Oct 102016

1 NC Post


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



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

2 NC Post

3 NC Post

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

4 NC Post

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

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

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

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

5 NC Post

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

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


Now, 40 years later

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

6 NC Post

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

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

7 NC Post

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

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

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

8 NC Post



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

9 NC Post

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

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

10 NC Post

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

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


Billy Towns

11 NC Post

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

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

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

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

12 NC Post

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

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

13 NC Post

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

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

14 NC Post

15 NC Post

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

16 NC Post

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

17 NC Post

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

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



18 NC Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Gary Garvin



Notes and Credits

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

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

Permission for the photograph of slum housing in St. Louis, near the Pruitt-Igoe site, from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photograph of Le Corbusier’s proposal for a city from ArchDaily.

Pictures of the aerial shot of Pruitt-Igoe, implosion sequence, vandalized corridor, and Phalanstère from Wikipedia Commons.

Income graphs from “It’s the Inequality, Stupid,” Mother Jones.

Housing graph from J. P. Parsons Real Estate Charts. Note the recovery from the last housing bubble and his prediction of another.

Photo of Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health from “Gehry in Vegas,” BoomerReviews.Com.

The Obama administration has just released the Housing Development Toolkit to tackle issues of housing inequality. Introduction:

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:


Richard Florida breaks down public housing expenditures in “The U.S. Spends Far More on Homeowner Subsidies Than It Does on Affordable Housing,” The Atlantic Citylab. Excerpt:

The U.S. shells out roughly $46 billion a year on affordable housing—$40 billion on means-tested programs and another $6 billion in tax expenditures through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which supports affordable housing investments for low-income Americans. Compare that to $195 billion in subsidies that flow largely to wealthy and middle class homeowners via tax deductions for mortgage interest.

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.


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


Oct 022016

Firstclassroom 500px


“The same Society [of Loretto] will become, besides, an asylum or shelter for old age, decrepit or useless slaves, and whatever kind of sick or distressed fellow creature may call for their assistance, as far as this poor condition shall permit.”  —Father Charles Nerinckx, 1813

“In America, we’re all immigrants. This land did not belong to the white people till we stole it.” —Ceciliana Skees, Sister of Loretto, 2016

For over two hundred years, the Sisters of Loretto have aspired to sanctify what history books have termed the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky into a home for the Virgin Mary. The first nuns, the daughters and sisters of pioneer farmers, envisioned the bluegrass plains and open skies to be as pure and untouched as the body of their beloved Mary. But the land they chose for the new home of God’s mother was as ancient as the hills of Jerusalem and as bloody as Golgotha. By 1812, when the original five Sisters of Loretto, Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart, began teaching Catholic children the rudiments of their faith, the land on which their motherhouse rested had been mapped, contested, divided, parceled, and sold, with generations of its original inhabitants besieged by epidemics and invasion. After over a century of warfare between natives, colonists, British, and French, the fields of central Kentucky were cluttered with detritus of battles primordial and fresh. The land was holy ground for many different people, but it was also blood land. In fact, the first Mother of the Sisters of Loretto, Ann Rhodes, purchased the land for the convent with the sale of a slave named Tom. This commodification of human flesh is a strangely disturbing beginning for an order of women who hoped to create an enclave for good works and education. How are we to understand women who swore vows of poverty but nevertheless bought and sold other Catholic souls? Such paradoxes of intentions run through the history of Loretto, as they do through the history of America.

Embedded deep into the consciousness of white settlers was the sense that the seemingly limitless fertile acres of America were an untouched Eden, the earth at its most new, its most pure. Perhaps the Sisters rejoiced that they were building Mary’s home in a newly born world, exempted from the sins of their forebears. But they also confronted a land of ruins, of mounds full of bones and the spirits that had once animated them. They were of a vocation and a religion that believed it was possible to converse with heaven, to hear the call of saints and spirits. If there were ghosts in the bluegrass, surely they glimpsed them. What did Mary and Ann Rhodes think when they discovered clay shards and copper medallions while digging in their gardens? How did they respond to the risings and ridges of the earth, the palimpsest of a land that had once teamed with people? I wonder if the nuns had a sense of the age of the land they inhabited, if they tried to fit the relics they found into their story of the creation and redemption of the world.

Loretto itself is named for Loreto, Italy, where pilgrims since at least the later middle ages have venerated a one-roomed stone house as the childhood home of Mary in Galilee. Tradition holds that angels carried the home to Italy to escape the ravages of the invading Turks. The choice of name is telling. The first Sisters hoped to recreate an ancient Judaean dwelling-place on the American frontier. None of them had ever been to Italy, so the Loretto they envisioned must have sprung from sermons, gospel verses, and their own imaginations—a home built of sandstone and flavored with olive oil, a place of simple domesticity where a young girl learned and grew into worthiness and first heard the voice of an angel. This home of Mary’s girlhood represented their hopes for themselves, for the children they would raise and send out into the world, and for those who would join them in their eternal prayers at the foot of the cross.

Society of Loretto buildingsLoretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky.

Yet other people possessed competing spiritual ties to the same fertile floodplains of the Ohio River Valley. The Shawnee believed that the central Ohio Valley was the heart of the world, given to them by Meteelemelakwe their Creator for perpetual sustenance. In recorded origin stories, Meteelemelakwe had lowered the ancestors of the Shawnee to the island of the earth in a basket and instructed them to travel to the river that would be their home for eternity. To them, the land that included Kentucky could never be sold, promised, or bargained away. Since the 1750s, they had fought a series of wars with the British and the Iroquois in order to keep settlers, hunters, and land speculators from encroaching further west. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, as well as the Cherokee, had twice sold the land to speculators, and in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British had ceded it away to the newly formed American government. Despite promises and bargains, the British did not stop the onslaught of eager settlers who traveled on flatboats down the Ohio River or climbed over the mountains through the Cumberland Gap to reach Kentucky. In 1775, there were only about 150 Anglo-Americans. By 1800, there were 220,855. Within ten years the number had doubled to 406,459.

The original Sisters of Loretto may not have been aware of the intricacies of failed treaties and false sales with the Shawnee that precipitated their arrival at Loretto, but they were certainly aware they were not the first inhabitants of their Edenic possession. White settlers had only been present in Kentucky for thirty-seven years, and those years had been rife with blood and conflict. The War for Independence lasted for eight years, but in Kentucky it had turned into twenty. Thousands of people, Shawnee, Lenape, Ohio Iroquois, French, and British, had been killed, taken captive, or died of starvation. The Sisters knew that only thirty years before, other settlers had crowded into forts for protection. They would no doubt have heard the tales that circulated among colonists of women taken captive, disappeared into the dark wilderness. In 1780, only five years before the Rhodes family emigrated to Kentucky, over 700 Shawnee and other warriors, along with British rangers, attacked several forts and captured 300 colonists. The experiences of the captives varied widely, with many, especially women and children, adopted into native families to replace lost members. Many were so pleased with their new lives they had no desire to leave when given the opportunity. But colonists considered the natives akin to demons, and many women feared the threat of sexual assault, true or not. The Old Testament books that made up the bulk of their readings were replete with battles, carnage, and violation. When the Sisters read of the rapes of Dinah and Tamar, did they envision Levantine kingdoms of centuries past or the forts and newly built farms of Kentucky?

It is difficult to get a sense of individual consciousness from the first five sisters—Mary and Ann Rhodes, Ann and Sarah Havern, and Christina Stuart. Any surviving key to their individual personalities has become shrouded in hagiography. According to the legend of Loretto, Mary Rhodes was so disturbed by the lack of schools in Kentucky that she began teaching her nieces and nephews in her brother’s house. She soon banded together with two other single ladies, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern, and the three of them moved into two old log cabins across the creek from Mary’s brother’s farm and invited local children to board with them and learn their letters. After a few months they revealed their joint desire to take the veil and sought the approval of their delighted priest, Father Charles Nerinckx, a Belgian immigrant who was hoping to nurture just such fledgling female communities. On April 12, 1812, the women traveled to the Nerinckx’s home on nearby Hardin’s creek. Kneeling outside the roughhewn church with a statue of Mary imported from Belgium, they received his blessing and he pronounced them the first sisters of the Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were soon joined by Ann’s younger sister Sarah and Mary’s younger sister Ann.

Loretto main buildingMotherhouse main building

According to the early histories of Loretto, the first Sisters were hardworking, courageous, devoted to their students and the survival of their Order. They faced hardship with tenacity and never wavered in their faithfulness to the Virgin Mary. In both their prayers and their actions, they strove to imitate her compassion for the world as well as the suffering of her son. And there is little to contradict or augment that portrait, as only a handful of documents from their own hands exist, and none of those are letters, diaries, confessions, or any of the narratives that indicate character or temperament.

Of course, some of this reverential biography must be true—in order to survive in unfamiliar country without stores and roads, living in split-log cabins, anyone would have had to be courageous and not averse to hard work. One of the original cabins still exists at the Loretto Motherhouse, although it’s been deconstructed and reconstructed several times. A tiny one-room cabin, with wooden shutters blocking most of the natural light, it manages to be at once claustrophobic and cavernous, the testament of an extremely harsh life for the people who crowded into similar such rooms. The rain and snow soaked in through cracks in the walls and the damp rose from the earthen floors. Ann Rhodes died of tuberculosis in a cabin like that. The Sisters and their students crowded into spaces impossibly small and uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. Somehow they managed—folding up the beds during the day to make room for meals and lessons, cooking outside in a lean-to, planting and canning vegetables to get through the winter. All that was true. But they didn’t have to do it alone. And they were hardly as impoverished as the stories would indicate. While the pioneer Sisters defied the elements and renounced all their earthly possessions for the greater treasures of Heaven, they still retained ownership of other humans.

The first document to survive from the sisters is a record of purchase. In that loopy cursive of centuries past, Ann Rhodes recorded that she was selling one bed, two spinning wheels, assorted kitchen furniture, and one negro male named Tom to Father Charles Nerinckx in perpetuity for seventy-five dollars. She used the money to purchase the surrounding land, as well as to pay for repairs on the cabins. Father Nerinckx returned both Tom and the furniture to his spiritual charges and nothing more is written of him in the records.

Bill of sale of slaveBill of sale for Tom and assorted household goods (used with permission of the Loretto Archives)

Tom would be joined by others within a few years. Within the lifetime of Father Nerinckx (who died in 1824), there were enough slaves to merit two separate kitchens. An early set of copybooks from one of the Sisters recorded that Father Nerinckx had ordered that strangers were not permitted in either the white or the colored kitchens. In 1860, there were 70 slaves at the Motherhouse. In March of 1853, upon the death of Mary Rhodes, there were altogether 170 Sisters living at the Motherhouse and eight other schools and convents in Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and New Mexico. Since the other convents were smaller, there may have been as many slaves as Sisters at the Motherhouse.

The presence of those 70-some slaves places the stark purity of Loretto’s early mythos in further context. The brief references to Tom add another story, of more than 70 other stories stitched into and around the central narrative of early Loretto. But those stories are shadows, lost on the edges of old diaries, fallen in between the ripped creases in letters. We know the occasional name, the occasional number, but we don’t have any written memories relating what life was like for those who lived, worked, prayed, and died in the service of the Sisters at the Motherhouse.

Everything is conjecture, based on comparisons and built around blank spaces. But Loretto rose from two cabins in 1812 to a sprawling estate that was both a school, a house of worship, and a fully functioning self-sustaining farm community, and slaves were responsible for much of that achievement. Their labor also contributed to the flourishing of the larger Catholic community in Kentucky—owning slaves gave the Sisters the free hours to teach Catholic children, which was their central goal. They could not have fulfilled their mission without slaves to till their grounds and tend to their laundry, harvest their corn crop, milk the cows, and see to the never-ending labor of an extensive farm.

The Sisters of Loretto bought and sold slaves, and some received them as inheritances from family members. According to her father’s will, Mary Rhodes received “a boy named George, a girl named Anna, and one feather bed and other furniture.” New postulants also brought slaves along when they joined, as part of their dowries to the institution, such as the four women who joined in 1817, bringing ten slaves with them. Many of their transactions’ records were destroyed in a fire, but at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, a convent of similar size, an entry for the annals in 1840 records that “they bought five negro men; two women, two girls and two boys . . . . The prices of hire were also very high; and the Council decided it was better to buy servants for the farm etc., then pay so much for hire and often get bad ones.” In the same year, Catherine Spaulding, the foundress of the Charity convent, sent money back to the Sisters for the purchase of two girls. She was the same woman who had declared that, “our Community must be the center from which all our good works must emanate.”

One of the hallmarks of slave experiences was a marriage of Christian religion with native African practices, memory, and experience merged into a distinctly African-American creation. This was true regardless of denomination. How do we understand the lived moments of spirituality for individuals enslaved in a religious house? Throughout Kentucky, masters and slaves worshipped in the same churches, with slaves in the back or up on a balcony. Father Nerinckx had insisted that the slaves in his parishes, which included Loretto, receive the sacraments so if they believed in the teachings of the church they served, they knew their souls belonged only to God. They were washed with the same water at birth and departed their bodies to the same rites. Regardless of whether slaves accepted their status or rebelled in their hearts, they participated in the rituals of their masters. And judging by the numbers of African-Americans who remained Catholic after emancipation, they imbibed the meaning of those rituals. African-American Catholics didn’t split off into their own congregations, unlike Protestants who formed specifically black denominations, historically spoken of as the Black Church. Catholics insisted on communion within the larger body of Christ.

Living as a slave in a house of education may have provided opportunities, even if only grasped in stolen moments. Another scribbled statement, from Father Nerinckx, copied in a notebook by an anonymous hand: “Permission is given for the sisters to instruct colored women and girls, but they may not converse with them without the superior’s permission, and the superior should be vigilant that no disorder occur through her negligence.” Unlike other states, it was never illegal to teach slaves to read and write in Kentucky.

Given that some slaves in Loretto were literate, it’s hard not to wonder what they may have read and how their reading affected their identities. It’s tempting to imagine slaves at Loretto developing subversive ideas through books. Abolitionist literature existed in Kentucky, and it’s not impossible (although impossible to prove) that some of it made its way into the kitchens, laundry, and slave quarters of Loretto. Beginning in 1822, the Kentucky Abolition Society regularly published a newspaper, and of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold 300,000 copies the first year of its publication. Even if none of these works ever reached the confines of Loretto, however. there was no shortage of bibles, and biblical stories, with tales of Israelites yearning to be free from bondage and the Lord hearing their prayers, were among the most subversive in a slave-holding society. The religion of the Sisters preached equality before God, equality among the members of the body of Christ, however they may have practiced it. And slaves and Sisters alike must have recognized this contradiction. If black women were the ones more likely to be literate, as Nerinckx’s memo suggests, than the spiritual hypocrisy they faced was even more baffling. The lessons they learned in the bible as well as those they received during the liturgy directly contradicted social dictates about the worth of both their souls and their bodies.

The female slaves occupied a strange space at Loretto. According to historian Deborah Gray White, in popular imagination, the black female body was oversexed, as ripe for exploitation as it was devoid of virtue. The same society that prized white female chastity valued black women as objects of male lust and as breeding sows to provide more property. Owners had no stake in preserving black virginity. At a convent, the contrast between the different conceptions of womanhood could hardly have been more starkly apparent. The nuns possessed the privilege of control. In the days before effective birth control, monastic vows offered women a socially approved alternative to dangerous and potentially tragic cycles of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and childrearing. Vowed women controlled their bodies, tempering them with fasting and long hours of prayer, but never ceding physical or legal control to a man.

Black female slaves, however, were not the owners of their own bodies. They could hardly make decisions about their virtue when they could be married off and sold away at another’s whim. In 1837, at the neighboring Sisters of Charity, the Sisters, “resolved that the black girl Matilda be sold for $550 to a catholic who will not send her down River.” “Down River” referred to the Mississippi River, the main conduit into the deep South. Slaves sold down the river faced separation from their families as well as increasingly brutal labor conditions on cotton plantations.

Female slaves also faced sexual violence from white men and black slaves alike. And yet the female slaves at Loretto found themselves serving other women whose flesh had been demarcated as not only privileged, but sacred. A young black woman could wonder, surveying the untouched bodies of her communal mistresses, am I not a virgin too? And yet that virginity was somehow a less perfect offering for the God whose waters had baptized them both.


Dolors of Mary

Loretto was meant to be the home of the Virgin Mary, but Kentucky is not Nazareth, and its landscape bears the scars of its twinned worlds. A biography of Mary’s sorrows, rendered in marble, lines the path to the cemetery at the Motherhouse. The Dolors of Mary, as they are known, trace the holy family from the flight into Egypt through the tortured steps of the Passion. Artistic tradition limits the sculptures to seven, but each tangle of stone limbs bespeaks a lifetime of maternal care, from the loss of her child in the Temple at Jerusalem to her final harrowing witness. At the fourth station, Mary meets Jesus in the streets as he carries the cross on his back. They lean into each other in an embrace, the sun and the wind driving against them, the temple as their sky. She helps him bear the cross just for a moment but knows she must relinquish him to his fate and its weight.

If you follow the path of the Dolors to the end, you find yourself at a rough stone slab about the height of a tall person that rises above the gravestones of deceased Sisters, a memorial decorated with a handsome brass plaque featuring a relief row of African-featured profiles—women in headscarves, an old man with a worn expression, a young child with round cheeks. It has stood there since 2000, bearing all the known names of the slaves at Loretto, names gleaned from archives, from contracts, handwritten in faded ink, slanted antiquated handwriting, catalogued in acid-free boxes numbered on shelves in the archives. Clearly the names listed on the stone are just fragments of memories, brief references in bills of sale— “Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, The Drury Family of Ten slaves, Anna and George, the slaves inherited in 1838 by Sister Laurentia Buckman . . . And all those whose names have been forgotten.”

Loretto Memorial

The placement of the Dolors and the memorial stone together perfectly encapsulates the paradox of slavery at Loretto. The Sisters of Loretto sorrowed with Mary and suffered with Jesus. That moment existed eternally and defined their entire identity, including their prayer life and their earthly mission. To that end, they created their own forms of suffering to emphasize with Jesus—asceticism in food, sleep, dress, separation from friends and relatives, and obedience to the rule and will of superiors. But who embodied sorrow and suffering more than their slaves? Tom, Aunt Gracy, Aunt Bell, and all the other men and women of Loretto enacted the torments of the Cross on a daily basis, with their forced labors and subjugated wills. In the reminders of their inferiority, whether in the form of cruel taunts, harsh censure, or gentle explanation, they lived out the experiences of Jesus, tormented and insulted on the road to Calvary. And they bore a Cross from the moment of birth. One African-American spiritual, with clear Catholic overtones, equates the affliction of slavery—the hollering and scolding of masters—with the burden of the Cross.

I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
Done wid driber’s dribin’ …
Done wid massa’s hollerin’ …
Done wid missus’ scoldin’ …
I want some valiant soldier here … To help me bear de cross
O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary, hail! O hail, Mary hail!
To help me bear de cross.

The sufferer cries out to Mary, who, in Catholic literature and liturgy, is the archetype of sorrow. How many sorrowing mothers watched their children sold away from them? Watched the children left to them broken in body, in the fields, at the whipping post? While the Sisters sorrowed with Mary, did the slaves hope that Mary sorrowed with them?


Loretto came of age alongside the state of Kentucky and indeed, the entire United States, so to get lost in its grounds and to dig through the extensive archives is to confront the paradox of American history. And when we study that history, when we read the names on memorial stones or dig into the sinews of the earth, we learn that we are a species of dark hearts and infinite cruelties, with conflict woven in our souls. We also long for salvation, whoever we are, and have composed an infinite variety of paths back to the sky or into the ground, myths of suffering and redemption, and stories of sin and forgiveness. Our first hope for atonement, for the bodies broken and displaced on a multitude of crosses, for the voices disappeared and the records lost, is acknowledgment. And once we have built the memorial stones and reached the ends of the records, what then?

Sisters of Loretto Graveyard

Many thanks to the Sisters of Loretto and their co-members, especially Eleanor Craig, Susan Classen, Antionette Doyle, and Ceciliana Skees, for their candor and their generosity.

— Laura Michele Diener

Works Consulted

Barnes, Mary Matilda SL. One Hundred and Fifty Years. Loretto Motherhouse Archives, Nerinx, KY.

Boles, John B. Religion in Antebellum Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. Print.

Butler, Anne M. Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Campbell, Joan SL. Loretto: A Early American Congregation in the Antebellum South. St. Louis: Bluebird Publishing, 2015. Print.

Joan Chittester, Ed. Climb along the Cutting Edge: An Analysis of Change in Religious Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1977. Print.

Copeland, M. Shawn, Ed. Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

Gollar, C. “Catholic slaves and the slaveholders in Kentucky.” Catholic Historical Review [serial online]. January 1998;84 (1 ):42. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 8, 2016.

Harrison, Lowell R. and Clotter, James C, Eds. A New History of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Hogan, Margaret A. Sister Servants: Catholic Women Religious in Antebellum Kentucky. Diss, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008.

I Am the Way, Constitutions of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Nerinx, KY, 1997. Print.

Lakomäki, Sami. Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.

Lewis, R. Barry, Ed. Kentucky Archaeology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Print.

The Loretto Community. A Century of Change: 1912-2012, Loretto’s Second Century. Point Reyes Station, CA: Chardon Press, 2012. Print.

Suenens, Leo Joseph, Card., The Nun in the World: Religion and the Apostolate. Westminster, MI: Newman Press, 1963. Print.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985. Print.

Laura Michele Diener author photo

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



Sep 022016

With Uncle Henry's boys at The Knoll c.1950With Uncle Henry’s boys at The Knoll, c.1950


‘Wind it up again,’ I say to my big sister, and she rapidly turns the silver handle of Auntie Essie’s wind-up gramophone. It’s set in the top of a beautiful wooden cabinet. The doors beneath swing back to reveal shelves of records, glossy black seventy-eights in their thin brown paper sleeves, each with its round cut-out peephole through which I can see the record label and the little dog listening to his master’s voice.

The black lacquered cabinet is almost taller than I am. When I push up the lid it clicks open. I can just see the turntable, covered with green baize, and the twisting silver arm with its round head, and the glittering needles higgledy-piggledy in the container like an egg cup, set in beside the on/off lever. ‘Now change that needle often,’ Auntie Essie says, ‘or you’ll ruin those records.’ She’s not happy that we’re playing with the gramophone in the big lounge room with its elegant arm chairs and those large round Jap-silk cushions of scarlet and midnight blue. I expect she wasn’t allowed in there when she was growing up. But my Uncle Henry said, ‘Of course they can play in there. It isn’t a morgue!’

The deep groaning voice emerging from the cabinet gradually rises in pitch as my sister turns the handle until it’s Nellie Melba singing ‘One Fine Day’ in a shrill reedy voice. But soon she slows again to a drunken drawl. My sister cranks it up once more and Nellie soars to greater heights. But sometimes it isn’t Nellie; it’s that man called Gigli or the other one called Caruso. They sing sad songs from far away, amongst all that crackling. The labels say things like ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘Turandot’ but that’s some foreign language.

There are heaps more records. My mother says they’re mostly popular songs and dance music from the 1920s and 30s when Auntie Essie and all her brothers were growing up. There’s one dance called ‘Black Bottom’. I think that sounds a bit rude. And there are Charlestons, which I love, and Foxtrots and Two Steps, whatever they are. My favourite record, apart from ‘One Fine Day’, is a song I like to sing:

‘My dog loves your dog,
And your dog loves my dog.
Both our doggies love each other
Why can’t we?’



Auntie Essie lives with Grandfather at The Knoll. It stands on top of the hill overlooking the lake at 99 The Esplanade, Speers Point. We have to go there for holidays. The gloomy house is where my father grew up with Essie and his four brothers: my Uncle Art, Uncle Henry, Uncle Aub and Uncle Griff. They call Essie ‘Sis’ but her real name’s Ethel.

The Knoll 480pxThe Knoll

Thomas family and Vauxhall Tourer c1951Essie on the right beside my father and me. My sister seated by Grandfather, Uncle Aub and the Vauxhall Tourer, c.1951

Auntie Essie sits in the back room on the hard brown armchair by the wireless, listening to the serials. She turns the volume up high because she’s a bit deaf although she’s the same age as my mother and that’s not old. Her favourite serial’s called ‘When a Girl Marries’. At other times she sits reading love stories about doctors and nurses from the English Woman’s Weekly, and she’s always smoking those Capstan cigarettes. My mother doesn’t smoke or hardly ever (only when her friend Daisy comes to stay) and she doesn’t read love stories in magazines. She reads books.

Essie’s fingers are stained yellow and so are her big front teeth. My mother says it’s from the nicotine. She has permed yellow hair but I don’t think that’s the nicotine. She wears sensible lace-up shoes because she’s a nurse and sensible clothes and hats when she goes out.

It’s always dark and musty at The Knoll and there’s the smell of dank seaweed from the lake, moth balls from the cupboards and that cigarette smoke, mixed with perfumes: lantana growing wild up the gully, and frangipani blossoms floating in the black lacquered bowl on the traymobile in the dining room.

Essie doesn’t swim in the lake although it’s just down the bottom of the steep driveway. I’ve never seen her in a swimming costume—but we often go down to the lake with our mother and sometimes with our father when he doesn’t have to be back home, doing the mine inspections. Mother looks glamorous in her home-made floral swimming costume and her wide black hat. We have to wade out through that slimy black sea grass. It’s like thousands of black spiders under water waving their legs.

Beside the lake with my father c1953At the lake with my father, c.1953

My mother thinks it’s a nightmare having to stay at The Knoll for a fortnight. ‘Now mind your Ps and Qs,’ she says to us because Auntie Essie’s a stickler for manners, so we always have to be minding them, especially at the dinner table. You have to know how to use the butter knife and where to put the salt when you’ve fished it out of the little cut-glass salt cellar with the tiny silver salt spoon. You’re not to sprinkle it over the food like Uncle Aub does. He taps the little spoon with his fork and the salt goes everywhere. My mother says this makes Auntie Essie go apoplectic.

On Mondays Essie cooks liver and bacon, Tuesdays it’s tripe in white sauce, Wednesdays it’s sausages and gravy, Thursdays steak and onions—and it’s always a roast on Sundays. She keeps the chocolate biscuits in a big old Bushell’s Coffee jar locked in the kitchen cupboard, and the starched tablecloths and serviettes and the silver serviette rings and the cruet set locked in the sideboard, and the sheets and towels locked in the press outside the bathroom, and her clothes locked in the black lacquered wardrobe in her bedroom. She has all the keys on a large wire ring in her apron pocket. They jangle when she pulls them out.

I know her wardrobe’s full of long satin and shot-silk evening dresses and old silver and gold evening shoes and a fox-fur like my mother’s only the fox still has its head and it has glass eyes. I don’t think Auntie Essie goes to balls any more but she’s quite slim when she’s wearing her corset. My mother says it’s just a pity Essie’s been left on the shelf, looking after Grandfather, but she’s a very good aunt because she remembers birthdays and Christmas. Every year she sends me another pair of frilly shortie pyjamas in flamingo-pink nylon.


Mrs Whitter

Mrs Whitter is the cleaner. She’s been cleaning The Knoll since Auntie Essie was a girl. She always did the washing, and ran the Ewbank Carpet Sweeper over the hall runners and the Oriental carpets in the lounge room, the bedrooms and the dining room, and mopped the black lacquered wooden floors where they showed, and polished the silver with Silvo and the murky brown linoleum in the kitchen with Johnson’s Wax, on her hands and knees. Then she cooked the batch of bread before she went home.

She can’t get down on her hands and knees now because she’s old and fat with wispy white hair and a bristling wart on her chin and bunions sticking out of her feet. That’s why she slops round with the broom and the mop, and runs the old carpet sweeper over the threadbare hall runners in her carpet slippers. She doesn’t make the bread any more because the baker boy calls in his white apron. He walks all the way up the steep driveway with the bread in a wicker basket while the baker’s van waits down by the lake. Her grown-up daughter comes to help sometimes. She’s Mrs someone else and I don’t like her very much—but I like Mrs Whitter.

‘Come on love,’ Mrs Whitter says to me after she’s added more wood to the fire under the bricked-in copper and the water starts to boil, ‘You can help me sort these clothes.’ So I sort the whites from the coloureds, and she grates the Sunlight soap and plunges the sheets into the boiling froth and shoves them down with the copper stick. Then the laundry’s full of steam.

I help her with the wringer after she’s finished rinsing. The wringer’s what my mother calls a ‘mod con’—much smaller than the old mangle and it clips onto the edge of the concrete laundry tubs. After Mrs Whitter feeds the clothes between the rubber rollers, I ease them out the other side and drop them in the wicker clothes basket. She turns the handle and it’s hard work. ‘Not ’arf as ’ard as that mangle,’ she says.

I know about that mangle with its big wooden rollers and rusting iron frame. It’s sitting in the garage down the bottom of the drive beside the old wooden boat called ‘The Mary Jane’ that nobody takes out on the lake any more. When my Uncle Henry was a small boy he was watching his big brother (my Uncle Art) having fun with the mangle. ‘Put your finger in there,’ Art says, pointing to a small gap between the cogs. Little Henry pokes his finger in the hole; Art turns the handle and the end of Henry’s finger is chopped right off. And that’s why my Uncle Henry has only half an index finger on his right hand. They nearly turned him down when he went to join the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, because of that finger.



‘You on the air, Pop? The batteries flat?’ my father says. Grandfather doesn’t hear. He sits wheezing, glasses near the tip of his nose, tartan scarf tucked in, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. He fiddles with the gadget in his breast pocket, the plastic-coated wire twisting its way to his ear. He fumbles with the knob then leans forward expectantly, hand cupped behind the other ear. It’s hard making conversation. You have to yell. ‘Speak up!’ he says.

We’re used to yelling in our family. Quite a few people are hard of hearing including Auntie Essie and Great-Aunt Thursa. But my grandfather is the only one whose eardrums were shattered in that coal mine explosion in the Hunter Valley just after the Great War. He lost several fingers as well.

The closed-in end of The Knoll’s veranda by the magnolia tree is his office. He spends much of the day pouring over his maps, fine-nibbed mapping pen in hand, meticulously incising contour lines in Indian ink, filling spaces with vivid colours from small glass ink bottles. He carefully removes the cork and dips his brush in the ink, steadying the bottle with his thumb and the two remaining fingers of his other hand. The finished oversized geological maps are stored in the red cedar cabinet. ‘Can I see?’ I say again and he slides out a tray to reveal another wondrous work. ‘Just look,’ he says, ‘don’t touch!’—and my small fingers itch.

A glass specimen case covers the top of the cabinet. I’m not tall enough to see, so I drag over the delicately carved chair and stand on the sprung seat. I lean my forehead against the glass to gaze at the treasures: black and sparkling anthracite, rust-coloured ironstone, shale embedded with leaves or shells, gold-flecked quartz, glittering marcasite, round basalt river stone—and then there are the uncut gems. The labels, which I can’t yet read, are in Indian ink, the intricate work of a mapping pen.

The author c.1947Me, c.1947

From an overhanging branch of the giant magnolia (where the bandicoot and I met in the dark) hangs my grandfather’s old-fashioned swimming costume of grey-and-black-striped wool. It hangs by the shoulder straps to dry. In summer, despite the asthmatic breathing, he walks, shoulders back, down the hill to swim in the lake. He eases himself in from the end of the jetty beyond the black sea grass, strikes out overarm then changes to an easy sidestroke. Later, I see the swimming costume, once more dangling by its shoulder straps from the branch to dry.

We always hear him coming when he drives to our house, just up the hill from the mine. Old Bess, his ancient utility truck, sounds like a tractor. I can see the dust and blue smoke as she grinds her way up the hill on the rutted gravel track. She was bought to replace the old Hupmobile which, as my father said, guzzled up too much fuel, and petrol was still rationed. He’d been lucky to pick up another car; secondhand ones were scarce after the war and new ones unavailable.

Bess has to be cranked to get her going. First my father strains at the crank handle, then Uncle Aub or Uncle Art, but each time the engine dies and she has to be cranked up again. Grandfather sits in the car dressed in his old suit and hat, hopefully pumping the accelerator. Blue smoke emerges, not only from the rusty exhaust pipe but also from under the bonnet. When she finally roars into life, he bashes the dented door shut, grinds the gearstick into place and sets off with a shout and a wave, scattering chooks as he goes.

‘He’s a menace on the road!’ my father says. Grandfather drives slowly and carefully but, not having the gadget turned on, he doesn’t hear cars tooting impatiently from behind on the narrow roads, so he doesn’t move over to let them pass. This results in long queues like funeral processions.


Years later, as he painstakingly drove his Morris Minor towards home, my grandfather was rammed from behind by a semi-trailer—at least that’s what they concluded at the official inquiry. His car left the road, turning over as it headed down an embankment. The semitrailer didn’t stop and the driver was never apprehended. My grandfather spent his last years an invalid at The Knoll (that grand old house above the lake) with Ethel, my Auntie Essie—his maps now untouched in the cabinet, the pens in their case.

When I received news of his death in the early 1970s, I thought of him, long ago, sitting at his desk, glasses near the tip of his nose, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. I’m sitting beside him on a high stool: a small child drawing fairies with a mapping pen—meticulously colouring their wings with the fine brush I’ve dipped in jewel-coloured ink.

Elizabeth Thomas in the late 1980sMe in the late 1980s, not long before The Knoll was sold

—Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomasx

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian writer, born before the end of World War II. She graduated from London University in 1970. Her first book, Vanished Land, was published in 2014 after she retired from the field of music and music education. Currently she contributes to Numéro Cinq and is working on short stories and a memoir.



Aug 092016

Self-Reliance cover 500pxCover image for The Domino Project’s edition of “Self-Reliance,” c2011.


Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested—“but these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very ready transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution, the only wrong is what is against it. 

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)


Quantum sumus, scimus. That which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)


If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)



This year marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Until I sat down recently to re-read it in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give on the subject, I’d somehow managed to forget just how complex and internally qualified that essay is, and how the interpretive problems are as compounded as they are clarified by Emerson’s later revisitings of his central idea. As Spinoza tells us in the final note to the Ethics, “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” The difficulties one encounters in reading Emerson in general are inseparable from the pleasures. The principal complications stem, in the first place, from Emerson’s temperament and style, and, second, from the richness of the spiritual, philosophic, and poetic traditions in which he was embedded, and by which, for all his originality, he was profoundly influenced.

Stylistically, Emerson is so committed to polarity that his powerful yet ambiguous texts are full of overstatements and qualifications, swerves and counter-swerves. In the second half of many lectures and essays, he takes away with the left hand what he has just given with the right. As he notoriously proclaimed in our main text, “Self-Reliance,” a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (E&L 265). His disciple Walt Whitman was never more Emersonian than when (in “Song of Myself” §51) he asked a rhetorical question and responded audaciously: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself./ (I am large. I contain multitudes)”—to which Emerson’s German disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, responded: “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[1]

There is a polarity at the heart of “Self-Reliance,” a primary thrust and a secondary elaboration, taking the form of a caveat, an inconsistency, what the prosaic Understanding would consider a “contradiction.” What Emerson meant by his pivotal idea is not always as obvious as our initial excited response to the clarion call to independence in “Self-Reliance” would suggest. The ambiguity lurking beneath the surface has required interpretation, and thus potential misreadings, of what the volatile and not always consistent Emerson actually intended to convey in urging on us his imperative of self-trust and inner reliance. In what follows, I will flesh out those complications and “contradictions,” and attempt to resolve them, not only by exploring Emerson’s later elaborations on the idea, but by placing climactic emphasis where he himself placed it in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance”: on the “peace” that relies on trust in Intuition, yet requires a moral, divinely inspired component, “the triumph of principles.”

“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most widely-read essay and, if not his greatest, certainly his most influential. Emerson’s central idea in this essay has had a profound impact on American thought as well as on the world of practical affairs, commercial and political, especially in its glorification of the “individual” at the expense of “society,” depicted as a distraction or hindrance. Many an American Captain of Industry has found Emersonian sanction for often rapacious business practices. But despite his strenuous advocacy of self-reliance, admiration of men of action exercising “power,” and observation that, like history, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” (E&L 267), Emerson’s individualism was not meant to endorse commodification and the Exchange in the form of ruthless corporate aggrandizement, nor, though this connection has also been made, to justify Western expansion. It is certainly open to use and abuse, but in its various adaptations, self-reliance has all-too-often been simplified, even distorted—most often in the same way in which “Social Darwinism,” with its self-centered doctrine of the “survival of the fittest,” has misrepresented Darwin’s theory of the various ways, often cooperative rather than competitive, evolution actually works.

We are not wrong to read “Self-Reliance,” a prose Song of Myself, as an unforgettably defiant declaration of independence: an exhilarating celebration of the individual who has cast off the repressive and conformist strictures of society, and buried the dead past in favor of “the present hour.” Employing a favorite device, the rhetorical question, Emerson asks: “Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” Where the soul “is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.” Narcissistically, this out-trumps Trump, but it is saved by Emerson’s turn to “today” and to Nature. The “blade of grass or the blowing rose”

exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence….But the man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with a reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy or strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (E&L 270)

But Emerson’s concept of the sovereign self, living for the moment and liberated from the burden of the past, simultaneously incorporates (though often overlooked, especially by thrilled young readers rebelling against their elders) an insistence that every person’s inmost identity is part of a larger whole, a transpersonal universal. To be sure, “Self-Reliance” sets the individual in splendid isolation against all that would threaten the imperial self, especially the opinions of others and all the interrelated conformist pressures of society and tradition. And yet the essay also stresses “virtue” and “principles”: built-in safeguards against the egocentricity Emerson seems not only to most value, but to license and unleash.

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)



The concept of an inner self that transcends the merely private and egoistic (just as Jungian “individuation,” or “self-actualization,” often seems inseparable from “self-transcendence”) is rooted in those earlier-mentioned spiritual, philosophic, and poetic sources comprising the “traditions” by which Emerson was influenced. For even this arch-champion of self-reliant originality and radical independence was deeply indebted to selected precursors, preeminent among them John Milton and his visionary progeny: poets and thinkers in the Romantic tradition (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle) and clerics in the line of radical “inner light” Protestant spirituality, from Reformation theologians to one of his own mentors, the liberal Unitarian William Ellery Channing. Emerson’s “star of the American Church” (JMN 7:470) proclaimed, in his famous sermon of that title, “man’s likeness to God,” a God who “dwells within us.” Emerson was an even more ardent believer in the God within. Fusing the “still, small voice” of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ assertion that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), he told his cousin David Greene Haskins: “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the still small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He had “only glimpses” of the “divine principle that lurks within us,” but for Emerson, “God is, and we within him,” a conviction for which he found even pagan support—in the 6th and final book of Ovid’s Fasti: “There is a God within us. It is when he stirs us that our bosom warms.” (JMN 4:27-29, 3:12)

However radical, Emerson’s insistence on what Milton (negatively) and the British Romantics (positively) referred to as “divinity within” has precedent in both testaments of the Bible. “I will put my love within them,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:32-33), anticipating Jesus’ assertion that “the kingdom of God is within you.” The uncanonical Gospel of Thomas contains an identical formulation, “The Kingdom of God is inside you.” Though a suppressed text unknown to the author of “Self-Reliance” (it was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt more than a century after that essay was written), this Gnostic gospel is remarkably aligned with Emerson’s own religious radicalism, most fully developed in the “Divinity School Address” he delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838.

On that memorable evening, Emerson shocked the theological faculty of his alma mater by (among other outrages to even Unitarian convention) describing “historical Christianity” as corrupt and “corpse-cold.” One “would rather be,” he intoned (quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much with Us”), a “pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” than to be a conformist Christian “defrauded” of the “manly right” to “dare” to “live after the infinite Law that is within you.” In a passage uncannily parallel to a central passage in Thomas (“if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”), Emerson announces, in the most dramatic antithesis in the Divinity School Address: “That is always best which gives me to myself….That which shows God in me fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart and a wen.”[2]

What scandalized the Divinity School faculty—especially as garbed in the deliberately provocative rhetoric Emerson employed on this notable occasion—thrilled the young graduates in the audience. Each neophyte preacher, fortified by the God within him, was, proclaimed Emerson, to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”[3] That unmediated access to the divinity within, Emerson’s refusal to draw a clear distinction between the inspired “self” and the inspired Savior (Jesus was but one, though the first and greatest, to realize that “God incarnates himself as man”), along with his contemptuous dismissal of tradition and “conformity,” allies the Divinity School Address with the essay it directly anticipates: “Self-Reliance.” In fact, that essay is in part a reaction to the furious public controversy following Emerson’s Address: a widespread and incendiary brouhaha in which the lecturer was condemned as a “mad dog,” a “pagan,” an “infidel,” even a demonic Pan or devil who had planted “the cloven hoof” of German pantheism and atheism in New England.[4]

It is true that, in both lecture and essay, Emerson was intellectually participating in a philosophy imported from Germany: in the epistemological “Copernican revolution” of Immanuel Kant, as transmitted to him, “filtered,” through the British Romantics, principally Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom stressed the centrality of Kantian Transcendental Idealism and the radical extension of Kant by J. G. Fichte, who transcended the antithesis between Ich and Nicht-Ich—famously Englished by Carlyle and Emerson as “Me” and “NOT ME” (E&L 8)—by positing a “pure I,” even a “Divine-Me.” In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge published a caricature, what he called a “burlesque on the Fichtean Egoismus.” Coleridge’s satiric doggerel opens with a burst of Latin translatable as “Huzzah! God’s vice-regent, myself God,” and continues:

The form and the substance, the earth and the sky,
The when and the where, the low and the high,
The inside and outside, the earth and the sky,
I, you, and he, and he, you, and I,
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!

