Apr 122014
Julian and Vidal

Gore Vidal and Emperor Julian the Apostate


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Battle of Strasbourg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Jacob Glover




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


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

author photo 2013

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Shawna Lemay

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

Apr 082014


Today, yes, a little entertainment, a gorgeous music/text thing (with layers you can delve)  by my old friend Ian Bell (Ian’s father was my Grade 11 history teacher; his mother was a weaver and the village librarian). First of all, we have Ian’s lovely, comic lament “Signor  Farini,” a song about The Great Farini, a 19th-century (he lived till 1929) tightrope walker famous, among other things, for doing somersaults over Niagara Falls in 1860. But The Great Farini was really a man named Hunt, born in Lockport, New York, and Ian’s song is as much about the mystery of creation as it is about tightrope-walking and fame. It’s about having the courage to make oneself, to change, to gamble and risk, to take a chance in life. And beyond that (there’s more), Ian also offers an insightful and readable account of song-writing, the art itself.


YouTube Preview Image


Signor Farini is one of a couple of songs I have written about my own unwillingness to throw myself headlong into the music business. This has mostly been for fairly uninteresting reasons having to do with my need to spend time with children and other loved ones.

Guillermo Farini was one of the 19th-century daredevils who made his name crossing the Niagara Gorge on a tight-wire, but who then went on to a distinguished career in British circuses and theatres – developing the human cannonball act and inventing the folding theatre seat, before becoming an African explorer who sought lost civilizations in the Kalahari, and eventually returning to Canada to write a best-selling book on how to grow begonias. (I’m not making any of this up – in fact, I’ve left quite a lot out)

I first heard about Farini in an interview on CBC Radio. Peter Gzowski was talking to author/playwright Shane Peacock about a play he had written about the daredevil. I loved the whole story. Most of all I loved the idea that “The Great Farini” was in fact a guy named Bill Hunt, from Port Hope Ontario.


Shane talked on the radio about a Farini Festival that had been staged in Port Hope, to which the organizers had invited not only descendants of Farini, but descendants of the man who had held the rope for him. I thought this was very Canadian, and decided that if there was ever going to be a song about Farini it should be from the rope-holder’s point of view. Not wanting to get too hung up on what Canadian director/playwright Paul Thompson calls “historical resonance” I wrote the song – and then I read the biography.

After I wrote and recorded the song, Shane called me up to tell me how much he liked it. He was particularly taken with the line “Walking on air with the greatest of ease – a tangle of barn swallows sharing the breeze”, and he told me a story about the time his play was performed at Fourth Line Theatre, an outdoor venue in Millbrook, Ontario. Every night at dusk, when the tightrope walker stepped off the roof of the barn, the swallows who lived inside would make one last foray into the evening air and buzz “Farini” as he traversed the wire. “How did you know to put that in?” he asked me. “Sorry Shane”, I had to tell him. “I just made it up”.

The actual making of this song started with the chorus, which I believe I carried around inside my head for a few weeks before anything else manifested itself. Then the rest popped out one day.

I never consciously choose a rhyme scheme for songs before I start writing them. Usually the first verse pours out in a rush and then gets a chorus attached to it. Once it does, I consider the rhyme scheme and meter to have been set and that’s that. I always do my very best to stick with it. It can become challenging once I get further into the song – but that’s all part of the fun. This one turned out to be AABBBB for the verse and AABBB for the chorus. In another song, I wrote a first verse I really liked while driving somewhere. When I got home and wrote it down I was a little dismayed to find that it took 16 lines for the rhyme to resolve.

Maybe resolving a rhyme isn’t the usual term — I should explain. What I mean by resolving, is completing the entire pattern of the rhyming lines in a unit of the song, (like a verse) so that you’ve brought the reader/listener back to the beginning of the rhyme cycle, and you’re ready to launch into whatever’s coming next (like another verse — or a chorus).

I’m generally of the opinion that a song shouldn’t need more than three verses, a chorus and a bridge. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule (even in my catalogue) but this isn’t one of them.

A bridge can be a useful thing. Some people call it “the middle eight” and it’s part of a song that is neither verse nor chorus and usually only comes up once somewhere in the middle of the song. Paul McCartney is really good at bridges. It not only creates a bit of musical interest, but also provides a platform for lyrical ideas that might not be an obvious part of whatever narrative agenda the verses may be. It’s a good place for asides or other editorializing. In Farini the bridge comes after the second chorus.

I like creating little word movies which I hope will will be screening in my listeners’ heads, and with any luck may include some interesting surprises as they spool out. I think I’m usually copping ideas from the filmmakers who made an impression on me in my long-ago hipster youth; people like Fellini and Bergman – mostly Fellini I think.

In Farini I tried to make this happen right off the top, where we begin with a pastoral daybreak scene on the old family farm and by the last line of the verse somebody is stepping off the barn roof.

I’ve always secretly wanted to hear Leonard Cohen or Marianne Faithfull sing this song.

—Ian Bell


You can read all about Farini in Shane Peacock’s book The Great Farini – The High Wire Life of William Hunt. The song is part of the album Signor Farini and Other Adventures and can be downloaded from CD Baby.

Ian Bell is a traditional folk musician and singer-songwriter who also worked for many years as a curator in a number of Ontario museums. he has recorded several CDs of Canadian traditional music as well as his own compositions. He lives in Paris Ontario. www.ianbellmusic.ca

Mar 112014

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel DefoeDaniel Defoe

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Aime CesaireAimé Césaire

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

One of many sinister Calibans

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________. Explorations. Macmillan, 1963

 — Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane 2

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


Mar 032014


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Kay Henry


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


Mar 022014

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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

—Melissa Matthewson

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


Feb 152014

Abby Frucht

Today a lovely, dense jewel of an essay by Abby Frucht, old friend, colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, wise teacher, mistress of the sentence, as in, my goodness LOOK at these sentences, how they surge forward in phrases, surging and then curling back, twisting and slyly turning the tables, subverting expectation, surprising the reader (maybe the writer, too — it must be fun to write like this; Abby makes the sentence itself a journey, adventure, story). I love the little touches: the little girl who ENJOYS staying behind, weeping at the curb, pretending to be friendless, sisterless and alone, and I ENJOY IT EVEN MORE that the people who drive by know that she enjoys pretending to be friendless and alone. Funny and dense with detail: the sister who is now a judge who forgets to use the gavel, the inserted story of the clubfoot woman whose family was massacred on a boat while she slept, and, of course, at the centre, the abominable snowman that the judge-sister still claims to have seen all those years before.

How does Abby invent these things? She wrote me:

“Abominable” is one of a cycle of essays in progress arising from an assortment of notes such as:

That in the past a stack of books would be a burden because it clamored to be read.
Both sons in cage with tiger.
Swans –  Pneumonia.
Plashing. In courtyard.  Thing re depth and surface.  Wine has both.


On Harriet Lane, when the younger sister and the older sister were four and five, they often trudged past the margins of the modest neighborhood to reach the potato fields in search of stink bugs, box turtles, and the abominable snowman that liked to hide behind the scrappy trees bordering the fields amid worthless allotments of broken fencing, where blackbirds lived. The sisters and the other kids all carried jelly jars with holes drilled into the lids by the sisters’ dad, since the other dads wouldn’t, and though the brown, hinged stink bugs were marvelous to own, because they stank so bad when you opened the jar and stuck your nose in it and screamed and ran away from it but always came back for another sniff, the best part of the hunt was to sink to your knees and sift through the heavier globules of dirt, the soft manure marbles to be rolled to and fro then crushed between your fingers. The younger sister never saw the abominable snowman, since instead of trekking out to the potato fields with the other kids that day, she stayed behind to sit on the curbside and cry, pretending to be a lonely girl who had no friends, not even a sister, which was her favorite thing to do before she learned how to read. Her skinny legs in their ankle socks sticking straight into the road, she enjoyed glancing up from the smear of her crying to watch the cars swing so close as to ruffle her hair, the mothers on their way home from grocery shopping and the milk truck driver and the mail truck driver and sometimes a father or somebody’s babysitter all seeing her crying there on the curbside but just driving by, since they knew it was something she liked to do. But soon the other kids rushed back, their freckles squared by enthusiasm, the unidentifiable pigment of her sister’s eyes, green or brown, no one could say, incandescent with fear and satisfaction. We saw it we saw the abominable snowman it saw us it tried to catch us it chased us it wanted to eat us, they yelled, not including the one other girl who had stayed behind that day, not because she chose to but because her mother, who was ahead of her time, knew in some future lobe of her brain that there would come a day when mothers forbade their children trekking past the safety of the neighborhood into the reek of the muddy fields. The other girl wasn’t even permitted to touch a turtle. She was allowed only to gape at one from no less than three feet away, by which time the legs and the eyes and the funny, grinning beak might not poke into view again. When the girl who liked to sit on the curbside and cry grew up, she met a young woman who had about her the same, authentic, pitiable loneliness as the girl who was forbidden to touch a turtle. This young woman had a terrible history. Everyone knew it. Plus there was nothing appealing about her, since even in her youthful twenties she wasn’t pretty, and she had a genuine clubfoot, this in the middle of the 1980s, for which she walked with a cane and lopsided shoes. When she was a girl, her parents were murdered on the family boat, a pleasure boat or else a boat with some other reason for being in the middle of the sea that night. The girl lay asleep in the outermost v of the V-berth under damp woolen blankets. Another child, a sibling, slept on the moldering bench that went with the foldout dinner table, but the sibling too was tied up and thrown overboard to drown, leaving only the girl with the clubfoot, who as a young woman seemed determined to tell this story to everyone she met, lest the details of her tragedy neglect to crop up by themselves or via the insinuations of other guests at the dinner party, who already knew them all anyway. The story was like the lopsided shoes, since telling it meant she was at least still standing, if unevenly, and though her eyes too were crooked, one bigger or maybe just sadder than the other, she at least had a long distance boyfriend, which made sense since no one ever met him, and then one day she went there and never came back. When the girl who liked to sit on the curbside and cry before she learned how to read turned fifty six, she phoned the older sister to ask if it was true she had seen the abominable snowman or had she only been toying with the younger sister, like playing her as if she were a xylophone by banging the wooden mallet on the crown of her head or hiding her dirty socks in the babysitter’s pocketbook.

“No, I really did see it,” the older sister replied.  She’s a District Court Judge now.  She needs to be custom-fitted for robes but she never bangs the gavel, she always forgets.  “It was huge with yellow fur. The other kids saw it too, we all did except you.  Why are you asking?  Writing a story?”

“Essay,” she answered, and sat a moment on the couch, her legs sticking straight in front of her.  Her legs resemble the dad’s, too skinny, with embarrassing socks.  Before being named judge by the governor of New Mexico, the older sister had considered retiring as a family attorney after twenty-six years in order to help look after her grandchildren, a prospect that had made the younger sister, the one who liked to sit crying and still cries all the time, like in the shower or while riding her bike to the YMCA or at her writing desk or reading novels in bed or fetching orange juice from the kitchen, feel not so bad about weeping, sobbing, crying, wailing, etc. and being gloomy, weary, melancholy, abject, dejected, dispirited, disconsolate, bleak, doleful, disheartened, downhearted and sad. But the older sister’s new judgeship — her robes, her bailiff (a handsome Iraqi war veteran), her fundraising activities, her advocacy of Restorative Justice as a tool in the maintenance of healthy children, her support by a bi-partisan judicial nominating commission moved by her courtroom’s attentiveness to the needs of children, her speeches to unions concerning heroin use among children, her meetings with attorneys general about the law as it pertains to the wellbeing of children, her write-ups in newspapers, her delight in getting up each morning to join her assistant in reviewing the docket in the spacious office suite with the artworks, the expansive but somehow womanly desk, her high heeled pumps, her continued blondeness – makes the sister on the couch feel all the more feckless, pointless, trifling, hollow,  ineffectual, vapid, and good-for-nothing, her dented clogs mocking her unworldliness, the only impact she has on other living creatures being on the family dogs, who steal the breads she bakes from off the counter before her eyes and race away to eat them. To be sure, sometimes she cries over things that matter, like for the man calling out from his tomb beneath the rubble of the factory in Bangladesh and the girl with the clubfoot and whole slaughtered families of African elephants and kids with no supper and the parents of that high school valedictorian who vanished off the hiking trail in Ecuador, but what good does it do?  Not to mention that on other days she cries for no reason.  And though she fears she should find this a monstrous, yellow thing, one that might swallow her up and consume her, she’s okay with her boyfriend only rarely stopping by to put a hand on the curve of her back and offer, “Hon, what’s wrong, Hon?” or, “Hon, pull yourself together, Hon, you’re not two years old, Hon,” after which she dries her tears and starts typing again in the normal way and looking up synonyms. Another thing she asks her sister is: Do you remember the bullet? That bullet a kid chased us with?  It wasn’t a bullet, it was made of glass, it had a filament in it, it was probably only a light bulb but we screamed and ran away from him until one of the dads, not ours because he never hit things, smacked him?

“No,” says the judge.

Just no, as if a simple affirmation of the negative might be all that is needed to solve the problem.

—Abby Frucht

Abby Frucht’s latest book is her collection of stories, The Bell at the End of a Rope, published in 2012 by Narrative Library.
Feb 082014


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




Our Sun Sets Early
by Michael Schatte

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

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

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

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

© Michael Schatte, 2013.


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

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

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


‘Office Hours’

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

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

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


Seemingly Trivial Tools

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

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


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

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


Cliché and Poetry

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

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


Production and Completion

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

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

—Michael Schatte

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



Feb 062014

Desktop43Proust & Musil

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Genese Grill

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G photo for BBF

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

Julie JacobsonAuthor Photo: Brent Jacobson

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



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

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

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

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

I didn’t tell my husband or my sons.


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

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

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

I cried in front of strangers and made friends.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow another week passed.


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I left my favorite scarf in the waiting room.

I lost my dog-eared Harry Middleton book somewhere.

I sobbed in the arms of strangers in the hallway.

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


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

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

I cleaned myself up.

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

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


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


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

I hated fucking happy people.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I read five books on surviving cancer.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I left many messages on doctor’s voice mails.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

—J. M. Jacobson

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

Jan 172014

The hoary catchphrase “Show, don’t tell” and the reputation of American minimalism skewed the assumptions of generations of writing students by sending them down the rabbit hole of restraint and obliquity. Time and again, I have seen writing students try to write with both hands tied behind their backs. Somehow all sorts of emotional and mental description have become forbidden in the culture of creative writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that simple sentences like “Bob was sad” are ineffably old-fashioned and somehow improper in the modern world of prose (fiction and nonfiction). The only solution is to make people read actual stories and notice the myriad ways real writers do indicate, well, emotion. Herewith, an essay by a former student of mine, Walker Griffy, who read and saw  and now describes — a healthy corrective — some simple techniques for telling emotional states of characters.



A clear representation of character emotion does not necessarily mean writing things like “Bob is sad.” Actually, “Bob is sad” can work just fine as a starting point. But we generally expect a text to go further, to let the reader know not only that Bob is sad, but how sad Bob is, why Bob is sad, and how that affects Bob and his place in that particular story. The examples I’ll be using in this essay will provide a better understanding of what techniques can be used to accomplish all of these tasks simultaneously.

