Hibernophile, Ellmann’s The Modern Tradition shaped the modernist canon for decades afterwards.

I had taken down several of Ellmann’s books from the stacks at Trinity library during my first two terms. In particular I recalled spending a week in bed around Valentine’s Day, sick with a humiliating case of adult chicken pox, reading his edition of Joyce’s fascinating and filthy letters. I guessed he might have written about Wilde reluctantly, being unsure what to do with him: Wilde was modern, but not exactly a modernist; he was gay, which Ellmann seemed to have difficulty talking about; and unlike Joyce or Yeats, he seemed to have left his Irishness behind when he left Ireland. In fact, as I later learned, Ellmann struggled with the biography through the last two decades of his life. As fate would have it, Wilde was not only Ellmann’s last subject, but also his crowning achievement. Ellmann died in 1987, the same year the book was published, and Oscar Wilde was posthumously awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. (The book was later used as the basis for Wilde, the biopic with Stephen Fry giving his uncanny performance as Oscar incarnate.)

I knew most of this at the time, and I was delighted to find an object of common interest, so I asked my aunt about the book. Edna was dismissive at first, saying it had been sitting there for a decade gathering dust. After some gentle prodding, however, she told me the story of how the book had found its way into the house. Ellmann had come to Ireland to research the book, and one of his stops was Monaghan to investigate the story of Wilde’s sisters. As Edna told it, he had lain in wait outside the local church on a Sunday, and when the congregation emerged Ellmann started asking if anyone knew the story of the sisters’ death. Someone pointed to my great uncle and said, “Ask him, he’ll know.” So Ellmann interviewed my uncle about it, and when the book came out he sent a signed copy as thanks. And there it sat, long after Ellmann and my uncle had gone.

The story of Wilde’s sisters that my uncle told Ellmann is a sensational one, reminiscent of something Gwendolen Fairfax would read on the train. The first published account of the story appears in a biography of William Wilde by T. G. Wilson in 1942. Yeats’s father recalled the sisters’ death in a letter in 1921 – so the story was probably familiar to the small world of Dublin society. At the same time, some of the obscurity surrounding the events stems from discretion on the part of the authorities when dealing with sensitive matters involving people of significant social standing. From reading several accounts, including the one my great uncle gave to Ellmann, I learned that the births of Mary and Emily Wilde were indeed out of wedlock (that antiquated yet evocative phrase) but they predated the marriage of Oscar’s parents. At the time of their death Mary and Emily were wards – like Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest – of William Wilde’s eldest brother, the impeccably named Reverend Ralph Wilde. The Reverend Ralph, who christened Oscar, was rector of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat: the parish church that my family attended in Monaghan. The neighbour’s house, where the party took place, belonged to a local bank manager named Andrew Reid. Reid was the man who had taken the last dance with Emily and then tried in vain to extinguish both sisters when their dresses caught fire.

The night itself, October 31st, seems to have been a party to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain in Ireland. It was most likely attended by the well-to-do landowning families in the area, from neighbouring estates like ours. (I asked whether it was likely that anyone from our family had been present, but Edna just shrugged indifferently.) There was plenty of alcohol, and the party went on late into the night. Accounts of the event differ, with some even calling it a Christmas party. Some accounts also describe there being snow on the ground: Reid is said to have rushed Emily outside and rolled her in the snow to put out the flames, while Mary ran around screaming frantically until she collapsed. There is no mention of snow in the official inquiry, but then the inquiry also gives the family name not as Wilde but “Wylie.”

The aftermath of the tragedy was, if possible, even more gruesome than the terrible accident itself. The sisters remained in the house, as was the custom at the time, where they were treated for the severe burns they had both suffered. To die on Halloween night would have been merciful: instead they lingered on for days and weeks at Drumaconnor. Mary, the younger sister who had tried to help, died first, on November 9th. Her death was kept a secret from Emily, who was also near death, to spare her the shock; nevertheless, three weeks after the accident, on November 21st, Emily also died.

Oscar Wilde, that pioneer of camp sensibility, was not one to respond to tragedy with too much sentiment. One of the most famous remarks attributed to him is the one about the death of Nell Trent, the angelic child in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Wilde is said to have quipped: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” (The child’s death in the popular serial story took everyone by shock: before it was revealed, people were said to have lined the docks in New York, shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive?”) In The Importance of Being Earnest, the supremely unsentimental Lady Bracknell, on hearing that Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing is an orphan, declares: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The same could be said of sisters.

It is hard to say with any certainty what happened that Halloween night, at the end of the party when most of the guests had left. Events were intentionally covered up, and details were kept to a minimum to avoid scandal; the story that was passed down in the neighbourhood, and that my great uncle told Richard Ellmann outside the church, was likely filled in and smoothed around the edges with the passing of time. Was there really snow on the ground in Ireland on October 31st? Was it Emily who danced with the host, or Mary? Who else was in the room? How much had been drunk?

The story ends in the tiny churchyard of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat parish, two miles from Smithboro, County Monaghan, where I drove with Edna that Sunday to visit the graves of our ancestors before catching the bus back to Dublin. In the car on the way Edna repeated a story I had already read in Ellmann’s biography. It was the local legend of the “woman in black” – thought to be the girls’ mother – who visited the graves regularly for twenty years after the tragedy. Oscar Wilde also used to tell the story of a woman in black. Wilde, who was still a teenager at the time, recalled an unknown woman’s visits to his house during his father’s last illness. The woman would come into the house and kneel by William’s sickbed, while Oscar’s mother stood by watching without interfering, apparently knowing that her husband and the woman, who shared a tragic bond, had loved each other deeply.

We entered the churchyard through the wrought iron gate and explored separately in silence. Edna’s hands were clasped behind her back, her head bowed. Right away I noticed that among the names on gravestones that I could read – Arthur Brady; Henry and Anne Finnegan; Robert John Bole and his wife Charlotte, who had emigrated to Alberta and whose bodies had been returned for burial here; Martha Brown, Ruth’s mother – at least half were marked by my family name. There was Thomas Hanna, and Stephen, who died in 1835, and his brother James, and their sister, whose name I couldn’t read. Edna pointed out the grave of another great aunt, Amy Elizabeth, whom my sister was named after. I knelt in the grass and took some pictures. The grave of Mary and Emily was there too, and I photographed it. In contrast to their younger brother, whose famous tomb I had seen once in Père Lachaise cemetery, the sisters were all but anonymous, their gravestone untended and overgrown and lost to time.

Years later I went back to Smithboro and the churchyard of St. Molua’s. Things had improved. The Oscar Wilde Society had erected a new monument beside the old one to mark the Wilde sisters’ final resting place. The simple stone read:

In Memory of
Two loving and beloved Sisters
MARY WILDE aged 22
who lost their lives by accident
in this parish in Nov 1871.
They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their death they
were not divided
(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)

Emily & Mary - half sisters of Oscar Wile. Original stone on right.Julian Hanna photo

—Julian Hanna



Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

Aug 072015

15th Cen. St Brenden, stranded whale, B. Museum15th Cen. St. Brenden & The Stranded Whale, British Museum


There shines in us, though dimly in darkness, the life and the light
of man, a light which does not come from us, which however is in
us, and we must therefore find it within us.
Gerhard Dorn – Philosophia specuativa



“As the dead prey upon us,
they are the dead in ourselves,
awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,
disentangle the nets of being!”
Charles Olson

1 – Pedrolino

WOKE THIS MORNING in the house where the poet Vincent Ferrini lived and wrote for decades, now the Gloucester Writers Center.August 17th, 2014, at 7:30 AM, newly risen light washes purple drawstring shades, which I keep half-shut. Perched on the shoulder of East Maine Street, a two lane coastal road that runs between downtown Gloucester and Rocky Neck, traffic up and down the hill sets up a constant rush of sound. The front door opens on a gas station/ convenience store at the far side of a parking lot. In back workmen level ground to pave a narrow alley. People walk close to the windows. There’s a small kitchen at one end, and a bathroom off the main room. I’ll be the poet-in-residence here for a week, which ends with a reading from my latest collection, Fishing On The Pole Star.

Last night, after a chicken/vegetable stir-fry dinner, I turned on the overhead fan, moved a lamp to the side of the vintage pull-out bed and perused a book case lining the wall stacked with copies of Vincent’s collection, Know Fish. Among them I found a copy of Charles Olsen’s Collected Works and fell asleep reading his signature poem, “The Kingfishers.” This morning I dimly remember a dream in which I’m standing in a rowboat fishing from the stern with a child’s rig. I understand the implication that I am still developing as a fisherman, but have no doubt that knowing fish has brought me here.

Framed poems hang on white walls beside images of Ferrini and his friend, larger than life poet Charles Olson, who mythologized Gloucester as Joyce did Dublin. Standing 6’8”, aka Maximus, and former rector of Black Mountain College, Olson played a major role in the dynamic changes that drove mid-20th Century American poetry. Ferrini appears small beside him, but no less haunting.

Vincent & MEVincent Ferrini, (monoprint) by Jain Tarnower @ The Gloucester Writers Center

I work on a table facing a print of Ferrini outlined in white on a black field—an image dominated by his white face and hands. He wears a domed hat, like a novitiate in an obscure Italian order, but might as easily be Pedrolino, the moon-faced dreamer out of the comedia dell’arte. His smile is enigmatic. It reads like a confidence, an intimate whisper in my ear:  Pay no attention to what is going on outside and around you. Do as I did. Listen for what comes through the inner doors and windows.

I follow the instruction, submit to the inner sensorium.

What enters is as much shape as sound, ideas like iron filings on a magnetic field. The field becomes an ocean, the magnet a star. Fish swim below or break the surface. Constellations in space dance without touching. This ghost in the room I think of as Pedrolino has awakened a ghost in me. I see myself standing beside Amfortas, the Fisher King, in the Pole Star watching a king fisher dive. How did Amfortas end up in my boat, both of us in the stern waiting for Parzival or his equivalent? Olson’s poem, “King Fishers,” which influenced me as a young poet, has set up an inexorable call to the obsession of my later years, the wounded Fisher King!

Amfortas drops his line next to mine, and with it the orderly content of my inner world breaks down. I can’t predict what will emerge from this matrix, what looks like a massa confusa, but is possibly the first stage of important work.

Pedrolino nods.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I accept.”

I’ll take the risk, go where the currents lead. I am a navigator with faulty maps and a ragged compass. But there is a mystery on the tip of my tongue waiting to be revealed, a series of linkages I had not suspected before that will pull valuable information out of the shadows into the light of day—if only I will engage the journey.

Pedrolino is pleased. His smile deepens.

