Feb 122017
 

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Brindisi

Start out to the centre of a city chosen at random, let it be Brindisi. From the train station a promenade leads straight to the sea, lined with palm trees: their shadow striates the pavement in the noontime sun, horizontal window grids. The town is daydreamy, as if caught in an endless afternoon, all the shops about to close. The promenade saunters at leisure into a tree-lined square, then continues seaward: the circle that can be drawn in the middle of the square has two fountain crescents on its sides, water trickles on a squat wall’s horizontal yellow, red, green mosaic strips into a basin painted deep blue. The promenade leaves the early afternoon park behind, in it the few Africans sunken into themselves, whose aloneness is not alleviated, but rather thickened by their cellphone music. The music reaches out after the shadows of the passersby, always one step behind. From the windows, the clinking of cutlery.

The promenade has its palm trees and its procession: light processes on it all day long. Before reaching the sea, it slows down in a little park among four symmetrically planted olive trees. There are no two olive trees that look alike. In the middle a clamant white marble statue, the two twisted animals at the poet’s feet, a dog and a lamb, look as if carved from preposterously bleached, knotty olive-tree wood: here Virgil lay dying on his return from Greece.

The poet looks out on the sea, on the tongue of land closing in the sea behind the two harbours, and beyond them, to the wider outer sea. Because the town has two waterfronts: city between two waters, with a sea locked between two land strips. Levante and ponente harbor basins, the water-faces turned to the upward- and downward-going sun.

The lungomare is one sole theatre balcony gazing out at the sea: its consoles are the palm trees that by their hair fasten it to the sky, so it can’t drift out on the high waters.

Go up a flight of stairs to the one-and-a-half column marking the end of the Via Appia: one fell and broke into pieces, its capital a pedestal today, in Lecce, for a saint. The fragment of its trunk lies sideways on a tall base, broken not in splinters but along knotty sinews. Like a slice of some gigantic flayed animal, a tuna trunk laid out on a counter, in it the muscles’ inward-turned cramp, the inward-glowing gaze of the stone flesh. The divinities on the intact column’s capital are caught in the instant of their winged dash, just about to hurl themselves on the blue, on a liquid crystal airwave, their gazes their wings. Their flight throws the sky open and lengthens distances.

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The column stands in the air, not on the ground: in the light, compacted into a slab it froze into the instant of stepping out of the blue and entering our space, to become flesh. The height is situated at the place where the seno di levante, the harbor basin turned to the upward-going sun, abuts the seno di ponente, the harbor lying towards the downward-going sun, close to the old town’s cape east where it presses its face on the water, like a statue on a prow. Across the water, the canal between the two harbours leading out into high water: a sea gorge. The columns look beyond the landmark willed by Mussolini, the monument of the seamen fallen at sea: the capital of the intact column is windblown hair, while across it the human figure on the oversize reddish-ochre wedge cutting into the water is a monumental trinket, indomitable carved cliché. At the foot of the stairs, a patient little archaeological collection: the volutes of its Attic, Italic vases glow like candelabra in their showcases; the goose, deer, drapery fold sketched in white on the lacquer-like blacks, dark browns and reds of Gnathian vases resist the pull of museum death. The flavor of ancient oil or wine impregnates their walls, as the August sun, a memory shred, impregnates the bleached, graying skin at winter’s end.

The yellow triangle of the square in front of the cathedral is there to fence in the sky. Its lines of sculpted bishops’ staves and downward-turned faces are choruses answering one another from the galleries. Shadows are razor-sharp in the blazing sun. The animal-faced consoles, thick like a comb, supporting the Gothic balcony of the palace that obliquely closes the square on the right, are fulgent apparitions. The façade clings to the balcony, lest it rise with slow wingbeats above the roof of the palace opposite. A dancer’s naked back drifts across the square, bearing a vertical message inscribed along the spine, its beauty a see-through lightning.

Animal-faced-consoles-Brindisi

The orange circolare connecting the peripheral districts meanders on the patched-up asphalt among concrete fences, roof-terraced blocks of flats, to the sea. Now and again an unwitnessed transfiguration on the empty streets: magenta masses of bougainvillea spread out on a wall, the gigantic foliage of a pine tree which, as light traverses it in the wind, looks deciduous. In the frame of burnt-out lawn and unbroken façades only the colours of awnings gesticulate wildly. With their short shadows, the empty bus stops are banal sundials, the whitening afternoon oozes away around them. Now the bus is driving straight ahead between the barbed-wired fences of the military and civil airport, leaving the inhabited areas behind. The Indian figs pay no heed to the barbed wire, they are both inside and outside, nonchalantly showing off their red and yellow figs. Where the bus drops me off (you go ahead, there’s the sea), the road forks: in the bifurcation the hideousness of an unfinished dark gray concrete building is trying to withstand the assault of green and blue. In front, a short concrete fence: its sediment of graffiti, rain and sun looks like a Cy Twombly.

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On one side of a gaping hole in the fence, a sign prohibits entry and warns of crumbling structures; on the other side, a graffiti points at the hole: IT’S MAGIC. Beyond the wall a row of aligned squat bungalows, their whitewash long washed off: a brittle youth summer camp above the waterfront. Inside, in the forbidden zone, a few teenage boys are dressing, their radio turned to the maximum. The shores of the little gulf are impatiently lapping up the rolling waves with flat rocky tongues. To the right, the road continues in a long pier; beyond the pier lies the industrial port with its cranes and tows. To the left, several fishermen, unstirring anthropoid cranes; on this side in a hollow, two women are sunbathing in deck chairs they somehow balanced on the rocks. A graffiti points the way to the pier: PUNTA RISO, Cape Ridicule. Tucked in the underarm of the industrial port, this no-man’s-land is a secret passage to the sea, a postindustrial outing destination, private adventure park, ridiculously beautiful garbage dumping site fitted out with billboards FOR SALE/TO LET. I’ve always imagined the Algerian seaside in Camus’ L’Étranger like this, stripped of picturesque adornments, a compact horizon within concrete lines and unrestrained stone growth, where the deeper and the higher blue touch.

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The shore pitted to reach the sea’s horizontal line has nothing to do with those inexhaustibly photogenic cliffs modulating from deepest black to bone white, on which the coast towns are built. Here the stones are dark brown and dull red, with a reddish-yellow silt, as if springs high in iron were welling up among them. Looked at from above, they seem a broad, petrified strip of mud or argile that has been trampled, kneaded into these forms by invisible cloven-hoofed, web-footed, elephant-legged herds: edges and hollows everywhere, a plain of saw dents, pits, precipices, minute ravines squeezed among sandpaper pumice, against which the whipped-up Veronese-green water, blue only in the distance, lashes mercilessly. Deuterium. When a wave tumbles down and the tidal backlash sucks water out from among the rocks, for a moment a check pattern trembles on the dimpled water surface above the well-like hole: tugging in two directions, the flow tightens perpendicular water-threads woven above and beneath one another, the water fabric cambers upward like drum skin, before hollowing in again, to be broken into chips by the next wave. At the juncture between the water-threads tiny points of light vacillate, projected on the rocks: their spectral reflection still drifts on the rough matter, barely touching it, when the texture below is torn up by a new wave. Time captured in the trap of light.

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When the sky is clouded over, the indigo blue of the distant waters is transposed into indigo green, and the golden reflections are supplanted by dimmed mercury light. The direction of the clouds cannot be guessed: they thicken above the sea, rise like dough, as if they were spreading out into several directions at once. After a while, metallic raindrops start falling from their blackish mantle. Between the heavily rolling lower and the rarefied upper waters a few oblique light beams, taut tightropes, measure distance like a jet airplane’s condensation trail, or a gull’s flight. The rocks on the shore retain all waste. On the bottom of a pit that fills up with seawater through invisible cracks, three springs from the deck chairs of yesteryear: they lie in geometric order, their rust colour delicately tuned to the rock, growing a spectral reddish-silver halo on the water surface, rich and strange. A few steps away, iridescent black rubber or plastic stains sea-changed into mineral sediment lead, like a path strewn with lentils, to another hole, tiny marginal sea, on which a white stain hovers: osso di seppia, the cuttlebone of a Sepia. The find asks for edgy Montale words. What ebb has shipwrecked the bone blade lighter than water? Like a paper cutting knife, to cut up the thickly inscribed pages of the waves folding upon one another.

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A short-headed fisherman with a stout Guttuso frame is meticulously tenderising the day’s catch on the Polignano rocks: with one brutally proficient movement he sticks two fingers under the squid’s mantle, tears out the ink sac and something I presume to be the viscera. He gathers the ink sacs into a plastic bag and throws the other entrails, of the size of a fingertip, back into the sea, among the bathers. The thus-eviscerated creature he first smashes against the rocks with sparing movements, then methodically hammers and mangles into the rockface with a flat wooden bat, until the elastic arms are reduced to an amorphous jelly. Torn out into the empty air that burns its skinless limbs like acid, the creature bleeds a foamy, mucous liquid that looks as if secreted by a flock of snails. Its torment is perhaps only registered by the arms of its fellow creatures touching it along the linear network of pain. The smaller squids and octopuses do not get the bat: them the fisherman kneads, punches, rolls with his palm on the rough stone like dough, or clothes at the creek. Now and again he rinses them in the sea: I imagine the mollusks being hauled back into their own element, away from the scorching and suffocation, only in order to regain sensitivity for the first blow. The octopus is caught not with a net or spear but with the bare hands, the fisherman says, you need to have a good eye: il polipo è il migliore mimetizzatore. When it spots you it freezes, because it fears humans: this is the moment to grab it.

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Several times I swim past a woman who is scanning the waters along the coastal cliffs, with a knife fastened to her wrist and a net in her other hand: a marine shopping bag. Out of the water, she cuts up the sea urchins gathered in the net, spoons out their flesh into a plastic bowl. Then aligns the empty, upward-turned shells on the stone, walnut or lychee peels; death has hatched from their sticky inside. The breeze smears the pebbles with the smell. The foaming, viscous blood of the octopuses dries on the stone into a rainbow. My last morning on the lungomare: fishermen toil on the massive breakwater rocks, vanno a faticà. In front of each of them, a plastic basin; one has a baby’s bathtub: they rock them like a cradle, not even looking. The congested mollusks are knocked together in a swill-like liquid, death’s whisks in the baby-tub. Below them, the unbroken, deep blue distance from which they have been evicted into the asphyxiating air. The foam whipped by the creatures short of sea and the pungent smell is all we hear of their agony; above them, bitten-off, close-vowelled words, with an intonation swinging to the rhythm of the rocking, narrate about sea weather.

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At the entrance to the camp a sign warns of infiltration of acque meteoriche from the airport. Meteoric precipitation on the lunar landscape. Obviously the dark red stria cutting deep cracks into the rocks like tiny canyons are heavy metals that ended up here from a different planet. The rain dripping from the indigo clouds is in fact falling-star dust raining from outer space in drops the colour of mercury, pulled by the gravitational force of the tossing blackish-green water.

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Going toward the pier, the riotousness of the stones is flattened out, like the waves running up on sand banks: it is drowned in the sand which has assimilated the glass chips and bottle corks. In the splinter-sand, a broken mosaic, the floor of an extravagant outdoor bathroom in the deserted camp: the archaeological find of a 1970s summer, it glows, turquoise and sky blue, from under the debris, determined not to gray for the fall. In its waters the fish and sea stars of the late antique mosaic, uncovered under the cathedral’s floor, could swim.

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Summer’s layers can still be detected in the light storming the pine tree’s crown, like on the skin of the chic middle-aged ladies walking the Corso, whose tan is several hues darker than their honey-blond hair. Here the landscape doesn’t go bald and stiff for the winter, but rather, folds its wings like a bird. Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß. You can see from a distance that the bar at the foot of the pier is closed: the tropical colours of its spaghetti curtain get drenched in the evening. The Berlin-blue sentrybox squatting in the parking lot in front of the bar watches over the cold dust with its shortsighted windows. In the pavement, in an unfilled square where nobody has bothered to plant a shrub, a heap of peach juice boxes lie, sucked clean, their straws breathing a fruity bouquet: summer’s used-up condoms. In the evening, outdoing the racket of parakeets on the palm trees, a flight of swallows dementedly swarm around an exotic cypress. The crown preserves light for a while yet, moving ever upward, but the wind is let loose on the square.

ugly-concrete-building-brindisi

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Trani

From the protuberance of land into the sea, two long piers broken in angles set out like strong swimmers, then become disheartened: the sea renders all distances meaningless. At the end point where the piers turn back, two lighthouses stand like stout inverted exclamation marks; the sentences they introduce run beyond the horizon. Practical considerations aside, everything here serves the view: on the anthropodal piers’ end-points facing each other but tactfully looking away, the stocky lighthouses perform a rare stunt all day long. Almost jumping forward with their complementary green and red, like a Venetian painting’s red or white brushstrokes applied with calculated casualness, they push the sea into the background but, at the same time, their iridescent axis brings all the aqueous hues of blue, violet, mother-of-pearl, green to boiling point and show that the real drama is the one that takes place in the background. Figure and ground are thus continually oscillating, the shadow of a passing translucent cloud is enough to dull the green or red tower and push it back to ground.

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As sunrays swim into the open from behind a cloud, lighting up the red and green lighthouses echoing one another on the two piers’ ends, first the one, then the other, the water is striped with turquoise-green, Berlin blue; closer up, Veronese green and, at the farthest point, navy blue. A stone bench made of a single block in front of a slender metal railing, nothing to detain the gaze. The Trani stone breathes, decomposes white into colours like Rome’s travertino, and captures every light. It is filled up with light and starts glowing: light-active stone, it radiates like radioactive metals. Between two layers splitting like slate, the cement of petrified shells: time’s congested ebb and flow.

red-and-green-lighthouses

Il mare non è il massimo a Trani, they warn me. As if it were not the same sea, of the same taste, burningly salt-bitter; as if it didn’t leave the same salt dust on the skin. As if our lego cities, toy trains could interest it in the least. Yet obviously the sea is not the same: the waters mouthing the coast cliffs of the undulating near-horizontal karst landscape are different from the sea that touches the crouching pebble shores further south, and whose backward-tossed waves sweep in the pebbles from the shore with a loud thudding and cracking. The amorphous waters dissolve different colours from the various stones and soils, as the maturing wine dissolves different flavours from the barrels made of wood of differing ages and qualities.

Those who know it well go to the sea in boats and yachts, not like the landlocked. The seagoers have their own well-trodden (well-glided should be the word) paths, waterways, bustling main thoroughfares and quiet side alleys; the sea surface is just as variegated for these flâneurs as the streets with their porches and shop windows. A few kilometers to the north, in capital letters on the Barletta sports yacht harbour’s blue corrugated iron barracks: CHI AMA IL MARE SARÀ SEMPRE LIBERO. At the landward bend of the asphalt path and running track that goes around the barracks, beyond the railings of the waterfront, a loaf of bread left out. Bread cast to the sea. This is my body. Let me in.

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The anthropodal pier divides the waters: outside, the wider sea is thudding; crashing against the massive breakwater rocks, it boils up in foam; for an instant the stones get a sheen of a mirror’s silvering when water runs off them. It is impossible to decide the colour of the waves, their green glass side looks engraved, black looms in the hollows. There are many first-rate landscape painters on whose canvases the air is in movement, trembles, vibrates, but the sea has no truly good painter. Those who paint it mostly paint the reflections on the sky, on the landscape, in the air, of its tumultuous change of consistency. The great Dutch sea-painters paint ships first and foremost: convoluted knots and prow ornaments, forests of masts and sails to disentangle. Their sea is an embossed tapestry background. On the protected side the taut water surface mixed from turquoise and jasper is in still movement, it is no mere defoamed mini-sea smoothed out into a monumental pool. In the late afternoon a couple of porpoises venture into it. The breakwater rocks are patches of blotting paper in the glaring light, their porous surface retains all the reflections of the blue-white.

On the shore, the cathedral. They had to mark the place with a sign that is not dwarfed, not ridiculed by the distance measured in the horizon. Stone bread cast to the sea. Its cornice is something rich and strange, a gigantic frieze that could easily belong to an ancient temple’s architrave, were it not for the animal faces serving as its consoles. The sky rising from the cornice dilutes blue paint in sky water. It gathers in the white, the air around fills up with electric discharges. Immediately below on the corner, white glows. The interior is traversed by light as if by a magnetic wind, from the spokes of the rose window that starts spinning in the light like a pinwheel, to the apse that opens one sole, giant window to the east, onto the sea. One cannot tell which is the true façade, the one with the winged bronze door, or the one with the giant window looking out on the sea. The coast towns line up the Romanesque headquarters of light which turn their apse windows flanked by elephant-borne columns, their most precious ornament, to levante. It is not the relics and likenesses, but the light that is their holiest possession: the incessantly showering, radioactive light that solidifies into a block in the upward and forward propelling space, and which casts white shadows on the white walls.

gargoyles-trani

Like most of Apulia’s cathedrals, this one, too, was restored “back” in style in the 1920s–30s, into homogeneous Romanesque, the crust of late Baroque (here, ottocento, antiquated even in its own time) stucco theatre wings, concave windows, boisterous statuary peeled off its rose windows, capitals, sculpted portals. Elsewhere, once the skins covering one another are removed, the spaces left behind are sterile, school textbook-like, and restoration turns out to have been retouching: against the intent to restitution, it is not their original, hidden life that buildings reveal, but the empty place of time, the imperishable and unbreathing would-be-alabaster china skin of fake eternity. But here everything is breathing: the wide-open-eyed animals of the capitals, the spoglio columns brought here from Roman buildings, the inscribed steles built into the walls, the stone folds. The church is like the archaic Greek statues: we know that they had inlaid pupils and were painted over, yet for us it is the whiteness of marble that drives time back into them. It is light that returns the erased gaze into Trani’s white, uncovered eyeball that now gleams in all its power: the wall is a scripted membrane through which time oozes in and out. The only ornament of the triumphal arch before the crossing is a fragment of the cornice’s stone frieze running around the building outside: da capo repetition without closure. Every view of the building is in balance, unalterable, yet stirs like the statues that can never be entirely reduced to canons. White painted on white, coloured exclamation mark between the upper and lower blue: the flocks of retired French and German Kulturtouristen are beautified when it shines its face upon them.

cathedral-trani

The towns’ cells precipitate themselves on the promontories that jut out into the sea. The city walls and the Norman, Hohenstaufen castles pointing the acute angles of their bastions radially outwards at the outer world cannot deceive: above, around, next to them every side, flank of the city, all its profiles overlooking the sea are hollowed out into ovals, amphitheatre audiences whose fourth wall is the immense sea. They are sails offering themselves up to the light: stitched to the odd tumescence of land, the facades along the coast fold back, carve in, are constantly capitulating to light, willingly uncovering their soft parts. The concave little squares are tubular flowers, light vibrates on the wood of their closed shutters like on the inside of an eyelid. The mouths of the little streets, vicoli, flare seaward like estuaries, it is the tidal waves of light that carved them out. The hour of the day, the changing sky mixes the colour of the walls: every house, every window a Danae, their encounter with the light no tucked-away, inane secret of state, but an event that can only manifest in the undisguised.

To rest in this light yet. Ask for delay every day: a few more southern days, to harry the last sunbeams through the flesh.

lido-bella-venezia

Above the angel wings flapping over the fallen in the world wars, the parrot-rackety, tropical enclave of the Giardini Pubblici extends its throbbing fervor. Below the seaside alley’s balustrades a wooden pavilion built directly on the water, its vacuity spells out more than season’s end. Above its flat roofs is written with oversize letters, Lido Bella Venezia – Ristorante Bar Pizzeria. The landscape makes the planking’s grating sky-blue pale, as it does with the phantom image of Venetian pizza and lagoon-colour canals meant to be seductive. All around, beauty sits on the view with such immovable matter-of-factness as the cathedral’s weight on the pages of the sea-sky. Its slender vertical gravity balances the inexhaustible horizontal. Above the pavilion’s flat roof four poles reach up into empty space: turned-up bar stool placed on the table after closing time. Below, the clean-swept water surface is waiting for the opening.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihalycsa

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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 to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

 

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As a young man, Daniel Green had hopes for academic criticism, but as this excerpt — take from his essay “Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” — shows, he had to set those hopes aside, as more and more academic criticism tended to subordinate literature to political and theoretical agendas. Later, weblogs, too, disappointed him because they pursued sensational or trendy books instead of considering literary works in depth. —Jeff Bursey

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I aspired to become an academic critic precisely because so much general interest criticism was focused on the “mushy middle” of literary fiction and avoided the books I was most interested in reading. Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers (some journals concentrated exclusively on such writers) and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews. Academic criticism no longer manifests these virtues, however. It is as agenda-ridden as literary journalism, although its agenda emphasizes a different kind of propriety, the propriety of political and cultural analysis (in its way similar to the kind of analysis favored by the New York Intellectuals). And while academic journals continue to offer longer and more sustained commentary, this commentary is more concerned with context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former. Academic criticism of contemporary fiction no longer provides a more rigorous, expansive, open-minded alternative to the popular reviewing media. For text-based criticism, the general interest book review is what we’re stuck with.

At one time I held out hope that the “literary weblog” would provide a plausible alternative to print book reviewing. I still think that, in theory and potential, blogs could still be perfectly good sources of serious literary criticism. There is nothing in the nature of the cyber medium that precludes the blog from being the publishing vehicle for serious writing of any kind. If serious critics, facing the likely demise of newspaper and magazine reviewing in the not distant future, turn to the cyber/blogosphere as an available substitute, literary criticism will flourish well enough. Such book reviewing sites as The Quarterly Conversation and Full Stop have already demonstrated that online reviewing can be just as credible as print reviewing, in many cases going far beyond, both in length and in critical heft, what is offered in all but the most studious general interest print publications. They are also much more likely to cover experimental and translated works and books from independent presses, which are at best sporadically reviewed in mainstream print book review sections. Unfortunately, it cannot at this point be said that the literary blog has validated hopes it might sustain a form of general interest criticism that could replace, perhaps even surpass, what is left of print criticism. There are indeed some very good literary blogs offering worthwhile criticism, but on the whole the literary blogosphere has become largely an echo chamber for book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective. Literary blogs have become not an alternative to the established critical order but part and parcel of it.

Those blogs now calling themselves “book blogs” in particular have pledged themselves to this order. Mostly devoted to superficial appraisals of potboilers and best-sellers, these blogs actively seek to be conduits of publishing propaganda (in the guise of “promoting” books). They have apparently become the most popular type of “literary” blog, and if “book blog” eventually becomes the name applied mostly to such weblogs, the future of literary criticism online is bleak indeed. But even those still self-identifying as “literary blogs” have settled in to an overly cozy relationship with both publishers and the print reviewing media. (Many of the bloggers have themselves sought out reviewing opportunities in the print media, as if the ultimate purpose of creating a literary blog was after all to attract enough attention to catch on as a newspaper reviewer). While in general one does get from literary blogs a fuller sense of the diversity of fiction available to readers (more emphasis on independent presses) than from the print book reviews, too many of the posts devoted to specific books are discussions of the newest and hottest from mainstream publishers. Much time is spent obsessing over lists of various inane kinds (the Top 10 ____), and in preoccupation with prizes, the dispensing of which apparently substitutes for criticism absent the real thing.

Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its fifteen seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they’ll have the authority to suggest.

—Daniel Green

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Daniel Green is a literary critic and sometime fiction writer. His reviews, critical essays, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He has a Ph.D focusing on postwar American fiction and an M.A. in creative writing. His website is http://www.thereadingexperience.net/tre/

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Feb 072017
 

Kate Evans at work.

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—Kate Evans

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Kate Evans, author, mother, artist and cartoonist, lives in the West of England with her husband, two children and two cats. Her latest book Red Rosa: a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg was released by Verso, November 2015, to general acclaim.

She is also the author of graphic non-fiction books The Food of Love: your formula for successful breastfeeding, Bump: how to make, grow and birth a baby and Funny Weather: everything you didn’t want to know about climate change but probably should find out. The above comic now forms the first chapter of her forthcoming, feature-length graphic novel Threads from the refugee crisis, to be released Spring 2017 from Verso Books. Blog: www.cartoonkate.co.uk. Twitter: @cartoonkate.

 

 

 

Feb 052017
 

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In this excerpt of Coming, his latest work in English translated by Charlotte Mandell, French Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explores the elusive and titillating word jouissance. This section is the second of a five part interview between Nancy and Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy. Through Van Reeth’s astute questions, Nancy discusses and elaborates on whether or not jouissance can ever be considered a solitary act by exploring some of his most favored topics: the body, sexuality, community, psychology, and Plato. —Melissa Considine Beck

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Adèle Van Reeth (AVR): Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the questions of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?

Jean-Luc Nancy (JLN): It is because, in jouissance, these two questions of object and subject are linked, that jouissance can be in such a proximity not only with joy, but also with réjouissance , exuberance in general. Exuberance is a word marked by femininity: It is the swelling of the breast (uber in Latin), the milk that gushes forth. We can also think of ecstasy, a word of Heidegger’s and Schelling’s that signifies “being outside of oneself,” or rather “élan, impetus, outside of oneself.” In this outside-of-self, appropriation is impossible, because in it the subject is not a thing, a substance, but a simple punctual “I,” which allows us to unify our representations. But this relationship no longer functions in jouissance, which implies rather that we abandon representation, and thus leave that “I” that can no longer accompany the experience of jouissance. I think that is really what we are talking about, that loss of a subject capable of saying “I.”

AVR: Yet jouissance, far from being abstract, is always an experience, which means that it holds meaning only for a particular person. For instance, if we confine ourselves to sexual jouissance, the one who is coming [jouit] can say, “I’m coming…” Who is this “I,” then, who comes?

JLN: This crucial question finds a privileged inscription in Sade, for whom the one who comes enters into a twofold relationship with destruction. First of all, the relationship of the one coming with the one with whom he or she comes is a relationship of possession pushed to the point of destruction; he is enjoying [jouit] the risk of opening a gaping chasm in the very place where what is causing him or her to come exists. But this relationship with destruction turns against the one coming himself, who can try to go as close as possible to his own death. In Sade, we find heroes who have themselves hanged in order to ejaculate, after asking their valets to cut the rope at just the right instant. It’s in these sorts of situations that, often, the Sadean hero says, I am coming [je jouis]. That is: I am being carried away by jouissance. The exclamation is torn from him. Often some sort of blasphemy is added: “Fucking God!”—which also testifies to his being carried away.

AVR: But does this mean that jouissance is inseparable from pain? Here, the person who says “I am coming” says it simultaneously with the experience of pain.

JLN: Pain is always present in jouissance, tangentially or asymptotically. The extreme intensity becomes unbearable, and perhaps one comes precisely from being at the limit: there where the height of excitation is exceeded and is beaten back, only finally to fail.

The Sadean hero intensifies the ambivalence of that instant when he cries out “fuck! [foutre],” which means baiser, and which he uses as a kind of condemnation or insult for what he is in the process of doing or undergoing. Today, we don’t say foutre much anymore, or else just to designate sperm (cum). The Sadean hero, though, says, “Fuck! In the name of God, I’m coming!”—It’s a proclamation. We can find these proclamations in a number of erotic poems, in Apollinaire’s Poems to Lou for instance, where they are addressed to the other: “You are coming!” We hear it, too, in the “come” [viens] of Deguy that we mentioned earlier. What’s more, in English, jouir is to come, venir.

AVR: …which we don’t hear in the French term of jouissance.

JLN: In fact, the term jouissance is difficult to translate in a certain number of languages. In English and German, there is no word that is in the same family. Either the register is sexual, or, more rarely, legalistic. In German, Genuss evokes more the idea of satisfaction. But being satisfied with something signifies having enough of it, which leads us to the opposite of jouissance. Of course, the possessive aspect of jouissance is also linked to the idea of satisfaction: I want to have enough of it. But what does “having enough of it” mean? That implies the idea of an objective measure, which can be that of my means: I possess so much money and I will be satisfied if I obtain everything this money allows me to possess. But can I have enough of something that has no measure? That makes no sense. If my desire is measureless, it will never have enough, it will never reach a threshold. That is what happens for jouissance: It occurs outside of any measure or any idea of a threshold. Which does not mean that it never terminates, but rather that it is very difficult to know that that stopping-point is made of.

I would even say that the property of jouissance is to be endlessly renewed. This is very striking in the case of aesthetic jouissance, which we find in works of art, and to which we will return. Why doesn’t art stop, why do people continue to create? Because in art as in sexual jouissance, we never say we’ve had “enough” of it. This idea makes no sense. If people continue to create and jouir, it’s because desire doesn’t stop when it takes one particular form. Because there is a constantly renewed desire, the desire to make new forms arise, that is, to make a new sensibility perceptible [sensible]. And this new sensibility is desired and created not because we lack something, or out of a compulsion for repetition, but because what is desired is the renewing of meaning as such. What art testifies to, then, is our desire to make sense infinitely.

AVR: Do you think that jouissance expresses a desire to meaning? If that is the case, this desire must emanate from someone, thus presupposing a subject of jouissance. But you have insisted on the dissolution of the subject in jouissance. Isn’t there a contradiction?

JLN: Unless we wonder if it’s desire itself that is the subject. In the same way that it’s language that speaks and makes us speak, it’s desire that is the subject of our desire. This desire has no relationship to self: It is impulse. When Freud says, “Impulses are our myths, and our doctrine of impulses is our mythology”—an extraordinarily bold, even provocative statement—he is expressing something very important. Here, we should understand “myth” in the sense of fiction, that is that space where explanation becomes useless; but we should understand it also as muthos, uttered speech. It is Plato who defines myth as a lying fable, whereas in Homer muthos refers to speech. There can be logos only because at a certain point, muthos opened the way to it, with Plato especially. What’s more, Plato set about fabricating his own myth, which is called philosophy.

Let’s return to Freud: What is an impulse? The term designates the fact of being unable to think of ourselves otherwise than as driven on by something, which you could call gods or material forces (you can choose your myth). Heidegger would say we are driven, set off by the very fact of being. Freud, however, does not tell us by what we are driven, but this movement is precisely what we find in jouissance.

AVR: Not only does jouissance have no precise subject, but might it be the sign of belonging to a community, something that surpasses the subject and makes us join with being? We are almost in the Kantian experience of the beautiful, which attests to a sense shared by everyone. Jouissance might be the locus for such a shared meaning, a common sensibility.

JLN: Exactly, because since I am not the owner of my jouissance, I still experience it in a way that I can actually be there where however I cannot find myself. It is not enough to say that the subject is lost in jouissance—rather it is as if the self is subjected to it, in the earlier sense of subject, the subject of a monarch. Jouissance is stronger than me, but this subjection I know comes from elsewhere. It comes to me from the other, from others. This is why there is no solitary jouissance. Already I can hear the objections pouring forth: “Of course there are solitary jouissances, everyone talks about solitary pleasure!” But precisely, the pleasure in question is not in fact solitary, because it cannot take place unless the subject places himself in exteriority in relation to himself—this can take several forms. First of all, this relationship is always imaginary, fantasy-based. Then, procuring pleasure by oneself implies a splitting in two [dédoublement] It’s a little like the famous chiasmus of Merleau-Ponty: When I touch my hand, I am both the hand that touches and that hand that is touched, I am both inside and outside. And when I touch myself, I experience this self as being outside of myself. I refer [rapporte] back to myself. This experience raises a classic question: Do I have a body or am I my body? To this very pertinent question we must reply: both. Because when I say I am my body, I cannot disregard the fact that I also possess it; and when I say I have a body, I am forced to note of this body that…I am it. Having a body refers to the object, being a body refers to the subject. But I myself am object as subject. At least so long as I regard my body not just as a tool. If I touch my body, and if my body touches itself to give itself pleasure, it is outside of itself. That said, masturbation is not exactly the same thing as the sexual relationship, since, precisely, in masturbation the other is reduced to the state of a fantasy. Whereas in the sexual relationship the other is not based on fantasy—although a certain kind of psychoanalysis says there is no sexual relationship without fantasy…

—Jean-Luc Nancy with Adèle Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

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Jean-Luc Nancy is a widely published French philosopher. His books in English include Inoperative Community, The Disavowed Community, Being Singular Plural, The Birth of Presence.

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Adèle Van Reeth is the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy.

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Charlotte Mandell is an American literary translator. She has translated works by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Jules Verne, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Antoine de Baecque, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Luc Nancy and Jonathan Littell.

Feb 022017
 

Version 6

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ABSTRACT

As a three-year-old, my son was a philosopher king. One day, in all sincerity, he asked, Why can’t the good people just kill all the bad?

I have a personal relationship with Jesus, who was able to procure a list that his father’s meticulous angels had drawn up. My credit cards are linked to air miles, which I have never spent. With the list, free global travel, and my (legal) assault rifle, I was able to dispatch the undesirable. The babies initially posed a quandary: on the list, destined for a life of casual cruelty and selfishness, but what would happen once I offed their inevitably corrupting parents? What if the babies were raised by kind people? It’s always nature versus nurture.

If I thought any of this would work, yes. There is nothing I wouldn’t try to make this world safe for my son. What to do?

You can’t promise the child a just, or kind, or beautiful world. But you can teach him where to find it, in snatched glances and in-between spaces. You can teach him how to look.

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LITERATURE REVIEW

The pig running with a knife stuck in its back is already roasted. The bent-over nun is bare-bottomed. Baked fish fly from stream to plate, the shacks are made of sugar, the pastry roads flake under your feet. You are never cold and can sleep all day. A paradise, a parody, a broke-back peasant’s dream. You come to Cockaigne by way of Breughel, or medieval poems. Cockaigne, variant Cockney. Coken, of cocks, and ey, egg. Meaning, the cock’s egg, an impossible thing.

The men of Plato’s Republic shared wives, children, and resources. The original Utopians – Thomas More’s – shat in gold chamber pots. Their slaves were shackled with gold, and their prisoners were crowned with riches. Wealth was dirty, something to be eschewed. These were theoretical – or satirical – attempts to deal with enduring human problems: sex, money, work, power. The jealous guarding, coveting and/or avoidance thereof.

Superimpose the dream of a just society onto the vision of a lost city of gold and you will, like Candide, see Voltaire’s El Dorado. Built of gold and silver, the city is stately and well-proportioned. Children play with unhewn chunks of ruby, emerald, and sapphire; a sense of ease derives from this great wealth. Peace and great contentment, beauty and science. There are no prisoners or priests.

Utopia literally means no place. An impossible thing.

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Seaside

The town of Seaside is privately owned, which means that the developers were able to make it almost exactly how they wanted. Architects of the ideal. The village is designed to be walkable, with useful and attractive public spaces. Located on the coast as the name suggests, or rather, prudently set back several hundred feet, it is the town where The Truman Show was shot. The pastel houses come in various flavors: Victorian, Neoclassical, Modern, Postmodern, and Deconstructivist, all with friendly front porches. The town has a motto: A simple, beautiful life.

My mother and father took me and my sisters and their families to Seaside one year for a holiday get-together. Although I was still single, my sisters had small children, and the Florida coast seemed like safe bet for an easy and pleasant beach vacation. It was all that: easy, safe, pleasant.

The Seaside Institute, founded and run by the town’s developers, has an “academic center” in the middle of town. The Institute’s mission is to “help people create great communities.” Apparently, it was founded on the premise that great communities can be created, ex nihilo, by a group of hard-working, well-intentioned, great people.

I remember walking the streets in search of a meal. The streets, the sidewalks, the manicured yards, and the friendly front porches were always empty.

seaside_florida_architecture Architectural styles in Seaside, Florida (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Ecotopia

In Ecotopia, trees are worshipped, love is free, technology is embraced, and a woman is president. The borders are secured; a hefty arsenal keeps the little country safe. The late Ernest Callenbach, earnest prophet, early recycler, organic gardner, film buff, and author of the eponymous novel from the 1970s, imagined what might happen if the feminists, Black nationalists, and environmentalists of that time created a great community and seceded from the union. The book’s form is that of a visiting journalist’s diary; it is widely taught in colleges now.

In Ecotopia, Black people have retreated to Soul City – formerly Oakland, CA – their own country within a county.

The culture of Soul City is of course different from that of Ecotopia generally. It is a heavy exporter of music and musicians…

The people living in Soul City are flashier, drinking high quality Scotch whisky, trading in luxury good, driving private cars.

And, the (white) Ecotopians love Indians:

Many Ecotopians are sentimental about Indians, and there’s some sense in which they envy the Indians their lost natural place in the American wilderness. Indeed this probably a major Ecotopian myth; keep hearing references to what Indians would or wouldn’t do in a given situation. Some Ecotopian articles – clothing and baskets and personal ornamentation – perhaps directly Indian in inspriation.

This, despite the presence of any real Native Americans.

Non-lethal war games help men discharge their natural aggression. Kind of:

Goddam woman is impossible! Got really turned on at the war games…and made no resistance when one of the winning warriors came up, propositioned her, and literally carried her away (she weighs about 130)…Later…she was relaxed and floppy, and I tossed her around on the bed a little roughly, wouldn’t let her up, more or less raped her. She seemed almost to have expected this.

Can’t blame Callenbach for trying, but a single author will always be limited in his vision for other people. Stereotypes, segregation, erasure, rape. All with the best of intentions. And with some good ideas mixed in.

eftelingthemeparktalkingtreeEfteling Theme Park Talking Tree

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Cascadia

If Ecotopia took a deep breath, expanded its borders to include parts of British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, it would be Cascadia, the bioregion where I live and for which there are occasional secessionist agitations. There is a flag for Cascadia and I’ve seen bumper stickers around town, though have yet to see a referendum on the ballot. Not surprisingly, the cultures and the boundaries of the two hypothetical countries more or less align with one another and with the real Pacific Northwest.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Ecotopia or Cascadia were dreamed up and named, this area was home to a number of communes and experiments in ideal (white) society. The West was a place for imagination and ambition; smallpox and colonialism had made vast swaths of it almost unpeopled. Men with grand socialist ambitions believed that the Pacific Northwest – Washington State in particular – could be a petri dish in which socialist colonies would take hold, and then infect the whole country.

Harmony, Freeland, and Home were all well-established colonies in northwest Washington. Equality thrived until an arsonist burnt it down.

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Omelas

I was a child who regarded the adult world as inherently corrupt or, at best, misguided. I felt affirmed in this when I read about Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas, the perfect world made possible by the existence of a single spot of suffering. A child locked in a cramped, filthy basement, a child who is kicked and beaten, fed just enough to keep alive, a child who is alone and unloved. A child who is taken from the good life once s/he is old enough to remember the good life; this point of reference allows the child to understand the depth and injustice of his or her suffering.