Before looking at those examples, I want to clarify exactly what it is I’m talking about when I say “character emotion.” I’ll start with the most concrete definition of emotion from Merriam-Webster: “the affective state of consciousness.” When that is applied to the writing of character emotion in fiction, it is literally placing the reader within the character’s consciousness and explaining how a character’s emotional state affects his behavior. This allows a character to act in a rational or irrational way without confusing the reader; the motivation is not coming from a place of logic and reason, but rather a well-understood emotional state.

Now that I’ve provided an idea of exactly what is being discussed when using the phrase “character emotion,” I want to break down some techniques for representing emotions in a story.


Techniques and Definitions

First, there is the technique of direct reporting. With the direct reporting technique, a narrator can describe the way a character is feeling, or a character can identify his or her own emotions. This is the most clear and effective way character emotion can be presented to a reader. Aside from a first-person narrator, a character only identifies his or her own emotions in dialogue. Of course, when used in dialogue, it is only as trustworthy as that character may be, but when employed by a narrator, the reader is left with a concrete understanding of what the described character is feeling. I will primarily look at examples of the narrator employing the direct reporting technique, but it can also be used by characters within the story. The example I used earlier of “Bob is sad” is a simple, but perfect, example of direct reporting. The reader knows what the character is feeling and applies that to any actions that follow.

In her story “Nettles,” Alice Munro employs a first-person narrator to explore the feelings and thoughts of a woman struggling with her definition of love. The story begins with a flashback to the narrator’s childhood and her first encounter with love as a young girl, which unwittingly set the standard for love that would last her whole life. The story then moves ahead to the narrator’s divorce and her finding her first love again after many years. The narrator uses the direct reporting technique to describe both her emotions as an innocent child experiencing love for the first time as well as an adult searching for a fulfilling relationship following a failed marriage.

Recalling the first love she felt for a traveling well-digger’s son, the narrator describes the relationship in adult terms, but makes clear how the emotions felt as a little girl: “We were like sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression. And for me at least that was solemn and thrilling.” Although she is looking back on her time with this boy, the narrator is directly telling the reader how she felt thrilled by the relationship, which then, in the following narrative, serves as a contrast to what she experiences with her husband as an adult. It is a powerful emotion because it is one she longs for long after she has grown up. The technique of direct reporting tells the reader exactly what the narrator’s motivation is.

The story goes on to describe her adult life after she’s left her first husband, and the narrator uses direct reporting to describe the emotions she feels for a lover in this passage:

We exchanged news—I made sure I had news—and we laughed, and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves. I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman of my age. There were times when I would be so happy, after our encounters—dazzled and secure—and there were other times when I would lie stone-heavy with misgiving.

First, she describes scenes that took place with her lover and the conflicting experience of casual discussion while wanting sexual gratification. By the time the narrator gives a direct report of the emotions “happy” and “stone-heavy with misgiving,” the reader is already caught up in a well-defined, conflicted situation, so the clear statement of the narrator’s feelings helps to anchor the reader in that emotional state.

The second technique I’d like to discuss is the indirect reporting of character emotion. Indirect reporting is the technique of having the narrator or a character guess, judge, or intuit the emotion of another character based on an interpretation of actions or statements. The difference between direct and indirect reporting is that the emotion being expressed is interpreted; it is not presented as a factual emotional state, but rather a perceived one. With this technique, the narrator, or more commonly, another character comments on a character’s possible emotional state or motivation. This allows the reader to simultaneously see that emotion from an outside perspective and gain further insight into how the commenting character is seeing and processing those around him or her.

A good example of this technique is found in Andre Dubus’ story “The Winter Father,” where the protagonist is a divorced man learning to be a part-time father to his children who live with their mother. The story begins with the couple’s divorce and then follows the first few months of their separation, focusing on the father’s relationship with his own children with whom he no longer lives. The first time the man goes to pick up his children after moving out, he sees his ex-wife and makes the following observation: “Her eyes held him: the nest of pain was there, the shyness, the coiled anger; but there was another shimmer: she was taking a new marriage vow: This is the way we shall love our children now, watch how well I can do it.” This excerpt contains both indirect reporting of character emotion and thought. The third-person limited narrator is observing, interpreting, and reporting both emotion and thought that the father deduces from the expression on his wife’s face.

A third technique is character emotion depicted via physical manifestations. A writer represents a character’s emotion, say, sadness, in action, say, crying. When I first began studying this technique, I was looking for physical manifestations of emotion that stood on their own. And while those certainly do exist, I came to the conclusion that the most effective examples are often used in conjunction with direct reporting. This discovery had a particularly strong impact on me because I have found through personal experience as a learning writer that the emotion I believe I am clearly depicting with only physical manifestations is almost never clear to the reader. These exclusively physical manifestations, I’ve found, are almost always lacking in terms of revealing character emotion because they are just too subtle. The benefit of using the physical manifestation technique coupled with direct reporting is that it creates a visual to go along with the emotion being expressed.

I found a good example of this technique in Carson McCullers’ story “Sucker,” which is told from a teenage boy’s first-person perspective. The narrator tells the story of how his relationship with his younger brother Sucker blossoms and is then destroyed in tune with the narrator’s blossoming and then failing first romance. The story ends with the narrator lamenting the loss of a relationship with his brother following a frustrated outburst one night. This example uses direct reporting with a great amount of physical manifestation to show the younger brother’s reaction to an angry outburst from the narrator: “He sat in the middle of the bed, his eyes blinking and scared.” Here, the physical manifestation is given with a single-word of direct reporting: scared. However, that single word is enough to establish the young boy’s emotions and place the following passage into context for the reader, allowing the narrator to use exclusively physical language without sacrificing information:

Sucker’s mouth was part way open and he looked as though he’d knocked his funny bone. His face was white and sweat came out on his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and for a minute his arm stayed raised that way as though he was holding something away from him.

I’ve given these few short examples just to illustrate the techniques in practice. These were all stories I read early in my time as a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and they stuck with me as some of my favorites. It was only in going back in my reading in preparation for this essay that I began to notice things that I had skimmed over while focusing on other craft aspects the first time around. Now I want to look at two more short stories that utilize all three techniques and set a great example for all writers to follow.


The Dead

The first of the two stories I’d like to examine is “The Dead” by James Joyce. In this story, Joyce uses a third-person limited narrative in Gabriel Conroy’s point of view. The story follows the protagonist through a night of encounters at an annual celebration. Throughout the story, Gabriel has three different encounters with women that affect his mood and cause him to grow self-conscious before he can assert himself and move past it. As the story moves forward, each encounter grows in its respective influence on Gabriel’s mood. As the story progresses, so does the insight into Gabriel’s emotional state.

“The Dead” focuses on Gabriel’s relationship with women in his life, moving from the rather inconsequential (a maid at the party) to a female journalist, Miss Ivors, a colleague whom he respects, before ending with his wife. During the party, Gabriel’s conventional patriarchal social assumptions are exposed through successive conflicts with the three women. Most of the story action takes place during the party, but the significant action with his wife takes place after the couple returns to a hotel room for the night. Gabriel mistakes his wife’s moodiness for sexual passion then becomes angry when she doesn’t react to him. Suddenly, she begins telling him about a lover, Michael Furey, who died many years before, died of love, and Gabriel is left mourning the fact that he had never loved anyone, even his wife, the way this ex-lover had loved her.

After each plot event (with the maid, with the journalist), the narrative always returns to Gabriel’s internal state, and as such, his emotions are paramount to the tone and meaning of the entire piece. Each encounter makes him gloomy and self-conscious until he engages in various ritual behaviors such as focusing on his speech or making condescending jokes that help to discount the women and make him feel better. Only when he has the plot conflict scene with his wife does Gabriel find that his habitual practices do not work; he is unable to render the encounter insignificant. Finally he has to see himself and his wife as they really are.

I’d like to now look at some examples of the techniques I’ve already discussed asthey are used to represent the emotional aspect of “The Dead.”  In the first scene, Gabriel makes a slightly off-color remark to one of the maids working at the party. To show Gabriel’s response to the maid’s retort, Joyce uses direct reporting of emotion:

He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the heading he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

This passage contains a great amount of information about Gabriel, and most of it is emotional. It begins with the direct reporting of his emotional state following the conflict with the maid: “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort.” The paragraph continues with another example of direct reporting: “It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel.” This continuation of direct reporting by the narrator gives another emotion to Gabriel’s reaction to the incident. His thoughts, affected by the gloom cast over him, then turn to his upcoming speech, and the narrator continues to employ the direct reporting technique: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.” Although the language in the passage then changes to express more character thought than emotion, the entire paragraph serves as a perfect example of direct reporting and clearly establishes the internal condition of Gabriel.

Later, Gabriel has a social conflict with Miss Ivors, a woman who is essentially his equal and a friend. The conflict begins when Miss Ivors needles Gabriel for writing a column for a paper not as pro-Irish as she would like, a charge that confuses Gabriel: “When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive.” The scene continues with more chiding from Miss Ivors as Gabriel grows more flustered: “Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy.” The scene also contains outbursts from Gabriel, a brief example of direct reporting in dialogue, such as proclaiming, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” in response to Miss Ivors’ accusing him of being a West Briton (an Irish insult something like an African-American being called an Oreo). However, following this more rattling conflict, we again see the other side of Gabriel.

Once Miss Ivors has left the party, before dinner is served, Gabriel is able to forget all about the encounter: “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” This example contains two different descriptions of Gabriel’s emotional state. The first describes him as “quite at ease” and the word “now” following that description adds the element of a change in emotional state, so it is clear to the reader that he has overcome the previous emotional struggle that was causing him to feel agitated. This is not only a good example of the technique, but it is also very important to the momentum of the narrative; this scene repeats the conflict of the earlier scene with the maid with increased dramatic intensity. More is at stake in this encounter for Gabriel than with the maid.

Near the end of this story, Gabriel’s emotions swing again when, instead of making love to his wife as he desires to do, he listens to her talk about a former lover. Joyce uses the direct reporting technique to show how, in an instant, Gabriel’s rush of giddiness comes to a halt: “The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to grow angrily in his veins.” As far as emotional language is concerned, this is perhaps the strongest description in the entire story. Both the mental and bodily representations of this sudden anger are first described as dull before growing almost uncontrollable. The scene continues with Gabriel’s wife telling him the story of her relationship with Michael Furey, including how he had died for her. The tale of Furey’s death inspires this last example of direct reporting, which shows, I think, perfectly the intensity of Gabriel’s internal struggles and the realization that he has failed to love his wife as much as his wife’s dead lover once did:

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself.”

Joyce doesn’t use indirect reporting as much direct reporting in “The Dead,” but there are still some fine examples. Joyce’s focus on Gabriel’s internal state leaves little room for indirect emotional commentary, but he uses the technique increasingly near the end of the story where, instead of primarily reacting, Gabriel begins looking at his wife and trying to interpret her mood.

First, here is an example from earlier in the story when in the second act, so to speak, after his conflicted exchange with the journalist, Miss Ivors, on the dance floor, Gabriel becomes self-conscious and tries to figure out why she suddenly wants to leave the party: “Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing.” In this description, Gabriel is attempting to exonerate himself from blame, but he is attempting to do so by indirectly reporting the emotional state of the woman just before she leaves. I’ve found that indirect reporting can also contain information about the character commenting on the emotion, and here is a good example. Although he is providing emotional information about this woman, the narrator is also showing the reader Gabriel’s frame of mind and how that affects his interpretation of the woman’s emotional state.

But to return to the end of the story — once Gabriel and his wife have gone to their hotel room, he feels a sudden afflatus of love and sexual attraction for his wife and he thinks she is feeling attracted to him. Gabriel’s emotions in this scene swing wildly as I’ve already shown in my discussion of direct reporting, but here, Gabriel also attempts to read his wife’s emotions. When she has not reacted to his affection the way Gabriel hoped she would, he asks himself why. “Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord!” Although he is not making a clear statement about what he believes is bothering his wife, the questions Gabriel poses internally do provide commentary on the woman’s emotional state. From those questions, the reader knows she is distant, perhaps hesitant, and emotionally unresponsive to the love Gabriel is attempting to display. Like the first example of indirect reporting, this commentary also supports the emotional representation of Gabriel himself. He poses these questions internally, as well as hoping that she will do something differently, without ever speaking directly to her.

Joyce’s story provides many examples of how the third technique of physical manifestation is almost always informed or aided by direct reporting. Going back to my first example of direct reporting, in the passage which shows the gloominess that Gabriel experiences early on in the narrative, the narrator expands on how Gabriel attempts to dispel the gloom by “arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.” This example provides a strong outward manifestation of Gabriel’s emotions, but the action of rearranging his cuffs and bow-tie would not be as effective without the clear purpose behind the action: dispelling the gloom that comes over him. Tying such clear emotions with a character’s natural physical reaction to those emotions creates an extremely successful bit of characterization in only a few words.

Finally, I’d like to return again to the end of the story where the narrator gives an intimate view of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife. After an agonizing back-and-forth inside his own mind about wanting to be affectionate with his wife and alternately wanting to possess her violently, Gabriel finally reacts to a kiss she gives him: “Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it.” This is really a good example of how a strongly physical scene, or sentence really, is aided so much by the inclusion of a small example of direct reporting.

When I first selected this text, I was attempting to use it as an example of pure physical manifestation, primarily because so much of the description is physical. But it was also this example that informed my decision to focus on how physical manifestations are informed by directly stated emotions. If the directly stated emotion of delight were removed, the reader would be left with Gabriel trembling at his wife’s kiss and smoothing her hair. Although it would remain a touching moment, with all of Gabriel’s emotional conflict, the reader might be left wondering if he was in fact nervous or overwhelmed or even feeling guilty. But much like the previous scene where Gabriel was about to carve the goose, this is a brief moment of reprieve, and the inclusion of that delight tells the reader that Gabriel believes his wife has felt his adoration and that all is well. The act of smoothing her hair is the continuation of that adoration and, in light of the story’s ending, perhaps Gabriel’s most admirable attempt at loving his wife as well as dead lover had before.

This final excerpt stands on its own as an example of this third technique, but in reading the story as a whole with a focus on the emotional elements, I really began to see how the constant, consistent inclusion of clear emotional language and motivation builds a foundation and then an entire structure that manifests in a character who is wholly understandable, regardless of how irrational his behavior or thoughts may seem on their own. And as a writer, that certainly sounds like an achievement I would welcome in my own work.


Good Country People

The second story I would like to discuss is Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” In this story, O’Connor uses a shifting third-person limited narrator and a healthy dose of irony to show how false perceptions and assumptions can have unforeseen consequences. The story is about an unassuming mother, Mrs. Hopewell, who seems to find the best in people, and her cynical daughter Hulga who is handicapped by a childhood accident that left her using a prosthetic leg. The action of the story really begins when a naïve, seemingly simple-minded boy visits the house selling Bibles. After being invited to dinner, Hulga agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic with plans to take advantage of the young man, who she assumes is a dumb, backwoods Christian. As their date progresses, Hulga is tricked by the boy into removing her prosthetic leg, which he steals, leaving Hulga helpless in a barn loft. In this story, character emotion is especially important because it sets up the dark humor and irony that are trademarks of O’Connor’s work.