I let him know that in addition to my reading I will give a talk, because the title just popped into my head like a mackerel: “Trolling With The Fisher King.”

That is, after all, what this about. Whether alone in the boat, or with Amfortas trailing in Charles Olson’s wake, fishing is what connects us. It is as though now all three of us were working the same line after the catch we were all hoping for—the wisdom that whispers, “What wounded thee will make thee whole.”

I email my host Henry, old Ferrini’s nephew, proposing the talk and its title and suggest it immediately follow my reading.

Almost instantly, I get a reply: “You’re on!”

Pedrolino likes this.


2 – Spreading the Net

The Fisher King figure in its present form appears prominently in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century epic, Parzival, set in a landscape devastated by war. Armies returning from the Crusades, and mercenaries hired by expansionist nation-states, have pillaged the countryside. Against this backdrop, knights governed by the archaic laws of chivalry kill each other in the name of love and honor, leaving a trail of widows and fatherless children in their wake. Parzival’s mother, stricken by the loss of her heroic husband, takes their son into the woods vowing he will not perish in this way. She raises Parzival in a state of nature ignorant of his lineage and his real name, which means piercing through. One day at an age when most young men leave home, he sees a brace of knights in armor riding through the woods and mistakes them in their shining armor for gods. Parzival follows them to King Arthur’s court, where he gains entry by killing the Red Knight who blocks the entrance with a lucky throw of his lance through the eye-slit in the seasoned warrior’s helmet. Still innocent (unconscious) but triumphant, the fledgling sets out to prove himself, and becomes what his mother feared most, a man who kills in the name of love and honor.

Riding past a lake one evening at dusk Parzival spies a man fishing from a dingy who directs him to a castle where he can spend the night. He doesn’t recognize that the fisherman is Amfortas (without strength), keeper of the Grail. Under the banner of AMOR, Amfortas killed a Saracen warrior in single combat, and ever since that time has carried a piece of the Infidel’s lance in his groin. Because his pain is greatest in the presence of the Grail, Amfortas can no longer function as Grail Keeper. He now sits with a line in the water to ease his pain waiting for one pure in heart to ask the question that heals his wound, and restore the Waste Land.

In some versions, the question is, “Whom does the Grail serve?” in others, “What ails thee?”

The innocent (unconscious) Parzival doesn’t recognize himself as the one for whom Amfortas and all attendant on the Grail are waiting.He follows directions to the Castle and is welcomed by attendants who bathe and dress him. In the Great Hall he witnesses the procession of the Grail that once held Christ’s blood, and the lance used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce His side. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus for burial was said to have brought these sacred objects to England.

Galahad_grailGalahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.. Wool and silk on cotton warp, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

From his divan in the Great Hall, Parzival watches robed acolytes parade with the spear that pierced Christ’s side. After this another set of acolytes carry the Grail, which fills the tankards, bowls, goblets, trenchers, platters and baskets with all manner of delicacies, from fowl, and mutton to cheeses, fruits, breads and wine until everyone at the banquet is provided for. There appears to be no limit to what nourishment the Grail can bestow. In the right hands, such abundance might feed the world.Seated across from him Amfortas writhes in pain waiting to hear the question that will deliver him. But Parzival has been taught that it’s impolite for a guest to question his host, and so he fails to ask the question. He wakes next morning to find the Castle empty except for spectral voices jeering from the battlements. The drawbridge slams shut behind him. Slowly, it dawns on Parzival that he has failed to recognize this opportunity.

It’s a bitter pill.

All of his assumptions, the received wisdom given by those in authority, dissolve in the first light of consciousness. He will spend the next twenty years wrestling with this failure. In the end, confronting his own wounded pride, he is able to “pierce through” to the recognition of his true identity as heir in that lineage as Grail Keeper.

Two details must be noted: after recognizing his role, Parzival rejoins his wife in true union, a Holy Marriage (heiros gamos); and, finally, he encounters his dark brother, Fierfize, (piebald), the son their father, Gahmuret, sired with the black Moorish Queen Belcane, in the North African Kingdom of Zazamanc, on his way home from the Crusades. Concealed by their armor, they face off without knowing the identity of the other. Just before delivering the death blow Parzival sees his brother’s face free of the helmet, recognizes him, and the once embattled knights embrace.It begins as a reprise of the battle in which Amfortas was wounded, and ends with a resolution. Parzival welcomes his dark Muslim brother as a part of himself. He can heal the wounded Fisher King by asking the question which he now embodies. Amfortas, free from pain, dies in peace. may be a cipher and a prescription for our own time..


3- Mare Nostrum

The reading at the Gloucester Center for Writing from Fishing On The Polestar is scheduled for later this week. The poems record my experience trolling the out islands of the Bahamas, exploring obscure inlets, crossing the section between Eleuthera and Columbus Point known as “the tongue of the ocean.”

What would the tongue of the ocean say if it could speak?

I recall last night’s dream, and reel it up from my store of memories.

As a child I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park. In the 70s , I hauled in snapper on a hand-line from a dugout off the coast of Belize. Later, I trolled for bill fish in a 42’ Bertram from Ft. Lauderdale to Crooked Island. In time it dawned on me that as a poet and psychotherapist drawn to the unconscious, my lures were set to bring up something concealed in my own depths. I have come to understand the Fisher King wound and why a line in the water brings relief.

Olson’s Collected Works lies on my bed open to “The Kingfishers”. I read: What does not change / is the will to change…

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
Remembered only one thing, the birds, how
When he came in, he had gone around the rooms
And got them back into their cage, the green one first,
She with the bad leg, and then the blue,
The one they had hoped was a male.

Since the poem was published in 1949, no one has been able to give “The Kingfishers” a definitive reading. Those who engage it are drawn or repelled; few are indifferent to its movement. Some critics call it a dreamscape, and there is reason to treat it as such. Others cite it primarily as a response to post-Holocaust trauma.But what’s most haunting about it is less historical than psychological. “The Kingfishers” occupies a limbic space, that threshold between sleeping and waking where the conscious and unconscious are open to each other. This is also where we locate the Grail Castle that appears and disappears, a quantum space beyond fixed coordinates. Here, Charles Olson drops his lures.

MarillDialogue at Five (Provincetown) – Herman Maril

Lines from “The Kingfishers” float through dream-time into morning light trailing brightly colored green and blue feathers from two caged birds. Still in bed, I hear seagulls outside squawk and cry. Sea-birds have trailed in my wake for hundreds of miles, like my golondrina. As a merchant seaman crossing the Pacific I watched a tiny swallow hitch a ride from the Golden Gate to Subic Bay on our United Fruit ship. Even through the roughest storms. When I thought it had been blown away, there it was the next morning perched on a boom. Long after I returned from the South China Sea, the swallow haunts me. Like Olson’s kingfishers, my golondrina, exists as an ache in the present—an unhealed wound.

I follow my ghost bird into the poem.

Neither “The Kingfishers” nor the Fisher King is primarily concerned with the act of fishing, but each links deeply wounded cultures, lacking coherence, to fishermen, fish and fishing birds. A lost but crucial piece of psyche must be restored. I fish for the clue in Olson’s paradox: everything changes but the will to change.

What is the lure attached to this line?

unnamed paul pinesWayne Atherton – Mounting The Bounty

It isn’t change that carries the charge, but the “changeless will,” and what that implies.We are drawn to what is concealed in changeless will. Calculations will not reveal it. Otherwise discourse—words, ideas and numbers alone would heal the Fisher King wound.Better to follow the kingfisher into limbic space, watch it circle, dive, and emerge with a fish in its beak. Reason will not tell us what lies beyond it, like the sublime—or how to locate “changeless will” in the wound, the fisherman, or the fish.

Better to follow a ghost bird.


4 – Fixing the Colors

Olson’s narrator wakes fully clothed from a dream. Seated at my computer, under Pedrolino’s watchful eye, I recall that seabirds following a school will mirror the behavior of the fish, then feel a tug, rock back and forth as if I were in the fighting chair. What I bring to light surprises me, a dream fragment from last night. I enter a room where people dressed in blue and green are waiting to hear my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King”. Olson’s birds are blue and green. This is not insignificant. He quotes 16th Century Belgian alchemist/psychologist Gerhard Dorn: “Color/ is the evidence of truth.”

I agree. Color is important.

As an eight-year-old fishing for crappies in Prospect Park, I watch my cork bob on a bed of light that splinters when the float sinks. As I reel in a sunfish, brightness falls from the air (a line James Joyce borrowed from Thomas Nash). The brilliance of its scales fires my imagination. These sparks are evidence of an underwater rainbow I might pull up whole as all those other kids marvel. It will give me super powers, change my life by calling forth the power inside of me.

Years later, at sixteen, reading Freud’s Future of an Illusion, I understand that fishing my dreams is more likely to yield that life-changing catch. The flashes of color I glimpsed as a child were aspects of myself yet to be identified.I’m still waiting for a vision to break the surface like a marlin.

Color…fixes the statement,” (Olson via Dorn).

What shall I say about “The Kingfishers” to my dream audience in kingfisher colors?

We trail lines defined by the color of our lures.”

ArthurDoveSunSun, Arthur Dove, the Smithsonian

The first thing Olson does in “The Kingfishers” is to pluck color from dream-water, the green female bird “with the bad leg,” and the blue male returned to their cage by someone named Fernand who “ had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat,” and subsequently leaves the party that is taking place…

When I saw him he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he
who said, “The Kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers

Fernand dissolves like a shadow in “some crack of the ruins.” He points to what we otherwise can’t see, and seeing, turn away. No wonder the poet regrets that it should have been Fernand who poses the question: who cares? The shadow’s voice, peripheral to awareness,delivers a message that draws us down, even as it hangs in the air like an accusation. The poet wishes the question had been his to ask.

Parzival also begs the question; the part of him that would ask it remains buried in his split-off shadow. He must become fully conscious to ask the healing question: What ails thee?

Fernand’s question points to, rather than discloses the disconnection, and so rings both as desperate and ironic: Who cares?

Outraged, Olson raises a more pressing question: Who is Fernand anyway, this shadow that speaks what must be said, then vanishes, leaving behind him a cloud of regret? Fernand’s question, “Who cares?” exists as a statement yet to be understood by those at the party, including the poet.This Post-Parzival situation finds us in stagnant waters.

Bright blue and green sparks in the kingfisher feathers at the opening of the poem disappear into the rapidly deteriorating natural world. Observing from the shadow’s point of view, Fernand comments.