The prosperity, health, kindness, and gentle wisdom of Omelas, are all because of the child’s misery. Most citizens of this Utopia accept that this is simply the way their perfect world works, but some are appalled, and blow that popsicle stand. Walk away, and never come back.

A side-note: Omelas, or at least its namesake, would be located in Ecotopia. Omelas is Salem, the capital of Oregon, spelled backwards. With an O slapped on for euphony.

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America

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – Preamble to the United States Constitution

And. What we lock in the basement.

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Z.1

We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. – Howard Zinn

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Z.2

The Mato Grosso region of Brazil is covered in trees. It’s a jungle. According to legend and rumor, there was a grand city tucked away in the Amazonian rainforest. Many men of European descent searched there for what they believed might be the true El Dorado. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early 20th century, was obsessed with the place. He took clues from Indigenous stories and Manuscript 512, a document he came across in Rio de Janeiro library archives in 1920. The account, presumably by the Portuguese bandareinte (settler and fortune hunter) João da Silva Guimarães, is titled Historical Relation of a hidden and great city of ancient date, without inhabitants, that was discovered in the year 1753. It tells of gold in the streams and buried treasure, as well as of a grand, abandoned city.

Fawcett wanted not gold, but to name, claim, and chart the world. A knowledge conquest. He called this city Z, and referred to it only cryptically in his notes and letters. Fawcett made it his life’s work to find Z. In 1925, on his eighth expedition, Fawcett, his son, and his son’s best friend vanished into the jungle. They were last seen crossing the Upper Xingu River.

There were rumours that Fawcett had been eaten by cannibals, rumours that he’d gone native and become a tribal king. Z was dismissed as yet another El Dorado delusion, the entire Amazon was seen as a counterfeit paradise, incapable of sustaining urban life, and Fawcett was dismissed as a crank and a dilettante.

Crazy, but Fawcett was right. Z was there all along. Within reach, or almost.

Kuhikugu is a vast archeological complex at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Brazil. Where Fawcett thought the City of Z would be. The Kuikuro are likely descendants of the estimated 50,000 people who lived in Kuhikugu about 1,000 years ago. When archeologists started listening to the Kuikuro and then looking at satellite imagery enhanced by LiDAR, they started seeing Kuhikugo. The towns of Kuhikugu are mathematically laid out on cardinal points, connected by roads, bridges, and canals, protected by palisades and concentric moats. The presence of terra preta, a type of soil that is formed by long-term cultivation, and of earthen berms likely indicate agriculture and fish-farming.

kuhikuguKuhikugu archeological complex

Increasingly, there is thought that the Americas were populous, urbanized, and widely farmed prior to European contact. The myth of El Dorado didn’t spring from nothing: conquistadors, bandeirantes, European explorers, Jesuits did see gold, riches, and great cities. But like the physics principle that tells us observation changes what we see, the European reporters infected the subjects of their reportage with disease. The natives died. In the Amazon, the jungle swallowed the cities whole.

What failed in the quest for Z, for El Dorado, was imagination, or sight.

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Z.3

Every alphabet comes to an end. From sea to shining Z. There is speculation that American democracy – our attempt at a just society – is at an end. Our new President won by promising safety and freedom for some people at the expense of safety and freedom for other people. By promising the return of a lost Utopia. Make America Great Again.

If Americans had been able to see this country has never been just and great for all who live here, and, too, if Americans had been able to see the very real – if imperfect – greatness of a country founded on ideals of equality and justice, maybe they wouldn’t have felt a need to make it great again. Maybe they would’ve voted more modestly, for making America incrementally better.

mapofutopia1Map of a Utopia

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METHODOLOGY

I look for meaning in a small room. My analyst is a tiny, birdlike woman. She speaks softly, and can say shocking things. She sits in her chair. I sit on the couch. It is too soft. I would never dream of lying down. There’s a view of a parking lot and also a microbrewery.

The purpose of my visits with her are wholeness, integrity. She is a Jungian, so she comes at all this from the perspective that you have to dredge the unconscious, sift through your dark, ugly, unseen, painful matter. You must unfold, unpack, remember, shake out everything that’s been pressed: depressed, repressed, oppressed. Everything you’ve locked up, you must release. Everything in the basement gets hauled upstairs, into the sunlight.

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PRESENT STUDY

A few years ago, my husband, our young son, my mother and I went to a villa in Baja that both friends and the internet promised was heaven on earth. It had been a hard winter.

What we now call Baja California was thought by Spanish conquistadors to be an island, quite possibly the island paradise described in a novel popular at the time.

At the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue.  – Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, The Adventures of Esplandián

islandofcaliforniaIsland of California

We took a rough dirt road – an arroyo, really – from the airport on the Pacific coast to our destination on the Gulf. It was night. My mother was buckled in, she’s religious about seat belts and safety, if not about God or anything else. She was also clinging to the handle above the car’s door and offering helpful driving tips, like slow down. My husband was driving, maybe a little fast. My son was bouncing in the back seat next to me, thrilled for any kind of adventure. There were no villages, no houses, no streetlights along the way. Our world was limited to the wan beams of our headlights. When we finally came to the other side, we unknowingly shot by the villa, and had to backtrack to find it.

Morning, and we woke to beauty.

We wandered up to a palapa for breakfast – buckwheat pancakes and great slabs of papaya – and then one of the owners gave us a tour. He was a soft-spoken gringo of late middle age, polite, not effusive. The villa was comprised of a main house, where the owners lived, and a number of casitas. The workmanship of the place was meticulous; the balconies and curved balustrades, the tilework, the fountains. The owners themselves had built the place. Please stay away from the main house, on the paths that wind through the yucca, the palms, the plumeria, and hibiscus. I saw a wild fox perched atop a saguaro.

As my mother, my husband, our guide, and I stood on a terrace gazing out to the sea – I remember I was running my hand up along a smooth, coral-colored Tuscan column – we heard a splash behind us.

My then five-year-old son was at the bottom of the pool. He didn’t know how to swim. Fully clothed, I jumped in to save him. I was wearing a long skirt which covered my face as I entered the water. I reached out blindly. My boy wasn’t there.

When I tugged the skirt off from face and could see, our guide was hoisting him out of the pool. He’d calmly knelt down at the edge, reached into the pool and grabbed my son as he’d surfaced for air. He didn’t even get his sleeves wet.

The pool had mermaids mosaicked on the bottom.

Before we wandered down the hill to the beach, I buckled my son into the life vest I’d packed. Beaches back home in the Salish Sea are gray-green and rocky, covered in kelp, barnacles, and eel grass. This one was absolutely blank, just hot sand and blue water.

We encountered another young boy at the shore. Named after an archangel, he was a grandchild of the villa’s owners. Oh, so-and-so? I asked, naming our guide. No, all of them, he said. I learned that a wealthy, graying, seemingly happy commune owned the villa. My boy and the other played in the ocean waves for hours, laughing. The sand glimmered as if with gold as it was kicked up by the clear water.

inbajaIn Baja

We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. – The television director who controls Truman’s world in The Truman Show

The Lyman Family, also known as the Fort Hill Community, was the creation of Mel Lyman, a banjo and blues harmonica player. Photos, including one shot by Diane Arbus, show a man of thin body, hollowed cheekbones, a hot gaze.

In the 1960s, the group attracted some wealth and intelligence, and members included architects, artists, and the daughter of a famous painter. Although they dabbled in LSD and astrology, they hated hippies. Men wore their hair short, and women did as they were told. Wives were not shared concurrently, but serially. Mel fathered at least 5 children by 4 women. As with children in Plato’s Republic, the Lyman kids were removed from their parents and raised collectively. The Family also dabbled in guns, racism, and bank robbery. One member was shot to death at the scene of their single attempted heist and another, actor Mark Frechette, was arrested. Frechette later died in a weightlifting accident in prison.

The Lyman Family recovered from the bad publicity, and continued to buy and develop properties for their communal living. A farm in Kansas. A base in Los Angeles. A loft in Manhattan. A compound on Martha’s Vineyard. A villa in Baja. They started selling their skills, and incorporated a high-end construction company, which designs and builds homes for Hollywood directors and movie stars.

According to the Family, Mel Lyman died years ago, on his fortieth birthday. The cause and location of death were never disclosed, and his body was never produced, leading to speculation that he went into deep hiding, and may still be among us.

Some of the Family spend most of the year down in Baja; the grandkids don’t visit as much as the elders would like, so they’ve started renting out casitas to tourists.

The villa was self-sufficient: solar-powered, eco-friendly, off-the-grid, farm-to-table. At one dinner, after an owner slid a huge plate of food in front of me, I asked if the chicken was one that he’d raised. Costco, he said. Similarly, when I complimented the person I thought was the cook, I was told that actually, the Mexican did all the cooking.

I never saw this Mexican, nor any of the other workers, though ostensibly it was they who kept the pool so clean, the garden so lush with water trucked in weekly from afar. I heard, occasionally, the voices of children. Once I peeked into the off-limits zone and saw a tiny shack. That must’ve been where the Mexicans lived.

I was a big empty HOLE trying to fill itself with TEARS – Mel Lyman, Autobiography of a World Savior

Seen from the beach, the villa’s grounds were an island of green in the sere brown land. Baja is a bone dry finger that pokes into saltwater. It presents two obvious possible deaths: one by drowning, the other by thirst. A third struck me as we were climbing up the stairs from the beach to the summerhouse: death by sunburn. Although I’d assiduously reapplied sunscreen to my child’s skin throughout the day, I hadn’t done so on my own. I was scorched, and hurt for days.

My thighs are now freckled, sun-spotted from the burn. Skin damage because of Baja. When I think of that time, I try to remember that the beauty and kindness shown, I try to remember that people sometimes grow and change, that every family is an expression of an attempt, that I am judging based on very little. The archangel and his mother, both progeny of the Family, were lovely. But really what I think about is Mel, and the shuttered away Mexicans, and the fact that there are no trees.

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FINDINGS

  1. Utopias are dystopias or satires; the kings are harmonica players.
  2. Actual attempts at ideal society fizzle out, as do actual attempts at living. Which is not necessarily a value judgment.
  3. Now you can strap the world you want onto your head. It’s in a box, this virtual world, this reality. You are immersed, as if in liquid. You move through this liquid world, seeing everything as if you’re right there. One can easily imagine an ideal world (safe, beautiful, egalitarian, fun) being successfully marketed and inhabited. Maybe you’ll be able to spend most of your life there. But from the outside, you’re still just a person with your eyes covered.
  4. Once, while walking along a river in the Canadian Rockies, hand in hand with a poet with whom I was wildly infatuated, I saw a vast herd of elk. I pointed them out to my companion, who was confused. I looked again. What I’d taken for elk were simply the dark spaces between trees in the forest. It is possible to confuse absence and presence.
  5. The Kingdom of God, I’ve heard, is all around us, if we have but vision to see.
  6. When not advocating wholesale genocide, my then three-year-old son sometimes (at least once) had moments of coruscating wisdom. One night on the tiny ferry we take from the mainland to our island home, he climbed out of his car seat and started speaking, as if in tongues:

    I am everything
    I am a grizzly bear shark deer
    I’m all the animals in the world
    I am everything

    I’m looking at the moon and the stars
    I’m the ocean and the fish
    I am everything

    I’m the boats I’m the trains I’m the excavators
    I’m all the pieces of equipment
    I’m the roads I’m the cars
    I am the signs

    I’m the houses
    I’m everything in the houses
    I’m the cupboards I’m the oven I’m the cereal I’m the food
    I’m the computers I’m the lights
    I am electricity

    I’m the windows I’m the grass
    I’m the trees I’m the birds I’m the sky
    I am everything

    Then he went back to potty talk and whining. We are all of us occasional prophets trapped in bewildered flesh.

  7. Utopia is a fertile lick of land in the floodplain of the Skagit River in Washington State. There were Utopians there once, briefly. They fled to higher ground during the first wet season, but the name stuck. My husband recently bought a plot of land there, in Utopia. On it, he will grow trees. They, the big leaf maples, acer macrophyllum, will be the new Utopians.

maple-in-vitro

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CONCLUSION

Jesus spit on the blind man’s eyes, and put his hands upon him, and asked him what he saw. The blind man looked up and said, I see men as trees, walking. –Mark 8:23-24

When my son was an infant and started to cry, I’d take him out under the Japanese maple. The green light under the leaves would calm him. Or maybe it was the aerosols. Trees talk with one another by releasing tiny chemical particles into the air. These arboreal perfumes are believed to make people feel healthier and happier. The Japanese invented a phrase for walking through the woods to enhance good health: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. These same aerosols seed clouds to make rain and cool our planet down.

Aerosols are tree cafe chatter, you’re not quite sure which tree is saying what. An even more sophisticated communications system, tree-to-tree talk, lies underground. The mycorrhizal network, also known among scientists unafraid of bad puns as the Wood Wide Web, is the connecting of various tree roots to one another by fungal filaments. The trees give necessary carbon to the fungi, the fungi reciprocate with food and drink, and act as carriers for chemical missives, nutrient love letters. A tree under attack by aphids or fire in one part of the forest can sound the alarm to other trees far away. Do they have feelings, these trees? Is it why a mother tree will fend off the growth of other trees nearby, but make space for her children? Why she will give them everything she has?

mycorrhyzalnetworkMycorrhizal Network

Charles Darwin, after Origin of the Species, turned his attention to plants. He believed that trees were like very slow-moving, upside-down animals, burying their root-brains deep in the dirt, and flashing their sex bits up above. Among the ancient Greek, the Druids, the Italian streghe, trees spoke with the gift of prophecy. Oracular trees.

Consider the trees.

Where I live now, on Coast Salish land, tree-people were the first people, then salmon-people, killer-whale-people, crow-people and others. After a while, human-people came along. I have no doubt that life was hard, and I don’t wish to romanticize – or to have lived in – any time other than my own. I do, though, wonder what justice looks like when trees are considered teachers and equals, as they were. I’d think that differences in our own species – language, culture, color, gender, ideas about god, fashion, all that – would look smaller, hardly worth mentioning, or at least more gracefully negotiated. If you can respect a cedar, might it be easier to respect someone who is not a mirror of yourself? Maybe we wouldn’t regard the world – or each other – simply as resources. In a world where everything is holy, the sun glints off the raindrops on the web of the divine, making the connection between all things visible.

Balance must look different, too, when man is not the fulcrum. No architect or author. No pale king.

It is easy to lapse into utopian thought. This world is bruised and marked and hardened. But still, it flickers between what it is and possibility. We must imagine what we cannot yet see, or can glimpse only through the cracks: a society made up of all these different kinds of tree, animal, and human people, learning the ways of one another and of the air, the water, the living dirt.

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—Julie Trimingham

REFERENCES

The Republic, Plato, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1497

Utopia, Thomas More,http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2130

Candide, Voltaire, http://candide.nypl.org/text/chapter-18

Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885–1915. LeWarne, Charles Pierce: Seattle: University of Washington Press

The Return of the Utopians, Akash Kapur, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/the-return-of-the-utopians

Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach, Bantam Books

Ernest Callenbach New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/books/ernest-callenbach-author-of-ecotopia-dies-at-83.html

The Ones Who Walk Away form Omelas, Ursula Le Guin, http://engl210-deykute.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/omelas.pdf

Utopia, Thomas More, available online at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm

Autobiography of a World Savior, Mel Lyman, http://www.trussel.com/lyman/savior.htm

Steven Trussel has an online compendium of Mel Lyman information: http://www.trussel.com/f_mel.htm

The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America, David Felton, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-lyman-familys-holy-siege-of-america-19711223

Once Notorious 60s Commune Evolves into Respectability, http://articles.latimes.com/1985-08-04/news/vw-4546_1_lyman-family/2

The Lost City of Z, David Grann, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/19/the-lost-city-of-z

Under the Jungle, David Grann, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/under-the-jungle

More links and information on Percy Fawcett: https://colonelfawcett.wordpress.com

A translation of Manuscript 512: http://www.fawcettadventure.com/english_translation_manuscript_512.html

1491, Charles C. Mann, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/

The Island of California was a common misconception among the Spanish in the 16th century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_California

The Island of California was thought to be a paradise, inhabited by Black women, ruled by Queen Calafia/Califia.

The Atlantic Monthly published an article on The Queen of California in 1864, Volume 13. https://books.google.com/books?id=pd9rm7JwShoC&dq=%22Queen%20of%20California%22&pg=PA265#v=onepage&q&f=false

The Power of Movement in Plants, Charles Darwin and Sir Francis Darwin, 1925, available for reading online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5605

The Intelligent Plant, Michael Pollan. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant

Do Plants Have Brains? http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/152208/do-plants-have-brains

Radiolab on tree talk: http://www.radiolab.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree/

Suzanne Simard’s TED talk on how trees talk to each other: https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en

Information on very old trees in Britain: http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/discoveries/newdiscoveries/2010/The+Pulpit+Yew

Photographer Beth Moon has taken pictures of some ancient, powerful trees. You can see some of these photos from Portraits of Time and Island of the Dragon’s Blood. http://bethmoon.com/portfolio-page/

Beth Moon’s stunning images capture the power and mystery of the world’s remaining ancient trees. These hoary forest sentinels are among the oldest living things on the planet and it is desperately important that we do all in our power to ensure their survival. I want my grandchildren – and theirs – to know the wonder of such trees in life and not only from photograpshs of things long gone. Beth’s portraits will surely inspire many to help those working to save these magnificent trees. — Dr. Jane Goodall

I believe it is through the unique vegetation that the spirit of Socotra is defined, with mythical trees like the dragon’s blood tree or the fabled frankincense trees and the island’s culture so closely linked to nature which sets this island apart from the rest of the world.” — Beth Moon

The observer effect in physics simply states that the act of observing will change that which is being observed. It is similar to, though different from, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which states that increased precision in measuring the position of a particle will diminish precision in measuring the momentum of the particle, and vice versa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)

Smithsonian archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921-2012) is credited with coining the phrase counterfeit paradise, referring to the Amazon. Her book Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise was, and remains, controversial in its contention that pre-Columbian Indigenous populations were, due to environmental restrictions, small and not very complex.

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

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Jan 152017
 

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After all, that was only a savage sight while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist—obviously—in the sunshine.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow, captain of a slight and halting steamer, after many weeks navigating the treacherous Congo has reached his destination deep inside Africa, the inner station of the trading company where chief agent Kurtz presides, Kurtz the emissary of profit and reform, a model of the hopes of Europe, the leader of the native tribes, a genius at acquiring ivory. The subtle horrors are as much the fruit of Kurtz’s efforts as of what lies within the jungle, but also are Marlow’s own black projections on its darkness, not returned. The pure savagery brought to light is Kurtz’s symbolic gesture, heads of native rebels he had cut off and put on stakes, lined before the station house. The heads, however, do not face outward to warn tribesmen from transgression but inward towards the house, where Kurtz can contemplate their gaze.

I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hillah. Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands, so I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo you want to smile.

We contemplated her gaze and that gesture, at least for a while, as she faced us, the smiling Army Specialist Sabrina Harman, who aided in the gathering of intelligence at her station, Abu Ghraib, the prison deep inside occupied Iraq. Or rather we saw her in pictures brought to light after years of subtle horrors in a war we thought was going well and whose mission we were sure of, the pictures bringing a clarification, an obviousness, a relief, their own kind of rightness. She does not look at what she smiles over or what she thumbs up but we see them, the pile of grotesquely hooded, naked men, the blackened corpse.

Was it over a decade ago or a century? It is hard to keep track of time in a world that recreates itself afresh every day. Somehow the Abu Ghraib pictures have been washed aside in the stream of things, of other disturbing images that continue to flow past. The distance between our purpose then and our behavior, between our professed ideals and the horror, however, has not been closed and the pictures still haunt me. I have not found a way to explain or discharge them, or come to terms with other lingering subtleties in a world where I do not know where I stand. I have no idea where we’re headed, though the world tells me we are moving forward. I do not know what to with my hands either.

Against all the sharp narratives that have played out the last years, in battlefields imagined on screens and in the world actual, it is to the muddy story about a captain who just goes up a river and back I most often return, a journey that resembles my own. I have only observed the horrors of history, of the present, from a distance, yet they still belong to my world and I have felt their currents, as well as sensed all that lies beneath them, unseen, unknown. Like Marlow, I work for a trading company of sorts—we all do—and my station is modest and my task simple. Like Marlow I have been on a long trek and kept my shoulder to the wheel. I think I am good person, or good enough, and have provided some service, though I know not to make anything of either or rest easy. Like Marlow I keep my distance, like Marlow I do not have any answers, like Marlow I do not forget easily. I have yet to meet face to face, however, anyone with the revelatory power of a Kurtz.

Kurtz’s virtue is that he can front the terrors that lie without and he holds within, face their contradictions, and feel their full effect. This is what redeems Kurtz in Marlow’s eyes against all others in the company who stumble through their corruption without pause. And Kurtz has a voice, though we hear few of his words, most significantly the two that refer to his black vision. Marlow stays detached—he has to—and observes the horror through Kurtz, one step removed, just as Conrad has us observe Marlow, when he does not speak, through the narrator, adding one more frame to the layering of frames. There was a morbid fascination, but Sabrina Harman’s reaction was one of mute disjunction, not approval, a frozen reaction to the horror she witnessed but could not contain. No one framed her, though she was following orders.

I would like at last to be able to look into the heart of things, within, without, and come to an understanding, though I have got no closer over the years and have yet to find a frame. I do not know what I project on the world, nor can separate that from what it returns. And I would like to find a solid voice I can live with, that sustains me and helps me reach out, though still it wavers. Like Marlow I need to keep distance without losing sight so I can find perspective and maintain it. There are times, however, I see myself as Harman, transfixed, stunned and speechless, though without a smile.

The thumbs up—it is our universal gesture now for everything, that graces all we have seen and done, that we sign above where we’ve been and where we are headed, whatever we happen to be doing at the present moment, which, along with an open face and guileless smile, the captured gaze we show the world and that defines us, has replaced the two-fingered sign of benediction, pointing to a another kind of transcendence..

Thumbs up pic

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As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld. His remark received the status of pop wisdom and circulated widely.

Any life is a mission and every mission has a life, each a journey into the unknown, each a story whose plot charts the trajectory of beliefs and desires against the ground of reality over the course of time. It is the tension between the first and the latter that propels the action and moves us through the telling, leading us to climax, the locus of dreams and nightmares.

Marlow as a boy was fascinated by the mystery of Africa, as was Conrad, who made a similar journey upon which his novel is based, inner Africa then a white, undifferentiated patch on the map, a blank slate that stirred his curiosity. Rumsfeld, our Secretary of Defense, talked about what we know and what we do not know in a press conference to justify the invasion of Iraq based not on the possibility of the presence of weapons of mass destruction but upon the possibility of possibilities unknown, the blank space where he plotted his course and let his imagination sail.

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

What do we know we know?

We live in a culture that believes in itself and in us, in the value of our individual existence and our collective endeavors. We also recognize the necessity of managing material needs for survival and growth, which can lead to compromise and sacrifice. It is difficult to put our ideals and the physical world together. War, when deemed necessary, brings its own realities that unsettle any equation. The temptation is to consider ideals airy and insubstantial, thus suspect, and practical decisions defensible because they are grounded in reality, to favor realists over idealists, though ideals can have concrete manifestation and reality does not make sense without some kind of basis. Nor can concrete action be promoted without abstract justification or even be coherent. Then there are our desires, which do not fit easily with either reality or ideals, but flit fretfully between them.

Conrad’s Belgium, like Europe, was a champion of progress and enlightenment that it wanted to pass on to the peoples of the rest of the world to free them from misery and confusion, though not raise them to its level and give them power over their own lives. It also had a stake in claiming territory in Africa the other European countries were carving up in their dreams of conquest. And Africa had ivory, a symbol of purity, the mystical white growth of the tusks of huge beasts, a substance that is hard but suggestive to the touch and can be carved with delicacy and precision into curved and intricate shapes that endure, that was used to make billiard balls and piano keys and inlays and jewelry and knife handles and figures of saints, which at the time returned enormous profit.

We inherited the ideals of the Enlightenment, which we wish to pass on by example. We also debate our relationship with imperialism, where we struggle with distinctions. Of course there is our need for oil to warm and transport us and create our synthetic products, where we all are more involved than any of us might like to concede. Then there was the attack in New York and the fallen towers, the necessity to protect ourselves from invaders as well as appease whatever vestiges remain of tribal revenge, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Bin Laden and Afghanistan, however, were soon abandoned, and plans had been made for decades to destabilize the Middle East and gain control of world oil supplies. Rumsfeld made Iraq a priority well before the towers fell, which event provided pretext for the invasion.

Past and present, our world has depended on the transmutation of pliable substances and unsettled values, and it is difficult to find stable ground.

Justification was provided, however, to allow action and keep our ideals intact, based on essential difference. Africans were seen as savages, thus fell outside standards reserved for civilized people. Kurtz himself wrote an eloquent tract for the International Society for the Prevention of Savage Customs. The difference was supported by concrete observation and physical proof, the contrast between skin white and black. For us the difference was that between free people and terrorists who oppress, which the Bush administration used to freely suspend the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions and allow brutal interrogation at Abu Ghraib, this supported by concrete evidence of the violence turned against us by the people of occupied Iraq, though we found no links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda. Instead we brought them in.

Both differences, however, are based not on known knowns, or even known unknowns, but unknown unknowns. Marlow never penetrates the jungle to observe the people and their customs. He does not know the language, nor does Conrad give the natives a voice, except a handful of words they speak in broken English, the last to inform us of Kurtz’s death. Our government listened to no one except Chalabi, the Iraqi exile they wanted to put in power, and knew almost nothing about the Arab people’s beliefs and desires and customs, only just enough to humiliate them. Intelligence gathering had to come later, at Abu Ghraib. In Marlow’s story all we see are shots fired blindly into the jungle and dilapidated outposts at the fringes; in ours we largely saw our mechanized race through the desert, our guided missiles flying through the air, whose cameras showed us their blind destruction, and our command post at Saddam’s Palace, surrounded by tall concrete blast walls that separated it from the rest of Baghdad, from which civilian leaders of the occupation only timorously ventured.

And we saw what we now know we know but still strains belief. In Conrad’s novel Africans are taken from their villages, some set against the others, most forced into labor and chained, starved, beaten, and left to die. In real life Congo Free State, women, men, and children were freely mutilated. Failure to meet production quotas at the rubber plantations was punishable by death, and King Leopold ordered the hands of the guilty be cut off and sent back to Belgium as proof of execution. Natives also saw their children slaughtered, their villages burned. In the some two decades of Leopold’s occupation, the population decreased by an estimated ten million, this caused by murder, abuse, neglect, disease, and drastically fallen birth rates.

During the decade of the war in Iraq and since, civilian deaths from violence runs almost two hundred thousand, most caused by the sectarian violence we unleashed in a country we occupied but could not control, the total still rising. At Abu Ghraib, where thousands were detained, most civilians who posed no threat, prisoners were deprived of food and sleep and warmth; burned, beaten, flooded, and attacked by dogs; hooded with sandbags or forced to wear women’s panties on their heads; made to stand naked separately or huddled into piles; and raped or forced to commit sexual acts with each other or sodomized by a broom handle and a chemical light stick. The pictures we finally saw were part of the process, taken to double their exposure and multiply the humiliation. Specialist Harmon took one of the pictures of the hooded man standing on a box in a shower, loose wires attached to his fingers to make him fear he might be electrocuted if he stepped off, his arms raised high by his sides like wings or like those of another well-known figure, providing us perhaps with the most clarifying image from the war. The corpse she thumbed up had been beaten to death and put in a body bag and packed with ice, waiting to be taken out secretly to cover up his murder. Then there were the Abu Ghraib pictures we did not see because they were not released, along with the unseen torture at Guantanamo Bay and rendition at unknown places.

It is the excess of reality, known knowns, that taxes belief, not any buried secret or flight of ideals. Not seen, not known, not even known they were unknown and stretching belief further, were the horribly obvious ironies that sent our values soaring, that white civilized people savagely brutalized blacks they labeled savage, that our torture was carried out in the very prison Saddam Hussein had created to terrorize his own people, whose freedom and well being had become the final justification for our invasion.

Or that when we entered the heart of darkness we were looking at ourselves..

Unknown

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America stands against and will not tolerate torture.

President Bush to the United Nations, well after the fact.

Exterminate all the brutes.

The note Kurtz scrawled with a shaking hand at the end of the pamphlet he wrote for the International Society for the Prevention of Savage Customs.

Marlow returns to Europe with nothing to sustain him other than the memory of Kurtz, who helped him see more clearly what he didn’t see well before. He is more distant from the world, or rather more aware of his distance. One’s journey to find oneself in the world begins and ends at home, perhaps to realize one has never left it, or that one has no home to return to. But the novel ends without conclusion, without resolution of plot, and Marlow himself reaches no larger understanding.

My challenge, then, is to see if I can pick up where Marlow leaves off. But I feel naive yet at the same time presumptuous for looking at what is so obvious and attempting to explain what should be self-evident, as well as perverse for looking at it again, the obviousness made no less obvious by its magnitude, or no more. And it is difficult to take on the obvious, what offends in its absurd and utter simplicity, with a straight, with any kind of face, and not lapse into sarcasm or ridicule. But there I run the risk of trivializing my opposition without effect, who simply can dismiss me, and alienating anyone else who might listen. Already I’m beginning to lose myself. But there remains the perplexing problem, perhaps not obvious, of why the obvious isn’t obvious.

So I persist and look at the severed head that rests on a pole and stares back at me, and ask the obvious question: Why wasn’t demolishing Abu Ghraib a first priority? Given how efficiently the Bush administration managed our perception of the war with its manipulation of the media, why weren’t we immediately shown the razing of its walls? The images could then have been coupled with those of pulling down Saddam’s statues, which we did see many times. The act would have brought cause and effect together and provided a conclusion that would have at least given the appearance of validity to their justification for the war—saving the Iraqi people from oppression—which might have satisfied the rest of the world and us, at least for a while. Doing so, however, might not have served their real purpose. It is also possible they did not understand the terms of this argument. Another possibility is that we weren’t especially interested in seeing that footage.

Bush did offer to tear down the prison, but Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim Iraqi president, refused because he couldn’t justify the cost. Given Yawar’s tenuous command and our administration’s overwhelming influence, it is impossible to believe he could not have been persuaded otherwise. Also the Abu Ghraib pictures had already been aired, so Bush was only trying to control damage, and his proposal was to build a modern prison in its place, which would have better suited his plan.

I can go no further, if I hold any human value, without stepping back, separating myself, and standing opposed, which is what I did at the time, a decade of total disaffection with our government, of skepticism about government itself. But to stand apart I need a justification to support my foray into interpretation and keep myself intact, and the justification will require creating my own essential difference: I am moral and they were not.

Our leaders were ruthless and corrupt, and acted without conscience, looking only to their own interests—both Bush and Cheney’s roots ran deep in oil—and those of the wealthy few who shared them and stood to profit from the war. Their only motive was to protect those interests and extend their power. There was the risk, however, that by ignoring the ideals of democracy they might undermine their standing in the world and the basis that kept them in power during elections. The only way they could justify their action was to create the difference between free people like themselves, like all of us, against terrorists, not like any of us, but they had no interest in freeing anyone. They needed a prison, and stuck with Abu Ghraib because it was convenient, so they could maintain control and gather necessary intelligence as well as intimidate the people of Iraq through fear. They had to maintain distance from the torture by keeping the details unknown so they would not be implicated or caught in contradiction as long as they could. By the time their hypocrisy was exposed, if that ever happened, it wouldn’t have mattered because by then they would have had control, what was done was done and could not have been reversed, and there was no other power at home or, with the fall of the Soviets, in the rest of the world strong enough to oppose them.

That interpretation to some may smack of glibness and political bias, and often leads to such accusations. It has always been hard to make it stick. Yet there is so much to support it and little that contradicts. Still, it doesn’t account for their behavior. Understandably they rushed to war and did not want to build a broader coalition. Time lost and shared participation might have weakened our support and their grip. What it does not explain is their haste. They likely did not have to worry about losing our support, not after 9/11. The Vietnam syndrome had run its course, and the war in Afghanistan was well received. If they did have to worry, they had created the fear of more attacks on us that would have bolstered our support if it flagged. So they ripped through Iraq, facing little resistance because Saddam had little resistance to offer, destroyed the regime, and planned a quick withdrawal, yet had no strategy for occupation, which makes no sense at all because they ran the risk of losing what brought them to Iraq in the first place, control of its people and their oil. And still left out is the excess of violence at Abu Ghraib, where, by so many counts, most of the intelligence gathered was of little use and often false. Tortured men will tell you whatever you want to hear.

Unless they were worried they might lose resolve themselves, that their justification, their distinction, might lose momentum. There may be a categorical mistake in assuming anyone can act without conscience, however perverse the outward signs. Also a political interpretation rests on the assumption their behavior was rational and they knew what they were doing. There is another way to understand their actions that takes us further into darker places, and I need to make another distinction to go there: I am sane and they are not.

Erich Fromm, in The Heart of Man, explains how our natural aggressive urges, our love of ourselves, and our affection for others, unchecked, can run rampant and grow malignant into necrophilous, narcissistic, and incestuous formations. In the powerful, the three can merge and lead to a syndrome of decay, where destruction becomes an end in itself and source of delight, as we saw in Europe the last century. Leaders need the support of their followers, of us, to build power, and do so by building our attachments to sterile things and hollow abstractions that flatter and melt reserve but do not strain us with difficulty, investing both with meanings they cannot hold, meanings that avoid meanings and deflect troubling questions. Stronger incentive is still needed, however, along with concrete proof, so leaders appeal to our sense of rightness by setting us against those who are not right, less human, or not human at all, and to make the argument conclusive, set us against those who can be readily identified and who are weaker and can be easily disposed of.

The only way the process can work is to remove the difference from reality and keep the unknown unknown so we do not see into hearts of those we oppose even as we attack, or see who we really are and what we are really doing. Otherwise the edifice of destruction loses its foundation and collapses. No wonder the statue of Saddam had to come down first. But it is difficult to maintain the illusion and keep the unknown unknown, yet the only way to support it is to push it further and step up the attack. Perhaps a guilty conscience did come into play, which only would have increased the strain, and with the strain, the necessity to put that voice aside and return more viciously to their argument. Proving superiority not only leads to paranoia and sadism, it depends on them.

And Rumsfeld’s logic of unknown unknowns was a spiraling ascent into paranoia. By controlling all intelligence, bypassing standard channels and having all intelligence run through him, accepting what fit and rejecting what did not yet at the same time removing himself from other intelligence, he was left to his own devices and worst fears. Perhaps he was merely being calculating when he thought he could pass off on us the reports of yellowcake uranium from Niger or the purchase of aluminum tubes made in China—both which might have been used by Saddam to develop nuclear weapons, both reports quickly rejected by the intelligence community worldwide—but his plan depended on weapons of mass destruction, so he bracketed them in unknown unknowns yet acted as if they did exist. He needed Saddam to have active ties with the terrorists, though Saddam had no use whatsoever—they only would have weakened his position—so Rumsfeld left known knowns, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, behind to chase the phantoms. Saddam’s paranoia has to be factored in, along with his smoke and mirrors, but the only way Rumsfeld’s scheme works is to take them at face value and not try to see past them, assuming he could make that distinction. Meanwhile pending, what might have been the greatest deterrent to the mission and helps explain his haste, was Saddam’s offer, once he saw our forces mass, to bring inspectors in—he was begging—and show he had gotten rid of the weapons of mass destruction for the obvious and convincing reason that he did not want to give the U.S. cause to invade and lose his power.

The racial difference of Conrad’s day had one advantage: positing savagery into color provided obvious identification to clarify the European mission and even open the possibility, however immense the task, of a total solution. Terrorism gave no such advantage, as the only way to identify terrorists from non-terrorists was by their behavior, or, in the absence of such behavior, signs to suspect possible terrorist behavior, and if those could not be found terrorists had to be created. Perhaps there was a racial element involved as well, but then the search spread here at home with the endless surveillance. By keeping the details of Abu Ghraib unknown and propping up the terrorist distinction, the Bush administration allowed the violence to go unchecked, and without definite limits there was no way to complete the mission and close the circle as it was impossible to know when to stop. There is no telling how far the torture might have spread had the pictures not turned up.

One way to interpret their plan for a quick retreat is that, unconsciously, they wanted to escape the terrifying strain of what they envisioned. Or perhaps they wanted to pass the violence off on someone else but instead got stuck. Either way, the evidence points to wholesale destruction as the end result, consciously planned or not.

Somehow, in this context, I have to find high ground to better see and chart a clear course. But if I divest myself of my government I remove myself from power, without even a thought of representation or possible action unless I discover or create a space outside it. To consider myself moral leaves me with a burden that is difficult to bear alone, where it is too easy to stumble, the burden made enormous by the enormity of the abuse I try to face. I will always have to walk stiffly erect on a narrow path. To consider myself sane in the face of monstrous insanity removes me from my own internal debates and narrows the path further, the path already twisted by pursuit of the monsters it created for me, ever present.

But our leaders were somewhat genial men, not charismatic tyrants, who at least feigned humility, and they genuinely wanted our support. And their appeal, however conflicted, was for freedom, not conquest, which might have been sincere. Also they knew they needed us, as we could could topple them in the next election if they fell out of our favor. We love our freedom and want to feel good about ourselves, about our attachments to our reflexive devices and to each other. The fall of the towers might most have upset us when we realized what they did not support and how much they did not support it. Or what upset us was what we didn’t know but lay hidden in our own unknown unknowns, which vexed us even as we fled them. We, so many of us, believe the purpose of government is to turn us loose and set us free. We want to protect our self-interest and the interests of those who freely gather wealth. The market collapse at the end of Bush’s second term did not take us to Wall Street but elsewhere to find causes. And what distinctions do we make? Savagery is not rejected but openly embraced, an appetite fed endlessly on our screens in an unending crescendo of climaxes. A case could be made that we weren’t misled by tyrants, but rather with open hearts shaped the men we elected to represent us, then gave them a free hand.

Irony requires a context, and if none of us, our leaders or the free people of the U.S., saw the irony of Abu Ghraib, it may have been because we did not have one. Either we didn’t want to see the irony or we simply did not understand it.