One of the first examples of direct reporting in the story does not describe either of the two primary characters, but rather the nosy and stubborn Mrs. Freeman whose husband works for Mrs. Hopewell. The description of Mrs. Freeman comes from the third-person narrator, but it is given from the daughter’s point of view:

Mrs. Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure.”

This example of direct reporting clearly describes the emotion Mrs. Freeman would take on, that of being sullen, but also adds a bit of emotional characterization; not only does she exhibit her sullen mood in her behavior, but it can come from unexpected sources and even last for days. At the beginning of the essay, I used “Bob is sad” as a simple example of emotional reporting, and O’Connor’s line here a perfect example of how an author can say exactly that: “Mrs. Freeman is sullen,” but also how sullen — “for days” — and why (in this case, she directly states that the reason for the sullen mood is not always clear).

After the young Bible salesman has been introduced, the narrator provides the first bit of information that suggests some contradiction to Hulga’s cynical demeanor. After the young man stays for dinner, she agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic, which is a surprising turn in itself since the young salesman seems like a person Hulga would normally avoid or spurn. Her agreeing to meet him is surprising enough, but the larger surprise comes when the narrator introduces the reader to a vulnerable side of the young woman by directly reporting her emotions when she believes she has been stood up:

She looked up and down the empty highway and had the furious feeling that she had been tricked, that he had only meant to make her walk to the gate after the idea of him.

Here, we get the direct use of the noun “feeling” to accompany the emotion of fury. She is not only upset or angry that the boy she agreed to meet with, a boy she would normally mock, has stood her up, but she is furious. The passage has the added bonus of expressing her insecurity with the accompanying exposition and shows the reader that Hulga may actually be more defensive than gruff and impatient.

Although O’Connor shifts her third-person point of view throughout the story, the reader gets very little information about the young salesman aside from what is given by other characters. In one example of indirect reporting, the emotional impact of Hulga’s statement of atheism on the young man is described: “At this he stopped and whistled. ‘No!’ he exclaimed as if he were too astonished to say anything else.” Hulga’s perspective here provides what she imagines the young man’s emotional reaction would be.

O’Connor uses direct reporting quite a bit, but very often she combines it with physical manifestation. In my first example, Mrs. Hopewell is reacting to the young Bible salesman’s pitch. He presents himself as simple, doing the only thing he’s capable of to help provide for his family. He mentions that he has a physical defect that prevents him from other opportunities, which has a strong effect on the mother.

He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears but she collected herself quickly and murmured, “Won’t you stay for dinner? We’d love to have you!” and was sorry the instant she heard herself say it.

There is a great deal of emotional information in this example. First, the thought that the boy has a similar physical condition to her daughter is informed by multiple direct reports of the mother’s emotions toward her daughter’s ailment earlier in the story. The physical manifestation of this emotion comes in her eyes filling up with tears. The reader understands that her tears are coming from both her sadness about her own daughter and sympathy for this young man and possibly tears of joy because her daughter has found a co-sufferer. However, there is more direct reporting that follows this to better depict the woman’s exact emotional state. The fact that she collects herself, asks the young man to dinner, and then is instantly sorry she extended the invitation shows her struggle with her own emotions.

Now, finally, I’d like to show how O’Connor uses physical description to represent emotion in a complicated and calculating character like Hulga. Unlike her mother, Hulga is the type of character who does not express her emotions in a direct or (connected) physical way; however, it is still important for an author to be able to describe both the internal and external simultaneously for effect, and that is exactly what O’Connor does in this example:

She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood.

“She sat staring at him” is the kind of line I used to use in my own work. But O’Connor goes further. Whereas I would leave that line alone and beg the audience to make an intuitive leap, O’Connor’s narrator gives a deeper physical description (stoic face, freezing-blue eyes), as well as the emotional reason behind this description because there was nothing in her stare or her eyes or her face that suggested she was moved. Then we get the key word but, and we know there is a shift. Then the narrator gives us a direct report of Hulga’s contradictory, but powerful, emotional response. Although the description is of her heart stopping and her brain pumping her blood, the narrator uses the verb feel — “felt as if”, telling the reader immediately that this is not a physical reality, but rather an emotional reaction to the young man’s words. This emotional information supports the final scene of the story when the young Bible salesman, who has moved Hulga to trust and vulnerability, removes her artificial leg and steals it, revealing himself as a fraud and a rather twisted individual.

— Walker Griffy

Walker Griffy received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches composition and literature at Santa Monica College.

Jan 142014

Patrick J Keane 2

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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

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

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

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



Montecito CA

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

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

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

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

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



John Keats (1795-1821): A Biographical Endnote


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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Patrick J. Keane


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

Contact: patrickjkeane@numerocinqmagazine.com

Dec 142013

Genni in Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a reputation for being a closed kingdom, a place where military repression is the norm, unfriendly to strangers and outside influences. In 2006, my Italian-Canadian-singer-composer-writer friend Genni Gunn, rather intrepidly, went there anyway, with her husband Frank, her sister Ileana and Ileana’s husband Peter. “The Wild Dogs of Bagan” speaks of a down-at-heel country, the constant military presence (a soldier with binoculars watches a birdwatcher with binoculars), the poverty and the sense of menace (not just the cobras). It’s an essay excerpted from Genni’s brand new book of travel and memoir pieces entitled Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place. We published an earlier excerpt, an essay about her ancestral village in southern Italy called “Tracks: An Italian Memoir” last year and before that an excerpt from her novel Solitaria which was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize. Genni lives in Vancouver so we hardly ever get to see one another, although a side benefit of all my travel for Savage Love this fall was the chance to spend an afternoon in a Granville Island eatery catching up with her. Lovely memory.


Bagan BuddhaBagan Buddha

Old Pagan 2006

8:00 a.m. I step out of the hotel bungalow to fenced, groomed, lush gardens, beyond which a yellow desert extends to the edge of the mighty Ayeyarwady River. A chain of blue hills shimmers in the morning sun. Three banyan trees provide all the shade for the restaurant, roots spread, branches clawing the sky. Squirrels run up and down their trunks. Crows shriek, flying back and forth, a murder of crows, whooshing their wings. Whoosh whoosh — the sound of lassos through the air. White-throated babblers hop into potted plants. Frangipani, skeletal grey limbs with single white flowers at the tip of branches. My brother-in-law Peter has his binoculars out, and his pencil and bird list: Vinous-breasted starlings, White-throated kingfishers, Great egrets, Ruddy Shelducks, White Wagtails, Grey herons.

At breakfast, served outdoors on the large patio, where all meals are served, on tables covered in white tablecloths, we hear that General Than Shwe — Myanmar’s iron-fisted military dictator — is in Bagan, as he often is, to visit the temples and gild the stupas and Buddhas, in a superstitious effort to fortify his power and gain the people’s confidence. “When he comes to visit a school,” a young man told us the other night, “they have to take the little money for education, and decorate one classroom, so that the General can see it. He spends two minutes there and leaves. Meantime, the towns and villages are suffering for this.”

“You won’t believe what happened to Peter,” my sister Ileana says, nudging him.

Peter, rolls his eyes at us, but is a good sport, so he tells us that he was up around 6:00 a.m., wandering about, bird-watching with his binoculars, when in his sights, he was startled by an armed guard staring at him through binoculars.

4 Bagan

We all laugh, imagining this unlikely scene, like a slapstick comedy on TV.

“Should teach you to stay in bed until a reasonable hour,” I say.

“It was not funny,” Peter says, and tells us he quickly lowered his binoculars, and casually walked away.

“Apparently,” Ileana says, “the generals are staying at the property next to the hotel.”

“You better be careful,” I say, smiling.

“They might come and take you away,” Ileana says, teasing him, because instead of joining us today, Peter is off on his own birding expedition.

After breakfast, we head out on foot to look at temples all around us, though we could rent a horse-drawn cart or a bicycle. Bagan, formerly Pagan, is an ancient city, the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, ruled by King Anawrahta. Situated in the dry zone and sheltered from the rain by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range in the west, it spreads for forty-two square kilometres along the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy. At one time, the plain was dotted with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Today, only the ruins of about 2,200 remain, rising above and among the desert vegetation. Of these, the gold and white ones are still in use, while the red brick ones aren’t.

2 Bagan

3 Bagan

It feels as if we are the only people in this vast landscape of red earth, stippled with ancient spires, pagodas, temples. Desert brush and vegetation abound, dirt paths snake from one monument to the other, haphazard and circuitous. Quickly, however, two young boys attach themselves to us — Soe Myint wears a white dusty T-shirt and longyi, and Zaw Win an ochre T and jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Both their cheeks are white with thanakha and on their feet, flip-flops. In the woven bags around their bodies, the children stash accordions of postcards they sell for 1000 kyat.

“We are guide,” Zaw Win says. “We show you.”

We follow the children, who explain the history of the ruins, their voices rising and falling, their fingers pointing out this temple or that pagoda. Much of what we learn from the local people and the guides is oral tradition, difficult to substantiate through books or websites (as I later discover), but far more interesting. There has been no free press here for decades. The Internet is monitored and blocked. Ileana and Peter get their news every ten weeks in Bangkok, where they go to renew their visas.

“Do you go to school?” Frank asks.

“No,” Soe Myint says, “no money for school.”

I think about our spoiled children at home, our lax education system, the students’ sense of entitlement to good grades, the many functionally illiterate high-school graduates we see year after year. I understand why Ileana enjoys teaching overseas, in countries where education is valued, where students are eager to learn.

A military truck approaches in a cloud of red dust, its open bed filled with heavily armed soldiers, who roam, feral and unchecked, through the countryside, barking orders. We yield to the passing truck. I assume the soldiers are headed for Sinmayarshin Temple, whose golden stupa was regilded in 1997 by Than Shwe, on the advice of his soothsayer; Than Shwe, whose beliefs fuse Buddhism, Nat worship, astrology, and Yadaya magic rituals — an excellent witches’ brew for politics.

As we walk along, a venomous snake crosses the road, a slithering metaphor. We stare at the imprint it leaves in the earth. In this Garden of Eden live thirty-nine deadly snake species, many of which thrive in the abandoned temples of Bagan. Burma has the highest death rate from snakebites in the world — about 1,000 people a year just from Russell’s Vipers. Like everyone here, we walk barefoot along dark passages.

“King Cobra,” Soe Myint says, keeping a safe distance as the snake slinks away. “See it is thinner in one part and thicker where the head is.”

I try to stare at the ground from then on, but not for long, distracted by the splendour of the ruins, the brilliant skeletal frangipani along the road, and then, up ahead, a red carpet stretched to the stairs of a temple, the path bordered by red bougainvillea, and lined with soldiers who stand silent and forbidding in the sun. The children suddenly disappear.

Today was to be the start of the Popa Nat Festival, a festival that goes on for six days, beginning on the first day of full moon in Nadaw, which corresponds to our December. “Nadaw” in Myanmar characters transliterates as “Nat Taw,” meaning “Spirit Respect,” the veneration of Deities. However, because General Than Shwe is in town, the festival is not allowed.

Wherever he goes, a small army precedes him, clearing the area, setting down red carpets for him to walk on, lining these carpets with soldiers, like wild dogs keeping everyone frightened. He is enemy number one of the people, no matter how much he travels around, pretending to spread goodwill. It is obscene to see the money spent on pomp for this regime, for the new capital Naypyidaw, for the red carpets and lavish houses for the generals, whose disregard and disdain for their own people is staggering.

Bagan monks

We walk past the guards and climb the steps. This temple has padlocked iron gates at every entrance except for one — a security measure for the general, though we have seen no one all day. We remove our shoes, step on the red carpet and tiptoe inside, walking anti-clockwise through the long dark passages, admiring the Buddhas, stucco carvings, frescos. As we come to each opening, we find a padlocked gate, and soon we feel as if we’re in a maze and have lost all track of where we entered. A motorcycle revs outside, a warning surely. Then a wild dog barks, a man shouts, the motorcycle revs, other wild dogs join in, growing in magnitude until the air reverberates with deep sonorous woofs, yappy small-dog yaps, snarly Rottweiler growls, howls like wolves. A cacophonous canine symphony, an ominous soundtrack. It’s easy to imagine we’re locked inside. It’s easy to imagine a King Cobra slithering toward us. My heart beats faster, recalling the pack of soldiers, the ruthlessness they’re known for. My feet speed along the red carpet, and finally, there, the open gate.

We rush out, relieved, and avoiding the red carpet, scramble away from the temple. The soldiers watch us go, their faces impassive.

The two boys now reappear from behind a bush, eager to resume their guiding duties. We turn a corner and find a soldier facing us. Startled, we nod and walk on. At the end of another path, the soldier. The children are wary, furtive. They duck behind bushes. For the rest of the afternoon, no matter where we go, the soldier follows, sometimes surprising us at the top of a temple, his proximity threatening, like the wild dogs circling below. The children disappear whenever he’s visible, as if tuned into a collective memory.

“This is biggest temple,” Zaw Win says, pointing to Dhammayangyi Temple, a step-pyramid made of identical bricks without mortar.

“Look at the bricks,” Ileana says. “They are so precise. According to legend, while this temple was being built, King Narathu would execute masons if he could stick a pin between the bricks. Can you imagine? It was never completed.”

“No wonder,” I say. “He must have killed all the masons.”


This temple has dark long corridors — approximately twenty-five metres per side — surrounding an enormous central core completely filled with rubble. No one knows why, or whether this core is simply a buttress to support the massive building.

We follow the passageways around, tall narrow walls pressing in, and when we get to one end, where small, perforated stone windows let in light, Ileana stops. “You know what this reminds me of?” she says. “Pozzecco.”

I stop too, and think about that. Pozzecco is a small village in the north of Italy, where my father’s aunts lived and farmed various fields. Ileana and I visited in summers, lay on top of hay wagons, watching the thin dusty road winding among green fields. “You’re right,” I say. “The paths, the colour of the earth, the feel of this is like Pozzecco.” And I recall the magic and superstitions of those happy days, when we slept in the stone mansion, which our great-aunts had convinced us was haunted. “And the ghosts, remember?” I say to Ileana. “Scrabbling in the ceiling, over our bedroom.” I look up, where high in the darkness hang hundreds of bats.

“They had silkworms up there,” Ileana says. “You didn’t really believe the ghost stories, did you?”

“We both did,” I insisted, and recalled a memory within a memory — a visit I made to Udine in 1982, to my father’s ancestral home where his sister lived, and how, on hearing I was going to visit the great-aunts, she had dissuaded me from staying overnight, citing malevolent ghosts. It grieves me to think how heartless I must have appeared, returning after so long to visit the last two octogenarian great-aunts, with whom my childhood summers are entwined, and not even spending a night with them in that mansion, with its long dark stone corridors, like the ones here in Myanmar, decades later.

“Actually,” Ileana says, “I wasn’t thinking about that at all. What I was recalling were the times — maybe you weren’t there — when I went to Pozzecco with the boy cousins, who would dare me to do crazy things in order to let me play with them.

“One day, I was wandering through the fields with our cousins, and we found an underground passage, a fallout shelter — I think that’s what it was, or maybe it was a bunker for soldiers during WWII. It was a cave, really, with a very small opening. Of course, the cousins dared me to go inside.” She pauses. “We had been warned about poisonous snakes that lived in crevices in the earth, so naturally, I was afraid. However, I wasn’t going to let the boys get the best of me. I was such a tomboy!”