His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool the kingfisher’ feathers were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

Those at the gathering are confronted with the degraded pool at their center, evidence of unconsciousness. They are unmoved, look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear—remain in a peculiar state of indifference, partying in a Waste Land. Part one of “The King Fishers” ends here, with Fernand’s unanswered question.

It was then he left.


5 – Consciousness / The Wound

How did we become deaf to the voice that reminds us to wake up? Mother earth calls from the depths, warns us to pay attention. This was the purpose of the Great Mysteries. The Dying and Reviving Gods like Tammuz, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Ba’al and Jesus demand we remain conscious. Their myths and ceremonies of wounding and healing model the birth, death and resurrection of consciousness, a transformative experience open to those who understand it. In her study The Language of the Goddess (1989), Marija Gimbutas points out that wine and bread were revered as sacraments in Neolithic cultures because they represented the inherent potential for transformation produced by fermentation and yeast. Early Egyptians drank beer and tasted Osiris wafers to partake of an eternal blood and body. The Pyramid Text, dating back to the 5th Dynasty (2,400 BCE), instructs the king to rise from his tomb

Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not

unnamedUnnamed, Matt Daly

The same text, perhaps the world’s earliest known religious document, records the worship of Osiris, Egyptian lord of the Underworld. Depicted with green skin, a pharaonic beard and ostrich feathers on either side of a conical crown in later hieroglyphs, Osiris is the poster boy for death and resurrection. Dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, and re/membered by his sister/wife, Isis, Osiris knits worlds above and below into a seamless whole, just as the wounded Fisher King embodies the potential to restore the Waste Land. But there is a shift in this mythos between Dynasty V and the 12 Century AD, and again into our Post-Internet culture. The drama is no longer the provenance of the Gods. The transformation requires human participation. Parzival must become conscious of his own wound before he can heal Amfortas and accomplish his mission.

We are dealing in symbolic terms with human development, the ordeal through which split off material in the unconscious is brought to light and integrated. Carl Jung found in Alchemy a compelling description of transformation applicable to the totality of the psyche. For him, the writing of adepts like Gerhard Dorn revealed in symbolic language the relationship of the unconscious to the conscious as the agent of psychological transformation. Jung recognized in Alchemy an intuitive iteration of Psyche’s drive to realize itself. Olson also quotes Dorn suggestively: “Color is important.”

the blackeningCombat, Marc Shanker

The Alchemical Work broadly speaking unfolds in four stages, the first of which is a condition of decay, the “blackening” known to practitioners as nigredo. It is analogous to the initial wounding, the early call of the unconscious to become conscious. Olson’s poem locates it in Fernand’s recognition of the pool become slime. He points it out to those gathered but no one hears him. Only when there is some acknowledgment of the condition can the Work move on to stages known by their colors, white, yellow and the reddening, rubedo. Here, the transformation is realized in the body of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, or as Parzival beholds it, the lapis exilies, another name for The Holy Grail.

Olson’s poem can be read as the search for materials in anticipation of the Alchemical Work, which is increasingly difficult as we are blinded by distractions. Psyche’s drive toward transformation, the hidden telos in Olson’s “will to change,” calls out to us. His poem, “The King Fishers” is an attempt to hear it, a plea for us to open our ears or suffer the consequences. Riding the stern of his work, feathered lures in the water, I see Charles Olson become the Fisher King. It’s not the nigredo alone he fears, but that he (we) will get stuck in it, and stay that way—trapped in

a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest

Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: the principle states that each of us in our development recapitulates the evolution of the species, and possibly the entire universe, from chaos to cosmos. If true, there is a moment when that movement becomes conscious of itself, a shift (or fall) from undifferentiated “time before time” into time as we experience it—antiphonal, polarized, and fleeting. In a number of myths, the creation of cosmos from chaos involves horrific violence, a wounding and dismembering that becomes embedded in nature.

For the Aztecs creation begins with a many armed female monster, a hungry mouth at the juncture of each arm. In this myth, the agents of “the will to change”, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, become serpents, wrap themselves around the insatiable matrix and twist until she comes apart. From her parts they construct the ordered world which remembers the pain and exacts tribute in blood. Sumerian hero-god Marduk does the same to the complaining sea-serpent Ti’amat. The mother of us all, pre-conscious chaos incarnate, must be torn apart. This process, essential to creating and sustaining order, also produces the consciousness that re/members that pain.

The wound requires appeasing. Host cultures enacted blood rituals of reparation to a matrix that might exact revenge if disregarded. If we forget or cease to feel the pain inherent in becoming conscious, degradation of the psychological and natural worlds follow as surely as slime on the pool. Numbed and disconnected, we dismiss Fernand’s warning, whisperings from the shadow in the wings.

kingfisher-3Kingfisher hovering, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds


6 – Re/member Me

In Greek mythology the wind god, Aeolus, intervenes when his daughter Halcyon attempts to follow her mortal husband drowns in a storm. Aeolus prevails on Zeus to turn them into birds. Zeus does this, but requires that she nest on the shore for two weeks in mid-January ever year during which he stays the waves and winds to let her young hatch in safety. These become known as Halcyon Days; we know these birds as kingfishers.

It is true, it does nest with the opening year, but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There,
six or eight white and translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds.

I have observed riverine kingfishers nesting in the muddy banks of the Sibun River in Belize. We steered our canoe through an uncharted stretch that flowed between the Pine Ridge and jungle low-lands. I noted anhinga, heron, hummingbird and toucan—among other exotic avian life—but the kingfishers where most memorable. They darted in and out of tunnels in which they built their nests. I think of them as I read Olson’s description of that process, how they construct those nests of decomposed fish bones—evidence of which was visible and odiferous as I passed them on the river bank.

Mostly it was the sea-birds I followed.

swallowHieroglyph Swallow, a.frostly.com

E.H. Gombrich tells us in his Little History of the World: “If you want to know where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow.” That’s where they fly every autumn, over the Alps to Italy, across the sea, to the Nile valley. My golondrina: the swallow, for centuries the talisman of seamen—square riggers manned by seamen with barn swallow tattoos on their arms and chests. The swallow delivered a lost sailor’s soul safely to the Underworld. A Pharaoh tells us in the Pyramid Texts he has “gone to the great island in the midst of the Field of Offerings on which the swallow gods alight; the swallows are the imperishable stars.”

Poems in my book, Fishing On The Pole Star, describe birds circling or diving into weeds banked on shoals where small fish are feeding, larger ones under them, and at the bottom tier great creatures with silver fins that break the surface, incarnate beams of light. Aloft on the tuna tower of our boat, a small seat on top of a ten foot ladder rising from our bridge, I admired the weave of worlds from Bimini to the Planas. For years the sun drenched waters appeared to be as they had always been. Then the veil fell from my eyes. I’d been like those Fernand addressed at the pool-party, unaware of the slime.

The Waste Land referred to in Parzival, and revived as a theme by T.S. Eliot, links the mythic to the ecological narrative. The state of the physical world is a reflection of the psychological one in which we live. Our willingness to read and understand it depends on our ability to tolerate the pain in that recognition, and our desire to heal it.

Changes in Bahamian and Caribbean waters have been incremental, but can be measured in bleached reefs, diminishing schools of tuna, the paucity of local catch, and marlin moving further south to Piñas Bay. Sea birds—cormorant, frigate, pelican, heron, and kingfisher—that dive with satellite precision, are the unifying connection of above to below. What becomes of them as the fish populations dwindle? “Who cares for their feathers now?”

Changes in temperature provide a breeding ground for stinging mites that make it impossible to swim in certain locations without a wet suit.

Cays with white sand beaches that held no footprint are now virtual stages where Bahamians set up a fake village for Holland American Line cruise ships, where tourists buy folk art, drink rum punch, and dance to a reggae band before cruising on, unaware they’ve been in Disneyland. It might’ve been a protected beach for halcyon birds to hatch their eggs, but who can protect them from cruise ships?

We’ve come a long way from the Pharaoh’s great island tenanted by imperishable sparrows. All assumptions about endlessly resilient Mother Nature are no longer tenable. NASA photos reveal we live on a frangible sphere wrapped in atmospheric lace. We are now cognizant of five previous extinctions.
Where does the extinction of our species fit in?

In addition to species, we are also aware that words and feelings can become extinct, the once rich chords on the emotional scale reduced to simple notes. Awe, a word once a referring to a transformative experience, has been reduced to a trivial response in every day speech.

What happens to us, and to the natural world when we remain unconscious and therefore unable to address the wound?

Olson puts it another way: What happens when only the feathers are left?

Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, ca. 1350 BC, British Museum


7 – Focusing on the Feathers

Olson’s emphasis on the bird and its feathers makes me think of ancient Egypt. In the Ur-myth Isis re/members the severed parts of her husband Osiris thrown into the Nile by his jealous brother, Seth. With the help of Ibis-headed Toth, she retrieves all but his phallus, swallowed by a fish. This doesn’t prevent Osiris from fathering an only begotten son, Horus, his representative on earth. We might call Horus, the falcon: Consciousness Fathered by the Wounded One.

Osiris takes his place as Lord of the Underworld (Duat) where he presides over the fate of souls after death, depicted in hieroglyphs as birds that fly into the underworld. Osiris guides the soul, dis/membered by death, in a transformation through which the wound is healed and the soul restored in the body of Osiris—fulfilling what will be articulated in the Great Christian Mystery: “my father and I are one.”

baNerfertari as Ba, Tomb Painting, 3,200 BC

The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom clearly tell us that souls in the Duat are “regularly and continually” challenged to undergo transformation.  The union of the ba (embodied soul) and the ka (vital spark), form a third, the akh (the effective one). The akh, as the pure light of consciousness, is represented in hieroglyph by a crested ibis, bird of the wise god Toth. The Pyramid Text stipulates that should the ferryman refuse to transport King Unas’ soul to the other side: He will leap and sit on the wing of Toth.

Papyri and tomb walls exhibit images of birds and feathers everywhere. For the world’s oldest high culture, birds embodied distinct intelligences essential to specific gods and goddesses. Amon, the “hidden source” or uncreated creator is a feathered crow.  Amentet, the setting sun, who prepares souls for rebirth, appears with wings and holding a hawk’s feather. Shu, god of the atmosphere, wears ostrich feathers. Isis, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, sports a vulture head dress and the rainbow wings of a kite. Horus is a falcon. Osiris wears white feathers on either side of his crown. Ra, the Sun and first Pharaoh, has a hawk’s head. Kephri, at sunrise, becomes the Bennu, or risen Phoenix. A single feather belonging to Ma’at on the scale in the Hall of Two Truths determines the fate of all souls. Souls lighter than her feather become Akh and are welcomed to paradise. Those less fortunate are devoured by the crocodile jaws of Ammit.

ostrich wingsGoddess of Balance, Ma’at spreads her ostrich wings over gods and humans.