Everything, the Supreme Being included, is part of the world’s “Lexicon,” with the “I” or Ich as the “root.” In all “cases,” grammatical and philosophic, the Fichtean Ich is the “case absolute,” “self-begot,” yet indistinguishable from “the God infinitivus!”[5] What Coleridge says here of the Fichtean Egoismus was later said, more genially and in more readable verse, of Emerson by his friend James Russell Lowell. Writing at his epigrammatic best in the finest vignette in his 1848 Fable for Critics, an amused and yet devastatingly on-target Lowell wrote:

All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got
To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what;
For though he builds glorious temples, ’tis odd
He leaves never a doorway to let in a god.
’Tis refreshing to old-fashioned people like me
To meet such a primitive Pagan as he,
In whose mind all creation is duly respected
As parts of himself—just a little projected;
And who’s willing to worship the stars and the sun,
A convert to—nothing but Emerson![6]

Though Lowell was aware of the complexities in Emerson’s position, his parody conveyed (to quote Coleridge on his own “burlesque” of Fichte) “as tolerable a likeness” of his subject’s “idealism as can be expected from an avowed caricature.” In an early, unpublished poem of his own, Emerson located God at the “bottom of my heart,” his “voice therein” an “oracle” and “wise Seer” who always guides “aright.” I “never taught what it teaches me,” Emerson concludes. “Whence then did this omniscient Spirit come?/ From God it came. It is the Deity” (JMN 4:447-48). Another notebook entry, a meditation recorded on May 26, 1837, begins and ends with questions: “Who shall define to me an Individual?….Cannot I conceive the Universe without a contradiction?”

In between these genuine questions, Emerson contemplates the “One Universal Mind” and “my being embedded in it.” God is “the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body…and my private will.” A “believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two….Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual.” He overcomes this philosophic duality and “contradiction” by falling back on the mysterious light of Intuition. At moments, a “certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life.” At such privileged “moments,”

I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He. Then, secondly, the contradictory fact is familiar, that I am a surprised spectator & learner of all my life….But whenever the day dawns, the great day of truth on the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora.[7]

Emerson’s imagery in this extraordinary passage reflects the Inward Light of radically immanent Protestantism, and, more specifically, the language of his favorite lines in the poem that most haunted him and to which he most often alludes: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” where those intimations are presented as “the fountain light of all our day/…a master light of all our seeing.” But the merging of self and God also resembles that of Fichte, which casts its own light, thrilling yet problematic, on the concept of Self-Reliance.

Wordsworth Coleridge Carlyle composite(l. to r.) William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle (via Wikimedia Commons)



Allied with the spiritual conceptions of an “inward light” or “divinity within,” the most radical aspect of Emerson’s conception of “self-reliance” is derived in part from German Idealism. Emerson’s core idea had, in turn, a momentous impact on a later German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Idealist proponent of the Will to Power and of the Übermensch. The American’s most enthusiastic and formidable European disciple, Nietzsche considered Emerson the major thinker of the age and filled almost every margin of his copy of the Essays with scribbled annotations. Nietzsche is “Emersonian” in his condemnation of the dead weight of the past, in his praise of “Dionysian” instinct and intuition, in his exaltation of the exceptional or “higher” man, and in his dismissal of the conformist “herd.”

At times, Emerson could be as ruthless as Nietzsche toward the mediocre “herd,” as in the following provocative passage on the relationship of “great” individuals to the community, which occurs in no less crucial a text than “The American Scholar,” a lecture read by Nietzsche and a precursor of his untimely meditation “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Here, sounding like Nietzsche, is the supposedly benign Emerson on the current condition:

Men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men [approximate] to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened, yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature….The poor and the low are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. (E&L 66)

The goal is the “enlargement” of the self, a crucial concept Emerson derived, as we shall see, from Coleridge. Furthermore, in keeping with the related reciprocity between “Each and All” as laid out in Coleridge’s “Essay on Method” in The Friend, we “each” have a stake in developing the potential of “all” for the greater good. But this Nietzsche-anticipating (if not quite Nazi-foreshadowing) passage in “The American Scholar” is a notably harsh as well as hyperbolic cultural teaching. Usually, Emerson qualified or caveated his most hyperbolic assertions; Nietzsche tended not to. And though he borrowed the phrase from Emerson’s Divinity School Address (E&L 88), Nietzsche, that atheist and self-professed Antichrist, really meant it when he announced that “God is dead.” Emerson, devotee of the God within, cannot have known what the catalytic impact of the doctrine of self-reliance would be on the precociously brilliant German youth who began to read him at the age of seventeen. Himself a great liberator, Nietzsche found his own liberating god in Emerson.

What gets liberated is another matter. Though the Nazis exploited and distorted much that was in Nietzsche, few serious readers any longer accept the once-commonplace alignment of Nietzsche with Nazism. But such explosive phrases as “the blond beast,” “the master race,” the “Will to Power,” and the Übermensch, did provide materials to be exploited and distorted. As Nietzsche himself said in opening the “Why I Am a Destiny” section of Ecce Homo, “I am no man; I am dynamite,” and dynamite, which can explode indiscriminately, is particularly dangerous in the wrong hands, a “fate” Nietzsche feared.[8]

Emerson was an equally brilliant and provocative phrasemaker. His guilt by association is less notorious than the Nazification of Nietzsche, but Emerson—that glorifier of the “aboriginal Self,” celebrator of one’s “sacred impulses,” professor of “one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man” (JMN 7:342), and champion of autonomy, “self-reliance” and the “God within”—has also been connected with Hitler and Nazism. One distinguished American critic, Alfred Kazin, reported in 1997 in God and the American Writer that he once heard another distinguished literary critic, the conservative Southerner Cleanth Brooks, “charge that ‘Emerson led to Hitler.’”[9] The charge is of course excessive. Yet, in his own perverse way, Hitler was a product of the same German Idealist philosophy that found its way to Emerson by way of Coleridge, Carlyle, and French philosopher Victor Cousin. Reading Fichte, philosopher of the “Divine-Me,” Hitler marked passages in which Fichte claimed that “God and I are One….My work is his work, and his work my work,” among other identifications of himself “with God.” In perusing Fichte, the Führer found evidence to support his own growing belief that the “mortal and divine were one and the same: that the God he was seeking was in fact himself.”[10]

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

Appropriately enough, Hitler’s eight-volume set of Fichte was given to him by Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who also gave the world in 1934 the greatest of all propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, whose opening shot features a plane bearing Hitler descending from the clouds: deus ex machina, the Führer as God. At the Eagle’s Nest precisely a century after the 1841 publication of “Self-Reliance,” a metaphysical Hitler informed his mesmerized guests: “If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but consciousness and awareness,” adding, in the sentence adopted as my third epigraph, “If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.”[11]

This emphasis on divinely inspired intuitive “insights” sounds remarkably like the Emerson of much of “Self-Reliance”: the champion of “Intuition” who privileged “self-trust” and the “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded,” and who insisted on “the source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin” (E&L 268-69). To this Emerson, as we have seen, “no law can be sacred” but that of his own nature. He lives “wholly from within,” and, while his “impulses” seem to him to come not “from below,” but “from above,” even if “I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil” (E&L 261-62). Given his equation of the individual with infinitude, the self with the God within, Emerson, who has been blamed for so much by so many critics of unrestrained individualism, might even be blamed for the messianic psychopath whose will to power transformed the most culturally and philosophically sophisticated nation on earth into the most barbaric and, together with an all-too-willing new Germany, produced worldwide carnage and a genocide so ferocious that it shattered our naïvely optimistic theories of progress and disfigured the image of humanity itself. But unlike Emerson, Hitler genuinely was “the Devil’s child”: “the devil’s miracle man,” in the memorable depiction by psychologist and Holocaust historian Walter Reich.[12] The supposedly “God-given insights” of Adolf Hitler were really the dark side of the Protestant belief in the Inner Light, of Fichte’s “Divine-Me,” and a particularly rancid example of the High Romanticism of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Emerson gone sour.

Pace Cleanth Brooks, Emerson is not responsible for the rise of Hitler. Nevertheless, that the concepts of divinity within and of self-reliant individualism are not only liberating, but also potentially anarchic or tyrannical or both, was conceded by some of the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists themselves, usually in their later, “conservative” years. For all their emphasis on the individual mind and heart, and their celebration of “genius” and the godlike creative Imagination, Coleridge and Wordsworth—like their mentor Milton and unlike the advocates of a rugged individualism or will to power that is mindlessly or brutally self-assertive—retained a belief in autonomy, freedom, and idealism without forgetting that the needs of a humane society, knit by ties of reciprocal obligation, were incompatible with selfish (merely private and therefore petty) individualism. Despite his obsession with society’s threat to the self, the same is true of Emerson.

Hitler contemplates Nietzsche Hitler and bust of Nietzsche (via Axis History Forum)(Photo credit)



On the other hand, making the author of “Self-Reliance” socially responsible runs the risk of de-radicalizing or “taming” Emerson, whose fierce celebration of self-reliance and the God within at once fascinates and troubles even that most devout of Emersonians, Harold Bloom. “In forming the mind of America,” Bloom writes, Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” That last image is a silent but appropriate allusion to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), a poem endorsing (in contrast to externally driven women like Maud Gonne, who “eat a crazy salad with their meat”) the “radical innocence” of the autonomous soul that discovers that it is “self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” This concern about the Pentecostal and political ramifications of Emerson’s alignment of the autonomous self with the divine will occurs in Bloom’s 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?[13] The following year, another major literary critic, Denis Donoghue, agreeing with this momentary reservation but, unlike Bloom, hostile to Emerson, set himself against all benign interpretations of self-reliance. Rejecting the depictions by stalwart Emersonians of their hero’s individualism as a “social value,” even “the flowering of democracy” (a thesis nuanced in Stanley Cavell, strenuous in George Kateb), Donoghue, going too far in the other direction, presents us with an “arch-radical” with “no interest in providing professors of politics with a theory of society.” Emerson was “really an anarchist; necessarily so, since he cultivated the thrill of glorifying his own mind and refused to let any other consideration thwart him.”[14]

Two decades earlier, Bloom had registered his negative response to the often-castigated passage early in “Self-Reliance” where Emerson denies his “obligation” to those “poor” with whom he has no “spiritual affinity,” even though he confesses “with shame” that “I sometimes succumb” to the call of “miscellaneous popular charities” (E&L 262-63). In response, Bloom acknowledged that “self-reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness,” a remark endorsed with vigor a few years later by John Updike, always hostile to Emerson, who reduced this anti-philanthropic passage to a simple doctrine of “righteous selfishness.” Subjecting the same provocative passage of “Self-Reliance” to a brilliant textual and contextual reading, Stanley Cavell insists that the biblical sources on which Emerson is playing reveal him as clearly distinguishable from “those who may be taken as parodies of him.”[15]

Perhaps. But there is no denying that Emerson disliked “stirring in the philanthropic mud,” even when—as in his open letter to President Van Buren protesting (in vain) the carrying out of the brutal and unconstitutional Jacksonian policy of uprooting the Cherokees from their ancestral lands—he believed in the cause. What he resented was being pressured into acting. As an exponent of self-reliance, he was determined to do only what “concerns my majesty & not what men great or small think of it….I write my journal, I read my lectures with joy—but this stirring in the philanthropic mud, gives me no peace.” And, in concluding on the quietist note that “I will let the republic alone until the republic comes to me,” he endorses the “wise passiveness” of Wordsworth, who condemned (in “Expostulation and Reply”) the overbusy conviction that “nothing of itself will come,/ But we must still be seeking.” He had also alluded to these lines in 1837, declaring, in the peroration of “The American Scholar,” that if “the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him” (E&L 70), and again, three years later, and explicitly, when he told the abolitionists in his audience that he would persist in wearing his loose and unbecoming “robe…of inaction, this wise passiveness, until my hour comes when I can see how to act with truth as well as to refuse.”[16] That hour would come, the republic would seem to Emerson to have “come” to him, when the question of slavery, and the danger of its extension, epitomized in the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, moved Emerson to eloquence on behalf of a republic threatened by what he slowly but surely perceived to be a moral abomination.

The hour had not quite “come” in writing the letter to President Van Buren, when Emerson had accepted the activist role “rather from my friends” than from his own dictate. “It is not my impulse to say it & therefore my genius deserts me, no muse befriends, no music of thought or word accompanies. Bah!” (JMN 5:479). The violence of his language reveals his sense that no matter the justice of the cause, he had, by submitting to collectively imposed pressure from his neighbors, betrayed his own intuitive “impulse,” his nonconformist creed of self-reliance.[17]

Readers of Emerson are aware of the often-chilly dismissals of human ties sometimes required by the dominant aspect of the doctrine of “self-reliance.” Consider an often-overlooked element in the famous or notorious epiphany in the opening chapter of Nature, where Emerson becomes a “transparent eyeball”:

Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign or accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance. (E&L 10)

In this ocular epiphany, the self becomes part of God, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things” (Wordsworth,“Tintern Abbey”). But we are so caught up in the visionary moment that we barely notice the dismissal of “friends” and “brothers”—even Emerson’s beloved brother Charles, the “dear friend” whose recent death is alluded to in this chapter’s final words (E&L 11). “Who can ever supply his place to me?” Emerson writes in a heartbroken journal entry. “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now, in a kind of compensation, Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eyeball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, the great and disturbing essay “Experience,” written in the aftermath of the death of little Waldo, Emerson’s son taken by scarlet fever when he was not yet six, proclaims the allegedly superficial nature of grief and love. In the most troubling single passage in all of Emerson, he says of “this calamity: it does not touch me. Something which I fancied was part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me…falls off from me, leaving no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473).

Devastated by the death of his boy, Emerson is struggling to compensate for his loss by adapting Wordsworth’s idealist praise of those “obstinate questionings/ Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings,” in Emerson’s favorite stanza of “Intimations of Immortality.” Yet, even if we detect this verbal and thematic connection to the great Ode, we cannot but be shocked by the apparently heartless use of the coldly scientific term, “caducous,” typically applied to a placenta or shed leaves from a tree, or other fallings-off that leave the quintessential life unchanged.[18] Later in “Experience,” we are told that

The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love….There will be the same gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture….The soul is not twice-born, but the only begotten,…admitting no co-life….We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. (E&L 487-88)

xWaldo_Emerson 480pxWaldo Emerson, four months before his death in January, 1842. (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

To return to the essay “Self-Reliance”: immediately preceding his denial of any “foolish” obligation to miscellaneous popular charities, Emerson rejects “the doctrine of love” when it “pules and whines,” famously declaring: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim” (E&L 262). Having, like Jesus (Matthew 12:34-48), played this audacious variation on Deuteronomy 6:9 and Exodus 12:23, Emerson immediately adds, “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.” This afterthought is a minor example of a dominant pattern in Emerson, who characteristically supplies the reservations or qualifications to his own liberating, challenging, but overstated case in “Self-Reliance.” Though implicit throughout, it is only at the very end of “Self-Reliance” that Emerson most clearly qualifies, delimits, and moralizes his claim for the liberated self. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he writes, adding at once and finally: “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (E&L 282; italics added).

In the second half of the essay Emerson had spoken of “our docility to our own law” and the “poverty” of all else, even “nature,” in comparison to “our native riches.” But this is so only because “God is here within.” Emerson rejects “the rage of travelling” (E&L 278). Man’s “genius” is admonished “to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean” (the source of the title, The Inner Ocean, of George Kateb’s first book on Emersonian “self-reliance”). Consequently, “let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause,” alone, “begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary. So let us always sit” (E&L 272-73). As that loyal Emersonian Robert Frost would later put it in a 1936 couplet included in his collection, A Witness Tree (1942): “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”[19] In fact, to fully illuminate this passage of “Self-Reliance” requires us to enter a veritable echo chamber.

Transparent eyeball by CranchCaricature of The Transparent Eyeball by Christopher Pearse Cranch (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)



Emerson concludes that “all concentrates,” since the “vital resources” of everything in nature, including human nature, are “demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (E&L 272). As in his description, earlier in “Self-Reliance,” of honor as “self-dependent, self-derived” (E&L 266), Emerson’s language echoes that of Milton’s Satan, describing himself and his fellow fallen angels as “self-begot, self-raised/ By our own quick’ning power…./Our puissance is our own” (Paradise Lost V:860-64). But the purport (Emerson as “the Devil’s child” notwithstanding) is less blasphemous than an affirmation of what Yeats, as we have just seen, referred to as the self-reliant soul’s recovery of “radical innocence”: the realization “that it is self-delighting, / Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” The analogy with Yeatsian “radical innocence” is not forced since Yeats is echoing, not Satan, but the Emerson of “Self-Reliance,” who tells us early in that essay that to remain always “formidable” we must “avoid” external “pledges,” and adopt an “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence” (E&L 261).

The “ultimate fact” in every instance, Emerson continues in the passage we began with, is “the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE,” since “Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause” (E&L 272). The language of the ONE is that of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, as mediated by Coleridge, but Emerson—fusing psychology and morality with Neoplatonist mystical theology—locates divinity in the tabernacle of the self. It is, however, what he will later call—in “Uses of Great Men” and his late essay “Character”—an “enlarged self.” But even in “Self-Reliance,” his phrases (the “triumph of principles” and “ultimate fact”) echo Coleridge’s insistence, in The Statesman’s Manual, that only the “enlargement and elevation of the soul above its mere self attest the presence, and accompany the intuition of, ultimate PRINCIPLES.”[20] In “Character” (1866), referring in detail to these “great enlargements,” Emerson defines “morals” as “the direction of the will on universal ends,” adding: “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings.” Having linked the correspondence sought by the Roman Stoic between the universe and his own moral impulses with the modern ethicist’s “Categorical Imperative,” Emerson quickly buttresses Marcus Aurelius and Kant with the Wordsworth of the Intimations Ode, quoting, as he so often does, the lines about “truths that wake/ To perish never,” the “fountain light of all our day,” and “master light of all our seeing,” which lead, in moral men, “to great enlargements” (W 10:94-97). In “Uses of Great Men,” the Introduction to Representative Men, Emerson says that “these enlargements” liberate “elastic” man from his “bounds” so that he is “exalted” by “ideas” transcending his individual self (E&L 622-23).

But this transcendence of the private self, though an aspect of the argument in “Self-Reliance,” is hardly the primary thrust most of us register while reading the essay, or in the immediate aftermath of our initial bewitchment by Emerson’s rhapsodic celebration of the “spontaneous,” “intuitive” self as the very font of “originality” and “power.” In the opening paragraph of the essay, we are urged

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. (E&L 259)

The dramatic imperative to “believe your own thought,” your own “private heart,” can make us miss the reciprocity between “inmost” and “outmost,” our “first thought” and the “Last Judgment,” the individual and the “universal.”

It’s no wonder most readers miss these qualifications and caveats. David Hume roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” and Emerson wants to shake and shock us out of our conformist complacency. So powerful is his advocacy of self-reliance that Stephen Whicher, whose Freedom and Fate was for several decades the most praised study of Emerson’s “inner life,” influentially insisted that “the lesson” Emerson “would drive home is man’s entire independence. The aim of this strain in his thought is not virtue, but freedom and mastery. It is radically anarchic, overflowing all the authority of the past, all compromise or cooperation with others, in the name of the Power present and agent in the soul.”[21] It would be hard to improve on so brilliantly concise a summation of so crucial an aspect of Emerson’s position. Though not the only “strain” in Emerson’s thought, it is exhilarating, and can be—as Denis Donoghue and others have emphasized—anti-democratic and dangerous.

Cavell, Lawrence Buell, and George Kateb would disagree, but hostile critics—most (not all) coming from the political Left, and most of them focusing on “Emersonianism,” as opposed to the personally benign Sage of Concord—have seized on the ambiguous legacy of Emersonian individualism in order to stress immoral rather than moral “enlargements”: the hazards of a detached, egoistic, antisocial, unlimited, avaricious, anarchic, even solipsistic self, valorized and privileged at the expense of solidarity, association, community. Morse Peckham, writing a decade after Whicher, spoke for many in saying of Emerson, he “created a doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ which could be and was absorbed by the anarchic individualism of the socially irresponsible middle-class Philistine.”[22]

One might respond that, just as Nietzsche should not be blamed for the crimes of Nazism, the excesses of unfettered capitalism or of Ayn Randian selfishness should not be laid at the door of Emerson. But the provocative ideas and stylistic seductiveness of both of these great liberators, in particular their exaltation of a seemingly autonomous self, opened casements on some perilous seas. Nevertheless, for those who would, under the aegis of self-reliance, confuse the Miltonic distinction between “license” and “liberty,”[23] Emerson has an austere response, even in “Self-Reliance.” The “populace” may think that the “rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism,” a wholesale dismissal of moral law. That is not so. A commitment to self-reliance “enables me to dispense with the popular code.” But “if anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment [for even] one day.” For self-reliance has its own “stern claim” and self-legislated challenge:

truly it demands something godlike in him, who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself as a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (E&L 274)

The preacher of self-reliance as “law, to himself,” has his own Categorical Imperative; and, as in Milton, he “who loves liberty, must first be wise and good.”



I have already elaborated on the third of my epigraphs, citing Adolf Hitler. As indicated by that epigraph and the first, from Emerson himself, Emersonian Self-Reliance is less a doctrine than—as Nietzsche would put it—potential “dynamite.” It can also be (at least hypothetically and theoretically) diabolical—“if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil”[24]—unless it is tempered by other considerations. Here, the formative influences, crucial to Emerson, are those of John Milton and his principal Romantic disciple, Coleridge.

Like Hitler, Milton’s Satan bases his “divinity” on a corrupted sense of what Milton himself meant in his prose texts, as well as in the masque Comus and Paradise Lost, by “freedom.” As my friend and former colleague, Milton scholar William Shaw, observed in responding to the present essay, this “warped” sense of freedom is impervious “to the freedom of others, and not only self-serving but without a moral foundation.” It inevitably leads to “tyranny, and the more powerful the person, the more terrible the tyranny.” In Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Bill notes, the “tyrant” is defined as “he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction.”[25]

As my middle epigraph reveals, Coleridge strove to affirm the primacy of “that which we find within ourselves,” without losing sight of our moral and communal responsibilities and without surrendering to the willfulness of what Coleridge, specifically citing Milton’s fallen archangel, called “Satanic pride,” “wicked” enthusiasm, and self-worshiping rebellion. In its “reprobate” form, he writes in a much-discussed Appendix, “the WILL becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relation of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others,” the consequence of the will’s “fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.”[26]

Like Coleridge and Wordsworth (indeed, all the British Romantics), Emerson was steeped in Miltonic thought and poetry. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, immediately “fancy that they feel/ Divinity within them breeding wings/ Wherewith to scorn the earth”; but the “false fruit” inflames instead lascivious “carnal desire” (IX:1009-14). Familiar with Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom of heaven is “within you,” the Romantics and their American disciple were also well aware that, in the final book of Milton’s epic poem, the Archangel Michael promises fallen Adam, as abundant recompense for the Eden lost, a “Paradise within thee, happier far” (XII:587). Having experienced a bogus sense of “divinity within,” Adam and Eve achieve (to again cite Bill Shaw) “their ‘paradise within’ when they have learned obedience to God,” along with “such virtues as…temperance and charity. And the Lady in Comus is unassailable because of her subscription to ‘sober laws.’ She loves ‘virtue’ because she alone is free.”

But the Romantics, who venerated Milton, also revised him. To one degree or another, they naturalized the supernatural, secularized the sacred, and, as Wordsworth made dramatically manifest in the great “Prospectus” to The Recluse, psychologized Miltonic theology. For nothing in Heaven or Hell, neither “Jehovah—with his thunder,” nor the “darkest pit of lowest Erebus,”

can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
(“Prospectus,” 35-41)

Emerson printed the whole of the “Prospectus” in his anthology Parnassus, renaming it “Outline” to accurately present it as Wordsworth’s guide to his entire canon: a Kant-echoing synopsis (to quote the conclusion of The Prelude) of “how the mind of man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells, above this frame of things/…In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine.”[27] Emerson followed the Romantics in this internalizing process, emphasizing, above all, the sanctity of the sovereign human mind. In the final and climactic sentence of his seminal book, Nature—his imagery of light, blindness, and perfect sight silently but unmistakably gathering up Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth—Emerson had proclaimed “the kingdom of man over nature” (E&L 49). Four years later, in “Self-Reliance,” he insists that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” continuing by posing that characteristically audacious rhetorical question: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions if I live wholly from within?” (E&L 261-62)

In such passages, Emerson is the rhapsodic champion of autonomy and originality, exalting an intuitive “divinity within” and liberation from the dead weight of the past. Repudiating outworn institutions and established authority, he insists, in notably virile (and, as we’ll see, again Miltonic) imagery, that to be a “man” one “must be a non-conformist,” since “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (E&L 261). Once again, faced with this antithesis between society and self, we need to seek the balance Emerson wants us to find, however difficult he makes the task by the power of his own rhetoric.

Paradise Lost 1667 title page



Resistance to conformity and to the burden of tradition also extends to self-reliance and self-trust in engaging literary and historical texts, though, here again, we encounter a huge caveat. We are to read “creatively,” Emerson tells us in “Self-Reliance” and in “The American Scholar,” adding in a third, “History” (which opens Essays: First Series), that the student is to read “actively and not passively; to esteem his own life in the text,” for everything is “within us, of the soul.” This, he asserts, is his “claim of claims” (E&L, 237, 239). If this claim, exciting as it is, seems excessive, it’s because it is. Anticipating all of these essays, Emerson had foreshadowed in an 1831 journal entry his defiant assertion of autonomy and originality. The journal entry reads: “Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence. Let him scorn to imitate any man, let him scorn to be a secondary man” (JMN 3:199). And following this scornful rejection of parasitic imitation in favor of creative originality, he inscribed in the same journal these four lines of verse:

In your own bosom are your destiny’s Stars.
Confidence in yourself, prompt resolution;
This is your Venus! & the sole malignant,
The only one that harmeth you, is Doubt! (JMN 3: 251)

But despite adamant and absolute “confidence in yourself,” this ringing endorsement of self-reliant originality is borrowed. The lines are quoted from a German play by Friedrich von Schiller, which Emerson referred to as “Coleridge’s Wallenstein” since he read Schiller’s drama in the British Romantic’s translation—just one of many examples of Coleridge serving as a transatlantic conduit of German thought to his less-than-totally self-reliant American recipient. “Insist on yourself,” cries Emerson; “never imitate,” which is, at best, to half-possess “the adopted talent of another.” And this imperative was foreshadowed in the dramatic declaration at the outset of “Self-Reliance” that “imitation is suicide,” that a man “must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion” (E&L 278-79, 259). Nevertheless, other examples of what has been called the “paradox of originality” occur in “Self-Reliance” itself. Though it rejects “imitation” and mere reading (“tuition”) in favor of spontaneous “intuition,” “Self-Reliance” begins, “I read the other day some verses….” (E&L 259). And halfway through, Emerson begins a paragraph: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am’ but quotes some saint or sage” (E&L 270). But once again, despite the point he is making, Emerson himself is quoting, this time from René Descartes’ Second Meditation. “The truth,” as Emerson acknowledged in an 1835 lecture, “The Age of Fable,” is that “There never was an original writer. Each is a link in an endless chain.” Indeed, our debt to our precursors is “so massive” that one might say (as he does in a splendid late lecture, “Quotation and Originality”) “there is no pure originality. All minds quote.” “Genius borrows nobly”; if we could trace the line back to them, we would, he adds, find that “even the archangels” quote.[28] This paradox is never more paradoxical than in Nature. That seminal book, which announces American and Emersonian originality, is riddled with unacknowledged borrowings from Coleridge and Wordsworth, and yet somehow remains original.

Claiming originality yet quoting, mixing what he contrasts as book-learning or “tuition” with original “intuition,” Emerson is not dismantling the whole “upright” and individualistic thesis of “Self-Reliance,” a text that is nothing if not a rejection of suppliant dependence and an expression of what he repeatedly calls the “sovereignty” or “majesty” of “the erect position” (E&L 282)—though, even here, Emerson is echoing Milton’s description of unfallen Adam and Eve, “erect and tall,/ Godlike erect,” and “clad/ In naked majesty.”[29] And yet, since a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson can, in a famous passage at the outset of “Self-Reliance,” propose as the “highest merit” ascribable to “Moses, Plato, and Milton” that they supposedly “set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they [themselves] thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (E&L 259). These inner flashes anticipate the “Spontaneity or Instinct,” the “primary wisdom” Emerson calls “Intuition” (E&L 269, cf. 259 and 271). These gleams of light constitute, Emerson insisted in a contemporaneous (1845) journal entry, “the best part…of every mind.” Tantalizing “gleams” hovering “unpossessed before” a man, they far exceed in significance “that which he knows” through pedestrian Understanding. Emerson’s famous contrast, derived from Coleridge, between “Reason” and mere “Understanding” is complicated by the fact (a source of confusion for readers) that Emerson also follows Coleridge in equating capitalized Reason with “intuitive Reason” and thus with what the Romantics mean by the creative Imagination.

Those mysterious “gleams” to which Emerson refers emanate essentially, as we have seen, from his most cherished poem, the Intimations Ode. He was haunted by its “visionary gleam” and turned Wordsworth’s “a master light of all our seeing” into “the master light of all our seeing.” These profound intuitions and intimations, which even Wordsworth acknowledged were ineffable (“be they what they may”), remained, in Emerson’s favorite phrase from the Ode, “the fountain light of all our day.” That repeated “our,” replicated in Wordsworth’s shift from “I” to “we” in the final stanza of the Ode, marks the transition from the private self to a more generous inclusiveness. The “self within” of Emersonian self-reliance is also more expansive than it initially appears—an expansiveness reflecting a pair of talismanic texts provided to a grateful Emerson by Wordsworth’s friend and fellow-laborer, Coleridge.

I have earlier cited Coleridge’s emphasis, in The Statesman’s Manual, on the “enlargements and elevation” of the principled soul “above its mere self,” a passage echoed by Emerson in both his essay “Character” and in “Uses of Great Men.” Two Coleridge texts that meant even more to Emerson, the “Essay on Method” in The Friend and Aids to Reflection, provided crucial help in forming—as a sort of supplement or qualification, even partial corrective, to “Self-Reliance”—his idea of an expanded or enlarged self. The reciprocity between “each and all” (“the relation of each to the other, of each to all, and of all to each”), coupled with the Latin axiom Quantum sumus, scimus (“we are what we know, and know what we are”), became, with the help of Coleridge’s own gloss in Aids to Reflection, momentous sources for Emerson’s finding (to synopsize the passage of Coleridge cited as my second epigraph) “within ourselves,” a self that is paradoxically “more than ourselves,” the ground and substance of the moral life and of “all other knowledge.”[30] This Coleridgean sanction for an inner self that transcends the merely egoistic helps explain what, at its deepest level, Emerson meant by “self-reliance.” However straightforward it may seem at times, it is actually a complex concept—mixing Milton, Kant, and the British Romantics, in a blend that turns out, paradoxically but as usual, to be distinctively “Emersonian.” As such, it cannot, or at least should not, be reduced to “rugged individualism,” let alone to mere selfishness.

Transparent Eyeball by Ron KosterTransparent Eyeball courtesy Ron Koster, Psymon Web Bindery



Given Emerson’s habit of emphasizing, depending on the occasion, a single aspect of a larger truth, his formulations are often ambiguous, and this is nowhere more true than in his various presentations of self-reliance. In the end, however, Emerson’s key concept seems to embrace and illuminate—however fierce the affirmation of individualism and independence in the essay actually titled “Self-Reliance”—the problematic relationship between the merely private self and what a Coleridgean Emerson called the “enlarged” Self, between the Self and God, even the polarity between what he referred to as Solitude and Society. An “intensely focused thinker who kept returning lifelong to his core idea,” Emerson was, notes Lawrence Buell, “forever reopening and reformulating it, looping away and back again, convinced that the spirit of the idea dictated that no final statement was possible.” Nevertheless, like George Kateb, perhaps the most penetrating analyst of the theory of Self-Reliance, Buell insists on the importance to Emerson of what Kateb calls “impersonal individuality”: a formulation that subsumes the apparent or actual “contradiction” between the God within and what Emerson calls “the “Over-Soul,” between the assertion of an autonomous, intuitive self and the absorption of that self in an all-encompassing universal and impersonal life-force. I cannot improve upon Buell’s final formulation:

The Me at the bottom of the me, the “Trustee” or “aboriginal Self” on which reliance may be safely grounded, is despite whatever appearances to the contrary not a merely personal interest but a universal. The more inward you go, the less individuated you get. Beneath and within the “private” is a “public” power on which anyone can potentially draw. So Self-Reliance involves not a single but a double negative: resistance to external pressure, but then resistance to shallow impulse.[31]

That a double negative should be at the crux of an affirmative vision is only one of many paradoxes attending Emerson’s central idea. One is occasionally left wondering if Emersonian self-reliance is advocacy of extreme individualism, or individualism at all. If we are to take Emerson at face value when he later claims (W 11:236) that “Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God,” it has to be added that few of the ardent young readers intoxicated by the essay of that title have taken it as a theological treatise.[32] And what, precisely, is Emerson telling us about the relationship between Spirit, Nature, Mind and, ultimately, between God and Man, Divinity and the Self? Such protean relationships, volatile in themselves, are further problematized by Emerson’s often shifting definitions, within a single text or over time. The paragraph of “Self-Reliance” that begins by insisting that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” continues:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.—“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. (E&L 265)

In the case of Emerson, this admission or, rather, vaunting of inconsistency, contradiction, and sibylline incomprehensibility, may seem to be the “last fact behind which analysis cannot go” (E&L 269). Yet even in “Self-Reliance,” the aboriginal Self is neither anarchic nor arbitrary; indeed, it is disciplined by “stern” if self-imposed laws, a Self whose internal moral depths renders trivial the merely private good we associate with our superficial selves. “Compare all that we call ourselves,” says Emerson in “Character,” all “our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinence, and we take part with hasty shame against ourselves.” Juxtaposing two phrases separated graphically by only a single letter, Emerson explicitly contrasts our deep “moral nature” with what Wordsworth refers to in the pivotal stanza of the Intimations Ode as “our mortal nature,” whose hasty shame takes the form of guilty trembling. After evoking those Wordsworthian “High instincts, before which our mortal nature/ Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,” Emerson goes on to quote the rest of this crucial ninth stanza—accurately, with the exception of one significant change; he alters Wordsworth’s “a master light” to “the master light of all our seeing.” (W 10:94).

That is the light that Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson, call “intuitive Reason”: the near-angelic power that leads the lowercase self, limited by “tuition” and mere Understanding, to “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition”; and it is in that “deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,” that “all things find their common origin….Here is the fountain of action and of thought” (E&L 269). And it is this “fountain light of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing,” that guides and distinguishes the higher (individual and yet universal) Self: the Transcendental Self in which we can “trust,” and upon which “reliance may be safely grounded.” The lower self, “bound” and constricted, is often mired in “mean egotism” (E&L 10). But “whenever the great day dawns, the day of truth in the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora” (EPP 497). In that aurora—the great Ode’s “fountain light of all our day” illuminating intuitive “truths that wake,/ To perish never”—contradiction and duality blend (for those, however skeptical, still open to that light) into a Unity in which Reason and Intuition are indistinguishable, the enlarged Self finding “peace” in (to again quote the final words of “Self-Reliance”) “the triumph of principles.”

—Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane smaller


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


Photo credit  Return to photo

Photo originally reproduced in “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism’” by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April ­2008.

Emerson texts cited parenthetically

E&L   Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. NY: Library of America, 1983.

EL   The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, 1972.

EPP   Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. NY and London: Norton, 2001.

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, Belknap Press, 1960-1982.

W   The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §2, in Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), 99.

  2. E&L 81; italics added. For the passage (verse 70) in Thomas, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 32.

  3. E&L 80, 89. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from Harvard following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint yourself at first hand with Deity.”

  4. For a synopsis of the vehement response to the Divinity School Address, as well as Emerson’s own response, in his poem “Uriel,” see my Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 339-44.

  5. For both lampoon and commentary, see Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols. 1:160. Vol 7 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Bart Winer, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969-2003).

  6. Lowell, A Fable for Critics (New York: George P. Putnam, 1848).

  7. EPP 497. This polarity was later fleshed out in “Circles,” in the famed paragraph beginning, “Our moods do not believe in each other,” and ending, “Alas…for this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall” (E&L 406): a vacillation between self-deification and utter nihilism.

  8. Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 326. This opening paragraph had begun, “I know my fate. My name one day will be associated with the memory of something tremendous.” Expressing a “terrible fear” that “one day” he would be “pronounced holy,” he said he was writing Ecce Homo to “prevent people from doing mischief with me.” Written in 1888, but not published until 1908, eight years after Nietzsche’s death, Ecce Homo did little to prevent mischief.

  9. Kazin, God and the American Writer (New York: Vintage, 1997), 14.

  10. This is the conclusion of Timothy W. Ryback, in “Hitler’s Forgotten Library: The Man, His Books, and His Search for God” (Atlantic Monthly [May 2003], 76-90). In 2001, Ryback studied Hitler’s annotations in these and other religio-philosophical books and manuscripts in the Führer’s personal library, volumes now housed in the Hitler Collection in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  11. Quoted by Paul R. Hinlicky, Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from Nazism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 134.

  12. Reich, “The Devil’s Miracle Man,” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1999.

  13. Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2004), 200. Earlier, however, in the title of the Prelude to a 1996 book, Bloom equated Emersonian “Self-Reliance” with “Mere [pure] Gnosis,” especially with the Gnostic concept of the “deep self” as a “unit of the universe,” the “original self” being “already one with God.” Omens of Millennium (New York Riverhead, 1996), 1, 15, 20, 23.

  14. The American Classics: A Personal Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 42-43, 51. In a Marxist critique, V. F. Calverton conceded Emerson’s sincerity and his initially liberating impulses. “Eternally,” however, “Emerson’s stress is upon the self, the individual self, the personal ego. Society can take care of itself, or go hang, as the frontiersman would have put it. It is the individual who must be stressed, the individual who must…become sufficient unto himself….Without wishing it, Emerson gave sanction by virtue of his doctrines to every type of exploitation which the frontier encouraged.” But Calverton goes too far in concluding that the faith of Emerson and Whitman in the common man as “a petty bourgeois individual” is outmoded and must now be replaced (he was writing in the depth of the Depression) by “our belief” in the common man as “proletarian collectivist.” The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 247-49, 258, 479-80.Whatever Emerson’s sins, it’s Calverton’s vision of the “future” that now seems outmoded.

  15. Bloom, “Mr. America,” New York Review of Books (November 22, 1984). Updike, “Emersonianism,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1991). Cavell responded to such charges, perhaps more ingeniously than persuasively, in his 1984 lecture “Hope against Hope,” reprinted as Appendix A of his Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 134-35.

  16. EL 3:266. His initial reticence but final commitment to the abolition of slavery has been clarified by Emerson’s Antislavery Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson; and by The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform, ed. David. M. Robinson (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

  17. Robert Lowell, invited to a White House reception during the Vietnam war (which he opposed), was planning to attend—until urged not to by friends and colleagues, who wanted the nation’s most prominent poet at the time to make a statement by rejecting President Johnson’s invitation. Like Emerson, Lowell agreed with the opposition to presidential policy, but took an activist and public position only because pressed to do so by friends.

  18. The “caducous” passage is repugnant enough to call for a note to assure readers that its author was anything but a cold, unfeeling parent. No stranger to familial tragedy, Emerson had earlier suffered the loss of his beloved Ellen, his first wife, and of two cherished brothers, Charles and Edward. But the death of little Waldo was the single most devastating event of his life. Despite his famous optimism, the self-reliant exponent of “the erect position” acknowledged in “Threnody,” his long-delayed elegy for his son, that “this losing is true dying;/ This is lordly man’s down-lying,/ This his slow but sure reclining,/ Star by star his world resigning” (lines 162-65). With the help of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality Ode, Emerson managed to supply the generically-required consolation; in the final quintessentially Emersonian line, his precious son is pronounced “Lost in God, in Godhead found” (line 289).

    But elegy is one thing, agony another. Nine-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who had been sent by her father to inquire about the condition of “little Waldo, then lying very ill,” never forgot what she saw and heard when Emerson entered the room. “His father came to me, so worn with watching and changed by sorrow that I was startled and could only stammer out my message. ‘Child, he is dead’ was the answer.” That was “my first glimpse of a great grief,” she recalled in commemorating Emerson’s own death forty years later, adding that “the anguish that made a familiar face so tragic…gave those few words more pathos than the sweet lamentation of the Threnody.” (“Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Youth’s Companion [May 25, 1882], 213-14.) Similarly, the brother of Elizabeth Hoar—who had grieved with his sister when her fiancé, Emerson’s brother Charles, died in 1836—said that he was “never more impressed with a human expression of agony than by that of Emerson leading the way into the room where little Waldo lay dead.” For the reaction of Rockwood Hoar, Jr., see Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 294.

  19. Frost, “The Secret Sits.” The allegiance to Emerson on the part of Robert Frost was confirmed in his lecture “On Emerson,” delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1958. On that occasion, Frost stressed his alignment with Emerson’s monistic idealism; but in anti-welfare system poems like “Provide, Provide!,” Frost sounds like the Emerson resistant to giving to “miscellaneous charities.” Frost considered “Uriel” (Emerson’s defiant response to attacks on his Divinity School Address) the best American poem; Job, a character in Frost’s The Masque of Reason (line 344) refers to “Uriel” as “the greatest Western poem yet.”