In the winters, when Ileana came to visit me in Rutigliano, she was considered too loud, too rambunctious, an unbroken pony who galloped through the house, broken objects and scoldings trailing behind her.

“And did you?” I ask, though I have no doubt.

“Of course. I was petrified, but I crawled in and it was dark and dank, just like in here, only the walls were closer. I thought a snake would bite me. Oh, they were so impressed with me after that.”

“I was definitely not there,” I say.

“One of the boy cousins was Australian,” Ileana says. “Tulio, I think his name was, and what I remember is his mother, who was everything I wanted in a mother. She took the time to sit with me, to teach me to embroider, and do all the things that little girls did back then. I wanted her for my mother.”

I think about the childhood longing for this perfect mother in those years when there was none. Yet we’ve become who we are because of our pasts. Would we be here, now, in this remote location? Would we have travelled as we have — I for years a vagabond musician on the road — my sister endlessly displaced, returning every year to an altered home? The two of us, rediscovering each other in a foreign land?

Early Morning Ayeyarwady River


At breakfast, in the morning, we continue to tease Peter about the binocular incident with the soldier, and blame him for our being followed the previous day.

“Careful when you’re in the pool,” Ileana says.

“Watch out for the King Cobra,” Frank says.

“Don’t go walking on any red carpets,” I say.

And suddenly, in the midst of our hilarity, arrives a pack of soldiers flanking a general, who strides directly to our table, as if he’s heard everything we’ve said.

“I am General Soe Naing, Minister of Hotels and Tourism,” he announces. He has a large white star on his uniform. “How long are you staying?” he asks, which feels like a trick question.

Our laughter wanes. Our earlier defiance dissipates as the twelve armed soldiers surround our table. Beside me, Frank’s face is set. I wonder what consequences there will be if he speaks up. The general looks carefully at each of our faces, but returns to Frank’s repeatedly. What could they do to us? I recall the statements we had to sign in order to secure visas, statements that say if we speak against the government, we can be imprisoned. Oppose those relying on external elements, holding negative views.

I listen to the murmur of our innocuous responses, to the wind through the banyan tree, the clatter of coffee cups against plates, the chatter of White-throated babblers, the soldiers’ boots on stone, the echo of growls, the barks of wild dogs around us, and when the general leans forward, his face in a tight smile, and holds out his hand to each of us, I watch myself from a distance, as if my arm does not belong to me, as it moves up to shake his hand. And the dogs howl.

—Genni Gunn


Genni Gunn in Myanmar

Ileana, Peter, Genni & Frank

Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. She has published three novels: Solitaria (Signature Editions), nominated for the Giller Prize 2011; Tracing Iris, made into a film titled The Riverbank; and Thrice Upon a Time; two story collections,  two poetry collections, and two translations of poetry collections by Dacia Maraini. Her books have been finalists for the Commonwealth Prize, the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, the John Glassco Prize and the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri. She has written the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions, produced in Montreal in 2007, and showcased at the Opera America Conference in Vancouver, May 2013. She is an avid traveler, and her experiences are reflected in her most recent book, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place (Signature Editions, 2013).

Oct 052013


What an older writer can do that a younger one can’t is erect, out of the merest wisp of chance memory and association, a brief, complex image of youth, a life, a satanic struggle (“I’ve tasted hell,” he writes sardonically) and ill consequence (you ache for that boy who runs from the spider lady to a milkshake—oh innocence—that later turns to alcohol). Note the apparently casual opening that rhymes (without telling the reader) spider/arachnid with Signora Ragnetti, the spider summoning the writer into the dark labyrinth of the past; the repugnant singing lesson; the precise oscillation in the text between spider and Signora (Ragnetti means “little spiders,” as someone who knows informs me); and the shape: October, fall, tenor—at the beginning and the end—and, in the last line, “spider, Ragnetti.” Sydney Lea makes this look effortless; damn, it’s not.


October’s warm for now, the truer chill yet to come. As it happens, an angler spider, trailing its thread like a fishing line, has just caught me this morning, in exact coincidence with my random recall of Signora Ragnetti, long since dead. Even gone, though, in memory the woman’s still an ogre, the one who terrified me every Thursday afternoon one winter. During singing lessons, fist on high, she led me, barely yet  turned tenor, through cheerless versions of Caro mio ben’ and others.

I arrived, cradling my folio of airs. I’d been sopped and darkened by smutted snow in that stranger’s land, Downtown. The bells of San Cristofero’s tolled a torpid portent of the slow agony ahead. I’ve tasted hell.

I hear it already: “How is this? You do not do so simple things I ask. O Dio, che stupido….

The spider thinks he’s found arachnid heaven. That is if a spider may be said to think, and even if so, in terms aside from food and drink. If he can, not knowing how I’ve shrunk, he has reason to find me quite a catch.  He’s likely drunk with joy, not knowing either how in those old sessions, when (cretino!) failure seemed its own long season, I was hollowed out to a specter. If he tweaked his thread, I’d rise. I’m only air in this nightmare, a whiff of ether.

La signora is five feet one at most, and perhaps eighty pounds. How can she be so huge, then? She wrests the door inward and lets me in with clickings of her tongue.

“So different from my son,” she growls, before I’ve so much as removed my soaking jacket. She turns to study the photo, which shows a middle-aged man with a face as set and stern as hers. She crosses herself and scowls, then sits malignly down. Soon, too soon, her left hand jabs at scales on her piano, the right one in that gnarled fist, as if it held a dagger.

Piu forte! she insists. I wince, as though from actual blows, while we do-re-mi.

“Disaster!” she spits as I grapple up and down those ladders: “Do you visit here for making such a noise, asino?” 

Another note, another Latin imprecation. I grow colder and colder and smaller. My mother, I know, won’t imagine my complaints, on my return home, as other than self-pitying puling.

Released at last, I cross the swarming street to buy a milkshake, icy, laced with malt, scant consolation for all I’ve felt go out of me. My hope is delusion; the treat seems to freeze the fear I’d meant to melt, the poison residue of terror, hate. In coming years, for too long I’ll turn to alcohol, in the same vain longing for numbness.

Once I felt the harsh lash of Ragnetti. Now the spider vainly imagines he’ll take me into his maw.

It’s not yet fall. The years have changed that voice she called a mediocre tenor. The liquor has been banished, and one might think I’d come to accept myself for what I am, no more. I want further to say, but cannot quite: Ragnetti, spider, I amount to something, have gravity.

—Sydney Lea


Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has just published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock, and A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Sep 132013


Tonight I’ve Watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

In bed alone



Eight a.m. August 13th. I’m sitting outside at a café in Sestriere, a small Alpine town in Piedmont, eighteen kilometers from the French border. The sun shines white at this early hour but the rays are unfettered by clouds or mist. Already the grass on the mountains glows like green flames. The slate in the peaks overhead glints like diamonds. Although chilly at this hour in this 2,000-meter-above-sea-level paradise, soon the temperature will balloon. In the meantime, I zip up my parka.

Down the road, my husband and dog are still asleep at our friend’s place. Further away, on the Ligurian coast, one son visits his friend’s family. In Lombardy, our other son explores the lake district with his girlfriend. Just a few years ago we all vacationed together. Now I’m here at this table, alone, hoping to get some work done. Instead, I reflect on mutability and my reading of the night before.

In her book of collected lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle makes the case that the theme of poetry from all cultures and periods, from Sappho to Wordsworth and beyond, is mutability. In other words, poetry [and by extension, writing], “is about love and death, innocence and experience, praise and lament, the passing of time, appearance and reality, stability and instability; all these marked themes are nothing less—or more—than mutability.” [71] While dissolution and the passage of time are difficult for the imagination to encompass, we have no alternative. As she writes, “mutability offers us no choice at all: we die, it is built into our wiring like those batteries designed for obsolescence.” [72]


I don’t want to be maudlin about mutability while I’m sitting here in this sparkling cleft in this green and blue sphere. I don’t want to think about how my boys have grown and are now off in the world. I don’t want to consider the wrinkle I’ve earned or the fold I’ve gained. I don’t want to recognize that summer dwindles and autumn looms. Nor do I want to ponder the paradox of the mountains themselves: solid yet eroding. I’m late on a translation I’ve contracted to do. I need to think about that.

But while I’m trying to concentrate on translation, a pretty little boy, blond with curls, one who reminds me of my own boys twelve and fourteen years ago comes into focus.

This twenty-first-century cherub looks like he escaped from a Venetian ceiling by Veronese. The boy carries a brioche, a glistening square of focaccia and a pink newspaper—Gazzetta dello Sport—toward a man who sits at a table not far from mine. Juggling three items in his small hands, he bites his lip with the effort. He manages to deliver the brioche and the newspaper to the tabletop but drops the focaccia.

“Ooof,” he says. “Scusa.”

“Che cretino,” I think I hear the man say.  He frowns, picks up the focaccia and blows it off.

The little boy smiles. Because of the smile, I think I’ve misunderstood. Perhaps the father said something like, “che bravino (not a bad job)or “che sciocchino (silly)”. I hope so, at any rate. It never crosses my mind that the boy’s smile is meant as appeasement.

Because of the smile, I can see that the boy has all his baby teeth. I decide he can’t be more than five. I wonder if the boy will be required to fetch their beverages next, but am relieved when instead he climbs into one of the gleaming steel chairs next to the man’s. He seems too young to be charged with fetching hot drinks.

Soon an athletic woman, presumably the boy’s mother, in a hoodie and short velour shorts approaches with a tray. She sets frothy milk in a glass cup in front of the boy, a tumbler of orange juice in front of the man, a steaming teapot in front of an empty seat that she immediately claims. At this hour, the waitress isn’t yet on duty. This is a do-it yourself café in this mountain-top eyrie.


All three sip their drinks. Shade recedes. The climbing sun hits my face. The white light has heated to yellow. I slather on some suntan cream and unzip my parka. I open my computer but instead of working I watch the boy and dream; a reel of images flashes. I imagine how quickly his limbs will lengthen and carry him off. Again I remember Mary Ruefle, who writes that sentimental thoughts “give pleasure—or put a lump in our throats—and they make us think.” [45] So I give in. I let myself consider how his parents will miss him one day. They’ll wonder where the time went. Maybe they’ll remember sitting in these glorious mountains on a beautiful summer morning having breakfast together. I have memories like these.

I shake myself and open my Word file. I’m considering the best translation for the word ‘regret’ when the little boy cries out and I look over.

“That’s mine,” he’s saying, waving his outstretched hands at his mother who is eating the brioche. She takes another bite while the boy hops up and down in his chair. “Mamma, that’s mine!”

“You wanted the focaccia,” she says. “And you dropped it. Now you eat it.” She chews, examining her vivid pink fingernails. Even from where I’m sitting, behind her and over by several yards, I see that they are slick and professional. A slew of bracelets—pastel-colored plastic beads—rattles on one wrist. On the other I spot a gleaming watch—possibly a Rolex. Around her neck is a camouflage-patterned scarf.


Maybe over time, I’ve forgotten just what it was like to mother a voluble young boy. Perhaps this mother’s teaching him to be flexible or not waste food. I want to believe that she has his best interests at heart. But there’s something not quite right. It’s as if the Venetian ceiling I imagined the cherub flew from now has a crack running through it.

“But Mamma.” From where I’m sitting, just a two tables over, I can see his eyes fill with tears.

She takes another bite.

The little boy howls.

In the scheme of sounds it isn’t a loud howl. But the boy’s mother reaches over across the table. I think she pinches him, but I’m not sure. It happens so fast.

His hand flies to his cheek. He whimpers.

“I’m warning you,” says his mother.

“Serves you right,” says his father.

“I want the brioche,” the boy says. “Can’t I have the brioche?”

“Stop it,” the mother says. “Now.” She snaps her fingers under his nose. “One. Two.”

But the little boy still fusses. I really wish he wouldn’t fuss. I don’t like the sound of his mother’s voice. My stomach’s knotted like the sweater I ruined in the wash last week. I’m thinking I should buy the little boy a brioche. What would his parents do if I bought their son a brioche? While I’m trying to decide, the father catches me staring. He frowns. I feel threatened, so I pretend to be engrossed in my computer screen. But I’m listening. The boy still cries. He still wants the brioche. I soon look up. I watch the mother take another bite. I watch her sip her tea. The boy flails his arms.


A woman in a white blouse and dark pants hurries into the café, tying on her apron, brushing past me. My papers rustle in the rush of air. The waitress, late for duty. I’m thinking that when she comes back out here to the terrace, I’ll order a brioche for the boy. But just then the mother stands and reaches over the table. Grabbing her son’s curls, she yanks him out of his chair. She leads him from the café, toward the curb.

“Stupido,” I hear her say. “Deficiente!” Then I hear sharp slaps followed by thicker thuds—either she’s kicking him or spanking him, I can’t quite see—a wall is in the way—and therefore I can’t tell.

“Oh my God,” I cry, leaping up, waving my hands, knocking my computer off the table. “BASTA! BASTA! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!”

This is Italy. Children aren’t usually disciplined like this, especially not in public. Nonetheless spanking is not considered child abuse. But I’m finding she’s overstepped the line. But it looks like I’m the only one here with such an opinion. Two old men at two different tables nearby keep their noses in their papers. A middle-aged couple within hearing distance continues to sip their coffee. No one else pays the slightest attention to the commotion—to the mother spanking, to me yelling. But the father hears me—his head jerks in my direction. I think he looks embarrassed. His mouth twitches. I can’t tell for sure though, because he continues to sit in his seat, stony like the mountains above, his sunglasses reflecting light.


The woman leads the boy back to the table. She has him fast by the ear. He has balled his fists and wipes his eyes.

“Ignorante,” says the man when his wife and son draw near, “stupido.” So he wasn’t embarrassed after all. “You deserved everything you got. Now you eat that focaccia. You hear me? You dumped it on the ground. Not me. Not your mother.”

Hiccuping, the boy sucks on a green pacifier while his mother finishes the brioche.

I gather my computer from the pavement. I’m afraid to see if it works or not. I slip out of my parka and peel off my sweater. I’m sweating.

A pretty brunette in linen pants draws up. The father introduces her to the mother. The three adults talk and laugh about the joys of vacation. Now conversation veers to the kid.

“Why is he crying?” the brunette wants to know.

“He’s terribly spoiled,” the mother says. “He wanted focaccia but then dumped it on the ground so he could have my brioche. He made a terrible scene.”


Meanwhile the boy’s wiping his eyes and is sucking on the pacifier. Snot runs down his face. His eyes are red. He doesn’t remind me of Veronese any more. The brief passage of time has turned him into an urchin from Dickens.

“Isn’t he too old for a pacifier?” asks the brunette.

“He’d drive me crazy without it,” the mother says.

“She’s a saint,” the father says, pointing at his wife.

“Yes, I’m a saint with all I put up with.” The mother laughs.

Soon another woman draws up to their table. Everyone kisses everyone. This woman’s wearing a white lab coat.

The boy’s mother asks, “Hey, do you have something I can give the beast”—she points to her son—“to make him sleep?”

“Ordinarily, I’d say not without a prescription,” says the woman in the lab coat. It appears she’s a pharmacist; perhaps she works at the pharmacy just down the road.