Sea-birds also link the world above to the one below. Their feathers are talismans. Olson’s kingfishers vanish into the shadows. Their feathers are evidence of a forgotten unity that calls to us unheard. Birds, visible by day, accompany Ra’s solar barc on its Night Sea Journey through the underworld, as did the golandrina, which I failed to recognize as my ba-bird. Birds, especially the swallows, become the vehicles for souls in the underworld, and for their transformation. The Bennu, the Egyptian phoenix, rises and sets with the sun.

The Osiris Mystery, as both myth and ritual, marks the early intuition of an objective intelligence in the unconscious. The drama of transformation in the Underworld describes the potential that takes place in our own psychological depths. Olson’s representation of the soul as kingfisher, a force precipitating the unchanging will to change, and its loss, constitutes more than his own gloss on the old myth, but a new one for our time. Perhaps the de-potentiation of mythology itself, the loss of any symbolic narrative that gives culture coherence and the way of enlarging individual consciousness.

Parzival’s healing question can only be asked by one who has been weighed in the balance of Ma’at and become an akh. Olson’s poem, “The Kingfishers,” is an 11th hour cry for help!

“The pool the kingfisher’s feather were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

When the symbolic links disappear, we are left with lassitude. Anything more is difficult to grasp, certainly the world as a coherent whole. Fernand speaks from the shadows about the devalued kingfisher feathers. He addresses those who sit mindlessly around the stagnant pool full of slime. In the end what he asks is rhetorical, not so much a probe as a hook.

Drawn by the potential for transformation, the changeless will to change, Parzival becomes an embodied soul and asks the healing question. But what happens when Parzival, the Fisher King and the Grail itself disappear from consciousness altogether?


8 -Rubedo, The Reddening

Olson loved to dig among stones. Indecipherable Mayan Glyphs spoke to him of buried intelligence in images of serpents and birds, heads dressed in woven feathers, the rise and fall of a high civilization incised on clay tablets. These elusive messages held valuable if undisclosed information: how do advanced systems decline into devalued plumage, slime in the pool.

I pose you your question:
Shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among the stones

In the coastal Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, and rubble of “Dogtown”, the Gloucester settlement abandoned after 1812, Olson was drawn to the haunt of civilizations that carved the clues to their demise in stone. He knocks on the door of the unconscious.

b8899ccb1dcf17ffe1cdcfddad9775edCourage, Dogtown, Gloucester/Cape Anne

Olson asks, Shall we find honey where maggots are? He might be speaking of the alchemical work which begins in the decomposing nigredo. He may be referring to the condition of mythological structures that once supported these high civilizations now sinking into the earth, and our own, on the way to becoming a Waste Land.

Olson begins Section 2 of “The King Fishers” with the self-mythologizing Mao, who forbids the centuries old custom of binding women’s feet, while proclaiming the risen sun, la lumiere,” as the symbol of a mythless society. In 1934 he will lead his followers on a long march toward l’aurore, and later, in 1949, as leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China, mount a cultural revolt outlined in his Little Red Book to entirely erase the past. After considering Mao’s position, the man who hunts among the stones weighs in.

He thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said

la lumiere”
mmbut the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
mmbut the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
mmhe got the color of his breast
mmfrom the heat of the setting sun!

In search of a myth for a mythless world, Olson’s avian avatar flies west, redness baked into its breast. He invites us to ride Ra’s Sunship into the underworld accompanied by swallows. In the Egyptian narrative the sun is totally eclipsed and for a moment faces the danger of total extinction. This happens every night. It appears to be what Olson wants us to consider.

8892_originalRa in the Sun Ship, Egyptian tomb painting, 1,200 BC

There are twelve houses one must pass through on the Egyptian Night Sea Journey corresponding to hours between sunset and sunrise. Each hour presents its own dangers. A Coffin Papyrus shows three ba-birds in the 5th hour there to protect Ra against devouring chaos, the serpent Apophis.

Temple at OptetRa uniting with Osiris, Temple of Optet, 1,200 BC

Ra grows darker and weaker as the hours pass; even his guardians are afraid. There is no guarantee that chaos will not at some point swallow Ra’s light. At the darkest hour, when it appears all may be lost, Osiris, “the Hidden Soul”, meets Ra face to face. In that moment, the high-voltage transformation takes place. In the Mystery of the Two become One, both are renewed. In the Duat souls are continually transformed into enlightened akh.

light_core_darkness_jungLight at the core of darkness, The Red Book, C.G. Jung

On a cosmic level this takes place nightly when wounded Ra consciousness is united to the Osiris intelligence in the unconsciousness. The union gives birth to a third in Kephri, the newborn Sun. This is also the end result of the Work, the red which alchemists call the rubedo. The transformation which starts with the blackening nigredo, moves through the bright white albedo, to Kephri’s light. Both the Egyptian Night Sea journey and the Alchemical phases can be viewed as the movement from despair, through understanding, to enlightenment.

A Hymn to Osiris states: “Thou risest in the horizon, thou givest light through the darkness…”

220px-Theatrum_Chemicum_Vol_I_page_1Theatrum Chemicum, Gerhard Dorn, 1661

Gerhard Dorn, the 16th Century alchemist prized by Charles Olson and Carl Jung, speaks of a “hidden third” arising from the two as “the medium enduring until now in all things…” Jung refers to this as a “synthesis of the conscious with the unconscious,” as a unio mystica. Ra’s transformational connection to Osiris can be compared to Parzival’s to the Fisher King; both describe this underlying unity in the alchemical marriage. Ironically, this was also observed by Chinese alchemists in antiquity and recorded in The Secret of the Golden Flower, which survived Mao’s “cultural revolution.” What the Egyptians called Akh, Western alchemists like Dorn the “philosophical stone,” the Chinese text refers to as the “Diamond Body”.

warhol-maotse-tung-seriesChairman Mao, Andy Warhol

Mao wasn’t interested in hieroglyphs or alchemy. Symbolic thought of any kind became anathema. His demythologized Revolution reduced civilization to a simple surface. Hence Olson’s open question: What happens when only the feathers are left?

He answers it in “The King Fishers” by attempting to re-mythologize the wounded cultural psyche, to locate the place in which the archetypal transformation enshrined in the sacred traditions of all cultures can occur. Even so, Olson feared that it might be beyond reach at the beginning of a period which he was the first to call “Post-Modern.”

Olson asks: Where do we find what we have lost?

“The Kingfishers” is a fragmented psychological treasure map missing that piece where X marks the spot. We are given clues: the changeless will to change, the king fishers, and in the absence of the seabirds, their lore and feathers—representations to challenge us in the absence of a living mythology. Of course there is always the possibility that what Mao did by coercion in China, we are doing in a Post-Internet world by attrition. We may be losing the ability as a species to bring the latent intelligence to light.


9 – The Alchemical Nest

Chaos stalks our hi-tech lives more powerfully than ever; one inspired hacker-child could send our infrastructure into a tailspin. The same holds true of our personal infrastructure. The Underworld is no longer the place in which souls are weighed or balance restored by Ma’at’s feather. Our psychology is haunted by forces denied, degraded, or disguised as ideologies, religious and political, that set us at odds. Fundamental religious beliefs fused to nationalist politics are fueled by thanatos, an unconscious death-wish. The ecology deteriorates while gods past and present disappear beneath the waves.

untitled colourPacal Descending to Xibalba, Tomb at Palenque, Mexico

In his study The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden Robert Johnson paraphrases Jung: “We no longer have Zeus but we have headaches instead. We no longer have Aphrodite and her noble feminine realm but we have gastric upsets. To dethrone anything from consciousness to unconsciousness is to diminish it in stature to a symptom.” Just so, the wounded Fisher King, split off from ourselves, becomes a hive of symptoms. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is inhabited by hollow men.

Will you leave it there? Pedrolino’s question is rhetorical. What will you tell them?

From his post on the wall, this black figure in his domed hat outlined by a white line on a black field gazes down from a moon face that glows like polished silver. He is the soul of old Ferrini, author of Know Fish. His words crawl through my mind.

“Tell whom?” I protest.

Pedrolino doesn’t answer, but I know. He is referring to those who will come to hear me read from Fishing On The Pole Star, directly followed by my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

It occurs to me that when only feathers are left, we must use them as lures.

Olson does just that; he uses feathers and stones the way a shaman employs a single bone to re/constitute the entire body. He builds the poem as king fishers do their nests with the remains of rotting fish bones. By gathering the “rejectamenta,” decaying bone splinters of myth, personal, and historical memory he builds to re/member.

it does nest with the opening year but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There
Six or eight white or translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
Not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds

I’ll describe to my audience the scene I witnessed on a bank of the Sibun River. I could smell the rotting fish bone chips from my canoe. Warmed by the heat of that decaying mass kingfisher eggs hatch on the bones of their prey. Future generations will rise from this matrix of remains. From its heat, words are born, take flight, hover and dive. It suddenly strikes me that Olson’s poem about the process is itself a nest of decaying bone chips.

Pay attention, whispers Pedrolino. “You’re close.”

I stop and listen. An idea comes in an open inner window—an insight. Not simply a piece of information, but an epiphany. I must instruct my audience not simply to see what is being described here with the mind’s eye, but to bring all the senses to bear—to hear the birds chatter, feel the river flow beneath the craft, touch the oars, the gunnels, smell the decaying bone chips, let the sulphurous odor of the nests sting the nostrils. Instead of solving the mystery he presents in the opening of “The Kingfishers”, Olson gradually shifts the emphasis from product to process. We must be in it totally to realize what is going on here. The question of what happened to the kingfishers is never answered in the poem—but by the poem. What fledges from it dives like a sea-bird into the unconscious.

Contemplating-the-Origin-of-Thought-An-Exercise-from-The-Secret-of-the-Golden-FlowerContemplating Mind Before Thought, Secret of the Golden Flower, 1668


10 – Parsing (Parsivalizing) the Question

In his Holocaust memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel describes the secret teaching received by his young alter-ego, Elie, before the entire shtetle was transported to Auschwitz. Bare-foot Moshe the Beadle, who cleans the synagogue, instructs his young protégée, “At the end of your life God measures you by the depth of your question.”

In this teaching, authority isn’t captured by the answer. The deepest question answers itself by deepening. The mythos lies too deep for words but can be alluded to in a myth. Such is the wisdom imparted at the beginning of Wiesel’s narrative that portrays the naked depravity under the veneer of civilization capable of destroying ancient cultures and turning cities into rubble.