I need to step back further and make another distinction, but I am running out of room.

I have gone too far, I haven’t gone far enough. Reality is more complicated. Reality is always more complicated, though complexity might have been pursued in order to avoid it. The Iraq invasion rested on decades of pressing concerns along with questionable and ambiguous involvement with allies and enemies alike, themselves questionable and ambiguous, including American covert support of Iraq in its war against Iran where Saddam did use gas, that support not stopped when he used it against Iraqi Kurds. Or perhaps our leaders just got lost in the vast complexity of what they were trying to do. Factoring in incompetence offers some relief. To deny psychological or moral interpretations, however, is to concede values have no influence and that our minds do not come into play. That the Bush administration really believed, that we believed, with all our hearts, that by toppling Saddam’s regime and pulling out we would build allies in the Middle East and restore world order, that the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms and, left alone, follow our example and build a democracy of free people, that oil would freely flow once more—does not contradict the moral and psychological interpretations, or, if it does, sends us all into chaos, which might be where we are.

.

Marlow falls silent without finishing his last thought, leaving it in ellipsis, then sits apart from the other men on the deck of the cruising yawl on the Thames where he has told his story, returning to a cross-legged position, his back straight, arms down, and palms out, like a Buddha. Behind him, the brooding gloom of London. Before him, passage to the open sea.

But Marlow ultimately is a practical man, more occupied with managing his life than understanding it. Managing, in fact, is his answer, as, in a version of Freudian sublimation, he believes one should find oneself in one’s work, though he distances himself from the value of the work he performs. Efficiency is the key, and his main criticism of Kurtz is that he lacked restraint, that he couldn’t control the primitive forces inside him, inside all of us, and in nature itself, both forces coming together in Kurtz, corrupting and destroying him.

Freud in his later work, trying to account for the destructive course the world had taken, speculates that guilt from the conflict between our collective conscience and our dark, inner urges caused the malaise, the force of our desires unconsciously working on the guilt and taking a malicious turn.

What has held us back the last century, what have we not openly, freely tried? What does anyone feel guilty about now?

He also debates a death instinct, somehow somewhere inside us, maybe throwing up his hands.

Fromm prefers inside us a lighter, more creative force, which, when corrected by objective knowledge gained from science, might lead us from self-absorption and self-destruction.

What has our creative force brought to light, or our science? What hasn’t been explored by science in the mind, in nature? What hasn’t been diminished in both by the search?

All three, Marlow, Freud, and Fromm, posit some unconscious force, making a thing of the question they are trying to answer and thus avoiding it, leaving it in unknown unknowns that continue to haunt. And they miss what escapes them in their pursuit, what frightens us yet moves us and gives us the terror of hope—

There is nothing in the heart of darkness, except, perhaps, the heart.

I reread Heart of Darkness not looking for answers but a place to linger, and it is the novel where I most feel at home. The meaning of the story, as the narrator tells us, lies not in the core of the plot but outside it, this meaning enveloping it with an indistinct yet present glow, like a halo. It is the glow that draws me and keeps my doubts alive as I wander through a world only dimly perceived and try to navigate the jungle of Conrad’s thoughts, and of ours.

I am human and that matters. It is always the starting point and the point to which all journeys should return.

But I wonder if my best course now is not to sit apart, like Marlow, away from all fears and desires, and rest with the understanding that does not try to understand, the voice that does not speak.

There are moments, however, I am moved by bright visions and red passions, and I hear fresh voices from a distance speaking a strange language, and they come, and they gather, massing, and I join them, and they join me, and I lead them to light, and words come, and I hear a beating in dark places that matches the beating of my heart, faster, faster…

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Selected Readings

It is difficult to know what can be taken for common knowledge when so much still remains disputed and denied, but all factual claims in this essay made have been extensively researched and supported elsewhere. Another irony of the war is that it has taken careful, responsible writers years of painstaking research to discover what happened so quickly and was hidden so long.

Seymour Hersh, in Chain of Command, provides details on the abuse at Abu Ghraib and traces the chain of command involved, as well as reviews other matters touched on, such as the questionable evidence for Saddam’s ties with Al Qaeda and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He cites a 2003 poll that showed 72% of the American people believed Saddam was personally involved in 9/11. To what extent the poll reflects the effectiveness of the Bush spin on the war or our own desire to make the connection would make an interesting study, though it’s unlikely the two factors could be sorted out.

At least one operative knew Conrad. Hersh describes the clandestine special-access program (SAP) that was created to track down terrorists. Few were aware of it. According to one former intelligence official, “We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’”

George Packer, in The Assassin’s Gate, also reviews the events and influences leading up to the war and our subsequent occupation, our isolation and detachment during that time. He cites an early draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, written in in 1992, commissioned by Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, and overseen by Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary for policy, which states: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.”

So many of us quickly leap to accept conspiracy theories while others too quickly reject them out of hand. Peter Dale Scott, in The Road to 9/11, carefully and convincingly reviews decades of U.S. covert operations around the world, the questionable ties with allies and enemies alike, including terrorists; the administration’s ties to business; the secret policy decisions; and the hidden efforts to centralize power that led up to and influenced the invasion. The full details are dizzyingly complex and extend across the globe.

Only one example. He reviews U.S. covert policies under CIA Director William Casey and Vice President Bush at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the 1980s, policies that continued and had effects later:

(1) to favor Islamist fundamentalists over native Sufi nationalists, (2) to sponsor an “Arab Afghan” foreign legion that from the outset hated the United States almost as much as the USSR, (3) to help them to exploit narcotics as a means to weaken the Soviet army, (4) to help expand the resistance campaign into an international jihadi movement, to attack the Soviet Union itself, and (5) to continue supplying the Islamists after the Soviet withdrawal, allowing them to make war on Afghan moderates.

Note also the view of business:

In 1997 the Wall Street Journal declared: “The Taliban are the players most capable of achieving peace. Moreover, they are crucial to secure the country as a prime transshipment route for the export of Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and other natural resources.”

That Rumsfeld’s behavior approached paranoia has been commonly discussed. I sketch my own interpretation for comparison. Scott develops the idea further in his theory of deep state politics.

The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment has only recently been released and can be downloaded at http://detaineetaskforce.org/report/

Our support of Iraq in its war with Iran, in spite of its use of gas, is discussed in two New York Times articles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/18/world/officers-say-us-aided-iraq-in-war-despite-use-of-gas.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/15/world/us-says-it-monitored-iraqi-messages-on-gas.html

America stands against and will not tolerate torture. Bush’s full statement on United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 2004, can be found at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72674

The Yale Genocide Studies Program reviews the abuses and genocide in the Congo Free State at http://www.cis.yale.edu/gsp/colonial/belgian_congo/

The death toll in Iraq has been tallied and analyzed at Iraq Body Count at http://www.iraqbodycount.org

That the intelligence gathered at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers was unreliable is reviewed extensively, with links to many sources, at http://thinkprogress.org/report/why-enhanced-interrogation-failed/

This Wikipedia page reviews fully, with many sources, why Saddam’s ties with Al-Qaeda were insubstantial: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam_Hussein_and_al-Qaeda_link_allegations

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris wrote a long piece on Sabrina Harman, “Exposure,” reviewing her behavior and reactions, in The New Yorker (March 24 2008), the source of the opening quotation.

Edited picture of Rumsfeld from The Huffington Post.

Picture of Sabrina Harman via The New York Times.

Man on a box picture via Wikipedia.

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

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Jan 052017
 

lmdfamily-croppedAuthor with parents

 

About the time when my father, Abraham Morganstern, started to lose his memory, he began to sort through the household trash on a daily basis, picking out with surprising care bent hangers, sole-less shoes, cracked mirrors, unattached buttons, and other items he deemed worthy of resuscitation. His triumphant scavenging at first irritated my mother, Hadassah Morganstern, and me when I happened to return for a visit to the ever-more-cluttered house of my childhood, but after a while we both accepted it as a permanent facet of his new personality. I suppose if you are falling away into some sort of mental darkness, you hold onto anything concrete, even if it’s broken. It may also be his instinct to broker junk into something useful, now gone awry. My father is a self-identified junkman, the son of a junkman, himself the son of a Russian shoemaker, and before that who knows–the ancestral line lost in the rough and decisive Atlantic crossing. And Abraham Morganstern, in his heyday, was the King Midas of east coast junkmen, a working-class boy who, having lost his father as a teenager and finding himself responsible for a widowed mother and two brothers, had wheeled and dealed in paper, rags, cans, and cigarettes on the docks by the Chesapeake Bay and in the printing presses and paper mills of east Baltimore, until he assembled a small fortune. How massive his fortune, I couldn’t say, as he always retained a deep-seated sense of his lower-class origins and a childlike awe of those whom he considered truly wealthy. “That’s a self-made man, right there,” he would gush about the father of one or the other of my classmates at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls, a private school loosely affiliated with the college, both having been founded in the late 1800s by M. Carey Thomas, a cross-dressing philanthropist with a passion for female education. “He’s made of money. And you know what–you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy. That’s the whole package. Me, I’m barely middle-class.” If his progeny, my sister Eloisa Isobel and me, applied themselves then, with the benefit of postgraduate education, we could ascend into the heights of upper class, and, he always added, take care of him in his old age. That old age confronted him far sooner than I had expected, as before his sixtieth birthday he commenced the torturous process of drifting away from himself. At sixty-seven, his mind seemed increasingly defenseless against the waters of Lethe, which flushed out all traits of tenderness and humor but somehow left the stubborn hell intact.

King Lear, which used to be my least favorite Shakespeare tragedy, began making sense to me after witnessing my father’s decline. He seemed to be lost perpetually in an erratic storm I couldn’t see. Sometimes he jumped back and shielded his eyes, as if in the wake of a lightening flash. And while he instantly forgot the anger that thundered through his body at unpredictable moments, it left us all awestruck at the strength still lingering in his failing body. The stress of soothing him through moods alternatively volatile and timorous became too much for my mother. She retired from her job as an English teacher to care for him but even then she needed to take breaks. During the winters she absented herself in Florida for as long as she could prevail upon my sister or me to take over as companion for him. A desire to relieve her for a bit, along with the lengthy vacations endemic to an academic career, has led me to spend increasing amounts of time with him. I spent nearly a month at home during my sabbatical, during which we fell into an unaccustomed intimacy, without the buffer of mother and sister and apart from the rhythms of work and school that had always held us in check from each other.

***

newyearsatthedinerAt the diner, New Years Day 2016

When my father, Abraham Morganstern, was fifteen, a Baltimore city bus rode over his right foot. He lost three toes, missed four months of his freshman year of high school, and was subsequently ineligible for the Vietnam draft. Being what he has always termed derisively a bleeding heart liberal, I can hardly regret that he didn’t have to suffer unendurable horrors for inexplicable reasons like many of his contemporaries and most of his high school friends, yet I’ve always thought he would have thrived in the army. He enjoys uniformity, regularity, conformity, and consistency. He is a man who possesses a deep-seated suspicion of the abstract, preferring newspapers to books, Norman Rockwell to Pablo Picasso, print to cursive, and dogs to cats. He has worn Docker slacks and Redwing loafers for forty years and only stays in Hampton Inns regardless of whether he is visiting Tuscaloosa or Paris. Alzheimer’s has only intensified the comfort he finds in the habitual. And thus, every night I stayed with him during my sabbatical, we ate dinner at The Acropolis, a twenty-four hour diner run by kind-hearted Greek emigres accustomed to my father’s habits.

Every night, we enacted the same rituals. My father introduced me to the waitresses and busboys, all congenial offshoots of the Greek diner familia, and we all acted as if it were the first time, as if we too had fallen into the minuscule eternity of a perpetual moment. “This is my daughter. She’s the professor,” he announced in delight, as we took our seats in the red leather booth next to the jukebox. The waitresses and busboys would wink at me and exclaim how smart I must be, how I looked just like my mother, and shake my hand to introduce themselves.

I always ordered for both of us. I varied my order between various breakfast foods but without fail he ate a turkey burger with onions but no lettuce and tomatoes and a side of waffle fries. Whenever the waitress brought us our drinks (Diet Coke for him, glass of slightly dreadful house red wine for me) I always watched him carefully fold up his straw wrapper with studied concentration. Only after he had placed it carefully in his back pocket would he turn to me, his face bright, shining, excited, expectant.

“Tell me what’s new!” he said to me one night at the diner. “I haven’t seen you in almost six months.” I didn’t protest although I had been home for about a week at that point.

“Well, I do have some good news, actually. I found out that I have tenure now.”

“That’s wonderful,” his smile split open his long freckled face.

“Thanks! Check out my business card.” Before leaving home I had stuffed a stack of business cards in my purse for precisely this purpose. He turned it over in admiration and asked if he could keep it. I had given him dozens over the two years since I had actually gotten tenure.

“Well, I am really proud of you. You are so smart.” He shook his head. “You must get that from your mother.” That was the wrong word at the wrong time. It triggered a reverberation of memory and betrayal. His face reddened and his voice grew thick with menace. “Where is your mother? I know she’s not here. Did she go away? Why didn’t she take me with her?”

I was afraid of him in those moments. Because I like things to be polite and calm and peaceful. Because he was still my father, and his flares of temper reminded me of the days when he and my mother had arbitrated morality, judgement, and penance, when I talked back, when I lost my retainer, when I announced I was majoring in medieval studies instead of something they deemed practical. Because his voice thundered too loud for polite conversation, and at that moment in the diner, people were starting to turn around, and I didn’t want him to reveal his weakness to a world that had always shown him deference.

“She just went off for a few days. But I’m here. And I’m here for almost a month,” I said quickly and brightly.

“Well, I didn’t know that. A whole month.” He shoulders relaxed and he opened up his copy of the Baltimore Sun. “Do you want the sports section?”

“Yeah, right.” I grimaced and held up a book on French convents I was meant to be reviewing for a tiny feminist medieval journal. I was relieved. If unchecked, his anger could flail out limitlessly. Last winter, he had chased my mother and sister into my old bedroom and punched a hole through the door. Now he wanders by the room in surprise, puzzling at the gap in the wood.

He held up his newspaper to the fluorescent lights, squinted, and then brought it close to his nose to sniff, as if he could smell the oil on the machines that pressed out the pulp and before that, the perfumes the wood had exuded at the moment of splitting. I had seen him repeat this action a thousand times over the years. Most of his business had come from buying and selling paper, and he understood and respected its shades and varieties. At my childhood birthday parties, he would carefully unfold all the wrapping paper I tossed aside in an ecstasy of anticipation and lovingly examine it like a Vatican official authenticating a sacred relic.

Despite that brief moment of calm, his body would stiffen again and again that night and each night, and I would watch his internal temperature drop or rise into anger, I was never sure which one. Anything could provoke the outbursts–the lack of industry in America today, his french fries touching his cole slaw, the price of gas. Regardless of the issue, his voice thundered like a minister denouncing Satan. I would speak in soothing tones, handing him my business card, creating word games to play on the place mats, pulling out my phone to show him pictures of my dogs, anything to coax him back into tranquility.

***

It seems to me that humans are obsessed with imposing order onto the rhythms of earth. Do we follow the pull of the moon, the cycles of the sun, calculations Julian or Gregorian? Is it a day of rest or a day of work? How do we steady ourselves upon this spinning world? Some internal clock had shattered in my father; all the calendars in the world couldn’t seem to ground him in time. He still knew who he was, and as long as he was somewhere familiar, where he was, but he could not grasp when he was and the impulse to remember left him frantic.

“What year is this? How old am I?” he asked me plaintively, on a loop, in the morning when he first awoke, during meals, during drives. If I was in the same room, I would watch him count the years on his fingers, his ring finger scarred from when it once caught on the roof of a truck he was loading with paper rolls.

“Am I sixty-six?”

“You are sixty-seven, Daddy,” I would call out, while brushing my teeth, or reading, or running the water for dishes.

He would launch into a lengthy explanation about how even though he was already eligible for social security he was planning to wait so that he could increase the amount so my mother would have more when he died. I always agreed with him although I never really listened. I probably should have paid more attention. He had always understood how to invest, how to profit, whereas I could never save a cent. But my attention always wandered, out of habit, as if he were instructing me about stocks and bonds and I was still a bored teenager nodding to keep him happy.

He was able to sustain the conversation for about five minutes before the cycle began again. In mid-sentence, suddenly, he would pause and ask what year it was, how old he was.

Why were we both stranded on different planes? I could move through the day as if through a museum, with paintings and sculptures by different artists from different ages, from golden icons to rotund Madonnas, changing from room to room. He saw each day, each cycle of a few moments, as one painting in a series of the same object, like Monet’s water lilies, going increasingly out of focus in an afternoon of lengthening shadows.

***

allandianecroppedAuthor’s mother and father

On the outside, the house my parents had moved us into when I was three years old still looks like a respectable suburban split level, but on the inside, it is decaying. The water from leaking pipes has bruised the first floor ceiling with purple water stains. A giant hole above the stairs exposes the skeleton of the house, aging and failing no less so than its inhabitants. Until sympathy for my mother’s cares had overcome my hygienic scruples, I had avoided staying at the house more than once or twice a year.

The house had always been cluttered, although generally sturdy. For years it was the repository of familial possessions from both sides. When my father’s uncle Sheldon had a heart attack at the Pimlico racetrack, his Dinah Shore records, his roll top desk, and his threadbare plaid suits infused with cigar smoke, all ended up in our living room. Esther Collector, my mother’s mother, couldn’t abide possessions, and over the years she had sent her diminutive good-humored husband to our house laden with Wedgwood sets, teak end tables, and porcelain planters, all of which had ended up in the hallway in wobbly stacks. These shabby heirlooms gathered dust side by side with sheets of bubble wrap, disembodied and translucent like antique wedding veils, cans sticky with soda, my sister’s college futon, outdated copies of the Baltimore Jewish Times in tenuous heaps. The clutter had built over the years, forming archaeological levels–Level 1 1980-1982 AD, Level II 1982-1984 [early, middle, late], each level built on the rubble of the previous years. The present level existed in some late decadent age from a civilization in decline, fraught with invasion and decay. Of course, I thought wryly, even the Germanic barbarians had maintained the Roman baths. Out of three bathrooms in the house, only one still has a flushing toilet and running water in the sink. The shower is entirely off limits. If you turn on the water, it runs through the floor into the living room below. My father and I conducted our ablutions as best as we could in the one sink, which drained poorly and bore a lingering patina of hair and soap suds. The other two bathrooms had become glorified storage closets, full of mildewed towels and empty bottles of anti-aging creams.

I had avoided coming home for years because I had found my efforts to fight the chaos continuously frustrated. It was far easier, I realized, to accept the reality–the hordes of newspapers and old litter boxes and the styrofoam cups towering unsteadily to the ceiling. With no working showers, I just gave into the grubbiness and settled in among the disarray. It was glorious, in a way, to simply become the body I already was, without fighting the daily onslaught of effluvium and odors. My pillows smelled sour from my hair, and when I sunk into the sheets at night I breathed in a nutty fragrance, as if I was stretching out on a forest floor. What did it matter, really? I drove to the library each morning and then accompanied my father to the diner each night. I moved through the grocery store and the post office anonymously. My rhythms were entirely his. I half slept at night, alert for his turnings and grumblings, his faint sleepy cries in the early morning– “Hadassah, I hurt so bad.”

I slept in my sister’s old room, since she had rendered my own uninhabitable when she moved home two years ago, moved in her kitten, and promptly moved out my old bed, ripped off my Pre-Raphaelite posters and playbills from high school triumphs from the wall, and then moved back out, leaving behind the detritus of a shopping addiction and a cat with a urinary tract infection. She was two years younger than me, a short plump brunette who had recently moved to Boston with grand promises of becoming a freelance fashion writer.

My mother kept the door to my old bedroom closed, so Capricious the cat didn’t disappear inside. I did venture in one time. The light bulbs had burned out, leaving the ridges of possessions cast in grey light through the shuttered windows. My sister had left in a hurry, as if fleeing a war zone, abandoning piles of shoes and leather purses. The dresser was stacked with towers of Starbucks cups with lipstick rims and half-filled water bottles. An acrid smell in the air indicated that she had left a full litter box under old boxes spilling over with tissue paper. Somewhere beneath all that were my old dolls and books. She had attacked the room with a certain hostility indicating she had never forgiven me for existing, for enjoying the bigger room throughout childhood, and for resembling the fair-haired slender Collectors rather than the stocky Morgansterns.

She possessed far less patience for my father now than I did, which was surprising, given that she had always been the Daddy’s girl growing up. They rode bikes together, shot baskets for hours on end, told jokes and sang song lyrics in the car. Their clamorous antics embarrassed and annoyed me. I was very much my mother’s daughter, which meant I was quiet and absorbed in my own world. My father and sister were more sociable creatures. They possessed matching unpredictable tempers and were partners in rage as well as play. I knew I loved him (I wasn’t so sure about her) but I did spend a lot of time wishing him away, willing the house into quiet and calm. “You’re too loud with her. She doesn’t like it. Can’t you see that?” I remember my mother chiding him over the years.

In return, he courted me, stilling his loud, clumsy attentions and approaching me with a kind of reverence. He presented me with small offerings of books and ideas, usually age-inappropriate, gleaned from conversations and articles and radio shows so that at six and seven I read Clan of the Cave Bear and War and Peace and a scintillating host of Jackie Collins novels. I remember one glorious yard sale where he bought me a biography of Anne Boleyn, a biography of Queen Victoria, and a battered copy of a book about girls who went to summer camp and learned how to make voodoo dolls, and after reading all of them in furious delight, I decided that I was going to become a writer, and a historian, and go to camp the next summer. He watched me fill up a series of floral-covered bound notebooks with fledgling biographies of queens and stories about girls going to summer camp, and then he brought me home a gleaming electric typewriter.

“And why does a ten-year-old need a typewriter?” my mother had demanded sharply, but fondly.

“You’ll thank me when she gets into Harvard,” he responded smugly, watching me enthusiastically hunt and peck on the shiny black keys. “She’s smart, like you.”

I didn’t get into Harvard, but like almost all graduates of the Bryn Mawr School for girls, I ended up at a reasonably rated four-year college, and my father spent a sticky August afternoon in upstate New York moving endless boxes into my fourth-floor dorm room. After a trip to Kmart to buy an area rug, a mini-fridge, the dorm-authorized sticky gum that wouldn’t leave marks on walls, and all the other forgotten extras, my mother headed to the car, exhausted, for the seven-hour drive back to Baltimore, and he stayed behind for a moment. I had been nervous and impatient all day, by turns clinging to them and encouraging them to leave. We stood looking at each other in this room newly hung with specially purchased Pre-Raphaelite posters, and surrounded by standard wooden furniture into which I had to unpack all my clothes and books and suddenly, with his eyes still fixed on me, his body sagged and slumped and finally ruptured into sobs such as I had never heard before. Spontaneously, as if mirroring him, I cried furiously, hot with resentment at this assault on my shaky confidence in my new life. After a few moments, he gasped in a way that was almost a wail, and then turned on his heel and stumbled out of the room, and I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving.

***

Every night, blue light flashed from the TV down the hall, and I fell asleep listening to the spluttering and popping of gunshots. My father watched old cowboy movies late into the night. He found comfort in the familiar plots and the simplistic binaries of good and evil without any moral ambiguity. In between the shrieks and the shots I could hear him murmur to the cat, “You’re my favorite daughter. I hope you know that.”

One night after I had been home for about a week, as I rolled up in an old bathrobe and a crocheted coverlet, drifting off to sleep, I heard his bed creak. The floor groaned as he made his way to Eloisa Isobel’s old room. He lingered in the doorway, his tall body drooping, his face growing so long and thin it seemed to disappear into the hollows of his throat.

“What’s going on, Daddy?” I murmured, sleepy, but alert.

“What do you think of that cat? She’s really something, isn’t she?”

I agreed with him, somewhat irritably. No one would believe it, but he had never even liked cats until a few years ago. My sister and I had begged him for a pet for most of our childhoods, to no avail. Now Capricious had become the one creature to whom he was always kind, to whom he always spoke softly. He stood in the doorway and kept talking while I wished he would go away so I could fall asleep. When I think about these moments, I wish I could have been more patient, the way he must have been with me when I was a baby and interrupted his sleep with my nonsensical noises.

He came and sat on the bed and groaned. “I’m falling apart,” he proclaimed. He wore a frayed yellowing undershirt and underpants full of holes that hung off his hips, heedless of modesty. I wondered at this frail failing body, and I thought how impossibly strange it was that he had once been a young man, that this body had once conceived two children in desire and raised them up in hope. This whole thing baffled me—the way the image that sprung into my mind when I summoned the word “Father” had shifted over the years from a red-headed giant who could repair, lift, or solve anything with which the world confronted him to a shadowy being who I needed to protect from that same world.

***

lmdallan-cropped

There is one picture of my father and I taken when I was about five, that remains my favorite. It’s a close-up of the two of us, his arm is around my waist. I’m in a blue checked dress with a white lace collar. My hair was lighter and his was darker, so we both have matching copper curls. His face is unlined, heavier, his smile is so wide it practically splits open the picture. I remember that day in diffused dreamlike scenes. He had taken me to a house where there were girls my own age. I think they were the daughters of his college friends visiting from out of town. I was supposed to be playing with them, and for some unknown reason, a sense of dread palpable even today, I refused to leave his side. I clung to him all day long, despite his attempts to nudge me in the direction of the other girls. It may have been a dream I imagined to explain the picture. But what I remember is this desire for him to shield me from the unknown. Somehow he had become the unknown, with his quicksilver moods and his storms of anger. That father to whom I had clung with such adoration was gone already, lost to the shadows that pulled him further into another world. It was as if he was stuck between those two planes of existence, and the result was mental and physical chaos. What I couldn’t decide was whether I still wanted to cling a little bit longer, how quickly I hoped he would disappear entirely into wherever he was meant to go.

Laura Michele Diener

 

Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

 

 

Dec 102016
 

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Karen Mulhallen age two with her parents

This is a photograph of me at about two years of age. I have been looking at this picture for the past year or so, while I was working on a collaborative essay, a chapter on twentieth-century fashion in literature. It was impossible for me to reread so many early twentieth-century books without thinking of my own mother, and her clothes and the way in which clothing was a bond between us. My mother was always fashionable, and briefly was a model for Max Factor, while she was freelancing as a journalist in the first years of her marriage, before I was born. My father was fat, very fat, as you can see, and was very lucky to have her. She is chic in her slender yellow dress, appliqued with brown velvet leaves on the chest. Her hair partially rolled in a chignon. Two things strike me about my role in this picture. I am dressed, as I was for years, in a handmade dress, this one with sweet cross-stitching. I seem oblivious to my clothing, although that might not be true. And of course my stuffed animal is a horse, which resonates with the fact I have written many poems about horses, including an entire book, Sea Horses, about the wild horses of Sable Island. Was my identity being forged even then by my dress and my accessory, a stuffed horse?

karen-mulhallen-in-crepe-dress-1942-44The author in crepe dress, with stuffed horse, 1942-44

My youngest brother David has, by default, become a sort of archivist of the family photographs. He observes that most of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me. I am the eldest of four siblings and the only girl. Is the preponderance of pictures of me because I am a girl? Because girls get dressed in pretty dresses? Because I am pretty? Because I was first born? These are all seemingly innocuous and even commonplace questions. But what do they mean?

karen-mulhallen-childhood-photos“[M]ost of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me.”

Like many women of her generation, my very beautiful and intelligent mother was an excellent seamstress. And so she dressed me, made my clothes, as a baby and a little girl. That stopped when I was an awkward and highly emotional teenager. Then, eventually, I had part-time jobs, and began to buy inexpensive and standard clothes for myself: saddle shoes, poodle-cloth skirts, white sharkskin blouses. But when I got my first real job, as a teacher in a university, my mother spent months with me going to the fabric mills, just east of Kitchener-Waterloo, and then making me suits and dresses, some from elaborate Vogue patterns. Was this because I was gainfully employed and needed to present a professional appearance, or was it because I became beautiful for the first time since I was a little girl? Now I could be a brooch on my mother’s lapel. Or, as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own remarked, women are the looking glasses who enlarge men at twice their size. Did I become again, perhaps for the first time since childhood, the looking glass enhancing my mother, after such a long wait?

karen-mulhallens-motherThe author’s mother

Here is a photograph of me at the age of 13, with my adored baby brother David on my lap. I am wearing a sharkskin blouse and a poodle-cloth skirt. David is too young to worry about how I look, to wonder whether I am pretty, or why I am not as pretty as the other girls in our small town. He loves me because he knows I love him passionately and I spend all my waking hours thinking of him, rushing home from school to take him for walks, feeding him, changing his diapers, even sharing the bed with him and his many stuffed animals.

karen-mulhallen-with-brothersThe author, age 13, with baby brother David

Here is a photograph of David sixty years later. His expression is the same, although now, like our father, he is wearing a suit and tie.

brother-david-60-years-laterThe author’s brother David, 60 years later

In the first few years of my teaching, and my brief marriage, I too began to sew. Sew independently, of my own volition, that is. Of course I had to take Home Economics in high school, although I had asked to take Shop, and sewing was part of the Home Economics curriculum. Most of my sewing, and my knitting, I took home to work on, which really meant that my mother could rip it out and redo it and advance a bit on it for me for the next day. I certainly learned to vacuum and to make tomato juice from scratch, and to embroider tea towels, all activities I have not continued. However, when I came of age the hippie era had begun. I began to sew kaftans, my mother was making macramé jewelry, and I began to sell my work and my mother’s in the various head shops, like Tribal Village, which sprang up in the city. I put away my Vogue pattern-St. Laurent suits, and my bra, and followed the trend, vintage clothing, much from my mother’s wonderful stock of 1940s and 1950s coats and outfits from Creed’s, an elegant high-end Toronto store, and 1920s and 1930s dresses from London’s vintage shops in Chelsea and the Portobello Road markets, and from my friend Mary Fogg’s Oxfam shop in Reigate, Surrey.

Here is a picture of me in a luminous green robe trimmed with fake fur, made for me by my mother. I am sewing a kaftan, the fabric featuring an overall geometric silver design, intended for sale at a local head shop.

Karen Mulhallen sewing a kaftan 1974The author sewing a kaftan, 1974

Young designers had begun to open shops in Toronto, and in London, England, in Chelsea and High Street Kensington. Those clothes too were part of my wardrobe, clothes from The Unicorn, and Dr. John’s and the Poupée Rouge in Toronto, and from Biba’s in London and from Ossie Clark.

Toronto wasn’t as swinging as London, with its mod wear for men, but Toronto did have several designers’ shops in Yorkville, on Cumberland and on Yorkville and on Bellair, and even on Avenue Road, and in the Village on Gerrard Street, and in Honest Ed’s Village on Markham Street. And the city was buzzing with the marvelous energy brought to it by the American draft dodgers. Clothing became fun, and a direct expression of the sexual revolution.

I got married in London in Trafalgar Square in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a Unicorn orange velvet dress, its hood and hem trimmed in red fox fur. My husband wore a black velvet suit and my brother Robin, who was best man, wore one in green velvet.

There are few photographs of me in this period in these clothes; in many I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution, but here is one where I am wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s on Gerrard Street, a grey jersey top and short grey flannel skirt with gored panels in it, topped by a fake suede vest which I had sewn myself. The rather rough stitching on my vest might or might not have been intentional.

Karen Mullhallen in handmade vest and Dr Johns jerseyThe author wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s (photo by Jay Cohen)

karen-muhallen-naked-in-the-late-60s“I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution…”

So my life as a student and a teacher of literature has been from the beginning intertwined with my changes in costume and with the way in which my clothes not only signaled my identity, but also were active in its construction.

I remember even as a young graduate student visiting my parents and putting on fashion shows with my mother for my father as he sat in his armchair reading the daily newspapers. It never occurred to me then that this might be an unusual activity. While some graduate students were attentive to what characters in novels were eating, the boeuf en daube, for example, that Mrs. Ramsay serves for dinner in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, I was more interested in what the characters were wearing.

When I look again at that early picture of myself with my parents, I notice my father’s green tweed suit and his paisley tie. It is a uniform, one commonplace enough since suits became standard for menswear, after what culture critics have called the “Great Male Renunciation” in the nineteenth century. What this rather rotund phrase acknowledges was the fact that men had stopped wearing high heels and elaborate and luxurious clothing, including voluminous lace cuffs and powdered wigs as well, for a sort of uniform which has more or less persisted through the twentieth and even into the twenty-first century. Swinging Chelsea and the Haight-Ashbury hippie era and punk culture being notable exceptions.

Although my father was always rather formally attired, including English brogue shoes, shirts and ties, as was his generation, he did express himself in his choice of headgear. Here he is in a straw hat, dancing with one of my brother Robin’s girlfriends…

father-dancing-in-straw-hatThe author’s father dancing in straw hat, 1980

…and here he is celebrating St Patrick’s Day, with a hat of his own devising. He did enjoy costume opportunities.

father-with-st-patricks-day-hatThe author’s father in St. Patrick’s Day hat

In this picture, he appears to be walking a catwalk. He has an audience and is prancing in his shorts. My father often wore shorts in the summer time when he drove into Toronto to do film bookings for his cinema. He considered the wearing of shorts in the city to be a bit rebellious and in line with some aspects of his character. He also wore an Odd Fellows Lodge ring, although he never belonged to the Odd Fellows Lodge.

father-parading-with-cigar-and-shortsThe author’s father parading in shorts, with cigar

General male sobriety in clothing highlights profoundly the moment in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) when Daisy and Gatsby gather at his two wardrobe cabinets, where his shirts are “piled like bricks a dozen high . . . shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue” and Daisy begins to weep at the beauty of his many different coloured shirts.

Shirts seem to be essential masculine garb throughout the twentieth century. As a teenager I remember well ironing and folding my father’s shirts. This was a task I enjoyed and the smell of them while ironing and then the folding them gave me great satisfaction. My father wore a fresh shirt each day and had a chest of drawers, a highboy in green lacquer, built in the art deco style, something like a pyramid, dedicated to their storage.

Unlike my father’s shirts, however, Gatsby’s shirts signal his immense wealth and therefore his attractiveness. Clothing has always been a crucial signifier. The literary depictions of women’s clothing in the first half of the twentieth initially signal primarily their class, often their age, and eventually their occupation, as the roles of women, and the presence of women in the workplace, change.

In erotic fiction, of course, little changes, as the fewer the clothes, the more so-called “erotic” the portrait. When I was a graduate student everyone was reading Pauline Réage’s wildly popular novel, The Story of O (1953), which could be considered the standard for women engaged in erotic behaviour, a short skirt, no underwear, long gloves, and, in cold weather, some sort of fur coat. By the end of the twentieth century, underwear becomes outerwear, as Madonna’s Sex (1992) book amply illustrates. The question of undergarments is in itself of some interest, since, except for nightgowns, very little of these essentials make a fictive appearance.

When I began to teach in the late 1960s, there was a major shift in Western clothing and some of these shifts appear in well-known authors. The hippie movement, the rise of feminism, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and London’s Chelsea, all see male and female clothing coming closer to one another, as do hairstyles in general. The punk movement of the 70s in a sense repeats this trope, as girls dress like boys, and a little bit contrariwise. I remember when I was working on a project centred on the Palais Royale in Paris wandering through its garden and being delighted at spying a young man in a sarong topped by a tweed sports coat and shirt and tie. He turned out to be a clerk in the Jean Paul Gaultier shop nearby. Returning to London, I noticed for the first time in Chelsea men also wearing skirts with sports jackets.

karen-mulhallen-wearing-mans-cap-1974-75The author wearing a man’s cap, 1974-75

For the next twenty years or so, the reverence for couture, and the use of dressmakers who might imitate couture, also begins to erode, as fashion is democratized, male and female clothing blends, and branding takes priority, initially as a reaction to democratization. The wide availability of high street knock-offs of expensive runway creations does mean that authentic luxury brands are increasingly valued as signs of status, and their logos are worn on the outside of many garments and accessories. However, a proliferation of copies of luxury brand items, both labels and logos, ensues, and all attempts to police and patent couture and luxury design, while continuing into the twenty-first century, are more or less ineffective.

As television and film become primary channels of expression for clothing as iconic, I think a good case might be made that literature turns inward, the interior life of characters becomes central, and their external appearances, and particularly their clothing, play little part in who they are and what they do. This was a shift signaled as early as 1924 by Virginia Woolf in her pamphlet “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” where she argues against stressing the fabric of things in order instead to depict human nature. The interior life, argues Woolf, is what the novelist should focus on.

A classic and spectacular example of the rise of couture in popular media is Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York (2002)—loosely based on Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld—where the gangsters are dressed brilliantly and memorably; male clothing dominates the screen. The costume design won an Oscar award for British costume designer Sandy Powell. The cut of the male costumes seems to reference the men’s wear of Italian designer Giorgio Armani, who has himself designed clothes for more than two hundred films including American Gigolo, The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall StreetBy 1981, Giorgio Armani had become the rock star of fashion, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Scorsese’s own father was a clothes presser, so Scorsese’s emphasis on male clothing and fashion in the film, about to be a TV series, has intriguing autobiographical roots.

My own return to designer clothing began about this time in the late 1970s–early 1980s. I was earning a living as a lecturer, and I was constantly in the public eye. Japanese and Italian designers were shaking up the runways in Paris.

The use of actors, and most often actresses, in advertisements for major luxury fashion companies in the later twentieth century, shows just how much fashion and clothing have become an important component of the commercial presentations of self, linked to class and prestige. Not that this is new, but the use of models whose financial lives are made by impersonations, in essence improvisational identities, does emphasize the importance of clothing in the construction of the public self.

In the nineteenth century, descriptions of the wearing of used clothing, what we call vintage, seemed to be confined to rent girls, who rented attractive clothes in order to sell their bodies. In the later twentieth century vintage carried with it a number of charges, a turning away from the contemporary, from luxury, from commodity culture, but also a way of taking on the past in all its guises. A deliberate looking backward, with the freedom that this engenders.

Here is a late-1970s photograph of me, taken by photographer Michel Verreault, in a vintage lace dress from the 1930s. This dress was given to me by my mother, although it is not a dress she ever wore. She had simply collected it as an antique.

author-wearing-1930s-vintage-lace-dress

karen-mulhallen-photos-by-michel-verreault-1980Photos of author by Michel Verreault, 1980

Although my doctoral dissertation finally was on William Blake’s illustrations, I spent several years in graduate school working on what is known as modernism. Two modernist writers who had a major impact on my own sense of costume were D.H. Lawrence and Djuna Barnes. In both writers the putting on of costume is a colourful putting on of identity. Each frames a scene and sets it up as in a painting. Each uses colour as well as texture to convey class, emotion, and occupation. Each has a direct relationship to the world of painting—Lawrence was an exhibited painter, and Barnes had studied at the Pratt Institute.