  20. Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (1972), 23. Vol. 6 in CC.

  21. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 56.

  22. Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 236.

  23. In the sestet to Sonnet XII, Milton refers to those who “bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,/ And still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty;/ For who loves that must first be wise and good.”

  24. Nietzsche partially transcribed the passage in “Self-Reliance” in which Emerson nonchalantly says that if he is “the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” An echoing Nietzsche has his prophet say (in “On the Pitying,” the section on repression in the second part of Zarathustra): “to him who is possessed by the devil I whisper this word: ‘Better for you to rear up your devil!’” Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 201.

  25. William Shaw, email to me dated June 1, 2016. Bill raised a crucial double-question: “Is Emerson saying that what made intuitive behavior wise was some fixed principle of the person defining it for him/herself? Or, does the person define that principle as well, so there is this floating relativity?” Though I am arguing that the “principles” that “triumph” in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance” are “fixed,” there is evidence enough in Emerson’s texts to also support a “floating relativity” thesis.

  26. Coleridge, Appendix C of The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, 63.

  27. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XIV:450-56. The equivalent cognitive turn in Keats occurs in the first of the great odes. Like the “Prospectus,” the “Ode to Psyche” assimilates and supersedes Milton and adopts Wordsworth’s (Coleridge-influenced) adaptation of Kant. As the neglected goddess’s priest and choir all in one, “see[ing] and sing[ing] by my own eyes inspired,” Keats will, in the extraordinary final stanza, “build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind” (lines 50-51), precisely that “Mind of Man” chosen by Wordsworth as his haunt and the “main region” of his “song.”

  28. “The Age of Fable,” in EL 1:284-85. “Quotation and Originality,” in EPP 320, 323.

  29. PL IV:288-90. In his deliberately sordid 1920 poem “Sweeney Erect,” whose title constitutes a phallic pun on Emerson’s (Miltonic) “erect position,” T. S. Eliot cites Emerson by name:

    The lengthened shadow of a man
    xxxxxxxIs history, said Emerson
    Who had not seen the silhouette
    xxxxxxxOf Sweeney straddled in the sun.

    In these lines, Eliot alludes to another formulation from “Self-Reliance” (“an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”), which he fuses with a related phrase from Emerson’s “History”: “If the whole of history is one man, it is all to be explained from private experience.”

  30. The Friend (vol. 4 of the CC, 1969), ed. Barbara Rooke, 2 vols. I:511; Aids to Reflection (vol. 9 of CC, 1993), ed. John Beer, 30n. This book’s immense impact on Coleridge’s American disciples, Emerson included,was partly attributable to the cogent “Preliminary Essay” by James March (included by Beer) in introducing his 1829 edition of Coleridge’s 1825 text.

  31. Buell, Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2003), 65. Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 90-91. See also Kateb’s Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

  32. This fusion of self-reliance with “reliance on God”—along with Fichte’s self-identification with God and Emerson’s similar “inner light” sense of divinity within (at least at certain “illuminated” moments)—has, as we’ve seen in the case of Adolf Hitler, tragic ramifications. There are also tragi-comic examples that amount to a reductio ad absurdum of the idea. Displaying humor as well as utter obliviousness to the widespread suffering caused by his industry, Lloyd  C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, publicly quipped, in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis that had just upended millions of “lesser” lives, that bankers are “doing God’s work.” On a less calamitous level, hip-hop artist and pseudo-fashionista Kanye West, whose colossal ego dwarfs that of even the most self-entitled banker, has proclaimed, with not a trace of saving irony, that “God chose me. He made a path for me….I am God’s vessel.” Both men, especially West, have recently been presented, not as agents fulfilling a divine purpose, but as “assholes.” See Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 76n, 85.

Aug 052016



One of the most startling persistencies in human nature is its craving to find other humans with whom to agree. Startling because it is rare that any two persons agree upon anything with any degree of precision. Vague assent is vague for a reason—it doesn’t really understand either the question or the answer.

We are not constructed to agree. The uniqueness that we claim we each possess, the distinctive consciousness we feel to be within ourselves and not within others, is very real in its billions upon billions of subtly human variations. Whether a meal is well-cooked or sadly dry, whether a city street is a triumph of order or a stream of chaos, these are questions that become unanswerable when asked of a human array of tasters and observers. And most of us have experienced being on both sides of the same question. The street we found charming one day becomes a biting snake the next. The person we thought we would love forever becomes a thought that we cannot imagine we ever thought, not really.

I say that the experience of difference is real for each of us, and I feel that is so. But does that give me the right to assert that it is so, for real. If aliens were to observe the full planetary range of terran human behavior and could tabulate the vast sameness of our movements—eating, drinking, fighting, fucking, shitting, sleeping, watching screens—we would all seem as much the same to those aliens as deer in the forest seem to human observers. We are so blindingly alike that it is hard to remember we never think a thought in the same way, at the same rate, with the same visuals and feelings and bodily sensations, as any other person who has ever been or ever will be, not even if they are in the same room with us at this very moment and and know us quite well.

No matter how carefully I try to write what I think, I know that it will be difficult to impress you the reader—if you are out there and I am not writing in a private language in a solipsistic trance that has lasted the entirety of my life—that anything I say will warrant the label reality. Who is he to tell me what that is? In truth, there is no one you would trust with the care of that most definitive designation. You insist that the final decision on that score must be yours, that to give way to anyone else would be to give away your freedom, which you sense you must never do, though the thought is tempting when your particular freedom is to sit on nails.

It seems to basic human wisdom not to entrust our conceptions of reality to editing by others. Of course we do it all the time—cave in, pretend to agree—to avoid ill feelings and the sheer exhaustion of asserting the truth of one’s private visions on agreeable social occasions. Religions require still more effort in this regard, as do corporations that call themselves cultures. But privately we are most of us aware that no one knows any more about reality than we do. For evidence of the lack of evidence of those who insist that they do know more, consider the histories of philosophies and spiritual speculations around the earth. You will find the same in all of them, sects of difference, the impermanence of seeming ultimate truths, all the sweeping certainties spiced hot with our capacity for simultaneously believing opposites with all our hearts. Opposites such as: no one knows what it’s like to be me and anyone who sees it that way is an asshole.

But opposites don’t make us solely oppositional. They also fuel our impossible aspirations such as achieving consensus agreement on what reality is and what we might expect of it and do with it or about it. Aren’t we all just dressed-up primates walking the earth that we have befouled? We all need to breathe, feed, drink, shit, touch, love, live without fear always breathing behind us—we can agree upon that much, surely? No. We do not concur on what is sinful or delightful to eat or who should have access to food and how much food if access is agreed upon. We disagree fundamentally on whether we are all the same we and whether the vast numbers of persons we call them deserve our consideration on food or any other matter including the matter of their lives. The abyss opens as we part company over whether we or they or anyone are physical beings purely or, rather, infused with a spirit that would be demeaned by any belief that limits it to an isolated self rather than a flowing, glowing interdependence of all sentient beings.

But is this language that I am using now capable of comprehending the real answers to the syntactical entrapments that are our questions? And can’t we all just agree anyway?

The dream of us all agreeing at last assumes that there are many of us, each with our independent experience of reality, who can reach meaningful agreement on the basis of our shared abilities to process sensory data through the neuronic structures of our brains. If we can agree that we are witnessing the same happenings, then there just might be a basis for agreeing what to do about it all, even if we have signally failed in that regard throughout human history. But what if it’s all an implanted delusion, with each of us possessing our own special delusional view designed by who knows what force to make our lives hell or merely amusing? What if our brains are fashioned both not to agree and to yearn to agree, and the frictional heat is what is keeps the thinking alive? What if what we call the I falls asleep and the universe spoons with the I and falls asleep too? There would be no one, nothing that no one would ever see except in the variant dreams of the two sleepers.

We have a patchwork reality consensus. Communication drips and distorts in this vale of tears. And most of the time we leave it like that because it feels that we must. We walk past ourselves on the streets and nod or maybe not and have no idea. We can do without love but not without hate and hate is in ample supply. Inside our heads we are constantly disagreeing, each of us hating some part of the life-dream of somebody else, it’s tragic if the person living it sees us hate it. When we see that happening to us we hate the person hating our dream. To avoid constant killings in the streets, which we do not in fact avoid as it happens somewhere(s) in the world every day, we try as societies or states (or whatever we call our desperate survival groupings) to emphasize our points of agreement, though we still have a hard time naming them. In the most democratic human groupings—as measured by the range of points of agreement (race, gender, orientation, religious and political views) they allow for the sake of peace—we consider everyone equal but our own personal selves most important. How can we resist—we know the rich juicy mindset goodies inside ourselves and cherish them for their ability to keep us happy as we navigate a planet we scarcely understand. Who can know what’s inside the others, and what good could it do us if we could know? As for justice, we believe in it but we’re also certain that we ourselves could do without being caught at our favorite misdeeds and downfalls. Life is sacred except when… and everyone has their own except whens, from self-defense to abortion to protection of property to revenge to war especially if the dying is far off.

So our agreements are tenuous and even scrofulous but it would be hard to stay alive without them, to go out on the streets without sensing that we all understood what streets are and how many ways one might go out on them. The urge to agree intensifies and we smile at our neighbors and think they’re not as crazy as they look and by the way consider who’s doing the looking.

As for my daughter Sarah, who is going to be married this summer and has become a powerful woman who so much resembles the powerful toddler she once was that I find myself conversing with her as if we are playing a game on the floor of her childhood bedroom, I had to ask her if she felt or cared that her reality resembled that of others. She will henceforth speak for herself and bring this essay to a close:

I hate the question ‘What Is Reality?’ I have never spent time thinking about it. Everyone comes up with a different answer. So just say what you think and be done with it. I’m not interested in anyone else’s definition of reality. Nobody else is interested in mine, so I’m not going to spend time trying to perfect my own answer. We all experience things differently because everyone is looking through a different lens. Let’s try to be as cooperative as we can be with each other, given those differences.

Consensual reality? I would prefer to be locked outside of it, thank you. That is the main hook of organized religion. I’ve been in enough youth groups to get a sense of the basic conversion—meaning, induced conformity—experience. The group leaders are totally about a feeling of comfort that they’re sure we’ve all had with God. I would look around the room and see nodding heads, but I could tell, I knew, they hadn’t all had that feeling. But if you dare to shake your head no, you ostracize yourself, and if you keep shaking your head no at that oh so obvious God feeling, you continue to ostracize yourself in lots of contexts for the rest of your life. It’s the same with early social pressures on girls to drink, party and have sex with lots of boys. Don’t you want to do this like all the rest of us seem to want to? No.

But nodding my head yes at that comforting God feeling, that could be very useful some day if I get in trouble with the wrong crowd. So I’ll keep that in my back pocket.

—Lawrence Sutin


Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image.  Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology.  An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016.  For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Aug 042016

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakeCynthia Flood, all photos by Dean Sinnett


Memory Island’s in Shawnigan Lake, north of Victoria. During World War II, two young men from families who summered at the lake were killed in Europe. Their parents bought the little island and donated it to the BC Parks system, in memory of their sons and to provide summer happiness for other kids.

Each August, my family rents a lakeside cottage at Shawnigan. Swim to the island and explore, row to the island for a picnic, canoe there with the dog anxiously aboard — everyday activities.

With my teenage grand-daughters, one afternoon last year I stepped into the refreshing lake-water, all sparkly in the sun, and began to swim.

Next: I am lying flat, wearing a blue hospital gown. A voice says, “We’ll take her up to the ward now.”

Next: a nurse fits sensors around my arm. There’s snoring, nearby.

Next: getting up to pee. Darkness. The woman in the next bed breathes quietly now. She must have turned on her side.

Next: awake. Hungry. I read words stitched on the window-curtain: Cowichan District Regional Hospital. No questions occur. A kindly nurse brings breakfast. I eat everything, and wonder where my tote-bag is.

Then I hear my partner’s voice, coming into the ward. He appears, round the blue curtain. I smile and say Hello! Big tears burst out of his eyes.


This episode of Transient Global Amnesia was of average length. For about eight hours I was gone, AWOL. My brain formed no memories whatsoever. Even when it began recovering, during that hospital night, I felt no surprise or concern. Queried nothing.

After our holiday, when we returned to Vancouver, my doctor supplied me with an 8-page single-spaced literature review on TGA.

Briefly, its causes aren’t well understood, though anyone 40 or up can experience one. Migraines may be involved (I don’t have those). Strenuous exercise, violent arguments or sex or fights, extreme emotional stress, severe dehydration: all are sometimes implicated, though not in this case. Luridly, people in the midst of a TGA have been known to drive, give public lectures, play musical instruments. . . . The condition’s deemed medically benign, with no known negative sequelae. So — I won’t go dotty any sooner than I would have without the experience. My favourite stat: a recurrence rate of about 5%.

Information helps in coping with such an event, but of course none was available to my family that August afternoon.

What I’ve been told:

When the girls and I reached Memory Island, I wanted to stay alone on the beach. They reported to my younger daughter, when she swam over there a bit later, that I seemed “sort of absent.”

Indeed. I asked her, “Where are the others? How did I get here?” And refused to believe I’d swum.

All returned to the cottage, where my daughter and my partner checked me for possible stroke. Negative. I was calm, passive. Obediently I ate a bit and got dressed, but had no recall of being on the island or of the canoe-ride back.

Partner and daughter made a decision. We three drove away.

“Where are we going?”

“To Duncan.”

“What are we doing there?”

“Heading for the hospital.”

“Oh! Well, no family vacation would be complete without some minor emergency.” Laughter.


“Where are we going?”

Repeat, repeat, as partner and daughter cried and drove and googled maps of Duncan.

In Emergency, we soon bypassed other patients. Then came a CAT scan, x-rays, blood tests — none of these registered in memory. Questions about my history and present life I answered willingly, but slipped up on my own and my daughters’ home addresses. Of the afternoon and evening’s events, zip remained.

Quite soon, a doctor suggested Transient Global Amnesia. Transient! My family seized on that.

Still, for everyone but me, a night of great concern followed. Would I have to go into care? Need constant attendance from now on?

In the morning, my older daughter joined my partner by my bed (they’d both been there the night before, but my brain didn’t record that), and they explained. After the doctors OK’d my release, we three went for coffee and I got more details. Felt horrified, yet numb. The events seemed unattached to me.

Back at the cottage, for the rest of the week I played boardgames and read and laughed and talked and cooked and canoed and ate ice-cream, all as usual but not. On our last day, we all went to Memory Island. I got up my nerve and swam there. Blue water sparkled in the sun.

Time pre-TGA seemed distant, beyond a line etched in a sharply different colour, as in sedimentary rock. Something odd happened here.


Memento mori, indeed. My 75th birthday, a month later, felt irrelevant. Also, a glimpse of a future when either my partner or I may be helpless, dependent. For my daughters, perhaps the first time their mother has been exactly that.

Shawnigan 2015 Flood walking

Four months post-TGA, a neurologist ran various physical tests. I’m fine. My passivity during the event she termed typical of the condition.

Sometimes I still visualize my kind nurse, and the curly script on that hospital curtain.

Sometimes I ask, What have I done in the last two hours? Grocery-shopping. Then I walked west, by Lost Lagoon, where the otters played. Then north to Third Beach, yes, saw a big raft of goldeneyes there. Up the hill, now heading east on the Tatlow trail. . . . All clear.

—Cynthia Flood


Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.


Aug 032016

1968Milwaukee, 1968. Milwaukee Journal photo.

Dorothy Day images courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.



Reading Dorothy Day makes me want to write radically, according to the Latin definition of the word, meaning from the root. Everything she wrote—novels, articles, letters, diary entries—was rooted deeply in her political, social, and spiritual beliefs. And she lived the way she wrote—freely and richly—eschewing convention, however society happened to define it. As Victorian norms still enshrouded America, she moved alone from Chicago to New York to live and work and find love where she might. Yet during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when a whole generation was challenging traditional marital values, she upheld them firmly. In terms of social justice, her inclinations tended to be years ahead of most of her contemporaries. She fought on the cusp of practically every crucial social movement of the twentieth century—against the war in Vietnam, against the Atom Bomb, on behalf of Civil Rights, labor, and suffrage. She didn’t just live as a Catholic, she lived according to Gospels, stripping herself of her possessions because Christ had commanded it, loving the poor—truly loving them, which was an act of will, because the poor, up close, can be horrifying. As I read through her published works, her type-written notes, and her scribbled manuscripts, I can find nothing that she didn’t do with passion. She lived passionately, again, going to the root of the word, meaning to suffer, and she suffered in living and loving. Dorothy suffered as a lifelong habit, because she believed that to suffer was to understand Christ, and like all mystics, she dreamt of crossing through the mirror and meeting her God face to face. She wrote long rambling letters that journeyed the world and back and always ended with love of God and man alike. “The final word is love,” she copied over and over in her works.

1930sDorothy Day, 1930s.

Before I began this project I was most familiar with the famous Dorothy, the post-conversion Dorothy, the one she wanted us to see, the woman who landed in prison at the age of seventy-five for protesting alongside Cesar Chavez and the California grape workers. I knew less of her earlier commitments to causes and quandaries that have since fallen out of fashion or have, in some sense, been resolved such as socialism, anarchism, free love, New Womanhood. The first time I read The Long Loneliness, her 1952 spiritual memoir, I understood that she had always been radical and had always written with and about passion. When I read her first novel (now out of print) I was shocked at its transgressive nature. Who described the physical effects of abortion in the 1920s? Who even admitted to having one, a fraught subject even today? I resolved to write with honesty, to embrace the uncomfortable, to write as a whole person, both flesh and spirit, but most of all to write passionately, from the root.

Dorothy radically invested herself into every action, whether it was motherhood, journalism, farming, or prayer. Yet she was also a radical in the conventional sense, throughout her life belonging to multiple fringe groups who advocated for extreme social change. After leaving home in 1916 at the age of nineteen, she moved to New York and embarked on an adventurous career in journalism. Her jobs writing for the socialist paper the New York Call and The Masses introduced her to Greenwich Village intellectuals like John Reed, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, Crystal Eastman, Eugene O’Neil, Emma Goldman, Neith Boyce, and Louise Bryant. In their company as well as that of lesser known cohorts, Dorothy experienced Communist sympathizers, the suffrage movement, Margaret Sanger’s birth control campaign, and wrote, protested, and debated about them long into the night. She wrote her first novel in 1924 and began another (never completed) in 1932.

Her family raised her to be nominally Protestant, but they never practiced or attended services. She converted to Catholicism in 1927 while living on Staten Island, shortly after giving birth to her only child, Tamar Batterham. Her conversion irrevocably changed the trajectory of her life, as it enforced a separation from her partner and father of her child, Forster Batterham, an anarchist who hated organized religion. In 1933, she encountered Peter Maurin, a French peasant philosopher with radical notions about returning the worker to the land, opening houses of hospitality in the cities, and spreading these ideas through a newspaper. And thus the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper was born. The first Hospitality House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side fed, clothed, and housed the poor and unemployed who languished in New York during the depths of the Great Depression.

While she herself maintained a pre- and post-conversion narrative of her life, the values of the Catholic Worker were every bit as radical as those of the Greenwich Village set. Through the newspaper, public appearances, rallies, and protests, Dorothy Day and the other CW members advocated pacifism, non-violent resistance, opposition to capitalism, and support for labor. What she wanted was not just better wages and more reasonable working hours, but an upheaval and transformation of existing society, an entire revolution, but one carried out with love, the only weapons being education and mercy.

Although she remained a committed journalist throughout her life, she never wrote another novel after The Dispossessed and focused instead on spiritual memoir, including her most famous work, The Long Loneliness. Despite the shifts in genre, her writing continued to be informed by radicalism and feminism as much as by orthodox Catholicism. She beautifully articulated contemporary social problems through the tropes of Christian mysticism. She continued to concern herself with the place of women within the family structure as well as with the centrality of sex in human interactions. Moving on from her earlier explorations of free love, she employed the language of desire to articulate her search for the divine that embraced both the spiritual and sensual.

1925ca. 1925.

,ca. 193.

Bohemian Romances

While other cities, including Dorothy’s native Chicago, were experiencing a similar renaissance in gender relations, in the nineteen teens, New York was truly the radical heart of American modernity. Greenwich Village, in particular, attracted intellectuals fascinated by the lure of change, whether it was in the arena of politics, labor, or sex. They wrote novels and plays and started newspapers to disseminate their ideas across the country. Some of the leading figures were immigrants from Eastern Europe like Emma Goldman. Others were scions of prominent families who had attended Harvard and Vassar like Crystal Eastman, Hutchins Hapgood, and John Reed. Most of them found inspiration in the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements in Russia and envisioned the day when a similar revolution would sweep America. If people wanted to write, express themselves, and generally experience life at the turn of the century, they dreamed of Greenwich Village.

Dorothy’s arrival in New York coincided with “a world in which modern women were encroaching on the formerly all-male turf of college, office, and street.”[1] Women were visible in ways their mothers had not been, and at least in Greenwich Village, several of their male colleagues welcomed that visibility as part and parcel of a new social order. Sexual equality was integral to the values of the Bohemian set. As Christine Stansell writes in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, “Throughout the left intelligentsia, the emancipated woman stood at the symbolic center of a program for cultural regeneration.”[2] Financial independence, free speech, and political activism were all tenets of early-twentieth century feminism. Many of the women Dorothy met in New York were supporting themselves as journalists, playwrights, editors, novelists, artists, and political advocates. She remembered that “everyone on the city desk was writing a play or a book.”[3] Louise Bryant also worked for The Masses and during the war would move to France to work for the wire services. She would publish several books on Russian politics as well as plays. Ida Rauh, the wife of Dorothy’s editor Max Eastman, was a trained lawyer and active suffragist, as was his sister, Crystal Eastman. After the government shut down The Masses, Crystal Eastman would edit a new paper, The Liberator, for which Dorothy would work. Neith Boyce was another journalist who interacted with Dorothy socially at the Provincetown Players, where they were both involved in amateur dramatics.

Sexual freedom was part and parcel of New Womanhood in the teens. Dorothy’s experience was thus different from that of late Victorian female freethinkers and activists like the settlement house workers and the first female college professors. Husbands and children represented the horrors of domesticity they had longed to escape. Marriage and a career were seen as incompatible.[4] “But with the supposed emergence of a sphere where men and women mingled in all sorts of all sorts of meaningful ways, work no longer obviated the possibility of heterosexual love.”[5] For Dorothy and her contemporaries, true equality meant the right to socialize with male coworkers at the end of the day with the possibility of romance later in the evening. As Dorothy remembered of those years, “No one ever wanted to go to bed, and no one ever wanted to be alone.”[6]

The Greenwich Village radicals were tight-knit to the point of being incestuous. Men and women formed passionate friendships and collaborated on artistic endeavors. Dorothy’s co-workers on The Masses, John Reed and Louise Bryant, were the quintessential Bohemian power couple, living together and later marrying. Louise Bryant also had an affair with the playwright Eugene O’Neil. Reed, for his part, had been involved with Mabel Dodge, another writer on The Masses, who had also been romantically linked with Hutchins Hapgood, a prominent writer in the Greenwich Village circle and husband of journalist Neith Boyce. Terry Carlin, a friend of Dorothy’s and Hapgood’s muse for his novel An Anarchist Woman (1909), lived for a time with Eugene O’Neil.

Dorothy formed attachments to various men both inside and outside these circles. She developed a deep friendship with Eugene O’Neil as he was recovering from his tormented relationship with Louise Bryant. He would drunkenly recite poetry for her at a bar nicknamed the Hell Hole, and in The Long Loneliness she credits him with stirring the already deep wells of spiritual hunger in her.”[7] After staying up late all night with him she would occasionally run into a church for a morning mass. Later she fell deeply in love with the adventurer and occasional journalist Lionel Moise. He arrived in New York at the end of World War I having worked as an editor on The Kansas City Star alongside Ernest Hemingway, who described him as a hardbitten and fearless man’s man with an air of legend surrounding him.[8] Hemingway wrote about Moise in 1952 that “what impressed me most in him was his facility, his un-disciplined talent and his vitality which, when he was drinking, and I never saw him when he was not drinking, overflowed into violence.”[9] He furiously countered the argument (originating in Charles Fenton’s The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway and repeated in multiple biographies) that Lionel had taught him how to write while simultaneously mythologizing him. “I remember him as a sort of primitive force, a skillful and extremely facile newspaper man who had his troubles and his pleasures with drink and women.”[10]

Lionel Moise’s rough attractions beguiled Dorothy, who later wrote in a letter to her partner Forster Batterham that “I’ve never loved anyone but you and Lionel.”[11] She remained involved with him on and off through the early 1920s. Although still in love with him, in 1920 or 1921 Dorothy married Berkeley Tobey, the business manager for the socialist paper The Masses. Dorothy’s biograper Robert Coles referred to Tobey as “a strange man about whom little is known beyond gossip.”[12] I found a listing for him in a compilation of notable characters of Haworth, New Jersey, hilariously describing him as “a Greenwich Village rogue and bon vivant, married somewhere in the neighborhood of eight times.”[13] His last wife was the well-known California architect Esther McCoy. The photograph I saw shows a jovial man with a white walrus mustache, and is very much in keeping with the little I know of him, as he was posing next to three much younger attractive women, including Theodore Dreiser’s wife. His marriage to Dorothy lasted less than a year. She rarely mentioned him in her writing and never mentioned her marriage in The Long Loneliness, her memoirs of these years. By then, she had become a public figure due to her activism and was deliberately vague on the specifics of her romantic life before Forster Batterham. She always expressed her disapproved of Emma Goldman’s “tell-all” memoirs that named each of her lovers and recalled being “revolted by such promiscuity.”[14] But while she later insisted upon her personal privacy, her writing in the 1920s quite openly explored the new sexual freedom she was living.

In terms of its honesty about sex and relationships from a female perspective, Dorothy’s novels The Eleventh Virgin and The Dispossessed were very much in sync with the work of her fellow writers and intellectuals, Louise Bryant, Crystal Goodman, Neith Boyce, and even, despite her dislike of her, Emma Goldman. They wrote sexually independent heroines into their novels and plays and they explored its real-life implications in treatises and articles. In her 1908 novel, The Bond, Neith Boyce chronicles the first stormy years of the marriage of Basil and Theresa. Theresa, a sculptor, struggles to maintain her artistic freedom despite the obligations of motherhood and household. She also refuses to accept Basil’s double standard regarding fidelity. After he has an affair with a wealthy widow, she insists on open flirtations with other men, although she never allows them to become physical. She employs the phrase, “balancing the account,” to counter Basil’s anger. Despite their mutual misunderstandings and jealousies, Theresa and Basil remain in love and enjoy a sexually satisfying relationship.[15] Boyce’s 1921 one-act play Enemies picks up these themes. A husband and a wife, named simply “She” and “He,” argue back and forth about the inconsistencies and unhappinesses of their marriage. He complains she cares nothing for housekeeping and pays no attention to his interests. She retorts that he intrudes on her inner space and reveals her anger at his inability to remain faithful. In return, he insists, infuriatingly, that a husband’s infidelity means nothing, although a wife’s fidelity must remain paramount. At the end of the play, the two embrace and declare their mutual love and desire, although they admit they will continue to quarrel over these issues for years to come.[16]

Theresa and Basil’s fictional marriage, as well as the anonymous marriage in Enemies mirrored several key questions of the day for feminists—double standards regarding fidelity in marriage, the availability of birth control, female independence within a marriage, and the possibilities of balancing household responsibilities with domestic duties. Crystal Eastman explored these issues in a series of articles and essays for a variety of periodicals, including Cosmopolitan, The Birth Control Review, Equal Rights, and her own The Liberator, for which Dorothy would also write in the late 1920s. Most notably, in her 1923 Cosmopolitan article “Marriage under Two Roofs,” she proclaimed the merits of wives living apart from their husbands, a practice she insisted upon in her own marriage.[17] She advocated as well for husbands who took on housework, and for short hair, short skirts, legalization of prostitution, and ready access to birth control. As she wrote in a 1918 article for The Birth Control Review, “We want this precious sex knowledge not just for ourselves, the conscious feminist; we want it for all the millions of unconscious feminists that swarm the earth, —we want it for all women.”[18]

Neith Boyce, Crystal Eastman, and other Greenwich Village women writers were exploring untrodden territory. As Christine Stansell explains,

American Victorian culture had bustled with sex talk in its own segregated, covert ways. But nineteenth-century women’s ability to speak as sentient sexual beings had been limited by a melodramatic vision of decent women’s victimization by men’s lust. Outside pornography, the words were literally lacking to speak of female desire. Now, the garrulous exponents of free love broke with the asymmetrical pattern by according women a voice and transforming the male soliloquy into a conversation between the sexes.[19]

Dale Bauer terms this language as sex expressionism. “As sexuality became more public, the rhetorics of both the body and language could express sexual desire . . . women writers began to treat sex, once considered an urge or impulse, as a conscious act and a choice, deliberated, enacted and embodied.”[20] Dorothy employed “sex expressionism” to describe both the chaotic internal life and the free-spirited external life of her heroine in The Eleventh Virgin.

The Eleventh Virgin chronicles the sexual awakening of June Henreddy. It begins with her first feelings of desire as a teenager for an older married neighbor and ends with her abortion and the painful end of an affair in her twenties. June’s body stirs, shivers, and shudders with desire. Later it spasms in pain while rejecting the fruit of those desires. The discourse surrounding desire is just as important as the act itself. June is only sexually active in the ending chapters; but the expression of her desire permeates the entire book. First comes the adolescent crush on a neighbor. The relationship exists entirely in June’s imagination, but Day is clear about the physical effects on the young girl. “Her mind had never seemed to be connected with her body and it was strange and wonderful that a thought, a glance, could make a little shower of delight run through her.”[21] The delight is both emotional, physical, and entirely welcome, as June admits that “she loved to be bitten by fierce emotion.”[22] All nature seems to June to be in harmony with her desires. “A breeze sprang up as the sun settled on the sky line, and stirred the wisps of hair around their [June’s and her sister’s] hot faces. It was like a caress and June thought of Mr. Armand’s long fingers.”[23] Mr. Armand’s presence awakens June to the sensual possibilities of her body, but the experience is isolated and predictably, goes nowhere.

Over the next few years, June enjoys platonic friendships with any number of men at college and in the newspaper offices where she finds employment. She even moves in with three jovial co-workers, to the horror of her mother. Despite the constant male companionship, however, she is quite clear that she feels nothing to compare to the physical effects of Mr. Armand. She avoids romantic relationships, insisting that sexual attraction as well as emotional sympathy be present. June is a quintessential New Woman, in that her relationships with men are solely a matter of preference. Since she supports herself through writing, marriage possesses no financial incentive for her and thus she literally can afford to wait.

When she does meet a man who attracts her, Dick Wemys, she is frank about her sexual hopes. “He gave himself three months to stay in the hospital. June gave him three months in which to seduce her.” Dick works as an orderly at the hospital where June trains during the influenza epidemic. With no intentions of marring June, he would have been termed a rake had the book been written fifty years before. In the frank sexual expressionism of June’s world, however, he admits his devious plans up front. “”I love you, June. I love you more than anything in the world, today. But I can’t say how I’ll feel tomorrow.”[24] June accepts his lack of commitment and plunges ahead with the relationship. She doesn’t just love, she flirts, engaging in playful talk about sex. “I’m a demi-vierge,” she informs Dick coyly.[25] When they discuss the future, it is in terms of her physical submission to him, rather than any plans for marriage, children, or future adventures. After he announces he is leaving the hospital, he invites her to live with him temporarily—the temporary is emphasized, as is the physical nature of the request, when he shoves a card with his address in between her breasts. June’s arrival at his apartment signals to both of them the end of her virginity, which is subsequently lost discreetly, but clearly, in a break between two paragraphs.

He looked as though he were suffering. If he would only take her, push aside this barrier of sex that was between them, he could grip hold of himself again. And [she,she] could     breathe easily once more and her heart wouldn’t ache so in her breast. To get the first pain over with! She bit his neck contemplatively.

He shook her so suddenly that she cried out, started, and then noticed that it was very still and quiet. When he turned town the lamp there was only the painful thumping of her  own heart.

Later in the evening, June sat cross-legged on the bed in a pair of pajamas which were far too big for her and ate with a great deal of relish an anchovy toast sandwich and stuffed olives. She felt very young and childlike.[26]

Despite the frankness of June’s sexual enjoyment, the book harbors no illusions as to the nature of their relationship. June’s sexual freedom does not translate into sexual equality. For the first time since leaving home, she stops working, at his direct request. “‘While you’re mine, you’ve got to be all mine, so you needn’t have any interests outside of me.’”[27] Dick’s love is violent, possessive, and controlling. June finds herself lying to please him, “You’re nothing but a damn little fool so don’t you dare tell me Conrad knows how to write a story. I tell you he doesn’t so you might as well shut up.”[28] She wasn’t even allowed to look as if Conrad could write novels. She secretly goes ahead and reads all she pleases. While it had been up to her to yield her virginity, he dictated the subsequent terms of the relationship, reserving the right to decide alone when it would end. He also warned her that he would leave immediately should she become pregnant, which indeed, he does, even though she has an abortion. Christine Stansell notes, “Paradoxical, self-deluding, sometimes harmful: without question there was a dark edge to sexual modernism.”[29]

June’s abortion is rendered in graphic terms. Day is as frank about June’s bodily reaction to pain as she had been about its receptivity to pleasure.

One pain every three minutes. How fast they came! It seemed that the moments of  respite could be counted in seconds. The pain came in a huge wave and she lay there writhing and tortured under it. Just when she thought she could endure it no longer, the wave passed and she could gather up her strength to endure the next one.[30]

There were few literary precedents for such a description, although the topic was proving to be incredibly popular among young writers, including Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy’s friends Floyd Dell and Eugene O’Neil. Mr. Durant, a story by Dorothy Parker appeared the same year (1924) as did the incredibly successful novel The Green Hat, by Michael Arlen.[31] Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy was published in the following year. Over fifty more novels and short stories would tackle the controversial subject before 1945.[32] While The Eleventh Virgin remains one of the least known of these works, it proves that Dorothy was at the forefront of the significant literary discourse surrounding illegal abortions, a discourse that privileged female bodily experience. The Eleventh Virgin ends shortly after June Henreddy’s abortion, so Dorothy allows her little time to reflect upon it. The morality of abortion nevertheless remained a significant theme in her later essays and articles, as I will discuss later.

Historian James Fisher writes that “The Eleventh Virgin showed that Day was not a novelist,” and Robert Coles calls the plot “wretched.”[33] I actually found The Eleventh Virgin highly enjoyable, if somewhat immature. The most charming aspect of the writing is Day’s own bemused attitude towards the melodramatic excesses of her heroine: “‘I’ve got to have you,’ she [June] told him [Dick]. ‘I love you. I do love you. It’s a fatal passion.”[34] There is a sense of fond reminiscence over June’s willingness to throw everything to the winds in the name of love, tinged with a growing bitterness as Dick’s behavior grows more untenable.

Coles, Fisher, and historian of American Catholicism Jim Forest frequently refer to it as her autobiographical novel and glean its pages for details of her early years. It is certainly tempting to read The Eleventh Virgin as a thinly veiled autobiography of Day’s early years in Greenwich Village, although I am loathe to place experiences in Dorothy’s own life on the sole evidence that they appear in the novel. Certainly June’s adventures in writing and politics mirror Dorothy’s own as she described them in The Long Loneliness. The book also embarrassed her after she became a well-known public figure. “There was a time that I thought I had a lifetime job cut out for me—to track down every copy of that novel and destroy all of them, one by one.”[35] At least some of the book did echo her own experiences. She revealed in letters and diaries that she did have an abortion during her relationship with Lionel Moise and preceding her marriage to Berkeley Tobey. As she related in The Long Loneliness, she sought spiritual solace during this time, and there are also hints of a kindling religious interest in the adolescent June, who rebels against the coldness of her parents by a passionate devotion to God, although once she leaves home she grows absorbed in other pursuits.

The Eleventh Virgin, however, documents sensuality rather than spirituality, and the heroine, at least, sees a clear separation between the two. As the adolescent June writes to a friend,

All these feelings and cravings that come to us are sexual desires. We are prone to have them at this age, I suppose. [The fifteen-year-old intoned piously.] But I think they are impure. It is sensual and God is spiritual. We must harden ourselves to these feelings, for God is love, and God is all, so the only love is of God and is spiritual without taint of earthliness.

Given that the subject of religion is then dropped in the novel, there is no sense that the author had reconciled them either.

1932With her daughter, ca. 1932.


Conflict and Conversion

Dorothy’s next novel explores both the sensual and spiritual. She wrote the first chapters during 1932, when she had moved back to New York after working briefly in Hollywood as a screenwriter and then traveling for a year in Mexico. She had already converted to Catholicism although she had not yet met Peter Maurin and begun the Catholic Worker. Most of her time was spent writing for Catholic newspapers and magazines and working on the novel she would term both The Dispossessed and This Dear Flesh. As she describes those months in The Long Loneliness:

I was writing a novel. I have always been a journalist and a diarist pure and simple, but as long as I could remember, I dreamed in terms of novels. This one was to be about the depression, a social novel with the pursuit of a job as the motive and the social revolution as its crisis. There was to be the struggle between religion and otherworldliness, and communism and this-worldliness, replete with a hero and a heroine and scores of   fascinating characters. I put my own struggle and dreams of love into the book and was very happy writing it.[36]

The Dispossessed documents the conversion to Catholicism of a young girl named Monica as well as her love affair with a Communist she knows she can never marry. As with The Eleventh Virgin, Day frankly explores the physicality of Monica’s desire. Monica has loved Nick ever since she moved into the apartment next to him as a little girl. But as she reaches adolescence, her love assumes a physical dimension. She doesn’t just love him; she desires him.

At this time Monica began to be obsessed with desire for him. When he was away, she saw him everywhere, in the line of head, the attitude of some stranger. She heard him in a   sudden soft laugh. The river noises and the heavy damp smell of the city those early spring days reminded her of walks they had taken, long wordless hours they had spent  together.[37]

Day employs metaphors of heat and hunger. Monica feels “hot within herself” and is “hungry to love.”[38] Her sexual awakening coincides with an equally passionate religious awakening. The only thing in her life that evokes the same level of emotion and physicality within her is Catholicism, which ironically means that she can never succumb to her desire for Nick. Her experiences of the depths of her faith resonate physically in her body, and Day employs similar language. One morning, Monica impulsively follows a young woman to Mass:

It was almost every Mass in the Italian Churches, and Monica sat during the Gloria in a maze of happiness. She did not know why she was happy, why this sudden glow of joy had come into her life. She felt waves of exalted thankfulness flooding her heart,a sudden intense consciousness of an all-loving God, and the need and hunger of the human   heart in its desire to serve Him to worship Him. The Mass satisfied her as it never had before. And somehow all this sudden realization was linked up with that girl, so still, so breathlessly still and radiant.”[39]

The two desires are intricately connected and spur each other to greater heights. “Monica’s love for Nick made her realize her faith, because young though she was, she recognized that a choice was being put up to her. She could not have him and her Church too.”[40] It is difficult for the reader to form an opinion one way or another regarding her choices, since each option stirs her equally to physical and emotional frenzy.

Monica sought refuge in her religion now, but she distrusted the softness of religious emotion during these hard times. It went hand in hand with the melting tenderness she was apt to feel at the thought of Nick. The joy and the faith which made it forbidden were too closely linked at these times in her mind. She was as unstable as a reed.[41]

Her torment expresses itself in the language of illness as well as yearning. “She felt that she was a woman with a sickness who had to cure herself.” To love is to experience passion. Passion, literally and figuratively equals suffering. It is impossible not to love and thus, not to suffer.

Unlike June Henreddy, Monica is a virgin and never speaks in terms of seduction. Marriage is the forbidden but desired outcome of her relationship with Nick. Although they cling to each other in dark corners, neither proposes going any further. Yet she is caught up in concerns about sin that June never experienced.

There came with this knowledge of her deliberate choice, the question of mortal sin. Even the thought of bodily desire (forbidden as it was in connection with Nick) was an act of unchastity in the sight of God and as such was mortal sin. Yet to have committed mortal sin . . . (it was that, – Oh God – it certainly was that) but it was not due deliberation or full       consent of the will. For blindly she had fought and struggled, praying daily, walking through the misty, fogbound streets, and how could it be full consent of the will when her lips were numb at the remembrance of his kiss, and her lips were stiff as she forced them on in a mechanical round of walking.[42]

Politics also stands in the way of the young couple’s happiness. Nick also desires Monica but feels an equal calling to Communism and believes he cannot distract himself with a wife and family. He dreads the thought of prison but is equally convinced that he must end up there. The two engage in mutual torment. “’Oh, Nick, Nick, I’m so glad to see you,’ Monica cried, her hands behind her back to keep them from clutching at him. He took hold of her shoulders and his hands were trembling. ‘

“‘You know how I feel, and I can’t stand it.’”[43] It is a love that cannot be born but equally cannot be ignored.