Olson asks, “The Kingfishers! / Who cares/ For their feathers/Now?”

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in The Rye, wants to know, “Where do ducks in winter go?”

Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval inquires, “Who does the Grail serve?”

Von Eschenbach’s Parzival wants to know, “What ails thee?”

From Isis to Olson, we are challenged to re/member what has been left to languish in the dark. In every case, the healing power of the question is measured by the depth of the one who asks it. But what if the question itself is forgotten, lost, out of reach—or, more to the point, there is no

one to bring it full voice into the world?

25Parzival on journey lighter72_900Parzival, from the Feirefiz Project, Liz Neilson


11 – Spreading the Word

Olson’s vanished kingfisher constitutes a loss of myth, and with it our connection to the unconscious, its potential to transform fragmented souls, the ka and ba of us, into an akh, “the effective one” or pure light of consciousness. As a consequence, something has slipped from our grasp that once linked atoms to the stars and bound existence into a unified whole.

“The Kingfishers,” begins with a comment that might easily go unremarked: He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He / remembered only one thing, the birds

I might have disregarded it entirely had I not been for my encounter with the spirit of place, the essence of old Ferrini caught by an etching on the wall. No sooner had I named him Pedrolino, than he spoke to me, as he does three days later, after I wake from the same recurring dream. I’m in a room full of folding chairs. They are empty at first, then people file in to fill them. They’ve come to hear my talk. I smile at them. They smile back. Everyone is dressed in blue and green: my ba-birds. I wake in cold sweat.

osiris_nefertariOsiris, Tomb of Nefertari

There has to be something I can tell them about “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

Listen, counsels Pedrolino.

I just need a little more time to tie things together. These are my two thoughts and perhaps from them a third will follow. 1) Olson fishes the imagination for something born on a nest of decaying bones, that voice from the underworld speaking through him, the poet, telling us to hear in this moment what “was differently heard// as, in another time…” and 2) birds guide dead souls in the underworld, and shield Ra in the 5th hour of his Night Sea Journey from the devouring maw of Apophis, which would extinguish the light. Then it comes to me, out of the tension of the two, a third suggested in von Eschenbach’s Parzival 3) that the lapis exilies, or Holy Grail was delivered to us by “the neutral angels” while a war between opposing camps raged in heaven. This may be an expression of the unchanging potential inherent in our psychic structure, a constant that binds our atoms to the stars; our mission is to apprehend what we already contain, the numinous as the thing in itself.

The message I will convey to my audience of ba-birds, is this: each one of us is a wounded Fisher King trolling uncertain waters. We must keep our lines in, follow the sea-birds. The voice we listen for is equally uncertain. It comes through us, “heard differently//as in another time,” but is not our own. The fate of the world from which it rises depends on it.

ad7c4-olson-birdseye2cjpg“O city of mediocrity…”, Olson is Gone, But We Are Here, Peter Anastas, 12.24.14


12 – Epilogos

Charles Olson sought out Carl Jung when the latter spoke at Harvard in 1938, and engaged him in conversation about Herman Melville. The fever dream of wounded Ahab’s obsession with the whale pales in anticipation of the world driven to the brink of the abyss. Olson published “The Kingfishers” in 1949, long after public knowledge of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima had redefined civilization, and the year that Mao established the Peoples’ Republic of China. Jung was also putting together the connection between the transformations described by the Sun’s journey through the underworld, the Alchemical Work and his own theory of individuation as a transformative relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

The Belgian alchemist Gerhard Dorn summed up the situation in his Theatrum Chemicum: “The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are of one and the same sun.” Olson and Jung were drawn to Dorn, a fellow Fisher King.

Olson plaquePlaque on Fort Street, Paul Pines, 8.2014

I feel Olson this afternoon as I walk through town to Fort Street to find the modest multiple dwelling house facing the bay. A plaque affixed to the peeling white wall is a tribute to the insistence of Henry Ferrini, as much as it to Charles Olson. My host at the Gloucester Writers Center, and Vincent’s nephew, Henry petitioned the city fathers for the installation until they relented. It remains the only physical evidence that locates Olson where he lived, looking out at the channel between the Inner and Gloucester Harbor.

Today, Gorton’s huge plant that hugs the shore along Roger’s Street facing the State Fish Pier processes frozen catch from foreign waters. The depleted local fishing grounds, and the plant that packages fish for export echo the missing kingfishers in the poem. I marvel that it was Olson who coined the term that defined such an age: Post Modern. And that he found in Gloucester material to create a mythic monument to what had been lost.

In Parzival the question is asked and answered; at the end, the Fisher King is healed and the land restored. In our time, we have yet to frame the question.

We fish to bring it to light. This is the theme of my book, Fishing On The Pole Star.

There’s a moment in my book, after weeks on the troll, just beyond Concepcion Island, when I hook a three hundred pound marlin, fight him for almost two hours, then bring him to the starboard side of our boat. Our mate holds him in place to “swim him.” The idea here is to quiet the creature and move him slowly until the water circulating through his gills restores color depleted after our struggle.

Color is important.

No shark in the ocean can best a marlin in full bloom. Dimmed, he is doomed.

Our big boy allows us to swim him until bands of green and blue blossom the length of his body. Then he bites down gently on the hand of the man who is holding him to signal he’s ready. The power in his great jaws could take the arm of his handler off at the shoulder with little effort—but the touch is delicate, almost reverential. Upon release, he rides up over the gunnel to meet our eyes with his large circular orb, full of an intelligence so balanced, so complete, I glimpse in it the Divine Child, and also The Grail. I think, Here is the constant which links the atom to the stars, and binds existence into a whole.

And then he is gone.

surrealist-art-2-by-artist-vladimir-kush-on-desartsSunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

—Paul Pines



PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He had published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numero Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend

Aug 052015

Janice Galloway via The ScotsmanJanice Galloway via The Scotsman


I.In the eponymous story from her most recent collection, Jellyfish, Janice Galloway shows her genius for the ‘ouch’ principle: the wince-inducing collision of something exposed and over-sensitive with something brutal and sadistic.

We feel it coming; harbingers and hints surround Monica and her four-year-old son, on an outing to the beach as a last hurrah, the day before school starts. Alert to the impending separation, Monica sees danger and careless indifference all around her: in the mother who chats to a friend, unaware that her toddler in his buggy hangs over the kerb, too close to the wheels of a passing lorry; in the angry father swearing viciously at his little boy. She worries too much, she wants to protect. Somewhere between the wild beauty of the coast and the unsavoury piles of rubbish dumped by locals, they come across a parliament of stranded jellyfish. Transparent and ‘gummy’, out of their natural environment, one of them is little more than viscous pulp, object of blunt force trauma by human hand. How is the mother to explain this act of random violence on something so exquisitely vulnerable? ‘Maybe they hurt it – her voice faltered – they hurt it just because it can’t stop them.’ Ach, the jellyfish, so hopelessly undefended, not even a skin to mask its insides; the stupid jellyfish, out of its element and asking for trouble. The sight is painful because Monica – and through her eyes, the reader – knows how it feels, recognizes how easily one might end up in its place, how a cherished child might end up in its place. Characters in Galloway’s books are often alive to their inner jellyfish, and aware of – even enduring – the myriad situations in which the hammer may fall.

The recent Guardian review of Jellyfish suggested that these stories held new departures for Galloway in their focus on the parent-child relationship and the natural world. But both make fine provocations for the sort of catastrophic thinking typical to her work; thinking that has flowed and been repressed so many times it creates a carboniferous pragmatism. In the story that intrigued me perhaps the most, Eric Blair (otherwise known as George Orwell), is living with his young son on the Scottish West Coast island of Jura after the death of his wife, Eileen. It’s a hardscrabble existence in a place with no amenities and only the most basic of resources, and Blair is in denial over the diagnosis of his own soon-to-be-fatal tuberculosis. ‘You don’t fight an illness by fighting it; it gives not a hoot about your stoicism,’ the doctor tells him. But Blair is nothing if not stubborn: ‘Rest was not an appropriate response to encroaching lack of breath, lack of power. They had no idea what they were asking.’

Jellyfish - Janice Galloway

Inside his mind, two concerns breed fear; his belief that another war is coming, and his determination to ‘toughen up’ his young son. Excessive fear promotes a formidable fight response, but Blair cannot allow himself anything as weak as emotions; they must harden into ideologies. The story follows his trip to the general stores where he asks whether his parcel – a firearm – has arrived (it hasn’t), and then he begins the twenty mile return trip on his motorbike. The sound of a gunshot from the hills unsettles him so much he comes off the bike, but he’s okay ‘after a fashion’. Menace and machismo shadow box across the pages. He continues hoping for another five years in which to finish his novel and form his son: ‘He’d ruddy well achieve it by means of will alone.’ He was to die less than two years later. But his novel, 1984, the crystallisation of sadism and denial of feeling into a society in which only the broken would survive, lived a dark and splendid life after him.

It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist, from an artist who grew up in what seemed to be a sort of Scottish working-class family microcosm of 1984. Love in the form of brutality, the grim reckoning that the worst would be likely to happen and the best would be to face up to it, deprivation of all kinds, were basic elements of Galloway’s upbringing that transmuted into her writing. But her literary imagination tempers its casual cruelty with tenderness and a cautious optimism. Critics use the word ‘visceral’ a lot, but note the glittering seam of black humour. The New York Times Book Review memorably claimed her work ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy rewritten by Sylvia Plath’, which we might reasonably take to mean that she is an original. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989) won the MIND/Allen Lane award, and was followed by two more novels, two short story collections and, before Jellyfish, two extraordinary memoirs that took the reader deep into the phenomenology of childhood whilst advising caution towards a simple overlap of reality and narrative. There were prizes all around. Not bad for a woman who claimed that an artistic vocation was unimaginable for her as she ‘thought writers were wealthy people who just wrote things out of the goodness of their heart and gave them as gifts.’



Janice Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Scotland, to a mother who ‘thought I was the menopause’. In the mythic version Galloway tells in her memoir, This Is Not About Me, which might be the true one for all she knows, her mother was unaware of the pregnancy until her waters broke, perhaps in denial of the freedom-busting, life-ending truth. The young Janice is never in doubt about her status as nuisance. ‘If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d just bloody known.’ Galloway’s father makes scant appearance in the pages, dying when Janice is only six, though when he’s there, he makes his mark felt. By throwing supper out the back door in a fit of temper, locking Janice inside and making her play chequers with him while her mother is locked out, knocking pitifully on the windows. And finally, setting fire (he was drunk and smoking) to the cigarette stand they owned but had not insured. Just over fifty pages in, she and her mother move into a tiny attic flat above the doctors’ surgery where her mother finds work as a cleaner.