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D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)

The body and its clothing are crucial tropes in Lawrence’s work. In the opening chapter of Women in Love, “Sisters,” Gudrun stands out from the ashy, dark Midlands colliery town to which she has returned from art school and her life in London:

The sisters were women. Ursula twenty-six, and Gudrun twenty-five. But both had the remote, virgin look of modern girls, sisters of Artemis rather than Hebe. Gudrun was very beautiful, passive, soft-skinned, soft-limbed. She wore a dress of dark-blue silky stuff, with ruches of blue and green linen lace in the neck and sleeve and she had emerald-green stockings. Her look of confidence and diffidence contrasted with Ursula’s sensitive expectancy. The provincial people, intimidated by Gudrun’s perfect sang-froid and exclusive bareness of manner, said of her: “She is a smart woman.” She had just come back from London, where she had spent several years, working at an art-school, as a student, and living a studio life. (page 4)

d-h-lawrence-women-in-love collageD. H. Lawrence

The girls, whom Lawrence in this passage casts as incarnations of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, walk by rows of dwellings of the poorer sort: everything is ghostly. “Everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world, a replica, a ghoul, all soiled, everything sordid.” Gudrun is aware of “her grass-green stockings, her large grass-green velour hat, her full soft coat, of a strong blue color. . . .‘What price the stockings!’ said a voice at the back of Gudrun. A sudden fierce anger swept over the girl, violent and murderous.” (pages 8–9)

The sisters are both school teachers, and Ursula will become involved with a school inspector Rupert Birkin, while her sister Gudrun will become the lover of Gerald Crich. When Gudrun first sees Gerald (page 11) we are told he was “almost exaggeratedly well-dressed.” But no details of his clothing are given. His mother is described as wearing a sac coat of dark blue silk and a blue silk hat (page 11). In this scene at the church we first see Hermione Roddice, a friend of the Criches. Hermione is the wealthy daughter of a baronet; she is Rupert Birkin’s long-time lover, and a woman of intellect and culture:

Now she came along, with her head held up, balancing an enormous flat hat of pale yellow velvet, on which were streaks of ostrich feathers in natural and grey. She drifted forward as if scarcely conscious. . . . She wore a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color, and she carried a lot of small rose-colored cyclamens. Her shoes and stockings were of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat. . . . ( pages 11-12)

Lawrence compares her to a woman in one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings with her heavy hair and long pale face, and drugged look.

Later, at the school, Hermione appears “a vision . . . seen through the glass panels of the door” (“Class-Room,” pages 34-35). She has come for a surprise visit, while Birkin is giving instruction about the sex life of plants. She speaks in a “low, odd singing fashion”: Her manner is intimate and half bullying:

She was a strange figure in the class-room, wearing a large, old cloak of greenish cloth, on which was a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar and the inside of the cloak was lined with dark fur. Beneath she had a dress of fine lavender-colored cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull green-and-gold figure stuff. She was tall and strange, she looked as if she had come out of some new bizarre picture.

In a scene in a London café, “Crème de Menthe” (chapter 6), where artists gather, an artist’s model called “Pussum” Darrington presents herself :

At Birkin’s table was a girl with dark, soft, fluffy hair cut short in the artist fashion, hanging level and full almost like the Egyptian princess’s. . . . She had beautiful eyes, dark, fully opened, hot, naked in their looking at him. . . . She wore no hat in the heated café, her loose, simple jumper was strung on a string round her neck. But it was made of rich peach-colored crepe-de-chine, that hung heavily and softly from her young throat and her slender wrists. ( pages 60-63)

The architecture and the setting of “Breadalby” ( chapter 8), Hermione’s family home, also provide a frame for dramatic presentations: “Breadalby was a Georgian house with Corinthian pillars, standing among the softer greener hills of Derbyshire, not far from Cromford.” ( page 82)

As Ursula and Gudrun arrive the house appears “like an English drawing of the old school . . . women in lavender and yellow moving to the shade of the enormous, beautifully balanced cedar tree.” ( page 83)

Hermione takes in the two sisters’ appearance:

She admired Gudrun’s dress more. It was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale greenish straw, the color of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual. Ursula, in dark blue, was more ordinary, though she also looked well.

Hermione herself wore a dress of prune-colored silk, with coral beads and coral colored stockings. But her dress was both shabby and soiled, even rather dirty.

To entertain themselves the various characters form Biblical tableaux of Naomi and Ruth and Orpah, in the fashion of the Russian Ballet of Pavlova and Nijinsky, with a panorama of costume and emotion. (page 92)

As they all go up to bed, Hermione brings Ursula to her bedroom.

They were looking at some Indian silk shirts, gorgeous and sensual in themselves, their shape, their almost corrupt gorgeousness. And Hermione came near and her bosom writhed, and Ursula was for a moment blank with panic. . . . And Ursula picked up a shirt of rich red and blue silk, made for a young princess of fourteen, and was crying mechanically: ‘Isn’t it wonderful—who would dare to put those two strong colors together—’ (pages 93–94)

fashion-timeline-1910-to-19191910s fashion timeline (via Glamour Daze archive)

In the chapter entitled “Rabbit” (chapter 18), Gudrun is hired to teach art to Gerald’s young sister Winifred at his family home of Shortlands. Gerald waits in the garden to catch sight of Gudrun. Gerald is described as “dressed in black, his clothes sat well on his well-nourished body.

Gudrun came up quickly, unseen. She was dressed in blue with woollen yellow stockings, like the Bluecoat boys. He glanced up in surprise. Her stockings always disconcerted him, the pale yellow stockings and the heavy heavy black shoes. . . . The child wore a dress of black-and-white stripes. Her hair was rather short, cut round and hanging level on her neck.

As she and the child move away to see the child’s rabbit, Bismarck, “Gerald watched them go, looking all the while at the soft, full, still body of Gudrun in its silky cashmere.” He is in love with her, but he is also annoyed “that Gudrun came dressed in startling colors, like a macaw, when the family was in mourning. . . . Yet it pleased him.”

He contrasts her with Winifred’s French governess’s “neat brittle finality of form.” “She was like some elegant beetle with thin ankles perched on her high heels, her glossy black dress perfectly correct, her dark hair done high and admirably.” (pages 245–247)

In Chapter 28, “In The Pompadour,” it is Christmas time, and Rupert and Ursula are now married, and the two couples are travelling to the continent. Gudrun and Gerald travel via London and Paris to Innsbruck, where they will meet Ursula and Rupert. Gudrun and Gerald go to the Pompadour Café after seeing a show at a music-hall. (page 397)

Pussum approached their table: “She was wearing a curious dress of dark silk splashed and splattered with different colors, a curious motley effect.”

As Gudrun flees the café, the far end of the place begins to boo “after Gudrun’s retreating form”:

She was fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was a brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was a soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, brilliantly glossy, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey. . . . Gudrun entered the taxi, with the deliberate cold movement of a woman who is well-dressed and contemptuous in her soul. (page 401)

Women in Love was written during the first World War and its characters reflect some of the bitterness of that time. Nonetheless, the women’s strength is portrayed in their choice of clothing. Their artistic and intellectual nature is expressed in their elaborate and individual choices of dress.

Another development in Lawrence’s work is his depiction of women in men’s roles and in male clothing. The collection of stories in England, My England take us close to the changing social status of working class women who take on men’s jobs and their clothing and male attitudes.

In “Tickets, Please,” girls work on a single line tramway in the Midlands during war time. The countryside is black and industrial. The drivers are men unfit for active service, cripples and hunchbacks. It is “the most dangerous tram service in England,” as the authorities declare with pride, “entirely conducted by girls and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or delicate young men who creep forward in terror.

The trams are “packed with howling colliers.” “The girls are fearless young hussies”: “In their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer.” “They fear nobody—everybody fears them.

tickets-please-illus-from-strand-magazine-1919“Tickets, Please” illustration from Strand Magazine, 1919

The female protagonist in “Tickets, Please” is Annie. She incites the other girls to beat up on one of the male inspectors, John Thomas, who has dated each of them. They are depicted by Lawrence as furious Maenads. Annie takes off her belt and hits John Thomas on the head with the buckle end. They tear off his clothes, kneel on him, beat him, forcing him to choose one of them.

In “Monkey Nuts,” two soldiers are loading hay. The older one, about age 40, is Albert, a corporal, the younger Joe, about 23. They are not in Flanders so life seems good. Into their activities, driving a wagon pulled by splendid horses, comes a land girl, Miss Stokes. She was a buxom girl, young, in linen overalls and gaiters. Her face was ruddy, she had large blue eyes.”

land-girls-1915-1918Land girls, 1915-1918 (courtesy Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network)

The men begin to flirt with her, and she is attracted to Joe. She begins to make advances, to insist he meet her. The most memorable scene is where she arranges to meet Joe and has changed out of her men’s clothing. Now she is wearing “a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.” This is when Albert is able to defeat her, when she is clothed as a woman. Joe doesn’t want her and she doesn’t want Albert, but Albert appears in Joe’s stead.

There is a suggestion of a homoerotic relationship between the two men, but it is not developed. Lawrence intimates that men are becoming less male and women are becoming masculine. War is a disorder in many ways. Once Albert humiliates Miss Stokes, they jeer at her, and begin to call her Monkey Nuts.

The trope of the female in male clothing continues into the novella The Fox (1918), which went through several revisions, until its final form in 1923. A young soldier Henry Grenfel, who has been living in Canada, returns to his grandfather’s farm and finds two women, Nellie March, and Jill Banford living there, running the farm inefficiently. The women call one another by their last names, in masculine fashion. March dresses as a man, a tightly buttoned workman’s tunic, a land girl’s uniform, and she does the heavy work. Banford wears soft blouses and chiffon dresses. Henry decides he will have March and he comes into the women’s relationship like a fox into the hen house. One day he enters the house and March is wearing

a dress of dull, green silk crape. Her dress was a perfectly simple slip of bluey-green crape, with a line of gold stitching round the top and round the sleeves . . . She had on black silk stockings and small, patent shoes with little gold buckles. (pages 48–49)

Seeing her always with

hard-cloth breeches, wide on the hips, buttoned on the knee, strong as armour, and in the brown puttees and thick boots it has never occurred to him that she has a woman’s legs and feet. Now it came upon him. She had a woman’s soft, skirted legs, and she was accessible.

The story has a dramatic and tragic end, but the fox does get his hen in the end.

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Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)

After studying at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League, Djuna Barnes lived from 1913 in Greenwich Village, New York, and worked for several newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair and The Morning Telegraph, as a journalist, illustrator, and short story writer. Poetry and plays were also published over the next fifteen years, but most of her time in the 1920s was spent in Paris where she was part of a vibrant circle of expats, including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. She moved to London in 1931, but then returned to America in 1941, and died in New York. Today Barnes is best known for her novel Nightwood, which was first published in England in 1936 with the strong support of T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber.

djuna-barnes-nightwood-collageDjuna Barnes

Nightwood defies the conventions of the realistic novel; its characters are all deracinated; its settings of Berlin, Vienna and Paris, and somewhere in the country in New York state, provide mise en scène for highly charged emotional encounters, presented in dense poetic language, a language so metaphorical it creates in its readers a narcotic effect. The reader moves in a vivid haze, part dreamscape, part interior landscape. One’s memory of the book is not confirmed by rereading, but what remains resonates and grows in the mind.

In addition to the vital carnivalesque role of a group of circus performers, there are six characters in the book. The guide to its world, the Virgil in this Purgatoria and Inferno, is an American named Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an impoverished transvestite whose medical bona fides are suspect; yet he is in some way a doctor of the soul, and Nora Flood seeks him out for healing.

The character who is the focus for the action of the text is a young American woman of twenty, Robin Vote. She is the lover of Nora Flood, who is twenty-nine, and of Jenny Petherbridge, a wealthy American divorcee whose four husbands have made her exceedingly rich. Robin has myriad lovers, but she is eternally questing for herself in the night and in the arms of someone new. She is described as a boy in a woman’s body.

The book opens not in the Paris of the 1920s, but in another place and time with the birth of Baron Felix in 1880. We discover him as a man obsessed with the past and with validation through the past. He wears spats and cutaway jackets and clings to the pageantry of kings and queens. In a moment we are in Paris, forty years later, where Felix meets Robin, marries Robin and brings her back to Austria where she gives birth to a child Guido and then deserts the Baron and her newborn child.

It is Robin whose appearance, whose boyish body and clothing, suggest the alterity of this night world of outcasts. We see her first in the Hôtel Récamier, where Dr. Matthew O’Connor, accompanied by Baron Felix, is summoned to attend a young woman who is not well: she lay

heavy and disheveled. Her legs in white flannel trousers were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step, her hands long and beautiful lay on either side of her face. . . . Her flesh was the texture of plant life. . . . About her head there was an effulgence of a phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water . . . the troubling structure of the born somnabule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room.

If Robin with her shocking blue eyes appears like a wild beast, her first appearance also conjures a history of painting, in the portraits of Madame Récamier, which were still scattered through this hotel at 3 Place Saint-Sulpice in 1990 when I stayed there, and might still be there to this day. Récamier was famously painted by Jacques-Louis David (1800) and by le Baron Gerard (1805), while posing barefoot, on a chaise longue, in a soft white chiffon dress, enhanced under the bosom with a simple ribbon, her hair in a soft chignon.

portrait-of-madame-recamier-by-jacques-louis-david-1800Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, 1800

karen-mulhallen-in-slip-dressThe author wearing a summer dress, Montreal 1968

Robin’s appearance evokes this and confutes it, since she is wearing white flannel trousers and thick lacquered dancing pumps. If Madame Récamier’s bare feet, and her wearing of an undergarment as outer garment, the light muslin slip dress, symbolized the end of the ancient regime and an elevation of nature, Robin’s appearance does the opposite. She is transgendered and encased, and yet she is a danger to all. “The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a ‘picture’ forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger.” (page 41)

The Baron’s fascination with Robin comes in part from her appearance:

Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient. One day he learned the secret. Pricing a small tapestry in an antique shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown which time had stained in places, in others split, yet which was so voluminous that there were yards enough to refashion. (page 46)

Robin is both a modern girl and an ancient being. Her wearing of vintage clothing is transformative, as she crosses sexual, historical and vestimentary lines. Applying Kaja Silverman’s phrases from “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” we can see how Robin’s recycling of fashion waste denaturalizes her own specular identity.

Other characters also participate in this crossing of genders and epochs, even in dreams. Nora Flood’s grandmother will appear to her in fantasy as a cross-dresser, leering and plump, but also echoing the world of children’s fables like Little Red Riding Hood (pages 68–69), with the Wolf as Grandmother in her nightgown in bed. The doctor is also seen (page 85) in makeup and a woman’s flannel nightgown.

Love of the invert, we are told (page 145), is a search for one idealized gender in another, the girl lost is the Prince found, the pretty lad is a girl. And even one life form in another: Robin “a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (page 155), “the third sex” (page 157).

In the final scene (pages 178-179) at a “contrived altar,” “Standing before them in her boy’s trousers was Robin,” and she slides down and begins to bark and crawl after the howling biting dog.

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Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

I was spending a lot of time in England in the early 1970s, while I worked on my dissertation on William Blake’s paintings, and it was there I discovered the novels of Jean Rhys, shortly after the publication of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Looking back I have often wondered whether some of my own feelings about clothing and security, about fitting in, and being both invisible and visible, didn’t come directly from Rhys’s heroines, especially from Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.

jean-rhys-after-leaving-mr-mackenzie-collageJean Rhys

Did my own desire for a mink coat come from my reading of Rhys’s novels, or from looking at many Blackglama mink ads in the American edition of Vogue magazine, featuring beautiful young actresses and singers at the height of their physical power?

I remember my mother asking my father to buy her a black mink coat for Christmas one year, which he did, of course. And my own acquisition of a mink coat was purchased with my share of our sale of my mother’s house after her death. I remember carrying my dog Lucy up the escalator to the Holt Renfrew fur department on Bloor Street one early winter day. I had decided that if my dog was unhappy among all those dead animals, then I would abandon my plan for a mink coat. Lucy was fine, and I purchased a Gianfranco Ferre mink coat; the Italians were still dominating the fashion runways in the 1990s. My glorious mink coat now sits abandoned in the closet in my guest room, but whether this putting aside bespeaks a new sense of security on my part or simply a shift in fashion trends it would be hard to say.

As a model and an actress Rhys was attuned to the zeitgeist. Women’s confidence and acceptability was embodied in their dress. And she knew about poverty and issues of race firsthand. The BBC documentary on Rhys’s work revealed that while she had been forgotten, like many artists, she was indeed still alive, living in poverty, in the west of England. Educated in Dominica and England, after a brief stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Rhys worked as a chorus girl, was a nude model, and lived as a mistress of a wealthy stockbroker. Eventually, she had three marriages and two children, a son who died young and a daughter. Although she had lived in London, Paris and Vienna, she died in Devon, England. Her trajectory is in many ways akin to that of Canadian author Elizabeth Smart.

Rhys’s work, written in a spare, clear style, focuses on and takes the perspective of rootless, mistreated women, who are frequently down and out in London and Paris. With her BBC-inspired rediscovery, Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) where she rewrites Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife imprisoned in his attic. Set on a small Caribbean Island, Rhys’s book addresses the European man’s fear of and attraction to a Caribbean woman’s sensuality. Locking up the woman, rejecting and humiliating her, reaffirms his power and puts to rest his fear and repulsion of his own desires.

Rhys’s ongoing concern was the political inequality of women, their powerlessness in a man’s world: “The life of a woman is very different than the life of a man,” observes Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930). It is clothing which confers power and prestige, clothing which is transformative.

At the age of 36, Julia Martin returns to London in search of money, and perhaps love, and also a home, after she has been left in Paris by her lover Mr. Mackenzie. She is careful in her clothing, hoping to make a good impression on her family and she buys a second-hand coat, regretting the sale of her fur coat which would have conferred not only warmth but status.

Julia waited for her uncle

in a large, lofty room crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs . . . .She was cold, and held her coat together at the throat. The coat looked all right, but it was much too thin. She had hesitated about buying it for that reason, but the woman in the second-hand shop had talked her over.

She thought: “Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat.” She began bitterly to remember the coat she had once possessed. The sort that lasts forever, astrakhan, with a huge skunk collar. She had sold it at the time of her duel with Maître Legros.

She told herself if only she had had the sense to keep a few things, this return need not have been quite so ignominious, quite so desolate. People thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat; it was protective coloring, as it were. (page 57)

Julia visits her sister in Acton who lives with their mother and a nurse called Wyatt. Wyatt’s clothing, her wearing a tie, her use of her last name, and her hair cut, plus the severity of her dress suggest she is the lover of Julia’s sister:

The door on the second floor was opened by a middle-aged woman. Her brown hair was cut very short, drawn away from a high, narrow forehead, and brushed to lie close to her very small skull. Her nose was thin and arched. She had small, pale-brown eyes and a determined expression. She wore a coat and skirt of flannel, a shirt blouse, and a tie. (page 68)

Julia is in London for ten days. When she returns to Paris, she is expecting a lover from London named Mr. Horsfield. When he doesn’t turn up, he sends her 10 pounds. Walking along the Seine, Julia imagines

Happiness. A course of a face massage. . . . She began to imagine herself in a new black dress and a little black hat with a veil that just shadowed her eyes.

In her mind she was repeating over and over again like a charm: ‘I’ll have a black dress and hat and very dark grey stockings.’

Then she thought: ‘I’ll get a pair of new shoes from that place in Avenue de l’Opera. The last ones I got there brought me luck. I’ll spend the whole lot I had this morning.’ . . . A ring with a green stone for the forefinger of her right hand.

She spends the whole afternoon in the Galleries Lafayette choosing a dress and a hat. Then she goes “back to her hotel, dressed herself in her new clothes, and walked up and down in her room, smoking.”

In Rhys’s work, the themes of suitable clothes, respectable clothes, and of the little black dress, recur over and over.

The little black dress as a fashion accessory emerges in the 1920s as an essential element of a woman’s wardrobe, with the designs of Coco Chanel and others. Simple, elegant and affordable, it can be dressed up or down with accessories. Before the 1920s, black was the color of mourning, and its stages allowed black and grey. Tints of purple were also popular.

Throughout the twentieth century the charge on the LBD ( Little Black Dress) changed. All of Rhys’s female characters identify the black dress as a powerful and sophisticated symbol of success. It is simple in cut and fabric. In many ways it is classless.

My own clothes closet is brimming with black clothing. This is both symptomatic of an urbanite in Western culture in the later twentieth, and twenty-first century, and also a testament to Coco Chanel’s liberation of women. Here is a portrait of my mother from the 1940s in an iconic LBD. Notice her simple accessory, a necklace with multiple strands of pearls.

karens-mother-in-lbd-and-pearlsAuthor and father with mother in little black dress and pearls

In Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Sasha Jansen in her forties comes back to Paris, a place where she once found love and then disaster. She gets a job in a fashionable dress shop as a receptionist. The shop has a branch in London and is owned by an Englishman. He comes over every three months or so, and she is told “he’s the real English type . . . Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes—I know him at once.” (page 19)

An old English woman and her daughter come into the shop. The old woman wants to see hair accessories. When she removes her hat, she is completely bald on top.

She tried on a hair-band, a Spanish comb, a flower. A green feather waves over her bald head. She is calm and completely unconcerned. She was like a Roman emperor in that last thing she tried on. (page 22)

Her daughter condemns her mother and says she has made a perfect fool of herself as usual. But Sasha feels the old lady is undaunted.

Oh, but why not buy her a wig, several decent dresses, as much champagne as she can drink, all the things she likes to eat and oughtn’t to, a gigolo if she wants one? One last flare-up, and she’ll be dead in six months at the outside. (page 23)

Sasha rushes

into a fitting- room. . . . I shut the door . . . I cry for a long time—for myself, for the old woman with the bald head, for all the sadness of this damned world, for all the fools and all the defeated. . . .

In this fitting room there is a dress in one of the cupboards which has been worn by a lot of the mannequins and is going to be sold off for four hundred francs. The saleswoman has promised to keep it for me. I have tried it on; I have seen myself in it. It is a black dress with wide sleeves embroidered in vivid colors—red, green, blue, purple. It is my dress. If I had been wearing it I should never have stammered or been stupid. (page 28)

Like her clothing, which is acceptable or not, empowering or not, Sasha says there are locations which are accepting and those which are not:

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly and streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on. (page 47)

Sasha is picked up by two Russians; “one is impressed by my fur coat.” It is all about appearance. A prosperous appearance gives a woman the strength to go on. Aging is hell, because youth is the key to attractiveness, and attractiveness means men will give a woman money. Hence greying hair must be dyed:

Again I lie awake, trying to resist a great wish to go to a hairdresser in the morning to have my hair dyed. (page 48 )

I must go and buy a hat this afternoon, I think, and tomorrow a dress. I must get on with the transformation act. But there I sit, watching the same procession of shabby women wheeling prams, of men tightly buttoned up into black overcoats. (page 63)

1927-fur-and-fur-trimmed-coatsFashionable fur coats, c.1927

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)

I met Mavis Gallant in the late 1980s and her conversation through the hours we spent together was of a piece with her depictions of women’s roles, and oppressions, in her fiction. My account of my time with Gallant was published in Numéro Cinq Magazine in September 2014.

Gallant’s From The Fifteenth District (1978) is a series of stories set during and after the Second World War. Their primary focus is a community of expats. Many of the scenes unfold on the border between France and Italy. In the first story, “The Four Seasons,” we find a young Italian servant girl named Carmela, her employer, a parsimonious English woman, Mrs. Unwin, and, next door to them, a Marchesa.

Mavis Gallant from-the-fifteenth-district-book-coverMavis Gallant

Gallant presents the contrast between these characters in her description of their dress. Carmela wears

A limp black cardigan. . . . She did not own stockings, shoes, a change of underwear, a dressing gown, or a coat,. . . . Carmela’s father was dead, perhaps. The black and the grey she wore, speculates the narrator, were half-mourning. (page 5)

As the time is just before the Second World War, there is an ongoing feud between two neighbours, the Unwins, who are Mussolini sympathizers, and their next door neighbour, the Italian Marchesa. This feud is encapsulated in the narrator’s description of Mrs. Unwin’s smock and her cigarette-stained and freckled hands, in contrast to Mrs. Unwin’s description of the Marchesa’s clothing:

Mrs. Unwin suddenly said she had no time to stroll out in pink chiffon wearing a floppy hat and carrying a sprinkling can; no time to hire jazz bands for parties or send shuttlecocks flying over the hedge and then a servant to retrieve them; less time still to have a chauffeur as a lover. Carmela could not get the drift of this. She felt accused. (pages 4–5)

Although the entire collection of stories is sensitive to the nuances of clothing, my own favourite is perhaps “The Moslem Wife” which uses a single item of clothing, a shawl, as metaphor for a wife’s apparently submissive role.

Shawls have often been associated with elderly women, with aging, and with the cold the aged feel. In Gallant’s story, the heroine Netta is young, but has begun to wear her mother’s shawl as she works with a modern adding machine at the books for her hotel. I myself began to collect shawls in the 1960s, but I have no idea how my own preoccupation came about. I still own my first shawl purchase, a purple silk Indian shawl trimmed in silver.

Here is a picture of me wrapped in this purple silk shawl but wearing a long black linen dress by Canadian designer Brian Bailey. The photograph was taken in the late 1990s.

karen-mulhallen-in-purple-silk-shawlThe author in purple silk shawl, late 1990s

My mother did not wear shawls, except occasionally as part of a specific outfit, nor did my grandmother own any shawls whatsoever. Over more than forty years my own shawl collection has grown, although I do give some away occasionally. However, I find it painful to let even one go. The shawl is a powerful symbol, and seems not to be connected with any masculine clothing symbols. There is no question in my mind that my own collection represents some important aspect of my identity, but which identity?

In Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife,” the chief characters are a second-generation expat English family who run a hotel which continues during and after the war. Netta is married to her first cousin Jack. One day she overhears an English doctor refer to her, to Netta, as “ the little Moslem wife.” Soon the idle English colony is calling her by that phrase.

Among the hotel guests are three little sisters from India:They came smiling down the marble staircase, carrying new tennis racquets, wearing blue linen skirts and navy blazers.”  Mrs. Blackley “said, loudly, “They’ll have to be in white. . . . They can’t go on the courts except in white. It is a private club. Entirely in white.” (page 59)

Gallant gracefully sketches English racism in this small moment about the colour of appropriate tennis clothes. In the end, the little girls continue to wear their blue clothes, but they stay at the hotel for their tennis lessons, rather than go to the English Lawn Tennis Club. (pages 58–59)

A shawl enters Gallant’s narrative when Jack’s mad and imperious mother comes to live with them: Netta began “wearing her own mother’s shawl, hunched over a new modern adding machine, punching out accounts” (page 60). The shawl is Netta’s protection and comfort, and it is her conduit to a sort of power line. Others however see it as a sign of submission.

After Jack leaves her alone in the hotel, and runs off with another woman to America, abandoning her and the hotel during the war: “The looking glasses still held their blue-and silver-water shadows, but they lost the habit of giving back the moods and gestures of a Moslem wife.” (page 76)

The shawl and Netta’s title as the Moslem wife, competent as she is running the hotel, overseeing the entire operation, are the symbols of her passivity in the face of her husband’s profligate behavior and her subservience to men. However, she later insists to Jack that when the Italians took over the hotel and the Germans left she was no longer the subservient female: “When the Italians were here your mother was their mother, but I was not their Moslem wife.” (page 78)

North American women’s clothing and the image of the New World girl changes dramatically in life and in Gallant’s stories. The story “Potter” is set after the Vietnam War (1975), that is in the later 1970s, in Paris. So Gallant, in this astonishing collection of stories, runs through five decades in the clothing of her characters. Blue jeans, and long shiny hair, have become part of the uniform of the American girl. Piotr, a Polish immigrant in Paris, falls in love with an American girl living off men.

The girls were Danish, German, French, and American. They were students, models, hostesses at trade fairs, hesitant fiancées, restless daughters. Their uniform the year Piotr met Laurie was blue jeans and velvet blazers. They were nothing like the scuffed, frayed girls he saw in the Latin Quarter, so downcast of face, so dejected of hair and hem that he had to be convinced by Marek they were well-fed children of the middle classes and not the rejects of a failing economy. Marek’s girls kept their hair long and glossy, their figures trim.” (page 219)

Laurie Bennett has “blue eyes, fair hair down to her shoulders, and a gap between her upper front teeth.” (page 220) She is refreshingly and casually well-groomed and makes fun of the stuffy Canadians in the form of her own sister-in-law from Toronto who “wears white gloves all the time, cleans ’em with bread crumbs—it’s true.” (page 221)

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Alice Munro (1931– )

I have never met Alice Munro, although I have seen her onstage and I once wrote a radio program for the Toronto radio station CJRT on her work which is so ironic and nuanced. Like Gallant, Munro is certainly an avatar of my own coming-of-age and costume. You never come to the end of a Munro story. Once while I was lecturing on her work in Italy, I suddenly could hear her regional cadence, which is from my own area of the country, in Canada’s deep south, southwestern Ontario. And yet of course her voice is universal.

Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) consists of ten linked tales which together constitute a bildungsroman of the protagonist Rose. Although eight of the stories were published separately in various magazines, when they were placed together Munro wrote two especially for the collection : “Simon’s Luck” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” In adding these two, she reconstituted the book in the form of an experimental novel.

Alice Munro who-do-you-think-you-are collageAlice Munro

In time span, the stories run from before the Second World War until the early sixties, although time frames are embedded in the details, rather than in specific references to historic events. Rose’s clothes in part mimic her class, and her poverty; she comes from the poor part of town, where the divide between East and West Hanratty is not only a bridge, but also what people eat for breakfast and where their toilet is located. In Rose’s house, the toilet is in the kitchen where farts can be heard as the family eats its meals.

In “Wild Swans,” on her first trip away from home, Rose comes to Toronto by train. As Rose walks through Union Station, she is remembering a friend of her stepmother Flo. Flo’s friend is Mavis who looks like the movie star Frances Farmer and so she “bought herself a big hat that dipped over one eye and a dress made entirely of lace. . . . She had a little cigarette holder that was black and mother-of-pearl. She could have been arrested, Flo said. For the nerve.” (page 69)

Mavis in her clothing mimics the appearance of the film star she resembles and goes to a resort on Georgian Bay in the hopes folks will think she is Francis Farmer herself.

Celebrity clothing, the appearance of film stars, sets one model for women. Glamour and sexuality are what it is really about, the cigarette holder and the lace and the hat dipping over the eye. They are desirable and to be avoided, perhaps even unlawful. Similarly in “The Beggar Maid,” Rose has come to London, Ontario, to university. She has the local dressmaker in Hanratty make her a suit for her new life, but the dressmaker, who is a friend of Flo’s, refuses to make it tight enough. The chapter opens with a glamorous purchase; Rose and her friend Nancy sell their blood for $15 in order to buy fashionable shoes: “They spent most of the money on evening shoes, tarty silver sandals.” (page 70). Later we see Rose wearing the green corduroy suit which was made for her in Hanratty:

The skirt of her green corduroy suit kept falling back between her legs as she walked. The material was limp; she should have spent more and bought the heavier weight. She thought now the jacket was not properly cut either, though it look all right at home. The whole outfit had been made by a dressmaker in Hanratty, a friend of Flo’s whose main concern had been that there should be no revelations of the figure. When Rose asked if the skirt couldn’t be made tighter this woman had said: “You wouldn’t want your b.t.m. to show, now would you?” and Rose hadn’t wanted to say that she didn’t care. (pages 76–77)

Rose gets a job in the college library and a wealthy graduate student named Patrick Blatchford falls in love with her. He compares her to the Beggar in Edward Burne-Jones painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Class is writ large in the clothing in the painting, the poor beggar girl in a slip and the king in armored clothing. The courtiers looking down on the girl caught within the picture frame.

Patrick says to Rose:

“I’m glad you’re poor. You’re so lovely. You’re like the Beggar Maid.”

“Who?”

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. You know. The painting. Don’t you know the painting?”

Rose studies the painting in an art book. The girl white, “meek and passive,” the King “sharp and swarthy” and “barbaric.” “He could make a puddle of her, with his fierce desire” (pages 81- 82).

In “Mischief,” Rose, now married to Patrick, begins an affair with her best friend Jocelyn’s husband Clifford, a musician. Rose has ambitions to be an actress. Patrick expects her to dress conservatively, but she wants to wear toreador pants (page 111). It is the Beat era, so black is becoming the fashionable colour for artists:

A few of the girls were in slacks. The rest wore stockings, earrings, outfits much like her own. . . . And most of the men were in suits and shirts and ties like Patrick. . . . A few men wore jeans, and turtle necks or sweatshirts. Clifford was one of them, all in black. (pages 112–113)

Rose goes to Powell River to meet Clifford. There is no bus depot and the only place to wait is on the porch of a loggers’ home for old men:

There was no place to loiter. She thought people stared at her, recognizing a stranger. Some men in a car yelled at her. She saw her own reflection in store windows and understood that she looked as if she wanted to be stared at and yelled at. She was wearing black velvet toreador pants, a tight fitting high-necked black sweater and a beige jacket which she slung over her shoulder though there was a chilly wind. She who had once chosen full skirts and soft colors, babyish angora sweaters, scalloped necklines, had now taken to wearing dramatic sexually advertising clothing. The new underwear she had on at this moment was black lace and pink nylon. In the waiting room at the Vancouver airport she had done her eyes with heavy mascara, black eyeliner, and silver eye shadow; her lipstick was almost white. All this was the fashion of those years and so looked less ghastly than it would seem later, although it was alarming enough. (page 127)

beat-girlBrigitte Bardot wearing Beat clothing in Le Mépris, 1963

Rose’s clothing, that of the emerging artist and of her own sexual liberation, contrasts dramatically with her friend Jocelyn who wears her husband’s old clothes. But Jocelyn comes from a wealthy family and has nothing to prove.

In “Simon’s Luck,” Rose, who is now a professor at Queen’s University, takes up with a man at a party. The host is wearing a “velvet jumpsuit” (page 167). This was the hippy era, late sixties: “He was looking very brushed and tended, thinner but softened, with his flowing hair and suit of bottle-green velvet.” A costume which resonates with those velvet suits of my brother and my soon-to-be husband at my own wedding in London in this era.

Novelists’ alertness to dress as exemplifying and creating character interacts with questions of commodification and branding. It’s hard to say what exactly branding is. Easy to point to the display of the logos of designers, but something else is surely afoot. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which are structured like the tales of Tolkien and the schema of Joseph Campbell, medieval grail knights’ tales, have over time and immense popularity become branding opportunities. These opportunities were certainly set in place by Ian Fleming himself, as a look at Fleming’s texts, even before the James Bond films, demonstrates.

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Ian Fleming (1908–1964)

Set during “a new era of fashion and prosperity,” Ian Fleming’s bestselling tales of Secret Agent 007, James Bond, have sold more than 100 million copies. There are 14 Bond books—12 novels and two short story collections. Films continue to be made with the central figure, Secret Agent 007, and always with at least one beautiful woman, and lots of technology—flame throwers, guns, cameras, cars, and the like. These books are one bellwether for changes in fashion in literature. Their proliferation of luxury commodities signal the shift in popular media to all sorts to branding.

The first Bond book, Casino Royale (1953), sets the template of branding, of consumer culture, of luxury goods evoked and validated by name, which accelerates through the next half century. The book is set in the Hotel Splendide, and at the Casino Royale-les-Eaux in France, at the mouth of the Somme, in south Picardy. The location is a watering hole, as Fleming describes it, in a “new era of fashion and prosperity.” This is the 1950s, the1930s depression is over, as is the Second World War.

ian-fleming-casino-royale-colIan Fleming

Everything in Bond’s world is bespoke, specially chosen, specially constructed, and expensive. Bond’s cigarettes are “a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor street” (page 22). He keeps them in “a flat gunmetal box,” which holds “fifty of the Morland cigarettes with the triple gold band” (page 49). Bond’s French aide smokes Caporals. Bond’s radio, personally delivered by a salesperson from Paris—who is in fact another secret agent—is a Radio Stentor, and his car is a 1933, 4 ½ litre battleship-grey convertible coupe Bentley ( page 30).

In the Hermitage bar, Bond sees men drinking champagne and women dry martinis made with Gordon’s gin (page 31). One man is in a tweed suit with a shooting stick from Hermès.

Bond’s first meeting with his female assistant for this mission, Vesper Lynd, displays her in a

medium-length dress of grey “soie sauvage” with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowed down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist. She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black “sabretache” rested on the chair beside her together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. (pages 32–33)

Bond meets his CIA counterpart who drinks Haig and Haig scotch (page 43). Bond drinks a dry martini, shaken not stirred, in a deep champagne goblet—“three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold and then add a large slice of lemon peel. Got it?” (pages 43–44) He prefers his vodka made with grain rather than potatoes. His cigarette lighter is a Ronson; his weapon of choice is a .25 Beretta: “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip” (page 49). Bond’s clothing is as carefully detailed as his accessories: “single-breasted dinner-jacket, over his heavy silk evening shirt, with a double silk tie” (page 49).

Vesper Lynd’s clothes are from Paris; she has a friend who is a vendeuse and so, in the casino itself, she is wearing a borrowed black velvet Christian Dior dress. Dior had shown his first collection in Paris only in 1947, establishing Paris as a centre of fashion. The choice of Dior demonstrates just how attentive Fleming was to the luxury items of the moment. Later Vesper will say her grey dress was also a borrowed Christian Dior (page 56).

Her dress was of black velvet, simple and yet with the touch of splendor that only a half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve. There was a thin necklace of diamonds at her throat and a diamond clip in the low vee which just exposed the jutting swell of her breasts. She carried a plain evening bag. . . . Her jet black hair hung straight and simple to the final inward curl below the chin. (page 50)

When Bond has dinner, he is precise in his order. Initially he orders the Taittinger 45 champagne, but he allows the waiter to suggest a Blanc de Blanc Brut of 1943.