In Monica’s yearning for an unattainable love, Dorothy articulates the mystical longings that she would explore later in her spiritual writing. According to the brief plot summary she had drawn up for potential publishers, Dorothy had planned a happy ending for the pair, each with more suitable spouses. Nick would marry the Russian emigre Natasha while Monica would fall in love with and eventually marry Raoul, an upstanding architect and a friend of Nick’s. “All would be happy according to their lights.”[44] It is fitting, perhaps, that she never composed this ending, dropping the novel in 1933 when she began the Catholic Worker. The desire that coursed through Monica’s body could not be stilled in a contented marriage. The only cure for such desire was a lifetime committed to seeking, following the trail of an elusive lover into dark nights and lonely mornings.

Towards the end of the unfinished narrative Dorothy brings in another woman as a rival for Nick’s affections. The Russian emigre Natasha, unlike Monika, is a sexually experienced woman desperately in love with Nick. Despite his earlier disavowal of marriage, he proposes to her, as her loyalties are compatible with his politics. She relates a sad tale of a promiscuous past in Russia with uncaring lovers more devoted to the Revolution than to her, and then in New York living a hand-to-mouth existence working at a cabaret (which seems to be a euphemism for a brothel). Despite her experience, when it comes to desire, she and Monica speak the same language. Her love is starvation, misery, and desperation. Even in love and engaged, she experiences torment. Nick accuses her of enjoying her misery, and she responds in explanation, “It is difficult for a passionate woman to get over the habit of being passionate.” By passion, she means not only love, but the suffering that must accompany it. Monica must renounce Nick and Natasha will marry him, but to truly experience the weight of their choices, they both must suffer in love. We don’t know how the characters will develop but love as suffering and joy in renunciation are both themes that will inform the rest of her work.

19341934 (original in New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection, Library of Congress).


Love as Mystical Yearning

Dorothy’s post-conversion politics led her to conservative stances on issues such as abortion, birth control, divorce, and pre-marital sex, all of which she firmly condemned in her writings. These attitudes seem to represent a complete break from her earlier radical days when she had attended Margaret Sanger’s speeches, worked for Crystal Eastman, and stayed up nights discussing the merits of free love with John Reed and Eugene O’Neil. They also seem to contradict her own first writings which had expressed sexual desire freely regardless of marital ties and whose heroines had expressed regret only at the loss of love, not the loss of virginity or reputation. Her subsequent writing certainly appears to advocate a more traditional femininity in line with the Victorian family structure against which she had originally rebelled.

Her conversion seemed abrupt to those who knew her, but it followed years of seeking. In the years preceding her conversion, she felt increasingly drawn to the life of the spirit. In The Long Loneliness, she writes, “It seems to me a long time that I led this wavering life . . . . I felt strongly that the life of nature warred against the life of grace.”[45] She had also expressed these anxieties in The Eleventh Virgin when June Hendreddy declares that “the only love is of God and is spiritual without taint of earthliness.” Even though she was happily in love with Forster Batterham, she experienced emptiness and longing. They lived together in her cottage on Staten Island. It was the greatest happiness she had ever experienced but she still felt dissatisfied. In The Long Loneliness (1952), she articulates the idea of God as lover who drew her away from her Forster. She presents her struggle as a love triangle between herself, God, and Forster Batterham, Tamar’s father and the man she refers to as her common-law husband. “I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love. Why should not Forster be jealous? Any man who did not participate in this love would, of course, realize my infidelity, my adultery.”[46]

On a practical level, her conversion meant sacrificing a life that brought her much delight as well as stability after years of searching. Although Dorothy liked to refer to Forster as her husband, they were not married in the eyes of either the state or the church, and he refused to take those steps. A self-identified anarchist, he abhorred the institutions of both religion and marriage. As a Catholic, she could not live with him outside of marriage. Neither would yield. “To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where it was the simplest question of whether I chose God or man.”[47] It is hard not to read Monica’s struggle with a love incompatible with a burgeoning faith as a reenactment of Dorothy’s own. Monica and Nick had begged each other to relent; in similar ways, Dorothy and Forster argued back and forth for almost ten years. She left him and moved to Hollywood and then to Mexico and then to Florida. He visited her occasionally to rekindle their relationship but refused to marry her. She begged him in tones alternating between seduction and despair to marry her and accept her Catholicism. In 1929 from California: “I wish you would give in. I can assure you that I would not bother you and your own opinions as long as you granted me religious liberty—that is, me and the numerous other children we’d have.”[48] In 1932: “Aren’t we ever going to be together again, sweetheart? . . . I do not see why you can’t let me and Tamar be Catholics and be happy with us just the same. You know I love you, and I always think of us belonging together in spite of us being four years apart.”[49] She didn’t give up until she met Peter Maurin and threw herself into beginning the Catholic Worker. When she wrote to Forster in December, 1932 that “I have really given up hope now, so I won’t try to persuade you any more,” she meant it. She wouldn’t write to him again until the 1950s.[50]

After she gave up hope of reconnecting with Forster, she politely but firmly put a stop to any romantic attentions and declared herself a celibate. In the 1940s, Ammon Hennacy, a former Mormon turned Catholic anarchist who had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the Catholic Worker movement became captivated by her. She fended off his advances, writing, “I have a great love for you of comradeship but sex does not enter into it.” [51] And later: “When one is celibate, one is celibate. There is no playing around with sex.”[52] He evidently still thought of her in terms she considered inappropriate when in 1953, he sent her a copy of his memoir (later titled The Book of Ammon) which she returned with pages cut out of it, pleading that such thoughts did not become their age. “It is next to impossible to write about such love of people in their sixties without either seeming ridiculous or revolting.”[53] It is unclearly exactly why she turned towards celibacy, especially considering that she still lived very much in the world. She is clear that she did not do so out of a distaste for sexual love. “It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.”[54]

1938Day at Maryfarm, Easton, PA, ca. 1938.

Although certainly after her struggles with Lionel and Forster, it is conceivable that she could have been fed up with noncommittal men. In 1947, she wrote angrily to a disgruntled Catholic Worker volunteer: “I should be used to men failing me. I’ve had to bring up a child alone and I’ve certainly seen more than my share of the gross and selfish in men. I’ve had many men love me but few protect me.” Although she never explicitly states this, possibly she felt the need to atone for what she considered her early promiscuity. Guilt over her behavior, especially her abortion, haunts her diary entries.

Robert Coles asked her why her she had chosen to end her romantic life at such a young age. For one who positioned sexual pleasure in the heart of the Catholic marriage and who eschewed what she termed Jansenism (a manichean distaste for the physical), why give up such a part of herself and her past? She answered him in a series of roundabout conversations. “When I fell in love with Forster I thought it was a solid love . . . that I had been seeking. But I began to realize it wasn’t the love between a man and a woman that I was hungry to find. . .”[55] In a similar vein, she wrote to Ammon Hennesy that “the whole direction of our thoughts should be to increase in the love of God. It is only in giving up a thing that you can keep it; it is only by such a sacrifice on your part that love can be beautiful and holy.”[56] In much of her post-conversion writing, love becomes directed entirely towards God in a complete mysticism. For Dorothy, nothing but God’s love would suffice.

Yet desire never loses its place in her language, describing both a longing for physical contact as well as the presence of a transcendent force. After her conversion, she reinterpreted her understanding of humanity to include both body and soul conjoined together, per God’s design. Hence the sacral nature of sex: “One cannot properly be said to understand the love of God without understanding the deepest fleshly as well as spiritual love between man and woman. The two should go hand in hand. You cannot separate the soul from the body.”[57] She devoted her whole self to seeking God as she would a lover, and that search took the place of romantic human love. She told Robert Coles: “My conversion was a way of saying to myself that I knew I was trying to go someplace and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to go there and try not to let myself get distracted by side trips, excursions that were not to the point.”[58] A husband or lover would be beside the point in her mystical journey.

In Dorothy’s spiritual writings, she beautifully articulates the sacramental nature of marriage and the centrality of sexuality in marital relationships as “a foretaste of the beatific vision.”[59] “The intense pleasure and delight in the act itself may be like a sword piercing the heart.”[60] Sex is the actual sacrament embodied in matrimony, as opposed to the vows. “It is not the promises that make the marriage. The vows are exchanged at the altar; the marriage is the embrace itself.”[61] On a practical level, she argues, then, that the church needed to emphasize the significance of marital relations and to avoid the “Anglo-Saxon Jansenism,” that caused people to shy away from such discussions. “ . . . It is time indeed that there should be more talk on the subject of sex and marriage on the part of Catholics.”[62] She refused to read the Kinsey report but was nonetheless fascinated by its willingness to bring sex into popular conversations, an inclination she argued that contemporary religious writing lacked.

It is because sex is “the most deeply wounded of all our faculties” since the Fall. In sex, body and spirit are so interwoven, so attuned, so single-minded, so concentrated, and so alive. It is in sex love that people catch glimpses of harmony and peace unutterable. That is why thwarting sex, unfulfilled marriage, is a tragedy often dealt with by physicians and psychiatrists. If the act, which is called by St. Paul “the marriage debt” is not paid generously and to the full people are warped and nerve-wracked, curiously  askew.

The language of desire occupied a permanent place in her writing, but in her post-conversion writing the force of it was directed back to divine union. In On Pilgrimage, The Long Loneliness, and her many letters, diaries, and articles, she explores the theme of Christ as lover, a literary path previously trod by Dorothy’s favorite saints, Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux as well as other great mystics whom she admired. In Dorothy’s voice, the image takes on a modern and realistic meaning. The joys are not metaphorical, and the bodily effects speak to actual memories. For the medieval mystics, the language of sexual ecstasies only existed on a metaphorical plane. For Dorothy, it as the realistic humanity behind the words that renders them meaningful—“It is because I am not now suffering that I can write, but it is also because I have suffered in the past that I can write.”[63] It was precisely because she had known the sweetness of a whole love, body and soul, that her act of renunciation was so precious. “The best thing to do with the best of things is to give them to the Lord,” she wrote in her diary decades after her conversion, “and note that fleshly pleasure if not isolated from mind and spirit is not here labeled sin, but called ‘the best of things.’”[64] So her bridal mysticism loses the morbid aspect of the medieval saints that she admired and appeals to a twentieth and twenty-first century sensibility. It makes sense that in Augustine of Hippo, another great lover of the flesh who nevertheless turned his heart to God, she found great inspiration and quoted frequently in her Catholic Worker articles. Sexual desire between humans was both a piece of and a reflection of God’s love, not divorced from it. Human love was the overflow of God’s love.

Religious historian James Fisher declared that she “came to espouse one of the most abject brands of self-abnegation in American religious history,”[65] and referred to her religious interpretations as “bleak.”[66] His interpretation denies the joyful earthiness of her spiritual writing. Dorothy never turned away from the reality of flesh, delighting in her body even when it sickened and aged, so that she could write on Valentine’s Day, 1944 in her diary:

But this aging flesh, I love it, I treat it tenderly, but also rejoice that it has been well used, that was my vocation—a wife and mother, I gave myself to husband and children, my flesh well used, droops, my breasts sag, my face withers, but my eyes and lips rejoiced and love and laugh with happiness.[67]

Flesh was both her “enemy” and her “dear companion on this pilgrimage.”[68] Her acknowledgement and appreciation of bodily realities represents one of the strongest continuities throughout her writing. At the age of eighty-two, she declared firmly in her diary, “I am a sensual woman.”[69]

1951Day serving soup to Franciscans at Detroit Catholic Worker, ca. 1951.


An Unwilling Feminist

She never retired, writing articles until her death at the age of eighty-three. Her continuing engagement with current affairs required her to confront the changing social mores of the 1960s and 1970s. The Catholic Worker could not remain static if it wanted to remain relevant. As its original members aged, the organization relied on a steady influx of younger volunteers. Dorothy treated these younger colleagues with the same mixture of amusement, concern, and bewilderment, that she showed her nine grandchildren. The young girls of the CW attended Woodstock and excitedly reported back to her. “They had a weekend of rain. Sounded like a nightmare to me,” she wrote dismissively. Her perplexity was frequently softened by outpourings of compassion, as she found her bohemian youth reflected in their untempered idealism. “Aside from drug addiction, I committed all the sins young people commit today,” she wrote in 1976.[70] She disapproved of priests who approached the drugs and sex of youth culture with a lack of understanding. “No compassion for the young,” she dismissed an otherwise good sermon that had ended with a censure of Woodstock.[71] The anti-war demonstrators of the 1960s were near and dear to her heart, as they picked up the pacifism the CW had espoused since the 1930s. In 1965 she spoke at Union Square in support of men who burned their draft cards. In 1967 she attended the trials of anti-war demonstrators and helped raise money for their defense. She differentiated them from the young men and women she deemed to be “hippies,” whom she dismissed as spoiled rebels without any causes other than non-conformity. “I felt in view of the blood and guts spilled in Vietnam the soldiers would like to come back and kill these flower-power-loving people. . . . Middle-class affluent homes, they have not known suffering.”[72] In her warmer moments, she judged them foolish but lost, as she had been and as she knew her own progeny to be. “These are my children too, my grandchildren. Having so many grandchildren, I love . . .”[73]

Dorothy firmly maintained during the 1960s that she was not a “women’s-libber,” but she did conceive of marriage, motherhood, and the position of a woman in a family in radical ways, not unlike her Bohemian companions of the 1920s. She meditates on motherhood and marriage in On Pilgrimage, a book based on a journal she kept in 1948. She spent most of the year on a farm in West Virginia with Tamar who was pregnant with her third child, and her writing reflects her domestic setting. “Meditations for women, these notes should be called, jumping as I do from the profane to the sacred over and over. But then, living in the country, with little children, with growing things, one has the sacramental view of life.”[74] On the farm, dealing with no running water, no electricity, no stores, and two small children, she found herself beset by household cares and unable to write, pray, or even think. She writes frankly about the lack of intellectual and creative stimulation mothers endured. On January 20, she writes despairingly, “What kind of an interior life can a mother of three children have who is doing all her own work on a farm with wood fires to tend and water to pump? Or the grandmother either?”[75] In a similar vein, she complains on March 8, “If you stop to read a paper, pick up a book, the children are into the tubs or the sewing machine drawers. . . . Everything is interrupted, even prayers, since by nightfall one is too tired to pray with understanding.”[76]

She compares the relative constraints of young mothers and fathers. Enviously watching her son-in-law exploring the woods, she admits “one cannot help but thinking that the men have an easier time of it. It is wonderful to work out on such a day as this, with the snow falling lightly all around, chopping wood, dragging in fodder, working with the animals. Women are held pretty constantly to the home.”[77] In On Pilgrimage, she raises a theme that would haunt her writings for years to come—Tamar’s isolation and frustration as a young mother with a new baby practically every two years (nine children in eighteen years of marriage) and no intellectual outlets. “It is a lonely life for a woman with many small children. It is a life of solitude in city and village anyway, since a young mother cannot get out, but in town neighbors and friends can at least drop in.”[78] Her correspondence with Tamar is rife with comforts and reassurances that rarely seemed to work. When Tamar longed to move back to New York so she could have more company, Dorothy warns her away because of the polio epidemic and the high rents. “Oh dear. I do know how lonely you are, but I do assure you that a mother with small babies is always lonely.”[79] She titled her book The Long Loneliness in part as a reference to the shared solitude of humanity. But she also meant to pay specific homage to the particular loneliness of women, both as young mothers isolated by the burdens of childcare and then later as older mothers bereft of their children. “Tamar is partly responsible for the title of this book in that when I was beginning it she was writing me about how alone a mother of young children always is.”[80] Dorothy realized, of course, that loneliness and anxiety were the bitter but necessary fruits of motherly love. “It is right for us to love our families, but oh the heartaches. But it is the cross, the saving Cross. We cannot have Christ without His Cross.”[81]

Tamar’s experiences, both her loneliness and her restlessness, paralleled Dorothy’s own as a young mother. She remembered herself as a young mother traveling from New York to Hollywood to Mexico and back again. “I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others.” That loneliness can stem from specific circumstances—Dorothy knew almost no one in Hollywood and likewise, Tamar lived in the country miles from a neighbor. But it also derives from social pressures and biological realities that isolate women in households. In a statement that stunningly echoes Betty Friedan’s work of the following decade, she continues by declaring that, “ A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough.” Women needed to create and seek outside the family structure. Even flush with love for her new baby, she had still been driven to write. Back in her cottage on Staten Island, still with Forster, her Catholic sponsor Sister Aloyisia had scolded her for sitting at her typewriter while the breakfast dishes piled high. Dorothy’s own conversion, for all that it that it represented a more conservative social stance, actually entailed an assertion of autonomy, radical in every sense.

Dealing with birth control, abortion, and free love were the most troubling aspects of the 1960s and 1970s for her, both because they conflicted directly with Catholic family doctrine and because they reminded her uncomfortably of her own youth. Her disapproval of birth control brought her into conflict with her sister Della, who volunteered at Margaret Sanger’s clinic and openly declared she would only have children she could afford to bring up and send to college. Dorothy writes in Della’s obituary: “When she went on to exhort me . . . that I should not urge, as a catholic, Tamar, my daughter, to have so many children, I got up firmly and walked out of the house, whereupon she ran after me weeping, saying, ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, We just won’t talk about it again.’”[82] Her advocacy of marriage without birth control continually warred with her championing of female independence. Had she remarried and given birth to more than one child, her ability to travel the country and write would have been greatly curtailed. In 1973 she wrote to Sidney Callahan, a professor of psychology at Mercy College, “I feel badly at seeing formerly happy women friends bitter and angry at all they have suddenly discovered they have suffered. And they get angry at me for not being angry.”[83] Yet even though she disliked the label of feminist, she continued to be attracted to the ideals they championed. She disapproved of bishops who were “more concerned about [birth control] than war.”[84] By 1979, after hearing Dr. Marian Moses speak, she admitted there was validity to the feminist critique of the papal stance on birth control and abortion. “She is a strong feminist. I am not, tho I can see all the problems.”[85]

Interestingly enough, while her disdain for birth control seems like mere unquestioning acceptance of Catholic dogma, on a few occasions she expresses her belief that birth control harmed women in particular, as it allowed men to escape marriage and responsibility. “Sex is a gigantic force in our lives and unless controlled becomes unbridled lust under which woman is victim and suffers most of all.”[86] The sexual revolution seemed to give men license to leave their wives, which she witnessed frequently in the CW. Divorced women with small children took refuge as part volunteers and part boarders. “Dear God, help me not to judge people harshly. But men certainly take advantage of women more than ever these days.”[87] Her critique of the sexual revolution sounded a familiar feminist note. As Ruth Rosen explains in The World Split Open, men happily exploited women’s newfound sexual availability. “If sex was free, where did you draw the line?” She related the tale of one woman in a Washington D.C. consciousness-raising group who lamented that “the sexual revolution is making me miserable,” because “I’m not supposed to be jealous” when her husband cheated on her with “everything in sight.”[88]

Thirty years prior, Dorothy had angrily accused Forster of just such flippancy in their relationship when he refused to marry her.

You have always in the past treated me most casually, and I see no difference between     [our] affair and any other casual affair I have had in the past. You avoided, as you admitted yourself, all responsibility. You would not marry me then because you preferred the slight casual contact with me to any other. And last spring when my love and physical desire for you overcame me, you were quite willing for the affair to go on, on a weekend basis.[89]

In a roundabout way, she argued that birth control allowed for promiscuity, which created an easy escape from marriage, which was the ultimate sacrament. Given her experiences with Forster and Lionel Moise, perhaps Dorothy assumed most men would avoid marriage if offered sex and most women would choose it. The legalization of abortion after Roe v. Wade in 1973 struck close to home. “Does the changing of laws—the Supreme Court decision—do away with this instinctive feeling of guilt? My own longing for a child.”[90]

The separation of love and sex troubled her, not only because it led to the dissolution of marriage but because of its ubiquity, even in the sanctuaries of the Catholic Worker homes and farms. It overwhelmed impulses for pacifism and charity that she tried to hone in new workers. “What to do about the open immorality (and of course I mean sexual morality) in our midst. It is like the last times—there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed.”[91] She worried that contemporary thought urged people to succumb to their desires. “[They say] why does God implant in us these instincts and then punish us when we satisfy them? God made all things to be enjoyed. Enjoy! Enjoy!”[92] Her conversion was based on denial of instinct; she relied on discipline and prayer to strengthen her resolve when old temptations beckoned. She had renounced love only to find a deeper love and a greater life. She found something vacuous about those who searched without sacrifice. “My heart aches for them, they are so profoundly unhappy. Their only sense of well-being comes from sex and drugs, seeking to be turned on, to get high, and to reach the heights of awareness, but steadily killing the possibility of real joy.”[93]

Yet Dorothy believed in love, even if it was free. Despite her adherence to Catholic moral teaching, she couldn’t condemn a relationship in which love had sprung up between two people, even if the love lacked sacrality. “Birth control, abortion, free love—all in the name of love. . . . The hunger for human love, how beautiful in marriage and renunciation, too. But it is always to be respected, even in all these free unions, even in all these sad searchings . . .”[94] As the seventies crawled on, her own and the century’s, the world continued to change, and she insisted on reexamining her priorities and values. Old friends and colleagues started coming out as gay and she strove to understand what the church condemned. When two of her female friends confessed to her they were lesbians, she sought back into her past to remember moments of similar feeling—again, she strove to co-suffer—she remembered a girl in high school who inspired her—”I never knew her name or anything about her but in a way she cast a light about her.” She also recalled a young Polish woman who reminded her of the Virgin Mary whom she met when she first went to Communion (a scene that appears in The Dispossessed). “How contemplation of that Polish girl deepened my faith!”[95] Could love ever be wrong? Without the grace of God, it could lead to temptation and temptation, but that was just as true, she argued, for any kind of love. “Unbridled sex, practiced today in every form or fashion,” was certainly worthy of censure, but love itself could only deepen understanding. “I mean that one must be grateful for the sate of ‘in-love-ness’ which is a preliminary state to the beatific vision, which is indeed a consummation of all we desire.”[96] She seemed to take a particular dislike to drugs, probably because they were unfamiliar, possibly also because they reminded her of her own drinking days, which embarrassed her. Maybe because both of those things were forms of escape from the sorrows of the world, but sorrow was suffering and suffering was love. It was only when she embraced suffering that she found joy. It had happened once, at the great moment of her conversion, and it continued to happen every day in moments of struggle. “To love is to suffer. Perhaps our only assurance that we do love God, Jesus, is to accept this suffering joyfully! What a contradiction!”

1958With grandchildren ca. 1958.


The Hard Work of Loving

While Dorothy worked out her ideas on feminism, women, sex, and love in her writing, she was also putting her ideas on charity into action. She viewed herself as a writer, frequently declaring that writing brought her the greatest joys in her life. But very little of her day was actually devoted to writing. It couldn’t be. She was the heart of a network that fed, clothed, and sheltered hundreds of people every day. The Catholic Worker was a unique organization in that it operated as a newspaper, a soup kitchen, and a shelter, all within the same few rooms. “The trouble with the CW is that one is so busy living there is no time to write about it.”[97] Dorothy and the other CW volunteers lived and ate alongside the alcoholics, the prostitutes, and the unemployed whom they sheltered. She wrote to support them as much as she did for personal fulfillment, and even then, she wrote only in moments stolen from brewing coffee and boiling soup for the lines of men and women that wove around the block even years after the Depression had ended, not to mention lending them a sympathetic and non-judgmental ear when necessary. She frequently found the latter task the greatest challenge. As she chronicled in her diaries, the poor can be incredibly unpleasant. They vomited in the stairwells, stole money for drugs, swore, cursed, and sometimes screamed late into the night. This indeed was the hard work of loving she wrote about. How to love the unloveable? She knew the answer—she had to see Christ in each one of them. But how difficult that was in practice. She admitted that at times she found the poor “repellant.”[98]How could you look into the dull eyes of an alcoholic or a schizophrenic raging in madness and see God inside them? How could you summon a vision of Christ when you dwelt in Hell? “. . . To be present, to be available to men, to see Jesus in the poor, to welcome, to be hospitable, to love. This is my need. I fail every day.”[99]

She was rarely rewarded, but the moments when she received gratitude must have been incredibly perfectly sweet. Edward Breen was an especially hard case who could and (should Dorothy’s canonization process prove successful) literally did try the patience of a saint. In 1935, she wrote to her friend Catherine, “Will you please pray real hard for a Mr. Breen who is at the present moment my greatest and most miserable worry? . . . He won’t be comfortable . . . and he, after all, is Christ.[100]” He yelled racist epithets at the staff and insisted he hated them all. But he stayed at the house until his death in 1939, and she persisted in her attentions to him. When she went traveling, she wrote him affectionate letters telling how proud she was of his improved behavior.

…..Dear Mr. Breen, This is but a note to tell you to be good and to be happy even though it means a great effort of will. I know you haven’t been feeling well, you poor dear, but take care of yourself, and try to keep calm and peacable in mind, and you will make me happy. I know things become very hard and disagreeable at times, but just offer it up for my intention.”[101]

And the difficult Mr. Breen was just one person of the hundreds she dealt with in the 1930s. Dorothy interacted with his equally stubborn sucessors every day until her death at eighty-three, because she never stopped living at the Catholic Worker shelter. Throughout those years, she frequently gave up even her room to people in need of shelter. She ate whatever they ate, however plain, and found her own clothes in the donation bundles so that she could devote her income to them. From her diary in 1944:

I darn stockings, three pairs, all I possess, heavy cotton, grey, tan, and one brown wool,    and reflect that these come to me from the cancerous poor, entering a hospital to die. For ten years I have worn stockings which an old lady, a dear friend, who is spending her declining years in this hospital, has collected for me and carefully darned and patched.   Often these have come to me soiled, or with that heavy hospital smell which never seemed to leave them after many washings. And the wearing of these stockings and other second-hand clothes has saved me much money to use for running of our houses of hospitality and the publishing of a paper.[102]

Perhaps because of my own love of new clothes, and perhaps too because I know Dorothy shared it, this passage affects me greatly. Whenever I face the hard work of loving, I think about Mr. Breen and the mended stockings and the sacrifices they represented for her. Dorothy’s anguish is my salvation, because if the woman who created the Catholic Worker Movement sometimes found people unendurable, how much hope is there for the rest of us!

DD0049aDay Day reading at farm, ca. 1937 (TIF)Reading at the farm, ca. 1937.

Some of Dorothy’s writing disappoints me. I have wished I could write an essay about how her feminist convictions strengthened over time and only became more radical, in the commonly accepted sense of the word. That she strode seamlessly from New Womanhood to Women’s Liberation. I admire so much her refusal to live her life on any one else’s terms. To me, it is such a shame that she condemned her own courageous behavior as sinful and glossed over everything that didn’t fit into her Catholic moral narrative. She had defied convention by living with Forster Batterham without marrying him, yet later she conveniently decided they had been “common-law” married. That the “common-law” marriage was a later invention is made clear in letters from the 1920s when she described Tamar as his illegitimate daughter. It seems like she was a radical before the world was ready who then retracted by the time the world caught up with her. I suppose my acknowledgement of her faults is important because otherwise I would be limited to hagiography in writing about her. I would rather approach her as she was, which was human, and therefore, flawed. Even in her flaws, however, I find her appealing, because for all her harsh rhetoric, she was uniquely flexible in her ability to adapt, forgive, and accept. Her sister Della, who remained her best friend until the end of her life, worked for Margaret Sanger. Tamar’s marriage ended in divorce and she and most of her children rebelled against Catholicism, so that several of Dorothy’s great-grandchildren were born out of wedlock and most never baptized. Dorothy accepted all of these blows to her faith, sometimes with sadness, but never withdrawing affection. She continued to act as a loving mother and grandmother, supporting Tamar emotionally and financially. And remarkably, in the 1950s she reconnected with Forster and helped nurse his live-in mistress (he had stubbornly adhered to his anti-marriage stance) through cancer. What touches me most is a letter Dorothy wrote in response in 1973 to a young girl in distress because of an abortion:

I’m praying very hard for you this morning, because I myself have been through much of what you have been through. Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me thru that darkness . . . My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with    bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.

But God has been so good to me—I have known such joy in nature, and work—in writing, as you must get in your painting—in fulfilling myself, using my God-given love of beauty and desire to express myself. . . .

Again, I beg you to excuse me for seeming to intrude on you in this way. I know that just praying for you would have been enough. But we are human and must have human contact if only thru pen and paper. I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren.

When I read how tenderly she responded to others, I realize that she reserved her harshest criticism for herself and that the only sins she refused to forgive were her own.

In complicated situations, I actually do ask myself, what would Dorothy do? I don’t mean this in a sentimental way and I certainly don’t think she was perfect or would have all the answers even could I magically commune with her. I ask this question precisely because I know that she was flawed and that she understood imperfection to be the human condition. When I waver in faith or love, I think she would tell me to forgive the flaws in my fellow humans as well as myself and to treasure those flaws as the mark of the divine. A friend of mine, in the process of an unpleasant divorce, told me he had begun to forgive his wife for her years of cruelties, because he started to recognize aspects of her in his daughter, whom he loved wholeheartedly. If he loved the weaknesses of one, how could not love them in the other? Our flaws stem from our creator, and if we love him we must love his designs, which is to love each other. “The final word is love,” Dorothy declared, over and over, in articles and letters. She loved with passion, a habit she could never cast off. “We should be fools for Christ,” she also wrote frequently. Dorothy formed a foolish and passionate love wide enough to embrace the entire body and creation of God. She loved the poor, the tormented, the almost unloveable. She even, bless her heart, loved the non-believers, which includes myself. “For those who not believe in God—they believe in love.” I don’t know if I believe in God but I know I believe in Dorothy—her message, her words, her acts of charity in a dark world.

Works Cited

Bauer, Dale M. Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.

Boulton, Agnes. Part of a Long Story: Eugene O’Neil as a Young Man in Love. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

Boyce, Neith and Hapgood, Hutchins. Intimate Warriors: Portrait of a Modern Marriage, 1899–1944, Selections by Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood. Ed. Ellen Kay. Trimberger. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991.

Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1989. Print.

Costello, Virginia. Revolutionizing Literature: Anarchism in the Lives and Works of Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, and Bernard Shaw. Diss. Stony Brook University, 2010. Print.

Day, Dorothy. Dorothy Day. The Dispossessed. 1932. Series D-3, Box 1. Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection. Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI.—. The Duty of Delight. Ed. Robert Ellsberg.  New York: Image Books, 2008.

—. The Eleventh Virgin. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1924.

—-. From Union Square to Rome. (New York: Orbis Books, 2006). Print.

—-. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. New York: Harper and Row,  1952. Print.

—-. On Pilgrimage. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. Print.

—-. “Reflection during Advent—Part Three, Chastity.” The Catholic Worker 10 December 1966.

—-. Therese: A Life of Therese of Lisieux. Springfield: Templegate Publishers, 1960. Print.

Dearborn, Mary. Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Print.

Eastman, Crystal. On Women and Revolution. Ed. Blanche Wiesen Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Print.

Falk, Candace Serena. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Print.

Fisher, James Terence. The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Print.

Forest, Jim. All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.  Print.

Gillette, Meg. “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence,” Twentieth Century Literature 58:4 (2012) 663–687. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 March 2015.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1931. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. Selected Letters 1917–1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner, 1981. Print.

LaBrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. Columbia, MO: University of  Missouri Press, 1997. Print.

Miller, Nina. Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary  Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread – the Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in  America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Print.

Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.


Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Miller 8.
  2. Stansell 225.
  3. Long Loneliness 53.
  4. Stansell 249.
  5. Stansell 249.
  6. Long Loneliness 84.
  7. Long Loneliness 84.
  8. Forrest 51–52.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hemingway 774–775.
  11. Day, All the Way to Heaven 38.
  12. Coles 3.
  13. “Haworth’s notable characters.” http://www.haworthnj.org/index.asp accessed 2 March 2015.
  14. Day, Long Loneliness 60.
  15. Boyce and Hapgood 39–132.
  16. Boyce and Hapgood 186–195.
  17. Eastman 76–83.
  18. Eastman 46–49.
  19. Stansell 275.
  20. Bauer 19.
  21. The Eleventh Virgin. The Dorothy Day Collection/The Catholic Worker. n.d. Web. n. pag.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Stansell 267.
  30. Ibid.
  31. I found this website on abortion in American and British literature immensely helpful: www.lesleyahall.net/literaryabortion.htm along with Gillette, Meg. “Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence.” Twentieth Century Literature 58.4 (2012): 663–687. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
  32. Gillette 666.
  33. Coles 6 and Fisher 13.
  34. The Eleventh Virgin. The Dorothy Day Collection/The Catholic Worker. n.d. Web. n. pag.
  35. Coles 37.
  36. Long Loneliness 161
  37. The Dispossessed 65.
  38. The Dispossessed 60–61.
  39. The Dispossessed 61.
  40. The Dispossessed 59.
  41. The Dispossessed 65.
  42. The Dispossessed 65–66.
  43. The Dispossessed 81.
  44. The Dispossessed n. pag.
  45. Long Loneliness 85.
  46. Long Loneliness 148.
  47. Long Loneliness 140.
  48. All the Way to Heaven 40.
  49. All the Way to Heaven 56.
  50. All the Way to Heaven 63.
  51. All the Way to Heaven 216.
  52. All the Way to Heaven 216.
  53. All is Heaven 275.
  54. Long Loneliness 140.
  55. Coles 61.
  56. All is Heaven 275.
  57. Duty of Delight 29.
  58. Coles 64.
  59. On Pilgrimage 132.
  60. “Reflections during Advent” 20.
  61. On Pilgrimage 206.
  62. On Pilgrimage 132
  63. On Pilgrimage 227–228.
  64. Duty of Delight 505.
  65. Fisher, 1.
  66. Fisher, 2.
  67. Duty of Delight 81–82.
  68. Duty of Delight 81.
  69. Duty of Delight 688.
  70. Duty of Delight 602.
  71. Duty of Delight 488.
  72. Duty of Delight 418.
  73. Duty of Delight 411.
  74. On Pilgrimage 110.
  75. On Pilgrimage 91.
  76. On Pilgrimage 110.
  77. On Pilgrimage 95–96.
  78. On Pilgrimage 72.
  79. All the Way to Heaven 222.
  80. Long Loneliness 243.
  81. Duty of Delight 563.
  82. Day “On Pilgrimage” The Catholic Worker, May 1980.
  83. All the Way to Heaven 523.
  84. All the Way to Heaven 378.
  85. The Duty of Delight 673.
  86. The Duty of Delight 409.
  87. Duty of Delight 578.
  88. Rosen 143–195.
  89. Day, All the Way to Heaven 61.
  90. Duty of Delight 564
  91. Duty of Delight, 522–523.
  92. Duty of Delight 525.
  93. Duty of Delight 532.
  94. Duty of Delight 416
  95. Duty of Delight 589.
  96. Duty of Delight 590.
  97. Duty of Delight 268.
  98. Duty of Delight 63.
  99. Duty of Delight 291.
  100. All the Way to Heaven 97–98.
  101. All the Way to Heaven 124.
  102. Duty of Delight 77.
Jul 092016

StratfordTrainCirca1971The Author circa 1971 on the Stratford Train.


By the time I was seventeen, I was a singer-songwriter—a tumbleweed riding the wind, barely making ends meet. I sang a lunch set at the Penny Farthing coffee house for my lunch and dinner. And I lived in a downtown Toronto rooming house across the hall from Murray the Speed Freak who, according to the Addiction and Research Foundation, should have been dead six months ago. I needed a steady job to afford a better place to live.

So I applied to work at the University of Toronto where, I was told, jobs were plentiful. I presented myself to their administration offices with no skills, no experience and no references because I was not yet eighteen, still legally too young to work full-time. I lied about my age and likely other details I don’t recall. They hired me for the Wallace Room, the undergraduate reading room in the Sigmund Samuel Library. My first full-time job required me to be in the same place, all day, five days a week. What a shock.

9-5 Blues by Mary Rykov  [1:48]

My first full-time job was also a serendipitous good fit because I love to read. I’m told I recited the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit as a two-year-old. And I have fond memories as a five-year-old walking with my mother to the public library each week to exchange books. I felt grown up when she went off to choose her books and left me alone with the children’s librarian to choose mine. I love books, libraries and even the musty-dusty smell of some old books.

I can’t say I enjoyed my grade school library, where choices were limited. Mrs. Copeland ruled that library with a sign-out system that encouraged us to read the classics. The deal was to alternate between reading a book from her list and a book of our choosing. Fair enough.

When given the choice, I read about animals. Sometimes my choice overlapped with Mrs. Copeland’s book list, but not often enough. When I eventually read all the fiction and nonfiction animal books on the Grade 1, 2, and 3 shelves—interspersed, of course, with Mrs. Copeland’s literary canon—I chose an animal story from the Grade 4 shelf. But I was not allowed to read the Grade 4 books because I was still in Grade 3.

I balked at the injustice. I was following the rules and living up to my side of the bargain, but Mrs. Copeland was not playing fair. In protest, I stopped reading all books in Mrs. Copeland’s library. The school thought I stopped reading. They didn’t know I was reading — without restriction—the children’s books that lined my piano teacher’s waiting room.


The Wallace Room

The Sigmund Samuel Library was constructed in 1910 on the east perimeter of King’s College Circle to replace the original University College library that was gutted by fire in 1890. The Wallace Room, named for Chief Librarian and scholar-historian-editor W. Stewart Wallace (1884-1970), was located in a new wing added to the north side of the 1910 building in 1954-55.


The library building was then named for—and significantly financed by—Sigmund Samuel (1868–1962), son of a wealthy British industrialist who successfully grew his inherited family business. His generous philanthropy was responsible for the library enlargement, as well as the Canadiana collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada), contributions to Toronto Western Hospital, and numerous other community projects. Samuel became a Governor of the university and laid the cornerstone for the new library addition. With no disrespect intended for Samuel’s significant contributions, the oversight of indigenous perspectives that characterizes Eurocentric-colonialist “Canadiana” constitutes an unsettling and incomplete historiography by today’s standards.

The Wallace Room housed open stack books for all undergraduate disciplines, as well as short-term course reserve loans. After the Robarts Library was built on St. George Street in 1973, the humanities and social science holdings moved there. Today the old Wallace Room is a reading room in the Gerstein Science Information Centre, which takes up the entire Sigmund Samuel building. But during my 1971 tenure, I bolstered my high school dropout education with the full range of undergraduate disciplines.


Wallace Room 2016



My Wallace Room desk duties rotated between the sign-out desk and the front desk. At the sign-out desk, I ensured that sign-out slips were completed correctly. Then I date-stamped both duplicate parts of the slip, placed one copy in the pocket pasted to the back inside cover of the book, and the duplicate copies accumulated in a box to be filed later.


Duties at the front desk entailed answering questions, retrieving course reserve books, receiving book returns, and collecting fines. We were allowed to excuse overdue fines under $50.00 at our discretion, depending on the circumstances. I always pardoned fines for students who told me about a family death or other emergency, but not for students who told me the maid swept the books under their bed. We admired some of the stories that accompanied overdue books. Who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn?

During down time at the front desk, those duplicate paper sign-out slips were meticulously filed by date and call number. Book returns were processed by removing the paper sign-out slips from the back pockets, finding the corresponding filed duplicate slip, and discarding the matched pair.

The returned books, once processed, were placed on wheeled trolley carts according to the call number printed on their spines and by the green, orange, red, blue, purple and yellow dots that signified the call number section.


My favourite task was shelving books from the trolley carts in the back of the library stacks where my reading was not so easily disrupted. I read everything from Herodotus’s Histories (all nine volumes) to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I didn’t steal the books; I read them. And I particularly enjoyed the marginalia comments and arguments.


Herodotus interested me because I like archaeology and ancient history, myths, legends, and old things in general. I enjoyed talking to the students and read what I saw them reading. I was allowed to sign books out, and did. But most of my reading was done on the job. I read slowly and deeply (still do), cover to cover, including forewords, introductions, and acknowledgements. The marginalia was like a conversation speaking to me, although I can’t remember exactly what was said. I just enjoyed the discourse and that someone was moved—and cared enough—to respond to the writer. I still read marginalia.

My Wallace Room supervisor was librarian Jeanette Anton, a childless Estonian WWII refugee in her 50s who spoke with a musical accent. I likely projected onto her the character of Mrs. Copeland, my grade school librarian, who more closely resembled the wicked-witch-of-all-libraries past, present and future. In fact, there was no comparison. When Mrs. Anton smiled, her blue eyes twinkled. Mrs. Copeland also had blue eyes, but she never smiled. At least, not at me.

Mrs. Anton was kind, but she was also precise, demanding and did not suffer fools kindly, as the saying goes. She seemed to have had eyes in the back of her head, which gave her the uncanny ability to catch you doing something wrong—even if you never did it wrong before and never did it wrong again. She knew. Also knowledgeable and competent, Mrs. Anton was grandfathered into the library profession without having had formal training. She furthermore frightened me because she was very tall and towered over me.


Dress Code

I was (am) tiny, not five feet on a tall day. I could never find shoes small enough for my feet, and clothes didn’t look the same on me as they did on store mannequins. My long chestnut-auburn hair was never styled. Besides, I often rode my bike to work and didn’t preen. Mrs. Anton tolerated my jeans and sandals with a patient, maternal kindness. She also offered unsolicited wardrobe advice.

“So-o-o-o, my little one,” she would say, “they came out with a new fabric not long ago called Crimplene. It comes in all sorts of pretty colours — pink, blue, yellow, green. Solids and prints. You can throw it in the washing machine and dryer and it won’t need ironing. Crimplene!” I used to imagine Mrs. Anton with her very own TV commercial.