This relative idyll does not last, for Janice’s older sister, Cora, joins them. Cora is seventeen years older and has left behind a husband and son of her own, and once her loud-voiced, gleefully selfish, hard-hitting, pan-sticked presence erupts into the pages, she stalks them like the fifty-foot woman of a B-movie. Galloway calls her Cora, though her real name was Nora, some sort of psychological distance being necessary even in a memoir. Cora takes up all the oxygen in their family and is dangerously jealous if her space, status and rule are in anyway infringed upon. ‘Delight to spite took seconds: there was no middle ground,’ Janice recalls. ‘She’ll be found dead up a close with her stockings around her neck one of these days, my mother said. Too bloody cheeky by half.’

Though it’s Janice whose life seems daily endangered. Cora is ‘handy’, which seems to mean useful for violence. She slaps, punches and headbutts her little sister, locks her in a cupboard, sets fire to her hair. Their mother is too tired and too defeated to intervene, and she loves Cora and cannot escape her thrall. The potency of the daemonic, the Greek concept of an unstoppable force of energy that could be turned either to good or evil, is Cora’s superpower. ‘Even wedged into a chair, Cora charged the air with electricity. Something around her crackled fit to kill flies and drop them at her feet in crispy little packets. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.’ She’s mean, but she’s fearless and vividly sexual. Janice is allowed to watch, enthralled, as Cora paints her face on, pours herself into a too-tight bodice and seamed nylons. A trip to the fair with her is high-octane stuff, all thrills and reckless spending. As Janice staggers dizzily off the walzer, Cora ‘walked in a straight line with her hands on her hips to prove it. Nothing beats me, she said. I could stay on that thing all night and not turn a hair.’ But one minute Jekyll, the next Hyde. When their mother has the chance to work full-time, her concern about Janice being all right alone in the two-bed council flat (they moved back in once her father died) becomes Cora’s decision she won’t get in at all. ‘You give her a key and she’ll let people in. Either that or somebody will take it off her. She can wait in the fresh air. It’s good for her.’

this is not about me

In fact, Janice likes the peace in the garden, and there’s the coal-shed if it rains or snows. Although Galloway would later say in interview with Stuart Kelly that ‘The expectation of brutality used to be a commonplace part of most [Scottish] upbringings’, there is a particularly intense quality of disenfranchisement about young Janice, a too-stark awareness of her lack of value, except as emotional punch-bag. The drama in her small household, ruled by Medusa and the Furies, turns her inward, gives her the obsessive good-girl mentality of someone who knows she does not simply deserve the oxygen she breathes. The memoir displays the close-grained hypervigilant powers of observation that come from the traumatised, or as Gareth McLean in The Guardian puts it, ‘her eye for detail comes from having watched life occur while maintaining not so much a dignified silence as a petrified one.’ We’ve been told from the start that this is not about her, and the key to understanding Janice’s story is to recognise the myriad truths in this statement. Her mother’s suicide attempt, her sister’s disappearance, from which she returns bruised and close-lipped, the screaming rows, all the crucible of disturbing events in which Janice is forged, stem from a history that predates her.

‘Watching their faces as they hurled half-understood insults at each other, the feeling of being in the way while most of it raged over my head was letting something else dawn as well. This wasn’t about me…. This was about Cora and mum; mum and Cora doing something they’d done since Cora left Glasgow behind and turned up at the attic… Longer even than that. Weans, my mother said. As though there had been more than one baby Cora had left behind. If I’m man-daft, where did I learn it? I’ve dealt with my troubles. My troubles. It was always the same in our house. Nothing you knew was solid.’

If the young Janice is obliterated by the emotional warfare carrying on around her (in a way that psychologists would suggest is the basis for most severe neuroses), she finds some comfort in knowing she is not its cause. Her place in the world is formed before she ever entered it, by a cross-hatching of fierce emotional currents, the legacy of ancient events, bitter disappointments and sacrifices, in the lives of those who supposedly care for her. Galloway is clear that there is love, that her own childish spirit, even if oppressed, still finds ways to slip free, but the climate and the conditions in which love and freedom find form are not in her control. This is the reality of all childhoods, but most children feel guilty and responsible anyway. The extreme weather of Galloway’s young life may stunt her growth, but it liberates her perspective.

If This Is Not About Me was about the origins of that ‘ouch’ principle, the collision of Janice’s innocence and vulnerability with her sister’s ruthless violence and her mother’s tough love, the next volume of memoir, All Made Up, is about putting Janice together again from the scraps of self left over after the carnage. As a child, she was good at schoolwork and liked singing. As she becomes an adolescent, music will take an ever greater role in her life. Latin will become an unexpected love. And there will be boys, of course, and inevitably. It’s not that conditions change much – within a couple of pages of the start of the book, Cora has broken her nose. And at the end, when Janice is dressed up in borrowed finery for an evening out with her fiancé, Cora takes one look before launching a plate of stew at her. So no change there, then; but Janice grows into her hardiness, her ability to flourish on very little soil and sunshine, and despite her family’s injunction to cultivate shame and self-doubt. ‘I think it’s part of the Scottish temperament: always waiting for something to cut you down to size,’ she later said in an interview.


The memoir races through the key points once Janice has left home for Glasgow university and a degree in music. Her mother died when she was 26, Cora died of a smoking-related illness in 2000 (and the sisters had barely met since Janice left home). This means that when Galloway sat down to write her memoirs, the main characters of her cast were not breathing over her shoulder. She was aware of writing exactly the sort of truthful account of their living conditions they would have hated, but Galloway had come to understand that old, uncomfortable need to pretend was motivated by working-class shame. When she gave her mother a telephone, she would only speak on it in a Yorkshire accent: ‘Even her voice wasn’t good enough to expose,’ she said. But in all the interviews she gave about her memoirs, Galloway is insistent that the mother and sister who appear within their pages are not direct transpositions: ‘I am a writer. You’re not writing people, you’re writing versions of people that fit into a story version of something universal as well as something ideosyncratic.’ But I have to wonder whether this barrier is not there to protect the dead, but to keep Galloway safe from their ghosts. In an article she wrote in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, she admitted that her sister had tracked her down once she realised she was ‘writing stuff’. ‘She phoned me. How she got my number I haven’t an idea. I recognized the voice immediately, however: if I thought I was It I had another think coming, she said. Do you hear? Pack it in. I felt 11 again and almost wept.



Janice Galloway’s first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is an unruly narrative of a distressed and disobedient mind. The ironically named Joy Stone is a teacher in her 20s whose chaotic love life has tipped her over the edge of breakdown. The married man she has been living with – enough of a scandal in itself – drowned on a holiday abroad they took together and Joy’s grief is all the more unwieldy for being that of a mistress, socially unrecognized and unpermissable. She lives in Michael’s house (subject to further legal battles) on a sterile estate with poor transport links, while her own jerry-built house is slowly rotting away. Joy has no one to turn to. Her best friend, Marianne, has emigrated to America, her family consists of a sister, Myra, who ‘could just stand and scare me to death.’ Health care professionals are worse than useless. Joy imagines saying to her weary and indifferent GP: ‘Ok, let’s talk straight. You ask me to talk then you look at your watch… Can’t you send me to someone who’s paid to have me waste their time? You don’t know what to do with me but you keep telling me to come back.’ And all the time she is sinking deeper into bulimia and depression. She is the prototype jellyfish; a quivering wreck of exposed nerve endings.

Or you could read her as a 20th century version of Job, a woman crumbling under an onslaught of calamities specific to being an abandoned Scottish woman in the late 1980s in poor mental health. This is not a story that begs our sympathy, though, despite the rigors of Joy’s plight. Her exquisite vulnerability, which we readers are invited to witness as intimately as possible, from a ringside seat within Joy’s psyche, is played out on the page as an innovative typographical display that’s entirely distracting. There’s a cordon around Joy’s pain that comes from her own lack of lack of sympathy towards herself and the velvety-black humour that springs irascibly from her narration, as well as the experimental features of the text, attention-grabbing features of a verbal energy that ricochets around the pages, out of control, the underside of a too-tightly held persona masking inner collapse.

‘o yes
when I was good I was very very good but
there was more going on below the surface.
There always is.’

In the fragmentary text, words jump out from unexpected places and bleed into the margins, sentences trail unfinished, white space marks missing time and emotional dislocation, italics indicate the presence of memories that remain unintegrated. There’s no order to the story, and no neat boundaries either in the form of orthodox chapter divisions or quotations marks around speech. There’s just an uneven torrent of words acting out, or else a parodic inclusion of conventions: play scripts, for instance, marking cliched conversations, lists, excerpts from magazines spouting cultural commonplaces, and marching imposingly across the narrative, the dreaded mantras of mental health:

The More Something Hurts, the More it can Teach Me…
I write:
…..Persistence is the Only Thing That Works.

I forgot to write:
…..Beware of the Maxim.
…..Neat Phrases hide Hard Work.
…..Everything Worth Having is Hard as Nails.’

A beautifully unarticulated paradox rises up from all this verbal play, in which the insufficiency of such mantras is almost insulting in comparison to the depth of Joy’s disorientation and pain. But such inadequate linguistic supports are all that exist as a bridge back to normal life. Galloway is nothing if not respectful to the reality of her protagonist’s state, and little is resolved by the end of the narrative. But there are the earliest hints of healing; tiny shards of optimism that stud the conclusion with welcome precursors of light.

Talking of cautious optimism, her second novel proved that her characters were at least ready to risk travelling abroad again. In Foreign Parts (1994), Rona and Cassie are friends of long-standing, and mildly mismatched travelling companions who have come to spend their precious fortnight off work in France. Short of cash and feeling unworthy of culture, they know ‘that proper holidays are for proper people with proper money and that real travellers, in denim bermudas of uneven leg length, travel to real faraway places in search of real poor people enduring real life in the raw. We are neither real nor proper: just fraudulent moochers in other people’s territory, getting by on the cheap.’ Cassie, source of the narrative voice though it floats, according to Cassie’s mood, between first, third and even second person, is sensitive, observant, moody and questing for something real and meaningful. Rona is stolid, calm, accepting and happy to tick the vacational boxes. Their differences come to a crunch mostly over the guidebook they have brought with them, entitled ‘Potted France’, whose injunctions to notice historical features enrage Cassie with their vapidity.

foreign parts

Threaded in between the stages of their journey are descriptions of photographs from holidays Cassie has taken with boyfriends in the past and the memories they evoke. Not that these holidays have been any better than the one Cassie is currently on. Holidays fall into a similar category to horoscopes, magazine articles and self-help books for Janice Galloway’s main characters: they are places where the commonplace fantasy of achieving something splendid cracks under the weight of recalcitrant reality. Rona, Cassie tells us, at times when they are sleeping in the car, or in some terrible 50 franc-a-night dive, ‘loves games of not admitting hellishness is hellish.’ But Cassie, like Joy Stone, is in no mood to pretend. And more than that, there is an unspoken but deep-rooted belief in both books that anything revelatory, real, valuable or significant, can only come from an unflinching scrutiny of the situation. When Cassie does transcend the ordeal of pointlessness that is tourism – in Chartres cathedral, playing house in a gîte they hire, standing on the beach at Veulettes before taking the ferry home – these moments have a full-bodied poetry about them that can only come from patient attendance on the authentic.