“But since it’s me, you’ll close an eye.” The boy’s mother whispers to the pharmacist, the women look at the boy, then both explode with laughter.

The boy fishes inside a pocket and draws out another pacifier. This one is red. He tries to fit both in his mouth at once.

“TWO pacifiers?” asks the brunette.


The boy’s father shrugs. “He’s only five.” It’s the nicest thing I’ve heard him say about his son. His son thinks so too. He climbs into his father’s lap and threads his legs through his father’s. “I’m cold,” he says. The father zips up his son’s hoodie.

“What a good father,” the brunette says.

The newly genial father rubs his son’s legs. He rips a bite-sized hunk from the focaccia, and feeds it to his son.

“There you go,” says the brunette while the boy chews, “that wasn’t hard was it? You’re a good boy, aren’t you? You got up on the wrong side of the bed, but you’re a good boy.”

“I’ll see about the sleeping drops,” says the pharmacist. She studies the boy, frowning. “But maybe he doesn’t really need them.”

“We ALL need him to have them,” says the mother. Everyone laughs.

My breathing speeds up. I want to tell the brunette and the pharmacist what really happened. I want to tell them that the mother needs medication. But I don’t. They’d all think me crazy. They could sue me for slander. They’d hear my accent and think I was a hysterical foreigner. I am a coward.


I press the on button on my computer. A strange click erupts but the screen lights up. It takes longer than usual to start and I discover I’ve lost the few changes I made to my translation.

I stare at the screen. I can see the boy, his mother and father engaged in bigger battles in ten years. I can see the parents not taking responsibility for anything, blaming their kid, telling him how rotten he is. I wonder about the pacifiers the boy might then use.


I want to be sentimental. I want to tell them. If you screw this up you won’t get a second chance. But as Wordsworth says in his poem, Mutability, they won’t hear me and my “melancholy chime” about change and dissolution.


From low to high doth dissolution climb
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.


Deaf and insensitive to the passage of time, the boy’s parents will see their own towers fall.

A German couple sits at the table behind me. I overhear them speaking English to the waitress. “We love it here,” they’re saying. “So green and sunny. So very friendly. If only we knew Italian better. Our stay would be absolutely perfect.”

I close my eyes. All around me the mountains loom. Soon the grass will wither. Ice will cleave to the hazy blue outlines. Rock will crack. Next summer, the crags will cast a steeper shadow.



—Natalia Sarkissian

— — — — — — — — — — — — —

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







Sep 112013


Today we have Lawrence Sutin’s gorgeous and thoughtful essay on Vladimír Godár courtesy of Taylor Davis-Van Atta, founder and publisher of the new & brilliantly conceived print magazine Music & Literature. The third issue, just out, concentrates on the work of Gerald Murnane, Vladimír Godár and Iva Bittová. Godár is, of course, a sentimental favourite here because of his astonishing “Sonata in Memory of Viktor Shklovsky,” Shklovsky being in many respects the spirit of place at Numéro Cinq. In an earlier piece at NC, I wrote: Theoretically Shklovsky is the inspiration behind much of what we try to do here at NC, art as device, art as content filtered through a mesh or organization or system of techniques. This sonata is lovely and tortured. It brings to mind that wonderful phrase in Joyce’s “The Dead” — “thought-tormented music.” Read the essay, then look up the magazine.


What does Vladimír Godár’s music sound like? The candidates for comparison that I’ve seen mentioned range from Claudio Monteverdi to Arvo Pärt. I could add further names—Igor Stravinsky, Valentin Silvestrov—but the comparisons hardly matter. The music of Godár sounds, to me, like the music of a time in which religious ritual has died and what was prayer is now dramatic exclamation, what was faith is now the enthrallment of beauty. The old ritual forms are often invoked by Godár, for those forms still hold music well, but Godár’s music is a renunciation of piety and a restoration, a worship, of the anguish needed to awaken our souls.

So Godár’s music sounds to me, at its happiest, even, with hallelujahs faint as angels comforting a child, like anguish. Anguish, like piety, requires form for full expression so as to be released, fulfilled within the ear of the listener, set free to circuit the mind and body, wordlessly to instill the balm of Solomon’s magic ring inscribed “This too shall pass,” a profound mindfulness, everything passes, but caught within poignant melodies and intense rhythms the anguish passes in its guise of the exquisite beauty of necessity.

That is the theme, I think, of Gilgamesh’s Lament for bass and cello. In his album liner notes, Godár tells us that he “came to the conviction that it was vital to work with the original text.” As that text is in Akkadian, Godár enlisted the aid of a scholar of ancient Semitic languages to create a phonetic version to be sung. Why not instead employ a Slovakian translation? Why deprive his native audience of its native tongue? The answer seems to me to be that Godár hoped for the exact tonalities that Gilgamesh might have let loose over the corpse of his dearest friend Enkidu, a primal man, for the sake of whose companionship Gilgamesh, the warrior-king of Uruk, forsook marriage. To feature these tonalities is to call back to the past as far as one can musically.

Iva Bittová (left) and Vladimír Godár (right) are both featured artists in the latest issue of Music & Literature 3.

Godár observes that he finds what is commonly titled The Epic of Gilgamesh “more theatrical than epical,” due to the prevalence in it of direct speech. The direct speech of Gilgamesh is directed at a god, is a plea, a loud private prayer. In Godár’s setting it becomes a chamber lament played in low darkness with no one to hear but the audience hidden both from the musicians and the god. The solace in the lament is that anguish is ancient and always in essence the same. Gilgamesh must submit to the fact that death awaits not only the friends of great kings but great kings themselves. Yet he did not consent to place Enkidu’s body in the grave until, after seven days of grieving, he saw a maggot crawl out of his friend’s nostril. And his speech is more tantrum than submission. Godár’s music does not seek to convey the tantrum of the text, for that is the business of the text. The music captures the slow cadences of anguish. In this, Godár, who lectures on the history of aesthetics, follows (as I see it) the indications of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, in which Lessing argues that the visual arts (and, I would say, music as well) must capture anguish by means of beauty and not by slavish adherence to human reality, which means that, in the famous statue of Laocoon, the seer of Troy, and his two sons wrapped about by thick poisonous serpents sent by Athena to protect the secret of the wooden horse of which Laocoon was warning, all three must possess noble stoic features (even though, as they are naked, the visceral anguish is conveyed by their constricted muscles) rather than contorted howling faces which would have ruined the effect intended—the catharsis of seeing appealing, rather than hideous, persons die. In like manner, Godár did not wish to scream out Akkadian as that would have negated the echo that his call to the past had elicited—Gilgamesh even in anguish would not have shrieked at the god, for the god, Enlil, a god of storm and violence, was already angry at both Gilgamesh and dead Enkidu (it was Enlil who had issued the sentence of death) for their hubris in killing the monster Humbaba who guarded the cedar forest beloved of heaven. Further yelling would have done little good; Enlil had shown his intent and his power. So in Godár’s music the vocal tonalities ascend just a bit, enough to be heard on high, then fall to the earth from the weight of their pain and form stones of sound for Enkidu’s grave. In terms of the phonological insights of the Prague structuralists of the 1920s, admired by Godár, the jagged contrasts of the Akkadian phonemes are an onomatopoeia (like the barcarolle form, suggestive of a rocking boat, employed by Godár in a chamber work for violin) as unique as the brickwork of the fortified walls of Uruk, a wonder constructed by Gilgamesh’s order, a wonder that, as he says in the epic’s conclusion, will survive him.

Viktor Shklovsky

The Prague structuralists were influenced by the works of the Russian Formalist (St. Petersburg branch) Viktor Shklovsky. Godár’s Sonata in Memory of Viktor Shklovsky was originally inspired, the composer tells us, by the desire to create “the form of a structured rhetorical composition… This I did not manage to realize, but I think the vestiges of the original conception can still be discerned in the work’s final incarnation.” What Godár meant by this in terms of this sonata I have no idea, but the topic is a naturally playful one for me. Shklovsky is famous for his insistence that creative writing depends upon the knowing use of devices, skillful techniques, by the artist. To write a good story, one needs to understand how to structure it so that it takes the readers out of their worlds and into the text. That structure has nothing to do with the writer’s personal psychology or politics; it belongs to the realm of aesthetics, which Shklovsky aspired to make more empirical, modeled somewhat after scientific research. But the negation of politics as an artistic criterion—and the implicit affirmation of unfettered artistic freedom—had never been a popular view in Russia, not in the days of the Tsar, and not in the days of Stalin.

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What I gather Godár means by a structuralist composition shows itself most clearly in a work such as Mater. A theme—woman, mother, the eternal feminine—serves to elicit his music. Godár makes his choice of devices—liturgical, literary, folkloric, a Magnificat, a James Joyce poem, Yiddish songs—from throughout time and without regard to their original cultural contexts. (Consider Godár’s Querela Pacis (“The Complaint of Peace”), dedicated to Erasmus, the author of an eponymous 1521 work, with quotations from that work set by Godár to the form of mantras.) The aesthetics of music survive with ease the present shift from the church into theater, the concert hall, films such as those for which Godár writes scores. It is the music, the tones, that are enduring, not the beliefs that they are regarded as serving at a particular place and time. The same will be true two thousand years from now. I look forward as far in time as The Epic of Gilgamesh is now distant from us, when samplings from Godár’s Mater bypass the ear to trigger direct neuronic signals to deep space travelers to enfold themselves with kindness through the long night.


It would be a purist philosophical idealism to conceive for the universe a higher, truer ear beyond our realm. To this ear, music would always be only music. There would be no need for structuralism because the intertwining meanings that inform music as they do all phenomena become irrelevant in the higher truth realm in which the ear abides happily without a head, because all music is interrelated as the medium, sound, is one. No matter what one played for the ear, it would form a kind of infinite occasional oratorio, as best I can conceive it. But here on earth the choices of Godár are vibrant and welcome. But as a grateful, musically untutored listener to his works I cannot say, though I seem to have written about it, that Shklovsky’s devices or anyone’s structuralism much matter to me. His music moves slowly, intensely, yearning for the primal ground of Gilgamesh, the tonal grace of the psalmist David. The itinerary is to my liking, the notes take me to places Godár could not have had in mind. Music can be given forms, but listeners can slip free of those and escape with the notes out the window.

– Lawrence Sutin


Vladimír Godár is known as a composer of symphonic, chamber, vocal, and film music, and as a writer of a huge number of texts on music and art.

Lawrence Sutin is the author of two memoirs, two biographies, one historical work, and one novel. He teaches at Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Music & Literature 3 brings to light the life’s work of three artists who have to date been denied—by geography, by language, and by politics—their rightful positions on the world stage. The Australian writer Gerald Murnane, a rumored Nobel Prize candidate, has been deemed “a genius on the level of Beckett” by Teju Cole, who opens this issue with a spirited exchange of long letters with the Aussie great. For the first time, Murnane’s entire catalog is introduced by top writers and critics, and we glimpse his three remarkable archives, which the author insists will remain unpublished until after his death. “The Interior of Gaaldine,” the infamous text that explains his fourteen-year absence from the world of fiction, rounds out more than 120 pages of new material on and by one of our finest yet little-known Anglophone writers. The issue’s second half is devoted to the Slovak composer Vladimír Godár and his unlikely collaborator, the Moravian violinist-singer Iva Bittová, who honed their crafts under the pall of the Communist regime and who only in recent years have begun cultivating worldwide audiences. Now, for the first time, Godár’s artistic writings as well as his manuscripts are available in English, alongside a portfolio of photographs and an oral history of Bittová’s career, as told by some of her closest collaborators and artistic partners. The issue is now available for purchase here.

Sep 102013

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane’s “Wordsworthian Sources” bears a title that slightly masks its poignant and human subject matter, that is, Emerson’s struggle to come to grips with the death of his beloved brother Charles from tuberculosis. It’s a beautiful essay, densely argued, replete with quotation, and full of link-lines to other essays Pat has published in Numéro Cinq, which taken together begin to look like a book on the Emerson-Wordsworth-Nietzsche-Twain constellation. What Pat does here is focus on the nexus of emotion (mourning), reading and tradition that helped form Emerson’s reactions to his brother’s death, the mental processes by which he dealt with his emotional surplus, as it were. Emerson finds, yes, hope in Wordsworth’s poems, but is not blinded by hope, is rather fascinated by the will to believe (that is, he foreshadows the modern move from ontology to phenomenology). He tries to honour his brother by setting his papers in order for publication, only to find them surprisingly inadequate. He even reaches for solace into a chilly transcendentalism, for which he is sometimes castigated. As always Pat Keane, immerses his readers in a world of the mind, a world of books (are they different?), the heady and inspiring world of great writers talking together.




We tough modernists are frequently put off  by Emersonian “optimism,” whether depicted as Emerson’s refusal to face hard facts, his lack of a “tragic vision,” or, more personally, as a relentless serenity and untroubled cheerfulness that can, at times, seem less admirable than repellent: an Idealist or Stoical detached tranquility bordering on coldness. There is, of course, some truth in this latter characterization, and Emerson will never be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in an age that prides itself on confronting dark realities and peering into the abyss. I come neither to praise Emerson’s equanimity nor to condemn his inveterate optimism and his more-than-occasional emotional chilliness. Instead, I’d rather try to understand where he’s coming from by exploring just a few sources of Emersonian “hope,” his ability, or determination, to find “light” in even the most profound darkness.

Aware of the traditions in which, and precursors in whom, he was spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally steeped, one might expect a Transcendentalist Emerson besieged by painful circumstances to turn primarily to his religion; or to the perennial philosophy of Plato and Plotinus; to the Stoicism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius; to the Milton who offers, directly or through angelic personae, recompense for even the most grievous loss. Above all, perhaps, one might expect the more “realist” side of Emerson to fall back on his cherished Montaigne, that world-renowned counselor and practitioner of tranquility of mind and a constructive calmness in affliction—especially since Montaigne was no more a stranger to what Emerson called the “House of Pain” than was Emerson himself, who suffered, in a single terrible yet productive decade (1831-42), a harrowing sequence of familial tragedies. He does find comfort in these traditions and writers, but I want on this occasion, and in this context, to emphasize the crucial importance to Emerson of his reading of Wordsworth, in particular as a source of consolation in the immediate aftermath of the death of his dearest brother, Charles, in 1836.

Emerson6The caricature of Emerson as an unfeeling man whose optimistic theory so blinded him to a vision of evil as to render him incapable of experiencing pain and suffering may be corrected by examining, through a Wordworthian lens, Emerson’s response to, and frequent transcendence of, harsh and apparently unregenerate reality: what Keats, in one of his remarkable letters, called “this world of circumstance,” a Vale of Tears we struggle to convert into a secular “vale of Soul-Making.” Like so many others in the nineteenth century, Keats was immersed in, and responding to, the same Wordsworth poems that shaped Emerson: “Tintern Abbey,” the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, the meditations of the Wanderer in The Excursion, and, above all, that Emersonian favorite, the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”—the ninth stanza of which was Emerson’s principle source of consolation in distress.