“You must forgive me,” he said. “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from the habit of taking the trouble over details.” (page 53)

Near the end of the narrative, Vesper and Bond are at a family-run seaside inn. They have both changed their style of clothing.

He is

dressed in a white shirt and dark blue slacks. He hoped that she would be dressed as simply and he was pleased when, without knocking, she appeared in the doorway wearing a blue linen shirt which had faded to the color of her eyes and a dark red skirt in pleated cotton. ( page 158)

Dr No (1957), the sixth of the Bond thrillers is set primarily in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and on a small island off shore. The central female, “Honeychile” Rider, appears naked on the beach, like a Girl Friday to Bond’s Robinson Crusoe. An innocent, a sort of noble savage, she is the sole survivor of an old Jamaican family which has lost its money. Her dream is to become a New York call girl. As a child of nature, she is every man’s dream child/lover.

The villain of the text is Dr No, a recluse with a fascination with pain and a pair of pincers for hands. Most of the men on Dr No’s off shore island wear Chinese kimonos. The food in his hideout is perfect, and all the bath accessories are brand names.

Bond went to one of the built-in clothes cupboards and ran the door back. There were half a dozen kimonos, some silk and some linen. He took out a linen one at random. . . .

There was everything in the bathroom—Floris Lime bath essence for men, Guerlain bathcubes for women. He crushed a cube in the water and at once the room smelled like an orchid house. The soap was Guerlain’s Sapoceti, Fleurs des Alpes. In a medicine cupboard behind the mirror over the washbasin were toothbrushes and toothpaste, Steradent toothpicks. Rose mouthwash, dental floss, Aspirin and Milk of Magnesia. There was also an electric razor, Lentheric aftershave lotion, and two nylon hairbrushes and combs. Everything was brand new and untouched. (pages 182–183)

Confronting Dr No, the imprisoned Bond keeps his aplomb and orders “a medium Vodka dry Martini—with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred, please. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.” (page 203).

The Bond novels are charming, brilliantly constructed adult fairy tales, but like all fairy tales they carry important cultural-political lessons.

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Truman Capote (1924–1984)

For me, and for many of my generation, the 1961 film of Truman Capote’s novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), starring Audrey Hepburn, captured the era. In retrospect, it seems to me like a summation of the trends found in the earlier fictions from Lawrence to Gallant. While the film is a romantic and memorable adaptation of Capote’s novella, the novella itself is a sophisticated investigation of class and character. And it is a perfect work of art. The prose is exquisite, spare, clean and evocative, and designed to foreground its central figure, Holly Golightly, a nineteen-year-old starlet, on the lam from Hollywood and her older widowed veterinarian husband with his four children, a man whom she had married at the age of fourteen.

truman-capote-breakfast-at-tiffanys collageTruman Capote by Jack Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons)
Image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly courtesy Grace Hamilton

The novella unfolds through retrospective action—a call from a bar and the barkeep Joe Bell leads the narrator to recall his life in an apartment in a brownstone, where Holly Golightly was a tenant in 1943. Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington Avenue was often used by both Holly and the narrator to make telephone calls.

Although Capote’s novel has lived on in popular mythology through the film adaptation, it is in the novel that improvisational identity is tied to clothing. And in Capote’s narrative, it makes perfect sense. Holly, after a stint in Hollywood where she was being groomed for stardom and saw the opportunity as a way to vamp herself, including learning some French, understands that dressing will be the way she rises above street prostitution. Clothing will enable her to present herself as a girl who should be given a handsome amount of money to go to the powder room.

The little black dress becomes Holly’s costume of elegance, refinement and versatility. Throughout, Capote contrasts Holly with the men she hangs out with—youth and age, innocence and experience. The men are cartoons, caricatures, criminals, bounders, chubby in buttressed pin stripe suits, sexually unrealized heirs who yearn for a spanking, skinny rich conventional South American diplomats, Hollywood agents with the money and the power and the big cigar, soldiers in uniform.

Holly wears simple understated clothes, plays old show tunes, rides horses, wears gloves. Although her living quarters are messy, like a teenager’s, she always emerges unscathed. In the opening scene in Joe Bell’s bar, the narrator looks at what Joe Bell has handed him:

In the envelope were three photographs, more or less the same, though taken from different angles: a tall, delicate Negro man wearing a calico skirt and with a shy, yet vain smile, displaying in his hands an odd wood sculpture, an elongated carving of a head, a girl’s, her hair sleek and short as a young man’s, her smooth wood eyes too large and tilted in the tapering face, her mouth wide, overdrawn, not unlike clown-lips. On a glance it resembled most primitive carving; and then it didn’t, for here was the spitting-image of Holly Golightly, at least as much of a likeness as a dark still thing could be. (page 6)

Joe Bell, the bartender who, like the narrator, is in love with her, sees “pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight . . .” (page 8 )

The narrator had lived in New York in the same brownstone on the upper east side as Holly. He notices on the mailbox, in the name slot for Apt 2, a formal printed card which reads: “Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling.” Later, he learns she had purchased her card at Tiffany’s, and he also will learn what Tiffany’s represents for Holly.

He first sees Holly late one warm evening:

She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.

She was not alone. There was a man following behind her. The way his plump hand clutched at her hip seemed somehow improper, not morally, aesthetically. He was short and vast, sun-lamped and pomaded, a man in a buttressed pin-stripe suit with a red carnation withering in the lapel. . . . his thick lips were nuzzling the nape of her neck. (pages 10–11)

Holly’s clothing presents her as demur and innocent and refined:

She was never without dark glasses, she was always well-groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so. One might have thought her a photographer’s model, perhaps a young actress, except that it was obvious, judging from her hours, she hadn’t time to be either. (page 12)

One evening on his way home, the narrator noticed a cab-driver crowd gathered in front of P.J. Clarke’s saloon, apparently attracted there by a happy group of whiskey-eyed Australian army officers baritoning “Waltzing Matilda.” As they sang they took turns spin-dancing a girl over the cobbles under the El; and the girl, Miss Golightly, to be sure, floated round in their arms light as a scarf.” (page 13)

Holly smokes “an esoteric cigarette,” charmingly called by Capote, Picayunes; she “survived on melba toast and cottage cheese”; “her vari-colored hair was somewhat self-induced. . . . Also, she had a cat and she played the guitar” and had “white satin pumps.

He often hears her playing her guitar while she dries her hair sitting on the fire escape.

She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma! which were new that summer and everywhere . . . harsh tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie. (page 14)

She chooses older men, established men, with money: “I can’t get excited by a man until he’s forty-two. I was fourteen when I left home” (page 16). Although all the men around her are unlike one another, none is young. Rutherford “Rusty” Trawler is “a middle- aged child that had never shed its baby fat . . . his face had an unused virginal quality . . . his mouth . . . a spoiled sweet puckering” (pages 28–9).

Holly’s place of peace is Tiffany’s whenever she is down, whenever she gets “the mean reds,” not the blues but worse.

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. (Page 32)

Holly’s world is her absent brother Fred, who is a soldier, and the men, including O.J. Berman, who was her agent when she was in training for film, along with her model friend Mag Wildwood and Mag’s South American boyfriend.

He’d been put together with care; his brown head and bull fighter’s figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right. Added to this, as decoration, were an English suit, and a brisk cologne and, what is still more unlatin, a bashful manner. ( page 39)

Holly keeps her room like a girl’s gymnasium, but always emerged “from the wreckage pampered, calmly immaculate with her lizard shoes, blouse, and belt.” (page 43)

audrey-hepburn-breakfast-at-tiffanys-trailerAudrey Hepburn, screenshot from trailer for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (via Wikimedia Commons)

Holly is a Manhattanite, but she is still rooted in her hillbilly past. She goes riding in Central Park, wearing jeans which were then still farm work clothes, not city wear. When she is arrested for her alleged role in a drug-smuggling racket she is wearing her riding costume, tennis shoes, blue jeans and a windbreaker. In the newspaper, the photograph of her shows her wedged between two muscular detectives, one male, one female:

In this squalid context even her clothes (she was still wearing her riding costume, windbreaker and jeans) suggested a gang-moll hooligan: an impression dark glasses, disarrayed coiffure and a Picayune cigarette dangling from sullen lips did not diminish. (page 71)

Her iconic black dress re-emerges when she goes to the airport, leaving NYC, fleeing her bail on the charges of helping the drug racket of underworld mobster Sally Tomato, to whom she made weekly Thursday visits in Sing Sing prison: “Holly stripped off her clothes, the riding costume she’d never had a chance to substitute, and struggled into a slim black dress.” (page 84)

And in that moment the genius of Coco Chanel, inventor of the LBD, is reconfirmed.

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Bret Easton Ellis (1964–)

The literary movement into branding, and not merely into luxury, takes a grotesque turn in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991). As so often we ask ourselves, are artists the recorders of what is, or the makers of what must be? How to distinguish the permeable membrane?

bret-easton-ellis-american-psycho-collageBret Easton Ellis

In Ellis’s best-known third novel, the central figure is a serial killer, a Manhattan business man called Patrick Bateman. The novel presents itself as a satire on the consumer culture of late twentieth-century America. Of interest is the extreme form of fashion branding, perhaps for satirical purposes. Every single page presents myriad brands to the reader who becomes enveloped in a haze of consumerism. The examples which follow are not unique, but characteristic of each page of Ellis’s text.

I go into the bedroom and take off what I was wearing today: a herringbone wool suit with pleated trousers by Giorgio Correggiari, a cotton oxford shirt by Ralph Lauren, a knit tie from Paul Stuart and suede shoes from Cole Haan. I slip on a pair of sixty-dollar boxer shorts I bought at Barney’s and do some stretching exercises . . . (pages 72–73)

I run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream. I debate between two outfits. One is a wool-crepe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool rousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass. The Julian might be a little too warm for May but if Patricia’s wearing this outfit by Karl Lagerfeld that I think she’s going to, then maybe I will go with the Julian, because it would go well with her suit. The shoes are crocodile loafers by A. Testoni. (pages 76–77)

The scene goes on, names the wine, the wine cooler, the Steuben glass animals on the glass top coffee table, the Wurlitzer jukebox, and so forth. When the date arrives, she is not wearing her Karl Lagerfeld suit: “But she looks pretty decent anyway: a silk gazar blouse with rhinestone cufflinks by Louis Dell’Olio and a pair of embroidered velvet pants from Saks, crystal earrings by Wendy Gell for Anne Klein and gold sling-back pumps.”

In a way it is a dispiriting, even tedious text. But the point is made, and the question is raised—consumerism reigns, and we must ask ourselves if James Bond was a licensed killer, whose own predispositions/or taste ran to branding in every way, how different is this New York financier?

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Patti Smith ( 1946–)

I confess I am in the multitudes who adored Patti Smith’s heartbreaking memoir of her time as a young person with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. Her writing is immediate and tender, evocative and visceral. Published in 2010, and deservedly award-winning, Just Kids takes us back more than forty years and it recapitulates many of the earlier themes of twentieth century clothing: the importance of black clothing, the development of Beat and hippie culture in clothing, the elevation of used clothing into vintage, the merging of male and female styles, and the influence of films on the way women dress. And in clothing styles, Smith’s book captures many of my own sartorial shifts through the same decades.

patti-smith-just-kids-collagePatti Smith (photo on left by Nate Ryan for Minnesota Public Radio)

In Patti Smith’s case, another rich vein is not only the importance of film stars and their dress, but also the impact of art, of literature, of literary figures, of musicians and of visual artists on one’s personal styles. As she herself says, “I was full of references.”

Just Kids is an artistic triumph, and a rich history of an important period in Western culture, when the centre of art shifts from Paris to New York city. Although Smith’s book’s primary focus is a little more than a decade of New York culture, 1967–1979, her narrative takes us up to the death of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989.

When Patti Smith arrives in New York in 1967, she is wearing dungarees, a black turtleneck, and an old second hand gray raincoat (page 25). Looking for work, she describes herself as cultivating “a good beatnik ballet look” (page 29–30). “It was Friday, July 21, and unexpectedly I collided with the sorrow of an age. John Coltrane . . . had died.” The boys in the village wear striped bell-bottoms and military jackets, the girls are wrapped in tie-dye.

Flyers paper the street with Country Joe and the Fish, and Paul Butterfield, and The Electric Circus.

For her trip to New York and away from her nuclear family, Smith’s mother had given her a white waitress uniform and white wedgies. A uniform, not experience, will make her a waitress. Smith abandons the uniform (page 35); she and Robert Mapplethorpe dress like other hippies of the period.

She wears beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, he a sheepskin vest and love beads (page 47). They listen to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Joan Baez, Tim Hardin and Vanilla Fudge.

Film and literature as well as the hippie movement influence their clothing choices. She gets a job at a bookstore, Charles Scribner’s, 597 Fifth Avenue, and her costume is modeled on Anna Karina’s clothing in Godard’s 1964 movie: “My uniform for Scribner’s was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights, and flats.” (page 55)

Smith and Mapplethorpe search out used clothing in the Bowery, “tattered silk dresses, frayed cashmere overcoats, and used motorcycle jackets.” ( page 64)

patty-smith-and-robert-mapplethorpePatti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Judy Linn)

After the shooting of J.F. Kennedy, Mapplethorpe buys her “a white dress for Easter. . . . It was a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen.”

Reading Genet, Mapplethorpe abandons his hippie costume, and becomes obsessed with sailor’s uniforms and those of Japanese kamikaze pilots ( page 70). Cocteau, Genet and The Diary of Anne Frank animate their imaginings and their choices.

They stop living together for a time, and she takes to wearing dresses and waving her hair; he to dressing in a long oxblood leather trench coat. It is 1968. ( page 73)

In 1969, Smith and Mapplethorpe and other friends begin to hang out in what was known as the Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City and The Factory, all part of Andy Warhol’s world, an artist-friendly world. One of their friends, Sandy Daley wears London designer clothes.

Sandy didn’t have a diverse wardrobe but was meticulous with her appearance. She had a few identical black dresses designed by Ossie Clark, the king of King’s Road. They were like elegant floor-length T-shirts, unconstructed yet lightly clinging, with long sleeves and a scooped neck. They seemed so essential to her persona that I often daydreamed of buying her a whole closetful.

I approached dressing like an extra preparing for a shot in a French New Wave film. I had a few looks, such as a striped boatneck shirt and a red throat scarf like Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, a Left bank beat look with green tights and red ballet slippers, or my take on Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, with her long black sweater, black tights, white socks, and black Capezios. . . . I had the attention span of a hopped-up teenage boy. (Pages 118–119)

One day at the automat in her gray trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, Smith meets Allen Ginsberg (page 123) who takes her for a pretty boy.

The sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned twenty-three. Then I turned twenty-three. The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather. He wore the skulls, I wore a tie. We felt ready for the seventies. (page 131)

And ready for a life as artists along with Viva Superstar, Diane Arbus, Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke.

When someone at Max’s Kansas City comments that her hair is like Joan Baez and asks her if she is a folksinger, she decides to cut her hair; she cuts out pictures of Keith Richards (page 140).

My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet . . . Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.

She gets a job playing a boy at LaMaMa theatre in the East Village: “I was dressed in my Song of the South getup—straw hat, Brier Rabbit jacket, work boots, and pegged pants” (page 141). Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan are part of her world.

“We were invited to a fancy dress ball hosted by Fernando Sanchez, the great Spanish designer known for his provocative lingerie.” Loulou and Maxime de la Falaise send her a vintage gown of heavy crepe designed by Schiaparelli: “The top was black, with poufed sleeves and a V-neck bodice, sweeping down into a red floor length skirt. It looked suspiciously like the dress Snow White was wearing when she met the Seven Dwarfs.” (page 194)

The Schiaparelli dress is too small, so she dresses completely in black, finishing off her costume with pristine white Keds. Running shoes become iconic additions to the costumes of the New Age.

This was one of the most glamorous parties of the season, attended by the upper echelon of art and fashion. I felt like a Buster Keaton character, leaning alone against a wall when Fernando came up. He took me in skeptically. “Darling, the ensemble is fabulous,” he said, patting my hand and eying my black jacket, black tie, black silk shirt and heavily pegged black satin pants. “But I’m not so sure about the white sneakers.”

“But they’re essential to my costume.”

“Your costume? What are you dressed as?”

“A tennis player in mourning.”

Fernando Sanchez gives her a slot in his upcoming fashion show. “I wore the same black satin pants, a tattered T-shirt, the white sneakers, modeling his eight-foot-long black feather boa and singing Annie Had a Baby. It was my catwalk debut, the beginning and end of my modeling career.” (page 195)

patti-smith-in-white-shirtPhoto by Ruven Afanador

French poetry, photography, contemporary music, especially rock and roll, contemporary poetry and fiction, French New Wave films, all come together in her choices of clothing: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Yves Klein, Duchamp and Man Ray, Enid Starkie (pages 225–226)

It is 1973, and she plans her clothing for a trip to France, a pilgrimage to the grave of Rimbaud.

I decided to go in October, the month of Rimbaud’s birth. Robert took me shopping for a proper hat, and we chose one of soft brown felt with a grosgrain ribbon. Sam sent me to an optometrist where I was fitted for National Health-style spectacles. Sam gave me enough money for two pairs, considering my penchant for leaving things behind, but instead I chose an impractical pair of Italian sunglasses that only Ava Gardner could pull off. They were white cat’s eyes, nestled in a gray tweed case stamped Milan.

On the Bowery I found an unconstructed raincoat of Kelly green rubberized silk, a Dior blouse of gray houndstooth linen, brown trousers, and an oatmeal cardigan: an entire wardrobe for thirty dollars, just needing a bit of washing and mending. In my plaid suitcase I placed my Baudelaire cravat, my notebook; Robert added a postcard of a statue of Joan of Arc. Sam gave me a silver Coptic cross from Ethiopia . . . Janet Hamill . . . a handful of blue glass beads—scarred trade beads from Harar—the same beads that Rimbaud had traded—as a cherished souvenir . . . Thus armed, I was ready for my journey.

It’s mid-1970s, she is performing, and Mapplethorpe has become a successful photographer. Her costumes shift again: “black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my Kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol… (page 241)

Then for the cover of her album Horses (1975), Mapplethorpe takes her picture. Influenced by artists Jim Morrison, Peter Reich. Jimi Hendrix,

I went to the Salvation Army on the Bowery and bought a stack of white shirts. Some were too big for me, but the one I really like was neatly pressed with a monogram below the breast pocket. It reminded me of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet wearing a white monogrammed short with rolled-up sleeves. There was an RV stitched on my shirt. I imagined it belonging to Roger Vadim, who had directed Barbarella. I cut the cuffs off the sleeves to wear under my black jacket adorned with the horse pin that Allen Lanier had given me. . ..

I finished getting dressed: black pegged pants, white lisle socks, black Capezios. I added my favorite ribbon, and Robert brushed the crumbs off my black jacket. . . . I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. (pages 249–251)

—Karen Mulhallen

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Photo Gallery I: The Author, Travelling in Style

karen-mulhallen-on-karl-marxs-graveSitting on Karl Marx’s grave, 1974-75

karen-mulhallen-at-petra-jordan-1992At Petra Jordan, 1992

karen-mulhallen-at-the-equator-in-ecuador-wearing-missoni-pantsuit-peter-fox-shoes-and-aboriginal-plains-earrings-1993On the equator in Ecuador, wearing Missoni pantsuit, Peter Fox shoes and Aboriginal plains earrings

karen-mulhallen-wearing-robert-clergie-mulesWearing Robert Clergie mules

karen-mulhallen-in-venice-wearing-betsey-johnson-dress-2005In Venice, wearing Betsey Johnson dress, 2005

 

Photo Gallery II: The Author Wearing…

karen-mulhallen-wearing-italian-silk-dress-at-tiff-1977An Italian silk dress at Toronto International Film Festival, 1977

karen-mulhallen-wearing-n-poal-in-toronto-1980An N. Peal cashmere sweater from Old Bond Street, London; in Toronto, 1980 

karen-mulhallen-wearing-victor-costa-dress-from-joy-cherry-1992A Victor Costa dress from Joy Cherry, at Truffles restaurant in Toronto, 1992

karen-mulhallen-wearing-indian-dress-1996An Indian dress, 1996

karen-mulhallen-wearing-pearls-1998Pearls, 1998

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Dressing the Twentieth Century, a Bibliography

Pauline Réage, pseudonym for Anne Declos (1907–1998)
xxStory of O (1954) New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)
xxWomen in Love (1917–1920)
xxEngland, My England (1921) Stories: “Monkey Nuts”(1919);
xx“Tickets, Please” (1919)
xxThe Fox (1923)

Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
xxNightwood (1937)

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)
xxThe Letters of Jean Rhys (1931–1966), edited by Francis Wyndham and
xxDiana Melly. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
xxTigers Are Better Looking. Stories. (1927–1967) London: Andre Deutsch, 1968.
xxQuartet. [Original Title, Postures] (1928) London: Andre Deutsch,1969.
xxAfter Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. (1930) London: Penguin, 1971.
xxVoyage in the Dark. (1934) London: Andre Deutsch 1967.
xxGood Morning, Midnight. (1939) London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.
xxWide Sargasso Sea. (1966) London: Andre Deutsch 1974.
xxSleep It Off Lady. Stories. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)
xxFrom The Fifteenth District (1979)

Alice Munro (1931– )
xxWho Do You Think You Are? (1978) Toronto: Penguin, 2006.

Ian Fleming (1908–1964)
xxCasino Royale (1953)
xxDr. No (1957)

Truman Capote (1924–1984)
xxBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices,
xxOther Rooms,
New York: Modern Library, 2013.

Bret Easton Ellis (1964– )
xxAmerican Psycho (1991) New York: Vintage/Random House, 1991.

Patti Smith (1946– )
xxJust Kids (2010) New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

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karen-mulhallen-in-her-closet

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto.

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Dec 072016
 

eamonn-sheehy-use-on-top-450pxEamonn Sheehy

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The Killing (Listowel)

The narrow lane was once a main road that wound its way into the north Kerry market town of Listowel. But at this stage, it was carpeted in green overgrowth with chaotic brambled verges, and abandoned to us. My cousin in his late teens walked ahead. While me and my other cousin sharing the age of nine, followed behind nervous and excited in the early morning sun. We stopped by a wooden shed at the side of the laneway. In here, behind some chicken wire, lay the ferrets buried in the warmth of their straw nest. My older cousin handled the small fiery creatures with care. He wore stiff metal-like gloves. We stood back cautiously. Two ferrets, one black and one silver-grey, were eased in turn into a sturdy timber carry case. The ferrets were animals we knew demanded respect and they had ours without question. They were not to be messed with or to be trusted.

A warm and fresh country breeze carried the dense smell of grass as we walked on. Coming off the laneway, we climbed over a ditch and into the field on the other side. The three of us then entered a valley, sunk deep and hidden between the mountain folds; moving through the scrub until the sky overhead disappeared. We then found ourselves standing under a canopy of twisted, dark green branches. Running uphill over rough ground and past small streams, we meandered through the small forest. Birds sang above us in shrill competition; an orchestra in surround sound. The large burrows were badger dens; wide oval openings in the ground. Their dark tunnels ran deep into the earth. We peered in cautiously. Then one of us crawled in to see how far we could go, hoping to find a secret world hidden from sight – and hoping the badger was out to lunch. But in no time fear started to grip, and we retreated back out of the burrow in a panic. We have all been told. Badgers go straight for your nose when they attack.

The smaller burrows are rabbit holes. These are visible everywhere as we continue toward the exit of the little forest. Emerging out of the shade and into the sun, we continue the trek towards the top of the field. Bees buzz amid sunburnt red ferns now dried and limpid. Here, another ditch is again dotted with small rabbit burrows. I look back at the tangled jungle of thick nature. Downhill, beyond the little forest, I can see the small green laneway leading back to the house which looks like a delicate miniature from this height.

My older cousin lays out the nets at an angle from the ditch. He then carefully lifts the black ferret from the carry case. Its slick immaculate coat shines in the sun. The Ferret – the hot steel of nature. Jumping from his master’s hand onto the grass with a bounce, he is off at speed towards the rabbit burrows. A high pitched curling. An unnatural sound. It was the first time I heard a rabbit scream. The ferret burrows while eating into live flesh. The main strategy is to flush the rabbits out into nets, club them, and then sell them at the Saturday market. But sometimes, during these blood rabid home invasions of sorts, the ferret claimed its prey first. I stood back towards the centre of the field, stepping away from the sound of the killing. My older cousin reached for the carry case, bringing the second ferret out into the sunlight. Lean and muscle-primed, its slick silver hair glistens while its snout flavours the smell of the country air, freshly tainted by the scent of drawn blood.

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The Nineties (Abbeyfeale)

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he crystal sharp cold blasted across my teen’d tender face, while I tried to stay on the tarmac between rumbling trucks and tractors. Each morning I straddled my Raleigh racer and peddled like hell down the weathered, half crumbling road to school. There I had a small network of friends; offbeat, misaligned, marginal. For each of us, everything in some way was slightly collapsed. And we each had our clashes to contend with.

The gang of overexcited school boys came pounding down Main Street on a mission; and it was all because of me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or frightened. I was in a bit of a state. My stomach was light with nerves; a sickening adrenaline rush had me nauseous. Denis had been a splinter in my side for a good while. He was a tall teen, a year younger than me. Pushing and punching his way through school in a botched attempt to find place.

I wasn’t exactly sure how it all came about, but we were set to fight at four o’clock in the basketball court behind the primary school. Perfectly chosen. It was well away from passing eyes. A fight was always planned in advance of around two days. Just to give your teenage brain something to mull over. Something to tear yourself up about and wrestle with; before it came down to some real tearing and wrestling. I was well psyched by fight time. I had a plan mapped out in my head. Denis was a boxer. And with that came his long reach, trained fists and a vague semblance of strategy. I planned to go in swinging. Right into his torso and leave him no room to pick me off with fast punches. I was going to dig deep into his side and stomach, wind him, and get the whole thing over with. I had hoped we could ‘reason’ it out. But reasoning was a non-runner. When it came to a fight, it was a case of carrying it through to the end. Reasoning meant losing face. Fighting it out, even if you lost, would in some way cement your worth; bolster your standing. That’s what this was really all about. Rites of passage or some shit like that. And I was stuck with it.

The fight managed to bring everyone together. Whether you were a pacifist, a fighter or a thinker; everyone came to watch. Small nerdy John stood on a bench trying to secure a clear view through his thick glasses. Next to him, stood his bully, Kevin – swelled with excitement, going foot to foot with his usual droopy smile. Padraig was perched behind them. An academic-minded young man, he was greatly respected by everyone in the school from the rascals to rejects. On a higher bench for that sweeping view, he stood with a frown; quietly concerned, taking in the whole shambolic nature of the event.

Denis now stood out in the blazing sun of the basketball court in fight mode. And as my focus shifted onto him, the rest of the crowd became an abstract vignette. Denis circled, fists held high to his smiling gob. The gradual first moments of the scrap had stirred up a hot reeling tension; an unyielding growing momentum. The excitement of the forty to fifty boys had now broken into an all-out war cry. A staggering chanting teen-machine mob of testosterone and flailing limbs frantically circled Denis and myself.

A few missed swings and some spinning punches from the hungry crowd, and we were off. I rooted myself in the arc of Denis’s ribcage as much as I could; punching as quickly as I could. The line of vision became tunnel. Sounds into muffle. And my punches seemed to fall dull. I heard no squirms of pain. I wasn’t sure if I was making an impact. A bunch of bare knuckles connected with the side of my face and I was back out in the open yard again. Denis didn’t miss the chance. Some fast, long jabs to my head, and a fist of hard knuckles hit me square in the face; left and then right, one after the other. His height was making things difficult, and I began to crumble.

An avalanche of pain came down across my forehead. It was followed by a swift gush of blood running straight to the top of my nose. ‘Keep your guard up! Keep your guard up!’ came the taunts from Denis as punches came over his cracked beaming smile. Another jab connected with my jaw, and I hung again out in the open; a glorified punch bag. I ran straight for him, barging through awkward hands, and scored a punch to the head. I then raised my elbow forward and pushed back his long lanky arms. I swung a fist into his stomach and forced his weight backwards onto the ground. Lying on his back, blood flowed from his nose. I could kick him into the head or square into the stomach. But that would be bad form right? I wanted him to know I now had the chance to take him out, to hurt him and win. ‘Are you going to stay down!?’ I shouted. I was all tense; frazzled and red faced. Shaky voice. ‘Well?!’ I said it again, except harder this time, crunching out the words through gritted teeth and teary-victim eyes. Denis looked up nodding; squinting at me, humiliated. A gob of red spit lands on concrete.

I step back breathless and stupefied, and the crowd around us began to came into view again. I turned for my school bag in the corner. The evening sun washed through the metal grey sky and onto the yard. Then came the shard through the newly won calm; a hard crunching smack into the back of my neck.

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Risk (Limerick)

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n the city, the rush of the wind propelled our tripping highs as we sped down the street on our bikes. In the warm summer evening, the sky above formed a tight hood over our electric cloud of humid euphoria. Our feet light on the turning peddles. We turned up some time in the late evening. Dropped our bikes outside in the gravel, and then stood in the boiling chipper in front of the menu for ages. Fresh young faces with large darting eyes; heads cocked up to the bright listings of snack boxes and meal deals. The mind was flooded, reaching bubbling. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Our expressions had all timed out.

Dave stood tall next to me, his mouth agape looking up at the glowing menu and lanky in his dark green army jacket. He had a brown envelope stuffed in his pocket, with magic mushrooms recently picked from the hills around his native Dingle. Dave was off his head at the best of times, a bit of a punk but he could be a bit of a prick too. We tolerated him though. James stood next to him. Shorter and nerdier; and very stoned with his ‘Where’s Wally’ striped hat hanging off his crown. Ellen and Donal were next to him, holding onto each other, in love and beaming with smiles. And I rattled away on my usual dose of LSD, little square tabs of cartooned paper called Tasmanian Devils. Potent, precious and long lasting. What a bunch she had to be dealing with.

She came out from inside the counter and asked again with a mock ‘pleading’ tone. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Her voice drifted into my dripping consciousness. The curtains drew back and I came out of the trance. Sweaty brow. It was good she asked or we’d be standing there all night.

Back at the house and deep into the trip, I was now in wild colour. Over powering smell of plums and sweet chewing gums. A dark excitement seizing. Sitting on my bed and looking out the window, a large bus covered in thick brown mud, indicators flashing to turn left, pulled out of my front garden. I smoked to ease the tension. Then a blue train ran through my room.

In the early hours I was on my way home, and I was being followed at a constant, tense pace. The man also on a bike, stayed behind in the near dark at around the three hundred metre mark. I rounded corners and peddled on through a series of sleeping avenues, and he was still pinned to my trial. Home came into view ahead. I dragged the bike through the gate of the house, banged it in through the front door, after eventually getting the key into the damned lock, and quickly looked behind me to see a road empty and quiet. This was me, in a not too uncommon struggle, trying to elope from a stoner evening elsewhere; trailed by shadows. These were the realities of my imagination, and the fictions of my daily life. It took four months of sitting in a darkened room to regain my smile after all that carry on. Breaking glass moments still occurred in my head – less frequent as time went by. Then the summer broke through the curtains.

The bar was in full bloom by 7pm; slightly rowdy with a ragged mob of rockers. The bar staff were barely keeping up with the call for pints, and Carly hung from the end of the bar waving a ten pound note briskly in the air at the nearest barman. She glanced back to us with a cheeky smile, her ass swaying from side to side before us. We sat back on the couches and low stools around a table, swanning pints and filling the ashtray with chain-smoked ciggs. We had only dropped the yokes an hour beforehand, but were all on the train to blitzville. The drink was flowing down easy. Our group was getting more animated in excited conversation. Everyone dreams. And these abstract strands were seeping in quickly to our little corner; taking full form. They fell out of our heads onto the table like gold chunks, which were anxiously picked up, held aloft and analysed with intrigue by the whole group. The rest of the bar bumped and staggered around each other while wave after wave of Led Zeppelin washed loudly over the bar. Drinks splashed softly from generous pint glasses around the table as we whoo’d and haaa’d into the evening.

The lights were dim but the room warm and crowded. Beats pulsed through the smoke machined club of twisting flesh dancing to house, off-beat alternative sounds and dub reggae. We danced on the floor, then took to the pumping heart of the club – a small stage reeking of weed – when the rhythms of a Happy Monday’s acid track burst through the airwaves. ‘The Termight’s Club’ was in full rave. It operated above an old cinema off limerick’s main O’Connell Street, and was the sole alternative to the stagnation of mainstream nightlife. Four flights of stairs from the main entrance, a few more drinks downed, and our heads were in ‘the zone’. I laid on the dancefloor all goo’d out of it, cha-koo’ing confidently, blissed out as others danced in swirling lights around me. Laura laughed while gripping my arms, trying to drag me upright, in order to evade the prowling bouncers. Distracted, she came down to her knees and contended to try and pry some sticky chewing gum from my straggly fair hair. I lay back with my head on her lap. The gum, lime green, was glued into the strands. She pulled at the tangled mess, and a sharp pain came to my scalp. She was well into the challenge of freeing my hair from the gum, ignoring my pleas to leave it – “sur feckin leave it beee!” But our little operation of two was now on the bouncer’s radar. Our bright dilated pupils shined up at him through the disco lights.

I was quickly heaved up from the corner of the dancefloor and slammed through the crowd toward the door. My head glowed on, as we left Laura behind, confused and gum-fingered. “Take it easy I’m going alright.” But the bouncer’s hard tugging and jerking of my limbs went on; waking me up to more pain as we went. As we banged through the nightclub doors he gripped me hard. And as we quickly took the first flight of metal stairs downwards, I knew this guy was going to be a fucker to deal with. He was tall and bald, but not an old man – athletic in his late twenties. Decked out in black bouncer gear, he stopped at the top of the second flight of stairs. His arm gripped tightly around my neck and closed harder on my windpipe. ‘Leave me go you fucking Nazi!’ And then he held me out, kicking my legs free of the steps into the drop below. I swung from his tough muscled elbow, my legs kicking for ground below. The jolt across my throat sent me into a surge of pain. And then he left go, dropping me into the fall of the metal stairs.

§

Night Train To Moscow

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he Russian train system is a robust and efficient institution in a country where other basic services barely survive. It is the bloodstream of the nation and an embodiment of the Soviet dream. The sheer number of possible train routes, taking you mostly anywhere across the Russian Federation is a wonder in itself. Down into the Stan countries of Central Asia, into the Russian Far East or up into the anonymous Arctic Circle cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.

Today’s journey was going to be small in comparison. A twelve hour leap from St Petersburg to Moscow. An overnight journey between two iconic cities. This, for many, is the start of the monumental Trans Siberian Railway. But shoe stringing it, I was on board with the cheapest ticket going. It had old, seated style carriages. There were no intimate sleeper coupes with cosy bunks here. And for most Russians this was typical. Seated by the window, I watch the carriage slowly fill up as the minutes count-down to our departure. My rucksack is stashed overhead, with a small day bag tucked underneath my seat, awkwardly making for tight leg movement.

A tall girl with long black hair takes a seat next to me. Long legs in black jeans awkwardly placed in front of her. She nods with a smile and says something in Russian. I nod back unsure. The carriage is now full and everyone is getting organized to settle in. Once bags are put away, head cushions are tucked in to place and tickets lay on laps for inspection. The carriage attendant, suddenly and unexpectedly, throws me a little plastic bag. It hits me on the head. Half startled and with the little bag in my hand hands, I turn to the girl next to me.
‘What is this?’ I ask her.

‘It’s your blanket’ she laughs.

‘Ah yes, I see’ I reply, trying to not look too lost amongst Russian train etiquette. I pull open the packaging and reveal the little blue blanket.

As darkness fell, the train rumbled on. In the half light of the carriage, passing through abandoned suburbs and black forest, a repeating pattern of dark and white washes over the girl. We were getting on well as we navigated conversations in pigeon English and Russian. She was near my age; in her late twenties. After midnight we moved out to the tight space of the gangway. We had bought two beers from the concierge and had slipped quietly out of the sleeping carriage. She towered over me while we stood smoking. Still tied to the language barrier we drank and asked names, countries, jobs, destinations. Moscow, Nina, an office worker. She was coming back from a weekend with her family in St Petersburg to her work in Moscow.

Back in the carriage, she was now sitting slightly turned toward me. Although not really aware of it, I was the same; turned toward her just a little. Flashes of the passing night showed her form. A dark warm shadow with a subtle smile. A face in zoetrope; her eyes looked me over with searching curiosity. As the darkness of the carriage started to merge with the slow embrace of sleep, we started to glide closer together; face to face, bright eyes on bright eyes.

In the morning I watched half-awake through the smudged windows as Moscow’s suburbs drifted past. Swathes of silver industry ran on for miles, with the grey steely sky hanging low over the early hours of the day. I was captivated by the size of the city, a historic sprawl. It was a full-on megacity. Nina guided me out into Moscow’s Leningradsky train station with her long stride in skinny jeans. I followed her towards an open cafe.

‘The metro closed to the city. Not open yet. We can have coffee, here? This is where I get collected.’ Nina said.

I had to wait 15 minutes for the metro doors to open to the public.

‘Cool, coffee it is. Who are you waiting for?’ I asked.

‘My boyfriend, he’s from Kiev, lives in Moscow.’

Standing there in front of the boyfriend, his broadness unnerved me. He was just as tall as Nina, but didn’t have a word of English. She wrapped her arms around his neck in affection. I stood there perplexed and uncomfortable. With a firm handshake, I said hello in Russian, and he smiled back ‘Zdrasvuta’. He was getting an update from Nina. An Irish holiday maker in Moscow… I was on the side-lines for this discussion. I really did feel the need to move on.

Greetings administered, I walked out into the push and tug of the metro. The morning rush hour starts here, in a boundless flow to the city centre. Millions flood towards the start of their day. My rucksack was tied firm on my back. I held my place in the crowd, as everyone squeezed in towards the ticket sellers who were ready with blank expressions behind their windows.