As such, this is a novel wilfully rejecting a number of conventions; it is not the buddy road trip or travel novel that we might be expecting. Cassie’s sharp edges puncture any such glib journeying. More confusing to its readers (if Goodreads reviews are any indication) is Cassie’s conclusion as the end of the trip nears, that she is no longer interested in a heterosexual relationship, but considering the possibility of moving in with Rona. Cassie and Rona may squabble and bicker, but there is a mutual understanding and recognition between them that is missing, as far as Cassie is concerned, from a relationship with a man: ‘They don’t have the same priorities, to be able to organise their priorities in a compatible way with ours,’ she explains. Cultural fantasy rears its head again, to be cut down to size: ‘The knight on a white charger is never going to come, Rona. You know why? Because he’s down the pub with the other white knights, that’s why.’ If there are generalisations going on here, then they belong to a Scottish culture that lags behind the times (‘There are real gender problems in my country,’ Galloway said once in interview). But what Cassie wants is something free from all sexual and domestic norms. The life she envisages with Rona has no recognisable, culturally-approved shape, resists all labels and orthodoxies.

Right at the start of the book, the first sign Cassie and Rona see when they get off the ferry says: BRICOLAGE. This is a common sign in France, indicating a D.I.Y. store, but its original meaning is one of Heath Robinson-type construction, using bits and pieces of other things to create something new. For this reason it was borrowed by the nouveaux romanciers in the 50s and 60s to describe a kind of literary experimentalism that took apart the nuts and bolts of narratives and put the pieces back together in innovative ways. It stands as a fine sign to hang across Foreign Parts, too, in which the patchwork of travel guides, lists, overheard conversations, street signs, flashbacks and letters correspond at a technical level to the unorthodox ways of experiencing travel and building relationships that are its themes. The disparate and the heterogeneous are more playful, less threatening than in Trick, the anxiety and anger about a dissatisfying present are soothed in this novel into something forward-looking and hopeful.

Galloway’s third novel, Clara (2002), was in some respects a departure, a long, lyrical account of the life of Clara Schumann, child prodigy, world-famous concert pianist and composer. Clara passes from the tyrannical hands of an overbearing father, a piano teacher whose love for her resides in her responsiveness to his teaching and who basks in her reflected glory, to those of her husband, Robert Schumann, mad, melancholy, ambitious in his own right and unequal to tolerating a more famous and successful wife. It’s essentially a study of the discipline, the strategems and the sacrifices a woman like Clara must make in order to stay in touch with her musical creativity. Concerns about gender, freedom and madness abound, tethered to historical and biographical realities.

There is still experimentation, but what’s intriguing is that it is so seamlessly incorporated into the narrative it’s oddly harmonious, rather than disruptive. There are phrases from musical scores, poems, lists (of course) and the use of different font sizes. The latter are easy to decode, for they range from the huge beetling-black words of fortissimo, to the smaller fonts of diminuendo. Lists are staccato, poetry is cantabile, all is effortlessly woven into a smoothly flowing, wordy andante narrative. The voice nimbly skips between the heads of Clara, her father and her husband, able to pick up on a wide variety of moods, constantly singing.


In her interview with Stuart Kelly, Galloway denies that her use of experimentation in the early novels was ‘politically motivated’, saying instead that she ‘just didn’t know how to write a story’. Whispering in her ear, perhaps, was the shade of her sister, telling her that if she thought she was It she should just pack it in. The experimentation, in all probability instinctual, reveals a sophisticated understanding of the landscape of the mind when functioning in a state of extreme fear, duress, or misery. Those fragmented, discontinuous texts showed how words could perch unabsorbed upon the mind’s surface, how other voices within might be heckling from the sidelines, how memories repeatedly broke through any stable crust in the present with unwelcome or alien messages. But over the years there is a distinct progression in Galloway’s novels, one that has the appearance, not of anything as facile as healing, but of steady incorporation, acceptance of the ‘hellishness’ for what it is, a breaking down of old parts in order to put them together again, economically, in something new. After Clara came her memoirs, her darkest and her funniest works, the most revealing and the most accessible. Galloway had always been a formidably innovative storyteller; now the novelty was that the story could tell itself straight.



In the final tale in Jellyfish, ‘distance’, Martha is all alone on a trip to Jura, site of George Orwell’s last days. Many years ago now, when she was an insecure young mother, her small son cut his head open on a glass table and the accident unleashed some reckoning with the arbitrary and inevitable nature of catastrophe that has never been resolved. Her solution back then was to divorce her husband and allow him custody, afraid that her own fears would prove contaminatory to her child. Since then, Martha has cut herself off, taking only supply teaching work so she should never be lulled into the responsibility of relationships. Though the invisibility begins to tell. Attempting to teach Orwell to a class of resistant children, she tells them about the time he saved his four-year-old son from drowning in a sailing incident. ‘Sometimes, she said, there’s more to people than meets the eye. Repressed and paranoid and dying is not a whole picture of anyone.’

And maybe Martha is dying; in her forties now, with an burgeoning disease that is gynacological, possibly serious, possibly not, she decides to take this solo trip to Jura. The freedom feels easeful, at night watching the waves she understands: ‘There was no hidden code, no message, no meaning. What happened out there was random, wholly without blame or favour. In the end, nothing hinged on human decisions, nothing demanded retribution or just deserts: what happened was just what happened.’ Then, driving back to her lodgings in the darkness, listening on the car radio to Mozart’s Queen of the Night, she runs over a deer. Martha staggers over to the beast, longing to comfort it, afraid her touch will terrify it further. ‘Dislocated bars of Mozart were gusting like feathers in the night air,’ as she tends to the animal and her own relentless blundering in the world. ‘I’m here, she said, her words bouncing off the surrounding rocks and rising, furious, into the solid dark. I’m here. I’m here.’

And here Galloway’s voice remains, holding fast to its lament of risk and vulnerability, innocence and brutality that cannot be resolved. Instead, the elements are left suspended in uneasy harmony together, awaiting conclusion, a perfect augmented chord.

—Victoria Best


Victoria Best

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

Jul 092015


It was in Iowa City where I first met Ray Carver. He was then teaching at the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t recall what I was doing there, maybe being interviewed for the kind of job Ray had: you teach one semester or two, and then someone takes your place. (In fact I did that a few years later.) Or maybe I was just passing through to see my friends Marvin Bell and Jack Leggett. Speak memory?

Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.

In the car I talked; Ray did not. Or at least not much. I told him what I thought about his fiction, especially Fat, using the two terms that in those days were applied to his work: “K Mart Fiction” and “Minimalist Fiction,” what Granta called “dirty realists”—that’s those Brits for you. Reading his stories, I said, he had taught me a few things. You don’t need much teaching, he said, and tried the bottle on me a second time. I’ll put it on your desk in EPB, I said. Thanks, he said.

I also asked where he was going. It was probably a Wednesday afternoon. You could teach either a Monday-Wednesday schedule at the workshop or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. Ray had apparently picked Monday-Wednesday. But now that I think about it, he might have made special arrangements to teach Monday-Tuesday for reasons that I would learn later had to do with his flight that day.

Chicago, he said.  Chicago? He said nothing more.

Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar. He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hill and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” Frank Martin looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his, The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. End of sermon,” he says, and then hitches his pants up and tugs his sweater down. ‘I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”

This passage is from Ray Carver’s story “Where I’m Calling From.” I will explain later.

The next time Ray Carver—in fact the next two times—came into my life were through his editors, one being Michel Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the aforementioned Gordon Lish of Esquire. In what order is also now lost to my apparently speechless memory.

At Washington College where I once taught we would bring in poets and writers for the students, but I thought a good literary editor might helpful as well. That had been my case when I was a student and the University of Arkansas MFA program brought to campus Ted Soloratoff of New American Review. In was in this spirit that I had invited Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic.

In advance of his arrival, he sent me a copy of the magazine in which Ray’s new story, “Cathedral,” had been published. It was not at all like the Ray Carver stories I had read in Esquire: It was long, very long, and there was nothing K-Mart about it. But there was something else: it rambled as a matter of design. Not shamble, because there was nothing awkward or clumsy about its pace. If Carver’s Esquire stories were tight in their telling, this one was loose. But in its fashion, beautifully telling.

At lunch that day with Curtis and students I thanked him for the Atlantic and said how much I enjoyed “Cathedral,” but that it was long for a Carver story. It is neither long, nor short, Mike said, it is the right length for the story. His answer seemed blunt, as if there were reasons behind it I did not understand. Which was true.

We then talked about length (as opposed to brevity) in short fiction, with Melville being part of the conversation, along with Katherine Anne Porter and J.D. Salinger. But I kept thinking how quickly Curtis had made his point about Carver. I refrained from asking about the absence of the K Mart stores in “Cathedral,” much less “dirty realism.”

It was a few years later (or earlier?) that also in the spirit of bringing an editor to campus that I invited Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire. The students at Washington College had a literary house for themselves where they would give readings, host visiting writers, hold a salon among themselves, publish literary magazines and, using a warren of rooms, write novels and stories and poems and plays. All through the house were framed posters of those literary folk who had stopped by: Edward Albee, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, John Barth , Katherine Ann Porter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, and more. The Washington Post called their house the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings. They put it on a T-shirt.

It was the custom of the literary students who inhabited the house to decide if the visitors were worthy or not. If not, the poster would be hung upside down. Very few were, but apparently they thought Gordon’s visit (consisting of conferences, classes, and a public lecture) was so poor they turned his poster to the wall. Done.