Had we world enough and time, I would also discuss some of the many short Wordsworth consolatory lyrics Emerson loved, as well as the two substantial Wordsworth poems, “Laodamia” and “Dion,” that he consistently ranked second only to the Ode. These two poems, both based on classical sources, epitomize Emerson’s attraction to Wordsworthian austerity and to elegy: a genre that traditionally balances suffering with some form of compensation. Emerson believed, as Wordsworth put it in the remarkably balanced final line of “Elegiac Stanzas,” that it is “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.” That kind of hope, allied with the Ode’s “truths that wake/ To perish never,” provided Emerson (who repeatedly alludes to these very passages) with light in the darkness as he struggled, personally and philosophically, to reconcile his philosophy with a harsh reality most painfully embodied in the early deaths of those he most loved.




In 1836, five years after the death of his young wife Ellen and two years after the death of his younger brother Edward, Emerson’s closest brother, Charles, succumbed to tuberculosis. The two had just been reading Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra, with Emerson—as Charles, the superior Greek scholar, told his fiancée, Elizabeth Hoar—“quite enamoured of the severe beauty of the Greek tragic muse.” To be thus enamored is to go some distance, at least aesthetically, toward what Emerson would call, a decade and a half later in his essay “Fate,” submission to the essence of Greek Tragedy: the will of Zeus in the form of “Beautiful Necessity”—or what Emerson’s disciple Nietzsche would later celebrate as amor fati. A month after their reading of Antigone, Charles, as though to put the beauty of tragedy to the test, was dead. Emerson wondered, as he turned from the grave with an enigmatic laugh, what there was left “worth living for.” Two weeks later, though declaring that “night rests on all sides upon the facts of our being,” he added we “must own, our upper nature lies always in Day.” (L 2:19, 20, 25)

Lying “in Day” and associated with the “light of all our day” in Wordsworth’s Ode, that “upper nature” reflected a higher law. Underlying all pain and tragic suffering, Emerson detected a “spiritual law” allied with Antigone’s pronouncement of an immutable higher law. In “Experience,” the great essay so closely related to perhaps the most devastating of all his familial tragedies, the death in 1842 of his little boy, Waldo, Emerson repairs to the locus classicus of that law: “Since neither now nor yesterday began/These thoughts, which have been ever, nor yet can/ A man be found who their first entrance knew” (E&L 473). Emerson is translating, rather awkwardly, from one of the most famous speeches in Greek tragedy. Responding to Creon’s charge that, in burying her brother, Polyneices, she had violated royal “laws,” Antigone archly observes that she did not think that Creon’s edicts, those of a mere mortal even if a king,

……….could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws;
Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live,
And no one knows their origin in time. (Antigone, lines 455-57).

This is the earliest, often-cited statement of the eternal, unwritten justice (themis): the inner, supreme, spiritual “law,” its origins unknown in time and for that very reason imperishable. The truths of this unwritten and immutable divine law are opposed to human, written legislation (nomoi), civil proclamations here today and gone tomorrow.  These are the ever-living “truths that wake,/ To perish never,” to which Emerson repeatedly refers, quoting, as he almost obsessively does, from the numinous ninth stanza of Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode. As Emerson had said earlier in this paragraph of “Experience,” underneath the vicissitudes of chance and life’s “inharmonious and trivial particulars,” there is a “musical perfection, the Ideal journeying with us, the heaven without rent or seam,” in the form of a “spiritual law,” revealed to us by the very “mode of our illumination” (E&L 472).

That “illumination” is allied with the assertion that “our upper nature lies always in Day,” a phrase that deliberately echoes the repetition of “day” in Wordsworth’s Ode: not the fading (in the poem’s opening stanza) of celestial radiance “into the light of common day,” but that Plotinian “fountain light of all our day”—the line of the Ode to which Emerson most frequently alludes. The “Child” of the middle stanzas of the Ode had been addressed as “Thou, over whom thy Immortality/ Broods like the Day.” Wordsworth was at once sublime, certain, and vague about the source of that fontal light; he gives thanks for “those first affections,/ Those shadowy recollections,/ Which, be they what they may,/ Are yet the fountain light of all our day,/ Are yet a master light of all our seeing.” It is in this luminous yet shadowy region, a region of mastery rather than servitude, that, Emerson insists, “our upper nature lies”: Experience’s version of Wordsworthian blissful Innocence, when “Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”



The central issue, as confirmed by the title of Wordsworth’s Ode, has to do with “intimations of immortality” drawn from recollections of our earliest childhood when, in Platonic and Neoplatonic theory, we were closest to Eternity. By 1836, Emerson was having increasing difficulty believing in either a personal divinity in the sense of a god external to the self, or in a conventional, religiously orthodox sense of immortality. He had only that Wordsworthian and Plotinian presence brooding over him “like the Day.” What Wordsworth and Emerson, like Plotinus, describe as intuitive gleams do not pretend to be “rational” demonstrations, nor are they conventionally supernatural. What then, Emerson asks in his essay “Immortality,” is the source of the mind’s intimations of eternity or infinity? “Whence came it? Who put it in the mind? It was not I, it was not you; it is elemental….” It is also, for a reader of the Romantics, elementally Wordsworthian, mysterious and yet certain; a “gleam” and “a master-light”—which Emerson habitually, and significantly, altered to “the master light.” This “wonderful” idea, he says, “belongs to thought and virtue, and whenever we have either, we see the beams of this light” (W 8:333).

This “light of all our day,” along with inextinguishable “hope,” provide the crucial terms, for in assuming what is both mysterious and unproveable, Emerson is falling back on Wordsworth as his apostle of “hope” and his authority on the intuitive, rather than the cognitively demonstrable. As he said in all versions of “Immortality,” beginning with the 1861 lecture on which the essay was based, he would “abstain from writing or printing on the immortality of the soul,” aware that he would disappoint his readers’ “hungry eyes” or fail to satisfy the “desire” of his “listeners.” And, he adds,

I shall be as much wronged by their hasty conclusions, as they feel themselves wronged by my omissions. I mean that I am a better believer, and all serious souls are better believers in the immortality, than we can give grounds for. The real evidence is too subtle, or is higher than we can write down in propositions, and therefore Wordsworth’s “Ode” is the best modern essay on the subject. (W 8:345-46)

“We cannot,” Emerson continues in the very next sentence, “prove our faith by syllogisms.” This is yet another variation on the familiar point that the “shadowy recollections” and “visionary gleams” of numinous intuition cannot be categorized or proven—“be they what they may,” as Wordsworth says in the Ode, acknowledging his own ignorance of ultimate mystery. Nevertheless, those intuitive and compensatory gleams of light remain indisputable—proven, as it were, on the pulses. Wordsworth, like Emerson after him, anticipates the related but more recent “Testimony” (1999) of W. S. Merwin:

I am not certain as to how
The pain of learning what is lost
Is transformed into light at last.

Yet, as usual in Emerson, who refuses to dogmatize obscurity into a facile clarity, what matters is not doctrine but the mysterious, yet irresistible affirmative instinct. As he says, again in his crucial essay “Experience,” it “is not what we believe concerning the immortality of the soul and the like, but the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance and is the principal fact in the history of the globe” (E&L 486; italics added). It is a matter, as Tennyson would put it in In Memoriam, of “Believing where we cannot prove”; or, as it was famously phrased by William James (who found that he could not obey his own imperative): “the will to believe.” Emerson was capable of correcting even what he took to be Wordsworth’s position when it came to the indispensable Intimations Ode. Mistakenly expanding Wordsworth’s comment about his employment of Platonic or Neoplatonic myth (making the “best use” he could of it “as a poet”) into authorial judgment on the revelations of the poem as a whole, Emerson, trusting the tale and not the teller, rose to the Ode’s defense: “Wordsworth wrote his ode on reminiscence, & when questioned afterwards, said, it was only poetry. He did not know it was the only truth” (TN, 2:262).


Though, even in the days immediately following Charles’s death, Emerson would echo the Ode in asserting that “our upper nature lies always in Day,” his own battered faith during this “gloomy epoch” offered little religious consolation in bereavement. We see the gloom in “Dirge,” a heartbroken 1838 elegy for his two brothers, his “strong, star-bright companions,” in which he envisioned, not a Christian heaven, but a classical or pagan sunset plain “full of ghosts” now “they are gone.” A more hopeful variation occurs in lines originally included in his long poem, “May-Day,” but subsequently extracted to form the conclusion of Emerson’s still-later poem, “The Harp.” “At eventide,/ …listening” for “the syllable that Nature spoke” (but which, aside from the “wind-harp,” has been “adequately utter[ed]” by none, not even “Wordsworth, Pan’s recording voice”), the old poet suddenly finds himself in the visionary presence of the lost companions of his youth:

O joy, for what recoveries rare!
Renewed, I breathe Elysian air,
See youth’s glad mates in earliest bloom…..

The “Aeolian” harp and “Elysian” air are classical, but Emerson is once again (if rather feebly) echoing the Intimations Ode. The recovery-stanza (his favorite) opens with the same exclamation—“O joy! That in our embers/ Is something that doth live,/That Nature yet remembers/ What was so fugitive!”—and ends with a vision of immortal “children” sporting on the shore of eternity. In the lines that immediately follow in his own poem, Emerson concludes by expressing the hope of an eternal Spring beyond the intruding grave: “Break not my dream, intrusive tomb!/ Or teach thou, Spring! The grand recoil/ Of life resurgent from the soil/ Wherein was dropped the mortal spoil.”

After three weeks of mourning the death of Charles, Emerson concluded that “We are no longer permitted to think that the presence or absence of friends is material to our highest states of mind,” for personal relationships pale in the light of the “absolute life” of our relationship to the divine. This austerely Neoplatonic perspective will emerge in the seminal if paradoxically-titled Nature, in that highest state when Emerson, “uplifted into infinite space,” becomes “a transparent eye-ball” and the “name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance” (E&L 10). This epiphany is Emerson’s partial compensation for the loss of Charles. “Who can ever supply his place to me? None….The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eye-ball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, “Experience,” written in the aftermath of little Waldo’s death, will proclaim the “inequality between every subject and every object,” and, consequently, the superficial nature of grief and love: “The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love.” There is a “gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture.” The soul “is not twice-born, but the only begotten,” and admits “no co-life,” since “We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others” (E&L 487-88).

Emerson’s notorious announcement, earlier in “Experience,” that the loss of his precious boy “falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473; italics added), is related to those idealist, sense-transcending “High instincts” at the center of the pivotal ninth stanza of the Intimations Ode. The offensive word, so deliberately and coldly technical, is of course “caducous,” which more often describes a floral or organic rather than a human “falling off” of connected but separable parts (leaves, or a placenta). Emerson’s point can be clarified, if not made much more palatable, by being compared to “those obstinate questionings” (again, in the ninth stanza of the Ode) “Of sense and outward things,/ Fallings from us, vanishings….” But if Wordsworth is abstract and austere in the ninth stanza, the crux of the Ode, Emerson seems, in “Experience,” positively cold, far removed from the spiritual and humane hope, expressed at the time of Ellen’s death, that he might retrieve that lost “beautiful Vision” by entering with her into what (echoing Milton’s “Lycidas”) he calls “the great Vision of the Whole” (JMN 3:230-31). In his new thinking, reflecting both a genuine Idealist vision of transcendence (as in the epiphany of the transparent eye-ball) and a need to numb himself to the pain of repeated loss, the human beings we love, the living and the dead, are said to have nothing to do with the “absolute life” of one’s relationship with God; for in “that communion our dearest friends are strangers. There is no personeity in it” (L 2:21; JMN 5:150-61, 170).

We may be reminded of what Keats termed “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” For this is Transcendentalist Emerson at his most aloof and least humane, a momentary scandal to even his fiercest worshiper, Harold Bloom. But Emerson was, fortunately, not utterly caught up in his own theory of a friend-estranging and personality-excluding communion with God. Thus, collaborating with Charles’s fiancée, Elizabeth Hoar, he first sought for his brother a literary immortality by trying to put the dead man’s scholarly writings—that “drawer of papers” that formed Elizabeth’s heritage—into shape for publication. He was no more successful than Montaigne had been in his similarly doomed attempt to adequately represent his friend La Boétie by posthumously publishing his papers. In fact, Emerson was shocked to discover from Charles’s journals just how “melancholy, penitential, and self-accusing” his destructively-ambitious and self-doubting brother had been. He found “little in a finished state and far too much of his dark, hopeless, self-pitying streak,” the “creepings of an eclipsing temperament over his abiding light of character” (JMN 5:152). Emerson’s own affinities, in precise contrast, were with a finally uneclipsed and abiding light, hope, and self-affirmation. Writing on March 19 after having read Charles’s “noble but sad” letters to Elizabeth, letters containing “so little hope” that they “harrowed me,” Emerson declared no book “so good to read as that which sets the reader into a working mood, makes him feel his strength….Such are Plutarch, & Montaigne, & Wordsworth” (JMN 5:288-89). We can trace his recovery from the blow of Charles’s death in a crucial journal entry—one centered less on Plutarch or Montaigne’s “On Friendship,” than on Wordsworth, this time quite explicitly.




Emerson’s study

Writing in mid-May 1836, after ten days of “helpless mourning,” Emerson begins, tentatively, to recover. “I find myself slowly….I remember states of mind that perhaps I had long lost before this grief, the native mountains whose tops reappear after we have traversed many a mile of weary region from our home. Them shall I ever revisit?” These “states of mind” are reflected in the conversation of friends who have “ministered to my highest needs,” even that “intrepid doubter,” Achille Murat, Napoleon’s nephew, with whom Emerson had “talked incessantly” nine years earlier, during his return from his recuperative trip to Florida (JMN 3:77). The “elevating” discussions of such men, and these men themselves, “are to me,” says Emerson, “what the Wanderer” [in Wordsworth’s Excursion] is to the poet. And Wordsworth’s total value is of this kind….Theirs is the true light of all our day. They are the argument for the spiritual world for their spirit is it” (JMN 5:160-61).

Emerson was particularly impressed by the Wanderer, the composite character in whom Wordsworth concentrated, not all, but most of his own thoughts and feelings, and who reminded Emerson of his idealist friend Bronson Alcott. In Book 4 (“Despondency Corrected”) of The Excursion, Wordsworth has the Wanderer draw comfort from men such as himself: men whose hearts and minds, shaped in nature’s presence and able to convert pain and misery into a higher delight, attain a humanity-glorifying form of tragic joy. Such men are “their own upholders, to themselves/ Encouragement, and energy and will.” But there are others, “still higher,” who are “framed for contemplation” rather than “words,” words being mere “under-agents in their souls.” Theirs “is the language of heaven, the power,/ The thought, the image, and the silent joy.” And “theirs,” as Emerson says of such ministering men and once again echoing the Ode, “is the true light of all our day.” Familiar with The Excursion as early as 1821, when he inscribed in his journal a synopsis of its nine books (JMN 1:271-72), Emerson would have endorsed the following accurate synopsis, by   critic Charles J. Smith in a 1954 PMLA essay on Wordsworth’s “dualistic imagery”:

Throughout this long poem, filled with the aspirations, struggles, and heartaches of humanity, Wordsworth tells us that even in the very midst of Mutability, loss and grief, there are, to the practiced eye, signs and symbols of eternal rest and peace. The Wanderer has the wisdom to perceive and the feelings to appreciate these symbols and has faith in what lies behind them.