The rucksack felt heavier when sandwiched midway in the shifting human mass. I tried to stand firm. We heaved forward, and then slightly back. The mass staggered as one to the left and then to the right, wedged tight, until somebody eventually popped into the vacant spot in front of the ticket window. As I shuffled slowly toward the ticket seller, I began to feel my rucksack tug downwards. A sudden jolt, spaced by some brief seconds, was followed by another. The pull, too overstated to be my pushy neighbours, had intention. A little boy was working away at the pockets of my rucksack. Barely able to see him, I tried to turn around, arching to get a look, while at the same time trying to stay steady. The little boy moved easily between the shuffling legs of the masses. He had sought out my rucksack for poaching. He stood directly on my blindside. I pushed back to shake him off, which only annoyed those next to me. The boy was focused and he wasted no time. A cap covered his head and shielded his face, and he was now busy trying to break one of the lower rucksack pockets. The zip wouldn’t budge, stuck under the stress of a horde of dirty socks.

He was like a stowaway in my bag, and he was nearly in the pocket at this stage. Seconds later, like a dropped pin in a bowling alley, he went flying across the floor. And at the same time I got pulled backwards through the crowd, spun around and steadied. It was Nina’s boyfriend. He had dug his way in through the columns of commuters; my bright red rucksack in his sights. As he ripped me back out of the scrum my heart sank and I feared for a Moscow-style head-slapping. He then started waving a card in front of my face, swiped the electronic gate and pushed me through the opening into the metro with a laugh.

—Eamonn Sheehy

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Eamonn Sheehy writes nonfiction that jumps into the deep side of travel, culture and counterculture. His work has appeared in YourMiddleEast.com, Kosovo 2.0 magazine, The Sarajevo Times, The Bogman’s Cannon and others. His first book, Summer In The City State – Ceuta To Tangier Through Fortress Europe, was published in 2016. He is currently working on his second book, Stealing Life, depicting the grating boundaries of youth, set against the backdrop of travel through Russia. Eamonn also produces The Rockers Guide radio show, exploring the punk-alternative underground, for Clonline Radio in Clonakilty, West Cork, Ireland, where he also resides.

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Dec 022016
 

hallucineMovement Is The Antechamber Of Hallucination 32” x 40” 28.3.2016

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The daughter of glow-worms painting portraits of mysterious females and the reindeer’s ghostly double, all perfectly cracked like glass, like an intrusion, like a flight into the obscurity of uncharted whispering. A slight touch on the shoulder, the movement of an affair between invasion and emanation, the pitch of bone against bone, faces merging in the moisture of a single word chosen among all the others. A vampire word…

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Clarity is often a flower burning a table out of a corpse, an immoral sense of having secretive codes, acknowledgements of a tentative gambling, a mere walk in the park. The spores of wild animals, the crawling of your flesh, light growing on water. Words like landmines.

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The glow between living and ceasing to live, emulates the long-legged cascade in her whispering circuitry, the gaze of rain is corrupted film, caught in the act, disguised by pleasure purring in gradually brightening passwords. The catapult of an unfinished sentence, turned to provoke, to stroke and latent in state, the light separates your body from its own darkness.

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The ancient horned flower of your psyche attracts the devoted milking machines, the aboriginal veins of a fabric that propels your footsteps as determined as her threads slipping into light, vanishing in the blink of an eye.

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navigateAnd still the navigators 38’ x 38” 27.6.2016

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Dark and greedy, the always secret and ever vanishing body of torrential mirroring.

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Dark gravitational assignations seduced into amulets the color of glass, evolving in sequential chiaroscuro, tempting blood where (in the Manor of Sighs) the barbarian sign language seizes the images of your being in the rich, antiquarian lucidity of your extinction. Your face, or the features of night in the fever of graceful spirits that still come to drink the liquid of life out of your hands, the pendulum… An evening of theater runs ahead…

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Trapping belladonna between the lines, between her legs, between phases, to embrace the blindness of your murmuring, pushing out between her lips, the lost hermeticism of albino checkmates.

*

Black pyramid of erratic nights, sphinx crystal for abnormal motion, language absorbed by light hibernating in darkness, invisible shield, hormones of endless fusion and refusing to chalk the edges of bodily words taking root. On a street corner in another country, where the wheels of dance herald small but irreplaceable transgressing devices, shedding deceptions buzzing with veiled faces. You are sleeping with the enemy, unafraid and glorious.

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An intimacy of longing dwells in us like words that have no meaning, but animal cries, torn linen, a loving defiance…

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sirensSirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016

Sirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016*

One superb maneuver is the moon under your skin that pivots on the bones of a spider’s web, when it shines in the eyes of the animals that come close to you for light.

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Bright calipers of the alloy-laden arch, light-birthing heaviness, a fire between the air and the water, the arc of the dive into disappearance. Desire is not beautiful, but an invisible flame, a knife thrust into the heart, a moment of oblivion. The figure is translated, disfigured and set spinning into the tall and languid codes of light, violent codes, aching darkness of codes deceiving stature… who is dismantled. Words pulled out of lead. Breath of crystal. The rain of deer in the plateau of whispers…

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A bright spirit made of wolves, a throat in the fountain of analogies.

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Neither life nor death, but the same descent, the same loping, transfiguring, moving across the edges highlighted in ivory as bright as sunlight clutching at animal optics, scavenging, sight-shaping all the female phantoms in a row, crawling with antlers through the moth-memory of an escape hatch bigger than the either and the or… where the bell-veil toys with the heretic and his contraries, introducing a vow worthy of destruction, sealed with a kiss.

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Highly unreasonable notations raise pinnacles outside of the hour, narrate plumes, positions of sleep. The air spirals and sudden sparks. Your body of the orchid feast, thief of the mask. Night hood. “Teach me how to kill, and I will teach you how to love…” Only the wail of silence, in acrobat, even yourself hieroglyphing in lunar light.

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The slow movement of her hand, the reflections cast by night, travelling by déjà vu.

§

The visual works I make are photo-based digital collages created in Photoshop, using printed media scanned into the computer, then using many layers, cloning, erasures. This allows taking the essence of collage quite beyond cut and paste. It becomes a much more fluid conjuration of matter, transforming the everyday into a magical space, where anything is possible. The sizes of the images are always approximate. Although, usually larger, depending upon whim. Since these live on the computer, they are subject to change.

—J. Karl Bogartte

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elbogo

J. Karl Bogartte, born September 8, 1944, of Dutch and Irish descent, is both an artist and poet, schooled in anthropology, photography and various esoteric traditions. He has been an active participant in international surrealism for more than 50 years, and cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions.  He presently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bogartte, is both an artist and poet, having published eight books of poetic writings: The Mirror held Up In Darkness, The Wolf House, Secret Games, Luminous Weapons, Primal Numbers, A Curious Night For A Double Eclipse, Auré, The Spindle’s Arc, and Antibodies: A Surrealist Novella.  Long aligned with international surrealism, Bogartte is also a cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions. His work has appeared in the following anthologies:  ANALOGON #65, Melpomene, Hydrolith #1 and #2, La vertèbre et le rossignol #4, Peculiar Mormyrid #2, Paraphilia,  and The Fiend online journal.

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Dec 012016
 

Michaelangelo torment-of-st-anthonyMichelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Standing aside from the busy doings of mankind, and drawing NIGH to the divine [pros to theio gignomenos], he is rebuked by the multitude as being out of his wits, for they know not that he is possessed by a deity [enthousiazon].
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX— Plato, Phaedrus

NEARLY mad, I found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition which pressed so close.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxXXXX H. P. Lovecraft, The Outsider

The pattern he has selected may seem queer, out of the way, and VERGING on insanity; but this happens because it is isolated from its inner context, and is appraised mechanically and superficially, by the outer and conventional measures of normality. Very often, the inward aim of the dynamic patterns animating the lives of such apparently insane persons is God, or Truth.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxXXXX Meher Baba, The Wayfarers

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Madness, an obscurely essential theme in The Cloud of Unknowing, appears there in several modes traversing the boundaries between human, God, and devil.

First, there is the madness to which all demons are driven by “the werk of the soule,” the apophatic forgetting of creation and dwelling in the cloud or darkness between oneself and God.[1] “Alle seintes and aungelles han joie of this werk, and hasten hem to helpe it in al here might. Alle feendes ben wood whan thou thus doste, and proven for to felle it in alle that thei kun” (3).

Second, there is the madness to which phantasmatically deluded contemplatives drive themselves under the devil’s guidance by perceptually confounding and inverting the natural order of corporeal and spiritual things. This spiritual mis-work “is neither bodily worching ne goostly worching. . . . it is a worching agens kynde, and the devel is the cheef worcher thereof. And it is the rediest way to deth of body and of soule, for it is woodnes and no wisdom, and ledith a man even to woodnes. And yit thei wene not thus, for thei purpose hem in this werk to think on nought bot on God.” Not sensing the true mystical or hidden prepositionality of spiritual ascent—“how a man schal drawe alle his witte withinne hymself, or how he schal clymbe aboven himself”—they “turn theire bodily wittes inwardes to theire body agens the cours of kynde; and streynen hem, as thei wolde see inwards with theire bodily ighen, and heren inwards with theire eren, and so forthe of all theire wittes, smellen, taasten, and felyn inwardes. And thus thei reverse hem agens the cours of kynde and with this coriousté thei travayle theire ymaginacion so undiscreetly, that at the last thei turne here brayne in here hedes.” Thus set in error, the contemplative falls prey to the devil who, hiding under this distorted remembrance of God—“the mynde of God wol he [the devil] not put fro hem, for feerde that he schuld be had in suspecte”—intensifies and validates the delusion with “fals light or sounes, swete smelles in theire noses, wonderful tastes in theire mowthes, and many queynte hetes and brennynges in theire bodily brestes or in theire bowelles, in theire backes and in theire reynes, and in their pryvé membres,” so that without the intervention of a “merciful miracle” they “schul go staryng wood to the devil” (51-53).

Third, there is the pure madness of the devil’s essential infernal nature whose direct sight instantly causes permanent madness, which the Cloud-author addresses in the context of judgmental religious zealotry and the loss of discretion. Persons suffering from this condition are deceived by the devil, who “ful wonderfuly . . . wol enflaume here braynes to meinteyne Goddes lawe, and to distroie synne in all other men.” Reproving everyone, they “sey that thei ben steryd therto by the fiire of charité and of Goddes love in theire hertes. And trewly thei lighe, for it is with the fire of helle wellyng in theire braynes and in theire ymaginacion.” While not defined as madness per se, this inferno-critical zeal formally participates in the devil’s own nature, as reported by “some disciples of nygromauncye . . . unto whom the feende hath apperid in bodily licnes.” For when the devil thus appears, he always has “bot o nose-therel, and that is grete and wyde. And he wil glady kast it up, that a man may see in therate to his brayne up in his heed. The whiche brayn is not elles bot the fiire of helle, for the feende may have none other brayn. And yif he might make a man loke in therate, he kepeth no beter; for at that lokyng he schuld lese his witte for ever” (55). So, as the devil “figureth in some qualité of his body what his servauntes ben in spirit,” such indiscreet reprovers “have bot o nose-therel goostly,” in contradiction with the naturally split nostrils of humans that “bitokeneth that a man schulde have discrecion goostly, and kun dissevre the good fro the ivel, and the yvel fro the worse, and the good fro the betyr” (55).

Fourth, there is the near or virtual madness of the real mystic who, in working to destroy the final and foundational obstacle between himself and God, namely, the “the nakid wetyng and felyng of thin owen beyng,” goes “ni wood for sorow.” “Alle men han mater of sorow, bot most specyaly he felith mater of sorow that wote and felith that he is. Alle other sorowes ben unto this in comparison bot as it were games to ernest. For he may make sorow earnestly that wote and felith not onli what he is, bot that he is. And whoso felid never this sorow, he may make sorow, for whi he felid yit never parfite sorow. This sorow . . . makith a soule abil to ressseive that joye, which revith fro a man alle wetyng and felyng of his being. This sorow, yif it be trewly coseyvid, is ful of holy desire; and elles might never man in this liif abide it ne bere it. For ne were it that a soule were sumwhat fed with a maner of counforte of his right worching, elles schuld he not mow bere the pyne that he hath of the wetyng and felyng of his being. For as ofte as he wolde have a trewe wetyng and a felyng of his God in purtee of spirit, as it may be here, and sithen felith that he may not – for he findeth evermore his wetyng and his felyng as it were ocupied and fillyd with a foule stynkyng lumpe of himself . . . – as ofte he goth ni wood for sorow; insomochel, that we wepith and weilith, strivith, cursith, and banneth, and schortly to sey, hym thinkith that he berith so hevy a birthen of hymself that he rechith never what worth of hym, so that God were plesid. And yit in al this sorrow he desireth not to unbe, for that were develles woodnes and despite unto God” (44).

robert-fludd-utriusque-cosmiIllustration from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi (via Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in the principle of necessity at work within this de facto mystical typology of madness. Why? Because I do not see that there can be any real theory of madness, any intellectual vision of it, that is not a knowing of its necessity. Seeing madness for what it is means seeing that it must be, its self-identical immanence, at once in itself (the space wherein the mad one, to truly be mad, must be mad, really at his wits’ end) and in relation to madness’s own end, what it is driving one to (the space where the mad one is mad for some mantic reason), in this context, hell or God. Nietzsche expresses this necessity, identifying madness as a vital condition for noetic novelty, the only way new ideas become real: “when . . . new and deviate ideas . . . again and again broke out, they did so accompanied by a dreadful attendant: almost everywhere it was madness which prepared the way for the new idea . . . Do you understand why it had to be madness which did this? Something in voice and bearing as uncanny and incalculable as the demonic moods of weather and the sea . . .? Let us go a step further: all superior men . . . had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad.”[2] Crucially, Nietzsche’s words attend without nomination to a kind of Quixotian play or indetermination between actual and virtual madness, indicating a subtle relation between madness’s noetic necessity and its nearness, a secret intersection between the power and the proximity of madness.

Such is the dynamism that is communicated between the hands and madness, for example, in the clenched and hidden hands that reveal a turning of the manual power back into the mind.[3] Likewise, Augustine’s mind reaches for a hand to hold still the heart in a vision of the real Present: “Who will hold fast the human heart so that it may stand and see how eternity, standing beyond past and future, speaks both past and future? Is my hand capable of this? Or can the hand of my mouth accomplish such a great thing through language?”[4] The hand of madness, the haptic nearness of its power, is a matter of present time. Its necessity pertains to the temporal substance that is neither chronos or aiôn but the too-immanent dilation or stretching open of the present beyond the limitations of past and future. The need to be mad is itself the nearness of the active or creative present, a must-be that belongs, not to the twin hallucinations of instant and eternity (the duplex apparitional phantasm of what is always/never passing), but to the more original and universal now that demonically exists beside them, that attends like weather from a cosmic outside and waves from dark inner seas. Madness is so intimate with time, so fiendishly present to it, that it is radically reasonable to say that madness is time. Discover this equation. It is the broken, present-at-hand yet paradoxically nevertheless and all-the-more ready means of warding off the foetid apparition, the foul stinking lump of oneself, which presses so close.

The identity of time and madness is visible in Augustine’s perpetuated remark about time’s inverted apophatic intelligibility, its being known in negative unknowing, that is, not negating that you know, but in purely negating, as if in absolute spontaneous preemption, that you do not: “What therefore is time? If no one [nemo] asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone questioning me, I do not know.”[5] The literal meaning is supreme: time is known in the negative-without-negation presence of a nemo, a not-man (ne + homo) who asks what is time, a question posed by nobody. Time is known mantically, through a positively mad intuition whose madness lies in its having no time to be about time in the form of answer to anyone’s question, in its necessarily being a knowledge that answers (to) no one.  The explanation of time to someone, by contrast, is a negatively mad ignorance, the madness of an explaining that eclipses knowledge of the explained.[6] Note the formal similarity between such knowing of time through no one’s query and the negative, solely monitory wisdom of the Socratic daimon, never named as a spiritual entity, but only as an impersonal but familiar divine sign—a prophetic presence whose singular doubling of identity is occasionally there yet never inoperative (Socrates says it always [aei] warns him) and thus deeply analogous to consciousness itself as a necessary, inevitable dilation of the momentary, so that there is, for example, time to do anything.

Time-madness identity is more clearly visible in Meher Baba’s speedy distinction between God, man, madman, and mast (divinely mad person): “Mind stopped, is God. / Mind working, is man. / Mind slowed down, is mast. / Mind working fast, is mad.”[7] Here it is the temporality of mind itself that ontically modulates between God and human on a spectrum of madness (though it should be emphasized that the ‘human’ has no genetic or historical specificity in his evolutionary cosmology; it simply means the form in which the development of consciousness is full and thus capable of God/Self-realization). The human, vis-à-vis self-conscious divinity or God, is flanked by opposed but temporally correlative forms of madness such that its own ordinary operative nature looks like only a median mind-speed, a mediocre or B-minus madness that both ensures practical functioning and displaces radical development. Doubly framed by insanity and God-intoxication, the human emerges as a utile but essentially obsolescent state of time. “Level-1 or world space,” writes Nick Land, is an anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-configured, massively multi-slotted reality system that is obsolescing very rapidly. Garbage time is running out. Can what is playing you make it to level 2?”[8] Land’s term garbage time eloquently captures the complex of an expiring or evaporating state (perforce ungraspable as such from within its sanity-to-itself and perceivable only in near-madness) in which production of and concern for refuse are constitutionally fused into self-obsolescence or being-garbage. And there is every reason to keep open the comparison here between the anthropocenic ecological echo of the idea—the spectacle of homo sapiens garbaging itself to death—and the negative or tensional complicity between mystical madness and filth. Just as the cloud-dwelling contemplative goes nearly mad for sorrow over his own foetid facticity as the only and ultimate escape route out of individuated existence,[9] so is global eco-emergency a form of mass secular and semi-insane mystical sorrow expressive of deeply vexed impatience with, and desire for, intensified immediacy of the forced temporariness and disposableness, or more essentially, the necessary disposality, of human-being. Note furthermore the important psychic link between sorrow, or affective counter-volitional refusal,[10] and refuse as what is rejected and cast away. Here is found the weird paradoxical link between madness and filth, the madman’s personal affinity for dirt that is grounded in rigorous and essential indifference towards it, an indifference that may radically express or be rooted in real mental cleanliness, the perfectly careless purity of a playing soul that will not be washed, yet a non-innocent purity strangely continuous with the deathly seriousness of someone who must be clean of oneself.[11] “I forgot danger, reason, and cleanliness [says a Lovecraftian hero] in my single-minded fever to unearth the lurking fear.”[12] And filthiness too is a matter of proximate affinity: dirt itself is clean. So near-madness can be visualized as the achievement of a purifying and essential cleanliness of being-in-dirt. Or as St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

teodor-axentowicz-the-anchoriteTeodor Axentowicz, The Anchorite (via Wikimedia Commons)

To see the necessity of madness in the Cloud of Unknowing demands, not diffusive explaining or theorizing, but the single-mindedness of envisioning or theorying the unitary time of its fourfold appearance, intellectually entering the wholism of its must-be. In other words, seeing this madness with the radical, transcendent-immanent literalism of photography, described by Laruelle as “a hyperphenomenology of the real” that thinks the “undivided giveness of the apparition,” the givenness that “is the thing itself in-its image, rather than the image-of-the-thing”[13]—a blind but open visioning homologous to knowing when no one asks or answering via questioning-by-camera. Such seeing is itself proper to the supreme, unconquerable ordinariness of mysticism as a mode of vision that finds ultimate truth in a flattening of knower and known which inversionally releases, like a Petrine cross, the infinite and total intensive depth of reality.[14] “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me.”[15] I.e. the eternally identifying vision-in-One whose durational projection is the proverbial too long it takes to go mad looking in a mirror. This is the world where the image looks back,  a capacious no-place whose abyss sees into you and the lovely reflection loves Narcissus. Similarly, perceiving the Cloud’s madness is needing to see it all-at-once, in a way that makes it look back as the very mode of its perceiving, in the inescapability of a now that is not instantaneous but fluidly frozen or solidly dilated, just as a photograph, or the multiple sense of medieval scripture, finds different forms pressed within a unitary temporal plane. A vision of necessity that madly intersects with the necessity of vision itself and thus also sees the moment of vision within the principle of madness.

All these criteria are precisely confirmed in the Cloud’s four-form scheme, which stretches the unwitnessability of madness itself between the pure fiery dementia of the demonic brain and the supremely proximate madness of the ecstatic mystic so that what-madness-is, its substance, is prismatically refracted across the space between human and demon, the entities who are photographically close, one to the other, in each definition of madness the text provides. This proximity is itself co-substantial with time, insofar that demon, as fallen angel, is simultaneously what negatively precedes and preconditions human and what perpetually strives to retard its afterlife towards chronic sub-eternity or damnation—a striving that is formally inseparable from and providentially bound to what it inverts: spiritual aspiration towards the eternal present.[16] The near-madness of existential mystical sorrow, dangerously shadowed by the rigorous volitional logic of the desire “to unbe . . . that [is] develles woodnes and despite unto God,” is the perfection or more properly apotheosis, of this proximity, its extremest realization that at once fulfills and fatally exceeds all other instances of it in the moment of becoming-divine. It is the anagogy or being raised up of the four senses of madness, the one that realizes and shows the necessity of their identity. Read this way, the real mystic is revealed to be, not one of several distinctions, but the truly immanent human as a madly inverted experientia crucis, a heretic body constituting—and needing to constitute as its only way out of itself—the upside down crucifixion of time. Not an essence, but a unitary hybrid never once and now no longer human, a friendly no-one or ‘nameless wild one’[17] for whom near-madness is not a flirtation or perilous approach of the mind towards its loss, but the putting-to-use or wielding of the very necessity of time as an operational nearness, the turning of time into a virtue or power by letting it fall to a never-ending halt. “Live more and more in the Present, which is ever beautiful, and stretches away beyond the limits of the past and the future.”[18] This near- madness—inverted name for intimacy with true, singular sanity—is the human becoming capable of being mad. Hanging in effortless liberatory flight, its body stretched across the intersection of the evolutionary or human need to ‘become what you are’ and the chaotic or demonic ‘desire to be everything’, this weirdly inevitable creature here touches all at once the four temporal dimensions of its loved torment. From this perspective what matters is not what each intellectually ‘means’, but the immediate and as-if neutral significance of their time-structure.

crucifixion-of-timeAuthor’s illustration of the Crucifixion of Time

At the right hand: the non-stop continuity that must end of demon-tormenting contemplation, that is, allegorical time, time whose truth lies in signifying other than it is. At the left hand, the instantaneous once-and-forever singular moment of looking through the devil’s nostril, that is, literal time, time whose truth lies in perfect and unique irrevocability. At the head: the illusory false present of perverse, seeing-what-you-do-not-have aesthetic imagination, that is, tropological time, time whose truth lies in the projection of what one must do/become. At the feet: the let it be now of mystical impatience, refusal of every this for the real Present, that is, anagogical time, time whose truth lies in absolutely untimely suspension—heels kicking at everything.

The necessity of being at one’s wits’ end is a pure necessity, a necessity without object, and thus a necessity that only frees one more and more from being a subject of needs. Near-madness is the only alternative for staying close to being what one must.

On the other hand, Firdawsi reports in the Book of Kings that the followers of Mazdak, the heretical 6th-century Persian wise man, “were planted there head down, with their feet in the air, like trees….If you have any sense, [he says] you will not follow Mazdak’s way.”

—Nicola Masciandaro

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nicola-masciandaro

Nicola Masciandaro is Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a specialist in medieval literature. His non-pseudonymous works include The Voice of the Hammer (Notre Dame), Sufficient Unto the Day (Schism), and Floating Tomb (Mimesis).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1997). References are to chapter number.
  2. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. Maudemaire Clark and Brian Leiter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §14.
  3. For artistic examples, see Sander L. Gilman, Seeing the Insane (New York: Wiley, 1982), chapter 3.
  4. “Quis tenebit cor hominis, ut stet et videat, quomodo stans dictet futura et praeterita tempora nec futura nec praeterita aeternitas? Numquid manus mea valet hoc aut manus oris mei per loquellas agit tam grandem rem?” (Augustine, Confessions [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951], 11.11).
  5. “Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio” (Augustine, Confessions, 11.14).
  6. Note how the logic identically applies to madness as explanation for all-too-intuited horror: “madness . . . was the explanation spontaneously adopted by everybody so far as spoken utterance was concerned; though I will not be so naïve as to deny that each of us may have harboured wild guesses which sanity forbade him to formulate completely” (H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, [New York: Modern Library, 2005), 38). That time itself a horror is a maddening horror is of course central principal of this work: “the labyrinth of rock and masonry that clawed up corpse-like through the eternal ice . . . we felt that we had established an unprecedented and almost blasphemous link with forgotten aeons normally closed to our species . . . we were wandering amidst a death which had reigned at least 500, 000 years, and in all probability even longer . . . The pictorial bands . . . had an artistic force that moved us profoundly notwithstanding the intervening gulf of vast geologic periods. Their method of design . . . embodied an analytical psychology beyond that of any known race of antiquity” (46-56).
  7. The Wayfarers, 19.
  8. Nick Land, “Meltdown,” in Fanged Noumena, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (London/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2011), 456.
  9. Cf. Hegel’s understanding of the necessity of madness (for development of higher rationality) as expression of contradiction in individuated being – “The necessity of madness, that is, the necessity of going through the stage of madness, is due to the fact that ‘the soul is already in itself the contradiction of being an individual, a singular, and yet at the same time immediately identical with the universal natural soul, with its substance’ (Enz. 164, 125)” (Ferit Güven, Madness and Death in Philosophy [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005], 37) – and Levinas’s definition of the grounds of escape: “escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même]. . . . It is being itself or the ‘one-self’ from which escape flees, and in no wise being’s limitation. In escape the I flees itself, not in opposition to the infinity of what it is not or of what it will not become, but rather due to the very fact that it is or that it becomes” (Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003], 55). Rosmini comments on Hegel: “What reason could we find for this whim that being would have to negate itself, to refuse to recognize itself, to make this mad attempt to annihilate itself?” (Saggio storico-critico sulle categorie e la dialettica). See also Nicola Masciandaro, “The Sorrow of Being” Qui Parle 19 (2010): 9-35 and “Eros as Cosmic Sorrow: Locating the Limits of Difference in Julian of Norwich’s Divine Shewings and The Cloud of Unknowing,” Mystics Quarterly 35 (2009): 59-103.
  10. “[C]um . . . dissentimus ab eo quod nolentibus accidit, talis voluntas tristitia est” (Augustine, De civitate Dei, 14.6, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, 5th ed. [Stuttgart: Teubner, 1981]) [sorrow is the will’s disagreement with something that happened against our will].
  11. “From general standards of society, religion, health, morality and so forth, cleanliness of body and mind are indispensable. It is, however, very easy to keep the body clean; but cleanliness of mind is very difficult indeed. The more one gets attached to body cleanliness for merely selfish reasons, the less are the chances of having a clean mind. If, however, one is given up wholly to mental cleanliness, which means becoming free from low, selfish, impure desires and thoughts of lust, greed, anger, backbiting, etc., the less is one’s mind attached to bodily needs and bodily cleanliness. All this applies to ordinary persons. Now of the five types—God-merged, God-intoxicated, God-absorbed, God-communed and God-mad—the God-absorbed and God-communed can more or less keep their bodies clean. Their minds are almost automatically clean due to their being absorbed in God, or in communion with God. But the God-mad, the God-intoxicated and the God-merged all invariably have dirty bodies, live in dirty surroundings, and may have dirty physical habits. A God-mad has a clean, pure mind. A God-intoxicated has a mind, but no thoughts, for his mind is simply enjoying the intoxicated state. A God-merged has no mind—he is fully merged in God. So in these three cases their mental cleanliness and purity cannot be questioned. Now why should their bodies and environments be dirty? You will find that the majority of ordinary mad people have very little consciousness of their bodies. So if an ordinary mind, when mad, does not pay attention to bodily cleanliness, then the three types of God men, who unconsciously or consciously know all the universe to be zero, body to be a shadow, and whose minds are absolutely unattached to the body, cannot be expected to keep their bodies and surroundings clean. When the mind does not pay attention to the body, the body, naturally, automatically survives and looks after itself. Now because of a kind of universal working on the gross plane, a sort of automatic attraction takes place, which causes a man who is indifferent to cleanliness to be attracted to place himself in dirty surroundings. He does not purposely choose an unclean place, but tends to gravitate towards it, for he is himself quite indifferent either to cleanliness or to dirt on the physical plane. For those who are God-mad, God-intoxicated, or God-merged, this dirtiness does not affect their health, because the mind is not attached to the body. For these souls, good or bad, cleanliness or dirt, a palace or a hut, a spotless avenue or a filthy gutter are all the same, and they are driven into any of these places according to circumstance. It is natural for a mast to have a dirty body, and it is natural for him to be driven to dirty surroundings; but if the devotee of a mast happens to give him comfort and cleanliness, he takes it because it is forced on him—but he is quite indifferent to it” (Meher Baba, Wayfarers, 33-4).
  12. H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear,” in The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Penguin, 2004), 75.
  13. François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photographyi, trans. Robin Mackay (London/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2011), 95.
  14. “They hanged him this way and he began to speak. ‘Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things, what it was. For the first man, whose race I bear in mine appearance (or, of the race of whom I bear the likeness), fell (was borne) head downwards, and showed forth a manner of birth such as was not heretofore: for it was dead, having no motion. He, then, being pulled down—who also cast his first state down upon the earth—established this whole disposition of all things, being hanged up an image of the creation wherein he made the things of the right hand into left hand and the left hand into right hand, and changed about all the marks of their nature, so that he thought those things that were not fair to be fair, and those that were in truth evil, to be good. Concerning which the Lord saith in a mystery: Unless ye make the things of the right hand as those of the left, and those of the left as those of the right, and those that are above as those below, and those that are behind as those that are before, ye shall not have knowledge of the kingdom. This thought, therefore, have I declared unto you; and the figure wherein ye now see me hanging is the representation of that man that first came unto birth’” (Acts of Peter).
  15. Meister Eckhart, Complete Mystical Works, Sermon 57.
  16. The inversion is precise in Dante’s representation of hell-dwellers as permanently blind to the present, as Farinata explains in Inferno 10.100-8. Infernal knowledge advances only towards a frozen chromos, pure archivicity: “tutta morta / fia nostra conoscienza da quell punto / che del future fia chiusa la porta” (Inf 10.106-8) [all our knowledge will be dead from that moment when the door of the future shall be closed]. Cf. worry as a displacement from the present that demands absolute release: “Worry is a necessary resultant of attachment to the past or to the anticipated future, and it always persists in some form or other until the mind is completely detached from everything” (Meher Baba, Discourses, 3.122).
  17. “One bright Sunday, as he was sitting withdrawn and deep in thought, there came to him in the calmness of his mind the figure of a rational being who was sophisticated in speech but inexperienced in deeds and who overflowed with rich ostentation. He began speaking to the figure thus: Where do you come from? It said: I never came from anywhere. He said: Tell me, what are you? It said: I am nothing. He said: What do you want? It answered and said: I want nothing. And he said: This is very strange. Tell me, what is your name? It said: I am called nameless wild one. The disciple said: You are well named ‘the wild one’ because your words and answers are completely wild. Now tell me something I shall ask you. Where does your wisdom take you? It said: to unrestrained liberty (Henry of Suso, The Little Book of Truth, Chapter 6, cited from Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, ed. and trans. Frank Tobin [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989], 326). A hyper-negative liberty that must be distinguished from the deferred nothing-but-not-yet offered by nihilism: “That one must lose sight of names and nouns does not suggest that one must turn away from the world, which predication does serve to organize. The Nameless Wild One merely turns from this world when letting go the conventional delusion that this one is the only world possible (”Nameless Wild One: The Ethics of Anonymous Subjectivity – Medieval and Modern,” Common Knowledge 12 [2006]: 219-251).
  18. Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing [Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publication, 1963], no. 37.
Nov 122016
 

Jeremy Brunger

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This year I will attend the University of Chicago, a school whose reputation for serious academic study is nigh unparalleled; it compares to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, yet is half a mile from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the North American continent, the South Side, and a mile or two from neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and Englewood. My area of study, one of general humanism, will have me pondering Foucault, the implications of Marx’s commentary on literature, the meaning behind Schopenhauer’s peculiar use of Latin. In a city that can boast of having over forty shootings in one weekend, I have to wonder what I can possibly learn of humanism while living in its own refutation. Many poor Chicagoans consider the city to be the very bustling embodiment of Hell: it is the nexus of Midwestern drug trafficking due to its convenient location and enduring sense of segregation, nearly a tenth of its citizens are out of work and live in what sociologists call deep poverty, and it out-competes every other US city in the arena of addiction to heroin. In 2015, the longest period of reprieve from gangland-style murder lasted only five days. Odd, that I have the privilege of moving to study at Chicago’s premier ivory tower when many of its citizens wish, above all else, to flee the Windy City and never look back.

That, of course, is the crux of my wonder: privilege is another word for access, and the underside of college towns is that their long-term residents rarely study past high school. I have access to an oasis in Chicago because I have a certain kind of privilege largely denied to those who want to escape those economic black holes which pepper the city. I am white—whiter than white, I already have a college education, which negates my lower class socioeconomic status—and so can graze the finest courses of education this country has to offer. The city of Chicago has one of the biggest, most developed economies in the country, and manages its own stock exchange, but half of the population starves for the fruit of that industry. Poor Chicagoans get murdered outside of one- or two-storey apartments with names riffing on Martin Luther King and faux-Parisian boulevards, not in front of Trump Tower.

Bigger Thomas, the murderous anti-hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, would have lived ten minutes away from the University of Chicago when he smothered rich, white, and educated Mary Dalton in her bed. Bigger grew up poor and hated in the 1930s, but he did not grow up uniquely: today one in five children in Chicago live in the sort of poverty Bigger would have found familiar. Wright was a Marxist who found in urban misery a powerful signal that the proletariat not only can but ought to revolt against the nervous conditions which characterize the lunacy of poor life in big cities. Were he alive today he might find the inspiration to pen a sequel to Native Son, this one bleaker, more starkly realistic: Bigger would belong to one of the fifty-nine gangs in the metropolitan area, shoot other twenty-year-olds with a stolen Glock, and become addicted to black tar heroin before getting gunned down in retaliation.

The picture is one of apartheid—what should not be a first world complaint—which provides a perfect rendition of what is most wrong with America. Wealth inequality in Chicago is steep and is the source of its plague of violence; it is also an example, writ larger, of how those who live in other cities work and die without ever seeing the benefits of liberal progress. The city’s average income hovers around sixty thousand per annum, but its most violent districts earn a third of that market share at their luckiest. It is not for nothing that Chicago is the basis for Gotham, that grim, imaginary playground where Batman battles petty criminals and domestic terrorists. Gotham, too, is a wealthy city whose people are poor, but it just might have the better reputation. Chicago has no vigilante Batman, it only has vigilantes. In fact, its police force is currently being investigated by the federal government for racist retaliation against poor black people unaffiliated with gang activity and for structural racism ranging from street-level police murders up to its own city government. The city which harbored the country’s first serial killer, the Haymarket anarchist killings, and Upton Sinclair’s socialist fervor against corrupt business practices edges toward anarchy once again. Carl Sandburg would ill tolerate the city which gave him his richest poetry a century ago. Nelson Algren, who was more honest in his portrayal of Chicago, wrote in Chicago: City on the Make that “in the Indian grass the Indians listened: they too had lived by night.”

That night has lasted long for the city’s worst off and most abandoned, who, if they cannot recite Dante’s Inferno, can no doubt compare its concentric circles to the neighborhoods of Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The specters of lust, greed, wrath, fraud, treachery, and violence inform the news which Chicago exports, and haunt the lives of Chicago’s indigent all-pervasively. Recently, on the South Side, a body was found bound and burned to death; a pregnant woman was murdered in a drive-by shooting; several teenagers were shot for reasons unknown. All this within walking distance of a university that caters to the children of the elite and teaches the economists of the world that neoliberalism is morally useful.

What salve will a national election year offer Chicago? It has already produced a president, who maintains a house in the South Side for when his tenure in the Oval Office is at an end. Since 2008 the city’s murder rate has steadily increased, while black employment has steadily decreased. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offer anything of worth to the most distressed groups in the city; both seem entirely at odds with the well-being of the urban underclass to begin with, since Chicago supports Clinton by political default and provides hefty ownership royalties to Trump by virtue of his properties.

 

Chicago, then, is a chimeric political animal. The rapper Common once called himself “a veteran of the Cold War” after witnessing gang violence and epidemic poverty in the city of his birth, and knew such horrors were but natural extensions of national policy. As neoliberalism wrenches Europe with its support for austerity, it wrenches likewise even the most dynamic of American economies, and exerts a special stranglehold on Chicago, which produced its main tenets radiating outward from the University of Chicago, to the White House, and back to the multiple slums which cluster for miles around the South Side grove of academe.

The late economist Milton Friedman, powerhouse and public intellectual of neoliberalism, has more to do with the phenomenon of gangbanging than any of his triumphant followers of the last half-century care to admit, for neoliberal policy was in large part his brainchild, and remains the cause and effect of Chicago’s ganglands. That the university, which has its own sub-department of Marxism in the humanities and social sciences, gave birth to the Reaganite policy of eliminating public budgets for the benefit of the private sector, says volumes about how the class schism operates in a city of three million people. The vocal support for one direction of the political process is naturally underscored by a real support for its neoliberal opposite. Slash money to schools, slash money to public aid, slash money to cultural works, slash money to housing—all in the name of promoting a capitalism which considers the advantaged and disadvantaged equals in market theory—and behold a polity which casually declares itself a war zone.

The few like Friedman, who spoke for the many, condemned the many to a suffering that has lasted for generations. Never mind that a monetary regime which considered abundance of cash flow preferable to a deficit—that abundance only needed to reach the rich—categorically impoverished those who had long benefited from New Deal policies. Hell features drive-bys and stray bullets, and the murdering of toddlers whose only crime was being brought into the world by drug dealers. Neoliberal economics is another name for social Darwinism, and on this, if little else, the laissez-faire capitalists of the Reagan-era Chicago School and the street gangs of Englewood agree. Gang life is capitalism in miniature. Neoliberal policy spread beyond American borders and beyond the borders of liberal democracy to influence the world from pole to pole and wreaked a havoc so similar between them one wonders why Chicago hasn’t been declared a national emergency.

That this war zone generally only encompasses a third of the city—those parts which white people like me can afford to not live in, nor rarely traverse—speaks pitifully to the legacy of racism which neoliberalism has inherited and maintained. Jean-Paul Sartre, in typical sardonic style, wrote the following impression of American cities, with 1940s-era New York City as his model:

But these slight cities…reveal the other side of the United States: their freedom. Here everyone is free—not to criticize or to reform their customs—but to flee them, to leave for the desert or another city.