Well, not quite done. Some of the students pointed out that while Lish was of little or no help to them with their writing, through him, Ray Carver had been. Not that I knew this until I was told later that everywhere Gordon went on our campus (to a student reception for him; in classes; in the conferences he had with students over their work), he brought up Ray Carver: What a fine writer Carver was and that one way to develop as a writer was to read with a writer’s eye authors you admire. Ray Carver, Gordon Lish had asserted, will teach you by what he has written. Type out passages you like from his stories, Gordon told them, and he will teach you more than your creative writing teacher (that would have been me).

After some debate, and after the students began reading Carver, a new vote was taken and Gordon got turned around. Still upside down, but at least no longer a blank on the wall.

What those students learned from Ray Carver was probably what I had learned: his restraint in describing or delineating a character and in this way giving the character a chance of his own; his candor about the grim faults of those he had created; his half open-ended endings, as if a door is left ajar. I owe him.

The second time I met Ray was with Jack Barth at a bar in Baltimore to get something to eat before Ray was to give a reading at Johns Hopkins that evening. Ray was not drinking, Jack said by way of introduction. I nodded; Ray nodded back. I wondered if he had remembered me from Iowa City. I didn’t mention it; nor did he. We talked books and writers. I mentioned Ray’s use of Jack London in “Where I’m Calling From.” He told me had learned a lot from London, but not about drinking. That he had learned on his own.

In the pause among us, I asked Barth how he learned to be a writer. I was a failure at being a jazz musician, he said. And you? he asked me. In fact it was from Jack London, I said. How so, asked Ray?

I read “To Build A Fire” for a university course in American Literature and when I went to class the professor explained that the story was a Man-Against-Nature story. He explained that for fifty minutes. There are Man-Against-Man, Man-Against-Society, and Man-Against-Nature stories. The next class the professor explained that sometimes nature wins, sometimes man wins…and so on…for another fifty minutes.

Ray said he’d heard that lecture as well.

Somewhere in haze of those hundred minutes, I said, I found myself thinking how much I liked the writing in the story. The language of it. Shouldn’t that count for something in an English class? Not that I knew then what could be said about the language. But when I went back to my dorm room and read the story again the writing seemed splendid in ways I could not name so that in order (I now suppose) to understand what I admired, I propped the book up beside the portable Royal type writer my mother had given me before I went away to school and typed out the first long paragraph which I then memorized:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun….

Before I could finish, Ray took over:

This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

He had been there before.

It was later, and it was either Jack Leggett or Connie Brothers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who told me that Ray had been flying back and forth between a college teaching job in California only to fly back later in the week to take up his position at Iowa. Not that anybody knew the story at the time. Or maybe they did.

—Robert Day


Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Jul 012015

Pierre JorisPierre Joris


IN THE BEGINNING WERE THE WORDS. And the words were double from the word go: the cool black on white words in the book, & the loud, fast & hot words on the radio. To begin with the word on the radio let me cold, while the word on the page was what asked me to light up my nights with a flashlight under the covers. This happened, age 5: I remember the room – it was dark & thus I do not remember what was in it except for the bed in which I lay with covers drawn up, trying to read. Later on, in daylight, this room became or had become a living room, & I sat on the daybed & I watched the green eye of Nordmende, the box from which the hot words came. But first the cool ones, black on white, a book grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings in it, ink drawings in a multitude of lines that made up faces, scenes, thin, scraggly ink lines, like very square handwriting writing a picture, “modern” in a fifties sense (& this was 1951). The book I took I could read the title of: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Feodor Dostoiwski. But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. And I did manage a few sentences, a paragraph, half a page, maybe, before my parents discovered me & took this precocity as a good sign & hired a retired school teacher to teach me to read a year before I could officially go to grade school.

I read laboriously no doubt, and in secret to begin with, this book I remember only physically: a white hardcover with black print & black ink drawings. The Idiot. Chapter One, paragraph one – so this are the first sentences I deciphered, the first silent written language that traversed me:

Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine oclock in the morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.

Some of the passengers by this particular train were returning from abroad; but the third-class carriages were the best filled, chiefly with insignificant persons of various occupations and degrees, picked up at the different stations nearer town. All of them seemed weary, and most of them had sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appeared to have taken on the color of the fog outside.

But these were not the words I read – the book I had with me under the covers was in German, was a translation, i.e. something I would spend the rest of my life getting in & out of.


Is there life before reading? I am not certain — & grow less certain as time passes, as I grow old & memory, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. So if you ask me what it was like to be a child, I will have a hard time answering — and not just because I do not remember it as being the best time of my life. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in finding out for myself. But how to be a historian of one’s own past, if istorin — the Greek word for history — means for the one historian I trust (because I love to read him) to find out for oneself. How can I go there from now? Maybe I can write myself there, i.e. activate dreaming and reading and come back forward?

And thus the earliest state of childhood — supposedly paradisiacal, even if, or maybe exactly because, forgotten — I cannot help but associate with non-reading, so that “prelapsarian” always rhymes with preliterate in my mind. Where was I? Rue Glesener, in the southern quartier de la gare of Luxembourg (the capital city of the eponymous country). When was I? Not yet, not yet. I lack photos of that time, cannot see myself, and the google map doesn’t get me closer than 200 meters for an inch. The street was maybe 300 meters long, that much I can make out; it started from the Avenue de la Liberté and ended in the rue Adolphe Fischer.

We lived — but this I was shown later, it is not my memory, just something I was told — we lived for awhile in the last house on the North side of the street, the one giving onto the large open space used by civil engineering company Karp-Kneip as depot for its construction materials and as parking lot for its caterpillar tractors, steam rollers, and asphalt laying and paving machines. I must have looked down on that machinery from an upstairs window, or tried to get glimpses through slits in the wooden barrier surrounding the site. But I do not remember the specific occasion of doing this, or, better, all I remember is the shared fondness of children and grown men to peek with mouths agape through any available opening into construction sites where big machinery moves about.

The only thing I do remember from that house — because in the next house we lived in I already remembered it and its location in a room I furthermore remember every detail of, especially the daybed in the corner upon which I taught myself to read — the only thing I do remember from that first house is a large Mahogany radio set with built-in record-player on top and box to keep the old shellacked 78s and later the first “long-playing” 33-rpm records at the bottom. A Nordmende, I think, but who knows, it could just as well have been a Phillips, Telefunken, Grundig or Saba. Sleek, elegant, probably taller than I was the year my father bought it. It stayed that size, I kept growing. I like to think that for some time we saw eye to eye — for what has remained with me always was the magic green eye that, cat-like, would widen or narrow its pupil in relation to how good the signal was. I would press my blue eye to its green & with one hand play with the tuning button to make the eye twitch.

But I would have my hand gently slapped for playing with the tuning button because father didn’t like me to un-tune the one station he listened to — long-wave Radio Luxembourg. Not much stays with me beyond the fascination of the green eye, except for two auditory memories, though these must be from the second house. The first of these is the opening soundtrack and half-screamed title of the 12:50 p.m. radio-drama: Ça va bouillir, Zappy Max! Although French was always an available language, I don’t remember anything of the story lines, except for Zappy Max’s breathless voice, and the fact that the weird nasty bad guy was called “le tonneau” — the barrel. What made the show for me were the incredible variety of noises, screams, screeches & other sound-effects that pushed whatever story line there was ahead at breakneck speed.

What has stayed with me more essentially was something else: a sequence of sound I couldn’t make sense of but were the most seductive, the most wondrous and mysterious language-sounds I had ever heard. And that inscribed itself immediately and forever in my brain. This sound sequence would come over the radio in the program my father listened to after Zappy Max, the one o’clock news. Later on I translated the music the vocables made into semantic meaning: it turned out to be a name, much in the news at that time: Krim Bel Kacem. I can still hear it in the singing French inflections of the news announcer – returning, repeated, over and over: Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem.

With no semantic referent to attach to the sound sequence, I was utterly seduced by its sheer musicality, from the repetition of which I drew an immense pleasure I recall to this day: first, the initial hard, nearly explosive consonantal rub of “r” after “k” followed by the elongated high vowel sound of the “i” and down into the calm “m” — a peaceful “om” after the crime-evoking sounds of the first three letters. Then the high bell-sound of “bel” a clear peel, short but echoing loudly and in its very clarity hiding or making me forget the reference to the obvious (but misplaced) French semantic meaning. This was followed by the alliteration of the “k” sound, though this time with the variation of the “a” vowel replacing the “are” of krim, a descent in pitch from the “e” of “bel,” but a widening of the scope of sound, a deepening into that initial and initiating sound of human language, the long “a” that can carry pain, pleasure, surprise, exhilaration and so on. After the “c” planes down and alleviates the harshness of the two initial “k”s, the sequence finishes on a second alliteration, that of the final “m,” easily drawn out to bring it even closer to the calmness of the seed syllable “om.”

Maybe father did tell me that it was a name, no matter, I don’t remember if he did, and if he did do so, I must have forgotten instantly, or else willfully worked on forgetting, as I do remember that “Krim Bel Kacem” was my favorite word sequence for that marvelous childhood play consisting in repeating a sequence of words without pause or interruption until any semantic meaning is rubbed out and all that’s left is the pure jouissance of a sound that now arises from the very chora of language.

Now you may say that the foregoing answers my initial question: clearly, there is life before reading, and it is the life of sound….But how do I know? Much of the time listening to Radio Luxembourg in that room with the green eye gleaming were spent on the daybed at the other end of the room with … a book in my hand. The first such book was a tome grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings. I could read the title: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I wanted to read & I read or looked at the first page of print & taught myself the letters, with whose help I don’t remember. A year later I was put immediately into second grade, given that I could read — & just as immediately proceeded to exchange the Dostoyevsky for the first fifteen issues of “Akim,” the Tarzan wanna-be character created in 1950 by the script-writer Roberto Renzi, with artwork by Augusto Pedrazza in the handy Piccolo strip-series. They were the perfect size to read in school under the desk, or on the daybed out of the parents’ sight and under the protection of the cool, unphased green eye of the Nordmende, while “Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem” would eventually echo through the other words, “Akim, Akim, Akim” and I would make up new names for new heroes I dreamed I would later write about or draw strips for or put on the radio and I could already here the announcer in Zappy’s voice breathlessly screaming: “Ça va bouillir, Kim Akrim Bel Kacem.”


—Pierre Joris


Pierre Joris has published some 50 books of poems, essays & translations, most recently Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014) & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (coedited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press 2014). Previous books include Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced and translated by Joris (Black Widow Press), & Cartographies of the In-between: The Poetry & Poetics of Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh came out in 2012. When not nomadizing, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte.


Jun 052015

New Mexico landscape



THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.


We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm


Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.


Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.


Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.



In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.


While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?


American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.



Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.


The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.



The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.


Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.


American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.


I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.


Kate McCahill



Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at www.katemccahill.com.