Parts of the opening Book of The Excursion have always been admired, especially the account of the Wanderer’s boyhood (a Wordsworthian seed-time in Nature’s presence, much cherished by Emerson) and his tale of Margaret and the Ruined Cottage. But it was Book 4, “Despondency Corrected,” that many readers (including Lamb, Keats and, Ruskin; Emerson, his Aunt Mary, and his poet-friend, Jones Very) considered not only the best thing in The Excursion, but among the supreme achievements of Wordsworth’s career. Indeed, it was his previous experience in reading Book 4, and absorbing the philosophy and consolation offered by the Wanderer to the despondent Solitary, that made Emerson confident, when he picked up the latest volume of Wordsworth’s poetry seeking consolation in the painful aftermath of Charles’s death, that he would “find thoughts in harmony with the great frame of Nature, the placid aspect of the Universe” (JMN 5:99).

Anticipating Emersonian “optimism” and his precise dialectic of “conversion” in the essay “Compensation,” the Wanderer, a Romantic Stoic, describes in Boethian/Miltonic terms the operations of benign Providence, ever converting accidents “to good” (4:16-17). In his great speech at the opening of the final Book of The Excursion, the Wanderer tells his listeners, echoing his own earlier metaphor of the “fire of light” that “feeds” on and transforms even the most “palpable oppressions of despair” (4:1058-77), that

The food of hope is meditated action; robbed of this
Her sole support, she languishes and dies.
We perish also; for we live by hope
And by desire; we see by the glad light
And breathe the sweet air of futurity
And so we live, or else we have no life. (9:21-26; italics added)

Though far too heterodox a believer in the God within to be in accord with every aspect of the Wanderer’s religiosity, Emerson, through allusion and influence, in effect records his agreement with the Wordsworthian “Author,” in the coda to Book 4: that the words uttered by the Wanderer “shall not pass away/ Dispersed, like music that the wind takes up/ By snatches, and lets fall, to be forgotten.” They “sank into me,” Emerson could say as well, the Wanderer’s words forming the “bounteous gift”

Of one accustomed to desires that feed
On fruitage gathered from the tree of life;
To hopes on knowledge and experience built;
Of one in whom persuasion and belief
Had ripened into faith, and faith become
A passionate intuition; whence the Soul,
Though bound to earth by ties of pity and love,
From all injurious servitude was free. (4:1291-98; italics added)

Emerson’s reference in his 1836 note to the “reappearance of his native mountains” suggests his recollection of the final Book of The Excursion, which concludes with a mountain vision, an elevated and affirmative perspective adumbrated by a passage, earlier in this ninth Book, which appealed immensely to Emerson. I mean the Wanderer’s metaphor of advancing age not as a decline, but an ascent—a “final EMINENCE” from which we look down upon the “VALE of years” (9:49-52). Thus “placed by age” upon a solitary height above “the Plain below,” we may find conferred upon us power to commune with the invisible world, “And hear the mighty stream of tendency/ Uttering, for elevation of our thought,/ A clear sonorous voice…” (9:81-92). In his twenties, Emerson endorsed this attitude, that of a “poet represented as listening in pious silence ‘To hear the mighty stream of Tendency’” (JMN 3:80), and in later life he frequently alluded to the passage—once in the immediate aftermath of Waldo’s death—in advocating an elevated, enlarged, more affirmative perspective. Praising “serenity” in his essay on Montaigne,” Emerson again echoes Wordsworth’s Wanderer: “Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams” (E&L, 709).

This perspective—optimistic, providential, luminous, and elevated—is reified in the grand sunset viewed by the Wanderer and the “thoughtful few” (9:658), including the Pastor and the Solitary, in the scene toward the conclusion of Book 9. A sunset is seen from a grassy hillside among “scattered groves,/ And mountains bare” (9:505-6). The rays of light, “suddenly diverging from the orb/ Retired behind the mountain-tops,” shot up into the blue firmament in fiery radiance, the clouds “giving back” the bright hues they had “imbibed,” and continued “to receive” (9:592-606). In the shared spectacle of this mountain sunset, the natural Paradise envisaged in one of Emerson’s favorite Wordsworth poems (the “Prospectus” to The Recluse) seems actualized, so that “a willing mind” might almost think,

at this affecting hour,
That paradise, the lost abode of man,
Was raised again, and to a happy few,
In its original beauty, here restored. (9:712-19)

If he is recalling the conclusion of Book 9, Emerson would surely detect Wordsworth’s self-echoing there of the Intimations Ode. The “little band” descends and makes its way in the boat across the lake in falling darkness, no trace remaining of “those celestial splendours ” now “too faint almost for sight” (9: 760, 763; italics added). The Solitary’s parting words, he having “on each bestowed/ A farewell salutation; and the like/ Receiving,” seem casual: “’Another sun,’/ Said he, ‘shall shine upon us, ere we part;/ Another sun, and peradventure more…’” (9:779-80). The Solitary has been gradually converted from a recluse isolated and despairing to one engaged in amity and social responsibility. Even at its most morbid and misanthropic, the Solitary’s conversation had, the Wanderer noted, “caught at every turn/ The colours of the sun” (4:1125-26). Reciprocal salutation and anticipation of “another” and yet another shared “sun,” coming from that “wounded spirit,/Dejected,” indicates the degree of “renovation,” “healing,” and participation in “delightful hopes” (9:771-73, 793) that has been achieved by the end of The Excursion. Appropriately, Wordsworth gives the Solitary words—especially that repeated, hopeful “another…”—that echo the Ode’s hard-earned victory: “Another race hath been, and other palms are won.” Six years after the death of his brother Charles, pitting the latent power of the divinity within him against, and yet in concert with, the impersonal Fate that had just taken from him his precious boy, Waldo, Emerson ends one of his most justly-famous journal entries: “I am Defeated all the time, yet to Victory am I born” (JMN 8:228)

Though that audacity is, of course, a far cry from the acquiescence in the divine Will espoused by Wordsworth’s pious Wanderer, what binds these Romantic strugglers together is their awareness, however affirmative their vision, that life involves loss, misery, pain, and ultimately death. There would be no need to seek so ardently for despair-transforming “hope” if there were not ample cause to despair in the first place. Even “optimism” arises from an agon. “He has seen but half the Universe who never has been shown the house of Pain,” Emerson confided to his aunt while recuperating from tuberculosis in 1827. “Pleasure and peace are but indifferent teachers of what it is life to know.” In his opening words in “Despondency Corrected,” the Wanderer tells the Solitary that he is to find in hope the “one adequate support/ For the calamities of mortal life” (4:10-24). In his essay “Fate,” a more Stoical or proto-Nietzschean Emerson concludes that “Every calamity is a spur and valuable hint,” hints or intimations that “tell as tendency” (E&L 960; italics added). Affirmation and freedom are always under challenge from oppressive forces, ranging from the faculties of “sense” that would dominate imagination and darken the light of all our day, to the distinct yet related loss of “hope” in the state Wordsworth calls Despondency and Coleridge, Dejection. What we require, says the Wanderer, is a faith which, once it becomes a “passionate intuition,” liberates us “From all injurious servitude” (4:1296-98). Among the worse forms of human servitude is despair, the “Despondency” the Wanderer seeks to “correct.” He may not, even by Book 9, have succeeded completely. But the Solitary has come a long way; and that, too, is a victory.

As his 1836 journal-entry confirms, Emerson found solace, even Wordsworth’s “total value,” in the Intimations Ode, in the “blessed consolations in distress” promised in the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, and in the comfort offered by the Wanderer in The Excursion. When a grief-stricken Emerson, devastated by the death of Charles, hoped against hope to “revisit” his own “native mountains that reappear” after we have traversed many a weary mile from our “home,” he thought of the Wanderer and his various doctrines—pantheistic, Stoic, Christian—of all-encompassing hope, at length in Book 4 and, concisely, at the beginning of Book 9. But his mountain-imagery also evokes the mountain sunset toward the end of this final Book of The Excursion. Consoled and “elevated” by the   intellectual and emotional companionship of Wordsworthian men able to convert “sorrow” into “delight,” the “palpable oppressions of despair” into the “active Principle” of hope announced by that stoical visionary, the Wanderer, the grieving Emerson saw his own native mountain-tops begin to reappear, to feel again that influx of hope, power, and “glad light” which is, in the familiar line he paraphrases from the Intimations Ode, “the true light of all our day”: a spirituality incarnate in, and indistinguishable from, such self-upholding men, “their spirit” being, as Emerson insists, “the spiritual world” itself (JMN 5:160-61).

As I said at the outset, were there time enough, I would have discussed the two Wordsworth poems Emerson ranked second only to the Ode. Both “Laodamia” and “Dion” are austere, tragic poems that reflect their classical origins, and yet hold out a vestige of consolation, either despite or because of their rather severe Neoplatonism. Emerson coupled “Laodamia” with the Intimations Ode as Wordsworth’s “best” poem on at least two occasions: in an 1868 notebook entry (JMN 16:129) and, six years later, in his Preface to Parnassus, his personal anthology of his favorite poems. If “Laodamia” and “Dion” are less than popular, even, in the case of the latter, barely known to most modern readers, that may be more a comment on the audience than on the artistry of two poems which are at once marmoreal and moving.

Certainly Emerson found them so, placing them just below the great Ode itself, which he considered the age’s supreme exploration not only of that “fountain light of all our day” and “master light of all our seeing,” but of the mysteries of human suffering and mortality. In lines Emerson had by heart, Wordsworth speaks of “truths that wake/ To perish never,” intimations so powerful that nothing, not even “all that is at enmity with joy/ Can utterly abolish or destroy” them. But, as that “utterly” suggests, this is no Pollyanna version of “optimism” The pain registered is real, and that original fontal light is poignantly and irretrievably lost. And yet he insists, as Emerson would after him, that it is “not without hope we suffer and we mourn,” and that implicit in even the most tragic loss there is a stoic and mysteriously spiritual compensation, a denial of grief uttered even as the heart aches:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
SPACEBe now for ever taken from my sight,
SPACESPACEThough nothing can bring back the hour
SPACEOf splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
SPACESPACEWe will grieve not, rather find
SPACESPACEStrength in what remains behind;
SPACESPACEIn the primal sympathy
SPACESPACEWhich having been must ever be;
SPACESPACEIn the soothing thoughts that spring
SPACESPACEOut of human suffering….

—Patrick J. Keane


E&L  Emerson: Essays and Lecture. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.

JMN  The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth. Et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-82.

L  The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 10 vols. Ed. Ralph L. Rusk (vols. 1-6), and Eleanor M. Tilton (vols. 7-10). New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 1995.

TN  Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Ralph H. Orth, et al. 3 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990-94.

W  The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 22 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-04.

For the poemsEmerson: Collected Poems and Translations. Ed. Harold Bloom and Paul Kane. New York: Library of America, 1994; and Wordsworth: The Poems. Ed. John O. Hayden. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

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

Sep 072013

Diane Lefer

My old friend, and multiple NC recidivist, Diane Lefer is off to Belfast, Northern Ireland, shortly to work on several community projects including one involving former political prisoners. The last time we heard from Diane she was in Bolivia. But herewith we offer a glance at her most recent work, just finished up, teaching creative writing to elderly parolees in Los Angeles transitional housing. The essay is a celebration of their writing, a story of a teaching adventure, and a polemic, an ancient and honourable form. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Diane’s new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, is just out. Where does she get the time?


This essay will appear in somewhat different and longer form in Turning the Page, the book I’m publishing compiled from the writing a group of men on parole created in the workshop I offered over the summer with support from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Free copies will be distributed at public events in South LA, and the PDF version of the book will be available soon for download at the website Francisco Voices where you can also learn more about the men and read some samples of their work.

—Diane Lefer


Sidney's drawing for NC

The Francisco Homes are five neatly kept and well maintained houses in South LA, each with a yard, each offering the first step back to freedom for a total of about 60 formerly incarcerated men. These houses, run by a nonprofit organization, are the only transitional housing specifically intended for men who received life sentences but after decades behind bars were released on parole after the board of prison terms and the governor were convinced they had turned their lives around and posed no threat.

Transitional housing is a stepping-stone. One man told me, “If you go to prison at 15 and come out at 50, in some ways, you’re still 15.” That means there’s a lot to learn – and decades of technology to catch up on. Still, the men are anxious to move on once they’ve regained their footing. They look forward to living, at last, as adults.

For the time being, they attend house meetings and classes as well as regular meetings with their parole officers. They pay a low monthly rent, share household chores, grocery shopping and cooking. One man told me how much he loves going to the grocery store because he smiles and greets everyone – neighbors and strangers – in the aisles and at checkout, and these simple human interactions fill him with joy.

In July and August 2013, it was my privilege to offer a series of writing workshops for residents. Everyone was invited, at any level of experience, from men who’d been published to men who didn’t think they could write at all. We usually began with some conversation on a topic that might spark ideas. We looked at published poems, essays, and stories. Sometimes we incorporated drawing or improvisation to open up creativity in different ways.

When I first showed up, I had some preconceived ideas. First, I expected the South LA neighborhood to be rough. And yes, it can be. But men sit on porches, talking quietly; children play; people work in their gardens; the ice cream truck passes playing “Turkey in the Straw.” One Francisco Home resident said, with evident delight, “I live on a tree-lined block!”

Sidney for NC

I figured that just to get out on parole these men had probably spent many years keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and so I wanted them to have the chance to express themselves freely.

I admit I had an agenda: I thought no one knows as much about California prisons as prisoners and the formerly incarcerated do, but while voters and politicians make policy and law, no one really hears from these life-experience experts. However, I underestimated how cautious some of the men would be, reluctant to use their names or allow their work to be made public. The men are still under supervision, and some worried about repercussions. Some didn’t want to share their thoughts about the prison system because they are skeptical that what they write can make a difference.

One of the workshop writers spent almost 40 years in prison for a crime that I learned  – had it not been for the practice of indeterminate sentencing – would have warranted eight years behind bars. He cut me off when I showed how upset I was on his behalf. He didn’t want to think about what was past. This was all he had to say about the many times he was denied parole: “I couldn’t afford to get angry. If I wanted to stay healthy inside, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself.”

But I can afford to get angry.

I’m angry that one of the men served almost 30 years after he walked in on a rape-in-progress, grabbed the man and beat him badly. Convicted of assault, he got a life sentence. Do you think that would have been the outcome if he’d been able to afford a lawyer?

I’m angry that prison websites list a wide array of educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs – most of which exist only on paper or on the computer screen. When California prisons had real rehabilitation programs, the recidivism rate was so low, we were a model for the nation. These days, it’s pretty obvious why 65% of former prisoners are back inside within three years – though lifers, like the men in my group, have a recidivism rate so low it approaches zero. Statistically, a person who’s never been convicted of a crime is more likely to commit an act of violence than a lifer on parole.

father in a bottle by Aaron Nava

Programs are eliminated because of an attitude that to offer anything constructive is to coddle prisoners, by frequent lockdowns, the wardens’ reluctance to assign corrections officers to escort men to classes, class and meeting rooms converted to dorms due to overcrowding. Even programs that cost prisons nothing to run are hard to get into. I listened to one man who spent ten years on a waiting list before he was able to attend an AA meeting.

As one man in our group put it, “I had to rehabilitate myself.” But not every prisoner will be able to discover those inner resources on his or her own.

It makes me angry that pre-release planning too often consists of giving a prisoner a piece of paper with phone numbers and addresses of social agencies. The list is entirely out-of-date or simply incorrect. Phones are disconnected. Letters returned, Addressee unknown.