Long after the death of that urbanite philosopher, the prospect of fleeing an American city looks more and more, and merely, to be the stuff of dreams for most.

—Jeremy Brunger

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Jeremy Brunger is from Tennessee and now attends a humanities graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests tend toward the Marxian: finding devils in the superstructure, studying the effects of poverty on mental life, railing against the dumb, brutal figure of capitalism. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.

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Nov 082016
 

Jose de Trevi photograph_2José de Trévi

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In his 1944 existentialist play No Exit, Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people.” He was, of course, referring to the “perpetual ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object in the world of another consciousness,” but the phrase has been misinterpreted and misused to suit our needs ever since. In my experience, Hell came in the form of a man named José de Trévi, a Belgian tenor who sang with the National Opera of Paris from 1930 to 1943. Tenors at that time were regarded as “princes among singers,” and de Trévi was a rare breed of tenor, one who could sing outside a tenor’s typical vocal range. Because of his talent, he made a career singing the most coveted lead roles in the most prestigious theaters all over Europe, specializing in some of Wagner’s most famous operas: Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser, all four epics of the Ring Cycle. Over the course of his career, he sang in over three hundred performances throughout France, and was hailed repeatedly by critics for his singing, his acting, and his dashingly good looks.

de Trevi letterExcerpt of letter from José de Trévi to his wife, Elsa

All letter excerpts are from the author’s personal collection.

I first encountered de Trévi when I purchased a couple of his letters at a Parisian flea market in August, 2014. The letters were correspondences between him and a woman named Elsa—who I learned through the letters was de Trévi’s wife. I was captivated by the outpourings of “my dear beloved” and “my adored love” that de Trévi showers on Elsa. He tells her how much he misses her and their young son, Billy. He writes that he hopes he will see an end to their miseries soon, that he wants only to be with his little family. “But, my beloved,” he writes in one letter, “I am obligated to stay here, obligated by necessity, by money—that accursed metal that prevents you from doing many things, and prevents me from seeing those that I love!”

Elsa and Edouard de Trevi photoElsa and Billy 

His letters offered small glimpses into the personal life of a man who, in the 1930s and early 1940s, was a pretty big deal. But aside from a couple of short biographical articles about his career and a few brief mentions in out-of-print books about the opera, I could find nothing else about de Trévi. It seemed that he was quickly disappearing from recorded history. So I kindly took it upon myself to track him down and tell his story.

At first, it was all fun and games—deciphering his handwriting, translating his letters from French to English, digging into archives to read reviews of his performances. I fancied myself a kind of private detective, and everything de Trévi wrote about the opera, the people he spent time with, the way he spent his days, even his tone and the expressions he used were clues into who he was. But de Trévi’s life still remained largely a mystery. I could find nothing about who Elsa was, why de Trévi left the opera, or even how he died. I followed every lead and hit hundreds of dead ends and gave up on the project altogether more than once. And then, after a time, I’d feel the nag of unanswered questions, and I’d return to the books, the operas, the letters, and let de Trévi lure me back into the lonely hole of biographical research.

de Trevi letter fragment_2

If you are wondering if these road blocks I’ve encountered aren’t due to my amateur status as a biographical researcher, I’ll admit I’ve wondered the same thing. So I interviewed the much more seasoned biographer, Deborah Baker, who has written three critically acclaimed biographies on vastly different subjects. Her first book In Extremis was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography about the life of the writer Laura Riding, an obscure and enigmatic poet who was one of the most influential figures in British-American literary history before she renounced poetry and spent the last fifty years of her life as a recluse in the swamps of Florida. Baker’s second book, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, traces Allen Ginsberg, a poet and leading figure of post-WWII counterculture, on his spiritual odyssey in India in the 1960s. Baker’s third book, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, was a finalist for the National Book Award and my introduction to her biographical chops.

The Convert is about the life of a woman named Maryam Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus into a secular Jewish family outside New York City in 1934. In her teenage years, she converted to Islam, and in 1962 she moved to Pakistan to actively live her faith under the guardianship of a man named Abdul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi was an influential leader in the mid-century Islamist revival and the father of its political movement. While living in Pakistan, Maryam began publishing essays on the evils of Western culture and the righteousness of Islam, and quickly became an active player in the growing divide between Islam and the West.

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Baker’s interest in Maryam, like mine, began with letters, a set of twenty-four that she found in the archives of the New York Public Library. And like me, she quickly became obsessed and spent the next several years reading and analyzing Maryam’s letters, her diaries, and her published essays to understand why she converted and how Islam served her spiritually. What Baker uncovered was a life fraught with peculiar events, strange circumstances, and ever-straining relationships with those who took Maryam in. Almost immediately after her arrival, Mawdudi began to pressure her to marry, though Maryam showed little interest in anything but her work. A year after her move, Mawdudi had her committed to an insane asylum, where she spent several months before being released into the guardianship of Mawdudi’s friend and political colleague, Mohammad Yusef Khan. Within days, Khan married Maryam without Mawdudi’s permission, and their relationship grew further strained. Eventually, Baker traveled to Pakistan to meet Maryam and discovered not the idealistic and hopeful woman of her letters, but a lonely old woman whose dreams of Islam did not seem to match her lived reality.

The book is an intersection between Maryam’s story and Baker’s tale of discovery. It weaves back and forth between Maryam’s letters and the events in her life and Baker’s research and reflections on what she has found. Reading Baker’s finished work on Maryam Jameelah was like looking at a perfect example of what I wanted my story of de Trévi to be. It combines mystery and adventure, is insightful and reflective, and follows Maryam’s life from her troubled childhood, to her awkward teenaged years, to her conversion to Islam. It details her life in Pakistan, probes into why she is committed to the insane asylum, teases out the truth about the circumstances surrounding Maryam’s marriage to Khan, all while exploring some of Baker’s own burning questions about cultural perspectives, the meaning of faith, and the seemingly irreconcilable tensions between Islam and the West.

But, misery certainly loves company, and so I was thrilled to learn that Maryam, as a research subject, was no less hell-inducing for Baker than de Trévi has been for me. In both the book and an interview I conducted with Baker about her research, I discovered just how frustrating biographical research is. It is not all fact-finding and mystery-solving. First of all, it involves a ton of tedious background research, road blocks, and dead-end leads. Second of all, you have to work for the truth. And finally, you spend years of your life researching and analyzing your subjects only to find that their lives are nonlinear, chaotic messes that you have to put into some semblance of a narrative.

Of course, if I had read the epigraph in the opening of Baker’s book, I might have avoided the frustrations altogether by never choosing to engage with de Trévi in the first place. The epigraph reads: “Whoever undertakes to write biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery….Truth is not accessible. —Sigmund Freud.” But I skipped it or at least didn’t pay much attention to what Freud had to say, and so I’ll share with you now three hard-learned insights into what makes other people so hellish to research and write about.

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1. Other people play hard to get.

One of the first things that drew me to de Trévi was his obscurity. There were a few biographical articles written about him, but they were just brief overviews of his career path and the major roles he played. The letters gave me some details of his personal life not present in the biographical articles about him, such as the name of his wife and the fact that he had a son, but there were whole pieces of his life that remained opaque, and I was excited to be the one to unearth the mysteries. But obscurity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes for a more interesting subject, but on the other hand, the lack of information is an obvious roadblock to research.

de Trevi letter fragment_5

In researching de Trévi, I was particularly interested in why his career with the opera ended in 1943. There was plenty of evidence in his letters to show that at least through 1942, he was demanding more roles and new contracts, and that he was trying to continue singing until at least as late as 1955. So had he left willingly, or was he forced out? Had his voice begun to fade, or had he gotten too expensive, or perhaps too demanding, to keep on the cast? One article said he was let go for refusing to sing in German, but I couldn’t verify this claim, and so I added this possibility to the list of questions the end of his career posed.

Unfortunately, if your subject hasn’t given you the answer himself, a simple Google search probably isn’t going to yield an answer either. Furthermore, finding the answer to a question usually doesn’t mean finding the answer directly. When I began researching de Trévi’s career, I thought that I was looking for a letter or contract or newspaper article that would tell me exactly what had happened, but of course, there was nothing of the sort. But answers are usually buried in clues, and finding them means researching around the question itself, asking new questions and speculating about possible outcomes. And this means doing an absurd amount of background research so you know what questions to ask of your question.

If this seems obvious to you, then you are probably someone who pays attention to epigraphs. I, on the other hand, as someone who likes to just dive right in, thought that because I was writing about a particular person and not a history of the French Opera, a general understanding of the culture and time would suffice. I quickly learned that without being nearly an expert on pre-WWII Paris and the French Opera—or at least consulting with one—I wouldn’t know how to put together the clues given to me in the letters.

I looked to Baker’s book to see the kind of research she had to do in order to write the story. In all, she cites forty unique sources and sixty-eight unique citations, excluding the letters themselves. But she told me in our interview that, even before she began pursuing the answers to specific questions about Maryam, she read hundreds of books on Pakistan and political Islam, India, anti-colonialism, and general history of the 40s, 50s, and 60s in the Middle East and America. She also read English translations and analyses of the Qur’an, scholarly works on Islam and the modern world from both Islamic and Western perspectives, and any available biographical information about the people Maryam knew, most extensively Mawdudi. By immersing herself in Maryam’s world and her immediate environment, Baker was better positioned to answer questions raised by Maryam’s strange life.

Deborah Baker

One of these questions that the book tries to answer is why Maryam was sent to the insane asylum. In a letter home to her parents, Maryam writes that Mawdudi sent her to the asylum for various “transgressions” she had committed against him, but she does not go into detail about the nature of those transgressions. She also expresses fear of Mawdudi’s politically driven intentions, leaving Baker to wonder about the circumstances around the incident.

One of the great things about Baker’s book is that we can actually follow her train of thought as she investigates a particular question. In order to understand why Maryam was committed, she turns first to Maryam’s character, asking herself what she already knows about Maryam: she is outspoken, idealistic, and faithful, and though she rejects the West, is still of the West. She can then ask herself what the transgressions might have been: an argument with Mawdudi about a tenet of the Qur’an? Maryam’s refusal to marry anyone Mawdudi suggested? Or could they have been related to some cultural misunderstanding on Maryam’s part? Baker also asks questions of Mawdudi’s character: What were the nature of his religious beliefs? How did he feel about Maryam? What was his involvement in politics? Each of these questions gives way to new, broader questions: How does Islam view unmarried, working women like Maryam? How does it view mental illness? What was the political atmosphere at the time?

Every avenue of research that Baker pursues requires a constant interplay between Maryam’s character, Mawdudi’s character, the events in Maryam’s life, the social and cultural factors at play, and the larger sociohistorical backdrop in which the incident took place. And every possible answer gives way to new questions, new speculations, and asks Baker to reassess what she already knows. Answering the question, then, is not always a matter of finding the answer, but of eliminating possibilities and inferring an answer based on what you know about the person, her immediate environment, and her place in history. In the end, Baker concludes that Maryam suffered from some kind of mental illness, but that she was also a victim of the cultural divide between the Middle East and the West.

Sometimes, though, even your best efforts to answer a question yield nothing but dead ends. Where this is the case, Baker suggested “hanging your hat on something else.” In other words, don’t get too attached to a particular fact you hope to uncover about your subject’s life. Rather, allow your research to make way for something else—another dramatic moment or a new revelation about your subject’s character—that will hold your story up.

I have not yet found an answer to why de Trévi left the opera, and perhaps I never will. While I thought that this would be the scandal around which the rest of my story revolved, I’ve had to let it go for now and pursue answers to other questions. But there is also space in the story for unanswered questions. Toward the end of The Convert, Baker asks: “How well did Maryam’s pronouncements on the true Islamic way of life serve her as a wife and mother? How well did her frail spirit withstand a life defined not by abstract notions but by whooping cough, typhoid, malaria? Had she achieved something noteworthy, or had she squandered her life on a dream? If the story didn’t end happily, how did it end?” (Baker, 211). She never finds answers to these questions, but by acknowledging them, she reveals something about the mystery and complexity of Maryam’s character, and of life itself.

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2. Other people are liars.

If unanswered questions and dead ends are sound reasons not to engage in biographical research, then the ability to go through their personal letters and diaries is a rather tempting reason to engage. In fact, I’ll admit, my first interest in de Trévi was born of sheer nosiness. I pored greedily through his letters hoping to find some mention of an affair or confession of a crime or exposé of a deep, dark family secret. But I soon learned that even in personal letters, people are not so forthright as you’d hope them to be. You really have to work for the gossip.

de Trevi letter fragment_3

de Trevi letter fragment_4

For example, in one letter to Elsa, de Trévi writes, “As you know, it is necessary that the affair of M.C. gets definitively settled.” In another letter, he writes, “I see more and more that nothing has been done about M.C.” But he’s never told me who M.C. is, and I’m left feeling like an outsider to an inside joke, or even worse, an outsider to what I am convinced was the juiciest secret between them.

Not only does de Trévi leave out information, but also he makes conflicting claims about his intentions and desires. Remember when he told Elsa how much he longed to be with her but had to stay in the opera for money reasons? Well, in another letter that same year, 1937, he writes to Elsa that he had a busy upcoming winter season at the opera and promised that this would be his last season, the end of their miseries. But in letters that I discovered in an archive, written around the same time by de Trévi to the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, de Trévi shows no sign of wanting to leave the opera at all. In fact, right up through the last letter of the collection dated in 1942, five years after he tells Elsa he is going to leave the opera, de Trévi demands to sing more roles, claiming that he is the Wagnerian tenor of the Paris Opera. Reading these letters, I couldn’t help but feel that de Trévi had misled Elsa and me, that in fact he never wanted to leave the opera, that he was an artist first and a father second.

Letters and other personal documents are full of missing or misinformation like this. Some amount of missing information is to be expected, of course, because like everyday conversations, the person at the receiving end of the letter already knows what is being referenced, and as a researcher, you are eavesdropping halfway through. But in many cases, the writer is intentionally vague or misleading in order to deceive the recipient, or perhaps keep a secret between them from a third, unintended reader, such as a nosy but well-intentioned researcher like myself.

Even the most intimate letters, where we hope to find honest confessions, and diaries, where we expect a writer to really open up, have an implicit audience and therefore, the writer will twist his thoughts, feelings, and accounts of events ever-so-slightly—or perhaps drastically—in the interest of presenting a positive public view of himself. The person on the page, then, is a kind of invented persona. But where the writer slips up and we can spot a misstatement or a lie, we see glimpses of the real person behind the façade.

Spotting a lie can be as simple as recognizing an inconsistency with a known fact. Maryam’s earliest letters comprise a memoir published in 1989 called Quest for the Truth: Memoirs of a Childhood and Youth in America, 1945-1962: The Story of One Western Convert. In these letters, Maryam describes being bullied at school, at summer camp, and generally feeling estranged from her own family. She details her questions about her Jewish faith and growing fascination with Arabic history and culture that gradually turns to a sympathetic understanding of them, to her parents’ disapproval. In letters written after her move to Pakistan, Maryam describes finally feeling a sense of purpose, of meaning, and of home among her Islamic brothers and sisters in Pakistan (Baker, 18). Through these personal pieces of writing, Baker sees Margaret Marcus evolve from a troubled misfit, to a soul-searching sympathizer with the Arabic plight, and finally, to Maryam Jameelah, devout Muslim and champion of Islam.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-5-20-33-pmLeft: Young Margaret Marcus, Right: Maryam Jameelah

But Maryam was also a liar. Aside from the memoir’s too-long title with one too many colons, it had a few issues. First of all, Maryam incorrectly dates one letter November 31, 1949. Secondly, she refers in the letter to a speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at Maryam’s high school the previous evening, which, Baker discovered in a newspaper article about the event, actually wasn’t delivered until the following February, 1950. It seemed that Maryam had forgotten to fact check a few things, but luckily for us, Baker hadn’t. She determines that the letters were inauthentic, that they had been fabricated as a kind of backstory by Maryam while she was living in Pakistan.

We can also spot lies by being aware of conflicting accounts and statements, either within the writer’s own writing, or between the writer’s accounts and the accounts of another person. In letters she wrote home to her parents, Maryam describes her life with Khan, “I am now home with my Khan Sahib, my co-wife Shafiqa, her children and aging mother, and many relations… After a long search, I have found my place and I will never exchange it for any other. You no longer have to worry about me. I believe I’m going to be very happy now” (Baker, 159). But this fairy-tale ending to Maryam’s strange life began to show cracks after Mawdudi’s son, Haider Farooq told a different version of the story, one that reveals Maryam to be an aggressive, mentally unstable woman who essentially tricks Khan into marrying her. Of course, Farooq might have been lying as well. But Maryam had already lost a little credibility, and even in her own writing Maryam shows a lack of interest and, in fact, an aversion to marriage. Baker wondered if this sentiment was sincere. She asks in the book, “For whose benefit…had [Maryam] narrated her happy ending?…Had she written this to allay her parents’ fears about her welfare or to establish her triumph? Was it meant as a piece of entertainment or of propaganda?” (Baker, 191).

A third way lies are revealed to us is through inconsistencies in the writing itself. When we read letters, we get accustomed to the tone, style, and ticks of the writer, and sudden changes in these established patterns can alert us to some kind of lie. In the case of the fabricated letters, Baker was further tipped off by the fact that while in her other letters, Maryam always referenced family news, these letters were missing any reference whatsoever. Baker notices a similar inconsistency in the letter in which Maryam explains that she has been sent to the insane asylum. Whereas Maryam tends to be wordy and detailed about everything else in her letters, in this instance, she is reserved, almost flippant about the incident. Baker suggests that there is something she doesn’t want to admit to her parents or even, perhaps, to herself.

What, then, do we make of all the lies? While they can be frustrating and require more outside research, they also reveal more about our subjects than the content of the letters themselves. Truth here isn’t just about the accuracy of stated events and feelings, but about the implications of the writer’s lies and secrets. What motivates them to keep secrets, to misstate things, to invent other selves? How do they view themselves? What agendas, desires, denials are revealed about the subject through their lies? In considering Maryam’s fabricated letters, Baker writes:

Maryam had composed these letters as missives to posterity, a Cinderella backstory plotted to foreshadow how her embrace of Islam had rescued her from America. The evils of Western civilization amounted to no more than a stage drop for her private travails. It was as if [Margaret] never ceased mining the material of her own life to establish certain proof that Islam was the answer to all the riddles it posed. (Baker, 208)

Baker doesn’t believe that Maryam necessarily made up the stories about her childhood, though she does disregard their content. But the fabrication of letters reveals something deeper about Maryam: her desperate desire to prove that Islam had been the solution to all of her problems and, more generally, the problems with Western culture. Furthermore, the positive spin Maryam places on her life in Pakistan tells a much bleaker story than if she had admitted that things weren’t going so well right up front and begs the question to what extent she wanted to believe, or did believe, her version of the story.

With personal documents, we are not dealing with facts, but rather secrets, personas, and lies, and it is up to us to interpret them, distinguish fact from fiction, and determine what the lies are saying about our subject. The real truth about our subjects often lies not in what is credible, but in what is false. Where the views diverge from reality or statements differ from facts, we see our subject ripped wide open, their imaginations revealed, and their deepest desires exposed.

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3. Other people’s lives are messy.

When I started researching de Trévi, I was under the delusion that with enough persistence, I could uncover his entire story from birth to death, unearth all of his secrets, and discover some universal truth about opera singers or history or life. For nearly two years now, I’ve pursued every lead, followed every avenue of research, and unearthed a smorgasbord of facts and details and speculations about de Trévi. It is easy to get caught up in secrets and lies, and tempting to continue the research until we’ve answered every question. But sooner or later, we have to stop researching and start telling the story.

de Trevi portrait and signatureJosé de Trévi: photo and signature

Lives do not unfold in a narrative fashion like we’d hope, and as researchers, it is up to us to make sense of what we have, to connect the dots and create some order out of all the chaos. So after we’ve uncovered everything we can about our subject, what do we actually have? First of all, we have a general chronology of the events in the subject’s life, a list of events pulled from letters and interviews and historical accounts of the person. De Trévi’s major life events included his first performance with the French Opera, his marriage, the birth of his son, and the end of his opera career. From such details as this, we can identify particular dramatic moments, conflicts, and places that we can turn into scenes and settings. With some imagination, for example, I can write the scene where he first steps onto the stage or a scene in which he pens a letter to Elsa from his room at the Hotel d’Iéna. We also have a general historical chronology in which these events took place, in this case, just before and during WWII in Paris. We can see where the events in the person’s life might have intersected with larger events. For example, in German-occupied Paris in the early 1940s, the German soldiers made up the majority of theater audiences throughout Paris, and de Trévi would likely have sung for them on many occasions. These historical events give us a more believable and interesting backdrop and shed light on the lives of our biographical subjects. Finally, we have a sense of character, inferred from both the truths and the lies we discover in their writing, from what others have said about them, and from placing them in their sociohistorical surroundings. Sounds like all the makings of a pretty compelling narrative, if you ask me.

How then do we create order out of the chaos? Baker suggested defining the scope of the narrative. A biography does not need to give equal weight to, or even to include, every moment of a subject’s life. Defining the scope means, first of all, determining the chronological boundaries of the narrative. This is determined by both what information is available to us, as well as where we think the most interesting and dramatic moments are. In Baker’s book, for example, she focuses Maryam’s story primarily on the part of her life covered by the letters, from her decision to move to Pakistan, to her arrival, to the insane asylum and finally, to her marriage to Khan. She does some backstory about Maryam’s childhood, but covers her entire adult life in Pakistan after her marriage, including her life as a mother, in less than a chapter of the book.

Defining the scope also means determining the larger focus of the story itself. What themes can we tease out of our subject’s life, and what larger questions does their life answer? Baker asked me to consider my own story about de Trévi. Is it a love story? A war story? A 1930s Paris story? These things are not mutually exclusive, but defining the scope of the narrative can help us see connections between events in the subject’s life, and between the subject’s life and historical events, and we can ask how this particular life reflects life in a wider sense and what questions it answers for us. In The Convert, Baker asks What is the nature of the divide between Islam and the West? Maryam’s story, then, encompasses the larger cultural, historical, and metaphysical issues raised by this question. But by encompassing certain themes, we necessarily exclude other themes and issues, which helps to focus and direct the story and the research.

Creating order is also a matter of structure. Though we are attempting to recreate a life, we do not need to put that life into chronological order. The Convert is structured, not according to the unfolding of events in Maryam’s life, but rather according to Baker’s gradual discovery of Maryam’s life. The book begins with what is arguably the most pivotal moment in Maryam’s life, her move to Pakistan, and then follows Baker’s line of questioning as she investigates Maryam’s life and tries to answer the root of the disconnect between Islam and the West. The story jumps back and forth through time, as each question that arises for Baker necessitates new investigations into Maryam’s past and inspires new reflection in Baker’s present. This structure in turn teases out the peculiarity of certain events, heightens the mystery, and allows the questions themselves to create tension and drama within a larger story.

Finally, creating order is a matter of self-reflection, about answering why we chose this particular subject in the first place. For Baker, Maryam Jameelah’s search for faith and truth mirror her own and help her confront her own biases and assumptions about the world in which she lives. At first, I didn’t think my de Trévi project was anything more than a completely selfless attempt to recreate another person’s life. But one residency, when I was excitedly telling a faculty member about the letters I’d found and my research of de Trévi, she stopped me mid-gush and said, “You love him, don’t you?” The question took me by surprise, but she was absolutely right. As much as I hate de Trévi for coming into my life and sending me on an endless goose chase to discover his, I love him, because he tells me something about myself and about the fragility and purpose of human life. De Trévi ends one of his letters, “Goodbye my dear, adored Elsa. You are my whole life and my reason for being on this earth.” In some ways, I think that de Trévi has become my reason for being, or in the very least, my reason for writing. At some point, the biography itself turns back on the biographer, and understanding what our subjects say about us can help us understand what we are trying to say about our subjects.

So researching and writing biography isn’t all bad. Despite the frustrations, the road blocks, the chaos, in the end, it is an act of self-discovery, of love, and a little bit of narcissism. It is also an act of creation. If Hell is (researching) other people, then Paradise is bringing them back to life, and it stands to reason that as researchers and writers, we are gods: we listen to their lies, clean up their messes, and try to make something beautiful out of them.

Works Cited

Baker, Deborah. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. Graywolf Press: New York, 2011. Print.

De Trévi, José. Letters to Elisabeth de Trévi. Trans. Mary Heitkamp. Personal Collection.

—Mary Brindley

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mary-brindley

Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born, Boston-based copywriter currently living in London. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction and is excited to make her publishing debut on Numéro Cinq.

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Nov 012016
 

torino2-018-beterAn Apology for Meaning, Artist’s Book, Genese  Grill

 http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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My real delight is in the fruit, in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons grow. —Goethe, Italian Journey

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.  —Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

 

In Torino, Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis, goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas, the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming, Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing of life, love, pleasure, and appetite. At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert, if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material world which surrounds us.

isis-and-osirisPage from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Meaning is not something that we need to artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence. We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of temperatures. And if all else fails, this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them. And what resonates will be made manifest in real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today: humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real. Instead, we work with what there is, and endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that we make with our hands, out of paper, pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly forgotten. And yet, their fleeting presence is of the utmost importance.

I am sitting on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor; clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese, sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to be like this here and some other way somewhere else?

As Goethe noted in his famous Italian Journey, an experience of difference both enunciates one’s individuated self and dissolves it. Visiting another world, you imagine that you might have been, could have been, still might be, sort of someone else, leading a different life in a different country, in a different language, with a different family, lover, children, vocation. Your certainties, the things you took for granted, are called into question. You would be more comfortable not examining them, not questioning: why do you and your fellows do what you do? Are these differences a result of customs, habits, social constructions, error, accident, nature? Are they the result of our upbringing, something atavistic in our blood, or determined by the atmosphere, the landscape, or the history that surrounds us? The external differences—are they petty? Do they alter from the outside who we are inside? Or are they representative of who we are, from the inside out? Ask a novelist or a method actor how much each gesture, each phrase, each seemingly minor choice reveals about identity. The way we eat, how much beauty we need, or how much labor, leisure, love, rigor, sleep, poetry, space, air, skyline, horizon, practicality, recklessness.

And now I am experiencing the differences, the strangeness here in Torino, among people for whom all of this is natural, normal. I enjoy this sense of difference, to a point, as most of us do. We seek it out, we are sometimes sick to death of our own lives and want to gaze at, play at others’ lives; but only for a spell. It can be tiring; one feels alien; sometimes wants to cry out of frustration because everything is so confusing and the simplest things seem impossible; and the people look at you like you are an idiot and you are in a way. You are an adult who does not know things that a child knows.

I get lost often. Sometimes a piazza will have four different entryways with a statue in the middle. Who can remember which way one entered or egressed from? Since I am not usually in a hurry, I wonder why this should matter to me. Maybe because we want always to seem like we know where we are going and as if we already have everything we want. And this has something to do with desire and the desire for love, which is sometimes shameful. As a stranger one wants something. Is looking for something. Has left home to find something that one does not already have. Desire is the need to become one with what is foreign, to take it into oneself and to be embraced by it as well. As Ann Carson tells us in Eros the Bittersweet, we long to be one with the other, but when we have assimilated what was once strange, it is no longer the other and no longer serves its purpose. Knowledge comes only at the cost of desire fulfilled; we can only seek out more and more things, people, places, books, mysteries we do not yet know, have not yet seen or solved or read so that we may experience that supreme thrill of coming to know again and again. We crave difference, but we also cannot keep from looking for likenesses. We seek both everywhere. And the new experiences we have are continually threaded back into what we already know.

NietzscheNietzsche ca. 1875

In the Egizio Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had the same instinct for symmetry as ours; for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame; for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space; for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonates with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them. Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more thorough comprehension of these artifacts, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension. What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total homogeneity.

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand. A good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another, struggling to approximate a shared vision (as in the erotic desire to become one with the unknown). Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and also to conceal our meanings from each other. It is a dance. Sometimes clumsy, but sometimes surprisingly beautiful. The differences between language, as Steiner suggests, may be a result of a human need to differentiate one group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality. There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses; and to delineate differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, there are those who insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond external, physical differences). On the other hand, these same people tend to insist that it is impossible to understand the other; that there are no universals; that there is no shared sense of value; and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other at all, since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be more deceptive than descriptive. Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the importance of the physical world; on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it; between the human brain and its sensory apparatus; and, finally, between one human brain and another. In reality, things and people are self-similar and they deviate from sameness; but even the deviations do not prohibit some approximation of understanding.

Those who deny difference and simultaneously insist on incommensurability are trying to do two contradictory things at once: 1. to strip away differences that might cause conflict or justify hierarchies or discriminations, resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity, and, 2. still paradoxically denying that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, difference) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no more resentment or hate against the “other”—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness. On the one hand, we are ignoring the inevitable consequences of our neutralizations, neglecting to weigh how much difference makes life rich and strange and fascinating. And, on the other hand, by critiquing conceptualization, deconstructing symbolic archetypes, and undermining the significance of language, we are denying the natural affirmative instinct for finding likenesses and correspondences.

On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not “really” present may be called “pareidolia,” most often ridiculed as a psychosis that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods, endeavoring to prove through argument and scientific study that the piece of fabric housed in a crypt in Torino once was wrapped around no one other than Jesus Christ. The Shroud Museum has rooms filled with “evidence” of why we should believe the shroud belonged to Him: there are blood stains from where the crown of thorns would have been; stains in the shape of wounds suffered when he was tortured, an exemplar of the instrument with which he would have been scourged. The fact that there is just one wound mark where his feet would have been is explained by arguing that both feet were punctured, one atop the other, with but one nail. There is no mention in the museum of the carbon dating done on the fabric, which dated it to a time much later than Jesus’s supposed death; but there is an example of the loom upon which the cloth might have been woven and an example of a crown of thorns, which is arched like a dome and not open like a wreath. Image after image is presented to convince the skeptic that the shroud belonged to Jesus. At first it is hard to even see the shapes that would suggest any face or any body, but, as if one were gazing at one of those magical illusion pictures, if one looks long enough, the desired shapes begin to come into focus—and fade just as quickly into indistinguishable marks again. Desired shapes: the shapes one wants to see.

torino4-019Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Fresh lovers often insist that they are “exactly alike,” noting that they both amazingly like chocolate or were born on a Friday as signs that they are made for each other. And even someone as wise and experienced as myself may choose to be deluded into reading into signs that may not be there at all, thinking that the intern at the artists’ residency is making eyes at me, when really he probably just looks at everyone like that. He had told me tales of rituals in his home town where someone would dress up as Dionysus in animal skins and horns, a bag of blood hidden under the pelts, and someone else would chase after him and “kill” him, spilling blood all over the streets. But what did that mean?

Of course, all of our seeing is a process of selecting out that to some extent overlooks the fact that reality is a mass of non-delineated color and light, a mass of shifting molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and entities. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who belongs with whom are comprehensive contextualizations or merely constructed biases, wishful thinking, or limitations. We can say the same thing about words and the concepts that they form—that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality, that they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names—qualities that might render these things more fitting to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept a form of psychosis, hallucination, wishful thinking, pareidolia?

When we note a pattern, say, of bird or insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the desired arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to conclude that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it? Of course, this is essentially the scientific method, but we use it indiscriminately every day, without the necessary “controls” to make our experiments scientifically viable. And science itself is subject to the same kind of criticism: even if its trials are well-documented and avail themselves of responsible criteria for investigation, the scientists have, as we well know, already decided to ask some questions over others, thereby determining what kinds of answers might be found.

But here is the crux: we do all this because we want, we need to draw meaning. And we draw meaning most readily from things that repeat or seem to repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exceptional random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that (at least on a molecular level) everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation. Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize (or is it imagine) shapes, distances, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces responded to expressions, inducing them to smile, and make eye contact, so that they were cared for, and thus survived. This is rather suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning-making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would simply not survive as either individuals or cultures. Autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival. And many say that we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it may sometimes be inaccurate, although it may sometimes look like psychosis or pareidolia, it is far better to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (always acknowledging that they can change and rearrange) than to exist always in an undifferentiated sea of colors, sounds, and non-shapes, unable to communicate.

But after visiting the Shroud Museum in Torino (the actual cloth is carefully hidden inside its box, only to be taken out on rare jubilee days), I do not believe that the shroud of Turin belonged to Jesus. The form of the body suggested by it is simply not sinuous and beautiful enough to satisfy our mythic desire for him. The image that the experts draw from the bloodstains is of a bulky square-shouldered man, not at all the sweet beloved of the visionary mystics as depicted in paintings over centuries. Just as the scientists who discovered the shape of the DNA molecule knew that they had finally found it because the double helix was the most beautiful configuration, so we can see that the shroud did not belong to the son of God because of the gracelessness of its traces.

256px-full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_turinFull length negatives of the Shroud of Turin

There has to be a difference. Difference is thrilling, is frisson, is friction. If there were no difference, no distinction, no discrimination, no delineation, we would see nothing. Everything would be one blended morass, one moving, shifting mélange of everythingness. No shadows, no lights, no textures, no patterns or deviations. So we like to go away, discover new things, challenge ourselves, compare and contrast the familiar against the strange in order to understand, again, our expanded selves. And yet we find ourselves in a constant emotional oscillation, a cycle swinging between comfort, tedium, restlessness, curiosity, desire, risk-taking, danger, exposure, discomfort, exhaustion, home-sickness, comfort, tedium…ad infinitum.

Thus we come to the necessity of maintaining some borders at a basic level, personally, and then globally. We need secrets, mysteries in order to remain where we are, among our fellows in our homes, in our romantic relationships; or else it is as if we were running rampant around the neighborhood, around the world, continually searching for newness, making so many things the same as we unite with them, making everything homogeneous and known all too quickly. A promiscuous lover is someone who has not learned how to mine the depths of himself and his beloved; is quickly bored; doesn’t have enough inner resources to discern the depths hidden in his lover; thus he moves on quickly in order to stimulate his poor imagination. Curiosity, desire, conquest of new ideas and intellectual territory, all have their value: but they should not be gluttonous. If we are to feast, let us leave time for regeneration of resources; let us make sure we properly savor what we are sacrificing and devouring. The communion of the self with the other cannot be celebrated so swiftly that all differences are leveled out, sanded away, consumed by the Moloch of desire for newness. This touches on the problem and pleasure of materiality. The basic limitation of resources; that they are not infinite. You can melt down idols to make new ones, but then the old idols no longer exist. How can we contrive to keep the old ones and erect new ones, too? Of love we can barely speak in this regard: the old lovers are replaced by new ones, yet they remain, one hopes, still within us, and we within them, in traces, some very potent, as we continue to consume and appropriate and expand, becoming new ourselves and shedding strangeness as we go, exploring our anti-selves, the characteristics we harbor that are anathema to our primary identities and the identities of our native lands and cultures.

After writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, and serving many years as advisor to the Duke of Weimar, Carl August, Goethe “stole” away at three in the morning, from his friends, his duties, and his romantic (but non-sensuous) relationship with Charlotte von Stein, to sojourn in Italy for two years. There he found himself in contrast to the differences he experienced, searched out the ancient remains of classical Rome, learned about architecture at the foot of buildings designed by Palladio, learned to see by looking at Italian paintings, developed his concept of the universal Ur-Pflanze from which all plants metamorphose (Alles ist Blatt), and enjoyed, above all, the weather and the fruit. His wonderful account of his adventures includes detailed descriptions of the geology, flora, and fauna of the countries he passed through), along with evaluations of artifacts, architecture, painting, and peoples (he burdened down his pack with rock specimens as well as heavy books). Referring to the Greek god, who could not be conquered in wrestling matches as long as he remained in contact with his mother, Gaia, Goethe writes, “I see myself as Antaeus, who always feels newly strengthened, the more forcefully he is brough into contact with his mother, the earth”.

The Germans have always harbored a romantic longing for the physicality of Italy, “the land where the lemons bloom,” as Goethe writes, as mythic antithesis of everything Germanic (stoical, cold, disciplined, abstract). Nietzsche sojourned to Torino, a Dionysus on the River Po, in conscious ex-patriot spirit. What meanings did he find there, that philosopher with a hammer who famously denied the existence of “Das Ding an sich,” and called on us to bravely consider the abysmal probability that there is no meaning or purpose to life whatsoever? He certainly meant that there was no predetermined meaning or God-given purpose, no purpose ordained by a God. But he did not mean to repudiate the ways in which the world can be meaningful (affirmed, celebrated, enjoyed). For his rejection of the “thing in itself” was decidedly not a transcendental call to celebrate merely the disembodied life of the alienated mind out of touch with the physical world (a thing in itself, surely, despite Berkeley’s skepticism, and despite the inability to know it absolutely or objectively beyond phenomena). Here in Torino, this city so beloved by Nietzsche, while I am struggling with the question of meaning, I feel compelled to come to terms with him on this question. We are in agreement on the central importance of the material sensuous goodness of the world and on a deep suspicion of any ideologies which aim to affirm something in contradiction to the facts of this real.

goethe_stieler_1828Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.  (Public domain)

Ecce Homo, which he wrote while in this city, begins with a serious discussion of the vital importance of digestion, weather, and music, all experienced by Nietzsche (and clearly by Goethe as well) as fundamental physical requirements for living the right life. The theological-metaphysical questions are deemed unimportant at best, treacherous deviations at worst.   Thoreau, whose first chapter in Walden is called “Economy,” planted beanstalks as the most efficacious conduits to a realm where one might best consider “higher laws”. It makes one wonder what would have happened to Thoreau had he visited Italy (he traveled a great deal, he noted, in Concord). Would he have abandoned his dietary restrictions against drinking coffee? Might he have succumbed to the animal spirits and fallen in love? Margaret Fuller, who translated that comprehensive man of spirit and sense, Goethe, complained about the disembodied tendency of her friend Emerson (and Thoreau was even less sensual than his mentor), did travel to Italy and fall in love, gave birth to a probably illegitimate child, and participated in the Italian revolution. If she had not tragically drowned on her return home, she might have infected all of Concord with a new European sensuality! Just imagine. Nietzsche, who admired Emerson greatly, who was just about as abstemious and celibate as Thoreau, still knew how to reason from the hands to the head, as the bard of Concord counseled—and from the stomach too, though, it would have to be a strong one.