For readers who missed this 1960s fashion phenomenon, Crimplene was a thick, wrinkle-resistant polyester that was ideal for A-line mini dresses. The Crimplene name alone used to make me cringe almost as much as my coworkers’ snickering as Mrs. Anton extolled its virtues to me. While she raptured on, they stood behind her with fingers to their lips as if to vomit, trying to make me laugh. I learned to keep a straight face—a useful skill when fabricating excuses for being derelict in my duties. Read on.


Paper Records

Libraries in those days functioned on paper. Everything did. Books were requested, acquired, signed out and signed in on paper. Overdue fines were recorded on paper. My hours worked, all recorded on paper. But I was too young and feckless to care about company loyalty, much less duty, or pride in work well done. On busy days when I was too hot, bored or hungry—or hot, bored and hungry—I would tire of filing or retrieving all those paper sign-out slips. My eyes glazed over.

So I became the library fine faery.

Sometimes I excused library fines just because I didn’t want to record them. Other times I “disappeared” the paper sign-out slip duplicates by filing them temporarily in my pockets instead of in their respective file boxes. Later I would file them permanently down the toilet. Unfortunately—or fortunately—my tight blue jean pockets could not hold much.


Front Desk as War Zone

One spring morning, with cherry trees in full blossom, Mrs. Anton gathered us around her for a strategy meeting. Convocation ceremonies were scheduled, and students who had not paid their library fines would not receive their diplomas. They attended convocation, but their diplomas were held hostage until their fines were settled. Mrs. Anton knew this ritual well. She scheduled extra front-desk staff to address the onslaught.

You’d think these students would know who they were. You’d think they’d come in ahead of time to pay up. Some did, but many did not. Maybe they considered their overdue fines were hollow threats now that they had completed their studies and had no use for library privileges. They underestimated the ransom power of unpaid library fines until they found themselves at graduation, all dressed up in gowns and mortarboards, with just empty handshakes. No diplomas.


After the ceremony, the convocation carillon rang out like a starter pistol. We watched the would-be grads sprint straight across the King’s College Circle lawn from Convocation Hall heading in our direction—caps in hand and gowns flowing behind them in the wind. We took our positions behind the front desk as they arrived in droves, while Mrs. Anton maintained order in the lines-ups. Ha! Gotcha!


The Book Stacks

As mentioned, I enjoyed shelving and reading the books on the trolleys. On hot days, the book stacks in the back were darker and cooler than the sunny western exposure of the reading area in front. The old library building was not air conditioned back then. And when I was shelving books alone in the back book stacks with nobody looking, I would lie down on the floor to feel the cold marble on my hot arms and legs.


One steamy summer day I fell asleep there. I woke, startled, with everyone standing over me wringing their hands. Before I could leap to my feet—afraid I was really in big trouble this time—I realized they thought I had fainted. I was not allowed to stand up until I drank some water and ate a snack. Then I was sent home in a cab.


I Sleep Late (Most) Thursdays

Yes, my sleeping was a problem. More specifically, I had trouble waking on Thursday mornings because every Wednesday night I worked a late shift. I didn’t mind taking my turn and working late, but not when I had to start work at 8:45 am the next morning. My Wednesday late shift alternated between 10:00 pm one week and midnight the next week. Regardless, I still needed to be at work by 8:45 am on Thursday mornings.

I usually (but not always) managed to arrive on time after working until 10:00 pm. But on Thursday mornings after working until midnight the night before, I often failed to wake on time, even with three alarm clocks. And when I (or anyone) did not appear by 9:00 am, Mrs. Anton phoned. By then I had moved to a large shared house, living student-style with six others. And when I slept in and Mrs. Anton called, I had to dash from my third floor bedroom to the second floor telephone before my sleeping housemates were roused.

One Thursday morning after a midnight shift, I woke right at 8:45 am. Late again! But this time I dressed quickly, took the telephone receiver off the black, rotary-dialed base, and stifled the beeping with my pillow and blankets. I ran two blocks to the payphone at a busy intersection. Out of breath, I called in late from there.

“Where are you?” I’m asked.

“I just witnessed an accident, Mrs. Anton,” I say.

“Oooh, you must be upset,” she answers. “Go have a cup of coffee.”

“Okay,” I say.

So I walked home and put the telephone receiver back on the hook. After a leisurely bath—we had no shower—I made coffee and breakfast for my housemates. I finally sauntered into work around 11:30 am, in time for lunch.

“What happened?” they all asked.

Hmmm, I should have anticipated I would need further details to account for myself. But I was too young to be responsibly irresponsible. At first I tried saying I was too upset to talk about it. I hemmed and hawed, stalling, until they finally wheedled this story out of me.

“It was such a glorious morning, and I was a bit early,” I lied. “So I decide that instead of getting off the southbound Yonge subway at College and taking the streetcar west, I would exit a stop earlier at Wellesley so I could walk across Queen’s Park and enjoy the beautiful spring flowers,” my fib unfolds. “And while I stand on the northeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets waiting out the red light before crossing to the west side, I see a popcorn man wheeling his bicycle cart south on Bay Street.”


By now there was no turning back or stopping. My story continued, as if on its own. So I included hand gestures to illustrate. “As the popcorn man pedals into the intersection, the Cadillac car behind him starts to make a right-hand turn west onto Wellesley Street from Bay—and knocks the poor, old popcorn man over with its left rear tail fin!”

I was awed by my own audacity. Had I read so much Wallace Room fiction I was beginning to make up my own? I covered my face with my hands because I laughed so hard I actually gasped. And as I gasped, I cried. So I carried on, embellishing an awful scene with the popcorn man and his cap and his popcorn and peanuts and chestnuts and cashews and taffy apples spilled all over Bay Street, balloons billowing in the middle of the morning rush hour traffic. Of course I stayed with the popcorn man until the ambulance arrived. His name was Giorgio. Then I went to the police station with the officers to give my report. And months later when I slept in again—I was in court, serving as witness for Giogio’s case.


My First Job Legacy

Dumbfounded and relieved, I somehow passed my three-month probationary work period. How? No doubt due to Mrs. Anton’s compassion and affection. Mrs. Anton, may you rest in peace, and thank you. But three months after passing probation, I slept in so often that I exhausted all my toothache and dead relative excuses. No sequels to the popcorn man fable followed.

Unable to manufacture as much fiction as I consumed, I resigned from my first job because I assumed I would, eventually, be fired. I resumed playing music and did manage to land some television and radio spots, thanks to the Canadian content (Cancon) government regulations set out by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1970s. Once I opened for Lenny Breau in an after-hours jazz club. I even sang at the Myna Bird as an opening act for the strippers, which might have been easier had I stripped. Oh, well.


As I fumbled on towards adulthood, I came to appreciate my path was paved with more kindness than I was aware of at the time.

—Mary H. Auerbach Rykov


Mary H Auerbach Rykov is a Toronto music therapist-researcher, editor and educator. Her work appears in literary and professional venues. http://maryrykov.com



Jul 072016

Version 6


When I was seven, the age my son is now, my parents took my sisters and me to SeaWorld. I fell in love with Shamu, and came home with a stuffed killer whale. He shared my bed from then on. Ever since, my blissed-out dreams have featured whales.

I now live on an island surrounded by whales. Resident pods swim the strait that is my front yard. A friend once told me that I was looking for a whale in the shape of a man. My husband once thought he’d lose me as I ran along the beach, trailing a pod. He feared I’d dive in and never come back.

Dawn Brancheau underwater with whale

When I was pregnant, I had a dream. A dream of sex and a killer whale. Of sex with a killer whale.

My pregnancy was hard won. It had required surgery, daily shots of hormones, medical invasions. There were triplets at first, but two of them died. There was bleeding, there were dire prognoses for the one fetus I had remaining inside me. I was put on bed rest, and spent days in a haze of reading, movies, sleep, and dreams. I was careful about what I watched and heard; everything made me cry. (Hormones). I couldn’t watch the news, and I especially couldn’t follow the US presidential election. This was the fall of 2008, and I had a huge political crush on the junior senator from Illinois. I desperately wanted him to win.

A few weeks before the election, I had a dream in which I had sex with a killer whale, and gave birth to Barack Obama.  My sleeping mind was trying to make sense of it, trying trying to link the two events in a visual pun. It clicked: a killer whale is black and white so naturally our son, Barack Obama, would be bi-racial.


I told my husband, thinking the story would be good for light over-coffee conversation.  I had sex with a killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. 

No reaction.

So, I explain. Again. Slowly. Wishing I’d kept the dream to myself.

A beat. Then he asks, very seriously, very quietly. Was there penetration?

Are you jealous? I asked.

Was there penetration? he repeated.

Now usually, when I have dreams about sex there’s no actual sex involved, there’s just a wash of good feeling, but this dream had been different. It was logistical, mechanical, graphic. It was almost entirely about penetration.

whale breaching

The  whale of my dreams is variously misnamed: killer whale (a smart carnivore, but not a psychopath); orcinus orca (meaning “from the kingdom of the dead”); blackfish (yes, black; but no, not a fish). Grampus has fallen out of favor. At Seaworld, all the killer whales are called Shamu in public, but their trainers recognize them individually: Tilikum, Kasatka, Makani, Shouka. No doubt they have names for themselves in their own killer whale tongue.


Before I had sex with the whale, I took a good look at him. His erection was made of metal, as long as I am tall. It brought to mind a corkscrew, or drill bit. I said to him, You’re going to kill me if you’re not careful with that. He listened, he thought about the situation, he was great, very accommodating, very understanding. We worked it out. We made love. We made Barack Obama.

I have told this story before. People tend to be impressed by the sexual aspect; one friend informed me that in real life, whale peckers are, in fact, very long. My dream fear was not unfounded.


A unicorn lays his head down in a virgin’s lap. She strokes the beast, calms him.

The cetacean equivalent of a unicorn is the narwhal, who has a single, spiraled, very long tooth protruding from its forehead.

Killer whales eat narwhals for breakfast.


We are apex predators –nobody eats us. The peoples and the resident orcas where I live subsist on salmon. Transients will eat mammals. The beluga and the narwhal are  traditional sources of blubber, for man and blackfish alike.  Both salmon and blubber are great sources of Vitamin D, as well as other nutrients. One study found that the average 70-year-old Inuit with a traditional uqhuq –blubber– diet was likely to have arteries as elastic as a 20-year-old Dane.

Resident orcas are highly organized: matrilines are a family consisting of a mother and all her offspring; these whales separate only for hours at a time, to mate or hunt. Pods consist of closely related matrilines; pods travel together. Clans consist of related pods; communities comprise related clans.

To avoid inbreeding, males mate with females from other pods. In the wild, the dorsal of a male is always erect. Like that of many captive males, Tilikum’s dorsal drooped.

Tilikum's Flaccid Dorsal

When SeaWorld orca Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn, her blonde ponytail was blamed. It had been swinging and bouncing, catching the sunlight, and something about it aroused the whale.  He lunged from the pool, grabbing her ponytail in his mouth, and swam with her to the bottom of the pool. He kept her down there, molesting her, until she was quite dead. There was an inquest, there were written statements. An autopsy was performed. There was talk of attempted rape, that perhaps Tilikum had attacked Dawn due to raging hormones, and was enacting mating behavior. The killing was ruled a homicide.

After the incident, Tilikum was shut away. Isolated. With nobody to talk to.


Except when they’re resting, blackfish talk all the time. Their language consists of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. Pods all speak the same dialect, whereas clans in a community will exhibit dialectical variations. We can’t even guess what they’re saying.

The females go through menopause, and lead their matrilines  for decades beyond their child-bearing. Granny, of J pod and J clan of the Salish Sea, is 104 years old.

Killer whales teach their young; knowledge is passed down through generations.


In the absence of an elder, witch, priest, or other designated teacher, I see a psychologist regularly. She is heavily influenced by Jungian thought. What we do together is dredge the depths of my shadow side. Where unhealed wounds reside. Where rage lives. Where the part of us unknown to ourselves is.

The work is a bringing to light of what was in the dark. The work is chiaroscuro. The work is wholeness. We work with memories, with dreams.

There can be resistance to therapy, I’m told, because we fear what we might find. We’re afraid of who we are when we’re naked, and seen.

I went to her when my hands and feet were going numb, when my tongue was swollen, when I couldn’t breathe, when I had stigmata on my palms.  My body was a semaphore, a metaphor. My subconscious, speaking in symbols, was desperately trying to get my attention.

I was dreaming of sea monsters. White, repulsive things. Moby Dick on a bad day.

Moby Dick

There are perils to to misreading symbols, to taking dreams literally.  Conversely: tragedy when metaphor makes itself real.

There is a condition called sirenomelia, also known as Mermaid Syndrome.  A romantic name for a deformity in which the legs are fused together. The feet turn out like little flukes, so that the child looks half-human, half-fish. Or half-whale.

A baby like this was born in Peru. Her parents lived at the side of a lake filled with legends.  They named the child Milagros. They prayed that her legs might someday be cut apart. That someday she’d be able to walk on land.


I had sex with a killer whale and gave birth to Barack Obama. But that was a dream.


When I was in college studying art, I loved to paint. I wanted to lick those shining, oily colors, the mineral swirl of them around on my palette, the magic of mixing them. Stroking them onto the slick gessoed canvas felt like love. Drawing, on the other hand, was hard for me. It required disciplined seeing. The marks determined form and space, the black on white created architecture, skeletons. If color was flesh, black-on-white was bone.

When all the colors of the light spectrum are mixed, you get white. When all the colors of the physical pigment spectrum are mixed, you get black.  Light contains all colors, black absorbs all colors. Like many opposites, in some ways they’re the same: containing, absorbing, holding. And, at once, denying.

When my son was tiny, I hung a mobile of black and white above his crib. Newborns can only see light and shadow, they are trying to discern edges. We start by knowing the world through colorless extremes.

It’s also how we end. White is a mourning color in much of the world, as is black.

Black made from charcoal is one of the oldest know pigments, and shows up in Paleolithic art. Other traditional blacks include bone char, made from burnt bone, and lampblack, made from soot. In the United States, performers used to rub burnt cork, and later greasepaint, on their skin to blacken their faces.

For a long time, white was either temporary (chalk) or a ground (lime white) on which other pigments would be applied. It wasn’t until the Greeks came along and invented lead white pigment that white became a permanent part of the picture. Women in ancient Rome would paint their faces white. With lead. These cosmetics reeked, and so the women masked the smell of their faces with perfume. This make-up and perfume, along with jewelry, were a woman’s cultus, her culture.

Version 2

Irregular patches of contrasted colours and tones … tend to catch the eye of the observer and to draw his attention away from the shape which bears them.

— Hugh Cott, Adaptive Coloration in Animals

A killer whale’s black and white patterning  is a kind of disruptive camouflage. If you focus on only the black or only the white, you can’t see the thing for what it is, in its entirety. You don’t know what’s coming at you.

Individual whales are recognizable to humans by their dorsal fins and saddle patches. By the particularities of coloration. Who knows how the killer whales recognize one another, but to those of us on the outside, with only the crudest of metrics at our disposal, skins have become identities.  Soul clothes, passed down through generations.

Disruptive Camouflage

A killer whale’s black as well as white is largely determined by melanin, the same pigment found in squid ink, which people have long used for writing.

Melanin writes on human skin as well as on the whales’. It writes a letter from the inside of a person to the outside world, it seems to say, This is who I am.

Be careful what you read. Ink is not the same as truth, the word is not the same as god. Everyone knows, all writers are liars.


Some of us were leached of melanin long ago when we migrated to what is now Europe. When we lost our melanin, we lost our protection. Pale skin is more prone to deadly skin cancer, and ages more quickly. It was a necessary concession: the lack of sun and adequate dietary sources of vitamin D would’ve killed us.  Our skin paled so that it could soak up the sun more efficiently. Fewer melanocytes results in lighter skin, the color of which is then affected by the bluish-white connective tissue under, and the red blood coursing through, the dermis.

Rarely, a genetic twist will color the skin indigo. As in a family—the Fugates—who lived at Troublesome Creek, and suffered from methemoglobinemia.

The bluest Fugates I ever saw was Luna and her kin. Luna was bluish all over. Her lips were as dark as a bruise. She was as blue a woman as I ever saw.

–Carrie Lee Kilburn, a nurse

Albino Killer Whale Iceberg

Iceberg is a pure white killer whale who has been spotted off the coasts of Alaska and Russia.  Scientists want to look into his eyes, to see if he’s albino.  There have been other white killers, though not albinos. Chediak-Higashi is a rare disease of the immune and nervous systems that drains the whale of color, and also of life. Most die when they’re very young.

Killer whales, in order to be whole, are black and white, not one or the other.


Queequeg and Ishmael in bed together, Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over pale Ishmael’s. They are in a cold room, keeping each other warm:

…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.

—from Chapter 11, “Nightgown,” of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.


I have wondered if paper was made to be white because ink was black, and wanted a contrasting field. Did the mark determine the ground?


Killer whales are  important clan and totem animals amongst Indigenous Northwest Coast peoples. I’m a permanent, uninvited guest on Coast Salish land. I can’t imagine life without the salmonberries and seagulls, the kelpy beaches, the Nootka roses. Please know I love the killer whales.


The sea is often taken as a symbol for the subconscious mind, the unknown self, the deep soul. A whale navigates these depths with ease.

As a girl in Arizona, I spent hours in the swimming pool. Holding my breath underwater. Swimming swimming swimming. All the way down to the bottom.  Don’t touch the drain, I was told. Your fingers could get caught in the grate and you’ll die.

You can’t live your life in dreams. We walk on land. We breathe air.

Jan Topelski transcriptJan Topelski transcript

She was lying down … face to face performing a relationship session” with our whale. I then noticed immediately he bit down on a piece of her hair.

—Jan Topelski, SeaWorld official

Suddenly I saw (the whale) grabbing the trainer … and pulling her down in the water. It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the whale’s mouth, the whale’s tail was very wild in the water.

—Susanne De Wit, a 33-year-old tourist from the Netherlands

One of the guests at DWS (Dine with Shamu) asked if she was going to be OK cause she witnessed Dawn being pulled under by the hair.

—Phyllis Manning, waitress

The whale would not let us have her.

—Jodie Ann Tintle, whale trainer

Tilly was not giving up Dawn.

—Robin Ann Morland, another SeaWorld worker.

We don’t know what was going through the killer whale’s head.

—Chuck Tompkins, Brancheau’s former supervisor.


As SeaWorld’s chief stud, Tilikum has been masturbated by trainers like Dawn many times.  When given the signal, he knows how to swim to a shelf at the side of the pool, lie on his back, and flop his (sizable) penis onto the deck. Then the trainer gives him a handjob.


Moby Dick was a killer whale, but not a killer whale. He was an albino sperm.


Tilikum’s semen, caught in plastic bags poolside, has been used to make seventeen more Shamus, ten of whom are still alive and performing.

Like Tilikum’s children, my son is the product of artificial insemination. He was conceived in a petri dish, and then grew in me. I have a picture of him when he was eight cells old. He is my greatest joy.

Tilikum was some mother whale’s son, but he was taken from her, from the wild, off the coast of Iceland.

The bull whales had tried to lead the whale catchers astray by swimming down a fjord, while the mothers and aunties stayed with the children. But the hunters found the children anyway, and took Tilikum away. As Tilikum was hoisted up out of the water, the whole pod keened.


Dawn’s murder was caught on videotape. When studied, footage revealed that Tilikum had not actually dragged Dawn down to the depths by her pony tail. He’d grabbed her arm. He was angry, not aroused.

The film Blackfish persuasively argues that his aggression and psychosis were a result of abuse in his childhood. Not only was he stolen from his family, but once ensconced in his first human home, in Canada, he was bullied and beaten by his peers. He was kept in a tiny tank where he was lonely and had nothing to do. It was a miserable existence, with nothing natural about it. Along with two other, older whales, young Tilikum was involved in the death of their trainer, Keltie Byrne. After that, they were sold off to America.


My father’s family comes from the West Indies. We’ve been there for hundreds of years, in Barbados and Bermuda, though no longer. The men in my family spent their time on the sea.

Records indicate that my forebears were not whalers, but shippers who plied the route from the Caribbean to Canada, hauling rum north, salt cod south.  They did not, as far as I can tell, traffic in people.  I don’t know if they held captives, if they forced labor without wages, if they tore families apart, but at very least they were certainly part of the slave economy.

History is never safely in the past until it has been seen, understood, brought to light. Shadow side work.

The history of a self extends beyond her own borders. The outside and the inside of a self are connected. They resonate. To see one clearly, you must also see the other. You must be in two places at once.

We are both particle and wave.

We are whale and water.


We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.

―Herman Melvill, not the American writer, but the English preacher


The only resident killer whale known to have lived all on his own was named Luna. He’d been separated from his mother early on, under mysterious circumstances, and wound up in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Vancouver Island.  Orcas are social creatures. Did he know who he was without his kin? He was killed by a tugboat when he was just six.


Tilikum, after the incident with Dawn, was placed in solitary confinement. He became listless, and now, as I write, is dying.


My Jungian therapist says that, symbolically, a god and I were fucking when I had sex with the killer whale.


When fireworks went off all around me in 2008, I knew Obama had won and I burst out crying. I was happy for our country, but in some deep way, I also believed that there was a resonance between the son I dreamt and the son I carried. Because Obama had won, so would, despite predictions to the contrary, my child. To this day I credit that killer whale for my son’s robustness.


Killer whales drown if they fall completely asleep. They rest, one eye open, half a brain closed. We do not know if they dream.


In my dream, I had sex with killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. That’s my story, one of them.


The resident whales where I live sing.  The salmon they eat can’t hear their songs, and so the whales sing freely.


Dawn Brancheau with whale



As a child, Dawn Brancheau fell in love with Shamu, and dreamt of working with killer whales when she grew up. She stayed with that dream, and became a lead trainer at SeaWorld.  She loved the whales. Her family has objected to the film Blackfish. “Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was just a footnote.” The family statement about Blackfish is here: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2014-01-21/business/os-dawn-brancheau-blackfish-statement-20140121_1_killer-whales-blackfish-orca-tilikum

The Dawn Brancheau Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and promoting the importance of community service. http://www.dawnsfoundation.org

Blackfish: http://www.blackfishmovie.com

The Joy of (Killer Whale) Sex: my story as told at the Moth, http://julietrimingham.com/the-joy-of-killer-whale-sex/

Some research links:

—Julie Trimingham

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


Jul 022016

anita-desai-1Anita Desai


In his introduction to Moral Agents: Eight American Writers of the 20th century, Edward Mendelson mentions a singularity of the American novel, one that is reflective of its culture: the emphasis on the individual self’s determination and ability to overcome odds. This could mean destiny in certain instances or even convention. There is nothing that can hold the individual back – and the example Mendelson’s offers is that of Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn. This theme, however, appears in some of Henry James’ novels: the early ones such as The American, Roderick Hudson and even in Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer tries hard not to settle into the conventional role as society demands of her.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is about a man who gives himself a new identity and tries hard to chalk out his own destiny.

‘American culture,’ writes Mendelson, ‘has always been troubled by the question of what it means to be an individual person.’ He goes on, ‘In the American novel, on the whole, the goal of the plot is the liberation of the hero… from other people’s values and demands, an escape from all relations of the kind in which individual persons find some accommodation with each other.’  Consider in this light also some works of Ernest Hemingway, where the hero tries hard to find love, but a bigger, larger motive – of fighting battles, of doing a heroic act – always calls him away.

Choice is what drives the individual and it is the individual’s agency that pushes her destiny and even fiction forward. This is unlike, Mendelson suggests, ‘the fictions of Europe where an individual’s life is shaped from outside by large interpersonal forces of culture, history, gender, ethnicity, class, archetype or myth’. In such fiction too, other pulls – of society for example, are far stronger, and the individual is subsumed to it. Interestingly, this difference between American and European cultures appears in Henry James’ works, such as The American, where the brash, assertive American’s ways are contrasted with the more circumspect, more socially conscious French aristocracy.

Such wider forces appear in Asian fiction as well, of which Asian writing in English is a subset. Characters are in thrall to other pressures – long existing, overarching and demanding, and also divinely/religiously sanctioned. In Asia, religion has from time immemorial, formed an integral part of the polity; the strictures of religion and its rules decide an individual’s life. Rulers or the government have the dharma (or ordained duty), then, to uphold what has been thus ‘divinely’ ordained. One’s birth then decided one’s destiny and this or the fates, defined her duties, the role she had to play in different life stages, and choice or agency could do little to circumvent or surpass this. The two famous Hindu ancient Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are about individuals who are advised to do their duty; indeed, one’s dharma (way of living rightly) lies just in fulfilling one’s duties sanctioned by tradition and caste.

In ancient societies, where religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have long had a presence, it is received wisdom that individuals are born to certain roles, to certain stations and that it is their destiny or dharma to live according to that. A king serves his subjects, officials function as per the roles they occupy and as defined by caste. On a more unit level, a man has responsibility for his family, a woman serves her family, children are to respect their parents and to grow up within the family and serve it. The individual, in tradition and even in fiction, is defined by the family, whose very reason for existence, and function is decided by culture and religion. There is then little free will; things are pre-destined.

A look at the trajectory of literature in South Asia reveals that the popular works, that travelled primarily by word of mouth before being written down much later, such as the epics or tales from the Panchatantra (tales that sought to impart training to princes), involved individuals performing best as they could their given roles and duties. The novel, it has been suggested, is a western import. Some Indian first novels in the mid-19th century, such as the novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay who wrote India’s first novel in English, and those written soon after in regional languages, reflect the country’s need to question colonial rule, the need to rebel against an unjust foreign power. The individual’s role, in a time of change as seen from the 19th century, appeared in greater measure as the novel emerged. But these still recognized the role of tradition, especially in the domestic realm.

Anita desai


The Novels of Anita Desai

The novels of Anita Desai (born 1937) look at present-day and persistent manifestations of the conflict as manifested with the individual arraigned against bigger forces and also the individual’s attempts to subvert destiny. Such subversion, especially in her early novels that feature women, never quite come easy.

In the few interviews she has given, Desai has offered glimpses of her own life: one that did not fall into conventional accepted patterns. It made her in many ways the outsider, and yet gave her an inside view on how the domestic world functioned in India, the relationships and subtle modes of exploitation that existed in traditional families, where the woman was expected to sacrifice her own interests for the greater good – and how bigger events have an impact on small lives.

Her father, Dhiren Mazumdar, a Bengali from Dhaka (then in undivided British India and now the capital of Bangladesh), travelled to Germany as a student of engineering; his father and brother were involved in the Indian freedom struggle against the British that raged then. In pre-war Berlin of the 1930s, Mazumdar met Antoinette Nime, whom he married—something quite different from the usual ‘arranged marriages’ of the time. Desai’s mother, who claimed to have mixed French and German ancestry, never returned to Germany. (Desai’s recollections of Germany, that appear in her Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989), are based largely on her mother’s reminiscences about a home she could never return to, once the Nazis rose to power.)

It was in Mussoorie, a hill town near the Himalayan foothills that Desai was born on June 24th, 1937, one of four siblings. The family later moved to Delhi; again a city where the extended family was absent and thus unable to interfere (an aspect that appears in several of Desai’s novels). Desai lived most of her early life in Old Delhi, the more ancient part of the city; its houses and streets appear in many of her works.

Desai spoke German at home and also knew Hindi, English—her literary language, and the one she read books in first—and then also Bengali and Urdu. She read English at Delhi University and married fairly young at 21, to a businessman with roots in Bombay, Ashvin Desai. Bringing up four children and moving first to Bombay and then Calcutta, Desai wrote her first novel when she was 27. Cry, the Peacock (1963) reveals the confusion and unnamed fears of a young married woman, living in assured privilege, but which precisely becomes the cause for her anguish.

In these early works, the resistance, to familial pressures, on the part of her protagonists is passive and sullen and leads to a helpless, hysterical despair – as indeed in Cry, The Peacock. The object of one’s resistance is somewhat mysterious – for individuals do not (know how to) question tradition or societal sanctions. Her protagonists in subsequent novels have been largely women, though two novels in particular, deal with men whose lives have been disrupted by historical forces. Desai describes the constraints and limitations such tradition imposes, especially on women’s lives. Women have to marry, and have to serve their families. Sons have to study hard to keep the family’s honor and secure a good job to improve the family economically.

Desai, a writer who is part of the first generation of post-independent Indian writers (the 50s and 60s onward) in English, set her stories in this period as well, a time when the country made its first attempts to shake off its colonial past. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, talked of a modern nation that would find its place among the world’s bigger powers in a ‘non-aligned’ way – this in a time as the Cold War settled in between the world’s two superpowers, the US and the then Soviet Union.

Indian writers then who wrote in English had, it was understood by the Indian people, a different audience. They were seeking in some sense to explain India to the world, and also present the west’s encounter with tradition, something seen in Desai’s novels. Writing in English – and some writers who were first bilingual moved to English as a deliberate measure – is in contrast with writers in India’s regional languages, who wrote books on important themes such as Partition, of the condition of women, the position of castes considered ‘lower’ in the hierarchy for instance. But their exposure, via translation, has been a more recent occurrence.

It was around the late 1980s that she moved to the west, dividing her time between Delhi and the west. She was first a fellow at Girton College in the UK and then moved on as a faculty to Smith College, Mount Holyoke and then the MIT where she has been teaching since 1993. Her novels of this period, the middle phase of her career, have characters that try and question tradition, or resist convention and societal constraint, not in overtly rebellious ways, but by seeking an undefined spirituality as happens in Journey to Ithaca (1995), through contrarian behavior, that leads to self-destruction as in Fasting, Feasting (1999), and also in the three novellas that constitute The Artist of Disappearance (2012) where resistance appears in forms of ‘renunciation’ or abdication in the manner of the sadhus of old.

Her work, shows this constant questioning on her part, the attempt to understand, with empathy, how ordinary lives might resist, though, as in some of her other novels during this time, the forces now arraigned against them were wider in scope– such as the pulls of history in In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). Concomitant with her many movements, her stories too move, from India—where most of her novels till the late 1980s are set, to places like Europe, Mexico and the US.


Two Conflicting Roles

The figures of householder and ascetic, symbolizing the contrast between individuality and tradition, have been the staples of the ancient Hindu textual tradition. Its epics, mentioned earlier, and law texts such as the Dharmashastras, define duties and laws according to the caste one has been born in. The obligations placed on the individual at every life stage appear to suggest that life is always directed by tradition, responsibilities thrust by society and community.

An individual passes through four stages of life from being a student to setting up house, which is succeeded by retirement and then renunciation: when the individual leaves behind all worldly and household obligations and leaves for the forest. This departure is not just symbolic, for the casting off of ties implies that the character is not bound by her family and household any more. It then becomes a societal obligation to care for the person, for it is understood that they are seeking a higher spirituality, looking for an immersion into God, away from the cycle of birth and death.

The ascetic, then, is one who has renounced it all, someone who has shunned all ties and obligations, for only through such renunciation, as the ancient scriptures have it, can the individual attain salvation (moksha).  The ascetic is seeking meaning in a higher spirituality, usually immaterial and unworldly – this isn’t easily defined and is hard to achieve, involving arduous penance, long periods of fasting and usually subjecting the body to all kinds of hardships, in the hope that some divinity would be appeased by such measures and confer blessings.

The householder, on the other hand, is immersed in family obligations and duties, and responsibilities. This contrast in Indian society has engaged sociologists and historians alike, such as the French sociologist, Louis Dumont who suggested, that an ascetic is one “beyond” the caste system; only they could, by professing to break the associations of caste, seek spirituality of a higher order.  (It was, on the other hand, easier for those from a higher caste giving it all up; both Mahavira and Buddha, founders of Jainism and Buddhism respectively, were born in Kshatriya (warrior) families). A social historian of colonial India, William R Pinch, writes of the symbiotic relationship between peasants and monks in villages throughout Indian history; each one dependent on the other for well-being and survival. The peasants in their villages, have to provide succor and shelter, as per their dharma, to wandering monks; the latter’s presence graces the village and offers them benediction. He presents to them an idea of their own future.

As the American writer-painter Edwin Lord Weeks noted in the 1890s, the itinerant fakir was a ubiquitous part of Indian life like the crow and the vulture. For all his seriousness, Weeks wrote, the fakir could look grotesque and even an anachronism. Writing of how he came upon fakirs in cities and in villages, Weeks described how the fakir appeared incongruous in the midst of a country that was changing, with new ways of transportation and thought (in the late 19th century, railways covered most of India, except the very remote and there were more modern thoughts of government and rationality among its thinkers). Yet the fakir was left undisturbed where he was, and those who came upon him, even offered him their respects.

This contrast (and also conflict) between these two aspects of life – one in the throes of destiny and another, hoping to subvert or even question destiny – manifests itself in different ways all through Anita Desai’s work from the early 1960s (Cry, The Peacock) to her most recent (The Artist of Disappearance).  While the conflict possesses the individual in Desai’s early novels, in sometimes irresolvable ways – either the protagonist is violent to herself, or rebels in little understood ways – in the novels that make up the later phase of her career, there is the quest for renunciation, a search for ‘meaning’ and spirituality, and then, as happens in Desai’s last, very recent work—a collection of three novellas—in 2012 (The Artist of Disappearance), a move towards self-effacement, a vanishing of the self. It appears as if Desai is seeking to provide her own answer or a resolution between these two different ways of living.  As the novellas in The Artist of Disappearance show, there are possibilities of fulfillment, and this search can acquire unique meaning for the seeker.  It may be hard to understand or to make oneself understood – but this need, very often for her protagonist, for her is immaterial or irrelevant.

Moreover, using quiet, stoic characters, Desai also seeks to reveal what is the inexplicable: the urge to follow one’s desires that drives life, even though these desires may seem mysterious and absurd to others. The nature of happiness and even contentment is indeed strange; her characters seem to suggest. But reaching this stage – that is, the realization that one can live simply without approval, without very many needs – can belie the need to explain oneself to others, in the manner of a true ascetic.


A Woman’s Inner Torment

Desai’s first novel, Cry, The Peacock, appeared in 1963 when she was 27. It is rather overwrought, as Desai herself said later, for it lingers greatly on Maya’s inner thoughts and her torment. A young woman finds it hard to overcome her destiny, largely as a dutiful daughter ready to do her father’s bidding. While she is clearly an unhappy wife (in this regard, she is not dutiful to her role), it is the prediction that made about her future, her later destiny, that comes to soon obsess her.

The novel is told from the point of view of Maya and while no dates are given, it is clearly set in the middle of the last century (the 1950s, when India had just become independent). The book begins with the death of Maya’s adored dog, a small Pomeranian. It is a death that appears sudden and unexpected and as the reader soon understands, it is the first death Maya has been witness to. It is this that drives her to hysterics. She sees the death as a premonition of other more unfortunate events: especially other deaths, even her own.  Soon after, she sees apparitions and shapes that appear out of the darkness. She remembers then the astrologer’s prediction made about her future when she was still a child.

Cry the Peacock

Maya remembers every detail of this encounter. A man, she remembers vividly, evidently an albino for he is unnaturally pale and who is vividly dressed in fine colored robes and his strange half-dark chamber who she had visited in the company of an ayah when very young.  The recent death she has witnessed brings about a resurgence in her memory of this old prophecy: The astrologer had predicted a death for someone very close to her, or even her own. He did not specify a time or even if Maya would be the cause for such a death, but it leaves her horrified. She runs out of the astrologer’s chamber, throwing a tantrum. Later, her father, a progressive lawyer and a widower detached from his children, will dismiss the prediction and life will appear to go on as usual. Maya is married early, as per her father’s wishes, to Gautama, a lawyer colleague, while Arjuna, her beloved older brother, leaves home after quarreling with his father. It strikes the reader that the horror of the prophecy was heightened by Maya’s evident shock at the astrologer’s own appearance.

But losing her dog does unhinge her in several ways. Maya spends hours studying her reflection, preferring the comfort of her own room in contrast to the world outside. She refuses to even sit for long in the garden with her husband. She is unable to understand her own fearful restlessness – for she paces to and fro in her room – and feels only a quick dissatisfaction with all that she sees around her, even the occasions she goes outside.  She sees her friends, and how they have ‘adjusted’ to their lives – someone as an unhappily married woman, another married to a perpetually sick man – and she feels a horror at such lives that have no ‘meaning’ left.  Such thoughts on life’s meaninglessness and the recent death of an adored pet, bring back the prediction, as a long buried memory, starkly to life.

Maya then cannot seem to stop thinking of it.  Bereft of other choices – for as a traditional woman, she is a rich, stay-at-home wife – she comes to be in thrall to this prophecy. Desai describes vividly Maya’s cloistered life, spent in a huge mansion, where she spends time lost in repetitive thoughts or looking at herself in the mirror. Old houses are a motif in Desai’s fiction, appearing as they do in many of her novels, symbolizing decadence and even a claustrophobia of the self. Maya’s repetitive actions, and Maya catches herself at this, make her appear more helpless. The novel spends too much time on Maya’s inner world and her obsession with the house’s silences, its intricate interiors that are also reminiscent of Charlotte Gilman Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Being a woman, Desai suggests through Maya’s spoilt, pampered, sheltered life, means one is unable to give up the constraints of tradition. It is reflected in the lives of the other women Maya sees around her. Maya does not quite understand how her friends “make do” with life as it comes to them.  They are simply caught up in the flow of life; Maya too (despite her name, which in Sanskrit and most Indian languages, means ‘illusion’) finds herself sinking in life’s hard, undiminishing realities. Things, it seems, will be as they have been ordained. She remains dissatisfied with the people she meets, horrified when one of her more ambitious friends gets pregnant; she is stunned into silence by another friend who sacrifices her career in serving her sick husband, and still another, who suffers long at the hands of her husband and yet lies about her social status.

As the novel progresses, it is clear that the astrologer’s prophecy has taken over Maya’s life. She alternates between a withdrawal into herself or basking in false cheer.  Always, she remains obsessed with thoughts of death, despite all her striving to find some meaning as to what life could be about. But life’s very mundaneness—especially in how her friends and acquaintances lead their lives —is what turns her off. The traditional family in provincial India in much of Desai’s fiction is oppressive, grasping and stifling, and no member is spared from her piercing description.  Every member has a role to fulfill as ordained by destiny, and there is little they can do.

Maya’s husband, Gautama, older than her in years, tries to do his duty by her by being ever solicitous and attentive. He fails, despite or because of his efforts for Maya’s obsession with the death prophecy, makes her fearful of him and also afraid for him. The death she fears could be his, or that he could be the cause of her own death. And Maya, obsessed with death, still hopes to find meaning in life. Gautama (a name that is also the Buddha’s) talks of acceptance as embodied in the Bhagavad Gita.  He refers to karma, the results of one’s actions from past lives, and how it reads to reincarnation till one is fortunate to attain ‘moksha’ or salvation. But such answers do not satisfy Maya; they suggest an acceptance of destiny, the very fatalism that drives her to despair.

The novel moves back into the past from the present: In Desai’s novels, ‘analepsis’ is an oft-used technique. There is then a frequent movement to the past – where much of the present is shaped – and then back again.  In this novel, almost as a contrast, there is Maya’s brother Arjuna, who ran away from home to escape the rigid authoritarianism of their father. Arjuna, named after the warrior to whom Krishna addressed his message of doing one duty without attachment in the Bhagavad Gita, drops out of Maya’s life for a bit. But in a letter to Maya written several years later, that Maya receives not long after the death of her pet, Arjuna reveals his whereabouts. It appears he now lives in the US, eking out a living in a canning plant.  A life lived solely for pleasure, Arjuna writes (almost as if in answer to Maya’s questions to herself), has no meaning. One has to find one’s role in life, and despite subverting tradition, one must be of use to one’s fellow beings. This leaves Maya more confused for she does not know how to question things, unlike her more rebellious brother, though there is a desperation in her trying, in her ability to understand herself and to make herself understood.

The contrasts between the two siblings, one tied to obligations, unable even to break free of an astrologer’s prediction and the other, always questioning, stepping outside boundaries set by his father – appear in how Maya remembers a childhood scene of kite flying. Arjuna’s kite soars high like a hawk while hers resembles a mere ordinary bird, flies almost as if tied to the ground.  But for Arjuna too – in a theme not really explored fully by Desai in this novel – there is a constraint for Arjuna realizes he cannot be entirely “free”; he cannot get away from his roots (tradition). As he writes to Maya, in words and thoughts that would appear antiquated to most people today, even the Afro-Americans he works with have to return to Africa, to find their roots.


Feminism, Quiet Rebellion and Inanimate Presences

As women have been central to several of her novels, Desai has also been called a feminist writer, a term not really associated with Indian writers in English during this time of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism—or even protest at traditions in place that historically subjected women—was a concern that emerged among such writers (Indian writers in English) arguably around the 1980s, though criticism of patriarchy and accepted tradition was already established in regional writing – in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi and in the Dravidian languages as well. English was, at the time, considered the language of the elite, more an urban language. In the immediate post-independence years (1940s and 1950s) India’s literacy rates were low (barely 20 percent of the population could read and write; the number now at nearly 80 per cent is much higher). No doubt Desai found herself isolated in some ways. For a long time, she was bracketed by critics and scholars of Indian writing in English into a writerly triumvirate with authors who had partial roots in India such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Meira Chand.

 Jhabvala, a German married to an Indian – in a similarity with Anita Desai’s own parentage – was a writer of several short stories and novels such as the Booker winning Heat and Dust, where tradition clearly exerts hold over people’s lives, even when they flout convention in other ways.  In a short story, ‘The Judge’s Wife,’ for instance, the family comes to know of their father’s (the judge) second wife only as he is dying, and she turns out to be a meek, quiet and unassuming woman. In Heat and Dust, a British woman comes to India in the footsteps of her step grandmother who had lived during the Raj days.