The fortunate find a safe harbor in transitional housing or treatment facilities, but there aren’t enough beds to go around. Los Angeles suffers from a severe lack of affordable housing. The organizations that serve the formerly incarcerated recently acknowledged they need to collaborate with organizations serving the homeless: the two populations overlap. “If you have no place to go,” said a man, “you go back to the streets.” And back to prison.

Men lose all their identification documents when they get locked up. They emerge with only prison ID that isn’t accepted as valid in the state of California. Negotiating a way through the bureaucracy to get a birth certificate, driver’s license or photo ID, and Social Security card can be daunting. Nothing like being told that according to computer records you don’t exist. It took one man in my workshop eight long months of persistent effort to get the documentation a person needs in order to seek employment. Why on earth can’t our prisons assure that prisoners get their documents before release?

It makes me angry that our jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals – confining those who had psychiatric disturbances to begin with and those who’ve fallen apart under dehumanizing conditions including long term solitary confinement – a practice recognized in the U.S. and around the world as torture. A friend of mine was beaten and stabbed in prison but he said nothing was as bad as the year he spent in solitary, not even allowed to have books or magazines. (As I write, California prisoners continue to risk retaliation, health consequences, and death on hunger strike to protest being kept in isolation for decades.)

So why weren’t the men writing about this?

One of the participants finally said, “We suffer so much from guilt and remorse and self-hate, nothing the State could do to us was as bad as what we did to ourselves.”

Again and again men said, “I have nothing to complain about.” Instead, the workshop writers wanted to stay positive, to think about what they can give their communities today and tomorrow rather than look back at what they took yesterday. They wanted to write with wonder and gratitude of the new world they had entered.

Lefty for NC

In “On Reverence,” his recent essay here in Numéro Cinq, Richard Farrell mourns the loss of the sense of awe in contemporary life. In the obliviousness of our daily pursuits, he writes, we fail to see the sacred patterns in the landscape we walk every day. “[W]e seem perpetually distracted. We cash in our humanity, and turn our backs to the sacred moments with such a blithe indifference that at times it feels as if life were one giant video game.” He confesses, “As often as not, I am oblivious to awe, wandering around in an over-saturated haze of consumerist fervor, kinetic schedules and endless detachment.”

I think of Farrell’s words every time I visit The Francisco Homes where the men live and breathe reverence. In their writing, they express gratitude along with their perplexity at people living free who don’t appreciate their relationships or the gifts they’ve been granted. Every week I was reminded by them of the pleasure to be found in looking at flowers or the sky, watching a mother cat with her kittens, riding a bike, being free. Sacred moments.

The men I met went through profound change while in prison. What is apparent when spending time with them today is their decency.

This is not to overlook or minimize the harm they did earlier in their lives. Their victims must not be forgotten, their pain and grief denied. But while well-funded victims rights organizations lobby successfully for longer sentences and fewer chances for parole, there are other victims whose voices also need to be heard. The first ever survey of California victims and survivors of violent crime found that the majority believed we incarcerate too many people, not too few. By a two-to-one margin, they favored probation and community supervision over prisons and jails. By a three-to-one margin they favored investments in mental health and drug treatment over incarceration.

Aren’t victims and survivors best honored and served when we devote resources to preventing violence instead of spending $10 billion/year here in California on punishing perpetrators when the worst that can happen has already happened and cannot be undone?

The general public turns out to be way ahead of the tough-on-crime politicians and policy makers.

Again and again, the men told me their stories: A man is put outside the prison gates, disoriented, with no place to go. He stops a stranger to ask directions. Offered a cell phone so he can make a call, he has no idea how to use it. He explains he has just been released from San Quentin after 29 years and instead of recoiling in fear, the stranger — usually a woman! — gives him money which he tries to refuse, takes him to the bus terminal and buys him a ticket, or drives him to a center where he can get help. Even a friendly greeting, the simplest of gestures, fills a newly freed man with gratitude.

I am grateful to the men of The Francisco Homes writing workshop for opening the doors and letting me in. I expected them to teach me about prison. Instead they reminded me to appreciate the beauty in everyday life. They taught me what it means to live without expectations but still, always, with hope.

—Diane Lefer


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







Sep 012013

Robert Vivian

Robert Vivian, novelist, essayist, dramatist & multiple contributor to NC herewith invents a new form, the dervish essay, which, yes, whirls with energy, mesmerizes with rhythmic repetition, and spins toward the edge of sense in a remarkable display of linguistic panache and wildness.


Here are a couple of dervish essays, a new (or new to me) form that keeps beckoning for some reason. What are dervish essays? I’m still discovering them for myself, but here are some elements I think are emerging to the light of consciousness:

  • They often whirl and spin by anaphora and other forms of repetition;
  • They seem impatient with subjects per se as they assume a oneness with everything they touch upon;
  • The prose energy is ramped up to poetry energy and they are breathless to communicate an essence;
  • They court nonsensicality and are driven by a deep inward music;
  • I don’t know what they’re about, really, or why I am writing them other than a deep contact with Rumi in Turkey;
  • And finally, they seem to want to embrace everything at once and are almost frantic to do so. They’re also quite brief.

—Robert Vivian


Crow Ceremony

Crow ceremony in the raw, renewable resources of ongoing dread and decay shining deep into the night in sharp sliver of bone harp the full moon grazes under crow’s feet clutched in fierce possession as morning becomes electric so cousin to fear and wonder, cousin to transformation and holy rays and raven-haired beauty married to awe and crow ceremony the spanning bridge between this life and the next in crow secret, crow kabala no crow shall ever divulge in honor of all earthy rituals made of entrails and visions, shattered glass crow must navigate, step over, give voice to, screech about, deliver in raucous cry washed in sacrifice then parted beak in soundless astonishment on the brink of revelation, and crow ceremony stark custodian of road kill and other leftovers always watching and waiting on wind-blasted highway in deep kinship with desolation’s bone shop and gut cart quaking over medieval streets paved with cobblestones, blood weary, spat upon for ages, crow waiting then hopping then waiting again within ten feet of high-speed traffic centuries hence but coeval to every century that was or will be and crow not subject to the dominion time for after the first death there is no other as I drive north in Michigan and crow ceremony the world over even now in stark re-enactment that does not end and myself and every dream crow meat for devouring and the gristle of someone else’s morrow and there’s something tender to sing about even in these that might brush us with a blue-black feather lighter than a dandelion spore, legendary birds of mythical attention to detail and ravenous for what we discard or run over as we become their foremost fulfillment and each of us their mostly clueless pupils, slow, reluctant learners of great denial they have to instruct again and again and again. And crow ceremony around the corner, on rooftops, power lines, blacktops, and parking lots and crumbling churches, late night radio announcers and their sad monologues over mystical air waves, crow ritual, crow practice in primordial agency, singing the body beyond corporeality as crow tears it asunder in most necessary department, crow swooping down over the eaves of every life and in this rank beauty some strange thing waiting to be born, and were my body any other frailer arc it would sink to the bottom of a gutter to be set upon by rats but rats don’t have wings and thus crow angels, crow watchers with no other claim to hegemony though they do not seek fame or recognition, and my life another crow ceremony and no one to ask about it, no one to consult, no medicine man or guru and crow with me every mile into middle age and something like remorse, faint waft of tragedy growing therein but also tenderness (here again breathing under the soft corners and bleak crowbars on murderers’ row) and also gladness, also fondness and sighing for the things of this world, and some day I shall become the property of crows in transitional space and so crows watching, crows waiting, hard brothers that prey over me with no haste and no waste, no need to even follow for they know where to find me and to find everyone, the whys and wherefores already accomplished in the book of the dead and sonic dimensions of inner speech teetering over into prayer as prey becomes prayer, becomes lament, shadows that protect as if with wings and what they shape and give outline to for there is no delicate option and then I was that thing I thought I would never be, an open wound like a cicatrix on the back of a slave earmarked for affliction, an almost nothing crow ceremony salvaged for me and the whiteness of this page a crow ceremony, the blackness of these typed letters, all the loosed flamingos of the heart that must go down in flames, the grottoes of old buildings, the rickshaws of old sentiments, the black stubble on a homeless man’s beard and the salt and pepper shakers from a diner called Heartbreak. And crow ceremony the piling up of phone books, cinder blocks, rooms where people go to die alone under a ceiling fan that whirls like a broken clock counting demonic time, crow the lines around my tired eyes and crow the bar that gives the thief his most essential tool for stealing, I have traveled to strange places and myself a stranger and I have never understood the mystery called yearning, called great epic desire and ceaseless wanting, and in this same pull toward the holy strange and holy broken there has always been a crow on the periphery just above waiting for it to play out, and if crow carries night in his wings he also carries stars, and if she carries stars then she also carries light, and if he carries light he also carries song, and if she carries song than she also carries wind and breath and the taste of clear water and obsidian stone so there is crow cycle, crow magnetism in the notes of all music, black bird, black bird, black wand of passing magic and terrific fate where the truth must lie hidden in another blade of grass crow will take over many mountains and all the variegated fields and the hearts that set themselves on wanting what they want so much, always beyond their power to name or to have, winged crow in lofty ceremony, carrying every last grain home to an even greater mystery hidden in another night and another day a sore, swollen throat away in siren song that does not end.




Stumbled upon the great fire and the great midnight and great column of sunlight shining through a lofty window whose brightness no hand can touch or hold—and stumbled upon all the other elements not listed in the book of the dead, other sere and sweeping contributors to the ever changing beauty of the world, water, wind, dust and root rot, and no time to put them into song or poem so they must be included here in primary utterance given over to gaga mouth, and stumbled upon the great mountains, lakes and rivers, warning song of the redwing blackbird and thistles lamenting their separation from the reed bed in brushing sighs waving beneath the sky, waking in the morning to singing birds also a gentle stumbling and rousing from sleep whose point of departure is listening and dew-eyed wonder, innocence almost, something no one could ever imagine vis-à-vis the astonishing fact of morning whose opposites are doubt and anguish like little knives whittling sticks deep into the night that slowly become strange talismans in the shape of vengeful deities, and stumbling upon I saw a sunset that spoke the name of God in panoramic splendor splashed marveling across the sky, and Father Nebraska, Mother Michigan, the two landscapes I have been given to stumble upon over and over again and the bumble bee stumbling upon the petal of the flower trembling beneath it like a spent lover and we drunks stumbling all the time upon every source of woe and laughter and the caress that sends us home to pillow cases wet with tears and the little girl stumbling on the playground scraping her knee to an audience of blacktop and sand traps though she’s determined not to cry in stoic preparation for lifelong pains to follow, which also cannot be imagined or endured though they must be and they will be somehow some way and this a shotgun blast of tiny miracles jagged as scattered bits of bright pebbles, and stumbling upon a great suitcase with decal stickers from various ports of call and dense and teeming notebooks within tumbling out expressing great desire and yearning, more wonder, more heartache in the form of questions and headlong declarations, “Let me be a window for you, let me be a way to filter light, I want to sing in a bar in gypsy sorrow and whatever has been given me to praise I will again and again in ever renewing vectors of worship, I promise, dear one, dear lover, the one I am going to cherish and adore”—and P.S. Androgyny, P.S. 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, P.S. The last time you wrote home it was August and the cicadas were invading the nightshade,” and stumbled upon the single word or gesture that will deliver you to the gates of holiness which are everywhere around opening on rusty hinges so stumbling a way for translucent scales to fall from your eyes like withered corn, and stumbling to trip or miss one’s footing, to stammer caused by great emotion be it tenderness or outrage or to be struck dumb and silent in the face of a great mystery yet another act of stumbling, sudden surcease and roundup, sudden heart-wall collapsing (Can you bless the night by dying? Yes, you can bless the night by dying) and salt to throw on every wound to ramp it up to trumpet strength blaring out all pain, and stumbling upon I had a vision of heaven that included the neon sign of a liquor store and streets strewn with flattened bubble gum like pastel amoebas swimming fecklessly against the tide of late night traffic, the rest of the streets refraining from song until everyone is down in their knees in the gutters, and stumbling in and out of love, stumbling forward, stumbling backward, tripping on a curb and stumbling onto an airplane to Turkey and stumbling when I disembark into the waiting arms of Rumi and stumbling the great mercy and the great forgiveness and the great recognition that weaves sorrow and joy into a hair shirt of incomparable fineness and stumbling I walk through the middle years of my life holding a broken lily not knowing where I’m going and stumbling I dream of a church whose vestibule is shaped like a horse-shoe where all the spirits wait in giddiness before commencing to moan and sing like Keith Jarret at the keyboard and stumbling I see the vast capacity for love in the hearts of the downtrodden, the holy broken and careworn, isolated and alone then I stumble in the doorway of a halfway house upon the great virtue waiting there for me to shroud me in spider webs, which can only be called tenderness though it partakes of gentleness and forbearance in equal amounts, and stumbling I stand with a poet on a dark hill in Vermont as we watch a fox trot by and the poet says to keep going no matter what even if it seems hopeless, and stumbling I see the four horses of the apocalypse grazing in a pasture and they are not fiery-eyed and braying, not blowing smoke from their nostrils like fired canons but switching their tails back and forth with their graceful necks bent to the earth searching for sweet grass to chew on, and stumbling I found I could go over to them and pat those same long necks shaped like peninsulas and all of us, the grass, the breeze and sky, the four horses of the apocalypse and even the earth takes this peaceful hiatus as benediction and meeting place, and an opportunity to look for garlands before we stumble on the rest of the way.

—Robert Vivian


ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. The second part of the trilogy was the novel Lamb Bright Saviors; and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, was published in 2011. His collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, was also published in 2011. Vivian’s most recent novel, Water And Abandon, appeared in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

You can also read Robert Vivian’s earlier contributions to NC, two essays on essays: “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” and “The Essay as an Open Field” and his play A Little Mysterious Bleeding.



Aug 132013


We live in a culture at war with itself, and I don’t mean the War on Drugs. I mean the thousand-year war between the rhetoricians and the dialecticians (as McLuhan had it), between the Ciceronian, elaborated style and the plain style of Peter Ramus, between writers who believe in the aesthetic joy of linguistic play over those who think words are just for communication (how dull and, well, Soviet that word can sound). Andrew Gallix offers here a dazzling and provocative note, a report from the front, on literary Modernism and Paul Valéry’s famous sentence “The marquise went out at five” conceived as a critique of the traditional, conventional, realistic, well-made (pick your own epithet) novel, or, really, anything that smacks of the prosiness of prose, of mere communication. Valéry’s line cleaved to the centre of the debate: Would you write a novel or a story or an essay containing a sentence as mundane as “The marquise went out at five”or not? As Gallix points out, the marquise has become a shibboleth in France for a certain kind of traditional (dull) writing. Not so much over here where prose dominates the market place. Something to think about. Andrew Gallix is the brilliant founder of 3:AM Magazine, he teaches at the Sorbonne, he writes for the UK Guardian. It’s a great pleasure to present his work here.


How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading WritingJulien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion PoemsRaymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.

—Andrew Gallix

Andrew Gallix teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris, and edits 3:AM Magazine. His work has appeared in publications ranging from The Guardian and Times Literary Supplement to Dazed & Confused. He divides his time between Scylla and Charybdis.