Love of Fate meant for Nietzsche a love of life exactly as it is, which seems to suggest a belief in a thing in itself after all…the world in itself, as it is—mediated by our senses, our tastes, our interests, our desires, yes, but not subject to utter transformation of its basic realities: mortality, gravity, pain, beauty, brilliance, energy, stupidity, music, pleasure, illness, cold, sunshine. Darwin explained all of this in his own way. We don’t live in a friendly universe. The world cares not a fig for our personal happiness, though our genes may well fight mightily for their own generation. And the connection to Spinoza, greatly admired by Nietzsche, may be helpful: the world was not made for us humans, and thus should not be judged according to how well it does or does not serve our aims and desires. The world is good in itself. Is god, is divine in itself, whether we are experiencing petty miseries or committing atrocities. The world is beautiful, even without the concept of beauty invented by humans. We are to look at the world from the “perspective of eternity,” which is not a transcendental perspective, but, rather, one which provides an angle beyond our own particular immediate interests. Objectivity? Well, not quite. With Nietzsche we can speak of a perspective from the mountain top, as far away from the flatland as possible, but with a knowledge of the subjective world of taste and senses. Nietzsche writes, in The Twilight of the Idols, “One would have to be situated outside life, and on the other hand to know it as thoroughly as any, as many, as all who have experienced it, to be permitted to touch on the problem of the value of life.” For, if our reflections seem all-too mercurial, shifting, and arbitrary from the perspective of eternity, closer up they are instinctive and healthy tastes, responses to and engagement with the world.

As subjects, creative subjects, we make of this world as it is what we can. We cannot help but make meanings about it. But let these meanings be in metaphoric harmony with the real facts of nature. Let us make and preserve myths which help us to understand, to celebrate and to weep over the true facts of human existence, and its true pleasures and pains. Gilgamesh is struggling with the death of his friend. He searches for a way to be immortal, to conquer death. But when he thinks he has found it, a snake eats the magic herb he has foolishly left on the shore while he swims. Thus, although humans must be mortal, a snake can continually shed its skin. A true myth. The kind of fiction that Nietzsche railed against was of another kind: a false fiction, one that repressed the reality of death, repressed natural instinct and pleasure, repressed sexuality and the will to power, repressed beauty and energies and great health and desire in the interest of a transcendental Idealism offering an afterlife, and some sense of pious righteousness in exchange for all that made life meaningful. The myth of Christianity he would battle with the myth of the beautiful drunken god: Dionysus versus the Crucified One. Thus, he aimed, not to do away with all myths (that, in fact, was Socrates’s great sin, according to Nietzsche), but to celebrate the myths that are in accord with the true facts of life. Steiner quotes a cryptic passage from Nietzsche’s notebooks: “God Affirms; Job Affirms.” And glosses that Nietzsche was referring to his idea of the aesthetic justification of the world. The world of wonder and beauty. Look at what I made, says God to Job. I made the Leviathan. I am an artist. Don’t talk to me about your petty troubles.

And here in Torino, Nietzsche, enjoying a rare respite from his chronic pain, in withdrawal from Wagner, the Wagnerites, the Germans and their obtuse Idealism and Morality, enjoyed the sunshine and the air and the food and the gelato (but not the wine); enjoyed the graciousness of the people; and the lightness of Carmen (Torino was “tutti Carmenizzatto”). The world that Nietzsche celebrated was not so much a world of the future, a world of future higher men, but a revival of Renaissance and Pagan values. Not at all the postmodern insipid relativity of values with its snide rejection of beauty, nobility, genius, aristocratic individualism.

512px-friedrichnietzscheturinNietzsche dedicatory plague in Turin

Meaning has been attacked from two sides: on the one hand by the commercialization and commodification of life, by the simulacrum covering up an abyss of shallowness and the emptiness that is left over after the orgy of sensationalism, as humans become more and more bereft of any real connection to nature, human relationships, history, culture, beauty, pleasure, divinity, sacredness. On the other hand, it has been attacked by the cold lizards of theory, who feel nothing themselves but only touch us with their clammy hands so that we too feel a chill and cannot sense the heat in what naturally should move us. These theorists even dare to claim Nietzsche as their own. Because he questioned the idea of a transcendent meaning, aiming with his iconoclastic hammer at the ideology that denied the real meanings of the world, they use his words as an attack on meaning altogether. Because he called for a transvaluation of values, they use his words as an attack on values altogether, missing his joyous celebration of the values of nobility, of the Renaissance, of ancient Greece, of great art and great men, of genius and beauty and rapture. Indeed, he had a hammer (though sometimes it was a tuning hammer for a piano, not a bludgeon), and there was smashing to be done. He was a great destroyer, who called himself “Dynamite.” But he destroyed only as a preliminary to creation. The epigones took up his hammer and began smashing even the idols Nietzsche himself had venerated. They smashed veneration altogether. And in their adolescent giddiness, in the din of their mob fury against what was once great, in their ressentiment, they did not hear the most important part of his message: the axes must be turned into chisels, to carve new idols, new values, new words, new forms, new metaphors, ones that honor what is vivid and beautiful in life, ones that affirm the instincts and the senses.

In a museum in Torino I saw a painting of Santa Lucia, her bloody eyes on a plate. She was a good pious girl, promised in marriage to a pagan, whose mother was ill. She was called by an angel to devote herself to Christ instead of the Pagan fiancé, and in exchange, her mother would be cured. She willingly did so, refusing to bow down to the Emperor, and giving her dowry to the Church instead of her future husband. For this, some say, her eyes were gouged out. Or else she cut them out herself so as not to be attractive to her husband-to-be. She is lovely and fierce in the paintings, and probably the man they had chosen for her was a brute and not to her taste; and her devotion to Christ healed her mother; but can we not think of a better story for her? Is this really a model worthy of imitatio? So many of these maiden saints, who refused arranged marriages and gave themselves to the disembodied fantasy of the beautiful, scantily-clad Christ instead, were exercising the only power they had, and for this they are admirable. They found, by these religious subterfuges, one way of protecting themselves from drunken brutish masters in the form of husbands, pimps, and fathers. But their virginity was no great prize. Can we not imagine stories for them with better endings? Lovers to their tastes, freedom to choose, to adventure beyond the convent or house-wifely walls? Instead of continuing to venerate the lives of these pious girls, we would do well to imagine new vitae for them, lives lived in rebellion, not against Pagan Emperors and sexuality, but against the control of their bodies and souls by male authority figures, lives lived in full flowering of their sexuality and pleasure-loving instincts, in celebration of female desire. We must make new saints, and also revive old models worthy of veneration from the archives of history, woman and girls who knew light and dark, pleasure and pain, flesh, the devil, and the divine sweetness of the embrace of a beautiful, living beloved body. Poor Santa Lucia. We pity her and regret the loss of her beautiful eyes. And then, in her honor, we go looking for traces of other myths or at least a few fallen figs from some controversial historic feasts, to savor from the safe distance of a relatively tame and unromantic time.

512px-santaluciaPainting of Santa Lucia, Syracuse Italy

I am on my way to Gardone Riviera, on a pilgrimage to visit Il Vittoriale, the monumental house, shrine, and garden of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian novelist, poet, patriot, lover, and aesthete. When I mention him to people here they sometimes seem uncomfortable; because he was wild enough to disregard the Treaty of Versailles and take over the island of Fiume to turn it into an artistic utopia; because of his relationship with Mussolini; because he represents or seems to represent many things that are nowadays in bad odor. To get there I have to take a train to Milan and one to Brescia and then a long bus ride.

It is a misty, cool, warm morning in February, and confusions proliferate: about trains, ticket machines, banks, language, customs. They seem to do everything differently here, but for them that is how it is done. Then I realize that even in my own milieu I am strange. That I am strange, wherever I go. An artist is outside of society, but also very inside it. Inside of life. Observing, but also feeling through and for everyone and everything. After writing that down I wonder if it is arrogant, as if I were suggesting that regular people don’t feel, are not conscious. No, it is not that, but rather that their attention is mostly elsewhere, and ours is so often concentrated on reflection, on the symbolization of everything. Watching gestures and configurations, listening to emphases and choices of words, noticing formal variations and repetitions. As Suzanne Langer notes, to use symbols (rather than just signs) is to talk about the world, not just to denote it, not just to deliver information, but to consider how things are, and even why. And as artists, our lives are consumed by symbols and symbolic interpretations. The entire phenomenal world is to us a sort of symbol-picture of something else. No, not of another world, as Plato would have it; not a bad copy of some perfect original, but actually a symbol-complex of itself.

The phenomenal nature of the physical world means to us. But we don’t make of it what isn’t there, but see in it all that there is to be seen in it. Well, not everything at once—that would be too much, that would be a jumble. But we see many things, one after the other, from different perspectives, in correspondence; we have many ways of seeing meaning in what is. We are curious about how things are made; where they came from; how they were invented; what human need they answered; what history they contain; what natural materials; what natural miracles are evident in their existence; what they tell us about human and animal life, past and present, about desires, fears, curiosities, mistakes, kindnesses and cruelties, despairs and foolish hopes. Thoreau, allegedly an arch anti-materialist, collected and used objects to trace history… as artifacts of material culture, looking, always, for the law and the deviation. Goethe, a naturalist and collector of botanical, geological, and artistic specimens, traced the variety of the plant world back to one original Ur-Pflanze, and then envisioned the entire world of objects and behavior as an allegory for this constant development, this constant Becoming (Werden), from out of the essence of Being (Sein).

All artists mine objects, physical acts, stories, events, speech utterances, places, buildings, man-made and natural, for their significance, for traces of how and what we have dreamt of and done battle for; for their own qualities and also for the way in which they are allegories for other things, feelings, events, experiences; for the way they seem to echo and repeat. When we see repeating patterns we naturally sometimes think we have learned something about life, some tendencies or natural laws…and, despite the doubts shed upon such instinctive correspondence nowadays, often it is true. But it would be foolish to take only one or two experiences and construct a final story about life. The largest, broadest vision would be necessary to oversee all the conflicting narratives before coming to any conclusions. Life is brutal, life is tender. Humans are brave, are craven; are polygamous, monogamous; people of habit, craving change; we like to deviate and to stay close. So, whenever we try to maintain just one thing we discover another side or possibility, but not to the extent that everything cancels everything else out. We may still come to provisional conclusions about the nature of the world, society, our lives, about what works and what does not; in fact we must. But let these not be rigid or polarized, let us not base hasty conclusions solely on either the sum of the good or the sum of the bad experiences. A little hope is healthy, as is a touch of denial, since sometimes things turn out better than one expects, even in the worst of circumstances. As much horror as there is, there is also always good. Neither can be cancelled out by the other. We must see it all. Read it all into what we find before us. Find a way to embrace it all. Amor fati—Love of fate.

I arrived at Gardone Riviera too late in the afternoon for a tour of the house, so began my visit to D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale degli Italiani with a sunset stroll around the “most beautiful garden in Italy”. From my Neo-Classical hotel, with its palm trees, classical columns, and reproductions of Roman sculptures, I walked up the steep winding paths and stairways to the grounds, past little houses perched amid orange trees and covered in vines, until I found the gate and entered D’Annunzio’s strange dream: grottos with idols; walkways beneath portentous archways; a sudden St. Francis of Assisi; a fountain encircled with gorgon heads; a lofty monument to the heroes of Fiume; a giant boat docked on land; columns topped with statuesque nudes. A sign before a sun-dappled little garden made up of rocks, small columns and upright missiles, informs the visitor that this is the most sacred spot of all. The “little lake for dancing” is at the bottom of a steep ravine, reached only by winding down hundreds of small stone steps. The large amphitheater is encircled from behind by tall cedars and the snow-capped Alps, and its stage has a gleaming Lake Garda as its backdrop. I imagined Isadora Duncan, one of D’Annunzio’s many lovers, walking there—as if on the water—in consummate Classical grace.

torino2-015Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

That night I wandered around the out-of-season resort town, looking for somewhere to dine, lighting upon Caffe D’Annunzio itself, one of the only places opened, where three or four locals were crowded around a counter drinking wine. I nursed a negroni on the closed-down patio while wondering what Il Vittoriale means. Why, I wondered, should it make us uncomfortable? D’Annunzio had a sense of the heroic about him that is out of fashion today. A sense of superiority and sacredness, a will to power, a contempt for lowliness, sickliness, vulgarity, cowardice. People may mock D’ Annunzio’s mythologizing, moralistically decrying his frequent bad behavior, I think—or perhaps this is the gin and the absence of a restaurant—, but at least his impulses were signs of life, of appetite. D’Annunzio might well be censured or ridiculed for his celebration of militarism and his association with Mussolini , for his many lovers (whom he adored, but also treated atrociously), for his many dogs and his race cars, for the consciously elaborated mythology of himself as a demi-God, for a combination of wounded pride and delusions of grandeur—except that he was a great writer, and his grand lifestyle enriches our collective imagination.

 

nunes_vais_mario_1856-1932_-_gabriele_dannunzio_sdraiato_mentre_leggeGabriele D’Annunzio Reading by Mario Nunes Vais (1856-1932)

Compared to the lukewarm morality of today, our smug conformity and communal piety, D’ Annunzio’s mythic theatricality exercises a certain attraction. Considering all of this, I found myself laughing out loud at the mad, mad world, strolling on the closed-down boardwalk. I was dwarfed by a 19th century edifice, crowned with a bright yellow Renaissance-style tower with the words GRAND HOTEL emblazoned in golden-tinted mosaic. It was a huge sprawling place where Churchill and Mussolini, and many other mortally-flawed heroes and villains stayed. Like most everything else here, the historic hotel was boarded up until May, and the boardwalk was surreal, empty, but for a lone palm tree swaying on the promenade. In my drunkenness, with the help of a kind stranger, I managed to work the cigarette machine I found on the way back to my hotel, and smoked a rare cigarette—which, in its rareness, got me even higher—and wondered about the difference between aesthetic individualism and fascism. The cigarette, in its naughtiness, helping me to flirt with the decadent charms of immorality.

Aesthetic individualism is associated with culture, beauty, delicate sensibilities, the collection and preservation of fragile artifacts, and an internationalism that revels in the multiplicity of the creative imagination; fascism is nationalistic, collectivist, brutally destructive, anti-intellectual, a danger not only to human beings and their ethical freedom, but also to the beloved precious buildings, artistic and historical artifacts so admired by the aesthetic individualist. So why would they ever, why do they sometimes keep common cause? In the case of D’Annunzio, we have a man of letters whose only real political affiliation was with the Party of Beauty, but who in fact did collaborate with a man who would subsequently become a fascist dictator. But even before Mussolini came to be Il Duce and to be called by D’Annunzio “an evil clown,” their relationship was strained. They came together at the start of World War I, over a shared vision of a new Roman Empire, a romantic ideal that called for the re-annexation of Trieste, Fiume, and other territories that had once belonged to Italy and which, they both agreed, should once again be theirs. D’Annunzio roused his countrymen to enter the War and to defend the French culture under siege, with speeches and street theater, and fought on the front lines. But after the Treaty of Versailles failed to reward the Italians for their sacrifices in the war, he took history into his own hands, and, with a ragtag militia, easily took Fiume back for the Italians, to the cheers of the mostly Italian populace, and tried to found an artistic utopia with a democratic constitution there. Mussolini kept himself scarce and watched from afar as the dream foundered over the course of a little more than a year, only later to seize Fiume from the Austrians himself, this time, much to D’Annunzio’s displeasure, to make it part of a fascist state. The fascists were frequently embarrassed by D’Annunzio’s eccentric sybaritic antics, his poetry and his displays of what they considered “feminine” voluptuousness; his nude sunbathing and worship of art. His association with workers’ collectives agitating for unions and civil rights also complicated matters. When D’Annunzio was not being swayed by the democratic socialists, or being lured into shady dealings by the fascists, he was doing whatever he fancied, collaborating with composers on operas, writing plays for his lovers, writing sumptuous novels and books of poems about his lovers, spending money he did not have on beautiful books and objet d’art, and making love. He felt that Mussolini had abandoned him at Fiume and that he did not give him the credit he deserved for bringing Italy into World War I; but Mussolini the dictator saw to it that a national edition of D’Annunzio’s complete works was published and that the extensive quixotic renovations of Il Vittoriale be funded in part by the Italian government. D’ Annunzio, in turn, dedicated his house and grounds to the Italian people as a monument to the soldiers who dared to take Fiume with him. It was also a retreat. Although he had dabbled sensationally in politics and war, he was, by nature, an aesthete who enjoyed comfort and sensuality. Luxury, he wrote, was as essential to him as breathing. He liked to sit at the feet of lovely women, and shower them with flowers, leaf through ancient leather-bound books and recite poetry in the dark. Over the course of a five year period, he once wrote over 1000 letters to one woman alone. They don’t make men like D’Annunzio anymore. In the mostly empty dining room of my hotel, there were none to be seen, so I gave myself to a large piece of black forest cake with whipped cream, and the conversation of the owner and his friends, who tried to get me to drink more and more champagne and spoke to me in a mixture of broken English and mostly incomprehensible Italian. Somehow I stumbled upstairs alone, somewhat nauseous, and had a nightmare about D’Annunzio. Or was it a dream?

The following day I made it into the sanctum sanctorum, D’Annunzio’s house. In the entryway to what he called “the Priory” stands a column to divide the guests into welcome and unwelcome. The many creditors would have to wait on the right, the women, mostly artists and poets and actresses, would be ushered in on the left to a room filled with incense burners and a helicopter blade hanging from the ceiling. The lucky ones would be brought to the music room, cocooned in dark tapestries. D’Annunzio had lost an eye in the war and was sensitive to light. Besides, music requires concentration of the mind. The floors are covered in carpets and pillows, for lounging or making love; busts of Michelangelo and Dante, his ‘brothers’, stand like witnesses. Books and music folios line the walls, surrounding life masks, sculptures, lamps of blown glass fruit, leaded windows, an organ, lyres, lutes, bells. The predominant tones are red, gold, and black. From the music room we proceed to a writing room, with a large desk, where D’Annunzio died, and a medicine cabinet filled with drugs. Over the doorway from the writing room to the bedroom, we read: genio et voluptati —genius and voluptuousness. The bedroom is called The Room of Leda and overflows with chinoiserie and silken fabrics and cushions. But genius is not all pleasure and happiness. Consider the Leper Room, for meditation on the death of his mother and Eleanore Duse, which features a bed in the shape of both a cradle and a coffin, “the bed of two ages”. Two leopard skins are draped over the steps leading down from the bed. A painting of Saint Francis embracing the leper hangs near the bed. We are to understand that D’Annunzio considers himself a leper in the eyes of society, in exile here after his failed attempt to raise life to its rightful gloriousness despite the philistine, luke-warm good behavior of his fellows. In his Italian Journey, written back when words like lofty, harmonize, exalt, true, and noble could be read without embarrassment, Goethe commented on the poor reception granted to a number of Palladio buildings:

How poorly these choice monuments to a lofty spirit harmonize with the life of the rest of mankind…it occurs to me that this after all is the way of the world. For one gets little thanks from people when one tries to exalt their inner urges, to give them a lofty concept of themselves, to make them feel the magnificence of a true, noble existence.

Alas, Goethe saw the tendency of things, already at the end of the 18th century. Though I wonder what he would have thought of D’Annunzio’s taste. The Relics room is a syncretic temple to all religions, mixing sacred objects with profane military paraphernalia. There are elephants, bronze Buddhas, medieval crosses, rows and rows of Catholic statuary, and a Fiume flag on the ceiling. Over the doorway is written: “Five Fingers, Five Sins”. Out of the original seven, D’Annunzio had excluded lust and greed. These two were not deadly sins, but virtues in his creed. A broken steering wheel on the altar, which once had belonged to an English racecar driver friend, symbolizes the religion of risk. His workshop, the only room in the house to let in natural light, can only be entered by prostrating oneself beneath a low ceiling and taking a few small steps. The writer had to humble himself before his muse, his great love, the actress, Eleanore Duse, whose bust sits upon his desk, covered with a silk scarf so her beauty would not distract him from his work. La Duse, as she was called, earned the full adulation that Il Duce was denied.

torino4-037Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

D’Annunzio called his house “the book of stones,” and like all good books it is filled with symbols. Everything means something. And the many mottos written on ceilings and round the rims of rooms and over doorways help us should we falter in our interpretation. And yet, I probably will be trying to understand it all for a long time to come. Certainly, although it would be simpler to outright reject grandeur and beauty, because of its sometimes questionable provenance, I cannot moralistically deny myself the intellectual and sensual pleasure it brings. And yet, the provenance and history of objects is significant and fraught with tangled skeins of so much seeming good with so much seeming bad. I will continue to be curious about all the life and the history that can be gleaned from material remains—portals to other worlds and times—and to embrace the wild contradictory nature of humanity with an amor fati—love of fate—communing, even if need be, in occasional discomfort, with all kinds of ghosts, neither assuaging nor simplistically censoring the transgressions of these haunted spirits.

What would D’Annunzio have thought, however, had he known that the souvenir shop outside the grounds would feature not only snow globes with little miniature Il Vittoriales and coffee mugs emblazoned with his face, but also a section devoted to his special friend and nemesis, Mussolini, offering brass knuckles and ominous riding crops for sale? Would he have approved? I would like to think he would he have considered it an impudent intrusion, actuated by purely capitalist vulgarity, a treacherous re-writing of his more nuanced story, rather like the posthumous revision of Nietzsche’s biography by his Wagnerite sister. (Elisabeth-Forster Nietzsche, as is well known, attempted to posthumously present her brother as a proto-Nazi, he, who in reality despised the Germans and who called in his last days for the death of all anti-Semites. The Mussolini display made me feel queasy, so I quickly exited the little shop and walked down the hill to beautiful Lake Garda, which Goethe, on his visit, had called “magnificent,” trying to separate the marvelous and admirable Italian writer from his unsavory companion. I caught the afternoon bus out of town, and made it back to Torino by late the same evening.

I spent my last week wandering around gazing at everything, saying goodbye with my eyes, entering dark churches on rainy afternoons and returning to museums I had already visited. I abandoned my foolish infatuation with the intern from Sardinia. It had been a case of pareidolia after all, or a matter of witchcraft. I visited Brunilde one more time, who had been angry at me after the last lunch for refusing dessert, a strawberry delicacy which the blackboard claimed was “the cake of love.” Probably she had cursed me, and my refusal to eat the cake was the cause of my romantic failure. This time I was all alone with her in the little restaurant. We talked despite my faulty Italian and her non-existent English, and she even gave me the name of another restaurant, scribbling it on a little piece of paper, which I did not lose and used the following day. I knew better now: I would do whatever she said and eat whatever she suggested. Lunch was orecchietti with spinach pesto and a mouth-watering cutlet swamped in delicious artichoke sauce, a glass of red wine, sparkling water, and for dessert a divinely magical zabaione with roasted almonds, an espresso, the traditional shot glass of absinthe-soaked grapes, and something extra this time, to mark my initiation: a little jar of sugar cubes soaked in liquor and spices, which I did not know really how to eat or drink. She became frustrated with me and took it away, “Only the sugar, only the sugar;” but she had accepted me, just the same, this woman whose gruffness was a legend, but whose favor I had longed for. I was sure she was a witch, and that she could help me or hurt me. After the espresso, I paid the bill, but was short some 60 cents. She waved me away; it was a mere trifle between such good friends. I wished her a beautiful life, una vita bella, and Brunilde the fierce blew me a kiss! I was blessed.

torino4-030Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

On the way to the airport, the Alps, covered in snow, were visible behind the utilitarian architecture at the edge of the city. All along the street, shutters opened and green curtains were extended from inside to out and draped over the little balconies. From a tall building, a white sheet, like a small cloud, was shaken out in the fresh morning air in the wind and sun. Church spires rose up, shopkeepers brought out boxes of fruit for display, and old men in gray caps trundled along the sidewalk, newspapers tucked in the pockets of their old tweed jackets, ready to be unfurled along with the far-off world at the nearest caffè. The time had come to leave, and the following were my last words with which I armed myself for a return to the American landscape of ironic nihilism, that nihilism born in part of a fear of the complexity inherent in material objects and in the often painful distance between dreams and reality which they reveal:

Whosoever today does not respond, does not resonate to the stirrings of beauty and the energetic life force of the world as it is, who is not filled with wonder at its teeming multifarious richness, who mocks those in the past who have made objects and symphonies and wrote poems to celebrate the intricate, elaborate, strange, cruel, and tender rhythms of life, must be dead of spirit. In the Palazzo Madama museum, after bathing in sunlight streaming into a room of baroque golden splendor from a grand window, I entered the tiny tower housing a collection of small treasures, and any lingering doubts about meaning were immediately purged from me. I knew that the doubters were blind, deaf, and dumb. These intricate treasures were immediate palpable evidence of the perennial human need to celebrate the real delights and dangers of nature and civilization. Carved ivories, etched gems, blown glass, cast bronze. Fancy— made out of the real substance of the physical world, its colors and textures and qualities. I was thus armed to do battle against the skeptical intellectuals and their social construction blasphemy. I knew: Whosoever does not love Nature and the artifacts of humankind’s love of matter (colors, curves, sounds, textures, words, flavors, rhythms, light, light, light!) may as well be dead. Such a one is bereft of heat, of senses, of love, of lust, is a lizard of theoretical idiocy; just as much a repressor of the instincts and the body and nature as any inquisition or poison-spider priest. Philistine sophisticates, parading as the new intellectuals and new anti-artists, may you chortle on the dust of your own dreary scoffing. We others, we naïve ones, have been filled with wonder by the beauty of the world.

—Genese Grill

.grill-genese-grill-with-artists-books-cropped

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.

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Oct 102016
 

1 NC Post

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

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Pruitt-Igoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now, 40 years later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geometry

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

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

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

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

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

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Billy Towns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:

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

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

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.
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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Oct 022016
 

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

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

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

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

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

Society of Loretto buildingsLoretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky.

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

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

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

Loretto main buildingMotherhouse main building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dolors of Mary

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

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

Loretto Memorial

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

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

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

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

Sisters of Loretto Graveyard

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

— Laura Michele Diener

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Works Consulted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

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Sep 022016
 

With Uncle Henry's boys at The Knoll c.1950With Uncle Henry’s boys at The Knoll, c.1950

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‘Wind it up again,’ I say to my big sister, and she rapidly turns the silver handle of Auntie Essie’s wind-up gramophone. It’s set in the top of a beautiful wooden cabinet. The doors beneath swing back to reveal shelves of records, glossy black seventy-eights in their thin brown paper sleeves, each with its round cut-out peephole through which I can see the record label and the little dog listening to his master’s voice.

The black lacquered cabinet is almost taller than I am. When I push up the lid it clicks open. I can just see the turntable, covered with green baize, and the twisting silver arm with its round head, and the glittering needles higgledy-piggledy in the container like an egg cup, set in beside the on/off lever. ‘Now change that needle often,’ Auntie Essie says, ‘or you’ll ruin those records.’ She’s not happy that we’re playing with the gramophone in the big lounge room with its elegant arm chairs and those large round Jap-silk cushions of scarlet and midnight blue. I expect she wasn’t allowed in there when she was growing up. But my Uncle Henry said, ‘Of course they can play in there. It isn’t a morgue!’

The deep groaning voice emerging from the cabinet gradually rises in pitch as my sister turns the handle until it’s Nellie Melba singing ‘One Fine Day’ in a shrill reedy voice. But soon she slows again to a drunken drawl. My sister cranks it up once more and Nellie soars to greater heights. But sometimes it isn’t Nellie; it’s that man called Gigli or the other one called Caruso. They sing sad songs from far away, amongst all that crackling. The labels say things like ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘Turandot’ but that’s some foreign language.

There are heaps more records. My mother says they’re mostly popular songs and dance music from the 1920s and 30s when Auntie Essie and all her brothers were growing up. There’s one dance called ‘Black Bottom’. I think that sounds a bit rude. And there are Charlestons, which I love, and Foxtrots and Two Steps, whatever they are. My favourite record, apart from ‘One Fine Day’, is a song I like to sing:

‘My dog loves your dog,
And your dog loves my dog.
Both our doggies love each other
Why can’t we?’

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Ethel

Auntie Essie lives with Grandfather at The Knoll. It stands on top of the hill overlooking the lake at 99 The Esplanade, Speers Point. We have to go there for holidays. The gloomy house is where my father grew up with Essie and his four brothers: my Uncle Art, Uncle Henry, Uncle Aub and Uncle Griff. They call Essie ‘Sis’ but her real name’s Ethel.

The Knoll 480pxThe Knoll

Thomas family and Vauxhall Tourer c1951Essie on the right beside my father and me. My sister seated by Grandfather, Uncle Aub and the Vauxhall Tourer, c.1951

Auntie Essie sits in the back room on the hard brown armchair by the wireless, listening to the serials. She turns the volume up high because she’s a bit deaf although she’s the same age as my mother and that’s not old. Her favourite serial’s called ‘When a Girl Marries’. At other times she sits reading love stories about doctors and nurses from the English Woman’s Weekly, and she’s always smoking those Capstan cigarettes. My mother doesn’t smoke or hardly ever (only when her friend Daisy comes to stay) and she doesn’t read love stories in magazines. She reads books.

Essie’s fingers are stained yellow and so are her big front teeth. My mother says it’s from the nicotine. She has permed yellow hair but I don’t think that’s the nicotine. She wears sensible lace-up shoes because she’s a nurse and sensible clothes and hats when she goes out.

It’s always dark and musty at The Knoll and there’s the smell of dank seaweed from the lake, moth balls from the cupboards and that cigarette smoke, mixed with perfumes: lantana growing wild up the gully, and frangipani blossoms floating in the black lacquered bowl on the traymobile in the dining room.

Essie doesn’t swim in the lake although it’s just down the bottom of the steep driveway. I’ve never seen her in a swimming costume—but we often go down to the lake with our mother and sometimes with our father when he doesn’t have to be back home, doing the mine inspections. Mother looks glamorous in her home-made floral swimming costume and her wide black hat. We have to wade out through that slimy black sea grass. It’s like thousands of black spiders under water waving their legs.

Beside the lake with my father c1953At the lake with my father, c.1953

My mother thinks it’s a nightmare having to stay at The Knoll for a fortnight. ‘Now mind your Ps and Qs,’ she says to us because Auntie Essie’s a stickler for manners, so we always have to be minding them, especially at the dinner table. You have to know how to use the butter knife and where to put the salt when you’ve fished it out of the little cut-glass salt cellar with the tiny silver salt spoon. You’re not to sprinkle it over the food like Uncle Aub does. He taps the little spoon with his fork and the salt goes everywhere. My mother says this makes Auntie Essie go apoplectic.

On Mondays Essie cooks liver and bacon, Tuesdays it’s tripe in white sauce, Wednesdays it’s sausages and gravy, Thursdays steak and onions—and it’s always a roast on Sundays. She keeps the chocolate biscuits in a big old Bushell’s Coffee jar locked in the kitchen cupboard, and the starched tablecloths and serviettes and the silver serviette rings and the cruet set locked in the sideboard, and the sheets and towels locked in the press outside the bathroom, and her clothes locked in the black lacquered wardrobe in her bedroom. She has all the keys on a large wire ring in her apron pocket. They jangle when she pulls them out.

I know her wardrobe’s full of long satin and shot-silk evening dresses and old silver and gold evening shoes and a fox-fur like my mother’s only the fox still has its head and it has glass eyes. I don’t think Auntie Essie goes to balls any more but she’s quite slim when she’s wearing her corset. My mother says it’s just a pity Essie’s been left on the shelf, looking after Grandfather, but she’s a very good aunt because she remembers birthdays and Christmas. Every year she sends me another pair of frilly shortie pyjamas in flamingo-pink nylon.

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Mrs Whitter

Mrs Whitter is the cleaner. She’s been cleaning The Knoll since Auntie Essie was a girl. She always did the washing, and ran the Ewbank Carpet Sweeper over the hall runners and the Oriental carpets in the lounge room, the bedrooms and the dining room, and mopped the black lacquered wooden floors where they showed, and polished the silver with Silvo and the murky brown linoleum in the kitchen with Johnson’s Wax, on her hands and knees. Then she cooked the batch of bread before she went home.

She can’t get down on her hands and knees now because she’s old and fat with wispy white hair and a bristling wart on her chin and bunions sticking out of her feet. That’s why she slops round with the broom and the mop, and runs the old carpet sweeper over the threadbare hall runners in her carpet slippers. She doesn’t make the bread any more because the baker boy calls in his white apron. He walks all the way up the steep driveway with the bread in a wicker basket while the baker’s van waits down by the lake. Her grown-up daughter comes to help sometimes. She’s Mrs someone else and I don’t like her very much—but I like Mrs Whitter.

‘Come on love,’ Mrs Whitter says to me after she’s added more wood to the fire under the bricked-in copper and the water starts to boil, ‘You can help me sort these clothes.’ So I sort the whites from the coloureds, and she grates the Sunlight soap and plunges the sheets into the boiling froth and shoves them down with the copper stick. Then the laundry’s full of steam.

I help her with the wringer after she’s finished rinsing. The wringer’s what my mother calls a ‘mod con’—much smaller than the old mangle and it clips onto the edge of the concrete laundry tubs. After Mrs Whitter feeds the clothes between the rubber rollers, I ease them out the other side and drop them in the wicker clothes basket. She turns the handle and it’s hard work. ‘Not ’arf as ’ard as that mangle,’ she says.

I know about that mangle with its big wooden rollers and rusting iron frame. It’s sitting in the garage down the bottom of the drive beside the old wooden boat called ‘The Mary Jane’ that nobody takes out on the lake any more. When my Uncle Henry was a small boy he was watching his big brother (my Uncle Art) having fun with the mangle. ‘Put your finger in there,’ Art says, pointing to a small gap between the cogs. Little Henry pokes his finger in the hole; Art turns the handle and the end of Henry’s finger is chopped right off. And that’s why my Uncle Henry has only half an index finger on his right hand. They nearly turned him down when he went to join the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, because of that finger.

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Grandfather

‘You on the air, Pop? The batteries flat?’ my father says. Grandfather doesn’t hear. He sits wheezing, glasses near the tip of his nose, tartan scarf tucked in, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. He fiddles with the gadget in his breast pocket, the plastic-coated wire twisting its way to his ear. He fumbles with the knob then leans forward expectantly, hand cupped behind the other ear. It’s hard making conversation. You have to yell. ‘Speak up!’ he says.

We’re used to yelling in our family. Quite a few people are hard of hearing including Auntie Essie and Great-Aunt Thursa. But my grandfather is the only one whose eardrums were shattered in that coal mine explosion in the Hunter Valley just after the Great War. He lost several fingers as well.

The closed-in end of The Knoll’s veranda by the magnolia tree is his office. He spends much of the day pouring over his maps, fine-nibbed mapping pen in hand, meticulously incising contour lines in Indian ink, filling spaces with vivid colours from small glass ink bottles. He carefully removes the cork and dips his brush in the ink, steadying the bottle with his thumb and the two remaining fingers of his other hand. The finished oversized geological maps are stored in the red cedar cabinet. ‘Can I see?’ I say again and he slides out a tray to reveal another wondrous work. ‘Just look,’ he says, ‘don’t touch!’—and my small fingers itch.

A glass specimen case covers the top of the cabinet. I’m not tall enough to see, so I drag over the delicately carved chair and stand on the sprung seat. I lean my forehead against the glass to gaze at the treasures: black and sparkling anthracite, rust-coloured ironstone, shale embedded with leaves or shells, gold-flecked quartz, glittering marcasite, round basalt river stone—and then there are the uncut gems. The labels, which I can’t yet read, are in Indian ink, the intricate work of a mapping pen.

The author c.1947Me, c.1947

From an overhanging branch of the giant magnolia (where the bandicoot and I met in the dark) hangs my grandfather’s old-fashioned swimming costume of grey-and-black-striped wool. It hangs by the shoulder straps to dry. In summer, despite the asthmatic breathing, he walks, shoulders back, down the hill to swim in the lake. He eases himself in from the end of the jetty beyond the black sea grass, strikes out overarm then changes to an easy sidestroke. Later, I see the swimming costume, once more dangling by its shoulder straps from the branch to dry.

We always hear him coming when he drives to our house, just up the hill from the mine. Old Bess, his ancient utility truck, sounds like a tractor. I can see the dust and blue smoke as she grinds her way up the hill on the rutted gravel track. She was bought to replace the old Hupmobile which, as my father said, guzzled up too much fuel, and petrol was still rationed. He’d been lucky to pick up another car; secondhand ones were scarce after the war and new ones unavailable.

Bess has to be cranked to get her going. First my father strains at the crank handle, then Uncle Aub or Uncle Art, but each time the engine dies and she has to be cranked up again. Grandfather sits in the car dressed in his old suit and hat, hopefully pumping the accelerator. Blue smoke emerges, not only from the rusty exhaust pipe but also from under the bonnet. When she finally roars into life, he bashes the dented door shut, grinds the gearstick into place and sets off with a shout and a wave, scattering chooks as he goes.

‘He’s a menace on the road!’ my father says. Grandfather drives slowly and carefully but, not having the gadget turned on, he doesn’t hear cars tooting impatiently from behind on the narrow roads, so he doesn’t move over to let them pass. This results in long queues like funeral processions.

§

Years later, as he painstakingly drove his Morris Minor towards home, my grandfather was rammed from behind by a semi-trailer—at least that’s what they concluded at the official inquiry. His car left the road, turning over as it headed down an embankment. The semitrailer didn’t stop and the driver was never apprehended. My grandfather spent his last years an invalid at The Knoll (that grand old house above the lake) with Ethel, my Auntie Essie—his maps now untouched in the cabinet, the pens in their case.

When I received news of his death in the early 1970s, I thought of him, long ago, sitting at his desk, glasses near the tip of his nose, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. I’m sitting beside him on a high stool: a small child drawing fairies with a mapping pen—meticulously colouring their wings with the fine brush I’ve dipped in jewel-coloured ink.

Elizabeth Thomas in the late 1980sMe in the late 1980s, not long before The Knoll was sold

—Elizabeth Thomas

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Elizabeth Thomasx

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian writer, born before the end of World War II. She graduated from London University in 1970. Her first book, Vanished Land, was published in 2014 after she retired from the field of music and music education. Currently she contributes to Numéro Cinq and is working on short stories and a memoir.

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Aug 092016
 

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

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

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

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)

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

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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