Jhabvala uses the technique of analepsis – something seen in Desai’s writings too. Heat and Dust is a slow revelation of how the step-grandmother Olivia, chafing under the restrictions of a conservative British society in India, once had a secret affair with the Nawab of a princely state.  It led to her taking up a reclusive life, spending the rest of her life in India with her son, born of the Nawab.

Meira Chand, a Singapore based writer of Indo-Swiss parentage, wrote her first novels set in Japan where she lived then. In these works, the woman’s status is always subservient to the demands of her husband and his family. But all three novelists—Desai, Jhabvala and Chand—, with a certain ‘outsider’ status, especially in how they approach their writing, have characters that deal with this matter with a quiet rebellion, evinced in different ways. Chand’s women heroines are usually ‘outsiders’, married into a traditional family and hence they appear more silently questioning. Desai’s characters, in their conflict with tradition and self-assertion, find themselves similarly isolated. They could be loners or eccentrics – largely ignored and forgotten.  Desai evokes with empathy their inner lives as they struggle, most often with incomprehension with this conflict.


Pressures of Family and History

In Desai’s subsequent novels, following Cry, The Peacock, Desai’s characters, major or minor, strive in various ways, most often not succeeding, to seek release from binding ties and tradition. In Clear Light of Day (1980), Bim, the unmarried older sister of Tara and Raja, protector and preserver of the family’s old house, finds herself resentful of what has been thrust on her. Bim (or Bimala) has, to all apparent purposes, sacrificed her life to look first after her brother Raja, then their autistic younger brother, Baba and their aunt, Mira-masi, who after a lifetime spent looking after them has sunk, in her old age, into a drunken stupor and mad ramblings. The doctor who once had a romantic interest in her surmises that it is Bim’s family whose needs she considers more important and deserving of her sacrifice, but to this Bim has a strange, inexplicable reaction. She laughs, Desai writes. “He had not understood.”

clear light of day

But Bim’s attachment to her family – what remains of it after Mira Masi’s death and even after Raja leaves them – is not really explained. But from Desai’s long and detailed descriptions of their old house, in Delhi located by the river Jamuna, it is the house with its memories, its tradition and especially its past, that has a hold on Bim. As it falls apart, and Bim greys too, it is as if they are synonymous with each other. The house with its garden, and the river slowly silting up is Bim’s domain, though she knows that she too is ephemeral.

The house too appears as a character: Its looming creepers, huge, vacant rooms, columns with their flaky and constantly dropping stone pieces, the abandoned pond where the family cow had once drowned in, and its old forgotten sounds as Baba, the younger brother plays the old records over and over again in his room. Yet, it is the contrast in how the house appears to Bim and Tara, her younger sister, especially in their memories, that shapes the people they have become. Bim becomes attached to the house and its many pulls. She is unable to abandon it, just as she couldn’t their old aunt, Mira-masi, who is becomes helplessly dependent on Bim as senility catches up. All Tara appeared to want, on the other hand, with her early marriage to a diplomat with a promising career, was to leave the house as soon as she could.

In contrast to Tara, Bim remains bitter towards their brother, Raja. While the responsibility of maintaining the house is hers, she resents being officially a tenant – of her brother, Raja, who left to marry into the family of their erstwhile landlord, Hyder Ali. The latter, like all Muslims who had chosen to live on in India (instead of leaving for the new country of Pakistan created with Independence in 1947) felt himself threatened as riots broke out in the run-up independence. He moved south to Hyderabad, a state in India (renamed Andhra Pradesh later) where Muslims found security in numbers.

Raja’s marriage into this family – and Hyder Ali was a mentor of sorts who encouraged Raja’s love of Urdu poetry – and his subsequent abandonment of his old family for he left for Hyderabad leads Bim to cut off ties with him. This doesn’t happen in dramatic fashion, but in the long years of separation, Bim has not written to him even once. The younger sister, Tara, on the other hand, devoted to the family she has married into, wants her natal family – no matter how “dysfunctional” it is (her husband Bakul’s term) – to remain knitted together.

Desai’s novel, in the pattern of analepsis, found in her other works, moves back and forth in time.  From the present, where we are confronted with Bim’s animosity towards Raja, we move into the children’s childhood, and understand the special bond Bim had shared with him in the past.  This bond is broken when as they grow into maturity, for each of the siblings is pulled by demands of the householder. Bim to the people dependent on her and the house; Raja to the family he now has in Hyderabad, and Tara, who married early to escape the family she knew, is devoted – in a submissive way – to her diplomat husband and their two daughters.

The family, as Desai shows in this novel, exercises a strong hold on the individual, demanding in turn a great cost of individuality. But the two characters in contrast who seem aloof and remote from family obligations, lead shrunken lives. There is Mira-masi, who comes to look after the children when their mother is unwell. But she, widowed early, has been abandoned as well. As a widow, her role in life is to move within the extended family, hoping to be of service to them, in return for a roof and shelter over her head.  With no family of her own, she has to serve a family, to survive.  There are some figures like Mira-masi, a widow or an unmarried aunt who appear in more than just one Desai novel.  An aunt Mira, with a similar religious bent and piety, appears in Desai’s later novel, Fasting, Feasting. It is, as if, with similar names, these women dependent on their families for shelter and help share much the same fate.

In this novel, Baba, the youngest sibling, was born retarded, and is thus rendered forever dependent on his family. It is Bim who ultimately takes care of him. Yet his strange detachment, the way he remains lost in his own world, the constant smile playing about his face, is something that arouses in Bim envy and pity in equal measure.  Even random acts of cruelty and negligence that Bim is capable of – such as sending him to office when the traffic on the streets scares him, forcing Tara to pull him back – pass Baba by.  He does not appear to understand, and it is the speaker, Bim, who feels the guilt instead. Yet rendered innocent, and guileless in every way, he is helpless too without his family’s support.

The other force, besides destiny and tradition, that exercises an influence in Clear Light of Day, is the historical one. Much of the novel, especially its decisive, critical parts are set in the 1940s: A time of change when much of India is in ferment. In 1947, with independence, Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, is announced. From the terrace of their house, the three children see firsthand the riots and houses set afire. Hearing of the attacks on Muslims who have still remained in Delhi, Raja fears for their neighbor, Hyder Ali, who speaks Urdu, a language that with the emergence of Hindi in the early 20th century, has come to be associated with Islam.[1]

It is this attachment to the Hyder Ali family that Bim resents. When he leaves to join them, it is almost as if the house they have lived in has been ‘Partitioned’ by Raja’s desertion, as Bim sees it.

In a clear contrast to Cry, The Peacock, which dwells on Maya’s inner life, Desai in her later works, as in Clear Light of Day, is more measured and also oblique. In Clear Light of Day, with its many more cast of characters, there is the same detailing but less dwelling on the inner life and characters are less introspective. Desai shapes them instead, by drawing attention to their quirks, mannerisms, and oddities. Little of their inner lives is revealed for Desai doesn’t get into their mind, but is made evident in how the character is perceived or by her actions.  Tara for instance, sees how erratic Bim is in her movements – her frayed dress, her way of talking to herself.  Bim says little about her brother Baba, but her devotion to him is clear, as is her cruelty.  She sends him to an office – the insurance company in which the family has a stake – and then threatens him with the offer of sending him to Hyderabad to their brother, but later, seeing Baba as usual, unreactive and sleeping peacefully all curled up, she lays down by him, longing to be comforted and to forget – though she has never had the words to say this. Bakul, the snobbish husband, is fastidious in his dressing, and Mira Masi’s descent into madness is detailed by Desai in how she secretly indulges in drinking.


Historical Forces

The novel, Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989) also has as its backdrop significant historical events: the rise of the Nazis in Germany and their persecution of Jews like Hugo Baumgartner’s family in Berlin in the 1930s and also the Partition riots that accompanied India’s independence in 1947. Separated by a decade, Hugo Baumgartner witnesses both tragedies firsthand. In some of her novels (such as In Custody), the significant events of her time are told through the lives of ordinary people.  As with Bim in Clear Light of Day, in this novel too, there are people, sidelined and forgotten by history, who lead lonely lives but they have seen it all.

Baumgartner's bombay

 Baumgartner’s Bombay begins in Bombay of the 1970s where Hugo Baumgartner, an elderly German Jewish man has tried for the last two decades to make a new life for himself. This life is one of loneliness and increasingly, about nostalgia as well, as Hugo realizing that the past can never return, begins thinking of his own with some wistfulness.  This will, as the novel ends, lead him to making some tragic mistakes. Hugo’s own past has been painful. As a child in Germany, Hugo had seen the sad and humiliating descent of his family into poverty. He remembers, in the beginning, a happy childhood, pampered by his mother, and then taken by his father every Sunday on secret outings, as they watched the races and he was allowed a sip of beer from his father’s glass. Looking back, even the imagined ghosts that peopled his father’s furniture store offer hours of dark amusement to Hugo.  But this happiness is all too soon threatened and proves evanescent, as the Nazis gain prominence. Hugo well remembers Kristallnacht, the night the Jewish establishments were attacked in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany; the hours he spent cowering in fear inside his quilt.

This vanishing of childhood happiness is vividly described in a few pages: his father’s disappearance one day and equally sudden return as someone who, to Hugo appeared totally transformed, followed by his father’s suicide only a few weeks later, the takeover of the furniture store by his father’s old German partner, and Hugo’s own departure to Bombay – deemed a safe place soon after.  His mother, though, refuses to leave. For all the dangers, she cannot bring herself to leave their house, though she is forced to occupy one of the smaller rooms now. This hold that houses have on its occupants evokes Bim and her loyalty to her childhood home in the earlier novel.

Baumgartner then is a man forsaken by the world in every way, who knows happiness can be precarious precisely because it is fleeting and who does not trust identity any more. In different places, in different ways, being who he is has confused him in every way. For instance, his Jewishness had made him a hated and reviled figure during his Berlin childhood; in Venice, as he waited for the steamship to Bombay, his darker skin tone had marked him out as someone different, Asian, and in Bombay, where, he reached as the Second World War raged, he was sent to an internment camp for being from the enemy side: a German in British ruled India.

When the story resumes, after this look back at Hugo’s journey to India, he has in every way renounced his past. His is a life of careful and yet shabby routine, his untidy house is run as efficiently as he can manage. His mornings begin with his running down to a Parsi restaurant to fetch the leftovers for his cats; a habit which has given Baumgartner the nickname, ‘Madman of the Cats.’ For all his hermetic ways, his efforts to live a nondescript way, Hugo retains identity in the wrong ways: a man picked on for his color in Germany (where his darkness gave him away as Jewish), while in India, he is clearly the foreigner, the ‘firangi’- and his foreignness is of multiple dimensions.

But the past – his memories of Germany – remain, especially with his friendship with a dissolute German woman, Lotte, who lives by herself. Once a dancer at a popular Bombay nightclub, Lotte has been abandoned by her patron, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta, and lives on in the flat left to her. It is with her that Hugo enjoys the occasional drink and even flirts, though Lotte sees him as a friend and nothing more. His compassion, his experience of the suffering he has witnessed, make him feel for the victims of India’s Partition riots as well. But Baumgartner is always alone in his compassion. He is indulged in, as Lotte and the Parsi café-owner do, when they engage in small idle conversation with him, but little understood. He is indeed just dismissed as who he is, an elderly German man who sought solace in the company of his cats.

But his past catches up with Hugo when he encounters a German drifter, Kurt, who lies almost comatose in an evidently drug-induced state, in the Parsi’s café. Though the latter in his agitated state, is convinced Kurt is nothing but a ‘hippie’ who lives a dissolute life, Kurt also strikes a chord in Hugo. He offers him shelter and takes him home. In reaching out to Kurt, who he sees only as a fellow German, someone from the country he left behind forever, Baumgartner reveals that he has never really renounced the past. His friendship and offering help to the drifter are what will cost Baumgartner very dearly.


Undefined Search

Anita Desai moved to the United States in the mid-1980s. Her novels made the shift too, though her concerns – on issues of divided selves and the conflict between tradition and renunciation or abandonment – stayed the same. Journey to Ithaca written in 1995 takes its title from the well-known poem by Cavafy, that was titled ‘Ithaka.’

Constantine Cavafy (CP Cavafy, 1863-1933), widely hailed as “the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th century). Of Greek origin, Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt where his parents had moved in the mid-19th century. In his youth, he lived between Liverpool, England, and Constantinople (now Istanbul), in Turkey, before returning to Alexandria, where he worked as a civil servant and where he died of cancer in 1833. His poems, haunting, direct and flat in tone, are also “highly personal” for Cavafy kept his homosexuality a secret and was tormented by it. They also encompass a range of themes and subjects- history, myth, and literature. The theme of Desai’s novel takes on the message that Cavafy conveys in describing the Greek hero Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the long war with Troy: it is the journey that matters, for it transforms one far more than reaching the actual destination does.

journey to ithaca

As Cavafy writes in Ithaka:[2]

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The urge to leave family bonds, the past behind and to become a seeker and ascetic, is what drives Matteo, and in a different way, his wife Sophie in Desai’s Journey to Ithaca. The story begins from Italy of the 1920s and moves to Europe between the wars to 1970 when the hippies or the flower children are drawn to India. Journey to Ithaca is a story about seeking, the need to find spiritual realization, the need to go on a pilgrimage. This is an all-consuming urge, driving the seeker toward a spiritual union with a greater spirit or truth.  But Desai also points out that renunciation, though it may appear in contrast to all sorts of binds and ties, is in turn a total devotion to an ideal, and hence forms a kind of bondage.

Matteo is drawn to the spirituality of the East, when as a young boy, frail in health and subject to frequent bullying in school, is tutored at home. It is his tutor who introduces him to Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, a book that comes to entrance Matteo totally. It is about a group of travelers, some real historical characters and others mythical, who travel to the East in search of Truth. On the way, however, as they pass the night near a particularly treacherous gorge in Europe, they are abandoned by their attendant, Leo. It throws the journey into confusion but as is revealed later, by the narrator, the journey, Leo’s abandonment of them, was a test in itself, of their own deep faith in the journey.

Matteo’s early confusion is never directly revealed in the novel except in how he behaves – his hatred of boarding school, the usual games boys his age play, his misery in working in his uncle’s silk factory in Milan, and then his decision to leave his family. The latter isn’t stated but is apparent from the broad sweeps the novel makes across time.  Matteo leaves soon after his marriage to Sophie, a German, whose father moved in the same financial circles as did Matteo’s father. Evidently Matteo expected Sophie to fall in with his plans and they leave together for India.  Sophie, devoted to Matteo, is also the beginning, first dazzled by the flower children, and their freedom. However, the bitter truth about them soon dawns on Sophie as Desai dispassionately describes their cunning ways, and ways of sponging off each other. Sophie also sees through the many godmen Matteo visits, and their assistants, who it seems, will eagerly leech off any gullible white foreigner looking for the ultimate spiritual experience. As Matteo tries out one spiritual experiment after another – going on long, arduous pilgrimages, meditating and giving himself up to a chosen godman’s prescriptions for living – Sophie for her part, longs to be home. Yet she cannot bring herself to abandon Matteo, even as she is left increasingly puzzled and then angry by this elusive search.

When they are part of a long pilgrimage procession, Sophie encounters a fellow pilgrim, a mother with her ailing, barely surviving, child. The mother’s need to seek spiritual, rather than the medical help, her child so urgently requires puzzles Sophie. She also doesn’t understand Matteo when he finally appears to find some solace with a mysterious “god woman” (a spiritual figure), with a carefully concealed past (as Sophie soon realizes), and who lives in a hill town. The god woman is called ‘Mother’, a name she evidently assumed and she is addressed this way by all her acolytes and disciples who see her as a parental figure of some authority. All of them live in the ashram and among themselves, share the responsibility of running it, though it is Mother who calls the shots.

It is Matteo’s utter devotion to her, something different from occasions in the past that Sophie has been witness to, which alarms her. She is suspicious of Mother and also sneering of Matteo’s apparent high regard of her. This prompts her to go on a search to lay bare the true identity of the ‘Mother’, leaving her two young children in the care of her parents in Germany. The Mother appears a spiritual ‘godmother’, but Sophie is convinced that she is a charlatan who has bedazzled Matteo. Her search to dig into the Mother’s past, which takes on almost the contours of a detective novel, instead reveals to Sophie some truths, if not the kind of truth – the Mother’s true nature – she has been seeking.

The Mother’s past has been a carefully kept secret, but Sophie retraces her steps painstakingly and carefully, first to Alexandria in Egypt where the Mother, as a young girl called Laila had spent her youth. Later, Sophie follows Laila’s footsteps to Paris, where the latter’s restlessness, her impatience at her aunt’s snobbishness finally leads her to the ‘guru’, a dance teacher visiting with his troupe from India. The Master’s depiction of Krishna, the Hindu god, enthralls her: in this dance form that combines passion with mysticism, Laila feels she has finally found her reason for living. Soon she leaves to be part of his troupe.  But barely a few months later in Venice, she is disillusioned, as she sees that the master too is driven by practical things. He bargains with his patrons over the littlest of things, is demanding of favors and privileges, and is not averse to making the other female dancers jealous simply to get his own way.

Laila, however, is determined to go to India. If not with the Master, she is certain of finding some spiritual meaning there. Her yearning, one that is undefined and yet that takes over her every sense, has made her physically sick – a sickness in some senses that afflicts Matteo too. On a visit to the north of India, she finds some solace in a guru – though Desai says nothing about him, or even describes him. It is almost as if, in Desai’s vision, the individual’s quest for salvation, and even its seeming culmination, remain inexplicable and also mysterious. It is in this ashram of which Mother is now in charge that Matteo too finds her and comes to live. Sophie thus in a way comes to understand Matteo’s need to look for a truth, however elusive. It is something akin to what Sophie had also understood about Laila. In Paris, as a young student, Laila realizes that what draws her is some kind of passion – one not just of celebration but also the passion of renunciation.


Old Concerns and New Themes

The conflict in Desai’s novels between the ascetic and householder returns in Fasting, Feasting (1999), with the figure of the householder embodied in Uma who is resentful of her sheltered life and yearns for a different existence. In this novel, set in a traditional family living in Delhi (in a house and time that evokes Desai’s Clear Light of Day) there is rebellion of a kind.  Uma, for years spent serving her parents’ needs, longs to give it up, and when thwarted, and unable to express herself, shows some sullen resistance.

Fasting feasting

Uma has been a failure in school. Forced to drop out after being unable to clear her final examination for a class, she becomes almost a young second mother to her youngest sibling, the brother and only son of the family, Arun.  Sometime later, Uma’s parents arrange a dowry for her but her marriage ends in shame, as the family, it appears, has been cheated. The groom, it soon turns out, is already married but had availed himself of the dowry offered by Uma’s family to improve his own business. Desai sees this as a pattern and it recurs in the novel: the groom’s family, all too aware of the desperation among some families to see daughters married off quickly as per tradition, milks them for all the dowry they can demand.

Uma also disappoints her family in her inability to make a good marriage. Desai depicts how marriage can transform a woman’s life and how it is an entrapment of a kind: Uma’s sister Aruna, becomes a flighty, superficial creature, concerned with family matters that to Uma appear shallow. There is also the tragedy that befell their brilliant cousin Anamika, who had once secured a scholarship to Oxford but who, only some years into her marriage, is killed by her in-laws, for not pleasing them in various ways.  Anamika’s death, from burns is passed off as suicide, but as had always been acknowledged by her family, the dowry Anamika had brought with her on marriage had never been enough. There had always been constant demands, which Anamika’s parents found hard to meet and her in-laws became harder to please than ever.

With her failed marriage and other failures, Uma’s life becomes one of constant service to her family, its needs and that of the old rambling house they live in. But she is drawn to her prodigal cousin, Ramu, whom the family disapproves of, for all his degenerate ways. She is also attached to her wandering aunt, Mira-masi, who lives the pilgrim’s life, moving from one temple town to another, or between ashrams, looking for salvation. Her long arduous penance, her frequent periods of going on fast, all in search for an elusive salvation – the only goal permitted to an abandoned young widow left to the mercy of relatives – is what gives this part of the novel its name: Fasting.

There are also the nuns in Uma’s school, who find happiness in service. Uma has ways of rebelling quietly, of showing resentment subtly: sometimes she has fits, she goes out for dinner with her cousin Ramu—someone her parents disapprove of—and returns late on such occasions. In a last show of defiance, she calls up on the sly, the nuns in her school who have offered her a job (running a ward in a missionary run hospital), for her parents do not approve of women seeking a career for themselves. Though this is a later work, written in 1999, Desai is clearly evincing more modern concerns relating to India – as women seek more education and want a career for themselves. However, in traditional societies, as with Uma’s family, conservative thought patterns and modes of life remain hard to break. Her parents are adamant about Uma not pursuing her own career. Uma, resentful and sullen, is unable to break free.

Almost in contrast to Uma, the section on Feasting dwells on her brother, Arun, the family’s only son, on whom their hopes rest. Though nothing has ever been denied him, Arun is glad in many ways to be away in the United States, as he finds hard to bear the constant attention and oppressive demands made on him as the only son in the family.  His every waking hour had been carefully monitored by his father, who sent him to the best schools, employed tutors, and looked to his every need. It was a parental love tinged with ambition: Arun’s later success, it was believed, would bring prestige and honor to the family. Their status within the community would rise.

In the US, where he is at university, and away from family ties, Arun shies away from emotional attachment of any kind. In fact, despite his isolation, he is relieved to be free from family pressures and expectations. As Arun looks for accommodation during the summer, he rejects any that will demand any kind of human contact for him. But then finally, when an accommodation is picked for him, thanks to people known to his sister Uma, he finds himself immersed in the daily conflicts of an American family.

Oppression of another kind appears in how his landlady, Mrs. Patton’s daughter, Melanie, rejects in her teenage rebellion, all the food her mother—in the hope that such food, home-cooked will be nutritious and sustaining—has cooked for her. This is Mrs. Patton’s way of making Arun feel welcome for the food, in accordance with Arun’s traditional habits, is vegetarian.  Melanie, however, chooses to gorge herself on junk food, throwing it all up later. She is evidently a secret bulimic and her parents, realizing the reasons for Melanie’s strange rebellion later, send her for rehab. Arun is amazed at the sheer wastage of food: not just on Melanie’s part but the amount his host buys at the mall, much of which goes unused and rots.

This latter section on Feasting reflects Anita Desai’s own observations about life in the US: the loneliness and demands of college life, the communication gap (of a kind different than in India where tradition and conservatism breeds silence between generations) within families, and the over-consumption; the earlier section that dwells on Uma and her life in Delhi, appears an extension of her earlier concerns in Clear Light of Day.  However, in this novel Uma’s anger is more evident. The widowed aunt, Mira-masi, is clearly not dependent on any family but is on her own, visiting temples and places of pilgrimage and even ashrams, where Uma accompanies her on one occasion.  Desai builds up Mira-masi almost as a humorous figure; through her, Desai exposes some essential societal flaws. Her pilgrimage isn’t really a search, but one that is thrust on Mira-masi, because she is a widow and has nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. A wandering ascetic life, with all its accompanying austerities is thus thrust on unfortunate women like Mira-masi.



This search for what makes the complete or ‘true’ renouncer is most apparent in Desai’s most recent published work, a collection of novellas, The Artist of Disappearance (2012). In the three long stories that make up this collection, there is an inner passion and search for ‘self-realization’ but this is subdued. Self-effacement appears in entirely different ways. The passion is deeply internal, spent on pursuits that appear ‘strange’, yet these characters in her novellas appear happy.

Artist of disa[pearance

The aristocrat in ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ collects a variety of things from all over the world, to be housed in some rooms of his mansion, of which he is the sole occupant. Once he even procures an elephant who lives in its own shed outside. It appears just a useless hobby, for the collection is ersatz, random and has no order to it. Moreover, he has no heir to pass all this on. It will all go to the state, and the administrator, who is the narrator, is nonplussed at the sight that befalls him. While the latter wonders as to what to make of it all, and how to acquire and disperse in some order, this collection (including the elephant), he also understands in some vague, inchoate way, the aristocrat collector’s reasons: He did it simply to make himself happy. The act of collecting is all that evidently mattered to the aristocrat.

‘Translator Translated’ is about a lonely teacher, Prema, who at the behest of an old college friend, tries her hand at translating. Prema decides to introduce an unknown writer in Odia (one of India’s fourteen recognized languages), Suvarna Devi, by translating her works into English. This will, Prema believes, bring Suvarna Devi, the fame she so rightly deserves. Prema gets passionately involved in her work and in the author too.  The translator begins taking a possessive interest in the author’s life, almost as if she is responsible for giving her a new one, and a new identity too.  When one of Suvarna Devi’s later works comes to Prema, the latter finds it full of errors and insipid in some ways. It is then that she begins, inadvertently at first and then very deliberately, changing the meaning of the original text, even a word here and there, and then she gets bolder. Later, one of the author’s relatives accuses her of rendering the work wrongly. But the author herself remains a nondescript, shy person who is content to let things be. Prema’s attempts at making a new life for herself, fashioning herself in a new light, come to nothing, as all she does is try to live through another.

‘The Artist of Disappearance’, the title story, is a man who lives an isolated life and thrives in it. Born unloved and largely uncared for, Ravi has become a recluse.  His life becomes to all intents and purposes, pathetically circumscribed though he does not think so. He lives in part of a house that has long burned down and his needs are looked after by a cow herd family that lives near. Ravi instead is happy spending hours looking at the minutiae of life unfolding around him: a snail uncurling itself, a spider at work and once in Bombay, he experienced bliss staring down at the shallow depths of the sea and seeing the tiny life beneath.  With the death of his mother’s old nurse, Ravi removes himself from every contact with society.  He comes to nurse a secret glade, located amidst certain boulders in the hill town he now lives in, making it beautiful by planting trees, and arranging nature in careful patterned ways. This remains undiscovered and unknown till a television crew member stumbles on it.  She convinces her team to film the glade and even interview its creator. But as the search for him grows, Ravi chooses to evade them.

Dressed in the clothes given him by the cow herd family, he appears just a nondescript idle local, whiling the afternoon away. However, when the crew examines its reel footage of the glade, it appears to them perfectly ordinary, even whimsical; the footage is discarded. What Desai seeks to say is that an act of creation could exist simply to make its creator happy. Creation can bring about fulfillment, even to those merely observing, as does the film crew member. By extension, Desai is perhaps suggesting the self-effacing nature of the true creator.


Threads that Tie Desai’s Work

Inner Conflict – something that is inevitable in every individual life – can only be assuaged by an inner peace, Desai seems to suggest in her work.  For instance, all the three characters in her last work have chosen to shun the limelight, from the need to constantly engage with the outside world and have thus found peace of a kind – though this is never clearly defined. But it does take artistry, as denoted by the last story, to efface oneself totally.

The conflict is, moreover, focused on her character’s inner life. In her novels, she also visually describes this conflict as one symbolized by crowded chaotic outer worlds that is totally opposed to solitude, an individual’s desire for peace. Old houses, packed with bric-a-brac appear in Clear Light of Day, Baumgartner’s Bombay and Fasting, Feasting, symbolizing the past and memories, evoking the weight of tradition, responsibility and pressures. In Journey to Ithaca, Matteo longs to escape the imposing mansion of his rich parents.  In contrast, the ashram rooms he lives in, are shabby and without any amenities, yet he is not bothered.  The crowded mansion room, with its vast collection of objects that make no coherent sense, is best expressed in the first story of her last novella, The Artist of Disappearance.

Her way of offering a resolution is the suggestion that this search for inner contentment, must be all self-driven. Even renunciation as embodied in the figure of the ascetic is of little use, rather Desai, whether in her short stories or in her novels, renders the figure of the ascetic or godman (god woman) in humorous ways or even as someone suspicious.  In one of her stories in the collection Diamond Dust (2000), a philosopher friend comes visiting Sarla just when she is preparing to leave for the hills. And their lives are thrown upside down as they have to arrange parties and meetings on his behalf. Laila, or the Mother, is scheming, the ashram is a cloistered space, and Matteo is hapless. Laila is someone who can never win Sophie’s trust while she has Matteo’s dogged devotion. Ashrams, that appear places of solitude and peace, assume a sinister character, with their rigid discipline. Uma in Fasting, Feasting is taken by her aunt to one has the first of her fainting spells there.  Journey to Ithaca describes the different kinds of ashrams in which Matteo and Sophie find themselves. Their shabbiness, suspicion, for all the communal atmosphere, make the ashram a place of immense danger.

In The Artist of Disappearance, the ‘search’ for fulfillment or peace has been given up though it is not that Desai has been actively looking for such a resolution The three characters in the narratives do not travel anywhere, and even their motivations are not explained. It is a mysterious and all fulfilling kind of self-effacement, when even the self – or ego – does not strive to belong and is not bothered to ask questions or even answer them.

Human nature, Desai then suggests in her works, is born to conflict, for an individual is subjected to pulls and pressures of every kind. Her focus in her early novels was on traditional families, with women, unable to question the force of tradition and long accepted rules of living. Those who ‘renounced’ were those who had been “given up” by the family – the widowed or unmarried aunt – and never the other way around, as in the true tradition of holy sages and ascetics. It is through her characters, like Matteo, in Journey to Ithaca, that Desai tries to explore in turn the contrary pull of renunciation (as opposed to living the householder’s life). She suggests that renunciation too is a bond of a kind.

Is self-effacement, finding happiness – or rather fulfillment, which is how Desai sees it – in undefined ways, the key to resolving such conflict? Prema’s search for fulfillment by finding a new identity in another, leaves her unfulfilled; while Ravi’s creation appears too fragile and evanescent. But for Suvarna Devi, the author Prema translated, simply the act of writing was enough, just as making a small secret garden have Ravi some secret pleasure. The Artist of Disappearance leaves us with more questions and rightly so, for a writer’s work is to ask the necessary questions. Human existence, it appears by a reading of some of Desai’s works, is a search for answers to this conflict and the search remains an enduring one.

—Anu Kumar



Desai Anita.  Cry, the Peacock, Orient Paperbacks, 1967

__________.  Clear Light of Day, Penguin Random House, New Delhi, 1980

__________. Baumgartner’s Bombay, Penguin Random House, 1989

__________. Journey to Ithaca, Penguin Random House, 1995

__________. Fasting Feasting, Penguin Random House, 1999

__________. The Artist of Disappearance, Penguin Random House, 2012

Dumont, Louis.  Homo Heirarchichus: The Caste System and Its Implications. University of Chicago Press. 1979.

Keeley, Edmund and Philip Sherrad (translated). C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.  Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992; http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?cat=1&id=74

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer.   Heat and Dust. Counterpoint. 1999

Mendelsohn, Edward.  ‘Introduction.’ In Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth Century American Writers. New York Review of Books. 2015.

Pinch, William R. Peasant and Monks in British India. University of California Press. 1996.


anu northeast review

Anu Kumar is in the MFA Program of Writing at VCFA (2014-16). She resides in Baltimore, Maryland, and has lived in India and Singapore before.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A novel involved in similar historical themes and the loneliness of the individual is the Urdu poet Nur, in Desai’s 1984 novel, In Custody, who is visited by a young and idealistic Hindi journalist, Deven Sharma. In this novel, the language difference is also a telling indicator of how things have changed, for in independent India, Urdu is now giving way to Hindi. Deven, who has long admired him, visits him, hoping to do a story on Nur’s life, but Deven is increasingly disillusioned as he sees the Urdu poet struggle.
  2. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrad
Jul 012016

Desktop5Clockwise from top left: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Whitney Lee, & Sheela Clary

This is very cool. Last winter in a workshop I was teaching I assigned an exercise on lists. I gave a little lesson, lists in sentences and lists as structure. You can find it written out here (look at the second item in the series): Building Sentences: The Complete Short Course — Douglas Glover | National Post. As an example of list structure, I gave out copies of Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties,” which you can find to read on the Internet here or listen to here. The results were astonishingly varied, intense and emotional. Family stories mostly, as memoirs often are. I managed to sheepdog four of them together for the magazine. A change of pace, a delight to read, not to mention an introduction to four fine new writers: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Sheela Clary, and Whitney Lee.



List of Do’s and Don’ts — Tracy Proctor

Do adhere to mantras. “Travel light.” “Don’t fence me in.” “Surf’s up.” That sort of thing.

Don’t put corny bumper stickers on the back of your pick-up truck, though. Keep your mantras in your head. Stay cool.

Do adorn your truck with your man toys: dirt bike, road bike, paddle board, surfboard, kite board. Sub-zero cooler. Heavy duty trailer hitch.  Camper top.

Do visit lots of kick-ass places across the continent. Allow your mind to be blown. Do feel kinship with the soaring hawk, the lone wolf, the gypsy.

Do maintain high standards in females. If your nubile, fertile girlfriend starts to look or act like a spreading, hormonal woman, tell yourself you’re doing both of you a favor, and move on.

Commit full-heartedly to a dog. Take her with you everywhere: the high ranges of Wyoming, the ducky swamps of Arkansas, the teeming fishing grounds of Key West. The sun-bright shore and ice-cold beers and winding desert trails of Baja Mexico. Confide in your dog. Train her to stay and fetch and ride many miles without peeing. Feed her buffalo jerky and fish tacos. Recognize that you love her and can’t live without her, except when the waves and wind are forecast to be epic. At which time you drop her off with your mom for a month.

Do have many high-quality girls. Brunettes, blonds, redheads, surfer girls, hippy chicks (not too dirty), med students, massage therapists.  Fuck and run.

When your mountain-biking buddies are sitting around the campfire on weekend nights, sipping warm tequila and reveling in the precious, waning moments until they have to drag their asses back to wives and kids, pass the flask around again and fake sympathy. When pressed, agree with them that your newest girl is super hot. Agree that she has silky chestnut hair and legs up to here and intelligent green eyes. Agree that you are damn lucky that Miss Super Hot understands – no, endorses – your free’n’easy life style. Don’t tell your buddies that those green eyes of hers see right through to your soul, because that is corny, and because it might be true.

Do not tell your buddies that Miss Super Hot actually wants to marry you. Instead, break up with her.

Definitely do not tell your buddies – or anyone at all – that, one week after you break up with her, she tells you she is pregnant with your child.

Deny it. Fight it. Ask her if she’s sure the baby is yours. Ask her when she morphed into a Bible-thumping pro-lifer. Join Planned Parenthood, and send her a brochure.

Hit the road with your dog. Ignore Miss Super Hot’s demand that you review her birth plan. When she asks you to give her your parenting plan, tell her to go fuck herself.

Drive west, and more west. End up back in Baja.

Kite-board your brains out.  Tell your mom you won’t be back east for Christmas this year.  Stay away from females. Keep that terrifying secret to yourself.

Get nostalgic on Christmas morning. Send a holiday email greeting to friends and family, including Miss Super Hot: a photo of you in a striped orange hammock, holding a beer, the words Feliz Navidad dancing above your head. Enjoy the warm feeling from all the good email wishes you get in return, until you read the one from Miss Super Hot which says Merry Christmas to you, too and Wow it sure looks nice out there and She’s so glad you’re enjoying yourself in Baja while she and your unborn child are trying to keep warm in Jackson Hole, where you last left them. Get even more upset when you realize she has sent this email “Reply all.”

Do finally answer the phone the fourth time your mom calls you. Do gruffly answer most of her questions. Do not laugh bitterly when she says Miss Super Hot must not understand what “reply all” means.

Do not answer your mom’s question “What are you going to do now, honey?” Because you do not know.

Do get embarrassed when your buddies say that maybe it’s time to get out of the hammock. After a couple more days kite-boarding your brains out, come to the conclusion that maybe they are right.

Do show up at Jackson Hole Regional Medical Center just as Miss Super Hot’s water breaks. Do try not to crumble under her family’s glare.

Do spend the next ten hours walking your dog on the hospital grounds and pacing in the waiting room and getting updates from Miss Super Hot’s family members and learning what three inches of dilation signify and listening to the screeches of infants and the howls of birthing women and the buzz of the phone system and the names of doctors on the intercom. Do close your eyes and smell coffee and antiseptic.  Do pop several Advil. Don’t stare at the poster of the island scene.

Do follow the nurse when she beckons you to come to Miss Super Hot’s room and meet your new son.

Do feel your legs tremble when you spy your son swaddled next to Miss Super Hot’s side. Do think that he is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Tell Miss Super Hot that. Look into her green eyes when you say it.

Do take the pen the nurse is giving you. Do sign your name on the Birth Certificate next to the word “father.”  Don’t protest when Miss Super Hot’s family offers to take your dog for the night so you can sleep there in the hospital room. Do hold your son; marvel at his fuzzy hair and scrunched-up nose; at the stump of umbilical cord. When Miss Super Hot falls asleep, whisper to your baby boy that you can’t live without him. Promise him that when he gets old enough, you’re going to teach him how to kite-board.

—Tracy Proctor


Here You Are — Megan Okkerse

Here is what you remember:

You remember my curly blonde hair and the little blue dress I wore at the McCrae’s wedding when I stomped around in the bride’s shoes at the reception. You remember me with my head on Daddy’s shoulder like in the picture he would keep in his office, when he worked day and night, year after year. You remember me playing with the skin under your chin, the soft flesh of your neck as we snuggled together under the pink plaid flannel sheets on those cold winter mornings when you had the heat turned down and the windows cracked because, “fresh air is good for you,” you would say. You remember the day Daddy left and all the names of my elementary school teachers and my soccer games and my long legs striding across the field, me, before I got skinny and sick. You remember my friend Lauren, who had cancer in 7th grade, and Daddy spanking me with the paddle for playing doctor with the neighbor boy when I was five. You remember the day I moved to Daddy’s house and the late night calls you would get from me begging for you to come pick me up and bring me home. Why didn’t you? Did you quietly like the freedom of my absence?

You remember 4th of July at Riverside Park and our long walks around the point. “I can’t walk anymore. I have cramps,” I would whine. You would tell me this, years later when I replaced you with compulsive exercise. You remember the time Daddy came to pick us up after he had shaved off his long beard, and Peter stood at the top of the stairs and refused to come down because he hated seeing Daddy differently.

Here is What I Remember:

Your post-divorce boyfriend Mark Phister and his building that smelled like paint thinner. He wouldn’t come to church with you  so instead your Sunday mornings were spent making eggs Benedict and watching Charles Kuralt. I remember that the two of you were going to open a bed and breakfast and travel to France. I remember seeing him that night we walked downtown. He was sitting on the curb with the paramedics, bleeding. His speech was slurred and his breath: what  exactly did his breath smell like? I remember the unfinished apartment above his antique refinishing studio. Sometimes finding you in there was like a treasure hunt, but I could always find you. Usually in his bed. You would lift up the covers and scoot over as I curled into your side, and we would tell each other our dreams.

I remember his farmhouse table and the bagels he would toast and top with Mrs. Dash and butter, cutting them up as croutons on the salad. I remember his van. Sometimes, when you had been gone for hours, I would walk to the park to look for you, and there you would be, by the lighthouse in his van talking. I remember his son and his dog Yessa and the monologues he would have with Martha Stewart while he was cooking. I remember how funny he was. He could make my brothers laugh so hard they cried, and I wondered why if he was so funny he made you cry so much.

I remember Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Van Morrison, NPR, and Lake Wobegon. I remember how you kept caramel nips and red licorice in the drawer next to the fridge and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in the freezer, one big spoonful for your coffee every morning. I remember Peter and I used to jump from the balcony onto the couch when you weren’t home and we should have died, but we never got hurt. I remember that Peter always ate all the Frosted Flakes, and Elliott hoarded the graham crackers. I ate malt-o-meal while we stood at the counter over the floor heater as the hot air blew up at us.

I remember the day my first grade crush Drew Adams was supposed to come over for lunch, but his mom called and said he was sick. I wondered if he was really sick, or if it was me, because maybe I wasn’t pretty, or maybe it was because we were poor, but I didn’t think we were poor. I remember the time I was learning to drive and Elliott took me to Fresh Air Park. It was dark out, and I drove up onto a boulder and the tailpipe fell off. Elliott drove me home but he had to pull over so I could puke. When we got home and told you what happened, you said, “Well hell, there’s nothing we can do about it tonight. Let’s have some wine.”

I remember you used to take baths every night. I would sit on the tile floor next to the tub, and you would cover your vagina and breasts with washcloths so all that was visible was your flat stomach, the one you pinched and sighed in disgust over. I remember your hair, a shimmering silky grey and your skin, milky, smooth, and unblemished. I remember when you wouldn’t eat, but insisted that I eat more than I was hungry for. You would say, “You don’t really need to eat that much when you’re a grown up.”

You used to tell me I was big boned. I never knew if that was a compliment, but I do know that I’ve always tried to be small—except when I want to be a woman, and then I don’t know what I’ve tried to be except submerged in water, covered in rags.

—Megan Okkerse


In my house — Sheela Clary

In my house I have always had the last word, except when Dad was visiting.

When the mudroom was painted, I put up an Irish blessing/curse. I like its surprise ending.

May those that love us, love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limping.

I lie in bed and imagine the routines of single mothers on the infrequent nights when Jim goes out with his uncle, or Tim or Grigori.

To the visitors who perk up when I mention that the house dates to 1783, I point out the wide, uneven floorboards upstairs. I tell them about the newspapers Jim found inside the walls, so old the Ss look like F’s, reporting news about the Papal states. If the visitors like that story, my older daughter usually jumps in about the gravestone for an 11-year-old girl who died in 1810 that lies somewhere in the trees behind the house.

Jim built an addition with a mudroom, our bedroom, a laundry room, our son’s room, and two bathrooms downstairs. I worry that the new upstairs part isn’t necessary, especially the additional bathroom. I grew up in a house for four people with four bathrooms.

There are thousands of small, hard, Leggo pieces. They are not confined to the plastic bins Jim’s mother brought in from Target one day and left on the kitchen table, along with a note offering to help us organize.

I often prepare Bolognese sauce on homebound afternoons. It takes three hours to simmer down the water, milk and wine out of the sauce to a thick consistency. Then I use an immersion blender to blend the meat, tomatoes, onions, carrots and celery into a red brown mush my son will eat.

The kids don’t need to be told what to do or were to go to build up a fire in the fireplace. Jim gently supervises the workings of fire, tools, and wood.

My family creates surprises for me in the basement. I receive these gifts on random evenings throughout the year instead of flowers and chocolates and lingerie. A miniature stable made of twigs and moss, three painted birdhouses, a low bench for the mudroom.

There are several blank walls. One has a print of a shaker apple tree leaning against it on the floor, unattached.

In various chests and drawers there are stacks of undisplayed photos we took when we had just Cecelia, including some from the afternoon she ran around a piazza in Orvieto in her socks because she couldn’t stay still and she was just walking and I wasn’t used to carrying shoes for her.

I worry most about Fiona, my middle child. I worry that a better mother would have prevented her from getting fat, that a better mother would say no cookies and enforce no cookies.

My son Donal complains mostly about the Leggos he doesn’t have, but one morning he complains that there are pictures of only his sisters on top of the bookcase next to my writing desk. I point with satisfaction to my dresser, where I’d only recently cut up a picture of him with face paint on and stuck it in a heart-shaped frame. I’d also noticed the discrepancy.

There was a difficult puppy, and there is still a crocheted baby blanket soaked with her blood in a tightly tied up plastic bag, sitting at the bottom of a laundry basket in the laundry room under my husband’s Carhartts and a jumble of purple underwear.

My father kept his shoes on and gravitated toward the velvety, auburn armchair in a corner of the living room. I worried that Dad would hit his head on the little wooden shelf on the wall above, or that the kids would not be wearing socks, or that he’d ask for the Diet Coke he left in the fridge two months ago for the purpose of having something to drink the next time he visited us.

One afternoon, I stood in the kitchen to hear an update from the hospice nurse via Mom, inserting, “All right,” “See you then.” “Bye.” Then I fell to my knees and keened, and Jim shooed the children outside and came back to hold me.

I keep Dad’s datebook from 2014 on my writing desk. I wonder which day holds his last written words.

I see my father in Fiona.

—Sheela Clary



I used to dance and sway with Violet in my arms and wondered if she remembered a different time, in different place, with a different family.

I first touched Violet’s almond-colored skin when she was two. She wore a daffodil dress and sunshine-colored shoes. But she was terrified, so she cried.  But I loved her, so I cried.

My husband and I bought, packed, and flew a stuffed green frog from San Diego, over a vast blue ocean, to the city of Seoul. We gave it to Violet when we first met her.  I suppose we thought there were no stuffed frogs in Korea.

Violet’s foster mother carried her on her back.  She slept on ours.

I once stood on the shores of the Korean Straight, on the beaches of Busan, the city where Violet’s mother lived. When my feet pressed into the wet sand, and the tiny rocks pushed up between my toes, I wondered if her mother’s footprints lingered or if the ocean swept them away.

When I went to the Korean adoption court, the judge asked me if I would love Violet forever.

When we brought Violet home, many said, “She is lucky she has you.” But no, I was lucky to have her.

Our first weeks together, Violet protested if her feet touched the ground or if I quit moving when she was in my arms. So we walked for hours through the woods and pointed at black-eyed Susans, shasta daisies, and butterflies. When I could finally peel her little body away from mine, my arms ached, and a Violet-shaped sweat stain remained.

Violet was a cupcake her first Halloween.

After she had been home for a few months, Violet crawled into bed with her five-year old sister, Esmae. Their little bodies tangled and twenty little toes peeked beyond polka-dotted sheets.

Violet peed in her pants when her routine was interrupted or if she was nervous. Sometimes, after I removed her soaked clothes, and I cleaned her body, I believed I failed her.

Violet’s first words were, “Eli did it.”  Eli is her five-year old brother.

This summer, Violet stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, just behind our house, and threw rocks into the water. She liked to watch them splash.

Last Friday, when I washed her small three-year old body in the shower, I watched the water weigh down her black curls, cascade over the slope of her nose, and stream onto her round taught belly.

Violet wears lots of dresses but only if she can choose them.

With crayons and pencils, Violet’s eight-year old brother, Zachary, still writes stories about the day she came home.

Violet’s laugh fills my heart. That is why I tickle her.

Now I dance and sway with Violet in my arms and I wonder if she forgets a different time, in a different place, with a different family.

—Whitney Lee


Tracy Williamson

Born and raised in Tallahassee, Tracy Proctor now lives in New York with her three children and a hound dog. Her short stories have earned a Pushcart Prize nomination, won contest awards and been adapted to stage. She’s currently working on an historical novel set in Florida during the Spanish Empire and perfecting her sangria recipe.

Megan Okkerse

Megan Okkerse is pursuing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing workshops in Charlotte, NC, and is a reader for Hunger Mountain.

Sheela Clary

Sheela Clary has taught English and Latin in the Bronx, Italy and with the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. She is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

 Whitney Lee

Whitney Lee is a physician in the Chicago area. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and Women’s eNews. She is currently an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and four children.


Jun 122016



“MAYBE I’LL TRY that special,” my new pal Joe said, a sardonic smile on his face. The six of us had just lingered outside a moment to laugh at the sign in the diner’s window. The Baseball Special consisted of a hotdog and two hard-boiled eggs. Needless to say, as witless college freshmen, we swapped some witless humor about what may after all have been intentionally ribald humor on the part of the place’s owner.

None of us yet knew that owner’s name, because this was our first wee-hour foray to the United, part of a timeless freshman rite: the first All-Nighter. Eddie Witten insisted he’d pulled one in high school, though the rest of us, innocent of any such experience, were loudly skeptical. Our little group shared an odd exhilaration –unspoken but obvious, at least to me– at the prospect of hitting the books until the sun came up. It felt like an initiation into independence from conditions so lately abandoned. None of us now needed to consider household rules or curfews.

We did quickly come to know the name of the United’s only waiter; Gus was stitched in raveling red on his pocket. He seemed ancient to us as any pseudo-Gothic or pseudo-Federalist building on a Yale quad. Stooped and flat-footed, he wore an expression, bored, world-weary, or both, as he took our orders, turning an ear, presumably the better one, to each speaker in his turn.

At last Gus gathered up the ketchup- and coffee-stained menus and limped back to the kitchen. No one had asked him for the Baseball Special. The old man wrote down none of our very varied requests, and I marveled, thinking he must be what my Dad meant by an old-time waiter, a real pro.”

Gus soon returned with a tray of food, none of it bearing the least resemblance to anything we’d asked him for, but for whatever reason, nobody thought to complain.

The week just past in New Haven had held other novel experiences for me. During Convocation, famed art historian Vincent Scully, the sort of spellbinding speaker I’d never heard, assured the students assembled in Commons that they represented “a thousand future world leaders.” I concluded, instantly and instinctively, that the description couldn’t possibly apply to me, and I likewise remember looking around at the other 999 freshmen, and having similar doubts. Fifty-odd years later, my inference still feels right.

In the case of those who did become leaders, most, with honorable exceptions like my classmate Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, became leading money men, not moral nor cultural exemplars.

On the day after Convocation, I’d been far more taken by Professor Scully’s lecture. His was the first art history course I’d ever taken, one starting with classical Greek sculpture and architecture and ending, at year’s end, with the modern abstract painters. There in the United, I fancied that if I squinted my eyes, I could almost make the images of Greek monuments on the diner’s walls blend with those in Mr. Scully’s slides. During lulls in our boisterous conversation, I did a lot of such squinting, because for all my greenhorn irony, I enjoyed being imaginatively transported in that or any other way.

My daily schedule at the start of college days was about exactly opposite to the one I’ve adopted for most of my life since. Once I moved on from lowly freshman status, I’d gotten most of my required courses out of the way and could elect ones that met in the afternoon or, at worst, at 11 a.m, which allowed me to sleep in, even if, so far as a liberal education was concerned, this scarcely represented a good premise for selection.

As a freshman year, however, I couldn’t duck those morning classes, including ones on Saturday, so as soon as the last was dismissed, I would usually return to bed. On awakening from my afternoon siesta, I’d think of something to amuse myself until suppertime. Sadly enough, alcohol– a demon I later had to struggle hard to exorcise– played a progressively prominent part in such amusement, more, say, than hockey practice, swims at the gym, or simply reading.

My obligatory schoolwork waited until after dinner, and it often took me well into the early hours of the next day. I soon, therefore, became more or less an habitué of the United, going there for a break at least three times a week, sometimes in company, more often on my own.

Every college freshman likely tries at some point to dope out a schedule that will allow him (we were all hims at early-sixties Yale) somehow to beat the system. Most of my friends soon discovered there was no such magic formula, and went back to saner modes of behavior. I either failed to make that discovery myself, or, having made it, persisted no matter. I honestly can’t remember which.

Becoming a regular led to frequent contact with Spiro, the United’s proprietor, a soulful-visaged Greek who dressed, invariably, in blue suit and dark, solid tie. Spiro assigned himself the night shift at the register, for reasons I shortly divined: he had another daytime enterprise.

I’d sometimes be the diner’s only customer in the wee hours, and so it was that, after about three weeks of showing up at his establishment, I was let into a real confidence from Spiro. He stressed that his revelation was not to be shared with anyone. The man’s dearest wish, it turned out, was to complete the epic poem he’d long been working on, Sixty Steps from Yale. He’d accumulated more than seventy pages of manuscript, all of them in Greek, and all composed, he claimed, in genuinely Homeric fashion.

Spiro had cultivated a manner of discussing his undertaking in what can only be described as blurbese, an idiom that favors antithesis. Sixty Steps from Yale, he announced, was a tale at once sweet and dark, despairing and uplifting. It concerned a beautiful Greek girl, recently arrived in America and a Yale student from an old Connecticut family, who had fallen in love.

Spiro would insert a Byronic hand between shirt and jacket front, lean his head back, and proceed more or less like this. “The young Greek woman is of humble origins but born with a noble spirit. She meets her lover at her father’s restaurant. The two look at each other from separate tables. How great is the distance that separates them, yet how much greater the attraction that blooms in their hearts.”

Spiro always spoke at whatever length I had time for. I don’t quote him exactly, I’m sure, but I do catch his manner. “The poem is both light- and heavy-hearted,” Spiro might begin. “The couple’s destiny is written in heaven, but every force on earth seems to interfere with it. The boy’s parents disapprove, the girl’s are suspicious of the Yale man and his airs. At times wildly comic, at others gloomy, Sixty Steps from Yale is not only a love story but also a look at two cultures, one ancient and one young.”

However flowery, his speech was every bit as articulate as I indicate.

Today, half a century later, I wince at how I betrayed my pledge of secrecy. The very day after first being sworn to confidence, I shared what I’d heard from Spiro with my closest companions. I’d ape the old man’s book-jacket rhetoric, and my cohort would obligingly guffaw.

I should instead have felt honored to be Spiro’s interlocutor. There seems to have been something in me, specifically, or so I like to think, that Spiro considered congenial, perhaps even poetic, no matter that the notion of becoming a poet would have struck even me as absurd. No, I liked booze, girls, and ice hockey, in descending order of preference. I certainly had no epic intentions, no ambition as a writer of any kind, none in fact as anything. I’d genuinely rejected Professor Scully’s prognostications of my future.

As a sophomore, I moved far from where I’d been billeted that first year. My schedule didn’t become much saner, and yet my sorties to the United became ever rarer. The Connecticut drinking age being 21, I’d befriended another local merchant, who served as my liquor dealer until graduation. Now my wee-hour diversions tended to involve nothing but liquor, until my trips to the United ceased altogether.

Thus it was a good while after it happened that I learned of Spiro’s death– and only by way of scanning the obituaries in the New Haven Register. I assumed that the old gent’s magnum opus remained unfinished, that it would never be discovered, save, perhaps, by some family member, who’d stash it away with other keepsakes from the writer’s life, not to be considered again.

As I write, I’m older than Spiro was in those days. I may even be older than our waiter Gus, who back then struck our company as unimaginably ancient.

Unlike him, unlike Spiro, I find no orthodoxy, Greek or otherwise, fitted to what I believe. And yet just this morning, prompted who-knows-how, I found myself praying to God, scarcely for the first time, that He forgive me for having once shown qualities so often joined in the unworldly young– stupidity and arrogance.

How, after all, can I know that Sixty Steps from Yale was fit for ridicule? I never read it, of course, having, in Ben Jonson’s words, little Latin, less Greek. Still with all the confidence of immitigable ignorance, I imagined the work to be farcical, sentimental, and overwrought.

Unlike poor Spiro, I’ve published twelve collections of poetry. I’ve won a prize or two, garnered this or that sweetheart fellowship, taught in various higher educational institutions (Yale among them) for over forty years. At the same time, of course, I remain a stranger to the vast majority of citizens, bookish ones included, even within my tiny state of Vermont. After I am gone, my obscurity will in all likelihood become as complete as that of the United’s owner. The diner itself lives only as a sketchy memory of people my age and older. With no false humility, I can say that I’ll lack the sort of accomplishment that Spiro could have pointed to. He did manage the United, after all, well and for a long time.

Perhaps I’m the sentimental one these days, but now it strikes me that there was real poetry in Spiro’s merely composing what he did of Sixty Steps from Yale, given his need to keep his diner going, to keep Gus more or less content, to keep serving what was, after all, pretty good food. And as I recall all this, it seems that Spiro’s very authorial effort was epic in and of itself.

— Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, 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. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, 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. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.


Jun 082016

Patrick Modiano Nobel announcement 2014

Patrick Modiano at Swedish Academy Press conference 2014Patrick Modiano at the Swedish Academy’s press conference 2014 (via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)



When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature, not very many people knew who he was. This was a delicious irony, if you had ever read any of his novels. Modiano’s work, when seen as a whole, is like a patchwork quilt, his books forming a coherent design, related by pattern, theme, and sometimes character, each one revolving around a fugitive, enigmatic narrator. Sometimes the narrator searches through the rare fragments of his past, trying to shed light on his personal circumstances, and sometimes it is the present that is bewildering and opaque, in which he searches for that lovely French concept a point de repère, an orientation point, an anchor, a compass direction. In both cases the same ambiance is created by the story: one of melancholy, nostalgia, an aching emptiness where there should be the bustle and roar of ordinary daily life, a sense of dislocation from others, and a quest that never ends.

I first came across Patrick Modiano when I was teaching twentieth-century French literature, some time around 2002 or 2003. The first novel I read was Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person), quintessential Modiano, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the year it was published. It is the story of Guy Roland, a private detective who is suffering from amnesia. When his amiable boss retires, Guy decides to take this opportunity to make his identity the subject of his researches. He contacts a man he knows who has a vague memory of him from the past; Paul Sonachitze takes him to meet a friend and together they ponder Guy’s oddly ageless face and their own memories. Perhaps they have seen him in a nightclub they kept, in company with a Russian named Stioppa? Guy tracks Stioppa down to a funeral and makes contact with him. Touched by his story, Stioppa gives Guy a biscuit tin containing old photos and documents. In one of the old photos Guy sees a man who maybe resembles himself a little, in the company of a woman Stioppa identifies as Gay Orlow, a Russian who emigrated to America. When Guy tries to track her down, he finds she committed suicide many years ago. But another name, another trace arises, keeping him tied to his quest. This is how his narrative will progress, a slow hopscotch from clue to clue, none of which will prove definitive, though he will tenaciously keep going.

Eventually, the pattern of his researches repeatedly circles around a single black hole. During the Occupation, Jimmy Pedro Stern (who he thinks he may have been) and his presumed girlfriend, Denise Coudreuse, retired to a chalet in the southeast of France, aiming to outwit the threat of the Nazis. They seem to have made a break for the border of Switzerland in the company of smugglers, but something must have happened, something traumatic of which Guy has no recollection, only a faint sense of unease. Denise has never been heard of since. Only one person might be able to enlighten him about this event, a friend called Freddie Howard de Luz, who shared the cabin with them. Freddie has moved to Polynesia, but when Guy arrives in Bora-Bora, Freddie has of course disappeared in his boat. The novel ends with Guy about to pursue the final clue he possesses, an address in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome where he may once have lived.

You might think that this inconclusive ending would be disappointing, but I did not find it so. Closure, an answer, the solution, would by this point have been the intolerable choice. Throughout the entire novel, Guy has been searching, until it feels that this uncertainty, the solidity of not-knowing, is precisely what defines him. And as the story wends its way through a fragmentary archive of papers, postcards and old photos, the reader understands how little such material could ever say about a person. If Guy even knew his real name for sure, what would this tell him about himself? The most audacious conceit of the novel is to pit an urgent quest for identity alongside a dawning realisation on the part of the reader (never the narrator, alas) that there is no single formulation that could define and describe a person, no one event, no one friend, no one piece of information, that could tell us what we truly need to know about ourselves. Collective memory turns out to be the great repository of our lives, and yet it is never more than patchy and discontinuous, little more than a reflection of ourselves looking back.

Rue des boutiques Missing person collage

At the time of reading this novel, I had never been more overworked or more stressed. I had a young child and a highly demanding job and it seemed to me that I was living multiple and incompatible lives. I found this novel unusually soothing. Guy’s world was so serenely empty, rarely containing more than one person at a time alongside himself. The places he visited—restaurants, manor houses, apartment blocks, rural railway stations—were always empty or abandoned. He was dislocated, for sure, but, considered from another perspective, he was free. In the way that reading a book can provide a fantasy environment inhabitable for the duration of a story, a sort of holiday destination for the mind, Modiano provided me with a refreshing void. I felt a rush of hopefulness that the networks of love and responsibility that bound me might one day fall away, leaving no trace. It was so peaceful, this untethered existence in a barren place, from which the whole of a life might be seen if one could climb high enough into the depleted air.

Naturally, this was not what I taught the students when we read Modiano together. We spoke about the more obvious themes of memory and identity and trauma. But when I reread this novel, beginning to think about writing this article, those were not the themes that touched me still. Twelve years after that first encounter with Rue des boutiques obscures, my life had changed beyond recognition. I had left the university, my son had grown and moved away, I now worked every day alone. I had in fact moved into the position that Modiano’s narrators occupied, often obliged to look back over my own past and try to make some sense of my memories. This time I identified with the melancholy and the nostalgia in the writing. I felt within my body the perplexity of missing a past that had been so intense, so urgent, so overwhelming. It is the strangest feeling to look back on times of passionate engagement and find the old emotions worn so thin and threadbare. What odd creatures we are that we can lose the best and worst of ourselves with equal disregard, no matter how hard we try to cling on.

This was the experience that reading Modiano offered me: a game of two halves, each so different to the other as to be unreconcilable. Yet that stretch of time in between my readings seems crucial to understanding Modiano as a writer. The fracture that runs between the present and the past lies at the origin of all his novels. For Modiano’s formative experiences came from a time that he had not lived through himself, but for which he would vicariously search across his books: the dark and troubled era of the Occupation in France during the Second World War.



Born in 1945, Patrick Modiano was the son of a Jewish businessman of distinctly shady transactions and a Flemish bit-part actress. Neither had any interest in being a parent or was able to show any kind of affection. Patrick and his younger brother, Rudy, were shuttled between caretakers and friends when small, and then sent to boarding schools, even when the parents were living less than a hundred meters away. His mother was a ‘pretty girl with an arid heart’, whose emotional crimes Modiano couldn’t even bring himself to enumerate in his brief memoir, Pedigree. The admission that he felt ‘the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness,’ is immediately countered by the assertion that he will ‘keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now….’ Distance becomes the key note of Modiano’s account of his early life; the death of his younger brother aged nine is recounted in a paragraph, entirely without specific details. But it seems evident that it is not a lack of emotion that fuels his brevity, more the sense of skimming narrative stones over pools of memory that have the quality of molten lava. ‘It’s not my fault if the words jumble together’, he writes. ‘I have to move quickly, before I lose heart.’

His father warrants more attention in the memoir. Alberto Modiano survived the Occupation, which resulted in nearly 76,000 Jews being deported from France to the German death camps, from whence a mere 2,500 returned alive. Between 1940 and 1944, his father lived in permanent danger. He found a security of sorts in underground collaboration work, becoming a black marketeer and engaging the patronage of a group of morally deplorable demimondains. Modiano believed that his father was on the outskirts of the notorious rue Lauriston gang, also known as the Bonny-Lafont gang. Henri Lafont began his life of petty crime aged 17 and used the confusion of the French exode to escape from prison. Aided by a number of spies for the German army and a handful of military men whose speciality was punishment, he let it be known to the German powers that he could provide information and goods that could not be obtained legitimately, and even conduct kidnappings and assassinations if need be. When Lafont teamed up with corrupt French police inspector Pierre Bonny, his black market business took off in ways that blurred the distinction between policing and crime. The Bonny-Lafont gang represented the most shameful element of the Occupation, the sort of organization that arose out of the vortex of normalized brutality and petty crime, and that sucked in the poor and the vulnerable alongside the immoral and the violent.

Modiano clearly longed to have some genuine insight into his father’s emotional life during the Occupation. But his father was a ruined man by the time he knew him, a man who held him at arm’s length, explained nothing, and wrote terrible letters of accusation and reproach as his only contact with a son abandoned in unsavoury boarding schools. ‘He never told me what he had felt, deep inside, in Paris during that period’, Modiano wrote in his memoir. ‘Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he himself didn’t really know what he was?’ To understand the emotions that motivated him would justify Modiano’s compassion and encourage a fantasy of reconciliation. But Modiano would never know whether his father fell into crime because he had no other recourse or because it suited him as well as anything else.

Un Pedigree collage

In 1968 at the precocious age of 22, Modiano burst onto the French literary scene with his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, which won him both the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Roger-Nimier.  It was the wildly picaresque story of Rafael Schlemilovitch, a French Jew born at the end of the war, though seemingly with the capacity for time travel. The narrative hops and skips frenetically through the history of anti-Semitism, with Rafael working in the white slave trade and then becoming a confidant of Hitler. He is tortured for collaboration and about to be executed when he wakes up on an analyst’s couch. Never again would Modiano write such a fierce and scattered novel, and that was just as well. By his second novel, La Ronde de nuit (The Night Watch), his focus had narrowed in ways that added intrinsic power to his narrative. This novel employed stream of consciousness to depict the schizophrenic life of a young man who is working as a double agent for both the French Gestapo and the Resistance. It has a nightmarish tone as the narrator sinks into hopeless confusion over his identity, torn as he is between the conflicting demands of the groups he works for, either of whom will denounce and execute him should he fail in carrying out their demands. The novel could be read from one perspective as a loose dramatisation of the Bonny-Lafont gang, and it contains a large selection of repulsive characters, many of whom carry the real names of people his father had known.

By his third novel, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads), published in 1972, Modiano’s intent to merge himself with the fantasized place of his father in history becomes clear and is used as a masterful narrative conceit. The novel opens with the description of a photograph: three men in a bar, one of whom is the narrator’s father. As the narrator sinks his gaze into the photograph so the frame falls away and we enter the scene with him. The narrator is a young man attempting to have a relationship with a father he barely knows; in fact, the most memorable event they shared was his father’s failed attempt to push him under a metro train. Still, the son is determined to create some sort of intimacy, and in order to get closer to him, he infiltrates the ring of collaborators and black marketeers with whom his father is working, though he keeps his filial association secret. As the narrator gets closer to his father, the ambivalence of his feelings of love and hatred become stark. He begins to realise how pitiful and impotent the man is, how desperately tenuous his hold on security, how little respect he has for him. And at the same time, the things the narrator must do and the people he must associate with sicken him ever more.

Plunging into an atmosphere that sapped me mentally and physically; putting up with the company of these sickening people; lying in wait for days on end, never weakening. And all for the tawdry mirage I now saw before me. But I will hound you to the bitter end. You interest me, ‘papa.’ One is always curious to know one’s family background.

The narrator does indeed accompany his father to the bitter end. When his father tells him that he has paid for safe passage out of Paris and an escape route to Belgium, the narrator is convinced it is a trap. And when the two of them go to meet their contact, they are arrested and put in a police van. At which point, the narrator steps neatly out of the fiction he has created, the one that began when he stepped into the photograph, reminding the reader that there was nothing of substance being recounted here, just the fantasies provoked by an evocative old snap. It’s a moment of brilliant dislocation for the reader, although it’s not as if we haven’t been warned over the course of the narrative. ‘You become interested in a man who vanished long ago’, the narrator tells us at one point. ‘You try to question the people who knew him, but their traces disappeared with him. Of his life, only vague, often contradictory rumours remain, one or two pointers. Hard evidence? A postage stamp and a fake Légion d’honneur. So all one can do is imagine.’

And imagine is what Modiano does. These three novels, published in English together as The Occupation Trilogy, are resolutely cerebral affairs, red-flagged works of fantasy that proclaim their uncertain status every step of the way. But there are touchstones that return repeatedly—the desire to plunge deep into the collaborationist experience with sympathy for the complex emotions and necessities that compel it, guilt, shame and pity for the father and the wretched filial love that seeks to absolve and rescue him. The critic Nathalie Rachlin ties these components of Modiano’s texts in with the findings of Austrian journalist Peter Sichrovsky, who interviewed the sons and daughters of Nazis for his book, Naître coupable, naître victime. Sichrovsky found that these children ‘often charged themselves with and experienced the guilt and remorse their parents never expressed or perhaps never felt about their roles in Nazi crimes.’[1] Sichrovsky saw it as a strategy that would whitewash the parent’s image in the imagination of the child, making that parent a viable role model again. It would seem that the sins of the fathers do indeed become the psychic burden of their offspring.

The Occupation trilogy

Or, at least, the legacy of the Second World War for the next generation in France and Germany was one of unresolved guilt. In the aftermath of the Occupation, emotions swung violently between extremes. The retreat of the Germany army was followed by immediate reprisals in a wave of violence against collaborators that became known as l’épuration sauvage—the brutal purge. Some statistics suggest that more French people were killed by vengeful resistance fighters than lost their lives in the war. But when de Gaulle returned to liberate Paris and head up the provisional new government, he came with a ready-made narrative to soothe the troubled French soul. De Gaulle believed in a country that had been united in solidarity against the occupying forces, and a vast resistance network that had worked tirelessly and unflinchingly throughout the war. This was the myth that salved the conscience of a nation, but produced what the historian Henry Rousso would describe as unresolved mourning for the reality of its traumatic past.

Modiano started writing about the black truth of the Occupation while it was still a taboo subject, but he wrote for a generation that was ready and willing to catch him up. Rousso argued in his book The Vichy Syndrome that in the years between 1975 and 1994 France became obsessed with reviewing the Occupation. The death of de Gaulle signalled the end of an era, and previously hidden documents were coming to light during the trials of war criminals in Germany that proved the extent of French involvement in the deportation of the Jews. Rousso declared that ‘Patrick Modiano must be placed in a category of his own, so great was his influence in those years.’ The novelist spoke directly to a powerful cultural upheaval, and spoke in the terms of bewilderment and loss that seemed so pervasive. For Modiano, it was a private compulsion to peer into the obscure regions of the past and to dredge through the ambiguous mess he found there. But it happened to coincide with the nationwide shock and vertigo that accompanied revelations of scarcely imaginable wrongdoing.



To read Modiano purely as an elucidator of great historical concerns is to miss how crucial the personal is to his work. And without that personal element, we underestimate his extraordinary technical audacity. The book that perhaps shows this the best is Dora Bruder, in which Modiano describes his attempt over many years to uncover the biography of a young Jewish girl who was deported with her father to Auschwitz and died there. Some reviews of the book in translation call it a novel, which is most certainly is not, but given its structural similarity to so many other Modiano works, it’s a forgivable error. Fiction, in Modiano’s hands, is always a sort of autobiographical fiction, and non-fiction, in the form of Dora Bruder, is somewhere between a Holocaust memoir and a highly speculative historical reconstruction. It is written in the cool reportage style that is so quintessentially his, and which in its very serenity seems able to provoke a storm of emotion in the reader. (Modiano reminds me of Edith Wharton in this way—terrible things are recounted in a voice of supine elegance, as lives are ruined for the failure to adhere to a dominant social code.) But what Modiano has to report is his usual tale of loss and fragmentation.

‘Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading of page 3 caught my eye’, Modiano begins. It’s a petit annonce, asking for information about a 15-year-old runaway, Dora Bruder. The fact that her parents live on the Boulevard Ornano is really what captures Modiano’s imagination. For it is an area of Paris he knows well from childhood visits with his mother and adolescent dates with a girlfriend. He can conjure up a number of memories, all mundane and yet resonant for him, of his presence in this place, and as always for this author, the pull of psychogeography is immensely powerful. All Modiano’s narrators walk the streets of Paris, aware of traces of the past—their own or other people’s, it really doesn’t matter. The point is to be attentive to a kind of profound historical vibration that keeps the past enmeshed with the present. For instance, when Modiano finds himself watching a film from the 40s, he writes that: ‘I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation….[B]y some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film.’ In the immediate surroundings of his characters, the material meets the ineffable in a way that enriches their experiences. For Modiano it’s a sixth sense, one he appeals to when he declares that his memory begins before he does. ‘So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born’, he remarks at one point. The elusive Dora Bruder, whose traces he will follow with increasing tenacity as the points of contact between them multiply, becomes one of them. The traces her presence has left on Paris will be there for Modiano’s perception.

Dora Bruder

Finding out anything factual about her is painstaking and time-consuming work. It takes four years for Modiano to discover her date of birth, longer to discover when Dora and her father were deported to Auschwitz. At one point, Modiano writes a novel inspired by Dora (the brilliant Voyage de noces, or Honeymoon) in the hope he might exorcise the hold she has over him, but it doesn’t prove to be satisfying enough, and back he goes to the hard-to-access records, the fading testimonies, the endless speculation. Gradually a shadowy and incomplete portrait of Dora begins to emerge, a possibly headstrong young woman who runs away from the convent where her parents placed her in the hope of keeping her safe from the Nazis. The notion of the fugue is a very redolent one in Modiano’s writing, for he, too, was a runaway aged 15. That experience in 1960 was one of the most intense of his life:

It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke: the clean break, deliberately made, from enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates; you have nothing to do with these people from now on; the break from your parents, who have never understood you, and from whom, you tell yourself, it’s useless to to expect any help; feelings of rebellion and solitude carried to flash point, taking your breath away and leaving you in a state of weightlessness. It was probably one of the few times in my life when I was truly myself and following my own bent. This ecstasy cannot last. It has no future.

The shift into the present tense is a subtle moment of coincidence between Patrick Modiano and Dora Bruder, and the extended community of runaways and self-selecting outcasts. By settling his emotional experience down over her rare facts, Modiano comes closer to Dora, breathing life back into his insufficient data. There is more: his father’s account of being picked up by the French gestapo one evening in February 1942 and narrowly avoiding detention is one of the few family stories Patrick has. Now it begins to seem likely to him that Dora might be the young woman his father mentioned, who was one of the other passengers in that same police van. ‘Perhaps I wanted the two to cross paths, my father and her, during that winter of 1942’, Modiano admits. This is, after all, the strategy that is continually deployed—Modiano’s memories bring him closer to Dora, and the thought that Dora’s life has touched his, even at a generational remove, adds depth and meaning to the paucity of Modiano’s family history.

Where lives touch across time, in Modiano’s reckoning, there is a spark, an illumination. A process of osmosis occurs, which Modiano describes with extraordinary transparency. Whilst we see it as a function of the talented writer, who reanimates a lost Jewish woman from meagre details, we are aware that he also writes as a private individual trying to make sense of his sparse personal history. For how much of our understanding relies on our ability to occupy the same emotional space as another person? This is how we identify, this is how we relate, and yet this is also how we use our imaginations and how we create fiction.

Modiano remains ever-vigilant to the limits of his knowledge. By the end of the book, Dora’s life remains mostly obscure, and he acknowleges some gladness that Dora retains ‘her secret’, an essential privacy that even the death camps could not take away. Some of the most heart-rending parts of the book are the fragments of letters of enquiry which Modiano came across in his researches, sent to the authorities in the wake of other disappearances. Painfully polite and carefully worded, family members risked their own safety by appealing for information about their missing loved ones in the black days of 1941-2, when the deportations of the Jews were at their height. Dora Bruder becomes special to us over the course of the book; we begin to think we know her and understand her story, and the impact is significant when we realise she was one among thousands. Yet such is Modiano’s ability to create concentric circles from the personal to the general to the universal, every fragment he reproduces sings with its own specific life and every lost soul touches us deeply.

Patrick Modiano’s books are essentially about loss and abandonment. They are about the difficulties we experience in creating and maintaining identities when the past is obscure and our personal history has been crushed under the bloodied wheels of History itself. In the majority of his books, he wrote unflinchingly about the legacy of the Occupation. He never wrote about war itself; the reality of battle lies the other side of the fracture in time, consigned to the distant and unknowable past. Instead, his work is a careful enumeration of the intolerable losses of war that persist for decades, and which we should perhaps consider closely in our contemporary times, when the desire for sabre-rattling seems as strong as ever and the idea of occupying forces is considered a harmless one. Not only do those caught up in war lose the people they love, and the right to satisfy hunger and protect the property they own; it is not just the desire to live without fear that is forcibly removed. War requires those who survive it to do so at the loss of their innocence, their dignity and sometimes even their humanity. And these are losses that have heavy consequences for the next generation, who must deal with the legacy of shame, guilt and humiliation. The violence of war is not the end of a story, but the breeding ground of many other kinds of violence—emotional, psychic, existential—that poison the lives of generations to come. It takes writers like Patrick Modiano to bring the reality of this alive.

—Victoria Best

Victoria Best small photox

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



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Nathalie Rachlin, ‘The Modiano Syndrome: 1968-1997’ in Paradigms of Memory; The Occupation and Other Hi/stories in the Novels of Patrick Modiano, ed by Guyot-Bender, Martine and VanderWolk, William (Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 121-135. Specific quote from p. 130.
Jun 012016

Diamanta1 2Diamanta in the English Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello, Florence.


It’s almost 11:30 at night here. I just walked into my apartment and turned on the TV to find Philadelphia Story dubbed in Italian, which is pretty entertaining. I’ve been in Venice all day, which sounds lovely, and I’m probably just getting spoiled from my Italian adventures, but I found it gloomy and alien and too self-consciously beautiful.

So I really don’t write much these days. Most of the time, I’m with the students, escorting them from museum to train station, worrying about their homesickness, their illnesses, their inability to use paper maps. They are incapable of functioning without constant cell phone use but equally incapable of operating their Italian cell phones.

EBBTomb2Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grave.

When I am alone, I am afflicted with restlessness and I wander around the streets, rather than writing diligently. I visit Sister Julia, a British nun who lives in a tiny apartment in the archway over the English cemetery (where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried, among others) and I try to converse, in my truly terrible Italian, with the Roma who gather there. I understand more than I can communicate. Their lives are dramatic, on the edge. Desperation, tears, and wailing. They are also amazingly international. They travel back and forth to Romania frequently–I don’t understand where they get the money for bus fare. A good day of begging yields about ten euros.

Sister Julia2Sister Julia in the English Cemetery.

There is a young Roma man named Mihai who can probably speak the best English. He is somewhat of a visionary, I think. He is about twenty, but has been married since he was fourteen and already has three children. He is resolutely against such young marriages, as he says it’s too hard on the women’s bodies. He wants to start a school for Roma children in his village in Romania. Roma parents rarely send their children to the regular school. I’ve heard a variety of reasons—they prefer single-sex education, they don’t want the girls to wear the uniform slacks, and the books and clothes are too expensive. Mainly they worry that the Gadjo (non-Roma) teachers will be cruel to their children.

Mihai, as well as his twin brother George (the two warrior saints, they both told me proudly—Michael and George) his older brother Ionel, and Ionel’s wife Diamanta, work diligently on their alphabet sheets under the archway of the English cemetery. Sister Julia has created these xeroxed worksheets for them with spaces to copy out the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, along with their names and ages.

lunchFrom left to right: Mihai, Sister Julia, Ionel, Laura Michele Diener, and Diamanta eating under the arch at the English Cemetery in Florence.

One of the women who is on the fringes of this group, Jova, begs at the Ospedale del’ Innocenti, where many of them sleep at night. She is a cousin of the core family. Mihai calls her, his familia, but seems confused about how she is actually related. Jova resembles most of the old beggar women in Europe–wizened. tiny, and brightly clad. She shakes a tiny cup and I can’t imagine she gets very much. Apparently, though, she has a college degree and is one of the only Roma I’ve met who is actually literate. She begs for the money to pay off the debt for her husband’s funeral. Although, like all the Roma I’ve met, she is hazy about dates and times, she remembers the concentration camp in Transnistria from her childhood.

Maria, her daughter, is the most aggressive of the Roma, and the only one that actually frightens me. If I caught her alone at night, I feel sure she would have no qualms about robbing me or possibly slitting my throat. Whenever she sees me, she comes running, calling out, “Amica, amica,” and kisses me, and then immediately demands money. I haven’t given her any in weeks, but she never gives up. At Mihai’s suggestion I’ve started carrying bags of rolls or peaches to offer her instead, and she gets angry and refuses to take one. Then she comes running after me and demands the entire bag. If I only give her one, she breaks it in half and then throws it away. Although she is Jova’s daughter, she is completely illiterate–apparently, her father forbade her to learn. I imagine she has had a very difficult life.

—Laura Michele Diener


Laura Michele Diener 2

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


May 042016

word cloud 500px


It is a radical, a primitive impulse—elementary.
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
—Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals


The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor seamstress for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. There are tried and true patterns she will revert to, and for good reasons. But like all artists, she will deviate from the patterns, too, beginning new traditions and conventions in the place of old. That, however, all the patches are made of the same fabric—a fabric woven of the mind’s sympathy with the material world—we can be quite sure.


Two myths regarding the origin of language haunt our presentiments about the way we know reality and, thus, our conclusions about how and what the world means. One posits an absolute and legible world of meaning; the other an utterly meaningless world. The first tells the tale of a lost Ur-Sprache, wherein words were identical to the things they signified. Mixing Kabbalistic creation magic with esoteric Renaissance alchemy, this myth is one source of Romantic views of the world as whole, harmonious, and inherently logical (“worded” and in accordance with Reason). The assumption is that things mean, and that their meaning is at least partially legible—if not transparently through the dark glass of the fallen language of man, then at least through the visible language of nature, its patterns and repeating hieroglyphs. From ancient times through the mid-18th century at least, scholars and mystics have searched for traces of a perfect language, supposedly lost after the collapse of Babel tower or after that other fall in Eden, claiming sometimes that it was a form of Hebrew and, at others, inventing new symbol systems that promised to heal the rift between word and world, human mind and cosmos. Suspending for a moment belief in the myth’s more esoteric tendencies, the idea that language could be intrinsically related to reality is somewhat supported by etymological evidence tracing the roots of words in the world of matter, binding thought to history, nature, and social practices. Most compelling of all is its occasional call—as in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (1303-5)—for the modern poet to bridge the chasm between both words and the essences of ideas and things with a creative regeneration of language.

The second myth deceptively denies any correspondence between words and world, and tends to insist that individual experience cannot be translated from one person to the next. It came more recently to prominence, though there were proto-believers, or shall I say skeptics—for it is a skeptical myth, though myth just the same—even in ancient times. It came to hold sway in the late 19th century, along with other skepticisms, gained considerable ground at the turn of the 20th, and is currently one of the most pervasive articles of faith of the 21st-century social theorist and even many writers who, in holding to it, undermine a belief in their own work. In this explanation of the origin of language, words have never and never could be anything but arbitrary labels for things. This arbitrariness signals a kind of treacherous deceit. The way we think is, they warn, directed and controlled by these arbitrary signifiers— masters, which have no right to such guiding and limiting power over our thoughts and the world they pretend to describe. Words, in this story, coalesce into controlling concepts, cutting up the world into arbitrary categories and quickly shutting down thought and vision. As if that were not bad enough, this tyranny of words deceives in yet another fundamental way. By presenting an order that is invented, words give the lie to the actual dis-ordered state of the world. Words cover up a chaotic, fluid abyss that cannot (or rather should not) be reduced, differentiated, or delimited. Words impose definitions where there should be none, separating, distinguishing, discriminating. Perhaps by the end of the 21st century, light itself will be decried as another separator of substances, an arbitrary surveyor of imperialistic boundary lines between brightness and shadow; but for now we may enjoy our chiaroscuro, virtually guiltlessly. Not so our words. Words in this myth fail to translate between thing and mind and between person and person and language and language. All is a jumble. This myth of untranslatability marks a kind of second Babel, inaugurating a dire suspicion about the ability of words to mean anything, and about meaning altogether.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

A driving force of the myth of untranslatabilty is the myth of social construction, which, in its most extreme form, denies any relationship between our social attitudes and customs and our biology, our instincts, or experiences, thus cutting the lifeline between materiality and ideas. Neither the myth of the perfect language nor that of non-translatability are true in their extreme forms, but both contain germs of truth, and both are analogies for the fears and hopes of human beings who are, naturally, quite concerned with whether or not the world has any meaning and how we might know what it is and then communicate it to others. But like all strict dualisms, their extreme polarity avoids the fruitful unification of opposites where the world meets word and both might be expanded through contact.

Over the course of the 20th century, philosophers continued the exploration begun in ancient times of how we know the world, focusing more directly on how we know the world through language. In the 21st century these queries have often been reduced to a set of conclusions about how we don’t and can’t know the world, neither through language or otherwise. Although these philosophies have often been liberating, breaking down preconceived limits and questioning restrictive assumptions, when taken to their logical extremes they lead to silence and solipsism.

Social construction is, of course, grounded in the much older philosophical supposition that it is impossible to experience, see, or know “the thing in itself.” We see only phenomena and not realities, and our seeing is determined by filters or structures in our brains that mediate the ways in which we see. Over centuries, this realization has been transformed to mean that what we see is necessarily either wrong or extremely different from what is, an assumption that was not present in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Although Kant conceived of the a priori mental structures that determined our perception as divinely given, we might secularize his exploration by accepting that there are basic biological constants in human brains through which we see, sense, and experience phenomena. While Kant did note that each person sees a different shade of red, he did not suggest that we each see entirely different colors, or that colors themselves did not exist.

The “categorical imp of the perverse” acknowledges that there are some a priori givens or essences in both our minds and the world and that, whether we can see the “thing in itself” perfectly or not, we still have some access to a reasonable sense of reality in its basic forms; that our individual perception, although subjective, is not so radically different from that of others as to prohibit correspondence and communication; that we can use words and images to approximate our meanings and expand our own perception and that of others; and, finally, that while we may follow the categorical imperative as a general law, we also will, like Poe’s imp, perversely deviate from its strictures when an uncontrollable irrational impulse, a creative urge, an ethical scruple, or simple taste dictates. This is an unfashionable idea, to be sure, for it does not provide the satisfaction of either complete wholeness and harmony, on the one hand, or of complete nihilism and alienation, on the other. Instead, it hovers uncomfortably in a middle realm where some things are real and repeating and others open to interpretation and change. It leaves us neither completely omnipotent nor completely helpless.

Without the interventions of the foolish imp (pointing out naively that the emperor has no clothes, for example) an utterly de-materialized form of reader response theory might prevail in the social scene, regardless of the “text” that is being interpreted. The categorical imp wags its finger at an “anything goes” interpretation of the world, blurting out “foolish” truisms to make sophisticated social theorists blush, but also does not stay long within any constructed system that can be exploded or questioned.

Kant Imp PoeLeft: Immanuel Kant, 18th-century portrait  Right: Edgar Allan Poe by Michael Deas (Both public domain)

Nietzsche, inaugurating the “linguistic turn,” made us aware of the way language conceptualizes reality by creating names or descriptions of things that may leave out as much as they contain. Words are inexact figures and metaphors, inaccurate and incommensurate attempts to describe reality. We group similar things that nevertheless exhibit many differences into general categories; and this process induces a sort of simplification of seeing. We come to perceive dogs, trees, men, women, instead of each individual creature and entity. This eventually leads us to create abstractions and reifications, such as love, good, bad, noble, moral, money, which may become more and more removed from physical reality and experience. Yet, while many theorists after Nietzsche came to see the use of language as a treacherous crime committed upon reality, he tended to see it in a more creatively joyous light. Just as long as we do not come to be the slaves of ossified constructs and concepts, just as long as the “creative subject” continues to make new terms, new words, new metaphors, new figures to describe a changing reality from his own shifting perspective, just as long as individuals stoke the flame of a living language, language can be a prod and a stimulus to new seeing.

Social construction theory has tried to moralistically discredit this joyous aesthetic and existential world- and word-making activity and has replaced it with an imperative to strip every word and every concept of its given meaning by calling all designations and conceptualizations into question. Berger and Luckmann, authors of The Social Construction of Reality (1966), reduce all human culture to “an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth, the theoretical integration of which requires considerable intellectual fortitude in itself, as the long line of heroic integrators from Homer to the latest sociological system-builders testifies.” Thus the enlightened skeptics discard all of literature, philosophy, and history in one fell swoop—excepting, of course, their own myth and narrative, of a social system occurring randomly and ex nihilo, which just appears and dupes all subsequent humans into following rules and belief systems which have nothing to do with human tendencies, desires, or human nature. The champions of the subsequent puritanical silence would discredit myth, historic narrative, fairy tales, religious legends, songs, poems, paintings, totems, and talismans as random and as traitorous social constructions. They would have us scoff at any product of the human imagination as if it had been made by some abstract non-human author, as something necessarily imposed upon the passive human from some extraneous force that would have to be virtually extraterrestrial, not ourselves, not natural. They would insist that a human is not capable of experiencing his or her reality without being blind-sided by the already constructed way of seeing determined by his or her society, as if construction only works in one negative, exclusive, terminating direction, when, in fact, new ideas, new conceptualizations, new abstractions exponentially proliferate over the ages, as new details, microcosmic particulars, and relative complexities are incorporated into our shared cultural, scientific, and artistic discourse.

Of course our visions and perspectives are colored by our social context and these visions vary from one culture to another, often extremely. The variations between cultures must be the product of many different influences, from genetics to climate to landscape to the requirement for survival of a particular place and a particular people (gene culture co-evolution). Originary group social experiences are passed down from generation to generation, and are altered or not over time. Certainly old customs can be kept longer than necessary and humans on the whole may act according to originary evolutionary necessities that are no longer useful and even sometimes harmful in our current context. But these ways of seeing and ways of acting are not random. In other words, while there certainly are many social constructs, there is no such thing as “just” a social construct—a phrase that suggests that the construct appeared out of nowhere and has no validity whatsoever. Social constructs including language, education, and art are the positive product of human interaction with nature, the physical world, social groups, experience. They may always be questioned and often must be challenged, but they are fundamental and indispensable to human culture.

Over time there is oscillation between repeated forms and invention, including the benefit of influence, interaction, discourse, criticism, the scientific method, testing of assumptions, positing of hypotheses and theories, gathering of facts and evidence to support the hypotheses and theories, foregrounding certain facts over others, selecting out and focusing on one or another aspect, evaluating based on differing values and differing relative needs of the moment.

One can say that different people notice different things when they read a story; that their experiences color what they will remember and the emotions that different words or images inspire. But one can’t say that the story itself is different. What is in it is what is in it. A test consists in the subjective reader pointing out something (making an observation). Is it really there? Or is it a wrong reading, a reading into, a hallucination? Do others see it too, now that it has been pointed out? Indeed, since people do largely see mainly what others have seen before them, it takes a particularly brave or odd reader to suddenly find something there that others have missed repeatedly. Different reading capabilities will see more nuances; simpler people will miss complexities or misread altogether. Someone may grasp the literal but not the allegorical or ironic level.

But here we are talking about a story, something made with some level of intention by a conscious being, something limited. What of the vast and contradictory text of the world? How do we read it collectively even though there is no author and no given purpose? Arrive at an interpretation of its infinite elements and relations? Not all readings are acceptable or right. Yet they persist. How do people live entire lives misunderstanding reality, or not understanding aspects of science, biology, history, anthropology? We still come to absurd conclusions about observed phenomena, like primitives inventing myths to explain the terrors of nature. What of these myths? They are readings and explanations. Technically, scientifically wrong, but often they are allegorically, humanly, right. People lived, perhaps, more beautiful and richer lives believing in Zeus and the divinations of the Oracle than we do today with our scientific knowledge of cause and effect. But there have also been instances when superstitions and wrong-thinking have led to terrible misery and violence (as they still do today, alas). What we want would rather be myths that are “true” to the most healthful, life-affirming essence of Nature, myths that help us to understand who we are and to face up to the fearsomeness of the unknown. Myths that help us to embrace change and mortality and reality. The myth of a perfect language and the myth of untranslatability can be classed in the larger philosophical categories on either side of hope and despair. Which myth is most true to our potential as a species and which do we want to dream on? Do we want skeptical solipsism or holistic Idealism? Again, as in all such extreme polarizations, the sweet spot is in their synthesis, in the creation of a new myth: perhaps that of the categorical imp of the perverse.

Imp of the Perverse by Leonard BaskinImp of the Perverse (from Leonard Baskin’s Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies and Elves, Pantheon 1984)

How much, then, is our reading of the world, of events, of words, of symbols invented or constructed; and how much, on the other hand, is it inherent in nature, in our biology, in our evolutionary coding? Words and symbols describe, denote, suggest, but they may also coerce and imprison; words calcify clichés, but they also can be rearranged and newly coined to make us see and be in new ways. The relationship of the material world with the world of words and ideas has, of course, significant bearing on the very question of meaning, not just the meaning of words, but of the meanings or values we attribute to the world and our ability to share, compare, and translate these meanings with others over time and space. Meaning in the sense of an intentional predetermined purpose by some external agent is not credible. We are not here for something (short of evolutionary processes, which cannot always be counted on our side or in our interest). And yet, our biological sensory essences are replete in themselves with a life force, a will to power, a will to pleasure and also, surprisingly, an evolved ethical and social sense. According to E.O. Wilson, in The Meaning of Human Existence, “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction—the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete….” If this is the case, what would it mean for the continuation of our species were we to turn our backs on these originary processes? We create and find meanings, valuations, scales of significance about things, acts, people, as a result of our shared experience. These conclusions are not random or arbitrary, but based on our own bodies, on nature, on what seems to work, on what brings pleasure, excitement; on instinct, on counter-instinct; and, yes, also by conditioning and resistance to conditioning. By denying the direct influence of material reality on our ideas, we undo the bonds between thought and action. By breaking the current from world to word and mind, we break the current back as well: a disembodied idea cannot touch an embodied world.

Modernism introduced both freedom and alienation through the recognition of perspectivism and relativity, inventing non-linear modes of communication such as symbols, metaphors, novel arrangements of forms to express the newly significant internal states that could not as easily be expressed in didactic language. Postmodernism robbed the individual of even the comfort of her own temporary, provisional, shifting view—relieved by moments of being as extratemporal, exceptional moments when all flux was set in a harmonious form before being dispersed once more. And then further denied us the notion that these experiences might be translatable to others through poetic form. Declaring that everything cancelled everything else out, and that any interpretation was as good as any other (thus none were any good), postmodernism simultaneously opened the airwaves to an inchoate cacophony and closed many mortal ears to the music of the spheres. Ostensibly taking away the privilege of the elite reader, any reader of the world was now equally entitled to affirm his own arbitrary reading over any other. Some contemporary theorists, lacking, however, the compensation of another world that may have softened the blow of Berkeley’s 18th-century de-materialism, go a step further, by suggesting that there isn’t even a world or a reality to know in the first place.

But through materiality we are literally in touch with the textures, the colors, the approximate spaces and dynamics of iteration and difference in our shared physical world. Although our experiences of the real are necessarily colored, limited, or expanded by our personal experiences and subjective lenses, we need not give in to alienated despair and a rejection of the possibility of translation from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, or past to present to future. Although my perception of the world is filtered through my own brain, experience, and interests, it is possible that the words that I use, the images that I make to evoke that world will mean something to you. And the differences between how I see the world and the way you see it are, in fact, enriching and expansive variations of individual and group worldviews, creating awareness of individual sentience and self-consciousness.

Schiller noted the difference between what he called “naïve” and “sentimental” approaches to poetry, the former exemplified by the simple objectivity of Homer, the latter by the subjectivity of Romanticism. We are all-too-well aware today that all vision (even Homer’s supposedly objective reporting) involves re-vision and that all expression comes from a particular perspective; but that need not mean that each representation is hopelessly inaccessible to other humans who share, at least to some extent, much of the same cellular structure, much of the same instinctive apparatus, and much of the same social and natural experience. Henry David Thoreau, though labelled a transcendentalist and thus supposedly a proponent of innate knowledge rather than empiricism, was really committed to what he called “fronting the facts” of reality: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy:” he wrote, “we reason from our hands to our head.” Analogies would not mean anything to us if they did not correspond to something we recognized from a shared real world.

In this age where alienation is taken by some as a mark of sophistication, I would rather hearken back to a time when sentimentality—which in Schiller’s sense is a mode of perception and expression that infuses some external entity with a subjectivity—was not a dirty word. For the cost of abandoning communication and correspondence between persons and between persons and their world is far too high to uncritically accept philosophies that insist on the absolute incommensurability of perception and phenomena, word and thing, individual and individual. The ultimate cost of abandoning an approximation, a translation of some shared meaning, is not only culture and community as George Steiner and others have noted, but also any impetus for individual or group agency. For, if we cannot know the world well enough, and cannot know others more or less, and cannot know even ourselves, it would not only be impossible to function on a daily basis, but it would be impossible to dream about and to work to minimize the space between what is and what could be. The kind of knowing that helps us with practical functioning and the kind that helps us dream and engage with the world are both proximate, but they have different uses. The former is a pragmatism that accepts certain probabilities for the sake of efficiency and practicality. The kind of knowing that allows us to dream and act, however, is one that fathoms the difference between what is determined and what is yet determinable, keeping always a lifeline from the palpable facts of nature down to the subconscious watery depths of the imagination, a kind of knowing which must continually measure what in our life is necessity and what might yet be changed.

If constructs in the form of language and images have a tendency to direct thought, thereby potentially limiting how we see the world, then the “creative subject” (to use Nietzsche’s term for all humans who act upon the object of the world) has an ethical and aesthetic responsibility to rejuvenate where ideas have become ossified, and to invent new living language where vision has become merely conventional. Even evolutionary and genetic coding can be resisted to varying extents, so that individual and group choice may deviate from long-repeated patterns and veer away from social and biological conformity. Environmental events also alter what is beneficial for survival, inducing adaptations which change the course of social behavior. But extreme forms of social construction deny the biological and evolutionary foundations of our thought and action. According to Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the old, established, standard social science model made a religion out of the idea of the impressionable empty mind waiting to be imprinted by any external force whatsoever, denying any connection between one’s physical characteristics, one’s material surroundings, and one’s behavior (gene-culture co-evolution), shifting the entire cause of social systems to conditioning and social engineering. Pinker’s radical stance is that:

We have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.

Although, as he notes in his introduction, most people acknowledge that everything is both nature and nurture, when it really comes down to it (in liberal milieus, in any case) politically correct assumptions veer sharply away from biological causation. Pinker traces the ideological shift from biology to historical materialism to social construction, and quotes Franz Boas saying, “We must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary;” and Durkheim: “Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms;” noting also that Skinner’s behaviorism was based on a belief in the complete malleability of individuals. The blank slate model has been used, of course, as political leverage to affirm the equal potential of all persons; but, as Pinker argues, it also works against the development of the kind of innate ethical behavior that can do battle against totalitarianism, the shadow that looms large over this discussion. Marxist historical materialism, which, certainly in its received form, oddly leaves the material of the body out when calculating what material forces shape the individual, is based on the blank slate model; and whereas Nazism was, of course, grounded in an ideology of ethnic cleansing with direct links to biology. Rescuing the humane exploration of the extent of genetic causes of behavior from its associated calumny, Pinker reminds us that, “Government sponsored mass murder can come from an anti-innatist belief system as easily as from an innate one.” The Stalinists, in pursuit of a political goal based on the blank slate, killed just as many (or more) people as the Nazis. Noam Chomsky, whose research on universal grammars leans in the direction of the perfect language myth, echoes Pinker’s reservations about the political benefits of the blank slate model:

If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community.

Social construction theory, likewise dependent upon the total malleability of the blank slate model—although ostensibly a radical attack on exploitative and oppressive essences, universals, and absolutes—has a paradoxical tendency to discourage rather than inspire radical activity. This is because it is cynical about the individual’s participatory agency in creating and, if necessary, reconstructing our shared world, the essential ethical agency affirmed by existentialism. Adorno finally conceded that there can be some form of poetry after Auschwitz, but can we find our way back to a scientific and philosophical ideology that balances the influence of both biology and environment, an assessment of language that allows for some measure of conceptual correspondence with reality, a way to appreciate the significance of civilization amid its cruelties and kindnesses? And if we cannot, how shall we possibly proceed as a culture, as members of an extended and complex cultural and ecological system? Centuries after the Kantkrise, when people rightfully experienced the disequilibrium of a world from which the horizon, in Nietzsche’s image, had been wiped away with a sponge, a world wherein all established values were subject to reevaluation, a mature attempt is called for: to do our best, despite subjectivity, perspectivism, and cultural differences. Because the real costs of abandoning the possibility of communication are nothing less than culture, community, and ethical agency.

Nietzsche characterized language as a “prison house,” and Wittgenstein famously noted the challenge of struggling against the walls of language, but both concluded that there was no choice but to attempt to communicate despite the challenges. Nietzsche wrote: “We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language.” I suggest that, instead of a prison house, what we really have is a misprision house, a house where misunderstandings haunt our communications; a house, however, which we may readily transform with all manner of expansion, rearrangement, implosion and explosion. A house of our own making, subject to our own renovations. A house of any kind requires foundations. In language, these foundations are words and concepts; in society, the foundations are shared universals. Cultural relativity is one of the largely unexamined assumptions of contemporary society, but many anthropologists and sociologists have made the case for a wide number of behavioral constants across all cultures. Steven Pinker includes a list compiled from Donald Brown’s Human Universals as an appendix in The Blank Slate, featuring such commonalities as ambivalence, figurative language, rituals, gift-giving, in-group and out-group consciousness, nuclear family structures, incest taboos, art appreciation, attempts to predict the future, punishment for antisocial behavior, distinguishing self from others, sexual jealousy, synesthetic metaphors, taxonomy, language applied to misinform or mislead, synonyms, cooperation, selfishness, status seeking, explaining events by causation, fear of death, proverbs, ethnocentrism, private inner life, redress of wrongs, risk taking, hope, &c. Chomsky, as already noted, argues for an innate and universal grammatical structure for all languages. Despite manifest differences, he writes, “…it seems that very heavy conditions in the form of grammar are universal. Deep structures seem to be very similar from language to language, and the rules that manipulate and interpret them also seem to be drawn from a very narrow class of conceivable formal operations.” Although there are variations across cultures in terms of language and customs, “the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” There are more things in heaven and earth that are universal than the social constructionist will usually allow, and the tension between these universals and individual will and choice is the same tension present in the categorical imperative, put into new and equally paradoxical words by the American transcendentalist Emerson, who received his Kant filtered through the German Romantics. In his famous essay, “Self-Reliance” Emerson writes: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius”. In other words, if you follow your own conscience instead of blindly following conventions and social constructions, you probably will find yourself where the most conscious humans before you have found themselves; but it is not something an ethical person can take for granted. Thus one must assess and experiment anew— while keeping the experiments of others always within reach.

Steven Pinker Blank SlatePhoto of Steven Pinker by Rose Lincoln, Harvard University

A young male friend of mine told me of an experiment he conducted with a woman friend to try to “be together without preconceptions,” without language, without definitions. It fell flat. What is left when we take away history, archetypes, essence? Some preconceived images and roles are still meaningful, though others have become empty shells, simulacra, and conventions. What still reverberates, and why? Consider Proust’s Swann and his comparison of his beloved Odette to the women in old paintings. Her beauty in the present is enhanced by its comparison and relation with the already delineated forms of archetypal female beauty. When I was a young woman, I was attracted and repelled by de Beauvoir’s encouragement in The Second Sex to simply live as one is, and let that define what a woman is. I understood the problem with any individual woman trying to fit into a pre-existent role of womanliness, and judging her success and failure as a person based on the extent to which she fits into this role, especially in so far as the myths have often been written by men. Indeed, de Beauvoir’s discussion constitutes one of the clearest illustrations of the existentialist motto: existence precedes essence. But much is lost if we abandon the ancient archetypes altogether. Some essences do precede existence, and they cannot easily by altered by even the strongest will. A woman is whatever any particular woman is; but at the same time a woman is an echo and a continuance of what women have always been: in poetry, history, song, painting, myth. Today’s blank slate theory is tantamount to a total blankness, a neutered neutrality, especially as it threatens to wipe away not only history and archetype, but even biology and instinct. If fantasies of roles and patterns do not excite the modern contemporary moralistic lover (who may try to be blank even in his or her perception of eroticism), then at least biology ought to do the trick. But even that is repressed or denied. Nothing is supposed to be determining except social context, which is allegedly random and created by oppressive institutions. Shall we then sacrifice erotic imagination and sexual pleasure for a sterile—indeed blank—moralistic neutrality? Or is it possible to play affirmatively with the fruitful tension between innovation and an engagement with determined biology and past archetypes? Today we speak of fluidity and the social construct of gender, often without considering the implications of these ideas. Fluidity is consistent with a rejection of the “construct” of gender, but transformation of physical and stylistic trappings seems still to keep faith with the gender roles it claims to repudiate, only changing the individual’s physicality to match a pre-created role. I certainly have nothing against each individual pursuing his or her or their own sense of sexuality. I sometimes feel like a thunderstorm, a mountainside, a young boy, an old book, a lioness, a flower, a lightning bolt, a field of moss. Yet I am concerned about the way in which this new mode of thought joins other current ideologies to deny the reality of the material world.

I suppose I am rather old-fashioned though, believing even that words mean something that can be traced back to nature through their roots. Emerson, who nowadays is also old-fashioned but in his time was a proponent of the new thought, wrote that words were “fossil poetry;” and an archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D, elaborated on this suggestive phrase in a book much loved by Thoreau. Trench writes:

[A] popular American author has somewhere characterized language as “fossil poetry.” He evidently means that just as in some fossils, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrate lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would have been theirs,—so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves…Language may be, and indeed is, this “fossil poetry.” [But it also is] fossil ethics, or fossil history.

How far from this belief in the significance of etymology we are today! Some contemporary people seem to really not believe that words have any meanings at all. They do not keep their words and speak untruths easily, just as advertisers do, with rampant euphemism, ignoring the proper use of grammatical symbols like possessive apostrophes (perhaps a subconscious attempt to do away with private property and possession?), sprinkling them around haphazardly, in hopes that one might make some sense somewhere or sprout into a sentence.

Sounding somewhat like Wittgenstein, who came to believe in the organic communal development of language over time, Trench writes, “Man makes his own language, but he makes it as the bee makes its cells, as the bird its nest, he cannot do otherwise.” Indeed, why should human language-making (like the mind) be something outside of nature? Why an imposition upon nature? Trench compares the natural growth of the tree of language to a “house being built of dead timbers combined after his own fancy and caprice.” “Language,” he writes, prefiguring the coming Modernist crisis, “is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought….” And continues, landing on more solid ground than the later language philosophers, declaring that it is “on the other side that which feeds and unfolds thought”; and that “there is…a reality about words.” Words to Trench are not mere arbitrary signs, but “living powers…growing out of roots, clustering in families, connected and intertwining themselves with all that men have been doing and thinking and feeling from the beginning of the world till now.” Tribulation: from tribulum-harrow, a threshing instrument; Caprices—from capra, a goat; Daisyeye of day; Laburnum—golden rain. Words are like artifacts in curiosity cabinets, except that they are living, evolving.

If originally words were arbitrary, they grew out of each other in accord with reality. But why do we worry so much about the distinction between what is and what is perceived or how named, when the perceiver and namer is made of the same nature as the observed thing? Why would the structure of the human mind and its brainchild language commit treachery on its own kith and kin, its own world? That sometimes false etymologies are attached to words whose real etymologies have been forgotten may only prove the connection of words to realities all the more, since the new explanation relates the old word to some existing reality. We are always binding words to what is, even if they do not strictly come from one particular is. Trench writes: “errors survive in words” and “disprove themselves”: tempers, humors, saturnine, mercurial, jovial (descriptions of people born under these planets); to charm, bewitch, enchant, lunacy, panic, auguries, and auspices (from divination), initiating (from rites)—all mark the persistence of Pagan words in Christian lands. The universe was named “cosmos” or beautiful order, probably by Pythagoras. Was this not an expression of natural human sentiment, voiced by one man? It is surely one possible good name for the universe, though not the only or ultimate one. Someone else in a later era might choose rather to name it “chaos.”

Words born of specific cultures attest to that culture’s history and tendencies. Though sometimes it may be difficult to ascertain which is the stronger, dominant friend, language or reality, we cannot deny that a relationship obtains. Smith comes from smite; wrong from wring; haft from have. Shire, shore, shears, share, shred, shard are all connected to the idea of separation. The contemporary fear of mastery and dominance denies even this relatedness. Some people would rather have no meaning than a meaning that is possibly imposed. Rather not use language at all, they think, than use the language of the oppressors. Why not, instead, make new words? Become ourselves creators?

A belief in the meaningful relation between words and the world extended in Thoreau to a belief in man’s ability to read the visible meanings (verba visibilia) in nature as lessons in human conduct of life. In his 1837 journal he writes, “How indispensable to a correct study of nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth.” A few entries later he is observing ice crystals on the lake:

When the ice was laid upon its smooth side [the crystal] resembles the roofs and steeples of a Gothic city, or the vessels of a crowded harem under a press of canvas….Wherever the water, or other causes, had formed a hole in the bank, its throat and outer edge, like the entrance to a citadel of the olden time, bristled with a glistening ice armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warriors filing into the fortress, in another the glancing fan-shaped banners of the Lilliputian host, and in another the needle-shaped particles, collected into bundles resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for the phalanx of spears.

Thoreau cannot help but draw meaning, make stories and connections between observed natural phenomena and human life and civilization. We all make meaning when we look at Nature. We say the moon is smiling on us lovers, fancy an overcast, stormy sky is melancholy and a bright one happy. These are merely natural phenomena with no intentional meaning inherently attached. But spring blossoms make us think of newness and rebirth because they are new rebirths; just as autumn’s gloominess is death, a temporary going-under, a symbol system of the Urpflanze’s recurrence. This surely is no invention, but the truth of their significance. We naturally tell ourselves stories of human life when observing nature (as we do when we listen to music, as sounds suggest landscapes and actions, crises, moods, narratives from human life). And Thoreau would have us learn from Nature how to be more noble, more hearty, more equanimical about changes and cycles: “So let it be with man,” he writes, over and over, after describing a natural process.

But just as there are repeating natural laws that can reliably be studied to learn about the world, ourselves, and each other, there is the categorical imp of the perverse, which, again and again, proves that man can break the patterns of thought and behavior constructed by his forefathers and foremothers. Changing presentiments over centuries have been initiated by individual discoveries and inventions, by accidents and reactions, by experience that proved old presentiments wrong, and in response to new physical realities: infinity, entropy, solar heat death, eternal recurrence, millennial apocalypse, chaos theory, robotics, creationism, evolution, and social construction itself.

The Horn of Babel by Vladimir KushThe Horn of Babel by Vladimir Kush

Was evolution (“just”) a social construct? No better than the one it replaced? Darwin’s critics accused him of gathering data to support his hypothesis, as if such a process were a manipulative and dishonest method of forcing existence into a certain essence. The opposite was true. In the twenty years of gathering and testing evidence from the natural world leading up to his writing of The Origin of Species, Darwin actually worked from observation toward hypothesis in a remarkably innocent way, not expecting to find (to borrow Nietzsche’s wonderful image in “On Truth and Lying in a Supramoral Sense”) the truth he had himself hidden behind a bush. But ironically, he actually discovered data that undermined Creationism, the socially constructed truth of his society, thereby proving that individuals are not all such dupes as social construction theory makes us out to be. Social construction theorists tend to reduce the rich history of human thought down to a few coercive institutionalized oppressive ideas, ignoring the variety and ingenuity and complexity of any given society’s presentiments, dreams, and beliefs.

In fact, not only are there repeating universals and also deviations from these universals over time and space, but differences among cultures and throughout history may actually depend on a vital interplay between universality and deviating human agency. If everything is not entirely, externally, randomly constructed, or, on the other hand, entirely determined by biology, inheritance, or evolutionary urges, then we have some degree of agency to choose what we love and hate and favor and impugn. We have the agency to break out of established patterns and create new ones, which then create individuated modes and variations. Paradoxically, thus differentiation proves comprehensive, as the deviations of so much that usually repeats (archetypes, life forms, ways of living, attitudes toward beauty, others, family, nature, ethics, deep structures in languages), can be attributed to choice rather than coercion or random conformity.

In After Babel, Steiner talks about translation (by which he means not just from language to language but from person to person) as a process including destructive aggression, appropriation, and expansion. We break the meaning of the other when we attempt to understand and re-present; we appropriate it into our own idiom, idiolect, understanding. And then we also add something to it. We expand it with interpretation, elucidation, interest, passion (thereby deforming it). This is analogous to all relations between individuals and countries (passionate love, colonialism, anthropological study), and I suspect that the current distrust of language has something to do with our sensitivity about appropriation and mastery. No one wants to dare speak for someone else or for another kind of person, assuming incomprehension; practicing silence. At the Vermont Studio Center, where I was resident one winter, some of the other writers were sensitively discussing whether a white person could write a black character or a male a female one. But is not at least one part of what a writer does imagining the “other” and delineating and dissolving, dissolving and delineating the differences between everything? With such fastidious exclusions, most of literature would have to be banned. Today, it seems that many people don’t dare express themselves or dare love or enter into relationships at all, for fear of overcoming or being overcome by another person’s personality, power, desires.

What are the consequences of such paranoia in regard to appropriation? Steiner writes: “If a substantial part of all utterances were not public or, more precisely, could not be treated as if they were, chaos and autism would follow.” Although language can limit the horizon of our consciousness, it is also one of the ways or maybe the only way to expand it. Poetic language, as Wittgenstein suggested, is the answer to a cliché–ridden, ossified thought. Living language, as Robert Musil practiced and preached it, is the active process of revivifying stale meanings through the magic of metaphor-making. Although the process is inaccurate, metaphors, writes Musil, “bring beauty and excitement into the world.” Steiner concurs: “Vital acts of speech are those which seek to make a fresh and ‘private’ content more publically available without weakening the uniqueness, the felt edge of individual intent.” And continues:

In significant measure, different languages are different, inherently creative counter-proposals to the constraints, to the limiting universals of biological and ecological conditions. They are the instruments of storage and of transmission of legacies of experience and imaginative construction particular to a given community. We do not yet know if the “deep structures” postulated by transformational-generative grammars are in fact substantive universals. But if they are, the immense diversity of languages as men have spoken and speak them can be interpreted as a direct rebellion against the undifferentiated constraints of biological universality.

He suggests that we use language to hide, keep secrets, lie, imagine fictions; that groups use language to differentiate and leave others out, in ways that give us advantages evolutionarily. Of course, over time, the circle of insiders grows larger, as the unknown becomes more and more rare. Amid persistence of sameness, however, there exists persistent resistance to sameness and a constant generation of difference.

George Steiner After Babel

The existential requirement is that each person decide for herself, in all circumstances where there is choice, paying heed to the essences and facts that cannot be altered. The best way to make meaningful decisions is to choose based on the real characteristics of real life. This does not mean we must choose always the most practical, the most reasonable action for survival. We may choose to throw all our comfort and safety away because of the perverse beauty of an irrational gesture or passion or an act of ethical bravery, or to act in direct contradiction to nature and society as an affirmation of our free will. The biological, evolutionary imperative would seem to favor survival or protection of self, but sometimes we do things that are certain to mean our downfall. Why? Out of a sense that there is sometimes something more important, more beautiful, more brave than personal safety, possibly to protect our genes living in the bodies of our relatives, possibly in consideration of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run; mayhap for reasons we will never understand. Consider these three gestures:

1. Sophie Scholl, the young German resistance fighter, who with her brother smuggled anti-Nazi propaganda into the university while classes were in session, stood at the top of the balcony as the professors and students streamed from the classrooms, her work already safely done. Instead of sneaking home and avoiding arrest, she flung the rest of the fliers down over the heads of her fellow Germans. Papers flying freely in an atmosphere of terror. She and her brother were beheaded, but for one moment the word sang. For one moment, everyone was free.

2. Nastasya Filippovna, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, is courted from all sides by scoundrels and maniacs. Her “virtue” has already been compromised due to her situation as a woman without means, yet she has a lofty soul. Beloved of Myshkin, the “idiot,” she glimpses, then loses faith in, a possible redemption. When Rogozhin, one of the scoundrels, comes to a party with 100,000 rubles with which he effectively means to “buy” her, she agrees to go with him; but first she casts the bundle of bills into the fire with a last wild gesture of free will, daring another suitor to plunge his hands into the flames to take the money for himself. He does not, and Nastasya transcends for a moment the petty laws and priorities of her society.

3. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia risk torture and death to resist the stronghold of their totalitarian society. They do many useless things (Winston buys a cloudy glass paperweight and a creamy papered journal even though either of these acts, if discovered, would mean arrest). But the most powerful symbol of these many resistances is repeated twice in the book, once as a pre-vision in Winston’s dream of the “golden country,” and the second time in reality when the two lovers meet for the first time in a landscape strikingly similar to the dream: “She stood looking at him for an instant, then felt at the zipper of her overalls. And, yes! It was almost as in his dream. Almost as swiftly as he had imagined it, she had torn her clothes off, and when she flung them aside it was with that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated.”

Nineteen-Eighty Four, a picture of a totally constructed universe based on a brutally enforced ideology of the blank slate, shows us how close and how far we are from being infinitely malleable today.

Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there. And when enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than pre-established social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric, become in time established, sanctioned, and limiting; and new people may find that there are better (or worse) ways to get from here to there. If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made in a certain place because of beauty or because of utility; for sentimental reasons; for access to a view; because it is private; because there are obstacles adjacent to it; because there are special features along the route; or because there are no other options left. Yet any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.

Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr “Desire Paths” group (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Herbert Marcuse’s classic book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), is an indictment of what he characterized as the flattening out of contemporary American consciousness into a closed system of self-reflexive rationality that resisted external (two-dimensional) critique. It begins by noting that the current social construct was a “project” chosen by people at one time out of a number of alternatives. In a footnote he explains that his use of the word “project” alludes to Sartre’s linkage of autonomy and contingency, and presupposes a freedom and responsibility, despite the fact that the choosers most likely were the most powerful people in the original society. His whole book is an explanation of how very difficult it is to see beyond the “rationality” of any given social construct, but also an imperative to create the conditions under which we might. Marcuse calls for a rediscovery of a lost dialectic, a two-dimensional space which keeps alive the friction between ideal and real, status quo and possibility, subjective and objective, calculable and incalculable, appearance and essence, universal and particular, concept and specific iteration, and not least of all, spirit and matter. A hero of the New Left, Marcuse nevertheless criticized many of the basic assumptions of leftist ideology, including the democratic rejection of European intellectual and artistic culture, the increasing conflation of art and life, and the increasing dematerialization of sociology, linguistics and science in his time. Contemporary physics, he notes, does not entirely deny or question the existence of the physical world, but “in one way or another it suspends judgment on what reality itself may be, or considers the very question meaningless and unanswerable.” This then shifts the emphasis from a metaphysical what to an operational how and “establishes a practical (though by no means absolute) certainty which, in its operations with matter, is with good conscience free from commitment to any substance outside the operational context.” Materiality becomes assessed only in terms of its quantifiable use for humans, diminishing our relationship with the qualities of matter and weakening our ability to counter and critique the material status quo. The end itself, of one-dimensional consciousness, is a closed system of democratic totalitarianism, controlling every aspect of our lives.

While everything is filtered through our human interests, and thus somehow “instrumental” towards our human “use,” some uses are more strictly utilitarian than others; some serve the continuation of a status quo more than others. Individually and socially we have an underdeveloped interest in the qualitative experience of materiality, in dreaming induced by matter, not merely efficiency, practicality, exploitation of resources. Critical yet utopian thinking occurs as we free ourselves from the condition of what and how much and begin to consider the why and how; two-dimensional discourse helps us to transcend the needs of the current system to consider not only alternate answers, but completely different questions.

Marcuse ended his book in a less than hopeful mood, but the revolutionary movements of the late sixties, encouraged in part by his ideas, surprised him and gave him cause to hope. But where are we now, over half a century later? We may, indeed, not be able to save the earth, or stem the rush of species loss, and we certainly cannot undo the lasting legacies of political and social havoc wrought by man’s inhumanity to man in any simple way. Although Candide provided a picture of what Voltaire had deemed an inevitably cruel and destructive force rampant in what was already in his time far from the “best of all possible worlds,” today climate change changes the equation to an extent which should prick the conscience of anyone who has retreated to his garden instead of trying to make sense of the world or make it better. We have arrived where we are because of who we are as a species. We are responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly, for the beautiful and the damning, in compliance and resistance to genetic coding, evolutionary habits, environmental changes, and the social and cultural memes we have created together out of the deeply imbedded contradictions of our natures: competition and collaboration, love of and exploitation of nature, curiosity and will to ignorance, practicality and squandering, ethics, aesthetics, and hypocritical morality. Thus it is up to us to try to reverse the damages we have wrought and to preserve as much as possible of what is precious and essential about life and of our cultural history, both for ourselves and for all the other species with whom we must learn to empathize. But this can only happen if we begin to see again the meaningful connections between ourselves and the natural and created world, mediated through words, images, and our senses, and if we learn to use whatever languages possible to communicate a fullness of feeling about what it means to be a deeply fraught, complex human being in a world in this state of crisis. We can, furthermore, only reverse the damage wrought if we deviate from the business-as-usual status quo of our society’s current “rationality”—replacing quantifiable with qualitative, empty materialism with materiality imbued with spirit. To do so will inevitably seem foolish and perverse to those too entrenched to imagine other ways of living, to anyone too committed to the immediate profits of the current system to consider that they might, actually, be much happier without all of the possessions and processes they misconceive as necessary. If we do not, however, manage to succeed against what really are terrible odds, we must at least bear witness to the tragic fall and leave some traces of the aesthetic and ethical consciousness of humankind, even if no one ever comes after us who can decipher the script.

We have often been capable of overturning the paradigms created by our predecessors, challenging, criticizing, or revising the constructs and narratives of other humans, following old errors to new truths or old truths to new errors, bungling sometimes, but doing our best. It has been a conversation and debate, a love song and a lamentation over the ages, among strangers and friends, enemies and kin, all of us trying to understand the world and our place in it; trying to balance the many voices within each of us with the many voices within others. We can continue to discourse in this polyphonic chorus of the past and the present, or we can decide, with the social constructionist theorists and their deconstructionist allies, that no way in which anyone has ever described the world, no poem, no theory, no evaluation or re-evaluation of values is reality-relevant (except of course the social constructionist theory itself); that language is a crime against nature; that the history of ideas and the idealistic pursuit of education is an Enlightenment plot to impose random ideas of good and bad on a benighted populace. We can just do away with our libraries and our picture galleries, our approximate meanings and our attempts to understand what can never be completely mastered, our mythologies and our delightful misprisions, and smugly, certainly, moralistically and accurately, resort to grunting and sneezing. No misleading words; no oppressive influences; no images to teach us that one thing or person is more beautiful or more valuable than another; no theories; no ideas at all. Only a purportedly honest, gaping, silent void.

—Genese Grill


Genese Grill 350x479px Photo by Suzanne Levine

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



Apr 132016

Sarajevo street corner June 2014

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


I. Sarajevo, June 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarajevo CemeteryCemetery in Sarajevo

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

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

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

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


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

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

Restaurant near Skakavac watefallRestaurant near Skakavac waterfall

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goran Simic in AladiniciGoran Simić relaxing at Aladinići


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday was Wednesday.
Jučer je bila srijeda.

Today is Thursday.
Danas je četvrtak.

Tomorrow is Friday.
Sutra je petak.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sufi Dervish House at BlagajSufi dervish house at Blagaj

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IV. Sarajevo, June 27-29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


V. Tuzla, June 30-July 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

St Francis of TuzlaSt. Francis of Tuzla

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Thomas Simpson

Thomas SimpsonPhoto by Melissa Cooperman

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in 2017. This fall, the University of North Carolina Press will publish his first academic book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.



Apr 122016

Pierre Joris


Luxembourg Findel Airport

old Findel airport in LuxembourgOld Findel airport in Luxembourg.

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


Remembrance Day In Patton-Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance Day in EttelbruckRemembrance Day in Ettelbruck.

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

—Pierre Joris


Pierre Joris

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

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

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


Apr 112016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanguy Viel Disparition de Jim Sullivan


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

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

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

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

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

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

Maylis de Kerangal Naissance d'un pont


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Montalbetti Plus Rien que les vagues et le vent


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Fournel Jason Murphy


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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Rolin Savannah


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

—Warren Motte

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—.  Western.  Paris: P.O.L, 2005.

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

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

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

—.  Savannah.  Paris: P.O.L, 2015.

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

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

xWarren Motte 2016

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



Apr 092016

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

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

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

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

—Gerard Beirne



Introduction — The God of Dirt



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Barbara Richardson


john keeble

Imago Ignota



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John Keeble


Sinking Down Into Heaven


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

—Jeanne Rogers

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


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

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

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

Apr 042016

Donald Trump collage


The Second Coming

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

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

— W. B. Yeats




The Perennial Relevance of “The Second Coming”

The Poem as Response and Anticipation

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

Things Fall Apart, Contemporary Crises, 2003-2016

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ↑ return to Contents



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Lehman WSJ essay photo by Yao XiaoPhoto by Yao Xiao

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

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

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

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

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

↑ return to Contents

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

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

sci fi collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeats handwriting collagePages from drafts of “The Second Coming”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

↑ return to Contents



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

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

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

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

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

A greater nightmare scenario involves actual rather than potential nuclear weapons, with more to come. Pakistan is planning to more th